South African Baptists on the Inerrancy of the Bible
One of the key issues around the discussion of a new statement of faith for the Baptist Union of South Africa is around the issue of the inerrancy of the Bible.
What is inerrancy and why is it important?
Inerrancy is the view that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is without error. And by ‘original manuscripts’ is meant the original words and letters written by the prophets and apostles, e.g. the letter sent by Paul to Ephesus and Corinth and so on. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy includes a helpful definition; “inerrant signifies the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.”
Our South African Baptist shared historic stance on this subject is the 1924 Baptist Union Statement of Faith, the first point of which deals with our belief on Scripture;
“We believe in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments in their original writing as fully inspired of God and accept them as the supreme and final authority for faith and life.”
But, while ‘the 1924’ affirms the inspiration of Scripture and the authority of Scripture, but it does not affirm, except by inference, the inerrancy of Scripture.
And why is this important? Besides many other reasons, one major aspect for readers today is this: If the Bible contained errors in its original manuscripts, then there are certainly errors in our translations today, so practically, how can anyone believe or state for certain, “This is what God has said to the original readers historically and this is what God says to me and us today.” It creates doubt about the authenticity of the Bible. More than that, it makes subtle statements about God, like, God has failed to communicate to people, God is not all-powerful, God’s words should be doubted, God cannot be known. Thus, inerrancy, at its heart, ultimately says something about the character of God. If God “cannot lie” (Tit 1:2) and is “truth” (Jn 14:6) and “light,” and in whom “is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5), then that which God has said must also be true and incapable of deceiving. And that indeed is what God has said about the Bible, which is “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16) and the product of “men” who “spoke from God and who were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21) producing a Bible that is ‘true truth’ as Francis Schaeffer used to call it (Jn 17:17; Ps 18:30; Ps 19:9; Ps 119:142; Pr 30:5; Jer 10:10; Jn 1:9; 1 Jn 1:1-3).
It was out of a concern to deal with this primary issue that led to the complete reworking of the statement of faith which was then called the 2017 Proposed Statement of Belief (original here), which, on the subject of the Bible includes a clear statement on inerrancy and intentionally does so without using the word ‘inerrancy’;
“We believe (1) that the Holy Scriptures consist of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments in their original writing; (2) that the Spirit of God so influenced the authors that these writings are the Word of God; (3) that because of the divine origin and inspiration of its words, the Scriptures are true in all that they affirm and are trustworthy and without error; (4) that these Scriptures are the complete and only written revelation of God to people; (5) that every translation that is faithful to the originals and responsibly interpreted clearly reveals those truths necessary for our salvation, godly living, and maturity in Christ; and (6) that Scripture alone is our sufficient and final authority in all matters of belief and practice.”
Some of our history
It’s helpful to have a look at some of the historical issues that have led to where we stand today. What were the contributing factors that led to the original formation of the 1924 Statement of faith and what have been the movements around the subject of inerrancy since then?
“The theological issues, necessitating the formulation of a Statement of Faith for the guidance of the Churches, came very much to the fore during the third decade of the twentieth century when the veracity of Scripture was being brought into serious question. The First World War had come to an end but a spirit of pessimism persisted. Biblical scepticism thrived with devastating consequences on the Church and its beliefs. At a time when the defence of the Gospel seemed to be the order of the day, South African Baptists looked to the Union for guidance in the formulation of Biblical truth. This resulted in the 1924 “Statement of Faith” which was subsequently incorporated in the constitutions of most Baptist Churches in membership with the Baptist Union” (Jonsson 1977:35-36).
The 1950’s crisis
While not every reader will be a history buff, it is fascinating to note the theological climate around the necessity of establishing our own Baptist college. Muller (1987:107) indicates that the reason the ““Baptist Union elected not to join with other Protestant denominations in the united theological training scheme at Rhodes University but rather to establish the Baptist Theological College in Johannesburg was precisely a concern for training based on a sound view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture which it was felt could not be adequately safeguarded in the proposed united scheme.”
Roy states that “The desire to have a training college in South Africa eventually resulted in the establishment of the Baptist Theological College. The Rev. A J Barnard was installed as the principal of the Theological College on February 14th1952. Barnard came from England. Very soon it became apparent that his understanding of the inspiration of Scripture was not that of South African Baptists. Barnard was an admirer of Karl Barth and had been influenced to some extent by that great scholar. This caused a crisis in the Baptist Union. ‘The Executive met in special session in September 1954 and decided to terminate his engagement and close the College forthwith. The president, L W Matthews, outlined to the 1954 Assembly the Executive’s reasons: “There is no reflection upon the scholastic ability of the principal or zeal and competency with which he has conducted his office, nor has he in any way violated the Statement of Faith which he signed and affirmed. It must, however, be realised that the Statement of Faith did not specify in detail the doctrine concerning the inspiration of the Scriptures which the majority of the Executive requires to be taught in the College, and which the majority of the ministers of the denomination believe. On his own statement, Mr. Barnard’s views are seriously at variance with those beliefs and would cause misunderstanding and division in the denomination …”’ (Parnell 1977: 108). The year 1955 opened with C M Doke as acting principal and chairman of the Council (Parnell 1977: 108).
Kevin Roy makes two things inferences; “Firstly the 1924 statement was capable of an interpretation that was not in line with the high view of Scripture held at that time by the BU. Secondly, that the intention of the framers of the 1924 statement and the understanding of the great majority of the BU leaders and ministers was that the inspiration of the Scriptures implied they were without error (2016:2)”
Moreover, the subject of the doctrine of Scripture and particularly inspiration comes out very clearly indeed in one of the most significant speeches ever delivered at a BU Assembly in October 1955.
“After the dismissal of Barnard, C M Doke was appointed as the principal of the Baptist College. In that very year he addressed the Assembly on “The Authority of the Bible.” it was published as a result of its enthusiastic reception by the delegates. This address is of enormous significance, because it clearly has the intention of making clear what South African Baptists believed concerning the Bible. The fact that it was delivered by the Principal of the College appointed by the Executive, and the fact that it was so enthusiastically received by the Assembly delegates establishes beyond doubt that Doke was not simply sharing certain personal views, but stating where the Baptist Union stood on this matter.
It is when he comes to the subject of inspiration, Doke states: “And this brings us to the very centre of our consideration in this paper – the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. If the Scriptures are to be authoritative, they must be inspired by God, that is, they must throughout be God breathed. B B Warfield says: ‘The biblical writers are called inspired as breathed into by the Holy Spirit, so that the product of their activities transcends human powers and becomes Divinely authoritative. Inspiration is, therefore, usually defined as a supernatural influence exerted on the sacred writers by the Spirit of God, by virtue of which their writings are given Divine trustworthiness.’ Common sense and an ordinary understanding of terminology, then, bespeak for the original autographs of Holy Scripture absolute freedom from error or blemish” (Doke 1955:23). Beyond doubt, Doke understood inspiration as preserving the Scriptures from error. That is what the original framers of the 1924 statement meant and that is how the majority of Baptists understood it up to the time of Doke and beyond.” (Roy 2016).
The 1977 withdrawal
S. Hudson-Reed’s “Together for a Century” and Ellis Andre’s “The Baptist Understanding of the Relationship between Church and State with Particular Reference to the South African Situation” includes an “analysis of how the Union’s ‘conservative evangelical’ stance towards Scripture and contextualization finally led to its total withdrawal from membership of the South African Council of Churches in 1976.”[
The 1986 Poll
In addition, Muller notes, citing the minutes of the Baptist Union Executive of June 1986, that “the Baptist Union Executive expressed concern at “the growing theological diversity with the Denomination'” and noted the “lack of strong and effective leadership” in the denomination (1987: 144).
I quote from Dr. Gordon Muller’s Master’s Dissertation of 1987 entitled “The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture in the Baptist Union of Southern Africa.”
“In 1986, the results of his poll of 500 Baptist pastors show that regarding full biblical inerrancy, 93% agreed to this but is qualified as “Although 93% marked this option, this included 15,5% who at the same time also marked other contradictory options such as c) and d) which could bring these supporting full inerrancy down to 77,8%. Thus between 6,7% and 22,2% were not in favour of inerrancy.”
This would indicate that the vast majority of the 500 pastors polled in 1986 held to “full biblical inerrancy.”
This led to the 1990 Baptist Union Assembly affirming a new statement on the doctrine of Scripture placing the issue of the inerrancy of Scripture front and centre;
“The Holy Scripture was written by men who were supernaturally moved by the Holy Spirit in such a way that their writing was divinely inspired. This inspiration of the Holy Scripture extends equally to all parts; the thoughts and ideas are expressed in words which are themselves inspired. It is wholly reliable trustworthy and true without any mixture of error. It has been and will be kept by the Holy Spirit throughout all ages in such a way that we may have confidence in the text before us today.”
For some reason, this was never included in the Baptist Union Statement of Faith, nor a clarifying amendment made to the 1924 Statement. This failure has been recognised by the current Baptist Union Executive in the Minutes of the Baptist Union Executive dated 5-8 June 2018.
There is among certain circles, an argument against “pinning my theological colours to the mast” which seeks to find motivation from our own principle of religious liberty and they will readily quote; “no individual should be coerced either by the State or by any secular, ecclesiastical or religious group in matters of faith” (Statement of Baptist Principles, 6). Regarding the issue of the principle of ‘religious liberty’ which some feel gives freedom regarding theological ‘restrictions’ and ‘tight-jacketing’, Muller notes that “Scriptural authority is prior to and foundation for the principles derived from it and it would be strange indeed for one of these principles to overthrow the very basis on which it is constructed! The opening paragraph of the original statement proposed in 1986 affirmed, ‘The Holy Scriptures are the inspired Word of God and their authority is inextricably linked with that of Christ; they are therefore the final authority for the church and its members in all matters of faith and practice. In the light of this, we believe that…’ One can surely deduce from the Statement that the authority of Scripture has priority over the principle of religious liberty if this principle is used as a pretext to undermine Scriptural authority.” (1987:151).
Muller observes that “The difficulty in establishing ‘the Baptist view of Scripture’ has already been shown to be an almost impossible task due largely to: A) Baptist reluctance to use confessions and creeds as the touchstone of orthodoxy. B) the liberty of conscience of the individual believer leading to varying convictions regarding aspects of the doctrine of Scripture.” However, there is no doubt that without a clear statement on this matter and consequent matters, the churches of the Baptist Union of Southern Africa will continue to drift theologically on primary issues as we have and the bounds of our highly regarded diversity extend yet further to breaking point.
Muller quotes Rex Mathie as having said “in South African Baptist life, probably the most important area of doctrinal concern is that related to the inspiration of Holy Scripture” and “to hold a low or liberal view of Scripture is to invite theological decline and also ultimately a decline in the spiritual life of individuals and congregations. The pregnant evidence of Baptist Unions outside of this country where a low view of Scripture has replaced a previously high view of inspiration is a salutary reminder to us of this important fact” (Muller:171).
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is particularly helpful and worth a thorough read. I close with just a section as a helpful reminder of how to steer through some challenges of Scriptural harmonisation;
“The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called phenomena of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself. Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.”
So, let’s affirm together our collective stance on the lack of error in the Bible, and the lack of confusion in a God who is has communicated clearly, perfectly and Sovereignly.
Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf accessed 5 Feb 2019
Mathie, R.G. Memorandum on Theological Trends, p1
Muller, G. 1987. “The Inspiration and Authority of the Scriptures in the Baptist Union of Southern Africa.” Thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch.
Roy, K. 2016. “The BU Statement of Belief in Historical Context.” Email dated 13 October 2016.