The Presenting Problem
When someone chooses to sojourn in the Anglican Church after having spent time in some non-denominational/baptistic elsewhere, more often than not they turn a very critical eye on the place from whence they came. While there certainly are some aspects of Anglican structure, doctrine, and morals that can be of great benefit to living the Christian life, it is crucial that neophytes not throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater when re-evaluating their ecclesial past.
There is one such baby that seems to be getting tossed out with increasing frequency these days: the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. It seems that many new Anglicans think that this doctrine is a unique concoction of anxious Baptists in the mid 20th century, and that all intelligent, tradition-minded Christians need have nothing to do with it. Anglicans — supposedly — are much more relaxed about these things, and don’t insist on such doctrine.
(If you are not sure what your views on Inerrancy are, here is a little quiz to help you uncover them)
I wish there was no truth to this assessment, but it is the case — as a matter of historical fact — that since 1864, lax views of Holy Scripture have indeed been tolerated in the Anglican Church. The authors who wrote the Essays and Reviews of 1860 were vindicated as tolerable in 1864, and so heretically “low” views of Scripture were permitted de facto. This was the seed that became the overgrowth of unbelief that ran wild in the mid 20th century, coming to full flower in figures like John Shelby Spong and his intellectual descendants in the Anglican Communion.
This laxity concerning views of Holy Scripture has manifestly been a blight on our Communion — weakening our doctrine and morals (which always stand or fall as one). It must be vigorously opposed; not supported by the bitter sentiments of ex-vangelicals.
An Anglican Response: Dr. E.B. Pusey
It was opposed in the Spring of 1864. Dr. E.B. Pusey united the High Church and the Low Church in opposition to the Rationalist “liberals” and drafted a statement that was sent to every single clergy-person in the Church of England and Ireland. The statement read,
“We the undersigned Presbyters and Deacons, in Holy Orders of the Church of England and Ireland, hold it to be our bounden duty to the Church and to the souls of men, to declare our firm belief that the Church of England and Ireland, in common with the whole Catholic Church, maintains without reserve or qualification the Inspiration and Divine Authority of the whole Canonical Scriptures, as not only containing but being the Word of God; and further teaches, in the words of our blessed Lord, that the punishment of the cursed, equally with the life of the righteous, is everlasting.”
Eleven Thousand clergy signed it, understanding it to be no more than was implied in their Oath of Subscription at Ordination, and in perfect harmony with the Ancient Church. I wonder how many Anglican Clergy in the ACNA could assert “without reserve or qualification” that the whole of Canonical Scripture — every last word — is Inspired and is the very Word of God?
And lest we try and wiggle out of the moral force that this plain declaration has, Dr. Pusey clarified in his other writings what he meant by Inspiration,
“During the whole of my matured theological life, I have held verbal inspiration, nor, since we have no clear thoughts except as embodied in words, can I imagine any other.” (Letter to Rev. J. Williams, January 27th, 1863)
And elsewhere he claims that this doctrine “is the foundation of all besides” (The Royal Supremacy, 1850), and preempting a popular argument in the creation debates of the 20th century,
“We cannot divide Holy Scripture..so that one part might be cut off and the rest remain in the same life as before. It is one whole, and as in that beautiful system of our nerves, one prick at any extremity runs through the whole, and may carry death, so it would be with the Gospel, if it were possible.” (Preface to the Lectures on Daniel the Prophet, 1867)
And lest we think these are over-bold statements of a naïf, remember that Dr. Pusey was the Regius professor of Hebrew, and was well-versed in the Higher Critical studies pouring out of Germany in the days of Gesenius, Eichhorn, and Ewald. He was well apprised of their scholarship, and yet could earnestly assert in 1867,
“Forty years of study have only shown me the more, both from language and the subsequent books of the Old Testament, the evidence of its genuineness, which I already believed on the authority of our Lord [Jesus].” (Daniel the Prophet, 1867)
And Dr. Pusey saw great danger in the tone of discourse concerning the Bible that he would hear amidst the halls of his beloved Oxford as the “Essays and Reviews” way of treating the Bible continued to make inroads. As he preached to the students on Advent Sunday, 1872:
“The idle word; the repetition of the profane jest; the listening to it; may be, some pointed scoff at some un-understood character or phrase of Scripture; the first ashamedness of truth, because it is old, or, as some will tell you, ‘antiquated’; the first wish not to seem less advanced or enlightened than others, or less free from theological prejudice, or not to be behind the age (as it calls itself)—these are the distant (and not always distant!) preparations for the loss of faith. For they treat God with levity, and prefer the creature to the creator.” (Responsibility of Intellect in Matters of Faith, 1872)
Would that these quickening words would be received in our own day.
Waves of unbelieving Higher Criticism crashed hard on the shore of Victorian England, and the Faithful opposed them, even as powerful figures in the Church succumbed to their force in the decades that followed.
An Anglican Response: Dr. JI Packer
When those same waves shortly after crashed on the shores of America, the diverse and overlapping ecclesial situation engendered a different sort of response. Rather than seeking internal support within a single institution, a collaborative discrusive response emerged centering on doctrinal statements. From the “Old Princetonians” like Hodge and Warfield, to the Fundamentals pamphlets (1910-1916), to the founding of new seminaries (Dallas, 1924; Westminster, 1929; etc) and scholarly guilds (ETS, 1948), a “movement” anchored to the doctrine of an Inerrant Bible emerged as part of the catalyzing of “evangelical” identity.
Into this arena a young Anglican priest by the name of James Packer would step with his book “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958) which would be a best-seller in the United States. Dr. JI Packer makes the eminently useful distinction between the cultural missteps made by some “fundamentalists” and the doctrine that all “fundamentalists” are seeking to defend: the inerrancy of the Bible. The former can humbly receive rebuff, while the latter must remain unshaken.
This distinction is still worth remembering. Those coming out of churches today where all manner of man-made religion was peddled under a banner that proclaimed inerrancy should discern which elements of their prior church experience were mere cultural add-ons that can (and should) be rejected, without anchoring them to the doctrinal banner they were sold under.
The “Battle for the Bible” anyways raged on through the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the creation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) and its cardinal production, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). Dr. Packer was one of a team of three (including Norm Geisler) who drafted the Statement that would be the touchstone for the Inerrancy debate ever since. In other words, the Chicago Statement was (in part) the product of an Anglican in the face of unbelieving Biblical scholarship.
An Anglican Response: Harmony with the Early Church
And this is most fitting, because as Anglicans we are committed to passing on the Faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), the Faith of “the whole Catholic church” as the 1864 statement put it. And that Faith includes a view of the Bible that falls under the modern word “inerrant.” An attempt is sometimes made to deny that the Early Church’s view of Scripture was really what we would now call “inerrant,” but a survey of the words of the Fathers quickly provides an answer.
From the earliest post-Apostolic father on record, St. Clement of Rome (c.35-99) who writes,
You have studied Holy Scripture, which contains the Truth, and is inspired by the Holy Spirit. You realize that there is nothing wrong or misleading in it. (1 Clement 45:2-3)
To the crown of the Western fathers, St. Augustine (354-430), who wrote to St. Jerome,
I believe most firmly that not one of those authors had erred in writing anything at all…The canonical books are entirely free of falsehood (Epistle 82 To Jerome)
And many in between (see Appendix below) give ample evidence that the Fathers did believe the Holy Scripture to be without error in all that it denies and affirms.
There is therefore no solid ground to deny that the Early Church believed the doctrine of Inerrancy, and that those who hold to Inerrancy are clingling to nothing more nor less than the catholic faith. Pope Leo XIII in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus summed up the historic church’s position thus,
“It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error. And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they laboured earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance – the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the “higher criticism;” for they were unanimous in laying it down, that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the afflatus [latin: Inspiration] of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true.”
It is reasonable to think therefore that the Fathers of the Church would, in the face of modern controversies, happily sign the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). (As a small aside, this could not be said about the similarly named 1982 Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, which does make claims that the Fathers — who relished the spiritual meaning of Scripture beneath the letter — would not be willing to sign. But this is a secondary question, and independent of Inerrancy in se.)
An Anglican Response: Ours
As Anglicans in the ACNA, who are seeking to build and inhabit an institution that fully submits to the Word of God, we should not demur to stand with our brothers and sisters in other Inerrant-Bible-believing churches (such as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptist Convention, etc.) in affirming the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. We should teach that the Bible is inerrant, and all of our teaching should flow from this truth. If it’s in the Bible it must be true, even if it is a hard teaching to understand. Certainly there will always be some disagreements among the faithful about what precisely this or that passage of the Bible means, but this disagreement only has the capacity to be fruitful if it rests on top of the mutual agreement that what the Bible does say is without error.
Additionally, Norm Geisler’s platform DefendingInerrancy.com has a cross-denominational petition for those who can sign the following statement, which is a distillation of the 1978 Chicago Statement,
“I affirm that the Bible alone, and in its entirety, is the infallible written Word of God in the original text and is, therefore, inerrant in all that it affirms or denies on whatever topic it addresses.”
Just as in 1864 a clarion call went out in defense of the verity of Holy Scripture, and 11,000 clergy answered that call; I call on all clergy of the ACNA to sign this petition in defense of inerrancy. You can do so here.
If you write “Anglican” in the ‘Church name’, then this becomes a searchable list by which it can be seen how many of us stand with the Scriptures against the waves of unbelief crashing upon our shores. To believe in Inerrancy is not to import a Baptist doctrine into Anglicanism, it is simply to be thoroughly Anglican, as Pusey and Packer demonstrated in their day. The Bible is still under the same attack; following their example, and uniting across churchmanships as they did, let us continue to stand with the Holy Word of God, come what may.
A Brief Catena Of Church Fathers On The Bible, Evidencing Their Belief In Its Inerrancy.
St. Clement of Rome (c.35-99)
“You have studied Holy Scripture, which contains the Truth, and is inspired by the Holy Spirit. You realize that there is nothing wrong or misleading in it.” —1 Clement 45:2-3
St. Justin Martyr (c.100-165)
“I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another”—Dialogue with Trypho
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-200)
“[We are] most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit.”— Against Heresies, book II. 27.II
“Through no other have we known the plan of salvation, than through them, through whom the Gospel has come to us; which Gospel they then preached, but afterwards by the will of God delivered us in the Scriptures, to be the foundation and pillar of our faith.” — Against Heresies, book III. 1.I
St. Clement of Alexandria (c.250-320)
“He has ceased to remain as a man of God and a faithful disciple of Jesus the Lord who has kicked against the ecclesiastical tradition, and bounded off to the opinions of human heresies; but he who has returned from this deceit, listening to the Scriptures, and turning back his life to the truth, is perfected.”—Stromata
“But the Word is the one Shepherd of things rational which may have an appearance of discord to those who have not ears to hear, but are truly at perfect concord.”—Commentary on Matthew, II.1
“If there be anything, upon which Divine Scripture does not make a judgment, no other third scripture ought to be received as an authority for any knowledge, but what remains we should commit to the fire, that is, we should leave it alone for God. For God did not will that we should know all things in this present life.”—Homilies on Leviticus (V.9)
St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258)
“Whence is that tradition? Whether does it descend from the authority of the Lord Jesus and the Gospel, or does it come from the injunctions and epistles of the Apostles? For that we are to do what is written, God testifies and admonishes, saying to Joshus, ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth.’ Likewise the Lord, sending His Apostles, directs that the nations should be baptized and taught to observe all things whatsoever He had commanded. If, then, it is commanded in the Gospels, or contained in the Epistles or Acts of the Apostles, then should it be preserved as being Holy and Divine tradition…. …What presumption to prefer human tradition to Divine ordinances, and not to perceive that God is displeased and angered, as often as human tradition relaxes the Divine command.” —Letter #74
St. Athanasius (296-373)
“Vainly do the Arians run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake, for Divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in Divine Scripture.” — On the Councils of Arminum and Seleucia, 1
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.315-386)
“Not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures…For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures”—Catechetical Lectures, IV.17
St. Basil the Great (c.330-379)
“It is a manifest falling from the faith, and sin of pride, either to reject anything written in Scripture, or to introduce anything that is not written.”— Of the Faith, 1
“What then our Fathers said, we too say…But it does not satisfy us to say that the tradition is from the Fathers. For they too followed the mind of the Scripture, taking as their first principle those testimonies which we set before you from the Scripture.” — On the Holy Spirit, 7
St. John Chrysostom (c.347-407)
“With the Scriptures, however, it is not like this. The Gold does not lie before us mixed up with earth. It is gold and only gold.”—from his Homilies on Isaiah
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-388)
“We trace the accuracy of the Spirit in detail to each separate stroke and letter; for it is blasphemous to suppose that exact pains were bestowed by the compilers of the Books, or even the smallest letters, without design.”—cited in Barry (1919)
St. Jerome (c.347-420)
“In the case of the holy scriptures, even the order of the words is a mystery (sacramentum).”—Letter 57 to Pammachius
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
“I believe most firmly that not one of those authors had erred in writing anything at all…The canonical books are entirely free of falsehood”—Epistle 82 To Jerome