Inerrancy and Fundamentalism

Don Johnson

The other day, in “Is the Doctrine of Inerrancy a Fundamentalist Invention?” Justin Taylor posted a link to an article by John D. Woodbridge entitled: “Evangelical Self-Identity and the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy.” Taylor briefly summarizes Woodbridge’s conclusion, answering the question of his title in the negative. Woodbridge makes the case that the doctrine of inerrancy is a church doctrine, having been held for centuries among the teachers of Christendom. While Taylor is simply noticing the existence and conclusion of Woodbridge’s essay, I’d like to highlight his chief arguments as I think they inform us concerning our history and indeed aid us in defining the term, fundamentalist.

First, let me note what Woodbridge is setting out to prove:

“In this essay, I will reiterate the thesis that biblical inerrancy has been a church doctrine or Augustinian central teaching of the Western Christian churches, including evangelical Protestant churches. Consequently, evangelicals who affirm the doctrine of biblical inerrancy are by no means doctrinal innovators. By biblical inerrancy, I mean in shorthand the doctrine that the Bible is infallible for faith and practice as well as for matters of history and science. By the expression church doctrine, I am referring to a widespread shared belief of Christian churches that have had a historical existence in the West.” (Woodbridge, 107)

It is important to notice what Woodbridge means by inerrancy. It is that the Bible is infallible for faith and practice and history and science. Another way of describing this is verbal plenary inspiration, or “every word, everywhere in the Bible.” The point Woodbridge is making is that this doctrine has been the teaching of the church for generations, going back to its earliest days. Of course, the doctrine is taught in the Bible, so it is only natural that it should go back to earliest times.

Nevertheless, there are some who want to make the case that biblical inerrancy is an innovation, and especially that it is a fundamentalist innovation. If it is an innovation, the concern is that at best all it can be is an overstatement of the Bible position, at worst, it is the introduction of error into the thought of the church.

Who Says Inerrancy is an Innovation?

Woodbridge says that the idea of inerrancy as a fundamentalist innovation arose in the 1970s, aided especially by Ernest Sandeen and his book The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800–1930.[1] Sandeen “proposed the seminal thesis that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the original autographs was created by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in their 1881 article ‘Inspiration.’” (Woodbridge, 108-109) Key among Sandeen’s arguments was that the notion of inerrancy never existed in the church until Hodge and Warfield brought it up, including their promotion of the idea of “useless original autographs,” which are unknown and lost to antiquity. Woodbridge, paraphrases Sandeen saying that not only is the idea of inerrancy an innovation, but it is one that fundamentalists “appropriated” and “converted it into a nonnegotiable fundamental of their movement.” (Woodbridge, 109)

What does History say?

Woodbridge writes to refute Sandeen’s thesis. I won’t repeat all that Woodbridge has to say, you can read his paper yourself. But I will note some key points. To make his point, Woodbridge follows two strains of thought, the Catholic tradition and the Protestant tradition concerning the doctrine of inerrancy. Some readers might react to “the Catholic tradition” but it should be remembered that the Church was a mixed multitude for many centuries as it slowly decayed from its original apostolic purity. Necessary correctives began with the Protestant Reformation (though the Reformation by no means reformed all that needed reforming). Nevertheless, since the claim is made that inerrancy is an innovation, it is necessary to examine all sources in Christendom to see whether that claim is true or false. Woodbridge says:

“If Sandeen’s thesis is valid, we should expect to find no credible advocates of biblical inerrancy in the original autographs before 1850 or 1881.” (Woodbridge, 110)

The first “witness” called to the stand is Augustine (354-430). Woodbridge points us to a comment of Augustine’s concerning the intimation by Jerome (on Gal 2.4) that Paul may have relied on a “white lie.”

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.[2]

Woodbridge notes that Augustine held that there was no room for admitting of error in any of the Scriptures. Whatever the reader may think of Augustine’s views, it is quite clear that he is an inerrantist, as he says in another letter:

For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the Ms. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.[3]

When Augustine saw what appeared to be something “opposed to truth” in the Scriptures, instead of suspecting the author, he suspect one of three causes:

  1. Faulty manuscripts
  2. Faulty translation
  3. Or faulty understanding on his own part.

This is the classic inerrantists position.

Woodbridge goes on to cite other Catholic writers, including Johannes Eck, Richard Simon, and pope Leo XIII, a contemporary of Hodge and Warfield. Leo was very strong in affirming inerrancy, says Woodbridge. “Leo XIII indicated that the Roman Catholic Church affirmed that Holy Scripture is without error not only for matters of faith and practice but also for matters of history and science (a core entailment of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy). He chastised those who limited the inerrancy of Scripture to matters of faith and morals.” (Woodbridge, 118-119) He quotes Leo directly as saying:

We have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning literary studies.[4]

The importance of this testimony is two-fold. First, it shows a thread of inerrancy of the autographs as established church doctrine for hundreds of years prior to Hodge and Warfield. Secondly, it shows the presence of this doctrine independent of Hodge and Warfield – they may well have been aware of Augustine, but could not have known of Leo’s writings which came after theirs. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Leo depended on them either.

Woodbridge develops his argument further by pointing to various Protestant writers from Martin Luther, John Calvin and others (through the writings of scholars who studied them). Again it is not my point to rehash his arguments, just to note that the teaching of verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy has a long and broad tradition among the teachers of the professing Christian church.

Of great interest is a section on further Catholic development. While the tradition (as shown) has been for inerrancy, lately the times have changed and the teaching of inerrancy with respect to history and science is no longer affirmed. Woodbridge:

In the early 1960s, the drafters of the first edition of Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s statement regarding Holy Scripture, continued to affirm the doctrine of biblical inerrancy for matters of faith and practice and history and science. Nevertheless, in the final edition (Nov. 18, 1965) of Dei Verbum (the Constitution on Divine Revelation, art. 11), the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II apparently broke with its own Augustinian definition of inerrancy and affirmed, ‘We must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to Sacred Scriptures.’ (Woodbridge, 121.)

In a footnote, Woodbridge adds: “The first draft indicated that ‘the entire sacred Scripture is absolutely immune from error.’” (Ibid., footnote 49.) Since that time, a number of Roman scholars have taken a different view of inerrancy:

Thereafter, a number of Roman Catholic scholars began to identify the inerrancy position (including history and science) not with the longstanding Augustinian tradition of their church but, interestingly enough, with the viewpoint of Protestant fundamentalism and biblical literalism. (Ibid.)

This striking denial of the historical record is astonishing.

Woodbridge’s conclusion is this:

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is no late imaginative creation of A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in 1881 or of twentieth-century American fundamentalism. Rather, it is an essential evangelical belief based upon a biblical warrant. It resides squarely within the Augustinian tradition regarding the Bible’s truthfulness. Both Roman Catholics and the Protestant Reformers affirmed the church doctrine. (Woodbridge, 133.)

Contemporary Fundamentalist Observations

Why go to such lengths to summarize Woodbridge’s argument? Why take notice of Catholic and Evangelical scholarship on inerrancy?

First, while it is possible to conceive of a truly born again believer who is confused or fuzzy on inerrancy, the doctrine is of foundational importance to the Fundamentalist position and to a Biblical worldview. It is hard to imagine being able to take any kind of firm position in the kaleidoscope of shifting values and ideas in our world if the Bible isn’t a bedrock of truth. An errant Bible is no Bible at all. So when we find a vigorous defense of the doctrine, we take note and are edified by its arguments.

Second, it is vitally important to note what the doctrine does not say. The doctrine of inerrancy does not claim inerrancy resides in manuscript copies or translations but in the original documents of Scripture. This teaching has a long history in the church. It is a mistake to invest any translation with the same kind of authority as the originals. An article such as Woodbridge’s goes a long way to demonstrating the truth of this viewpoint.

Third, the doctrine of infallibility is the foundation of the demand for personal and ecclesiastical holiness. The right view of Scripture demands personal submission to its precepts and way of life. In our loose and easy-going times, the Christian church is widely characterized by people who claim to believe the Bible but don’t live in obedience to the Bible. It is one thing for such people to be slippery with the doctrine of inerrancy, we can understand the consequence of “fluid holiness” in such cases. But when Christians who affirm inerrancy at the same time refuse to lay aside worldly culture or allow ecclesiastical compromise, we have to wonder how thoroughly they believe their own doctrine.

Woodbridge’s article is worth reading. It can be found in pdf format here, part of a book entitled Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. For those interested in the book itself, an additional chapter is here and a list of D. A. Carson’s writings (an appendix of the book) appears here. A hardcopy of the book is available here (on sale until May 31 for just $5.99!)

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). The University of Chicago Press published a paperback edition of this book in 2008. []
  2. Augustine, Letters, 28.3, in Philip Schaff, The Nicene Fathers, electronic ed. (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software, 2000). Emphasis mine. []
  3. Augustine, Letter 82.3, in Philip Schaff, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, electronic ed. (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software, 2000). []
  4. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, sec. 18. []