It’s common for modern day theological liberals, progressive Christians, and others to claim that the doctrine of inerrancy is a fairly novel doctrine. They will often trace it back to the nineteenth century as a recent invention of fundamentalists to fight liberalism. The claim that the doctrine of inerrancy is a novel doctrine is very common among those who reject it and still wish to be considered to be consistent with what Christians have believed down through history.
Recently, in a podcast called “Inerrancy, Authority, Tradition and the Bible” (video here), Bruxy Cavey held what is called a “Meeting House Round Table” to discuss his denomination’s view of Scripture. I plan on posting a review of the whole podcast soon, but for now I want to briefly touch on one aspect of it.
Cavey’s guests were Doug Sider, Executive Director of BIC Canada, and Darrell Winger, Executive Pastor of The Meeting House. In their rejection of the inerrancy of Scripture both Sider and Winger claimed that inerrancy was new, invented to combat liberalism in the nineteenth century.
“I think back to the time when the words or principles of inerrancy and infallibility were inserted into theological statements and understandings it was to try to ward off a sense of Liberalism. ‘We need to shore things up, we need to strengthen what we understand the Scriptures to be about and our Christian faith to be about because 100-plus years ago as Liberalism was coming in there was a sense of wanting to respond to that and strengthen things.” – Darrell Winger
“I think the caution that I would have is some of those traditions… some of them are fairly recent. When you take the scale of human history, of the church, two thousand years, the concept of inerrancy is a relatively new construct…” – Doug Sider
Notice, both of these men claim that the concept or principles of inerrancy are new, only inserted into theological understandings “100-plus years ago”, not just the word inerrancy. This claim is patently false. Perhaps they are ignorant of the history of this doctrine. They also could be deceived, perhaps simply accepting a lie they’ve been told. The only other option is that they are lying themselves, which is evil, but I don’t believe this to be the case.
I have been reading in the early church for a couple of months for some other work I’m doing on Roman Catholicism. I have been specifically focusing on the view of Scripture among the Church Fathers. Here I want to offer one very strong example of the concept, the principles of biblical inerrancy found in and defended by the early church. This example is certainly not the earliest that can be found, but should serve to refute and correct Cavey, Sider, and Winger’s assertion that biblical inerrancy is new.
Augustine to Jerome
Augustine lived from 354-430 A.D. He was the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Roman North Africa. Jerome lived from 347-420 A.D. He was a scholar most famous for his Latin Vulgate translation of Scripture and his commentaries. Neither of these men can be confused with 19th century liberals or fundamentalists.
Nevertheless, it is amazing to see just how much Augustine’s arguments for an inerrant text of Scripture mirrored those of modern day inerrantists. The position he was arguing against was, in a way, similar to that of folks like Bruxy Cavey, Doug Sider, and Darrell Winger as articulated in their round-table discussion podcast, as well as the teaching of Bruxy Cavey and other guest speakers at The Meeting House (see Greg Boyd and Brian Zahnd). In another way, though, the position Augustine argues against is an even milder case of errancy than what these men would espouse.
The example is found in Augustine’s 28th letter, Chapter 3, dated at the end of the fourth century. Augustine is writing to Jerome concerning a commentary attributed to Jerome (whether Jerome was the author he doesn’t know), in which he seemed to indicate that Scripture contained an error. Specifically, that Paul employed some kind of false argument in rebuking Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) when Peter was not actually wrong, but that Paul leveled a false charge against him in order to “soothe troublesome opponents”. Essentially, the commentary said that Paul wrote and said something false, he recorded error, but that error served to the greater glory of God. Augustine expressed great sorrow upon finding this, and stated:
“For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive: nay, it is not another question— it is no question at all. For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.”
Augustine is refuting the idea that there are errors in the text as the result of the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive. Cavey claims that there are errors in Scripture due to human ignorance and sin. Augustine’s argument applies to this position all the same. The idea that anything the authors wrote were false is unthinkable to Augustine.
He continues to explain that if even one command or statement of Scripture were false, even if it were supposed to glorify God, then nothing in Scripture stands as sure truth.
“For even things which pertain to the praises of God might be represented as piously intended falsehoods, written in order that love for Him might be enkindled in men who were slow of heart; and thus nowhere in the sacred books shall the authority of pure truth stand sure.”
He gives some other examples of how the authority of Scripture simply crumbles if error is admitted in the text. Augustine then appeals to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14-15, hypothesizing that if a man were to come to Paul and tell him that Jesus had not risen from the dead, but that believing this falsehood, “tends very greatly to the glory of God”…
“…would he (Paul) not, abhorring the madness of such a man, with every word and sign which could express his feelings, open clearly the secret depths of his own heart, protesting that to speak well of a falsehood uttered on behalf of God, was a crime not less, perhaps even greater, than to speak ill of the truth concerning Him?”
Augustine explains that the Scriptures would be entirely subject to man’s own feelings and preference if that man thought there was the possibility of error in the text.
“We must therefore be careful to secure, in order to our knowledge of the divine Scriptures, the guidance only of such a man as is imbued with a high reverence for the sacred books, and a profound persuasion of their truth, preventing him from flattering himself in any part of them with the hypothesis of a statement being made not because it was true, but because it was expedient, and making him rather pass by what he does not understand, than set up his own feelings above that truth. For, truly, when he pronounces anything to be untrue, he demands that he be believed in preference, and endeavours to shake our confidence in the authority of the divine Scriptures.”
Augustine says that any texts which some may be tempted to say are in error must be studied until we can consistently understand them as true.
“For my part, I would devote all the strength which the Lord grants me, to show that every one of those texts which are wont to be quoted in defence of the expediency of falsehood ought to be otherwise understood, in order that everywhere the sure truth of these passages themselves may be consistently maintained. For as statements adduced in evidence must not be false, neither ought they to favour falsehood.”
He then presents the challenge to those who say there are errors, even purposeful errors, in the text of Scripture to demonstrate the standard, the rules by which truth and error within the text can be unequivocally determined.
He also makes the point that without such rules we cannot be blamed for simply believing exactly what the Scriptures say as if it were all true.
“To this more careful study that piety will move you, by which you discern that the authority of the divine Scriptures becomes unsettled (so that every one may believe what he wishes, and reject what he does not wish) if this be once admitted, that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us, could in their writings state some things which were not true, from considerations of duty; unless, perchance, you propose to furnish us with certain rules by which we may know when a falsehood might or might not become a duty. If this can be done, I beg you to set forth these rules with reasonings which may be neither equivocal nor precarious; and I beseech you by our Lord, in whom Truth was incarnate, not to consider me burdensome or presumptuous in making this request. For a mistake of mine which is in the interest of truth cannot deserve great blame, if indeed it deserves blame at all, when it is possible for you to use truth in the interest of falsehood without doing wrong.”
I find this fascinating because, here, in the fourth century we have Augustine arguing in the exact same way that inerrantists argue today.
Furthermore, Augustine here is arguing even against purposeful falsehoods contained in Scripture due to the human author’s desire to glorify God. Cavey argues that the errors are the result of human involvement, attributing such errors to ignorance and sin. Augustine’s argument stands just as much as a refutation of that of the BIC Canada leadership. Augustine’s response is exactly the response that inerrantists today give:
- If there are falsehoods in the text the authority of Scripture is destroyed and we are left to fashion a God and religion according to our own preferences.
- The errantist requires an infallible standard by which he can know unequivocally what is true or false or else he is left to making unfalsifiable claims. Otherwise, he cannot blame the inerrantist for simply believing all of Scripture.
- All of Scripture, rightly understood and properly studied, is consistently and harmoniously true.
Praise God for the timeless truths in the writings of his people, who not only rebuke error and heresy in their own day, but 1600 years later.
This example is only one among many, many examples of the early church’s belief in the concept of biblical inerrancy and the central role it plays in Christianity. In fact, it can be demonstrated that the inerrancy of the text of Scripture has been the view of Christians since the very beginning. It is the liberal/progressive view of an errant Scripture which is the novelty.
The challenge for the biblical errantist today is the same as when Augustine penned these words:
“…the authority of the divine Scriptures becomes unsettled (so that every one may believe what he wishes, and reject what he does not wish) if this be once admitted, that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us, could in their writings state some things which were not true, from considerations of duty; unless, perchance, you propose to furnish us with certain rules by which we may know when a falsehood might or might not become a duty. If this can be done, I beg you to set forth these rules with reasonings which may be neither equivocal nor precarious.“
I put the same challenge to Bruxy Cavey, Doug Sider, and Darrell Winger – what are the unequivocal, certain rules by which we can test Scripture to know whether something stated in Scripture is true or false? How are we to know what to hold to and what not to?
Furthermore, I wonder if Bruxy Cavey, Doug Sider, and Darrell Winger will now retract their statements regarding the historicity of the concept, the principles of inerrancy in Christian history?
You should ask them.
(You can read more of Augustine refuting the BIC Canada’s leadership here.)
** All quotations of Augustine taken from Fathers, Church. The Complete Works of the Church Fathers: A total of 64 authors, and over 2,500 works of the Early Christian Church, Augustine, Letter 28, Chapter 3 (Kindle Location 47590)