Part Three: The ETS & Inerrancy – how deep is the commitment?
Doctrinal Basis of the ETS
Article III of the ETS Constitution states very simply the doctrinal basis for the ETS, and every member must “subscribe in writing annually” to this statement:
“The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”
Paragraph 12 of the By-Laws clarifies the doctrinal basis of the ETS:
“For the purpose of advising members regarding the intent and meaning of the reference to biblical inerrancy in the ETS Doctrinal Basis, the Society refers members to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). The case for biblical inerrancy rests on the absolute trustworthiness of God and Scripture’s testimony to itself. A proper understanding of inerrancy takes into account the language, genres, and intent of Scripture. We reject approaches to Scripture that deny that biblical truth claims are grounded in reality.”
Section 4 of Article IV states the procedure for challenging and removing a member whose views are incompatible with the doctrinal basis.
Doctrinal Debate in the ETS
My undergraduate degree is in political science. During my senior year, I had completed enough of my degree so that I could take some elective courses. Since I knew I would be studying for the ministry and taking Hebrew, I decided to take a year of Hebrew. The professor, Dr. George Howard, earned his Ph.D. at Hebrew Union College. In one class, he was talking about getting recognized for scholarly work. He said that the way to get noticed in scholarship is to develop a new idea or a new twist on an old idea, write about it, then get it published, and that is exactly what he did. That process doesn’t have to be bad or wrong, but it can present a strong temptation for unBiblical innovation.
The issue of inerrancy has once again emerged into Evangelical debate. Thirty-five years ago, when I was working on my M.Div., inerrancy was a prominent topic. Now Evangelicals are again immersed in the issue. Most of the disagreements focus on whether belief in inerrancy is compatible with denial of the historicity of certain Biblical statements if those statements can be classified under non-literal genres. For example, Michael Licona has written a book about the resurrection of Christ where he says that the resurrections in Mt 27:51-53 did not historically happen but are apocalyptic or symbolic, typical of first century genre writings. About six years ago Peter Enns, former professor at Westminster Seminary, had modified his views of inerrancy to the point where the Westminster Board suspended him (here). Later Enns resigned (here). Strangely, the Seminary Board stated that “his teaching and writings fall within the purview of Evangelical thought.” (here). Before these events, Enns revoked his membership in ETS because his conscience wouldn’t let him sign the Society’s doctrinal statement. Some of the more controversial scholars have left ETS while many others who are sympathetic or supportive of beliefs similar to Licona and Enns still retain their membership.
The Reformed Forum has an audio interview with Greg Beale entitled “The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism” (here), and many books and articles have been published recently. Those within broader Evangelicalism who wish to modify or deny inerrancy are very astute in using a masterful choice of certain words to negatively portray those who insist on traditional inerrancy.
Several years ago, Norman Geisler, a former President of ETS, resigned from ETS mainly because of the refusal by ETS membership to remove two of its members, Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, who promoted theological positions which some in the ETS viewed as heresy. John Sanders taught at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana where I pastor a church. During the time these events were being debated in ETS, I took Dr. Sanders to lunch and spent two hours with him discussing his views. I have also heard him speak on two other occasions. Although a popular teacher and very likeable as a person, his views reflect seriously errant theology which, at a minimum, calls into question his understanding of inerrancy. The point of debate with Pinnock and Sanders focuses on whether someone can interpret Biblical statements in such a way that the interpretation denies inerrancy, while at the same time still professing belief in inerrancy. One significance of the Sanders vote in 2004 was that, even though a large majority voted to end his membership, enough voted to retain his membership so that Sanders was not removed from membership. The vote concerning Pinnock’s membership didn’t even come close to removing him.
Since Geisler’s resignation, the ETS has made an attempt to clarify the meaning of inerrancy. The ETS has incorporated the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) into its doctrinal basis. Although CSBI is helpful, unless the ETS is willing to firmly and clearly confront those who hold beliefs which contradict inerrancy, the ETS only becomes more hypocritical as it refuses to confront doctrinal error for the sake of academic freedom, scholarship, and unity. For example, the ETS seems unwilling to face the contradiction of members such as Richard Mouw who annually signs the inerrancy statement yet was President of Fuller Seminary, a school which repudiated inerrancy over 40 years ago. The impression I get is that the ETS is so focused on appearing scholarly, erudite, and respectful (which are not bad qualities) that they never remove anyone from membership due to doctrinal error. How the ETS resolves the current controversies will determine whether the ETS can legitimately call itself “evangelical”.
Old issues that were supposed to be settled have now resurrected. Over thirty years ago, Robert Gundry was asked to leave ETS because of his beliefs about the Gospel of Matthew, which he expressed in his Matthew commentary. Apparently, because of changing views about what inerrancy is, some in the ETS would like Gundry reinstated as a member.
The ETS and Fundamentalists who are members of ETS face a thorny problem: What action should the ETS take about members who affirm their belief in inerrancy yet who also express beliefs which deny the truthfulness, accuracy, or historicity of various Biblical events or people? And will Fundamentalist members of ETS actively oppose attempts to reinstate Gundry?
Fundamentalists settled the inerrancy issue long ago. For example, in 1968 Stewart Custer, well-known Fundamentalist, wrote Does Inspiration Demand Inerrancy? ((Stewart Custer, Does Inspiration Demand Inerrancy? (Nutley, New Jersey: The Craig Press, 1968). See also David L. Saxon, Fundamentalist Bibliology 1870-1900 (Ph.D. Dissertation, Bob Jones University: 1998).)) which reviews Biblical teaching on inerrancy and shows his wide reading of many different theologians. Although there are aspects of inerrancy that can always benefit from study and clarification, and some passages of Scripture need careful study, the basic issue has been long settled among Fundamentalists. Evangelicals still struggle with the issue, and therefore so does the ETS. The ETS struggles with inerrancy partly because of the perpetual vagueness about the definition of “Evangelical”. This does not mean that if we could develop an unambiguous definition of Evangelical that all questions about inerrancy would disappear. But it does mean that at least Evangelicals would have a way to determine the validity of a person’s claim to be Evangelical, and the ETS would have a clearer way to deal with doctrinal beliefs which contradict its doctrinal basis.
Another potential issue is homosexuality, which hasn’t yet had the attention within ETS that inerrancy has. Many ETS members teach at schools which are under pressure to modify their beliefs and policies about homosexuality. For example, OneWheaton is an alumni and student led group which is trying to change the policies concerning homosexuality at Wheaton College. Gordon College also has a group called OneGordon. What do the professors at Wheaton and Gordon who are ETS members think about this, and does the ETS want to know? Although I can’t prove it, I suspect that more than a few ETS members are open to broadening views about homosexuality. In light of the ETS’s inerrancy basis, does the ETS have any members who believe homosexuality and homosexual marriage are acceptable? And do Fundamentalists who are members of ETS want to find out?
Although homosexuality is not addressed in the ETS Doctrinal Basis, certainly a person’s views about homosexuality, to some extent, reflect that person’s beliefs about inerrancy. How can someone be an Evangelical and believe that homosexual behavior is acceptable? Will the ETS tolerate members who openly advocate in favor of homosexual practice and marriage? How does “scholarship” provide a rationale for membership in a conservative theological association which tolerates such views? I recognize that homosexuality is not yet an open issue in ETS. I simply point out that the issue requires watching.
Pastor Morris is pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Huntington, IN and can be reached at ">. The church blogsite is amomentofcharity.blogspot.com. He has also published A Time To Die: A Biblical Look At End-Of-Life Issues by Ambassador International.
- http://www.etsjets.org/about/constitution [↩]
- http://www.etsjets.org/about/bylaws [↩]
- Dr. Howard published a commentary on Galatians with unique interpretations. See Paul: Crisis in Galatia (Cambridge: University Press, 1979, 2004) where he says that Paul believed that Jewish Christians should keep the OT Law. [↩]
- Usually when a preacher says that he is going to tell you something you’ve never heard before, there’s a good reason why you’ve never heard it before. [↩]
- Much of the current debate within Evangelicalism focuses on whether historical criticism is an appropriate tool to use in Biblical research, particularly with the Gospels. Although aspects of this “criticism” are interesting, I find the practical use of this approach for ministry and preaching to be boring, useless, and pointless. [↩]
- The issue has never really disappeared. A review of the ETS archives of the Bulletin and Journal show that articles about inerrancy appear regularly, in addition to specific issues which highlight inerrancy and related problems, such as the Winter 1966 (9-1) issue of the Bulletin which featured several articles about inerrancy, and the JETS issues of March 1983 (26-1) which focused on Gundry and his use of historical criticism and midrash, the June 2002 (45-2) issue which focused on open theism, and the March 2014 (57-1) issue which focused on inerrancy. The topic of inerrancy and related issues seem to be the most common topics in the Bulletin and Journal. [↩]
- Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2010). Licona is a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and presented a paper at the recent 2014 annual ETS meeting. [↩]
- See Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005) and The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2012) where Enns establishes his beliefs about inerrancy and the historicity of Biblical events and people. Brazos Press is an imprint of Baker. [↩]
- Possibly they may have in mind the broad definition of Evangelical which allows such beliefs. [↩]
- Further information: Jimmy Tuck, “Peter Enns’s Hermeneutic of Creation: In Step or Misstep?”, Frontline, November-December 2013, 6-7. See also Enns’s blogsite: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/ . I sent two emails to Enns as preparation for this article; he never responded. [↩]
- For example, see Merrick, Garrett, Gundry, eds., Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013). Also see Al Mohler’s interview about his contribution to this book: “Inerrancy: A Modern Definition of an Historic View”, Southern Seminary Magazine, Spring 2014, 14-15. Todd S. Beall wrote “Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, And Current Old Testament Scholarship” for the 2013 issue of the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (DBSJ 18 (2013): 67-81. The websites defendinginerrancy.com and inerrantword.com have many articles on this subject. What is happening in Evangelicalism is an attempt by some to redefine the understanding of inerrancy in order to affirm inerrancy yet question the accuracy of Biblical statements. A theoretical (?) example would be to affirm inerrancy yet reinterpret the passages on homosexuality in order to not condemn homosexuality. I find it interesting that some conservative Evangelicals are referring to those Evangelicals who want to broaden the concept of inerrancy to allow for denial of historicity as “neo Evangelicals”, a term Fundamentalists used many years ago. See also this by John Frame where he says that infallible is a stronger term than inerrant. Inerrant: The Bible does not have errors; Infallible: The Bible cannot have errors. [↩]
- For example, see this blog post. [↩]
- See Geisler’s website for many articles about various problems with some Evangelicals and the ETS: http://normgeisler.com/articles . The article which explains why he resigned from ETS is here. Additionally, I think Fundamentalists should reflect on the fact that Geisler left ETS as a matter of principle and integrity, yet some Fundamentalists still retain their membership and other Fundamentalists are open to membership. [↩]
- Dr. Sanders commented at the beginning of lunch that few people who disagreed with him had taken the initiative to talk with personally. The word he used was “rare”. [↩]
- Geisler suggested some attempt 20 years earlier in “Methodological Unorthodoxy”, JETS 26-1 (March 1983) 87-94. [↩]
- Other faculty from Fuller also are ETS members. I wonder if anyone has talked with these members to see if their understanding of inerrancy is compatible with ETS or more with Fuller Seminary. Or does anyone care? [↩]
- See the interview with Yarbrough (footnote 8) where he implies that ETS has no alternative but to “enlarge the tent” or face shrinkage. He also implies that belief in non-Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles is a “non-essential matter of interpretation”. [↩]
- See the article by F. David Farnell, a professor at The Master’s Seminary (here). Another article by Dr. Farnell, which focuses on “breaking fellowship” over inerrancy, is here. Also relevant to the current debates are Geisler’s comments about the 1983 ETS vote on Gundry (here). [↩]
- I should give a note of disclaimer: Dr. Custer pastored Trinity Bible Church, and my wife and I were members of Trinity for several years. We were members of Trinity when the church still met in the old farmhouse and were among the group that called Dr. Custer to be pastor of Trinity. Dr. Custer chaired my ordination committee, and I was a deacon at Trinity as well. [↩]
- Noll calls the term “plastic” (Between Faith And Criticism: 1). See also D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “What Is An Evangelical?”, in Knowing The Times (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner Of Truth Trust, 1989), 299-355. Lloyd-Jones’ chapter is worth careful reading by Fundamentalists. Among many points he makes, Lloyd-Jones gives the Billy Graham evangelistic campaigns (and others with the same methodology) some responsibility for the confusion about the meaning of Evangelical (310). Wheaton College hosts the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at this website. Also see D.A. Carson’s views on Evangelicalism here and here. [↩]
- See Gerald R. McDermott, “The Emerging Divide In Evangelical Theology,” JETS 56/2 (2013) 355-377 for an enlightening discussion of current Evangelical theology. Although his treatment of Fundamentalism contains the usual caricatures, if what he says about Evangelicalism is true, then the ETS cannot hold together in its present form and doctrinal basis. See also Robert L. Thomas and F. David Farnell, eds., The Jesus Crisis: The Inroads Of Historical Criticism Into Evangelical Scholarship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1998) and Norman L. Geisler and F. David Farnell, eds., The Jesus Quest: The Danger From Within (Maitland, Florida: Xulon Press, 2014). [↩]
- Gordon College is in the middle of a controversy concerning its same-sex policies. According to news reports, people on the local public school board didn’t even know Gordon was a Christian college. [↩]
- I could also mention the Evangelical obsession with Barth and Bonhoeffer, but that would detract from my main points. [↩]