Although I cannot remember the term inerrancy ever being used to describe the authority of the Bible in the churches I grew up in, I can look back and assume that most people probably believed the Bible was the inerrant written word of God.
I didn’t become familiar with the term until college and seminary as I learned about the battles that took place in the Southern Baptist Convention from the late ’70s to late ’90s. There were basically two ways of viewing these battles:
(1) Biblical inerrancy is a crucial doctrine for church and denominational health, and it must be affirmed by the leadership of the convention and the professors in the seminaries. If inerrancy is denied, the SBC will compromise in such a way that it will lead to cultural accommodation and decline similar to mainline, more progressive denominations.
(2) Biblical inerrancy is a man-made doctrine created to make the Bible the counter-authority to the authority of science that took hold in the West during modernity. Someone can “believe the Bible” without affirming inerrancy, and the doctrine should not be a litmus test for fellowship. Further, the ones seeking to advance the cause of inerrancy are mostly interested in power and will do whatever it takes to get it.
Those who believe biblical inerrancy was a crucial doctrine for church and denominational health won the “war,” and those who “lost” were clumped together in a large group of “moderate Baptists.” Most of the men and women who taught within the Baptist schools I attended were moderate Baptists. These men and women were, and still are, influential in my life, and, therefore, I viewed the doctrine of inerrancy through their lenses.
This would probably be the end of the story, but I also attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, for my first year of seminary before transferring to Truett Seminary for my final two years. GCTS is an interdenominational evangelical seminary. It was here that I was exposed to Northern evangelical life and a robust, intellectually deep evangelical faith. Unencumbered by the battles in the SBC, I was also taught the doctrine and importance of biblical inerrancy by a Presbyterian professor.
When I graduated from Truett Seminary, I entered pastoral ministry. As a pastor, I began to rethink the suspicion and disagreement I had for the doctrine of inerrancy and ultimately came to a place where I affirm the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy (1978). The rethinking came from two sources.
First, the practice of preaching sermons each week caused me to rethink what I believed about the Bible.
- When I preach, do I believe God’s Word has authority?
- How should I understand that authority?
- Do I believe God’s Word has power?
Questions such as these would take place each week as I opened the Bible and sought to be a faithful expositor.
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Second, I was confronted with the challenges, hurts and disillusionment that can accompany being a pastor. As I struggled with these powerful emotions, I looked for truth that could sustain and encourage me. I needed to know, desperately, that what I was doing as a pastor was important and not a waste of my life. As I came to God’s Word, I found part of the nourishment, encouragement and bedrock I needed.
It is important to note that what drove me to affirming inerrancy was not primarily the reading of academic debates about inerrancy. There is a place for these debates, and anyone can find top-level scholars who affirm or disagree with inerrancy. I’ve read deeply on both sides of these debates.
The reality I came to, though, was not how many scholars I could line up to affirm my belief. I either believed it or I did not. Therefore, my affirmation of inerrancy came through the act of preaching, walking through the challenges of pastoral ministry and, yes, study and research.
As I write these words, I realize that telling this story will put me under suspicion and be concerning with many of my friends and those who have taught me. I don’t want this to be the case. I know a lot of people were hurt and had to defend lies/misrepresentations directed at them by those whose battle charge in the SBC was “Inerrancy.”
I don’t deny these realities. All I can say is that I’ve come to a place where I affirm inerrancy and hope that, at some point, this doctrine can be revisited and, perhaps, affirmed without the hurt and baggage of the SBC wars.
Ross Shelton is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas.