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.