Inerrancy: Does It Really Matter?

People with different theological leanings might find the question in the title of this post a silly one for a couple of different reasons. “Of course it doesn’t matter,” some would say, “All that matters is that the Bible is true when it speaks about issues of faith.” Others however, speaking from a more conservative viewpoint, would argue that inerrancy obviously does matter. “If the Bible has errors,” they would say, “where can we say the errors stop?” “If Genesis 1-11 is flawed, can we really trust John 3:16?”

Historically speaking, the question of whether or not inerrancy matters has been a significant one for the SBC. Unless the reader is new to the SBC, he or she will be aware that this very issue was pivotal in the battle for control of the convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century. While there were many other issues involved, and while there are exceptions to the following statement, those in the conservative and moderate camps (in the battle for the convention) can be generally classified as those who arrive at different answers to the inerrancy question. Conservative leaders strategically lighted upon the inerrancy issue, speaking and writing about its importance to lay Southern Baptists. This issue, perhaps more than any other, awakened a grassroots movement among Southern Baptists; Baptists began to show up in greater numbers at the annual convention, casting their votes for SBC presidential candidates who believed the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. If the reader will allow this grossly over-simplified historical retelling to continue, the plan among conservatives was that the newly elected conservative (and inerrantist) SBC president would make appointments which would lead over time to theological change at the level of our denominational entities (particularly at the six Southern Baptist seminaries). As history has demonstrated, this plan to recover our historical, biblical roots and preserve our convention’s theological heritage worked. All six Southern Baptist seminaries now teach their students that the Bible is inerrant and are sending out pastors, church leaders, and missionaries who are conveying that message to the people with whom they serve. Sadly, this could not have been said of all six seminaries in the years before the “Conservative Resurgence” took place. Of course, those on different sides of this issue have different feelings about this change in the convention. While some approvingly refer to this time in SBC history as the “Conservative Resurgence,” others, with a note of mournful disappointment, call it the “Fundamentalist Takeover.” [Just so there is no confusion, this author calls it the “Conservative Resurgence,” thinks the question of inerrancy is, to borrow from Judge Pressler, “A Hill on Which to Die,” and is eternally grateful to those who fought to keep our denomination from taking the path of theological liberalism tread by so many others]. No matter your position, what has taken place in our convention is a matter of historical record. Those interested in learning more about the “Conservative Resurgence” can do so by reading any number of books on the subject (see below for a few examples).

This way of understanding the question “Does Inerrancy Matter?” isn’t actually the point of this post. This post is not written with the goal of convincing non-inerrantists to switch camps and take an inerrantist position “because inerrancy matters.” I am writing to conservatives. I am writing to those who would affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I am writing to those who would say wholeheartedly “Inerrancy does matter!” And I am asking you the question, “Do you live like it matters?” I am convinced that if it really did matter to us like we say it does, we would do some things differently. I am convinced that we as Southern Baptists are not living, teaching, preaching, and worshipping like inerrancy matters to us.

Let me mention three key areas where I think we can do a better job of demonstrating that inerrancy matters to us and is indeed “A Hill on Which to Die”:

(1) Personal Bible Reading—We say we have a perfect Bible, with God as its ultimate author, and yet the number of those in our convention who have actually taken the time to read this perfect Bible in its entirety is relatively few. Does this fact jive with our belief in inerrancy? If it’s not perfect, maybe there are some parts we should skip? But if it’s perfect, and if 2 Timothy 3:16 is true and every single piece of Scripture is beneficial for us, then how can we not read it all? Yet many who take an inerrantist position on Scripture have read each volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy many times over but have never taken the time to read through the Bible even once. While our copies of Harry Potter have well-worn pages with tattered edges, our Bibles are in mint condition from want of use. Which book on our shelves does this practice suggest is the perfect one?

(2) Scripture Memory—The Bible we believe is perfect is filled with commands to hide God’s Word in our hearts. Even apart from such commands, since we believe that every verse in Scripture is intended for our spiritual well-being why would we not want to have as much of the Word as possible memorized? Yet I fear that accurate statistics on scripture memorization in the SBC would be even more alarming than statistics on Bible reading. Pastors, try this out in your next worship service. Ask every person in the congregation to rise. Then ask them to sit down if they cannot quote one verse (with its reference) for every year they have been a Christian. See how many you have left standing. Most likely, you will only have a handful for every hundred believers in your church. What does this say about how important we think our perfect Bibles are? Apparently we believe that since the Bible is perfect, it is perfect-ly fine for us to look up every verse we need when we need it.

(3) Preaching—How can a Southern Baptist congregation, that presumably believes in a perfect Bible, tolerate a sermon which barely mentions the Bible? I have heard, and heard of, Southern Baptist preachers constructing entire messages around the latest Christian book they’ve read or the latest forwarded email they received in their inbox. How did we as a convention get to a point where, in any of our churches, such behavior passes as “preaching” in any sense of the word? Preaching, as understood in Scripture, takes the Word as its subject matter. “Preachers” are tasked with explaining the meaning of Scripture so that their hearers can apply the Word to their lives (e.g. Neh 8:8). While this task of “explaining” will include the appropriate use of illustrative material, the subject matter of the sermon is never in doubt—it is the Word of God. Preaching anything but the Bible expresses either the height of arrogance (“I have something more valuable to say that what God has said”) or laziness (“It is easier to read this email and talk about it than to actually study the Scripture and find out what it says”). While this is a topic too large to expound fully at the close of this post, I would submit to you that expository preaching best matches a stated belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. The preacher who delivers an expository sermon in effect says to his hearers, “We have been given a perfect Bible. I don’t need to add anything to it; I just need to explain it. I will let the God-given text of Scripture determine my main point and my preaching outline (my supporting points). Why would I think I can organize this material any better than God and try to preach this passage some other way?” Sadly, while many in our denomination label themselves “expositors” their preaching could not be called “expository” by any conceivable definition. It is not enough to call yourself an “expositor;” you must actually “exposit” (uncover, lay bear) the text during your message to merit that self-designation. [For more on the connection between inerrancy and expository preaching, consider: John MacArthur, Jr., “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching,” in Rediscovering Expository Preaching, John MacArthur, Jr., ed. (Dallas: Word, 1992): 22-35.]

The battle our theological fathers fought for inerrancy was a difficult one. We should not give away the fruit of their victory so easily. We should continue to fight for inerrancy, because it really does matter—without a perfect Bible, we have an unsure epistemological foundation for our faith. But we must also live as if inerrancy matters. We must live under the realization that because the Bible is the inerrant Word of God it has absolute authority over our behavior as individuals, families, and churches. God has spoken to us and we are to listen and obey. We should read the Word, memorize the Word, and preach the Word as if we believe we have a perfect Word from the Lord—because we do!

–Scott S. Wilson

Recommended Resources on the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC:

-A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey, Paul Pressler

-The Truth in Crisis, 6 volumes, James C. Hefley

-The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Sutton

-Baptists and the Bible, L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles