Inerrancy, Infallibility, and the Rogers/McKim Proposal

 In Apologetics, Articles, Evangelicalism, Featured, Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, Scripture

During the 1960s and 1970s, various evangelical scholars debated the nature of Scripture—in particular, they debated its veracity, its historicity, and its intent. Several books were written on this. The most controversial book was The Battle for the Bible, written by evangelical leader Harold Lindsell in 1976.

In his book, Lindsell highlighted the divisions and factions that existed amongst professing evangelical scholars and leaders. It was sort of a “tell all” book. He named names. And it was quite caustic too. Lindsell sought to expose scholars, leaders, and schools that had been questioning the Bible’s truthfulness.

Lindsell concluded that if evangelicals ceased to consider the Bible as truthful, then that would open the door to all sorts of departures from Christian orthodoxy.[1] Lindsell defended the doctrine of inerrancy.

What is inerrancy? The doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture is the belief that there are no faults or errors in the Bible, that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms and teaches, that the Bible never conveys faulty information, that whatever the Bible asserts to true is indeed true, and that all of the propositions in the Bible are accurate and trustworthy.

The doctrine of inerrancy asserts that the Bible is “without error in all matters it addresses, including [whenever it makes claims related to] history and even science.”[2]

Several events in the 1970s, including the publication of Lindsell’s book, led to the formation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which crafted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). Then, in 1979, scholars Jack Rogers and Donald McKim authored The Authority and Inspiration of the Bible. It was written in response to the Chicago Statement and served as a counter-punch to Lindsell’s book. The thesis and ideas proposed by Rogers and McKim came to be known as the Rogers/McKim proposal.

 

The Rogers/McKim Proposal

What is the Rogers/McKim proposal? The Rogers/McKim proposal was the idea presented by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture was an advent of the modern world, that this doctrine supposedly had not ever been embraced by Christians before the 19th century, therefore inerrancy should not be considered essential for Christians. Their proposal was informed by their historical analysis of how the doctrine of Scripture had been articulated throughout church history.

Rogers and McKim claimed that the traditional way of seeing Scripture had been compromised, all the way back to the 17th century. The Roger/McKim proposal was rooted in their conclusion that Christians, throughout history, had only ever sought to interact with Scripture as a guide for piety and spirituality, and that Christians before the modern age supposedly had never even been concerned with the historicity or factual truthfulness of the Scriptures. According to Rogers and McKim, as Christianity moved into the modern era, Christians then began holding the Bible to an unreasonable standard—setting expectations for the Bible that God (supposedly) never intended for the Bible.

The primary tactic Rogers and McKim used in their book, to defend their thesis, was to extensively examine the writings of prominent leaders and theologians from church history, offering commentary that would (supposedly) prove that those historical leaders would have rejected the doctrine of inerrancy.

One of the primary historical theologians that Rogers and McKim examined was 16th century pastor-theologian John Calvin. They claimed that even Calvin “discerned technical inaccuracies” in the Biblical text.[3]

However, Rogers and McKim grossly misunderstood Calvin. In fact, I’m so convinced that they misunderstood Calvin, I wrote an extensive article about it: “Did John Calvin Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture?

Several books were written in the 1980s by evangelical scholars that disputed the Rogers/McKim proposal. The most influential of those books was Biblical Authority: Infallibility and Inerrancy in the Christian Tradition by historian John D. Woodbridge.

 

Inerrancy and the Modern Era

Rogers and McKim sought to demonstrate there was a shift between the 17th and 19th centuries—they claimed that many Christians in the modern age started asking questions about the Bible that no one had ever cared about before, and that this shift supposedly paved the way for theologians to place too much emphasis on the Bible’s truthfulness and historicity.

Rogers and McKim claimed that this major shift began with a group of 17th century theologians known as the Reformed Scholastics (like Francis Turretin and John Owen) and that the shift was solidified by the 19th century Princeton divines (like Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield).

Rogers and McKim argued that, ultimately, the doctrine of inerrancy was invented as a fundamentalist reaction to theological liberalism.[4] They asserted that even the word inerrant was not ever used before the 19th century. Their conclusion: Since previous generations did not hold to inerrancy, neither should we.

Proponents of inerrancy admit and concede that the word inerrant was indeed developed in the modern age. However, that does not mean that the concept of inerrancy didn’t exist. Proponents of inerrancy assert that “while the technical term inerrancy is of recent origin, the conviction that the Bible is ‘without error’ is not [recent].”[5] The concept of inerrancy certainly existed throughout church history, but it was simply articulated and explained using different vocabulary. The word inerrancy is relatively new, but the doctrine itself is not new at all.

 

Inerrancy vs. Infallibility

In the wake of the Rogers/McKim proposal and the theological debates of the 20th century, some Christians have rejected the doctrine of inerrancy. The basis for their rejection is that inerrancy was (supposedly) invented in the 19th century.

Many of those same Christians, that have rejected the doctrine of inerrancy, have now also outright rejected the authority of the Bible altogether; they’ve concluded that the Bible isn’t fully truthful, therefore, they’ve also concluded that the Bible cannot be authoritative or divinely inspired. This result was probably not what Rogers and McKim were hoping for, but it has indeed been one of the ramifications of their proposal.

However, some other Christians that have rejected the doctrine of inerrancy have sought to continue to affirm the Bible’s authority and divine inspiration—many of them have rejected the idea that the Bible is inerrant, but they’ve asserted that the Bible is infallible. They’ve proclaimed a strong distinction between inerrancy and infallibility. But this distinction is potentially very confusing.

When we examine the literal definitions of these two words (inerrancy and infallibility) we see that they are actually interchangeable in the English lexicon.[6] These two words literally mean the same thing, so the distinction has caused some confusion. This confusion inspired many evangelicals to double-down on the use of the term inerrancy.

By the 1980s, some evangelicals insisted that the term inerrancy must be fully embraced for a Christian to even be considered orthodox—which is probably a step too far.

Many of the Christians that embraced infallibility, yet rejected inerrancy, often said that the Bible is the “infallible rule” for the Christian faith, but only in matters of “faith and practice.”[7] They claimed that it’s fine and reasonable to believe that the Bible could indeed have some factual errors or erroneous historical claims, since the Bible could still be valuable to our spiritual lives, even with a few errors.

This approach to the Bible has been embraced by some modern evangelicals, claiming that “believers need not and should not claim that [the Bible] is absolutely inerrant in all matters it addresses.”[8]

Many contemporary professing Christians have asserted that previous generations of Christians didn’t care about these types of things anyway, that they supposedly did not care if the Bible was absolutely accurate in all things, therefore we shouldn’t care either.

 

So, What About the ‘Errors’?

The question arises: If someone does embrace inerrancy—the idea that the Bible is without errors—then what do we do about the passages of Scripture that seem to have errors?

Proponents of the doctrine of inerrancy (myself included) typically respond to this question by saying: Any apparent errors in Scripture are not real errors, but rather, they are evidence that we have misunderstood or misinterpreted the Biblical text. If the Bible seems to have made a mistake or erred, it’s because we’ve misunderstood it. The problem is with our understanding, the problem is not with the text itself.

In contrast, the contemporary proponents of infallibility (using the new-ish definition of infallibility) assert that we should not approach the Bible the way that the inerrantists do. They contend that, instead, Bible readers should only seek to use the Bible as the means of entering intimacy with the Almighty; they claim that Bible readers should avoid even asking questions related to the veracity and truthfulness and historicity of the Bible because such questions are supposedly irrelevant.

These proponents of infallibility claim that the Bible “does not fail believers when trusted to do what God inspired it to do.”[9] Proponents of this variation of infallibility allow for some factual errors within the biblical text because, supposedly, such errors do not impede the Bible’s ability to usher humans into intimacy with God.[10]

 

Inerrancy Is Not Precisionism?

Another major issue is that many people have rejected inerrancy without properly understanding it. They seem to think that inerrancy means precisionism, but that’s not what most inerrantists believe. The vast majority of the proponents of inerrancy do not believe that the Bible needs to be absolutely precise in order for it to be considered fully true and without errors.

Inerrancy is not precisionism. The terms truth and precision are not synonymous.

For example, if I handed one of my students a textbook that’s precisely 398 pages. Let’s say that the student grabs the book and asks, “Professor Ortiz, how many pages are in the textbook?” If I were to say, “400 pages.”  Have I erred or did I tell the truth?”

In that scenario the answer “400 pages” is perfectly acceptable, and would indeed be considered truthful, because in that context there is no expectation of precision.

The distinction between truth and precision is important. Statements need not be absolutely precise for them to still be considered trustworthy or truthful. The Bible need not be absolutely precise to be considered ‘without error.’

Now, with that stated, there is another element to consider—the doctrine of inerrancy may not demand absolute detailed precision in every instance, but the doctrine inerrancy does demand some level of nearness to precision.

For example, back to my textbook illustration (above). When my student had asked me about the number of pages in the textbook, if I responded, “1,000 pages.” Well, that response would not be near enough to the absolute precise detailed truth, therefore the response “1,000 pages” would likely not be considered accurate or reliable or truthful. In that context, saying “10,000 pages” would not be considered trustworthy. However, in that context, saying “400 pages” would indeed be considered accurate and reliable and truthful and trustworthy.

The expectations of the context matters. The literary contexts of Scripture are different, and therefore the expectations may be slightly different from passage to passage.

The Old Testament history books are different than the poetic structures found in Psalms or Job or the prophets, the New Testament Gospels are different than Paul’s epistles, the narrative passages of the New Testament are different than the book of Revelation, and so on, and so on. Some types of passages demand more precision than others.

Proponents of the doctrine of inerrancy are simply saying that the Bible always meets the context’s expectations, whatever that particular context demands in order for that Biblical passage to be considered accurate and reliable and truthful and trustworthy, you can be assured that the Biblical author meets those expectations, even when the Biblical author addresses matters related to science or history.

Proponents of inerrancy assert that Bible readers ought to be careful to avoid confusing inerrancy with precisionism. There have been many professing Christians that have rejected inerrancy simply because it sounded too pedantic or too precise or too narrow or too mechanical, but many have not considered that inerrancy does not necessarily demand absolute precision. Theologian John Murray wrote:

“This means that the Holy Spirit… was not always meticulously precise on [some] matters. It must be emphatically stated that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy for which the church has contended throughout history and, for which a great many of us still contend, is not based on the assumption that the criterion of meticulous precision in every detail of record or history is the indispensable canon of biblical infallibility. To erect such a canon is utterly artificial and arbitrary and is not one by which the inerrancy of Scripture is to be judged.”[11]

 

Problem Solver or Heresy?

Some Christians believe that affirming infallibility, while rejecting inerrancy, solves a problem.

For example, imagine a Christian having a conversation with an atheist. The atheist might point out something in the Bible that seems to be an error. The Christian could then respond by saying something like, “Well, the goal of the Bible isn’t to be precisely accurate in every detail, but rather, the goal of the Bible is to help you develop your spiritual life and your faith in God. That error doesn’t impede your spiritual life.”

Under this framework and ideology, the Christian can still affirm infallibility, but not be handicapped by all of the (supposed) errors that are in Scripture. They can say that the Bible doesn’t fail to accomplish its mission, which is to cultivate faith in people, but they don’t necessarily need to defend every single statement or proposition in Scripture. In the modern age, with the tremendous amount of information that we now have, some Christians assert that embracing this new-ish variation of infallibility seems to solve the problems that may come at us.

While some see this approach as being a problem solver, others have argued that this essentially leads to theological liberalism, that this framework will cause many to depart from historic Christian orthodoxy, towards heresy and theological liberalism—which is one of the major points that Lindsell made in his book.

Some (not all) of the professing Christians that have embraced this new-ish definition of infallibility, and its accompanying ideology, have begun to treat some of the statements in Scripture as being merely the biased opinions of the Biblical authors.

For example, some have argued that the apostle Paul didn’t understand sexual orientation, so of course he would condemn same-sex relations. These people assert, now that we modern folks have better research, now that we have a proper understanding of human psychology and orientation and gender ideology, we can now see that Paul was wrong, and therefore we have the freedom (and even the obligation) to reject Paul’s condemnation of same-sex relations.

These sentiments lead people to say things like, “We modern thinkers now realize that it is bigoted to condemn those behaviors, right? So, let’s just go ahead and reject those particular passages of the Bible, while still embracing the rest of the Bible.”

It’s clear to see that the Rogers/McKim proposal and the ideas that it endorses have the potential to dramatically shape how people interpret the Scriptures.

 

Final Thoughts

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with someone who embraces the Rogers/McKim proposal and rejects inerrancy. He’s the type of person that seems to believe that rejecting inerrancy solves problems for professing Christians.

He said to me, “Come on Kenny, isn’t it obvious to you that modern science and archaeological evidence and psychological research have disproven many of the claims and details we see in the Scriptures? You can’t really believe inerrancy, do you? Come on man, you’re too smart for that.” I was glad to defend my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture.

The conversation then dovetailed into questions related to the modern LGBTQ+ movement. He implied that my willingness to embrace inerrancy would lead me toward being a bigot. He implored me to stop being a bigot and to reject inerrancy.

My response, “Well, I do believe that the Bible is without error, in all that it affirms, teaches, and addresses—even when addressing matters of science and history. If that makes me old-fashioned or bigoted or unintellectual in your eyes, then so be it!”

In the coming years, those of us that hold to tradition Christian doctrines and the orthodox views of Scripture will likely be called bigoted and unintellectual, even by other professing Christians. This is something we ought to be prepared for. However, we must not back down, we must defend the Bible.

Whether it be Rogers or McKim or secular progressives or anyone else, the Bible is worthy of our defense and reverence. As John Calvin said, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it.“[12]

 


Featured image courtesy of The Gospel Coalition, Inc.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 25, 139.
  2. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. Second Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 17.
  3. Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. (1979; repr., Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 109; for additional research see John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: Infallibility and Inerrancy in the Christian Tradition. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).
  4. The American Fundamentalist movement was a response to the growing theological liberalism within American Protestantism. Many Protestant scholars and pastors had departed from Christian orthodoxy and embraced a new brand of Protestantism that was informed by biblical higher criticism, inspired by the works of scholars such as Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), and Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831); the proponents of this new brand of Protestantism, which sought to reinvent Christianity in the light of modern science and philosophy, came to be known as the “Modernists.” The Fundamentalist movement placed greater emphasis on the fundamentalists of historic Christian orthodoxy; for additional research into the Fundamentalist movement, and its implications, see George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture. Third edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).
  5. Boyd, Across the Spectrum, 17-18.
  6. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term infallible means “incapable of error; not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint.” It is synonymous with terms like unerring and unfailing; cf. “Infallible Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster,” Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/infallible.
  7. Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, 109.
  8. Boyd, Across the Spectrum, 16.
  9. Ibid.
  10. The “inerrancy” vs. “infallibility” debate is focused on the original texts of Scripture crafted by the biblical authors—the autographs. Neither side of this debate claims any sort of absolute veracity and accuracy of the textual copies or manuscripts; for additional research on contemporary views of biblical inerrancy see Michael F. Bird and R. Albert Mohler and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Peter Enns, and John R. Franke, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), eds. J. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett, and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013).
  11. John Murray, Calvin on Scripture and Divine Sovereignty. Kindle edition. (1960; repr., Louisville: GLH Publishing, 2019), Kindle locations 354-358.
  12. John Calvin, Calvin’s Complete Commentaries. Kindle edition. (1540-1559; repr., E4 Group, 2013), Kindle locations 549399-549404.