Hitchhikers Guide to Inerrancy and Preaching

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There has been more written about Biblical inerrancy over the last 150 years than any other theological topic. Condensing it all into a coherent and precise article probably, as George Washington noted when he became Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, “requires more ability than I am master of.” But since Ford Prefect is tied up with the Galaxy part, I’ll do my best to guide you through the current terrain of Inerrancy.

HHGWhy, is this important, you ask? Well, because many of you preach (or listen to preaching) every week and preaching and inerrancy are intractably linked.

Evangelical Christianity rather uniquely applies preaching as the means to understand the text on which “all things pertaining to life and godliness” are based (2 Pet 1:3–4). If you examine other religions or subsets of Protestantism (normally referred to as “cults”) you will not find anything like a regular practice of exposition of their seminal texts; their sermons are generally sprinkled with “proof texts” or general allusions to their foundational writings.

Within Christianity (taken in its widest sense) there are five distinct ways in which the Bible is viewed.

View of Scripture Description
Inerrantist Views Scripture as inspired by God and thus is entirely without error.
Maximalist Views Scripture as entirely reliable on matters of faith and practice, and largely reliable on ancillary subjects such as history. Errors of history or science are to be expected and are outside of the scope of the original writers purpose anyway.
Minimalist Views Scripture as generally reliable in matters of faith and practice; although even in these matters it can be culturally dated or biased. Scripture cannot be considered as a primary source in history or ancillary subjects.
Mythologist Views Scripture as simply another ancient religious text. It has no more or less uniqueness or authority than other mythological texts. More aggressive scholars in this group often view Scripture as propagandist or manipulative literature.

The key thing to remember is that the debate over inerrancy is almost totally confined to the first two groups: Inerrantists and Maximalists. Minimalists don’t care at all about the subject; it’s not even worth their consideration. While a Minimalist might consider themself to be within the “Christian tradition” a Mythologist’s connection to Christianity is reserved for weddings, funerals, and perhaps a holiday concert. It should be noted that while Catholicism (and Orthodoxy for that matter) officially affirm inerrancy. In 1893 Pope Leo XIII called inerrancy “the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church,” since the Church retains authority over the interpretation of Scripture as well as the formation of the canon itself, for all practical purposes inerrancy is rendered a non-issue in Catholicism.

However, it is a significant issue within Evangelicalism and get a little more complicated because within the Inerrantist camp there are five discernible positions.

Type of Inerrantist Description
Classic Based on the arguments of A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, these are the classic statements of a “verbal plenary inspiration” position generally articulated in the Princeton tradition.
Evidentialist Views inerrancy as defensible on the basis of “proof.” Opponents to inerrancy would collapse under the weight of evidence supporting Biblical statements on History and Science.
Chicagoan Beginning with the formation of ETS and culminating in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, sought to define and affirm inerrancy in a manner that crossed theological (Calvinist-Arminian) and hermeneutical boundaries, although hermeneutics naturally starts with the grammatical-historical position.
Hermeneutical Views inerrancy as bound together with the Grammatical-Historical (or some close variation) method of hermeneutics. The overlay of any other method onto Scripture is a de facto denial of inerrancy. Ipsissima Verba, particularly in Gospel studies, is usually affirmed.
Critical Views inerrancy as independent of hermeneutical method. Literary critical methodologies are legitimate to assist in interpretation, but are illegitimate when employed to determine authenticity. Ipsissima Vox, particularly in Gospel studies, is usually affirmed.

The listing here is something of a spectrum with the Chicagoan position currently acting as a fulcrum. Created in the late 1960’s The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy created two key documents. The first is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) followed by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982). These documents are often wrongly conflated. While they are obviously linked, there are signers of the Inerrancy statement who did not sign the Hermeneutics statement. Since 2004, the Evangelical Theological Society officially refers to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) as the society’s “intent and meaning of the reference to biblical inerrancy.” While some institutions affirming inerrancy make reference to the CSBI, it has not been widely adopted at the official level.[1] However, the Hermeneutics statement is now little mentioned, lacking even have a Wikipedia entry, even though the key debates on inerrancy are now bound more up in this statement than the CSBI.

The Zondervan Counterpoint series book, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (2013) complicated the issue by not having clear categories (my five or any other) for the contributors to present and respond too. It wasn’t five inerrantists coming at the issue from different perspectives; it was a combination of inerrantists and maximalists.[2] In terms of clarifying the debate it was a thoroughly unhelpful book. Another rather unhelpful book was Thy Word is Still Truth: Essential Writings on the Doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to Today (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2013). You can see my more complete review here but the editors seemed intent on making the case that the true concept of inerrancy is only to be found in a “Reformed view of Scripture,” focusing more on the Warfield-Hodge tradition while, essentially ignoring the CSBI and the larger hermeneutical issues. If this debate again begins to be presented and defended along the old Calvinist-Arminian lines, which the founders of ETS sought to avoid, it is likely doomed to more confusion.

The nature of the inerrancy debate is often mirrored in the nature of preaching today. As MacArthur points out, “the only logical response to inerrant scripture, then, is to preach it expositionally.”[3] This is unquestionably true; however, many models have seemingly reduced “expository preaching” to the singular concept of “verse-by-verse” book study. Preaching is seemingly becoming more atomistic, preachers taking five to ten years to preach through a single book of the Bible. This is particularly problematic since the average tenure of a pastor in the United States right now is less than five years (it would be interesting to know how many unfinished sermon series there are in a given year). It reminds me of a note Spurgeon made about a multiple volume commentary on Hebrews originally based on a sermon series. He stated it was, “one of those great expository works with which the Scotch ministry has so frequently enriched the church.” But then concludes by remarking, “We wonder if any one ever read this excellent exposition through; we should not like to be sentenced to do so.”[4]

If one does not preach verse-by-verse in the current environment they run the risk of being accused of not really believing in inerrancy. But that should not be the case, as my good friend Dr. Irv Busenitz wrote, “just as verse-by-verse preaching is not necessarily expository, preaching that is not verse-by-verse is not necessarily non-expository. Granted some topical approaches are not expository, but such need not and certainly should not be the case.” There is a wider spectrum of expository preaching available than simply drilling down deeper into the exegetical and lexical bits and pieces in a verse-by-verse fashion. The temptation seems to be proving ones inerrancy bona fides by preaching more and more detail.[5] The more atomistic preaching becomes, the more prone one is to the exegetical fallacies that D. A. Carson so ably warns about.[6]

The chief protagonist of Warfield and Hodge in the “original” inerrancy debate was Charles A. Briggs. He was a maximalist and certainly not a liberal by todays standard, and was probably more correct than he realized when he said:

Verbal inspiration is doubtless a more precise and emphatic definition, than plenary inspiration; but this very emphasis and precision imperil the doctrine of Inspiration itself by bringing it into conflict with a vast array of objections along the whole line of Scripture and History, which must be met and overcome in incessant warfare, where both sides may count on doubtful victories, but where the weak, ignorant, and hesitating stumble and fall into divers temptations and may make shipwreck of their faith.[7]

The balancing act is to affirm the fundamental truth of “verbal-plenary” (all of the words and every word) inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible without reducing preaching to an exercise of simply reading an exegetical-lexical summary. In any literature, including the Bible, words are obviously important; however, words, in and of themselves, convey no real finality of thought. Nor do clauses, or even sentences. The basic “unit of thought” is the paragraph; the paragraph as one of my favorite detectives Nero Wolfe, noted reflects the “depth of the soul.”[8] That’s where, in my experience, preaching needs to focus, avoiding the trees to keep a clear view of the forest: preach paragraphs.

Hitchhiking through the current evangelical church inerrancy debate can be complex and seems to be heading to a new directions; probably with attempts to revise or make wholesale changes to the Chicago Inerrancy and Hermeneutics statements or perhaps more narrowing efforts at entirely new statements. All of that will make news and pastors need to be conversant and constant in guiding their congregations with solid biblical leadership, teaching, and preaching.

The best expression of preaching an inerrant Scripture is to use the full spectrum of expositional options, preaching the developed thoughts of the Biblical writers and not just their words.

 

Notes

[1] For example, neither Dallas Theological Seminary nor The Master’s Seminary have ever officially adopted the CSBI as a definitional document on inerrancy.

[2] Reactions to the book illustrate the current tensions, as several assert that of the five contributors only Al Mohler is really an inerrantist. Peter Enns doesn’t claim to be an inerrantist, so that’s simple. And who really knows what John Franke believes, especially about the Bible? Michael Bird was an odd choice as a contributor as he wrongly asserts that the debate is only an “American” issue. His article contributed little of substance; although even Mohler seemed convinced he is an inerrantist. But to me questioning whether Kevin Vanhoozer is an inerrantist is a fools errand.

[3] MacArthur, “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy” in Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word, 1992). 23.

[4] Spurgeon, “Commenting and Commentaries” in Lectures to My Students (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publishing, nd), 189.

[5] Computer Bible programs are eminently helpful to do things faster, but the by-product of all of that information is a tendency for preachers to include what is pointedly worthless information. For instance, how many times a word or form of a word is used in the all or some portion of the Bible is a detail that sounds impressive but it signifies nothing.

[6] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996). This is a book that should be on the annual read and reread list for every preacher and Bible teacher.

[7] C. A. Briggs, “Critical Theories of the Sacred Scriptures in Relation to their Inspiration.” The Presbyterian Review, 2, no. 7 (July 1881): 551–52. [emphasis in original].

[8] Rex Stout, Plot It Yourself (New York: Viking Press, 1959), 26.

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  • What category would Vanhoozer fit into?

    • Dr. Dennis M. Swanson

      I think Vanhoozer is most certainly a critical inerrantist.

  • Also, thanks for the post. I agree with the idea of preaching the paragraphs, rather than getting into too many details and expecting everyone to remember them.

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