Inerrancy and the NIV

by Michael Marlowe

From the beginning of its existence the NIV has been touted as a version made by evangelicals who had the greatest respect for Scripture, and on this ground it was supposed to be worthy of acceptation in conservative evangelical churches. The original NIV preface (1973) declared that “certain convictions and aims have guided the translators. They are all committed to the full authority and complete trustworthiness of the Scriptures, which they believe to be God’s Word in written form.” In the 1978 preface this statement was strengthened to read, “the translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God’s Word in written form.”

This commitment was however called into question by many people when in 1997 it became known that the NIV Committee on Bible Translation (which included some of the original translators) had produced a gender-neutral revision of their NIV. Such tampering with the language of the Bible in order to conform it to “politically correct” speech was not expected from a group which had portrayed itself as sharing the usual evangelical belief in the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. True, there had been conservative scholars who pointed out that the meaning of anthropoi is often inclusive of women, and may rightly be translated “people,” which is quite true, but the very idea of revamping thousands of verses in order to avoid translating masculine pronouns was another matter. The preface of the gender-neutral “Inclusive Language Edition” even contained the alarming words, “it is often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language,” which implied that the translators were not so much interested in translating as in suppressing many details of the Biblical text which they judged to be undesirable. Such an attitude towards the text of Scripture was disturbing to those who believed in its verbal inspiration.

The International Bible Society responded to these concerns with the following reassurance on their website: “IBS won’t publish an inaccurate NIV. We don’t have to, and we won’t. Secondly, we believe in CBT [the Committee on Bible Translation]. Each member is an evangelical scholar who signs the Lausanne statement (or its equivalent) on the authority, inspiration, and infallibility of the revelation of the Word of God. These scholars constantly monitor each other’s work to ensure its quality and trustworthiness. We at IBS are confident of their reliability in these days of compromise.” (From a document posted in the “questions and answers” section of the IBS website, and signed “Dr. Eugene F. Rubingh, Vice President, Translations, International Bible Society.” The document was taken down some time ago, but a copy is archived here.)

Likewise Tom Mockabee, Vice-President of Zondervan (American publisher of the NIV), wrote the following words in a letter on March 27, 1997, to Joel Belz, the Publisher of World Magazine, in response to their article about the Inclusive Language Edition of the NIV: “Operating from the conviction that the Bible is the inspired and wholly reliable Word of God, the translators wanted to faithfully reproduce what the original Scripture writers wrote, in language that people could read and understand without difficulty. They were — and are — committed to the authority and infallibility of the Bible.” (see a copy of this letter here).

Because Dr. Rubingh refers to the “Lausanne Statement” in the IBS response quoted above, we ought to explain that this was a document (officially called the Lausanne Covenant) that was issued in 1974 by a conference of neo-evangelicals meeting in the city of Lausanne, Switzerland. The Covenant (online at the Lausanne Movement website) contains the following words regarding the inspiration of the Bible: “We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

So then, all of this seems to be reassuring. However, a closer look at the way in which the language of these statements is commonly interpreted and explained by certain “evangelicals” is needed.

The word “infallible” is often used in reference to the Bible by persons who mean only to affirm that the Bible infallibly accomplishes the purposes for which it is given, but who do not believe that the Bible is free of errors. For this reason many have made a distinction between the words “infallible” and “inerrant.” Those who wish to affirm the inerrancy of the Bible do not use the word “infallible” alone, so as to make themselves clear on this point. One who affirms merely the “infallibility” of the Bible, without using the word “inerrant,” shows by this choice of words that he does not believe that the Bible is inerrant. That is how these words have come to be used by people who are familiar with the theological jargon of our day. For more information on this a good source is Donald G. Bloesch, The Future of Evangelical Christianity: A Call for Unity Amid Diversity (New York: Doubleday, 1983). Bloesch makes a distinction between the ‘right wing,’ ‘moderate,’ and ‘left wing’ evangelicals, and he says, “While the right wing of the neoevangelical movement is particularly insistent on the inerrancy of Scripture, the moderate and left wings prefer to speak of the infallibility of Scripture.” (p. 30) Even “when moderate neoevangelicals employ the term ‘inerrancy’ in reference to Scripture, they generally have in mind its teaching or doctrine,” says Bloesch, and not necessarily everything in the biblical text. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) was accordingly designed to remove all doubt as to the meaning of these words in an explicit statement of inerrancy for those who wish to declare themselves unambiguously in favor of the traditional and orthodox doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. It will be noticed that in the NIV preface and in the statements by representatives of the IBS and Zondervan quoted above, the word “inerrant” is not used, and there is no reference to the Chicago Statement.

As for the phrase “without error” in the Lausanne Covenant: While this may seem to assert the inerrancy of the Bible, in fact the words “without error in all that it affirms” are not interpreted as an assertion of total inerrancy by many of the persons who have said that they agree with the wording of the Lausanne Covenant. The phrase “in all that it affirms” is the loophole. Many who have declared their subscription to these words say also that they do not believe that the authors of Scripture really meant to “affirm” some of the things that are to be found in Scripture. Some of the Bible (they say) is composed of “traditional” material which the authors “incorporated” in their writings, without any intention of “affirming” its historical accuracy. Again, the Chicago Statement was designed to prevent this evasion. Subscribers to the Lausanne Covenant might say, for instance, that the account of the creation of the world in Genesis contains material that has been “incorporated” and therefore it is not to be received as an inerrant “affirmation” of Scripture.

A good example of this approach is the attitude taken by John Stott, a prominent British “evangelical” who was one of the framers of the Lausanne Covenant. In a book published in 1999, Stott says that “the word inerrancy makes me uncomfortable” for several reasons. He says it “sends out the wrong signals and develops the wrong attitudes,” and it is “unwise and unfair to use inerrancy as a shibboleth by which to identify who is evangelical and who is not.” In Stott’s view, “it is impossible to prove that the Bible contains no errors,” and the important thing is “not whether we subscribe to an impeccable formula about the Bible but whether we live in practical submission to what the Bible teaches.” (Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness [InterVarsity Press, 1999], pp. 61-62.) Regarding this “practical submission” to the teachings of the Bible, Stott has elsewhere explained that “although biblical truth is eternal and normative in its substance, it is often expressed in changeable cultural terms.” He notes that the Lausanne Covenant described Scripture as “without error in all that it affirms,” and says it is our task “to determine what it does affirm” in substance. And after that, “we have the further task of reclothing this unchanging revelation in appropriate modern cultural dress.” What all this may mean for Christian faith and life is not clear, but an idea of the practical consequences of this line of thinking may be seen in Stott’s opinion that, despite the clear prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, he and his like-minded colleagues have rightly “expressed the view that a woman could be ordained and so could teach men.” He suggests that an appropriate “contemporary expression” of the biblical teachings would be for an ordained female to teach men while being part of “a local pastoral team, of which a man would be the head.” (Roy McCloughry, “Basic Stott,” an interview with John Stott published in Christianity Today, 8 Jan 1996.) Here we have come a long way from traditional views of biblical truth and authority, and it is not surprising that Stott and other neoevangelicals who agree with him do not like to use the word inerrancy.

One who takes this approach might decide that any number of chapters or features of the Bible represent uninspired and obsolete cultural traditions. And this is precisely what has happened in the NIV “inclusive language edition,” in which the editors speak so contemptuously of the “patriarchalism” of the biblical writers. It is evident that the writers of this preface are on the ‘left wing’ of the neo-evangelical movement. The reaction against the gender-neutral revisions of the NIV has come from the more conservative side of the evangelical movement, which holds to the more traditional conception of inerrancy as defined by Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and other conservative theologians who were trying to turn back the tide of liberalism early in the twentieth century.

The statements issued by Zondervan and the International Bible Society were apparently designed to create an impression that liberal views were not to be found among members of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation “in these days of compromise.” The translators were merely revising the NIV with gender-neutral language so that “people could read and understand without difficulty.” There is no cause for alarm; the translators firmly believe that the Bible is “authoritative,” “inspired” and “infallible,” and so they may be trusted. How could anyone who declares that the Bible is “infallible” be looked upon as a liberal? But as we have seen, and as the writers of these reassuring statements must surely know, it is quite possible for someone to use the words “infallible” and even “without error” while departing widely from the familiar conservative respect for the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures.

Some Passages to Ponder

“there are those within evangelicalism who are quite happy to use the words ‘infallibility,’ ‘inerrancy,’ and ‘without error,’ but upon careful analysis they really mean something quite different from what these words have meant to the church historically … the old words infallibility, inerrancy and without error are meaningless today unless some phrase is added such as: the Bible is without error not only when it speaks of values, the meaning system, and religious things, but it is also without error when it speaks of history and the cosmos. If some such phrase is not added, these words today are meaningless. It should be especially noted that the word infallibility is used today by men who do not apply it to the whole of Scripture, but only to the meaning system, to the value system, and certain religious things …” —Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway Books, 1984), pp. 56-57.

“I must regretfully conclude that the term evangelical has been so debased that it has lost its usefulness. … Forty years ago the term evangelical represented those who were theologically orthodox and who held to biblical inerrancy as one of the distinctives. … within a decade or so neoevangelicalism, that started so well and promised so much, was being assaulted from within by increasing skepticism with regard to biblical infallibility or inerrancy” —Harold Lindsell, The Bible in the Balance, 1979, p. 319.

“… evangelicalism in the 1990s is an amalgam of diverse and often theologically ill-defined groups, institutions, and traditions. … the theological unity that once marked the movement has given way to a theological pluralism that was precisely what many of the founders of modern evangelicalism had rejected in mainline protestantism. … Evangelicalism is not healthy in conviction or spiritual discipline. Our theological defenses have been let down, and the infusion of revisionist theologies has affected large segments of evangelicalism. Much damage has already been done, but a greater crisis yet threatens” —R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Evangelical - What’s in a Name?,” The Coming Evangelical Crisis, 1996, pp. 32,33,36.

“A growing vanguard of young graduates of evangelical colleges who hold doctorates from non-evangelical divinity centers now question or disown inerrancy and the doctrine is held less consistently by evangelical faculties. … Some retain the term and reassure supportive constituencies but nonetheless stretch the term’s meaning” —Carl F.H. Henry, chairman for the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism, “Conflict Over Biblical Inerrancy,” Christianity Today, May 7, 1976

“Most people outside the evangelical community itself are totally unaware of the profound changes that have occurred within evangelicalism during the last several years—in the movement’s understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, in its social concerns, cultural attitudes and ecumenical posture, and in the nature of its emerging leadership. … evangelical theologians have begun looking at the Bible with a scrutiny reflecting their widespread acceptance of the principles of historical and literary criticism … The position—affirming that Scripture is inerrant or infallible in its teaching on matters of faith and conduct but not necessarily in all its assertions concerning history and the cosmos—is gradually becoming ascendant among the most highly respected evangelical theologians. … these new trends … indicate that evangelical theology is becoming more centrist, more open to biblical criticism and more accepting of science and broad cultural analysis. One might even suggest that the new generation of evangelicals is closer to Bonhoeffer, Barth and Brunner than to Hodge and Warfield on the inspiration and authority of scripture” —Richard Quebedeaux, “The Evangelicals: New Trends and Tensions,” Christianity and Crisis, Sept. 20, 1976, pp. 197-202.

“A surprising array of equally dedicated evangelicals is forming to insist that acceptance of historic christian doctrines does not require belief in an inerrant book. … What has made it a new ball game today is the emergence of a new type of evangelical. These persons accept the cardinal doctrines of Christianity in their full and literal meaning but agree that the higher critics have a point: there are errors in Scripture, and some of its precepts must be recognized as being culturally and historically conditioned” —G. Aiken Taylor, “Is God as Good as His Word?” Christianity Today, Feb. 4, 1977.

“Prior to the 60s, virtually all the seminaries and colleges associated with the neo-evangelicals and their descendants adhered to the total inerrancy understanding of biblical authority (at least they did not vocally express opposition to it). But it is a well-known fact that a large number, if not most, of the colleges and seminaries in question now have faculty who no longer believe in total inerrancy, even in situations where their employers still require them to sign the traditional declaration that the Bible is ‘verbally inspired,’ ‘inerrant,’ ‘infallible in the whole and in the part,’ or to affirm in other clearly defined words the doctrine of inerrancy that was formulated by the Old Princeton school of theology and passed on to fundamentalism. Some of these faculty interpret the crucial creedal clauses in a manner the original framers would never have allowed, others simply sign the affirmation with tongue in cheek” —Richard Quebedeaux, The Worldly Evangelicals, p. 30.

“More and more organizations and individuals historically committed to an infallible scripture have been embracing and propagating the view that the Bible has errors in it. This movement away from the historic standpoint has been most noticeable among those often labeled neo-evangelicals. This change of position with respect to the infallibility of the Bible is widespread and has occurred in evangelical denominations, Christian colleges, theological seminaries, publishing houses, and learned societies” —Harold Lindsell, former vice-president and professor Fuller Theological Seminary and Editor Emeritus of Christianity Today, The Battle for the Bible, 1976, p. 20.

“My main concern is with those who profess to believe that the Bible is the Word of God and yet by, what I can only call surreptitious and devious means, deny it. This is, surprisingly enough, a position that is taken widely in the evangelical world. Almost all of the literature which is produced in the evangelical world today falls into this category. In the October 1985 issue of Christianity Today, (the very popular and probably most influential voice of evangelicals in America), a symposium on Bible criticism was featured. The articles were written by scholars from several evangelical seminaries. Not one of the participants in that symposium in Christianity Today was prepared to reject higher criticism. All came to its defense. It became evident that all the scholars from the leading seminaries in this country held to a form of higher criticism.
    These men claim to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. At the same time they adopt higher critical methods in the explanation of the Scriptures. This has become so common in evangelical circles that it is almost impossible to find an evangelical professor in the theological schools of our land and abroad who still holds uncompromisingly to the doctrine of the infallible inspiration of the scriptures. The insidious danger is that higher criticism is promoted by those who claim to believe in infallible inspiration.” —Herman Hanko, The Battle for the Bible, pp. 2,3. [Hanko’s book should not be confused with Harold Lindsell’s book by that same name.]

“Today the light of Reformation has been significantly dimmed. The consequence is that the word ‘evangelical’ has become so inclusive as to have lost its meaning … As Biblical authority has been abandoned in practice, as its truths have faded from Christian consciousness, and its doctrines have lost their saliency, the church has been increasingly emptied of its integrity, moral authority and direction … As evangelical faith becomes secularized, its interests have been blurred with those of the culture. The result is a loss of absolute values, permissive individualism, and a substitution of wholeness for holiness, recovery for repentance, intuition for truth, feeling for belief, chance for providence, and immediate gratification for enduring hope” —The Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 1996.

“Some of Evangelicalism’s best-known theologians and seminary and college professors are now debating among themselves ideas that would have been deemed entirely nonnegotiable before the last quarter of the twentieth century. Destructive applications of redaction theories, source criticism, literary speculations, and so on have always been the theological liberals’ stock in trade. However, to see evangelicals applying this sort of Historical Criticism in order to cast doubt on the authenticity or historicity of the biblical text is unprecedented. Tragically, the prevailing attitude among evangelical scholars today closely mirrors the extreme tolerance that left the door wide open for Historical Criticism in the leading mainline schools and denominations of a hundred years ago.” —John F. MacArthur, in the Forward to The Jesus Crisis: The Inroads of Historical Criticism into Evangelical Scholarship, edited by Robert L. Thomas and F. David Farnell (Kregel, 1998).