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Winter 2019 Commencement Address: “Truths Worth Contending For”


Again, it’s such a delight to have each one of you on the campus at Midwestern Seminary today rejoicing with us at what God has done through the lives of these graduates and what He will do in the future. We are a hopeful people because of Christ. That hope is made all the more sure because of people just like you, who Christ has called to serve His church. This morning in the context of commencement, I am preaching a sermon entitled: “Truths Worth Contending For: Biblical Inerrancy.” We’re beginning a series on this campus in the context of graduation and convocation over the next couple of years where I will be preaching on particular topics, doctrinal topics, of particular urgency and relevance. This morning we begin where we should begin: biblical inerrancy. Now I acknowledge on the front end the context of commencement for such an address presents certain limitations, namely constrictions of time and the awareness that our crowd today, many of you came primarily for a celebration of graduates, not a doctrinal presentation. But the context of commencement also provides certain opportunities. Most especially for an institution of higher learning, commencement is perhaps the biggest, the grandest stage that we have to offer. And our topic today, biblical inerrancy, merits such a stage. Indeed as a Southern Baptist institution, the topic of biblical inerrancy demands a grand public stage. To our faculty and seminary community this morning it is a reminder and reassertion of one of our central foundational truths, biblical inerrancy, we cling to it, and why we must contend for it. To our guests today, biblical inerrancy simply put is the belief that the Bible is without error. It is an argument for the truthfulness of God’s Word, that the Bible is indeed His Word. It is divinely inspired, comprehensively truthful, and thus authoritative for life and doctrine. And it is from this inerrant Word that we can know our inerrant Savior, Jesus Christ. And so we preach and believe in this place that Jesus Christ, as we have sung, is indeed God’s only Son.

He is the second member of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God. He was born of a Virgin Mary. He lived a sinless life. He performed signs and wonders. He died on the cross for the sins of many. He was raised from the dead on the third day. He shall return to judge the living and the dead. And only those who place their faith through repentance in Jesus Christ have hope of eternal life through Him. We know that truth and so many others from God’s Word. To our graduates this morning, during your time here, we have done our best in the purest and noblest sense of the phrase to indoctrinate you.

You chose that when you chose a confessional institution; as Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College are. You purchased that when you paid tuition. Biblical inerrancy is high on the list of items you have been taught. You have encountered it early and often in your studies here and it’s good for you to encounter it anew as we send you out for a life in ministry not built on the inerrant Word of God is one built on sand. Indeed biblical inerrancy is a truth worth contending for. In the months ahead we will also be considering topics like the sufficiency of Scripture, the exclusivity of the Gospel, penal substitutionary atonement, biblical complementarianism, biblical marriage and many others. So it’s good and fitting and right that a theological institution places front and center theological matters for ourselves. These are truths worth contending for. To contend. Of course, that word takes us to that little epistle, the epistle of Jude, where Jude opens that little letter and calls his readers to contend earnestly for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. To contend earnestly for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. In the New Testament and the ancient world to contend often appears in athletic or military contexts referring to a struggle or an intense effort.

It is a present infinitive conveying ongoing action. We are to contend continually. We transliterate the underlying Greek word into the English word “agonize” or when verbalized “agonizing.” Not to read contemporary uses or meaning back on the Greek, but it does give us a sense of color. To contend earnestly, to appeal, to exhort, to encourage, to contend earnestly for the faith entrusted to you. To entrust is to hand something down, to pass something down with expectation of care, of preservation, of stewardship, of protection, to contend for the faith. Here is the apostle’s teaching, most explicitly, the preaching of the Gospel and the collection of Christian doctrine, which was so quickly taking shape for that faith once and for all. It is remarkable how quickly in the New Testament, the early church, the apostolic teaching had come together, codified, congealed into a recognizable body of truth.

Clear enough to know what it is and what it isn’t. Clear enough to preach, to teach, to contend for it. Clear enough to know when it’s been deviated from. Clear enough to know what and when we must contend for it. We are not theological reductionists or doctrinal minimalists. Yes, we contend for the heart of the Christian faith, but we contend for so much more. The faith once and for all delivered to the saints. There’s a personableness to this responsibility. It matters. You would contend for food for your children. You contend for truth for the church. The spiritual wellbeing of the saints, Jude reminds us, the spiritual wellbeing of the church depends on the contention, the faithful contending of Gospel ministers. Contending. We should mull this over together this morning. To contend for the faith, to contend for truth, to contend for sound doctrine is a good and biblical activity. To contend is a good and biblical word. To contend is virtuous.

It is noble, it is spiritual, it is essential. To contend for the truth is what Christians ought to do. To contend for the truth is what ministers are called to do. It’s what seminary instructors are paid to do and it’s what you graduates have been equipped to do. Let’s tease this out for a moment. To contend may include conflict. It may include fighting and even schism if need be, but contending doesn’t necessarily include that. It means to advocate, to articulate, to persuade, to appeal on behalf of, to set forth. And we know in this arena, extremes always exist. On the one end is pugilism, historically framed as fighting fundamentalists. We’re not called to be pugilistic, belligerent, controversialists, needlessly polemical. If social media is any indication, contemporary evangelicalism has a surplus of such. On the other end is a passive, a weak, a timid faith. Those who appreciate being liked so much, they’re willing as it were, to enter into a theological nonaggression pact and float lazily down the river of doctrinal compromise. There’s another way, a better way, a way I seek to practice by God’s grace and a way I pray you will too. It is to be a cheerful contender, a happy warrior, a person who is not looking for a doctrinal fight, but is prepared and willing when called upon to engage one. We ought not be on the lookout for something to fight over, but we should always be on the lookout for the truths we need to contend for. Not poised to fight, but prepared and willing to do so. In the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:24-25 we’re reminded this is a heart disposition as well. Paul writes, “The Lord’s bond servant must not be quarrelsome but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition. If perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.”

Remember after all, we are trying to win a brother, not win an argument. We are to contend in public, I believe, and to engage on social media in such a way as like a pastor would a church member to the flock to care, to counsel, to warn, to occasionally rebuke, but to never be condescending or shrill or misrepresenting the other position intentionally. As to that, fair warning, to contend is to run the risk of being labeled a controversialist, a pugilist. The stakes are high, however. Undoubtedly you will get mugged on social media. You will be perceived as cranky at times, as misunderstood by many and even misrepresented by some, which is always a delight. But I give you permission this morning, especially you Gospel ministers not to sweat that too much. Be willing to ignore it. Be willing to press on and know that to be in the arena is to contend and to contend is to be misunderstood and misrepresented, but that is a risk we must be willing to take.

Ultimately, our aim is to please God, not man. Priority number one is to protect His truth, not our ministry reputations. How to know what to contend for, what makes the list? That’s a million dollar question, is it not? The truth of the matter is we cannot always be advocating for everything. To do so is to insufficiently contend for anything. You’ll adequately contend for nothing. Our friend Albert Mohler has helpfully spoken of theological triage and I suppose we intuitively do something along those lines. For me, I often think along the lines of Stephen Covey’s four quadrants. Stephen Covey, if you know his writings, he’s not a theologian. In fact, I don’t even think he’s a Christian. But his quadrants for leadership and work management I have found helpful when thinking about this category. Covey breaks down life and work in four categories: what is important and urgent, what is important and not urgent, what is urgent and not important, what is not urgent and not important. As to contending, we should live in the first two quadrants: important and urgent, important and not urgent and work hard to avoid the latter two categories of urgent but not important and certainly avoiding not urgent and not important. One final note as we think about contending on the front end of the sermon, nature does indeed abhor a vacuum. We must speak right and articulate the truth. We cannot assume the truth for what one generation neglects the next generation so often rejects. This I know: unsound doctrine always sprouts in the soil of ambiguity. It flourishes where doctrinal teaching and preaching doesn’t. Like kudzu it overtakes where failure to contend for sound doctrine exists. That is why we must be careful listeners and careful speakers. We must listen for the passive tense, root out vagueness, ask people to clarify their statements, to define their terms. Some argue we should not assume the worst of others. I argue we shouldn’t assume anything in others. Talk, dialogue, query. Ask them to help you understand their position. Be charitable, be patient, be careful, but don’t be derelict, especially if you carry the titles of doctor or reverend. Now, all of that is by way of introduction.

This first topic demands something of a prolegomena and thus we’ve had it. Why we contend. Biblical inerrancy. My aim this morning is not so much to defend the Bible. I resonate with St. Jerome who famously said, “Defend the Bible? That is like defending a lion.” It is not even so much to make the case that the Bible is inerrant. It is rather to make the case that the fact that the Bible is inerrant is a truth worth contending for.

As to the first, what is biblical inerrancy? I’ve already said that it means simply that the Bible is without error, which is an accurate definition, but we can be more thorough than that. More accurately it is to say that the Holy Spirit super intended the biblical authors such that the original autographs were free from error. More to the point John Frame has written, “To say the Bible is inerrant is simply to say that it contains no false assertion.” The Baptist Faith and Message, which is appropriate for us to cite in this context, argues this, “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end and truth without any mixture of error for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.” A touch more elaborative statement, I can point you to the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, those who know it know it is rather long. I will not read all of it, especially not its affirmations and denials, but I will pluck out three paragraphs to further elaborate here. The Chicago Statement argues, “That as God, who is himself truth and speaks truth only, He has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself. Holy Scripture being God’s own Word written by men, prepared and super intended by His Spirit is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches. It is to be believed as God’s instruction in all that it affirms, obeyed as God’s command and all that it requires, embraced as God’s pledge in all that it promises. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all of its teaching. No less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God and its witness to God’s saving grace and individual lives.” Here of course the references to the original autographs, the original manuscripts. I have been indulging myself for the past couple of weeks in genealogical research and I was talking to a friend at ETS and he mentioned that he had done some geological research on and I said, “I’ve always wanted to do that.” And he told me about, I looked into it and I found myself in that moment profoundly thankful in a targeted way for the work of Mormons behind that effort and have over the past week and a half or so be able to go back up the family tree, and you begin to split, but some family lines going back into the 17th century.

Hope to go back further. Interesting thing about those family trees. If you inaccurately confirm a relative who isn’t a relative, then the next line up is what? Inaccurate. And it sends you off on a tangential of people that none of which are your ancestors. Inerrancy is kind of like that. If the Bible is impure at its fountainhead, if the Bible was errant as given by God, then imagine the corruption and inaccuracies that have accumulated along the way. For fuller treatment still, I would point the ambitious ones in the room to books like “The Erosion of Inerrancy” by G.K. Beale, “The Heresy of Orthodoxy” by Andreas Köstenberger and Michael Kruger, for the most ambitious in the room I would point you to “The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures” edited by D.A. Carson. Yet my personal favorite, and we’ll reference this again later, is “Baptists and the Bible” by Russ Bush and Tom Nettles.

“Dr. Allen, if inerrancy requires such careful definition, is it needed? This word itself, it’s sticky. We have to work for it. We have to clarify it. We have to define it and it’s a stumbling block to many anyway.” Well, let me remind us this morning if you avoid a word because it needs careful definition there will be precious few words left that matter in theology or any other discipline. “Inerrancy” is an essential word. It is not a shibboleth as has been argued by some in the eighties and nineties in particular. Others have argued that to assert inerrancy as a perennial word and a word doctrine to contend for perennially is a tendentious understanding of history. It’s a novel understanding. This word was ginned up in the early 20th century, initially in the fundamentalist modernist controversy and then took on new heights in the Baptist battles of the late 20th century. Does the word “inerrancy” matter? Absolutely.

It is that truth and that word, “inerrancy,” both that are worth fighting over. It’s not just an appropriate word, it’s an essential one. It’s an indispensable theological term because it is more difficult to nuance away. There’s less wiggle room with it. You can’t play games with it. There’s not established elasticy to it like other words that erstwhile did speak to the superiority and truthfulness of the Bible. Words like inspiration, infallibility, and authority. The truthfulness of Scripture indeed has been a consistent belief of the confessing church throughout the history of the church. Augustine to St. Jerome, who translated the Vulgate, wrote in 405, “I confess that I believe most firmly that only the authors of the canonical books of Scripture were completely free from error. And if in these writings I’m perplexed by anything which appears to me contrary to the truth, I do not hesitate to conclude that either the manuscript is faulty or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said or I myself have failed to understand it.”

In other words, if there’s a problem, it’s with you not with the text. Most compellingly, John Woodbridge’s book “Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Roger’s/McKim Proposal” convincingly demonstrates the persistency of inerrancy both in concept in term throughout church history. In our own context, the Southern Baptist context, the book “Baptists and the Bible,” which was published in 1940 by Russ Bush and Tom Nettles, is an indispensable work on this topic. They argued and demonstrated that throughout Baptist history, this high view of Scripture has been asserted and reasserted and reasserted. I point each one of you to it. So the point this morning heretofore is there are truths worth contending for. There even are truths worth dividing over. Inerrancy is such a truth. Our doctrine of inerrancy, we develop it and we can only have it through the doctrine of divine inspiration. We must note that divine inerrancy, biblical inerrancy is only possible because of divine inspiration and in this regard, one of the touchstone passages, 2 Timothy 3 verse 16 where Paul writes that all Scripture is inspired by God. All Scripture is given to us by God from his inner most being. It’s breathed out and we develop from this verse and others the doctrine of the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture. That God indeed has inspired it and that inspiration covers the words themselves, meaning they are God’s words is thus true. And the plenary doctrine of inspiration is that all of those words are true, not some of them. All of them are true. This of course does not negate the human authors’ writing style, et cetera, but it recognizes that God inspired the author in such a way as to include what He wanted, exactly what He wanted and communicated and captured it in the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not to argue that inerrancy is precision-ism.

We acknowledge round numbers and general statements and assorted ambiguities in the text. Moreover, it’s not a dictation theory of inspiration that does happen in places in Scripture. Additionally, inerrancy doesn’t preclude grammatical irregularities in the extant manuscripts, but even the critics acknowledge these are largely due to issues of transmission and translation. In other words, these are man’s mistakes, not God’s. And even critics acknowledge with some 5,000 ancient manuscripts, it corroborates its accuracy that what we have is unlike any other ancient document. Inerrancy, it matters. I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist church. The Bible was preached every week. I was in church most every Sunday hearing the Bible preached. And as a kid you tend to, you tend to normalize your experience. You assume that every family is like your family. And you have a sleepover with another family and you realize they are rather different than your family in many ways.

You, at least I assumed every church was like my church. I didn’t have any theological categories, but I knew the Bible was important and we believe the Bible and Jesus was important and he was God’s Son and we should put our faith in Him and we’re supposed to tell other people about Jesus. And so I just kind of assumed, “I guess all churches believe that. Surely they do.” And I went to college my freshman year in a Jesuit setting at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. And I went to class and I wasn’t even a believer yet at the beginning of the semester, I became a believer in the course of that semester, but not because of that class. But I was there and the priest who was speaking began to talk about the Old Testament and just began to matter of factly talk about the inaccuracy of the Old Testament, the figurative, symbolic, allegorical nature of Genesis 1 through 11 and I’m just there thinking, “Why not? I thought God created, and Adam and Eve were real, and the flood happened.” And so there’s a class of 40 or 50 students and you know they are typical college students, but there are three or four or five of us whose head is spinning and asking, “Well, wait a minute, but this is God’s Word.” And we found ourselves that day being ridiculed by the professor. I remember one sweet young lady, a few rows over, raised her hand and said, “My daddy is a Baptist preacher. My daddy has taught me since I was a little girl the Bible is God’s Word. You’re telling me it’s not today.” And he said, “That’s exactly what I’m telling you, dear. It doesn’t matter what your daddy taught you.” This is a real life issue.

It’s a matter of real concern and when a church loses the Scriptures, it loses the Gospel. When a denomination loses the inerrant Word, everything begins to collapse within. And we can’t help but think about this topic without reflecting on our own denominational context in the Southern Baptist Convention. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of a major conflict that would roil our denomination in the 1980s and 1990s. And inerrancy became the focal point of that controversy for two reasons. Number one, inerrancy was perceived to be the most essential point because flowing out from it flows so many other doctrinal topics. And number two, practically it was a simplifying, clarifying issue. The easiest for the people in the pew to grasp and easiest for them to understand how grave the situation was. We’ve been reminded anew in recent years that all of our leaders have clay feet, including some of the personalities associated with the Conservative Resurgence.

Yet that does not in any way undermine the necessity of that effort. The justness of that cause or the paramount importance of those issues then or now. At Midwestern Seminary, even closer to home, our own denominational and institutional history occurred on this campus. Ralph Elliott, the Elliot Controversy, the very first professor to sign our statement of faith, wrote a book that would roil the denomination entitled, “The Message of Genesis” when the opening pages just begin to teach the documentary hypothesis–strait laced theological liberalism. We have in this place a stewardship to always serve, never with that memory too distant. What is more, that document that was signed, that confessional statement contained literally an asterisk to it which created a hole in it that one could drive a truck through. A confessional statement with an asterisk is no confessional statement at all. So why must we have an inerrant Bible?

I am moving as quickly as I can. I shall move even more quickly. Number one: the Bible self’s attestation. Throughout Scripture, the authors refer to it as God’s truth. The Bible claims to be inerrant. Jesus himself would say things like, “Truly, I say to you until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.” In John 10:35 Jesus says, “The Scriptures cannot be broken.” In John 17 Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by Thy Word. Oh Lord, Thy Word is truth.” Or to put it more bluntly, given the Bible’s own truthfulness and claims to truth, if Scripture is actually errant, brothers and sisters, we have far greater problems at hand. Then it must not just be errant or inaccurate but also misleading. In other words, if it’s errant, it’s thus unworthy of our study, of our care, of our obedience.

Reason number two: issues of epistemology. If we don’t have a true text, we do not have a certain Word. If the Bible is errant, then where do we go for truth, for instruction, for spiritual nourishment? If the Bible isn’t entirely true, who discerns what is? The slippery slope isn’t a slope. It’s a deadly cliff. Just observe the Jesus Seminar of recent past. There are others who claim to be more charitable than the Jesus Seminar, though. And the argument goes something like this, “We can’t trust it at every point, but it’s largely trustworthy.” Imagine being married to a spouse who you couldn’t trust all the time, but you can mostly trust. Imagine having an employee that wasn’t entirely trustworthy, but more often than not was. Imagine having a medicine bottle that wasn’t always accurate, but most days was. Imagine having a cardiologist who tended to be right. You see, if we can’t trust the Bible at every point, we can’t trust it at any point. Third: the authority of Scripture is linked to its inerrancy. Authority is eroded if an errancy is questioned. That’s the point after all, right? If you don’t like its truth claims, its moral expectations, you undermine it all together. If you don’t want to be under its authority, if you don’t want it to tell you how to live and who you are to marry, how you are to order the most intimate details and aspects of your life, then the way you deal with that is to reject it altogether and you’re able to reject it by denying it as God’s Word, by denying that it is inerrant. Number four: why we must have an inerrant Bible: the integrity of God. A Bible that can’t be trusted gives us a God who can’t be trusted. Think with me, brothers and sisters, if God created all that is, if He reigns in his sovereignty over all the cosmos, if He has accomplished redemption for His people, it is but a small thing to preserve a text for His church.

A Bible that can’t be trusted gives us a God who can’t be trusted. Fifth: we need an inerrant Bible to know and follow Christ accurately. Where else should we go, can we go, for the saving knowledge of the person, the work of Jesus?

“Don’t give me the Bible, just give me Jesus,” some might say. Brothers and sisters, we have no Jesus to give but the Jesus of Scripture. When I hear, “Don’t give me the Bible, just give me Jesus,” I hear, “Don’t give me the Jesus of the Bible. Permit me to make one. Please make one up for me that’s more compatible.” Six: the history of theological and denominational decline reminds us of the centrality of inerrancy. I don’t have time to recount the Downgrade Controversy, the trajectory of mainline Protestantism, the Southern Baptist Convention, Dean Kelley, “Why Conservative Churches Grow,” and all the rest I would like to speak to this morning along these lines. But let me just drive home this point that Scripture is the norming norm as the Reformers argued. We know the soundness of every other doctrine by measuring it against the Word of God and every church, every denomination, every movement, every category and collection of Christians who’ve moved away from the Word of God have moved away from the Gospel, have moved away from everything the Bible teaches and holds dear as far as why we exist, as relates to evangelism and the Great Commission, it always leads to ruin. So much so we argue seventh: that inerrancy undergirds evangelism and missions, the exclusivity of Christ. Can you give up on inerrancy but hold onto the Gospel? I suppose possibly, but only briefly. We’re saved by the Gospel of Christ, not the doctrine of inerrancy. But mark it down. When one generation rejects scripture, the second always seem to reject the gospel.

Eighth: why do we need an inerrant Scripture? Those of us who minister know this better than others. Our cultural moment demands a sure Word and the more counter-cultural Christian witness is, the more pressure the church feels. “I am not sure” does not buck up the troops. “I think it might be what God said” isn’t a clarion call for faithfulness. And ninth: inerrancy is a simplifying truth. If you will decide that once and for all and believe it with all that you are, it will simplify a thousand other doctrinal and ministerial conversations and topics that you encounter along the way. My mind goes back to Billy Graham and that great story he tells about when he was wrestling with the truthfulness of Scripture and got alone before God on the mountain and opened the Word and was convinced in his heart that the Bible was true. And he would talk about that turning point in his life in ministry and how that propelled him onto faithfulness and to a life of gospel service. Contending for the truth, biblical inerrancy.

My favorite quotes concerning Christian ministry and contending for the faith is attributed to Martin Luther. I think he wrote it. I hope he did. If not permit me to romanticize about him in this moment. Writing, “If I profess with the loudest voice, the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rage is, the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.” To contend for the truth, what else would we do? We are called to a life of consequence, of courage, of bravery, of sacrifice, of commitments. I’m reminded of Thomas Macaulay “The Lays of Ancient Rome,” “Then out spake brave Horatius/The captain at the gate:/To every man upon the earth/Death cometh soon or late./But how can man die better/Than facing fearful odds,/For the ashes of his fathers,/For the temple of his gods?” We are to keep the faith, to proclaim the Gospel, to preach the Word, to contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Brothers and sisters, and especially graduates, there are truths worth fighting for. There are truths worth living for. There are truths worth dying for. Thank you.


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