Muddying Up the Waters: Reflections on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
Many people see the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as a sort of defining boundary as to whether or not one is an evangelical Christian. I do not stand among them. In my opinion, such assessments are replete with confirmation bias. At the same time, I do tend to see it as a sort of fault line, or perhaps a watershed, within evangelicalism.
My experience has shown that there are evangelical Christians on either side of the biblical inerrancy. But this issue does tend to be indicative of other significant differences of how people understand Scripture’s nature, spiritual authority, Kingdom ethics, and so forth.
To my eyes, this is one of those cases in which the thing is not the thing. Rather, the thing points to something larger. Often we get bogged down on the superficial issues and labels instead of an in-depth exploration of the relevant presuppositions, beliefs, etc.
So I figure it’s about time I weigh in on the matter. Here I’m offering some brief reflections on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). It tends to be the standard, defining document for those affirming that position, so I figure it’s a good place to hop in.
Few of my thoughts here are original, honestly. My view on this is highly influenced by pages 160 to 163 of Craig Allert’s book, A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. There he brings up that the CSBI contains internal tensions that reflect the influences, motivations, and perspectives of different authors and contributors.
Most noteworthy is the issue of the historicity of Genesis. Obviously it’s intimately tied to the age of the earth, evolution, and all of that pro-Ken Ham/anti-Ken Ham fun. In a clear nod to Young Earth Creationists (YEC), Article XII contains the statement,
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are 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 properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
Yet the very next article qualifies matters with a nuanced articulation of our understanding of truth that was surely a nod to Old Earth Creationists (OEC). The second portion of Article XIII reads,
We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.
The waters are further muddied up by point D under the document’s Exposition section. It states,
We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.
So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: Since, for instance, nonchronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.
Although Holy Scripture is nowhere culture-bound in the sense that its teaching lacks universal validity, it is sometimes culturally conditioned by the customs and conventional views of a particular period, so that the application of its principles today calls for a different sort of action.
I’ve long suspected one prominent contributor was likely was a YEC while one other was an OEC, and both successfully pushed their agenda into the statement’s language. Only today did I have this narrative confirmed. The parties were Henry Morris and Gleason Archer, respectively.
We find ourselves in a complicated situation. If a person wants to insist that the CSBI teaches a young earth and no evolution, they certainly have grounds to do so. Meanwhile, a person can equally firmly assert that it leaves the door wide open for an old earth and evolution. In other words, there’s enough evidence either way for it to say what people want it to say.
It’s not unlike the debate over the religious influences of the U.S.’s founding. For those who want the U.S. government to look purely secular in origin, there’s plenty of evidence if they’re willing to disingenuously cherry pick from the primary source documentation. The same pattern holds true of those who want the government to look heavily Judeo-Christian in origin.
It’s an established fact I’m the sort of guy who deeply appreciates balance, tension, and paradox. For that reason I often like intentionally ambiguous language that leaves room for a diversity of opinion. This is why I love Thomas Cranmer’s Eucharistic language in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), for example.
Yet other times it can just come across as simultaneously speaking out of both side’s of one mouth, which in point of fact is precisely what I think the CSBI does. Of course, this is to be expected as it came from ugly committees rather than a single author as did the first BCP.
This is why I’m no fan of the CSBI, ordinarily wouldn’t affirm the it in day-to-day life, nor would I advocate its popular use. Yet, if pressed, I could in good conscience sign off on it something important dependent upon it–job, ordination, etc. In sum, my view is that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is, despite its noble intentions, an exceedingly incoherent and time-bound document.