Biblical inerrancy is a modern invention

I was reading some of the work of Ronald Hendel and something came as such a surprise to me that I had to repost it here. Hendel is a highly respected scholar and, while he’s largely a critical biblical scholar, he’s also written about the textual criticism of the Bible in early modern Europe. After showing how the early Protestants of the Reformation were uninterested in inerrancy and freely acknowledged things like contradictions or small mistakes in the Bible, Hendel writes;

The doctrine of uniform inerrancy in the literal sense across all details is an innovation of the Catholic-Protestant polemics after [the Council of] Trent. (pg. 592)

The paper is available here. It’s a highly recommended read.


Looks like an interesting read, will give my comment once I’m done reading it.

I have just gotten to this part and it shocked me a bit that even this early the early reformers took a very liberal and critical stance on Scripture but I love what they say.

Similarly, in his commentaries Calvin is not
bothered by errors in the text where they are unrelated to matters of faith and

So far a good read and it does show that the idea of Biblical inerrancy was made as a result of the aftermath of the Reformation and Trent. Haven’t gotten to the end yet but I suppose it talks about how this idea spread its way among Protestants? Guess I’ll have to keep on reading.

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I did a bit of searching since that paper and have further found an unpublished paper that documents the non-inerrancy of some of the early fathers of the Church, including Origen and John Chrysostom (of course with reference to established scholarship). It seems that until the Council of Trent, people freely either took to the perfection or imperfection of scripture with zero awareness that there was supposed to be this doctrine of inerrancy.


Makes sense with Origen and the early church did hold to the idea of a spiritual understanding of scripture and many of the them from the 1st century to the mid-2nd century had to make sense of all the messanic prophecies in the OT that didn’t happen the way it was expected along with somehow finding messanic prophecies in text such as Hosea 11:1 being seen as messanic in Matthew 2:15. Makes me wonder what Matthew or the scribe who later wrote it under Matthew (I hold to the idea that Matthew and John, if not written by them where later wrote down under a oral tradition by those two apostles.) saw in the text to connect it to Jesus flight to Egypt?

The authors of the NT didn’t see Hosea 11:1 as a messianic prophecy. As has been shown in scholarly circles for a while now, but surprisingly no one knows about it outside of those circles, the NT viewed the OT not as containing specific prophecies about Jesus but as prefiguring the life of Jesus. That is, for example, Matthew understood Jesus’s life and ministry to be renarrating the history of the nation of Israel.


Yes, I remember hearing about this, makes sense. I also remember hearing on how Matthew along with Jesus being the new Israel was that Jesus was also in a sense a “new Moses” and that he led to a better Promised Land.

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In case you’re interested here’s a paper on the subject.

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Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Actually, Yeshua led the people into the Promised Land, and the new Yeshua into the better!

Time is short so I’ll have to come back to this, but interesting stuff @Korvexius.


I also want to add that in the aftermath of reading this paper, I did a lot more research into some other material and substantially expanded the Wikipedia page on Biblical inerrancy and described its origins there. Here is the full account I wrote copied and pasted from Wiki:

The first formulations of the doctrine of inerrancy had not been established according to the authority of a council, creed, or church, until the post-Reformation period.[20] Origen of Alexandria thought there were minor discrepancies between the accounts of the Gospels but dismissed them due to their lack of theological importance, writing “let these four [Gospels] agree with each other concerning certain things revealed to them by the Spirit and let them disagree a little concerning other things” ( Commentary on John 10.4). Later, John Chrysostom was also unconcerned with the notion that the scriptures were in congruence with all matters of history unimportant to matters of faith.

But if there be anything touching time or places, which they have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said … [but those things] which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine nowhere is any ofthem found to have disagreed, no not ever so little ( Homily on Matthew 1.6)

In his Commentary on Galatians , Jerome also argued that Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 for acting like a Jew around the Jewish faction of the early Church was an insincere “white lie” as Paul himself had done the same thing.[21] In response, Augustine rebuked Jerome’s interpretation and affirmed that the scriptures contained no mistakes in them, and that admitting a single mistake would shed doubt on the entire scripture.[22]

It seems to me that the most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. . . . If you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement … there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, . . . the author declared what was not true ( Letters of St Augustine 28.3).

By the time of the Reformation, there was still no official doctrine of inerrancy. For Martin Luther (1483-1546), for example, “inspiration did not insure inerrancy in all details. Luther recognizes mistakes and inconsistencies in Scripture and treated them with lofty indifference because they did not touch the heart of the Gospel.”[23] When Matthew appears to confuse Jeremiah with Zechariah in Matt. 27:9, Luther wrote that “Such points do not bother me particularly.”[23] The Christian humanist and one of the leading scholars of the northern Renaissance, Erasmus (1466-1536), was also unconcerned with minor errors not impacting theology, and at one point, thought that Matthew mistook one word for another. In a letter to Johannes Eck, Erasmus wrote that “Nor, in my view, would the authority of the whole of Scripture be instantly imperiled, as you suggest, if an evangelist by a slip of memory did put one name for another, Isaiah for instance instead of Jeremiah, for this is not a point on which anything turns.”[22] The same point of view held true for John Calvin (1509-1564), who wrote that “It is well known that the Evangelists were not very concerned with observing the time sequences.”[20] The doctrine of inerrancy, however, began to develop as a response to these Protestant attitudes. Whereas the Council of Trent only held that the Bible’s authority was “in matters of faith and morales”, the Jesuit and cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) argued in his 1586 De verbo Dei , the first volume of his multi-volume Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei adversus hujus temporis haereticos that “There can be no error in Scripture, whether it deals with faith or whether it deals with morals/mores, or whether it states something general and common to the whole Church, or something particular and pertaining to only one person.” Bellarmine’s views were extremely important in his condemnation of Galileo and Catholic-Protestant debate, as the Protestant response was to also affirm his heightened understanding of inerrancy.[20]

Yes, to anyone who is wondering, I do substantial amount of editing on Wikipedia.


Thank you for the research and review. It is surprising that inerrancy is more a Catholic position than Protestant in a way given the current climate, but makes sense.


I wonder what Jerome’s answer would be with regard to the reliability of scripture, beyond his well known quote,

Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.

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The subject is interesting to me. But I also have heard reference to “the ;last hundred years” for the emphasis on biblical inerrancy. This writer seems to want to put things back to the Council of Trent. How would people’s concept of inerrancy be different in earlier eras when many were less literate than now and probably did not have books as we know them at home anyway???..

I was hesitant to access this paper through the link you provided since seemed to want access to all my contacts…guess I am a bit skittish on this. Will read more of what others here say.

Evidently Augustine of Hippo defended the biblical text in a way that you and I would call inerrant…As with everything else, the issue of inerrancy probably has many arguments back and forth…

Academia is entirely safe. It’s basically the website where academics of all fields freely share and upload their work. Millions of researchers (and non-researchers) are on it.

I have seen reference to the claim that biblical inerrancy as an official doctrine emerges in the last 200 years, although there is no question that it became a significant theological controversy during the Reformation. I’ve not yet read about how it became an “official” doctrine in the last 200 years by the authors making this claim.

I didn’t put it back to the Council of Trent, I (not me, actually, but Hendel) put it shortly after the Council of Trent with the writings of Robert Bellarmine.

Augustine was himself an inerranist but by no means in the time of Augustine was inerrancy an official doctrine established by any creed or council. The point is that before modern time, whether or not you were an inerranist was more or less an opinion rather than a serious theological position.


But once they get your email address they pester you with 4 or 5 emails a day. It is amazing how many times my name comes up in papers that are uploaded. :wink:

But I have come across some interesting reads there.

I think they were doing that to me to. You need to go on the settings of your account and disable notifications / unsubscribe from their emails. Worked for me.

Thanks to you and Bill for your insights onto the workings of that website…will try out later…I would also think the issue of “inerrancy as a doctrine:” is interesting. Would it not have been impacted by literacy rates among the various generations? that is…if most people cannot read then what does the issue of “inerrancy” in a text they cannot read actually mean? If most hear biblical texts only in a language they do not know, such as Latin at some point, then what care they about inerrancy? It is, perhaps, just a magic text in a garbled unknown tongue?? OK …I will visit… Thanks again…

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Have downloaded it and will read eventually. But how complex is this subject? “American belief in Scripture was never as simple as believers in the Bible alone assumed. …assumptions fed upon the characteristic hermeneutic of the age …” this is from a passage of America’s God, p. 376, by Mark A Noll…so I wonder what Hendel means when he writes??

Well thanks for the ref, Korvexius

I hope @MOls made it over here to discuss inerrancy, if she’s interested.

Actually, the previous section of the Wikipedia article gives the Catholic definition of inerrancy from Vatican II, which basically says that the Scripture is inerrant only in matters related to salvation. “Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” The Council added: “Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.”

Good job! You’re more of a history than a recent-history buff, but I’d like to see you rewrite the last bit of that history section:

The other side of this debate focused largely around the magazine Christianity Today and the book entitled The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell.[27] The author asserted that losing the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture was the thread that would unravel the church and Conservative Christians rallied behind this idea.

This was among the controversies during the Southern Baptist Convention conservative resurgence; ultimately the SBC adopted the position that the Bible is both inerrant and infallible as outlined in their 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message.

The chronology is Battle for the Bible (1976), International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1976), Chicago Statement on Inerrancy (1978), and then the disgraced duo of Paige Patterson and Dr. Paul Pressler lead the conservative takeover of Southern Baptist seminaries starting in 1979. According to church historian Roger Olson, “liberal” theologians didn’t exist at SBC seminaries, so the takeover really amounted to throwing out the moderates who subscribed to an “infallible” and inspired text, but not one without errors of detail.

Essentially, “inerrancy” was never an evangelical distinctive or requirement until it was co-opted for political purposes by the men who gave us the present Culture War. Lots of great stuff on Roger Olson’s blog about this. A few links:

In other words, to me , when I say the Bible is “infallible,” I mean it is “perfect with respect to purpose.” John Piper, in an essay that can be found on his web site, defines inerrancy that way—as “perfection with respect to purpose.” I think that is not a good definition or description of “inerrancy.” Inerrancy implies much more than that—at least to the “person in the pew.”

While in seminary during the mid-1970s I served as a youth pastor at a church that existed on that boundary. … As an ordained minister specializing in youth ministry (while in seminary and then later while working on my Ph.D.) I received monthly newsletters from our denomination’s headquarters. These were aimed at us—youth ministers. Seemingly suddenly, around 1975 or 1976, the “tone” of the newsletters changed from being mostly positive to being almost solely and wholly negative. We were to identify evils in American society and steer our students away from them. … The whole focus shifted—toward hating evil people who were hedonists and those people were almost all the makers and shapers of American culture.

Then, on a completely different level, came the bombshell book The Battle for the Bible by evangelical leader Harold Lindsell. It openly condemned as false evangelicals all who defected from the author’s idea of “biblical inerrancy”—naming names and “exposing” this defection from true evangelical orthodoxy.


“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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