Inerrancy Is The Historic Christian View Of Scripture

One of the questions that came up during the Q & A at the conference (audio forthcoming) this past weekend in Bakersfield was something to the effect that, given the research done in the 1970s and 80s on the inerrancy of Scripture, why so so many evangelicals today (again) seem convinced that Scripture cannot be inerrant. Questions have also arisen in reaction to this quote regarding the move in the PCUSA to defrock Joe Rightmeyer. One correspondent told me to be quiet about polity and to stick to theology. That’s a telling response since it assumes that the two can be divorced. Is not ecclesiology a locus of theology? That sort of thinking is one reason the PCUSA, with the rest of the “liberal” mainline is almost certainly terminally ill. Another commenter writes anonymously that my claim that inerrancy is the historic view of the church is “Simp[l]y not true! The historic view is that the Scriptures are God’s authoritative Word. Infallibility is a late 19th / early 20th Century construct that adds to the Scriptures something they do not claim for themselves and this creates further division amongst God’s people.” That this view persists is a second reason why the people continue to stay in the PCUSA, even as it drifts farther from catholic Christianity.

We are not talking about departing from the particulars of the Westminster Confession. That happened a century ago. We are talking now about departure from the confessions of the catholic faith in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinople, the Athanasian, and Chalcedon—that catholic faith. That God’s Word is authoritative, inviolably, infallibly, and yes, even unerringly true was the theology and intent of the ancient, medieval, and Reformation churches. After all, the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed does say, “who spoke by the prophets….”

I went to seminary in the wake of the “inerrancy” controversy of the 1970s and as a consequence I read just about all of that literature and was impressed with how sloppy the criticisms of Scripture, by the neo-evangelicals, were. It seems now that younger evangelicals are following their grandparents toward “limited inerrancy” (i.e., the doctrine that Scripture may be said to be inerrant when it speaks theologically but not when it speaks historically—as if the resurrection were not both a historical and theological claim) and to liberalism and beyond. They seem unaware of the research that was published in response to the “limited inerrancy” claim.

This ignorance is part of a larger trend. I recall reading an article or perhaps a series in The Churchman by a leading English neo-evangelical who was quite critical of B. B. Warfield’s alleged “rationalism” (on this see Kim Riddlebarger’s excellent work and Andrew Hoffecker’s brief survey of Warfield on inerrancy is a helpful place to start) only to read the author admit that well, he had not actually read much of Warfield. Then there is the work by Rogers and McKim, which might one of the most dubious pieces of historical research I have ever read. If you doubt me, read the book for yourself.

One consistent argument against inerrancy is that the earlier writers, whether ancient or Reformation era, did not use the word “inerrancy.” This is a strange argument for two reasons: 1) it proves too much; 2) it quite misunderstands how theology develops. First, on this rationale we would have to conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity did not exist until the 3rd century, when Turtullian first used the noun trinitas. Such an argument, however, would completely miss the regular doctrine of the second-century fathers that God is one in three persons. The absence of a technical term, however invaluable it may have become, hardly signals that the idea is absent. Second, theological ideas and vocabulary develop over time in response to two stimuli: internal and external. Both require time. It takes time for the inherent logic of an idea to work itself out and, at the same time, doctrines are formulated and refined in response to external challenges. Again, the doctrine of the Trinity in the 4th century was more precise than the doctrine of the Trinity in the 2nd century. Arianism and related movements forced us to work out the teaching of Scripture in more detail. Gnosticism and related movements forced us to work out the biblical teaching about the true human nature of Christ. The rise of Enlightenment rationalism, empiricism, and higher biblical criticism of Scripture pushed the church in the 19th and 20th centuries to develop new, more precise terms to account for the teaching of Scripture than it had developed.

Yes, the Reformed and Presbyterian churches faced challenges to the truthfulness of Scripture in the 16th and 17th centuries but those movements that would become a full-fledged, highly organized, institutionalized and powerful in Europe, Britain, and the USA in the  19th and 20th centuries were only fledglings. Still, the affirmation by the 16th and 17th-century Reformers regarding the truthfulness and infallibility of Scripture was stout and consistent. The Patristic affirmations of the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture are striking for its strength, robustness, and consistency even though they faced sporadic, if sometimes powerful, critiques of Scripture from the likes of Celsus.  In other words, the patristic affirmation of the truthfulness of Scripture was mainly driven by their own reading of Scripture itself and the internal logic of their theology.

The substance of what Hodge, Warfield, old Westminster, and the defenders of inerrancy (e.g., ICBI) taught is what the church has always believed. No, the church has not always used the same vocabulary but to demand that sort of consistency is not only blind to the history of theology it is a form of rationalism. It sets up an arbitrary a priori test which it demands of the past, as it were, rather than asking the tradition what, on its own terms, it meant to communicate.

The present reality seems to be that we are a generation that is unaware of the substantial body of literature that developed in response to the Modernist and neo-evangelical challenges to the reliability of Scripture. Below is a bibliography of some of that literature.

Hodge, Archibald Alexander, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. Inspiration. 1881 repr. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.
Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. New York: MacMillan, 1923.
Warfield, B. B., Revelation and Inspiration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1927.
Stonehouse, N. B., and Paul Woolley, eds. The Infallible Word: a Symposium. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946.
Warfield, B. B., Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1948.
Preus, R. D.., The Inspiration of Scripture. A Study of the theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians. Mankato, MN, 1955.
Henry, Carl F. H. Revelation and the Bible: Contemporary Evangelical Thought. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958.
Murray, John. Calvin on Scripture and Divine Sovereignty Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960.
Gerstner, John H. Bible Inerrancy Primer. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1965.
Van Til, Cornelius. Doctrine of Scripture. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1967.
Preus, Robert. The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism: A Study of Theological Prolegomena, 2 vols. St Louis: Concordia, 1970–72.
Montgomery, John W., ed. God’s Inerrant Word. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1973.
Skilton, John H., ed. Scripture and Confession. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1973.
Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation, and Authority. 6 vols. Waco, Tex: Word Books, 1976.
Pinnock, Clark. A Defense of Biblical Infallibility. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1977. (NOTE: Yes, this is the same Clark Pinnock who later adopted a Socinian view of God).
The Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy (1978)
Norman Geisler, ed. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
Linnenmann, Eta. Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology: Reflections of a Bultmannian Turned Evangelical. trans. Robert Yarbrough. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.
Nicole Roger, and J. R. Michaels, eds. Inerrancy and Common Sense. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.
The Chicago Statement On Biblical Hermeneutics (1983)
Gordon Lewis, and Bruce Demarest, eds. Challenges to Inerrancy: a Theological Response. Chicago: Moody, 1984.
Harvie M. Conn, ed. Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: a Tradition, a Challenge, a Debate. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988.
Some of this material is now archived online.
Muller, Richard A. Post-reformation Reformed Dogmatics: the Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, Ca. 1520 to Ca. 1725. 4 vols. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003.
Michael S. Horton, “The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy” in Modern Reformation  vol. 19 (2010): 26–29.
The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Perhaps this question is off-subject…though given the topic perhaps very much on subject….two questions, actually, from someone new to the Reformed/Presbyterian/Calvinist tradition:

    1) What study Bible would you recommend for a Reformed infant? I have purchased The Reformation Study Bible (edited by R.C. Sproul) and it seems a good fit thus far.

    2) What Bible Commentary(ies) would you recommend (realizing the best are typically multiple volumes). I’ve found Calvin’s commentaries on Amazon (for hundreds of dollars), and I’m sure they would be great….but anything equally Reformed but more recent? I know Westminster John Knox Press publishes a “Feasting on the Word” series of commentaries that are based on the Lectionary cycle….but what about commentaries by book of the Bible? Is my question clear?


    • Calvin’s Commentaries can all be read for free online, I turn to them frequently.

      Also his Institutes is online, but I use that less. Typically I’m interested in a specific bible passage, and it’s easy to look it up in the right commentary, rather than try to figure out where in the institutes Calvin might have dealt with that topic.

      As for Study Bible, I would have said ESV Study Bible, but Sproul’s is probably OK too. All study bibles are limited compared to commentaries because of lack of space anyways. And I prefer not to use a study bible in church, because I find myself distracted by all the extra material in there. Here’s a thought, you can buy the Study Bible module for, and you’ll get all the study content for significantly less cost (and weight!) than a printed study bible.

    • @RubeRad, I looked at the ESV Study Bible and it was very “ecumenical” and not very rich in Reformed theology compared to the Reformation Study Bible. I have digital copies of several versions on my iPad, but I prefer to have a bound, printed Bible. I also considered The Reformation Heritage Study Bible, but it is only available in KJV…which I like to read comparison sometimes but it’s difficult for me to be my “main Bible.”

      Looking forward to hearing R. Scott Clark’s insight into my questions.

      • Hi Zac,

        I think the Reformation Study Bible is a great resource. Ligonier is coming out with new edition this Spring. The original study Bible was the Geneva Bible published in the 1550s et seq. I would start with the revised Reformation Study Bible, esp. if it is attached to the ESV.

      • Zac,

        I don’t own many commentaries, with the exception of Calvin’s. Most of what I had I sold years ago out of frustration—many of them state the obvious and do not help me with the difficult passages. I have a few scattered commentaries for a various reasons (sentiment, historical value). You might check out the new Reformed Expository Commentary series. Hendricksen was a fine commentator. His series was finished by Simon Kistemaaker.

        My baseline commentary is usually Calvin. I don’t recommend commentary sets except for Calvin. Don’t assume that, because it’s hundreds of years old that it’s dated or irrelevant. Calvin’s commentaries remain remarkably useful.

        A good background text is often just as useful as a commentary.

    • Yes, he certainly is, Zac. He is well respected among the Presbyterian and Reformed. See the reviews on the Amazon page for his commentary set. My personal choice for the Bible is the Reformation standard, the King James version, and this is my defense of it as the best: (a series of discussions of relevant issues on the PuritanBoard site).

    • Thanks all. I have Calvins Commentaries and they certainly are helpful.

      One note regarding the Puritan Board forum since it came up in a previous comment… I have twice applied for membership and have twice been rejected though I was clear about my confessional adherence and my reformed faith. It’s very discouraging to someone truly seeking the truth. Would the Holy Spirit lead them to shut a seeker out? I am convinced it is because I am a member of a PCUSA congregation…and that’s not only unfortunate but seems to me someone is making generalizations and excluding based on denomination. I’m sure there are unorthodox folks in ALL Presbyterian denominations but because the PCUSA is the largest (by far) it’s an easy target?

  2. Do we distinguish between inerrancy and infallibility, as the Lutheran Bible Scholar, the late Theodore Letis did?

    • John,

      I suppose there is a small distinction between infallibility regarding the impossibility of error and inerrancy regarding the actual absence of error. I think we should affirm them both and we should not set them against each other.

    • Ted Letis considered that inerrancy was a term borrowed from astronomy and should not be used, the difference being that a doctrine of inerrancy makes the textual critic’s job absolutely impossible, whereas one of infallibility allows a range of textual variation (which, in my view and his, does not include the Alexandrian “family” – I’m kinder to that tradition than most Textus Receptus devotees. I happen to consider that Sinaiticus is a copy of a copy of a memory version of Origen’s, better than little Johnny’s Sunday school memory version, but still not good enough to stand alongside the visually copied Byzantine tradition. I don’t go for this “sinister attempt by the devil to pervert scripture” stuff).

  3. “The present reality seems to be that we are a generation that is unaware of the substantial body of literature that developed in response to the Modernist and neo-evangelical challenges to the reliability of Scripture.”

    Defense is necessary, but so is offense. Going on the offense means researching and exposing the apostasy fueling Modernist challenges to the reliability of Scripture. What, for instance, did they fall into?

    The first Fabian Socialists for example, had almost all been lapsed Anglicans from Evangelical homes who became dignitaries in the Church of England:

    “There was a Christian fringe to the London socialism of the eighties, but this too was Anglican. The Christian Socialists came together in Stewart Headlam’s Guild of St. Matthew and the Land Reform Union; and the more respectable Christian Social Union, formed in 1889 – seeking in Fabian style to permeate the Anglican Church – soon attracted more than two thousand clerical members. Dissenting clergymen too began to find a place in the Fabian Society and the London Progressives, while Unitarian churches and centres like Stanton Coit’s Ethical Church provided a meeting place for believers and idealist agnostics…Socialism was for all of them, the new Evangelism.” (Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, The Fabians, 1977, p. 18)

    The failure of Anglican hierarchy to repudiate apostatizing higher critics and radical freethinkers scandalized faithful, orthodox Evangelicals whose outraged response was considered reactionary by the intellectually arrogant scholarly community. In 1861, Benjamin Jowett and six liberal Churchmen published a volume entitled Essays and Reviews in which they expressed alarm lest,

    “…the majority of Churchmen, by holding fast the narrow, fundamental beliefs, should estrange themselves more and more from contemporary thought.” (The Founders of Psychical Research, Alan Gauld, p. 49)

    Jowett himself held that, “Scripture must be interpreted like any other book…”

    The portents of apostasy in the Church of England were ominous:

    “It seemed to conservative Christians quite appalling that at a time when the impregnable rock of Holy Scripture was being undermined by Darwin and his allies, a group of those whose sacred duty should have been to shore it up again had conspired to hammer their wedges not under it but into it.” (Gauld, p. 50)

    Gauld records the rapid decline in faith among younger Cambridge men:

    “Skepticism based on science flowed into and reinforced the older stream of doubt stemming from historical and ethical considerations. Their joint effect may be traced in the fact that whilst the outstanding Cambridge men of the 1840’s…all took Orders (three of them becoming great clerical headmasters and six bishops), the outstanding Cambridge intellectuals of the 1870’s – the Trinity group centring on Henry Sidgwick and Henry Jackson and including Frederic Myers, G. W. and A. J. Balfour, Walter Leaf, Edmund Gurney, Arthur Verrall, F. W. Maitland, Henry Butcher and George Prothero – tended towards agnosticism or hesitant Deism.” (Gauld, p. 64)

    In this same period a group of young dons from Trinity College, Cambridge, were also turning to psychic research as a substitute for their lost Evangelical faith:

    ” In February 1882, Podmore took Pease to a meeting at which this group founded the Society for Psychical Research . . . Among those who founded the SPR were Henry Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour – later a conservative Prime Minister – and his brother, Gerald.” (The Fabians, p. 18)

    The progenitor of the socialist Fabian Society was the Cambridge University spiritist group, the Ghost Society, founded in 1851. The Ghost Society also spawned the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) founded in 1887:

    “Council Members and Honorary Members of the SPR included a past Prime Minister (William Gladstone)…and a future Prime Minister (Arthur Balfour)…2 bishops; and Tennyson and Ruskin, two of the outstanding literary figures of the day (as well as) Lewis Carroll (and) a surprising number of titled persons.” (Gauld, p. 140)

    Having conceptually murdered the God of Revelation, disowned their own souls, and closed the way to Heaven Fabians sought power here below, thus the over-riding interest of the S.P.R. was the spirit realm. In search of power they conducted scientific research into phenomena such as mesmeric trance, telepathy, clairvoyance, apparitions, haunted houses, séances, and all aspects of mediumism, or contact with spirits, to determine the scientific laws of physical spiritualistic phenomena.

    By the early 20th century, the materialist Sigmund Freud and heavily demonized Gnostic occultist Carl Jung were SPR Corresponding Members. Both men contributed to the S.P.R. Journal of Proceedings.

    In an expose of Jung’s occult tendencies Richard Noll writes:

    “With the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in England in 1882, and the copious publications of its investigators, new models of the unconscious mind emerged. The most respected model was that of the ‘subliminal self’ by Frederick Myers (1843-1901), the ‘mytho-poetic’ (myth-making) function of which resembles Jung’s later conception of a collective unconscious. Jung read widely in the literature of psychical research in medical school and his 1902 dissertation cites the work of Myers and others in this school.” (Noll, The Jung Cult, pp. 31-2)

    John Taylor Gatto, former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year, also tracked the rise of the Fabians together with the potent “interconnected shadow-government they have created to radically reshape the Western and American consciousness.” In his book, “The Underground History of American Education” Gatto points to the Fabian socialist utopians as one of the most powerfully effective revolutionary ‘change-making’ organizations and notes that,

    “…it would not be too far out of line to call the twentieth century the Fabian century.” (Gatto, p. 178)

    Above all else, revolutionary/evolutionary socialist organizations such as the Fabians were counter-establishment, anti-tradition, pan-sexual liberationists consisting of committed Darwinian Gnostic elitists who were intolerant of the Holy God in three Persons, inerrancy of Scripture, man as His spiritual image bearer, and every vestige of authority ranging from immutable Truth, Moral Law, sexual ethics, and the traditional family to free market systems, individual liberties, and cumbersome processes of Americas’ Constitutional Republic. What they desired was a new order ruled by a superior caste.

    Fabianism took its name from Roman general Fabius Cunctator who finally defeated Hannibal by methodically chipping away at his patience and will to win, an idea adopted by Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci who called for a long, slow, stealthy march through Western and American mind and culture-shaping institutions. In this way, Christian foundations would be undermined and destroyed, minds captured, souls re-engineered and institutions re-ordered. Gatto writes that for Fabianists, Darwin was their ticket to power. He was the ‘weird holy man’ they adored,

    “…the man who gave them a theory inspirationally equal to god-theory, around which a new organization of society could be justified.” (p. 180)

    To realize the tremendous task Fabians assigned themselves, Gatto writes that we,

    “…need to reflect…on Darwin’s shattering books, ‘The Origin of Species’ (1859) and ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871), each arguing in its own way that….children are (the evolved product of) their race of origin, some ‘favored’…some not” (Gatto, p. 179)

    Together, Darwin’s books issued a “do what thou will” license to America’s ruling caste to justify moral relativism, the imposition of evolutionary teaching, forced schooling, perverse sex education, and much more, all destructive of America’s traditional Christian-based Republic. Gatto writes that from an evolutionary standpoint, our government controlled schools,

    “…are the indoctrination phase of a gigantic breeding experiment…Many (children are genetically) a racial menace (while) the rest…thought of as soldiers in genetic combat, the moral equivalent of war….For governments, children could no longer be considered individuals but were regarded as categories, rungs on a biological ladder. Evolutionary science pronounced the majority useless mouths waiting for nature to dispense with entirely.” (Gatto, p. 179)

    Whereas Christian salvation was formerly held to be a matter between Jesus Christ the Word Incarnate and the individual and the aim of Christian-based Europe and America had for centuries been fixed on the work of winning liberties for the individual against the oppressive State, the Age of Darwin brought an end to all of this. By the turn of the century the Fabian program based in occult science, ancient wisdom traditions, spiritism, and Darwinism was spreading quickly through the best colleges and universities capturing the minds of America’s best and brightest issuing in the view that rights, privileges, wealth and resources are the preserve of the superior caste in control of an omniscient mystical god-State together with salvation as a pantheist conception based in ideas of collectivity.

    Secular historians of the nineteenth century agree that the dominant figures in the occult spiritist/socialist movements were mainly lapsed Evangelicals and Anglican clergymen preceded by Renaissance occultists. The onslaught of skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, higher Biblical criticism and dehistorization of the Genesis account together with moral relativism, Darwinism and occult New Age spirituality assaulting the tattered foundations of our Republic were inspired by Protestant/Evangelical heresy together with an unhealthy interest in spiritism. Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie explain this strange anomaly:

    “The lesson instilled by Evangelical parents had been given a secular form. Evolution or what (Sidney) Webb called Zeitgeist, had taken the place of Providence, yet what Webb described as ‘blind social forces’…which went on inexorably working out social salvation’ did not relieve men of their moral responsibility. Victorian religion had taught that a belief in God’s purposes must be accompanied by an effort to discern and advance them. Socialists who substituted a secular religion for the faith of their youth felt the same compulsion.” (Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, The Fabians, 1977, p. 115-116)

    The Truth will set us free.

  4. Any noteworthy quotes from the early church which state the doctrine of inerrancy in different words?

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