On the Word Inerrancy!

Inerrancy: Meaning and Usage.

Arthur Carl Piepkorn produced a terribly useful study of the history of this term back in 1965 (“What Does the Word Inerrancy Mean”? Sept 1965). He pointed out that the word was nowhere to be found in the Confessional literature of the dogmatic tradition of the Lutheran Church. A survey of the Reformed dogmatic literature from the seventeenth century would reveal its absence there as well. Furthermore, it could not be located in the Confessional literature of the early Church. PiepKorn combed the lexical literature and found it was a very recent word in theological parlance. Its original meaning was as a technical term for “fixed stars.” It first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as a term used in 1652, again as an astronomical term. It does not appear in a theological context until the nineteenth century when Thomas Hartwell Horne first used it in the seventh edition of his Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scripture (part 2 of volume 2, P.81), where ironically he says, “Absolute inerrancy is impracticable in any printed book.” It is first used in a religious context when Edward Pusey referred in 1865 to “The old ultramontane doctrine of the inerrancy of the Pope, i.e., that of his preservation from error.


Its meaning need not be laboured, but what is of interest is its referent: as soon as it enters theological parlance, immediately it has reference to the original autographs exclusively. This is exceedingly important.
Most laymen and other non-theologically-oriented folk have always sneered at how theologians can argue over such hair-splitting technicalities that they miss the big picture and really practical side to life. True as that may well be at times, how many of you would be happy to have John 1:1 translated, “In the beginning was Logic, Logic was with God and Logic was God,” as Reformed theologian, Gordon Clark, has advocated? Or perhaps you would be happy with the feminist rendering, In the beginning, was Wisdom and Wisdom was God,” because some feminist theologians feel this is one way of feminising the Trinity. The change of one landmark word in the theological terrain can alter the entire landscape! Such is what has happened with the substitution of the non-Confessional word “inerrancy” for the catholic term infallible. Because “inerrancy” always and only has as its referent the “original autographs,” it always invites the quest for the historical text, which in turn always culminates in the quest for the historical Jesus. The change of but one word has resulted in the complete destruction of the classic Protestant view of Scripture, and yet its would-be Reformation advocates continue to bow to the political pressure of non-Reformation, “evangelical” communities.

Don McKim has treated the reason for this development in the following terms:
“The preference of neo-evangelicals for the term “infallibility” of Scripture rather than “inerrancy” is reflected by their views of faith and reason, Scriptures’ authority, and inspiration…Infallibility refers to the Scriptures’ complete trustworthiness and their reliability to accomplish their purpose (McKim 1985-93).”


“The preference for the term “infallibility”, when applied to Scripture, is a distinguishing mark of those in the “moderate” and “left” wings of neo-evangelicalism (McKim: 89).”

Hence, because neo-evangelicals have co-opted “infallibility” and given it a new and modern meaning, those who would hold to a traditional, catholic view have recklessly abandoned this very important word and as a result, have been forced into the lap of B.B. Warfield and his “inerrancy.”

Two significant losses resulted: (1) since the word “inerrancy” only and always refers to the original autographs, advocates of catholic orthodoxy have surrendered the bird in the hand, an extant infallible text, for the two inerrant fowl in the bush, which turn out to be non-existent; (2) they have conceded a new definition for the word “infallible” which should never been allowed. Thus they have permitted the modern-neo-orthodox and neo-evangelical, to set the agenda and define the terms.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, by surrendering the word “infallibility” one devalues and causes to become dated that great body of sixteenth and seventeenth-century dogmatic, exegetical, and Confessional literature, all of which used exclusively the word infallible and never “inerrancy.”

A reclamation act is in order.

An extract from “The Ecclesiastical Text” (Chapter 3, p97-99) by Theodore P Letis.

(James R Hamilton, July 2019)
Sermon Audio

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