Revisiting the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

Michael S. Horton
R.C. Sproul
Monday, March 1st 2010
Mar/Apr 2010

Michael Horton, White Horse Inn co-host, recently interviewed R. C. Sproul, president of Ligonier Ministries and author of numerous books, including Knowing Scripture and The Holiness of God.

Our series this year is "Recovering Scripture." Besides recommending your book, we are looking at various aspects of the Bible in terms of its major themes and how it should be read. Since you were deeply involved in the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) in the 1970s, we thought we'd ask yo

u a number of questions along those lines. First of all, what was the state of inerrancy within evangelicalism before ICBI and the Chicago Statement that came out of this movement?
At the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, a crisis began moving throughout the evangelical world where this particular point of inerrancy–which had kept evangelicals together for centuries–started to unravel. One of these critical moments was when Fuller Theological Seminary changed its doctrinal statement from a commitment to inerrancy to a commitment to infallibility, which was a strange change of words.

At that time, Harold Lindsell was the editor of Christianity Today and he wrote the book The Battle for the Bible in which he documented these different issues. At about the same time, Ligonier Ministries sponsored a conference in western Pennsylvania, gathering together an international group of scholars to address the issue of inerrancy, and we produced what was then called the Ligonier Statement on Inerrancy. I contacted Harold Lindsell and suggested to him that Christianity Today call a much larger conference and convention among evangelicals to try to get a consensus on the doctrine. He thought that in light of the fact that he had just written a book on it, he would not be the appropriate one to do this.

At the same time, by the providence of God, I was invited to speak at an apologetics conference in San Jose, which was put together by Jay Grimstead and included Greg Bahnsen, John Gerstner, and Norman Geisler. During one of the breaks, we were discussing inerrancy and decided we needed to have a major conference. And that's where the idea was born. So I talked to James Montgomery Boice and some others, and we put together a council that included J. I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, Paige Patterson, Harold Honer from Dallas, Wetherell Johnson, and the other fellows who were out there. We elected Jim Boice the chairman, and then they asked me to be president of the organization. We did a lot of planning and preparation for the summit meeting in Chicago, where we had 200 or so delegates from around the world representing virtually every denomination imaginable to try to come up with a statement on inerrancy. We made a general statement at the beginning that Jim Packer wrote, and then I was commissioned to write the articles of affirmation and denials in rough draft–and I did this around 3:00 in the morning. Then the next day, we presented that document to the 200 delegates, and we had a drafting committee that included Roger Nicole, J. I. Packer, Jim Boice, Robert Preus, and me. We gave the working draft to the whole 200 and invited everybody to submit any changes they wanted. We then worked over that and came up with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. So that's how it all came together.

The Chicago Statement was signed by an extraordinary cross-section of denominational and confessional representatives. What accounted for this unanimity within a movement that is so often fractured and fragmented as much by personality as by theology?
As I said earlier, the two doctrines that have been the cement for evangelical unity, crossing denominations for centuries, have been the doctrine of Scripture on the one hand and the doctrine of justification by faith on the other. At that time in the early 1980s, I was witnessing the unraveling of the unity over Scripture. I never dreamed in a million years that I would see a similar unraveling with respect to sola fide, which came shortly thereafter. But people from various denominations and seminaries were very concerned about the advances being made by higher criticism against the classical doctrine of Scripture. It created a crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention, and so the Chicago Statement was very important to the deliberations going on in the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as in the battles in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church back in the 1970s. This crossed all the denominational lines of the mainline churches–Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and so on.

In hindsight, how effective do you think were IBCI and the Chicago Statement, and where do you see things now?
At the time, one of the things we did that was extremely unusual was that when we founded ICBI we made a decision at the beginning that we were not going to be a perpetual organization, such as pork barrel earmark projects are in the federal government–once they get in, they never get out. We committed to a ten-year program and said we would disband at the end of those ten years, which is what we did. We produced books and had seminars and conferences around the country, promoting the doctrine of inerrancy, trying to clarify a lot of the misconceptions that critics of inerrancy had made. I was pleased with the results, because some schools adopted the statement for their statement of faith, and in fact, even denominations responded to it and made inerrancy part of the requirements for ordination within them, such as the PCA, for example. And so we were pleased with how things worked out for ten years. I think it did, in a lot of ways, recover academic respectability for the doctrine that had been ridiculed in liberal communities as a backwoods fundamentalist obscurantist position that no serious scholar could defend. The work of the ICBI didn't ultimately stop those kinds of charges, but it certainly retarded them in great measure, and a new respectability was given to the serious academic work that had been done to defend the classical view of Scripture.

I'm concerned today that a lot of younger evangelical Christians–pastors and leaders who didn't go through that period–haven't actually read the Chicago Statement. They are rejecting inerrancy because they were raised in fundamentalist churches. For example, a well-known pastor in Dallas says that every word in Scripture, every syllable, is the utterance of God, not man, that there is no human element at all in Scripture. The Chicago Statement, however, addresses all of this and it's clearly different from fundamentalism. How do you respond to younger evangelicals today who say that inerrancy is an unnecessarily divisive issue that ties us down to positions we don't need to be tied down to in the church?
People have been saying that for years. Packer wrote an interesting article on this point where he said that inerrancy really is a shibboleth in a positive sense. This is a doctrine that unbelievers of the authority of the Word of God choke on. They have a hard time signing confessions of faith that include that language. They'll say they believe in the relevance, or the trustworthiness, or the organic inspiration, and so on like that; but when you push it to the point of whether God inspires error, they get really nervous. So it has been a watershed test for a lot of people. We're living in a time now where these younger people have been deluged by a cultural approach to truth that is relativistic and pluralistic, and the strong stand that an inerrantist takes about the objectivity of the truthfulness of the Word of God is something that goes against the grain of that whole cultural view of truth.

What's lost if we deny inerrancy? Is it the article by which the church stands or falls?
I was appointed by the council to discuss this issue–in fact, to debate it with several members of the faculty and the president of Fuller Seminary back in those days. I was walking out to the parking lot after that discussion, and one of the professors looked at me, who was very concerned and nice, said, "R. C., why is this so important to you? What's the big deal?" And I looked at him and said, "Hey, you take away the authority of Scripture and the trustworthiness of Scripture from me, you take away my life. This is the Word of God we're talking about; this is where we get our source of truth for everything we believe at the very core of Christianity."

But can't you say the Scriptures are trustworthy but not inerrant?
No, because they claim to be more than trustworthy. If all they did was claim to be generally trustworthy, we wouldn't have these disputes. But the fact is that the Bible claims to be inspired by God, to which Jesus gives such a high view. When we had the Ligonier conference in the early 1970s, every scholar who approached this question did it christologically.

Do you think some Christians make the mistake of trying to convince others of the inerrancy of the Bible before they've established its basic historicity? In other words, in terms of an apologetic tactic, are they biting off more than they can chew?
When we were in the middle of this debate, one very prominent pastor said he didn't treat the question theologically but pastorally. I asked, "What does that mean?" and started to push him on it. Finally, he said, "R. C., I believe in inerrancy, but I don't feel equipped to defend it." Ah ha! I think that's true with a lot of people, and that's one of the reasons we published that commentary–which we still have at Ligonier–explaining the article of affirmation and denial, which has helped a lot of people understand what's at stake and how to articulate the issues. But we have a whole generation of young pastors coming up, and this is still a perennial issue. Maybe it's time to have a new initiative of ICBI? I would concur heartily with that and would like to see you guys put together something like that.

Our friend Mark Dever has often said that even in Southern Baptist circles, where you would have a pastor who is a card-carrying inerrantist, there seems to be little respect for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture when he waves the Bible but doesn't really preach it. Don't you think that is a critical issue?
It certainly is. There are all kinds of people who have a right view of the nature of Scripture, but they ignore Scripture. They don't preach from the Bible. They don't even read it. They say that this is the Word of God, but then they treat it as if it had no authority whatsoever.

You wrote a book we're promoting this year titled Knowing Scripture. Can you summarize that book and why you thought it was important to write?
I wrote that book to help laypeople understand the basic principles of biblical interpretation and to help communicate at a popular level, where the laypeople wouldn't need to have a Ph.D. in theology to understand it–the basic principles that came out of the Reformation on the proper way to handle the Word of God: how not to interpret it and how to interpret it.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, March 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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