Category Archives: Biblical Interpretation

Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently listening to some online sermons that were given at the Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference. All of the speakers were household names, and none more familiar than John Piper. Piper is now retired from active pastoral ministry after decades at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. However, he has continued what has been a prolific writing ministry, and he also speaks regularly at conferences.

I have benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry from afar. I was first exposed to his work when in 2004 I took the course Biblical Discipleship. His bestselling book Desiring God was one of the assigned texts. I did not agree with all that he said in the book then (and I’m sure I didn’t understand it all either!), but I remember thinking, “He is saying something really profound here for Christian spirituality.” Since that time I’ve read more of his work and heard probably two dozen of his sermons.

While I came of age theologically before the full burgeoning of the podcast/online sermon era, I was shaped by it. No doubt I have been influenced by giants like the MacArthurs, Kellers, Carsons, Devers, and Pipers. As best as I can tell, these men exude an authentic commitment to Christ, His church, and His Word. For that I am grateful.

Some Broader Concerns

Where my concerns have persisted is that the preponderance of those who are influencing younger evangelicals is almost always five-point Calvinists. Let me define here what I mean and don’t mean by “concerns.”

First, I do not mean that we should be surprised that so many popular conference speakers are of this theological persuasion. When we consider the books published annually and the authors’ theological commitments, Arminians need to be honest: our theological tradition, in its best version, is in the minority (by a lot!). We have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about the God-centered, Scripturally-based Arminianism that we espouse. We should not then be surprised that publishing trends correlate to how well known some are in evangelicalism.

Second, I do not mean that our principal goal in Christian ministry is to see how well known we can personally be because of our theological stances and speaking circuit credentials. How easy it is to be known first as Arminians or Calvinists, and not as sincere, Spirit-filled men and women of God. How easy it is for us to relish (by whom we admire) or reinforce (by whom we invite to speak) the speaking circuit idolatry that promotes the same handful of people over and over. We should repent of where the spirit of this present age has shaped us in this way.

I do, however, have two interrelated concerns: (1) Seeing that it is part of our goal to spread biblical Christianity as far as the curse is found, it is unfortunate that many theologically serious Christians have come to believe that Calvinism is the only live option in town; and (2) What has partly, but significantly fostered this belief is the massive platform that influential speakers have to promote this error. While Calvinism and its entailments is not a heresy in the historic sense of that word, the way it is taught often leads to confusion and can foster the belief that those who are believers but not Reformed—in the narrow way most Calvinists mean that word—have a deficient theology for life and ministry.

A Specific Concern

The broader concerns I have articulated here are exemplified in many places, but especially in some remarks Dr. Piper shared in his otherwise very good sermon at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He preached Mark 8:31-38, a quite familiar passage in which Jesus reveals his coming sufferings. Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes him for contradicting the plan of God. Piper spends several minutes (around the 19:00-24:00 minute mark) reflecting on the word “must” in verse 31. This deals with the necessity, in the plan of God, for the Son to die. Piper then observes how the sovereignty of God—defined as God controlling and determining everything in history and human existence—is integral to the Gospel itself.

Piper asserts that some people try to disconnect “the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering, the sinful rejection, [and] the wicked murder of Jesus.” Millions, he says, make a concerted effort to disconnect those two. Yet he is encouraged. He explains,

            “I’m saying that in the last 50 years millions of people around the world are seeing that that effort is futile, unbiblical, [and] undesirable. It is a rending of the precious fabric of the Gospel, because they see, over and over again, in Scripture the sovereignty of God  is the stitching that holds the Gospel together.”

Characteristically, Piper says a lot here. However, I’ll focus on two key points. First, Piper describes a changing evangelical landscape in which Calvinism has blossomed over the last half century. More believers have become convinced that God is sovereign in the sense that He controls (read decides) everything in human life, including who will or will not be saved. The second point is an extension of the first: this vision of God’s sovereignty is said to be not only an element of the Gospel, not just “how one comes to be in a state of grace,” but it is a theological essential that “holds the Gospel together.”

This assertion is not startling for those familiar with Piper’s work and like-minded Calvinists. Where it is somewhat attention-grabbing is that he is implicitly acknowledging the success of preachers, authors, and institutions in spreading the good news of Calvinism. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon, but has been happening for decades. Such Christians see God’s sovereignty, defined by the construct of determinism, as just as essential to the Gospel as grace or faith itself.

A Response

I offer two replies to Piper, first to his demographic claim, and second to the theological one.

First, I wonder which millions of believers around the world Piper has in mind. Thank God that the Gospel is reaching the nations! But much of the data reflects that this growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and South America, to name a few places. I wonder if Piper’s remark lands the same way there as it does to his conference listeners. Much of the growth is within Pentecostalism. No doubt some Pentecostal Christians are Calvinistic in their soteriology, but the vast majority of them are not. In fact, when we consider the expansion of many other traditions abroad such as Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, and Lutheranism, just to name a few, suddenly five-point Calvinism looks rather small. The all-too-familiar, North American, evangelical narrative about Calvinism’s massive expansion must be significantly revised, at least if we’re being honest with the data.

Moreover, many Christians abroad belong to communities where having a Bible in their own language is a rare and cherished fact. To hear the Gospel itself is an all-too-rare privilege. How plausible is it that a theological system as sophisticated as five-point Calvinism is on the radar of those millions in quite the same way that it is for young Americans who have the disposable income to buy books, download sermons on their Macs, and attend conferences? This is mainly a sociological query on my part, not a moral judgment.

Second, I wonder how many listeners to Piper’s sermon, whether in person or online, have taken the time to study the concept of sovereignty in Scripture or in Ancient Near Eastern thought. More specifically, how much thought have they given to the philosophical concept of determinism? Somehow I imagine that Dr. Picirilli’s excellent, thoughtful, and brief Free Will Revisited isn’t selling as well as Dr. Piper’s books. Now let’s ask ourselves: Why might it be the case that some questions aren’t asked, some topics aren’t pursued, or some books aren’t read, while others are? I fear that one evangelical sub-culture, partly embodied by the conference circuit context, is reinforcing people in existing perspectives without challenging them to take a hard look at their theological assumptions, or the theology of the church’s history.

As I have attended multiple seminaries, meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (national and regional), and interacted with assorted local church pastors in my community, the reactions are always interesting to the name “Free Will Baptist” or “Reformed/Classical Arminian.” I find that the most close-minded or hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot. They’ve rarely interacted with Christians in other regions or denominations. Crossway is the only publisher they’re familiar with. They tend not to know much about church history before 1517 (perhaps it began in 1517?).

On the other hand, people who are open to and even accepting of a vision of sovereignty in which God doesn’t meticulously determine everything (although He did purpose to send His Son! Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “I must do these things.”) didn’t go to a conference. They either simply (1) read the Bible as a believer in a straightforward way, or (2) when confronted with sovereignty, free will, and soteriology, they got interested in the topic and really sought to understand both sides of the discussion. Most Arminians I know who do not have a Free Will Baptist background like I do came to their beliefs through one of these two paths.

Some Concluding Reflections

I cannot or will not pretend to speak for all Arminians. However, having swam in these waters a while, I’ll offer a few concluding reflections on the vision of sovereignty that I believe Scripture presents us with, or is consistent with, and what it might look like to place that vision in dialogue with the one Piper has presented:

  • I do not think it is theologically careful or spiritually responsible to communicate: “You don’t get the Gospel if you don’t understand sovereignty this way.”[1] It’s no overstatement to say that Piper believes it is not only unbiblical to not see deterministic sovereignty as “the stitching that holds the Gospel together,” but people who do so are theologically reckless and spiritually impoverished.
  • For less charitable interprets who would take this criticism of Piper further, let me be clear: Piper is not saying that non-Calvinists don’t believe the Gospel, and are therefore not saved. He does not go that far. He specifically says that many Christians try to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the Gospel. So in making this observation/criticism, he is at least acknowledging the empirical existence of such believers. However, Piper leaves himself totally open to this other charge when he says, “There is no Gospel apart from the sovereignty of God, the all- controlling sovereignty of God.” If he means that the way he states it, then it would imply either (a) non-Calvinist Christians who believe the Gospel are ignorant of some of its central content, namely all-controlling sovereignty (At best they’re inconsistent); or (b) Non-Calvinists are in fact not saved since they, by definition, do not accept the precious stitching of the fabric of the Gospel. I believe Piper would claim option a.
  • Meticulously determining every aspect of human existence is but one construal of divine sovereignty. In other words, it is not the only way for God could exercise sovereign control over His creation. Here I think of people who, when they hear the word “authority,” only think of a hierarchy, even though hierarchy is but one way for authority to operate.
  • It is very difficult to adopt theological determinism without coming to terms with its philosophical entailments, and that would involve facing up to issues of free will and moral responsibility, and the problem of evil. Determinists do have some options on how to answer those, but I don’t believe many Calvinists have fully wrestled with those.
  • Some Calvinists would reply to the last assertion by saying “Biblical claims trump philosophical tensions or inconsistencies.” Of course, this reply ignores the 2,000-year relationship between philosophy and theology. It is a complicated, but important one. The best of the Christian tradition, in my view, has seen philosophy as not a Master of theology, but a handmaiden or servant to it. If philosophical terms and concepts have been widely used in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, why not learn from it when it comes to how foreknowledge, free will, and the future might relate?[2]
  • God could have designed the world in any way He desired, but we don’t expect that  world and the way humans act in it and respond to God to contradict the way He reveals His character and will in His Word. So Arminians like me agree with Terence Freithem: “The divine sovereignty in creation is understood, not in terms of absolute divine control [determining every detail], but as a sovereignty that gives [permits] power over to the created for the sake of a relationship of integrity.”[3] Our inability to even imagine such a kind of sovereignty reflects our impoverished theological imagination being shaped in modern evangelicalism. Our unwillingness to do so reflects a lack of attentiveness to the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Much remains to be said about this discussion, and I pray it will be an honest, fruitful, Christ-like dialogue. I remain thankful for the ministry of John Piper and many Calvinists like him. It speaks to the sovereign grace of God that He would allow ministries like these to flourish, and for Arminians like me to freely choose to learn from them. But in the end, a sovereign God can exercise comprehensive control over a realm without also meticulously forcing every state of affairs. God is aware, He permits, restricts, and can certainly carry out his purposes for his church in a world that must choose Him.

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[1] This is not a direct quote, but rather my way of stating what I think Piper has at the very least implied, and all but stated explicitly.

[2] Some Calvinists espouse a theological (and philosophical) construct known as Compatibilism in which Divine sovereignty (understood deterministically) and free will are somehow compatible. D.A. Carson would be example of one such theologian. However, this view was not the view of Calvin or Edwards, nor is it the view of Piper.

[3] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), 346.

Matthew McAffee’s “Creation and the Role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8”: A Review

Kevin L. Hester

Dr. Matthew McAffee, Provost at Welch College, presented one of the most compelling papers at the 2018 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission for Theological Integrity. His paper, entitled “Creation and the Role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8: What Can We Learn?” was one of two heavily exegetical papers presented as part of the program. In it, McAffee draws parallels between the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8 with the Genesis account of creation. While he recognizes that the primary purpose of the exhortation to wisdom found in Proverbs 8 is not to provide didactic material on the nature and scope of creation, McAffee asserts that there are a number of implications that can be drawn from the text that have important ramifications for the process of creation, the textual criticism of the Old Testament, and the relationship of the Genesis creation account to other Near Eastern creation stories.

McAffee outlines the role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and connects it with the two other speeches from Wisdom in Proverbs including 1:20-36 and 9:1-6. The Proverbs 8 discussion is unique because of its reference to the creation of Wisdom before the foundation of the world. While he recognizes that the purpose of the passage is not to present a holistic theory of creation, he argues that the text’s apologetic argument for wisdom rests upon a particular understanding of creation.

McAffee provides robust lexical analysis on several Hebrew terms used in reference to creation. These are analyzed in their Biblical and Near Eastern contexts to clearly show that the author of the wisdom literature expresses an ex nihilo view of creation. He then demonstrates a number of lexical parallels between Proverbs 8 and the Genesis narrative which indicate the author’s resonance with the Genesis narrative.

McAffee’s interpretation of Proverbs 8 and his investigation of its parallels with the Genesis account of creation produce a revisionist conclusion that rejects, on the one hand, the critical consensus of any documentary hypothesis that views the wisdom literature as predating the composition of the Genesis narrative. On the other hand, his work also provides a compelling argument for distinguishing the Genesis account of creation from Babylonian and other Near Eastern creation stories. Thus, McAffee’s work here leads to three important implications.

First, the traditional canonical order of Genesis preceding the wisdom literature better explains the parallel between Proverbs 8 and the Genesis account. Otherwise, following the critical tradition’s dating of Proverbs prior to Genesis produces a significant anachronism wherein, “the presumed older text (Prov. 8) preserves a purportedly late Hellenistic view of creation, while the assumed younger text (Gen. 1) preserves a much earlier Babylonian one.” (p. 145)

Second, the purpose Wisdom’s pre-existent role in Proverbs 8 shows a vision of ex nihilo creation over against other near eastern creation accounts that image creation as the ordering of chaos or construction from pre-existent matter thus distinguishing the Biblical accounts. The text’s usage of the Genesis account, once established, demonstrates that the author of the wisdom literature is reading the Genesis account of creation as ex nihilo documenting a consistent view of creation that is distinctive and prior to other expressions of cosmogony.

If both the Genesis account and the vision of creation in the wisdom literature are consistent with one another and distinctive from other Near Eastern models, then this conclusion upends the commonly held belief that ex nihilo creation was a later, Greek idea incorporated into Judaism. Rather, God’s creation of all things from nothing seems to represent a longstanding Jewish belief.

Third, once the parallel between the creation accounts of Genesis and Proverbs 8 are established and the consistent view is demonstrated to be distinctive from later Greek expressions, the only remaining potential source for the Genesis narrative of creation is the Babylonian Atra Hasis account. This has been the traditional, critical approach. However, the distinctive approach to creation in the accounts from the Babylonian tradition and especially the ex nihilo reading of the Genesis account by the author of the wisdom literature raises real questions about this critical assumption. Such a position seems hardly tenable. Instead, it is more likely that the Atra Hasis and other near eastern creation models are either dependent upon the Genesis account or entirely separate from it.

Thomas Marberry’s “The Lucan Concept of Perseverance”: A Review

Kevin L. Hester

Dr. Thomas L. Marberry, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Randall University, presented his paper entitled “The Lucan Concept of Perseverance” at the 2018 Theological Symposium held at Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma. The Theological Symposium is sponsored by the Commission for Theological Integrity of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.

Free Will Baptists are not strangers to theological discussions related to the perseverance of the saints and the possibility of apostasy. Theological and exegetical discussions of the topic abound, yet most of the exegetical arguments have been confined to Hebrews, II Peter, and the gospel of John. In 2013, Dr. Robert Picirilli published his book, Discipleship: The Expression of Saving Faith (Randall House), in which he outlined the importance of perseverance in faith as a necessary characteristic of a disciple. While not dependent upon this work, Marberry’s paper, focusing upon the gospel of Luke, extends some of Picirilli’s important conclusions related to the concept of discipleship in the synoptic gospels.

Marberry demonstrates that the concept of perseverance is lexically important in Acts and therefore conceptually in view in the gospel of Luke. Luke presents a number of calls to discipleship by Jesus and warnings against falling away during “trials and temptations.” Unlike Calvinist interpreters who prefer to see such warnings as either hypothetical or instrumental; or, who see such language as reflective of temporary followers who had insufficient, faulty, or false faith, Marberry concludes that Luke never makes such concessions. Instead, Luke’s understanding of faith is that “even true believers can depart from the faith and that perseverance is necessary for all who name the name of Christ.” (p. 63)[1]

Through a review of a number of Arminian and Free Will Baptist statements of faith, Marberry shows that this tradition has consistently insisted upon perseverance in faith as a necessary component of discipleship. Marberry then reviews several places in Luke’s gospel that seem to lead to the same conclusion. He discusses the Olivet Discourse (Luke 21), the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8), and the Parable of the Unfaithful Steward (Luke 12). Marberry provides important lexical analysis of key terms and compendious references to commentaries on these texts from differing theological positions. His conclusion is that Luke makes no distinction in his usage of the word faith and that attempts to read these warnings and descriptions as hypothetical or the result of false faith are driven by theological assertions unsupported by the Biblical text. Instead, Luke’s warnings indicate a real possibility for the believer’s falling away.

Marberry then briefly discusses the narrative accounts of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. He posits that both examples contribute to Luke’s understanding of perseverance. Judas turned away from his faith whereas peter repented and returned. Marberry asserts that the parallel indicates that both Judas and Peter were “true and faithful disciples of Jesus.” (p. 74) Peter, even in his failure, becomes an example of perseverance; whereas, Judas serves as a trope for apostasy.

While Marberry recognizes that “faith exists in degrees” (p. 74), the warnings of Luke’s gospel against falling away teach two important lessons. First, true believers who have true faith, can and do turn away from the truth they once received.  Second, while God’s will is “that believers endure the testings, trials, and tribulations” of this life, only those who persevere to the end shall be saved.” (p. 75)

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[1] All page numbers are derived from Symposium Digest of Papers.

2017 Symposium Recap – David Outlaw on Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Kevin L. Hester

As part of the fall 2017 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission on Theological Integrity, Dr. David Outlaw, Global Education Specialist with Free Will Baptist International Missions, presented one of the more thought-provoking theological explorations. His reflection on Christopher Wright’s 2006 publication, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative spurred significant discussion and laid the groundwork for re-visioning how Free Will Baptists understand their role of theological education, especially in non-Western cultures.

Outlaw related his own experiences and difficulties in expressing typical Western theological expressions to non-western cultures. His proposal was that Wright’s missional hermeneutic may allow for a more bibliocentric approach to theological education in cross-cultural contexts. He began by reviewing Wright’s work and explaining his concept of a missional hermeneutic. Following some helpful assessment, Outlaw then teased out several possible implications of this hermeneutic for theological education in light of the worldwide Church.

A Missional Hermeneutic

Outlaw communicated his vision of Wright’s idea of a missional hermeneutic as the grand story of God’s redemption expressed in Scripture. He argued that this Biblical metanarrative provides a basis for approaching and communicating truth about God in ways that move beyond proof-texting, avoid alien cultural expressions, and begin with Scripture rather than philosophical speculation. Such a Biblically-centered approach underscores the Bible as the inspired, authoritative source of knowledge about God and helps to promote a Biblical and theocentric worldview.

Outlaw traced Wright’s work in outlining God’s gradual revelation of Himself in Scripture primarily though His actions. These actions in the Old Testament included creation, judgment, and the calling of a people (Israel) to Himself. In these actions God demonstrates his holiness leading to judgment and love leading to redemption. This narrative unfolds in the New Testament, most perfectly with the salvation made known through Jesus. ultimately in His death, burial, and resurrection. At Pentecost, the redemption of God’s people was expanded to all nations. Paul’s preaching and the growth of the early church made it clear that God’s purpose in revelation and redemption was a global one.

Missional Practice

The ongoing activity of the Church should then be understood as the work of God through the Church rather than the work of individuals. The same narrative of redemption presented in Scripture is ongoing throughout the world today. God is building His kingdom in and through the Church and this has implications for the way the Church lives out these kingdom principles in the world today. This calls the Church to be actively engaged in preaching the Gospel. The Church should proclaim a holy, righteous judge who loved us enough to send His Son for our redemption.

But God’s kingdom extends beyond individuals. God cares for all creation and is renewing this creation through the Gospel and through His people. God’s mission cries out for justice as the Church works to eradicate the effects of sin in interpersonal relationships. God’s mission to the world demonstrates the inherent value and equality of all those created in His image. God’s mission also frees redeemed humanity to exercise appropriate dominion over all areas of God’s creation. This recognizes both the appropriate use of natural resources, but also a concern for the preservation of these goods given to us by God.

Moving Forward

While Outlaw reasserted the basic outlines of Wright’s thesis, he did not do so without criticism. While he appreciated Wright’s focus on mission as the work of God, he recognizes that even focusing upon the Biblical narrative will not allow us to fully escape the cultural and hermeneutical grids through which we read and interpret the Bible. He expressed concern over Wright’s perceived overemphasis in ecology, while simultaneously underscoring the truth that the mission of God extends to all creation and will ultimately manifest itself in the new heaven and the new earth.

Outlaw believes that a missional hermeneutic has two overarching strengths in reading the Old Testament. First, it allows the Christian to obtain a fuller picture of how the Old and New Testaments connect with one another as parts of the same story. Second, it allows room for Christians to come to understand Israel (at least historically if not more) as a focus and an instrument of God’s redemption.

Outlaw also believes that such a hermeneutic can highlight the need for missional activity and inform its processes. Rather than starting with a systematic theology, he proposes that Christians working cross-culturally emphasize Biblical theology, training new believers first and foremost in the Biblical narrative of God’s redemption as story. Because stories are part of who we are, it allows Christians wherever they are to see themselves in the light of God’s redemptive purposes. Preaching and teaching then should move beyond reductionist approaches to expository preaching to include the missional moment of God’s redemption as we strive to locate, interpret, and apply a Biblical text.

Conclusion

The strength of Outlaw’s presentation is found partly in Wright’s work and partly in Outlaw’s experience with communicating Christ cross-culturally in Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America. Outlaw’s cultural lens and his work contribute authority and wisdom to his words. Such a perspective allows him a unique position from which to gauge the sometimes hidden cultural components of the Christian message. Nowhere does he call us to leave off theological thinking. In fact, he argues that such a response would be unhelpful. Instead, he simply asks that we recognize the cultural components of our understanding of the Gospel and to begin, not with theology, but with Scripture. Only when we have grasped God’s unfolding of Himself in the time and space of this world as he builds His kingdom will Christians be able to find their own place in this world and in God’s story.

David Outlaw: A Consideration of Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Interpreting Doctrinal Statements in a Shifting Evangelical Landscape

by Kevin Hester

Recently, I have been working with an ad hoc committee for an evangelical organization tasked with considering admission standards. For many years, this organization has espoused a basic Evangelical statement of faith as the basis for membership. Institutions and groups have been asked to sign the statement yearly to indicate continued compliance. But recently, some groups not typically associated with mainstream evangelicalism, have approached the body expressing an interest in membership. This has served to raise the question of what is meant by mainstream evangelicalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Is there a fracture occurring? Are lines being redrawn that will exclude former evangelicals and include others not previously represented? What has been heartening about this discussion in this group is seeing both a commitment to traditional evangelical orthodoxy and to objective truth. The desire to be inclusive has not overridden a commitment to basic Biblical doctrine.

Context of the Problem

What has become apparent in our discussion is that evangelicalism is shifting. And our organization is trying to keep up. What we have noticed is that a simple doctrinal statement may simply not be enough. The issue has become an interpretive question. How a doctrinal statement is interpreted has become as important as the creedal confession. Our response to this point has been to suggest an additional document defining terms and seeking to bring clarity to what had previously been universally understood. What was formerly a question of integrity has now additionally become a question of interpretation.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. The basic historical, grammatical method of interpretation has been the mainstay of evangelicalism. I would say it still is. But in the midst of postmodern interpretive methods and societal pressures on the traditional exegesis of particular passages of Scripture, new or different, battle lines are being drawn.

Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Infallibility

Unfortunately, some Arminians seem to be contributing to this problem. I was reminded of this truth when I read a recent article by Roger Olson. In it, he argues that evangelicals should move beyond more exclusive language about Scripture and follow him in embracing the infallibility of Scripture rather than the traditional inerrancy of Scripture. “Inspiration,” a word he readily uses, is seen to apply to the human authors of Scripture rather than the very words of Scripture themselves. Thus, his denial of a traditional evangelical approach to Scripture is an “interpretive” question. Olson posits that inspiration assures the infallibility of the purpose of Scripture, but not the inerrancy of the content.

Norman Geisler, general editor for Defending Inerrancy was quick to respond. Geisler argues that statements like Olson’s miss the point that infallibility necessarily implies inerrancy. Else, how could such a document ever be a reliable source of any kind of truth? The correspondence view of truth requires Scripture to correspond to reality. The intellectual content of belief assumes that for Scripture to serve its purpose of salvation (a purpose Olson accepts) it must also be true.

The kind of hermeneutics that can embrace an infallible, but not inerrant Scripture is, in the words of Geisler, “subjective mysticism” rather than an “objective hermeneutic.” Here, I believe that Geisler has hit squarely upon the issue facing evangelicals today.

Evangelicals are specifically a people of the book. We embrace scripture as inspired and infallible. Traditionally, we have also argued for its inerrancy. The question is now one of how these important terms are interpreted. As important as ascribing to a doctrine of Scripture is also the question of the hermeneutic that will be applied. The framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) recognized this as well. This is why just a few years after the publication of their document on inerrancy, they followed it with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982).

Historical, Grammatical Hermeneutics and Inerrancy

Article 15 of this document is clear that the historical, grammatical interpretation of Scripture is foundational for any understanding of inspiration and is the basis for the inerrancy of the original manuscripts. It reads, “WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”

Article 20 goes on to state, “WE AFFIRM that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else.” Herein, lies the need for a historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic, not only in reference to Scripture, but also in reference to historical expressions of orthodox creeds and evangelical statements of faith. Words are not simply signifiers devoid of content until that content is supplied by a context of modern interpreters. Words have meaning in the instance of their formulation in creeds and statements of faith. These very words then can only mean what the original framers meant for them to mean.

If evangelicals fail to realize the interpretive questions that lie behind their historical statements of belief, the shifting theological landscape and the rains of culture will erode the meaning of these definitional statements until only a husk remains. A proper historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic is just as important as proper statements of faith in preserving theological integrity.