From the beginning of the church, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has been affirmed by orthodox Christians but is frequently challenged by opponents.
Inerrancy can be defined as “the doctrine that the Bible is fully truthful in all of its teachings.”(Christian Theology). When all the relevant facts are known, and when properly interpreted, Scripture never contradicts itself, nor does it misrepresent the facts.
Historically, the doctrine of inerrancy has been held by the earliest theologians of the church. J.N.D. Kelly cites Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Origen, and Gregory of Nazianzus as holding to the inspiration and subsequent inerrancy of Holy Scripture down to the smallest detail of its content. About the early church fathers, Kelly writes, “Their general view was that Scripture was not only exempt from error but contained nothing that was superfluous” (Early Christian Doctrines).
The concept of inerrancy is not humanly constructed doctrine foisted upon the text of Scripture…
The most substantial challenge to inerrancy came from the Enlightenment, which rejected all the supernatural elements of Scripture. Enlightenment critics of Scripture claimed the miracles of Jesus and the resurrection could not be verified and must be taken as nonfactual and false—an assertion that directly undermined the truthfulness of Scripture.
The Enlightenment gave way to 19th and 20th century theological liberalism in which Jesus was viewed as only a good person and teacher, but not God. Also, miracles were understood to be mythological stories, not true historical events. Out of this theological milieu the fundamentalist/modernist controversy arose. Theological modernists were privy to higher criticism and thought inerrancy unfashionable, but the fundamentalists were concerned with maintaining the orthodox fundamental doctrines of the faith. Some extreme fundamentalists pushed the divine authorship of Scripture so much that the human element of the Biblical text was rendered irrelevant.
In response to the many 20th century challenges to inerrancy, a council of evangelical leaders met at an international Summit Conference in the fall of 1978 and drafted The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI).
The CSBI is composed of a short statement consisting of 5 points, a section of affirmations and denials consisting of 19 articles, and an exposition of the doctrine of inerrancy in relation to the other teachings of Scripture.
The short summary statement posits the Scriptures as God’s self-revelation written by men and inspired by the Holy Spirit, who authenticates and illuminates its teachings. In addition, Scripture’s very words in entirety are inspired (verbal plenary inspiration) and therefore without error (inerrant). Finally, it asserts that to deny or limit inerrancy undermines the authority of Scripture.
The section of affirmations and denials include several other important points:
- Scripture’s authority comes from its being the Word of God, not from the church or tradition, and is thereby authoritatively binding
- The finitude of human language does not preclude it being used as a medium for divine revelation
- While inspiration did not eliminate human authorship and literary style, it did guarantee that their utterances were true and trustworthy
- Only the autographs of Scripture were inspired, but this does not render the doctrine irrelevant since an accurate representation of the autographs can be constructed from the manuscripts we have
- While inerrancy and infallibility can be distinguished, they cannot be separated; that is, the Bible cannot be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions
- Inerrancy is rooted in the doctrine of inspiration
- While affirming inerrancy is not necessary for salvation, it is vital to the Christian faith, and its rejection leads to serious consequences in the individual and the church
While not to be given creedal status, the CBSI is an important statement that Christians ought to affirm. One of the reasons is, the CBSI navigates between liberalism and fundamentalism. Liberalism so analyzes and assesses the historical background and literary features of a text (the human features) that the text’s authenticity and factuality is negated in the process. Fundamentalism so emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s activity in the writing of the Scriptures (the divine features) that the human authorship of the text is severely minimized or denied.
…to deny or limit inerrancy undermines the authority of Scripture.
Liberals deny inerrancy because of the multitude of differing manuscripts we possess, while some fundamentalists assert that only one version of the text (the KJV) contains the inspired words of God. Both positions fail to do justice to the dual authorship of Scripture asserted by the CSBI. The CSBI assures the Holy Spirit was indeed present in inspiring the text of Scripture—thereby ensuring its factual accuracy—while still allowing for the human elements of style to be present in the process and textual transmission.
The concept of inerrancy is not humanly constructed doctrine foisted upon the text of Scripture, but a result of the reliability and trustworthy character of God and an inevitable corollary of the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. The CSBI took an important step in responding to the critics of an historic doctrine of the church and asserting the classical teaching in a fresh and thoughtful way. Their response also serves to bolster the confidence of believers in the Holy Scriptures.
For further reading see Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler.