The Errors of Inerrancy: #7 Biblical Inerrancy’s Myth-Making Machine, Unveiled

[The Errors of Inerrancy: A ten-part series on why Biblical Inerrancy censors the Scriptures and divides Evangelicals.]

#7. Biblical Inerrancy's Myth-Making Machine, Unveiled

Proponents of Biblical Inerrancy perpetuate a myth that the Church has always declared the Bible to be error-free, including minute details of science and history. History tells us a different story, that Biblical Inerrancy is a recent phenomena that arose to prominence symbiotically with Dispensationalism and Fundamentalism in the USA and UK. For each quotation the Biblical Inerrancy myth produces from the millions upon millions of words written by Church Fathers, a counter-quotation may be produced that demonstrates that the Biblical Inerrancy was an idea foreign to the world of the Scripture and the Church Fathers. Unveiling this myth demonstrates that Biblical Inerrancy originated in early 19th century, was not fully formally until the Battle for the Bible in 1970's. If we listen to History, we are able to demythologize the myth-making machinery of Biblical Inerrancy and unveil this seventh Error of Inerrancy.

In this article I will demythologize the Biblical Inerrancy myth by describing inerrancy's origin, development and rise to prominence through 1) an introduction to the Rogers/McKim Proposal, 2) reviewing reactions to it by John Woodbridge, 3) and then discussing contemporary responses to Woodbridge by Mark A. Noll4) and by George Marsden

Rogers/McKim Proposal

The best primer on the history of Biblical Inerrancy is Jack B. Rogers' and Donald K. McKim's The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (1979). The "Rogers/McKim Proposal" in nuce implicates Francis Turretin for deviating from Reformer's doctrine of inspiration; his Swiss Protestant Scholasticism replaced faith with reason, as he emphasized a rationalistic interpretation of the Bible in his Institutes of Elenctic TheologyEtymologically, the English word "inerrancy" originated in the early 19th century (not the 1st century), and the first known use of "inerrancy" according to Webster is 1834 CE [1]. The term "inerrancy" wasn't widely used to describe the inspiration of the Bible until old Princeton popularized the mechanical dictation theories of inspiration of B.B. Warfield and Charles Hodge (circa 1900). Old Princeton capitalized on Turretin's rationalism, by using his Institutes as their primary textbook for all students, and this provided a foundation for B.B. Warfield's and Charles Hodge's mechanical theories of inspiration that have spread throughout Evangelicalism to this day. The Protestant Church outside the auspices of Turretin and old Princeton were not encumbered by Biblical Inerrancy (most notably the Continental Reformers such as Herman Bavinck through G.C. Berkouwer).

Rogers and McKim explain the central idea of their thesis as follows: 

A century after Calvin's death, the chair of theology in Geneva was occupied by Francis Turretin (1632-1687). In that interval of one hundred years Reformed Protestants had reacted to Catholic criticism and the new science, and the reigning theological method was closer to that of a Counter-Reformation interpretation of Thomas Aquinas than to that of Calvin. A doctrine of Scripture that made the Bible a formal principle rather than a living witness had been gradually developed. Turretin further solidified this shift of emphasis from the content to the form of words of Scripture as the source of its authority. He treated the forms of words of Scripture as supernatural and increasingly divorced the text of the Bible from the attention of scholarship and an application to life.

In the generation immediately following Francis Turretin in Geneva, his son, Jean-Alphonse Turretin (1648-1737) led a revolt against scholastic theology that opened the doors to liberalism. Francis Turretin's theology was to be revived, however, and have its greatest influence in America during the era of the old Princeton theology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At Princeton, further refinements were made in the scholastic doctrine of Scripture, but the foundation had been solidly laid by Turretin. [2]

A sample proof for the Rogers/McKim Proposal is the 1895 essay by Thomas Lindsay's 1895 essay "The Doctrince of Scripture: The Reformers and the Princeton School" (PDF) that criticized Old Princeton for deviating from the Reformers Doctrine of Inspiration. 

The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (i.e. The Rogers/McKim Proposal) is an excellent book that I highly recommend for anyone interested in the history Biblical  Inerrancy. It produced a plethora of counter-quotations to the Biblical Inerrancy myth's one-sided selective reading of Church History and it includes discussions on secondary discussions, such as the origin of the word "Inerrancy" and what the Church Father's meant when they said that the "Bible doesn't error" (e.g. they meant that the Bible doesn't deceive us and is truthful, and didn't mean it was precise in all scientific and historical details).

Responses to the Rogers/McKim Proposal

The Rogers/McKim Proposal caused a firestorm when it was published in 1979 because it exposed the Biblical Inerrancy myth in the midst of the Bible of the Bible (1970's) and immediately after the publication of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). An entire book by John Woodbridge was produced to refute the Rogers/McKim Proposal titled "Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal" and even to this day, this book is cited as proof that the Rogers/McKim Proposal has been refuted (as if publishing a response in itself is enough to refute anything, then this post refutes inerrancy!) 

The Rogers/McKim Proposal was a watershed moment that unveiled the Biblical Inerrancy myth. However, like all theological developments and discoveries, further refinement is necessary by later theologians. Opponents like Woodbridge, countered the Rogers/McKim Proposal with additional quotations that repeated the Biblical Inerrancy myth, and ignored the counter-evidence contained in the Authority and Interpretation of the Bible. These opponents outnumbered Rogers and McKim and were able to shout their myth louder. The Battle for the Bible was at its zenith at this time, and the Celebrity Evangelicals had acquired over 300 signers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy by the time the Authority and Interpretation of the Bible was published, and its adoption was so quickly, that is almost impossible to read about the history of the Chicago Statement without suspecting the entire thing was an act of collusion by Celebrity Evangelicals.  The Chicago Statement not only defined Biblical Inerrancy the first time as a statement of faith, its heralds used it to make Biblical Inerrancy a shibboleth for orthodoxy. Even today, it is as difficult to get American Evangelicals to abandon Biblical Inerrancy as it is to get them to abandon Young Earth Creationism and all the hallmarks of Fundamentalism. To demonstrate that Woodbridge hasn't refuted the Rogers/McKim Proposal as the proponents of the Biblical Inerrancy myth triumphantly proclaim. I've provided quotations from Church Historians Mark A. Noll and George Marsden to demonstrate that the Rogers/McKim Proposals is essential right (allowing for some modifications and updates). 

Mark A. Noll's assessment of Woodbridge and The Rogers/McKim Proposal

Dr. Mark A. Noll is a leading Church Historian (especially on American Christian History), and in Between Faith & Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship and the Bible in America he discusses Woodbridge's response Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal. Noll believes that Rogers and McKim are correct in that Biblical Inerrancy was not formulated before the 19th century (contra Woodbridge), and Noll agrees that Biblical Inerrancy did not come into prominence until 19th century Americans popularized it. Noll essentially agrees that Biblical Inerrancy arose overall as The Rogers/McKim Proposal narrative describes (contra Woodbridge). Noll disagrees with specific details of who, how, when, when and where Biblical Inerrancy came into prominence, but these minor disagreements that may be resolved by future research by Church Historians; for instance, Noll agrees with Woodbridge that the Continental Reformers were somewhat familiar with Biblical Inerrancy, and Noll agrees with Woodbridge that Old Princeton was not solely responsible for inventing Biblical Inerrancy, but these are minor details that may be worked out by future research.  

This debate over the church's historical position has recently been given an uncanny reprise in works by Jack B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible . . . and John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers-McKim Proposal . . . As in the earlier exchange, the more conservative position seems clearly stronger in the exact matter under consideration. Briggs and Rogers/McKim may be correct that the older statements did not mean to affirm exactly what Patton and Woodbridge did about the Bible's detailed inerrancy, but it is impossible to make the older spokesmen say anything which could sanction the revolutionary new views proposed to Americans in the nineteenth century. Woodbridge is especially helpful in showing that conservatives on the Continent had been dealing with critical views of one sort or another nearly two centuries before they burst on the American scene; hence, there was no need to swoon before the supposedly assured results of "modern" scholarship. On the other side of the issue, the conservative case may not be as strong as it appears if the information and interpretations of the modern era pose problems concerning Scripture that preceding generations had not faced. In that case, neither side carries the day by providing answers from church history for questions which took on a new shape in the critical era. [3]

George Marsden assessment of Woodbridge and The Rogers/McKim Proposal

Dr. George Marsden is also a leading Church Historian with expertise on Fundamentalism, Dispensationalism, and early American Christianity and Puritanism. Marsden reviews Woodbridge's criticism of the Rogers/McKim Proposal in his essay "Everyone One's Own Interpreter? The Bible, Science, and Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America" in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History. Marsden sides more definitely with the Rogers/McKim Proposal (unlike Noll who remained neutral), yet Marsden also maintains points of disagreements with The Rogers/McKim Proposal to be worked out by future Church Historians. Marsden believes The Rogers/McKim Proposal is incorrect in some historical details, for instance, he believed that the concept of "inerrancy" was popularized by Old Princeton, but it was already known by others beforehand, and Marsden believed that the Swiss Reformers (i.e. Turretin's circle of theologians) were already wrestling with "inerrancy" more than The Rogers/McKim Proposal indicates. Marsden believes that Woodbridge's responses continued the selective reading of Church History that characterizes the Biblical Inerrancy myth, such that Woodbridge's triumphalism failed to achieve its goal to refute The Rogers/McKim Proposal. 

Marsden makes the keen observation that the growth and proliferation of Biblical Inerrancy is directly correlated with that of Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism over the past two hundred years in the USA and UK (as I mentioned in the introduction). Although Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism did not originate the idea of Biblical Inerrancy, these movements were responsible for the advancement of Biblical Inerrancy. (I highly recommend George Marsden's book Fundamentalism and American Culture for an excellent analysis of Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism and the role of Biblical Inerrancy within these movements.)

Marsden's decision in favor of The Rogers/McKim Proposal over that of Woodbridge's may be demonstrated by the following quotations from his essay: 

"For a selective sampling of expressions emphasizing the human elements in Scripture, see Jack B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. . . . Among the reviewers who have pointed out a high degree of selectivity and bias in this work, the most thorough is John D. Woodbridge . . . Woodbridge is selective in looking for counterexamples to show that throughout church history people held that divine authorship entailed historical accuracy in detail. Despite overstating his case, Woodbridge certainly shows that Rogers and McKim overstate theirs." [4]

Marsden continues:

"The current debates over the precedents in church history for the doctrine of inerrancy can be clarified by observing that defenders of inerrancy are correct in showing that throughout church history the accuracy of the Bible is historical and scientific in detail was often assumed or stated. Opponents of inerrancy, however, are correct in showing that such statements were seldom emphasized in unambiguous ways prior to the nineteenth century and that there are precedents for seeing this issue as secondary or unimportant. . . .  

Whatever the other precedents, however, there is little doubt that the doctrine has had more prominence and more often been used as a test of faith in America since about 1880 than it was previously. Since Christians in various countries have responded to modern biblical criticism in a variety of other ways, this peculiarly American phenomenon is worth trying to explain. Such explanations, of course, do not bear much on the merits of the cases for or against inerrancy. New emphasises may or may not be correct. 

One important factor not here discussed is the role of dispensational premillennialism in fostering the emphasis or inerrancy in America. Such influences and their influences and their relation to Common Sense Baconianism are discussed in Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture . . ." [5]


The Biblical Inerrancy myth has arisen due to American Evangelical controversies in the past two centuries, and its selective one-sided reading of Church History has been unveiled by the work of Jack B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim's Authority and Interpretation of the Bible. Although this Rogers/McKim Proposal requires further research and updating, it has essentially demythologized and unveiled Biblical Inerrancy's myth-making machine. Although there have been book length responses to the Rogers/McKim Proposal, such as by John Woodbridge and others, Church Historians such as Mark A. Noll and George Marsden have demonstrated that the essence of The Rogers/McKim Proposal remains to be correct.

It's been forty years since the Authority and Interpretation of the Bible was first published, so there's still much ground to discuss in the last four decades, but once the Biblical Inerrancy myth-making machine is unveiled, we now have a starting place to begin course correcting. And with the help of Karl Barth, I have hope that Evangelicals will one day be restored to a better Doctrine of Inspiration.



[^Header Image] "Herakles and the Nemean Lion. Attic white-ground black-figured oinochoe, ca. 520-500 BC. From Vulci." By Deutsch: Maler von London B 620English: Painter of London B 620Français : Peintre de Londres B 620 (Jastrow (2006)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
[^1] "Inerrancy." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.
[^2] Rogers, Jack Bartlett., and Donald K. McKim. The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979. 172. Print.
[^3] Noll, Mark A. Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986. 218. Print.
[^4] Marsden, George. "Everyone One's Own Interpreter? The Bible, Science, and Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America." The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History. Comp. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll. New York: Oxford UP, 1982. 97n26. Print.
[^5] Ibid. 99n36.


The Errors of Inerrancy: A ten-part series on why Biblical Inerrancy censors the Scriptures and divides Evangelicals:

#1 The Church has never possessed an inerrant Bible
#2 Inerrant Original Autographs are a Tautology of Biblical Inerrancy
#3 Inerrancy Censors the Bible’s Capacity for Error 
#4 Inerrancy denies that the Bible contains scientific errors
#5 Inerrancy reduced the Biblical Authors into Ventriloquist Dummies
#6 Inerrancy obscures Jesus with the Bible
#7 Biblical Inerrancy’s Myth-Making Machine, Unveiled 
#8 The Protestant Reformers Would Not Affirm Biblical Inerrancy (Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.)
#9: Inerrancy turns the Bible into a Paper Pope. 
#10: Biblical Inerrancy Divides Evangelicals

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  1. I appreciated this short excursus into how “evangelicalism” (pejorative meant) has adopted a faulty mindset that wrenches the Scriptures to conform to its ‘cast iron’ presuppositions. It also sets out the gulf fixed between those who want to be about true gospel orientation (growing into the Christ Lord God’s righteousness) and of a mere ‘gnosis’ of pre-fixed biblical norms.

  2. Your reading of Noll and Marsden is as selective as Rogers and McKim’s is of their sources! Both Noll and Marsden basically affirm that on the historical question, Woodbridge was right and Rogers/McKim wrong.

    These are excerpts from the very quotes you pasted above, just not the bits you chose to highlight:

    Noll: “the more conservative position seems clearly stronger in the exact matter under consideration.”

    Marsden: “Among the reviewers who have pointed out a high degree of selectivity and bias in this work, the most thorough is John D. Woodbridge… Despite overstating his case, Woodbridge certainly shows that Rogers and McKim overstate theirs.”

    Woodbridge clearly shows that Rogers and McKim took statements way out of context, time after time. I don’t know of many scholars who have contested that on historical grounds in the past 40 years – consensus on most sides is that Woodbridge fairly won the historical debate. Even reviewers like Clark Pinnock, who agreed doctrinally with Rogers/McKim, had to admit that on the historical question “Woodbridge dealt their narrow thesis a deadly blow.”

    • My friend, the quotations from Noll and Marsden are hardly selective, which you demonstrated by picking phrases out of them to use against my article! I encourage you to re-read the post, because noll, marsden, and I, are hardly polarizing this debate, as if it was an either Woodbridge was 100% right or 100% wrong. To declare that woodbridge is right, and rogers/mckim is wrong is triumphantalism and hubris that ignores history, and counter-evidence. Just because something is popular, or widely believed, doesn’t make it true. Controversies in American Fundamentalism have always lasted more than 40 years. Often, it takes 40 years for any theological discovery to start to become known and accepted. Marsden and Noll are Christian Historians, and wrote these quotations after Woodbridge’s, and their conclusion is not in agreement with you at all.

      Woodbridge hardly refuted anything, he merely shouted the old wrong answer louder. The Rogers/McKim Proposal is right, not woodbridge and all. But there is more work needed to be done, to demonstrated inerrancy’s exact origins, and some details, but the path of Rogers/McKim proposed is the one to follow. This is what the quotations mean from Noll / Marsden (especially Marsden).

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