In 1978, James Montgomery Boice sounded the following warning in Foundation of Biblical Authority, the introductory volume explaining the purpose behind the formation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). Boice wrote that "even among evangelicals, Christian doctrine and Christian living are moving progressively away from the biblical standard and from the classical teachings of the church." ICBI did yeoman-like work in formulating a statement of the doctrine of inerrancy with the publication of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1979). The last twenty-eight years have gone by and the struggle to define biblical inerrancy and explain the ramifications of this for the life of the church now seems like the last battle in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Evangelicals no longer debate whether or not the Bible is inerrant. New issues seem to have come to the fore.
But inerrancy still matters. It matters because Christians claim to accept the full authority of Scripture as the final arbiter of matters of faith and practice. How successful Christians have been in following the teaching of Scripture is one matter. Yet what Scripture teaches about its own authority and authenticity is certainly part of the biblical teaching about doctrine. In fact, this may be the most important doctrine in Scripture: What does Scripture say about its own authority and inerrancy? Scripture's doctrine of Scripture is the foundation for everything.
Critics of inerrancy respond by saying that conservative evangelicals have blown the matter all out of proportion. Only naive fundamentalists believe that everything in the Bible is true. You can still have an authoritative Bible even if you reject inerrancy, they say. It is all too common to hear people affirm the full authority of Scripture and then turn right around and point out all the factual errors the Bible supposedly contains. This is not a hindrance to Christians, they say, because scholars can tell us where these errors are so that we can side-step them and find the theological point, even if we have to sift through historical errors and mistakes made by the original authors to get there. If the reformers railed against the papacy and the magisterium for inserting the church's infallible authority between the text of Holy Scripture and the preacher/theologian, then surely the current approach ends up in the same place. Unless there is a scholar present to tell me whether or not certain things are true or false, how am I to know whether or not to trust what is written? The tyranny of authority moves from the church to the academy, but is it not the same tyranny? Can you pick up your Bible and trust it without a guide to its supposed errors? Who do you believe? The church? The scholars?
The overlooked element in the declaration "we accept the doctrinal authority of Scripture," even if we reject the concept of inerrancy (to err is human, after all), is what the Bible teaches about its own inerrancy. Is that not a doctrine taught in Holy Scripture? If it is, it should be affirmed. If it is not, it can be rejected. At the heart of this issue is the "fundamentalist" view of Scripture held by Jesus himself. Inerrancy matters because this is the view held by Jesus. This is the view he taught his apostles. Their writings are the foundation for all subsequent church doctrine.
So then, what did Jesus believe about Scripture? This would include the Old Testament and the soon-to-be-written New Testament.
First, Jesus repeatedly refers to the Old Testament as the Word of God (Matt. 15:6, Mark 7:13, John 10:35). These Old Testament Scriptures, he says, "cannot be broken" (John 10:35). They are "truth" (John 17:17). Furthermore, the Scriptures are without error in all matters about which they speak (cf. Matt. 22:29).
Second, Jesus affirms the Old Testament to be the very words of God. In Matthew 4, when Jesus is tempted by Satan, he responds to him by saying "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (v. 4). In John's Gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying that "I gave them the words that you [the Father] gave me." It is clear that for Jesus, inspiration extends to the words themselves. The Old Testament, as well as that which Jesus himself speaks, are the "words of God." In Matthew 7:26-29, Jesus equates his words with those of God. In this context, it is important to note that "all authority in heaven and earth has been given to [Jesus]" (Matt. 28:18). In fact, because Jesus speaks the words that the Father has given to him, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matt. 24:35). For Jesus, both the Old Testament, as well as his words, are the very words of God. Do we dare say that God errs when he speaks these words?
Third, Jesus affirms that the word of God cannot be revoked (Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:17; Luke 24:44). The Bible has final authority in all matters of doctrine (Matt. 4:4,7,10; Matt. 21:42, Mark 11:17). In many texts Jesus uses the formula "it is written." As J. W. Wenham points out, "There is a grand and solid objectivity about the perfect tense… 'Here,' Jesus was saying, is the permanent, unchangeable witness of the eternal God, committed to writing for our instruction." What is more, says Wenham, "divine authority is clearly implied in the expression [it is written] mentioned in connection with the temptations, but often used at other times (Matt. 11:10; 21:13; 26:24; Mark 9:12, 13; 11:17; 14:21, 27; Luke 7:27; 19:46). The inspiration and authority implied by these various phrases is applied not only to oracular, prophetic utterances but to all parts of Scripture without discrimination-to history, to laws, to psalms, to prophecies." For Jesus, then, the Old Testament is the authoritative Word of God.
Fourth, of extreme importance when it comes to the inerrancy of Scripture are Jesus' affirmations about various events of Old Testament history, frequently treated with ridicule. Jesus affirms the historicity: 1) of Jonah (Matt. 12:40); 2) of Adam and the Genesis account (Matt. 19:4); and 3) of Noah and the flood (Matt. 24:37-39). Is Jesus merely accommodating his words to the primitive view of Scripture held by those Jews living in Palestine at the time of his messianic mission? If so, he is intentionally deceiving his audience.
B. B. Warfield, perhaps, sums it up best in his famous book, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, when he says,
[W]e do not adopt the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture on sentimental grounds, nor even, as we have already had occasion to remark on a priori or general grounds of whatever kind. We adopt it specifically because it is taught us as truth by Christ and His apostles, in the Scriptural record of their teaching, and the evidence for its truth is, therefore, as we have already pointed out, precisely that evidence, in weight and amount, which vindicates for us the trustworthiness of Christ and His apostles as teachers of doctrine.
So, we accept the Bible's teaching on matters of faith and practice. Do we accept Jesus' view of Scripture? If we do, we must affirm the inerrancy of Scripture as did our Lord. That is why inerrancy still matters.