This document was produced in 1978 at a conference sponsored by a group called the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. Its 300 signatories included a number of evangelical luminaries of the time including JI Packer, Francis Schaeffer and RC Sproule. The same group produced two more statements in succeeding years and the second, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, is a kind of follow up and explanation of the first.
The core of the statement is a set of 19 articles, each of which is framed as an affirmation of what the authors believe, followed by a denial of the position they are refuting. It's a pithy, elegant statement written by some highly intelligent men, and it certainly helped me to understand what people mean when they are talking about inerrancy. My conclusions are probably not what my e-friend was hoping. If you are someone who gets angry or upset when beliefs that you hold dear are questioned or critiqued, you might want to stop reading at this point. At least you might want to read my earlier post on the perils of bad apologetics to understand why I think this issue matters.
Without going into all 19 articles, here are what I think are its crucial points.
- The Bible in its entirety is God's perfect message to us, with "inspiration" meaning that these are God's words, transmitted to us via humans but not in any way infected with human fallibility.
- The Bible is correct in every affirmation it makes about any subject, not just "spiritual" subjects - to remove all doubt on this point they specifically affirm the literal truth of the creation and flood stories.
- The authority of the Bible is not conferred on it by the Church, by church tradition or Church Councils, but is inherent in the book itself.
- Because it is without error, there are no contradictions in the Bible, it is in perfect harmony with itself. Later parts of the Bible may fulfill ealier parts, but not correct or contradict them.
- It requires you to sign up to a huge piece of circular logic. The traditional Catholic view of scripture is that its authority comes from the church - the books were written by apostles and prophets or under their authority, the canon was assembled through church practice and formally ratified by key church councils. This position, while asking us to accept the infallibility of church tradition, at least grounds scripture in an historical process and a believing community. By removing this grounding, the Chicago Statement leaves us with only one source of authority - the scripture itself. Church tradition may help us to interpret scripture correctly, but it is not authoritative. We are thus asked to believe scripture is inerrant because it says it is.
- Leaving aside the circularity of the logic, if the inerrancy of scripture is to be believed solely on its own authority you would expect the Bible to contain a clear statement to this effect. Interestingly, the Chicago Statement makes no attempt to quote or summarise what the Bible says about itself. In my own view, the Bible's statements about its authority are far from supporting the case made by the Statement, even if they are read using its principles of interpretation.
- The statement appears to presume that the Bible is a book of facts and affirmations. This is the only reason it makes sense to focus on its "inerrancy". The picture you would get from the Chicago Statement if you had not read the Bible for yourself would be of a series of propositions, much like the statement itself, and of precise historical accounts of scrupulous factuality. The Bible does contain some of this, but most of it is much more complex, written in a variety of genres and styles including poetry, song, allegory, poetic drama, moral fable, parable and folk tale. The concept of inerrancy is therefore irrelevant to a large proportion of it and, even where it is relevant, more often than not it is a peripheral question.
- Following right along from this is the idea that the Bible is without contradiction. This follows inevitably from the assertion of inerrancy. The problem with this is that it forces you to read the Bible in a very superficial way - ironically given the authors' high view of scripture. You are forced to read at the level of facts, and put the facts in order - times, places, people's names, doctrines and so forth. A lot of energy goes into harmonising accounts which seem to be contradictory. In the end the reader strains out a gnat and swallows a camel, lining up all the little details but missing the huge tensions in approach and intent that exist both within and between books of the Bible.
For Schaeffer, such uncertainty and lack of meaning was a sign that civilisation was about to collapse. The duty of the Christian was to resist such meaninglessness, and their weapon for doing so was the certainty provided by the Bible. Schaeffer wasn't the only one who thought this way. The Chicago Statement is part of their response. In a post-modern, protestant world where the authority of the church, governments, teachers and traditions was up for question, they wanted to see the Bible as a bastion of certainty, as something they could rely on absolutely when everything else around them seemed to be falling apart.
A noble attempt, with the best of motives, but at the end of the day it's still bad apologetics.
If you're interested, I've written more posts on this subject - Part 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.