Friday, October 15, 2010

Criswell. Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True - A Book Review

Criswell, W. A. Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True. Nashville: B&H, 1969. 160 pp. $18.50.

Most known for his pastoring of First Baptist, Dallas, and his denominational involvement in the SBC, Criswell, a graduate of Baylor University and Southern Baptist Seminary, was influential in the lives of well known believers such as Billy Graham, Paige and Dorothy Patterson, and Rick Warren, just to name a few, as well as a myriad of other not as well known believers. His commitment to Scripture was legendary, demonstrated by his involvement in the conservative resurgence; his dedication to preach through the entire Bible literally, grammatically, historically at First Baptist; and books like Why I Preach the Bible is Literally True, one of his fifty plus publications.[1]


This self-described "testimony" from Criswell's heart was not written as a textbook, but as an encouragement for "minister to preach the Bible as the literal, inspired, God-breathed truth of heaven" (7). Criswell structured this in three parts: Why I Believe That the Bible is Literally True; What I Preach, Believing That the Bible is Literally True; and An Appeal to My Brethren to Preach That the Bible is Literally True. In the first part, Criswell offers arguments from experience, Scripture, archeology, history, comparative religions, and logic to convince his audience that the text they have in their hands is literally true. In the second part, he encourages the preacher, using logic and his personal experience, to preach through the Bible and to preach the Bible and the gospel as literal. He also encourages them to trust in the Bible when it comes to counseling and dealing with human problems. In the midst of this part, he dedicates two more chapters to apologetic arguments for the veracity of Scripture: one dealing with the book of Genesis and the other dealing with the theory of evolution. In two other chapters he deals with the veracity of Christ and of his atonement and the effects of a non-literal Bible on the Gospel, encouraging the preacher to preach a real incarnation, a literal atonement, a physical resurrection, and a living Lord who will come back physically. In the last part, he appeals to his brothers in Christ to stand on the authority of Scripture. Here his appeal is to logic, experience, history, Baptist heritage, and to the flaws of the liberal position.

Critical Evaluation

The greatest critical assessment of this book is its "preachy" nature. With little to no value as a research or academic tool, due to its lack of all but one footnote (several people are quoted throughout the book, including: B. H. Carroll, R. A. Torrey, and Winston Churchill, but none, except for Churchill are referenced), this book was truly written for the sole purpose of being an encouragement. This results in some benefits, but also in some flaws.

The first benefit is that the book is an easy, uplifting read that leaves the reader encouraged about the veracity of Scripture. As in a good sermon, Criswell seasons his writing with illustrations, making this book a depository of illustrations. This depository should be appreciated by preachers preparing to preach on passages that deal with the subject of the veracity of Scripture (even if one has to trust Criswell at face value on their accuracy and veracity due to the lack of referencing). A good example is his illustration of how the oneness of the Bible illustrates its miraculous nature (72): it is vivid, well articulated, and well makes his point. This volume in not only a depository of illustrations, but also a depository of single sentence quotes and logical arguments, each well phrased and right to the point.

Another benefit is embodied in the last two parts of the book, where Criswell pleas with his audience to follow in his footsteps and describes practically what that means. Again, as with a good sermon, the reader is presented with practical applications and exhorted to follow their examples. Central to these is his testimony of preaching through the entire Bible, a feat that took him eighteen years to accomplish. His insistence on preaching "literally, grammatically, historically" is welcomed and only slightly tarnished by his toleration of spiritualizing, the poorest method of preaching according to Criswell, as at times effective (142-43). In addition, in an era where our churches abdicate their duty to train young men to use their gifts in the body of Christ, and relegate the formation of pastors to professional institutions, his suggestion that a pastor should have several understudies around him and allow them to take turns preaching is refreshing (87). This sends a clear message that it is not about the cult of personality, but the centrality of the Word of God.

Unfortunately, the tone of this book also leads to some oversimplifications, generalizations, and at times, inaccuracies. A good example is Criswell's presentation of textual criticism and the certitude of the original Biblical text in his section on the "Certainty of the Exact Scriptural Text." It is simplistic and misguided. His comment that "we have a certain and final answer regarding the original and ultimate text" is debated by many conservative, Bible believing Greek scholars. His following statement that "for all practical purposes, the original text is settled," while toned down, is still not accurate (67-8). While one might excuse this crude oversimplification due to the nature of the book, one should never forget that the job of a pastor is to encourage and teach. Therefore, we are to push people to excel, not furnish them with simplistic information that will cause them to make erroneous statements from the pulpit. Criswell's attitude does not come as a total surprise when one realizes that he wrote in an era when, according to him, modern critical theology had left the church in a "modern sea of conflicting storms and currents" (153). This fact is probably the germ of his belief that that "a large portion of our much-vaunted critical study of the Bible is a laborious and empty investigation of supposed flyspecks" (46), and what made him consider the areas of the New Testament and Old Testament still investigated and discussed by scholars as flyspecks not worthy of discussion. Nevertheless, while their existence does not invalidate the message of Scripture, it does invalidate the assurance of certainty of the form of the final text and points to the fact that they should not be ignored.

Besides its "preachy" nature, this book has several other areas that are to be critiqued. In his chapter entitled "Is the Bible Full of Errors and Contradictions?", Criswell correctly states that one has "to distinguish between a difficulty not yet solved and an error," and then rightly implies that Scripture has no errors; all perceived errors are just difficulties (45). To make his point, he presents various difficulties along with plausible solutions. Most of these are well presented and beneficial in answering skeptics. One of these, unfortunately, is not beneficial. The explanation that follows the objections to the celestial events that happened during the battle of Gibeon, in Joshua 10:12-14, reads like a capitulation from Criswell's stance of a literal reading of Scripture. Here he takes an apologetic approach, explaining that the Bible was written in a language "of simple observation, not scientific empiricism" (49), instead of insisting that a miracle does not follow natural laws. He gets close to this latter approach a few pages later, while discussing miracles in the Bible. Here he is less apologetic about the lengthening of the day and even notes that there are historical records, outside of the Bible, of a similar event (52-3). Why not present this evidence earlier? On a side note, one does wonder what Criswell's definition of a miracle is. If a miracle is the temporary suspension of natural law, then "gravity" and the "resurrection in the spring" are not miracles, as Criswell states they are (111).

While researching Criswell, one is quickly confronted with the black cloud of accusations of racism surrounding his pre 1968 comments, to the South Carolina legislature, against integration. In 1968, he publically advocated desegregation,[2] but there are several passages in this volume which, knowing the above history, could unfortunately be read with a racist tint. The first one is found in his caricature of the narrative of missionaries that land on a savage island where the natives are "more like beasts than human beings" (12). The second is in his insistence on the regression of the human race, stating that it has descended "in some instances to the level of the Australian aborigine" (104). While the heart of the first comment can be understood as a rhetoric device, the implications that a culture that is not as developed as our western culture is a proof of human regression seems misplaced, and the reference to Australian aborigine is un-necessary. Western culture, with its putrid ethics and its sophisticated sins, is much more a proof of the regression of the human race and the lostness of the human heart.


Overall, Criswell does achieve his goal of encouraging the preachers out there, penning a book that echoes his preaching fame, and that explains the popularity of this volume. Given the climate in which it was written and Criswell's role in the conservative resurgence, it makes sense that Criswell desired to lead by example through this volume, and his effort is appreciated and commendable. While there are a couple of sections which could use some adjustments, this book can be a mine of illustrations and quotes for any preacher preparing a sermon on a passage that deals with the veracity of Scripture.

[1] "W. A. Criswell, a Baptist Leader, Dies at 92," The New York Times, 12 January 2002 [on-line]; accessed 22 September 2010; available from; Internet. "W. A. Criswell," Wikipedia [on-line]; accessed 22 September 2010; available from; Internet. W. A. Criswell, Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True (Nashville: B&H, 1969), dust jacket's back flap.

[2] For an example, see "W. A. Criswell, a Baptist Leader, Dies at 92" and "W. A. Criswell."

1 comment:

Alan Knox said...


Your critique reminded me of the comments of a former dean of SEBTS who said (in class) that the biggest problem with the conservative resurgence in the SBC was the popular view of inerrancy that was preached and taught in many churches. Note that he was not saying that inerrancy was wrong, but that the way it was presented (on a popular level) was wrong.


Join my blog network
on Facebook