Reasons for biblical illiteracy are many: lack of emphasis and teaching of the Bible in our churches, youth programs that major on entertainment rather than the Word of God, Bible colleges and seminaries that prepare ministers to be CEOs rather than shepherds who feed the flock a rich diet of Scripture, confusing MTD for biblical Christianity, and simply laziness and distractions resulting in neglect of personal reading of the Bible. But one other culprit surely is the increasing challenge to biblical inerrancy. If Christians do not believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures then by default they believe the Bible contains errors and, therefore, cannot be trusted.
If this is the case then why bother reading it? Major attacks on the truthfulness and reliability of God’s Word have been prolific from the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and skeptics such as Bart Ehrman. But, sadly, theologians closer to the core of the faith are also adding fuel to the fire.
Some might recall the celebrated “battle for the Bible” which took place between 1955 and 1985 (J. I. Packer called this “the 30-year war”). Harold Lindsell’s 1976 book by this title brought the discussion to a head as he first accused and then documented how Western seminaries and denominations were abandoning their grip on the infallibility and authority of the Scriptures. Shortly thereafter a gathering of over 200 leading American theologians produced the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (CSBI) in 1978.1
The hope at the time was that this statement, with its numerous accompanying articles of explanation, would do for Scripture what the Nicene Creed did for the deity of Christ—virtually close the door to all meaningful debate on the trustworthiness and truthfulness of the Bible among evangelicals. This has not proven to be the case, and today we find the Scriptures under renewed and significant challenges from many who claim to love it.
The CSBI definition of inerrancy is quite detailed but most believe Paul Feinberg pulled all the pieces together well in his more concise definition:
When all the facts are known, the Scripture in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.2
Unfortunately the dust had barely settled on CSBI before leading evangelicals began to nuance the definition and there has been a gradual abandonment of inerrancy by many leading Bible scholars in the subsequent years. The editors of a 2013 volume entitled Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy asked five prominent evangelical theologians to state their understanding of inerrancy. Below is a summary of where these men stand, which reveals the chaos and confusion over this vital doctrine.
Mohler is President of Southern Seminary and is in step with the CSBI. His view is well summarized when he writes, “When the Bible speaks, God speaks” (p. 29). Mohler does not think evangelicalism can survive without inerrancy as defined by the CSBI (p. 31), and summarizes his response to Franke’s article (see below) by saying that “he has revealed the destiny of evangelical theology if it surrenders the inerrancy of the Bible” (p. 291). He is the only one of the five authors who clearly and consistently affirms that the three difficult passages, which each man was given to interpret, can be resolved through the use of a literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutic and do not need to be reinterpreted because of apparent internal contradictions or modern archeological or scientific discoveries.
Enns, who is a biblical scholar teaching at Eastern University, strongly rejects CSBI, writing that inerrancy assumes God shares modern views on accuracy (which, Enns assures us, He does not) (pp. 84, 87-88, 91, 104). Instead we must read the Bible through ancient, not modern, eyes (p. 108). He rightly claims that “literalism is the default hermeneutic of the CSBI” (p. 88), although he distorts what literalism means. He laments that those who embrace literalism disallow the study of ancient history or scientific discoveries to overturn what the Bible says (p. 88). And he dismisses the notion that if we accept that portions of the Bible are in error then we have started down a slippery slope theologically (p. 89). In addressing the assigned difficult passages, Enns not only denies the fall of Jericho, but the Exodus account as well, as they are both described in the Old Testament (pp. 94-98, 107-108, 122, 134), and claims the biblical authors shaped history creatively for their theological purposes (p. 101). Enns redefines inerrancy beyond all recognition by writing, “It is a descriptive observation rather than a prescriptive declaration” (p. 114, see pp. 120-123, 135). Mohler calls Enns’ views a “tragically minimal statement about the Bible” (p. 122).
Bird is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne Ministry and Mission College and believes the debate over inerrancy is largely an American issue and should not cause such a fuss (pp. 146, 155-156). He believes the CSBI relies too heavily on modern presumption of precision and, in fact thinks contradictions in Scripture can and do exist (pp. 147-149, 153, 168, 170, 194). He sees the CSBI as based on foundationalism (pp. 157, 208), which Franz says in his article, has been thoroughly discredited (pp. 261-264, 282), to which Enns apparently agrees (pp. 304-305). The Jericho and Exodus accounts did not likely happen in the way the Scripture claims (pp. 166-167), after all “ancient historians were storytellers not modern journalists, so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives,” or so says Bird (p. 168).
Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, supports inerrancy but what is needed, he says, is a “well-versed” version, which hails back to Augustine (pp. 204-207, 223, 235). He says “God’s authoritative Word is wholly true and trustworthy in everything it claims about what was, what is, and what will be” (p. 202). He agrees essentially with CSBI but registers three concerns: the definition of inerrancy needs refinement (pp. 206-207), truth and language needs definition (pp. 208-211), and a closer connection with Nicaea is warranted (pp. 212-213). ‘“Well-versed’ inerrancy puts a premium on the responsibility of the interpreter to understand the text correctly” (p. 223). Yet when Vanhoozer turns to the assigned passages it is clear that he sees the events as not entirely accurately revealed (pp. 224-230).
Franke is Professor of Missional Theology at Yellowstone Theology Institute. He defends a “fallibilist” position in which absolute certainty is impossible (pp. 262, 305). This post-conservative, post-modern view, when applied to Scripture, means the Bible points us in the right direction but without the necessity of actually being precise (p. 268). It is not that truth does not exist, for God knows truth with a capital T, but we can only know truth with a small t (pp. 269, 288, 308). As such, small t truth is pluralistic (pp. 275-280, 288). Biblical contradictions, or errors, are no problem for Franke (pp. 277, 290) because the purpose of Scripture is not to provide precise details but to bless the world (a missional understanding) (pp. 282, 286, 302-303).
On many levels Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy is a disturbing book. Inerrancy is one of the most important of doctrines and is supposedly a hallmark of evangelicalism, yet if the views presented in this volume are representative of evangelical scholarship in the 21st century, it is obvious there exists a wide diversity on what it means and how it is applied.
Three of these authors clearly state (and one is conflicted) that the Scriptures do not accurately report many events found in the biblical texts, and they challenge the veracity not only of the history that is recorded but also of statements addressing nature, creation, and the internal makeup of mankind.
If the Bible is unreliable concerning such issues, why should we believe it is reliable when it comes to doctrinal concerns? How can we be certain that Scripture is dependable when it comes to its description of God, Jesus Christ, the redemptive work of the cross, the resurrection or our salvation, if it is in error about so many historical and scientific events? Enns, Bird and Franke give assurances that the Scriptures can be trusted concerning these theological issues even though they do not report the truth when it comes to other matters.
When faced with these kinds of discrepancies and inconsistencies, the average believer might very well question the importance of Scripture in their life at all. Why bother reading the Bible if even evangelical scholars are telling us it consists of stories shaped by the imaginations of ancient people to convey certain principles which they desired to express?
The challenges to inerrancy are not merely an American problem. The Master’s Academy International recently published a book, The Implications of Inerrancy for the Global Church,3 written by teachers from the 18 Master’s Academies in 17 countries in existence today. Leaders of the academies each wrote a chapter discussing the unique implications of inerrancy in their respective countries and cultures.
In most situations inerrancy is outwardly affirmed, at least by the evangelical community, but, in reality and in practice, inerrancy is denied or revised to mean something different from the official definition (as per CSBI). This collection provides convincing, and disturbing evidence that there has been a gradual abandonment of inerrancy since the publication of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” in 1978 (pp. ix, 46).
Some of the specific culprits identified as leading to the erosion of belief in inerrancy throughout the world include the following: claims of corruption of the biblical manuscripts (pp. 27, 235-264), development and spread of the historical-critical methodology (pp. 54-58), popularity of egalitarianism (pp. 67-76, 149-151), abuse of contextualization (pp. 77-80), an evolving and revised Roman Catholic understanding which could be labeled “limited inerrancy” (pp. 88-102), the growth and influence of the prosperity gospel and Pentecostal theology (pp. 112-123), an increasingly popular “hermeneutic of the Spirit” which begins with Scripture but adds additional revelation (pp. 126-131), integration of secular psychology (p. 148), increased acceptance of syncretism (pp. 152-157, 207-210), Barthian neo-orthodoxy (pp. 193-202), existentialism (pp. 193, 229), oral traditions trumping the written Word (pp. 204-205), and adoption of evolutionary theory (pp. 265-266).
Biblical illiteracy is well recognized today. There are many reasons for why not only the general population but also the evangelical church has little understanding and knowledge of Scripture, and I have tried to identify some of these in the body of this article.
With all of the attacks on the trustworthiness of Scripture, coupled with general lack of Biblical knowledge and apathy toward what it proclaims, it would be easy to despair for the future of the Scriptures. But God’s Word always accomplishes that which it is sent forth by the Lord to accomplish (Isa 55:1), which is to teach, reprove, correct and train His people in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). We have the promise of Jesus that His Word will never pass away (Matt 24:35). So rather than despair we should make every effort to pass along the Lord’s truth to the next generation (Deut 6:4-9; Psalm 145:4). At this point we need to consider some means to do so. What can we personally, and corporately as the church, do to address the issue of biblical illiteracy? This will be the subject of the next article.
1 For and excellent overview of the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” see R. C. Sproul, Scripture Alone, and Evangelical Doctrine, (New Jersey: P&R Publishing p. 2005), pp. 121-193.
2 Kevin Vanhoozer, “Augustinian Inerrancy” in J. Merrick, and Stephen M. Garrett, eds, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), p. 207.
3 Mark Tatlock, Gen Ed, The Implications of Inerrancy for the Global Church, (Xulon, 2015).
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute and MBS and ThD degrees from Cambridge Graduate School. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.