Inerrancy and Its Impact on Evangelicalism: A Personal Reflection

For the month of November, the Banner of Truth has graciously allowed our readers a free download of The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church by David Wells. This was a prophetic address to the National Association of Evangelicals that holds great pertinence for Christians today.

When I was in grades 4–6, I was sure I liked Little League baseball and junior choir at church. I was sure that I needed to make a “profession of faith,” even though I remained clueless as to the true spiritual character of saving faith. When I was in Junior High (that is what it was called back then), I liked Babe Ruth baseball, youth choir, and being included in youth fellowships. Acceptance at church and conformity to the expectations of my teachers and beloved pastor became a driving internal motivation for me. When I was in High School, I liked basketball, all kinds of singing activities, learning public speaking, being in stage plays and musicals, and finding peers who wanted to live according to Christian moral standards and were interested in talking about the Bible.

The inspiration of the Bible had become vaguely an important issue through some news about the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message in connection with the full truthfulness of the book of Genesis. In college, I found, in God’s gracious providence, the girl who would become my beloved and faithful wife. Also, I searched for a satisfying spiritual experience of assurance (Watchman Nee had become an encouraging guide at that time) while doing all I could to avoid the philosophical skepticism that began to engulf my friends. Serving on a church staff for three years kept my mind in the Bible, and it gave me regular challenges to isolate the “spiritual key” that seemed to be eluding me. I was sure that the Christian faith was true, and that the Bible had to be God’s revelation of the way of true life. I was not sure that this true life was mine.

A Personal Assurance Through Regeneration

The summer after college, Margaret, God’s gift of a true mate, followed through with her commitment to marry me and we left for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. There I wanted to prepare for pastoral ministry, and in doing so I felt that I would find the answer to the years-long angst about spiritual assurance. Surely something that I would learn in a seminary class would tie up the loose ends that whipped around in my spirit every day. Classes were exhilarating. William Tolar’s Biblical Backgrounds, Tom Urrey’s first year Greek, Cal Guy’s Intro to Missions, and Roy Fish’s Personal Evangelism stirred me with a much-needed confidence about the faith and also further unsettled me as to the status of my own faith.

In the summer after the first year, while leading music in a revival meeting in Perrin, Texas, God opened my heart to see my sin and lostness, and he also showed me that Jesus had died to save sinners. That most basic reality had never been planted in my soul, and the Holy Spirit, as he had done for Lydia (Acts 16:14), opened my heart to see that truth and grasp Christ–as my only hope in life and death, as the forgiver of sins, and as the granter of righteousness.

The second year in seminary had a new aura of spiritual importance. Within a couple of months, God had shown me through Scripture and through historic Baptist confessions and theologies that the Doctrines of Grace were true (Calvinism!). Effectual calling was what had happened to me. Also, the issue of inerrancy had begun to rise to the top through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, the preaching of the nearby W. A. Criswell, the publication of volume 1 of the Broadman Commentary, the surprising denial of it on the part of some professors, and a lot of talks with Russ Bush.[1]

1. Editor’s Note: Dr. Nettles would eventually co-author Baptists and the Bible (1980), a book that greatly aided the Conservative Resurgence by showing how thoroughly Baptists had adhered to inerrancy in the past.

By the end of my second year of the M.Div program, I can testify, that by God’s grace I was undoubtful about the inerrancy of the Bible, convinced of the true canonicity of its sixty-six books, and becoming ready to articulate that position within a Convention where many leading figures were not ready to do the same. Also, the historic confessional commitment to a Baptistic Reformed soteriology was firmly implanted in my soul, important to my own witness, exegesis, spiritual perceptions, and academic pursuits; I had no idea that such a discussion could ever become of prominent interest in the Southern Baptist Convention at large or that broader evangelicalism would see a significant revival of this fascinating, soul-clearing, mind-invigorating, heart-riveting, and God-honoring view of biblical revelation.

A Biblical Conviction Spurred on a Conservative Resurgence

The Conservative Resurgence in Southern Baptist life followed along parallel lines—both in subject and in date—with the history of the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) and its 1978 Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. The issue of inerrancy became of paramount importance not only in Southern Baptist life but across evangelicalism in general as fundamental to the existence of Christianity in two interrelated ways.

1. The Bible presents the historical and gracious intervention of God into the solidarity of human rebellion and consequent condemnation.

2. The Bible necessarily included a revelation of the meaning of that intervention in the person and work of Christ.

Apart from such an ontological reality and the epistemological foundation for knowing its nature,[2] the knowledge of God would fade again into philosophical skepticism and the faith would be at the whim of every person’s disposition and prejudices. It had proven to be so under the decades-long surge of liberalism. In this way, inerrancy was not just an intellectual hobbyhorse, or an excuse to sharpen polemical swords, but a necessary commitment for obeying the injunction earnestly to contend for the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

2. Ontology relates to the nature of being: What is the essence of a thing? Epistemology relates to the nature of knowing: How do we know what we know?

The intense work of defending and defining inerrancy made all involved do some heavy lifting exegetically, theologically, and historically. Those disciplines, by their very nature, could not remain isolated only to a clear statement of the error-free nature of the Bible, but brought into the discussion other doctrinal, confessional, and historical issues. That John Wenham, author of Christ & The Bible, was not on the Executive Board or the Advisory Council of ICBI, indicates that some theological issues already were operative as criteria of consistent evangelicalism. It would not be right or productive, in fact, if the defense of inerrancy had remained the end goal of the entire time of serious contention. Inerrancy serves the purpose of producing and ever-expanding our knowledge of all that God has revealed. Doctrine, or truth in all its inter-related synthesis and coherence, was always the goal. We need the both.

One result of this doctrinal commitment in Southern Baptist discussions was the Calvinist/non-Calvinist debate. This was not at the epistemological level of the inerrancy debate, but nevertheless was so near the surface of the entire biblical revelation in its soteriological importance that, in this newly accented attention to the biblical text as an inspirationally-secured revelation from God, the subject could not be avoided. Add to that a renewed study of confessions, historical theology within a Baptist framework, and an emphasis on doctrinally-sound expository preaching, and the relevance of the discussion is immediately confirmed.

A Doctrinal Faith Requires Evangelicals to Contend for the Truth

Discussions regarding inerrancy and related doctrines should be an ongoing part of evangelical commitment. Although it is inviting to become battle weary and dismiss certain issues as inconsequential, any social or doctrinal proposition that impinges on the biblical revelation should draw out the sense of stewardship (1 Cor. 4:2). Such a defense of the faith is not peripheral for those who believe “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Eph. 1:13), it is central to a Christian’s calling, and especially central for a Christian teacher.

We cannot forsake, therefore, the discipleship of seeking clear statements, exegetically founded, coherently constructed, confessionally aware, and evangelically consistent on subjects that our place in history forces on us. We might not be as certain on some issues as we are on others, but we must be certain that God has called us to press ourselves to speak clearly and faithfully on pressing issues. Often the dynamic of disagreement effects greater clarity on both the substance and the level of importance of the issue. To this end, we want the grace of God to be among those of whom it is said, “Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:7).

Tom J. Nettles

Tom J. Nettles

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon. Tom and his wife Margaret are actively involved with the ministry of LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, Kentucky.