The argument has been made, in both academic and popular venues, that Christians holding to biblical inerrancy are something of a novelty. Prior to the rise of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, so the argument goes, this particular doctrine was unheard of. Well, was this doctrinal conviction held prior to the long 18th century? In a word, yes.
Inerrancy and inspiration in the ancient church
Scholar Bruce Vawter, himself not an advocate of biblical inerrancy, noted in his 1972 book, Biblical Inspiration: “It would be pointless to call into question that biblical inerrancy in a rather absolute form was a common persuasion from the beginning of Christian times, and from Jewish times before that. For both the Fathers and the rabbis generally, the ascription of any error to the Bible was unthinkable; … if the word was God’s it must be true, regardless of whether it made known a mystery of divine revelation or commented on a datum of natural science, whether it derived from human observation or chronicled an event of history.” Thus, Clement of Rome, writing right after the end of the Apostolic era, urged his readers to “study the sacred Scriptures, which are true and given by the Holy Spirit. Bear in mind that nothing wrong or falsified is written in them.”
At the other end of the Patristic era, Augustine (354–430), stated similarly in a letter written to the Bible translator Jerome (died 420) in 405:
“I confess … that … I believe most firmly that only the authors [of the canonical books of Scripture] were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me contrary to the truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. But, when I read other authors, however eminent they may be in sanctity and learning, I do not necessarily believe a thing is true because they think so, but because they have been able to convince me, either on the authority of the canonical writers or by a probable reasons which is not inconsistent with the truth.”
As Hans Küng, certainly no friend to biblical infallibility, has commented: for Augustine, “the whole Bible was free of contradictions, mistakes and errors.”
As for inspiration, lapidary summary of the ancient church’s thought about the inspiration of Scripture is found in the final phrase of the third article of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed: “We believe … in the Holy Spirit … who spoke through the prophets.” The Fathers uniformly regarded the divine inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Scriptures as a given. As H. B. Swete noted: “No work of the Holy Spirit was more constantly present to the mind of the early post-apostolic Church than his inspiration of the Old Testament.” The only possible exception might be the Syrian exegete Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350–428) — or “Teddy the Mop,” as my Doktorvater John Egan was wont to call him! Theodore’s rejection of the allegorization of the Song of Songs as a love song between Christ and his people appears to have involved also serious questions about this text’s canonical status and inspiration.
On the other hand, typical of the Fathers’ view of the Scriptures is this statement by the fourth-century theologian Hilary of Poitiers (died c.368):
“The Apostle, who instructs us on many things, also teaches us that the Word of God must be treated with the greatest reverence, saying “whoever speaks, [let him speak] as uttering the oracles of God” [1 Peter 4:11]. For we ought not to treat Scripture with a vulgar familiarity, as we do in our ordinary speech; rather, when we speak of what we have learned and read we should give honor to the author by our care for the way we express ourselves… Preachers, then, must think that they are not speaking to a human audience, and hearers must know that it is not human words that are being offered to them, but that they are God’s words, God’s decrees, God’s laws. For both roles, the utmost reverence is fitting.”
Similarly, Hilary’s contemporary Basil of Caesarea (c.329–379), whose thought deeply informed the pneumatology of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, frequently mentioned the Spirit’s authorship of the Bible. For example, in his refutation of the radical Arian Eunomius of Cyzicus (died c.393), penned in the early 360s, Basil referred over and again to the Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture. He cites John 1:1 and Psalm 109:3 at one point and called these texts “the very words of the Holy Spirit.” About fifteen years later, when Basil was defending the full deity of the Holy Spirit against the Pneumatomachian Eustathius of Sebaste (c.300–c.377), he expressed amazement that Eustathius, who believed that the Bible was “God-breathed [2 Timothy 3:16] since it was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” was reticent to confess the divine honor due to the Spirit. Scripture was worthy of our total respect because it came from the divine source of the Spirit.
Again, in a pastoral letter that Basil wrote to a widow, who had a deeply troubling dream, the bishop of Caesarea reminded her that she had the “consolation of the divine Scriptures” and thus would “not need us or anyone else to help you see your duty; sufficient is the counsel and good guidance you already have in the Holy Spirit.” To heed the teaching of the Scriptures is to be instructed and counseled by the Spirit.
A Reformer’s view of the Bible
The ancient church’s view of the Scriptures as inspired and inerrant was shared by the Reformers a millennium later. Consider the French Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564). When Calvin speaks about the nature of Scripture, his position is unambiguous. The Scriptures, he says, are “the pure Word of God,” “free from every stain or defect,” “the certain and unerring rule.” Unlike all other texts, these alone are a sure and certain guide for the believer’s life and thinking, according to Calvin. He thus was faithful to the Reformation rediscovery of that central biblical principle: sola scriptura. He assumed that Scripture, rightly interpreted, will not be found to make false assertions. This was the basic presupposition of all his exegesis and preaching.
Moreover, for Calvin, in the Scriptures, God speaks clearly. As he said: “the office of preaching is committed to pastors for no other purpose than that God alone may be heard there.” Consequently, the whole message of the Bible had to be brought before God’s people and this could be done only through expository preaching. Little wonder then that, for Calvin, as well as the Reformers in general, preaching the inspired and inerrant Scriptures was the central means of grace in ecclesial renewal and revival. For these men, along with the other Reformers, hearing was the key sense of the Christian man and woman. Medieval Roman Catholicism had majored on symbols and images as the central means of teaching. The Reformation, coming hard on the heels of the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, turned back to the biblical emphasis on words, both spoken and written, as the primary vehicle for cultivating faith and spirituality. As Calvin aptly put it in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, “the Word is the instrument by which the Lord dispenses the illumination of his Spirit to believers.” In the minds of the Reformers, there could be neither true Reformation nor genuine spirituality apart from the Holy Scriptures, inspired and inerrant.
Andrew Fuller and the Bible
Our third witness to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible is the Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), whose theology undergirded the missionary movement in which his friend William Carey (1761–1834) played such a large role. For Fuller, the Bible is nothing less than “the book by way of eminence, the book of books.” It occupies such a place of pre-eminence because it is “unerring” and is characterized by “divine inspiration and infallibility.” In the Scriptures, God speaks and conveys knowledge about himself that can be obtained from nowhere else. Fuller is thus emphatic that the search for truth about God must begin at and be rooted in the Scriptures:
“Many religious people appear to be contented with seeing truth in the light in which some great and good man has placed it; but if ever we enter into the gospel to purpose, it must be by reading the word of God for ourselves, and by praying and meditating upon its sacred contents. … If we adopt the principles of fallible men, without searching the Scriptures for ourselves, and inquiring whether or not these things be so, they will not, even allowing them to be on the side of truth, avail us, as if we had learned them from a higher authority. Our faith, in this case, will stand in the wisdom of man, and not in the power of God. … Truth learned only at second-hand will be to us what Saul’s armour was to David; we shall be at a loss how to use it in the day of trial.”
Fuller here differentiated between the books of fallible men, albeit good thinkers, and the truth of God in Scripture. The writings of fallible men are, at best, unable to sustain a lifetime of genuine spiritual growth. Since they stem from fallible minds, they are inevitably partial perspectives on the truth and inadequate to support the believer in a time of trial. By contrast, Scripture is a sure guide for believers. It brings godly balance and perspective to our lives, and provides us with a wholly adequate support in the face of life’s challenges.
The importance Fuller placed on these convictions is evident from the fact that he made essentially the same point in an ordination sermon based on Ezra 7:10. “Learn your religion from the Bible,” Fuller told the prospective minister:
“Let that be your decisive rule. Adopt not a body of sentiments, or even a single sentiment, solely on the authority of any man—however great, however respected. Dare to think for yourself. Human compositions are fallible. But the Scriptures were written by men who wrote as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
There is therefore a line of uniformity and continuity between the ancient Christians like Hilary and Basil and more modern believers like Andrew Fuller. Only with the rise of 18th- and 19th-century biblical criticism would this line be broken for far too many professing believers. But Fuller was right: If we are to flourish spiritually as Christians, we cannot be anything other than a Bible-grounded and Bible-centered people — men and women who love the Bible, love to hear it preached, love to read it and memorize it, and love to apply it to our lives. If this is God’s Word written, inspired and inerrant, we can do no less.
Michael A.G. Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary.