Does Inerrancy Apply Only To The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts Of Scripture?


M. writes to ask, “Dr Clark, I am a reformed beginner. Is biblical inerrancy just for the original version?” The substance of the question is whether our English (or French, or German, or Spanish etc) translations may be considered inerrant? The short answer is: yes, we may regard translations as inerrant insofar as they accurately reflect the original text (autographa).

First, let us define our terms. The historic Christian church has always regarded Scripture as the inspired, infallible Word of God. In the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed (AD 381) the church universal confesses that the “Holy Spirit… spoke by the prophets.” We regularly see the fathers of the church describing Scripture as infallible, i.e., incapable of error. When we say that Scripture is inspired we mean “breathed out by God” (θεόπνευστος; 2 Tim 3:16). It means that the Prophets and Apostles wrote as they were “carried along” by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21).

This is what the Westminster Divines wrote and what the Reformed confess regarding the importance of both the original texts and translations:

The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope (WCF, 1.8).

The original texts, the autographs, the Hebrew, Aramaic (parts of the Old Testament are in Aramaic), and Greek texts given by the Holy Spirit, through the Prophets and Apostles, are inspired, infallible, and inerrant.

That last adjective, inerrant, has been a source of controversy since the late nineteenth century when orthodox Christians of various traditions began using it to say that not only is Scripture infallible it is actually without error. We adopted this language to respond to the rationalist (i.e., those who put human reason above divine revelation) critics of Scripture. For more on the inerrancy of Scripture, see the resources.

The Original Text

The final authority for Christian doctrine and the Christian life, as the Westminster Divines wrote, is the Word of God in the original languages. Textual criticism is the business of deciding, when there is a question, what the original text was, i.e., which is the most likely reading or text, in a particular instance. Biblical scholars have always practiced textual criticism: the ancient fathers did it, the Renaissance scholars advanced the practice, as did the Protestant Reformers. The questions grew, however, in the late nineteenth century when scholars found a large cache of ancient texts in Egypt. It is important to note, however, that none of the various readings substantially changes Biblical teaching. Many of them, particularly in the New Testament, are obvious later emendations by copyists who were seeking to clarify something that they found troubling. Others were marginal notes that came to be copied into the body of the text. We have a marvelous treasury of ancient texts of the the Scriptures and the Christian may have a high degree of confidence that within those texts we have the autographs, i.e., the text of Scripture as given by the Spirit through the Prophets and Apostles. For more on this see the resources.

Because it is Scripture in the original languages that norms our faith and practice, it is essential that our pastors and teachers receive a genuine education in the original languages. This is why we should expect them to continue learn and progress in their knowledge and use of the original languages in pastoral ministry. For centuries before the Renaissance and Reformation, most the ministers in the Western church lost the ability to read the Scriptures in the original languages. Indeed, to find an illiterate priest (one who could not read at all) was not unknown. In the Greek church, of course, they could at least read the New Testament but it was not until the Renaissance that the knowledge of Hebrew and Greek began to return more widely and to be taught again in the universities, where pastors were educated. The Reformed churches understood and appreciated the value of the knowledge of the original languages and expected the pastors to learn and use them.

For those who are following in the footsteps of the Renaissance and Reformation tradition of reading Scripture in the original languages (and not merely relying on computer programs) it is not only possible to read the Scriptures but it is necessary. It is also necessary to check the accuracy of various English translations.


So, when a group of translators seeks to bring into a receptor language (e.g., English, French, German) the original, should we regard the translation as inerrant? Obviously translations vary in their quality, in their methods, and in their accuracy but we are blessed to have a wealth of faithful, accurate, translations. For more on Bible translation see the resources. We should distinguish between the act of translation and the inspiration of Scripture. No translators, not even those who translated the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures into Greek (the LXX), were inspired. Jerome and the others who made Latin translations were not inspired and neither were those who did the King James version or the NIV and ESV translations. They did not see themselves as inspired in their work of translation. The Scriptures were inspired as they were given through the Prophets and Apostles. We regard translations as the inspired Word of God insofar as they reflect the original accurately.

There are disagreements between translators on two fronts: translation philosophy and particular cases. Not every disagreement among translations, however, means that there is an error. Translating a text from one language to another is challenging and there are unavoidable ambiguities. Martin Luther, who knew something about this business, wrote a letter about it in 1530. It is linked below in the resources. There might be two or three ways to say the same thing. So, the NIV followed one translation philosophy and the ESV another. Over the years I have come to prefer something like the approach followed by the ESV but no translation is perfect. They are all subject to revision. Nevertheless, lay readers of Scripture should have confidence in God’s Word in the original languages and in the several faithful translations that we are blessed to have.

This does not mean that only certain kinds of translations pass this test. Consider the Greek translations of the Old Testament quoted by the New Testament. The writers of the New Testament treat those translations (the LXX and other versions) as God’s inspired, infallible Word. They treat those translations as without error even though, by our lights, we might see the LXX et al as paraphrases and imperfect in their rendering of the Hebrew and Aramaic text into Greek. One of the great breakthroughs of the Reformation was the principle that God’s people have a right to and interest in God’s Word in their own language. Luther made a German translation, Tyndale made an English translation, and Robert Olivétan made a French translation. They followed various approaches but each of these was a faithful translation of God’s inerrant Word.

In this way translation is something like textual criticism. One scholar might argue for this reading (what a passages says in a manuscript or papyrus) and another scholar might argue for another reading. The substance of what is said in the passage does not change. No doctrine is at stake. No fact in the history of creation or salvation hinges on such disagreements. So it is with translations. There are a few notorious exceptions, e.g., the Revised Standard Version translation of Isaiah 7:14, which uses “young woman” instead of “virgin.” The text says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). In 1952, however, the RSV translated the Hebrew noun (עַלְמָה; almah) for virgin as “young woman.” The New English Bible followed suit in 1970 and the New RSV did it again in 1989 but the overwhelming majority of English translations use virgin. There is a reason for this. The LXX translation, made during the inter-testamental period (3rd to 2nd cent BC) used the noun παρθένος (parthenos), which the New Testament authors also use. The rationalist critics think that they know what can and cannot be so they rule out virgin a priori but we may be thankful that God the Spirit did not consult them when he inspired the New Testament authors to interpret Isaiah 7:14 for us because they clearly intended us to understand that Mary was a virgin, i.e., a young woman who had never had sexual relations with a man, when God the Son took on a true human nature in her womb.

The RSV translation of the second half of Romans 9:5 is simply wrong. Scripture says, “Theirs are the fathers and out of them is the Christ according to the flesh, who is God over all blessed for ever.”1 The RSV, however, translates this verse: “to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.” Their use of a period (full stop) after Christ removes Paul’s attribution of deity to Christ and turns the second part of the verse into a longer, more generic doxology. This is a significant mistake and one that the ESV, which revised the RSV, has repaired. Such significant errors are relatively unusual. In other respects, however, I still find the RSV a useful translation. The Christian Reformed Church adopted the RSV for many years before turning to the NIV in the 1970s.

God’s Word is God’s. It is as reliable as he is. He has preserved it in the various copies, of which we have a wealth. We are also blessed with wonderful translations. From Tyndale’s marvelous work to the Geneva Bible, and later, the KJV, the Revised Version, the American Standard Version, and its successors to the NASB, the NIV, and the ESV et al, we have many faithful English translations that we may trust to give us the sense of the text intended by the divine and human authors. They faithfully communicate the words and intended sense of the original text, which was inspired by the Holy Spirit and is infallible and inerrant.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


1. ὧν οἱ πατέρες καὶ ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα, ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ἀμήν (NA 28).


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

  1. A Jehovah’s Witness was happy that his quarry turned out to be an RSV user, because he could go ahead and point me to Proverbs 8:22, in its Arian translation. I had recently professed a change of heart by being confirmed in the Church of England, and I wasn’t actually sucked into the JWs, but my understanding of the nature and work of Christ remained further corrupted for something like a year (I was then helped to realise that Christ is uncreated when I read H E Guillebaud’s “Why the Cross” {Fortunately I never got exposed to his “The Righteous Judge”, which he wrote later, when he’d fallen prey to Dr Basil Atkinson’s arguments, the fallacy of which rests on a false assumption of what the BIBLE means by the two words translated “Immortality”}).
    I later came to realise that that Arian translation is not only heretical, but totally nonsensical; because if God created Wisdom, what can He have been BEFORE He created her? Not even the author of “Immortal, invisible …” got THAT one wrong!

Comments are closed.