The CSBI has enjoyed over four decades of usefulness due to the care the original framers took to articulate the doctrine of inerrancy within a broader doctrine of Scripture. In light of contemporary challenges to inerrancy, however, it is time to exercise that same care and re-formulate the CSBI to strengthen it for future generations.
Over a fall weekend in Chicago in 1978, approximately 300 evangelical scholars, pastors, and laymen gathered in the Hyatt Regency O’Hare to discuss and hear presentations on the issue of inerrancy. These presentations corresponded with the writing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), a 4,200-word document consisting of a preface, summary statement, 19 articles of affirmation and denial, and an accompanying exposition.
While the CSBI proved to be a useful document after its original publication, its influence has waned over the last two decades. Even so, some notable voices have sought to reclaim the CSBI as a theological touchstone for the doctrine of inerrancy. Recently, the late Norman Geisler labored to recover the CSBI as evangelicalism’s standard definition of inerrancy in his coauthored volume, Defending Inerrancy. In this book, Geisler argues for the adequacy of the CSBI by defending its various affirmations and denials in theological and philosophical detail, concluding that the document is in no need of revision or amendment.
But should we concur with Geisler that the CSBI is in no need of revision? Has there been no positive advance in the doctrine of Scripture since 1978 that may help strengthen the CSBI for future theological and ecclesial use? Even the framers of the CSBI left open the possibility of future updates. The document states, “We acknowledge the limitations of a document prepared in a brief, intensive conference and do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight.” Carl F. H. Henry included the CSBI in volume 4 of his God, Revelation, and Authority, while also conceding that the statement was “subject to future revision.” Most recently, biblical scholars Robert Yarborough and G. K. Beale have gone on record suggesting the CSBI could use some updating.
But how might we update a document that has enjoyed more than four decades of theological and ecclesiological usefulness? Over the last few years as I’ve pondered this question, my research, writing, and academic engagement have led me to conclude that the best approach is not to wipe our slate clean. Instead, CSBI reframers should work with the document in its present form, modifying existing articles and proposing new ones where appropriate. Furthermore, because the articles of affirmation and denial serve as the “heart” of the document, it will be most fruitful to focus our energy there and then address the exposition and short statements after the articles are complete.
To give you an idea of how such a project might proceed, I will offer modifications to one of the existing CSBI articles while also proposing one new article.
Article IV: The Adequacy of Human Language for Divine Revelation
We affirm that God who made mankind in His image has used language as a means of revelation.
We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.
In this article, the CSBI directly confronts a problem that many opponents to the doctrine of inerrancy have exploited over the past several decades: the matter of human language as an adequate vehicle for revelation in light of human finitude and fallenness.
Article IV clearly affirms that God has used language to communicate his revelation to his creatures, while also contending that human corruption and our inherent limitations do not render language insufficient to convey divine truth. Although a human being is sinful and thus prone to error, it does not follow that one must err, or, much less, that one must err every time one speaks. Yet, while error is not a necessary property of existing as a human (it is an accidental property), it’s true that human beings have a tendency to lie and err. God’s work of inspiration (mentioned in the last sentence of Article IV) nonetheless overcomes the human propensity to lie and secures a text free from error.
Although helpful in answering some of the challenges related to the nature of revelation and the adequacy of human language, I contend that Article IV would benefit from some modification.
First, I would strengthen the affirmation statement by wording it in such a way as to highlight God’s intention in designing human language specifically for the purpose of divine revelation. As it stands now, the affirmation statement, while acknowledging that some relationship exists between God, the creation of mankind in his own image, and the adequacy of human language, is neither sufficiently clear nor strong enough in these matters. The original statement makes it appear as though God has chosen merely to use language to communicate; it does not indicate unambiguously that he has designed human language for the very purpose of providing a sufficient vehicle for divine revelation. I suggest, therefore, the updated affirmation statement reads as follows:
We affirm that the God who speaks created man in his image and designed human language for the very purpose of conveying divine revelation.
By establishing the starting principle of God’s intention in creating human language, this updated affirmation statement immediately precludes arguments that suggest human language is somehow inadequate for divine communication. In my judgment, by merely affirming that God used human language to reveal himself, the original affirmation statement is left vulnerable to the claim that God, in delivering his revelation to his creatures, simply utilized what was available to him.
Accordingly, it becomes easy to suggest that the divine work of inspiration, beleaguered as it was by the inherent weakness and insufficiency of human language, ultimately faltered in securing an inerrant text. If, however, God fashioned human language with divine revelation in mind, then it becomes far more plausible that language is a sufficient vehicle for divine communication.