Inerrancy and Infallibility of the Bible

The question of authority is central for any theology. Since Protestant theology has located authority in the Bible, the nature of biblical authority has been a fundamental concern. The Reformation passed to its heirs the belief that ultimate authority rests not in reason or a pope, but in an inspired Scripture. Thus, within conservative Protestantism the question of inerrancy has been much debated.

The two words most often used to express the nature of scriptural authority are "inerrant" and "infallible." Though these two terms are, on etymological grounds, approximately synonymous, they are used differently. In Roman Catholic theology "inerrant" is applied to the Bible, "infallible" to the church, particularly the teaching function of pope and magisterium. Since Protestants reject the infallibility of both the pope and the church, the word has been used increasingly of the Scriptures. More recently "infallible" has been championed by those who hold to what B B Warfield called limited inspiration but what today is better called limited inerrancy. They limit the Bible's inerrancy to matters of faith and practice, particularly soteriological issues. Stephen T Davis reflects this tendency when he gives a stipulative definition for infallibility: the Bible makes no false or misleading statements about matters of faith and practice. In this article the two terms shall be used as virtually synonymous.

Definition of Inerrancy

Inerrancy is the view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences.

A number of points in this definition deserve discussion. Inerrancy is not presently demonstrable. Human knowledge is limited in two ways. First, because of our finitude and sinfulness, human beings misinterpret the data that exist. For instance, wrong conclusions can be drawn from inscriptions or texts. Second, we do not possess all the data that bear on the Bible. Some of that data may be lost forever, or they may be awaiting discovery by archaeologists. By claiming that inerrancy will be shown to be true after all the facts are known, one recognizes this. The defender of inerrancy argues only that there will be no conflict in the end.

Further, inerrancy applies equally to all parts of the Bible as originally written. This means that no present manuscript or copy of Scripture, no matter how accurate, can be called inerrant.

This definition also relates inerrancy to hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science of biblical interpretation. It is necessary to interpret a text properly, to know its correct meaning, before asserting that what a text says is false. Moreover, a key hermeneutical principle taught by the Reformers is the analogy of faith, which demands that apparent contradictions be harmonized if possible. If a passage appears to permit two interpretations, one of which conflicts with another passage and one of which does not, the latter must be adopted.

Probably the most important aspect of this definition is its definition of inerrancy in terms of truth and falsity rather than in terms of error. It has been far more common to define inerrancy as "without error," but a number of reasons argue for relating inerrancy to truth and falsity. To use "error" is to negate a negative idea.

Truth, moreover, is a property of sentences, not words. Certain problems are commonly associated with views related to "error." Finally, "error" has been defined by some in the contemporary debate in such a way that almost every book ever written will qualify as inerrant. Error, they say, is willful deception; since the Bible never willfully deceives its readers, it is inerrant. This would mean that almost all other books are also inerrant, since few authors intentionally deceive their readers.

Some have suggested that the Bible itself might help in setting the meaning of error. At first this appears to be a good suggestion, but there are reasons to reject it. First, "inerrancy" and "error" are theological rather than biblical terms. This means that the Bible applies neither word to itself. This does not mean that it is inappropriate to use these words of the Bible. Another theological term is "trinity." It is, however, more difficult to define such words. Second, a study of the Hebrew and Greek words for error may be classified into three groups: cases of error where intentionality cannot be involved (e.g., Job 6:24; 19:4), cases of error where intentionality may or may not be involved (e.g., 2 Sam. 6:7), and cases where intentionality must be involved (e.g., Judg. 16:10 - 12). Error, then, has nothing to do with intentionality.

Admittedly, precision of statement and measurement will not be up to modern standards, but as long as what is said is true, inerrancy is not in doubt.

Finally, the definition states that inerrancy covers all areas of knowledge. Inerrancy is not limited to matters of soteriological or ethical concern. It should be clear that biblical affirmations about faith and ethics are based upon God's action in history. No neat dichotomy can be made between the theological and factual.

Arguments for Inerrancy

The primary arguments for inerrancy are biblical, historical, and epistemological in nature.

The Biblical Argument

At the heart of the belief in an inerrant, infallible Bible is the testimony of Scripture itself. There is some disagreement as to whether Scripture teaches this doctrine explicitly or implicitly. The consensus today is that inerrancy is taught implicitly.

First, the Bible teaches its own inspiration, and this requires inerrancy. The Scriptures are the breath of God (2 Tim. 3:16), which guarantees they are without error.

Second, in Deut. 13:1 - 5 and 18:20 - 22 Israel is given criteria for distinguishing God's message and messenger from false prophecies and prophets. One mark of a divine message is total and absolute truthfulness. A valid parallel can be made between the prophet and the Bible. The prophet's word was usually oral, although it might be recorded and included in a book; the writers of Scripture communicated God's word in written form. Both were instruments of divine communication, and in both cases the human element was an essential ingredient.

Third, the Bible teaches its own authority, and this requires inerrancy. The two most commonly cited passages are Matt. 5:17 - 20 and John 10: 34 - 35. Both record the words of Jesus. In the former Jesus said that heaven and earth will pass away before the smallest detail of the law fails to be fulfilled. The law's authority rests on the fact that every minute detail will be fulfilled. In John 10:34 - 35 Jesus says that Scripture cannot be broken and so is absolutely binding. While it is true that both passages emphasize the Bible's authority, this authority can only be justified by or grounded in inerrancy. Something that contains errors cannot be absolutely authoritative.

Fourth, Scripture uses Scripture in a way that supports its inerrancy. At times an entire argument rests on a single word (e.g., John 10:34 - 35 and "God" in Ps. 82:6), the tense of a verb (e.g., the present tense in Matt. 22:32), and the difference between a singular and a plural noun (e.g., "seed" in Gal. 3:16). If the Bible's inerrancy does not extend to every detail, these arguments lose their force. The use of any word may be a matter of whim and may even be an error. It might be objected that the NT does not always cite OT texts with precision, that as a matter of fact precision is the exception rather than the rule. This is a fair response, and an adequate answer requires more space than is available here. A careful study of the way in which the OT is used in the NT, however, demonstrates that the NT writers quoted the OT not cavalierly but quite carefully.

Finally, inerrancy follows from what the Bible says about God's character. Repeatedly, the Scriptures teach that God cannot lie (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). If, then, the Bible is from God and his character is behind it, it must be inerrant and infallible.

The Historical Argument

A second argument for biblical inerrancy is that this has been the view of the church throughout its history. One must remember that if inerrancy was part of the corpus of orthodox doctrine, then in many discussions it was assumed rather than defended. Further, the term "inerrancy" may be a more modern way of expressing the belief in the English language. Nevertheless, in each period of the church's history one can cite clear examples of those who affirm inerrancy.

In the early church Augustine writes, "I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error."

The two great Reformers, Luther and Calvin, bear testimony to biblical infallibility. Luther says, "But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they (the fathers) have erred as men will; therefore I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred." While Calvin does not use the phrase "without error," there can be little question that he embraced inerrancy. Of the writers of the Gospels he comments, "The Spirit of God. . . appears purposely to have regulated their style in such a manner, that they all wrote one and the same history, with the most perfect agreement, but in different ways."

In modern times one could cite the works of Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A A Hodge, and B B Warfield as modern formulators and defenders of the full inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.

The biblical and historical arguments are clearly more important than the two that follow. Should they be shown to be false, inerrancy would suffer a mortal blow.

The Epistemological Argument

Because epistemologies differ, this argument has been formulated in at least two very different ways. For some, knowledge claims must, to be justified, be indubitable or incorrigible. It is not enough that a belief is true and is believed on good grounds. It must be beyond doubt and question. For such an epistemology inerrancy is essential. Inerrancy guarantees the incorrigibility of every statement of Scripture. Therefore, the contents of Scripture can be objects of knowledge.

Epistemologies that do not require such a high standard of certitude result in this argument for inerrancy: If the Bible is not inerrant, then any claim it makes may be false. This means not that all claims are false, but that some might be. But so much of the Bible is beyond direct verification. Thus, only its inerrancy assures the knower that his or her claim is justified.

The Slippery Slope Argument

Finally, some see inerrancy as so fundamental that those who give it up will soon surrender other central Christian doctrines. A denial of inerrancy starts one down a slope that is slippery and ends in even greater error.

Objections to Inerrancy

The arguments for inerrancy have not gone unchallenged. In what follows, responses by those who object to each argument will be given and answers will be offered.

The Slippery Slope Argument

This argument is both the least important and most disliked by those who do not hold to inerrancy. What kind of relationship exists between the doctrine of inerrancy and other central Christian doctrines, they ask, that the denial of all inerrancy will of necessity lead to a denial of other doctrines? Is it a logical relationship? Is it a causal or psychological relationship? On close examination, none of these seems to be the case. Many people who do not affirm inerrancy are quite clearly orthodox on other matters of doctrine.

What has been said to this point is true. It should be noted, however, that numerous cases do support the slippery slope argument. For many individuals and institutions the surrender of their commitment to inerrancy has been a first step to greater error

The Epistemological Argument

The epistemological argument has been characterized by some as an example of overbelief. A single error in the Bible should not lead one to conclude that it contains no truth. If one finds one's spouse wrong on some matter, one would be wrong to conclude that one's spouse can never be trusted on any matter.

This objection, however, overlooks two very important matters. First, while it is true that one error in Scripture would not justify the conclusion that everything in it is false, it would call everything in Scripture into question. We could not be sure that everything in it is true. Since the theological is based on the historical and since the historical is open to error, how can one be sure that the theological is true? There is no direct means for verification. Second, while the case of the errant spouse is true as far as it goes, it does not account for all the issues involved in inerrancy. One's spouse does not claim to be inerrant; the Bible does. One's spouse is not omniscient and omnipotent; the God of the Bible is. God knows everything, and he can communicate with man.

The Historical Argument

Those who reject inerrancy argue that this doctrine is an innovation, primarily of the Princeton theologians in the nineteenth century. Throughout the centuries the church believed in the Bible's authority but not its total inerrancy. The doctrine of inerrancy grew out of an apologetic need. Classical liberalism and its growing commitment to an increasingly radical biblical criticism made the orthodox view of Scripture vulnerable. Therefore, the Princeton theologians devised the doctrine of total inerrancy to stem the rising tide of liberalism. This represented a departure from the views of their predecessors in the orthodox tradition.

Calvin, for example, speaks of God "accommodating" himself to man in the communication of his revelation. Calvin also says that the Bible's teaching does not need to be harmonized with science, and that anyone who wishes to prove to the unbeliever that the Bible is God's Word is foolish.

These objections to the historical argument do not do justice to the evidence. They fail to reckon with the host of clear affirmations of inerrancy by Christian theologians throughout the church's history, only a few of which were given above.

Moreover, the treatment of figures like Calvin is unfair. While Calvin talks about accommodation, he does not mean accommodation to human error. He means that God condescended to speak in language that finite human beings could understand. In one place he says that God spoke only baby talk. He never implies that what God said is in error. On matters of science and proof, the same sort of thing is true. Calvin nowhere says that the Scriptures cannot be harmonized with science or that they cannot be proven to be the Word of God. He felt rather that such an exercise is futile in itself because of man's sin. Hence, he relied on the testimony of the Holy Spirit to the unbeliever. The problem is in man, not in the Scriptures or the evidence for their origin. The theologians of the church may have been wrong in their belief, but they did believe in an inerrant Bible.

The Biblical Argument

A common objection to the biblical argument is that the Bible nowhere teaches its own inerrancy. The point seems to be a subtle one. Those who make this point mean that the Bible nowhere says "all Scripture is inerrant" in the way that it teaches "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (11 Tim. 3:16). While it is true that no verse says explicitly that Scripture is inerrant, biblical inerrancy is implied by or follows from a number of things the Bible does teach explicitly.

Another objection is that inerrancy is unfalsifiable. Either the standard for error is so high that nothing can qualify (e.g., even contradictions have difficulty in qualifying), or the falsity or truth of scriptural statements cannot be demonstrated until all the facts are known. The doctrine of inerrancy is not, however, unfalsifiable in principle; it is unfalsifiable only at present. Not everything that bears on the truth and falsity of the Bible is yet available. How then is it possible to affirm so strongly the doctrine of inerrancy now? Should one be more cautious or even suspend judgment? The inerrantist wants to be true to what he or she thinks the Bible teaches. And as independent data have become available (e.g., from archaeology), they have shown the Bible to be trustworthy.

Another criticism is that inerrancy fails to recognize sufficiently the human element in the writing of Scripture. The Bible teaches that it is a product of human as well as divine authorship. This objection, though, underestimates the divine element. The Bible is a divine - human book. To deemphasize either side of its authorship is a mistake. Furthermore, this criticism misunderstands man, implying that humanity requires error. This is false. The spokesmen of God were human, but inspiration kept them from error.

The objection has been raised that if one uses the methods of biblical criticism, one must accept its conclusions. But why? One need accept only the methods that are valid and the conclusions that are true.

Finally, it has been objected that since the original autographs no longer exist and since the doctrine applies only to them, inerrancy is meaningless. The identification of inerrancy with the original autographs is a neat hedge against disproof. Whenever an "error" is pointed out, the inerrantist can say that it must not have existed in the original autographs.

Limiting inerrancy to the original autographs could be such a hedge, but it need not be. This qualification of inerrancy grows out of the recognition that errors crop up in the transmission of any text. There is, however, a great difference between a text that is initially inerrant and one that is not. The former, through textual criticism, can be restored to a state very near the inerrant original; the latter leaves far more doubt as to what was really said.

It might be argued that the doctrine of inerrant originals directs attention away from the authority of our present texts. Perhaps inerrantists sometimes fail to emphasize the authority of our present texts and versions as they should. Is the remedy, however, to undercut the base for their authority? To deny the authority of the original is to undermine the authority of the Bible the Christian has today.

P D Feinberg

Bibliography. For inerrancy: D A Carson and J D Woodbridge, eds., Scripture and Truth; N L Geisler, ed., Inerrancy; J W Montgomery, ed., God's Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture; B B Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible; J D Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers / McKim Proposal. Against inerrancy: D M Beegle, Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility; S A Davis, The Debate About the Bible; J Rogers, ed., Biblical Authority; J Rogers and D McKim, The Interpretation and Authority of the Bible.