Adam Clarke and Richard Watson
Daryl McCarthy
Date Posted Dec. 4, 2009

Adam Clarke on the Inspiration of Scripture

Adam Clarke (1760-1832), the first commentator of early Methodism, held a high view of Scripture. His Bible commentary, which was his greatest work, published between 1810 and 1825, evinces a high regard and deep devotion for the Word. Clarke frequently affirmed his belief in the plenary inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. In his creed which he adopted early in his Christian life and maintained throughout his career he stated his position: "The Sacred Scriptures or Holy Books . . . contain a full revelation of the will of God, in reference to man; and are alone sufficient for every thing relative to the faith and practice of a Christian, and were given by the inspiration of God" [J. B.B. Clarke, ed. An Account of the Infancy, Religious and Literary Life of Adam Clarke, 1:172]. It would never have occurred to Clarke to make the bifurcation so common among modern-day Wesleyans between "faith and practice" and historical truth and factual reliability of the Bible. To read such assumptions back into Clarke is to commit a serious error of interpreting him in the light of modern debates and arguments, which Shelton warned inerrantists about.

In a sermon on Romans 15:4 he declared, "We must ever consider these Scriptures as coming from God, as divinely inspired, and as containing his infallible truth"[Miscellaneous Works, 6:420].

His article "General Account of the Sacred Writings" affirms his acceptance of the sixty-six book canon and states that the Bible is "the only complete directory of the faith and practice of men" [Works, 12:80, 83, 122].

In his commentary Clarke presents two principles demonstrating the divine inspiration of the Bible. First, Scripture teaches the inspiration of the Holy Spirit concerning itself. The fact that the Gospels and Acts were written several years after the events compels us to believe that Jesus' promise, of the instruction of the apostles by the Holy Spirit in recalling His words (John 14:26), was indeed fulfilled in a very real way. Also Scripture addresses itself variously as the Word of God, the commandment of God, the wisdom of God, the testimony of God, the gospel of God, the gospel of Christ, and the mystery of His will. The second principle was that the apostles themselves were assured of the inspiration and assistance of the Holy Spirit of Truth as is indicated in several passages, e.g., Zech 1:6; 1 Pet 1:12; 2 Pet 1:1; 1 Cor 2:10, 12, 13[Commentary, 5:11-12]

Clarke denied the mechanical dictation theory, as do most inerrantists. Even though he taught that "the words contained in it [scripture] were inspired by the Holy Spirit into the minds of faithful men,"he insisted that his doctrine of inspiration was not a system of mechanical dictation, but was contrary to such a theory [Works, 12:132]. In cases in which the writers already had knowledge about the subject matter, the only inspiration required was that which "will assure us of the truth of what they wrote, whether by inspiration of suggestion, or direction only; but not for such an inspiration as implies that even their words were dictated, or their phrases suggested to them by the Holy Ghost. . . . Although this might be done in some cases, as in 1 Cor. 2:13." The inspiration of the Holy Spirit kept them from "error in their reasonings" and from making invalid doctrinal inferences from the Old Testament which would be contrary "to the true intent and meaning of them." Mechanical dictation is refuted by: (1) the fact that the writers were "hagiographers, who are supposed to be left to the use of their own words;" (2) the variety in style and solecisms; and (3) the author's own words in Scriptures which indicate a clear freedom of human expression, as in cases in which uncertainty, doubt, or ignorance are evinced (e.g., Rom 15:24, 28; 1 Cor 1:16; 16:5; 2 Cor 1:15-17; etc.) [Commentary, 5:9-10].

However, in his comments on 2 Peter 1:20, 21, Clarke indicates that the Scripture writers were sometimes "…carried away, out of themselves and of the whole region, as it were, of human knowledge and conjecture, by the Holy Ghost, who, without their knowing anything of the matter, dictated to them what to speak, and what to write, and so far above their knowledge were the words of prophecy, that they did not even know the intent of those words"[Commentary, 6:883]. Thus a greater degree of inspiration was necessary when the authors were to write about things they had little or no natural knowledge concerning, than when they were writing about things with which they were quite familiar.

Adam Clarke on the Inerrancy of Scripture

Clarke unequivocally affirmed the full trustworthiness or inerrancy of Scripture. In his article on "The Principles of the Christian Religion," he stated, "The Bible . . . is a revelation from God himself, and declares his will relative to the salvation of men….men may err, but the Scriptures cannot; for it is the Word of God himself, who can neither mistake, deceive, nor be deceived" [Works, 12:132]. He frequently and approvingly quoted the saying concerning Scriptures that they have "God for their Author, salvation for their end, and truth, without mixture of error, for their matter"[Works,11:406]. In his Commentary he categorically stated that "The apostles were assisted and preserved from error by the Spirit of God; and therefore were enabled to deliver to us an unerring rule of faith." The Holy Spirit did not permit them "to err in the delivery of what was thus indited in his name or which they had written as apostles of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ"[Commentary, 5:9, 11].

Clarke took inerrancy of Scripture as meaning that it is without error in all it affirms as fact, and not inerrant in what it does not affirm. For instance, the chronological sequence of recorded events may not be necessarily reflected in historical accounts, such as in the Gospels, unless the sequence is specifically affirmed. Furthermore, in the recording of conversations it is not necessary to have "the very words" but the "true intent and meaning" of the exact words. However, he believed that John 14:20 does promise exactness in the recording of Jesus' exact words [Commentary, 5:10].

Clarke stoutly defended the canonicity and textual purity of the Scriptures. The canon as we have it is complete and authentic. The Scriptures have been transmitted to us "without addition, defalcation, or willful corruption of any kind." He refers to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in support of this. In Clarke's opinion, the textual variants are not significant enough to lead to any doctrinal error or obscurity or confusion in moral practice. "All is safe and sound, --all pure and holy, it is . . . the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ." With regard to particular textual variants, such as 1 John 5:7, he honestly admits that he did not believe that was yet fully settled. He did believe however, that the Joshua 21:35-36 problem is solved by 1 Chronicles 6:78-79 [Works, 6:388, 415].

Adam Clarke on the Use of Scripture

Clarke believed in the eternal applicability of God's Word. In his practical suggestions on how to read the Bible he advised Christians to read it as the very word of God Himself because God "considers it as much his word now as he did when he first spoke it" [Works, 11:416].

Richard Watson on the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture

Richard Watson (1781-1833), the first systematic theologian of early Wesleyanism, propounded a doctrine of Scripture which was identical in every major respect to that of John Wesley and Adam Clarke. Interestingly enough, in his classic Theological Institutes, Watson developed no systematic doctrine of Scripture and inspiration. He treated revelation extensively, but only in an apologetical manner and not a doctrinal manner. However, in his Conversations for the Young, Watson develops a fuller treatment of inspiration. He defines inspiration as meaning, "The sacred writers composed their works under so plenary and immediate an influence of the Holy Spirit, that God may be said to speak by them to man, and not merely that they spoke to men in the name of God, and by his authority" [The Works of the Rev. Richard Watson, 6:11].

From this foundation Watson developed several principles concerning inspiration of Scripture in this "Conversation." First, the Bible is trustworthy and without error. The doctrine that God spoke via Scriptures to men and not merely that the authors of Scripture spoke by God's authority "secures the Scriptures from all error both as to the subjects spoken and the manner of expressing them." Watson drew no qualifying lines and made no equivocation on the subject. Later in this same "Conversation" he affirms that the Holy Spirit exerted sufficient influence upon the whole of Holy Writ that as it was being written by human authors "it became truth without mixture of error" [Works, 6:11, 14]. For Watson, phrases such as "The Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake," "Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the Prophet," and verses as 2 Peter 1:21 affirm the inerrancy of the words in the Word of God. Watson points out that the term "scriptures" is used in the Bible as applicable not only to the Old Testament writings but also to New Testament material and treats the books written under divine inspiration as a special class of writings and as a collective whole [Works, 6:12].

Secondly, the apostles claim inspiration not only with regard to their general topics but also with regard to their very words. Such inspiration was provided for by the Lord when He promised the Spirit would "guide them into all truth" and that when they were called upon to testify, the very words would be given them. Paul also claimed verbal inspiration in 1 Corinthians 2:13. Thus, the inspired writers were indeed "the penmen of the Holy Ghost" [Works, 6:12].

Thirdly, the differences in style and individual traits can be accounted for by the fact that while the Holy Spirit guided the men by suggestion or even occasionally overruling the selection of certain words, most of the time, God permitted the men to write with their own styles and unique personalities. "The verbiage, style, and manner of each was not so much displaced, as elevated, enriched, and employed by the Holy Spirit.…" There is as well an evident "previous fitness" of each of the writers for their particular subject areas [Works, 6:13]. Thus Paul's abilities fitted him to write on doctrine and practice while Luke was better equipped to write on history.

Fourthly, we may assume that there were varying degrees of the influence of the Holy Spirit upon the writers as they wrote. Certainly the recording of commonly known historical events did not require a high degree of inspiration or a miracle of memory. Their plenary inspiration consisted in this:

that they were kept from all lapses of memory, or inadequate conceptions, even on these subjects; and on all others the degree of communication and influence, both as to doctrine, facts, and the terms in which they were to be recorded for the edification of the church, was proportioned to the necessity of the case, but so that the whole was authenticated or dictated by the Holy Spirit with so full an influence, that it became truth without mixture of error, expressed in such terms as he himself ruled or suggested [Works, 6:14].

Finally, Watson argues in his Conversations that since Christ declares that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, "the same arguments which prove the Messiahship of Christ, and the inspiration of the Apostles, prove, consequently, the truth, the uncorruptness, and the authority of all the books of the Old Testament" [Works, 6:81]. Also in his sermon "The Oracles of God" he declares that since the Scriptures are from God, their truth and wisdom are as "demonstrable" as the wisdom and holiness of God Himself [Works, 4:47].

Besides these five principles from the Conversations, the only direct reference to the inerrancy of the Word in the Theological Institutes affirms a high view of scripture. Watson's comment comes in a discussion concerning objections to the Mosaic account of creation. It was claimed that the Bible is not accurate enough to be judged by scientific standards; it was not written as a science textbook. Watson responds, "If Moses professes by divine inspiration to give an account of the manner in which the world was framed, he must describe the facts as they occurred; and if he has assigned a date to its creation out of nothing, that date, if given by an infallible authority, cannot be contradicted by true philosophy" [Theological Institutes, 1:248].

While Watson couches his points about the creation in hypothetical or rhetorical terms, his assumptions are significant. We see from this account that he believed (1) that the Bible writers "must describe the facts as they occurred"; (2) that the information contained in the Word was given by "an infallible authority"; and (3) therefore, such facts could not be contradicted. The Bible must be factually correct in all matters about which it speaks. Thus, it is inerrant in science and history, as well as in matters of faith, to the degree of precision intended.

Watson defended the substantive textual purity of the manuscripts not only in his lengthy treatment in the Institutes of this subject, but also in his Conversations. He pointed out that the textual variants do not affect the credibility or integrity of the text and that the Bible is the most "critically correct" and "satisfactorily perfect" of any ancient work [Works, 6:173].

Richard Watson on the Use of Scripture

In various sermons and articles Watson stated several practical principles concerning the Scripture. As "the expression of the mind of God" and "a perfect revelation of the truth," Scripture is accompanied and used by the Holy Spirit in a powerful manner in the hearts of men [Works, 4:82-83]. The salvation of the world is to be gained by "the ministry of the Word"[Works, 2:9-10]. Scripture helps make the messages of conscience and natural revelation more understandable [Works, 1:464]. "The only standard of the doctrine" is Scripture [Works, 12:199]. "Every course of conduct" can be universally and easily judged by the rule furnished by Scripture [Works, 4:464]. The Scriptures are the source of all true moral knowledge and influence [Works, 4:60-61]. The Christian's response to Scriptural revelation is to be found in full submission to its authority" [Works, 4:400].


We have seen that the three giants of early Wesleyanism unanimously and unequivocally affirmed their belief in the divine inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures. Mechanical dictation is rejected by all, though Wesley does not deal with this particular view as systematically as Clarke and Watson. There is a strong emphasis among all three on the practical role and functions of the Word both in the community of believers and in their individual lives. But most of all, all three are clear in their affirmation of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.

Wesley proclaimed, "If there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from God" [Journal, 24 July 1776].

Clarke declared that "men may err, but the Scriptures cannot; for it is the Word of God himself, who can neither mistake, deceive, nor be deceived"[Works, 12:132]. "The apostles were assisted and preserved from error by the Spirit of God" [Commentary, 5:9, 11]. Hence, Scripture is "truth, without mixture of error"[Works, 11:406].

Watson defended the doctrine that God's authority "secures the Scriptures from all error both as to the subject spoken and the manner of expressing them" and spoke of the Bible as being "truth without mixture of error"[Works, 6:11, 14].

It is appropriate that we conclude our study of the early Wesleyan views of Scripture by meditating on a portion of one of the worshipful poems the Wesleys penned concerning, "The Word of God."

The Word of God by all confess'd,
Of truth the indubitable test,
My perfect rule I own;
The Word which doth His mind reveal
To those who would perform His will,
And worship Him alone

[The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, George Osborn, compiler, 13:258-59].

A study of the views of inspiration and inerrancy held by early Wesleyan theologians in America can be found in Daryl McCarthy, "Inerrancy in American Wesleyanism," in John D. Hannah, ed., Inerrancy and the Church (Chicago: Moody, 1984), 279-321.