Two of the intellectual fathers of Christian fundamentalism, and ultimately evangelicalism, were James Orr and B. B. Warfield. Both contributed to The Fundamentals, and are well known for opposing modernism and liberalism.

But recently I learned that they differed from one another on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. John Woodbridge and Frank James, in Church History, II, 21.II.D, write:

[Orr] was unwilling to draw the circle so tightly even though he shared a deep commitment to the supernatural inspiration of the Bible, which as such requires our sincere obedience. He argued that strict inerrancy is "a most suicidal position" that had the potential for destroying the "whole edifice of belief in revealed religion."

Interestingly, Wikipedia says that James Orr believed in the "infallibility" of the Bible, which to me is normally, for practical purposes, a synonym of inerrancy.

Thus it appears that I don't have a full understanding of the debate over inerrancy and infallibility in fundamentalism and early evangelicalism. To begin to understand this better, I'd like to know, from the actual writings of these two men, where they differed on this doctrine.

  • 1
    I know infallibility and inerrancy are distinguished now, but this debate would have preceded that considerably, I would think. Unless they began a debate which would only be picked up decades later...
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 13, 2017 at 14:56
  • 2
    Sorry - shouldn't use comments for this, but see Orr's sentence that begins at the bottom of p. 49 and continues on to p. 20. No time for more just now!
    – Dɑvïd
    Jul 13, 2017 at 21:38

1 Answer 1


Professor of didactic and polemic theology at Princeton Seminary was B.B. Warfield. He upheld the view that a strong emphasis on the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture was fundamental to orthodox theology. During his tenure at Princeton (1887 – 1921) there was

“sustained divisive controversy over the nature of Scripture and the newer methods of biblical scholarship known as ‘higher criticism’… There was no question where Warfield stood – firmly against higher criticism and any lessening of Princeton theology’s high view of Scripture.” The Story of Christian Theology by Roger E. Olson, p 560 (Apollos, 1999)

Warfield wrote various articles and books arguing that (ibid.)

“anything less than full belief in the complete inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture (the nonexistent original manuscripts) would result in a slippery slide of theology into liberalism and sheer relativism, for, Warfield argued, ‘we cannot modify the doctrine of plenary inspiration in any of its essential elements without undermining our confidence in the authority of the apostles as teachers of doctrine,’ (14) and inerrancy is a necessary ramification of inspiration.” (14 – The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible p 181 ed. Samuel G. Craig, Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1948)

Ibid. p 561 – “Inspired by the great revivals of evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody (1837-1899), dismayed and appalled by the growing influence of liberal theology, and energized by the resurgent Protestant orthodoxy of Warfield and others, two wealthy Christian businessmen sponsored the publication and free distribution of twelve collections of essays by leading conservative Protestant scholars. The Fundamentals were sent free of charge to thousands of pastors, denominational leaders, professors and even YMCA directors all over the United States. The first volume contained defenses of the virgin birth by Scottish theologian James Orr and of the deity of Christ by Warfield, as well as a critique of higher criticism of the Bible by a Canadian Anglican canon.”

This is where we see Warfield and Orr conjoined (spiritually speaking). But on the matter of dealing with higher criticism, we might detect some desire on Warfield’s part to be slightly distanced when we read the following statements of Orr in his tome, The Problem of the OT Considered with Reference to Recent Criticism, by James Orr D.D. The Bross Prize, 1905 – book published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, N.Y., 1907, 627 pages

In his ‘Introductory : The Problem Stated’, on page 9 Orr says that current higher criticism of the Bible is the basic problem as the name

“has unfortunately come to be associated all but exclusively with a method yielding a certain class of results ; but it has no necessary connection with these results. “Higher Criticism” rightly understood is simply the careful scrutiny, on the principles which it is customary to apply to all literature, of the actual phenomena of the Bible, with a view to deduce from these such conclusions as may be warranted regarding the age, authorship, mode of composition, sources, etc. of the different books ; and everyone who engages in such inquiries, with whatever aim, is a “Higher Critic,” and cannot help himself.”

pp 48-50 chapter **‘The OT from its own point of view’: subheading’ VI. Revelation in Relation to its Record’: “If we thus let the Bible – Old Testament and New – speak for itself, and compare it part with part : still more if we yield ourselves to its power, and strive faithfully to follow its directions, the conviction will irresistibly grow upon us that it is right when it claims to be based on divine revelation. Out of that revelation, the literature of revelation, which we call the Bible, grows. If this fact be firmly apprehended, particular questions about the dates or placing of books will not much trouble us. The revelation is there, and no changes in the dates or placing of books – none at least that are likely to be permanently brought out – can do anything to alter its fundamental outlines. If a revelation has been given, it is surely the most natural thing in the world to expect that a record should be made or kept of the stages of that revelation, either by its original recipients, or by those who stood within the circle of revelation, and possessed in an eminent degree its spirit. That such a literature exists, adequate in every respect for making known to us the revelation, animated and penetrated by its spirit, though in varying degrees – for the strictest upholder of inspiration will hardly place the Books of Chronicles on the same level with the Gospel of St. John – fitted as a whole infallibly to accomplish its great end of making men wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and of completely furnishing the man of God unto every good work – that such a literature exists, the only ultimate proof that can be given is the existence of the book itself ; and such a book as we have seen even from this brief inspection of its character, we have in the Bible…

…The subject is taken hold of by its wrong end, when the test of inspiration is sought primarily in minute inerrancy in external details, as those of geography, or chronology, or of physical science. Inspiration does not create the materials of its record: it works upon them. (1 See Note C on Inspiration and the Materials of the Record.) The crucial question is – Do the qualities which inspiration is expressly declared to confer on Scripture – e.g. in such a classical passage as 2 Tim. iii 15-17 – really belong to it? We think it will be difficult for any candid mind to deny that they do. … The Scripture fulfils the ends for which it was given ; no higher proof of its inspiration can be demanded. (2 Cf. Westcott EOL in the Church p14…)”

In this day and age, it may be questionable if Orr was using a form of words that could hint at less than 100% agreement with Warfield’s uncompromising stance on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, but given the heightened state of battle-lines drawn on this issue in the late 1800s, it might have been arguable. Choice of words might (or might not) hint at slight deviations from what was, then, taken as necessary orthodoxy. Semantics, in other words, might have been in play, but in this day and age that is likely to pass us by.

It just might be possible that Orr’s reference to B.F. Westcott D.D., who promoted a Greek Text for the New Testament that deviated from that used in the Authorised Version of the Bible, was sufficient to claim Orr’s descent down the “slippery slide of theology into liberalism and sheer relativism”, as Warfield put it (as quoted by Olson, above).

Of course, it is nonsense to say that Orr slid into liberalism or relativism. But – back in the day – anyone not subscribing to an exact set of words and statements of confession about the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture could be viewed with suspicion. There may well be a few phrases Orr used that Warfield would have objected to – not necessarily with warrant.

  • This is a very well written answer with good references and background reasoning. +2 Dec 24, 2020 at 4:16

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