The doctrine of biblical inerrancy means that the Bible always tells the truth in everything it teaches. The doctrine of inerrancy falls in much the same category as the doctrine of the Trinity. It is never expressly taught in scripture but is clearly revealed in a progressive and assumed manner throughout the Biblical text. The necessary assumption of inerrancy is largely drawn from the doctrine of plenary-verbal inspiration of the Bible. Because of this, the doctrine of inspiration should be considered first. 2 Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” This is the key verse upon which the divine inspiration of the Scriptures is taught.
David Dockery lays out five commonly held theories of what “God-breathed” or inspiration of the Scriptures means. First is the dictation view, which states that in secretarial style God gave each author of scripture exact words to write down, and they did so without including any of their own input. In commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16 John Calvin expounds this view clearly by saying, “[Scripture] has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.” The deficiency of this view lies in how it neglects to take into account the personal style and cultural elements clearly displayed in the various books the Bible. Second is the illumination view, which defines inspiration as, “the Spirit’s working within the human authors to raise their religious insight.” The deficiency in this view is that it puts the Bible on the same shelf as any other genius human work, rather than in a category of its own as a work of God. Dockery’s third view is the encounter view, which is most associated with Karl Barth. This view states that the Bible is not the Word of God, but that the Bible is unique in that the Spirit uses it as a means of revelation and ongoing inspiration in the heart of the Christian. According to this view a person may encounter God through the Scriptures, but the Bible is not the very Word of God. This view denies 2 Timothy 3:16 and is thus not acceptable. The fourth view is the dynamic view, which sees the role of the Holy Spirit as directing the biblical author toward a subject, but then allowing the author great freedom to write on the subject as he may choose. This view is also not satisfactory because it leaves us with no sure, inspired word from the Lord. The final view, and the evangelical position, is the plenary-verbal view. This view holds that every word of scripture was inspired of God in the original manuscripts, yet takes into account the style of the authors in using various literary techniques. This view holds that the Bible is exactly as God intended it to be. Though shrouded in much mystery, this view seems to be the one most clearly taught throughout the scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:20, Acts 1:16, Rom 15:4).
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 91
- David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 51-55.3
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XXI (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 249.
Carl F. H. Henry, adhering to the plenary-verbal view, defines inspiration as, “A supernatural influence upon divinely chosen prophets and apostles whereby the Spirit of God assures the truth and trustworthiness of their original written proclamation.” As Henry says, divine influence upon the inspiration of Scripture ensures its truthfulness because it then represents the character of God. The Bible clearly teaches that God cannot lie (2 Sam. 7:28, Titus 1:2, Heb. 6:18) and thus a book fully inspired by him must be considered completely true or inerrant.
4. Dockery, Christian Scripture, 52.
5. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Volume IV (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 129.
Millard Erikson states, “[Inerrancy] is the completion of the doctrine of Scripture. For if God has given special revelation of himself and inspired servants of his to record it, we will want assurance that the Bible is indeed a dependable source of that revelation.” The doctrine of inerrancy is often misidentified and thus misunderstood. David Dockery thoroughly defines inerrancy as,
When all the facts are known, the Bible (in its original writings) properly interpreted in light of which culture and communication means had developed by the time of its composition will be shown to be completely true (and therefore not false) in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author, in all matters relating to God and his creation.
This definition of inerrancy clarifies the doctrine on at least five points. First, all apparent contradictions or sources of error will be cleared up when “all the facts are known”. Francis Schaeffer dealing with this issue says, “In practice, it may not always be possible to correlate the two studies [science and the Bible] because of the special situation involved; yet if both studies can be adequately pursued, there will be no final conflict.” Many seemingly major conflicts between science/history and the Bible have been cleared up in recent years as further evidence has been discovered. However, as Harold Lindsell astutely observes, “Although in hundreds of cases criticisms of Scripture have been shown to be unfounded, those who refuse to believe in inerrancy never seem to be satisfied.” The second aspect of Dockery’s definition of inerrancy is that inerrancy only applies to the original writings. Often the usefulness of this aspect is questioned since none of the original copies have survived. Basil Manly Jr. clarifies this point in saying,
- Millard J. Erikson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 247.
- Dockery, Christian Scripture, 64.
- Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Worldview, Volume 2, A Christian View of the Bible As Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 139.
- Harold Lindsell, The Battle For The Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1976), 161.
Why so strenuous for the exact inspiration of the words, when you admit there may have been errors of transcription? What do you gain? We gain all the difference between a document truly divine and authoritative to begin with, though the copies of translations may have in minute particulars varied from it, and a document faulty and unreliable at the outset and never really divine.
To deny the inerrancy of the originals is to say that at no time has the Bible ever been the wholly truthful Word of God. The third aspect of the definition is that the Bible is only inerrant when correctly interpreted. Some of the claims of error in the Bible stem from incorrect interpretation of the text. It should be obvious that the Bible will never hold up as free from error if it is twisted to say all manner of things it was never intended to address. The fourth aspect of the definition is that inerrancy claims the Bible to be entirely truthful, instead of simply free from error. “Statements in Scripture,” says Millard Erickson, “that plainly contradict the facts must be considered errors. If Jesus did not die on the cross, if he did not still the storm on the sea, if the walls of Jericho did not fall…then the Bible is in error.” Such a definition of error is necessary so that critics do not discredit the Bible as errant with every slight textual variant that is uncovered. The final aspect of inerrancy is that the Bible is entirely truthful to the degree of precision intended by the author. This statement is added in part to clarify that the Old and New Testament authors were not quantitative physicists going about making modernly precise measurements of time and space. The Bible is accurate in the history it records, but it is not considered errant because it may state that “the sun rose”, instead of explaining the rotation of the planets and how the sun does not technically “rise”. These five aspects together clearly define the evangelical understanding of the doctrine of inerrancy.
- Basil Manly Jr., The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 71-72.
- Erickson, Christian Theology, 264.
HISTORICAL AND SBC DEVELOPMENT
The church has historically held to the inerrancy of Scripture. As stated by Fredrick C. Grant, the New Testament everywhere takes “for granted that what is written in the Scripture is trustworthy, infallible, and inerrant. No New Testament writer would ever dream of questioning a statement contained in the Old Testament, though the exact manner or mode of its inspiration is nowhere explicitly stated.” David Dockery goes even further by saying, “In the history of the church, the divine character of Scripture has been the great presupposition for the whole of Christian preaching and theology.” This presupposition is vital because where inerrancy and the authoritative nature of Scripture are not upheld, theology and preaching become purely subjective.
The early church was largely occupied with determining the canon of Scriptures that was to be held as authoritative, and then interpreting those Scriptures to rightly understand such foundational doctrines as the Trinity, the person of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. In determining the canon of Scripture numerous criteria were set up to secure selection of only those writings inspired of God. F. F. Bruce lays out the criteria of canonicity for each writing as requiring: apostolic authority, written during the early apostolic period, orthodoxy (adherence to teaching set forth in undoubted writings), catholicity (enjoyed by the church at large), not contradicting traditional understanding of Scripture, inspired of God. It is clear that no widely disputed books were included in the final New Testament canon, and that those decided upon were accepted as inspired Scripture by the church. Augustine wrote concerning the Scriptures, “I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.”
- Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 164.
- Dockery, Christian Scripture, 39.
- F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 256-267.
- 15 Erickson, Christian Theology, 251.
However, as history progressed into the Middle Ages, the Bible was less and less in the hands of the people, and thus authority for interpreting the Bible was held almost entirely by the clergy. Ultimately this resulted in the Bible gaining its authority from the church (in the Roman Catholic setting from the Pope), instead of vice versa. One of the major issues of the reformation was to reaffirm Biblical authority over that of popes or church councils. Martin Luther supremely displayed this by demonstrating how one man backed by God’s Word can be correct even in the face of a dissenting Pope and countless clergy. Calvin addressed this issue in his Institutes when he wrote, “a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church. As if the eternal and inviolable truth of God depended upon the decision of men.” Unfortunately, this issue of Biblical authority was not settled by the reformation. The Enlightenment era brought with it philosophies that “stressed the primacy of nature, a high view of reason and a low view of sin, an anti-supernatural bias, and it encouraged revolt against the traditional understanding of authority.” Beginning with that period and continuing to our present day the modern mindset has been to subvert the authority of the Bible to naturalistic philosophy and science, in the same way the Bible’s authority was subject to councils and popes in the middle ages. C. H. Spurgeon, who spoke out boldly for the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture during the Down-Grade controversy in England, preached this about the Bible,
If I did not believe in the infallibity of this book, I would rather be without it. If I am to judge the book, it is no judge of me. If I am to sift it, and lay this aside and only accept that, according to my own judgment, then I have no guidance whatever, unless I have conceit enough to trust my own heart. The new theory denies infallibility to the words of God, but practically imputes it to the judgments of men.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), 75.
- Dockery, Christian Scripture, 51.
The controversies of higher Biblical criticism from Spurgeon’s day are still broiling in our own.
For decades the one issue that has been the most controversial in the Southern Baptist Convention is that of biblical authority, and particularly the nature of biblical inspiration. One of the earliest controversies dealt with C. H. Toy who was a professor at Southern Seminary in the late 19th century. When joining the faculty, Toy fully ascribed to biblical inspiration and inerrancy. However, “Toy gradually moved away from this position as he came more and more under the influence of Darwinian evolution and the theory of Pentateuchal criticism advanced by the German scholars Kuenen and Wellhausen.” After many pleas for him to recant his views, Toy was dismissed from the Southern faculty. The first modern controversy in this area emerged from Ralph Elliott’s publication of The Message of Genesis (1961). In his book Elliot defined revelation as “God disclosing himself in mighty acts for salvation.” Ultimately this meant that he did not believe the Old Testament stories to be literally true and held that other areas of the text were also errant. Elliot and his book represented the broader problem of the liberal bent which had crept into SBC seminaries. Though many faculty members signed statements professing that they believed and would teach certain orthodox doctrines professed by the Baptist church in the Baptist Faith and Message, in practice they did not. Even when professors began to mythologize the Bible, teach universal atonement, approve of abortion, and deride the supernatural, denominational leaders refused to enforce doctrinal limits of belief. These few men and women wreaked havoc on the churches by training young pastors to distrust the Bible and instead accept modern critical scholarship which led them into all manner of heresy. However, this drift did not carry on unchecked.
- Tom Carter, 2200 Quotations From the Writings of C. H. Spurgeon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1988), 23.
- Manly, Bible Doctrine of Inspiration, 6.
- James T. Draper Jr., The Baptist Reformation (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 7.
In 1979 a conservative candidate was elected to the presidency of the Convention. This began a calculated chain reaction to move the convention back to a biblical base, and to eradicate built up heresy and unnecessary bureaucracy on every level. By God’s grace this was the start of a reformation in the Southern Baptist Convention. Since that day cleansing and reform has worked through every branch of the Convention and especially the seminaries. New trustees, presidents, and faculty who confess the full plenary-verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible have for the most part replaced the past liberal scholars. Of great importance is the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message which clearly upholds the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible when it states in Article I, “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”
The importance of the doctrine of inerrancy is rightly stressed when Francis Schaeffer states,
The issue is clear: Is the Bible truth and without error wherever it speaks, including where it touches history and the cosmos, or is it only in some sense revelational where it touches religious subjects? … In our day that point is the question of Scripture. Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world… evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of scripture and those who do not.”
- The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville, TN: Southern Baptist Convention, Sunday School Board , 2000), article I.
- Schaeffer, Complete Works, Volume 2, 121-122.
Inerrancy is not essential for salvation but is vital for maintaining consistent orthodoxy in the church. Again, it is Schaeffer who pinpoints the inconsistency and impossibility of holding to orthodox doctrines without confessing a high view of Scripture. Without an inspired and totally truthful Bible, doctrine is held in a vacuum and has no rational base. Thus doctrine (belief about God and his creation) without Biblical foundation has no authority and so is reduced to a simple matter of opinion. Schaeffer illustrates well using the theology of Karl Barth,
He continued to hold to the day of his death the higher (negative) critical theories which the liberals held and yet, by a leap, sought to bypass the two rational alternatives – a return to the historic view of scripture or an acceptance of pessimism. However, still believing… his “leap” continued to be the base of his optimistic answers. In later years as his followers have carried his views forward he drew back from their consistent extensions.
After Barth accepted the Bible as a “human and fallible witness to revelation” it could then be in error at many points. He no longer had rational ground to believe that his Christian worldview, built on a corrupt book, could be true. A worldview constructed from a corrupt foundation cannot end up being truthful in its understanding of God and his creation. Thus, it ends up in question as to which parts of the Bible are true and which are corrupted. In this way those in the loftiest position of scholarship, or who shout the loudest, end up defining beliefs in the church. At this point scholarship has usurped Biblical authority and each man has the right to hold whatever opinion he may choose. “If a man rejects any portion of revelation because he thinks it does not accord with reason, or conscience, or experience, he plays havoc with the entire Bible.”
C. H. Spurgeon spoke wisely to his students when he instructed them that the Bible “is a divine production; it is perfect, and is the last court of appeal – the judge which ends all strife.” When the Bible is accepted as errant it loses its authority and ceases to settle strife and instead becomes a source of it. An authority vacuum is created at this point into which anyone and everyone seeking to validate their opinions will jump in. Ultimately no matter how far fetched, they will be able to justify their views because the only ultimate standard of right and wrong has been disqualified. One vital, yet unpopular, result of Biblical authority is that when an individual finds his opinion to be in conflict with God’s Word – it is the duty of the creation to humbly submit to the Creator. Most individuals refuse to submit to God’s authority and thus work to destroy or discredit the authority so they will be justified in their actions.
- Francis A Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Worldview, Volume 1, A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 55.
- Klaas Runia, Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1962), 174.
- C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Student (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1968), 222.
How much proof will it take to convince rebellious people that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God? The difficulty of accepting the Bible on these terms is not nearly as much an issue of proof as it is of faith. Proof abounds but faith is lacking. John Calvin clarifies the issue well,
The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.
It is the Spirit of God that humbles us that we might accept the message of the Bible and the witness of the Spirit that ultimately confirms its truthfulness in our hearts. Amos 8:11 speaks of a famine of hearing the Word of God as worse than any famine of bread or water. When the truthfulness of Scripture is denied, it will ultimately be shelved in exchange for human opinion. In this way, people inflict on themselves a famine of the God’s Word. May God strengthen our faith.
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