“Inerrancy” is the belief that the Bible never errs. It’s another way of saying that the Old and New Testaments—as they were originally written—declare what is true and describe accurately what happened in the past. To say the Bible is inerrant is to say that the Scriptures do not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.
Some scholars have argued, however, that the notion of an inerrant Bible is a modern invention and that ancient Christians didn’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture at all.
So what did Christians in the first few centuries of the church’s story believe about the Bible?
It is true that the earliest Christians didn’t use the word “inerrancy.” And yet, from the earliest stages of Christian history, it’s also true that faithful church leaders treated the Old and New Testaments as God’s inerrant revelation of himself.
The Concept of Inerrancy in the Writings of the Earliest Christians
Take a look at these selections from the writings of church leaders in the first few centuries of Christian history:
- “You have searched the Scriptures, which are true and given by the Holy Spirit. You know that nothing unrighteous or counterfeit is written in them.” —Clement of Rome, letter to the Corinthians, first century
- “All Scripture, which has been given to us by God, [is] perfectly consistent. The parables harmonize with the passages that are plain; and statements with a clearer meaning serve to explain the parables.” —Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses 2:28, second century
- “I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another.” —Justin Martyr, Dialogus cum Tryphone 65, second century
- “The statements of Holy Scripture will never contradict the truth.” —Tertullian of Carthage, De anima 21, third century
- “It is the opinion of some that the Scriptures do not agree or that the God who gave them is false. But there is no disagreement at all. Far from it! The Father, who is truth, cannot lie.” —Athanasius of Alexandria, Easter letter 19:3, fourth century
- “I have learned to give respect and honor to the canonical books of Scripture. Regarding these books alone, I most firmly believe that their authors were completely free from error. If in these writings I am confused by anything which appears to me opposed 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.” —Augustine of Hippo, letter 82, fifth century
Here’s one other quotation that reveals, functionally, how pastors such as Ambrose of Milan applied their understanding of Scripture to their readings of the biblical text: “Matthew depicts this woman pouring ointment on Christ’s head. … According to Luke, a sinner poured ointment on Christ’s feet. She cannot be the same woman, otherwise the Gospel-writers would seem to have contradicted each other” (exposition of Luke 7:36).
What Inerrancy Is (And Isn’t)
Inerrancy doesn’t require, of course, that everything in Scripture has been reported with scientific precision or in the exact order that the events occurred. The Scriptures are perfectio respectu finis—“perfect with respect to purpose”—and, because God has chosen to reveal himself in history, this purposeful perfection extends to what Scripture declares about particular events in history through which God revealed his Word and his ways. John Frame explains it like this:
Inerrancy … means that the Bible is true, not that it is maximally precise. To the extent that precision is necessary for truth, the Bible is sufficiently precise. But it does not always have the amount of precision that some readers demand of it. It has a level of precision sufficient for its own purposes, not for the purposes for which some readers might employ it.
That’s why Tertullian of Carthage could say that “it matters not that the arrangement of the narratives [in the New Testament Gospels] varies, so long as there is agreement on the essentials of the faith” (Adversus Marcionem 4:2:2).
Whatever one believes about the Bible, this much is clear: The writings of the earliest church leaders reveal that, even in the earliest centuries of Christian history, believers in Jesus Christ received the Old and New Testaments as God’s inerrant Word.
To learn more about this topic, take a look at my book How We Got the Bible.
The following denial and affirmation can be found in The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:
We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by … a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.
We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.
How do these statements help you to make more sense of what is meant by the word “inerrancy”?