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