Were the Fathers Inerrantists? A Response to Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung has co-authored some good popular-level books challenging the “emerging church” movement and calling my younger generation of Christians to participate in the local church. This is all well and good. But he’s got a post up today on the Gospel Coalition Blog (here) that claims to identify “the Christian view of Scripture” with modern-day inerrancy.

There are several issues worth responding to in this piece, but perhaps the most important one is that DeYoung has seriously misrepresented the patristic tradition regarding the nature of Scripture. According to DeYoung, “This high view of Scripture as the inerrant divinely-spirated word of God has been the position of Christians from the beginning,” and he cites Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome to this effect. Now, there is no doubt that the Fathers believed the Scriptures to be divinely inspired and therefore could, in a sense, speak of them as “without error.”

But the problem for DeYoung is that what the Fathers mean as “without error” is very, very different from what I suppose he means by inerrancy. According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, “the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis.” Simply put, this means that, genre allowing, we are to interpret Scripture according to its literal sense. For DeYoung and modern-day inerrantists, it is this literal sense of the Bible that is inerrant. But the Fathers had an entirely different view. As patristics scholar D. H. Williams summarizes, “As a generalization about the patristic mind, it is fair to say that the fathers affirmed an infallible Bible, although it was not an infallibility of the text so much as much as it was an infallibility of the divine intention behind the text” (Evangelicals and Tradition, 91). Similarly, Frederick Norris observes that “The Fathers’ sense of the trustworthy character of Scripture can hae them speak about its lack of errors, but they never protect the Bible with the doctrine of inerrancy that was developed in seventeenth-century Protestantism” (quoted in ibid.).

The early fathers observed, like we do, certain historical inconsistencies, conflicting accounts, and even possible contradictions in the biblical text, and tried to harmonize them in light of their view of the Bible as divinely inspired. The quotations DeYoung cites exemplify this mentality. But here’s the rub: one of the primary ways that the Fathers harmonized problem passages was to deny the literal sense of the text. That is to say, the “ inerrant truth” of a passage was often found not in its literal sense, but in its moral or allegorical one. Or, to put it yet another way, the Fathers “claimed that points of obscurity or even contradiction within the Bible provided an oppportunity for the Spirit to work in a Christian heart because the dilemma was more than the human heart could comprehend” (Evangelicals and Tradition, 104).

Examples of this in the patristic literature are abundant. Wherever the Fathers found problems with the biblical text, their way of preserving their version of “inerrancy” was to deny the literal sense of the text (in a sense, admitting the problem is real) and find the “true meaning” in an allegorical interpretation. In their excellent book Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno give many examples of this phenomenon. For instance, in the first of the Genesis creation accounts, God creates light on the first day, but creates the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Origen and Augustine, among other Fathers, declared this to be literally impossible. Their solution, though, their way of rescuing the “inerrancy” of Scripture, was to admit the literal sense was unworkable and instead propose an allegorical one. For Augustine, this meant that the light of the first day represented spiritual truth, while the light of the fourth day represented real physical light. Yes, the very order and words of Scripture matter (they matter a great deal!), but they contain real problems that are dealt with in a way that I cannot imagine that DeYoung would approve of.

DeYoung’s presentation of the patristic view of the Bible is, therefore, deeply misleading. There is much more that could be said; Jesus’ statement in John 10.35 fails to prove what DeYoung thinks it does (Jesus believed in inerrancy). Nor does DeYoung give us any guidance on what to do with text critical problems in which it is clear that even the biblical writers themselves were aware of problems with what other biblical authors had written (e.g., the earliest and best MSS of Mk 5.1 read “Gergesenes” or “Gerasenes,” but this places us some 37 miles from the Sea of Galilee; Matthew (8.28) corrects Mark’s geography by moving the story to the region of the “Gadarenes,” where it would make far more sense. Cf. also the problem of “Abiathar” in Mk 2.26, which has been “corrected” in Matt 12.4 and Luke 6.4). And so on.

DeYoung wants us to believe that “when we reject inerrancy we put ourselves in judgment over God’s word.” This may be true, but in his view are we not putting a man-made construct (inerrancy, which, despite DeYoung’s protestations, was most certainly not around in its existing form in the patristic period) above God’s word? Would it not be far better, and a more secure resting place for our faith, to ground our belief ultimately in Jesus Christ, and not in our own understanding of what we want and pretend the Bible to be? See further here.

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About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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4 Responses to Were the Fathers Inerrantists? A Response to Kevin DeYoung

  1. Shane Angland says:

    Good post, thought provoking as ever. When you said that Augustine declared light without the sun to be “literally impossible” are you over stating Augustine’s point? Augustine proposed several interpretations for this difficulty in City of God. The first one he proposed was, “either it was some material light, whether proceeding from the upper parts of the world far removed from our sight, or from the spot where the sun was afterwards kindled…” (City of God 11.7.1). Grant it, Augustine naturally seems to favour the spiritual interpretation (light = inhabitants of the city of God), but in his wrestling with Genesis 1 he did at least allow for the possibility of a literal interpretation of the text, as he understood it.

  2. krhughes14 says:

    Well, I am known for hyperbole. But I suppose it just depends on how seriously we think he “considered” the literal alternative. He does say, “I fear that I will be laughed at by those who have scientific knowledge of these matters and by those who recognize the facts of the case” (Lit. Comm. Gen. 4.3.1). Origen seems to go farther: “What man of intelligence will believe that the first and second and third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and the stars?” (First Principles, 4.16). In any event, there is something amusing about the fact that Augustine’s “Literal Commentary on Genesis” often proves to be anything but “literal”!

  3. M. Rodriguez says:

    okay I actually did my own indepth study on the early history of the doctrine of inerrancy…. And I have quotes and sources on the topic as well.

    Here are some of my notes. Yes the majority of early church fathers did believe the bible was without flaw or error. But their version of inerrancy was vastly different the modern evangelical version we have today for several reasons.

    1. The early church fathers didn’t have a bible; there wasn’t a canonized bible until about 400 years after Christ died. (In fact the first Christian Bible was written in Latin by St. Jerome. However it is believed that Eusbius of Ceasera put together a more abridged version.)
    2. to the 4th century, churches did not have ALL the New Testament writings. A church might have a few letters by Paul and the gospel according to Matthew. Another church might have a few letters by John and the gospel according to Thomas. Another might have the Book of Enoch and the Gospel of John. So everyone and every church had different writings that they preached on.
    3. There are not many accounts of early church fathers addressing inerrancy, which seems to suggest, that biblical inerrancy was just not a serious issue in ancient Greco-Roman History.
    4. And when church fathers did talk about inspiration, they were in many cases somewhat vague, and did not specifically address any errors in the bible or the doctrine of inerrancy.
    5. Also when the early church fathers did talk about inerrancy they were referring to the OT septugaint, not the new testament, because the NT did not exist. It was until the 4th century, when a completed NT was done, did inerrancy begin to be applied to the NT.
    6. And lastly, because of technology and the illiteracy rate of the times, people simply couldn’t Google bible contradictions and they couldn’t go to their local library to learn more about. Everything they knew about the bible and the scriptures came from the preacher, teacher, and orators. (So of course the average man had no knowledge or understanding of biblical inerrancy.)

    So yes the early church fathers were proponents of inerrancy, but not like how it is now.

    http://bittersweetend.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/the-history-of-inerrancy/

  4. Peter Geoffrey says:

    Some interesting opposing points (first) and then an article (Keener) on the care we must apply as we place “weight” or “thud factor” on the Early Fathers’ writings (language, influences, etc)
    Blessings!
    http://derekjamesbrown.com/2014/12/15/is-inerrancy-a-recent-invention/
    and
    http://www.craigkeener.com/using-church-fathers-to-interpret-the-bible/

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