Written for Dr. Frank James, History of Christianity II, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, May 2003.
Historical Background of the Debate
There seem to be two lines of thought on the how the debate over inerrancy began. Not surprisingly, the two views of history appear to be divided down the lines of the parties in the debate. Both sides accuse the other of starting it!
Those who affirm infallibility, but not inerrancy claim that the first mention of an inerrant Bible appeared in the late seventeenth century in Francis Turretin’s Instituio theologiae elencticae. Turretin’s work and the concept of inerrancy became a mainstay of the Princeton Theology under Archibald Alexander during most of the nineteenth century and was further refined by Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, who affirmed inerrancy as to scientific, historical or geographical matters. Non-inerrantists contend that the influence of Scholasticism and Scottish Common Sense philosophy contributed to its move away from what they consider the traditional teaching of the church for nearly two millenia. Non-inerrantists, then, believe that inerrancy was a new idea introduced into the church by Turretin and passed down to the present day, especially in Reformed circles.
On the other hand, those who affirm inerrancy believe that the debate began in the twentieth century with G. C. Berkouwer, Herman Ridderbos, James Orr and others in reaction to pressure from those engaged in biblical criticism. When faced with a growing body of apparent contradictions in the Bible, they reasoned that these problems were due to the fallibility of the human authors. Inerrantists, then, view the concept of non- or limited inerrancy as a new idea, outside of the historic tradition of the church. They quote Augustine in support of inerrancy who wrote in the fifth century, “none of these (scriptural) authors has erred in any respect of writing.” However, limited inerrantists counter this by saying that what Augustine and his followers meant was that “it did not include any purposeful deceits. Therefore it could include technical mistakes in the areas of science and history.” So goes the debate over the history of the debate.
Definitions abound over the meanings of the words infallibility, inerrancy and limited inerrancy. Some of the confusion arises from the fact that none of these are words found in Scripture, and therefore are more difficult to define precisely. The issue that is at stake in the debate is the authority of Scripture and in part the meaning of the Biblical word theopneustos found in 2 Tim. 3:16 translated “inspired by God,” given by inspiration of God,” or “God-breathed.”
As Evangelicals, both sides agree on the inspiration of Scripture in addition to other supernatural tenets of the faith such as the virgin birth, the incarnation, miracles and the resurrection. Davis rightly states that though infallibility is not a biblical term, it strongly sets Evangelicals apart from those who are more liberal or neo-orthodox. Liberal theologians view the Bible merely as a human text – “written, copied, translated and interpreted by fallible humans” which “contains contradictions…legend and saga, inaccuracies…not to be regarded as God’s word.” Neo-orthodox theologians present an “ambiguous view of Scripture” tending to “locate the word not in the Bible but in man’s experience of faith.” In contrast, Evangelicals on both sides of the debate at hand affirm that Scripture is God’s written word (plenary verbal inspiration) and is authoritative.
However, they are not agreed on the extent of this authority. Limited inerrantists are content to affirm that Scripture is inerrant in “matters of faith and practice,” but allow for errors in other matters, while inerrantists assert that every statement in Scripture is true, including matters of history, geography and science. On the question of infallibility, non-inerrantists follow Berkouwer who states, “the purpose of God-breathed Scripture is not at all to provide a scientific gnosis in order to convey and increase human knowledge and wisdom, but to witness of the salvation of God unto faith. Davis concurs, “The Bible is infallible but not inerrant – there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but none on matters of faith and practice.” However, inerrantists insist that infallibility entails inerrancy. To them, infallibility has to do with ability or potential. Infallibility is the inability to make mistakes or errors. An infallible Scripture is “true and reliable in the matters it addresses” and it is impossible “for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and inerrant.” Therefore, it is impossible for the Bible to contain errors. Sproul states it another way: “Scripture in its entirety is inerrant…free from all falsehood, fraud or deceit…” Inerrantists believe that inerrancy is a definitive aspect of infallibility, thus separating them from non-inerrantists.
The foregoing describes some of the over-arching issues that separate these two groups. We now turn to some of the finer details of the debate. First, we will look at some of the arguments and counter-arguments against inerrancy. Due to space considerations we will focus our attention on only a few. One of the primary accusations leveled at inerrantists is their seeming lack of concern for irregularities in the so-called “phenomena” of the Bible. Some writers use the word phenomena to refer to all the facts about the Bible. But in this debate phenomena refer to the “irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another,” in other words, the apparent problems of the Bible for which there seem to be no plausible explanation. Such questions include the killing of innocent people in the Israelite conquest (human killing of innocent people normally is morally wrong); David’s numbering of the people (inconsistencies between the two accounts); the “mustard seed” problem (Mt.13:31, 32 – horticultural studies have shown that orchid seeds are smaller); Matthew’s quotation of Jeremiah (the words or thoughts contained in Mat. 27:9,10 are found nowhere in the extant works of Jeremiah); the “Enoch” problem (Jude 14,15 – words attributed to Enoch come from the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch ); and, the “staff” problem (inconsistent reports in Mk. 6:8; Mt. 10:9,10; Luke 9:3) to name a few. Inerrantists typically exhibit caution when dealing with these passages in hopes that future discoveries will decide these apparent contradictions. Beegle insists that this series of suspended judgments shows that the “totality of the Biblical evidence does not prove the doctrine of inerrancy to be a fact. It is still a theory that must be accepted by faith.” He believes that the true biblical view of inspiration must account for all the evidence of Scripture. Inerrantists counter that phenomenal use of language such as “sunrise” and “sunset” are still used today; approximations and non-literal quotations are understood as conventions of language; in regard to fragmentary information, absolute precision by modern standards is not required for something to be true; in regard to confusion over the dating of kings’ reigns, lack of uniformity of standards is not the same in our more scientific world; and, in regard to transcendent truths of Scripture, many paradoxes and antinomies are difficult to harmonize.
A second argument leveled against inerrantists’ is their appeal to the infallibility of the human authors and inerrant original autographs. Inerrantists reason deductively that God does not lie (Tit.1:2; 2 Tim. 2:13), God is not ignorant (Heb. 4:13; Ps. 33:13-15), and Scripture is his word (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, Scripture is inerrant. They believe that the texts of the original autographs contain the very words that God intended them to contain, yet without overriding the personality or literary style of the authors. However, there is no sense that God audibly “dictated” the words except in (obvious) rare cases. Rather, they wrote as they were “moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21b). They reason that the original autographs contained no errors as a result. Inerrantists allow for subsequent mistakes in translation and copying but insist that the science of textual criticism keeps these to a minimum so the texts we read today contain very few true errors.
Non-inerrantists counter that the source of the technical errors introduced into the text is a result of their human authorship, that in the process of God’s “accommodation” of his word by using human authors so that man could understand it, inaccuracies were inevitably introduced into the text because all humans are flawed by their fallen nature. Yet, these inaccuracies are not so serious that the message of salvation is lost. In regard to the autographs, non-inerrantists further protest that these non-existent documents are “untestable and unfalsifiable.” Non-inerrantists accuse their opponents of holding a docetic view of Scripture which obscures the humanity of its authors and say that autographs do not play a role in the question of understanding Scripture insisting that Christ and the apostles did not appeal to the autographs but to the imperfect copies available to them. Inerrantists counter that unless we can be assured that the original writers and authographs were true, we cannot know what God has said.
A third argument is that inerrantists are overly precise and take an all-or-nothing view of Scripture as though all of Christianity hangs on defending a few words. Non-inerrantists believe that their opponents are emphasizing the wrong things, focusing on minutia rather than defending the overall salvific message. Rogers and Kim say that the “purpose of Scripture is to reveal salvation truths to man, not to give information about the natural world and history.” Moreover, non-inerrantists accuse inerrantists of being overly rationalistic in defending the Bible, so that “a single flaw in the Bible nullifies the whole thing and takes on “a fortress mentality of (an) orthodoxy in decline.” Pinnock echoes this sentiment when he writes, “The peril of conservative religion today as in Jesus’ day is to bolster up unbiblical behaviour behind a cloak of impeccable orthodoxy.” Innerantists counter that unless we are assured that Scripture is true in all that it says, including history and science, we cannot have assurance that it is true in any thing it says. Some historical details are very important, since our faith is based on what God has done in history. For example, some historical matters recorded in Scripture such as the death and resurrection of Christ directly affect our “faith and practice.” On this point Sproul asks rhetorically, “How do we escape dehistoricizing the gospel and relegating it to a level of supratemporal existential “decision?”
Conclusion. What is at Stake?
Some have asked if the matter of inerrancy will become a “test of Evangelical authenticity” and whether it might eventually lead to the excommunication of dissenters from certain institutions. I agree with Nichole who asserts that “important as this tenet is, we should say that it is not strictly either a sufficient or necessary standard of evangelical truth. It is not sufficient because there are many other tenets that need to be maintained if a person is to be seen as clearly evangelical. What is supremely at stake in this whole discussion is the recognition of the authority of God in Scripture. Are we going to submit unconditionally to the voice of God who has spoken? Or are we going to insist on screening the message….” Pinnock a non-inerrantist, insists that what is at stake is “maintaining equally the humanity and divinity of Scripture.” And he assures us that any hesitancy to embrace inerrancy does not correspond to a decline in respect for Scripture. I agree that it is important to maintain the human element in Scripture, just as it is important to maintain the human aspect of Christ, lest we fall into the sin of Docetism, denying the goodness of God’s creation. Both Scripture and God’s Word (logos) are given to us in part through humanity. But Christ’s humanity did not entail error. In like manner, God’s written word penned by the authors of Scripture does not necessarily entail error. In fact, Scripture tells us that it is “God-breathed,” not unlike what was written by the “finger of God” on Sinai, and therefore cannot be in error. I conclude that what is at stake is the authority of Scripture. As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Innerancy affirms, the result of moving away from the total truth of the Bible which God gave causes it to lose its authority, and “what has authority instead is a Bible reduced in content according to the demands of one’s critical reasonings and in principle reducible still further once one has started…to an unstable subjectivism…We affirm that what Scripture says, God says.”
Beegle, Dewey. “Inerrancy and the Phenomena of Scripture.” In The Living God: Readings in Christian Theology, ed. Millard J. Erickson. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978.
Berkouwer, G. C. Holy Scripture, trans. and ed. Jack B. Rogers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1975.
Davis, Stephen. The Debate About the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.
Frame, John M. Doctrine of the Word of God class outline, 2003.
__________. Is the Bible Inerrant? http://www.thirdmill.org.files/english/theology/51039~9 12 9911-37-35 PM~TH.Frame.Inerrancy.pdf.
Geisler, Norman, L. ed., Innerancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
Nichole, Roger. “The Nature of Inerrancy” In Inerrancy and Common Sense, ed. N. L. Geisler. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
Pinnock, Clark. “Three Views of the Bible in Contemporary Theology.” In Biblical Authority,” ed. Jack Rogers. Waco: Word, 1977.
Rogers, Jack. “The Church Doctrine of Biblical Authority.” Biblical Authority. Waco: Word, 1977.
Sproul, R. C. Explaining Inerrancy: A Commentary. Oakland, Calif.: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1980.
__________. “Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism,” In The Foundation of Biblical Authority, ed. J. M. Boice. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
Woodbridge, J. D. “Recent Interpretations of Biblical Authority, pt. 2: The Rogers and Kim Proposal in the Balance.” Biblioteca Sacra. v.142, 1985.
Footnotes to be added.