Fundamentalism and the Inerrancy of Scripture

Recently this magazine reported the Executive Director of Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church as saying that inerrancy is not a Reformed idea, that it comes out of fundamentalism, and fundamentalism poses more of a threat to the CRC than liberalism. We published the “Reaffirmation of the Inerrancy of the Bible” taken by CR Synod ‘79, and we promised to print more material to show that inerrancy is not only and primarily a Biblical doctrine, but definitely a Reformed one as well. Because the Executive Director of Ministries is not at all alone in the leadership of the CRC in refusing to endorse inerrancy, we will from time to time be featuring valuable articles on this most basic doctrine. If the foundation of our faith, the Word of God, is askew, no wonder the denominational superstructure is crumbling.

One of our Associate Editors, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, opens our discussion of “Fundamentalism and the Inerrancy of Scripture.” The second article in this issue is a speech given by Dr. John Gerstner to the International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy called together in Chicago, October 1978. The article is printed with the permission of the author and Zondervan Corporation. Dr. Gerstner effectively removes all doubt that “inerrancy” is a Reformed doctrine espoused emphatically by John Calvin himself. The Editors

A fashionable new rhetoric has entered the Christian Reformed Church. You do not need to listen long before you will notice it. This new fashion declares various elements of conservative Reformed theology to be “fundamentalistic.” Today a theological position does not need to be analyzed or refuted if it is just dismissed as “fundamentalism.”

“Fundamentalism” is the new epithet of choice among the left in the CRC. It seems to have replaced “scholasticism” as the favorite term of contempt in the last few years. Fundamentalism is bad and so any idea that can be called by that name is also bad.

This new trend is especially evident in relation to the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. I have heard it said in many contexts in the CRC that we hold to a high view of Scripture, that we believe in the infallibility of Scripture, but that we do not hold to that fundamentalistic idea of the inerrancy of Scripture. We are told by many that it is not really Reformed to believe in inerrancy.




If we want to understand this new fashion, we must begin by examining what the word “fundamentalist” means, and then by asking the relation of that word to the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture. In the popular press of our land the word “fundamentalist” has come to mean a rightwing religious fanatic. But before we use the word in that way we ought to consider something of the history and origin of the word.

The word “fundamentalist” originated in the early twentieth century in relation to the publication of some booklets that were called “The Fundamentals.” The authors of these tracts were distinguished evangelical Christians who were concerned that the strong modernist criticism of the Bible and denial of basic facts and doctrines of the Christian faith were having a destructive impact on the Christian church in America. The concerns of these tracts were summarized in the five fundamentals of the faith: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture, 2) the divinity of Jesus, 3) the virgin birth of Jesus, 4) the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, and 5) the physical resurrection and bodily second coming ofJesus.

None of these five fundamentals was new. Each reiterated what was held as common evangelical doctrine. Certainly each was seen as being fully in conformity with Reformed theology. The only criticism of this early fundamentalism from confessional Reformed circles at the time was that it was not a full statement of the system of Biblical truth. The Reformed worried that the evangelical movement tended to end up with a truncated theology and that the fundamentals were another example of that problem.

As the conflict between modernism and evangelicalism heated up in the 1920s, some conservative evangelicals became very militant and aggressive in their opposition to the spreading liberalism in the churches. These aggressive conservatives came to be known as fundamentalists. (The best study of fundamentalism is George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture.) J. Gresham Machen, one of the founders of Westminster Seminary and regarded as a Reformed hero in CRC circles in his day, was a fundamentalist in the sense of being a militant conservative.

After fundamentalism was defeated in the mainline Protestant churches (that is, churches that had historically been evangelical, but were becoming predominantly liberal), fundamentalism increasingly took on the character of being strongly separatistic, premillennial and often anti-intellectual. In the 1930s fundamentalism became, in the minds of many, an old-fashioned, back-water form of Christianity.

The first editorial of The Torch and Trumpet (the original name of The Outlook) declared that the purpose of the magazine was to promote the Reformed faith and to oppose modernism and to resist fundamentalism, that strange mixture of truth and error. This editorial shows that by the early 1950s conservative Reformed people sensed that fundamentalism was so identified with a dispensational and separatist kind of evangelicalism that it was no real friend of Reformed Christianity.

What this brief survey shows is that the word “fundamentalism” has had a variety of meanings at different points in the history of the church in the twentieth century. In the earliest sense of the word, Reformed theology is fundamentalist, and in some of its later meanings Reformed Christianity is not. We ought to be cautious as to how we use the word, especially if we use it as a term of disdain. We must always remember that we share with the fundamentalists a common commitment to the authority of Scripture and the great facts of Jesus’ saving work—a commitment that we do not share with liberals.


Now we come to the second concern of this article. Is the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture a fundamentalist doctrine? Clearly the doctrine of inerrancy was a doctrine held and taught in the church long before the rise of fundamentalism. Luther wrote of the “Scripture, which has never erred.” Calvin wrote of the law of God: “Let us, then, be assured that an unerring light is to be found there…”1 Princeton Seminary in the nineteenth century further articulated and developed the doctrine of inerrancy among the Reformed. B. B. Warfield became the most effective Reformed scholar in the Biblical presentation of inerrancy.

The word “inerrancy” does not appear in the Reformed confessions. For this reason some then argue that the idea of inerrancy is not Reformed. But this is a simplistic way of reasoning. The question is not so much whether or not the word appears in the confessions, but whether the concept is found there. The Heidelberg Catechism defines faith in part as “a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true …” (Q 21). The Belgic Confession speaks of the Scriptures as the books “with which there can be no quarrel” (Art. 4). The Confession continues with the assertion that “we believe without a doubt all things contained in them” (Art. 5). Article 7 calls the Bible “this infallible rule” and says its “teaching is perfect and complete in all respects.” Although the word “inerrancy” does not appear, the idea of inerrancy—that the Bible is absolutely true in all that it says—comes through with absolute clarity.

The word “inerrancy” has come to be a key word in the theological vocabulary of conservative Christians in the twentieth century because liberals and neo-orthodox theologians began to play games with the word “infallible.” Infallible means unfailingly true and therefore is the equivalent of inerrant. But some have tried to argue that the Bible is unfailing only in its saving message, but not in the details of its revelation (such as the details of the history it presents).2 Such a limited understanding of infallibility is absolutely opposed to the historical and confessional use of the word. To make that clear, confessional Reformed theologians have seen the value of using the word “inerrancy.”

In 1978 a founding meeting of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was held in Chicago. That meeting produced a fine statement defending the doctrine of inerrancy and explaining carefully what it meant. Leaders of the meeting included such well-known Reformed theologians as J.I. Packer, John Gerstner, R.C. Sproul, Roger Nicole and Edmund Clowney. Faculty members of many Reformed seminaries—including some from Calvin Theological Seminary—signed the statement. Clearly these Reformed theologians did not see anything in the doctrine of inerrancy that was “fundamentalist” or unreformed.

Synods of the Christian Reformed Church have also clearly and unequivocally embraced the doctrine of inerrancy as part of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and as the proper understanding of our confessional position. In 1959 synod declared that the position of “the historic Christian church” was “that the Scripture in its whole extent and in all its parts is the infallible and inerrant Word of God” (Acts, p. 64). This action of Synod 1959 actually involved adopting conclusions reached by the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. Embracing inerrancy was not a peculiarity of the CRC, but it was the position embraced by all the Reformed churches in the RES. In 1979 synod endorsed and reiterated the commitment of the church to the inerrancy of Scripture as stated in 1959 (Acts, p. 127). No subsequent synod has changed this commitment of the CRC. The official position of the CRC is that inerrancy is a Reformed doctrine.

Fundamentalists do believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. But that does not make inerrancy a fundamentalist doctrine. Reformed theology shares a number of doctrines in common with fundamentalism (such as the deity of Christ) which are not distinctively fundamentalistic. The witness of Reformed theologians from John Calvin down to the official synodical pronouncements of the Christian Reformed Church show that inerrancy is a Reformed doctrine.


In our troubled days in the CRC we hear much about the obligation we have to keep covenant with one another. We hear much about the need to accept the decisions of synod. Yet from many of these very same people we hear that the doctrine of inerrancy is a fundamentalist doctrine. Why is that?

Recently members of the CRC received a letter from the general secretary and others in leadership roles in the CRC. The letter complained about the negative spirit of criticism in the church, especially about charges that the commitment of the church to the infallibility of Scripture is slipping. The letter assured members that the CRC is fully committed to the infallibility of the Scriptures. Will these same leaders send out a letter assuring us that the church is just as committed to the inerrancy of Scripture as ever? Will they explain why inerrancy is criticized even by some “moderate” leaders of the CRC if they hold strongly to the historic position of the CRC on the authority of Scripture? Can they explain why it is not a breaking of the denominational covenant for leaders to reject the decisions of synods on the inerrancy of Scripture? Since leaders in the CRC once believed in the inerrancy of Scripture and many current leaders do not, something has changed in the CRC about the way Biblical authority is understood.

Since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, ever-growing attacks have been mounted against the Bible’s reliability and truthfulness. Reformed Christians for over two hundred years have rightly sensed that an attack on the Bible is an attack on the very foundation of our faith and an attack on Jesus Himself. Reformed Christians have defended the Bible knowing the deceitfulness of human minds and the absolute need of a sure Word from God. We have seen the need to develop a variety of terms—true, infallible, inerrant—to affirm the authority of the Bible and to shield it from subtle and, at times, dishonest and deceptive assaults. We have developed this defense in the spirit of the teaching of John Calvin who wrote: “…the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard.”3 The doctrine of inerrancy has been an important and useful element in the defense of the authority of the Bible.

In 1978, at the first meeting of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, I remember the eloquent address of J.I. Packer on the usefulness of the word “inerrancy.” He reminded us of the uses of shibboleths in the history of God’s people. In Judges 12 Jephthah and the Gileadites were able to distinguish allies from enemies according to whether a stranger could pronounce the word “shibboleth” correctly. Packer noted that at several points in the history of the church a shibboleth had been useful to distinguish allies from enemies. At the Council of Nicea, for example, the shibboleth was that Jesus was of the “same substance” with the Father. In our time, Packer suggested that “inerrancy” was just such a shibboleth. If someone is unwilling to embrace inerrancy, a close examination is needed to find out if he is really an ally.

The next time you hear someone say that inerrancy is a fundamentalist doctrine, gently correct them. Remind them that inerrancy is a Reformed doctrine. Ask them, if they reject the doctrine of inerrancy, to point out what errors they have found in the Bible. Urge them to show more respect for God’s Word and, in the face of an unbelieving world, to defend the Scriptures as the absolutely true revelation of God. Call them to sing with you Psalm 119: “To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless….The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy….All your words are true” (vss. 96, 138, 160).


Decision of CRC Synod 1959 on the inspiration of Scripture (Acts, p. 64), basically adopting the Conclusions of the Report of the Committee on Inspiration to the Fourth Reformed Ecumenical Synod of 1958:

a. The doctrine of inspiration (to which the Christian Reformed Church holds) is to the effect that Holy Scripture alone and Holy Scripture in its entirety is the Word of God written, given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and practice, an inspiration of an organic nature which extends not only to the ideas but also to the words of Holy Scripture, and is so unique in its effect that Holy Scripture alone is the Word of God.

b. This doctrine of inspiration, while holding that the human authors of Scripture were moved by the Holy Spirit so as to insure that what they wrote communicated infallibly God’s self-revelation, also maintains that the Holy Spirit did not suppress their personalities, but rather that he sovereignly prepared, controlled and directed them in such a way that he utilized their endowments and experience, their research and reflection, their language and style. This human aspect of Scripture does not, however, allow for the inference that Scripture may be regarded as a fallible human witness to divine revelation, for such an evaluation constitutes an attack upon the glorious sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in inspiration.

c. This estimate of Scripture is the demand arising from the witness which the Scripture itself bears to its divine origin, character, and authority. More particularly it is demanded by the witness of our Lord and His apostles, and to entertain a different estimate is to reject the testimony of Christ and of the apostles.

d. This doctrine of Scripture must not be regarded as a dispensable addendum, far less as a merely human accretion, to our Christian faith. Holy Scripture is the only extant form of redemptive revelation. Faith in Scripture as God-breathed revelatory Word is implicit in our faith in the divine character of redemption itself.

e. These considerations that Scripture pervasively witnesses to its own God-breathed origin and character and that as redemptive revelation it is necessarily characterized by the divinity which belongs to redemption are the explanation of the sustained faith of the historic Christian church that Scripture in its whole extent and in all its parts is the infallible and inerrant Word of God.

f. To this faith as it is clearly expressed in the creeds of the Reformed Churches “the Christian Reformed Church bears witness and on the basis of this doctrine of Scripture seeks to testify to the whole counsel of God in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace.”


1. See D.A. Carson and J.D. Woodbridge, eds., Scripture and Truth, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Zondervan), 1983, pp. 227, 321.

2. This position is argued in Jade B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, San Francisco (Harper and Row), 1979. It is completely demolished in the fine work of John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Zondervan), 1982.

3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T. McNeill, Philadelphia (Westminster), 1960, T,vii,!.

Dr. Godfrey is president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA.