Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

I was talking with someone on the Internet about Biblical inerrancy, and said as I often do that I didn't really understand properly what the term meant.  He referred me to a document called the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

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.
There are a number of problems with the Chicago Statement, which I'll try to summarise briefly.
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Why did this group of evangelical leaders spend so much time and energy making this statement?  When I first converted to Christianity in my teens I went to an evangelical Anglican church.  At one stage in those first few years, the evening service was turned over to watching Francis Schaeffer's film series How Should We Then Live?  My clearest memory of that series was Schaeffer on the beach drawing circles with a stick.  In each era, he said as he drew his circle, human thought was driven by a philosophical world view which made sense of what was going on and put things in their places in relation to one another.  From time to time, an old world view would be challenged and a new one would take its place.  He crossed out one circle and drew another next to it.  In our time, he said - in the in the late 20th century - something different was happening.  The old philosophical assumptions were being overturned (cross through the final circle) and being replaced by...nothing (no circle, just blank sand). 

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, 45 and 6.


Luke said...

But Jon,

How would you describe the level of error in Scripture and explain God's purposes for it?

(I understand your reluctance to answer but just sketch out your back of the envelope explanation. I've effectively asked you the same thing on the other thread at my blog!)

Jon said...

I don't think the level (by which I assume you mean the amount) of error - ie how much is right, how much is wrong - is really the best way to approach this issue. I think it's about what sort of "error". I also think that asking the question in terms of error presupposes various assumptions about truth and purpose and this is certainly what you get in the writings of people like Schaeffer and Packer - "propositional truth" is a term Schaeffer likes to use. I think this term is foreign to the Bible and something Schaeffer brings to it rather than takes from it.

So, with necessary oversimplification...

Because the Bible does not set out to provide a scientific description of the world, you should not expect to find one there. This isn't an "error" in the Bible, its an error in the readers who are asking for something the writers never intended to do. I didn't erroneously fail to have a third child - I just never did. But within your framework most of the "scientific" details in the bible are wrong.

The same can be said of history. The writers had no concept of scientific history, and their aim was to create an identity for their people in the time they were writing. Once again this is not an error unless you read with the presupposition that the history should be precise.

Paul was providing guidance to the churches he pastored, helping them to deal with problems they encountered in their corporate life. He was not setting out a comprehensive, eternal system of morality and church practice. Therefore it makes no sense to use his letters in that way.

Not to mention the vast amounts of poetry which I've alluded to in previous discussions.

Harden said...

How about you luke

Luke said...

Hello Harden,

My response to Jon or the answer to my own question?