Inerrancy and Church History: The Post-Reformation and Modern Period

As I noted briefly in the last two articles, the church has always, generally speaking, held to the idea of an error-free Bible.  This was true during the early church, the middle ages, and the Reformation. In the early 1600s, however, significant changes began to take shape in Western intellectual culture. Developments in philosophy would dislodge Christian presuppositions from their preeminent epistemological status, and reason would increasingly stand in judgment over Scripture rather than Scripture serving as an authority over reason. With these significant changes would come an approach to biblical studies that undermined the historical and scientific reliability of the Bible while introducing hermeneutical theories that challenged long-held beliefs about God’s supernatural action in the world.

Despite these challenges, Christian theologians located in the Protestant tradition would continue to uphold the Bible against explicit attacks and implicit anti-supernatural theories of interpretation, and they would do so by arguing that the Bible, as a result of its divine inspiration, was wholly without error.

For example, William Ames (1576-1633) in his Marrow of Sacred Divinity, contended that God’s act of inspiration kept the authors of Scripture from error. A contemporary of Ames, William Perkins (1558-1602), stated plainly concerning the Scripture: “The purity thereof is whereby it remaineth entire in itself, void of defect and error” (The Works of William Perkins).

The Westminster Confession of Faith, penned in 1646, would ground the authority of the Bible in God, “who is truth itself” (1:4). The Confession would state unambiguously that Scripture is the “Word of God,”(1:4) because God had “immediately inspired” (1:8) both the Old and New Testament texts; it was, therefore, worthy of full acceptance and obedience. Furthermore, the Confession described Scripture as “infallible truth” (1:5) in which no contradictions could be found. (1:9).

Thomas Helwys (1550-1616), one of the founders of the Baptist movement in England, in his work on the authority of the state and the Christian’s liberty of conscience, esteemed Scripture even over the word of the king. “And yet neither [Jesus] nor his apostles that had the Spirit without error to deliver the counsels of God did ever by example, practice, or by rule command nor give power than any should be compelled by any bodily punishment to obey their laws and ordinances, which were infallibly true, holy, and good” (A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, 54).

Other Baptists would follow the tradition established by Helwys and reverence the Scripture as God’s infallible word. Through confessions of faith, works of theology, exegetical practice, and personal devotion, Baptists in England and America would maintain a robust view of biblical inspiration and inerrancy throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Accordingly, as Baptist historians L. Russ Bush and Tom Nettles observe,

Whenever controversy arose, whether in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries, Baptists were forced to direct their attention toward the issues involved in the definition of biblical inspiration. In these historical conflicts—first with those outside the faith and then among those within—several consistent streams of thought can be isolated. Those streams of thought serve to express what Baptists have meant when they say: ‘The Bible is inspired by God’ (Baptists and the Bible, 392).

Bush and Nettles then note two important designations Baptists historically have given to the Bible. First, Scripture is “infallible.” Bush and Nettles explain,

At least as early as 1651, Particular Baptists described the Bible as infallible. Williams, Bunyan, and Keach all used the word, as did the Second London Confession and several subsequent individuals. Later adherents to infallibility include Boyce, Broadus, Manly, Spurgeon, Carroll, and others. They used ‘infallible’ as a word that made a theoretical claim about the nature of Scripture as an inspired volume—it is inherently truthful in facts and ideas and is, therefore, incapable of misleading the careful interpreter in what it affirms or denies (392).

Second, the Scripture is “inerrant.” Bush and Nettles continue,

This word is merely a nuance of ‘infallible’ and is implied by that term. Although the word has recently taken on an inflammatory character, it has significant historical precedent among Baptists. From John Smyth’s characterization of Scripture as being ‘without error in the first donation,’ to the 1963 Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message phrase, ‘truth, without mixture of err, for its matter,’ some concept equivalent to inerrancy has been judged by most Baptists to express accurately their understanding of the nature of Scripture. Whereas ‘infallible’ in a general sense has referred primarily to the doctrinal content of Scripture, ‘without error’ has been more directly applied to the factual character of Scripture. Matters of apparent contradiction, alleged inaccuracies in history, in geography, and in references to nature; and acts supposedly antithetical to the revealed nature of God are problems within the area that Baptists have traditionally described as being without error (392).

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the great American theologian in the Reformed tradition, though not of Baptist ecclesiastical persuasion, demonstrated his belief in biblical inerrancy explicitly in clear statements about the Bible, and implicitly in his massive collection of unpublished notes in which he sought to reconcile Scripture passages that contained apparent discrepancies. Like his theological predecessor John Calvin, Edwards’ commitment to the Bible’s wholesale truthfulness compelled him to seek solutions to apparent contradictions in Scripture. It seems unlikely in both cases that these men would expend such significant and consistent effort in reconciling Bible passages if they did not hold first to the idea that the Bible did not contain errors.

Yet, as arguments against biblical inerrancy developed and received greater nuance, so did the church’s response. Whereas Christian theologians had not up to this point in history established a full doctrine of Scripture in detailed treatises, the early 1800s would see the production of a few major works on Scripture as Christian scholars sought to provide robust answers to contemporary challenges. Significant contributions to the doctrine of inerrancy would come from Princeton seminary.

B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), for example, professor of theology at Princeton from 1887-1921, produced over his lifetime several scholarly articles that dealt with the matter of Scripture’s divine inspiration, as he sought to confront current attempts “to undermine the historical truthfulness” of the Bible’s narratives. In many of these articles, Warfield spoke directly to the issue of inerrancy. For example, in a brief article entitled, “Inspiration” (1911), Warfield linked the reliability of Scripture to their divine authorship.

While on the other hand the human writers of Scripture are said to have spoken “in” the Holy Spirit (Mark xii; ii. 15; Matt xxii. 43, both R. V.) and are treated as merely the media through whom God the Holy Ghost speaks (Matt. i. 22; ii. 15; Acts i. 16; iv. 25; xxviii. 25; Rom. i. 2). Accordingly, the very words of Scripture are accounted authoritative and “not to be broken” (Matt. xxii. 43; John x. 31, 35; Gal. iii. 16); its prophesies sure (2 Pet. i. 20; John xix. 36, 37; xx. 9; Acts i. 16; cf. Ezra i. 1; Dan. Ix. 2); and its whole contents, historical as well as doctrinal and ethical, not only entirely trustworthy, but designedly framed for the spiritual profit of all ages (2 Tim. Iii. 16; Rom. Xv. 4; 1 Cor. x. 11; Rom. iv. 23; ix. 17; 1 Cor. ix. 10; Gal. iii, 8, 22; iv. 30; 1 Pet. ii. 6; cf. 2 Chron. xvii. 9; Neh. viii. 1) (Warfield, “Inspiration”)

Elsewhere, Warfield appealed to the view Jesus and the apostles held concerning the Old Testament to bolster his argument for inerrancy. “Our Lord and his apostles looked upon the entire truthfulness and utter trustworthiness of that body of writings which they called ‘Scripture,’ as so fully guaranteed by the inspiration of God, that they could appeal to them confidently in all their statements of whatever kind as absolutely true” (Warfield, “The Inerrancy of the Original Autographs”).

Recognizing, however, that errors have crept into subsequent copies of the Scripture through the mistakes of scribes and copyists, Warfield argued for the inerrancy of the original text. Yet, he also affirmed along with the Westminster Confession a distinction between the original and subsequent copies and that the transmitted text “has been providentially kept so pure as to retain full authoritativeness in all controversies of religion” (“The Inerrancy of the Original Autographs”).  While there were errors in the subsequent copies of Scripture, God’s providence had provided his people with a trustworthy text.

Scottish theologian, James Bannerman (1807-1868), while not a professor with Warfield, did receive his Doctorate of Divinity from Princeton and argued extensively for the doctrine of inerrancy in his notable work, Inspiration: The Infallible Truth and Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures. Throughout this volume, Bannerman defended the verbal-plenary nature of inspiration (103, 246, 347), the historical veracity of the biblical authors (18-32), and the infallible nature of Scriptural truth (104, 201, 214, 223, 509, 519), while concluding his work with a series of cogent answers to common objections posed against the doctrines of inspiration and infallibility (480-556). On the whole, the views held and articulated by Warfield and Bannerman are representative of the positions maintained by Princeton faculty during the nineteenth century (consider also Archibald Alexander [1772-1851], Charles Hodge [1797-1878], and Geerhardus Vos [1862-1949]).

John Murray (1898-1975), professor at Princeton in the early twentieth century and later founder of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, continued the tradition set by his predecessors. For example, in an address given to students at Inter-Varsity Fellowship in 1960, Murray articulated a doctrine of infallibility that included the notion of verbal inspiration and was grounded in the witness of the Scripture itself. Christians, then, were obliged to “defend the Scripture against allegations of error and contradiction,” and to “show from the data of Scripture that the Scripture is consistent with itself.”

Nevertheless, it was around the time of Murray’s address to the students at Inter-Varsity that some unexpected opponents were offering resistance to the doctrine of inerrancy; on this occasion, it was evangelical theologians who were leveling the challenges.  (I have recently discussed these developments here.)  And, despite the work done by inerrantist theologians in the 1960s-80s to answer these challenges, a latent discontent with inerrancy remained, and has recently resurfaced.

While it is not my contention that a study of church history finally solves the issue of inerrancy–Scripture itself must be our final arbiter of the question–or, much less, that history demonstrates total unanimity over this question among professing Christians throughout the ages, I do believe that we see a great consensus within the church with regard to this important doctrine.  And, like the men we I have surveyed over the last three articles, I believe it is a doctrine worth defending, upholding, and preserving.

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