Does Inerrancy Matter? The Legacy of James Montgomery Boice

“[I]f part of the Bible is true and part is not, who is to tell us what the true parts are? There are only two answers to that question.  Either we must make the decision ourselves, in which case the truth becomes subjective.  The thing that is true becomes merely what appeals to me.  Or else, it is the scholar who tells us what we can believe and what we cannot believe… God has not left us either to our own whims or to the whims of scholars.  He has given us a reliable book that we can read and understand ourselves.”

These words, arguing the logic of an inerrant Scripture, were part of a sermon preached on May 23, 1993 by James Montgomery Boice (see, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009], 69). The sermon was preached on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pastorate at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Boice began by drawing attention to the fact that the doctrine of Scripture had been the most important thing that Tenth Presbyterian Church had stood for in its (then) one hundred sixty-four year existence.

At the close of 1977, ten years into his pastorate at Tenth, Dr. Boice helped in the foundation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and subsequently chaired it. A few years later, Boice published, Standing on the Rock: Upholding Biblical Authority in a Secular Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1984) in which he answered the question, why does inerrancy matter? He noted that most of his contemporaries seemed more preoccupied with having a “personal relationship” with Jesus than addressing the doctrine of Scripture. But who is this Jesus with whom we are to have a personal relationship if not the Jesus accurately (inerrantly) portrayed in Scripture? We live a relativistic age, Boice argued, where there is no such thing as truth, only “what’s true for me.” “When people operate on that basis, they usually think they have found freedom because, in not being tied to absolutes, they have freedom to do anything they wish. They are not tied to God or to a God-given morality. They do not have to acknowledge any authority. But the consequence of this kind of freedom is that they are cast adrift on the sea of meaningless existence.” (Standing on the Rock [1994 edition], 17).

Absolute truth

Inerrancy is important, Boice argued, in a postmodern culture, to provide the individual with a basis for absolute authority in doctrine and morals. Without absolutism, we are adrift in a sea of relativism and subjectivism. Without a trustworthy Scripture, there is only a mere potentiality of meaning actualized differently in differing circumstances. We are trapped in the present, our own historical circumstances, and cannot understand the past or have any certainty of the future. Truth lies in community and the voice of the Spirit – all subjective entities – wisps that appear for a moment promising much and delivering little.

Ultimately, as Boice argued all too well, if there is no ultimate meaning, nothing I say makes any sense, including the words “there are no absolutes”! What Boice saw was that without inerrancy, the relevance of Christianity diminishes. Why should anyone commit their lives to the institution of the church if there is no certainty that what she stands for is true. Relativism as to truth leads to relativism as to behavior and commitment. The moral drift of the last thirty years with its accompanying.

Authoritative Preaching

What is preaching? It is either Truth delivered through personality (as Philips Brooks suggested), or it is the opinion of men (and women). The steps from the original autographs to text, translation and meaning is a complex one, involving a commitment to providence as well as a rigorous hermeneutic (and hence, the Council of Biblical Inerrancy also issued a statement, “Formal Rules of Biblical Interpretation”). “It is only when ministers of the gospel hold to this high view of Scripture that they can preach with authority and effectively call sinful men and women to full faith in Christ.” (Standing on the Rock, 24).

Preachers have no right to meddle with the consciences of men and women unless what they say is based a correct understanding of the written Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience…” (Westminster Confession of Faith 20:2). The inerrancy of Scripture commits us in advance to an understanding the Bible is God speaking (in the present tense). What Scripture says is what God says.

Preaching involves coming to grips with what the Bible is actually saying, breaking it down in order to put it together again and applying to the mind, will and affections in today’s context with today’s issues and concerns sharpening the direction of application.  Preachers can therefore say, “Thus says the Lord,” without suggesting that the preacher himself in infallible – he is not! Preachers are all too capable of shoddy preparation and misunderstanding. But when “rightly divided” the sermon reflects the true meaning of Scripture and therefore authoritative.

Apart from a commitment to inerrancy, preaching drifts into personality and popularity cults. Ministry becomes “skinny jeans and soul patches” – more about the preacher than about Scripture. Boice foresaw this trend toward celebratory ministry and vacuous preaching.

True Reformation

Unless the Bible is true, “inerrant in the whole and in its parts,” true reformation (of belief and practice) will not take place. Errant Scripture distorts the character of God and nature of Christian discipleship. Christians get preoccupied with peripheral and transient issues.

Boice saw clearly the need for Scripture to govern the life of the church in all of its details. Without a commitment to inerrancy, churches will flounder and die. But he also expressed a concern that inerrancy in itself was not the real issue facing the church at the end of twentieth century. The real issue he said was the sufficiency of Scripture. It is all too easy to give lip-service to inerrancy and say, but we need more than what we find the Scripture to address the complexities that we face today. “Do we really believe God has given is what we need in this book? Or do we think we have to supplement the Bible with other man-made things? Do we need sociological techniques to do evangelism? Must we attract people to our churches by showmanship and entertainment? Do we need psychology and psychiatry for Christian growth? Do we need extra-biblical signs or miracles for guidance? Is the Bible adequate for achieving social progress and reform?” (Standing on the Rock, 133; cf. Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, 72).

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Dr. Boice came to understand that for all the value of the Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy that resulted from it, events have shown clearly that conservative Christians may affirm it and ignore it. It is not that Boice saw no place for extra-biblical data (he affirmed a doctrine of general revelation).General and special revelation are inter-dependent, but our understanding of what general contributes cannot contradict what is expressly set down in Scripture. When God prohibited Adam from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he did not stop to explain what a “tree” was, or how to distinguish fruit from leaves. Adam already possessed that knowledge. The doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency does not rule our extra-biblical knowledge, but it does prioritize Scripture. And it is perhaps here that the issue of inerrancy has failed to address contemporary discussions and debates over creation, counseling and conversion, to name but three.

One of the fears surrounding the use of the term “inerrancy,” Boice and others feared, was the gestalt surrounding the term that suggested a closed mind to all research and scholarly enterprise, committing interpreters in advance to absurd harmonization without regard for biblical genre, or an over-restrictive understanding of creation days. But perhaps we face the opposite – the tendency to disbelieve that the Bible has a discernible authoritative point of view – witness the numerous books, “Four Views X” and “Five Views of Y” imperceptibly suggesting an intentional and accommodating multiple meaning point of view on the part of Scripture (the meaning of Scripture is “not manifold, but one”; cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 1:9).

Thus, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in Article XI and XII, affirms the following: “that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses,” and is therefore, “inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.”

And it denies, “that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions,” and “that biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history or science.”

Along with Norman L. Geisler, J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Carl F. H. Henry, Roger Nicole, and Francis Schaeffer, to name but a few of the participants of the ICBI, James Montgomery Boice was hugely influential in convincing a generation of evangelical leaders of the need for a robust defense of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. As Boice so aptly put it, “God has not left us either to our own whims . . . He has given us a reliable book that we can read and understand ourselves.” We don’t need to embrace the post-modern pessimism that says “that’s just your interpretation.” No, we can be assured that Scripture has a valid interpretation, for it comes (in its entirety) from the one God. For those things that are sure, those things that are of primary importance and which are clearly conveyed in Scripture, let’s be willing to die for those things.

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