“The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind.” Thus reads Biola University’s (and Talbot School of Theology’s) Articles of Faith—a document that remains unchanged since it was written shortly after the turn of the century. As the Dean of Talbot and as one who has been on the faculty for 27 years, I can say that this is a conviction that runs very deep in our faculty. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God and, as such, is truthful in what it affirms and can be completely trusted.

The inerrancy of Scripture was the theme of this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) on November 19-21 in Baltimore. Interest in this year’s theme was high with over 2400 professors, scholars, teachers, pastors, missionaries, and students in attendance.

When the ETS was founded in 1949, inerrancy was the sole doctrinal statement that formed the basis for membership. The statement reads: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” An annual reaffirmation of this doctrinal basis (to which has now been added a statement on the Trinity) continues to be required for every member.

There were many excellent papers presented this year related to the theme of the conference. I was particularly grateful, however, for the Presidential address given by Robert W. Yarbrough (Covenant Seminary and formerly chair of the New Testament Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) entitled, “Cognitive Reverence for the Bible,” that will be published in the next edition of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. In the paper, he effectively dismantled two of the oft-heard objections to the doctrine of inerrancy: (1) that it is a recent development associated with the Fundamentalist movement, and (2) that it is a North American development and out of touch with the convictions of the rest of the world. I want to share a few of Professor Yarbrough’s comments along with some of my own.

Inerrancy as a Recent Development

There are a number of scholars who assume that the doctrine of inerrancy emerged as a response to the skeptical form of biblical criticism associated with Modernism. Biola, in fact, was a leader in this response to radical criticism in its early years. Yet to assume that this was the beginning of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a complete misunderstanding of the universal conviction of the church since its beginning. The Evangelical response to Modernism was simply an application of a long-held assumption of the church about the Bible to the newer trends in biblical studies.

Yarbrough points to the helpfulness of an essay by John Woodbridge titled, “Evangelical Self-Identity and the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy,” that puts this doctrine in historical perspective.[1] In it, Woodbridge reaffirms the claims of Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield that the idea of biblical inerrancy reflects the universal teaching of the Christian churches since the patristic era. He then cites a wide range of patristic, Catholic, and Reformed authors throughout history in support of this claim.

Augustine, for example, was especially insistent on the complete trustworthiness of Scripture. In a letter he wrote in AD 405, Augustine explains how he understands alleged errors in the Bible:

I have learned to yield this respect and honor 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.[2]

Augustine’s response corresponds precisely to our modern formulations of the doctrine of inerrancy. It takes into account the possibility of errors in the transmission process as well as the role of hermeneutics in arriving at the proper interpretation. We would continue to affirm that Scripture is infallible, not our interpretations.

Thus, at Talbot (as well as at many other evangelical seminaries), we strive diligently to refine and develop a hermeneutical method that will enable us to be as objective as we possibly can in the interpretation of Scripture. We work hard at the biblical languages, learn the relevant literary genres and the array of literary forms represented in the Bible, and immerse ourselves in learning the social, political, and cultural contexts of the Ancient Near East and the Roman World.

Inerrancy as a North American Phenomenon

I have often heard it said that the doctrine of inerrancy is a distinctively North American construct and that it does not reflect the convictions of the global church. This appears to be the drift of Michael Bird’s recent essay, “Inerrancy Is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA” in a just-published book entitled, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013).[3]

Bird appears to be more concerned about some of the ways that inerrancy is defined and articulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy than by the concept of inerrancy itself. Of course, if Augustine’s view of the Scripture did indeed reflect the convictions of the church throughout history, then inerrancy was by no means a North American pheonomenon and Bird’s concern is at least partly resolved.

Yarbrough takes us a long way in recognizing that the church around the world does, in fact, view the Bible as inerrant (even if it doesn’t use the term). Yarbrough argues that “Multinational reverence for the Bible is integral to the astonishing spread of Christianity in recent generations.” In fact, he contends, the global church’s reverence for the Bible is often more conservative than the convictions of their US brothers and sisters. Yarbrough cites Korean-American professor Sydney Park’s observation about believers from around the world who met at the Lausanne Conference in 2010: “I discovered that they were theologically much more conservative than US evangelicals, especially in their high view of Scripture.”

The persecuted church tends to hold very tightly to the Word of God as completely true and trustworthy. Yarbrough looks in particular at churches in Romania and in Africa—places where he regularly travels to serve. With regard to Romania, he observes,

Under the dark years of communism determined believers found ways to learn their Bibles better and serve Christ in costly ways despite deprivation and sometimes persecution… Although it seemed like the night of totalitarian rule was endless, plans were made and prayers were offered for a day when untrammeled study of God's Word at a high academic level would be possible. Many of the key figures in this planning were inerrantists.

I travelled with Bob to Romania to teach in 1990 just six months after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. I was not only amazed at their hunger for studying the Bible hours on end and the strength of their convictions about the Scripture as the trustworthy word of God, but their testimony of how the Scripture gave them hope through the horribly difficult years of communism.

My own contact with believers from around the world would confirm the observations made by Yarbrough and Park. Believers in Asia, Africa, India, and around the world tend to have a very high view of Scripture that corresponds in large measure to what we call a doctrine of inerrancy.

In a recent survey of our current graduate students at Talbot School of Theology, the respondents were asked to identify their top reasons for choosing Talbot. The overwhelming top response was because of our institution’s high view of Scripture. Since 60% of Talbot’s students are non-white with a large number coming from overseas, this contributes to the impression that inerrancy is far from being a parochial doctrine.

At Talbot, we believe that the Bible is the very word of God that is life-giving and life-changing.

[1] in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), 104-138.

[2] Augustine, Letters of St. Augustine, 82.3 (as cited in Woodbridge, “Evangelical Self-Identity,” 112.

[3] in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 145-73.