Inerrancy and Church History: The Middle Ages

In a previous article I sought to show that although the word “inerrancy” was not used to describe Scripture until rather recently, the concept of an error-free Bible is found among the early church fathers. Theologians in the medieval church also affirmed the complete truthfulness of Scripture.  Here are a few examples.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), in his famous Cur De Homo? declared that Scripture was the standard by which his own beliefs and teachings were to be tested:

But remember the proviso with which I began to deal with your perplexity: viz., that if I say something which a greater authority does not confirm, then even though I seem to prove it rationally, it should be accepted with no other degree of certainty than that it appears this way to me for the time being, until God somehow reveals the matter to me more fully. For if I say something that unquestionably contradicts Sacred Scripture, I am certain that it is false; and I do not want to hold that view if I know it [to be false].

For Anselm, the Bible provided the sure basis for theological inquiry and formulation. “Sacred Scripture everywhere teaches us how we are to approach the participation in such great grace and how we are to live under this grace. Sacred Scripture is founded upon solid truth, as upon a firm foundation.”

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), while not designating a section in his Summa Theologica to discuss the matter specifically, states clearly in that he believes Scripture to be without error. “Hence, it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ” (p. 1, q.1, art. 1). Later in the Summa, Aquinas precludes error from the historical aspects of Scripture when he comments, “A thing is of faith, indirectly, if the denial of it involves a consequence something against faith; as for instance if anyone said that Samuel was not the son of Elcana, for it follows that divine Scripture would be false” (p.1, q. 32, art. 4). In the latter example, Aquinas does not only classify the spiritual aspects of Scripture to be without error; historical narratives must provide true information about specific people, or Scripture would be deemed false at these points.

In his discussion on the sin of lying, Aquinas comments, “It is unlawful to hold that any false assertion is contained either in the Gospel or in any canonical Scripture, or that the writers thereof have told untruths, because faith would be deprived of its certitude which is based on the authority of Holy Writ” (p. 2, q. 110, art. 3). This statement is made in response to an objection posed earlier in the article suggesting that the Gospel writers had, given their differing accounts of events in Christ’s life, lied at some point in their narratives. Aquinas’s answer to this objection indicates that he considered such a notion untenable. The clear implication is that Aquinas regarded Scripture true in all it affirmed, even the reporting of historical particulars like Christ’s words and deeds.

The theologians of the medieval church, like those of the early church, held that divine inspiration necessitated an inerrant text. Alphonsus Tosatus (1400-1455), for example, held that “all Scripture . . . is a divine revelation by the agency of the Spirit, who not only inspires but also preserves the writer from error” (Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2:47). Hervaeus Natalis (1260-1323) believed that “whatever things are in Scripture are spoken by God” and because it is “certain that God cannot speak falsehood,” Scripture could not err (Muller, 2:45).  

This pattern of belief in the inerrant Word of God during the medieval period continued to the Reformers in the sixteenth century.  We will look at John Calvin and Martin Luther specifically in the next article.

Picture: Provenance Online Project

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