The Infallibility of Scripture
The Reformers were convinced that, because the Bible has its origin in God and was superintended by his inspiration, it is infallible. Infallibility refers to its indefectibility or the impossibility of its being in error. That which is infallible is incapable of failing. We attribute infallibility to God and his work because of his nature and character. With respect to God’s nature he is deemed to be omniscient. With respect to his character, he is deemed to be holy and altogether righteous.
Theoretically we can conceive of a being who is righteous but limited in his knowledge. Such a being could make mistakes in his utterances, not because of a desire to deceive or defraud, but due to his lack of knowledge. His would be honest mistakes. At the human level we understand that persons may make false statements without telling a lie. The difference between a lie and a simple mistake is at the level of intent. On the other hand, we can conceive of a being who is omniscient but evil. This being could not make a mistake due to lack of knowledge, but could tell a lie. This would clearly involve evil or malicious intent. Since God is both omniscient and morally perfect, however, he is incapable of telling a lie or making an error.
When we say the Bible is infallible in its origin, we are merely ascribing its origin to a God who is infallible. This is not to say that the biblical writers were intrinsically or in themselves infallible. They were human beings who, like other humans, proved the axiom Errare humanum est, “To err is human.” It is precisely because humans are given to error that, for the Bible to be the Word of God, its human authors required assistance in their task.
At issue in our day is the question of Scripture’s inspiration. On this point some theologians have tried to eat their cake and have it too. They affirm the Bible’s inspiration while at the same time denying its infallibility. They argue that the Bible, in spite of its divine inspiration, still errs. The idea of divinely inspired error is one to choke on. We shrink in horror at the notion that God inspires error. To inspire error would require either that God is not omniscient or that he is evil.
Perhaps what is in view in the idea of inspired error is that the inspiration, though proceeding from a good and omniscient God, is simply ineffectual to the task at hand. That is, it fails to accomplish its intended purpose. In this case another attribute of God, his omnipotence, is negotiated away. Perhaps God is simply unable to superintend the writing of Scripture with sufficient power to overcome the human authors’ propensity for error.
Surely it would make more sense to deny inspiration altogether than to conjoin inspiration with error. To be sure, most critics of the Bible’s infallibility take their axes to the root of the tree and reject inspiration altogether. This seems a more honest and logical approach. It avoids the impiety of denying foundational attributes to God himself.
Let us examine briefly a formula that has had some currency in our day: “The Bible is the Word of God, which errs.” Now let us expunge some of these words. Remove “The Bible is,” so that the formula reads: “The Word of God, which errs.” Now erase “The Word of” and “which.” The result is “God errs.” To say the Bible is the Word of God that errs is clearly to indulge in impious doublespeak. If it is the Word of God, it does not err. If it errs, it is not the Word of God. Surely we can have a word about God that errs, but we cannot have a word from God that errs.
That the Scripture has its origin in God is claimed repeatedly by Scripture. One example already noted is found in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Paul identifies himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). In the phrase “the gospel of God,” the word of is a genitive indicating possession. Paul is speaking not merely of a gospel that is about God, but of a gospel belonging to God. It is God’s possession and it comes from him. In a word, Paul is declaring that the gospel he preaches is not from men or of human invention; it is given by divine revelation. The whole controversy over the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible is fundamentally a controversy about supernatural revelation. Reformed theology is committed to Christianity as a revealed faith, a faith that rests, not on human insight, but on information that comes to us from God himself.
The Inerrancy of Scripture
In addition to affirming the Bible’s infallibility, Reformed theology describes the Bible as inerrant. Infallibility means that something cannot err, while inerrancy means that it does not err. Infallibility describes ability or potential. It describes something that cannot happen. Inerrancy describes actuality.
For example, I could score 100% on a spelling test. In this limited experience I was “inerrant”; I made no mistakes on the test. This would not warrant the conclusion that I am therefore infallible. Errant human beings do not always err. They sometimes, indeed often do, err because they are not infallible. An infallible person would never err simply because infallibility as such precludes the very possibility of error.
In our day some scholars have asserted that the Bible is infallible but not inerrant. This creates no small amount of confusion. As we have seen, infallible is the stronger of the two words.
Why then have these scholars preferred the word infallible? The answer is probably located somewhere in the emotive realm. The term inerrancy is frowned on in certain academic circles. It is loaded with pejorative baggage. The term is often associated with unsophisticated and unscholarly types of fundamentalism. On the other hand, the term infallibility has a history of academic respectability, particularly in Roman Catholic scholarship. People may reject the Roman Catholic view of infallibility, but they do not identify it with backwoods, primitive theology. Jesuits, for example, do not suffer from a reputation of unsophisticated scholarship. To escape guilt by association with antiintellectual circles, some have retreated from the term inerrancy and taken refuge in the term infallibility. If in the process infallibility is redefined to mean something less than inerrancy, however, then the shift in nomenclature is a dishonest subterfuge.
Though both inerrancy and infallibility have been integral to historic Reformed theology, the modern controversy over the Bible’s trustworthiness has led others to argue that the concept of inerrancy was not advocated by the magisterial Reformers, but instead was originated by scholastic or rationalistic theologians of the seventeenth century. Though it may be accurate to say that the term inerrancy came into vogue later, it is by no means accurate to assert that the concept is absent from the works of sixteenth-century Reformers. Let us note a few observations from Martin Luther:
- The Holy Spirit Himself and God, the Creator of all things, is the Author of this book.
- Scripture, although also written of men, is not of men nor from men, but from God.
- He who would not read these stories in vain must firmly hold that Holy Scripture is not human but divine wisdom.
- The Word must stand, for God cannot lie; and heaven and earth must go to ruins before the most insignificant letter or tittle of His Word remains unfulfilled.
- We intend to glory in nothing but Holy Scripture, and we are certain that the Holy Spirit cannot oppose or contradict Himself.
- St. Augustine says in the letter to St. Jerome …: I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant.
- In the books of St. Augustine one finds many passages which flesh and blood have spoken. And concerning myself I must also confess that when I talk apart from the ministry, at home, at table, or elsewhere, I speak many words that are not God’s Word. That is why St. Augustine, in a letter to St. Jerome, has put down a fine axiom—that only Holy Scripture is to be considered inerrant.
Clearly inerrancy and infallibility do not extend to copies or translations of Scripture. Reformed theology restricts inerrancy to the original manuscripts of the Bible, or the autographa. The autographa, the initial works of the writers of Scripture, are not directly available to us today.
For this reason many scoff at the doctrine of inerrancy, saying it is a moot point since it cannot be verified or falsified without access to the original manuscripts. This criticism misses the point altogether. We carry no brief for the inspiration of copyists or translators. The original revelation is the chief concern of the doctrine of inerrancy. Though we do not possess the autographs themselves, we can reconstruct them with remarkable accuracy. The science of textual criticism demonstrates that the existing text is remarkably pure and exceedingly reliable.
Suppose the normative yardstick housed at the National Bureau of Standards were to perish in a fire. Would we no longer be able to determine the distance of three feet with accuracy? With the multitude of existing copies, we could reconstruct with almost perfect accuracy the original yardstick. To restrict inerrancy to the original documents is to call attention to the source of biblical revelation: the agents who were inspired by God to receive his revelation and record it.
Reformed theology carries no brief for the infallibility of translations. We who read, interpret, or translate the Bible are fallible. The Roman Catholic church adds another element of infallibility by claiming it for the church’s interpretation of Scripture, especially when the pope speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair” of St. Peter). Though this adds a second tier of infallibility, the individual Roman Catholic is still left to interpret the infallible interpretation of the infallible Bible fallibly. Whereas Protestants are faced with a fallible interpretation of the church’s fallible interpretation of the infallible Bible, Catholics assume a double level of infallibility.
What does the Bible’s infallibility mean for the average Christian seeking to be guided by Scripture? If the final stage of receiving Scripture rests in our fallible understanding, why is the infallibility of the original documents so important? This is a practical question that bears heavily on the Christian life.
Suppose two people read a portion of Scripture and cannot agree on its meaning. Obviously one or both of them misunderstand the text. The debate between them is a debate between fallible people.
Suppose, however, that the text is clear and that neither person disputes its meaning. If one of them is convinced that the text is God’s infallible revelation, then the question of whether he should submit to it is answered. If the other person is persuaded that the text itself (in its original transmission) is fallible, then he is under no moral obligation to be bound by it.
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