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. Pressure to compromise the traditional understanding of the human person, of marriage, and of sexuality has swept churches, seminaries, and entire denominations along with the cultural tide. Same-sex couplings are licit, they say. God gave homosexual orientation as a gift. Jesus did away with the archaic law codes of the Old Testament and never even mentioned the issue over which our culture’s fiercest battles now rage. And Paul wasn’t talking about my understanding of gay love. Using these pretexts, liberal theologians and writers have offered revisionist understandings of inerrancy that make room for what was once sin to be admitted and even blessed, or have jettisoned altogether the idea of biblical inspiration in any recognizable form.
The Chicago Statement has proved an essential seawall against this surge, anchoring the Southern Baptist Church’s efforts to secure their own traditional beliefs, for example. And this is the way creeds, confessions, and doctrinal statements have always functioned. They become necessary precisely when the truths they reaffirm have come under attack. They also frequently take up unpopular or even counterintuitive positions. They must. Because if Christian doctrine can be whatever we want it to be, then we are left with a religion of our own making, not a revealed faith. And if the Bible never tells us anything that makes us uncomfortable or pushes back against the ebb and flow of culture, then it can never change us, it has no authority, and we are of all people most to be pitied.
Thank God that the Bible does have the authority to force us to change our beliefs and behavior–to tell us things we don’t like. And thank God that this core Christian truth was reaffirmed forty years ago in the Chicago Statement.