Published as "The Gist of the Inerrancy Conflict"

in Baptists Today January 9, 1993

by Dr. Bruce Prescott

When two persons engage in heated argument, more often than not, they speak but do not communicate.  They either talk to one another without listening or listen without understanding.  On November 12, 1992 Texas Baptists heard messages from both sides of a family feud.  Both sermons were spoken with certainty and conviction but little was communicated.  Neither side listened with understanding to what the other one had to say.

Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Church in Dallas preached a simple, direct and forceful sermon about the need to rebuild some walls of "biblical separation."  His text was Nehemiah 6:1-3 where Nehemiah was encouraged by men to "come down from his work rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem." They wanted to get him to compromise the "great work" that God called him to do.  "Don't be so fanatical," these men were saying.   "Come down to meet us half way on the plain of Ono."  Then Nehemiah did the only thing a man of God can do when tempted to compromise.  He said, "Oh, No! to Ono."  Graham emphasized, "Certain items are non-negotiable . . . we must build walls around these."  At the climax of his sermon he held up his Bible and said, "We must not compromise the truth! . . . We cannot rethink what we believe about God's word."

Minutes later Dr. Robert Sloan, professor at Baylor University preached an insightful, comprehensive, and profound sermon about the gospel.   Taking Revelation 2:1-7 as his text, he warned that Baptists have left their first love, missions and evangelism, and are in danger of having their candle removed from among the seven golden candlesticks.  Early in his sermon Sloan strongly emphasized that he was not a liberal and had subscribed "to the Chicago statement on inerrancy."   Sloan agreed that, "There are some things worth arguing and fighting about, but we so often spill blood at the wrong altar."  "Paul," he said, "disputes and fights over a distortion of the gospel."  Sloan then provided a simple summary of the process of writing and canonizing the NT and a consummate survey of the NT proclamation.  He concluded with an appeal that Baptists stop fighting with one another and start giving up their rights for the sake of the gospel.

Most messengers heartily affirmed both sermons and were probably unable to detect any significant theological difference between them.  There were, however, profound divergences.

The most obvious difference is a matter of personal and professional style.  Graham is a good preacher.   He simplifies an issue, provides a memorable image, and minimizes the amount of thought required by the listener. He employed the clear and distinct image of a concrete and tangible wall.  He used catchy phrases that resonated with emotional conviction and dogmatic certainty.  He spoke to the heart. The heart is where the ear is located for most of the people in the pews.  A week later most messengers will remember Graham's wall and his uncompromising battle cry, "Say no to Ono!"

Slogan, on the other hand, is a good scholar.   Scholars refuse to reduce complex issues to simple images.  They require their listeners to exercise their minds.  He offered the shadowy and symbolic image of a flickering candlestick.  He presented careful research and then made a reasonable appeal to be reconciled for the sake of the gospel.  He spoke to the head.  The head is where students in the classroom learn to relocate their ears.  A week later even good students will remember little of his sermon except for his affirmation of inerrancy. 

The church needs both the head and the heart, both preacher and scholar.  But, for more than a decade, our foremost pulpits have been forcing Baptists to choose the one or the other.  When it comes to a vote most Baptists will follow the preacher.

Sloan failed to communicate his message for two reasons.   First, he spoke above the heads of all but a few of his listeners.  Only informed listeners could perceive that the import of his sermon was to undermine the intellectual underpinnings of fundamentalism.  Only they would know that fundamentalists deny that the work of evangelism and missions can be conducted apart from common faith in an inerrant bible.  That is why Graham is concerned with building a wall of "biblical separation."  The fundamentalist builds walls both to preserve the Bible and to exclude from fellowship those who deny its inerrancy.

Dr. Sloan focused on the crucial issue dividing the SBC.   Fundamentalists have persistently excluded and refused to compromise with all who dissent from their view of scripture.  Sloan knows that the premises on which they base their actions are demonstrably false.  The facts concerning the dating and canonization of the New Testament prove that the early church evangelized with nothing more, and nothing less, than the word of proclamation.  If the early church could evangelize without the benefit of a written text, then nothing should hinder Baptists from cooperating in missions without the benefit of uniform opinions about the biblical text.   Sloan was making a crucial point.  Unfortunately, only the theologically astute could begin to fathom the point he was making.

The second mistake Sloan made was to send conflicting signals.  He loudly proclaimed his adherence to inerrancy while preaching against a major premise of modern Baptist fundamentalism.  Sending conflicting signals is a shortcoming characteristic of Southern Baptist scholarship.  It stems from a failure of nerve.  This timidity is understandable.  Every scholar bold enough to challenge the doctrine of inerrancy has been targeted for termination.  Under the circumstances, many prudent scholars have decided to affirm scriptural inerrancy while undermining its foundations.  As they see it, there is no other way to have a voice.   Unfortunately, only the intelligent and well studied have the intellectual resources to grasp their underlying message.  The average minister and layman get lost in the clouds with only the foghorn of inerrancy to guide their way.

Jack Graham spoke a message from God to our scholars that they need to hear.   He spoke to the heart.   He condemned all weakness and vacillation on the most crucial issue that confronts men.  Graham was absolutely right when he said, "We cannot compromise the truth! 

Graham was absolutely right and Graham was absolutely wrong.  He was wrong because he is mistaken about the meaning of truth.  He held up the Bible and said "We cannot compromise the truth!"  For him, the Bible is the truth and that is wrong.  The Bible is not the truth.  It is a witness to the truth.  Truth is not paper and ink. Truth is vibrant and alive.  Truth is not words and sentences and propositions.  Truth is personal.  Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the father but through me."  Jesus is "the Truth.  That is "the Truth" that cannot be compromised.  And that is the truth that fundamentalists have compromised.

Sloan demonstrated this in his survey of NT preaching.   The gospel is not a message about the authority of the Bible.  The gospel is the good news about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  Paul did not preach to convince men to affirm inerrancy.  He said, "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." 

Both sides have compromised the truth.  Moderates have failed to challenge the heresy of inerrancy.  They condemn mean spirits, lack of cooperation, and inequitable distribution of positions of power.  Few have openly challenged inerrancy.   Put simply inerrancy is idolatry.  Modern idols are much more sophisticated than the ancient idols of wood and stone.   But, they still serve to divert devotion from the one true God.

Since inerrancy is idolatry, to condone it is to compromise the gospel.  Inerrancy is idolatry because it takes words that are appropriately ascribed only to God and applies them to the Bible. 

Inerrancy is merely a negative way of affirming perfection.  Indeed many fundamentalists prefer to call the Bible perfect.   Perfection, however, is an attribute that should be reserved for God and God alone.   Our Lord himself said as much.  When the rich young ruler asked, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?  Jesusí immediate response was, "Why do you call Me good?  No one is good except God alone.  If God alone should be called "good, then God alone should be called perfect.

There is something ironic about the passage I just quoted.   Christians do call Jesus good.  We believe he was sinless and perfect.    And, because we believe these things, we believe that Jesus was God himself in the form of a man.  After Christians had made this confession and received the gift of Godís Spirit, theologians reflected on these experiences and formulated the doctrine of the trinity.

The word trinity is not in the Bible it is a word men coined to explain Godís revelation of himself.  The word inerrant is not in the Bible either.  It is a word men coined to explain the authority of the Bible.

Men have described the Bible with the same words that they have used to describe Jesus.  The Bible calls Jesus the "Word of God."   Men call the Bible "the Word of God."  The Bible says that Jesus was "tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."  Men say the Bible is "without error in any area of reality." The Bible calls Jesus perfect.  Men call the Bible perfect. The Bible says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved. Men say, "Believe the inerrancy of the Bible or you cannot believe in Jesus at all."

This last point that is the most telling.  It proves that the Bible has become an idol.

Why do they hold so tenaciously to the doctrine of inerrancy?   Ask them and, sooner or later, they will tell you that it is impossible to have faith in Christ if the Bible could be proven to be in error at any point.   At bottom, for inerrantists, you have to put your faith in the book before you can have faith in Jesus. 

The question is not whether the Bible is full of errors.   It isn't.  The question is whether the Bible has been made into an idol.   It has.

What has happened is that the Bible has become a mediator between God and man.  And that is idolatry.  Paul wrote "There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.  The Bible cannot be made equal with God and Jesus.  And that is what they have done.  In the end, if they followed the logic of their own thought, they would confess their faith in a quaternity instead of the Trinity. They worship God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Bible.

Fundamentalists are not the only ones to set up idols.   Moderates have their own idols.  They have made the cooperative program and the denomination an idol.  Most will suffer the fundamentalists their idol if they can hold on to their own. 

God has called us to do more than tear down idols.   We must leave something in their place.  What then can we affirm about the Bible?  What gives it its authority in our lives?   Godís Spirit gives the Bible its authority.  He is the one who makes it come alive in our hearts.

The Bible never claims to be perfect or inerrant, but it does claim power and authority.  What the Bible claims for itself is "unvoidability.  Isaiah 55:11 says, "So shall My word be that goeth forth out of my mouth, it shall not return unto me void." (KJV)  The words of scripture are unvoidable because the Spirit gives them life.  With the Spirit, the Bible becomes more than an accurate record of historical events and religious facts.   Those only requires the assent of my intellect.  When the Spirit moves, the word comes alive in my heart.  That requires me to commit my life.  Then the Bible becomes a place where God speaks to me.  It is the ground on which I stand. It is the world in which I live.

When the Bibleís power and authority is properly understood, the image of men building a wall around it to protect it is pathetic.   The Bible needs no puny wall to preserve it.  Walls can only protect insecure and timid men from the world.  God commands us to come out from behind our walls to confidently and boldly proclaim his word to the world.

Not until moderates and Fundamentalists alike begin to do that, will Baptists truly see the power of Godís Word.


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