The Recent Invention of Verbal Inerrancy

The Holy Bible

The Holy Bible

The current enthusiasm for the idea of verbal inerrancy—as indeed the word itself—is relatively recent. Author Carl Piepkorn points out that while the word bears superficial resemblance to the ancient Latin word inerrantia, it is in fact “a kind of do-it-yourself [or manufactured] term, …with in- meaning ‘not’ and errantia meaning ‘the act of wandering about.” Piepkorn cites the Oxford English Dictionary as pointing out that the first use of the English word inerrant was in 1834, and its first use in a religious context was in 1865 when describing the manner in which the Pope was preserved from error.[1]

Michael Horton, professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California, describes the “Princeton Formulation of Inerrancy” as the “best formulation of inerrancy” because “it anticipates and challenges caricatures.”[2] The Princeton Formulation is contained in the book by B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge entitled Inspiration (1881), and is cited as the first work stating that only the autographs were inerrant, and that the inerrancy of the extant text had not been supernaturally maintained.[3]

While Michael Horton likes to read modern formulations of inerrancy back into the early church fathers, this cannot be done even with the so-called “Princeton Formulation of Inerrancy.” For one thing, the word never occurs in Warfield and Hodge’s book. This should not be surprising, given that the word was newly minted when Warfield and Hodge wrote their book. For another, the supposed “inerrancy” described by Warfield and Hodge is nothing like that of the modern Fundamentalist and Evangelical.

Warfield and Hodge write: “[I]n all the affirmations of Scripture of every kind, there is no more error in the words of the original autographs than in the thoughts they were chosen to express.”[4] If they stopped there, the modern evangelical would be happy. But then they gradually expose a more nuanced position. Instead of speaking of “all the affirmations of Scripture of every kind”, they later refer to “all their real affirmations.”

In view of all the facts known to us, we affirm that a candid inspection of all the ascertained phenomena of the original text of Scripture will leave unmodified the ancient faith of the Church. In all their real affirmations these books are without error.[5]

So what is the content of these “real affirmations” anyway? Does it in any way conform to the modern understanding of inerrancy? Warfield and Hodge write:

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scriptures any more than their authors are omniscient. The information they convey is in the forms of human thought, and limited on all sides. They were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or human history as such. They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology. They are written in human languages, whose words, inflections, constructions, and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error. The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible; and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong. [emphasis added][6]

While Warfield and Hodge go on to state that in all matters of historical fact the scriptural affirmations are without error, they have already mentioned this is not a reference to human history. Thus, what is in view is the history of the relationship between God and man, and in particular the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a long way from the modern concept of inerrancy as encompassing any subject mentioned within Sacred Scripture. Warfield and Hodge summarize their position as follows:

There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed. It is this accuracy and this alone, as distinct from exactness, which the Church doctrine maintains of every affirmation in the original text of Scripture without exception. Every statement accurately corresponds to truth just as far forth as affirmed.[7]

There is a vast gulf fixed between the accuracy of the Scriptures as affirmed by Warfield and Hodge, and the “absolute literalness” approach of the modern Fundamentalist and Evangelical.  It may well be that the work entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth (1910-15) is the first major work to formally equate inspiration with verbal inerrancy, although this assertion is made in only two of the seven essays on the Sacred Scriptures.[8] If so, the idea of verbal inerrancy is an American invention, made by those who came to be known as Fundamentalists.[9] Despite the feeble attempt by L. W. Munhall to find support for this position from the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine, it is clear that their understanding of inerrancy concerned the forma (doctrine), and not the materia (text).[10]

Lutheran theologians of the twentieth century quickly adopted the Fundamentalist definition of inerrancy. In his book Luther and the Scriptures, J. Michael Reu developed his thesis that Luther provides support for the recently developed Fundamentalist definitions of inerrancy. Despite his valiant effort, he is unable to provide a single instance of Luther’s use of the word inerrant (or its Latin or German equivalent) in the manner with which the word is used by the Fundamentalists. Despite this failure, no less a luminary than John Warwick Montgomery approvingly cites Reu as concluding that Luther “did indeed hold to the inerrancy of the Bible.”[11] Reu and Montgomery’s arguments are cast in 20th century terms, not in terms used by Luther and the Lutheran Confessors. The claim that Luther supports a dogma that was developed over 400 years after his death is at best an appeal to authority. At worst, it puts words in his mouth and besmirches his reputation.

John Calvin himself would have affirmed the accuracy of Sacred Scripture, while rejecting the modern formulations of “verbal inspiration” as well as inerrancy. This is easily demonstrated through his commentaries. Take for example, the following passage of Scripture:

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value. (Matt 27:9)

In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin notes that the attribution of the quoted passage is in error.

How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess that I do not know nor do I give myself much trouble to inquire. The passage itself plainly shows that the name of Jeremiah has been put down by mistake, instead of Zechariah, (11:13;) for in Jeremiah we find nothing of this sort, nor any thing that even approaches to it.[12]

Having announced the attribution to Jeremiah instead of Zechariah as a mistake, Calvin promptly ignores it. The error is immaterial, irrelevant, and the inspiration of the text suffers not one whit.


[1] (Piepkorn 2007, 29)

[2] (Horton 2010)

[3] (Houtz 2014)

[4] (Warfield and Hodge 2013, Kindle Locations 130-131)

[5] (Warfield and Hodge 2013, Kindle Locations 200-202)

[6] (Warfield and Hodge 2013, Kindle Locations 202-207)

[7] (Warfield and Hodge 2013, Kindle Locations 210-213)

[8] See “The Inspiration of the Bible — Definition, Extent and Proof” by Rev. James M. Gray (Gray 2005), and “Inspiration” by Evangelist L. W. Munhall. (Munhall 2005)

[9] (Portier 1994, 130)

[10] (Munhall 2005)

[11] (Montgomery n.d.)

[12] (Calvin 1999, 188)


Calvin, John. 1999. Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 3. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Gray, James M. 2005. “The Inspiration of the Bible — Definition, Extent and Proof.” The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. December 22. Accessed November 20, 2008.

Horton, Michael. 2010. “The Truthfulness of Scripture.” Modern Reformation, March/April, Inspiration and Inerrancy ed.: 26-29. Accessed March 7, 2015.

Houtz, Wyatt. 2014. “John Calvin rejected Inerrancy.” PostBarthian. May 26. Accessed March 7, 2015.

Montgomery, John Warwick. n.d. “Lessons from Luther on the Inerrancy of Holy Writ.” Issues, Etc. Article Archive. Accessed December 28, 2008.

Munhall, L. W. 2005. “Inspiration.” The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. December 23. Accessed November 20, 2008.

Piepkorn, Arthur Carl. 2007. What Does “Innerancy” Mean? Vol. 2, in The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Volume Two, by Arthur Carl Piepkorn, edited by Phillip J Secke, 25-55. Mansfield: CEC Press.

Portier, William L. 1994. Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology. New York: Paulist Press.

Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge, and Archibald Alexander Hodge. 2013. Inspiration. Kindle Edition. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.


On The Protestant Doctrine of Inspiration

"That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests cannot, or that the Bible cannot." Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine – God cannot lie

We err when we assume inspiration requires inerrancy, as though the doctrine of Sacred Scriptures would be unreliable if the text were not inerrant. When Protestants ascribe inerrancy (in its modern theological formulation and understanding) to Sacred Scripture, they are subscribing to a view of inspiration that goes beyond what Sacred Scripture says about itself. Moreover, the concept of inerrancy is not derived from Sacred Scripture, but is a theological presupposition imposed upon the Word of God. As such, it is a divinization of the text and a desacrilization of the doctrine. Practically speaking, the divinization of the text forces us to spend time and energy focusing on side issues (like proving that the Bible is scientifically accurate) instead of focusing on Jesus Christ. And what did Jesus say about himself? “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me”. (John 14:6) The Sacred Scriptures are not the way, but the means through which the way is revealed to us. Christ alone is the divine self-expression of the Father; the text is the guidepost pointing us to Christ, the medium through which the Holy Spirit works to bring us to faith in Christ. For this purpose the Sacred Scriptures were given to us as the inspired revelation of God the Word — to make us wise unto salvation, and are therefore profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness.

Unfortunately, many Fundamentalists and Evangelicals assume inspiration requires inerrancy. If you extract the material regarding inerrancy from their statements, what is left is an entirely inadequate description of inspiration. As an example, the following is the statement of Moody Bible Institute, modified to remove the references to (and consequences of) inerrancy.

The Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, is a divine revelation. Revelation is God’s making Himself known to men. God has revealed himself in a limited way in creation. But the Bible is a form of special revelation. The Bible is “special” revelation in the sense that it goes beyond what may be known about God through nature. It is divine in origin, since in the Bible God makes known things which otherwise could never be known.

The Bible is unique because it is God’s revelation recorded in human language. According to II Timothy 3:16–17 the words of Scripture are “God breathed” or inspired. This implies that God is the source or origin of what is recorded in Scripture. God, through the Holy Spirit, used human authors and human language to make himself known to men.[1]

There is nothing in this altered statement about the Scriptures making us wise unto salvation, no unpacking of the statement that Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness, nothing about the manner in which Scripture brings us to perfection, or how by means of the Scripture we are thoroughly furnished unto good works (2 Tim 3:15-16). There is no mention of how the special revelation of the ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, and incomprehensible God can be contained within the limits of human language, and no discussion of how the infinite God can be circumscribed by the finite mind. In other words, the doctrinal statement of Moody Bible Institute asserts inerrancy rather than inspiration.

I have tried this experiment with a variety of doctrinal statements, and have come up short every time. This leads me to conclude that the 20th century Evangelical Protestant Church have replaced inspiration with inerrancy (and its corollary, infallibility). In doing so, they began to argue over trivial issues (like science vs. religion) that have nothing to do with the Christ who is revealed in the Scriptures. It is past time to remove the false idol of inerrancy from the temple of our hearts.


Moody Bible Institute. (n.d.). The Inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from Moody Bible Institute:


[1] (Moody Bible Institute n.d.)

Verbal Inerrancy, Literalism, and the Re-opening of the Canon

The Bible is always right.


In modern statements of faith, the connection between inspiration and inerrancy is made plain, such that Christians believe the concept of inerrancy is necessary to properly define inspiration. But that is incorrect. In fact, the idea that the scriptures are trustworthy and infallible is an ancient Christian teaching, whereas the idea that the Scriptures are inerrant is a modern conceit.

First, it depends what exactly is inerrant: the Sacred Scriptures that make us wise unto salvation (the forma), or the text—the peculiar combination of marks on a page (the materia), which change from language to language, and from translation to translation. These textual differences can be significant. A particular word may have a subtle range of meanings in Hebrew, but when that word is translated into Greek, the translator picks one word to represent the primary meaning. Thus the act of translation is an act of textual interpretation.

Second, if one postulates the verbal (and plenary) inerrancy of the autographs (being the original peculiar combination of marks on a page), this postulate then drives the task of textual criticism. No longer do textual critics seek determine the authoritative text (a theological enterprise), but instead seek the recovery of the original text (a critical enterprise), which they deem authoritative by virtue of its being original.[1] The search for the original text is itself an act of textual interpretation. Although textual criticism proceeds on the basis of rules, and gives the appearance of being scientific, the rules are in fact arbitrary, based on assumptions made before one approaches the text. For example, if you favor the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, your rules will give primacy to that text and other texts will be of secondary importance.[2]

Verbal inerrancy in the autographs necessitates the understanding that only the original author was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that subsequent corrections, additions, and deletions by later copyists and/or churchmen are corruptions.[3] The clear implication is that the word of a particular man (the author) was inspired; indeed, that the author was himself inspired. When Peter writes of the “holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2Pe 1:21), the assumption is this applies to the particular man or prophet who initially produced the writing, as opposed to the later copyists and churchmen who modified the text in one way or another. This means that passages deemed by both conservative and liberal scholars to have not been part of the original text are suspect, even though the extant texts are part of the canon of Sacred Scripture. The natural result is the re-opening of the canon of scripture and the excision of suspect texts from Sacred Scripture. The obsession with verbal inerrancy logically leads to the error of Marcion.

There is another way of thinking about all this. What if we ignore the minor errors of scripture? As a practical matter, we do that already. Do we really care that 1 Kings 4:26 says that Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses, whereas 2 Chron 9:25 says Solomon had four thousand? No, of course not. We recognize that a copyist made an error and move on. It is not germane to the subject at hand, and represents no threat to the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture. The only way this becomes a problem is if we begin to incorporate modern understandings of inspiration into our thinking, which requires a series of rationales and tendentious arguments for each and every difficult passage in the Bible.

A literalistic understanding of Sacred Scripture can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, the United Methodist Minister Richard Hagenston writes of the direct contradiction contained in the final verses of Psalm 51. In his analysis of this passage, verses 16-17 indicates that God does not want sacrifice, while verses 18-19 says that God is pleased with sacrifices. So which is it?[4]

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar. (Ps 51:16-19)

You, dear reader, may find it interesting to compare different approaches to this passage. Richard Hagenston’s approach is to take the text at face value. The text means exactly what it says, and has no deeper meaning. The literal interpretation is the only interpretation, you might say. And having said that, we are left with a rather glaring contradiction.

Most other Bible scholars would look at this passage in its context of the Psalm as a whole. Since the overall theme is of repentance, verses 16-17 would indicate that God prefers repentance to sacrifice; verses 18–19 says that God is pleased with sacrifices when they are offered with a repentant heart. But note that this interpretation goes beyond the literal meaning of the text, and depends upon the idea that the text contains deeper meanings than the mere literal reading can reveal.

To a strict literalist, the passage in Psalm 51 represents a contradiction, which is clearly an error. The accumulated weight of these errors (and others, of different types) drives some, like the scholar Bart Ehrman, to a loss of faith in God. For others, like Richard Hagenston, these errors drive them to a loss of faith in the Bible, and a questioning of doctrinal orthodoxy. All because we conflate inspiration and innerancy. God help us.




Hagenston, R. (2014, September 29). 8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible. Retrieved October 4, 2014, from



[1] The search for the original text ignores the fact that the bible has a history, and that the collection of texts into the canon existing today was curated by the Church. The search for the original text must yield to the search for the authoritative text.  In turn, this means that we can only understand the bible within the community that curated it, within the “matrix that includes the thoughts and writings of the early church: its bishops, priests, poets, monks, theologians, and artists.” (Miller 2012)

[2] Favoring the Masoretic text may seem reasonable, as (apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls) it is the most ancient extant Hebrew text. There is a marked preference for translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew text, a preference that goes back to the Renaissance Humanists who argued for a return to the sources. The rallying cry of this movement was the Latin phrase “ad fontes“, meaning “to the sources.” The reformers, being products of their time, thought that using Hebrew sources rather than the Greek translation was right and proper.

[3] Interesting examples include the following: 1) The epilogue of John 21 may have been added later. The original Gospel appears to end at Jn 20:31. 2) The pericope on the woman taken in adultery (Jn 7:53 – 8:11) is not in the oldest and best-attested manuscripts. 3) The oldest manuscripts for the Gospel of Mark do not include Mk 16:9-20; instead, it ends rather abruptly with the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene. This all results in the following question: if the Sacred Scriptures were inerrant in the original manuscripts, and these texts were not part of the original text, are they then Scripture? Do we excise them from our bibles? And if so, how is this different from what the heretic Marcion tried to do?

[4] (Hagenston 2014)