INERRANCY OF SCRIPTURE, PART ONE: HISTORICAL DATA
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 3:59pm
THE INERRANCY OF SCRIPTURE: DOES IT STILL MATTER?
JACK COTTRELL – CINCINNATI CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY – APRIL 2011
PART I. SOME HISTORICAL DATA
Let’s begin with some history. Inerrancy was the general belief of Christendom from its beginning. In the early second century Clement of Rome (ch. 45) said, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them.” In the mid-second century Justin Martyr (“Dialogue with Trypho,” 65:2) tells Trypho, if you think you can get me to “say the Scriptures contradicted each other, you have erred. But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext [for saying] that it is contrary [to some other], since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself.”
Augustine (d. A.D. 430) grants that his own writings, and all writings since apostolic times, may contain errors. But “the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments” are different. “If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.” “In consequence of the distinctive peculiarity of the sacred writings, we are bound to receive as true whatever the canon shows to have been said by even one prophet, or apostle, or evangelist. Otherwise, not a single page will be left for the guidance of human fallibility” (“Reply to Faustus the Manichaean,” 11:5, Works 5:196-197).
In his Journals for July 24, 1776 (vol. 4:82), John Wesley comments on a tract that says the Biblical writers sometimes made mistakes: “Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.”
Such quotations could be multiplied for the first 1,800 years of Christian history, until around 1860, when Darwin’s work sparked open attacks on Genesis. From then on a sharp division began between Liberalism and Conservatism. Liberalism developed into a denial of the supernatural in all things, including the nature of the Bible. Around 1920 Neo-orthodoxy arose as a reaction against Liberalism; it restored belief in the supernatural elements of Christianity, except for the nature of the Bible. Conservatism in the early 20th century took shape as Fundamentalism, and was modified as Evangelicalism around 1950.
Evangelicalism at first continued to believe in inerrancy, but this changed in the 1960s. In 1963 Dewey Beegle wrote The Inspiration of Scripture (later edition: Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility). He declared he was an Evangelical but denied Biblical inerrancy. Since then the most serious attacks on inerrancy have come from within Evangelicalism.
This same pattern has occurred within the Restoration Movement. Its founders (early 19th century) accepted the standard inerrancy view, but Liberalism entered and took control of most of its colleges and seminaries. Our Bible colleges, including Cincinnati Christian University (1924), were begun as a response to this Liberal takeover, and were originally committed to Biblical inerrancy. The by-laws of Cincinnati Christian University (Cincinnati Bible Seminary at the time) state that every trustee and faculty member must “believe, without reservation, in the full and final inspiration of the Bible to the extent that for each of them it is the infallible Word of God and, therefore, the all‑sufficient rule of faith and life;* in the deity and supreme authority of Christ; in obedience to the Gospel; in edification of the church; and in the restoration of its unity on the New Testament basis.”
At the point of the asterisk*, in the late 20th century this footnote was added: “The term infallible means ‘incapable of error.’ It is the school’s position that all scripture, as first written by the authors themselves, was produced under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is, therefore, the Word of God in written form and is infallible (incapable of error) and inerrant (without error) in its entirety when taken in the original meaning of its authors.”
Also in the late 20th century, by faculty vote the following statement of belief was included in the CBS catalogue: “The faculty members of Cincinnati Bible Seminary believe that all Scripture, as first written by the authors themselves, was produced under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is therefore the Word of God in written form, and is infallible and inerrant in its entirety when taken in the original meaning of its authors. Thus it is the sole and sufficient rule for faith and practice.” Beginning with the 2000 edition of the catalogue, however, it was removed without a faculty vote and without explanation.
Given the recent history of Christendom and of the doctrine of inerrancy in particular, it is important periodically that we take stock of where we stand on this issue. With the constant pressures from our postmodern, relativist culture, and with the subtle denials and redefinitions being introduced even in once-conservative circles, we can take nothing for granted.