“The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture does not stand in the relationship of a priori but a posteriori in our theology. The doctrine of verbal inspiration is not the basis of our systematic theology and is not the major premise of Christian assurance.” An official of the Missouri Synod delegation of theologians in 1948
The Historicity of Biblical Inerrancy
One of the main things I hear about biblical inerrancy of the Scriptures, is that it is based on a very modern American evangelical fundamentalism. And that it wasn’t even considered a doctrinal belief until modern American evangelism ran rampant in the 1800’s and 1900’s. It was then that churches made the inerrancy of the bible a statement of faith and apart of church doctrine. However this is just partially true.
“The many Biblical and historical references that support inerrancy are completely valid only if one accepts inerrancy. If one does not accept inerrancy, these same references can be interpreted as supporting only partial inerrancy, that is, the inerrancy of the true Word of God contained within the Scriptures.” (Biblical Inerrancy: History & Analysis)
Now the historical context of biblical inerrancy is cloudy because it seems that inerrancy was not much of a crisis for the Early Church Father for several reasons.
- The early church fathers didn’t have a bible; there wasn’t a canonized bible until about 400 years after Christ died. (In fact the first Christian Bible was written in Latin by St. Jerome. However it is believed that Eusbius of Ceasera put together a more abridged version.)
- Prior to the 4th century, churches did not have ALL the New Testament writings. A church might have a few letters by Paul and the gospel according to Matthew. Another church might have a few letters by John and the gospel according to Thomas. Another might have the Book of Enoch and the Gospel of John. So everyone and every church had different writings that they preached on.
- There are not many accounts of early church fathers addressing inerrancy, which seems to suggest, that biblical inerrancy was just not a serious issue in ancient Greco-Roman History.
- And when church fathers did talk about inspiration, they were in many cases somewhat vague, and did not specifically address any errors in the bible or the doctrine of inerrancy.
- And lastly, because of technology and the illiteracy rate of the times, people simply couldn’t Google bible contradictions and they couldn’t go to their local library to learn more about. Everything they knew about the bible and the scriptures came from the preacher, teacher, and orators. (So of course the average man had no knowledge or understanding of biblical inerrancy.) So it was not commonplace to challenge the inspiration & inerrancy of scripture.
Now another important point is that one reason inerrancy, was not a major focus in the first millennium, is that the early church had bigger problems, than to argue doctrinal issues of inerrancy or infallibility. The early church dealt with prosecution, the issue of the deity of Christ, and the reconciliation of the doctrine of the trinity. These were more pressing matters in the times of the early church, because they did not have the same foundation and background as has been established today. All one needs to do is read the Book of Corinthians to get a glimpse of some of the problems the early church faced. Here are just a few things the early church faced:
- Persecution from the Roman and other Foreign Government
- Perversion of the Gospels and other Heretical Teachings.
- Collectively establishing a common ground for a general catholic church
- Church structure, (i.e. A woman’s role in the church, Ordination of Elders)
- The issue of to circumcise or not to circumcise.
- The integration of Judaic Culture and Roman Culture to form a cohesive Christian Society.
- The Canonization of the Bible
- Establishing Doctrinal Creeds
- Questions of the Trinity and the deity of Christ
When I talk about the early church and early Christians, I am primarily referring to the first 800-900 years after Jesus died. You can see why there was not a huge focus by the church or early church fathers to focus on inerrancy, because there was a laundry list of other problems the brethren had to deal with. So as one can see; there was a whole host of problems the early church encountered. And don’t forget that there wasn’t even a relatively available canonized bible until the 4th century. Most churches only had fragments and partial books and letters. But they had many New Testament sources, writings, and copies to pull from; there was no shortage of those sources.
But when the church fathers finally got their hands on a completed Bible, they seldomly talked about the issue of inerrancy-errancy of the bible. Let me begin to say the presupposition that the bible or scriptures was considered ‘Inspired’ and ‘God-Breathed’ was not a new idea; early Greek speaking Jews and Christian both believed that the Septuagint was inspired by God. People like Tertullian and Origen both believed that. (Now weather this meant inerrant is speculative.) But generally speaking inspiration also implies inerrancy/infallibility. (Now this view was later aborted by some that implied that only the original Hebrew autobiographical manuscripts.)
In addition, just like in modern times, not everybody believed in the inspiration/inerrancy of scripture. In the article by M. James Sawyer, Sawyer goes through several historical quotes and writing about how some the early church historical fathers perception of the inspiration of scripture. (My article will be a lot shorter.)
Early church leader Irenaeus (130 A.D. – 202 A.D.) believed that the Scriptures was perfect inasmuch as they were the very words spoken by God and the Holy Spirit. Having said this, Irenaeus also speaks of the authors as being divinely inspired authors, not just mere scribes. That not one detail, word, or letter which was to be considered to be insignificant or minuscule.
Clement of Alexandria (150 A.D. -215 A.D.) an early north African church pioneer also acknowledge in his writings, the Stromata, -the importance of the inspiration and authority of the sacred writings. Clement of Alexandria said that “…it was not alien to the inspiration of God, who gave the prophecy, also to produce the translation, and make it as it were Greek prophecy.” (Clement, The Septuagint: God’s Blessing on Translation By Debra E. Anderson) To Clement not only did God inspire the septuganint, but he also believed God inspired some the New Testament Writings which could be cannonized.
Clement of Rome (150 A.D.- 250 A.D.) one of the most early church leaders encouraged his patrons to observe that nothing is wrong or false in the scriptures, because God is the one who has uttered those divine words. “The holy Scriptures which are given through the Holy Spirit…nothing iniquitous or falsified is written.” (However, he may have been referring to the Septuagint and not to the various New Testament writings.)
Tertullian (160 A.D. – 240 A.D. ) did recognize that there were textual vartiantions in the translation but he never chalked it up to errors, he said, “Never mind if there does occur some variation in the order of the [gospel] narratives. What matters is that there is agreement in the essential doctrine of the Faith.” (, IV:2) Now it is clear he was not an inerrantist, but he did recognize the divine authorship and inspiration of the holy writings of scripture. “We have not out of our own mind fashioned our own materials since these have been produced by holy excellent men.” (Dictionary of African Christian Biography)
Origen (184 A.D. – 254 A.D.) believed openly affirmed that the scriptures were perfect. He fully believed in the inspiration of scripture… “that not a jot or tittle was in vain in Scripture, that there was nothing in Scripture which did not come down from the fullness of the divine majesty.” (Origen, Reformed Dogmatics brought by memoirandremins blog)
St. Jerome (347 A.D. – 420 A.D.) said: “Each and every speech, all syllables, marks and periods in the divine scriptures are full of meanings and breathe heavenly sacraments.” Hence [that the] Holy Scripture was without any defect or error, even in chronological, historical matters. (Jerome, Reformed Dogmatics brought by memoirandremins blog)
Augustine of Hippo (354 A.D. – 430 A.D.) in numerous places attributes the origin of Scripture to all-mighty God. He states variously:
- “Both Testaments have been written by the one God.” (Augustine of Hippo)
- “Let them know that everything, both in the Old as well as the New Testament was written by the Holy Spirit.” (Augustine of Hippo)
Now Augustine of Hippo was the first to take the idealization of inspiration and apply the militant ideology of inerrancy to it. In The Trinity Augustine suggest that it was God who inspired and ordained the Scriptures and that the author wrote under the influence of divine inspiration. And that even though man wrote the letters, God is the one who dictated the words. (However, there is some speculation that Augustine perceived and interpreted the inspiration differently than some modern scholars.) Nonetheless, based on his writings most scholars do infer that he did believe in so form of inerrancy, however it may be Augustine versions of inerrancy is closer to infallibility. Augustine proposed a threefold explanation of alleged errors or contradictions in the received Scriptures.
- That it was because you had encountered a manuscript error,
- The translator of your text had engaged in a faulty translation,
- The reader had simply misunderstood what Scripture was saying. (And without the Holy spirit to guide you, it is impossible understand.)
Augustine did distinguish between a literal interpretation of scripture and a figurative interpretation of scripture. And that One’s misunderstanding of the Divine Scriptures could come from a lack of understanding, deciphering, and distinguishing between a literal and figurative interpretation. Augustine did not believe in biblical literalism, but his belief was closer to infallible, that the bible could not wrong. For example, in dealing with the two stories of creation in Genesis, he interpreted the first chapter in a figurative sense, and the second in a literal sense, rather than give the perception to an unbeliever that the Word of God could possibly be errant. Augustine in his writings says: “If anyone wishes to interpret in a literal sense everything written in this book, that is to understand it only according to the letter of the text, and in doing this he avoids blasphemy and explains everything in agreement with the Catholic faith, not only is he not to be discouraged, but he should be considered an outstanding interpreter worthy of great praise…” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis)
Augustine affirmed in his own personal writings & letters that there are no errors in the sacred Scriptures. Augustine in a letter to Jerome, explored it in this matter:
that only the Holy Scripture is considered inerrant.
Scripture has never erred.
I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant
“I confess to your Charity that 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.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, Evangelical Self-Identity and the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy Prepared By John D. Woodbridge)
Now Augustine did acknowledge that there were difficult passages to explain and understand.
Augustine suggested…“for there are some passages which are not understood in their proper force, or are understood with great difficulty, at whatever length, however clearly, or with whatever eloquence the speaker may expound them: these should never be brought before the people at all, or only on rare occasions when there is some urgent reason.” (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Translated By Rev. Prof. J. F. Shaw, pg. 138)
Now to the skeptic, this may imply that he knew of immoral or contradictory things in the bible and choose to avoid them. And this is one reason, why the issue of inerrancy may have never come up, because contradictory or questionable scriptures were never brought up in sermons.
Now as history proceeded into the second millennium, the church started to take and stronger official stance on biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy started to be ingrained into the church’s official doctrinal belief. Early Church writings and quotes give the impression of inerrancy, but the majority does not explicitly say inerrancy. And there are no writings by church fathers actually admitting to errors in the bible, in fact it implies the contrary that they all believed the scriptures were God given and inspired by God. In the first century there were no official church statements on inerrancy or official creeds on inerrancy. So one can see how most would take the assumption that early church fathers did believe in errancy, but since they didn’t explicitly define it, that the subject is still a little cloudy.
The most infamous confrontation between science and the inerrancy of Scripture is the Galileo Case of a Heliocentric Universe vs. a Geocentric Universe. In the Ptolemaic or Geocentric system, the earth was immobile at the center of the universe, and the sun, moon, planets and stars all revolved around it. This belief or theory seemed to be supported by several passages of Scripture. For example:
- “Let all the earth be moved at his presence: for he has founded the world immovable” (1 Chronicles 16:30),
- “The LORD reigns, …The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” (Psalm 93:1).
(There were other scriptures used in context, like the fact that God made man first, so he is to be the center of the Universe.) When Galileo championed Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, namely that the sun is at the center of the universe with the earth and the other planets revolving around it, and that the stars remaining fixed many Christians and the Church thought the Ptolemaic model was a challenge to the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures. (We all know how that turned out.)
Now at the beginning of the protestant reformation movement, the issue of inerrancy took a new turn. Because the Catholic Church had perverted the usage of scripture and had only allowed it to be written and read in latin. Translators like William Tyndale took upon themselves to translate the bible into more common languages like English. And in doing this more people had access to the bible which lead to inerrancy being a cornerstone of belief for some protestant denominations as a response to the Catholic Church. Sola Scriptura became the saying….
“It must be admitted that some Church Fathers and Reformers [did] give the impression that they believed in absolute inerrancy.” -(Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.
Retired Professor of Theology formely at Andrews University, Biblcal Errancy and Inerrancy)
For example, Martin Luther openly admitted that, “Scripture cannot err,” and “That the Scriptures have never erred.”
Reformist Pioneer John Calvin viewed Scripture as being equal to the very words of what God said and intended. Calling scripture, the “in-erring standard.” According to Calvin, scripture gives a saving knowledge of God, but only when its certainty is founded on the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit and the Bible. And that is was “free from every stain or defect.” Calvin had an almost dogmatic belief in the inspiration of scriptures. So much so, that biblical inerrancy was a given.
Then in the late 1800’s Christian Theologian B.B. Warfield became the new champion of biblical inerrancy. Even though the Bible was written by fallible men, Warfield believed it was God who dictated the wording in it and that God is the true author of the Bible.
“Standing upon this bedrock, it was natural for [B.B. Warfield] to reason that biblical inspiration is a subsequent and crowning fact for belief in the veracity of the biblical writers as historians.…But as long as inspiration and inerrancy are tied together, the line will be drawn then, as it is now, whether inerrancy or verbal inspiration are essential doctrines which cannot be compromised or reduced, or whether they are secondary doctrines which are not formal objects of faith.” (Biblical Inerrancy: Are we going anywhere? By Richard J. Coleman)
Now these historical quotes and writings are helpful, but there are not as definitive as let’s say the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy or the ‘five-principles of fundamentalism’ by the Presbyterian General Assembly.
ARTICLE XVI(An Excerpt from the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy.)
We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.
We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by Scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.
In 1910, five principles were identified by the Presbyterian General Assembly as comprising the pillars of the fundamental Christian faith. According to the assembly, a fundamentalist is one who believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, His bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of miracles. Then again in 1978 the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was formulated by nearly 300 evangelical leaders at a conference sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), in Chicago. The statement was designed to defend the position of Biblical inerrancy & infallibility against a perceived trend toward liberal conceptions of Scripture. The signers included a wide variety of scholarly and prestigious evangelical Christians.
At this interval in history, inerrancy is not just a belief, – it’s a fundamental doctrine. A doctrine that most evangelicals and young Christians are still taught today. At this point in history the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy has been entrenched into fundamental Christianity as a statement of faith. Even though early church fathers did believe in the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, modern Christians and evangelicals took it to another level. Even though many of the early church fathers affirmed the inspiration of scripture and that scripture had no error. The subject wasn’t a doctrinal issue and it was not addressed with conviction until about the 4th century. Additionally their interpretation of it was somewhat closer to infallibility. Over three hundred years after the death of Christ Jesus did inerrancy truly start to be discussed in the grand scheme of the christian conversation. Than it began to take fruit with the foundational establishment when the general church began to have more structure and establishment. And with the establishment of the church, doctrinal creed, and biblical canon came the ideological foundation on the inspiration of scripture and how it applies to the inerrancy and infallibility of the sacred scriptures. To put it simply…The ideology of biblical inerrancy started it off as seed in the 4th Century, (several hundred years after the death of Christ Jesus) with St. Augustine of Hippo, and then continued to grow through the centuries as it blossomed into the bush it is today with different branches of belief and interpretations.