In late 1978 evangelical theologians met in Chicago to discuss the inerrancy or not of the bible. Inerrancy was a hot topic in the 1970s as Harold Lindsell pushed it so far as to have SIX denials of Jesus by Peter to retain Inerrancy. Others were questioning it.
It was more of an American issue as British evangelicals were less concerned about it. In Britain it is the most conservative evangelical who insist on it.
What follows is my largely historical discussion in my book Evangelicals and Science.
For myself I was encouraged to believe it but by 1978 had come to reject inerrancy.
This issue is still worth considering as it lies beneath so much evangelical understanding of the bible and especially science and the bible,perhaps less so in Britain.
Most evangelicals today hold that the Bible is Inerrant. This means that
the Bible is absolute truth and does not err in its statements. It is easy
to conclude that evangelicals, who believe in biblical inerrancy, equate
it with literalism and thus YEC. Though this is often the case, there are
many exceptions. Evangelicals who espouse YEC adopt both literalism
and inerrancy and this is often written into credal statements of evangelical
churches and colleges, as well as YEC groups like AIG and ICR. However
to leave it at that would be misleading.
It is a matter of debate whether inerrancy has been the main protestant
doctrine of the Bible since the Reformation or not. In 1979, at the height of
the inerrancy debate centered on the writings of Harold Lindsell, Rogers
and McKim (Rogers and McKim, 1979) argued that inerrancy was introduced
by the Haldane brothers in 1828 and developed by the Princeton
theologians Hodge and Warfield after 1860. Calvin along with most Reformers
and Doddridge, Thomas Scott and others in the eighteenth century
allowed some error in the Bible,without questioning its absolute authority.
The classic nineteenth-century expression of inerrancy is in Hodge’s Systematic
Theology of 1870 (Hodge, 1870) and Warfield’s (1851–1921) many
writings (Warfield, 1951) on the authority of scripture. Hodge likens the errors
in the Bible to tiny specks of sandstone in the marble of the Parthenon
(Hodge, 1870, vol. 1, p. 170). Both theologians accepted geological ages and
Warfield reckoned himself a Darwinian. Thus in its classic formulation, Inerrancy
embraced a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis. Biblical inerrancy
became a central belief among the early twentieth-century American fundamentalists,
often with an acceptance of geological time.
With the growth of the “New Evangelicals” after 1950, some, like E. J. Carnell and others
from Fuller seminary, began to question inerrancy. D. P. Fuller put forward
the case for a limited inerrancy, in which the Bible is not inerrant on
matters of history and science (Marsden, 1987). This came to a head in the
1970s with Lindsell’s books, notably The Battle for the Bible (Lindsell, 1976),
followed in 1978 by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy which met
in Chicago in October 1978.
The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was signed by nearly 300 noted
evangelical scholars, including James Boice, Norman L. Geisler, Carl F. H.
Henry, Harold Lindsell, John W Montgomery, J. I. Packer, and Francis
Schaeffer. Most of these accepted geological ages and Packer accepted
Evolution (with reservations).
Article 12 of the Chicago Statement refers to earth history:
We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood,
fraud, or deceit.
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy is limited to spiritual, religious, or
redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.We
further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may be properly used
to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and flood.
In 1982 the council met again to discuss the hermeneutics of the Bible and
produce a second report—the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics.
This contained twenty-five articles and the twenty-second dealt with the
early chapters of Genesis.
WE AFFIRM that Genesis 1–11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.
WE DENY that the teachings of Genesis 1–11 are mythical and that scientific
hypotheses about earth history or the origin of humanity may be invoked to
overthrow what Scripture teaches about creation.
Since the historicity and the scientific accuracy of the early chapters of the Bible
have come under severe attack it is important to apply the “literal” hermeneutic
espoused (Article XV) to this question. The result was a recognition of the factual
nature of the account of the creation of the universe, all living things, the special
creation of man, the Fall, and the Flood. These accounts are all factual, that is, they
are about space-time events which actually happened as reported in the book of
Genesis (see Article XIV).
The article left open the question of the age of the earth on which there is no unanimity
among evangelicals and which was beyond the purview of this conference.
There was, however, complete agreement on denying that Genesis is mythological
or unhistorical. Likewise, the use of the term “creation” was meant to exclude the
belief in macro-evolution, whether of the atheistic or theistic varieties.
This affirmed the factuality of Genesis and denied that it could be either
mythical or that “scientific hypotheses” could “overthrow what Scripture
teaches about creation.” The article seems to point to a literal Genesis, but
Norman Geisler made it clear in his commentary that “The article left open
the question of the age of the earth on which there is no unanimity among
evangelicals” but “the use of the term ‘creation’ was to exclude macroevolution.”
In the volume Hermeneutics, Inerrancy and the Bible produced
for the Council, Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen claimed that Progressive
Creation was the best combination of “the biblical and scientific particulars,”
thus giving semi-official support to the refusal to espouse YEC.5
However responding to Bradley and Olsen, Henry Morris called progressive
creation an “old time-worn, compromising hermeneutical system”
and refused to sign the declaration.
Thus on early Genesis the 1982 Council failed to resolve anything, as
evolution was stated to be contrary to inerrancy but old-earth ideas were
not excluded. This, in itself, marked a considerable hardening of the definition
of inerrancy from that of Warfield a century earlier and also James
Packer, who wrote a classic defense of inerrancy in the 1950s. Though
the statement was equivocal, it undermined those who accepted evolution
and gave YECs confidence. Since then, if not before, YECs have insisted
that the only right view of the Bible is inerrancy and inerrancy implies
YEC. This is a powerful debating tactic and gives immediate advantage to
the YEC, who can then charge any “Old Earther” as “Liberal”
In the United States, the majority of evangelicals hold to inerrancy today,
Which makes the total acceptance of geology and evolution extremely
difficult.6 Where the Chicago Statements are regarded as authoritative,
evolution is out. There are some evangelicals who hold to both evolution
and inerrancy but that goes against the general opinion. For many
evangelicals, to accept evolution is to reject inerrancy and thus to have a
weakened belief in the Bible. This outlook is increasingly being accepted
throughout the world, including Britain.
Definitions of inerrancy vary considerably. At the popular level inerrancy
is assumed to imply literalism and a young earth. Thus scientific
evangelicals may reject inerrancy for scientific reasons, being oblivious of
more nuanced treatments. Among those who have gone through Evangelical
seminaries, there is a considerable range of opinion but most will
recognize the literary nature of the Bible. Even so, seminary professors
may disturb students’ notions of inerrancy by pointing out that there are
many grammatical errors in the Greek of Paul’s letters. After all, if the
Bible is inerrant, the grammar must be also!7
Today Inerrancy is held in a variety of forms. Some evangelicals continue
in the tradition of Hodge and Warfield, which recognizes the variety
of literary forms in the Bible and accept evolution. These include both theologians
like Jim Packer and John Stott and scientists like Oliver Barclay
and Denis Alexander.
This is not by shared by many YECs who argue that
acceptance of an old earth is “theological compromise” as it destroys inerrancy.
As the correct hermeneutic of the Bible is to read in it a literal way
This means that Flood must be universal and that Creation took place in six
However as no one can deny that the earth is spherical, then
all references in the Bible to the shape of the earth must be inerrant. Thus
every biblical passage in the Old Testament, which can possibly be taken
to imply a flat earth, must be taken to support the earth’s sphericity, or else
inerrancy would be denied. Thus the natural meaning of passages like Genesis
1 vs 6–8, Exodus 20 vs 4, and Isaiah 40 vs 22 is ignored (see below) and
taken to support sphericity contrary to the usage of Hebrew words.
This is the logical conclusion of attempting to extend inerrancy to “scientific”
matters and not recognizing that the Biblical writers were limited to the
“scientific” understanding of their day and in the words of Calvin “Moses
wrote in a popular style” for “the unlearned and rude as of the learned.”
Because of these types of questions, some evangelicals avoid the use
of inerrancy and prefer to speak of the supreme authority of Scripture.
Others simply reject inerrancy altogether and happily affirm that the Bible
though authoritative contains minor errors. That in turn elicits opposition
from those who adopt the extremer forms of inerrancy and so the
internecine conflict between evangelicals continues. Because of the voices
for inerrancy, especially in America, the large number of evangelicals who
either reject it are often not heard. Howard Marshall, professor emeritus
of theology at the University of Aberdeen, discussed inerrancy at length
and rejected it as unhelpful as it tends to make people expect the Bible to
be “literally” true. (Marshall 1982, p. 49ff) Gerald Bray, a British scholar at
Beeson divinity school in Birmingham, Alabama, has similar reservations
(Bray, 1996, pp. 539–563). It is also true to say that most evangelicals in
Britain reject or avoid inerrancy. Risking oversimplification evangelicals
can be divided into three groups:
- Those who do not accept inerrancy and prefer to speak of the trustworthiness
of scripture. This includes a large minority of evangelical scholars, who would
not be found in the most conservative schools.
- Those who accept a nuanced form of inerrancy and allow for accommodation.
This would include most evangelical scholars in more conservative schools.
- Those whose inerrancy is decidedly not nuanced and dependent on the scientific
accuracy of the Bible. This is the stance supported by colleges affiliated to TRACS
and includes many “popular” evangelicals.
The most strident defenders of Inerrancy come from the third group,
who as Noll says often have “lush but eccentric interpretations” (Noll,
1994). Some will be discussed in the chapter on Young Earth Creationism.
They are probably the largest group in the United States. It is important
to realize the differences among evangelicals to understand the “biblical”
reasons evangelicals have for adopting particular attitudes to science.
The whole subject of inerrancy may seem to a side-show on evangelicals
and science, but it is crucial in the understanding of controversies over
evolution, issues of medical ethics (like stem cell research) and the nature
of what it is to be human and whether a body–soul dichotomy is tenable. It
is surely no accident that the earliest attempts at ID from Olsen and Bradley
came shortly after their attempts to harmonize the Chicago Statement,
which tentatively allowed an old earth but not evolution.
This raises the main issue whether the earth is ancient and whether we are evolved.
All the evidence points to both!