LOSING THE “BATTLE FOR THE BIBLE”?

The inerrancy debate or the “Battle for the Bible” as it is also called, raged for over three decades from the 1960’s until the early 1990’s when it then seemed to abate. One of the most significant events during this debate was the publication of Harold Lindsell’s book, The Battle For The Bible (Zondervan, 1976). Lindsell did more than argue the case for an inerrant Bible, he also had the audacity to name individuals and institutions, which were abandoning or wavering on the inerrancy issue. The furor that followed this book probably accounts in some part for the subsequent efforts of evangelicals to address the inerrancy issue in new ways in the following years. During this period a special organization was founded, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1977-1987), which held three summits for scholars (1978, 1982, 1986) as well as two congresses for the wider body of evangelicalism (1982, 1987). The ICBI sought to further clarify, defend, and disseminate the biblical truths about inerrancy. Subsequently, a number of volumes dealing with various aspects of the debate and positional statements were published.[1] The debate continued into this decade particularly in the Southern Baptist denomination as the “warring parties” the inerrantists/conservatives and the errantists/moderates fought for control of the denomination and its six seminaries.[2] Some may ask whether the “battle” was even worthwhile. While the debate may appear to have subsided, inerrancy is an issue that will never go away and we should be both thankful for that and insure it doesn’t. It was and is a battle worth fighting for[3].

A number of things in the last little while have made me wonder if we are actually losing the battle. Is it possible that the battle fought so diligently by evangelical scholars over the last few decades is being lost in evangelical churches? The irony of the present situation is that many (especially pastors), who would gladly affirm the inerrancy of scripture have failed to implement the practical aspects of the debate into their churches. The problem as I see it, is that while affirming the theoretical we have failed in praxis. We have not managed to translate the ivory-tower debates into the practical weekly ministries of the church.

If I affirm the inerrancy of scripture but fail to teach, preach, and catechize my family and church members in the basic foundational truths of the scriptures, then what was the purpose and value of the debate? When I attended a Bible college in the mid-1980’s we were required to take a general Bible knowledge test of 150 questions. I was surprised to learn how many failed, particularly since these were Christian students; graduates of Sunday School programs, youth groups, and Christian homes! This sorry state was not simply an aberration.[4] Not long ago, I was dismayed to hear someone question the use of a catechism in a Baptist church, implying that was what Roman Catholics do! Recently, I also have had opportunity to visit various evangelical churches and have heard sermons from pastors, whom I am confident, would embrace inerrancy. Yet despite this truth, on more than one occasion the sermon text has been essentially a springboard for launching into messages, which ignored the context of the passage and could only very charitably be described as expository. Kent Hughes refers to these types of sermons as “dis-exposition” of Scripture. He states the most common abuse though is the “homiletics of consensus” where the preacher determines what he will preach on by determining “the congregation’s need from the pollsters’ analysis of felt needs, and then bases his preaching agenda on those feelings.”[5]

Pastors and the churches they are in, must make a commitment to expository preaching believing that this is an important implication of inspiration and inerrancy[6] and that even in our media-sotted culture this is the means that God can and will use to build his church. Churches are doing almost everything but this in an effort to swell the number of “seekers” including staging wrestling matches, focusing energy and resources on special-effects systems, or using clowns to give out Christmas gifts at the Christmas service, complete with an elephant, kangaroo and zebra![7] Pastors and people must not be content to have pabulum served week after week. Therefore, people need to encourage their pastors to spend the time and energy to diligently study and prepare a gourmet meal that will nourish the soul. Too often people complain about “heavy doctrine” and expository preaching through books of the Bible. They justifiably want something that is relevant and current. Therefore, if we fail to show the relevance of Scripture in our expository preaching, then we undermine inerrancy limiting the Bible to an interesting but archaic historical document, not the living revelation of the Triune God.

Pastors are often tempted to acquiesce to criticism of their preaching and focus their energies in other areas of ministry and give the people their preferred “sermon-lite.” This is a practical denial of inerrancy, because it fails to embrace the truthfulness of 1 Tim 3:16-17 and the role of Scripture in the lives of God’s people. A commitment to inerrancy also means the preacher/teacher will understand the value of studying in the original languages. This is difficult, laborious work that often seems to bear such little fruit in providing the “definitive” answer. Pastors are tempted to pass over this arduous labor and rely upon the “experts” (commentaries), especially when many in the congregation question the amount of time they spend in their study preparing a sermon.

Another very prevalent and common way that the inerrancy battle is being lost today is by the subjection of Scripture to experience. The abandonment of Sola Scriptura is the ultimate abandonment of inerrancy. If Scripture is not ultimate then something is, and that is often for many – experience. When experience is elevated over Scripture then the conflict between the two results in the Scripture being considered flawed, limited, or erroneous. Jack Deere recently went so far as to say; “Satan understands the strategic importance of Christians hearing God’s voice so he has launched various attacks against us in this area. One of his most successful attacks has been to develop a doctrine that teaches that God no longer speaks to us except through the written word. Ultimately, this doctrine is demonic (my emphasis) even [though] Christian theologians have been used to perfect it.”[8] This is a rejection of the sola element of Sola Scriptura! This view evidences a fundamental failure to understand the temporary, foundational roles of the “sign-gifts” for the church and to fully wrestle with what continuing revelation implies concerning the closure of the canon.

A somewhat subtle manner in which inerrancy is denied in practice, is in the area of hermeneutics. When a controversial issue such as homosexuality or the role of women in the church is raised, it is not uncommon to hear some, who approve of these things, proclaim that the verses of Scripture raised in opposition to their position are no longer relevant. They argue those passages addressed a specific cultural and historical situation, which is no longer relevant to our current situation. K. Giles in a recent article[9] argued that the Bible endorsed the institution and practice of slavery and this gives us insight into how to address the Bible’s teaching on the subordination of women. Giles states, “We will have learnt that Scripture can endorse social structures no longer acceptable, just as we have learnt that the Bible can endorse scientific ideas no longer tenable. The Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and conduct but not necessarily in science, or on how to order social relations.”[10] This facile solution, that we have “progressed” over previous cultures, actually winds up pitting Scripture against itself, effectively denying inerrancy. These attempts to use cultural circumstances to deny the relevancy of Scripture to situations today undermine the inerrancy of Scripture.[11]

Finally, one might mention the issue of inerrancy and Bible translations. Some today claim that inerrancy is being compromised by the translations or text-types that are used in various translations. This complicated and at times acrimonious debate centers around issues of textual criticism and the role of God’s providence in preserving his inerrant Word. This debate is commonly known as the KJV Only debate.[12] Another firestorm surrounding translations recently has focused upon the publication of the NIV inclusive language version. This recent controversy made headlines when WORLD broke the news of its publication with a cover story titled “Stealth Bible” (March 1997). WORLD alleged that Zondervan, publishers of the NIV Bible, and the International Bible Society (IBS) were succumbing to feminist pressure in the culture and the church and this prompted their regendered version. The debate has been rekindled with news that Zondervan and IBS may be skirting their Colorado Springs agreement by issuing a new “rendition.”[13] While there are a host of issues involved, Poythress argues that at issue is whether the translations should be conformed to the sensitivities of our modern culture or allowed to stand in their culturally offensive terminology and thus subtly rebuke and reform us.[14] Although those promoting this change are evangelicals and most probably affirm inerrancy, this issue touches upon the concept of verbal, plenary inspiration and issues of proper translation procedures. Inerrancy implies that God has inspired every word found in Scripture.

In conclusion, Kent Hughes wrote, “I cannot think of any non-inerrantist who has done (or currently does) regular biblical exposition … Biblical exposition comes only from those with a high inerrantist view of Scripture.”[15] The problem then for many evangelicals is not that we deny inerrancy but that we haven’t recognized its implications for ministry. We don’t have a “high” inerrantist view, one, which recognizes that the Word of God faithfully proclaimed pericope by pericope is sufficient for what God has called us to do and for what God intends to do through his church!


[1] The Council (ICBI) produced “The Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy” (1978) and “The Chicago Statement On Biblical Hermeneutics” (1982). For the statements and exposition see among others: J. I. Packer, God has Spoken (3rd ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 134-70.

[2] On the strategy employed by the inerrantists to regain control of the SBC see: Paige Patterson, “Anatomy Of A Reformation: The Southern Baptist Convention 1978-1994,” Faith & Mission 16:3 (Summer 1999): 60-77.

[3] Recently, a charge has been made that the use of ‘critical methodologies’ in the study of scripture by evangelicals is undermining inerrancy, see: Robert Thomas & David Farnell, eds. The Jesus Crisis: the Inroads of Historical Criticism into Evangelical Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998). For a balanced response and defense of the ‘proper’ use of these methodologies, see: Grant Osborne, “Historical Criticism and the Evangelical,” JETS 42:2 (June 1999): 193-210.

[4] Gary M. Burge, “The Greatest Story Never Read,” Christianity Today 43:9 (August 9, 1999): 45-49.

[5] Kent Hughes, The Anatomy of Exposition: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos,The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3:2 (Summer 1999): 44-45.

[6] For a fine defense of this position see: John F. MacArthur, Jr., “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 1:1 (Spring 1990): 3-15.

[7] Arturo G. Azurdia III, “Preaching: The Decisive Function,” in The Compromised Church, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), 189-190.

[8] Jack Deere, “Vineyard Position Paper # 2: The Vineyard’s Response to The Briefing” quoted in R. Fowler White, “Does God Speak Today Apart From The Bible?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. John H. Armstrong (Chicago: Moody, 1996), 78.

[9] Kevin Giles, “The Biblical Case for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics,” Evangelical Quarterly 66:1 (1994): 3-17.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] For a critique and rebuttal see: Andreas Köstenberger, Thomas Schreiner, and H. Scott Baldwin, eds. Women in the Church A Fresh Analysis of 1Timothy 2:9-15 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). 

[12] For a defense of the KJV among others see: Timothy Tow & Jeffrey Khoo, A Theology for Every Christian Book I Knowing God & His Word, (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 1998). For a critique of the KJV Only position see: James R. White, The King James Only Controversy Can You Trust the Modern Translations? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995). For a critique of the Textus Receptus and Majority Text arguments concerning preservation see: Daniel Wallace, “Inspiration, Preservation, and New Testament Textual Criticism,” Grace Theological Journal 12:1 (Spring 1991): 21-50.

[13] Susan Olasky, “There they go again…” WORLD 14:22 (June 5, 1999): 14-17, 20. On the use of inclusive language versions related to this story see: Mark Strauss, “Linguistic and Hermeneutical Fallacies in the Guidelines Established at the ‘Conference on Gender-Related Language in Scripture,’” JETS 41:2 (June 1998): 239-262. Wayne Grudem, “A Response to Mark Strauss’ Evaluation of the Colorado Springs Translation Guidelines,” JETS 41:2 (June 1998): 263-286.

[14] Vern Poythress, Gender In Bible Translation: Exploring A Connection With Male Representatives,” Westminster Theological Journal 60 (1998): 252.

[15] Hughes, “Anatomy,” 46.

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