This is an article about the divisions among believers over the multiple views among the Christian churches on the place of scripture, including biblical inerrancy, biblical infallibility, biblical sufficiency, and myth. The divergence of these views is at the heart of many of the divisions in the church.
This article does not focus on the beliefs of original Christianity as to their belief. But briefly, let’s just say that original Christianity starting with our Lord viewed the scriptures as the word of God.
“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and these are they which testify about me. (Joh 5:39 WEB)
They viewed the scriptures as incredibly powerful:
For the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.(Heb 4:12 WEB)
Original Christianity claimed that scripture, as they knew it, was the true word of God!
For this cause we also thank God without ceasing, that, when you received from us the word of the message of God, you accepted it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God, which also works in you who believe. (1Th 2:13 WEB)
The verse above declares that the apostles believed that what they were teaching was the word of God. This includes what they were taught by Jesus himself, and, after Jesus ascended, what they received by revelation. This places the apostolic letters, Romans to Philemon, in the category of holy Scriptures. And, consequently, the apostles charged the church to stand firm on what they were taught by the apostles, whether in person or by letter.
So then, brothers, stand firm, and hold the traditions which you were taught by us, whether by word, or by letter.(2Th 2:15 WEB)
The letters of the apostles are the word of God
Scripture itself declares that God’s word is true which means that it is free from errors.
All of your words are truth. Every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever. (Psa 119:160 WEB)
The apostles, therefore, believed that God’s word was true (inerrant), including what they wrote.
But, back to the different current beliefs among different churches, let’s start with inerrancy. Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the bible is “God-breathed” and thus is true from cover to cover. This includes all rules of faith and practice as well as geographical and historical facts. The inerrancy of scripture is a primary tenet of many fundamental, evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic churches. Biblical infallibility, states that the bible is true in areas of faith and practice, but not necessarily in geographical and historical facts. Still, another viewpoint is that the bible contains errors even in matters of faith and practice. This approach is called a historical-metaphorical approach to the bible. Instead of believing that that we should literally follow the bible this approach teaches followers to grow closer to God while recognizing that at least significant portions of the bible are allegorical, not literal. This viewpoint is actually a range of viewpoints from the bible containing what is necessary for salvation to the bible being a human document that has passages that inspire and motivate people.
An example of the differences in belief can be seen in the difference between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod [LCMS].
The LCMS and the ELCA disagree about the nature and authority of the Bible. While both of our churches profess allegiance to the Reformation principle that Scripture alone is the supreme authority for the church’s doctrine and life, our two church bodies have significant differences when it comes to putting this principle into practice.
The LCMS believes that the Bible is actually the Word of God, and therefore, is totally truthful, reliable and free from any error. We believe that the Scriptures are the final standard by which we must judge everything that we believe, teach and confess. The ELCA, on the other hand, avoids making statements that confess the full truthfulness of the Bible.
It holds that Scripture is not necessarily always accurate or trustworthy in all its details and parts. The ELCA tolerates and encourages methods of interpreting the Scripture that presuppose that the Bible contains error and is unclear about various doctrinal matters. Our difference over the Bible explains other more visible differences. For example, our churches disagree about the ordination of women to the pastoral office, the issue of homosexuality and the question of abortion. The LCMS does not ordain women to the pastoral office, while the ELCA does, in spite of the fact that Holy Scripture clearly teaches otherwise.”[i]
Here we see that there are two sects that are both generally called Lutheran that hold opposing views on the role of scripture in faith and practice.
Wesley held doctrine in high regard, but he placed doctrine second in importance to personal acquaintance with Christ. He affirmed the primacy of Scripture for theology, but he also affirmed the crucial roles of tradition, reason, and experience in interpreting Scripture. He was steeped in the writings of the church fathers and warned against the Protestant tendency to give short shrift to the mediating function of Christian tradition.[ii]
The Roman Catholic model for proof of biblical inspiration is to prove the historical validity of the bible, then to accept the authority of the Catholic Church to interpret it.[iii]
This is where a more serious problem comes to light. It seems to some that it makes little difference why one believes in the Bible’s inspiration, just so long as one believes in it. But the basis for one’s belief in its inspiration directly affects how one proceeds to interpret the Bible. The Catholic believes in inspiration because, to put it bluntly, the Church tells him so.[iv]
Calvin wrote, “The authority of Scripture derived not from men, but from the Spirit of God. That the authority of Scripture is founded on its being spoken by God. This confirmed by the conscience of the godly, and the consent of all men of the least candour. That the authority of Scripture is sealed on the hearts of believers by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.”[v]
The Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy says that the Bible is authored by God. It further says that Scripture is completely without error or fault. And it further says that the Bible can have no authority without this viewpoint.[vi] This fundamentalist view is taught in many Baptist, Bible, Pentecostal, and other fundamentalist churches.
Marcus J Borg, participant in the Jesus Seminar, says that conflict over reading the bible is the greatest issue in North American Christianity.[vii] Borg points out that views on evolution, homosexuality, and the historical accuracy with which we view the life of Jesus are all intricately dependent on this issue of inerrancy, infallibility, or historical metaphorical approach to the Bible. Borg proposes that we see the whole Bible as a human product.
The Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy crew and Marcus J Borg are on opposite poles of the biblical inerrancy debate.
Biblical Basis of Biblical Inerrancy
Biblical Inerrancists have a number of verses they depend on to prove their case of biblical inerrancy. For example :
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
Fundamentalists interpret this to say that the Protestant Bible is all scripture spoken of and that it was all inspired by God or “God-breathed”.
knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation.2Ti 3:16 KJV
For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.2Pe 1:20-21
Again, fundamentalists equate the books in the protestant bible to written prophecies.
But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man.Gal 1:11
Fundamentalists take this verse here and equate “the gospel that was preached of me” as the certification that all of Paul’s writings are that gospel, thus they are on a par with the word of the prophets, the Word of God.
No one disputes that there are verses throughout the Bible that say that the “scriptures” are true, or that the word of God is true. The question is what is the word of God, which books are truly holy Scriptures?
The flaw relates to equating all the books in the Protestant bible to the word of God. For example,
New Testament references to “Scripture” do not refer to New Testament verses. At least at the time of the writing of the New Testament only Old Testament books were considered scripture by some. (See The New Testament Books Were Not Received as the Word of God Initially, at Least Not by Papias for additional insight.) Additionally, in 1 Peter 1:20, the reference is to the words of the Prophets, not to all the writings in the Old Testament.
However, as discussed above, the apostles taught that what they were teaching, whether by word or by letter was the word of God. That establishes the actual letters of the apostles as the word of God, holy Scripture.
But, however, some of the books in the Protestant New Testament are written by people who weren’t apostles, or else have uncertain authorship. A glaring example is the book of Jude. While it is awesome and amazing that Jesus’s half-brother Jude was a believer, there is no evidence that he was an apostle. And while his short epistle is full of exhortation against heretics, his declaration of facts that depend partly on apocryphal literature has made his and his epistle’s “apostolic” status questionable as to whether it can be considered scripture at all.
The Protestant Bible does not have the same canon as the Catholic Bible, and even has a slightly different Old Testament than the Canon announced in 397 AD. If the books in the bible are not even the same ones that were canonized, how can anyone say that they are and have always been the Word of God?
The Practice of The Reformers Regarding Biblical Inerrancy
While it is easy to assume that the “sola Scriptura” cry of the reformers meant that they solely and completely depended upon Scripture for their understanding, that would be in error. The difference for many in this time period was that the Bible was certainly the highest authority, but it was not, by any means, the only authority. This distinction cannot be overstated, because so many well-meaning fundamentalists promote their fundamentalism as stemming from the reformers. For example, Wesley said, “We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of the Christian faith and practice, and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish church.” But Wesley also said, “read the most useful books, and that regularly and constantly…” Further, he said, “If you need no book but the Bible, you are got above St. Paul. He (Paul) wanted others to “bring me the books”, says he “but especially the parchments” and another time Wesley said, “the Scriptures are the touchstone whereby Christians examine all, real or supposed, revelations. In all cases, they appeal to the law and testimony to try every spirit hereby.” Wesley was a strong promoter of the anti-Nicene fathers whom he believed were in complete accord with Scripture so their writings were authoritative. More than that, Wesley believed in the tradition of the Church, but starting with the anti-Nicene fathers was a chronology of revelations given in books that were of great value in considering the Christian walk. Finally, Wesley placed great value on personal experience. He believed that only through experience as an inward witness of the working of the spirit could a person understand the true meaning of faith. Wesley thus considered the writing of Scripture, as well as the traditions handed down, as well as powerful personal experiences as authoritative.[viii]
The Statement of the Canon of Scripture
While some may think that the canon of scripture makes the bible the equal of the inerrant word of God, the text of the canon doesn’t exactly say that.
Canon 24. Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read in church under the name of divine Scriptures. Moreover, the canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, the four books of the Kings, the two books of Chronicles, Job, the Psalms of David, five books of Solomon, the book of the Twelve [minor] Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, the two books of Ezra, and the two books of the Maccabees. The books of the New Testament: the Gospels, four books; the Acts of the Apostles, one book; the epistles of the apostle Paul, thirteen; of the same to the Hebrews, one epistle; of Peter, two; of John the apostle, three; of James, one; of Jude, one; the Revelation of John. Concerning the confirmation of this canon, the Church across the sea shall be consulted. On the anniversaries of martyrs, their acts shall also be read.
This is the text of Canon 24 of the Council of Carthage in 397.[ix] There are some important points here:
- While it does use the language of divine scriptures, this is a list of books that are acceptable to be read in the churches, not a declaration of exactly what is the word of God.
- The list includes books not included in the Protestant bible like Tobias, Maccabees, and the acts of the martyrs. If the canon of scripture was a declaration of what was the word of God why aren’t these books considered the Word of God?
- It has not been proven that these books were believed to be inerrant at this time.
The books of the bible are the best documentation of what happened in biblical times. What original Christianity believed would be completely hidden without the gospels, epistles, and other books of the New Testament? The direction of the reformers to return to the books of the bible in search of the doctrines of Christianity has proven invaluable. Nevertheless, to categorically elevate the Protestant bible to the status of the “Word of God” in its complete and entire form is beyond the statement of the reformers or even the text of the canon of scripture. The list of books in the Protestant bible doesn’t even match the text of the canon of scripture.
[ii]The Remaking of Evangelical Theology, Gary J. Dorrien, Westminster John Knox Press; 1st edition (October 1998), p 162
[v] INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION, John Calvin, 1, vii, (1,4, & 5)
[vii] READING THE BIBLE AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME, Marcus J Borg, Harper Collins, New York, 2001, p4
[viii] JOHN WESLEY’S THEOLOGY TODAY, Colin W Williams, Abingdon, Nashville, 1960, points taken from chapter two, Authority And Experience.
[ix] The Canonization of Scripture, Coptic Diocese of Los Angeles
© copyright 2009-23 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. Last edited 10/7/2023