Is the Bible “Inerrant” or “Infallible?”
I was recently asked here to explain the difference between biblical inerrancy and biblical infallibility. I affirm the Bible’s infallibility but deny its inerrancy. The complete explanation would take a book, so this will inevitably by a brief summary explanation.
Understanding the difference between the two concepts, at least as I understand it, requires understanding the difference between two interpretations of the Bible’s inspiration. Some evangelical (and other) theologians affirm that inspiration (theopneustos) refers to the words of the Bible—that they are somehow “breathed out” by God. That is, of course, a metaphor, but the point is that, to them, biblical inspiration, referred to in 2 Timothy 3:16, is of the very words of Scripture. Other evangelical (and other) theologians affirm that inspiration refers to the human authors of Scripture. In other words, 2 Timothy 3:16, especially in light of 2 Peter 1:21, expresses a process whereby the Holy Spirit breathed out and into the Bible’s authors the ideas the Spirit wanted them to have and to communicate.
So, in brief, there is an underlying difference of opinion, among evangelical biblical scholars and theologians about inspiration—how it worked in producing Scripture. The first view, that emphasizes the inspiration of the words, is usually called “plenary verbal inspiration.” The second view, that emphasizes the inspiration of the authors, is usually called “dynamic inspiration.” Advocates of dynamic inspiration argue that plenary verbal inspiration cannot really be distinguished from divine dictation and does not explain, for example, the Apostle Paul’s invective wish that his Judaizing opponents in the churches of Galatia would castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12) or the imprecatory Psalms. It also cannot explain Paul’s incomplete sentences, etc. In other words, according to advocates of dynamic inspiration, the phenomena of Scripture do not support plenary verbal inspiration.
Most, not all, advocates of verbal plenary inspiration also affirm the Bible’s inerrancy but only in the original autographs—which do not exist (so far as anyone knows). They acknowledge that there are errors, discrepancies, in the existing best manuscripts and in all known Bibles. Others argue that these are all something other than true errors and will eventually be explained and that, the meantime, we should simply overlook them and wait for further light through biblical scholarship. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, produced by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, led by, among others, James Montgomery Boice (my seminary homiletics professor and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia), qualified “biblical inerrancy.” Many of us evangelical biblical scholars and theologians think it qualified “inerrancy” to death so that, at the end of the Statement, “inerrancy” is no longer the best word for the accuracy of Scripture. In other words, we believe its common sense meaning, what most modern people think “inerrancy” means, is different from what even the framers and signers of the Statement meant/mean by it.
Also, most conservative evangelical defenders of biblical inerrancy admit only the original autographs, the manuscripts produced by, for example, the prophets and apostles, were inerrant. Those of us who have problems with the term “inerrancy” for the Bible’s accuracy and authority, worry that, if that is the case, and if, as the conservative evangelical defenders of inerrancy say—that biblical authority requires biblical inerrancy—then no existing Bible is authoritative. It’s a matter of simple logic.
The National Association of Evangelicals Statement of Faith does not affirm the Bible’s inerrancy; it affirms the Bible’s infallibility—for good reason. For many of the founders, especially those in the Wesleyan traditions, not rooted theologically in Reformed scholasticism and Old School Princeton Theology (e.g., Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield), inerrancy was not a sacred cow and was rarely used to describe the Bible’s authority and accuracy. So the Statement of Faith affirms biblical infallibility—a broader term that all evangelicals can affirm.
To most people, people in the pews and many pulpits, “biblical inerrancy” implies something even their own biblical scholars and theologians do not mean by the term. But they don’t know that. They, the people in the pews and pulpits, think “biblical inerrancy” means that our presently existing best translations of the Bible, or at least the best existing texts of the Bible in the original languages, contain no errors or discrepancies of any kind. For thirty-four years I have made a habit of reading to theology students the qualifications of “inerrancy” contained in the Chicago Statement and in the textbooks of leading conservative evangelical theologians and asking them to comment on them. (One leading conservative evangelical theologian says that “biblical inerrancy” is compatible with “inerrant use of errant sources” by biblical authors!) Almost to a person the students have scoffed at the term “inerrancy” when it is so qualified. They affirm that this—“inerrancy” as explained and qualified by the Chicago Statement and by leading conservative evangelical scholars and theologians—is not what their pastor, their parents, their Sunday School teachers, taught them about “our inerrant Bible.” What they were taught was that “inerrancy” means there are no discrepancies of any kind in the Bibles we actually have—insofar as they are good translations.
The problem I’m pointing to here is that there is tremendous diversity of opinion among conservative evangelicals about “biblical inerrancy.” One point of diversity is that between the conservative evangelical scholars who affirm and defend the concept and their own constituents. I suspect that, if the constituents really knew what their own conservative evangelical scholars and theologians really mean by “biblical inerrancy” they would be shocked and dismayed.
Also, even among top-level conservative evangelical scholars and theologians there is no uniform understanding of “biblical inerrancy.” The definitions, descriptions and qualifications vary among them greatly. I once sent to Carl F. H. Henry, the “dean of evangelical theologians” and strong advocate of biblical inerrancy, a copy of a two page essay defining “biblical inerrancy” written (not copyrighted) by a well-known other conservative evangelical theologian. I did not mention his name; I simply asked Henry if he thought it was adequate. He replied (and I still have his letter) that it is not adequate. And yet both were members in good standing of the Evangelical Theological Society that requires affirmation of biblical inerrancy for membership!
When I say the Bible is “infallible” I mean that it cannot fail to communicate the truth we need about God in order to be saved and transformed. I mean it is God’s uniquely inspired message to humanity that infallibly reveals God’s identity, character and will and the path to salvation. “Infallible” means “incapable of failing.” In other words, to me, when I say the Bible is “infallible,” I mean it is “perfect with respect to purpose.” John Piper, in an essay that can be found on his web site, defines inerrancy that way—as “perfection with respect to purpose.” I think that is not a good definition or description of “inerrancy.” Inerrancy implies much more than that—at least to the “person in the pew.” I think my view of Scripture’s authority and accuracy is not very different from that of many conservative evangelicals who affirm and defend “biblical inerrancy!” Our difference (in those cases) has to do with semantics. I happen to think “inerrancy” communicates an idea of the Bible that is not true to its real phenomena and most conservative evangelical scholars know that and so they qualify “inerrancy” to death while insisting on the word as a kind of shibboleth for deciding who’s “in” and who’s “out” of their approved circle of evangelicals. The irony is that even within their approved circle there is tremendous diversity of opinion about what “inerrancy” means!
A few years ago I had a long series of e-mail exchanges with the dean of a very conservative evangelical seminary. How that came about is itself a—to me, anyway—fascinating anecdote. The then president of the ETS invited me to give a plenary address at the coming year’s annual national ETS assembly. After explaining that I have never been a member of the ETS and do not affirm biblical inerrancy, but do affirm biblical inspiration and infallibility, he nevertheless extended the invitation. I accepted. Then, I began to receive group e-mails from him to the ETS executive committee—most of whose members I know. They, the members of the executive committee, did not notice that the president included my e-mail address among theirs for this exchange. He announced to them that I would be giving a plenary address at the upcoming ETS annual national gathering. They, the committee members, simply pressed “reply to all” or “respond to all,” not noticing that I was among the “all,” and began protesting the president’s invitation—claiming that, among other things, I am “Barthian” and not a true evangelical, etc. Some of their descriptions of me were untrue and unfair. One of the harshest was a faculty member of Wheaton College. My former colleague and dean of the college and seminary where I previously taught was another one who had only very harsh things to say about me and my theological orientation. So, I simply pressed “reply to all” and challenged most of what they were saying about me. Of course, then I was immediately dropped from the roster of correspondents. Only one committee member, the then vice president and president-elect of the ETS, continued the conversation with me. At the end of a long series of e-mails about biblical authority and accuracy, we agreed that we believe much the same about biblical authority and accuracy. Our only disagreement, so far as I could tell, was whether “inerrancy” is the correct term for what we both believe. I then asked him if I could join the ETS, given that he, the vice president and incoming president, and I agree about the Bible’s authority and accuracy. He said no. To me that proved that “inerrancy” is, among most evangelical scholars and theologians, a mere shibboleth, a gate-keeping word. (Footnote: The invitation was withdrawn by the ETS president at the behest of the executive committee.)
Now to a deeper level of theological description that necessarily involves a degree of speculation. I have come to believe that the deepest difference among evangelicals about the Bible, leading some to fight for the word “inerrancy” even to the point of dividing evangelicals, has to do with different perceptions of the Bible’s purpose. Some conservative evangelicals seem to me to view the Bible’s main purpose as information communication. It is, to them, following Charles Hodge’s view, the “raw data” from which systematic theology is to be mined. It is, as Carl Henry said, a revelation of God to the mind. “Revelation,” to Carl Henry and to many conservative evangelicals, is “a mental event.” From them I get the idea that the Bible is a not-yet-systematized systematic theology and, that once the right systematic theology is created, the Bible’s only use is for devotional reading and proof texting. I suspect, although I know they would deny this, that many of them a correct systematic theology simply says what the Bible says and fulfills its purpose completely such that the Bible itself no longer has any unique value. The correct and complete systematic theology replaces the Bible or is the Bible—simply arranged differently.
Other evangelicals, and I include myself among these, view the Bible’s main purpose as spiritual transformation—by bringing us into saving communion with God. It infallibly functions as God’s uniquely inspired medium, instrument, of revealing God’s identity, character and will to us for the purpose of transforming our lives. Yes, in contains information, but it also always has “new light” to break forth as the Holy Spirit uses it and our faith together to continually transform us into the image of Jesus Christ. It implies doctrines but is not itself a textbook of doctrines. We create doctrines based on it, usually in order to counter misuses of Scripture by heretics and cultists, but it is not itself primarily meant to be a handbook of doctrines. It is itself primarily meant to be a great story, a “theodrama,” in which God is the main character, that can bring us into transforming communion with God.
“Infallibility,” as described above, “perfection with respect to purpose,” better fits that understanding of the Bible than “inerrancy.” If the Bible contains some errors, some discrepancies, that do not affect its power to transform lives through faith-filled communion with God, that is not important.