The intense debates over biblical inerrancy of an earlier time have now subsided. Sides have been taken. The church has moved on and is now occupied with other issues. It is a good moment, then, to look back and think about what was accomplished in the earlier warfare.
Let me begin by laying out a couple of clarifications.
Inerrancy has to do with the nature of Scripture and infallibility with its function. That, at least, is the best way to consider the relation between these two terms, though it is certainly true that some–like Berkouwer, Rogers, and Barth–have seen them as alternatives. Infallibility has been the softer term. Those who have favored it in place of inerrancy have done so because it secures the overall truthfulness of Scripture while allowing for flaws in its text that, they argue, do not affect the overall and infallible message. Scripture can be errant while simultaneously being infallible.
However, I think it is wiser to see these two terms as being complementary rather than as alternatives to each other. If Scripture is inerrant in its nature, it will have the capacity to be infallible in its function. Only if it is completely true by nature, even in its small details, will it never mislead, misinform, or misdirect us.
It was, however, the first of these terms–inerrancy–that was at the heart of the debate in the evangelical world a generation ago. This debate forced a clear choice on people: Is Scripture the Word of God or is it not? If it is the Word of God, inspired by the Spirit of God, then it must be as truthful as the God who inspired it. And if it is inspired, then it must also be inerrant. That was the argument a majority in the evangelical world embraced, and the Chicago Statement had a large role in shaping this conclusion.
Critics, then and subsequently, have derided the term "inerrancy," especially in Britain, often arguing that it involves a double negative and, besides, it is unnecessary. This is, though, a relatively new view, and it is no disgrace for us to stand alongside some of the church's greatest thinkers who believed it necessary to use inerrancy or its equivalent in speaking of Scripture: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, and Hodge, to name just a few.
What transpired a generation ago, nevertheless, has turned out to be a hollow victory despite the excellence of the Chicago Statement, which I endorsed and whose truths I continue to maintain. There are, I believe, two principal reasons for this.
First, the evangelical world has long had a penchant for minimalist doctrinal formulations. This was part of the "big tent" strategy of the early postwar years. The wider the portal through which people could enter, the larger the number that could come. Confessing biblical inerrancy was often the shortest way into the evangelical fraternity. Indeed, for many years, this was the sole belief necessary for membership in the Evangelical Theological Society. However, what must have seemed inconceivable in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s became distressing reality in the 1990s. It was then that a cadre of scholars emerged, among whom were Pinnock and Sanders, who consented to inerrancy but then coupled that with a view of open theism that radically eviscerated the traditional doctrine of God. And this they held as inerrant truth! In the 2000s, it may have gotten worse. Now inerrantists can be heard disputing the penal substitution of Christ as they follow N. T. Wright and the New Perspective into altogether different pastures. This, too, is held as truth delivered by God inerrantly!
As we look back, it has become painfully clear that the ringing affirmations about inerrancy a generation ago were often coupled with a stunning naïveté that anyone who affirmed such a belief would inevitably go on to affirm the full body of orthodox belief of which inerrancy is a part. That plainly has proved to be a disastrous fallacy.
Second, while it was important to define and secure inerrancy, what was actually secured has now been largely lost on the evangelical world. Inerrancy is important, not simply as a doctrine in and of itself but as a protection for the full body of truth, in all of its range and profundity, which God has given to the church. And if there is one thing that became increasingly clear of the evangelicalism of the 1980s and 1990s, it was that evangelical churches, organizations, and personal ministries could be abundantly successful with very little reference to truth. What Barna is now finding is that knowledge of Scripture has sunk to abysmal levels in our churches. It is a small comfort that some of these people do realize this as a weakness, but there are also many who do not. So, we have ended up with an inerrant Bible but that Bible has very little to do with how our churches do their business and how their attendees are fashioning their lives.
Inerrancy is, indeed, the portal through which we enter; but what we enter is the world where God is sovereign and holy, where we are to love and serve him with all of our being, where knowing him is to mark us in every interaction we have with the world around us. It is about making us people of truth in a world where there is only private opinion and people of authenticity in a world of rampant fakery, and people of integrity in a world filled with deceit and double-dealing.
How could the evangelical church have been so insistent on inerrancy and then lost sight so completely about its consequences?