Forty years ago, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (hereafter LCMS) was in an uproar. Its Saint Louis seminary president, John Tietjen, was suspended in the January 20, 1974 meeting of the seminary’s Board of Control. On January 21st the majority of the seminary students declared a “moratorium” on classes and the majority of the faculty went on strike. This resulted in the well-known “walk-out” of most of the faculty and students on February 19th, viewed on broadcast television throughout the United States. Subsequently the majority of students and faculty formed the “Seminex” seminary, graduating its first class on May 24, 1974. Two years later, in December 1976, the “Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches” (AELC) was formed with 250 former LCMS congregations and with “Seminex” as its partner seminary and guiding light.
What was the issue in this intense church struggle? The doctrinal issue was expressed at the 1973 LCMS convention when it adopted Resolution 3-01, which included a resolved to accept “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (hereafter “1973 Statement”) as the expression of “the Synod’s position on current doctrinal issues.” What was the result of this struggle within the LCMS? The standard reference work by E.T. & M.B. Bachmann, Lutheran Churches in the World: A Handbook (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) states that by means of the departure of the Seminex faculty and the AELC, as well as the severing of fellowship with the ALC, the LCMS ’reclaimed its historic confessional stance on the doctrine of the authority of Scripture’ and reaffirmed its ban on the ordination of women to the pastoral office.(ibid., p. 607).
“Biblical inerrancy” was the most contested idea and term in this struggle. Biblical inerrancy was affirmed absolutely, with plenary range and without qualification, in the 1973 Statement, which declared: We therefore believe, teach, and confess that since the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God, they contain no errors or contradictions but that they are in all their parts and words the infallible truth. We hold that the opinion that Scripture contains errors is a violation of the sola scriptura, for it rests upon the acceptance of some norm or criterion of truth above the Scriptures. We recognize that there are apparent contradictions or discrepancies and problems which arise because of uncertainty over the original text. (see This We Believe: Selected Topics of Faith and Practice in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod[St Louis: The LCMS, n.d., p. 78]; also see online ).
Conservative Protestants in the United States recognized that the struggle within the LCMS was similar to their own struggles. In 1978, four years after the “walk-out,” the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy adopted the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (see Normal L. Geisler, Inerrancy [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979], 493-502; also see online ). The 1978 Chicago Statement has become a reference point for the definition of “biblical inerrancy” among conservative Protestants and Evangelicals. But then I have recently noticed—due to a number of books by Evangelical publishers, articles by Evangelical journals, and indications in Evangelical institutions–that the Chicago Statement and “biblical inerrancy” is being ignored, considered passé, even attacked. What does this mean?
I cannot answer what this means for conservative Protestants and Evangelicals in America, since I do not participate in their conferences, conventions, or societies. But I can answer the question of what a rejection of “biblical inerrancy” means. It means that the Christian who attacks “biblical inerrancy” has uncritically accepted the arguments of Liberal Protestants; or maybe in some cases, has actually apostasized from the faith. I recognize that there are many laypeople in mainline and Evangelical churches who don’t affirm “biblical inerrancy” because they have never been taught it, or they don’t understand its significance. They affirm and believe in the saving faith as expressed in the three Christian creeds, and so for that reason are bona fide Christians.
My concern is with all people who reject or attack “biblical inerrancy” when its meaning has been properly explained, e.g., in the 1973 Statement or the 1978 Chicago Statement. Such people are not bona fide Christians, but Liberals.
I don’t mean “liberal” in the way it is commonly used as an adjective. I mean “Liberal” in the sense of a comprehensive philosophy of life that may include religious components. This is the definition of “Liberal” employed by Dr. Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary—New York and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. In his magisterial three-volume history of American Liberal Theology, Dorrien carefully defines the term “Liberal” in this way: Fundamentally [liberal theology] is the idea of a genuine Christianity not based on external authority. Liberal theology seeks to reinterpret the symbols of traditional Christianity in a way that creates a progressive religious alternative to atheistic rationalism and to theologies based on external authority (my emphases; see Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900 [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], xxiii).
Notice that Liberal theology is a third worldview, which Dorrien calls a “third way” between atheism and traditional Christianity (ibid., xxi). Liberal theology rejects external religious authority, i.e., it rejects the authority of the Pope, of Patriarchs, of creeds and confessions, of church councils, of church fathers, and especially of the Bible. In this respect, the 1973 Statement was absolutely brilliant when it declared: “We hold that the opinion that Scripture contains errors is a violation of the sola scriptura, for it rests upon the acceptance of some norm or criterion of truth above the Scriptures.” The norm or criterion of truth for Liberal theology is the internal authority of the religious-person’s own mind, informed by the preaching of the Liberal preacher and scholarship of the Liberal professor. So according to the Liberal perspective, whatever the religious-person finds offensive, or disagreeable, or contradictory, or problematic in the Bible must be an error and rejected by definition. The idea of “Biblical inerrancy” is thus not just an affirmation of the quality of the Bible, but is really a rejection of the fundamental principle of the Liberal worldview.
Because of this historic-and-contemporary conflict in worldviews, i.e., between a Christian faith based on the external authority of Scriptures and the Liberal faith based on an internal authority, “Biblical inerrancy” has become the homoousion of the 20th and 21st centuries. It will never cease to be a dividing line, until the one worldview or the other collapses. Those Protestant churches which affirm the external authority of Scripture cannot abandon “Biblical inerrancy,” as explained either by the 1973 Statement (for Lutherans) or the 1978 Chicago Statement (for Evangelicals), without thereby actually adopting the Liberal religious worldview in whole or in part. And such a worldview is not Christian.