Do You Have To Be A Calvinist To Believe In Inerrancy?

March 30, 2015

by Dr. Norman Geisler

**This article was originally published at

Many leaders in the modern inerrancy movement are strong Calvinists. From this some have inferred that inerrancy is a uniquely Calvinistic doctrine. They claim that the prime movers on International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1978-1989) were strong Calvinists.  This is true, however the ICBI was not exclusively made up of strong Calvinists and they were by no means the beginning of the inerrancy movement. In fact, the doctrine of inerrancy was held by the Early Church Fathers and on through Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.  So, it is historically inaccurate to claim that inerrancy originated with Calvinism.

Medieval Church Inerrantists
Belief in inerrancy of Scripture has been the standard view of orthodox Christianity from the beginning (John Hannah, Inerrancy and The Church, 1984), long before there were Calvinist in name or doctrine.  St Augustine (4th cent. A.D.) held to the inerrancy of Scripture, proclaiming that “When they write that He has taught and said…the members put down what they had come to know at the dictation of the Head. Therefore whatever He wanted us to read concerning His words and deeds, He commanded the disciple, His hands, to write. Hence one cannot but receive what he reads in the Gospels, though written by the very hand of the Lord Himself” (Harmony of the Gospels, 1.35.54). He added that “by the admission of a falsehood here, the authority of the Holy Scripture given for the faith of all coming generations is to be made wholly uncertain and wavering” (Letters 40.3.5).

As for alleged errors in the Bible, he declared emphatically that “it is not allowable to say, the author of this books is mistaken.” No error can be in the original text which was breathed out by God.  Rather, said Augustine, “either the manuscript [copy] is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have misunderstood” (Against Faustus, 11.5).

The Reformers on Inerrancy
Space only allows comment on the two major reformers.  Martin Luther (d. 1546) declared, “the Scriptures, although they were written by men, are neither of men nor from men but from God” (Luther Works, 35:153).  He added, “I have learned to ascribe this honour (namely the infallibility) only to books which are termed canonical, so that I confidently believe that not one of their authors erred” (cited by Reu, The Scriptures, 17). Luther went so far as to assert that “whoever is so bold that he ventures to accuse God of fraud and deception in a single word blasphemes God” (Luther’s Works, 37:26).

John Calvin (d. 1564) also defended the full inerrancy of Scripture, saying, “Nor is it sufficient to believe God is true, and cannot lie or deceive, unless you feel firmly persuaded that every word which proceeds from him is sacred, inviolable truth” (Institutes, 3.2.6).  For the writers of Scripture were “sure and authentic amanuenses of the Holy Spirit; and, therefore, their writings are regarded as the oracles of God…” (ibid., 4.8.9).

The truth is that on crucial points of Five-Point Calvinism (like Limited Atonement) up to the time of Calvin there were no strong Calvinists among the great leaders of the church, with the exception of the late Augustine (see Geisler, Chosen but Free, Appendix Three).

Old Princeton Calvinists on Inerrancy
Much of the impetus for giving Calvinism credit for the doctrine of inerrancy is taken  from the Old Princetonians, B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge, who provided a strong defense of inerrancy just before the turn of the century.  Their books did indeed serve as a confirmation of the doctrine of inerrancy in the 20th century.  And they were definitely Calvinists, and they spearheaded the movement to preserve the belief in doctrine of inerrancy (see their book Inspiration, 1881; Baker reprint, 1979).   They wrote, “The New Testament writers continually assert the Scriptures of the Old Testament…ARE THE WORD OF GOD. What their writers said God said” (p. 29).  This means that “the Holy Spirit was present…and everywhere securing the errorless expression in language of the thought designed by God” (p. 17).  However, “We do not assert that the common text, but only that the original autographic text was inspired” (ibid.).

It is also true that many of the leaders of the later ICBI inerrancy movement were strong Calvinists.  John Gerstner, R.C. Sproul, James Boice, J. I. Packer, and Roger Nicole come to mind. However, not all ICBI leaders were strong Calvinists.  Earl Radmacher, Harold Hoehner, Bill Bright, Walter Kaiser, and myself come to mind.  The truth be told, if all noses were counted, a majority of those who signed and/or supported the famous “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (1978) were not strong Calvinists.  They were either moderate Calvinist, so-called “Cal-minians,” Armenians, Wesleyans, or some other label.  This would include a majority of the Southern Baptist leaders (like W. A. Criswell, Paige Patterson, Richard Land, Rush Bush, and William E. Nix) and the majority of laypersons.  It would also include others like Robert Preus and other Lutherans, J. P. Moreland, Josh McDowell, Kenneth Gangel, and many others Christian leaders.

Indeed, many ICBI leaders and signers would identify themselves as Arminians or Weleyans.  At least nine of them signed the ICBI Chicago Statement: Allan Coppedge, Wilbur Dayton, Ralph Earle, Eldon R. Fuhrman, Dennis F. Kinlaw, Daryl McCarthy. James Earl Massey, A Skevington Wood, and Laurence W. Wood (Vic Reasoner, The Importance of Inerrancy: How Scriptural Authority has Eroded in Modern Wesleyan Theology, Evansville, IN: Fundamental Wesleyan Publishers, 2013, p. 64).  Indeed, McCarthy later was chosen by ICBI leaders to write the chapter on the Wesleyan view on inerrancy in the ICBI sponsored book on the topic (titled Inerrancy and the Church, ed. by John Hannah, Moody, 1984).

A Statement of the Wesleyan (Arminian) View on Inerrancy
John Wesley wrote: “The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth.  Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, nor excess” (Preface to Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, p. 5).  He added, “the Proverbs of Solomon…were the dictates of the Spirit of God in Solomon; so that it is by Solomon that he speaks” (ibid. 3:1830).  Also, he said, the Bible is “the only standard of truth” (The Bicentennial  Edition of the Works of John Wesley (BE), 13:137).  He would not allow any error in the Bible, saying, “Nay, will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture, shake the authority of the whole” (BE Works, 11:504).  British Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke wrote, “Men may err, but the Scriptures cannot: for it is the Word of God himself, who can neither mistake, deceive, nor be deceived” (The Miscellaneous Works of Adam Clarke, 12:132).  Wesley himself said emphatically, “Nay, if there be any mistake in the Bible there may well as be a thousand.  If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth” (Wesley, Journals, 24 July 1776).

The doctrine of inerrancy does not belong to any one denomination or section of Christendom.  It belongs to the whole church.  It was articulated long before there were any Presbyterians or Methodists by Early Fathers, St. Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas.  John Calvin held it, but so did so did John Wesley, and, as noted, the ICBI affirmation of it (1978) was signed by many Wesleyans.  In fact one Wesleyan scholar, Daryl McCarty, wrote the article on the Wesleyan view of inerrancy for the official ICBI book on the topic edited by John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church (Moody, 1984).  Inerrancy is not uniquely Presbyterian or Baptist.  Inerrancy is neither a late nor a denominational doctrine.  It is not provincial but universal.  Rather, it is the foundation for every group that names the Name of Christ.  And, as the psalmist said, “If the foundation is destroyed, then what shall the righteous do” (Psa. 11:3).

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