The Westminster Affirmation of the Original Inerrancy of the Scriptures



Those who deny the inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture, and are endeavoring to introduce this view into Biblical Criticism, claim the support of the Westminster Standards. We propose to show that the Westminster Confession teaches that the Scriptures in their first form, as they came from the prophets and apostles, were free from error in all their parts, secondary as well as primary.

1. In the first place, the Confession (i. 2, 8) declares that "the Word of God as written in Hebrew and Greek was immediately inspired by God." This relates to the autographs of the " holy men of God " while under the Divine afflatus or inbreathing. 2 Pet. 1: 21. And it relates to them in their entirety, because no exceptions are made. The inspiration was plenary, not partial. It extended not to one subject only, but to all the subjects of which the sacred writers treat, and on which they profess to teach the truth. The history, chronology, topography, and physics, as well as the theology and ethics, that were composed under the "immediate inspiration" of God, must from the nature of the case have been free from error. In the original Bible as it came from the inspired prophets and apostles, there was no mythical and fabulous history, no exaggerated and fictitious chronology like that of Egypt, India, and some modern physicists, the topography was strikingly accurate as modern explorations show, and the physics, especially in the account of the creative days, contained none of the pantheism and polytheism of the ancient cosmogonies, and is corroborated by modern science so far as this is well established. In ! thus declaring that the Bible as a complete whole was written in Hebrew and Greek by persons who were under the "immediate inspiration " of God, the Confession teaches that in this first original form it was inerrant. There is no escaping this conclusion, unless it can be shown that immediate inspiration may be more or less erroneous and misleading.

2. In the second place, the Confession (i. 8) declares that " the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, being immediately inspired by God, is by his singnlar care and providence kept pure in all ages, and is therefore anthentical [i.e. authoritative], so that in all controversies of religion the church is finally to appeal to them." This relates to the copies of the original autographs. The Confession does not say that these were made under the "immediate inspiration " of God as the autographs were, but under the "singular care and providence" of God. The copies consequently are liable to the introduction of errors, because the providential care of God, even though it be " singnlar" and remarkable, is not the same thing as the "immediate inspiration" of God. While, therefore, absolute inerrancy is attributed by the Confession to the original manuscript, it is not to the copies of them. The immediate inspiration of a prophet or apostle, extending as the Confession declares to the Word as written, excludes all error from the written production, but the providential superintendence of a copyist does not. God has permitted some things in the providential transmission and preservation of the several books of Scripture, which he did not permit in the direct inspiration of them. He has allowed glosses on the margin to get into the text, numerals represented by letters of the alphabet to be altered by carelessness, a frequent cause of discrepancies in the Old Testament, clauses to be omitted from homceoteleuton,, or added by paraphrase or from ancient liturgies, and other variations of this kind. But he did not allow any of these variations and errors to get into the original writing, as it came from the inspired penman who composed it. And there is no reason, in the nature of the case, for asserting that he did. Does it follow that because the existing copies of 1 Sam. 6: 19 contain the statement that 50,070 men were slain for looking into the ark, that the autograph also did? Because the copies of the autographs of the New Testament contain 30,000 variations according to Mill, and 150,000 according to Scrivener, must we assume that the autographs themselves had all these, or any of them?

But while the Confession ascribes providential superintendence, not immediate inspiration, to the copyist, it claims for all copies of the autographs a relative in distinction from an absolute inerrancy. The " singular care and providence of God keeps them pure in all ages so that they are authentical," that is, authoritative, and "in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them." Con. i. 8. The minor and unimportant errors of the class above mentioned, which have been allowed by Divine providence to get into the copies, do not make any radical and essential alterations in the autographs. A student of the copy to-day will obtain from it the same doctrine, the same history, the same chronology, the same topography, and the same physics, that he would from the original autograph if he could have access to it. The doctrines of the trinity, the incarnation, the apostasy, and the redemption, are confessedly unaffected by any of these variations in the history or topography. And the Biblical chronology itself is not essentially altered by the numerical errors which the carelessness of the copyist has introduced. For example, the contradiction between 2 Kings 8: 26 and 2 Cbron. 22: 2, in the existing manuscripts, does not invalidate the chronology of the fifth and the eleventh chapters of Genesis. There is nothing in any of the alleged or the actual chronological mistakes in any of the copies of the Scriptures, that necessitates the rejection of the Biblical chronology which brings the whole of human history before the Advent within a period of four or six thousand years, according as the Hebrew or the Septuagint text is adopted. And this remark applies also to the versions of Scripture which have been and will be made by the Church. These convey to the nations of mankind the same doctrine, history, chronology, topography, and physics that were taught by the prophets and apostles, although they contain some errors in translation.

The question is asked in the way of objection to this declaration of the Confession, Why did not God inspire the copyists as well as the original authors? Why did he begin with absolute inerrancy, and end with relative inerrancy? For the same reason that, generall}', he begins with the supernatural and ends with the natural. For illustration, the first founding of his church, in both the Old and New dispensations, was marked by miracles; but the development of it is marked only by his operations in nature, providence, and grace. The miracle was needed in order to begin the kingdom of God in this sinful world, but is not needed in order to its continuance and progress. And the same is true of the revelation of God in his 'written Word. This must begin in a miracle. The truths and facts of revealed religion, as distinguished from natural, must be supernaturally communicated to a few particular persons especially chosen for this purpose. Inspiration comes under the category of the miracle. It is as miraculous as raising the dead. To expect, therefore, that God would continue inspiration to copyists after having given it to prophets and apostles, would be like expecting that because in the first century he empowered men to raise the dead, he would continue to do so in all centuries. If this had been necessary, if God could not have extended and perpetuated his church without the continuance of miracles, doubtless he would have wrought miracles perpetually; for we can not suppose that Omnipotence would suffer itself to be defeated in any undertaking. But whatever can be accomplished by his ordinary methods in nature, providence, and grace, God so accomplishes.

Now, this applies to divine revelation. The Scriptures could not have been originated and written down in the vernacular of the prophets and apostles without an inerrant and infallible inspiration, and as thus originated and written they were perfect, containing no error. God the Holy Spirit inspires no error, great or small. This is miracle. But these Scriptures can be copied into thousands of manuscripts, so that these shall substantially reproduce the autographs in doctrine, history, physics, chronology, geography; in short, in everything that goes to make up the Scriptures. This latter process is not supernatural and preclusive of all error, but providential and natural and allowing of some error. But this substantial reproduction, this relative " purity " of the original text as copied, is sufficient for the Divine purposes in carrying forward the work of redemption in the world. But had the employment of this method of special providence involved the radical alteration of the original autographs, so as to introduce essential and fatal error into them, then doubtless it would not have been employed, but the copyists as well as the prophets and apostles would have been supernaturally "moved by the Holy Ghost," and their copies would have been exact facsimiles of the autographs.

One or the other view of the Scriptures must be adopted; either that they were originally iuerrant and infallible, or that they were originally errant and fallible. The first view is that of the church in all ages: the last is that of the rationalist in all ages. He who adopts the first view, will naturally bend all his efforts to eliminate the errors of copyists and harmonize discrepancies, and thereby bring the existing manuscripts nearer to the original autographs. By this process, the errors and discrepancies gradually diminish, and belief in the infallibility of Scripture is strengthened. He who adopts the second view, will naturally bend all his efforts to perpetuate the mistakes of scribes, and exaggerate and establish discrepancies. By this process, the errors and discrepancies gradually increase, and disbelief in the infallibility of Scripture is strengthened. That the theory of the original errancy and fallibility of Scripture as it came from the prophets and apostles should be maintained and defended by the rationalistic critic, is comprehensible—his hostility to the supernatural explains it—but that it should be maintained and defended by professedly evangelical critics, is inexplicable, except on the supposition that they do not perceive the logical result of the theory, and its exceedingly destructive influence upon the belief of mankind in Divine Revelation.

Nearly forty years ago, the author, in criticising the

theory strongly and eloquently presented by Coleridge in his Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, that the secondary sections of Scripture contain more or less of error, while the primary section relating to doctrine is inerrant, made the following objections to it, which he has seen no reason to modify. "We are aware that Coleridge believed that the Scriptures are infallible on all fundamental subjects, and that those doctrines which in common with the Christian Church he regarded as vital to human salvation, are all infallibly revealed in them. This separates him heaven-wide from a mere rationalist, and places him in the same general class with the evangelical school of theologians in Germany, in respect to the doctrine of inspiration. Still, we regard it as an error in him and in them, that the canon is not contemplated as a complete whole, having a common origin in the Divine Mind, in such sense that as a body of information it is infallibly correct on all the subjects upon which it purports to teach truth. There must be truth, in distinction from error, upon even the most unimportant particulars of history, chronology, topograph}', and physics constituting a part of the subjectmatter of the Bible, and it is altogether the most rational to assume that it is to be found in the Biblical statements themselves if they are inspired of God. These secondary subjects are an important, and sometimes a vital part of the total Word of God. The biographic memoirs of the lledeemer are an instance. If these are not inerrant as history and chronology, then the Christian religion itself disappears; for the Personage in whom it centres becomes mythical, instead of historic. Hence in the contest between rationalism and supernaturalism, the narratives in the four Gospels have been the hottest part of the battlefield. Consider again the long and detailed narratives of the exodus of the Israelites, and their wanderings for forty years. If these were not the inspired product of their leader and law-giver, but the compilation and invention of unknown persons living a thousand years after Moses, and in an environment wholly different from that of Egypt and the Sinaitic peninsula, this fictitious secondary matter will drag the primary along with it. Mankind will not believe that the theology and ethics of the decalogue, the sacrifices, types, and symbols of the Levitical institute, and the religion of the theocracy, came snpernatnrally from God, if they are imbedded in a mythical history and chronology like that of Egypt and India. The secondary sections of which we are speaking, are so integrated into the solid doctrinal substance of the Bible, that they cannot be taken out of it any more than the veins can be from the solid marble. Why then is it not probable that they had the same common origin with the doctrines and fundamental truths themselves which are encrusted and crystallized in them—in other words, that the Divine Spirit, whether as positively revealing, or as inspiring and superintending, is the ultimate Author of the whole? There are but two objections to this position. The first is, that the inspired writers become thereby mere amanuenses and automata. This objection has no force for one who believes that the Divine can, and does dwell and work in the human in the most real and absolute manner, without in the least mutilating or suppressing the human, and ought not to be urged by one who believes in the actuation of the regenerate soul by the Holy Spirit. As in this instance the human cannot be separated from the Divine, in the individual consciousness, and all 'the fruits of the Spirit' seem to be the very spontaneity of the human sonl itself, so in the origination of the entire body of Holy Writ, while all, even the minutest parts, have the flexibility, naturalness, and freshness of purely human products, there is yet in and through them all the unerring agency of the Supreme Mind. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the organizing power and principle in the outstanding body of knowledge and information which is called the Bible, and, working like ever}7 organizing power thoroughly and completely, produces a whole that is characterized by His own characteristic perfection of knowledge, even as the principle of life in the natural world diffuses itself, and produces all the characteristic marks of life, out to the rim of the tiniest leaf. The second objection, and a fatal one if it can be maintained, is, that there are actual errors in the Scriptures on points respecting which they profess to teach the truth. Let this be proved if it can be; but until it has been demonstrated incontrovertibly, the Christian Church is consistent in asserting the infallibility of the written Word in all its elements and parts. We say this with confidence, because out of the large number of alleged errors and contradictions that have been urged against the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures, by sceptics of all grades from Celsns and Porphyry down to Spinoza and Strauss, none are established as such on grounds that make it absurd for the defender of the doctrine to deny the allegation, and attempt an explanation and reconciliation of the difficulty. There are many perplexities remaining, we grant, but while there is not an instance in which the unprejudiced and truly scientific study of the Bible has resulted in demonstrating beyond dispute that an inspired prophet or apostle has taught error of any kind, there are many instances in which it has resulted in favor of plenary inspiration. No otie acquainted with the results of the severe and sceptical criticism to which the canon has been subjected by the English deists of the eighteenth century, and the German rationalists of the nineteenth, will deny that the number of apparent contradictions and errors is smaller now than at the beginning of the controversy, and that the Divine origin and authority of the Old and JSiew Testaments are resting on broader, deeper, and firmer foundations than ever." Shedd : Literary Essays, 337-340.

Those who deny the inerrancy of the original autographs of the Scriptures are also chargeable with another misunderstanding of the Confession. They confound " the testimony of any man or church " spoken of in Con. i. 4, with "the testimony of the church" spoken of in Con. i. 5. In endeavoring, contrary to all the Christian apologetics of the past, to sever entirely the inspiration of the Scriptures from their authorship and authenticity, and to make belief in them depend solely upon the inward witness of the Spirit, thereby abolishing historical faith and retaining only saving faith, they argue that the exclusion of " the testimony of any man or church" spoken of in Con. i. 4, excludes "the testimony of the church" spoken of in Con. i. 5, and cite the former to show that the external evidence for the authenticity of Scripture which comes from the tradition of the Jewish and early Christian churches is not needed in order to prove its inspiration, or to strengthen confidence in it. In so doing they confound authority with authenticity, and overlook the two different uses of the term " testimony" in the Confession. In Con. i. 4, the authority of the Scripture is spoken of, and the " testimony " meant is testimony to the truth. In Con. i. 5, the authenticity of Scripture is spoken of, and the " testimony" meant is testimony to the authorship and genuineness of a writing. An examination of the two sections will show this.

Con. i. 4 declares that " the authority of Scripture dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God, who is the author of it." "Testimony," here, is used in the sense of teaching, declaring and communicating truth. The proof text cited from 1 John 5: 9 evinces this: "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater." To which may bo added, witli many another passage, John 5: 32, 34: "I receive not testimony from men; there is another that beareth witness of me, and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true." Truth which God testifies to and so is the author of, has infallible authority; but truth which" any manor church " testifies to and so is the author of, is fallible.

Con. i. 5 declares that "we may be induced by the testimony of the church to a high and reverent esteem for the Holy Scriptures." This relates to the authenticity of the Bible; namely, to the fact of its being the genuine product of those inspired prophets and apostles through whom God " testified " in the sense of Con. i. 4, and made his revelation of truth, in distinction from being the forged product of uuknovvn men outside of the circle of prophets and apostles, writing centuries later. The "testimony" spoken of in this section is not the teaching, declaring, and communicating of divine truth, but merely bearing witness that such and such persons wrote such and such parts of Scripture. The Jewish and early Christian churches, in rendering this important service, whereby the genuineness of the sacred writings is established by the same kind of testimony by which that of secular writings is proved, did not claim to be the authors of the Bible, or that it got its authority from them, but only to know that certain men who gave evidence by visible miraculous signs of being called and inspired of God wrote certain books of Scripture. Such external testimony as this to the genuineness of Scripture, supported by the infinitely higher testimony of Christ to the same effect in regard to the Old Testament, is as necessary in order to faith in it as a divine book as is the external testimony of the early Christian church that Christ and his apostles wrought miracles, in order to believe in miracles. Take away from Christendom the external evidence which the "eye-witnesses" (2 Pet. 1: 16) and contemporaries of our Lord and his apostles gave to miracles, and belief in miracles would soon yield to sceptical attacks. The internal evidence alone would not save it. Take away from Christendom the testimony which contemporaries have given that the four Gospels were the productions of the four Evangelists, and belief in their infallible inspiration would soon die out. The internal evidence alone would not be sufficient to keep the faith of the church firm, after the invalidation of their genuineness and canonicity. We already see the mischievous effect of even the defeated attempt to destroy the force of the early ecclesiastical testimony and catholic tradition respecting the authorship of the Gospels, in lessening confidence in them as inspired narratives.

And the reason is, that inspiration from the nature of the case belongs only to a very small circle, and not to mankind generally, nor to a nation generally. A book, in order to be inspired, must originate within this very small circle. Hence the question of authorship is inseparable from that of inspiration. Whoever could prove indisputably that Matthew's gospel was not written by or under the superintendence of one of "those men which eompanied with the Lord Jesus all the time that he went in and out" on earth (Acts 1: 21), and whom he set apart and endowed with both inspiration and miraculous powers, in order to found his church and prepare an authoritative account of his life and.teachings for Christendom in all time—whoever could indisputably prove that it was i written by some unknown person in the second century who never saw Christ on earth and had no personal connection with him of any kind, would prove that it was a forgery and destroy human confidence in it. And this I confidence would not be restored by merely saying, "The first Gospel was not written by Matthew, but whoever it was that wrote it he was inspired." For this makes the inspiration depend upon the testimony of the modern individual who says so, instead of the testimony of the Primitive church. The only sponsor for the inspiration of an "unknown man " is the unknown man that asserts such an inspiration.

Both the external and internal evidences for the inspiration of the Scriptures are necessary; and so are both historical and saving faith. A man who is destitute of the former is never the subject of the latter; the former is a preparative to the latter. Sceptics, remaining such, are never converted. Consequently God provides the external evidence which produces historical faith, as well as the inward operation of the Holy Spirit which produces saving faith. There is no need of undervaluing the very great strength of the internal evidence while insisting upon the full value of the external. Inspiration is a supernatural fact, like miracles; and, as we cannot rely! wholly upon the internal evidence for a miracle, upon its intrinsic nature and probability, but must bring in the external evidence, namely, the actual seeing of it by an eyewitness, so in the ease of inspiration, in addition to the nature of the truths taught and the probability that a benevolent and paternal Being would make some communications to his creatures respecting their origin and eternal destiny, we must add that which comes from the testimony of those who lived contemporaneously with prophets

and apostles respecting their right to be regarded as the authors of the writings attributed to them, and the supernatural evidences which they gave that they were under a divine afflatus, and were the "holy men of God, who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."