Thursday, 31 May 2007

Anglican Inerrancy?

I have had a request for help and wonder if anyone can help out.

It is often claimed that inerrancy was never a part of Britsh Anglican evangelicalsim but (like all evils) is a fairly recent American import. Does anyone have any pointers as to Anglican 'inerrantists'?

I would have thought that the default position of the Anglican Reformers was inerrantist, but don't have time or competence to look up relevant material. If anyone can help, just post an answer here.


  1. Can you imagine what Cranmer would have said if you had asked him, "Doth holy scripture contain errors?"

    John Foxe

  2. In answer to my own question (well, someone else's actually) and prompted by John Foxe (!), it occurs to me there are two Homilies which could be profitably read: "A fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture" and "An Information of them which take Offence at certain Places of Holy Scripture". You could also read Calvin on Scripture and Divine Sovereignty, by John Murray (Evangelical Press, 1979) ISBN 0 85234 118 0

  3. The trouble is that 'inerrancy' has changed over time, and in contemporary usage it is a fairly tightly defined doctrine (derived from Scottish Common Sense philosophy, and very much a product of the US) which is alien to someone like Cranmer - even if he would have bridled at the thought that Scripture contained error! Why can't we just stick to "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation"?

  4. From 'An information ...':
    "that wee bee not contemners and deriders of his infallible word: but that with all humblenesse of minde and Christian reuerence we may indeuour our selues to heare and to read his sacred Scriptures"

    Is the modern distinction between 'infallible' and 'inerrant' tenable for the 16th century?

  5. Dear Sam,

    is that because we have difficulty finding anyone who says scripture is errant that still lives by your Articular quote?

    You may protest that you are one such. If so, it's fair to ask how many of the other Articles you wholeheartedly believe and teach?


  6. The problem with Broadbent's approach is that of course noone used the word inerrant -however as John Foxe asks us to imagine of course Cramner et al didn't see the Scripture as containing errors. Nor when you look at the Church fathers did they consider Scripture as having errors. It's a bit of a silly anachronism because of course the Princeton guys were responding to attacks of their day in their context. Then there is the need to use inerrancy because other words like infallibility get watered down.

    The crunch questions are

    1. Did God inspire the Scriptures
    2. What is God's character -is it truthful, is it perfect and is it omniscient?

  7. Stephen Walton31 May 2007 at 18:33

    I have to disagree with rev sam that inerrancy is a product of Reid & Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. This is a common fallacy, but there is a very clear statement of inerrancy in Turretin's "Institutes of Elenctic Theology" in the mid-sventeenth century (excuse me for not giving the exact reference, but all my books are packed away in boxes at the moment)

  8. Precisely my point! Inerrantism (and to a certain extent, the more English version "infallible... as original given" (was the old IVF doctrinal basis) are both negatives, whereas the Articles are about a positive affirmation and speak of sufficiency, and things "necessary to salvation". O'Donovan describes the scriptures as providing a theological epistemology; the EA doctrinal basis of "divine inspiration and supreme authority". If we stick with the positive, we avoid the twin problems that inerrantism carries with it - (1) the perceived need to defend scripture woodenly (two cleansings of the temple; six day creationism; Mosaic authorship of Pentateuch) & (2) we avoid the Puritan approach to scripture (if it's not in the bible, it's not sanctioned) in favour of the classical Anglican approach (if it's not contrary to scripture...). Inerrantism, in my experience, keeps you looking over your shoulder lest you be seen as having sold the pass and become unsound. It's a sociological trap which leads to a sort of bibliocentric Phariseeism.

  9. Edited comment received by e-mail:

    ... a key difference between inerrancy and infallibility concerns historical reliability. Looking to pre-19th century authors as a source of authority for either position needs to be done with a great deal of care because the idea of what constitutes history has changed significantly. We need to be sure that we do not make modern chronological historiography the standard against which the Bible is judged, that is, we must not force the (inspired) biblical authors to say things that they did not intend to say (note, in passing, that this places the meaning of the text firmly with authorial intention as, I believe, any view of Scripture as revelation must do).

    Hope this ha’penny worth helps people think.

    Jonathan Rowe

  10. I don't know who Pete Broadbent's 'Precisely my point!' is directed to (rev sam?), nor what his comments add. As a matter of taste, I too prefer to say that Scripture is trustworthy and true (rather than use negatives), but the Articles were not affirming the truthfulness of the Scriptures over against those who impugned them, but rather were asserting the *sufficiency of the Scriptures against further Roman Catholic claims of tradition. Neither RC nor Reformer disputed the truthfulness (infallibility?) of the Scriptures (just the extent of the canon and the right interpretation!). For myself ...
    1. I don't see how a belief in inerrancy entails a belief in six day creationism (Augustine didn't beleive in six day creationism - he thought it was instantaneous - but he had a sophisticated literary approach to Gen 1);
    2. the cleansing of the temple: events in the Bible can be dischronologized (cf 1 Chronicles 14 and 2 Samuel 5) for literary or theological purpose. To call something an 'error' may be to jump the gun;
    3. Mosaic authorship of (some part - how much?) of the Torah is affirmed by Jesus (John 5.46-47), so I have to follow the Master here!
    4. I can't really see what inerrantism has to do with the 'Puritan' approach versus 'classical Anglican'. (Remember also that the Puritans were CofE leaders until they were ejected. Was John Jewel a 'classical Anglican'?) I think both parties agreed on the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture, even if the word 'inerrancy' hadn't been coined yet, and both parties no doubt believed, e.g. that Noah's flood was a universal historical event.
    What Pete Broadbent needs to specify for us is:
    1. what constitutes an error (untruth) in Scripture;
    2. a list of these errors;
    3. whether these errors include any statements about faith and salvation or morality (including teaching on sexual morality).
    I'm sure he understands the problem: if human errors have intruded in many places, why should these be limited to matters of science, history or geography? Why should Paul be right on homosexuality, or John (allegedly citing Jesus - many dispute this!) on salvation through Christ alone?

  11. Hmm. I have a feeling I have accidentally wandered in to an on-going discussion! Ah well, a few more pennies:
    - I don't understand JF's request about the Articles (it seems to be placing me in a box which doesn't fit) but I should confess to a great fondness for Article XXVI;
    - Stephen Walton's point doesn't seem to disagree either (tho' that might be my confusion) - my point was that 'inerrancy' changes over time, and it's present form derives from the Common Sense school. That doesn't say inerrancy didn't exist before, it does say that present day inerrantism owes more to later philosophy than to Turretin or previous thinkers (of whom there are many - and I should say I have no idea who Turretin is);
    - one of my favourite relevant quotations comes from Cardinal Bellarmino, when disputing with Galileo: "If there were any real proof that the Sun is in the
    centre of the universe and that the earth is in the third heaven, and
    that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth around the Sun,
    then we would have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining
    passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather
    admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be
    false which is proved to be true." The key point (often forgotten) in that dispute is that Galileo's argument was most definitely NOT more scientifically accurate than the Ptolemaic system - and the Ptolemaic system agreed more clearly with the plain sense of Scripture - hence Galileo, whilst being ultimately vindicated, was guilty of pride in his arguments. Just out of interest, how many present day inerrantists want to deny that the earth moves through space?

    For me, I'd rather preserve a sense of mystery in Scripture - a sense of being able to journey deeper into God - than to think we can render Scripture down into a set of propositions, which is what I see the main problem with contemporary inerrancy as being (tho' there are others).

    NB if someone (Stephen?) could persuade me that contemporary inerrantism *isn't* derived from a philosophy which emphasises propositional truth then I'd be a lot more open to accepting it.

  12. rev sam: I don't have hang ups about propositions, because my faith *in Christ depends on a number of propositions *about Christ. No reductionism here - or false mysticism. Faith and reason are not enemies.
    As for Galileo, the question you raise (via Bellarmino) was already addressed by Galileo in his letter to the Duchess Christina (you can find it somewhere on the web!). I hope I am not making a false distinction in saying that it is not so much that the concept of inerrancy changes as the content. If I knew for a fact (and there's no way I could) that the Psalms intended to teach a tellurocentric cosmology, I'd have to say they were wrong. But already Calvin addressed these questions in his commentaries where he speaks of Scripture's use of phenomenological language. I like to think of our grasp of the truth of a statement as being like an asymptotic line - approaching the x-axis but never quite touching it. But some statements just aren't in the right quadrant at all.
    I'd still like to hear from Pete Broadbent what the actual mistakes (untruths) in Scripture are.

  13. Dear Sam,

    thanks for your reply. It is hard to accept that someone submits to the authority of scripture whilst thinking it full of errors. To what authority are they submitting in order to decide what the errors are? That authority, whatever it is, is trumping scripture.

    Yes, I like Art XXVI too. Such a pity the CofE hasn't the slightest idea what to do with the last sentence.

    And if you are unable to tell me that, as an Anglican minister, you agree with the propositions of the 39 Articles, it makes it very difficult for me to know what you believe (and, whether or not you are even a Christian). (Note, I am making an epistemological point here not necessarily commenting on whether or not you are a Christian.)

    As for Pete's ludicrous suggestion that inerrancy entails some kind of wooden literalism I can only assume he doesn't use any commentary emanating from Reformed circles in the US, such as Westminster Theological Seminary (nor Moore College nor a host of other places.)

    It's the first time I've come across the suggestion that the doctrine of inerrancy is bound up with the regulative principle whereas as infallibility allows for the Lutheran approach. That seems like a non-sequitur. I'd be grateful if you could elucidate Pete.



  14. JF - good point on regulative principle vs. normative principle as non sequitur. Pete - please explain. Also, what you mean by 'bibliocentric Phariseeism' (I don't see anything wrong in being Bible-centred & wonder what the reference to Pharisees means here).
    & how do you decide which parts of the Bible are true & which are not?

  15. Anonymous said: "I don't have hang ups about propositions, because my faith *in Christ depends on a number of propositions *about Christ. No reductionism here - or false mysticism. Faith and reason are not enemies." I firmly agree that faith and reason are not enemies(!) but what I don't understand is the claim that "faith in Christ depends on a number of propositions *about Christ". I just don't get that at all. Possibly I have a completely different understanding of the nature of language. To my mind it works the other way - it is the faith in Christ which is primary (a faith which is as much about a relationship as an intellectual apprehension) - and the propositional side is in a permanent state of catching up with the spiritual reality (fides quaerens intellectum and all that).

    JF said: "It is hard to accept that someone submits to the authority of scripture whilst thinking it full of errors. To what authority are they submitting in order to decide what the errors are? That authority, whatever it is, is trumping scripture." Surely there are two authorities which "trump" Scripture, one partial, one definitive. The partial one is the church - because the church came first and composed what then came to be accepted as Scripture. Where that is 'partial' is because Scripture represents the standard which the _present_day_church_ lies under. But that is a decision of the church to submit to the authority of Scripture (in practical terms); ultimately Scripture is a tool for the gathered community of believers (it is "useful" in the sense of 1 Tim 3.16). But the more fundamental point is that authority belongs foremost to God and any authority which Scripture has is derivative from that, and only has substance in so far as it is a witness to that. Scripture isn't autonomous. Again, this might be to do with how we understand language, and what we think language is capable of.

    JF also wrote: "if you are unable to tell me that, as an Anglican minister, you agree with the propositions of the 39 Articles, it makes it very difficult for me to know what you believe (and, whether or not you are even a Christian)."

    Why are the 39 Articles given the core authority here? Why can't the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed do the job? Or the Declaration of Assent? (where before being appointed I publicly "declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic creeds...")

    BTW the subject of 'error' within Scripture seems often to be bedevilled by a tacit acceptance of scientistic idolatry, that is, the only important questions are matters of scientific fact, and the authority of the Bible rests upon it being an exemplary scientific tract. The problem with that is that it makes scientia more important that sapientia - which is precisely the heresy which dominates our Western world, and causes such suffering. Much more interesting, from my point of view, is a question like: was the Last Supper a Passover meal? The Synoptics say it was, John says it wasn't - but the (scientific-level) "fact" of the case seems spiritually less important than the points made by the different gospel writers, especially the Johannine understanding that Jesus himself is the Passover lamb being sacrificed for the sins of the world (also Pauline). Seems to me that arguing about whether there is an "error" here (ie one account or the other is historically inaccurate) says nothing about the theology being set forward - and it's the theology which counts. Isn't it? I wouldn't want to say that theology can become completely detached from historical questions - you couldn't have incarnation otherwise - but to think of, eg, the four gospels as being four eye-witness accounts doesn't mean they have to agree in every detail (nor that the existence of such disagreements denies them authority). Sometimes the different perspectives, added together, produce a sum greater than the total of the parts, which is what I think happens in the NT.

    This seems to me to be why the positive side of expressing the faith (ie Scripture contains all things necessary....) is much more spiritually constructive. But I don't suppose that thought will be accepted!

  16. rev sam:
    1. 'what I don't understand is the claim that "faith in Christ depends on a number of propositions *about Christ". I just don't get that at all.'
    Pretty basic, I'd have thought. Unless 'Christ' has some verical content, the name is only a cypher. 'intellectus' (understanding) is not the same as 'scientia' (knowledge). Beware of fideism.
    2. your statement about 'the church trumping the Bible' might - might - have some valency if you could, Jurassic Park style, reproduce the first century church in Jerusalem. But you are bound, as an Anglican, to Art. XX.
    3. John DOESN'T say the Last Supper wasn't a passover meal. More broadly, if - like much liberal historical criticism -you discount the historicity of John's Gospel ('Did Jesus really say ...?'), you will pay a very heavy price in your theology - vide Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg etc.

  17. LT (glad you're no longer anonymous):
    on 1, Mt 7.21 is a strong statement that names are irrelevant (and I don't know what 'verical' means); I also don't believe it's possible to capture God in language, which I think we'd disagree on;

    on 2 you seem to agree with me;

    on 3 you seem very keen to place me in boxes which don't fit, eg Jesus seminar - my own view is that John is at least as historical as the others - that just betrays some assumptions that you're making, as if the only two options are strict Modernist inerrancy or utter dereliction and abasement before the God of liberal bible criticism! Fortunately the Church Fathers fall in neither camp.

    On the specific point I'd have thought John 18.28 is a pretty clear indication that it's _not_ Passover that has just been eaten, leaving aside the theological point that John is making. But I could be wrong. My whole point is that nothing much of great interest hangs on it.

  18. Dear Sam,

    thank you for your reply.

    Now, it was not me who first raised the Articles, but you appealed to their definition of authority to foreclose the debate on inerrancy. Now, it seems that you deny the Articles by saying that, at some point, the church decided to submit to the bible. But Article VI says that there was never any doubt about the authority of the scriptures in the church. There never was a time when the church submitted to scripture. In other words, the scriptures always were authoritative. The church did not make them so, it merely recognised their authority, an authority which they always had.

    It is also incorrect to say the church came first, since, at Pentecost, the church already had the OT. (Even if we take the church back to Adam and Eve they also had God's external revelation over them.)

    Of course scripture's authority derives from God. That is why it has supreme authority since we have no saving access to Him apart from them. But there is no way of appealing to God 'as he is in himself' without going through scripture. There is no separate source of revelation from God by which the scriptures may be judged for authoritative content.

    Why the 39 Articles? Well, if the creeds are enough you might as well be a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Why not the declaration of assent? That only tells me you know the Articles have their place in Anglican history: not that you actually believe what they teach.

    I am aware the Articles are no longer binding on Anglican clergy but they provide the reason for the Church of England's existence, which is to live under the supreme authority of scripture and that we are justfied only by what Jesus has done for us and not by our works.

    In other words, the creeds defend the gospel from false understandings of the nature of God and Christ. The Articles defend the gospel from false understandings of authority and works. Each of these errors is deadly. Protesting that you reject only some of these errors is not enough.

    Have a good Sunday,

    John Foxe.

  19. rev sam:
    'verical' was my mistyping of 'veridical'.
    1. Matt 7.21-22 means that real, obedient knowledge of God's will (propositional, even!)is essential, not the gnostic use of Jesus' name in exorcism (as in Acts 19.13). Personal and propositional knowledge are not opposed in faith; only a hangover of Bultmannian scepticism about the possibility of historical knowledge would make us think otherwise. Notitia, Assensus et Fiducia!
    2. No, I'm not agreeing with you here - I'm saying that if you want to accord primacy of 'the Church' over the Bible, you should become Roman Catholic (the Magisterium) or Orthodox ('the lving voice of tradition'). But Anglicanism states that the Church is subject to the Bible as God's Word written.
    3. I try to avoid attributing motives to people, and I didn;t think I was putting you 'in a box'. I was simply pointing out that most mainstream criticism doesn't think John is historically reliable or that Jesus said the things attributed to him there. I certainly didn't think you were as sceptical as that. What I was doing was cautioning against giving away too many hostages to fortune. (For the record, I've never heard inerrancy called 'Modernist' before! George Tyrrell, where are you?) As for John 18.28 vis a vis the Synoptics, it may be that pascha here refers to the whole 7 day festival, not just the hagigah. We can't be sure and should rush to declare a mistake. But I could be wrong, too.

  20. I'm not sure about Anglican innerrancy, but how about this for Roman Catholic inerrancy (taken from the online Catholic Enyclodpedia at New

    "For the last three centuries there have been author-theologians, exegetes, and especially aplogists -- such as Holden, Rohling, Lenormant, di Bartolo, and others -- who maintained, with more or less confidence, that inspiration was limited to moral and dogmatic teaching, excluding everything in the Bible relating to history and the natural sciences. They think that, in this way, a whole mass of difficulties against the inerrancy of the bible would be removed. but the Church has never ceased to protest against this attempt to restrict the inspiration of the sacred books. This is what took place when Mgr d'Hulst, Rector of the Institut Catholique of paris, gave a sympathetic account of this opinion in "Le Correspondant" of 25 Jan., 1893. The reply was quickly forthcoming in the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus of the same year. In that Encyclical Leo XIII said:

    It will never be lawful to restrict inspiration merely to certain parts of the Holy Scripture, or to grant that the sacred writer could have made a mistake. Nor may the opinion of those be tolerated, who, in order to get out of these difficulties, do not hesitate to suppose thatDivine inspiration extends only to what touches faith and morals, on the false plea that the true meaning is sought for less in what God has said than in the motive for which He has said it. (Denz., 1950)

    In fact, a limited inspiration contradicts Christian tradition and theological teaching."

  21. There's a nice statement by Augustine in Letter 82 (Chapter 1; Section 3) to Jerome:
    For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to 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.