Do all the professors at the Moody Bible Institute (MBI) affirm biblical inerrancy?
This question has been hotly debated ever since I reported that one of several allegations against the previous administration was that it allowed professors who deny inerrancy to teach at the institute. Less than a week after that post, three of MBI’s top officers stepped down, though little explanation has been offered other than the board had decided it was “time for a new season of leadership.”
In a recent WORLD Magazine article, Moody VP and Dean of Distance Learning Bryan O’Neal stated, “All of our faculty affirm inerrancy annually when they sign their annual contract. It’s explicit. … There is no drift.” Similarly, MBI said in a statement released on Tuesday, “The Board, faculty, and leadership annually and without reservation agree to (MBI’s doctrinal statement) which is a condition of employment.”
However Moody’s doctrinal statement on inerrancy* was written about 90 years ago – at a time when no one could have predicted how postmodernism would change the plain meaning of words, and the concept of truth itself. At that time, no one foresaw that some evangelical scholars, like Robert Gundry for example, would claim to be inerrantists, yet hold that the magi never visited Jesus, and that the gospel writer had simply “embroidered” the text.
“The question facing the Moody Bible Institute today is not whether all its professors have signed a doctrinal statement on inerrancy, but what do they mean when they sign that statement?”
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Apparently, some of these professors hold to a theory of truth that rejects that truth corresponds to reality. In other words, they don’t believe that what the text clearly says happened necessarily happened. These professors claim to be inerrantists, but are they?
MBI Professors Reject “Correspondence View of Truth” & Chicago Statement
In a 65-page document sent in December from Theology Professor Richard Weber to Trustee Emeritus Paul Johnson (and later distributed to all trustees), Weber alleged that two members of the Bible/Theology Division “professed a postmodern view of truth that would require a re-defining of the doctrine of inerrancy contrary to the conservative evangelical definition expressed in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.”
In addition, Weber stated that MBI administrators Bryan O’Neal, former President Paul Nyquist, and VP and Dean James Spencer were asked to clarify the institute’s definition of inerrancy in light of this revelation, but refused to do so.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is a consensus document created in 1978 to defend biblical inerrancy against what many perceived to be a liberal trend within evangelicalism. It was crafted by several leading evangelicals, including J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and Norman Geisler – and signed by nearly 300 noted evangelical scholars.
Though MBI has never formally adopted the Chicago Statement, Weber said, “My entire teaching years at Moody, (the Chicago Statement) has been the statement we affirm in all our theology classes.” He added that when he was interviewed for his position 15 years ago, he was told that MBI holds to the Chicago Statement.
Yet at a Bible/Theology Division meeting on January 18, 2017, Weber said he was surprised to discover that two professors – Assistant Professor of Theology Dr. Ashish Varma and Professor of Theology Dr. David Tae-Kyung Rim – stated that they do not hold to a “correspondence view of truth” – the view on which the Chicago Statement is based. In addition, both disclosed that they reject the Chicago Statement’s definition of inerrancy.
“Holding to a correspondence view of truth is essential to affirming true biblical inerrancy . . . This view holds that if something is true, then it describes something real that actually happened or actually existed.”
Gundry, for example, argued that the gospel writer Matthew employed a Jewish literary genre called midrash when he said that magi came to visit Jesus. This genre allowed Matthew to add a non-historical element – supposedly the magi – into his narrative to make a point – allegedly highlighting the mission of Jesus to the gentiles. To Gundry, whether the magi actually visited Jesus is immaterial.
This kind of reasoning has become quite popular in evangelicalism in the past few decades, and is evident in a 2013 book by Zondervan called Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. “Three of the viewpoints in that book actually deny inerrancy of Scripture,” Weber said. “One of the contributors, Peter Enns, says there was no wall around the city of Jericho, but he doesn’t consider that to be an error because he’s essentially redefined what error means. It’s a whole post-modern game. It depends on what the definition of the word ‘is’ is.”
When pressed at the meeting, both Varma and Rim reportedly said they affirm inerrancy and see no conflict between signing Moody’s doctrinal statement and simultaneously rejecting a correspondence view of truth and the Chicago Statement. Varma said different cultures understand error differently, Weber said.
MBI’s doctrinal statement says that the Scriptures are without error, but doesn’t define what qualifies as an error. According to Weber, the meaning has always been assumed. “The understanding has been that ‘without error’ means that they are true and what they say – those things actually happened,” Weber added.
I emailed Varma asking for clarification on his view, but he did not respond. However Rim wrote in an email, “First, I am not the only one with this view. There are three or four others. On campus I am regularly grouped with these individuals – it is common knowledge.
“Secondly, my view on inerrancy is the one held by Kevin Vanhoozer in the Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, published by Zondervan. My hermeneutics is the same as James K. A. Smith (Fall of Interpretation). And my apologetic method follows Myron Penner (End of Apologetics) – hardly individuals who are marginalized in the ‘evangelical’ world. Given how controversial hermeneutics and inerrancy (how to understand it) has been in the evangelical world the last 20 to 30 years, I am not sure who has the authority to say what the majority view is.”
When specifically asked if he affirmed inerrancy as described in the Chicago Statement, Rim did not answer my question, but stated, “I want to affirm that each year I sign the Moody Doctrinal Statement with a clear conscience. I affirm each of one those articles, including the one on inerrancy.”
I talked with Kevin Vanhoozer, the well-respected author and research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School whose view Rim likened to his own. Vanhoozer’s view actually seems quite different from Rim’s. Not only does Vanhoozer affirm the Chicago Statement, but he also affirms a correspondence theory of truth.
“I affirm correspondence as an intuition into the nature of truth. How can I be a Christian and say, ‘He is risen!’ if he has not risen?”
However, Vanhoozer said he rejects an extreme or “wooden” correspondence view that holds that “every word links up to some object in the world.” He said this view fails to take into account different kinds of literature in Scripture like poetry and parables.
“Think of the Song of Songs,” he said. “If you don’t pay attention to the metaphor, the simile, all the comparisons, the flowery language, the artist’s rendering of the beloved – when everything is interpreted literally, it’s pretty frightening.” Yet Vanhoozer said the Chicago Statement accounts for different kinds of literature and is nuanced, so he is able to affirm it.
Certainly, Rim is correct when he asserts that inerrancy and hermeneutics (how to interpret Scripture) are extremely controversial within evangelicalism right now. He’s also right that many well-respected evangelicals define inerrancy and truth in ways that are very different from those who hold to the Chicago Statement. For example, one of the authors Rim cites, Myron Penner, is a postfoundationalist – someone who does not believe that knowledge claims need to be based on something absolute and certain.
I would guess, however, that some of these new definitions would make D.L. Moody roll over in his grave. As Moody once said, “Truth never grows old. The word of God is just as true today as it ever was. We want no new paths. The way our fathers took is the best way.”
The current crisis over inerrancy is not a reason for Moody to broaden its definition or to refuse to clarify it. If anything, the crisis reveals the need for Moody to be clear and unwavering, and to shine a beacon of light into the current sea of confusion. Unfortunately though, MBI – at least up until now – has been unwilling to do this.
Moody Administrators Refuse to Clarify Stance on Inerrancy
Weber reported that during the meeting last January, he tried in vain to get clarity from MBI administrators. First, he appealed to O’Neal to explain what MBI means by inerrancy. O’Neal reportedly said, “The Chicago Statement is one definition of inerrancy, but it’s not the definition,” seemingly affirming that MBI acknowledges numerous views of inerrancy and the Chicago Statement is only one of them.
Weber then appealed to VP Spencer: “What does our doctrinal statement mean when it says ‘without error’?” he asked. Spencer reportedly replied that the definition of inerrancy was beyond his purview and that it was up to the trustees and the president to define.
“I’m formally requesting that you go to the trustees and the president, and you ask them for a clarification on what our doctrinal statement means by ‘without error,’ and ask them, ‘Does that coincide with the Chicago Statement or is it something different?’ And he would not do it.”
Several days after that meeting, Weber said he sent a three-page letter through the ombudsman at Moody to President Nyquist, explaining the controversy over inerrancy and asking for clarification concerning the MBI doctrinal statement. Specifically, he asked what the doctrinal statement means by the phrase “without error.”
Nyquist responded with three sentences, which failed to answer the question: “We require faculty to affirm our doctrinal statement. The Chicago statement, written decades later, is not identical to our doctrinal statement. If a person affirms our doctrinal statement they are able to teach at Moody.” By failing to answer Weber’s question adequately, Nyquist essentially opened up MBI’s doctrinal statement to any interpretation. MBI says there is no drift at the school, but that’s because it’s ceased to have a clear reference point.
I sent emails to both Spencer and O’Neal requesting interviews and clarification, but neither accepted my request. Certainly though, O’Neal, the MBI board, and Interim President Greg Thornton understand that the issue regarding inerrancy is far from settled at the institute. And their recent blanket statements about professors signing the doctrinal statement simply obscure the issue.
Sadly Weber, whose convictions about doctrinal integrity drove him to confront MBI administration, is among 34 professors whose positions have been cut. Rim is being cut, as well. However, the institute has retained Varma. And in addition to teaching responsibilities, Varma has written theology curriculum for Moody Distance Learning. According to some professors, this curriculum does not clearly present Moody’s position on certain doctrinal issues, but instead provides students with a variety of views from which to choose.
The Way Forward
Certainly, Moody is facing an unprecedented crisis in its long and illustrious history, and inerrancy is only one of several issues leadership must address. But inerrancy is arguably the main issue because so much in Christianity hinges on our view of Scripture.
President Nyquist’s administration opened the door to postmodern understandings of inerrancy. And now Moody must decide if it is going to close that door, or follow its current, uncertain course.
In some ways, Moody’s situation is not all that different from the situation The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary faced nearly 25 years ago. The school at that time was engaged in a tug-of-war between progressives, moderates, and conservatives. However, when the trustees hired Al Mohler to serve as president, the school charted a decidedly conservative course.
Mohler was unwavering. “The task for Southern Seminary in the years ahead,” he said in his convocation speech, “is to stand on the faith . . . without compromise.”
“Now is a crucial, crossroads moment, and how MBI leadership responds today will determine the trajectory of the next several decades. As Mohler did, Moody leaders need to stand on the Word of God without compromise.”
Moody is not Southern Seminary, but I think it can learn from Southern’s example. Now is a crucial, crossroads moment, and how MBI leadership responds today will determine the trajectory of the next several decades. As Mohler did, Moody leaders need to stand on the Word of God without compromise. As Revelation 3:2 challenges, Moody must strengthen what remains.
Clarify inerrancy so there is absolutely no question what Moody means by the term or where it stands. And then expect God’s blessing. It may take a year, or as many as five or 10, but God will bless if MBI – if it is faithful.
*Initially I linked to a statement about what Moody Believes concerning the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, rather than the 1928 Statement. The 1928 Statement says, “The Bible is without error in all it affirms in the original autographs and is the only authoritative guide for faith and practice and as such must not be supplanted by any other fields of human learning.” The Moody Believes statement is more extensive and includes, “(T)he Bible, in its original documents, is free from error in what it says about geography, history and science as well as in what it says about God. Its authority extends to all matters about which the Bible speaks.“