Friday, August 01, 2014

Corduan on the Chicago Statement

Win Corduan provides an insider account and defense of the much maligned and often ridiculed Chicago Statement on inerrancy:
I have made the point that Protestants, in considering the traditions of the church and the statements issued by councils, accept them as potentially very helpful ways of coming to terms with doctrines based on the Bible, but they do not consider them to be of equal authority with the Bible. On the other hand, this approach doesn’t entail that they are merely suggestions that can be ignored at a whim if one should be so inclined because, as I have stated, they are unparalleled ways of structuring the doctrines in question. Not to consider them is not an indication of freedom, let alone creativity, but an indication of ignorance or sloth.

Of course, once an organization has established certain creeds or doctrines as requirements for membership, they are binding for those who want to be a part of it. Else, there would probably be not much of a point in having the organization. This assertion is not theological in nature; it just has to do with one’s commitment and with one’s sincerity in honoring the commitments one has made to a certain group. So, for example, if I were to join a Reformed Church, and their requirement would include accepting the Heidelberg Confession and the Canons of Dort, then I should subscribe to them, and if I didn’t, I should neither join up, or, if I changed my mind later, remain I should not remain within the group. (I was going to ask rhetorically whether any group would ever pass a declaration that pronounced, “On the whole, we’re not sure about this"? But, come to think of it, the fifth article of the Remonstrance reads that way, which has no bearing, of course, on its truth or falsehood). These considerations apply to both Church and para-Church organizations. Church groups are under a little bit more pressure because, after all, most of them contend that they represent true biblical Christianity. Para-church organizations, even though an arm of the church, have more freedom to establish their statements of faith because they will be geared to fit their calling (and perhaps the comfort of participating individuals).

Which brings us to ICBI, ETS, and ISCA. The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) was formed by a group of theologians and pastors in order to restore to prominence what they perceived to be the proper understanding of the nature of the Bible. Please understand here, that the word “council" in this context refers to a relatively small group of self-selected evangelical leaders, such as J.I. Packer, Norman L. Geisler, Gleason Archer, James Boyce, etc., and that they agreed that after accomplishing what they were trying to do, they would dissolve themselves—as they did. As a rookie, so to speak, I was not on the council, but I was there for the first two “summits" as participant and signatory.) The group was not ecumenical, and it did not intend to be so. From the beginning, it had a very specific agenda, namely, to promote a clear understanding of the inspiration of the Bible and its entailment of inerrancy.

One of the things that they did in order to further that end was to hold larger “summit" meetings that would come up with a lengthy statement expounding on the doctrine. It was not intended to be a large-scale forum for debate where fundamentalists, evangelicals, neo-orthodox, modernists, and so forth would get together and hammer out their differences in order to arrive at a nothing-burger statement, which would be mutually acceptable to all of them. The intent right from the beginning was to defend the view that was held by people who had a commitment to biblical inerrancy and to deny positions that were incompatible with it. Of course, there is (and should be) an ongoing dialogue with other Christian traditions, but this was not one of them. The official statement was intended to say, “Okay, we represent this view of the Bible and biblical inerrancy, which we believe is the correct one; this is what we mean by it." In the future evangelical Christians could then consult this document stating what this group of evangelicals leaders, both scholars and pastors, defined as the best understanding of “biblical inerrancy." It could not be binding on any person or any organization except by choice.

At the first summit in 1978, the council invited a larger number of representatives from the evangelical community who would be in sympathy with their goals. Your bloggist had the privilege of being present at this, the first of three “summits." I was still definitely feeling like a rookie, probably because I was, as I was mingling among these evangelical leaders (“those who seemed to be ‘pillars,’"). This larger group had no more ecclesiastical authority than the small core; it cannot even be defined as a “Council" in the same sense as Nicaea or Chalcedon, and the ICBI statement made that point right from the beginning. Leaders of some denominations were present, but their attendance and later implementations in their denominations, if any, was up to them and their churches. We spent several days listening to different people address various aspects of the topic of inerrancy and working on refining it. At the outset of the meeting, a prepared statement was circulated, to which everyone, in large and small groups, could make comments and suggest changes. (By the way, this is the method that other large groups also have used, for example Vatican II or the World’s Parliament of Religions; what comes out in the end is often very different from the original draft.)

The result was the celebrated “Chicago Statement," though I, for one, had no idea at how “celebrated" it would eventually become; viz. I wasn’t sure how many people would actually pay any attention to it. Having been present at the meeting, I can vouch for the fact that we did not see ourselves as bishops or prelates but as evangelicals who were working together on an important matter. I remember somebody remarking somewhere along the line, perhaps in an elevator, that if the folks who put together the Westminster Confession were called the “Westminster Divines," we should be called the “Chicago Divines." But that was meant as a joke. We were serious, but not sanctimonious. I suspect that the folks at Vatican II, despite the necessary glorious self-references in the documents, felt the same way.

Obviously, the statements should not and cannot be interpreted as de fide, nor would the council even have dreamed of coming up with anathemas. How could a consultation of this sort, which was not a church, anathematize anyone? The statements of denial are simply statements of “that’s not what we mean." They were indictments of ideas as false in the light of our conviction of truth. In fact, we stressed in the discussions, as well as made a point in the document, that people who did not accept the statement were not, ipso facto, non-Christians. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of negative feedback from those who did not share our understanding on Scripture because a) they were not consulted; and b) they did not get to write the rules, c) the standards were published even though they disagreed with them, and d) they didn't like anything evangelicals did.

The council was very much aware of the potential gap between believing that what the Bible says as true and trustworthy and understanding its content. Thus, a few years after the first large meeting, they held Summit II (1982), which specifically dealt with hermeneutics, the theory of how to understand a text, or, more specifically in this case, the text of the Bible. Once again, papers were read, debated, and discussed. At times the conversation got just a little heated. The outcome was another statement, again including affirmations and denials, on the consensus that could be established on hermeneutics among those who subscribed to biblical inerrancy. Once again, your bloggist had the privilege of being there, presenting a paper, and participating in the discussion. Seriously, I am pleased that I was invited and was allowed to be a part of something that turned out to be far more significant than I had imagined at the time.
Fast-forward to the twenty years or so, to the time when the Evangelical Theological Society was debating the topic of “open theism." The society had only two points of doctrine in their statement of faith, namely, a commitment to the inerrancy of the 66 books of the biblical canon and a statement affirming the Trinity. For a while, already prior to the discussion on open theism (the belief that God has chosen not to know the future), some people had raised questioned how exactly inerrancy should be interpreted. Others told me that they felt free to sign the statement affirming inerrancy while giving themselves quite a bit of latitude in how they understood the term. I remember a brief discussion with a seminary teacher who quipped that, well, he was signing the statement every year, but he was pretty sure that what he meant by “inerrancy" was most likely not what most other members of the society meant by the term. Most everyone around the table chuckled at this juvenile “school-boy-defies-headmaster" attitude. It was not a good moment for me to bring up the topic of personal integrity, let alone the not-so-revolutionary idea that, rightly interpreted, the Bible is, in fact, true in all that it affirms. I doubt that this professor allowed his students to cheat on his exams, but he was cheating them.

Now, I like to think that maybe I may have had a teensy-weensy little part in what ensued. The context of the discussion at ETS in the early 2000’s was the debate on “open theism." The main question came down to whether two members who held to the view of “open theism" could remain a part of the society. Underneath that matter was a theological issue, namely, whether open theism, according to which God does not know the future, is compatible with biblical inerrancy. One of the difficulties is that one cannot reconcile a God who is less than omniscient with predictive prophecies, those that have already been fulfilled and those that are still outstanding.

During that debate, one of the gentlemen whose membership was in question declared that the idea of biblical inerrancy was so ambiguous or vague that it really could not provide a solid standard against which we could measure the correctness of what he was teaching and writing. His own statement to that effect was followed up by other people chiming in that they, too, were really confused about the meaning of biblical inerrancy. I availed myself of the opportunity of making a speech of no longer than five minutes (though I’m sure I did not even take that long), which I concluded by asking: “If you’re not clear on the meaning of ’inerrancy,’ what in the world are you signing every year?" There was a little bit of giggling and just a smattering of applause, which the president of the society immediately gaveled down. Bill Craig, who was sitting right next to me, grinned as he complimented me on my “little rhetorical flourish," though I'm pretty sure I didn't change his mind on the larger subject.

So, since the meaning of inerrancy had been raised within ETS, it received official action. I’m don't know precisely what the ensuing process was because right about then I stopped attending ETS for various unrelated reasons. I do know this: the society responded to the criticism that the idea of “inerrancy" was too vague, and that it needed to spell out in more rigorous terms exactly what should be entailed by it. And so it did. The society voted that the operative more precise understanding was the Chicago Statement. Thus, theoretically, the alleged ambiguity should have been resolved. (I believe, though, that a number of people who had claimed to be befuddled by the term a few years ago are now complaining that it is too restricted and narrow, and that, consequently, it is legitimate for them to circumvent it.)

Nobody (to my knowledge) is making any claim that the Chicago Statement has been divinely revealed, that it is inspired, that it bears intrinsic authority, or anything else that one may associate with creedal statements in some churches. Nevertheless, it did become the official reference point for the Evangelical Theological Society, who as I said, is not a church nor claims to be an arbiter over the Church. Now, I must add, lest I create a wrong impression, that I don’t think that the Chicago Statement was totally arbitrary or just an opinion, or that anybody else’s formulation would be just as good as that one. Just as with the Nicaean and Chalcedonian creeds did with their topics (though on a different scale), I think that it expressed the meaning of biblical inerrancy in a very solid and rigorous way, one which can easily withstand the opposition to inerrancy by self-appointed judges who believe that it is wrong for a group to establish membership criteria that excludes them.

Now, most of the foregoing was, as I said, yet another stack. So, let’s pop back to where we’re supposed to be and remember that our main issue here is neither the question of inerrancy per se nor the question of any one particular person’s stand on the issue of biblical authority. My point is the nature of the Chicago Statement, and how it is useable for the church in general. It is an affirmation that anyone who takes the inspiration of the Bible seriously should take into account. After all, if you don’t believe in the full truth of the Bible, on which our doctrines are supposed to be based, how can you justify your particular doctrines — unless you resort once again to tradition and a magisterium? As to the societies that have adopted the Chicago Statement as a part of their statement of faith, they have not added another authoritative creed alongside the Bible, but have committed themselves to an interpretation that suits their identity. For Protestants, creeds are only as authoritative as we allow them to be, and the same thing applies to the Chicago Statement.

Thus, there is absolutely no inconsistency, let alone contradiction, in a Christian organization such as ISCA (International Society of Apoogetics) making reference to the creeds in clarifying its doctrinal basis. It is not thereby violating its avowed beliefs concerning the value of external traditions and authorities.

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