The Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy

As recounted in this excellent article, there had been a gradual but pronounced shift away from accepting the plain language of the Bible in its literal and obvious sense, a trend originating in Europe but growing into the US too.  During the 19th century in particular, modern scientific discoveries and changing/exaggerated social values seemed to rest uneasily alongside the traditional statements of the Bible, causing compromisers to suggest that the Bible should not be taken literally.

These theologians suggested the Bible was the product of inspired individuals but that their inspiration was similar in kind to that of an artist or poet.  Those who adopted such a view could still speak of the Bible as containing the Word of God, but also including other material.  Such a view also allowed a person to readily dismiss questionable stories in which biblical heroes behaved in a manner that some might consider unethical – killing, committing adultery, acting dishonestly, and so forth.  (Yes, there are definite echoes to the modern “social justice” trends in this earlier period of moving away from core Biblical truths.)

The huge and obvious problem with this approach is that it allowed people to selectively pick and choose which parts of the Bible they wished to accept and gave them apparent justification for ‘interpreting’ or outright rejecting other parts which they found less convenient to accept.  The Bible was now being subjected to man-made decisions about which parts should be followed and now they should be interpreted.

In necessary response, a movement that became known as the Princeton Theology (named after the Princeton Theological Seminary when the main proponents taught) grew to re-assert the primacy of the Bible.  Members of this group included Charles Hodge, who taught for 56 years (1822 – 1878) and is regarded as possibly the most influential conservative Protestant US theologian of the 19th century.  The last active member of this group was J. Gresham Machen, who taught from 1906 until departing in 1929.

As the Princeton Theological Seminary became increasingly liberal in nature, Machen and other conservative colleagues left and formed the Westminster Theological Seminary, which they wished to become the new home of “old school Princeton theology”.

Their best efforts notwithstanding, and perhaps with the advent of much greater social liberalism (again, this sounds familiar!) things had deteriorated to the point where, in the mid 1970s, suggesting that the Bible was literally true was increasingly being viewed as a minority and slightly weird/extreme interpretation.

Matters came to a head in 1976 when Harold Lindsell, then on the staff of “Christianity Today“, wrote a book, The Battle for the Bible, calling attention to the widespread abandonment of the concept of a literal reading of the Bible.  Lindsell’s book alerted many Evangelical leaders to what they now saw as an urgent problem.

As a result, and with R C Sproul as a key instigator, a small group of church leaders formed the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in 1977 to counter this shift from core Biblical values.  It was planned the organization would operate for about ten years during which it could create, promulgate and validate a new set of guidelines for how the Bible should be read and accepted.

It held its first major meeting in Chicago in 1978, with about 300 religious leaders in attendance, and at the end of the meeting, issued what has subsequently been known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

Dr. Jay Grimstead, one of the organizers of the ICBI, described the statement (see also the first link, above) as “a landmark church document” created “by the then largest, broadest, group of evangelical protestant scholars that ever came together to create a common, theological document in the 20th century.  It is probably the first systematically comprehensive, broadly based, scholarly, creed–like statement on the inspiration and authority of Scripture in the history of the church.”

This page, half-way down, has a fascinating analysis of the difference between the “neo-orthodoxy” approach to Biblical interpretation that was taking over, and the approach espoused by the 1978 statement.

A second major meeting in 1982 saw the publication of a second document, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, and a final third meeting in 1986 created a final document, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Application.

Upon the publishing of the third document, the group disbanded, viewing its core mission as having been completed.  One of the last actions of the ICBI was to transfer records of the organization to the archives at Dallas Theological Seminary to preserve them for future research.  The ICBI files date from about 1978 to 1989 and fill sixty-nine linear feet.

The records include correspondence, files regarding publications, documents about seminars and lay congresses, financial records, and copies of the statements adopted at the three conferences.  The collection also has some scrapbooks and preservation copies of books published by the ICBI.  They are not available for on-line access and research but can be directly viewed at the Seminary.

Here is the official text of the three documents

1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

1982 Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics

1986 Chicago Statement on Biblical Application

This page provides links to a tremendous amount of additional related information and analysis of the three documents.

The International Church Council Project claims to be continuing the work of the ICBI, but it seeks to promulgate not just the literal meaning of the Bible but also their particular interpretations of what this literal meaning should be, in manners that might not always sit comfortably with all Christians, while some of their doctrinal statements seem far removed from Biblical authority.

Without wishing to slight the people associated with this organization, we note that some of the most respected Christian leaders who supported ICBI are not listed as also supporting the ICCP.