Bible Wars and the Origins of the Term “Inerrancy”

Bible Wars and the Origins of the Term “Inerrancy” July 30, 2013

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Andrew Wilson recently wrote a piece called “Why I Don’t Hate the Word ‘Inerrancy’.” He explains that

when asked the street-level question, “Does the Bible contain mistakes?” I always answer, “When interpreted properly, no.” That first clause is important; after all, an awful lot of people in history have thought that the Bible says the earth is at the center of the universe, flat, and built on pillars. There is also a plethora of texts whose literal meaning cannot be their original meaning—ranging from the obviously poetic (“your breasts are clumps of dates”) to the obviously symbolic (“then I saw a beast coming out of the sea”) and the obviously hyperbolic (“cut your eye out and throw it away”)—as well as a group of other texts whose literal meaning may or may not be their original meaning…

I agree with Wilson that while facile interpretations of inerrancy can back us into some unfortunate corners, it is still a good word to use. To regular evangelicals, it connotes that which is true: the Scriptures are the fully inspired, authoritative Word of God. But I think there’s an additional reason to not use inerrancy as a bludgeon, and that is the relatively recent advent of the term’s use. Indeed, the history of the word “inerrant” is a fascinating case study in the history of language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words “inerrant” and “inerrancy” did not come into common use in English until the 19th century. Until the 1880s, their use in religious writing almost always concerned the authority of the pope (“inerrant” was employed by critics of the pope to describe his power).

This pattern abruptly changed in the 1880s, when higher critics of the Bible began to assail the doctrine of “inerrancy,” a term which higher critics themselves popularized. For instance, A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield’s seminal 1881 article “Inspiration” did not use the word “inerrant.” (It used “inspired or “inspiration” some 94 times, and “errorless” or “without error” 11 times.) The key figure in the inerrancy debate was Charles Augustus Briggs, a Presbyterian pastor and seminarian who was ultimately tried and convicted by the Presbyterian Church for his heterodox views of Scripture. The provocative Briggs argued that the theory that the Bible is inerrant was “the ghost of modern evangelicalism to frighten children.” The Briggs trial was one of the opening shots in what became the great Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early 20th century.

The problem with Briggs – and much of the inerrantist backlash against critics like him – is that he insisted on interpreting Scripture through a very narrow lens: the lens of the late nineteenth century scientific mindset. Thus, he wrote, “we are obliged to admit that there are scientific errors in the Bible, errors of astronomy, of geology, of zoology, of botany, and of anthropology.” The Bible, to Briggs, had to be judged by contemporary scientific trends. Some fundamentalists went right along with this game, saying that the Bible would be vindicated – on the exclusive grounds of the modernist scientific worldview.

We’re on safer territory – and orthodox territory – when we affirm that the Bible, every verse of it, is true in all that it claims. We, of course, may not always completely understand what it is claiming, because we do not fathom all of God’s ways, nor is it always entirely clear, as Wilson says above, whether to interpret a passage literally, poetically, symbolically, or hyperbolically. We all struggle, moreover, to remove our blinders of time and culture when reading the Scripture. This is one of the reasons church history is so important. As I once wrote with reference to Rob Bell, “when anyone claims to discover a new biblical truth, one that almost no stalwarts of the faith have believed for 2000 years, it’s a good bet they’re wrong.”

But our caveats regarding interpretation should focus on our limitations as fallen readers of Scripture, not on the supposed imperfections of Scripture itself. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.”


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  • kierkegaard71

    For me, the question boils down to this: when I read the Bible, do I have the confidence that it is telling me the truth about God and my condition? Or do I find myself having to assess and filter it just like I filter what I hear from CNN or Foxnews?

  • Miles Mullin

    Although I don’t really like to bludgeon anyone, the “recent advent of the term’s use” would be true for any terms the developed in the context of controversy, right: homoousios, consubstantial, etc. They only arise out of necessity as the older terms no longer meant the same thing to everyone.

  • John C. Gardner

    This is a well written post on the issue of inerrancy. We can’t judge the Bible by the standards of modern science and must attempt to comprehend God’s meaning within the limits of our fallen natures and finiteness. Thank you for helping me once again to reflect and think about important matters.

  • Pete

    A good article to which I would add that while readers often err in interpreting scripture we must also allow for errors by the translators and ultimately the insufficiency of human language to communicate Godly truth without error.

  • Thomas Kidd

    yes, but the term inerrancy would have greater weight if it had deeper roots in church history – say, for instance, if it were used commonly in the English Reformation or by 18c evangelicals.

  • Thomas Kidd

    a nice piece here from Kevin Vanhoozer on the point you’re raising, Miles

  • “But our caveats regarding interpretation should focus on our limitations as fallen readers of Scripture, not on the supposed imperfections of Scripture itself.”

    This is where inerrancy always falls apart. The term is representative of a theological work in progress. The problem isn’t that it’s a work in progress but that even though there is constant evolution to the idea of inerrancy, it is claimed there isn’t. It’d be best to admit that in ten years, 20 years, etc. the doctrine of Scripture for inerrantists will have evolved once again and another nuance will once again be attributed to this tired term.

    “when anyone claims to discover a new biblical truth, one that almost no stalwarts of the faith have believed for 2000 years, (i.e. inerrancy) it’s a good bet they’re wrong.”

  • David Wegener

    Calvin and Luther both said the Bible contained no errors. Is that far enough back in church history?

  • philipjenkins

    I make this comment in a respectful way, as I do not know the literature. I take the point about “inerrancy” and English usage. But are there equivalent terms in (say) German or French that carry the same weight, that would be used in the same polemical contexts, and might have been commonplace in the seventeenth or eighteenth century? Or indeed, Latin and Greek before that? Of course all those languages have similar terms for “free of errors” but are they used in the same theological context?

  • Thomas Kidd

    I’d love to know the answer to that question, Philip – I suspect there are at least articles that have addressed this. And Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English and other sources have for millennia made claims about the Bible that seem very close to “inerrant” – such as “perfect,” “God-breathed,” “inspired,” etc. But I think that the point still remains that the English term “inerrancy” appeared at a very particular place and time, with associated intellectual baggage.

  • Thomas Kidd

    yes, we should remember that the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are inerrant – very few people claim that there’s no possibility of error in transcription or translation.

  • philipjenkins

    Just a follow up. I was just doing some digging, and “inerrancy”
    translates to German Unfehlbarkeit, and French infallibilité. These words came into currency around the time of the First Vatican Council in 1870, which proclaimed that doctrine of papal infallibility (much to Protestant horror). The idea, and the word, was very much in the headlines in the 1870s, and especially in the English-speaking press. From the chronology you describe, then, “inerrancy” probably emerged as a Protestant equivalent to that dogma.

  • David Smith

    Read John Woodbridge’s book Biblical Authority. Woodbridge reveals how the Old Princetonians not only did not create the doctrine of inerrancy, but also how the doctrine was what was taught in the church throughout the entire history of the church. The book demolishes the thesis offered several years ago by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim that was a dressing up of Briggs’s claim.

  • David

    Is there such a thing as a perfect interpretation? In other words, can imperfect beings perfectly interpret anything? Also, how is it possible to perfectly interpret an ever changing form such as the human language?

  • Richard Wright

    The issue I have with this article and others like it on inerrancy is that the texts referred to that may or may not be considered mistakes are not the most obvious cases for errors. For instance, when Matthew quotes the OT he almost, if not literally always, uses it incorrectly and creates what I consider to be clear cut mistakes. An example would be Matthew 21:7 when he has the two disciples bringing to Jesus a donkey and a colt for Jesus to sit on when we know from Luke, Mark, the prophecy (Zechariah 9:9) and from common sense that there was only one donkey. Matthew appears to have misinterpreted the OT poetic device of repetition for effect in the Zechariah passage and thought that the prophecy entailed the future king riding on a donkey AND a colt when that’s clearly not what the passage is saying as it has the king is, “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9, NIV). The other gospel writers at times seem to be use the OT improperly as well. With those possible mistakes along with discrepancies in OT narratives of the same events and in the gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion I don’t think it is that difficult to disprove biblical, “inerrancy”. For the record I am in a church that would be considered Evangelical and for most of my Christian life considered the bible to be inerrant. However, I’ve started to study apologetics formally and have seen the claim of biblical inerrancy doesn’t hold up to objective scrutiny. On a side note I haven’t seen any lessening of the strength of my convictions of the essential truths to my faith since I’ve come to that conclusion. I also don’t, at least as of yet, see the bible claiming itself to be inerrant.