"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."