The Authority and Inerrancy of Scripture
The doctrine of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture is that, as a corollary of the inspiration of Scripture, the God-breathed Scriptures are wholly true in all things that they assert in the original autographs and therefore function with the authority of God’s own words.
The doctrine of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture is rooted in the doctrine of God; as God is true and trustworthy, so is his word recorded in the original autographs of Scriptures. This means that all things that the Scriptures assert are wholly true, both in the Old Testament, the Scriptures of Jesus and the apostles, and in the New Testament, the writings of the apostles. So far as the original autographs have been faithfully copied, translated, and passed down, Scripture is inerrant in its copies. This inerrancy means that all things that the Scriptures assert function with the authority of God’s own Word for Christians.
“The trustworthiness of the Scriptures lies at the foundation of trust in the Christian system of doctrine, and is therefore fundamental to the Christian hope and life.” These words from Benjamin B. Warfield highlight just how important the doctrine of inerrancy is for the church. Abandon it, and the entire Christian system of doctrine now rests on a shaky foundation.
That is because without it, our assurance in Scripture’s full truthfulness and total trustworthiness is thrown into question. Doubt naturally follows for the preacher of God’s Word: “How can I know whether the passage I am preaching is reliable?” Much is at stake, then, with inerrancy. Faith and practice readily depend on whether we can trust God’s Word and whether it is God’s Word at all or in its entirety.
The God of Truth
As hinted at already, it is appropriate to associate inerrancy with God himself. Inerrancy is, after all, a corollary of inspiration. It is because Scripture is breathed-out by God (2 Tim. 3:16) that it is also truthful in all its affirms. The God who has breathed out his Word has done so in a way that is truthful; what else would we expect from a triune God who is truth itself (John 1:18; 8:40; 14:6; 17:3, 17; 18:37; 1 John 4:6)?
Assumed in such a statement is the belief that our doctrine of Scripture should be grounded in our doctrine of God. If God is Scripture’s author, then we should not divorce the character of the divine author from the character of his divine speech. After all, this is God’s Word we are describing; Scripture has many human authors, but it ultimately originates from one divine author. While God and the text are distinct, nevertheless, the text is his speech act; it should not surprise us that it reflects his character. Communicable attributes characterize his communicable speech, and truthfulness is one of them. As the God of truth and the God who is truth, he speaks a word of truth. The truthfulness of the text reflects the truthfulness of its divine author. Hence the psalmist could say that the God whose way is “perfect” communicates a word that always “proves true” and, for that reason, is a comfort to those who trust in it for their salvation (119:96; cf. 119:160).
The truthfulness of the text reflects the truthfulness of its divine author.
“But wait, isn’t Scripture written by human hands? We all know humans are fallible creatures,” one might object. It is true that humans are fallible. And apart from the Spirit’s superintendence, any human author would be fallible. But since it is the Spirit of God—also called the Spirit of truth (John 15:26)—that carries along these human authors (2 Peter 1:21), what they say is what God says, and no human error is mixed in with it. Surely this is not beyond God’s omnipotent abilities. If we, as Christians, believe the Son of God himself can become incarnate yet without sin in order to communicate a saving word to us as the Word (John 1:1, 14), then carrying along the biblical authors so that they speak truthfully is a small thing by comparison.
Jesus’ View of the Scriptures
Moreover, when we look at how Jesus and his disciples treat the Old Testament Scriptures, it is always with utter trust and reverence, never with suspicion towards its reliability. Even Jesus’s Jewish opponents did the same. While Jesus and the Jews had strong disagreements over how the OT was to be interpreted and whether Jesus is who he says he is, never—not once—do they disagree as to whether the text interpreted is trustworthy. Apart from such a presupposition, their debates never would have happened in the first place.
Jesus brings a unique credibility to the issue as well; he is, after all, the Son of God himself. Naturally, our view of the Scriptures should be the same as Jesus’s view of the Scriptures. Beyond assuming trust in Scripture, both in its details and as a whole, the inerrancy of Scripture shines brightest when Jesus expresses his belief that God’s covenant promises in the Scriptures have come true in his own life, death, and resurrection. In Jesus Christ, God’s inscripturated word has proven true. God’s saving promises have come to fruition in the Word, his own Son.
We can conclude, then, that the gospel itself is proof that not one word of God has failed. The truthfulness of God’s Word, along with its lifegiving power, has been manifested in he who is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). God is faithful; all his promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. What greater affirmation of scriptural inerrancy could there be?
The gospel itself is proof that not one word of God has failed.
That said, we must qualify what inerrancy does and does not mean. Paul Feinberg defines inerrancy as follows: “When all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” If this definition labors to define what inerrancy does and does not mean, that is because inerrancy is one of the most misunderstood and caricatured attributes of Scripture by its critics. Note several components of this definitions.
To begin with, inerrancy applies to the original autographs. That is an important qualification because sometimes critics see mistakes in copies and assume the Bible is full of errors. But when we say Scripture is inerrant, we have in mind that original text breathed out by God through the human authors (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). The product of inspiration is an inerrant text of Scripture. So far as it has been faithfully copied, translated, and passed down, it is inerrant in its copies. (And it should be noted that the copies we possess are very accurate.)
Moreover, inerrancy means Scripture is “wholly true” in all that it affirms. Or as Kevin Vanhoozer says, “To say that Scripture is inerrant is to confess faith that the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations).” In whatever Scripture asserts and affirms, it speaks truthfully and in a trustworthy manner. To say it is “wholly” true means we should not limit inerrancy to Scripture’s main doctrinal message. We never see the biblical authors place such a limitation on their writings. Instead, they believe God speaks truly through them in whatever they affirm. So, inerrancy applies to all areas, including its ethical instruction, to name just one example. Just as inspiration is both verbal and plenary, so too is inerrancy.
In whatever Scripture asserts and affirms, it speaks truthfully and in a trustworthy manner.
Inerrancy and Authority
Affirming inerrancy today can be tricky. There are some, for example, who affirm Scripture’s inspiration but reject its inerrancy. This limited inerrancy view sounds, at first glance, evangelical: “I believe Scripture is true in its message of faith.” But on further investigation, this position denies Scripture is true in all that it asserts. Yes, it is true in its gospel message, but beyond that it may error in its specifics. Ironically, this view claims it can still herald sola scriptura, as if Scripture is still the final authority.
The problem is, this view cannot claim Scripture is its final inerrant authority, which is what the church has always assumed in proclaiming sola scriptura. Pay attention to this key difference between a full inerrancy view and the limited inerrancy view. The full inerrancy view says,
“All Scripture is our inerrant authority.”
Not so with the limited view, which says instead,
“Only when Scripture addresses matters of faith is it our inerrant authority.”
Notice, the limited inerrancy view can only (consistently) claim sola scriptura when Scripture puts forward its main message. At other times, it is not inerrant and cannot, therefore, been the final authority. This is not what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura. When Luther protested Rome and took his stand on the authority of Scripture at a Diet like Worms, it was inerrancy (among other things) that distinguished his cause. Luther made the bold claim that while popes and councils err, Scripture does not. It is because Scripture alone is inspired by God that it is also inerrant, sufficient, and the Christian’s final authority.
All that to say, evangelicals today must guard themselves from those who would claim the Bible as their authority but turn around and deny its truthfulness either in part or in whole.
- Craig Carter, Video interview: Does our doctrine of God affect our doctrine of scripture?
- Guy Waters, Video interview: What does inerrancy tell us about the character of God?
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. See an author interview here and here.
- Matthew Barrett, Ten videos on the doctrine of Scripture.
- Matthew Barrett, Twenty-one lectures based on God’s Word Alone.
- J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles
- John Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal
- Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin Jr., eds., Thy Word Is Still Truth: Essential Writings on the Doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to Today
- Peter Williams, Video interview: Why is divine authorial intent so important for biblical interpretation?
- R.C. Sproul, Video interview: Inerrancy and your Church
- “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” in Norman Geisler, ed., Inerrancy. For a brief historical review, see here.
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.