While newbies in the Southern Baptist Convention might not remember the denominational explosion in 1979 when Adrian Rogers was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the senior generation of Southern Baptists surely does. A cataclysmic shift took place within the infrastructure of power in the convention ultimately leading to the “takeover” of America’s largest evangelical denomination by theologically conservative representatives. The theological notion at stake—according to most grassroots Southern Baptists at the time—was the full inspiration and total truthfulness of Scripture, a notion captured by the single word inerrancy.
The issue of biblical inerrancy was not just a theological issue among Southern Baptists. Indeed two years prior to Southern Baptists' launch of what came to be called the "Conservative Resurgence," the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) was founded to "clarify and defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy." Consequently, approximately 300 scholars, theologians, and pastor-theologians with a decidedly interdenominational profile made up the original summit in Chicago on October 26-27, 1978 culminating in the first of three historic documents being signed and published--The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Two subsequent summits were held and documents were forged, signed, and published: The Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics (1982) and The Chicago Statement on Biblical Application (1986). Unquestionably, the inerrancy movement stands as the most thorough-going collaboration of church leaders addressing a theological issue in post-reformation history, at least within conservative Protestant Christianity. Nor has the visible impact of the inerrancy summits on evangelicalism been slight. To date, when the doctrine of inerrancy has been defined, explained, or applied, the Chicago papers have inevitably been authoritatively cited.
Even so, surface cracks are becoming more apparent pertaining to precisely what American evangelicals mean or ought to mean when they claim biblical inerrancy. For instance, Kevin Vanhoozer suggests "one of the chief challenges facing evangelical theology today is the deep confusion over just what inerrancy means and entails."1 Vanhoozer's claim is substantiated by theologian, Christian apologist, and one of evangelicalism's most prolific authors, Norman Geisler.2 Dr. Geisler was not only one of the original framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, through his prolific writings Geisler has contributed to the inerrancy issue perhaps more than any other single theologian.
I recently got hold of Professor Geisler, and he was gracious to answer a few questions I asked pertaining to the Chicago summits to which he so admirably contributed and whether biblical inerrancy remains an issue today. Below are the answers to the questions I asked.3
What was the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) all about?
ICBI was a council of some 300 biblical scholars from all over the US and other countries who formulated the most widely accepted standards of biblical inerrancy in print. This they did in two basic documents including official commentaries on each document (see Explaining Biblical Inerrancy in www.BastionBooks.com). In addition they produced numerous books on the topic, including Inerrancy (Zondervan), Inerrancy and the Church (Moody), and Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Zondervan).
What was accomplished with the council's published statement(s) beginning in 1978?
By its statements on inerrancy, ICBI produced the most widely accepted trans-denominational statement on inerrancy among contemporary churches. This provided a solid doctrinal basis for true biblical unity in Christ available. It also brought whole denominations who accepted it from the brinks of liberalism back into an orthodox stance on the Bible. Likewise, many denominations, churches, and individuals have embraced a more orthodox view of Scripture as a result of the ICBI.
Explain some of the opposition you experienced in developing the statement.
Opposition experienced in formulating the statement came from both outside and inside of evangelicalism. Of course, outsiders, such as Liberals and Neo-orthodox, avoided being supporters of the statement or interacting with it. Neo-evangelicals were opposed to it, but many of them feared to speak up against it because of the overwhelming support for it throughout evangelicalism. Some, however, feigned professed acceptance of it by changing the meaning of key statements in it. These remained hidden within the church until recently when they have manifested their true Neo-evangelical nature by rejecting key elements of the ICBI statements.
What impact has the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy had on the church and among evangelicals over the last three decades?
Through the ICBI and kindred movements, whole denominations have been saved for orthodoxy, including the largest protestant denomination in the United States, The Southern Baptist Convention. Also, denominations and mission groups have been revitalized and preserved through the inerrancy movement. What is more, the largest group of evangelical scholars in the world, the Evangelical Theological Society (of some 3000 members) adopted the ICBI view as a guide to understanding inerrancy. More recently, ICBI indirectly spawned a new movement defending its statements titled, Defending Inerrancy (www.defendinginerrancy.com). This site has experienced three million hits and some 20,000 members. Included among the thousands of signatures supporting unlimited inerrancy are those of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, and Ravi Zacharias.
Do you think there is reason for concern that biblical inerrancy is not a settled issue amongst contemporary evangelicals? Please explain.
Recent statements by a number of evangelical scholars have indicated that they no longer accept the ICBI statements as meant by its framers. They are opting for a broader Neo-evangelical view favoring forms of limited inerrancy wherein not all scientific and historic statements in the Bible are considered to be without error. Some of these scholars are even calling for the reinstatement of Robert Gundry to the Evangelical Theological Society who was asked by three-quarters of its members to resign because of his denial of the historicity of certain sections of Matthew (like the Magi of Matthew 2). Others (like Mike Licona and his son-in-law, Nick Peters) have accepted the historical critical method which allows for errors and even contradictions in the Gospel record. This movement is widespread among evangelical scholars in our otherwise conservative institutions and threatens to undermine (and even reverse) the whole inerrancy movement. Many, while not adopting these views themselves, believe that they are compatible with inerrancy. And many of these are gaining positions of authority in our conservative institutions. So, it is only a matter of time before we will be fighting the inerrancy issues in our conservative institutions which were hard-won from Neo-orthodoxy and Liberalism only a short generation ago.
Dr. Norman Geisler is author or co-author of over 90 books, man of which are on inerrancy (such as, Inerrancy, General Introduction to the Bible, Errancy: Its Philosophical Roots, and Defending Inerrancy. He is also a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society and a co-founder and co-framer of the ICBI statements on inerrancy.
1Zondervan (2013-12-10). Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Location 1122). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
2Note: Geisler maintains a much more positive view of ICBI's propositions on biblical inerrancy than Vanhoozer and continues to defend, as the church's "classic view," what ICBI confessed concerning biblical inerrancy. While Vanhoozer does not out-and-out reject ICBI's proposal, he nonetheless articulates several critical reservations about ICBI and what he calls AIT--the American Inerrancy Tradition.
3All responses by Dr. Geisler published here are considered copyright and therefore used by express permission. Anyone quoting these responses should treat his copyright accordingly.