Another Look at Inerrancy, Part One

INTRODUCTION

The opening sentence from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities might easily describe the final years of the twentieth century for evangelicals in the United States:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  It was a time during which they enjoyed tremendous financial and technological prosperity as tools for furthering the Kingdom of God, coupled with a certain amount of influence within the culture.  It was the best of times.

Unfortunately, the marriage of culture and evangelicalism resulted in many of the evangelical community becoming co-opted and corrupted by the pluralism and relativism which was disintegrating and splintering that culture, re-creating the same conflicts within the microcosm of the evangelical community (1 Corinthians 15:33).  Consequently, the average Christian who identifies himself as evangelical is confused and his witness has been neutralized.  It was the worst of times.

Nowhere is this division more apparent than when one considers the battles and debates waged during the past half-century over the nature of the content of the Bible.  Parties who advocate the doctrine of inerrancy have anathematized those who oppose their views.  Those who reject the doctrine of inerrancy have accused inerrantists of being, at best, “unnecessarily divisive” and “creedalistic.”

In naming this series, “Another Look at Inerrancy,” I do not wish for readers to read the title and think that I have changed my position from that which was stated previously in my series on the nature of Scripture.   It is my position in this series of articles that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, if not explicitly taught in Scripture, is, at the very least, a necessary inference derived from the doctrine of plenary [full, complete] inspiration [which is explicitly taught in Scripture, according to 2 Timothy 3:16-17], in order to establish the authoritative nature of the Bible as being the written word of God.  In the previous series, I provided a brief overview.  In this series, I hope to provide a more nuanced apologetic for the doctrine of inerrancy, based on historical theology.

Contrary to the assertions made by those who deny the doctrine of inerrancy, I would argue and can document that this view has been the historic view of the church back to apostolic times continuing through the present.

CHURCH HISTORY AND THE NATURE OF SCRIPTURE

Feinberg has defined the term “inerrancy” as meaning:

. . . that when all facts are known, the Scriptures, in their original autographs and properly interpreted, will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences (Feinberg, 1979:294)

It is this definition of inerrancy which is at the root of this discussion.  It is not an absolutist position.  It recognizes that there are difficulties in Scripture which must be dealt with honestly and painstakingly.  It also does not impose [post-]Enlightenment standards of technical precision in matters of history, citations of writers, or science.

1: The Early Church’s View of Scripture

In discussing the view of the early church concerning the nature of the content of Scripture, the obvious question to start with is, How did Jesus and the apostles view Scripture?  Or, to ask the question another way, Was[Is] Scripture the very words of God, completely accurate in matters of history as well as religion, or was it merely the product of human reflection upon God and His dealings with men (B. Blaisdell, 1990:47)?  Both sides of the debate claim that what was explicitly taught by Christ and the apostles or which may be necessarily inferred from the New Testament text supports their respective claims.  What is clear from reason at this point is that both positions cannot be true.

It must be conceded that nowhere in the New Testament are there found statements by Jesus and the apostles which clearly and propositionally set forth the doctrine of inerrancy as defined by Feinberg and accepted by such groups as the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  At the same time, such a lack of a precise statement does not automatically require that Feinberg’s definition is to be rejected, or that it can then be assumed that the first century Church would find Feinberg’s definition to be inconsistent with their view of Scripture.  Nowhere in Scripture can the precise formulation of the Nicene Creed be found with respect to how the Godhead is defined, but that does not make the Nicene Creed wrong or inconsistent with the teachings of the early Church.

For evidence of the view of Scripture held by Jesus and the apostles, one must look at such factors as:  1) their use of Scripture, 2) their view of the origin of Scripture, 3) their view of the inspiration of Scripture, and 4) the authority of Scripture in their teaching.

One of the principle objections to the doctrine of inerrancy has been based in the assertion that inerrancy has never been the historic view of the Church (Achtemeier, 1980:35).  Yet, when the New Testament is examined, there is a consistent pattern of of treating those points as history, where those who question or equivocate on the doctrine of inerrancy would see such points as myth, hymn-narrative, or fable.  Some of these key points are seen in:

OT Passage/Content

NT Usage of OT

Genesis 2:  Creation of Adam and Eve

Matthew 19:4-6:  God’s intent for marriage revealed in creation as being between one man and one woman.

Acts 17:26:  All people descended from one person.

Genesis 3:  Death is promised as result of sin, yet Adam sins anyway.

Romans 5:12:  Sin and death entered the created order through one man’s disobedience.  See also 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 45-491 Timothy 2:13-14.

Genesis 6:  Human wickedness in time of Noah.

Matthew 24:36-39:  The judgment attendant upon Christ’s return will be unleashed as suddenly as the Flood in Noah’s time.

Genesis 6-9:  The entire human race except for 8 people [Noah, his three sons, and their wives] are destroyed in a worldwide flood.

1 Peter 3:18-22:  Only 8 people survived the flood—Noah, his three sons, and their wives.

Genesis 19:12-29:  The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah [along with Lot’s wife, for her disobedience].

Matthew 11:23-24:  Capernaum likened to Sodom. Yet Christ testified that had He performed miracles in Sodom, the Sodomites would have repented.

Luke 17:28-32:  The judgment attendant upon Christ’s return is likened to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Genesis 22:  The testing of Abraham’s faith in being commanded to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.

Hebrews 11:17-18:  Abraham is held up as an example of faith.

James 2:21-24:  Abraham is held up as an example that faith is demonstrated by works [of obedience].

Numbers 21:4-9:  The Israelites were healed after being bitten by venomous snakes by looking upon the bronze snake when it was lifted up by Moses.

John 3:14-21:  Jesus likens His death on the cross to the bronze snake, in that He is being lifted up to bring eternal life as the bronze snake was lifted up to bring healing.  See also John 8:28;  12:32-34.

Job 1-42:  Job’s perseverance through suffering.

James 5:11:  Job is held forth as actual historical personage who is our example of perseverance through suffering.

Jonah 1:17:  Jonah in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

Matthew 12:38-40:  Jesus compares His impending death, burial, and resurrection to the experience of Jonah.

While these references comprise only a fraction of the Old Testament, they all concern events or persons which those who dispute the doctrine of inerrancy cite as either lacking historical foundation or as a theologically primitive [and therefore flawed] view of God’s character.  While the New Testament use of these examples does not “prove” them to be historically accurate in a rationalistic sense, the usage of these examples does substantiate the claim that Jesus and the apostles [along with the Church in the first century] taught the Scriptures as being historically accurate in their entirety.  If, twenty centuries later, those who call themselves evangelicals equivocate on the historicity of those accounts, then they place themselves at odds with the witness [and by extension, the authority] of Christ and the apostles. Moreover, there is an implicit denial of the Lordship [and the Deity] of Christ if they refuse to hold the same view of Scripture which was held by Christ and the apostles.

The argument has been made that Christ was ignorant of the historicity of Scripture.  This is based on the idea that, in the kenosis, Christ was deprived of any real knowledge as to the historicity of Scripture.   There are two basic problems with holding to such a view:  1) if the Father deprived the Son of this knowledge, then it suggests that the Father and the Son are not of the same essence—in other words, such a view denies the Deity of Christ;  and 2) such a view denies the essential veracity of God, and by extension, His perfect holiness.

Similarly, another view postulates that Christ was aware that these incidents were not truly historical, but that He accommodated His teaching to the commonly held beliefs of Jewish culture.  By extension of this heresy, when the apostles [or their delegates] penned the New Testament, many teachings [such as 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12] reflected merely an accommodation to the culture rather than Divine inspiration.  The problem with this view is that, while it tries to preserve the Divine nature of Christ in knowing whether or not incidents in Scripture were historical, the view can only lead to the logical conclusion that Christ perpetuated error rather than being the embodiment of Truth. Such a view also completely ignores the Divine inspiration of Scripture—suggesting that the writers could have overridden the superintendency of the Holy Spirit.  Moreover, the view of cultural accommodation suggests an almost blasphemous reversal of roles–that autonomous, depraved human culture has the rightful capacity and authority to sit in judgment over the word of God.

It is abundantly clear that, in the view of Christ and the apostles, the Source of Scripture was God, not man.  Jesus equated Scripture with the Word of God in John 10:35.  He equated His own words with Scripture in Matthew 24:35.  [Cf. Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 5:17-18.]  Rather than prefacing His statements with the phrase, “thus says the Lord,” after the manner of the Old Testament prophets, His pronouncements were commonly prefaced with the phrase, “I say to you,” over 300 times in the Gospels.  He delegated to the apostles the authority to speak [and, by extension, write] the word of God in Matthew 16:1918:18. [Cf. Psalm 119:89.  See also Luke 10:1612:12John 14:2616:13.]  Peter recognized the writings of Paul as Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16.

This belief that Scripture originates and proceeds from God through the Son and the Holy Spirit is evidenced when Paul wrote: “All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16a, NIV). . . .”*  That inspiration is plenary.  It extends to all Scripture.  It is recognized that parts of Scripture were taken from non-canonical written sources.  But the text does not state that all Scripture was revealed by God.  It says that all Scripture is God-breathed, or God-inspired.  When a non-canonical writing is affirmed in Scripture, it is thereby certified by the Holy Spirit as being accurate and true, at least as to what is affirmed in the citation.

That inspiration is also verbal.  It extends to the words themselves.  This is not the same as saying that God dictated the Scriptures, but that He superintended the Scripture.  The difference is crucial.  Prior to retirement, I was employed as a paralegal.  This involved having to write letters to attorneys, courts, clients, and other parties as a representative of the agency for which I worked.  The exact wording of those letters was not dictated by a higher authority in the agency.  I could choose my own words and expressions.  But the letters were reviewed [superintended] by my supervisor for approval prior to being issued.  Those letters, while not written by the director of the agency, represented his [or her sometimes] will in the matter being addressed.

This is in distinction to the idea being thrown out by many quasi-evangelicals today which limits the inspiration of Scripture to the ideas, but not the words.  I would challenge anyone who holds to such a view to prove to me that one can convey an idea without words.  Such a view is not only logical nonsense–it is a view which denigrates God as the Creator of language.

It is also necessary to examine the authoritative role Scripture held for Christ and the apostles. Clearly Jesus considered Scripture to be authoritative.  His sayings record the inviolable nature of Scripture in Matthew 5:17-19.  [Cf. Luke 16:17John 10:35.]  This same inviolability is reflected in Paul’s writing on the nature of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:15-17, and in Peter’s writing in 2 Peter 1:19-213:15-16.

2: The View of Scripture in the Post-Apostolic Church

As noted previously, Achtemeier has made the assertion that the belief in an inerrant Bible is a recent theological innovation (1980:35, 54), not a position which can be claimed by the Church throughout its history.  He claims that the belief is based in post-Enlightenment “Protestant Scholasticism.”  His claim is supported by Rogers, who asserts that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all denied the inerrancy of the Bible (1983:204, 223).  The question is, Are such statements accurate, or do they reflect a revisionist approach to historical theology which is insupportable from the evidence?

The writings of the ante-Nicene fathers, when they speak of the issue, uniformly accord to the Scripture absolute perfection as the written word of God.  [See Clement of Rome, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, ch. 45.  Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 65.  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II:xxviii:2, II:xxviii:3.  Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, II:xi.  Origen, De Principiis, IV:i:7.]

In the era of historical theology represented by the Nicene and post-Nicene patristic writers, the view of Scripture which is hinted at in the writings of the ante-Nicene fathers is more fully developed.  When one reads what they have written, especially the writings of Augustine, one must ask whether or not Achtemeier and Rogers, as cited previously, have correctly understood their writings.  [See Augustine, Letters, XL:iii, XL:iv, LXXXII:i:9, LXXXII:ii;  The City of God, XI:iii, XI:ix, XV:xxvi, XVI:ix;  Of Holy Virginity 18;  Anti-Pelagian Works:  On Marriage and Concupiscence, II:xxiv.  John Chrysostom, Homilies Concerning the Statutes, II:22;  Homilies on the Gospel of John LXVIII on John 12:39-41.  Athanasius, De Synodis, I:6, II:23;  Festal Letters XIX:3.  Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, VII:2;  Answer to Eunomius’ Second BookOn the Making of Man, xxv:2.]

While I cannot provide full quotes due to space and time limitations concerning all of the statements concerning the nature of Scripture found in the writings of the early fathers, a sampling of those writings demonstrates a closer kinship with contemporary inerrantists than either Rogers or Achtemeier will admit to.  For other statements found in the writings of the ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene fathers, see Cyprian, Treatise #8:  On Works and Alms, Paragraph 2;  Basil the Great, Letter 42: To Chilo, His Disciple, Paragraph 3;  Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, IV:28;  John of Cassian, Against Nestorius, IV:ix.§

In the late middle ages, Aquinas cites Augustine (Letters LXXXII:i:9) as his view concerning Scripture. (P[1]-Q[1]-A[8]-RO[2]).

Luther and Calvin also held to a higher view of Scripture than Rogers will concede (1983:204, 223).  Luther wrote:

Therefore, if you cannot feel it, at least believe the Scriptures, they will not lie to you and they know your flesh better than you yourself (n.d.:129, emphasis added).

Calvin wrote:

By the Holy Scriptures also, God the Creator is known.  We ought to consider what these Scriptures are;  that they are true, and have proceeded from the Spirit of God (n.d.:1654).

It would seem with such phrases and terms as “true utterances,” “perfect,” “perfectly consistent,” “completely without error,” “no false information,” and “unerring” being used in reference to Scripture, the Church from the post-Apostolic age until the eighteenth century held to a higher view of Scripture than that proposed by so-called “moderate” evangelicals.

Rogers has claimed that the views of Scripture held by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin deny that Scripture should be viewed as authoritative in matters of science or technical accuracy. Yet Rogers did not provide one iota of evidence in support of the claims he made. There is no reference, no citation, from any writings by Augustine, Luther, or Calvin to document Rogers’ claim.  As cited, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin do not equivocate or limit their views of Scripture.  A plain reading of their works would indicate that, contrary to Rogers’ claims, they viewed Scripture as authoritative in all areas of knowledge which it affirms.  The most charitable view which can be ascribed to Rogers is that he is mistaken in his understanding of Augustine and the Reformers.

Additionally, it appears that the view of Scripture promoted by the Church from the Apostolic era up until the eighteenth century was substantially closer to the views of present-day inerrantists than those who deny the historicity of the doctrine will admit.  The question which they should be forced to answer is whether or not they have dealt honestly and fairly with the historical documents of the Church from the earliest post-apostolic fathers through the Reformation.  It is difficult to accord Rogers and Achtemeier that benefit of the doubt when they have made sweeping generalizations with no references to locating the documents upon which they base their claims.  Those who argue against inerrancy on the basis of a claim to historical theology should be compelled to either provide documentation to prove their claims, or they should remain silent.

*All Scripture references marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®.  Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, by International Bible Society.  Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.  All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Holy Bible, New King James Version®.  Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

§ I would urge you to obtain a copy of the church fathers for yourself.  It is available for free as an add-on module to The Word Bible study software.  The basic software engine and free add-on modules are available for free by downloading them from: www.theword.net.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Achtemeier, Paul J.  The Inspiration of Scripture:  Problems and Proposals.  Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1980.

Aquinas, Thomas.  Summa Theologica.  CD-ROM edition in The Master Christian Library, Version 5.  Albany, OR:  AGES Software, 1997.

Athanasius.  De Synodis.  Tr. by Archibald Robertson.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 4.  This and all references to the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers are from the CD-ROM edition in The Master Christian Library, Version 5.  Albany, OR:  AGES Software, 1997.

________.  Festal Letters.  Tr. by Archibald Robertson.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 4.

Augustine.  Confessions.  Tr. by J. G. Pilkington.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 1.

________.  Letters.  Tr. by J. G. Cunningham.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 1.

________. City of God.  Tr. by Marcus Dods.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 2.

________.  Christian Doctrine.  Tr. by J. F. Shaw.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 2.

________.  On Holy Virginity.  Tr. by C. I. Cornish.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 3.

________.  Anti-Pelagian Works:  On Marriage and Concupiscence.  Tr. By Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis.  Rev. by Benjamin Warfield.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 5.

Basil the Great. Letters.  Tr. by Blomfield Jackson.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 8.

Blaisdell, Barbara.  “A Liberal Response to Jack Cottrell.”  In Conservative Moderate Liberal:  The Biblical Authority Debate,  pp. 41-48.  Ed. by Charles R. Blaisdell.  St. Louis:  CBP, 1990.

Calvin, John.  Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Tr. by Henry Beveridge.  CD-ROM edition in The Master Christian Library, Version 5.  Albany, OR:  AGES Software, 1997.

Clement of Alexandria.  The Instructor.  Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2.

Clement of Rome.  1St Epistle to the Corinthians.  Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1.

Feinberg, Paul D.  “The Meaning of Inerrancy.”  In Inerrancy, pp. 265-304.  Ed. by Norman L. Geisler.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1979.

Gregory of Nyssa.  Against Eunomius.  Tr. by H. A. Wilson.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 5.

________.  Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book.  Tr. by M. Day. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 5.

Hilary of Poitiers.  On the Trinity.  Tr. by E. W. Watson.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 9.

Irenaeus.  Against Heresies.  Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1.

John Cassian.  Against Nestorius.  Tr. by Adgar C. S. Gibson.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, 11.

John Chrysostom.  Homilies on the Statutes.  Tr. adopted from the Oxford Library of the Fathers.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 9.

________.  Homilies on the Gospel of John.  Tr. by Philip Schaff.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, 14.

Justin Martyr.  Dialogue with Trypho.  Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1.

Luther, Martin.  The Large Catechism.  Tr. by F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau.  CD-ROM edition in The Master Christian Library, Version 5.  Albany, OR:  AGES Software, 1997.

Origen.  De Principiis.  Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4.

Rogers, Jack B.  “Church Doctrine of Biblical Authority.”  In The Authoritative Word: Essays on the Nature of Scripture, pp. 197-224.  Ed. by Donald K. McKim.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1983.

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About davestheology

I found a book that was kind of worn, But to my surprise, not a page was torn; It had a title, that I could not read, "Red Letter Edition" was all I could see.
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2 Responses to Another Look at Inerrancy, Part One

  1. excellent article…most excellent article..u are somewhat correct in your general assumption. That augustine, calvin (and I’m not sure about luther.) all were progressives in regards to inerrancy. I would say St. Augustine was the first proponent of modern inerrancy.

    • My point is not that Augustine, Calvin, or Luthor would be inerrantists as defined by Feinberg and the ICBI statement. I seriously doubt their views would have been that nuanced. At the same time, the reason their views would not have been as nuanced is simply due to the times in which they lived–inerrancy was not the battle being fought so there was no reason for them to develop a more nuanced view.
      My basic purpose in bringing up the testimony of the patristic writers, Luther, and Calvin is because when those who identify themselves as “moderate evangelicals [such as Beegle, Achtemeier, and McKim] start making assertions that those people did not believe in inerrancy, without providing a shred of documentation to back up the assertions, they are engaging in propagandizing and not sound scholarship. At the same time, while I would not go so far as to place any of the writers in the ICBI camp, what they have written on the subject is certainly closer to the ICBI position than it is to the position held by Beegle, Achtemeier, and McKim. I would recommend the articles by Robert D. Preus and John H. Gerstner which appear in the book “Inerrancy” ed. by Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979, pp. 353-410). I would also recommend the book “A Biblical Case for Total Inerrancy: How Jesus Viewed the Old Testament” by Robert P. Lightner (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1978).

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