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Sproul and the Chicago Statement (Scripture Series)

Over the summer Arthur and I are trying to get our doctrine of Scripture sorted. It’s one of the questions we brought with us into college and being at such close proximity to the library, we figure now’s the time to do some reading! Over Christmas I finished R.C. Sproul’s Scripture Alone: The evangelical doctrine where he gets all excited about the Chicago Statement.

Basically, the Chicago Statement is a whole lot of evangelicals who got together in 1978 to defend the inerrancy (and infallibility, apparently they can’t be separated) of Scripture. But my big question remains: what is the inerrancy of Scripture? You see, Sproul denies that it means that the Bible has to be a textbook of physics (p.21). Instead, he says that “what the Bible teaches, it teaches infallibly.” In which case, you could make the argument that if a point of history, maths or science is not the main point of a text, it’s OK if it’s not ‘inerrant’ to our Western post-Enlightenment minds (though it may well have seemed ‘inerrant’ its time and culture).

However, Article XII of the Chicago Statement says:

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud or deceit.

We deny that biblical infallibility or inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.

OK, I’ll go along with this one. I can see how they’re trying to defend that the Bible isn’t just metaphor or religious guidance but has historical basis (for example, in the history of the Israelite people or the resurrection of Jesus). But wait for it, the second half of the ‘we deny’ statement:

We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

It’s at this point that I get a little uncomfortable. Because the term ‘teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood’ is just a little ambiguous for my liking. Yet, it’s in the context of affirming biblical scientific authority (not just spiritual authority) that this is mentioned, which implies that Gen 1 must have something scientific to say. All this sounds like there’s some sort of creation science agenda being pushed here. Which is only OK if the main point of Gen 1 is to outline a scientific theory (but I would argue otherwise). If this is the case, Sproul’s point about the Bible being infallible in terms of what it teaches is completely moot.

All this brings up the question of where the infallibility of the Bible meets interpretation. It’s all very well to say the ‘teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood’ is infallible, but what exactly is that teaching? Sproul doesn’t provide any hermeneutical pointers which is disappointing, and I suspect, highlights the weakness of his position.

Next up: James Dunn on intention and interpretation and therefore what we understand the word of God to be.

Categories: Bible Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

14 replies

  1. Article XIII, which follows the bit about creation and the flood, contains a negative statement about attending to what biblical texts are actually teaching. This might seem to set things right. Still, that bit about creation and the flood seems to come out of nowhere! (I find it somewhat disturbing that the young-Earth creationists Henry Morris and Duane Gish both signed the Statement.)

    But the big question for me, as you mention Tamie, is how do we get at what the texts are actually teaching? Reading matters immensely, and I don’t feel the Chicago Statement accounts for this where it ought to, even with Article XIII. The very absence of anything about this makes me suspicious of the statement. See these posts exploring the Chicago Statement (in reverse order). It’s a fascinating and challenging series!

    Incidentally, I notice that there has also been a Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (haven’t read it). I wonder if this gets us any further…

  2. A couple of interesting things:

    Firstly, I note that Sproul wrote that book in 2005. At that time, he was quite a strong proponent of the Framework Hypothesis as his interpretation of Genesis 1.

    In 2008, however, he changed his mind and is now an avowed young-Earth Creationist.

  3. Sorry, it was 2006.

    In his book “Truths We Confess”, he says:

    “For most of my teaching career, I considered the framework hypothesis to be a possibility. But I have now changed my mind. I now hold to a literal six-day creation, the fourth alternative [the other 3 being gap theory, day-age theory and the framework hypothesis] and the traditional one.”

    His views on the hermeneutics involved are also clear in that book:

    “According to the Reformation hermeneutic, the first option is to follow the plain sense of the text. One must do a great deal of hermeneutical gymnastics to escape the plain meaning of Genesis 1–2.” (p.127-128)

  4. “All this sounds like there’s some sort of creation science agenda being pushed here. Which is only OK if the main point of Gen 1 is to outline a scientific theory (but I would argue otherwise). If this is the case, Sproul’s point about the Bible being infallible in terms of what it teaches is completely moot.”

    and

    “I find it somewhat disturbing that the young-Earth creationists Henry Morris and Duane Gish both signed the Statement.”

    both seem to be quite polemic in tone. Why is that? It seems to me (although it’s possible I’ve misunderstood you) that while you’re not sure what the Bible *does* teach on Creation (and the flood?), you’re pretty sure you know what it *doesn’t* teach. Is this a fair assessment, and if so, why the rush to rule it out?

    (all of the above comments posted in love with no intentions of starting a fight, just a discussion :) )

  5. This only further clouds the water but I have to share a bit of Kierkegaard here:

    “The New Testament…regarded as a guide for Christians, becomes, under the assumption we have made, a historical curiosity, pretty much like a guidebook to a particular country when everything in that country has been totally changed. Such a guidebook serves no longer the serious purpose of being useful to travelers in that country, but at the most it is worth reading for amusement. While one is making the journey easily by railway, one reads in the guidebook, “Here is Woolf’s Gullet where one plunges 70,000 fathoms down under the earth”; while one sits and smokes one’s cigar in the snug cafe, one reads in the guidebook, “Here it is that a band of robbers has its stronghold, from which it issues to assault the travelers and maltreat them”; here it is, etc. Here it is; that is; here it was; for now (it is very amusing to imagine how it was), now there is no Woolf’s Gullet but the railway, and no robber band, but a snug cafe.”
    -Attack Upon “Christendom,” p. 111-

    Now, I definitely view scripture as more than mere amusement, as does Kierkegaard I’m sure. Sproul, though, is missing a central part of scripture reading which isn’t “What is the plain sense of the text,” but rather, “For what purpose was this text written.

    Even Calvin told us not to look to Scripture for explanations of science. If an oral tradition passed on from generation to generation until somebody like Moses wrote it down for insight into the heartbeat of God I have no problem viewing it as such. Genesis 1-2 does not have to be a literal explanation for it to be theologically significant, even imperative.

    I could try to garner the “plain sense” of Alice in Wonderland but if I started taking it literally I’d completely miss the deep commentaries on language and philosophical constructs Lewis Carroll is trying to portray and communicate through an otherwise sensational story.

    I love Genesis and believe it to be “true” but not literal.

  6. Hi Andy, thanks for raising this. :)

    We didn’t mean to be polemical, but were certainly surprised that what we expected to be a broad Protestant/evangelical statement went into creation science territory.

    In a real sense, I have no problem with Christians being young-Earth creationists. I believe it is in many respects an entirely legitimate Christian position to hold.

    Even so, I generally see the young-Earth creationist view as a sectarian one, so it concerns me when it pops up in something that might otherwise be somewhat closer to simple Christian belief.

    Having said that, I suspect that a statement flatly ruling out young-Earth creationism would likewise be unhelpfully precise.

    What I mean is that a Christian must by all means hold to the doctrine of creation, but this does not require a specific approach to understanding this or that biblical text, be it young-Earth creationism, the framework view, or whatever. A Christian may legitimately hold to the doctrine of creation alongside a range of views on what Genesis means, the place of science, and so on.

    Our desire is not to rule out young-Earth creationism, but rather to ensure that it is not simply assumed, or set up as a cornerstone of Christian doctrine. We do not believe that is where it stands, although we know young-Earth creationists and organisations who would have it that way (as well as some who think otherwise).

    Speaking of Sproul, I would protest to him that young-Earth creationism, at least in the form that it is generally known today, is not in fact “the traditional” view but something quite modern. I have in mind this history; see the revised version on Google Books.

    I would also protest that an appeal to the “plain meaning” of a text does not really get us anywhere; what after all is “plain”? :)

    Tamie and I think we do know what the Bible teaches on these matters, but I’ve said enough for now — I’ll leave her to say some more about that.

  7. Hi Arthur, thanks for the reply.

    “I would also protest that an appeal to the “plain meaning” of a text does not really get us anywhere; what after all is “plain”? ”

    That’s a fair comment to make, I agree. But at the same time, language has to reach an axiomatic level somewhere, otherwise it’s like peeling an onion. At some point, you have to say “no more” and simply take the text for what it says, surely?

    Obviously all Christians should be very wary of adding to or taking away from the Truth of the Bible :)

  8. Hi Andy

    Thanks for your comments – great to have your input. :D

    “It seems to me (although it’s possible I’ve misunderstood you) that while you’re not sure what the Bible *does* teach on Creation (and the flood?), you’re pretty sure you know what it *doesn’t* teach. Is this a fair assessment, and if so, why the rush to rule it out?”

    You’re right, I don’t have a scientific position on creation and the flood (not being a scientist) but I’m unconvinced that the Bible teaches one either. My aim is not to rule out one scientific position or another but to read Genesis 1 and understand its meaning and intention, rather than mine it for what it does(n’t) say about the mechanics of creation.

    If it helps, here’s a very brief run down of what I do think Genesis 1 is on about:
    1. One of the most striking things about the Gen 1 account is the similarities it shares with other Ancient Near East (ANE) creation myths.
    2. The other striking thing is where it differs. A good case can be put forward that the Genesis account is a reinterpretation of ANE myths, with God at the centre. Just two examples:
    – In Genesis, we see God creating the sun, moon, stars, sea monsters, etc – the very deities that ANE cultures worshipped. He, without peer or equal, is their creator.
    – In contrast to the Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation myth) or even the Egyptian creation myths, there is an order and a purpose to God’s creation in Genesis, rather than it being an accident or result of war.
    3. So Genesis 1 is a polemical document against the ANE creation myths of its time, explaining who God is (superior to the ANE gods, lawgiver, etc.) and who we are in this world.

    To come at the idea of a ‘plain reading’ of Scripture, I get the concern and abhor the idea of doing gymnastics with the text to make it meet a certain interpretative framework. But at the same time, what if the plain reading of Gen 1, to an X000 BC person was, “Oh my, look at how he’s taken that other story I’m totally familiar with and changed it to say things about my god, his God and me?” In this case, you have to do some work to get there, but that process is not the enemy of the ‘plain reading’ but helps us to access it.

    I’m loath to continue too much more of a discussion about creation and the flood since this post is more about how we view the Bible, but I think the discussion in itself has highlighted that how we interpret the Bible has implications for inerrancy. It’s not as simple as saying “The Bible is inerrant” when we read the Bible through our own culture and its concerns. More on this when I get to Dunn’s book!

  9. Hi Arthur and Tamie,

    I like the Chicago statement, and I’d be willing to sign it. I don’t think Article XII was intended to lock people down to a particular view of what Genesis is teaching – after all, among those who initially framed and signed the statement there was a range of views. For example, neither John Wenham, Francis Schaeffer nor Jim Packer were young earth creationists.

    Incidentally, one of the strongest statements of belief in inerrancy comes from Augustine, who held to a kind of framework interpretation of Genesis 1-2.

    However, I am glad that clause was included in Article XII, because if a geologist tells me that Noah’s flood never happened (on any catastrophic scale), I can say no, the bible clearly teaches that there was a great flood. Of course this assumes that the author of Genesis intended to convey history in the account of the flood, but I think that is quite easy to demonstrate.

    One other thing, I know you’re both ultimately concerned with the question of establishing the meaning of scripture, and perhaps you’re a little frustrated that your studies on inerrancy have left questions of meaning outstanding.

    I don’t think this is the fault of the doctrine of inerrancy. It’s not meant to answer questions of meaning. It’s meant to instill in us reverence for every word of Scripture.

    Inerrancy means that we’re never free to say that the author, despite their best intentions, was wrong, or unbalanced, or unethical, or immoral, or misguided, or mistaken in God’s eyes. It’s meant to ensure that, whatever the meaning of a text turns out to be, we will humbly submit to every word of it.

    Jordan

  10. Hi Jordan

    Thanks for commenting. :)

    My frustration is actually the opposite of what you surmise! My problem is not that questions of meaning are left outstanding but rather that I observe inerrantists (if that’s a word!) imposing a meaning on the Bible which is foreign to its thought.

    I’m unashamed of the cultural constructs in which the Bible was written. I don’t think they somehow obscure God’s truth – rather, God has condescended to reveal himself in them!

  11. Lol, yes ‘inerrantists’ is a word! I picture them in bell bottom trousers and tweed jackets :)

    Just referring back to the Chicago Statement, how do you find this snippet from article 13?

    ‘…WE DENY that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose…’

    You seem to be on the same page as the inerrantists here.

    Jordan

  12. Yeah, I suspect that I agree with that in theory.

    But the point I’ve been making in this post is the inherent contradictions available from what seems to be vague language i.e. what are the standards of truth alien to Scripture’s usage or purpose?

  13. An important question. But I don’t think we need to answer it before affirming inerrancy a priori, because I think there’s enough evidence in scripture that God wants us to view his every word as being entirely truthful, both for the original readers and for us.

    I don’t think this leaves inerrancy as a moot point. What it does is ensure that we connect every word of scripture with God himself. This makes all the world of difference in the way we approach the bible, and how humble and careful we are in interpreting it. Also, if we have confidence that God’s standard of truth is accessible to us through his word, we can expect that our understanding of its nature – and therefore standards of truth alien to it – will grow over time. In this way inerrancy will become less and less theoretical and more and more practical to us.

    Jordan

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