“The Witness of the Bible to its Own Inerrancy” by Dr. Gelason L. Archer
Does the Bible actually assert its own inerrancy as the revealed Word of God? Does it really lay claim to freedom from error in all that it affirms, whether in matters of theology, history, or science? Are proponents of this view truly justified in their insistence on this high degree of perfection in Scripture, or are they actually going beyond what it affirms concerning its own authority? These questions have been raised by those who advocate a lower concept of biblical authority, and it is important for us to settle them as we seek to come to terms with the Bible’s own witness.
Before we launch into an examination of specific passages in Scripture that bear upon this question, it would be well to define as clearly as possible the basic issues involved. Otherwise we may lose sight of the objectives of this type of investigation.
Inerrancy is attributed only to the original manuscripts of the various books of the Bible; it is not asserted of any specific copies of those books that have been preserved to us. Some early portions of the New Testament have been discovered by archaeology (such as the Rylands Papyrus 457 fragment of John 18, and the Magdalen fragment of Matthew 26), dating from the second century AD., within a century of the original composition of those Gospels. The earliest complete copy of an Old Testament book is still the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (lQIsaa), dating from the mid-second century B.C. There are some Qumran fragments of the Pentateuch that are even earlier, coming from the third or fourth century. All these tend to support the received text of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as preserved in the standard scholarly editions (Nestle and Kittel). There is far more textual support for the text of Holy Scripture than there is for any other book handed down to us from ancient times, whether the works of Homer, the Attic tragedians, Plato, Cicero, or Caesar. Nevertheless, these are not the original manuscripts, and minor errors have crept into the text of even these earliest and best copies of the books of the Bible. There are occasional discrepancies in the spelling of names, in the numbers cited in the statistical records, and similar matters. It is the special task of textual criticism to analyze these errors and choose the best of the variant readings according to the standard rules (or “canons”) of this science.
Yet there is an important qualification to be made in regard to the range or degree of error that has crept into our received text of Scripture. That is to say, the extent of deviation from the exact wording of the original manuscripts of the Bible must somehow have been kept within definite limits, so as not to pervert the sense or the teaching of the passage in which it occurs. Otherwise it could not serve as a trustworthy record of God’s redeeming love for mankind or of his will for our salvation. Since the Bible repeatedly affirms that it sets forth the revealed Word of God (“Thus saith the Lord”), rather than the mere conjectures or traditions of men, it must have been preserved in a sufficiently accurate form to achieve its salvific purpose for the benefit of the human race. God is present in Scripture as the omnipotent Lord of history, and as such he could not have allowed his redemptive plan to be thwarted by a seriously defective transmission.
What confirmation do we have that God has in fact maintained that kind of control over the preservation of the manuscripts? The answer is in the critical apparatus appearing in the scholarly editions of the Old and New Testament. Many hundreds of ancient manuscripts have been carefully consulted in drawing up this apparatus, both in the original languages themselves and in the languages into which they were translated (from the third century B.C. to the fifth century AD.). Yet a meticulous examination of all the variant readings appearing in the apparatus shows that no decently attested variant would make the slightest difference in the doctrinal teaching of Scripture if it were substituted for the wording of the approved text. (By “decently attested variant” we, of course, exclude all merely conjectural emendations, with which the apparatus of Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica is needlessly encumbered. We refer only to deviations indicated by actual Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Syriac manuscripts as over against the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, or the Nestle edition of the New Testament.)
The same finding can hardly be sustained for any other ancient document preserved to us in multiple copies, whether the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Behistun Rock inscription of Darius I, or the Middle Kingdom novel known as The Tale of Sinuhe. These all present differences in wording that affect the actual message or teaching of the document. Only of the Bible is it true that such a degree of deviation is not found. How may this be accounted for? It is best accounted for by the supposition that God the Holy Spirit has exercised a restraining influence on the preservation of the original text, keeping it from serious or misleading error of any kind.
So far as the text of the New Testament is concerned, the testimony of Frederick Kenyon is quite conclusive:
Repeated mention of divergent manuscripts and families of texts may perhaps give the impression that the text of the New Testament is abnormally uncertain. Such an impression can best be corrected by an attempt to envisage the early history of the text and its present condition. So far from the New Testament text being in an abnormally unsatisfactory state, it is far better attested than that of any other work of ancient literature. Its problems and difficulties arise not from a deficiency of evidence but from an excess of it. In the case of no work of Greek or Latin literature do we possess manuscripts so plentiful in number or so near the date of composition. Apart from Virgil, of whom we have manuscripts written some three or four hundred years after the poet’s death, the normal position with regard to the great works of classical literature is that our knowledge of their text depends upon a few (or at most a few dozen) manuscripts, of which the earliest may be of the ninth or tenth or eleventh century, but most of the fifteenth. In these conditions it generally happens that scientific criticism has selected one manuscript (usually but not necessarily the oldest) as principal authority, and has based our printed texts on this, with some assistance from conjecture…. In the case of the New Testament … the vellum manuscripts are far earlier and far more numerous; the gap between the earliest of them and the date of composition of the books is smaller; and a larger number of papyri have (especially since the discovery of the Chester Beatty papyri) given us better means of bridging that gap. We are far better equipped to observe the early stages of textual history in the manuscript period in the case of the New Testament than of any other work of ancient literature (Frederick G. Kenyon, Recent Developments in the Textual Criticism of the Greek Bible. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1933, pp. 74-76).
The Original Manuscripts
The question naturally arises in this connection: If we do not now possess the inerrant original manuscripts, what is the point of arguing that they must have been free from all error? Why do we not simply accept the fact that textual errors have crept into the wording of the Bible as we now have it and try to make the best of it in its imperfect form? Is it not enough for us to maintain that even in that form it can present us with an “infallible rule of faith and practice” (to use the standard phrase of the Westminster Confession of Faith)?
In answer to this, it should be pointed out, first of all, that there is a great difference between a document that was corrupted with error at the start and a document that was free from mistake at its original composition. If the original author was confused, mistaken, or deceitful, then there is little to be gained by employing textual critical methods to get back to an approximation of the original form. The errors and misinformation inhere in the archetype itself and serve only to the disadvantage and hurt of the reader. Only if the original was correct and trustworthy is any useful purpose served by elimination of copyists’ errors. The pursuit of textual criticism itself implies a trustworthy original, the original wording of which has decisive importance.
Second, it should be observed that the controlling influence of an inerrant model is part of our daily experience today, even though none of us has access to that model. In the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., there is preserved a perfect pound, a perfect foot, a perfect quart – all the basic measures of weight, length, and volume, in relation to which all other pound-weights, rulers, quart bottles, and other measures are judged. Very few Americans have ever seen these standard models in Washington with their own eyes. Yet none would contend that we may completely disregard them on the ground that all we ever see are approximate measuring devices.
Third, if mistakes at any level characterized the original manuscripts of the Bible, the effort to discover in them a truly “infallible rule of faith and practice” becomes an exercise in futility. Most of the doctrinal teaching contained in Holy Scripture comes to us in a framework of history and science. For example, the opening statement of the Apostles’ Creed affirms that God the Father Almighty was the creator of the universe, and this certainly involves an unqualified rejection of the theory of mechanistic evolution, which so dominates the thinking of non-Christian scientists today. The subsequent affirmation of the virgin birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ likewise has a definite bearing on scientific theory today, for it is commonly thought that no events can take place in nature that do not constantly recur so as to be subject to scientific observation and analysis. Again, the bodily resurrection of Christ is both a scientific and a historical event, along with its theological importance for the salvation of sinners. Christ’s sufferings and death on the cross under the authority of Pontius Pilate are likewise events in history. Therefore, if the Bible may have erred in its statements concerning history and science (interpreted, of course, in the way the original author intended them) the doctrinal or theological affirmations for which they form the framework must also be subject to error.
Authority of the Old Testament
The Old Testament shows no awareness whatever of any supposed line of distinction between theological doctrine and miraculous events. This is true of the accounts of Moses’ time, concerning both history and science. Psalm 105, composed four or five centuries after the Exodus, heartily reaffirms the historicity of the ten plagues on Egypt as recorded in Exodus 7-12, and renders thanks to the Lord for this display of his power in redeeming Israel from her bondage. Psalm 106 likewise exalts the name of Yahweh for the miraculous parting of the waters of the Red Sea and for the sudden destruction of Dathan and Abiram as they sought to set aside Moses and his revelation. These saving acts of God are referred to as factual episodes in the history of redemption. And so are the battle of Gibeon (which features the prolongation of the day and the destruction of the enemy by a catastrophic hailstorm) and the fall of the walls of Jericho at the sound of a trumpet blast (see Isa. 28:21; 1 Kings 16:34).
Ancient Israel was as sure of the reality of the Red Sea crossing as the apostolic church was of Christ’s death on Calvary. So no matter how rationalists and antisupernaturalists scoff at these episodes as fabulous and nonhistorical, the Hebrew Scriptures themselves affirm them without qualification as actually having taken place on the plane of history.
Much more could be said concerning the testimony of Holy Scripture to its own plenary inspiration. One of the best discussions concerning these matters is to be found in chapter 2 of L. Gaussen’s Theopneustia: The Bible, Its Divine Origin and Inspiration, (L. Gaussen, Theopneustia: The Bible, Its Divine Origin and Inspiration, trans. by David D. Scott. Cincinnati, Boston, and New York: Blanchard, 1859) where he points to innumerable passages in the Old Testament that assert unequivocally that the words of the prophets were the words of God. Not only in the Pentateuch (Exod. 4:30; Deut. 18:21, 22, and the numberless instances in Leviticus) but also throughout the prophets we meet with such affirmations as “The LORD has spoken [the following words],” “The mouth of the LORD has spoken,” “The word of the LORD came to saying” (Josh. 24:2; Isa. 8:11; Jer. 7:l; 11:1; 18:1; 21:1; 26:1;27:1; 30:1,4; 50:1; 51:12; Amos 3:1; passim).
Hosea begins, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea….” This fullness of inspiration is asserted of the Psalms as well: “Sovereign Lord,… who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say…” (Acts 4:24-26, quoting Ps. 2:1, 2). So also Peter says of David in connection with Psalm 16:10: “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts. 2:30, 31). Very clearly, then, God is here said to have spoken by the mouth of David, even though the actual speech and inscripturation were done by David himself. Second Peter 1:20 speaks of the Old Testament in general as the “prophecy of Scripture” (prophteia graphs) and clearly affirms that it did not come by the will of man (as if invented or thought up by the human author on his own initiative) but only as the human author was moved by the Holy Spirit and thus produced in his own human words exactly what God intended him to say. These inspired writings were truly the words of God (even though conveyed through the human instrumentality of the prophet) and contained a full and complete magisterial authority.
This authority is constantly recognized by the Gospel writers, who often remarked: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the Prophet” (Matt. 1:22; cf. 2:5, 15, 23; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9, passim). As Gaussen points out, “Nowhere shall we find a single passage that permits us to detach one single part of it as less divine that all the rest” ( Ibid, p. 67). That is, the distinction between the doctrinal-theological and the historical-scientific drawn by some modern writers on this subject is completely foreign to the attitude of the New Testament authors toward the Old.
Christ’s Unqualified Acceptance of the Old Testament
Jesus of Nazareth clearly assumed the errorlessness of the Old Testament in all its statements and affirmations, even in the realms of history and science. In Matthew 19:4, 5 he affirmed that God himself spoke the words of Genesis 2:24, with reference to the literal, historical Adam and Eve, as he established the ordinance of marriage. In Matthew 23:35 he put the historicity of Abel’s murder by Cain on the same plane of historical factuality as the murder of Zechariah the son of Barachiah. In Matthew 24:38, 39 Jesus clearly accepted the historicity of the universal flood and Noah’s ark: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away….” This record, bearing upon both history and science, has been scornfully rejected by those who trust in the infallible accuracy of modern scientific empiricism.
The same is true of the account of the prophet Jonah’s preservation from drowning through the agency of a great fish that three days later spewed him forth on the shore. Yet Jesus put his crucifixion and resurrection on the same historical plane, saying, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). In the same way, Christ goes on in the very next verse to confirm that the heathen population of Nineveh really did repent at the preaching of Jonah, just as recorded in Jonah 3:7-9. Even though this account has been treated with skepticism by modern scholarship, the New Testament indicates that Jesus regarded it as sober fact.
In the light of these passages, it seems clear that Jesus regarded the Hebrew Bible as completely trustworthy and reliable in all that it affirms in matters of theology, history, and science.
This conclusion carries with it a corollary that renders indefensible the view that the inerrancy of Scripture extends only to its doctrinal teaching. The New Testament teaches that Jesus Christ is the incarnate God. For example, John 1:14 proclaims him the eternal Word who at the Incarnation became flesh and dwelt among men as Jesus of Nazareth. If, then, Jesus was mistaken in regarding the Old Testament as completely trustworthy, reliable, and inerrant in matters of doctrine, history, and science, it must follow that God himself was mistaken about the inerrancy of the Hebrew Scriptures. And the proposition that God was mistaken is surely a theological issue if there ever was one! It turns out, then, that errancy in matters of history and science leads inevitably to errancy in matters (and very important matters!) of theology as well. Once the dike has been breached, it is eventually washed away.
Some have suggested that Jesus was actually aware of the true authorship and date of composition of the various books of the Old Testament, and that he had personal knowledge of the historical and scientific mistakes embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nevertheless, for the sake of more effective teaching in the area of theology or ethics he found it best to accommodate himself to the widely accepted views of his contemporaries. In other words, he pretended that Moses had personally written all the Pentateuch under inspiration, that Adam and Eve were actual historical persons, that Noah’s flood took place exactly as described in Genesis 6-9, that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and later expelled by it on the shore of the sea – even though he knew these events were not actually true. In order to avoid unimportant “side-issues” of authenticity and accuracy on these secondary levels, he simply went along with public opinion while presenting his doctrinal teaching. This interpretation of Jesus and his treatment of higher critical issues finds special favor in certain liberal Roman Catholic circles.
Yet when subjected to logical scrutiny, it must be recognized that this view is impossible to reconcile with the truthfulness and holiness of God. If Jesus of Nazareth knew that the story of Jonah’s deliverance through the fish was altogether fictitious, he could never have used it as a historical type of the experience of burial and resurrection that he himself was shortly to undergo. This kind of accommodation would have bordered on the duplicity employed by unscrupulous politicians in the heat of an election campaign. But in contrast to this ,Jesus made plain to his hearers that “he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him” (John 8:26). Again, “I speak of what! have seen with my Father” (John 8:38). The words of Jesus were the words of God, and the God who pronounced judgment on falsehood could not himself have resorted to falsehood in the proclamation of his saving truth.
There is a further serious objection to this theory of accommodation. The four Gospels make plain that Jesus refused to accommodate himself to certain mistaken views current in his own time. Take, for example, his repeated affirmation in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old … But I say to you…” (Matt. 5). Or again, the remarkable statements in John 8:24 (“I told you that you would die in your sins,… you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he”) and John 8:44 (“You are of your father the devil”). Nothing could be farther from accommodation to popular opinion than this. The same is true of his strict position concerning divorce (Matt. 19:9) and allegedly non-binding oaths (Matt. 23:16-22) and his downgrading of the importance of kosher restrictions concerning foods in favor of that which controls the motives and attitudes of the heart (Matt. 15:11-20). Jesus never stooped to accommodation in order to ingratiate himself with his public. As Peter affirmed of him, “He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips” (1 Peter 2:22).
Inerrancy Essential For Biblical Authority
We are faced with a basic choice in the matter of biblical authority. Either we receive the Scripture as completely reliable and trustworthy in every matter it records, affirms, or teaches, or else it comes to us as a collection of religious writings containing both truth and error.
If it does contain mistakes in the original manuscripts, then it ceases to be unconditionally authoritative. It must be validated and endorsed by our own human judgment before we can accept it as true. It is not sufficient to establish that a matter has been affirmed or taught in Scripture; it may nevertheless be mistaken and at variance with the truth. So human judges must pass on each item of teaching or information contained in the Bible and determine whether it is actually to be received as true. Such judgment presupposes a superior wisdom and spiritual insight competent to correct the errors of the Bible, and if those who would thus judge the veracity of the Bible lack the necessary ingredient of personal inerrancy in judgment, they may come to a false and mistaken judgment – endorsing as true what is actually false, or else condemning as erroneous what is actually correct in Scripture. Thus the objective authority of the Bible is replaced by a subjective intuition or judicial faculty on the part of each believer, and it becomes a matter of mere personal preference how much of Scripture teaching he or she may adopt as binding.
In contrast to the view of the Bible as capable of error in matters of science, history, or doctrine (certainly such doctrine as is contained in a historical or scientific framework), we find that the attitude of Christ and the apostolic authors of the New Testament was one of unqualified acceptance. Christ may have illumined the basic intention of the Ten Commandments by setting forth their spiritual implications (“But I say to you…”), but never did he suggest that any affirmation or teaching in the Old Testament required validation by modern critical scholarship. He clearly presupposed that whatever the Old Testament taught was true because it was the infallible Word of God. It needed no further screening process by human wisdom in order to be verified. “For truly, I say to you,” said Jesus, “till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law [Old Testament] until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). His statement in John 10:35, “The Scripture cannot be broken,” carries the same implication.
Those apostolic authors whom he taught or inspired proclaim the same full authority of all Scripture. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” In Hebrews 1:1, 2 we read, “God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” This asserts the same infallibility for the writings of the Old Testament as for the words of Jesus himself. In 1 Peter 1:10, 11 the apostle states: “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory.” This clearly implies that the Holy Spirit was within the Old Testament authors as they composed the books of the Hebrew Scriptures and that he guided them into words of infallible truth sure of fulfillment, even though the human authors themselves may not have fully understood all that these words predicted. Especially instructive is 2 Peter 1:20, 21: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” As they wrote down God’s revelation, the Old Testament authors were supernaturally borne along (like sailing vessels impelled by the wind, pheromenoi) to record God’s truth, which is not to be manipulated or perverted by one’s own personal interpretation or preference. Despite all the imperfections of the human writers of Scripture, the Lord was able to carry them along into his infallible truth without distortion or mistake.
Both Christ and the apostles affirm, then, that what the Bible says, God says. All these passages add up to this: that accuracy inheres in every part of the Bible, so that it is to be received as infallible as to truth and final as to authority. When the Scripture speaks, it speaks as the living, operative Word of God (Heb. 4:l2 – zn and energs), which penetrates to man’s innermost being and sits in judgment on all human philosophies and reasonings with an authority that is absolutely sovereign. This, then, is what the Scriptures teach concerning their own infallibility. Not only are they free from all error; they are also filled with all authority, and they sit in judgment on man and all his intentions and thoughts.
This objective authority of the Bible carries with it an important consequence as to its interpretation. Scripture must never be construed according to a man’s personal preference or bias just to suit his own purposes. It must be carefully and reverently studied with a view to ascertaining what the human biblical author (guided by the divine Author) intended by the words he used. This makes historico-grammatical exegesis an absolute necessity. We fall into misinterpretation when we err in understanding the Hebrew or Greek words that compose the original Scripture itself, supposing them to mean something the ancient writer never intended, simply because the English words of our Bible translations might be so construed. We grievously err in our interpretation when we interpret figurative language literally; we likewise err when we interpret literal language figuratively.
The authority of Scripture requires that in whatever the author meant to say by the words he used, he presents us with the truth of God, without any admixture of error. As such it is binding on our minds and consciences, and we can reject or evade its teaching only at the peril of our souls.
Old Testament Quotations In The New Testament
It has often been observed by careful students of the Bible that a certain number of the Old Testament passages quoted in the New are not quoted with literal exactness. Often this is accounted for by the fact that a completely literal translation of Hebrew does not make clear sense in Greek, and therefore some minor adjustments must be made for the sake of good communication. But there are a few instances where the rewording amounts to a sort of loose paraphrase. Particularly is this true in the case of quotations from the Septuagint (the translation into Greek of the entire Old Testament by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, during the third and second centuries B.C.). For the most part, the Septuagint is quite faithful to the Hebrew wording in the Old Testament, but in a small number of instances there are noticeable deviations in the mode of expressing the thought, even though there may be no essential difference in the thought itself.
Some scholars have drawn the conclusion from such deviations that the New Testament authors could not have held to the theory of verbal inspiration; otherwise they would have gone back to the Hebrew text and done a meticulously exact translation of their own as they rendered that text into Greek. It has even been argued that the occasional use of an inexact Septuagint rendering in a New Testament quotation demonstrates a rejection of inerrancy on the part of the apostolic authors themselves. Their inclusion of the Septuagint quotations that contain elements of inexactitude would seem to indicate a cavalier attitude toward the whole matter of inerrancy. On the basis of inference from the phenomena of Scripture itself, it is therefore argued that the Bible makes no claim to inerrancy.
To this line of reasoning we make the following reply. The very reason for using the Septuagint was rooted in the missionary outreach of the evangelists and apostles of the early church. The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament had already found its way into every city of the Roman Empire to which the Jews of the Dispersion had gone. This was virtually the only form of the Old Testament in the hands of Jewish believers outside Palestine, and it was certainly the only form available for gentile converts to the Jewish faith or Christianity. The apostles were propagating a Gospel that presented Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the messianic promises of the Old Testament. Their audiences through out the Near East and the Mediterranean world were told that they had only to consult the Old Testament to verify the truth of the apostolic claims that Jesus in his person and by his work had fulfilled the promises of God. Had the New Testament authors quoted these promises in any other form than the wording of the Septuagint, they would have engendered uncertainty and doubt in the minds of their hearers. For as they checked their Old Testament, the readers would have noticed the discrepancies at once – minor though they may have been – and they would with one voice have objected, “But that isn’t the way I read it in my Bible!” The apostles and their Jewish co-workers from Palestine may have been well-equipped to do their own original translation from the Hebrew original. But they would have been ill-advised to substitute their own more literal rendering for that form of the Old Testament that was already in the hands of their public. They really had little choice but to keep largely to the Septuagint in all their quotations of the Old Testament.
On the other hand, the special Hebrew-Christian audience to which the evangelist Matthew addressed himself – and even more notably the recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews – did not require such a constant adherence to the Septuagint as was necessary for a gentile readership. Hence Matthew and Hebrews often quote from the Old Testament in a non-Septuagintal form, normally in a form somewhat closer to the wording of the Hebrew original. And it should also be observed that in some cases, at least, these Greek renderings (whether Septuagintal or not) point to a variant reading in the original form of the text that is better than the one that has come down to us in the standard Hebrew Bible. It should be carefully noted that none of this yields any evidence whatever of carelessness or disregard on the part of the apostles in respect to the exact wording of the original Hebrew. Far from it. In some instances Christ himself based his teaching on a careful exegesis of the exact reading in the Torah. For example, he pointed out in Matthew 22:32 the implications of Exodus 3:6 (“I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”) on the basis of the present tense implied by the verbless clause in Hebrew. He declared that God would not have spoken of himself as the God of mere corpses moldering in the grave (“He is not God of the dead, but of the living”). Therefore Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must have been alive and well in the life beyond at the time when God addressed Moses at the burning bush four or five centuries after they had died. Similarly his discussion with the Pharisees concerning the identity of the one referred to as “my lord” in Psalm 110:1 really turned upon the exact terms used in that clause or sentence. He therefore asked them, “If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt. 22:45). In other words, the Messiah must not only be David’s lineal descendant, but he must also be his divine Lord (kyrios)!
Returning, then, to the apostolic use of the Septuagint, we find that this line of reasoning (that inexact quotations imply a low view of the Bible) is really without foundation. All of us employ standard translations of the Bible in our teaching and preaching, even those of us who are thoroughly conversant with the Greek and Hebrew originals of Scripture. But our use of any translation in English, French, or any other modern language by no means implies that we have abandoned a belief in Scriptural inerrancy, even though some errors of translation appear in every one of’ those modern versions. We use these standard translations in order to teach our readership in terms they can verify from the Bibles they have in their own homes. But most of us are careful to point out to them that the only final authority as to the meaning of Scripture is the wording of the original languages themselves. There is no infallible translation. But this involves no surrender of the conviction that the original manuscripts of Scripture were free from all error. We must therefore conclude that the New Testament use of the Septuagint implies nothing against verbal inspiration or Scriptural inerrancy.
In the light of the foregoing discussion, we are left with no defensible middle ground. No reasonable alternative is left but to reduce the Bible to the status of a mixture of truth and error requiring the validation of its truth by human reason or else to take our stand with Jesus Christ and the apostles in a full acceptance of the infallible, inerrant authority of the original autographs.
Article above adapted from Gleason L. Archer’s Chapter in James Mongomery Boice, ed., The Foundation of Biblical Authority. London & Glasgow: Pickering & Inglis, 1979. pp. 85-99.
About the author – Gleason L. Archer Jr. (1916-2004 – B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University; B.D., Princeton Theological Seminary; L.L.B., Suffolk Law School) was a biblical scholar, theologian, educator, and author. He served as an assistant pastor of Park Street Church in Boston from 1945 to 1948. He was a Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary for 16 years, teaching New Testament, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. From 1965 to 1986 he served as a Professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He became an emeritus faculty member in 1989. He also served for many years as a minister of the Evangelical Free Church of America. The remainder of his life was spent researching, writing, and lecturing.
Archer served as one of the 50 original translators of the NASB published in 1971. He also worked on the team which translated the NIV Bible published in 1978. I give this introduction, because many people are not familiar with Archer (unfortunately), but he was a brilliant Christian scholar who could have excelled as a lawyer (his father was the founder and president of Suffolk Law School), and chose to use his exceptional gifts to defend the inerrancy and integrity of the Scriptures over the span of his entire adult life. I would say that along with Bruce Waltke and Walter Kaiser Jr., he was one of the most influential Old Testament Evangelical Scholars at the end of the Twentieth Century. Legend has it, (I have not been able to verify whether this is 100% true or not) that he was so gifted in languages that for fun (and as a challenge) he would study the Bible in a different language every year to continue to grow and develop mentally.
“The only source and norm of all Christian knowledge is the Holy Scripture.” This thematic statement introduces De Scriptura Sacra of Heinrich Heppe’s classic work in Reformed dogmatics and provides a succinct expression of the Reformation slogan: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone). The two key words that are used to crystallize the sola character of Scripture are source and norm.
The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura was given the status of the formal cause of the Reformation by Melanchthon and his Lutheran followers. The formal cause was distinguished from the material cause of Sola Fide (by faith alone). Though the chief theological issue of the Reformation was the question of the matter of justification, the controversy touched heavily on the underlying question of authority. As is usually the case in theological controversy, the issue of ultimate authority lurked in the background (though it was by no means hidden or obscure) of Luther’s struggle with Rome over justification. The question of the source of Luther’s doctrine and the normative authority by which it was to be judged was vital to his cause.
Sola Scriptura and Inerrancy
A brief historical recapitulation of the steps that led to Luther’s Sola Scriptura dictum may be helpful. After Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, a series of debates, correspondence, charges, and countercharges ensued, culminating in Luther’s dramatic stand at Worms in April 1521. The two most significant transitional points between the theses of 1517 and the Diet of Worms of 1521 were the debates at Augsburg and Leipzig.
In October 1518 Luther met with Cardinal Cajetan of the Dominicans. Cajetan was acknowledged to be the most learned theologian of the Roman Curia. In the course of their discussions Cajetan was able to elicit from Luther his views on the infallibility of the pope. Luther asserted that the pope could err and claimed that Pope Clement VI’s bull Unigenitus (1343) was contrary to Scripture.
In the summer of 1519 the dramatic encounter between Luther and Johannes von Eck took place at Leipzig. In this exchange Eck elicited from Luther the admission of his belief that not only could the pope err but church councils could and did err as well. It was at Leipzig that Luther made clear his assertion: Scripture alone is the ultimate, divine authority in all matters pertaining to religion.
Gordon Rupp gives the following account:
Luther affirmed that “among the articles of John Huss and the Hussites which were condemned, are many which are truly Christian and evangelical, and which the church universal cannot condemn!” This was sensational! There was a moment of shocked silence, and then an uproar above which could be heard Duke George’s disgusted, “Gad, Sir, that’s the Plague!… ” Eck pressed his advantage home, and Luther, trapped, admitted that since their decrees are also of human law, Councils may err.
So by the time Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, the principle of Sola Scriptura was already well established in his mind and work. Only the Scripture carries absolute normative authority. Why? For Luther the sola of Sola Scriptura was inseparably related to the Scriptures’ unique inerrancy. It was because popes could and did err and because councils could and did err that Luther came to realize the supremacy of Scripture. Luther did not despise church authority nor did he repudiate church councils as having no value. His praise of the Council of Nicea is noteworthy. Luther and the Reformers did not mean by Sola Scriptura that the Bible is the only authority in the church. Rather, they meant that the Bible is the only infallible authority in the church.
Paul Althaus summarizes the train of Luther’s thought by saying:
We may trust unconditionally only in the Word of God and not in the teaching of the fathers; for the teachers of the Church can err and have erred. Scripture never errs. Therefore it alone has unconditional authority. The authority of the theologians of the Church is relative and conditional. Without the authority of the words of Scripture, no one can establish hard and fast statements in the Church.
Thus Althaus sees Luther’s principle of Sola Scriptura arising as a corollary of the inerrancy of Scripture. To be sure, the fact that Scripture is elevated to be the sole authority of the church does not carry with it the necessary inference that it is inerrant. It could be asserted that councils, popes, and the Bible all err and still postulate a theory of Sola Scriptura. Scripture could be considered on a primus inter pares (“first among equals”) basis with ecclesiastical authority, giving it a kind of primacy among errant sources. Or Scripture could be regarded as carrying unique authority solely on the basis of its being the primary historical source of the gospel. But the Reformers’ view of Sola Scriptura was higher than this. The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura involved inerrancy.
Sola Scriptura, ascribing to the Scriptures a unique authority, must be understood in a normative sense. Not descriptive, but rather normative authority is meant by the formula. The normative character of the Sola Scriptura principle may be seen by a brief survey of sixteenth-century Reformed confessions.
The Theses of Berne (1528): The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God’s Word. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based on and commanded by God’s Word (Sec. II).
The Geneva Confession (1536): First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as a rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other things which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord (Sec. I).
The French Confession of Faith (1559): We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from him alone, and not from men. And inasmuch as it is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation, it is not lawful for men, nor even for angels, to add to it, to take away from it, or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them (Art. V).
The Belgic Confession (1561): We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and confirmation of our faith; believing, without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnessed in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves (Art. V). Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule (Art. VII).
Second Helvetic Confession (1566): Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than Christ himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what is to be avoided (Chap. II).
Uniformly the sixteenth-century confessions elevate the authority of Scripture over any other conceivable authority. Thus, even the testimony of angels is to be judged by the Scriptures. Why? Because, as Luther believed, the Scriptures alone are inerrant. Sola Scriptura as the supreme norm of ecclesiastical authority rests ultimately on the premise of the infallibility of the Word of God.
Extent of the Norm
To what extent does the Sola Scriptura principle of authority apply? We hear statements that declare Scripture to be the “only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Does this limit the scope of biblical infallibility? Among advocates of limited inerrancy we hear the popular notion that the Bible is inerrant or infallible only when it speaks of matters of faith and practice. Matters of history or cosmology may contain error but not matters of faith and practice. Here we see a subtle shift from the Reformation principle. Note the difference in the following propositions:
A. The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
B. The Bible is infallible only when it speaks of faith and practice.
In premise A, “faith and practice” are generic terms that describe the Bible. In premise B, “faith and practice” presumably describe only a particular part of the Bible. Premise A affirms that there is but one infallible authority for the church. The proposition sets no content limit on the infallibility of the Scriptures. Premise B gives a reduced canon of that which is infallible; that is, the Bible is infallible only when it speaks of faith and practice. This second premise represents a clear and decisive departure from the Reformation view.
Premise A does not say that the Bible provides information about every area of life, such as mathematics or physics. But it affirms that what he Bible teaches, it teaches infallibly.
The Source of Authority
Heppe’s sola indicates that the Bible is not only the unique and final authority of the church but is also the “only source of all Christian knowledge.” At first glance this statement may seem to suggest that the only source of revelation open to man is that found in Scripture. But that is not the intent of Heppe’s statement, nor is it the intent of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura.
Uniformly the Reformers acknowledged general revelation as a source of knowledge of God. The question of whether or not that general revelation yields a bona fide natural theology was and is widely disputed, but there is no serious doubt that the Reformers affirmed a revelation present in nature. Thus the sola does not exclude general revelation but points beyond it to the sufficiency of Scripture as the unique source of written special revelation.
The context of the Sola Scriptura schema with respect to source was the issue (raised over against Rome) regarding the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. Central to the debate was the Council of Trent’s declaration regarding Scripture and Tradition. (Trent was part of the Roman counteroffensive to the Reformation, and Sola Scriptura was not passed over lightly in this counter-offensive.)
In the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent the following decree was formulated: This (Gospel), of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by His Apostles to every creature as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct. It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following then, the examples of the Orthodox fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic church in unbroken succession.
In this decree the Roman Catholic church apparently affirmed two sources of special revelation—Scripture and the Tradition of the church—although in recent years this “dual source” theory has come into question within the Roman church.
G. C. Berkouwer’s work on Vatican Council II provides a lengthy discussion of current interpretations of the Tridentine formula on Scripture and Tradition. Some scholars argue that Tradition adds no new content to Scripture but merely serves either as a depository in the life of the church or as a formal interpretive tool of the church. A technical point of historical research concerning Trent sheds some interesting light on the matter. In the original draft of the fourth session of Trent the decree read that “the truths … are contained partly [partim] in Scripture and partly [partim] in the unwritten traditions.” But at a decisive point in the Council’s deliberations two priests, Nacchianti and Bonnucio rose in protest against the partim … partim formula. These men protested on the grounds that this view would destroy the uniqueness and sufficiency of Scripture. All we know from that point on is that the words partly … partly were removed from the text and replaced by the word and (et). Did this mean that the Council responded to the protest and perhaps left the relationship between Scripture and Tradition purposely ambiguous? Was the change stylistic, meaning that the Council still maintained two distinct sources of revelation? These questions are the focus of the current debate among Roman theologians.
One thing is certain. The Roman church has interpreted Trent as affirming two sources of special revelation since the sixteenth century. Vatican I spoke of two sources. The papal encyclical Humani Generis spoke of “sources of revelation.” Even Pope John XXIII spoke of Scripture and Tradition in Ad Petri Cathedram.
Not only has the dual-source theory been confirmed both by ecumenical councils and papal encyclicals, but tradition has been appealed to on countless occasions to validate doctrinal formulations that divide Rome and Protestantism. This is particularly true regarding decisions in the area of Mariology.
Over against this dual-source theory stands the sola of Sola Scriptura. Again, the Reformers did not despise the treasury of church tradition. The great councils of Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople receive much honor in Protestant tradition. The Reformers themselves gave tribute to the insights of the church fathers. Calvin’s love for Augustine is apparent throughout the Institutes. Luther’s expertise in the area of Patristics was evident in his debates with Cajetan and Eck. He frequently quotes the fathers as highly respected ecclesiastical authorities. But the difference is this: For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. All are open to correction and critique. We have no Doctor Irrefragabilis of Protestantism.
Protestant churches have tended to be confessional in character. Subscription to confessions and creeds has been mandatory for the clergy and parish of many denominations. Confessions have been used as a test of orthodoxy and conformity to the faith and practice of the church. But the confessions are all regarded as reformable. They are considered reformable because they are considered fallible. But the Sola Scriptura principles in its classic application regards the Scripture as irreformable because of its infallibility. Thus the two primary thrusts of Sola Scriptura point to:
1) Scripture’s uniqueness as normative authority and
2) its uniqueness as the source of special revelation. Norm and source are the twin implicates of the Sola Scriptura principle.
Is Sola Scriptura the Essence of Christianity?
In a recent publication on questions of Scripture, Bernard Ramm wrote an essay entitled, “Is ‘Scripture Alone’ the Essence of Christianity?” Using the nineteenth-century German penchant for the quest of the “Wesen” of Christianity as a jumping-off point, Ramm gives a brief history of the liberal-conservative controversy concerning the role of Scripture in the Christian faith. Defining Wesen as “the essence of something, the real spirit or burden of a treatise, the heart of the matter,” he concludes that Scripture is not the Wesen of Christianity. He provides a historical survey to indicate that neither the Reformers nor the strong advocates of inerrancy, A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, believed that Sola Scriptura was the essence of Christianity. Ramm cites numerous quotations from Hodge and Warfield that speak of the Scriptures as being “absolutely infallible,” and “without error of facts or doctrines.” Yet these men affirmed that “Christianity was true independently of any theory of inspiration, and its great doctrines were believable within themselves.”
Ramm goes on to express grave concern about the present debate among evangelicals concerning inerrancy. Here his concern focuses not on the teaching of Hodge and Warfield but on the attitudes of their contemporary disciples who, in Ramm’s opinion, go beyond their forefathers in asserting a particular view of Scripture as being Christianity’s essence. Ramm writes:
From the other writings of Warfield in particular, it would be impossible to say that he identified the Wesen of Christianity with his view of Holy Scripture. He was enough of a historian of theology to avoid saying that. The “inspiration” article was an essay in strategy. However, among current followers of the so-called Warfield position there have been certain shifts away from the original strategic stance of the essay. One’s doctrine of Scripture has become now the first and most important doctrine, one’s theory of the wesen of Christianity, so that all other doctrines have validity now only as they are part of the inerrant Scripture. Thus evangelical teachers, or evangelical schools or evangelical movements, can be judged as to whether or not they are true to the wesen of Christianity by their theory of inspiration. It can be stated even more directly: an evangelical has made a theory of inspiration the wesen of Christianity if he assumes that the most important doctrine in a man’s theology, and most revelatory of the entire range of his theological thought, is his theology of inspiration.
It appears from this statement that the “essence” of Ramm’s concern for the present state of evangelicalism is that one’s doctrine of Scripture is viewed as the essence or wesen of Christianity. This writer can only join hands with Ramm in total agreement with his concern. To make one’s view of Scripture in general or of inspiration in particular the essence of Christianity would be to commit an error of the most severe magnitude. To subordinate the importance of the gospel itself to the importance of our historical source book of it would be to obscure the centrality of Christ. To subordinate Sola Fide to Sola Scriptura would be to misunderstand radically the wesen of the Reformation. Clearly Ramm is correct in taking his stand on this point with Hodge, Warfield, and the Reformers. Who can object to that?
One may be troubled, however, by a portion of Ramm’s stated concern. Who are these “current followers” of Warfield who in fact do maintain that Sola Scriptura is the heart or essence of Christianity? What disciple of Warfield’s has ever maintained that Sola Scriptura is essential to salvation? Ramm provides us with no names or documentary evidence to demonstrate that his deep concern is warranted.
To be sure, strong statements have been made by followers of the Warfield school of the crucial importance of Sola Scriptura and the centrality of biblical authority to all theological disputes. Perhaps these statements have contained some “overkill” in the passion of debate, which is always regrettable. We must be very cautious in our zeal to defend a high view of Scripture not to give the impression that we are talking about an article on which our salvation depends.
We can cite the following statements by advocates of the Warfield school that could be construed as a possible basis for Ramm’s concern. In God’s Inerrant Word, J. I. Packer makes the following assertion:
What Luther thus voiced at Worms shows the essential motivation and concern, theological and religious, of the entire Reformation movement: namely that the Word of God alone must rule, and no Christian man dare do other than allow it to enthrone itself in his conscience and heart.
Here Packer calls the notion of Sola Scriptura “the essential motivation and concern” of the Reformation. In itself this quote certainly suggests that Packer views Sola Scriptura as the essence of the Reformation.
However, in defense of Packer it must be noted that to say Sola Scriptura was the essential motivation of the Reformation movement is not to say that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity. He is speaking here of a historical controversy. That Sola Scriptura was at the heart of the controversy and central to the debate cannot be doubted. To say that Sola Scriptura was an essential motif or concern of the Reformation cannot be doubted. That is was the essential concern may be brought into question; this may be regraded as an overstatement. But again, in fairness to Packer, it must be noted that earlier in his essay he had already indicated that Justification by Faith Alone was the material principle. So he had already maintained that Sola Scriptura was subordinate to Sola Fide in the controversy. In any case, though the word essential is used, there is no hint here that Packer maintains that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity.
In a recent unpublished essay, Richard Lovelace of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary cites both Harold Lindsell and Francis Schaeffer as men who have sounded urgent warnings concerning the relationship between inerrancy and evangelicalism. Lovelace cites the following statements of Schaeffer:
There is not use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger, if at the same time appreciable parts … are getting soft at that which is the central core, namely the Scriptures.… We must say most lovingly but clearly: 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.
Again Schaeffer is cited: “Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world.” In these statements Francis Schaeffer maintains that the Scriptures are:
1) the “central core” of evangelicalism,
2) a mark of “consistent evangelicalism,” and
3) the “watershed of the evangelical world.”
These are strong assertions about the role of Sola Scriptura, but they are made with reference to evangelicalism, not Christianity (though I am sure Schaeffer believes evangelicalism is the purest expression of Christianity to be found). Evangelicalism refers to a historical position or movement. When he speaks of “watersheds,” he is speaking of crucial historical turning points. When he speaks of “consistent” evangelicalism, he implies there may be such a thing as inconsistent evangelicalism.
The troublesome quote of Schaeffer is that one in which he says the Scriptures are “the central core” of evangelicalism. Here “core” is in the singular with the definite article giving it a sola character. Does Schaeffer mean that the Bible is the core of evangelicalism and the gospel is the husk? Is Sola Scriptura the center and Sola Fide at the periphery of evangelicalism? It is hard to think that Schaeffer would make such an assertion. Indeed, one may question if Schaeffer means what he in fact does say here. Had he said, “Scripture is at the core of evangelicalism,” there would be no dispute. But to say it is the core appears an overstatement. Perhaps we have here a slip of the pen, which any of us can and frequently do make.
In similar fashion Harold Lindsell may be quoted: “Is the term ‘evangelical’ broad enough in its meaning to include within it believers in inerrancy and believers in an inerrancy limited to matters of faith and practice?” Lindsell raises the question of whether or not inerrancy of the entire Bible is essential to the term evangelical. The question raised is: If Sola Scriptura in its fullest sense is of the Wesen of evangelicalism, can one who espouses limited inerrancy be genuinely called evangelical? The issue is the meaning of the term evangelical. Does it carry with it the automatic assumption of full inerrancy? Again we must point out the difference between the historical label “evangelical” and what is essential to Christianity.
None of the scholars mentioned have said that adherence to inerrancy or Sola Scriptura is essential to salvation. None have Sola Scriptura as the Wesen of Christianity.
It could be said that the argument of the writer of this chapter is constructed on straw men who “come close” to asserting that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity but who, in the final analysis, shrink for such an assertion. But it is not my purpose to create straw men. It is simply to find some basis for Ramm’s assertion about modern followers of Warfield. Since I have not been able to find any followers of Warfield who assert Sola Scriptura as the Wesen of Christianity, the best I can do is to cite examples of statements that could possibly be misconstrued to assert that. It is probably charity that restrained Ramm from naming those he had in mind. But unfortunately, the absence of names casts a shadow of suspicion over all modern followers of Warfield who hold to full inerrancy.
Though advocates of inerrancy in the full sense of Sola Scriptura do not regard it as being essential to salvation, they do maintain that the principle is crucial to Christianity and to consistent evangelicalism. That in Scripture we have divine revelation is no small matter. That the gospel rests not on human conjecture or relational speculation is of vital importance. But there is no quarrel with Ramm on these points. He summarizes his own position by saying:
1. There is no questioning of the Sola Scriptura in theology. Scripture is the supreme and final authority in theological decision-making.
2. One’s views of revelation, inspiration, and interpretation are important. They do implicate each other. Our discussion rather has been whether a certain view of inspiration could stand as the wesen of Christianity. We have in no manner suggested that matters of revelation, inspiration, and interpretation are unimportant in theology.
Here we delight in agreement with this strong affirmation of the crucial importance of Sola Scriptura.
Strangely, however, Ramm continues his summary by saying, “If the integrity of other evangelicals, evangelical schools, or evangelical movements are assessed by their view of inspiration, then, for them, inspiration has become the wesen of Christianity.” The inference Ramm draws at this point is at once puzzling and astonishing, and perhaps we meet here merely another case of overstatement or a slip of the pen. How would it follow from an assessment of others’ evangelicalism as being consistent or inconsistent according to their view of Scripture that inspiration has become the wesen of Christianity? This inference involves a quantum leap of logic.
If the first two points of Ramm’s summary are correct—that Sola Scriptura is important and that it implicates views of interpretation and theological decision making—why should not a school’s or movement’s integrity (a fully integrated stance) be assessed by this principle? Though Sola Scriptura is not the wesen of Christianity, it is still of crucial importance. If a school or movement softens its view of Scripture, that does not mean it has repudiated the essence of Christianity. But it does mean that a crucial point of doctrine and classical evangelical unity has been compromised. If, as Ramm suggests, one’s view of Scripture is so important, then a weakening of that view should concern us.
The issue of full or limited inerrancy is a serious one among those within the framework of historic evangelicalism. In the past a healthy and energetic spirit of cooperation has existed among evangelicals from various and diverse theological persuasions and ecclesiastical affiliations. Lutherans and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians, and believers of all sorts have united in evangelical activity. What has been the cohesive force of that unity? In the first instance, there has been a consensus of catholic articles of faith, such as the deity of Christ. In the second instance, a strong point of unity has been the cardinal doctrine of the Protestant Reformation: justification by faith alone. In the last instance, there has been the unifying factor of Sola Scriptura in the sense of full inerrancy. The only “creed” that has bound the Evangelical Theological Society together, for example, has been the affirmation of inerrancy. Now that point of unity is in jeopardy. The essence of Christianity is not the issue. But a vital point of consistent evangelicalism is.
Sola Scriptura and Limited Inerrancy
Is Sola Scriptura compatible with a view of Scripture that limits inerrancy to matters of faith and practice? Theoretically it would seem to be possible if “faith and practice” could be separated from any part of Scripture. So long as biblical teaching regarding faith and practice were held to be normative for the Christian community, there would appear to be no threat to the essence of Christianity. However, certain problems exist with such a view of Scripture that do seriously threaten the essence of Christianity.
The first major problem we encounter with limited inerrancy is the problem of canon reduction. The canon or “norm” of Scripture is reduced de facto to that content relating to faith and practice. This immediately raises the hermeneutical question concerning what parts of Scripture deal with faith. As evangelicals wrestle among themselves in intramural debates, they must keep one eye focused on the liberal world of biblical scholarship, for the principle of the reduction of canon to matters of “faith” is precisely the chief operative in Bultmann’s hermeneutic. Bultmann thinks we must clear away the prescientific and faulty historical “husk” of Scripture to get to the viable kernel of “faith.” Thus, although Bultmann has no inerrant kernel or kerygma to fall back on, his problem of canon reduction remains substantially the same as that of those who limit inerrancy to faith and practice.
Before someone cries foul or cites the informal fallacy of argumentum ad hominem (abusive) or the “guilt by association” fallacy, let this concern be clarified. I am not saying that advocates of limited inerrancy are cryptic or even incipient Bultmannians, but that there is one very significant point of similarity between the two schools: canon reductionism. Evangelical advocates of limited inerrancy are not expected to embrace Bultmann’s mythical view of New Testament supernaturalism. But their method has no inherent safeguard from an arbitrary delimitation of the scope of the biblical canon.
The second serious problem, closely related to the first, is the problem of the relationship of faith and history, perhaps the most serious question of contemporary New Testament scholarship. If we limit the notion of inerrancy to matters of faith and practice, what becomes of biblical history? Is the historical substratum of the gospel negotiable? Are only those portions of the biblical narrative that have a clear bearing on faith inerrant? How do we escape dehistoricizing the gospel and relegating it to a level of supratemporal existential “decision”? We know that the Bible is not an ordinary history book but a book of redemptive history. But is it not also a book of redemptive history? If we exclude the realm of history from the category of inspiration or inerrancy either in whole or in part, do we not inevitably lose the gospel?
The third problem we face with limiting inerrancy to matters of faith and practice is an apologetic one. To those critics outside the fellowship of evangelicals, the notion of “limited inerrancy” appears artificial and contrived. Limited inerrancy gets us off the apologetical hook by making us immune to religious-historical criticism. We can eat our cake and have it too. The gospel is preserved; and our faith and practice remains intact while we admit errors in matters of history and cosmology. We cannot believe the Bible concerning earthly things, but we stake our lives on what it says concerning heavenly things. That approach was totally abrogated by our Lord (John 3:12).
How do we explain and defend the idea that the Bible is divinely superintended in part of its content but not all of it? Which part is inspired? Why only the faith and practice parts? Again, which are the faith and practice parts? Can we not justly be accused of “weaseling” if we adopt such a view? We remove our faith from the arena of historical verification nor falsification. This is a fatal blow for apologetics as the reasoned defense of Christianity.
Finally, we face the problem of the domino theory. Frequently this concern is dismissed out of hand as being so much alarmism. But our doctrine of Scripture is not a child’s game of dominoes. We know instances in which men have abandoned belief in full inerrancy but have remained substantially orthodox in the rest of their theology. We are also aware of the sad instances in which full inerrancy is affirmed yet the substance of theology is corrupt. Inerrancy is no guarantee of biblical orthodoxy. Yet even a cursory view of church history has shown some pattern of correlation between a weakening of biblical authority and serious defection regarding the Wesen of Christianity. The wesen of nineteenth-century liberalism is hardly the gospel evangelicals embrace.
We have already seen, within evangelical circles, a move from limited inerrancy to challenges of matters of faith and practice. When the apostle Paul is depicted as espousing two mutually contradictory views of the role of women in the church, we see a critique of apostolic teaching that does touch directly on the practice of the church. In the hotly disputed issue of homosexuality we see denominational commissions not only supplementing biblical authority with corroborative evidence drawn from modern sources of medical psychological study but also “correcting” the biblical view by such secular authority.The direction of these movements of thought is a matter of grave concern for advocates of full inerrancy.
We face a crisis of authority in the church. It is precisely our faith and our practice that is in question. It is for faith and practice that we defend a fully infallible rule—a total view of Sola Scriptura.
We know some confusion has existed (much unnecessarily) about the meaning of full inerrancy. But with all the problems of definition that plague the concept, we do not think it has died the death of a thousand qualifications.
We are concerned about Sola Scriptura for many reasons. But we affirm it in the final analysis not because it was the view of the Reformers, not because we slavishly revere Hodge and Warfield, not even because we are afraid of dominoes or a difficult apologetic. We defend it and express our deep concern about it because we believe it is the truth. It is a truth we do not want to negotiate. We earnestly desire dialogue with our evangelical brothers and colaborers who differ from us. We want to heal the wounds that controversy so frequently brings. We know our own views are by no means inerrant. But we believe inerrancy is true and is of vital importance to our common cause of the gospel.
Further dialogue within the evangelical world should at least help us clarify what real differences there are among us. Such clarification is important if there is to be any hope of resolving those differences. We do not intend to communicate that a person’s Christian faith stands or falls with his view of Scripture. We do not question the Christian commitment of advocates of limited inerrancy. What we do question is the correctness of their doctrine of Scripture, as the question ours. But we consider this debate, as serious as it is, a debate between members of the household of God. May our Father bring us to unity here as he has in many glorious affirmations of his gospel.
Article above written by Dr. R.C. Sproul. “Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism.” The Foundations of Biblical Authority. James M. Boice, ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk Magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: THE HOLINESS OF GOD; CHOSEN BY GOD; KNOWING SCRIPTURE; WILLING TO BELIEVE; REASON TO BELIEVE; and PLEASING GOD) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL