Is Biblical inerrancy a late innovation of the Church?

One of the most persistent arguments against the inerrancy of the Bible is that it is late innovation in the history of the church. Inerrancy is said to be the product of the rationalist, Enlightenment mindset that prevailed in the nineteenth century and today, with the collapse of modernism, the rejection of foundationalism and other Cartesian assumptions, it is argued that inerrancy should be jettisoned with the now defunct philosophy that generated it.

While there are many ways to define inerrancy, the theological doctrine is usually understood as the view that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms (the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy remains a useful evangelical benchmark). Certainly, the Bible isn’t a catalogue of facts, and its truth canvasses literary genres that are rich and complex and must be appropriately grasped – but if God Himself does stand behind the production of the Bible, then it must be entirely truthful. Many Christians, however, are uncomfortable with the perceived contradictions between the Bible and discoveries in history and science or even internal difficulties within the Bible itself. Some have therefore sought to articulate more modest positions for what we can say Scripture is. Critical of inerrancy and what they see as a strict modernist understanding of the Bible, some promote a return to a more primitive, pre-modern understanding, where the Bible can be viewed as primarily concerned with questions of salvation and faith. Without a high view of the Bible, greater latitude can be allowed in its claims (and errors) concerning other fields of knowledge.

But does this suggestion hold up to scrutiny? Was the notion of an inerrant, infallible Bible a recent theological innovation, and merely the product of particular Enlightenment assumptions?

Without getting into a full discussion of inerrancy, several quick comments can be offered:

1. While it is true that the earliest proponents of inerrancy in the modern period, B. B. Warfield, A. A. Hodge and others, were shaped by the Enlightenment, this influence has been exaggerated. Critics have often argued that both Warfield and Hodge, writing in the late 1800s at Princeton University, were too heavily dependent on a modernist philosophy, known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Scottish Realism was an outlook that affirmed the human ability to know, and set out conditions for what could count as knowledge. The outlook opposed the skepticism of David Hume and sought to revive the European Enlightenment commitments to science, rationality and the Christian tradition. What is ignored, however, is the fact that the contemporary opponents of Warfield and Hodge and of the doctrine of inerrancy they defended, were no less dependent on this same philosophical position. It is a simply a mistake to conclude that a high view of Scripture is anchored to one philosophical outlook when those who denied that high view were equally reliant on the same outlook.

2. The fact that the Dutch and Germans adopted a similarly high view of Scripture cannot be avoided, and especially when these theologians were not dependent on the same philosophical outlook, and at times, even fought against it. Among the European Reformed heritage, heavyweights like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck both put forward a view of Scripture that accorded with Warfield and the other Princetonians. For example, Kuyper, while recognizing the diverse literary categories of the Bible, argued that if Scripture contained error, than “God is guilty of error”. (For a deeper discussion on these two, check out: ‘God’s Word in Servant-Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture’ by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.)

3. While there may not have been any attempt to articulate a comprehensive theory of inerrancy before Warfield et al, it is wrong to suggest that inerrancy was not the default view of the church. The best endeavours to assign inerrancy to a late stage of historical development have been ably criticized and do not bear up to rigorous historical research. Church historian Mark Noll has observed: “Most Christians in most churches since the founding of Christianity have believed in the inerrancy of the Bible . . . . [This] has always been the common belief of most Catholics, most Protestants, most Orthodox, and even most of the sects on the fringe of Christianity”.

John Woodbridge has marshaled many examples from church history to show that the suggestion that there was no idea of an infallibly inerrant Scripture before Warfield is mistaken. For example, Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist in the second century, wrote:

“…but if (you have done so) because you imagined that you could throw doubt on the passage, in order that it might say the Scriptures contradicted each other, you have erred. But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext (for saying) that it is contrary (to some other), since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself”.

Or Augustine of Hippo, a Latin church theologian and philosopher, writing in the fourth century said, ” I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error”. Or again: “therefore everything written in Scripture must be believed absolutely”.

Others have shown that inerrancy has been a central church doctrine from the patristic times. Donald Bloesch notes that inerrabilis (roughly “inerrant”) was used by Aquinas and Duns Scotus to describe Scripture, while both Martin Luther and John Calvin characterized the Bible as being infallible and without error. Calvin, for example, described Scripture as an “unerring rule” for Christian life and faith (“So long as your mind entertains any misgivings as to the certainty of the word, its authority will be weak and dubious, or rather it will have no authority at all. Nor is it sufficient to believe that God is true, and cannot lie or deceive, unless you feel firmly persuaded that every word which proceeds form him is sacred, inviolable truth.” The Institutes of Christian Religion)

The notion that a high view of Scripture is tied to a particular philosophical outlook late in the history of church is simply misleading. Christians have sought to articulate the truthfulness of the Bible, on the same exegetical grounds, irrespective of their position in the history of the church. Don Carson, research professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes:

“If one insists that a high view of Scripture cannot or should not be maintained today, one should at least acknowledge that one is walking away from the ancient and central tradition of the church, and from the teaching of Scripture itself.”

4 replies
  1. Robin Boom
    Robin Boom says:

    Jason

    Thanks for a bit of history on Biblical Inerrancy.

    For the first half my Christian life, I held the belief that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. This is what was taught to me by those I considered to be more spiritually mature, and my spiritual mentors at the time. Then you start questioning such belief and see contradictions.

    I also struggle with the whole concept of the Bible being the Word of God. This title I think should strictly be the domain of Jesus Himself. There is a danger that we form a relationship with a book, and idolise the Bible, putting it on a par with the triune God, almost making it part of the Godhead itself.

    I no longer hold this view, but there are problems here, as one then becomes the arbitor of what is True and what isn’t. Here we have to rely on the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth. I currently view the Bible as a combination of baby and bath-water. Bathwater can be relieved of its duty, once the person is clean, whereas the baby should always be treasured.

    Put another way… rather than viewing the complete Bible as the ‘infallibale Word of God’ I now see the Bible as ‘containing’ Gods Word. A subtle, but distinct difference.

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    I also struggle with the whole concept of the Bible being the Word of God. This title I think should strictly be the domain of Jesus Himself. There is a danger that we form a relationship with a book, and idolise the Bible, putting it on a par with the triune God, almost making it part of the Godhead itself.

    This doesn’t make any sense to me, Robin. If I make a statement, is that statement not “the word of Bnonn”? To say that the title of Word of God should be confined strictly to Jesus would be to say that the prophets were wrong in all those times when they wrote, in the Bible, “the word of the Lord came to me”, or variations thereon. Jesus is certainly the Logos, with the specific meaning inherent in that term—but surely any thoughtful Christian can distinguish between Jesus the Logos, and Scripture, God’s logos. There is no danger of idolatry that I can see.

    Put another way… rather than viewing the complete Bible as the ‘infallibale Word of God’ I now see the Bible as ‘containing’ Gods Word. A subtle, but distinct difference.

    And how do you determine which parts are God’s word, and which parts are not? Presumably the part that says “all Scripture is breathed out by God” isn’t actually God’s word, though, eh?

  3. Jonathan Sarfati
    Jonathan Sarfati says:

    A very helpful summary article. The inerrancy of Scripture had also been the dominant view of the Church in the first 1800 years of its history. Those who deny it have departed from orthodox Christianity. Even the liberal NT scholar Kirsopp Lake confirmed this:

    It is a mistake often made by educated persons who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology, to suppose that fundamentalism [in the original sense which included inerrancy] is a new and strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind; it is the partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians. How many were there, for instance, in Christian churches in the eighteenth century who doubted the infallible inspiration of all Scripture? A few, perhaps, but very few. No, the fundamentalist may be wrong; I think he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition, not he, and I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the Corpus theologicum of the Church is (sic) on the fundamentalist side. [The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow (Boston: Houghton, 1926) p. 61.]

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *