Evangelicalism And Biblical Inerrancy: A Brief History From 1900 Onward

Evangelicalism And Biblical Inerrancy: A Brief History From 1900 Onward September 4, 2022

When one studies the history of the evangelical movement it is fairly easy to see the foundation.  However, it is also beneficial to determine what an evangelical is.  Many today use the term, but they mean it in a different sense than what has been historically understood.  An evangelical is more than a protestant church goer, though it may be part of it.  What is an evangelical?  Regarding the definition theologian Alister McGrath writes the following six convictions that evangelicals hold in common: The scriptures are the supreme authority for what it means to be a Christian (at least in evangelicalism) and the inerrancy of scripture is believed, Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and savior of man, the Lordship of the Holy Spirit, the need for conversion, evangelism is a priority for the church and individual Christian, and the importance of fellowship with a local church[1].

Definitions of what an evangelical is vary, but they are people of the book.  They hold the scriptures to be the inerrant Word of God, and through it we derive our doctrine[2].  Biblical inerrancy has long been a staple of the evangelical movement, and is essential to uphold doctrines such as the virgin birth, and the resurrection.  Evangelicals have a long tradition of defending inerrancy from those who see to undermine it.


The confession of evangelicals through the ages is that the original autographs of scripture are infallible and without error[3].  This is passed down to the translations we have today because of the overwhelming amount of manuscript evidence that we have.  There are pieces of New Testament manuscripts that date to A.D. 125[4].  There are also whole codexes, such as Codex Sinaiticus, that are closely aligned to what we have today.  There are textual variants, but these variants are in spelling and do not affect doctrine.

Bible, Church, Wedding, Christian

Conservative evangelicals say that if scripture is our source for doctrine then we must listen to what scripture says about inerrancy.  Many passages of scripture speak of inerrancy, but there are two main ones used.  The first is 2 Peter 1:20-21 which states, ‘Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of scripture come’s rom one’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit[5]  2 Timothy 3:16-17 is more popular and states, “All scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training for righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work[6].”

Historically evangelicals have held very closely to the words the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy.  Paul wrote that scripture is theopneustos, or God breathed.  If we deny what is God breathed then a few things may start to happen.  We may wonder if God can really be trusted, we make our own intellect the final authority, and one may begin to think that scripture is wrong when it comes to doctrine[7].  Biblical inerrancy was the view of, not only evangelicals, but of the fathers of the early church.  Institutions and individuals take extremely high risks when inerrancy is abandoned[8].


To better understand the issue of inerrancy among evangelicals it is helpful to discuss what brought on the issue.  Germany has a long tradition of being a nation that loved the scriptures, after all this was the place where the Protestant Reformation was born.  However, in the 19th century saw the rise of rationalism.  This was a movement that started in German seminaries as a way of defending the scriptures on rational grounds[9].  Though the thought had good intentions the results were disastrous.  It had brought into question the authority and inerrancy of scripture.  This was not the intent of those involved.  A famous 19th/20th century church historian, Adolph Harnack, went the way of Marcion and called for the removal of the Old Testament from the canon[10].  Rationalism gave way to the canon of scripture no longer being closed.

Book, Woman, Hands, Reflecting, Bible

The movement would eventually come to the United States where it expanded rather quickly.  The landscape of evangelicalism had drastically changed since inerrancy was changed.  This lead most Protestant leaders to fall into naturalism or modernism[11].  Leaders were now looking for the results of a scientific inquiry instead of the supernatural[12].  This had a paralyzing effect on seminaries, churches, and communities.  In regards to this Edward Gaustad writes, “Faith, one might have argued at such a time, led not to social stability and order but to social unrest and disorder[13].”


Rationalism would evolve into liberal Protestantism, and those who held to the new theology became powerful.  They became leaders of seminaries, and were in charge of denominations.  One such example involved the great theologian B.B. Warfield.  He was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and was trained by another great theologian by the name of Charles Hodge.  He and A.A. Hodge wrote an article detailing the view of inerrancy and inspiration that would be held by Princeton.  Regarding inspiration and inerrancy Warfield and Hodge write, “Besides this, the Scriptures are a record of divine revelations, and as such consist of words.… Infallible thought must be definite thought, and definite thought implies words.… Whatever discrepancies or other human limitations may attach to the sacred record, the line (of inspired or not inspired, of fallible or infallible) can never rationally be drawn between the thoughts and the words of Scripture[14].”  Though this was written in the 19th century, its influence is widely felt within 20th century evangelicalism.  Warfield would go on to write much more about scripture, and his work would posthumously be published in a ten-volume set called The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture in 1948.  Warfield would teach at Princeton until his death in 1921, and his influence is one reason why Princeton held to orthodoxy as long as it did.  Sadly, that is no longer the case today.

Gresham Machen was a pupil of Warfield and a staunch defending of inerrancy. It was his steadfastness that led to a schism with the Presbyterian Church USA, and forming the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1929[15].  In 1923 Machen wrote a treatise titled Christianity and Liberalism is response to what was going on in Princeton.  Princeton was a Presbyterian seminary and its president, J. Ross Stevenson, said that it had to serve the whole Presbyterian church[16].  This also meant the liberal Presbyterians and those who held moderate views.  Machen was very blunt and stated that liberalism was destroying Christianity, and that accommodating liberals had to end if Princeton wanted to maintain its Christian identity.  In addition to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Machen would also found the conservative Westminster Theological Seminary.

A Book, Angel, Bible, Book Stack, Cross

This occurred after publishing Christianity and Liberalism, and he was subsequently fired in 1929.  In what can only be defined as an attack on inerrancy, the Presbyterian General Assembly worked with Stevenson to reorganize Princeton.  They reorganized it in such a way to keep those who held conservative views on inerrancy and inspiration from leadership positions.

On the other side of the country in California a new movement was starting to combat liberal Protestantism.  German rationalism had evolved into a form of destructive higher criticism.  They had rationalized so much that they questioned not only the inerrancy of scripture but the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Christ.  They were doing so because science could not prove that these things were real.  In the view of some rationalism had went from the realm of a theory to heterodoxy.  This had the potential of leading souls astray.  Regarding higher criticism, Canon Dyson Hague writes, “Any thoughtful man must honestly admit that the Bible is to be treated as unique in literature, and, therefore, that the ordinary rules of critical interpretation must fail to interpret it aright[17].

To combat orthodoxy, The Fundamentals, was published as a series of essays from 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles.  It is known today as Biola University, and is known for its strong Christian Apologetics program.  Subscription to established doctrine was no longer seen, at least among liberals, as a measure of orthodoxy[18].  As previously stated, The Fundamentals, defended the established doctrines and were published in a 12-volume set.  The set contained over ninety essays by sixty-four different authors.  The project was funded by oil tycoon Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton[19].  The work was sent free of charge to pastors, theology professors, missionaries, Sunday school superintendents, and many other Protestant workers to help them defend the faith.  The project was so influential that over 250,000 sets were send out[20].


Evangelicalism had taken some hits early in 20th century, but reemerged with a vengeance in the middle of the century.  The Evangelical Theological Society, or ETS, was formed in 1949 by professors at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary[21].  From its origins, the members affirm “the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures and the gospel of Jesus Christ[22].”  In 1947, Fuller Theological Seminary was founded by Charles Fuller.  Mr. Fuller had a very successful radio show called the Old Fashion Bible Hour, and is said to have 20 million listeners.  He formed the seminary to affirm orthodox doctrine, and brought in the greatest evangelical minds who affirmed inerrancy and the authority of scripture.

In 1972 Fuller softened its stance on inerrancy, and removed it altogether from it statement of faith[23].  One of fuller’s professors. Harold Lindsell, published a pivotal work titled Battle for the Bible.  In this work, Lindsell spoke of the dangers of departing from inerrancy and urged a return to its embrace.  By this point many other schools had compromised on this issue and it was having negative effects.  In regards to this Dr. Lindsell writes, “It is the lesson that once a denomination departs from a belief in biblical infallibility, it opens the floodgates to disbelief about other cardinal doctrines of the faith[24].”

Just a couple years later, in October of 1978, the International Counsel on Biblical Inerrancy hosted a conference with 200 conservative evangelical scholars.  These scholars were Arminian, reformed, Wesleyans, Baptists, Lutherans, and many other denominations.  They had some serious theological difference, but what all of them agreed upon was the inerrancy of scripture.  These scholars would form what is now known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Article eleven of the statement states, “We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy maybe distinguished, but not separated[25].”

The scholars in attendance held to their convictions about scripture.  Those that are still alive still hold to this stand, and at times they get criticized for it.  They hold to their stand because scripture in the inspired Word of God.  They also recognized that inerrancy is a key issue that must be defended[26].  The inerrancy debate with liberals shows no signs of going away anytime soon.  More and more books are being released that attack inerrancy.  More denominations are abandoning it.  However, it is still being defended because it is essential.



The issue of biblical inerrancy is foundational for evangelicals.  In the early days of the movement, around the time of the Great Awakening, scripture was understood to be inerrant[27].  As evangelicals, scripture is our rule and our guide for doctrine.  Scripture is the word of God, and as such it must be held in the deepest regard.  When it is not we begin to rely on our own intellect.  We begin to think that our opinions are superior to scripture, and when that happens we fall into error.  In essence we become our own authority.

In the 19th century rationalism evolved to a corrupted form of higher criticism, and that in turn led to some denying the inerrancy of scripture.  This is seen echoing through the 20th century in various ways.  The liberals at Princeton pulled a power play to remove a conservative scholar for holding fast to the truth.  The authors of The Fundamentals distributed their material at no cost to the recipient to further the cause of orthodoxy.  In the 1970’s well known conservative scholars, who have well established theological disagreement, gathered to defend the inerrancy of scripture.  Scripture has been, and always will be infallible and inerrant.  Evangelicals will always be a defender of that basic truth.  After all, evangelicals are people of the book.


[1] Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (Downers Grover:il: Intervarsity Press, 1995), 7.

[2] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story:  A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2005), 17.

[3] Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles, CA: Life Bible College, 1983), 15.

[4] Rachel Klippenstein and J. David Stark, “New Testament,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry and David Bomar (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[5] 2 Peter 1:20-21 (English Standard Version).

[6] 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (English Standard Version).

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 100.

[8] Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), 379.

[9] Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago:il: Moody Publishers, 1986), 604.

[10] David S. Dockery and Trent Butler, Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 25.

[11] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story:  A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Bakeracademic, 2005), 157.

[12] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 772.

[13] Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt, The Religious History of America (New York:NY: Harperone, 2002), 297.

[14] A.a. Hodge and B.b. Warfield, “Inspiration,” Presbyterian Review (1881, April 1): 21-23.

[15] J.n. Akers, Who’s Who in Christian History, ed. J.d. Douglas and Philip Comfort (Wheaton :il: Tyndale House, 1992), 442.

[16] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story:  A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Bakeracademic, 2005), 168.

[17] Canon Dyson Hague, The Fundamentals:  A Testimony to the Truth, ed. R.a. Torrey, Charles L. Feinburg, and Warren Weirsbe, vol. 1, (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), 12.

[18] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 757.

[19] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 118.

[20] Ibid, 119.

[21] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story:  A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Bakeracademic, 2005), 173.

[22] “About The ETS,” Evangelical Theological Society, accessed August 20, 2022, http://www.etsjets.org/about.

[23] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story:  A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Bakeracademic, 2005), 177.

[24] Charles Lindsell, Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 104.

[25] “The Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy,” Dallas Theological Seminary, accessed August 31, 2022, http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf.

[26] R.c. Sproul, Can I Trust the Bible? (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 1.

[27] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 1999), 556.

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