It is commonly taught in evangelical scholarship that the doctrine of inerrancy was invented and developed by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in 1881 with publication of their paper “Inspiration” (see pp. XI, 33). Ronald Satta proves in this small work that such was not the case—that, in fact, conservative theologians going back to the Reformation (pp. 2-3,9), and indeed to the Church Fathers (p. 54) have held to a well-defined view of both the authority of the Scripture and inerrancy of the Bible in the original autographs. Satta carefully surveys the commonly held views by conservative Christians during the nineteenth-century in America and concludes that “the assertion that inerrancy is a novelty is exposed as incorrect. Rather than innovators, fundamentalists are cast as the standard-bearers of the ascendant theory of biblical authority commonly endorsed among many of the leading Protestant elite in nineteenth-century America” (p. XV).
As Higher Criticism invaded America in the early 1800s, two alternative and deficient views to inerrancy and inspiration were developed. The “partial theory” taught that only certain passages of Scripture were inspired (p. 17). The “degree theory” maintained that only the thoughts were inspired and that there existed different levels or degrees of inspiration (p. 20). In both views, the human interpreter ultimately functioned as the judge of Scripture (pp. 43-47). In addition, the gap theory, day-age theory and localized flood theory gained popularity for the same reason (pp. 36, 38, 44). By 1900 liberals had abandoned the accuracy of the text of Scripture and the modernist-fundamentalist division became inevitable (p. 43).
The rise of theological liberalism which Satta discusses in depth, including elevating experience above truth, is all too reminiscent of what is happening within modern evangelicalism (pp. 60-71). Just as many theologians in the nineteenth century claimed to believe in the major tenets of Christianity, while rejecting inspirations, leading eventually to rejection of those major tenets, so we find 21st century evangelicalism traveling down the same path.
The Sacred Text concludes with the heresy trial of professor Charles Briggs in the late 1800s. Briggs taught the partial theory of inspiration and rejected inerrancy (p. 75), even as he endorsed inspiration and affirmed Scripture to be the Word of God (p. 90). He was found guilty of heresy and defrocked as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (p. 93). Briggs serves as a reminder of how easily an individual, and/or a church or denomination, can travel down the slippery slope toward liberalism.
The Sacred Text is a must read for Christian leaders today who are serious about defending the faith and standing firmly on the inerrant Word of God.
The Sacred Text, Biblical Authority in Nineteenth-Century America by Ronald F. Satta (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2007) 116 pp. + XV, paper $18.00
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel.