It is sometimes argued by evangelical non-inerrantists that the doctrine of inerrancy is a recent theological innovation that finds little to no precedent in the church. The early church fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bavink, and Kuyper, they claim, all held to a view of Scripture that was far different than what inerrantists advance today. Furthermore, it isn’t until we come to B. B. Warfield and the Princeton theologians in the early to late 19th century that we begin to find concentrated efforts to write on the doctrine of Scripture.
The conclusion: not only is inerrancy a departure from the historic position of the church, it is a doctrine that owes its origin to a specific era of church history in which the Protestant response to the assaults of higher criticism compelled scholars to form a theology of Scripture according to modernistic rather than biblical categories.
A Valid Concern?
Although it is true the words inerrant or inerrancy were never used prior to the modern period, the concept of an error-free text has certainly been embraced by a large segment of the professing Christian church since the first century (as I’ve noted here, here, here, and here).
A question that naturally emerges as one considers the rigor with which inerrancy was defended and defined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, is why so much attention was given to the doctrine during this time? Such a recent upsurge in scholarship devoted to the doctrine of Scripture generally and to inerrancy specifically does seem to give some weight to the claim that the idea of an error-free text—at least as it is currently defined—is a modern invention.
A Basic Question
But before we tag the doctrine of inerrancy with such a classification, we first need to ask a basic question. Starting with the early church: why is it that we don’t find in the fathers a detailed doctrine of Scripture that includes nuanced descriptions of inspiration and inerrancy? I suggest there are two primary reasons: (1) Early church theologians and apologists, in most cases, simply assumed the divine nature of the Bible and advanced their arguments on this foundational premise; and (2) their theological efforts were mainly taken up with other concerns, like explaining and defending the nature of Christ, defending the coherence of the Christian message, and similar matters. James Bannerman explains,
The question of the authority and infallibility of Scripture did not, however, pass through this process [of controversy] until many centuries afterwards. There are no definitions and limitations of the doctrine on one side or another, elaborately drawn out and reduced to systematic form, as if armed on every side to repel assault, or fortified around to prevent controversy or misunderstanding. The belief of the early church in an infallible Bible was too simple to require to be fenced about with the safeguard of explanations, and too unanimous to need support from argument. There was neither controversy nor theorizing demanded to satisfy the faith of Christians; nor did the one or the other appear in connection with inspiration for the first eight hundred years (Bannerman, Inspiration, 123).
In other words, the reason why we do not find significant doctrines of Scripture in the early church is that they were unnecessary. The theological controversies of the time required extended treatment of other issues not directly related to the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. And, although matters of Scripture’s origin and reliability did receive more attention through the middle ages and into the Reformation, a similar observation could be made of these eras as well: Christian theologians devoted their time and energy to other pressing doctrinal issues. Systematic theologian Mark Thompson makes this very point when he writes,
As so often happens in the history of Christian theological reflection, the need for a detailed treatment of a specific theological topic became obvious only in the light of challenges and efforts to recast a long-standing theological consensus (See “The Divine Investment in Truth” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, 73).
Referring specifically to B. B. Warfield and company, D. A. Carson makes a similar comment:
The Princetonians had more to say about Scripture than some of their forebears, precisely because that was one of the most common points of attack from the rising liberalism of the (especially European) university world. Beyond this, I suspect that even-handed reading of the evidence would not find Hodge or Warfield adopting a stance on Scripture greatly different from Augustine or Calvin, so far as its role in the structure of Christian theology is concerned (see Carson’s SBJT article here).
Legitimate Doctrinal Development
What the above comments highlight is this: the main problem with the argument that inerrancy is only of recent vintage is that it mistakes legitimate doctrinal development for theological innovation.
Christian doctrine, over time and as a result of encountering contemporary issues, grows and matures in nuance and detail. As doctrines develop, however, they continue to retain fundamental aspects of the original teaching, as children retain the features that were faintly apparent in their prenatal state (consider the advances made between Nicea and Chalcedon).
In the case of inerrancy, it is misleading to suggest that it was a doctrinal invention conceived by Christian apologists in order to retain intellectual credibility in the throes of modernism or to counter the arguments of higher-criticism. On the contrary, it is an example of what happens when a historic doctrine confronts contemporary issues related directly to what the doctrine originally asserted.
The view that Scripture is entirely truthful and without error in all it affirms was largely assumed by the bulk of the church until after the Reformation so there was no need to argue strenuously for it. We should expect a stronger and more detailed emphasis on the error-free nature of Scripture when, in the nineteenth century, Christian scholars were faced with sophisticated arguments that undermined fundamental theological affirmations and the truthfulness of much of the biblical narrative. It seems largely without warrant, then, to claim that the doctrine of inerrancy is a recent theological invention.