by Dan Lioy

Abstract

The major premise of this chapter is that when a seminary abandons the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, it becomes the critical first domino or tipping point that leads to the school’s rapid and dramatic decline. The opening section begins the discourse by exploring the sobering state of theological education in North America. Next, in the second section, biblical inerrancy is defined and described, followed by the third section considering the testimony of Scripture to its inerrancy. The fourth section deliberates the perils when divinity schools yield ground on biblical inerrancy. The fifth section concludes by reiterating the importance of a seminary vigorously maintaining a high view of Scripture.

The perils when seminaries yield ground on biblical inerrancy

In the second section, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was defined and delineated. Following this, the third section explored the witness of God’s Word to its own inherent inspiration, validity, infallibility, and authority. The intent of the present section is to set forth the perils graduate theological education faces when seminaries yield ground on the teaching that God’s Word is factual, correct, and reliable.

Allison (2011:99) elucidates that from the earliest days of Christianity, the ‘church’ believed the Judeo-Christian canon was ‘completely true and without error in everything it affirms’. Moorhead (2016) dispels the fallacy that this doctrine is a ‘modern invention’ (75) of twentieth-century ‘fundamentalists’ from the global north. His analysis of the ‘original source material’ (76) from the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Modern eras indicates that the ‘inerrantist view’ was uniformly taught down through the centuries in both the ‘Eastern and Western’ branches of the church.[1]

Erickson (2013:195–6) spotlights the danger of ‘biblical inerrancy’ being labeled a ‘peripheral or optional matter’. The tendency is for ‘other doctrines of the church’ to either be weakened or discarded, including the ‘deity of Christ’ and the ‘Trinity’. More to the point, there is a strong correlation between a theological college’s unshakable confidence in the inerrancy of God’s Word and the integrity of the academic institution.

Just as insidious, when a high view of Scripture is abandoned, it can serve as a catalyst for a seminary’s general decline and eventual demise. Indeed, as Mohler (2013:31) asserts, apart from a ‘principled and explicit commitment’ to ‘biblical inerrancy’, institutional drift and impoverishment result. Allison (2011:116–7) points to the divinity schools at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Fuller as categorical, representative examples of this widespread phenomenon.[2] Indeed, an erosion of a commitment to Scripture’s trustworthiness undermines a theological college’s spiritual vitality and effective witness to the gospel.

On one level, as Brown (1975:8) contends, the generations-long circumstance is a ‘battle for the authority of the Word of God’; yet, on another level, as Lovelace (1980:26) clarifies, operative here are not just ‘flawed conceptual positions’, but also matters involving the metaphysical health of divinity schools and the ethical veracity of their administrators and faculty. Moreover, he draws a needed contrast between a ‘rigid, graceless orthodoxy’ (47) and a commitment to a ‘high view of Scripture’ that is ‘advanced with intelligence and grace’. Ephesians 6:12 offers pertinent insight. Paul stated that from an eternal perspective, the confrontation is not really against flesh-and-blood opponents; instead, the fight is against malevolent entities in the celestial realms.

With the preceding truths in mind, Grudem (1994:100) identifies four ‘serious problems’ that arise from a denial of ‘inerrancy’, each of which here will be applied at an institutional level to seminaries. First, such a stance encourages an indifference to telling the truth in matters that appear minor or inconsequential. After all, as the argument goes, the Creator, through His Word, ‘intentionally spoke falsely to us in some of the less central affirmations’. Presumably, then, it is permissible for believers to ‘speak untruthfully in situations’, especially if it enables them to ‘communicate better’. For divinity schools, this ethically corrosive mindset quickly becomes a ‘slippery slope’ that produces ‘ever-increasing negative’ outcomes, such as those put forward in the preceding paragraphs.

Second, when the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible are contested, it calls into question whether any confidence can be placed in a single declaration the Lord has made in Scripture. According to this line of reasoning, dissembling on ‘minor matters’ indicates that God is able and willing to mislead in larger, more consequential issues. In turn, it is straightforward to envision that administrators and faculty members in theological colleges who espouse such a harmful view would embolden their students to transgress those commands of the Bible they ‘least wish to obey’. Seminarians would also be encouraged to regard as suspect other troublesome passages they would prefer to ignore. Each of these inclinations soon prove to be a ‘great detriment’ to the ‘spiritual lives’ of future church leaders, including pastors, missionaries, and evangelists.

Third, rejecting the accuracy, validity, and authority of God’s Word insinuates that ‘human minds’ are a ‘higher standard of truth’ than the Creator and what He revealed in Scripture. Imagine the damage this premise has spawned for generations of students in divinity schools who are being trained to lead entire faith communities. Seminary professors would indicate by their haughty demeanor that it is acceptable for those whom they are mentoring to ‘pass judgment’ on any and all sections of the Bible. Allegedly, administrators, faculty, and students alike delude themselves into thinking that they ‘know truth more certainly and more accurately’ than the triune God revealed in Scripture. As Grudem surmises, this diseased mindset is the ‘root of all intellectual sin’.

Fourth, a weakened emphasis on the infallibility of the Bible encourages Christians to deny and reject the major doctrines of the Christian faith. This observation harmonizes with the point Erickson made (stated earlier) about the ‘impact inerrancy has had historically’ (2013:195) on the church. Within a seminary context, administrators and faculty taking such a stance are treating with contempt the ‘nature of Scripture’. Their attitudes and actions demonstrate to future ministers of the gospel that they can declare to their parishioners, with impunity, that the ‘Bible is wrong’, both in terms of its ‘minor details’ and major ‘doctrines’.

Grudem (1994:100) offers a crucial ‘word of caution’ about the preceding ‘undesirable positions’. Specifically, it would be incorrect to make a blanket assumption that those who ‘deny inerrancy’—including divinity school administrators, seminary professors, church leaders, and so on—also espouse any or all of these adverse tenets. To take this a bit further, one’s dialogue partners should be evaluated ‘on the basis of views they actually hold’ (101), not ones they have never embraced. One must also avoid imposing on interlocutors ‘positions’ one thinks they would otherwise advocate, but have never embraced, ‘if they were consistent with their stated views’.

Conclusion: the importance of seminaries affirming biblical inerrancy

This chapter is appropriately ended by reiterating the importance of seminaries vigorously maintaining a high view of Scripture. This includes affirming its truthfulness and trustworthiness and letting the Bible remain at the center of a divinity school’s confessional commitment, curriculum emphases, and ministry endeavors. Along with bringing honor to God, a corresponding aim is to ensure the short-term viability and long-term well-being of a theological college.

Seminal in this regard are the observations put forward by Brown (1975:8–9), which were articulated over four decades earlier. Even so, his admonitions remain as valid today as they were in preceding generations. First, the importance of affirming biblical inerrancy is not just a once-in-awhile venture, but (more importantly) an undertaking requiring perseverance. Expressed differently, it is imperative for seminary administrators and faculty to address directly and continually any and all ‘challenges to institutional faithfulness’. Also, as put forward in the preceding sections of this chapter, abandoning the doctrine of inerrancy is the critical first domino or tipping point that leads to a divinity school’s rapid and dramatic decline.

Second, theological colleges must adopt and uphold a biblically-based and theologically sound ‘confessional statement’. Admittedly, endorsing an ‘excellent statement of faith’ does not automatically ensure it will be kept. For all that, the ‘evidence of history’ indicates that an adherence to the apostolic teachings of the early church is a ‘necessary condition’ to prevent scriptural and ecclesial drift from occurring in a seminary. As argued in this chapter, the first-order presupposition is vigorously maintaining a high view of Scripture.

Third, the divinity school’s ‘confessional statement’ should both ‘identify the important doctrinal issues’ and ‘speak decisively’ about them. A case in point would be the SATS’ statement of faith, which its faculty and staff affirm without any ‘mental reservations’.[3] For instance, in addition to holding to the inerrancy of Scripture, the Seminary is Trinitarian in its theology. Likewise, there is an emphasis on the reality of sin, the triune God’s provision of salvation through the Son’s atoning sacrifice at Calvary, and the one true church comprising the worldwide body of Christ. Moreover, SATS stands on the following triune doctrinal foundation: (1) the ‘unique authority of the Word of God the Father’; (2) the ‘lordship and centrality of Jesus Christ’; and, (3) the ‘ministry of the Holy Spirit’.

Fourth, graduate institutions of theology must refuse to embrace the pagan beliefs and practices of the corrupt age in which believers live. As argued in this chapter, the starting point is maintaining a commitment to the full inspiration, validity, integrity, and authority of the Bible. In turn, this becomes the basis for divinity schools remaining distinctive from pernicious heathen philosophies. This includes, according to Brown (1975:8), the ‘amorphous mass of nominal Christendom’, which is ‘largely conformed to the world’.

Here, ‘world’ refers to the secular, ungodly, humanistic system under Satan’s control. At every turn, this system opposes God and actively seeks to subvert His plan of salvation for humankind. For this reason, 1 John 2:15 declares that one cannot ‘love’ that ‘world’ and all that it has to offer and ‘love’ God at the same time. Similarly, James 4:4 asserts that it is impossible to cultivate ‘friendship with the world’ and remain at peace with the Creator. Seminary administrators, professors, and students are prudent to recognize that the two options are mutually exclusive.

Fifth, divinity schools must never lose sight of the essential truths of the Christian faith. This begins with championing the doctrine of inerrancy. As stated by Brown (1975:8), seminaries should also resist the temptation to sacrifice their core principles on the altar of becoming increasingly ‘successful’. In keeping with what was stated earlier in this chapter, the ash heap of history is littered with accounts of theological colleges imploding and crumbling as a result of seeking to obtain ‘standing and recognition in the eyes of the general public’.

The above is one reason why the founders and senior administrators at SATS—including the school’s current Principal, Dr. Reuben van Rensburg—have refused to compromise on the doctrine of inerrancy.[4] It also explains why the Creator has enlarged the academic tent of SATS. Likewise, the Lord will enable the Seminary to flourish for many years to come, especially as the baton of leadership is passed to a new generation of faithful Christian educators. Because of their resolute commitment to the Scriptures as the supreme and final authority for faith and life, God promises to ‘do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Eph 3:20). For this reason, the triune Lord receives ‘glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations’ (v. 21), both in the present age and in the endless ages to come.

Short bio: Dan completed his doctoral studies at North-West University. He is widely published and has a particular interest in intertextuality between the testaments, Biblical ethics and spiritual care in professional settings. Dan has extensive experience in tertiary education and a passion for scholarly excellence.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.

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[1] For other conservative evangelicals making similar historical arguments about the inerrancy of Scripture, cf. Hummel (1988); Lovelace (1980); Prieus (1967); Vanhoozer (2017); Woodbridge (2011); Yarbrough (2014).

[2] According to Hartroop (2017), a downturn in admissions led Fuller Theological Seminary (in Pasadena, California) in 2017 to close three of its regional campuses (namely, in Seattle, Menlo Park, and Orange County).

[3] Much of the content of this paragraph is derived verbatim from the SATS’ statement of faith, which can be found here: https://www.sats.edu.za/about-us/statement-faith/.

[4] A synopsis of SATS’ history can be found here: https://www.sats.edu.za/about-us/history/. Also, an animated look back at the Seminary’s people, places, and programmes, can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4grK3_S1ms.