Errant Notions Part Five: A Perfect Tradition

The latest in a series of posts dissecting common arguments for “biblical inerrancy,” the assertion that the Bible is without error in everything it teaches.

“Inerrancy is nothing more than what the church has always believed.” That’s the battle cry of the inerrantist defender, and it is the fifth argument that we will be exploring in this boring series. It is also the first of our arguments that might actually pertain to the canonized Bible as we know it, for what it’s worth. While previous arguments have been focused on figures or sources that originate before the texts of the Bible were collected and canonized, this one regards the writings and opinions of the early Christian fathers (who were themselves the forgers of the canon) and the reformers (who inherited the canon). The question is this: did the church fathers and Protestant founders teach biblical inerrancy as the singular and unanimous view of mainstream Christianity? 

In a sense, it is odd that evangelical and fundamentalist inerrantists would appeal to “what Christians have always believed,” since they reject so many major aspects of historical church polity and tradition. But as with the appeal to Jesus that we examined in the last post, this one is rhetorically expedient, even necessary. It is precisely because they have been accused of eschewing the historic traditions of Catholic and Protestant church life that these defenders work overtime to establish their doctrinal orthodoxy whenever possible. So, what does the extant literature tell us about a historical “mainstream” view of scripture, if there was one, among the fathers and reformers?

The Church Fathers On Scripture

“Church fathers” refers not as much to a group of men as to their collected writings. These are the texts of the early centuries of Christianity, too late to be canonized, often in the form of apologetics or commentaries on scripture. These documents teach us most of what we know about the ancient church, and give us precious insight into the development of Christian orthodoxy. At the same time, their writings are as diverse and subjective as anything in the Bible, and without the same stigma. The personalities and proclivities of these writers are on full display in their works, as this very brief survey will demonstrate.

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) was an early Christian writer and a staunch defender of scripture. He believed the very “letters and syllables” of scripture to be “holy” and inspired [1], and went so far as to extol their “omnipotent authority.” [2] Clement’s hyperbolic claims about scripture were accompanied by vigorous and often desperate defenses against perceived problems in the text. For Clement, the literal and historical meaning of the text on the page had to be upheld and preserved, by whatever interpretive gymnastics were necessary. In this he ironically paved the way for the allegorical reading of scripture that became popular among later church fathers. Despite his absolutist defense of the letter of scripture, Clement also indicated the ultimate value of the Bible was in the way it was read. In a metaphor that might seem to contradict his high view of the text, he likened the Bible to the Virgin Mary, holy but human, ready to “give birth” to the divine glory of inspired interpretation. [3]

Tertullian (155-240 CE) was a Christian apologist from North Africa who prolifically defended the sacred books against heretics. He went so far as to claim that he could “offer proof” that the scriptures were “divine.” His proof? “For all that is taking place around you was foretold.” [4] Tertullian argued that “wars,” “the collision of kingdoms,” and “famines and pestilences” in his own day were fulfillments of ancient prophecy which demonstrated the infallibility of scripture (an argument that hasn’t gotten any more persuasive with the passing of time). Despite his claim to a “divine” origin of the scriptures, Tertullian did not argue for technical inerrancy. In fact, he conceded that problematic “variation” was often evident in the text, in the different accounts of the gospels, for example. But he explained that, “What matters is that there is agreement in the essential doctrine of the faith.” [5]

Origen (184-253 CE) the Greek theologian believed strongly in the plenary (total) inspiration of the Jewish prophets and the Christian scriptures. He explained that “the holy books are not the composition of men, but a result of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” [6] At the same time, Origen subscribed to an allegorical reading of scripture that placed the locus of truth and authority on his own often wild interpretations. Unlike Clement, who violently defended all historical claims found in scripture, he was less concerned with absolute historicity, and in fact considered the Adam and Eve stories to be “fictions.” [7] Origen was heavily influenced by Platonic dualism, and his beliefs about the pre-existence and immortality of human souls led him to an ascetic lifestyle and (according to legend) self-castration. He was opposed and condemned by the church authorities in his own time and posthumously declared a heretic in 553 CE.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), whom many would call the father of western Christianity, explicitly stated in a letter to St. Jerome that the authors of canonized scripture had not “fallen into any error.” [8] He limited his claim to the original autographs, however, and did not hesitate in his own biblical interpretation to invoke allegory and typology. Regarding the divine violence of the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, he says that “anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative.” [9] Augustine also called literal six-day creationism “idiotic,” [10] putting him at odds with the vast majority of modern inerrantists!

By highlighting the more colorful aspects of their interpretive beliefs and methods, my intention is not to belittle or discredit these Christian founders. I simply mean to illustrate that they were all subjective human thinkers. They held various views on the origins and nature of the scriptures, all of which could be described as “high” views, but every one of them made hermeneutical moves and interpretive leaps that they considered necessary in defending those views. This is all that any reader of scripture can hope to do. There is no shortcut to revelation or certainty, and no single “official” timeless interpretation.

The Reformers: Luther and Calvin on Scripture

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century saw a renewed focus on the scriptures as the source of Christian belief and identity. Not that the Catholic church did not cherish or rely on the Bible, but the central debates and battles of the Reformation were about authority, and Protestants saw the Bible as both their inspiration and, in a sense, their salvation.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German priest whose protests against the Roman Church sparked a movement that reshaped western civilization, stood upon the scriptures as his platform and manifesto. He mused that, “a simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a cardinal without it.” [11] Of course, that statement was as much about his challenge to the structures of human authority in the Church as it was about his esteem for the Bible. “Sola scriptura” was as political as it was theological. When Luther taught and interpreted the Bible, he demonstrated both deep reverence and a willingness to question and critique. He famously declared the letter of James an “epistle of straw,” with “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it,” [12] and he wished that it, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation had been left out of the canon altogether. Regarding the theological purpose of the Bible, he is commonly quoted as saying, “It is for Christ’s sake that we believe in the Scriptures, but it is not for the Scriptures’ sake that we believe in Christ.” [13]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French reformer a generation after Luther, proclaimed that Christians “owe to Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.” [14] He declared furthermore in his Institutes that the scriptures bear divine authority “as directly as if God had been heard giving utterance to them.” [15] Calvin’s might just be the purest uncut inerrancy on our little historical survey. And while he didn’t deny apparent difficulties in Bible texts, he refused to resort to allegorical or figurative explanations. If something smells funny, it’s not the Bible, it’s you. If modern inerrantists seek an endorsement from outside the 20th century, here is their guy. Of course, some of us might say that Calvin’s view of scripture was absurdly high, or that it contributed to both the burdensome obtuseness of his theology and the cruel authoritarianism of his governance in Geneva. Calvin believed, for example, that Old Testament laws should be enforced in the church, and he gave his approval to imprisonments, harsh punishments, and even executions. His brutal approach extended to the spiritual realm, as he taught that eternal salvation was only available to “the elect,” and only through the “true church,” his own. [16]

Conclusion: Questioning the Premise

This is a lot of information to process, so let’s recall the question before us. Does biblical inerrancy represent “what Christians have always believed” in every era and every corner of the church? Of course not. Or maybe. Kind of. But no, it really doesn’t. As with the issue of Jesus and inerrancy, it just feels like the wrong question. All of these men (sooo many men) had the highest regard for scripture, even as they employed different methods of interpretation. But as we observed in the previous post, simply establishing that some figure or another appeared to affirm inerrancy is only half of a story. So what? What did they do with it? What motivated them, and where did their view of scripture lead them?

We saw how Jesus subverted notions of cold, lifeless inerrancy with his incendiary interpretations of Torah that emphasized compassion and empathy. He didn’t simply point at scripture and say “believe this.” He embodied a living interpretation based on selfless love. Did the church fathers and reformers follow Jesus in this regard? Do their interpretations – strictly literal or allegorical or whatever – point to peace and liberation and salvation and repentance? The only way to know is to engage with their writing and see for yourself. As with scripture itself, as with the prophets, as with any voice you encounter in your conscious life as a human, the question is, “does this bear good fruit?” No doctrine of inerrancy can help us cut the line. There is no shortcut. But as Christians, we do have a helper and a model. One more quote from Luther will take us out on the right note:

“When others interpret Scripture against Christ, we are prepared to hold to Christ against Scripture.” [17]



[1] Clement, Exhortation to the Heathen
[2] Clement, The Miscellanies, Book IV
[3] Clement, The One Who Knows God
[4] Tertullian, Apologeticus
[5] Tertullian, Against Marcion
[6] Origen, On First Principles
[7] Origen, De Principiis, IV
[8] Augustine, Letters 82 (to Jerome)
[9] Augustine, De doctrina christiana III
[10] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis
[11] Martin Luther, The Leipzig Debate, July 1519
[12] Martin Luther, Preface to the New Testament, 1546
[13] Common attribution, source unknown
[14] John Calvin, Commentary on 1&2 Timothy, c. 1555
[15] John Calvin, Institutes 1.7.1, 1560
[16] M. Gilchrist (trans.), J.Bonnet (ed.), Letters of John Calvin, 1972
[17] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works vol. 34, 1960 (“Disputes with Weller & Medler”)

For more on Augustine and scripture, see this post by Peter Enns.
For an overview of historical inerrancy from a Catholic perspective, see this page.
For more on the interpretations and beliefs of John Calvin, see this post by Frank Viola.