A brief history of a controversy over the Bible in America, since the 1970s. I offer my view of Scripture, at the end.
Neo-Charismatics, Charismatics and Pentecostals—all Renewalists—have a range of beliefs about the Bible. Some insist on its inerrancy and / or infallibility in some categories, like doctrine and practice. Some say it’s wide open and let’s not impose foreign categories on a library of books (the Bible is a library). Others say all of Scripture is inerrant and infallible, even down to the very syllables. Between those views along a spectrum, we can find a compromise that is suitable to most (or let’s hope).
Controversy about the Bible and inerrancy
From my limited perspective, let’s look at nine recent historical stages and several Statements of Faith about Scripture.
This article also partly keeps track of my journey through the battle for the Bible.
First, seven theologians, none leaders in the Renewal (as far as I can tell), held a conference on the Bible’s inerrancy in 1973. The outcome was the book God’s Inerrant Word, edited by John Warwick Montgomery. The seven contributors to the book signed a statement called the Ligonier Statement, presumably after the town where they met in Pennsylvania, as follows:
We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God. We hold the Bible, as originally given through the agents of revelation, to be infallible and see this as a crucial article of faith with implications for the entire life and practice of all Christian people. With the great fathers of Christian history, we declare our confidence in the total trustworthiness of Scriptures, urging that any view that imputes to them a lesser degree of inerrancy than total, is in conflict with the Bible’s self-testimony in general and with the teachings of Jesus Christ in particular. Out of obedience to the Lord of the Church we submit ourselves unreservedly to his authoritative view of Holy Writ.
John M. Frame, John H. Gerstner, Peter R. Jones, John Warwick Montgomery, James I. Packer, Clark H. Pinnock, R. C. Sproul (emphasis added)
The key word is total. Using inerrant and infallible, it is a very robust statement and requires us to believe that the Bible is accurate in all matters, in every single details about history and science.
The second stage comes from Renewal theologian J. Rodman William, who was the founding president and taught systematic theology at Melodyland School of Theology (MST) from 1972 to 1982, when he moved to Regent School of Divinity in Virginia Beach (he retired in 2001 and died in 2008). He knew John Warwick Montgomery and surely knew about the new book referenced in the previous point. Williams was a leader in the Charismatic Renewal Movement. He wrote a three-volume systematic theology called Renewal Theology from a charismatic point of view, totaling over 1300 pages. In all of those pages he does not have one chapter or even one section of a chapter defending or explaining the total inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible, though he does say it is infallible and trustworthy (see particularly vol. 1, pp. 22-25). True, he deeply respected it throughout those pages and referred to and quoted it often and believed all Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), but he apparently did not feel the need or the social pressure to insist on “total inerrancy and infallibility.”
Third, this stage does not offer a statement of faith, but this step is very important, nonetheless. Harold Lindsell served as editor of Christianity Today and before then taught at Columbia International University, Northern Baptist Seminary, Wheaton College, and Fuller Seminary, where he served as Dean and Vice President. In 1976 he wrote a seminal book, The Battle for the Bible: Defending the Inerrancy of Scripture. In a parade of horribles, he sketched out various church denominations that left inerrancy behind and then allowed in all sorts of bad doctrines and immoral practices. In addition, he wrote appendices harmonizing difficult passages in the four Gospels. One of them insisted that Peter denied Jesus six times (instead of three). The book became a laughingstock, even before the worldwide web existed. Far from helping churches to embrace total inerrancy and infallibility, they chuckled and moved forward without the total requirement. In the 2008 reissue of the book, they omitted the appendices.
Fourth, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy was issued in 1978, in which Prof. Montgomery was also involved. Most of its signatories were not leaders in the Renewal Movement at the time (as far as I can tell). Article XII serves as an example of the spirit of the long statement:
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
The Bible’s teaching about creation and the flood and science generally needs much more clarification for that article to be sustained. It is now a DNA fact, for example, that Adam and Eve were not the only pair on earth and were late arrivals if they are dated about 10,000 years ago. Gen. 1-5 and Rom. 5:12-21 need reinterpretation. (See my post 3. Adam and Evolution: Five Options).
Fifth, the Vineyard USA, a consortium of churches that began in the late 1970s and therefore belonging to the Neo-Charismatic Renewal Movement, says this about the Bible in its statement of faith from a kingdom-of-God perspective, as follows:
We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the human authors of Holy Scripture so that the Bible is without error in the original manuscripts. We receive the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments as our final, absolute authority, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
The statement includes the words without error and infallible, but not total. Belief in the inerrancy of the no-longer existing, original manuscripts reflect the American context. The Vineyard had run into severe (and unjust) criticism in the early 1990s, leveled by harsh fundamentalists and restrictive theologians, so the Vineyard leaders had to engage more academic members to reply to the charges (I was there, but just a bystander). No doubt that distasteful interaction influenced the wording in their very cautious statement or influenced its approval by Vineyard leaders.
The Forward of Vineyard’s Core Values and Beliefs amplifies the statement, endorsing the creeds of the first four hundred years and highlighting “all matters of faith and practice”:
The Bible is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. However, since the Bible is a diverse collection of narrative stories, poetry, law, and letters, it is helpful to summarize its teaching in a concise form that can be comprehended by both those deeply rooted in the church and those who have little exposure to the Bible. This is the historical function that the ancient universal church creeds played in the first four hundred years of Christ-centered faith.
That above statement seems generous and open-minded, without insisting on total inerrancy and infallibility.
Sixth, Hillsong Church belongs to the Australian Christian Churches (ACC), a consortium of over 1000 Pentecostal churches and 375,000 constituents. Hillsong is currently impacting America (and elsewhere) and was permitted to start its own television channel in June 2016, called Hillsong Channel, formerly the Church Channel, under the aegis of Trinity Broadcast’s Network’s family of networks. Here is the statement of faith both by Hillsong and the ACC about Scripture:
We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. It is accurate, authoritative and applicable to our everyday lives.
It is brief and does not insist on total inerrancy and infallibility, but it uses the word accurate. So it advocates a minimal, but respectful belief in Scripture. They did not give in to or were not at all involved in the American controversy (as far as I know), fortunately. This apparent noninvolvement is remarkable because in 2005 the World Assembly of God Fellowship met in Sydney, Australia, and issued a statement of faith, which was revised in 2011 in Chennai, India (Yong, p. 359). It is also conservative.
Seventh, this brings us to the World Assembly of God Fellowship’s Statement of Faith, which reads:
We believe that the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible and authoritative rule of faith and conduct. Divine inspiration extends equally and fully to all parts of the original writings, insuring their entire trustworthiness (1 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:21).
That article is awfully close to total inerrancy and infallibility: “fully.”
Eighth, Regent School of Divinity was part of CBN University, founded in 1977, when the name was changed to Regent University in 1990. The School of Divinity’s statement of faith about Scripture reads:
That the Holy Bible is the inspired, infallible and authoritative source of Christian doctrine and precept.
That statement is short and omits any discussion or demand for total inerrancy and infallibility in history and science, but Scripture is infallible in matters relating to doctrine and Christian life.
Ninth and finally, we again go back in time. In the 1980s, Southern California College, now known as Vanguard University of Southern California, and affiliated with the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, went through its own debate over inerrancy. The religion faculty rejected the strict and total inerrancy requirement. (I was there also, but as a bystander.) Today, here is the school’s statement about Scripture:
We believe the Bible to be the inspired and only infallible and authoritative Word of God.
So neither does it include total inerrancy and infallibility.
In those examples Renewal churches tend to be much more “relaxed” about total inerrancy and infallibility, while conservative theologians tend to be more restrictive and insistent. The unnecessary and disruptive controversy happened mostly here in America (as far as I know).
Personal Statement about Scripture
Building on those diverse Statements of Faith about Scripture, this is my personal one:
The Bible is the inspired, authoritative, historically reliable, and accurate Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith, doctrine, precept, and practice.
That is a fair statement of the Bible’s overarching themes and purposes, after the collation and sifting through the manuscripts that we hold in our hands today, without depending or focusing on the no-longer existing autograph manuscripts. The first part is therefore based on induction, not deduction. That is, the descriptors “reliable and accurate” come from the evidence outside of the Bible and confirms it (e.g. Jerusalem really is located in the South, and Galilee in the North; and Assyria and Babylon really invaded ancient Israel and Judea). On the other hand, the descriptors “inspired and authoritative” are deductive or comes from the Scriptures’ self-testimony. The Scriptures are “God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).
If, however, some historical and scientific details and some verses in Scripture do not match up, then there is no need to reject the Bible. That would be over-reactive and simplistic. Therefore, there is no urgency to insert “total inerrancy or infallibility” in the statement. Global Renewalists actually live Scripture and its power. This belief and practice explains why the Pentecostal Movement and Charismatic and Neo-Charismatic Renewal are the fastest growing sectors in the global church.
To explain the second half of the statement, the Spirit inspired the authors of the Bible, so it is an infallible guide to teach the Church what she needs for faith and practice, for guidance, for moral and personal growth in Christ, and for its basic doctrines: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). There is nothing in those verses about total inerrancy and infallibility in history and science.
See my post: 13. Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
And 2 Tim. 3:16-17 is broad enough to include the world. The Bible is a universal and relevant communication to people outside the Church, so they too can enjoy a salvific and relational knowledge with the Father, in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
Therefore I urge all Christians not to regard the Bible lightly, but to see it as still inspired, infallible (for doctrine and Christian life and morals), reliable, accurate, authoritative, relevant, and applicable.