The Doctrine of Personal Infallibility

The Doctrine of Personal Infallibility February 8, 2019

This statement by a Facebook friend seemed worth turning into a meme. I did so some time ago, but unfortunately it took me longer than it should have to share the meme on my blog. Here is the quote:

I often look at it as the unspoken doctrine of personal infallibility. Many Christians think something like this: “The Bible is True. I believe the Bible. Therefore, everything I believe is true.” This also applies to the morality of actions they may take or motives they may have (see: defending the separation of families by quoting Romans 13). With such a mentality, it simply does not occur to people that they may be wrong.

Lars Cade

You can see from what it says the contemporary issue that sparked the statement. But it has a much broader application, which is what made it seem particularly memeworthy. It certainly seems true to my own experience. Even while claiming “it isn’t me, it’s God,” I did precisely what Lars Cade says in practice, although it is only with hindsight and after significant introspection and self-examination that I recognize these things.

Is this your experience of what is at work in fundamentalism – that the reason for being concerned to defend the authority of the Bible is ultimately to defend the rightness of one’s own views and those of one’s community? To be sure, the claim is always that it is one’s own beliefs that are being conformed to the Bible rather than vice versa. But that only works because, despite all the praise heaped on the Bible and its importance, the average conservative Christian does not know the Bible well enough to appreciate its diversity, reads it in a translation that hides discrepancies and differences from them, and knows only (or at least knows best) those parts that can be interpreted as supporting their stance.

“The Bible is True. I believe the Bible. Therefore, everything I believe is true.” Does that sum this viewpoint up well?

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The Doctrine of Personal Infallibility

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  • Josh Hauck

    This leads to some frustrating ad-hoc biblical interpretation. They already know what the Bible means. They know because they hear it from their preacher and their community. When confronted by the fact that the Bible says very little about – for example – sexual morality and quite a bit more about economic justice, they’re at a loss as to how to get from what the text says to what they know the Bible means. And any argument that appears to bridge that gap will be accepted.

  • Spirit Plumber

    It definitely explains presuppositional apologetics…

  • I do find that there’s some correlation between the “strength” of your view of biblical infallibility and your inability to distinguish your beliefs from it.

    I don’t mean to pick on the evangelical types, but I find this tendency very strong there. It can be stunning to watch someone’s repeated failure to differentiate between “what the Bible says” and “what I believe the Bible to say.”

    And this is why I think there’s so much heat from more conservative camps when it comes to differing interpretations. The issue isn’t that you disagree with them, the issue is that you disagree with the Bible. Whether we’re talking about Hell or penal substitution or homosexuality – they don’t see it as a discussion among Christians who understand the Bible differently; they see it as one group of Christians who affirm the Bible talking to a group that attacks or disregards it. There is just no difference for many of them between their understanding of the Bible and the Bible itself.

  • David Evans

    It is, of course, illogical. Everyone believes many things to which the Bible is irrelevant. If they believe that Sydney is the capital of Australia they are just wrong, Bible or no.

    I am reminded of what Caliph Omar is reported to have said about the Library of Alexandria:
    “If those books are in agreement with the Qur’an, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Qur’an, destroy them.”

  • Chuck Johnson

    The Bible is true.
    (Actually, it’s partly true and partly false.)

    I believe the Bible.
    (People who say this only believe it partly.)

    Therefore, everything I believe is true.
    (This means that I am blindly obedient to those people who explain to me what God and the Bible are saying.)

    This is not unique to Christian obedience to authority.
    All authoritarian politics use similar mechanisms of mind control and behavior control.

    The Great and Powerful Leaders make stuff up.
    The man in the street and the woman in the street are compelled to believe the made-up stuff.
    Obedience and credulity are synonymous with good morality in such societies.

    • FactoryGuy

      “Therefore, everything I believe is true.
      (This means that I am blindly obedient to those people who explain to me what God and the Bible are saying.)”
      This! This is the key thought here…the follow the leader mentality, which is why Paul said false profits will arise and MANY WILL BE LED ASTRAY…,has led to many horrible conflagrations. Nobody wants to be the only one left out and this is how it is manipulated…

      • Mary Anne Mead

        May I share this? You have succinctly stated what my jumbled mind has been whirling around.

    • Mary Anne Mead

      Excellent analysis. I believe it is important to separate Jesus following from human institution following. I have several Biblical Library translations. It is glorious to me to see how different translators wrestle with the ancient languages, working on keeping the meaning true and still allowing for cultures and societies to be learned. I don’t think I’m saying this very well. I love learning about how and where people lived and how that shaped what they wrote about who God is.

      • Chuck Johnson

        I am an atheist.
        I do my analysis of these cultural phenomena using scientific insights.

  • Oscar Scott Oliver

    Sad but true for many conservative Christians. Actually that can also be applied to some liberal Christians. Whenever there is politicization of the Gospel the fine nuances and ambiguities get thrown out the window. Thanks, Constantine!

  • barrydesborough
  • barrydesborough

    Entered in error.

  • RonT

    There are more than 24,000 partial and complete manuscript copies of the New Testament. These manuscript copies are very ancient and they are available for inspection now.

    There are also some 86,000 quotations from the early church fathers and several thousand Lectionaries (church-service books containing Scripture quotations used in the early centuries of Christianity).

    Bottom line: the New Testament has an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting its reliability. (R.Rhodes)

    I would say that the majority on fundamental Christians base their basic tenants on the bible; however, I never read what Progressive “Christians” base their tenants on. If as you imply the Bible is obscure, what do you progressives base your basic beliefs on?

    Maybe your statement: “With such a mentality, it simply does not occur to people that they may be wrong.” could easily apply to progressives???

    • I am not sure why you think basic information about textual criticism is relevant to this question, nor what your remark about tenants might mean (and not only for those of us who own no rental properties and so have no tenants). But if I presume for a moment that you meant to refer to “tenets,” then your comment seems to presume that progressive Christianity is just like the fundamentalist variety, merely claiming to build a parallel foundationalist project on some other inerrant base. That is clearly not the case.

      • Mary Anne Mead

        tenet. Interesting word. I’m not sure it’s the right work for what this blog/meme/Ron T are trying to assess. It seems to me a issue of worship the Bible, instead of God/Jesus/Spirit.
        I seem to get into kerfuffles with more ‘conservative’, ‘evangelical’ people because I unequivocally believe the tenets of Christianity; The Apostles Creed; the Nicene Creed. I usually then get told that it is impossible that I should believe those tenets and still believe ‘we’ should care for the lame, sick, poor, those in prison…. afterall, ‘those’ people are getting what ‘they’ deserve…nevermind that I deserve all of that and more, but am covered by the saving Grace of Jesus my Lord. If I then mention Matthew’s gospel, or the Church in Acts, I’m usually told God/Jesus didn’t mean for people to really give up all their possessions, didn’t really mean for us to love our enemies, or turn the other cheek, or give also our ‘cloak’…. I generally shut-up after that; go on my way; check a few translations I have of the Biblical Library to see if I can find evidence that God does not want me to behave like Jesus; and pray, pray, pray. Thank you for addressing this issue. Shalom.

        • RonT

          I think tenet: “a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy” really applies: however, Kerfuffles might not apply totally. Kerfuffles implies a commotion or fuss and there isn’t any on my part. Since many Conservatives are non-creedal(sp) they may not agree, but there is no conflict . There is nothing in the creeds you mentioned that would conflict with thoughts on service.

          Giving. 2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV) Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. Luke 3:11 (NIV) Those who have ABUNDANCE should share with those who have nothing.

          Study to strengthen your convictions. There many False Prophets. Shalom to you as well.

    • RonT

      OK, James you got me, but are you saying that you couldn’t catch the context? Anyway. I said: “If as you imply the Bible is obscure, what do you progressives base your basic beliefs on?”. The much criticized by Progressives Bible is a document proven reliable and the basis for fundamental thought. My question was: “what do you progressives base your basic beliefs on?”.

      • One way to answer this would be to say that progressive beliefs are built much as conservative beliefs are, expect with a greater effort at honesty. Conservatives typically claim to build their beliefs on a foundation such as the Bible, ignoring that they are inevitably reading those texts selectively, interpreting them through the lens of their contemporary worldview and concerns, and more often than not pretending that they are merely reading the Bible without interpreting it and embracing a “biblical worldview.” But conservatives are engaged in an act of worldview construction, about which they find it more difficult to be honest because they feel the need to seek (as your language indicates) a supposedly solid foundation that they can build upon, not realizing (1) this reflects the Enlightenment foundationalist enterprise begun by Descartes, and (2) this is ultimately about a desire to escape the inevitable fallibility that is part of being a creature rather than the Creator, and so ends up taking a form that is so opposed to the most central emphases and ethos of what the Biblical literature says, that the attempt to do this while claiming to be the most faithful interpreters of the Bible is more bizarre than any conservative interpreter is likely to realize or admit.

        • RonT

          Wow, James! Very impressive! I must admit, you started to answer my question with: “One way to answer this would be to say that progressive beliefs are built much as conservative beliefs are,”…; however, from this point on, no mention of Progressive thought, then, all you said was what you perceive as the failure of Conservative’s effectiveness, inability, honesty, and integrity to develop a reasonable belief system.
          Thanks for responding, but I don’t see us getting anywhere. I find this a very common response with Progressives. Hope I eliminated any typos.

          • This was in response to your failure to acknowledge the point I made beforehand, about the fact that you are adopting a conservative approach to the matter looking for some absolute foundation on which to build your own certainty, and asking what the comparable foundation is that makes a progressive stance equally certain to a progressive. There has yet to be any acknowledgement on your part that you are engaged in an idolatrous quest to avoid the uncertainty that is inherent in human frailty, in our not being God, which means that we need to rely not on some foundation that gives us inerrant dogma, but on a God who transcends us and in whom we must trust even without understanding all things or knowing all answers.

          • RonT

            James, I am NOT searching! My certainty is firmly developed and I can discuss alternate thoughts without resorting to negativity and and insults. For instance: “There has yet to be any acknowledgement on your part that you are engaged in an idolatrous quest to avoid the uncertainty that is inherent in human frailty,”. REALLY? That is a most ridicules comment I have ever received from anyone! I have asked you three times -Oh, never mind – I’ve lost interest.

          • This is precisely what I was referring to. You have cultivated the feeling of certainty, the illusion that that feeling is justified, to such an extend that a basic teaching of the Bible seems ludicrous (note the spelling) to you, and cannot even hold your interest.

  • The left is always muddying the waters. They don’t want anyone to hold any opinions on any subject other than those they dictate. Can you have an opinion on racism, abortion, socialism, social “justice,” guns, Trump, women, etc., and consider your views infallible? Of course you can if you follow the standard socialist (“progressive”) line. But hold to an opinion outside the socialist line and you claim infallibility for yourself, which is what “progressives” claim with their views.

    Historically, the West has used the principles of hermeneutics to determine the correct interpretation of the Bible. Aristotle first distilled the principles, but they’re common sense and merely principles for being honest in one’s interpretation of any communication by another. If you follow sound hermeneutic principles you can be as close as any human can get to the truth. Only God can do better – that is, the Biblical God, not the “progressive” god who is to small and weak to know anything.

    Most people don’t like to follow hermeneutics, especially “progressives.” It limits them too much. It forces them to face the truth that they don’t like to see, as Paul wrote in Romans 1.

    • John MacDonald

      I’m just a reader here, so I’m not here to debate. But, just for the sake of reader clarity, could you explain what the “Principles of Hermeneutics” are that you keep referring to that guarantee us textual transparency?

      • That would take a book and there are quite a few available on the topic. Just search for “principle of hermeneutics.” Most Bible colleges have classes in it, too. As I mentioned, Aristotle first distilled the principles as a guide to interpreting the speech or writings of others. He was countering the sophists who loved to twist what others said to make it mean what they wanted. The basics are consider the context – who is writing, when, why, and where. Look t the historical and cultural background. Use the common definition of words unless the author gives a reason for using a nonstandard one. Assume the author is intelligent enough to avoid contradicting himself in the same book. Use writing from other authors on the same topic at the same time to help interpret this author. Don’t interpret poetry as history or history as poetry.

        Here’s a good example: People have been very creative in interpreting what “made in the image of God” means. But John Walton in “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible” shows that in Moses’ day the term referred only to the idols and to kings and pharaohs. They represented the gods and exercised their full authority. Moses applied that idea to every person and launched the idea of human sovereignty.

        When interpreting the NT, we have to know the Old Testament well because the authors assumed their readers did, so they used a lot of idioms that only those familiar with the OT would get.

        • John MacDonald

          That’s interesting. I’m still a little unclear about the application of the principles, though. For instance, would you say the Jesus infancy narrative in Matthew records events that actually happened, or does the narrative simply recapitulate the story of Moses as part of a literary device to present Jesus as the New and Greater Moses? For that matter, can the birth narrative in Matthew be reconciled with the birth narrative in Luke?

          • One of the principles is that the natural reading takes precedence. On the surface, does it seems as if Luke and Matthew are attempting to write a history or something else? In other words, what genre is the work? A natural reading would show that the authors intended their works to be histories, especially that of Luke because that is what he states in the intro. Of course, it’s not history as we think of it in the 21st century, but history as people of that day thought of it. I don’t see why the birth narratives don’t complement each other. Critics of the authenticity of the Bible tend to be two-faced. If the narratives are too close they claim one copied from the other and if they differ they claim they contradict each other. It’s impossible to please them. The simple answer is that the two presented the elements of history they thought were important and the complete picture comes from combining the two. Under the principles of hermeneutics, the authors would have to indicate in their document that they were recapping the story of Moses in order for us to understand it as such. One of the purposes of hermeneutics is to keep us from adding things that aren’t there.

            I’m currently reading a book by Edersheim on OT prophecy that is very enlightening. One of his goals is to show how Jews in Jesus’ day viewed OT prophecies. It’s very different from our view of prophecy and history. They saw every jot and title of the OT as pointing to the Messiah. They saw Moses as a type of the Messiah. So from their perspective it wouldn’t be strretching the truth to say that a secondary purpose of Matthew might have been to show Jesus as the ultimate Moses by his selection of historical incidences.

          • John MacDonald

            Thanks for clarifying. As I said, I’m not here to debate, just to read, but I appreciate your responses because now I have a clearer understanding of the point of view you are coming from.

  • soter phile

    As has been said before, you exult in a hermeneutic of suspicion that assumes the least of the Scriptures (e.g., “a translation that hides discrepancies and differences from them”) and which ironically begins with enormous confidence in the self – the very thing you’re projecting onto conservatives.

    In place of such suspicion, I’d much rather lift up Richard Hays’ “hermeneutic of trust” (which much more readily matches Jesus’ approach to the Scriptures):

    The real work of interpretation is to hear the text. We must consider how to read and teach scripture in a way that opens up its message and both models and fosters trust in God. So much of the ideological critique that currently dominates the academy fails to foster these qualities. Scripture is critiqued but never interpreted. The critic exposes but never exposits. Thus the word itself recedes into the background, and we are left talking only about the politics of interpretation, having lost the capacity to perform interpretations…

    Left to our own devices we are capable of infinite self-deception, confusion and evil. We therefore must turn to scripture and submit ourselves to it…in order to find our disorders rightly diagnosed and healed.