The Chicago Statement at 40: A BreakPoint Symposium

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in History and Today

This last week marked the 40th anniversary of a key moment in modern American evangelicalism. In October 1978, hundreds of Christian leaders signed a statement reemphasizing the centrality, authority, and reliability of the Bible. The early 20th century had seen serious denominational decline and theological compromise by “mainline” Protestantism, but, under the leadership of the likes of Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and newer names like Chuck Colson, evangelicalism had begun to recover its footing. Having grown greatly in the past few decades, evangelicalism was ready to lay out some new definitions based on ancient truths.

This Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was both the culmination of decades’ work reestablishing the Scriptural basis for American Christianity and the foundation for the next generation’s growth of biblically-centered evangelicalism. Like any manifesto in the church’s history, there is room to ask whether its results have lived up to its creators’ intentions and whether the generation that came along afterwards truly followed the path their predecessors laid out. What cannot be challenged is the courage of these leaders to stake out a position far outside the mainstream of their culture’s worldview in a statement that was, if anything, more radical in its own day than in ours.

In honor of this occasion, we asked several Christian thinkers to give us their thoughts. Specifically, we asked our contributors to answer the following prompt question:

Was the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy effective in articulating a Christian view of Holy Scripture, and is it still an effective and useful statement of Biblical authority today?

Please, either scroll through the entire document or simply click on the highlighted names to view a particular contribution.

Matthew Lee Anderson; Bruce Riley AshfordChris Brooks;  David Dockery; Mark Galli; Peter LeithartG. Shane MorrisSamuel Rodriguez; Philip Ryken; Owen Strachan; Ed Stetzer Warren Cole Smith;

Evangelicals are a people of the Word who, over the past forty years, have sometimes turned to Statements to specify how that Word must be understood. Whatever flaws the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy might have, for its purposes it was an undisputed success—it set the parameters for how institutions might need to think and talk about Scripture in order to be viewed as an ‘evangelical’ in good standing.

Though oft imitated, few statements evangelicalism has since produced replicated either its quality or influence. And perhaps re-reading the Statement may provide some clues as to why. Paradoxically, the Statement draws a very narrow boundary around a doctrine of Scripture, but does so in the most broad-minded of ways. In the Preface the drafters make clear they are not trying to supplement the creeds; they “gladly acknowledge” that they themselves are imperfect in their obedience to the word; they welcome challenges and responses from those who oppose the Statement’s doctrine of Scripture from Scripture.

Though asserting a boundary, the drafters are cognizant of their own limitations. They recognize, if only tacitly, that they are responsible to a community much broader and older than themselves. After all, their explicit concern to distance the Statement from having creedal weight recognizes the limited authority of such creeds. Though they go on to argue that Scripture is pre-eminent, they paradoxically seem to allow that the statement articulating that claim is less weighty than those that originally elucidated its contents and determined the boundaries of orthodoxy. The Statement is infused with modesty—but that supplements and enhances its theological rigor, rather than detracts from it.

It seems plausible that one could have responsible disagreements with aspects of the Statement. But if nothing else, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy represents a theological acumen and an irenic generosity of spirit that we stand on the precipice of forgetting.

Matthew Lee Anderson is a D.Phil. Candidate in Christian Ethics at Oxford University, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Religion at Baylor University.

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Toward the end of the 20th century, evangelicals awoke to the fact that many of America’s seminaries and divinity schools were busy deconstructing Christian Scripture and dissolving the biblical Christ in the acid baths of historical criticism. As a result, the graduates of these institutions took their newly acquired liberalism into America’s pulpits, causing churches and denominations which had grown large and strong on a diet of biblical theology to become increasingly moribund. In response to the situation, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy emphatically repudiated liberal-revisionist theology and its ugly fruit.

“A dog barks,” John Calvin wrote, “when its master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent, without giving any sound.” Indeed. And the authors of the Chicago Statement refused to remain silent, arguing instead that it’s not enough to profess “Christianity” unless it’s the historical, biblical Christ we’re honoring. If our churches and denominations want to really and truly follow Jesus, we must do so by looking for guidance from the Scriptures which Jesus trusted even in the smallest details (Mt 5:18). Thus, the Chicago statement remains an effective and useful reminder that we cannot and should not hold a low view of Scripture in glaring contradiction to the high view Christ held.

Bruce Riley Ashford is Provost and Professor of Theology & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Those humble and faithful leaders who gathered together in Chicago in the fall of 1978, in order to defend the doctrine of scripture, saw our current cultural moment coming. They realized that the forces of “Biblical Criticism”, “Situational Ethics” and “Analytical Philosophy” were a major threat to the Church’s affirmation of the authority of scripture. Recent research on how American’s engage the Bible present an overwhelmingly undeniable fact that Evangelicals cannot ignore.

We no longer live in a nation that believes the Bible. This was evidence by the stunning report produced by Lydia Saad for Gallup news, which revealed that only 24% of Americans believe that the Bible is the Word of God. The predictable effect of this lack of trust in and engagement with scripture is heretical belief within the church and a rise of atheism in the broader culture. When this phenomenon is examined through the lens of particular generational segments, it paints a bleak picture for the trajectory of America’s future spiritual condition. This is problematic for the Church for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which, is the impact that lack of belief is scripture has on our ethics, evangelism, mission and the way that we Christians will live out our daily lives before a watching world.

As a Pastor, my heart burns to see believers who are shaped by God’s word in both their doctrine and practice. I yearn to see a generation of men and women who exhibit orthodoxy and praxis. The only inoculation against the virus of worldliness is heavy dose of God’s word, mixed with faith in its inerrancy. This is why I affirm that the framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy got it right, when they reminded their generation of the words of Martin Luther that, “the scriptures do no err.” On this anniversary of the CSBI, it is time for a new generation to take up their mantle and once again proclaim and protect the precious legacy of the ICBI and the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy.

Chris Brooks is the senior pastor of Evangel Ministries, Dean at Moody Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan, and a host on Moody Radio.

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Reflecting on the work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in the late 1970s has once again led to me recognize how significant that work was for that particular time. Thinking about the statement again from this vantage point helps us all to see how far reaching was the impact and influence of those efforts.

I believe that the work known as the Chicago Statement provided essential convictional affirmations in addition to much-needed clarification regarding the inspiration, truthfulness, and authority of Holy Scripture. In a time of confusion within the broader evangelical context as well as among many key denominations, the ICBI statement could not have been more timely, helpful, or informative.

The leaders and theologians who came together to pen that extremely important statement and are to be commended for their conviction as well for their insightful abilities to communicate well the foundational theological commitments contained in the document. We now find ourselves four decades later with similar questions swirling about in both denominational contexts as well as in the larger global evangelical community.

While there may be some aspects of the carefully-worded statement that need updating or further clarification, the essential truths affirmed by the Statement on Biblical Inerrancy continue to provide a wise, thoughtful, and helpful compass for our 21st century world. This anniversary year provides opportunity for many of us not only to reflect and to give thanks for the 1978 statement, but also to reaffirm these vitally important truths for our day.

David Dockery is President, Trinity International University/Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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The genius of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is that it outlines the infallible and sure ground of the church’s authority, while acknowledging the need for careful attention to the Bible’s “claims and character as a human production.” This means that the Bible is not primarily a history of human religious experience nor merely a book of propositions magically dropped from the heavens.  It requires us to engage it with our minds and hearts, with both rationality and devotion. This means, naturally, that people of equal commitment to its authority will differ here and there–but that is no cause for worry. For the Bible itself teaches us to entertain one another’s views with charity, and assumes that in the push and pull of debate about the meaning of a given passage, the Holy Spirit will reveal to the church God’s truth.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

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To the symposium’s double question, my answer is Yes and Yes. The Chicago statement articulated a Christian view of Scripture, and, whatever refinements and elaborations may be necessary, it should remain a touchstone for Evangelicals.

We must be cured of the instinct to recoil at being mistaken for Fundamentalists.

The statement on hermeneutics is less satisfying. Given their circumstances, the authors were right to focus on the “propositional” and “factual” content of Scripture.

But Scripture’s speech acts aren’t always indicative; its truth isn’t simply correspondence to fact.

Yes, we believe Scripture’s factual claims are factual. We also obey Scripture’s commands, sing its songs, tremble at its threats, trust its promises, delight in its beauties, which manifest the beauty of the Author.

And if we confess plenary verbal inspiration, we should expect every jot and tittle to be significant – not just factually, but as God’s word to equip us for every good work.

So we ask: Why did David pick up five smooth stones? Why these dimensions for the ark of the covenant, or the monumental cherubim of Solomon’s temple? Why did Jesus make mud to heal a man born blind? And on, and on.

The Spirit doesn’t waste His breath, and we should puzzle in the Spirit over Scripture’s riddles, the Spirit who gives the skill to untie knots and tunes our ears to hear every sweet tone in the Bridegroom’s love song.

The Chicago statement drives us to reckon afresh with premodern readings of Scripture. It doesn’t justify a thin literalism, but pushes in the opposite direction, toward imaginative fundamentalism, toward fundamentalist catholicity.

Peter Leithart, President, Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama

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Forty is a biblically significant number. It’s usually the duration of time—in days or years—of arduous tests or judgment events. The rains of the flood fell for forty days. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Jesus fasted for forty days before His temptation. Forty years have now passed since the publication of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and it’s fair to say the intervening decades have seen a large-scale trial in the church, specifically over the Bible.

The drafters of the Chicago Statement emphasized the nuts and bolts of Scripture’s inspiration establishing key facts like the inerrancy of the autographs alone, and how this breathes life into the tasks of translation and textual criticism, rather than undermining them. They also stressed the importance of the full scope of the Bible’s inerrancy. “Infallibility,” though necessarily implying inerrancy, had paradoxically been restricted by many to include only “matters of faith and morals,” thus accommodating—conceding, really—to higher critical, scientific and archaeological challenges to Scripture. In effect, this divorced the Bible from history. Its story was not the story of our world, but of a Hebrew dreamtime cooked up in the imaginations of unknowable post-exilic writers with useful spiritual maxims to offer. This, as J. Gresham Machen argues magnificently in “Christianity and Liberalism,” is not the historic Christian faith, whatever his own inconsistencies on the matter may have been.

But in the years since the Chicago Statement was drafted and signed, the fiercest attacks on the authority of the Bible have come not from those determined to show that Joseph never existed, let alone wore a rainbow coat, but those who want to drape a rainbow flag over Christian ethics.

Inerrancy is important because infallibility had frequently been restricted to matters of faith and morals.

The Bible tells the real story of the world.

Inerrant Scripture will not allow you to pick and choose what you like. It has veto power. It can force you to change. If your faith never challenges you, has no authority, is it really worth believing

G. Shane Morris is a Senior Writer for The Colson Center for Christian Worldview

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The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy is one of those truly remarkable moments in church history where God’s hand moved the collective hearts of his people to correct a potentially mortal drift away from truth and back to his eternal will. At the time, more “malleable” understandings of scripture were trending throughout the Church, holding sway over how God’s people interacted with the Bible. It was in this growing cloud of skepticism and doubt that nearly 300 of the brightest and most devoted Christian minds in the world set about righting the doctrinal ship. Had they known how important their time together would ultimately be – just three days in total – I’m certain they would have devoted months to the task. We’ll never know just how many pastors and lay people rediscovered the power, stability and certainty in the promises of God because of this monumental work.

It goes deeper still. The writers and signatories went out of their way to highlight the work of the Holy Spirit, affirming His sole and leading role in the writing of the Bible. The drafters left zero room to speculate over the role human authors played in the original writing of scripture, and yet wisely affirmed the possibility of transmissional, translational and interpretational errors or shortcomings. By stating so much so boldly about their confidence in the book upon which their faith was built, while simultaneously limiting the extent of their declarations, the Chicago Statement became a model of not only intellect and acumen, but also grace and humility.

Now 40 years removed from the drafting of this ambitious document, it’s fair to wonder what might have become of God’s church without its clarion call back to the inerrancy, and therefore the authority, of scripture.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, executive producer of The Impossible with 20th Century Fox, and bestselling author of “Shake Free.” He has been named by CNN and Fox News as “the leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement” and TIME Magazine nominated him among the 100 most influential leaders in America.

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The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy stands as a robust defense of a biblically faithful doctrine of Holy Scripture.

While disputes about the full truth of God’s Word are as old as the Garden of Eden, a “Battle for the Bible” raged throughout the 1970s. This was the culmination of debates that began with the liberal assault on biblical authority in Germany in the 1800s and then spread to Britain and America. The Chicago Statement is the celebration of a widespread evangelical consensus that emerged as a result of these debates: the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the original autographs.

To this day, the Chicago Statement remains the clearest summary of what biblical inerrancy means (and doesn’t mean). It has exercised a large positive influence at Wheaton College and other academic institutions by defining theological terms, dispelling false caricatures, making reasoned arguments, and offering biblical examples that give greater substance to the commitment to biblical inerrancy that faculty members make every year when they re-affirm their doctrinal commitments.

Although the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is sometimes criticized for naïve literalism, it holds its own in recent debates on biblical interpretation. The pastors and theologians who drafted the original statement in 1978 were especially wise to recognize the importance of hermeneutics, as they did with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics in 1982. Taken together, these two statements are more than useful and effective: they help us maintain evangelical orthodoxy with respect to the doctrine of Scripture.

Philip Ryken serves as the President of Wheaton College

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Forty years ago, Evangelicals faced a crisis of authority, beginning to drift away from the biblicism that defined our evangelical movement. A disturbing trend began to emerge in seminaries that questioned biblical authority, and the centrality of the Scriptures to speak to all of life with the special truth of Jesus.

The impact of the statement was significant, crystalizing for many what before had been ambiguous. Moreover, partly because it brought together a wide swatch of evangelical traditions, it served to unify evangelicals around a common formulation of their belief about scripture. As such, it became a plumb line document, helping evangelicals to describe and defend a shared belief.

Overlooked by some of its modern detractors, the statement also carefully outlined what inerrancy was not. In doing so, its authors sought to correct mischaracterizations of inerrancy common at the time. It was not merely a defense of the term inerrancy, but rather a defense of the concept of inerrancy as central to understanding scripture’s authority and veracity.

Just as the serpent Genesis 3:1, so many people still ask, “Did God really say?” Thus, it is important—essential even—that organizations, seminaries, churches and more have a place to say, “We believe God really did say” and describe how we believe He said those things. Furthermore, it is a place to say, “We believe that God’s word is inerrant—and this is what we mean by that.”

Thus, the Chicago statement still matters today.

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism, Executive Director, Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College

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The Chicago Statement was extraordinarily effective in this mission. If you take the two statements–the first on inerrancy, the second (often overlooked) on hermeneutics–you are left with a sound summation of biblical teaching on the total truthfulness of the Word of God. No statement is perfect, and Chicago is of its time (it could say more on the way speech is used by biblical agents, for example), but it is a statement worthy of honor and adoption.

Any school that wishes to signal its rock-ribbed commitment to the Bible does well to embrace in formal terms the Chicago Statement. The Word of God in both Testaments–Old and New–is inspired, inerrant, trustworthy, and profitable for the believer, the church, and the Christian institution. Chicago captures eloquently, and we need it now as much as ever, when the Old Testament is rendered abiblical by some and the New Testament’s sexual ethics are softened by others.

Owen Strachan PhD is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of “Reenchanting Humanity: Biblical Anthropology for the 21st Century” (B&H Academic, 2019).

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Ideas and actions are rightly measured by their consequences. By that measure, the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is one of the most important efforts of its kind in the 20th century.

In the 1970s, historically orthodox Christian bodies – including Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists – had become theologically diseased. This disease often manifested itself in arguments over moral issues, including sexuality. However, the root cause of this disease was uncertainty, a lack of clarity, regarding the authority of scripture.

The Chicago Statement eliminated that confusion and provided necessary clarity. It plainly defined terms. What is inerrancy? What is literalism? What, specifically, does an adherence to inerrancy affirm and deny? Why is maintaining inerrancy so vital? These vexing questions and many more were answered authoritatively in the Chicago Statement.

As such, the Chicago Statement became, for many, a guide for those fighting for their churches. Some denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, affirmed biblical inerrancy and pulled itself back from the brink of schism and heterodoxy. Others, including the Episcopal Church, rejected inerrancy and have since devolved into irrelevancy and theological chaos.

The United States has tens of thousands of denominations and church bodies, so exceptions can be found for every generalization. But, in general, those churches that affirmed biblical inerrancy during that era have prospered, and those that have not have declined in number and influence.

For those churches that affirmed biblical inerrancy, the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy provided a firm place on which to stand. This generation of evangelicals is the first of what will be many, if the Lord tarries, who will look back on the drafters and signers of that consequential statement will, with gratitude, call them “blessed.”

Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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