Every generation has its doctrinal problems and those which have arisen today in the area of the Bible are serious, since they touch the basis of the authority and the truth of our faith.
One of the most important contemporary problems concerns the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Inerrant means “exempt from error,” and dictionaries consider it a synonym for infallible which means “not liable to deceive, certain.” Actually, there is little difference in the meaning of the two words, although in the history of their use in relation to the Bible, inerrant is of much more recent use. If there is any difference in the shade of meaning it is simply this: infallible includes the resultant idea of trustworthiness while inerrant emphasizes principally the truthfulness of the Scriptures.
History of the Doctrine
A survey of the history of the doctrine of inerrancy shows that the discussions concerning its importance belong to the modern period. The fathers accepted the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures as an assumed and self-evident fact. Scripture was used to prove the deity of Christ, for instance, in the early debates over this doctrine. Origen (A.D. 185-254) constantly referred to the Scripture as final authority in his controversy with Celsus. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) has a clear statement concerning inerrancy: “For I confess to your charity that I have learned to defer this respect and honor to those Scriptural books only which are now called canonical, that I believe most firmly that no one of those authors has erred in any respect in writing.”1
The medieval period saw little development in this area of doctrine. Interest was centered “in defining the status of the Bible in relation to that of other authorities in the Church.”2 Abelard expressed doubt as to the inerrancy of the text, though generally a high view of inspiration was held by most.
It was the Protestant Reformers who gave proper emphasis to the doctrines of inspiration and infallibility. And yet these did not occupy a large place in their writings. It seems that they realized the importance of these truths as the basis for true authority against the claim to authority of the Roman church, and yet they were so convinced of these truths that they could take them for granted rather than spending time in a systematic development and defense of these doctrines. Calvin referred to the Scriptures as the “sure and infallible record”3 and the “unerring standard.”4 Luther declared in no uncertain terms: “The Scriptures have never erred,”5 and “It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it appears so only to the senseless and obstinate hypocrites.”6
It has been in the modern period that the doctrine has of necessity had to be developed. The rationalistic attacks on the reliability of historical matters with a subsequent questioning of the authenticity of the text of Scripture were a denial of inerrancy and a rejection of inspiration. It is important to notice that the two doctrines – inerrancy and inspiration – fell together under these attacks. Thus, a new theory of inspiration arose which recognized the inspiration of certain truths in general and in so far as they conformed to natural reason. The doctrines of human fallibility in the production of Scripture and the infallibility of human reason in the interpretation of Scripture had gained the day.
But God had prepared others to expound and defend the truth. What the church owes to men like Hodge and Warfield can scarcely be measured. Their writings on these matters concerning inspiration are still classics. Recently, and in their train, Thy Word Is Truth by Edward J. Young ably presents and defends verbal inspiration and inerrancy. More recently Harold Lindsell in his book Battle for the Bible has warned the church about what to expect when inerrancy is abandoned.
Modern Views of the Doctrine
The liberal attack which substituted an inspired experience for an inspired text was soon followed by the neoorthodox attack. Neoorthodoxy was in turn followed (but not supplanted) by neoliberalism. There are similarities between these “new” schools of thought particularly in relation to their views of the Scriptures. Both believe that the Scriptures are at best a fallible witness to revelation (which may have been infallible when it left God but which certainly was corrupted by the time it was recorded in the Bible). Obviously, what you choose to guide your life with from this fallible record is up to you, and the entire approach to the worthwhileness of the Scriptures becomes completely subjective. Both believe that revelation cannot be given in propositional truth but only in one’s personal encounter with God.
The neoorthodox attempts to rescue from this maze of subjectivity some remnant of authority for the Bible in saying that it does witness (however fallibly) to Christ who is THE revelation of God. But how can one expect to have a true encounter based on, or at least aided by, a false witness? Authority, under these conditions, not only does not reside in the Bible, but also in reality does not even reside in Christ (the witness to whom may be mistaken). Actually, it comes to reside in the individual reader’s opinion of the particular portion of the Bible which he is reading at the time. The attacks of both neoorthodoxy and neoliberalism have been against verbal inspiration and that which is included in it – inerrancy, for the proponents apparently realize that the two stand together.
With great sorrow one notices a tendency among some conservatives to attempt to divorce inerrancy from verbal inspiration. Some because of apparent difficulties in the Bible (such as historical and chronological problems) are concluding that certain sections are not inerrant though inspired. One hears more and more these days: “I believe the Bible is inspired, but I cannot believe that it is without error.” Inspiration, yes; inerrancy, no.
The Importance of the Doctrine
The importance of biblical inerrancy can best be seen in its relationships.
In relation to the character of God. We believe God’s Word to be infallible simply because God Himself is infallible. God is true (John 3:33; 17:3; Rom. 3:4; 1 Thes. 1:9), and since the Scriptures are “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), they must also be true. “What Scripture says is to be received as the infallible Word of the infallible God, and to assert biblical inerrancy and infallibility is just to confess faith in (i) the divine origin of the Bible and (ii) the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God.”7 But, the critics say, fallible men have corrupted what originally came from God in perfect form. Certainly, this need not be true, for God is fully able to preserve the record of His revelation inerrant. Only an examination of the biblical evidence itself can determine whether or not there are errors, but it is more plausible that the God of truth and power would preserve the record without error. “Revelation is but half revelation unless it be infallibly communicated; it is but half communicated unless it be infallibly recorded.”8 Men were used but they were used by being borne along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). This is what kept the record from error even though fallible men were used in producing it.
In relation to inspiration. A full and high view of inspiration requires inerrancy as a natural and necessary part of it. Errancy and inspiration are incompatible. “The real reason why men oppose the doctrine of an infallible Scripture is that they are not willing to embrace the biblical doctrine of inspiration. There is no such thing as inspiration which does not carry with it the correlate of infallibility. A Bible that is fallible – and we speak of course of the original – is a Bible that is not inspired. A Bible that is inspired is a Bible that is infallible. There is no middle ground.”9
Sometimes in an attempt to preserve inspiration without infallibility, the latter is limited to matters of “faith and practice.” In other words, the Bible is infallibly inspired in doctrinal areas which concern the Christian’s faith and life, but in “lesser” matters it is only inspired but not inerrant. It is popular today, for instance, to exclude the area of scientific matters from infallibility. “The Bible is not a textbook of science” is the cry. While this is true, such a statement should not be used to deceive people into thinking that when the Bible speaks on a matter that is in the area of science it may be in error. Although the Bible is not a textbook of science, when it records a scientific fact it speaks of that fact with infallible authority just the same as with matters of “faith and practice.” If there are these parts of the Bible which are not inerrant, then the question properly arises, who decides which parts are true and which parts are erroneous? One cannot hold to inspiration and infallibility of certain parts and only the inspiration of other parts.
In relation to the Bible’s witness concerning itself. The Bible witnesses to its own infallibility. Obviously, if it is not infallible, it bears a false witness, and cannot be surely trusted in any of the matters on which it speaks. Its inerrancy, therefore, is vital to its own claims.
In relation to authority. As stated above, the authority of the Bible is under attack today by those who charge that such authority is the authority of a “paper pope.” Instead, they say, authority is in Christ, not the Bible, for God’s Word must not be “petrified in a dead record.”10 This is such a super-pious statement that it apparently cannot be questioned. But questioned it must be, for how can Christ have any authority if the witness to Him (the Bible) is not infallible? And if it is infallible, then it has authority too.
There is no other way of knowing about Christ and His authority except through the Bible. If the Bible is subject to error, then conceivably and very likely one of those errors concerns our knowledge of Him. It may concern His supernatural origin, or His deity, or His teachings, or His Resurrection. And if in every detail He is not all that He claimed to be (and we would have our doubts if the witness to His claims is not inerrant), then what authority does that kind of person have?
Both the authority of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures depend on the inerrancy of the Scriptures, for statements that are not completely true cannot be absolutely authoritative. Furthermore, parts of the Bible cannot be true and thus authoritative while other parts are not. It is not a book that is authoritative only in matters of “faith and practice.” Warfield correctly observed: “The authority which cannot assure of a hard fact is soon not trusted for a hard doctrine.”11
The Proof of the Doctrine
Briefly summarized the proof of the doctrine of inerrancy involves four concepts.
It involves the witness of Scripture to its own inerrancy. Is this a valid witness? Yes, for everyone has the right to speak for himself, and indeed there are some things that would never be known if the one involved did not speak for himself.12
There are three classes of scriptural references that testify to inerrancy. The first is the class of verses which affirm the truthfulness of God (cf. above In relation to the character of God). These testify to the truthfulness of the communication of His revelation. The second involves verses which emphasize the abiding character of the complete Scriptures.
Our Lord declared clearly that He believed in the abiding character of the letters which spell the words of Scripture: “For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18). A jot is the Hebrew letter yod, the smallest letter in that alphabet. It looks much like an English apostrophe. The word tittle means a minor stroke and refers to the almost unnoticeable strokes which distinguish certain Hebrew letters from others. For instance, the tittle that differentiates a d (daleth) from an r (resh) is a protrusion that in a normal font of type would not be more than 1/16 of an inch. Of course the presence or absence of the tittle would change the spelling of a word and likely change the meaning. The Lord was emphasizing that every letter of every word is important, and what those words say in sentences and paragraphs is completely accurate. In fact, they can be depended on to be fulfilled exactly as spelled out letter by letter and word by word in all the promises of the Old Testament. Such a specific statement by our Lord would have no meaning if the Scripture were subject to errors in the text.
John 10:33-36 is another passage where the Lord states that the Scripture cannot be broken. This is an assertion that the entire Scripture cannot be broken and that the particular words being quoted on that occasion cannot be broken. This is only possible because the Scripture is true in each particular and in all its parts.
The third class of Scriptures contains those in which an argument is based on a word or a form of a word. Of course, if the Bible is not inerrant such arguments cease to be of any weight. When answering the Sadducees the Lord based His argument on the present tense of the verb to be (Matt. 22:32). The question concerning whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection since she had seven legitimate husbands during her lifetime on earth. The Lord said that the Sadducees did not know the Scriptures nor the power of God. Then to reinforce the doctrine of resurrection He reminded them that God is the God of the living. He proved this by pointing out the fact that God identified Himself to Moses by saying “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” If resurrection were not a fact, then He should have said, “I was the God of Abraham…” But hundreds of years after their death He said that He still was their God, implying that though Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had experienced physical death, they still existed.
Perhaps the force of what Christ was saying can be illustrated this way. If a couple had four children, and one had died they could answer the question, “How many children do you have?” in at least two ways. Their first reply might be, “We have four, three on earth and one in heaven.” From that answer you know that they believe in the doctrine of resurrection – although one child had died they still considered that child alive in heaven. If, on the other hand, the reply to the same question is, “We had four, but only three are living,” then you do not know whether or not they believe in resurrection. The difference is shown, of course, in the tense of the verb: “we have,” or “we had”; “I am,” or “I was.” The Sadducees apparently understood the point of Christ’s argument. If the words of Scripture are not accurate, then an argument like this would be meaningless.
In questioning the Pharisees Christ made His point with the single word Lord (Matt. 22:43-45) as quoted from Psalm 110:1. Christ was trying to make the Pharisees see that the Son of David was also the Lord of David; i.e., that Messiah was both David’s human descendant and his divine Lord. Again, if Christ did not consider the words to be accurate then the argument would have been meaningless. Paul’s argument in Galatians 3 is based on the singular form of the word seed in contrast to the plural (Gal. 3:16). None of these arguments is valid unless tenses, words, and singulars and plurals are to be trusted. And they cannot be trusted apart from inerrancy.
It involves a proper concept of communication. Hodge has best stated this argument as follows: “Men think in words, and the more definitely they think the more are their thoughts immediately associated with an exactly appropriate verbal expression. Infallibility of thought cannot be secured or preserved independently of an infallible verbal rendering.”13
It involves the analogy of Christ. Frequently the objection is raised, How can the Bible be without error since all the writings came through the instruments of men who are fallible? The answer to this involves an analogy with the person of Christ. It might be objected that the person of Christ cannot be sinless because humanity is sinful. But the person of Christ is sinless because humanity is not necessarily per se sinful. The first man was created sinless and our Lord took upon Himself the form of sinful flesh, but not sinful flesh. Sinfulness is not necessary to humanity; indeed the pattern of real humanity is not to be found in the universal examples of fallen men around us. Likewise, fallibility is not a necessary part of the result of man’s being used to convey God’s revelation. Usually man does corrupt whatever he touches, but this need not be so, and it was not so in the giving of the Scriptures.
It involves faith. No one who holds to inerrancy denies that there are problems. Nor does he deny that fully satisfactory solutions have not been found to all the problems. But, accepting the witness of Scripture to its own inerrancy, when he meets a problem for which he presently has no solution, he places his trust in the Scriptures rather than his fallible mind. After all, the Bible has proved its reliability in many ways and in many areas, and it is worthy of our trust. Man’s knowledge has often proved unreliable and at best it is limited. “It is indeed true that we should not close our minds and researches to the ever-progressing resolution of difficulties under the illumination of the Spirit of truth, but those whose approach to faith is that of resolution of all difficulty have deserted the very nature of faith and of its ground.”14 Even though the problems connected with apparent discrepancies, parallel passages, manner of quotation, absence of original autographs, etc., may not yet have been fully solved, neither have they ever been conclusively demonstrated to contain errors. In the meantime, they are proper subjects for reverent, scholarly investigation, but a reverence that includes a proper faith in the God of truth and His inerrant record of that truth.
- 1 Epistolae, 82, i, 3.
- 2 Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Church Doctrine of Inspiration,” Revelation and the Bible, p. 209.
- 3 Job, p. 744.
- 4 Institutes, I, 149.
- 5 Luther’s Works (St. Louis Edition), XV:1481.
- 6 Ibid., IX:356.
- 7 J.I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, pp. 95-96.
- 8 B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 442.
- 9 Edward J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth, pp. 108-109.
- 10 J.K.S. Reid, The Authority of Scripture, p. 279.
- 11 Warfield, Inspiration and Authority, p. 181.
- 12 Cf. Alan M. Stibbs, “Witness of Scripture to Its Inspiration,” Revelation and the Bible, pp. 108-109.
- 13 A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 67.
- 14 John Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” The Infallible Word, p. 7.
IN THE PICTURE: The manuscript in the background is a reproduction of a fragment of the Gospel of John (John 18:31-33, 37-38) which dates from the early part of the second century.
Dr. Charles C. Ryrie, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1977.