When did the idea that Scripture was inerrant first come about?

Especially the NT like Paul’s letters, the gospels and so forth.

fisherman carl
When did the idea that Scripture was inerrant first come about?

Wasn’t it when Luther condemned the Catholic four senses of scripture and declared that instead we should only use the literal sense?

Does anyone else know the history of the idea? Patrick 457? Somebody?

God bless, Annem

“Inerrancy”, in the sense that the Bible was believed to be completely true in all of its parts (although not denying an allegorical sense, nor even denying that an allegorical sense could be the “literal” [primary] sense of some passages) was certainly believed by St Paul, but he spoke only of the Old Testament: “all Scripture is breathed by God” implies inerrancy, since God can not lie.

Now, as far as the NT goes, I think Augustine may have been the first to propose something like it, and inerrancy of either Testament is just as certainly rejected by Origen (who believed that there were material errors and absurdities in the Bible which would cause the observant and clever student of the Bible to look for the deeper meaning: Origen placed a near-exclusive emphasis on extreme allegorization, typical of the Alexandrian school).

The idea of inerrancy or infallibility in the Biblical text, such as is typified in its purest form by Fundamentalist Protestant Ruckmanites (who believe the English KJV is the only inspired Bible in the world, “more inspired” than the Greek and Hebrew) is very modern.

The typical “Chicago Statement” evangelical scholars’ view (inerrancy according to the literal or historico-grammatical sense at all points) feels modern, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it went back a lot further. It also may not go back much beyond the late 1800s.

As always, there is the doctrine proper, antecedent fragmentary doctrines, etc. which become modern formulations of doctrines through the development of doctrine (in response to heresy) as basically explained by Cardinal Newman. I wouldn’t be surprised if the full formulation of the modern doctrine of inerrancy (acknowledging antecedents in both the Fathers, and, more strongly, in the Reformers such as Calvin) didn’t arise (or, more accurately, is still arising) from the Church’s assault by the heresy of evolutionism and historical-critical assaults upon the Bible. Old-age geology, evolutionism, and historical-criticism all came in to their own around the same time - the early 19th century - and soon after came the Church’s (in the broadest sense) renewed thinking and emphasis on inerrancy. Even if the full elucidation of inerrancy is modern, or even if it has not been fully elucidated yet, does not mean the doctrine is not ancient and apostolic: the fullest expression of the Trinity was not given until at least four centuries after Christ’s death, and likely not for eight centuries: but the doctrine is ancient and apostolic. Doctrines are fully defined only as circumstances (generally the challenge of a heresy focussing on said doctrine) demand.

The Protestants felt the hit of these attacks the quickest and the hardest due to “sola Scriptura”, obviously (and thus the Protestants either liberalized to the point of Deism/apostasy or began elaborating the doctrine of inerrancy long before Catholics began to feel the shock, which was pretty much only after Divino Afflante Spiritu and mostly after Vatican II) but the Catholic religion is no less based in and completely dependent on the word of God written and the word of God incarnate.

The Jews at the time, even if they did not directly use the word ‘inerrant’, certainly believed that at least the Torah can never err. Since the idea is that God gave the Law to Moses, the suggestion that either (a) the written law is wrong and should be repealed and disobeyed or even the idea that (b) while the law is wrong and should be abolished, one must obey it as long as it is in effect is, unthinkable. To think that a commandment in one of the books attributed to Moses (who in turn received it from the Lord) is wrong is to renounce Judaism and is almost tantamount to blasphemy. Direct criticism of the Mosaic Law is impolitic and irreverent; one would almost as soon criticize God.

That did not mean, however, that other available possibilities of handling the precepts are taboo. As in our modern laws, © one could claim mitigating circumstances in order to justify transgression on a particular occasion without actually opposing the law or even (d) interpret the law in such a way as to technically change it. We could use the commandment forbidding work on sabbath as our example. While various passages specify some of the things that could count as work, be it lighting a fire, gathering wood or preparing food (cf. Exodus 16; 35:2-3; Numbers 15:32-36), there is no systematic definition of “work” in the text. So what happened is, what constitutes “work” was defined by common consent or by direct argument.

For example, the Torah does not say anything about warfare in connection with the sabbath rest, but we do know that by the Maccabean period (2nd century BC), fighting had come to be regarded as work by common consent. This explains why a group of Jews were killed because they refused to defend themselves on sabbath; they at least believed that fighting, even if in self-defense, would be breaking the sabbath rest (1 Maccabees 2:31-38). Thereafter, the Jews all agreed that they could defend themselves if human life was at stake. They would not fight back unless directly assaulted, but if they were, their act of self-defense would not count as a violation (1 Maccabees 2:39-42).

What about helping people whose lives are not threatened? This is where competing intepretations come in. Pietist groups like the Pharisees and the Essenes forbade the work involved in the treatment of minor ailments, but rabbinic literature discusses so many possibilities that it is evident that a lot of people then thought it was okay to at least bandage cut fingers or suchlike on a sabbath. The rabbis even offered solutions that do not involve ‘work’: on a sabbath, for instance, one could not treat toothache by directly applying vinegar (that would be ‘work’). However, it is permissible to put vinegar on food and then eat it, which would achieve the same result. If the rabbis resorted to such loopholes, we may well imagine that some people did think that they could licitly put vinegar on a sore tooth.

Yet another possibility is (e) to avoid or evade some laws without actually repealing them. Going back to the illustration, nursing someone for some people would count as ‘work’, but it is possible to achieve the results of nursing without technically working. It is likely that some disagreed with this basic interpretation and thought that nursing is not ‘work’ (possibility d). This is also a topic where various opinions exist as to what would count as ‘mitigating circumstances’ (c): how serious must an illness be to justify treatment on a sabbath?


Still another possibility is (f) to propose that the law be extended - sometimes even criticize it for not going too far enough. The written law, even if it is supposed to cover every aspect of life, is very incomplete in that it lacks details; consquently it had to be expanded and applied in all kinds of ways. For example, Leviticus 18:12-14 forbids in so many words marriages and sexual relations between aunt and nephew, but the text is silent on marriages between uncle and niece: then again these laws of incest were written with regard to males. The Law is silent on the issue on uncles marrying their nieces - how will we deal with such a situation then? Josephus thinks that uncle-niece marriage were at least mildly discreditable, but not really illegal (Antiquities 12.185-189). On the other hand, the sectarians at Qumran (as expressed in the Damascus Document 5.7-11) expanded upon this law, thinking that these anti-incest laws should also be applied the other way around: uncle-niece marriages are forbidden. The authors of the work do not directly criticize Moses (for reasons mentioned above), but they do criticize other Jews for allowing men to marry their nieces. Now it is doubtful that there were many uncle-niece marriages, but what we have here is a straightforward legal argument: the law should be extended to cover analogous cases, or it should not be.

And they marry each one his brother’s daughter or sister’s daughter. But Moses said: “To your mother’s sister you may not draw near. For she is your mother’s near relation.” Now the precept of incest is written from the point of view of males, but the same (law) applies to women, so if a brother’s daughter uncovers the nakedness of a brother of her father, she is (forbidden) a close relationship.

The final category is (g) creating supplementary rules and practices that govern precisely how laws are to be fulfilled. The Pharisees are famous for their ‘traditions’, rulings inherited from previous Pharisees that were not in the written law. Let me give an example of a Pharisaic tradition here. Jeremiah had forbidden Jews to carry burdens out of their houses on sabbath (Jeremiah 17:19-27), which made festive dining very difficult, since the easiest way for friends to dine together was for each family to bring a cooked dish, and sabbaths were the only days when socializing was possible (since people worked hard on most other days). The Pharisees thus ruled that, when several houses are next to each other along an alley or around a court, they could join them with a series of doorposts and lintels ('eruv), in effect making them a single ‘house’. People could then bring pots and dishes and have communal meals with each other on sabbaths - since under this logic they never really went out of the ‘house’. In effect the Pharisees have thus evolved a ‘tradition’ (definition g) that avoided (definition e) Jeremiah’s restriction.

The downside of this possibility is that people who do not follow a particular practice might think that those who do are transgressing, while people who do follow some such practice may think that those who do not are transgressing. It is said that the Sadducees (who of course had ‘traditions’ of their own) objected to the Pharisaic use of 'eruvin. They were not convinced of the logic behind 'eruvin and thought that the Pharisees were breaking the law, but they seem not to have done anything to force them to their own more stricter view. The Pharisees meanwhile did not criticize Sadducees for eating in their individual houses. Doing so was not against the Law or even against Pharisaic tradition, which in this case was permissive rather than proscriptive.

So there. It’s not exactly related to the question, but it does give a somewhat faint picture. While it was out of the question that the God-given law could ever be in error (Jews thought it could not), it did not prevent them from adopting different possibilities of understanding and observing it - which sometimes could even border (from a hard-liner’s perspective) on going beyond and ‘changing’ the law.

I kind of agree. At least I do know that the concept of the Bible as a self-interpeting, complete-in-itself divine manual did arise during the mid-1800s, a product of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura fused with the popular evangelistic 19th-century ‘Puritanic Biblicism’ movement with its romantic idealization of 16th- and 17th-century Puritan piety, those ‘good ol’ days’ back in time when everything was (supposedly) simpler, without all that clutter and claptrap. What the theologian John W. Nevin wrote in 1861 pretty much sums up the ideology behind this movement:

In this sacred volume, we are told, God has been pleased to place his word in full, by special inspiration, as a supernatural directory for the use of the world to the end of time; for the very purpose of providing a sufficient authority for faith, that might be independent of all human judgment and will … The great matter accordingly is to place the bible in every man’s hands, and to have him able to read it, that he may then follow it in his own way. The idea seems to be, that the bible was published in the first place as a sort of divine formulary or text book for the world to follow … so that the dissemination of its printed text throughout the world, without note or comment, is the one thing specially needful and specially to be relied upon for the full victory of Christianity, from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth.

Nevin’s statement about “the dissemination of its printed text throughout the world, without note or comment” is an allusion to the American Bible Society, founded in 1816, the sole objective of which was “to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment.” The idea is that getting the Word out into many hands as possible is the only way to save modern society. This stipulation that ‘just the words’ are to be printed without notes of any kind reflects the Puritanic Biblicist ideal that the Bible was complete unto itself, spoke for itself, and required no supplemental explanations or interpretations. The Fundamentalist movement of today is really the theological heir of this ideal. I think the Fundamentalist version of biblical inerrancy - in fact Fundamentalism itself - arose as a defensive reaction against the rise of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the development of higher criticism during the 19th century, both of which really challenged any reading of the Bible that treated it as an empirical account of human history or as the literal Word of God.

the title question sounds like a question from trivial pursuit.

It suggests that there was a time when scripture(s) were not considered inerrant and then a time when they were considered inerrant.

In this fundamental sense, the question cannot be answered. I suspect that the writer(s) of scripture expected them to be taken seriously, so the actual answer would be that they were considered inerrant from the very beginning.

If you are obsessing about the word “inerrant” then the previous posts may help you.

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