Inerrancy and Church History: The Early Fathers

Since 1978 and the release of Rogers and McKim’s massive The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, it has been a strategy among evangelicals who dislike the doctrine of inerrancy to suggest that the doctrine itself has a recent origin.  Why some evangelical non-inerrantists continue to hold this line is baffling, however, for it is widely acknowledged that Rogers and McKim’s thesis–that conservative efforts to uphold the doctrine of inerrancy are grounded in theological innovation rather than historical precedent–was soundly and definitively refuted by John Woodbridge’s Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal.  The church has always believed in an error-free Bible.

Nevertheless, in light of recent challenges to inerrancy by those who self-consciously place themselves within the evangelical tradition, it becomes necessary to revisit old paths for the sake of clarity and certainty.

Over the next few weeks I want to look at the doctrine of inerrancy in the history of the church.  My goal here, however, is not to provide a full history of the doctrine as it has been articulated by Christians throughout the centuries. Such a task, as John Woodbridge noted in his own volume on the subject, would be “herculean” and would require an entire book!  Rather, my aim in these few articles is to sketch a general picture of the church’s belief in an error-free Bible in order to establish that the doctrine of inerrancy as defined, for example, in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, has strong historical precedent.  I begin with the early church fathers.

The Early Church Fathers
Although the word “inerrant” is a modern term used to describe the nature of Scripture, the concept of inerrancy has been affirmed throughout the history of the church.  The early church is no exception. While the ancient church fathers never sought to provide a systematic treatment of the doctrine of Scripture, they did assert throughout their writings that Scripture was without error.  It is clear that their unswerving commitment to the divine authorship of Scripture led to their conviction concerning the nature of biblical truth; in their theological practice, the early church fathers saw inerrancy as a corollary to divine inspiration.

For example, Irenaeus attributes the “perfect” nature of the Scriptures to the fact that they were inspired by God. “We should leave things [of an unknowable] nature to God who creates us, being most assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit” (Against Heresies, 2.28.2, in ANF, 1:399).  Writing to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome exhorted his readers, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 45, in ANF, 9:243).  In the view of the ancient church fathers, because God was the author of Scripture, Scripture itself could not err.

Explicit statements concerning the nature of biblical truth are found throughout early church writings. Taken together, these statements communicate two basic ideas about the nature of biblical truth. First, biblical truth corresponds to reality. In other words, Scripture records events in the way they actually occurred, it reports statements in a manner that accurately communicates their intended meaning, and it predicates of God that which is true of his real character. Tertullian states unambiguously, “The statements of Holy Scripture will never be discordant with truth” (A Treatise on the Soul, 21, in ANF, 3:202).

Second, Scripture cannot contradict itself. Origen is resolute on this matter, likening the refusal to recognize the congruent nature of biblical truth to spiritual tone-deafness.

And likewise he becomes a peacemaker as he demonstrates that which appears to others to be a conflict in the Scriptures is no conflict, and exhibits their concord and peace, whether of the Old Scriptures with the New, or of the Law with the Prophets or of the gospels with the Apostolic Scriptures, or of the Apostolic Scriptures with each other. . . . For as the different chords of the psalter or the lyre, each of which gives forth a certain sound of its own which seems unlike the sound of another chord, are thought by a man who is not musical and ignorant of the principle of musical harmony (Commentary on Matthew, 2, in ANF, 9:413).

Justin, in his famous, Dialogue, states clearly, “Since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion of myself” (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, 65, in ANF, 1:230).

Augustine, the famous bishop from North Africa and a contemporary of Jerome, affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture by his practice in preaching and writing, and in explicit statements concerning the integrity of the biblical text. For example, in a letter to Jerome, Augustine stated,

For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books; that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive. For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true” (Letters, 28, in NPNF, 1:251-52).

In his Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Augustine set the Scripture apart from other theological writings—including his own—stating that the latter may, in certain instances, “[fall] short of the truth in obscure and recondite matters” (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, in NPNF, 4:180). Therefore, Christians are “without obligation to believe” what is contained in these treatises; they are beholden only to place themselves under the authority of the canonical Scriptures.

In a subsequent letter to Jerome, Augustine declared his own personal devotion to the Scripture, linking his reverence for the Bible to its own inerrancy. “I have learned to yield this [total] respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture. Of these alone do I most firmly believe that their authors were completely free from error” (Letters, 82, in NPNF, 1:350). If the bishop came across a text that appeared incongruent with other biblical teaching or seemed to purport some error, he located the root of the problem in one of three places: (1) a faulty copy of the original text; (2) a poor translation of the original text that does not capture rightly the author’s intended meaning; or (3) himself as a fallible interpreter (Letters, 82, in NPNF, 1:350).

Thus, we see that the early church fathers through explicit statements and in their theological practice affirmed the error-free nature of Scripture.  In the next article we will find similar affirmations among theologians in the Middle Ages.

Photo: Provenance Online Project

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