Patristics and inerrancy

For some time I have been wondering how the early Christians discuss issues like inerrancy.  The obvious thing to do is to collect statements from the first 3-4 centuries of Christian writing, and see what sort of attitude to scripture these have.  Indeed it is so obvious that surely someone has already done this?  Suggestions would be welcome!

From general reading I know that Tertullian in De praescriptione haereticorum 8 advises Christians not to argue with unbelievers using the bible.   But, living at the end of the second century as he did, he had a special reason.  At that period unbelievers routinely forged gospels and other texts, supposedly by apostles.  The canon existed, but only in a basic form.  Thus it was too easy for the malevolent to simply toss believers into a whirlpool of crooked arguments.  Tertullian recommends following something easier to argue with, the united testimony of the churches that can prove their apostolic origin.  His argument is pragmatic, and the Fathers tended to follow him.

Modern Christians have a specific issue in mind.  Do we treat the Bible as an infallible authority on matters of history and science, or consider that those elements are incidental?  (Some feel that the Old Testament and New can be treated differently on this issue). 

All Christians believe that it is an infallible authority on matters of Christian teaching.   Indeed it is mildly amusing to hear some people attack “inerrantists” for refusing to “accept that scripture is fallible on matters of science”, when we then find that they don’t actually believe that it is infallible in any other respect, and their argument is not with some small group but with every part of Christendom, from Jesus and the apostles down to myself!

But perhaps the real reason why we don’t find any specific comment in the early Christians is that this particular issue wasn’t one that they had to answer.  This happens in other areas also, and invariably means that they make comments which tend to one side or the other, without being definitive.  The question simply isn’t present to their minds, which makes them useless as a source of information on the specific question.

Maybe so.  I’d like to see the evidence before I decide on this. 


4 thoughts on “Patristics and inerrancy

  1. I recently posted a quotation from Justin Martyr on this subject and someone left a quotation from Augustine in the comments. Also relevant (I think) is Origen’s comment in the fragment of his Commentary on Matthew (Book 2) where he says:

    “Blessed are the peacemakers….” To the man who is a peacemaker in either sense there is in the Divine oracles nothing crooked or perverse, for they are all plain to those who understand. And because to such an one there is nothing crooked or perverse, he sees therefore abundance of peace in all the Scriptures, even in those which seem to be at conflict, and in contradiction with one another. And likewise he becomes a third peacemaker as he demonstrates that that which appears to others to be a conflict in the Scriptures is no conflict, and exhibits their concord and peace, whether of the Old Scriptures with the New, or of the Law with the Prophets, or of the Gospels with the Apostolic Scriptures, or of the Apostolic Scriptures with each other.

    Past these few statements I’ve not come across much that I think would be applicable, although I’m sure there’s more out there.

  2. I am going on memory here, but I believe John Hannah’s book, Inerrancy and the Church, tries to marshal patristic evidence in support of inerrancy.

  3. Craig Allert’s book A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament has an appendix with a pretty good collection of quotes from the Fathers. In fact, his whole book would likely by applicable to your question.

  4. St. Basil’s Hexaemeron (sp?) assumes an inerrancy viewpoint and goes from there, as do the other fathers. ISTM they would have been bemused by any concept of error in the Scriptures! The whole approach of the Antiochene school would have collapsed if they were not inerrantists. Also Origen writes some very interesting commentary as a direct result of his concern that “some things seem hard to understand” and he does not even consider the possibility of error.

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