Infallible “Only in Matters of Faith and Practice???”

With the matter of inspiration being ardently discussed in the Christian Reformed Church at this time, a rather new note has been struck by the Rev. Leonard Verduin in his article, “The Concept of Infallibility in the Christian Tradition,” which appeared in the November, 1959, issue of The Reformed Journal. Previously. the doubts cast upon plenary infallibility were primarily in the field of biblical studies; but now the thesis is advanced that infallibility, as held by the church tradition, relates only to matters of faith and practice. To support this position, Rev. Verduin quotes the form of government of the Presbyterian Church, saying that this was also the position of the Westminster Divines, infallible only in matters of faith and conduct. He then argues from the Belgic Confession that the phrase “believing without a doubt all things contained in them” of Article V refers only to matters that lie on the plateau of faith and morals, as well as other phrases such as, “we reject with all our hearts all that does not comport with this infallible rule.”


In summary, in quoting the recent decision of Synod that “it is inconsonant with the creeds to declare or to suggest that there is an area of Scripture in which it is allowable to posit the possibility of actual historical inaccuracies,” Rev. Verduin makes this astounding statement: “If by this statement Synod wishes to say that the delimitation of of faith and conduct’ is from now on contraband, then Synod is introducing an innovation.”1

I call this an astounding statement because it declares that our Synod has adopted a teaching that is new in the history of the Reformed Churches. Previously, we are told, the church held to an infallibility limited to faith and morals as the Pope’s authority is so limited, hut that now our church has adopted a narrower view, limiting our ministers vows, our standards, our whole church to an inerrancy in all matters and not just faith and morals. This is a serious indictment of our Synod, for it seems that the decision had more far-reaching consequences than most of the delegates anticipated, since the judgment made by Synod was considered to be an interpretation, in fact, the historical interpretation, of Article V of the Belgic Confession.2 Therefore, we are forced to ask if the Synod’s declaration concerning the Creed was in error and if, at the coming Synod, it should be appealed and repealed.


If we examine the history of the church we find that from the earliest time until the Reformation there was but one doctrine of inspiration and that included inerrancy. As, B. B. Warfield says:

The earliest writers know no other doctrine. If Origen asserts that the Holy Spirit was coworker with the Evangelists in the composition of the Gospel, and t hat, therefore, lapse of memory, error or falsehood was impossible to them, and if Irenaeus, the pupil of Polycarp, claims for Christians a clear knowledge that “the Scriptures arc perfect, seeing that they are spoken by God’s Word and his Spirit”; no less does Polycarp, the pupil of John, consider the Scriptures the very voice of the Most High, and pronounce him the first-born of Satan “whosoever perverts these oracles of the Lord.” Nor do the later Fathers know a different doctrine. Augustine, for example, affirms that he defers to the canonical Scriptures alone among books with such reverence and honor that he most “firmly believes that no one of their authors has erred in anything, in writing.”3


In coming to the Reformers them. selves, we find the same doctrine in evidence. Very often we have scholars assert that Luther and Calvin held to a partial theory of inspiration,4 but they derive this idea from Luther’s view of the canon and Calvin’s handling of individual passages, and it is not the theory which the men themselves held. We must see how the Reformers considered inspiration and read their handling of Scripture in the light of their doctrine. We have the judgment of Luther’s teaching by J. Theodore Mueller, a urominent Lutheran scholar of our day, when he says:

There is no doubt that the popularity of the Bible in Christendom today is largely due to Martin Luther’s deep appreciation of Holy Scripture as the infallible divine Word and the only source and norm of the Christian faith and life.

In giving evidence to support his contention he goes on to say:

Luther unfailingly asserts the inerrancy of Scripture over against the errancy of human historians and scientists. He writes: “The Scriptures have never erred.” “It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it appears so only to the senseless and obstinate hypocrites.”5

Likewise, Calvin writes in the same vein when commenting on 11 Timothy 3:16:

they only uttered what they had been commissioned from heaven to declare. Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him, first of all, lay down this as a settled point, that the Law and the Prophets are not a doctrine delivered according to the will and pleasure of men, but dictated by the Holy Spirit.6

On the basis of such a statement it is necessary to say either that Cod dictated error to his Prophets, or else that all they spoke was absolutely true, including historical and scientific details. It was, of course this latter view that Calvin held.

The Seventeenth Century Reformed Theologians took up this idea of dictation and pushed it beyond the concept of Calvin himself, so that the personalities of the individual writers were held in abeyance and they acted merely as secretaries. The doctrine of verbal, absolute inspiration, instead of being discarded or amended, was pressed into an even more rigid form by this, and by their stating that the Hebrew vowel points were also inspired.7


At this same time the idea originated that the Bible is inspired only in spiritual matters, but it did not arise in the Church of Jesus Christ. It was Faustus Socinus, and following him, the Socinians, who said that the sacred writers were inspired in respect to religious matters only, while in other respects they erred, Only those things that accorded with reason and had moral significance and utility were given a place of honor in his movement.8 From Socinus the concept spread until it was held in its essence by the Syncretists in Germany, the Jesuits of the Church of Rome, and the Remonstrants in Holland.9 And it wasn’t until 1690 that it appeared on English soil with the translation of Le Clerc’s “Five Lelters concerning the Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures.”10


All of this sheds light on the doctrine of infallibility to the 1700’s as such, but it also has an important bearing on our interpretation of the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession. In interpreting any historical document, especially the creeds of the church, it is essential to understand them in the light of the thought of their time. To many it has been an insurmountable temptation to read back into the creeds the terminology and concepts of a particular controversy, so that the creeds are read to support a particular side in that controversy.

I am led to suspect that the Rev. Verduin has fallen prey to this temptation in the light of the facts: for the concept which he says is taught by the Belgic Confession ( inspiration in faith and morals only) had not even been conceived at the time. For Socinus was still a law and theology student and unknown in England when the Westminster Confession was written, having entered the country 43 years after the Assembly had completed its work. As Warfield decisively says:

The misinterpretation of this clause, [All which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life] which would use it as .a definition of inspiration, in the hope of confining inspiration in the definition of the Confession to matters of faith and practice,…is discredited as decisively on historical as on exegetical grounds. This view was not the view of the Westminster Divines.11

In both the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession, the

extent of inspiration was ALL of Scripture, as in II Timothy 3:16, but it was so inspired in order that it might be the only rule of faith and conduct. This was the purpose of its being written. As the Westminster divines taught in the Shorter Catechism: “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man” (A. 3). The Scriptures were not written to be a scientific textbook, nor were they to be a mere record of history. The purpose of their being written was for the redemptive instruction of man. To this end, when the Scriptures speak on any subject they speak infallibly. This has been the unanimous testimony of the church in all ages.

“In all ages” includes the time from the 1700’s until today. It must be admitted, of course, that during the 18th and 19th centuries the idea of partial inspiration, in one of its many forms, was accepted by many who held to supernatural Christianity. However. it never supplanted the faith of the historic creeds, nor did it shake the faith of the bulk of the people of God. It had its popularity among those who were in the active struggle with rationalism and the depreciation of the supernatural elements of Christianity; but even though it got a foothold among some who constituted the outer edge of faith’s line of defense, it never captured those who guarded its inner citadel, such as Kuyper and Bavinck, the Alexanders, the Hodges and Warfield and—in our own time—Murray and Berkhof.12


If our church should ever give up the concept of plenary, verbal inspiration which declares all Scripture infallible, we would be stranded on an island, away from the central stream of Christianity; we would not be “liberal” enough for the larger denominations, and not “orthodox” enough for the majority of evangelicals. Our professors and ministers would be barred from the Evangelical Theological Society which has as its doctrinal basis, to which all must subscribe: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the autographa.”

But by far the worst part of the situation would be that we would not be true to the Word of God; and being untrue to the Word of God, we would be untrue to God himself, who has through the ages kept his Word singularly pure and intact, while at the same time guarding his church so that in its core it still held to this basic teaching.

May it not be said of our generation, that we through a stubborn and unbelieving heart surrendered our belief in the purity of God’s Word and. therefore with it, the truthfulness and purity of God himself. Our Synod. in its decision of 1959, has not said something new, but has only restated what Scripture and the Creeds of the Church have said for centuries: that the Bible in all its parts is the infallible, inerrant Word of God.


1. L. Verduin, “The Concept of Infallibility in the Christian Tradition,” in The Reformed Journal, November 1959, p. 17.

2. see Acts of Synod 1959, p. 68.

3. B.B. Warfield, “The Church Doctrine of Inspiration,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1948), p. 108.

4. C.A. Beckwith, “Inspiration,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1956), vol. VI, p. 18.

5. J. Theodore Muller, “Luther and the Bible,” in Inspiration and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957) pp. 87, 88, 99.

6. J. Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), pp. 248, 249.

7. cf. Geoffrey W. Bromiley’s discussion of the Post-Reformation Period in his article, “The Church Doctrine of Inspiration,” in Revelation and the Bible (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1958), pp. 212–214.

8. O. Zockler, “Socinus,” in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, vol. X, pp. 490, 491.

9. B.B. Warfield, op.cit., p. 112.

10. B.B. Warfield, “The Westminster Doctrine of Holy Scripture,” in The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (New York, Oxford University Press, 1931), p. 203.

11. Ibid., p. 203.

12. see A. Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, pp. 152–157; H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, pp. 95–115; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. I, pp. 163–172; B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, pp. 105–128; J. Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” in The Infallible Word, pp. 1–40; and L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, pp. 40–52.