Is the Bible really inerrant? This article considers whether or not it is Reformed to affirm that the Bible is inerrant. It presents the case against inerrancy, and then observes whether the Reformed confessions affirm inerrancy, as well as the position of the Reformers themselves on this point.

Source: The Outlook, 1994. 5 pages.

"Believing without a Doubt All Things Contained Therein": The Reformed Faith and the Inerrancy of Scripture

In a recent editorial in The Banner ("Inerrancy: Let's Not Use the Term," October 3, 1994), Rev. John Suk ech­oed a position that has been stated frequently in recent years, but which often is left unexamined. This posi­tion argues that the Reformed tradi­tion affirms the infallibility, but not the inerrancy, of the Bible. The idea of Scriptural inerrancy is said to be a recent innovation among North American Presbyterians who, influ­enced by Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, coined this language in their battle with liberalism. In so do­ing, a novel view of the infallibility of the Bible was introduced into the mainstream of the Reformed tradi­tion in North America, shackling this tradition with a view of the Bible that is fundamentalistic rather than classi­cally Reformed.

Since this criticism of the affirma­tion of inerrancy is so often voiced today, it may be useful to examine it more closely to see whether it is has merit. Is it un-Reformed to affirm the inerrancy of the Bible?

The Case against "Inerrancy"🔗

To answer this question, we need to begin by considering the argument usually brought against the idea of inerrancy. What is it about this term and its use that provokes some to ex­press so much dislike for it? This question is especially pressing since, superficially considered, it would seem unobjectionable that the abso­lute truthfulness of the Scriptures be affirmed. And isn't this precisely the reason the term, "inerrancy," is being used — to ward off any suggestion that the Biblical texts are in error in what they say or affirm?

As I understand the argument against the use of this term, three com­mon objections are usually registered against it.

  • First, it is argued that the term it­self, inerrancy, is of recent vintage. None of the classic confessions of the Reformation period employ this term; their preferred term is the "infallibil­ity" of the Bible. Furthermore, in the writings of the major Reformers, you do not find anywhere an explicit af­firmation or defense of the inerrancy of the Bible. We should not use the term, accordingly, since it was only introduced during the last century to oppose liberal critics who challenged the truthfulness of the Scriptures on various points (e.g. Darwinian evolu­tionary theory). A term that has such a short history of usage among the Reformed churches should be re­garded as a kind of unfortunate neolo­gism that only obscures the issue of Biblical authority rather than clarifies it.
  • Second, the term inerrancy betrays a view of truth that is narrow and trun­cated, lacking the richness and full­ness of the Biblical view of truth. Those who defend the inerrancy of the Bible are often said to be fixated upon "propositions," verbal state­ments that affirm the truth of this or that doctrine, but rather disinterested in the truth as it is in Christ. And so critics of this term will typically argue that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy was born in the soil of what is known as Scottish Common Sense Philoso­phy, a philosophical school that re­duced the scope of truth to those things that can be affirmed in the form of propositions. According to this objection, the narrow view of truth advocated by inerrantists does not permit us to recognize that Jesus Christ is The Truth, and that the knowledge of the truth as it is in Christ can only be received through the working of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-26). The truth is primarily per­sonal, not propositional. The truth calls for a pattern of conduct first of all, not merely an assent to proposi­tions (Galatians 5:7).
  • And third, the defenders of Biblical inerrancy neglect the role of the Holy Spirit in convincing us of the truth of God's Word. Rather than admitting, with the Reformers and the Reformed confessions, that our persuasion of the truth of God's Word is based upon the Spirit's testimony "by and with" the Word, the inerrantist thinks that he can prove the Bible to be true by ap­plying his standard of propositional truth to it. Rather than founding our confidence in the truthfulness of the Scriptural witness upon the testimony of Holy Spirit, defenders of Biblical inerrancy typically seek to establish the trustworthiness of the Scriptures by appealing to rational arguments and evidences. In this way, the au­thority of the Bible is made to rest upon human reason, not the Spirit's work in authenticating to us the Bib­lical message.

The Language of the Reformed Confessions🔗

Though other objections are some­times raised to the inerrancy of Scrip­ture, these seem to be the ones which surface most often among Reformed people. The question is whether they are compelling. In order to address this question, we have to consider again what the Reformed confessions say about the Scriptures. Do they affirm the inerrancy of Scripture?

Admittedly, when the Reformed confessions affirm the truthfulness of the Word of God, they typically speak of the infallibility of the Bible. The term inerrant does not find a place in the confessions that define the Re­formed tradition. The Belgic Confes­sion, for example, refers to the Bible as "this infallible rule" (Article VII). The Westminster Confession of Faith, the great confessional document of the Presbyterian tradition, speaks of "the infallible truth and divine authority" of Scripture (Chap. I.v). It also de­clares that "the infallible rule of in­terpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself" (Chap. I.ix). Some of the great confessions of the sixteenth cen­tury Reformation do not even use the language of infallibility to describe the Scriptures. The French Confession of Faith of 1559 only speaks of the Bible as a "sure rule of our faith" (Article IV). The Second Helvetic Confession, the confession of the Swiss Reformed church which was widely used and loved among the Reformed churches of the European continent, speaks of the Bible as the "true Word of God" (Chap. I).

Though the Reformed confessions use the term infallible, but not the term inerrant, to describe the Scrip­tures, it is instructive to observe how infrequently even the term infallibil­ity is used. This infrequent usage should alert us to the fact that the absence of this term, or a term like inerrancy, does not mean that there are not other ways of expressing the truth­fulness of the Scriptures in the confessions. The presence or absence of a particu­lar term like infallibility is not in itself that important. The more important thing is what the confessions express, perhaps in different ways, about the truthfulness of the Scriptures.

There are, in fact, a number of ways in which the confessions express the truthfulness of the Word of God in Scripture. The Belgic Confession, for example, says that we believe "with­out a doubt all things contained" in the Scriptures (Article V). This Con­fession also speaks of the Scriptures as being of more value than any other writings of men, since "the truth is above all," and this divine truth is deposited in the text of the Word of God (Article VII). Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism, though it does not have an explicit statement about the doctrine of Scripture, declares that true faith "holds for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word" (Lord's Day VII). The Westminster Confession of Faith maintains that the "authority of the holy Scripture ... dependeth ... wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof " (Chap. I.v). Moreover, this Confes­sion teaches that "the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined ... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture" (Chap. I.x).

Examples of these kinds of expres­sions could be multiplied from other Reformed confessions that were written in the period of the Ref­ormation or shortly thereafter. These ought to be sufficient, how­ever, to illustrate the pervasive and common conviction of the Reformed churches that the Word of God in Scripture is an infallible, altogether true and re­liable Word. Nothing can be al­leged against the Scriptures. All that the Scriptures say, we believe without a doubt. This is the common testimony of these confessions. There is not the slightest hint or whisper in any of these confessional statements that would detract from the absolute truthfulness of all that the Scriptures de­clare or say.

The Position of the Reformers🔗

It should not be surprising that the Reformers themselves, particularly Luther and Calvin, affirm the truth­fulness of the Scriptures in a way simi­lar to that of the confessions. Though there are occasional instances where the term infallible is expressly used, the Reformers employed a host of ex­pressions to illustrate their conviction regarding the absolute reliability and truthfulness of the Scriptures.

In the writings of Luther, there are ample statements that illustrate his unflinching commitment to the infal­libility and errorlessness of the Bible. For our purpose, the following will serve as a representative sampling:

  • It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites.
  • But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they (the fathers) have erred as men will; therefore I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred.
  • Whoever is so bold that he ven­tures to accuse God of fraud and deception in a single word and does so willfully again and again after he has been warned and in­structed once or twice will like­wise certainly venture to accuse God of fraud and deception in all His words. Therefore it is true, absolutely and without exception, that everything is believed or nothing is believed. The Holy Spirit does not suffer Himself to be sepa­rated or divided so that He should teach and cause to be believed one doctrine rightly and another falsely.
  • One letter, even a single tittle of Scripture, means more to us than heaven and earth. Therefore we cannot permit even the most minute change.
  • Consequently, we must remain content with them (words), and cling to them as the perfectly clear, certain, sure words of God which can never deceive us or allow us to err.1

Even were we to ascribe some of these statements to Luther's penchant for hyperbole or exaggeration, it seems evident that Luther, who also believed all the Scriptures spoke of Christ, was unhesitatingly committed to the errorlessness of the Biblical texts.2

The same can be said of Calvin, whose statements about the reliabil­ity of the Scriptures make it abun­dantly clear that he had the same view of the absolute truthfulness of the Bib­lical texts. Consider among these statements only the following:

  • (We) ought to embrace with mild docility, and without any excep­tion, whatever is delivered in the Holy Scriptures.
  • For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit in which as nothing useful and necessary is omitted, so nothing is taught which is not profitable to know.3

Moreover, it is not only statements like these which confirm the Reform­ers' full confidence in the truthfulness of the Biblical texts. Their use of the Biblical texts also consistently exhib­its a reverence and humility that no­where countenances the admission, even the tacit suggestion, that the Bib­lical texts could mislead or be in er­ror.

Few things, in short, are more eas­ily demonstrated than the Reformers' commitment to the complete reliabil­ity of the Bible in all the things it teaches or says. Furthermore, their affirmation of the infallibility and in­errancy of the Bible never led them to a narrowing of the Biblical idea of truth, nor did it lead them to attempt to prove the authority of Scripture in a rationalistic way. Neither Luther nor Calvin neglected to emphasize the Christocentric nature of Scriptural revelation. Both also recognized that our reception of the Word of God in Scripture depends wholly upon the Spirit's working through the Word to produce faith in us.4

The Term "Inerrancy"🔗

So far our review of the Reformed confessions and the statements of the major Reformers, Luther and Calvin, would suggest that, though the term infallible is sometimes used and the term inerrant is not, they uniformly witness to a full conviction regarding the reliability or errorlessness of the Biblical texts. This reliability and errorlessness extends not only to some but to all portions of Scripture.

Of course, this still leaves us with the obvious question — why, then, do we not find the terminology of inerrancy in these confessions and among the Reformers? Does the absence of this terminology suggest that they did not believe, somehow, in the errorlessness of the Bible? Our answer to this question consists of two parts.

  • First, the absence of this express ter­minology does not mean that the con­fessions or the Reformers denied the inerrancy of the Bible. As a matter of fact, they commonly employed a term, infallibility, that includes within its range of meaning, being without error. Though it is often overlooked, the basic meaning of the word infalli­bility is much more comprehensive and strong in its implications than is the narrower or more limited term, inerrant. Inerrant simply means "not to err or be liable to err." Infallibility means, as the Oxford English Dictio­nary defines it, "the quality or fact of being infallible or exempt from liabil­ity to err," "the quality of being un­failing or not liable to fail." When the confessions and the Reformers speak of the infallibility of the Bible, therefore, they are affirming not only its nonliability to err but its positive truth­fulness or unfailingness. It should not surprise us, accordingly, that they ac­company their affirmations of the infallibility of the Bible with a number of expressions which uniformly affirm the inerrancy of the Biblical texts.5
  • Second, there is a rather simple reason the term inerrant is not found in the confessions or in the writings of the Reformers, and it has nothing to do with their dislike for it. This term is not found because it is a relatively recent term, particularly in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary says that it was not until 1837 that the English term inerrant was used in the modem sense of "exempt from error, free from mistake, infallible" (note well!). It would be rather odd and anachronis­tic for writers of a much earlier pe­riod to use a term which only subse­quently came to have the meaning in English usage which was earlier part of the meaning of the word infallible.

To make the point as clear as pos­sible: the term infallible is a much stron­ger and older term, one which includes but goes beyond the meaning of "being not liable to err," than is the term iner­rancy. The term inerrancy, though of more recent vintage, does not convey any meaning beyond that already in­cluded within the meaning of the term infallible. Or, to put it in another way, no writer of the Reformed confes­sions, least of all a Reformer like Luther or Calvin, would be able to make sense of the argument that the Scriptures are infal­lible but not inerrant! To them such an argument would be akin to saying that the Scriptures are wholly true, and yet not without error — all in one breath!


If all of this is true — and it is hard to see how it could be denied — then it is evident that the Reformed con­fessions and the Reformers have al­ways affirmed the infallibility of the Bible in the sense of its absolute truth­fulness and non-liability to err. The language of the Belgic Confession, "be­lieving without any doubt all things contained therein," expresses no less (perhaps more) than is expressed by the term inerrant.

These terms by themselves, of course, are not that important. Some­one might still argue, as a matter of preference, for the term infallible rather than inerrant. He might say, for example, that this is the term most commonly found in the confessions and therefore we should stay with it. Or he might insist that the term iner­rant carries for some people the con­notation of a kind of scientific accu­racy and precision that the Biblical writings do not display. This may well be true, though there is nothing in the term itself that requires this. Nevertheless, these might be legiti­mate reasons to prefer the use of the term infallible to that of inerrant. They are not, however, sufficient to show that there is any real difference in meaning between these terms.

The real problem, however, is that those who deny the legitimacy of inerrancy as a term normally do so because they believe the Bible to be in error! Though they describe the Bible's errors to be "in­nocuous," "innocent," or "trivial," they contend that they are errors none­theless. Not everything in the Bibli­cal texts is true; some things, perhaps things said to be on the so-called "pe­riphery" of the Bible's message, are not true, so they say.

In most cases this is the real reason so many object to the inerrancy of the Bible. They do so because, contrary to the Reformed confessions and the position of the Reformers, they do not believe the Bible speaks the "gospel truth" on all those things to which it speaks. They do not receive the Biblical writ­ings, "believing without a doubt all things contained therein."


  1. ^ The citations are taken from John D. Woodbridge's excellent study, Biblical Au­thority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Pro­posal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p. 53. Woodbridge provides extensive and convincing evidence in this study that the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible have been affirmed throughout the history of the church.
  2. ^ I add the phrase, "who also believed all the Scriptures spoke of Christ," in order to stave off the objection that this represents only a formal recognition of the authority and re­liability of the Biblical texts, isolated from their witness to the truth as it is in Christ. Neither Luther nor Calvin saw any tension between a complete submission to the Bib­lical texts and their usefulness in making us wise unto salvation in Jesus Christ. For them the only Christ who is the true object of faith is reliably communicated to us through the texts of the Word of God.
  3. ^ Woodbridge, Biblical Authority, p. 63. It is also sometimes argued that in the Dutch Reformed tradition, particularly in the writ­ings of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, there is an affirmation of the infal­libility, but not the inerrancy of the Bible. This claim has been adequately refuted by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., in his lengthy essay, "Old Amsterdam and Inerrancy?" (Westminster Theological Journal 44/2 [Fall 1982]: 250-89; WTJ 45/2 [Fall 1984219- 72).
  4. ^ It may well be true, as the second and third objections to inerrancy mentioned earlier suggest, that defenders of Biblical inerrancy often fall prey to a narrow view of truth or to a rationalistic defense of the authority of the Bible. But neither of these errors follows necessarily or inevitably from a defense of the inerrancy of the Bible. Most defenders of the inerrancy of the Bible know full well that the truth cannot be reduced to a set of propositions. They also understand that our "full persuasion" of the authority of Scripture is because the "Holy Spirit wit­nesses in our hearts that they are from God" (Belgic Confession, Article V).
  5. ^ The English term, infallible, comes from a Latin root, in-fallo, which literally means "not liable to deceive, to be mistaken, to fail." It is a word whose semantic range is broader and more intensive than the term, inerrant, which only expresses negatively the Bible's non-liability to err. An infallible Bible is not only inerrant, but also positively and unfailingly true in all that it says and affirms.

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