Over the past fifty years, Christian pastors, teachers, and theologians in North America and Great Britain have grappled with Scripture and with one another over what truly constitutes an evangelical doctrine of Scripture. For these past several decades, the focal point of the debate has been—and still is today—the doctrine of inerrancy.
Due to the seeming complexity of the debate over inerrancy and the fact that it has been primarily taken up by scholars and pastors in the West, we may be tempted to think inerrancy is not a foundational doctrine for missions. While scholarly objections to inerrancy have necessitated equally rigorous responses, it is crucial for churches and mission organizations to understand that the debate—complex as it appears—trades on a basic principle: either the Bible is wholly true and reliable at every point, or it isn’t.
Evangelical inerrantists have labored for decades to uphold the simple axiom that Scripture is entirely true and without any formal error or contradiction. But here’s the stark reality for us as we consider the task of the Great Commission: If we lose inerrancy, we lose global missions. How can I make such a statement? Consider these three reasons.
1. Missionaries can’t distinguish Christianity without an inerrant Bible.
Christian missionaries not only preach the gospel to a particular people group; they, by necessity, engage the dominant local religion—whether it is Hinduism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, or some form of animism. The existence of other religious truth claims requires that missionaries demonstrate why the Christian faith is not only true, but is the truth.
“If we lose inerrancy, we lose global missions.”
The basis of such arguments, however, is the conviction that God has spoken clearly, truthfully, and coherently in his Word—a word that can be embraced and trusted without qualification.
Drop inerrancy, and you remove the logical and theological footing on which you can stand and challenge other religious claims. At best, you can say that Christianity is better than competing religions, but you can’t say it’s the truth. But such a plea is a mere matter of preference, and it doesn’t possess the power to topple spiritual strongholds and create the conviction required for true conversion (see 1 Thess. 1:5–10).
2. Missionaries can’t establish and maintain healthy churches without an inerrant Bible.
The end game for missions isn’t individual believers scattered throughout a countryside or urban center, but local congregations of Christ-loving, God-worshiping, gospel-proclaiming believers, firmly rooted and steadily growing.
It’s possible to imagine a missionary sharing the essential tenants of the gospel without a commitment to inerrancy and tallying a few believers here and there. But without an inerrant Bible, it’s impossible to establish and maintain healthy, gospel-perpetuating churches. Why? Because a congregation’s spiritual health is dependent on its ability to confidently receive the Word of God. Introduce small doubts about the truthfulness of Scripture to God’s people, and we slowly but surely erode the faith required to receive and find nourishment from his Word (see Heb. 4:2).
“Without an inerrant Bible, it’s impossible to establish and maintain healthy churches.”
Surely we all understand this. Over the past century, we’ve witnessed theological liberalism decimate churches and stifle true gospel proclamation both in North America and England. Churches and seminaries in the West that hedged on inerrancy eventually lost their gospel witness, filling the doctrinal vacuum with myriad of social endeavors that usually mirrored the larger culture’s concerns (for good or ill).
Let’s not be so naïve so as to believe that it will be different overseas once we allow our missionaries to abandon inerrancy. The gospel thrives in the soil of inerrancy and dies when it is removed from its native habitat.
3. Missionaries can’t train indigenous pastors without an inerrant Bible.
One of the most heartbreaking consequences of higher-critical scholarship is its tendency to keep interpreters from dealing directly and confidently with the biblical text. Due to complex questions raised by historical-critical scholarship about a text’s source and authenticity, biblical interpreters are discouraged from engaging the text at face value. Even some faithful commentators are now required to spend disproportionate space in their books covering issues related to a text’s historicity and veracity before they begin commenting on the text as it reads.
“The gospel thrives in the soil of inerrancy and dies when it is removed from its native habitat.”
Higher-critical approaches to the Bible also undermine systematic theology. History reminds us that once inerrancy is no longer the fundamental assumption of our exegetical work, we eventually lose the conviction that the Bible possesses an inherent unity and doctrinal coherence. Without inerrancy, the Bible is all diversity and no unity, and the idea of a cogent systematic theology becomes elusive if not impossible. These developments are devastating for pastors and their task of biblical study and preaching. Indeed, a loss of inerrancy cuts at the root of the Great Commission, for it robs pastors of the ability to teach their people to obey everything that Jesus taught (Matt. 28:18–20).
A strong doctrine of inerrancy, however, provides precious confidence to indigenous pastors. In order for these pastors to feed and equip their people, they must be able to preach with conviction from a Bible they know is inerrant.
But in order to preach with conviction from Scripture, they must be able to study it with the certainty that every verse and passage they study is God’s inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word, and that this Word possesses an inherent unity that can be discovered and taught. The Bible is a glorious gift! And we want the pastors we train overseas to be able to mine its truths for their own soul and for the souls of their people. This can only happen if we hold fast to inerrancy.
“A loss of inerrancy cuts at the root of the Great Commission, for it robs pastors of the ability to teach their people to obey everything that Jesus taught.”
One might object that merely getting the Bible into the hands of indigenous pastors and teaching them about inerrancy isn’t enough, for the copies of Scripture we have today aren’t inerrant. While this objection may appear to have some merit—inerrancy belongs, strictly speaking, to the original autographs of Scripture, not the copies—it fails at a crucial point: the Son of God had no problem referring to and teaching authoritatively from copies of Scripture (e.g., Matt. 15:8–9; 19:4). This fact alone should give us confidence that our copies today—supported as they are by a massive textual platform of ancient manuscripts—are worthy to bear the classification of inerrancy.
When we give copies of Scripture to indigenous pastors in their own language, we should deliver them stamped with an immovable confidence that this book is truly inerrant. Take this book, my brother. Read it, study it, and teach it to your people, knowing that every word is God’s Word: true, trustworthy, and without error.
Given these three reasons, we can say that it is an essential task—a matter of first importance—for churches, seminaries, and sending agencies to ground their prospective missionaries in the doctrine of inerrancy. This training will involve engagement with some of the historical and contemporary debate, but most importantly, it will require students to become thoroughly acquainted with what Scripture says about its own nature. The Bible is breathed out by our holy God (2 Tim. 3:16), and therefore true (Ps. 19:9; Prov. 30:5), pure (Pss. 12:6; 19:8), complete (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18–19), perfect (Ps. 19:7a), sure (Ps. 19:7b), enduring (Isa. 40:8; Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:17), and trustworthy (2 Pet. 1:19).
In summary, the Bible is truth (John 17:17), and it’s all you need for life and ministry (2 Tim. 3:17). Go, therefore, and take this Word to the nations for the glory of God and for the salvation and health of his people.
Derek J. Brown (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship of Silicon Valley and professor of theology at The Cornerstone Seminary in Vallejo, California. You can visit his blog at FromTheStudy.com.