Reformed Theology

Verbal Inerrancy, Word for Word, or, How Conservative is Fundamentalism, Really?

“[The] antidote to modernism is not Fundamentalism, but Calvinism.” (R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession, p. 47)

Fundamentalism has its roots in dispensational premillennialism of the late 19th century. It’s labeled as a “conservative” movement, but in a sense it isn’t. Not really. I say this because the term conservatism usually indicates a desire to preserve things the way they are or restore them to the way they used to be. But dispensational premillennialism was not traditional orthodoxy in the 19th century—it was a brand-new idea, so not conservative. Another issue for fundamentalists is the actual “verbal” inspiration of Scripture. I would argue that this was not a conservative view, either.

This is why I so often blog about what’s the difference between fundamentalism and actual historic Reformed theology. So many people trying to get all Reformed these days can think that because John MacArthur teaches the Five Points, that means anything he says is legit. No, you still need your critical thinking skills.

So we have all these people confusing Fundamentalism with Christianity, pointing out hills they want to die on when those hills don’t have anything to do with historic Christianity.

Verbal inerrancy is sort of missing the forest for the trees, implying that the characters on the papyrus are more important than the message. It’s a fallacy. Thoughts can be expressed in different ways, and in different languages, and still mean the same thing. This is a troubling stand to take when most modern Christians read neither Hebrew nor Greek. All believers should understand from their own experience that the gospel message is not contained in the characters on the page, but in the translatable message they convey. Most English-speaking Christians come to believe in Christ not because they read the original languages, but because they read the English translation.

I don’t mean to undervalue the study of the original languages, which is important in order to do proper translation and exegesis, but I’m trying to illustrate the perspicuity of Scripture, by which the things necessary to salvation may be discerned by readers of even an elementary level.

Catholics have, in a sense, been fighting the inerrancy fight longer than Protestants, and in another sense, have been sitting outside the fundamentalist fight watching with amusement. Or perhaps consternation. Catholic David Bennett writes:

The early Fathers did not think that minor contradictions rendered the Bible errant, nor did they insist all stories were meant to be interpreted literally. For instance, the creation stories were often allegorized, interpreted in ways so as to prefigure Christ, or interpreted through the lens of the science of the day (or all three!). Thus St. Augustine could say each day in the Genesis creation story was equal to a thousand years, or that the science of the day should shape our understanding of the creation stories, without ever denying the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. So when a Catholic affirms the inerrancy of Scripture, the idea has far less baggage than the fundamentalist understanding.

The Bible can contain allegory and still be inspired. Calvin used to say that God “lisps” when he speaks to us in his word, as a parent will use baby-talk to communicate with a child. But the fundamentalist idea of inerrancy concludes there are no lisps in Scripture.

In 1999, the Catholic ecumenical secretary published the results of a conversation between Rome and the SBC.

For Roman Catholics, inerrancy is understood as a consequence of biblical inspiration; it has to do more with the truth of the Bible as a whole than with any theory of verbal inerrancy. Vatican II says that ‘the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation’ (Dei Verbum, 11)

The phrase “for the sake of our salvation” corresponds with the teachings of the Reformed confessions (“infallible in matters of faith and practice”) that the area of the Bible’s expertise is salvation, and we should go elsewhere to learn history, biology, paleontology, astronomy, medicine, the art of motorcycle maintenance, etc.

Nineteenth-century Union Theological Seminary professor Charles A. Briggs said,

But the sacred writings are not merely sources of historical information; they are the sources of the faith to be believed and the morals to be practiced by all the world; they are of everlasting value as the sum total of sacred doctrine and law for mankind, being not only for the past, but for the present and the future, as God’s holy word to the human race, so that their value as historical documents becomes entirely subordinate to their value as a canon of Holy Scripture, the norm and rule of faith and life.

Briggs held such a high view of Scripture and the discipline of exegesis that he believed the faith would survive if all dogmas were done away with, and considered the dogmas to be detrimental to the faith. From the PBS series God in America:

Briggs became convinced that conservative dogma, with its insistent preoccupation with the end-time, was undermining Christianity.

Indeed, it is threatening to do so, as the right wing becomes increasingly pharisaical and less Christ-like.


Our standards teach that “the word of God is the only rule of faith and obedience,” and that “the authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God, the the author thereof.” How unorthodox it is therefore to set up another rule of prevalent opinion as a stumbling block to those who would accept the authority of the word of God alone.

He is obviously not arguing against confessionalism, as he’s citing the confessions. He’s condemning the man-made fundamentalist dogmas which condemn textual criticism but have no grounding in Scripture or the standards.

(I should note that Charles Briggs was excommunicated from the Presbyterian Church as a heretic for his views on inerrancy. Union Seminary remained loyal to him and separated from the denomination, and Charles Briggs became Episcopalian. This was one of the first major battles of the Fundamentalist movement. This is why I’m using him as a source. I wanted to see just how heretical this guy supposedly was, and it turns out he was not at all.)

Our confessions and credal statements affirm that inspired Scripture was without error in the original manuscripts. It is understood that errors have occurred, due to the production of several copies, and commentary being inserted by zealous scribes. The function of higher criticism is to try and dig down to what the original manuscripts must have said. Those who do this work should certainly not be ostracized or excommunicated! It’s the obvious next step for theological exegetes who strongly affirm the inerrancy of the original texts, to find out what the original was. Fundamentalists ought to recognize that what could drive someone to do such a thing might be a hunger for the knowledge of Scripture rather than a desire to undermine it.


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