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.”6Even 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
Fifth, the claim of inerrancy is that “in all their real affirmations these books are without error.”16 The qualification “real affirmations” is important and deserves some elaboration. The scientific and cultural assumptions of the prophets and apostles were not suspended by the Spirit, and in these they were not necessarily elevated beyond their contemporaries. Nevertheless, that which they proclaim and affirm in God’s name is preserved from error. For example, critics often point to Matthew 13:32, where Jesus refers to the mustard seed as “the smallest of all seeds.” From the context it is clear that Jesus was not making a botanical claim but drawing on the familiar experience of his hearers, for whom the analogy would have worked perfectly well. If every statement in Scripture is a propositional truth-claim, then there are obvious errors. A reductionistic view of language is implied at this point both in many of the criticisms and defenses of scriptural accuracy. It is unlikely that in his state of humiliation, in which by his own admission he did not know the day or hour of his return, Jesus had exhaustive knowledge about the world’s plant life. Whatever contemporary botanists might identify as the smallest seed, if it were unknown to Jesus’ hearers, the analogy would have been pointless. We have to ask what the biblical writers are affirming, not what they are assuming as part of the background of their own culture and the limitations of their time and place.
If we do not hold ourselves and each other to modern standards of specialized discourse in ordinary conversation, we can hardly impose such standards on ancient writers. As Calvin observed, “Moses wrote in the manner of those to whom he wrote.” If one wants to learn astronomy, Calvin adds, one must ask the astronomers rather than Moses, since his purpose was not to deliver supernatural information about the movement of planets.17 Inerrancy requires our confidence not in the reliability of Moses and his knowledge of the cosmos but in the reliability of the historical narratives, laws, and promises disclosed in the Pentateuch. Even then, it is truthfulness, not exactness, that we expect when we come to the biblical text.18
To supplement their account, one could add that there are obvious discrepancies in biblical reports concerning numbers. However, these can be explained by recognizing the different methods of accounting, which are better known now than in the past. For example, on the basis of calculating the generations in Genesis, Archbishop Ussher concluded that the world was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. However, we know more now about ancient Near Eastern genealogies, which were not exhaustive but singled out significant and transitional figures. Similarly, Matthew’s list is selective, highlighting the crucial (and sometimes surprising) links in the genealogy that led to Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:1-17). Their goal (or scope) is to highlight the progress of redemption, not to provide general historical or scientific data. It is impossible to know how many generations are missing from such genealogies, and therefore efforts at calculating human history from them are always bound to fail. The fact that evenhanded historical research has resolved apparent discrepancies such as this one cautions us against hasty conclusions. Many of the alleged conflicts between Scripture and science have turned out to be founded on flawed biblical exegesis. In every science, anomalies are frankly acknowledged without causing an overthrow of an entire paradigm or settled theory that enjoys widespread consensus on the basis of weightier confirmations.
On the one hand, we must beware of facile harmonizations of apparent contradictions. It is sometimes said that the Bible is not a book as much as it is a library. We have to resist the long-held assumption in our intellectual culture that plurality reflects a falling away from the oneness of being. God is three persons in one essence. Analogously, this triune God reveals the one truth of the gospel in a plurality of testimonies. Furthermore, God spoke through prophets and apostles in many times and places, each of whom was shaped by various circumstances of God’s providence, and the variations even between the four Gospels enrich our understanding of the different nuances and facets of Christ’s person and work.
On the other hand, we must beware of equally facile conclusions that depend on naturalistic presuppositions or our own incomplete knowledge. Like the biblical authors, we are not omniscient and must with patient reserve anticipate fuller research and explanations. This does not require a dualistic conception between “religious truth” (faith and practice) and “secular truth” (history and science), as theories of limited inerrancy hold.19 If we cannot trust God as Creator, then we cannot trust God as Redeemer. Instead of this sort of a priori division, we must recall the purpose or intent of a biblical passage. Once again, it is a question of scope—what is being claimed rather than assumed. As Warfield explains, “It is true that the Scriptures were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or ethnology, or human history as such, and therefore they are not to be studied primarily as sources of information on these subjects.”20
Sixth, these theologians also denied that inerrancy was the foundation of our doctrine of Scripture, much less of the Christian faith.21 We must first begin with the content and claims of Scripture, centering on Christ. Christianity is not true because it rests on an inspired and inerrant text, but vice versa. In fact, the redemption to which Scripture testifies and that it communicates would “be true and divine…even if God had not been pleased to give us, in addition to his revelation of saving truth, an infallible record of that revelation absolutely errorless, by means of inspiration.”22
The Original Autographs
The appeal to the inerrancy of the original autographs has been a bone of contention in this debate. After all, what does it matter if inerrancy is attributed only to the original autographs if we no longer have access to them? But this is not as abstract or speculative a point as it might first appear. We have to distinguish between the original autographs and their copies in any case, since the valid enterprise of historical-textual criticism presupposes it. The very attempt to compare textual variants assumes that there is an original body of documents that some copies and families of copies more or less faithfully represent. Errors in these myriad copies are a matter of fact, but they can only be counted as errors because we have ways of comparing copies in a manner that gives us a reasonable approximation of the original autographs.
Even if we do not have direct access to these original autographs, we do have criteria widely employed in all fields of textual criticism that give us a good idea of what was originally written.23 However, the methodological assumptions of textual criticism are quite different from those of higher criticism, which as an apparatus of theological liberalism follows naturalistic presuppositions. Where real discrepancies and doubts remain as to the authenticity of certain sayings, on the basis of textual-critical rather than higher-critical analysis, they do not affect any point of the church’s faith and practice.24 The very fact that textual criticism is an ongoing field yielding ongoing results demonstrates that reconstructing or approximating the content of the original autographs is a viable goal and that, for the most part, it has already achieved this goal.
The Faithful Inspirer
In evangelical circles, generally, inerrancy was assumed rather than explicitly formulated until it was challenged. Warfield and Hodge helped to articulate this position, which is more formally summarized in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (see page 30).25 Like any formulation developed in response to a particular error or area of concern for faith and practice, the inerrancy doctrine invites legitimate questions and critiques. However, its alternatives are less satisfying.
Whatever the holy, unerring, and faithful Father speaks is—simply by virtue of having come from him—holy, unerring, and faithful. In addition, the content of God’s speech is none other than the gift of the eternal Son who became flesh for us and for our salvation. Revelation therefore is not merely an ever-new event that occurs through the witness of the Bible, it is a written canon—an abiding, Spirit-breathed deposit and constitution for the covenant community in every generation. Thus, the Christian faith is truly “a pattern of the sound words” and “the good deposit entrusted to you” that we are to “guard” by means of “the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (2 Tim. 1:13-14; cf. 1 Tim. 6:20). It is an event of revelation that not only creates our faith—fides qua creditor, the faith by which we believe—but, according to Jude 3, contains in canonical form “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”—fides quae creditor, the faith that is believed.