The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy, Part 1

| By Michael Horton

This is the first of a two-part series, taken from an article by Michael Horton which appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Modern Reformation. Horton begins by pointing out that the concept of inerrancy goes back to the ancient church but was most clearly developed by Princeton theologians A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield in their 1881 book, Inspiration. Contrary to what many people imagine today, these heroes of the Reformed tradition emphasized that the Holy Spirit worked through limited human authors in a centuries-long process to produce the Bible: “’The Scriptures have been generated, as the plan of redemption has been evolved, through an historic process,’ which is divine in its origin and intent, but ‘largely natural in its method.’” Warfield and Hodge affirm the importance of historical criticism, face textual problems and errors head-on, and caution against thinking of the authors of Scripture as being omniscient or infallible.

Against the repeated claim that the doctrine of inerrancy, unknown to the church, arose first with Protestant orthodoxy, we could cite numerous examples from the ancient and medieval church.1 It was Augustine who first coined the term "inerrant," and Luther and Calvin can speak of Scripture as free from error.2

Down to the Second Vatican Council, Rome has attributed inerrancy to Scripture as the common view of the church throughout its history. According to the First Vatican Council (1869-70), the Old and New Testaments, "whole and entire," are "sacred and canonical." In fact, contrary to the tendency of some Protestants (including some evangelicals) to lodge the nature of inspiration in the church's authority, this council added,

And the church holds them as sacred and canonical not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without errors, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their Author.3

Successive popes during the twentieth century condemned the view that limited inerrancy to that which is necessary for salvation, and Pope Leo XIII went even further than the inerrancy position by espousing the dictation theory of inspiration. Undoubtedly, this mechanical theory of inspiration is what most critics have in mind when they encounter the term "inerrancy." Nevertheless, it does demonstrate that inerrancy is not an invention of Protestant fundamentalists. Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the most recent Catholic catechism states, "Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures."4

The Princeton Formulation of Inerrancy

Although inerrancy was taken for granted in church history until the Enlightenment, it was especially at Princeton Seminary in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it became a full-blown formulation. This view is articulated most completely in Inspiration, a book coauthored by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield and published by the Presbyterian Church in 1881. Their argument deserves an extended summary especially because it remains, in my view, the best formulation of inerrancy just as it anticipates and challenges caricatures.

First, they point out that a sound doctrine of inspiration requires a specifically Christian ontology or view of reality: "The only really dangerous opposition to the church doctrine of inspiration comes either directly or indirectly, but always ultimately, from some false view of God's relation to the world, of his methods of working, and of the possibility of a supernatural agency penetrating and altering the course of a natural process."5 Just as the divine element pervades the whole of Scripture, so too does the human aspect. Not only "the untrammeled play of all [the author's] faculties, but the very substance of what they write is evidently for the most part the product of their own mental and spiritual activities."6 Even more than the Reformers, the Protestant orthodox were sensitive to the diverse means used by God to produce the Bible's diverse literature. This awareness has only grown, Hodge and Warfield observe, and should be fully appreciated. God's "superintendence" did not compromise creaturely freedom. In fact, "It interfered with no spontaneous natural agencies, which were, in themselves, producing results conformable to the mind of the Holy Spirit."7 Just as the divine element pervades the whole of Scripture, so too does the human aspect.

Far from reducing all instances of biblical revelation to the prophetic paradigm, as critics often allege, Hodge and Warfield recognize that the prophetic form, "Thus says the Lord," is a "comparatively small element of the whole body of sacred writing." In the majority of cases, the writers drew from their own existing knowledge, including general revelation, and each "gave evidence of his own special limitations of knowledge and mental power, and of his personal defects as well as of his powers....The Scriptures have been generated, as the plan of redemption has been evolved, through an historic process," which is divine in its origin and intent, but "largely natural in its method."8 "The Scriptures were generated through sixteen centuries of this divinely regulated concurrence of God and man, of the natural and the supernatural, of reason and revelation, of providence and grace."9

Second, Warfield and Hodge underscore the redemptive-historical unfolding of biblical revelation, defending an organic view of inspiration over a mechanical theory. They note that many reject verbal inspiration because of its association with the erroneous theory of verbal dictation, which is an "extremely mechanical" view.10 Therefore, theories concerning "authors, dates, sources and modes of composition" that "are not plainly inconsistent with the testimony of Christ or his apostles as to the Old Testament or with the apostolic origin of the books of the New Testament...cannot in the least invalidate" the Bible's inspiration and inerrancy.11 While higher criticism proceeds on the basis of anti-supernatural and rationalistic presuppositions, historical criticism is a valid and crucial discipline.

Third, the Princeton theologians faced squarely the question of contradictions and errors, noting problems in great detail. Some discrepancies are due to imperfect copies, which textual criticism properly considers. In other cases, an original reading may be lost, or we may simply fail to have adequate data or be blinded by our presuppositions from understanding a given text. Sometimes we are "destitute of the circumstantial knowledge which would fill up and harmonize the record," as is true in any historical record. We must also remember that our own methods of testing the accuracy of Scripture "are themselves subject to error."12

Fourth, because it is the communication that is inspired rather than the persons themselves, we should not imagine that the authors were omniscient or infallible. In fact, the authors themselves seem conscious enough of their limitations. "The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong."13 Yet Scripture is seen to be inerrant "when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained and interpreted in their natural and intended sense."14 Inerrancy is not attributed to copies, much less to our vernacular translations, but to "the original autographic text."15


References & Credits

1. See Robert D. Preus, "The View of the Bible Held by the Church: The Early Church through Luther," and John H. Gerstner, "The View of the Bible Held by the Church: Calvin and the Westminster Divines," in Inerrancy, ed. Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980); John A. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982); G. W. Bromiley, "The Church Fathers and Holy Scripture," in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John A. Woodbridge (Leicester: IVP, 1983).
2. Klaas Runia, "The Hermeneutics of the Reformers," Calvin Theological Journal 19 (1984), 129-32.
3. See Alfred Duran, "Inspiration of the Bible," in Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8 (New York: Robert Appleton, 1910).
4. Dei Verbum (Constitution on Divine Revelation), Art. 11, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church(Liguori, MO: Liguori, 1994), 31.
5. A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, Inspiration (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 9.
6. Hodge and Warfield, 12.
7. Hodge and Warfield, 6.
8. Hodge and Warfield, 12-13.
9. Hodge and Warfield, 14.
10. Hodge and Warfield, 19.
11. Hodge and Warfield, 25.
12. Hodge and Warfield, 27.
13. Hodge and Warfield, 27-28.
14. Hodge and Warfield, 27-28.
15. Hodge and Warfield, 42.

About the Author

Michael Horton

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, and Too Good to be True: Finding Hope in a World of Hype.