The Short History of Inerrancy

Charles Hodge was born in New England in 1797. He spent 27 years (1851-1878) as the principal of Princeton Theological Seminary. This post is dedicated to Hodge because he was a influential theologian who laid the groundwork for today’s fundamentalist Christian view of scriptural inerrancy and infallibility. That’s right, inerrancy and infallibility can only be traced back to the mid-1800’s. Wikipedia notes:

According to an article in Theology Today published in 1975, “There have been long periods in the history of the church when biblical inerrancy has not been a critical question. It has in fact been noted that only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy.”

Coleman (1975). “Biblical Inerrancy: Are We Going Anywhere?”. Theology Today Volume 31, No. 4.

Some Christians distinguish between inerrancy and infallibility, though most probably use the terms interchangeably. Regardless of how one understands those terms, the following comments about Hodge make it clear what his position was. I’ve bolded some portions.

Although he denied that the human authors of Scripture were mere “machines” who wrote mechanically under divine inspiration, Hodge insisted that inspiration and infallibility extend to the very words and not merely to the ideas of the Bible. He elevated the divine aspects of Scripture and denigrated the human when he wrote that “it is enough to impress any mind with awe, when it contemplates the Sacred Scriptures filled with the highest truths, speaking with authority in the name of God, and so miraculously free from the soiling touch of human fingers.”1 … Without any doubt, then, Hodge presented one of the highest and most absolute views of the sole authority of Scripture in the history of Christian theology. Against what he perceived to be liberal Protestant theology’s diminution of that authority in favor of experience and reason, Hodge inflated the doctrine of scripture to a role of prominence unparalleled before his time.

Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform, Intervarsity Press 1999, pp. 559

1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.:Eerdmans, 1973), 1:10.

What is the point of all this? It is simply to point out that the doctrines of inerrancy/infallibility are newcomers to the scene. They do not represent ancient Christian traditions. I recognize that Latter-day Saint theology has various elements that are also not found in ancient Christianity, but we believe that modern prophets have and are revealing new things. This is not so for mainstream Christians. They have to deal with the fact that a very important doctrine was “discovered” in the Bible many many centuries after it was written.

Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

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4 comments on “The Short History of Inerrancy

  1. Matt says:

    The site looks great James!

    Interesting point on comparing ”discovering” a doctrine to modern revelation.

  2. Gundeck says:

    I have not visited your site in a while, I must compliment you on your layout and content. I mean Hodge what more can you ask for? I don’t want to do a drive by comment and I must admit first that I have not read Olsen’s books but I cannot understand where Olsen gets the idea that “Hodge inflated the doctrine of scripture to a role of prominence unparalleled before his time.”

    We can certainly disagree on inerrancy and infallibility while still pointing out that Olsen seems to have missed this call by a wide mark. If you examine Hodge and the theology he professed, confessed, and subscribed I think any honest evaluation points directly to the Westminster Standards. Westminster calls Scripture “perfect”. I would not dispute that the doctrines of scripture have developed and been more clearly defined over the past 2000 years, especially as controversies have crept into the Church, but Hodge certainly is not unique in his high view of Scripture in the Reformed tradition, in fact he references Westminster in his writing on Scripture.

    It is also true that Hodge is directly confronting enlightenment theology in general and Schleiermacher in particular but Olsen is simply historically incorrect to claim that Hodge is inflating the doctrine of Scripture unless he is able to explain away the views of Calvin, Turritan, Westminster divines etc. If you are interested I provided a link to Hodges systematic theology (the page referenced in the post) on the CCEL site.

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