Is the modern view called “inerrancy” really the view of the Bible that orthodox Christians have always held?
Prompted by some recent (but, I think, quite wrong) criticisms of my stance as a conservative Christian who doesn’t accept the belief that the Bible must be seen as inerrant, I’ve been reflecting over the last couple of days on the fact that – as with other doctrines – plenty of evangelicals today assume that since they believe something and so does everyone they associate with, this must be the “orthodox” view, and it must belong to all orthodox Christians in history. Some evangelicals, understandably keen to trace key elements of their own theology back throughout church history, have claimed that their doctrine of inerrancy has uniformly been taught by conservative Christians of all ages.
While there has always been a clear expression of the view that what Scripture teaches is correct, this has certainly not always been seen in terms of the notion of “inerrancy.” After all, the very disagreement that exists between evangelicals who affirm inerrancy and those who do not is a disageement about whether or not the idea that the Bible is authoritative and truthful in what it teaches us should (or need not) give rise to the further claim that the Bible is also inerrant.
Discussions of inerrancy specifically formulated didn’t take place until the modern period, so nobody is going to be able to produce a statement from, say someone in the fifth century saying “I affirm the doctrine of inerrancy.” Certainly, there is plenty of material to quote claiming that the Bible is authoritative and that it contains no false teaching. But here and there over the centuries we do get a window on how some theologians taught about the existence of small errors or inconsistencies in the biblical record, and what to make of them.
John Chrysostom says of one possible challenge to the Gospels:
‘But the contrary,’ it is said, ‘has come to pass, for in many places they are found to disagree with each other.’ Yet, this very thing is a great proof of their truthfulness. For if they had agreed exactly in all respects, even as to time and place and to the using of the same words, none of our enemies would believe that they had not met together and had not written what they wrote in accord with some human compact….But as it is, the discord which seems to be present in little matters shields them from every suspicion and clearly vindicates the character of the writers.
Chrysostom, Homily on the Gospel of Matthew
This apologetic is also used today, and it’s a perfectly reasonable one. The fact that the Gospel writers don’t agree in every respect about when things took place, what contexts certain things were said in (like who Jesus was speaking to and why when he said the things he said), minor details of narrative accounts etc., isn’t really a reason to reject them (you might reject Chrysostom’s view that such minor errors/inconsistencies do exist, but that’s not the subject of this article). Instead it shows that those who compiled them were just being honest. They used what they got from their sources, and if that material didn’t perfectly agree with what another Gospel writer said, they included it anyway. If the Gospels were fabrications, and the writers got together and cooked up their stories about Jesus, they wouldn’t have intentionally put apparent errors there. They would have smoothed such things over and made them agree as perfectly as possible on the details. Therefore the state of the Gospels that we have actually speaks favourably of their reliability and also of the character of those who put them together. But this apologetic that Chrysostom is using can only work if there are in fact discrepancies between the Gospel accounts. This fact is presupposed in his argument.
Martin Luther did say, “The Scriptures … do not lie or deceive” and “The Scriptures have never erred,” along with other similar statements about Scripture. Since inerrantists are able to express their view by using those same words, it might be assumed by an inerrantist that Luther meant what some modern evangelicals mean, namely that the Bible is inerrant, and nothing that it contains is inaccurate at all. But this was definitely not Luther’s view – not even close! He notoriously claimed that the epistle of James taught a clearly untrue view on justification, and he also believed that the book of Hebrews taught false doctrine in denying the possibility of a second repentance after turning away from the faith. He also did not regard the book of Revelation as inspired, but in fairness he didn’t say that it taught error.
But aside from these more extreme claims of Luther, he elsewhere makes it clear that some of the statements made even in the books that he regards as part of Scripture, on mundane matters, contain some historical details that just aren’t correct. He freely claimed that the numbers of people involved in battles in the Old Testament were not correct, and had been greatly exaggerated. “When one often reads that great numbers of people were slain – for example, eighty thousand – I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed.”1
In his commentary on Matthew chapter 2, Calvin offers a brief comment on the star that the Magi followed. “It is more probable that it resembled a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.” As Calvin would have known full well, the ancients were familiar with comets (so the mode of writing of his time certainly never required him to call it a star), but he considers the “incorrect” claim of Matthew to be so minor that it does not even warrant being called improper.
A stronger example from Calvin is in his commentary on Matthew 27:9, which cites a prophecy and claims that it comes from Jeremiah. Calvin says:
“Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet.” How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess that I do not know nor do I give myself much trouble to inquire. The passage itself plainly shows that the name of Jeremiah has been put down by mistake, instead of Zechariah, (11:13) for in Jeremiah we find nothing of this sort, nor any thing that even approaches to it.
Errors like the two I have cited Calvin acknowledging are not matters of the Gospel writer selecting or omitting different material than another Gospel writer or reporting events in a different order. Instead, they involve the claim that a biblical writer affirmed something that was not correct. These are errors. Whatever Calvin might have declared about the authority of Scripture, he believed that it affirmed unimportant errors. In his commentary, Matthew Henry does not draw attention to the error, but he tacitly acknowledges it. Matthew mentions Jeremiah and not Zechariah, but referring to Matthew 27:9, Matthew Henry states, “It fulfilled a prophecy, Zec 11:12.” Where did Henry get Zechariah from? He got it from his realisation that this prophecy was not given by the prophet that Matthew referred to, but by another altogether.
The evidence supports Gary Dorrien’s observation:
Luther and Calvin both referred to Scripture as an ‘infallible’ or ‘unerring’ rule of faith, but for them the attribution of infallibility to scripture referred to its trustworthiness in all things necessary for salvation, not the precise accuracy of it historical or phenomenal accounts.2
The push for the idea of “inerrancy” is a reactionary one – and I do not use that term as an inherently negative one. In reacting to the Council of Trent and the Catholic Church’s counter Reformation, or in reacting to nineteenth and twentieth century liberalism, conservative Protestants have sought to push their doctrine of Scripture higher and higher to make it as far from that of their opponents as they can, establishing as marked a point of difference as possible. Donald Bloesch says as much:
Protestant orthodoxy, which developed after the Reformation, was shaped not only by the conflict with Rome but also by conflicts within the various churches of the Reformation. It also had to deal with the rising spirit of secularism that became much more prominent in the eighteenth century. An attempt was made to ground the authority of Scripture in criteria shared with the outside world rather than in the living God who speaks within Scripture. The historical and scientific accuracy of Scripture was vigorously defended in the face of embarrassing questions raised by the great intellects of the age (such as Spinoza)…
The concern of the Reformers had been with the primacy and authority of Scripture, not its inerrancy. Protestant orthodoxy continued to pay lip service to biblical primacy, but the emphasis was now on its demonstrable infallibility…. The authority of the Bible was increasingly based on its mode of writing rather than its ability to point us to Christ.3
The conservative Reformed theologian Charles Hodge, widely loved by those who espouse inerrancy, like Luther and Calvin, admitted that what he called “errors of fact” and “discrepancies” that cannot currently be explained. Like me, he simply did not think that such minor errors really matter.
The errors in matters of fact which skeptics search out bear no proportion to the whole. No sane man would deny that the Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there a speck of sandstone should be detected in its structure. Not less unreasonable is it to deny the inspiration of such a book as the Bible, because one sacred writer says that on a given occasion twenty-four thousand, and another says that twenty-three thousand, men were slain. Surely a Christian may be allowed to tread such objections under his feet.
Admitting that the Scriptures do contain, in a few instances, discrepancies which with our present means of knowledge, we are unable satisfactorily to explain, they furnish no rational ground for denying their infallibility.4
The errors in the Bible, said Hodge, are like specks of sandstone in the Parthenon. Clearly it’s true to say that the Parthenon is made of marble, even if it contains a few irrelevant bits of sandstone in it. Likewise, what the Bible teaches us is true, even if there are a few irrelevant errors in it. Compare this to the attitude of inerrantists who think that any errors in the Bible undermine the overall truth of what it says.
This is not to say that Hodge nowhere make claims that sound like sweeping declarations of the Bible’s absolute inerrancy. But the fact that he allows for errors shows that he cannot mean that the Bible is without error in every single matter that it mentions.
A committed proponent of inerrancy, Charles Ryrie was frank in his admission that “A survey of the history of the doctrine of inerrancy shows that the discussions concerning its importance belong to the modern period.”5 He further acknowledges that the idea was hammered into shape as a response to challenges to the idea of inspiration altogether. He explains in Basic Theology:
While many theological viewpoints would be willing to say the Bible is inspired, one finds little uniformity as to what is meant by inspiration. Some focus it on the writers; others, on the writings; still others, on the readers. Some relate it to the general message of the Bible; others, to the thoughts; still others, to the words. Some include inerrancy; many don’t.
These differences call for precision in stating the biblical doctrine. Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” Each addition to the basic statement arose because of an erroneous teaching.6
This is an insightful (albeit unwittingly so) description of how some evangelicals can paint themselves into a corner over this issue, and once there, of the intense fear that there is no way out without conceding the fight to the enemies of conservative Christianity. The reality is, they should never have put themselves into that predicament to start with. What is so shocking about saying that Scripture is inspired and its message is completely true, but allowing that some matters contained in Scripture actually do not contribute to its message and on historical and scientific matters it might not meet high standards of accuracy? As a way of coping with the challenge of liberalism, the leap to inerrancy has simply been a failure. You do not respond to a liberal outlook wherein Jesus did not even rise from the dead by flinging your perspective on Scripture to the far side of the playing field, where it becomes a textbook on science, political history, geography and anything else it mentions apart from its central message. Taking extreme measures like this actually resulted in running away from liberalism to a secluded intellectual conclave, rather than actually engaging liberalism head-on, unravelling its presuppositions on such issues as the resurrection of Christ, showing that liberalism is little more than trendy scepticism without any good rational foundation (as do, for example, contemporary apologists like William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas).
A more recent source: Daniel Harlow, professor of religion at Calvin College, took the time to respond to a terse criticism from one of its recent graduates, which included the charge that by not teaching inerrancy, Calvin College is giving up “this historic position of the church on Scripture. Harlow replies:
The fact of the matter is that no ancient Church council ever debated the issue of inerrancy, let alone pronounced favor of it. No ecumenical creed even addresses the issue––not the Apostle’s Creed, not the Nicene Creed, not the Athanasian Creed. None of the Reformed confessions that Calvin College adheres to asserts Scripture’s inerrancy, but rather its “sufficiency.” As the Belgic Confession states, “We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it” (Article 7). The great theologians of the Church, including Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin, had the highest regard for Scripture’s inspiration, authority and truthfulness, and at times they used words like “infallible” and even “unerring” when affirming its truth claims. But they also acknowledged factual discrepancies and other problems in the Bible and recognized the cultural limitations of its human authors.
So if inerrancy is supposedly the “historic position of the Church,” as ___ asserts, how is it that the Church’s great councils, creeds, confessions and theologians missed the boat? The answer, I think, is clear: there was no boat to miss. Instead, the current insistence on inerrancy in some quarters of Protestant evangelicalism has its origins in late 19th- and early 20th-century overreactions to modernism. Indeed, the insistence on inerrancy represents a capitulation to the modernist framing of the debate, born of an all-or-nothing mentality in which the Bible is either completely accurate in every factual detail or completely untrustworthy in all of its theological claims to truth. This is a false dichotomy that many thoughtful Christians refuse to accept, and rightly so.
I couldn’t agree more.
While Protestants and Catholics clearly disagree over the role that Scripture should play when considering what it is that has primacy or primary importance in theology and ethics, the quality or truthfulness of Scripture has never been an issue between Protestants and Catholics. And as it happens, I think that the Catechism of the Catholic Church in section 107 is right on the mark in what it says about this about Scripture.
The inspired books teach the truth. Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confined to the Sacred Scriptures.
I have emphasised part of this to show that the concern here is not with every single claim, even passing claims about the cosmos, geography, science, history, but rather with that truth that is for the sake of salvation, namely the salvation history as it has been called.
I haven’t argued in this particular article that inerracy is false, although it is false. My point has only been a historical one. Anticipating one possible (but ineffective) line of argument against what I’ve said here, let me point out that I have not denied that any theologians in history, even in ancient Christianity, have taught anything like inerrancy. What I have said is that it is simply wrong – factually mistaken – to suppose that the modern view that goes by the name “inerrancy” should be taken as the default historical Christian stance. It is one option that some Christians hold and have held. I don’t hold it, and those who do hold it (some of them at least) are sometimes guilty of rewriting history in their minds, assuming that if they believe it, everyone does (or at least has).
The very same Christians that I have noted who acknowledge the existence of unimportant errors in Scripture have also clearly affirmed the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture (in much the same way that I do). What this tells us is that when we come across a historical figure who calls the Bible infallible, truthful or some other similar thing, this is not a warrant to confidently claim that the person in question affirmed inerrancy. In light of the fact that, while Christians have always affirmed the authority of Scripture and the absolute truth of its message, many of them never attempted to formulate a doctrine of inerrancy and some of them made it clear that they could not have done so even had the opportunity been given, it is incredible to see the way some modern inerrantists (this is, of course a redundancy) regard their fellow Christians who do not adopt the inerrantist’s beloved doctrine – traitors to the faith, sellouts to secularism, deserters of the historical Christian view of Scripture. In fact some, like Don Carson, go as far as to say that to deny inerrancy is to deny a “cardinal doctrine” of the Christian faith, akin to early denials of the deity of Christ! Lamentably, Carson must think, somebody neglected to inform the authors of the Christian creeds (which list the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith) of this fact. It has never actually occurred to me to say this sort of thing to my brothers and sisters who do affirm inerrancy, but their sin (or at least it would be if they were aware of what they were doing) is legalism: creating new standards and creeds to which we must submit ourselves; standards that are neither required, to borrow from Luther, “by Scripture or plain reason.”
- Luther’s Works (Fortress Press), vol 54, cited in Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Interpretation and Inspiration (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 90.
- Gary J. Dorrien, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 19.
- Bloesch, Holy Scripture, 91.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Scribner, 1871), Volume 1, 170.
- “The Importance of Inerrancy,” Bibliotheca Sacra 120:478 (1963), 137.
- Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 67.