Is the Bible completely without error, or is it sometimes mistaken about historical or cosmological details? And just how significant is this question? If you do much reading or discussing with other Christians, you’ve probably encountered the growing controversy regarding the nature of Scripture. Part of the divide between evangelical Christians and liberal Protestants in the early 20th century involved their respective views of Scripture. Increasingly today, though, this is a debate taking place between evangelicals.
The primary views have coalesced around two identifying terms: inerrancy and infallibility. The way these words are used can be confusing to those new to this debate because they’re usually defined as synonyms. But among evangelicals the words have taken on differing nuances. The traditional (many would say historical) view is that Scripture is both infallible and inerrant—meaning that it is both trustworthy in accomplishing God’s purpose and also completely free from error in everything it affirms, including details of history and science. Most who hold this view believe it follows naturally and necessarily from the divine inspiration of the Bible; if all Scripture is God-breathed it must be both infallibly trustworthy and free from error.
The differing view is that the Bible is completely trustworthy and infallible as far as its theological message is concerned, but that it was never intended to be free from incidental and mistaken details of history or science (and that it does indeed include such errors). Some label this view as “partial inerrancy,” the difference being how much of Scripture is error-free, and from what kinds of error the Bible was preserved.
The purpose of this post is not to argue for or against inerrancy (so please resist doing so in the comments). Discussions about the infallibility view tend to become focused entirely on disproving or defending inerrancy. But my interest here is to explore the question (regardless of whether the Bible actually contains error): Is the infallibility view even a plausible option? Here are a few reasons why I haven’t found this view to be credible:
You’ve heard the old saying: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” It means the rules for you should be the same as the rules for me. If I’m allowed a certain leeway, so should you be. To apply a different set of rules for me than is generally applied for everyone else is called “special pleading.” The proponents of the infallibility view are asking for a level of trustful acceptance I don’t think they would ordinarily accord other religions. Let’s be clear, we’re being asked to accept writings that allegedly contain blatant factual errors as divinely-inspired and infallible Scripture. But would any of us so easily dismiss errors in the Book of Mormon, or inconsistencies in the Qur’an?
Imagine a group of people claiming that Gandhi was God incarnate, that he rose from the dead and that all people must be saved through faith in him. They further claim that his closest followers wrote accounts of his death and resurrection, and these accounts tell of his teachings, of the nature of salvation, and give instructions regarding how his followers should corporately live out this faith. But—they say—these aren’t just the fallible, human writings of these people, they constitute the divinely-inspired Scriptures that infallibly explain and define spiritual truth and that authoritatively determine the community life of Gandhi’s followers. So you check out these writings, but you begin to notice far too many blatant mistakes and contradictions regarding pertinent historical details and matters of science. Now, you might still consider these accounts as historically significant, and you may even regard them as containing spiritual insights—but would you accept them as the infallible words of God himself? I think that’s doubtful. If you truly believe these writings contain errors, it’s unlikely you’ll accept them as completely divine. (Witness both the challenges to the Book of Mormon and its defense.)
Not long ago a prominent scholar was asked why he believes in an infallible, but not inerrant, Bible. He answered that he believes this about Scripture because of the internal witness he’s received from the Spirit. Others challenged him that this sounds disturbingly similar to the Mormon “burning in the bosom” (which is supposed to confirm to skeptics that Mormonism is true). They asked how the two are different. His response? “One is from God and the other isn’t[!]” This puts us in the untenable position of telling the Mormon ‘my subjective inner feeling is valid but yours is not.’ And what of those who have an inner testimony from the Spirit that the Scriptures are inerrant? This is special pleading, applying different standards to one’s own view. To use a different old expression, it’s “trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.” In my days as a skeptic, I would never have accepted this idea of a factually errant but divinely infallible Scripture, from either a Latter-day Saint or an evangelical Christian. I would not have found either remotely credible.
A “lesser to greater” problem
When Jesus was taking with Nicodemus, he asked him (in John 3:12):
If you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things,
how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
That’s a good question. Some protest that we trust textbooks and the constitution without them necessarily being 100% error-free. But these people are missing the point. No one accepts our constitution or a textbook as divinely inspired Scripture. We don’t grant them the same kind of authority in our lives as the Bible. If a textbook is wrong, we correct it. If the constitution is inadequate, we amend it. It’s not the origin of these documents that gives them even their limited authority—it’s our acceptance and affirmation of them as a society. Unless we’re to accept the Bible as merely a majority-ratified authority that can be amended and modified when we feel the need, the comparison is not valid. And this leaves us with a similar question to the one above:
If the Bible can’t be trusted to tell us about earthly things without error,
how can we possibly trust it to tell us about heavenly things without error?
Can I get a witness?
As I mentioned above, the case for infallibility seems to be all about the case against inerrancy. Every time I’ve asked why someone holds this view I get an earful about why inerrancy is all wrong. Maybe they’re right. Maybe the Bible contains undeniable error. The problem is that disproving inerrancy does absolutely nothing to establish infallibility. Yet these discussions inexorably lead to attacking inerrancy (often using very poor reasoning, but that’s another post).
The only reason I’ve heard for accepting this view is the claim of some subjective inner feeling (as I mentioned above), or the indignant reminder that the Bible is both divine and human. I guess this is meant to prove that Scripture necessarily contains error because of its human aspect. But Jesus was both divine and human, yet he never sinned. Why is this not similar with the written Word of God? Why can Scripture not be both divine and human, yet without error? We still await a case to be made, and simply saying that Scripture is also human doesn’t establish anything. Why would God supernaturally preserve the human writing of Scripture from any theological error but not bother to preserve it from factual error (especially when factual error would call into question the veracity of the theological content)? Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the Bible does contain these historical and/or cosmological errors—we still need answers to these questions:
Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?
How can you have God-breathed error?
I’m still waiting for a positive case for this idea.
May be arguing too much
If the inerrancy of Scripture follows naturally from divinely inspired Scripture, and if there’s no plausible reason to accept erroneous writings as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture, then errantists may be unintentionally undermining the foundation of their own beliefs. They may be trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit. That would be ironic and sad.
Where do you draw the line?
To what extent is a factually erroneous Bible authoritative? Who decides what is sufficiently theological and therefore infallible? It’s interesting that some (please note the “some”) egalitarians have concluded that Paul was simply wrong about his views on gender-distinctive roles. I assume Peter was wrong, too. They were apparently basing their teachings on their cultural understandings rather than divine inspiration. Of course, this isn’t just historical minutiae we’re talking about now, but the life of the church. Given Paul’s theological defense of these distinctive roles, do we now have theological error in the Bible? And if the biblical (human) authors were wrong about this, why couldn’t they simply be wrong about other things, such as what Scripture teaches concerning homosexuality? If we aren’t tied to the explicit content of the written text, who determines just how far some “progressive” trajectory flows beyond it? If the apostles could be bound to their cultural understandings of these issues, why not the existence of hell, or the exclusivity of Christ, or substitutionary atonement, or justification by faith? If we know the Bible affirms things as true that are not, then how do we determine what is true and what is not? Where do you draw the line, and on what basis do you draw it there?
I’m not saying that anyone who denies inerrancy cannot be a sincere evangelical Christian. I’m also not saying there’s an unavoidable slippery slope from a rejection of inerrancy into liberalism. There are many wonderful Christians who do not accept the idea of inerrancy. Thankfully, many of these brothers and sisters continue to view the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and they seek to draw their theology and practices from Scripture. I appreciate their dependence on Scripture, but I believe it to be inconsistent with their rejection of inerrancy. I think to the extent they are thinking and living biblically it is despite their rejection of inerrancy. Actually, many of these believers live as functional inerrantists even though they dismiss inerrancy. They enjoy the residual security of the very doctrine they deny.
Sadly though, we have example after example of individuals, schools and denominations that began by questioning the inerrancy of Scripture and eventually came to question the very tenets of the faith. This slip may not be inevitable, but I don’t think any can deny it has happened, and happened far too many times. You may be able to reject the idea of an inerrant Bible and remain orthodox in your beliefs, but what of those who follow you and adopt your views of Scripture? What if they reject more than you do? What if they “correct” more of Scripture than you do? Within the parameters of your view, how can you defend against a slip into liberalism? (And who’s to say you even should?)
Please don’t misunderstand the last paragraph. I’m not arguing that because of some danger to our precious evangelicalism we must circle the wagons and defend inerrancy to the death. What I am saying is that we need to be completely honest about the options available to us. If the Bible is errant, then we need to be forthright about the consequences. Consider these propositions:
1. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible and inerrant Scripture.
2. Because the Bible is divinely inspired it is infallible Scripture even though it contains undeniable error.
3. The Bible contains undeniable error and so is not divinely inspired Scripture (although it may still be of historical and spiritual value).
Scripture that is divinely inspired, and therefore infallible and inerrant, makes perfect sense. This view is consistent and logical. On the other hand, a Bible that is simply the writings of well-intentioned followers of Jesus could also make sense. These writings could still be of great historical value and they could contain profound spiritual insights—but they would be no more “inspired” than the writings of AW Tozer or DA Carson. They wouldn’t be factually inerrant or theologically infallible. They would only be authoritative to the extent we accept them as authoritative.
I don’t believe the third option, but it’s consistent and plausible. Either option 1 or 3 would make sense depending on the actual errancy or inerrancy of the Bible. But a claim that factually erroneous writing can somehow be God-breathed and theologically infallible seems irrational. This is the completely subjective blind leap, plugging our ears and closing our eyes against the evidence and yelling, ‘But it’s still infallible.’ I don’t reject the second proposition simply because I don’t like it or don’t believe it, but because it’s incredible (i.e. unbelievable). If you truly believe the Bible to contain factual error, then I challenge you to have the intellectual consistency and courage to follow your belief to its logical conclusion.
Notice again that disproving inerrancy doesn’t establish the second option over the third. Those who hold to the second proposition are alone in denying any connection between inerrancy and divine inspiration. Everyone else would see this as special pleading and irrational. Merely scoffing at the idea of such a connection is inadequate. If you hold this view you need to present a positive case why anyone should accept it. I invite you to answer this simple question:
Why should we accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture?
10 thoughts on “A Bible that’s infallible but not inerrant: A credible option?”
PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING: I’ll write more about inerrancy in the future and give everyone a chance to offer any criticisms and questions then. But critiques of inerrancy will be out of place in this comment thread and will be deleted. Please focus your comments on the plausibility of the infallibility view. Thanks!
I’m with you, Curt. IMO, there’s no logically sound reason why we should accept factually erroneous writing as divinely inspired and infallible Scripture. Happily, I think there’s a better way.
I am seriously interested in this topic. After writing and reading and writing and re-reading, I believe I may have replied in a way you asked me not to. I’d like to leave my original response added to this reply. You may of course delete it if you feel it necessary.
I have fallen into the third category. Before getting saved, I believe I would have fallen in the second group and after going to church, I was all for the first group. But, to answer your question from the point of view of my “pre-salvation”, I believed at that time that the Bible was a bunch of stories to get you pointed in the right direction. For example, in the book of Genesis. I saw creation as a child-like story to explain something that was just too big for simple minds to understand; a simpler way to explain evolution but the main point being that God was behind it and responsible for it. I saw a lot of the Bible at that time as a type of “parable”. It didn’t need to be all fact as long as you got the gist of it. Therefore, it could have scientific error, but still be infallible because it would lead a person to the point of the story. But, because of that, I would not believe in the “legalistic” aspects of church, i.g. you must do this or that, look like this or that, say things like this or that etc. because it was just a guide book.
My view shifted as I became a fundamentalist. I wanted something definitive and divine, i.e absolute truth for an absolute faith! If the premise (Bible) is faulty (false) then it follows that the conclusion (belief system) would also be faulty (false). Therefore for my faith to be true, my standard had to be true. I wanted to hold on to my view of evolution/creationism working harmoniously together, but pressure from my teachers and lessons pushed me into the all or nothing view. You either believed it happened as it said or you were wrong.
I do believe though, in order to use the Bible as a standard of faith and an absolute truth, it must be inerrant otherwise you are only left with subjective filters and there is no absolute truth.
I do not believe that if the Bible is errant that it could possibly be infallible. Since we cannot rely on our feelings or the word of others then, the Bible is the only way to find the truth of our faith since it is the only “divinely-inspired scripture” that we are given from God, i.e. our only instruction book that we should rely on for our faith. It must speak truth and it should not create confusion or division if it is infallible. But, if there is real error, not shallow error, then it cannot be 100% true. Therefore, we would have to pick and choose. What then would the standard be to decide which parts are profitable? Shouldn’t something infallible point everyone in the same direction? How can errant text be relied on to bring everyone into the one truth?
I was someone who was whole-heartedly committed and searching for depth in God through the scriptures. I expected to find the answers of why I believed what I believed. I expected to be able to draw the same conclusions my teachers were teaching me. Instead, I found different answers and different beliefs. I was shunned when I started questioning with an honest heart and with the most sincere intentions, I wanted the truth at all costs. I wanted to validate my faith and every thing I believed through the scriptures and not just through my subjective experiences. I began finding things that didn’t make sense to me even when trying to put things in proper context. A few people would engage in discussions with me but when my questions would cause cognitive dissonance their answers would come from subjective experience or they would say “you just have to have faith” and that was that, end of argument. Most were intimidated by my questions because they were afraid I would make them question their own faith. It was never my intention to try to sway anyone anywhere; I just wanted to discuss and come to logical explanations that were directly revealed in scriptures.
I subscribe to this blog because you write in line with some of the “truths” I found during my search; several which are contrary to my former churches doctrines. I know of no churches around my area that believe like your church does. I subscribe because I am curious and part of me is hopeful that one day you may write about the puzzle pieces I need to be able to see my faith again. I no longer consider myself a believer because I no longer believe the Bible is infallible. I am one of the people you warned about “questioning the tenants of faith” and “the slip” because I fall into that category; I have found things that I believe conflict and go beyond the shallow type of human errors. A logical argument cannot come from a faulty premise, i.g. errancy = infallibility. I am curious and part of me is hopeful that one day you may write about the puzzle pieces I need to be able to see my faith again.
Thanks, Cale. I’m happy too that there’s a better way.
Thanks for writing, Dyann. I don’t see anything here that needs to be deleted. Your comment is relevant to my original post, and I appreciate you sharing some of your story. It really touched me. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me when people feel pressure to not ask questions or when they receive only glib, pat answers. (I’ve been there too.) If there’s any place we should be able to genuinely explore our deepest questions, it’s in the church! I respect how you’ve continued to seek truth above all else. This is the way I’ve always felt as well. I desire to find what is real and true regardless of what or where it is. I understand the disillusionment, but I regret that your search has been at the expense of your faith. I don’t think this is necessary or inevitable, and I’d be happy to discuss the issues that concern you. Feel free to email me directly at email@example.com. I’m willing to help as much as I can, and you can ask any question that bothers you. Maybe I can post on these topics to help others who are struggling with the same questions.
Hi Curt, I like what you have to say here. What I was wondering about just what translation do we base inerrancy and infallibility on? I know we can say the Original Autographs were both inerrant and infallible. Since there are so many translations, are all of them infallible and inherent? I may have missed your point, if I have please forgive me, but this is what I was wondering about. Thanks Patrick Beccia
That’s a good question, and a natural issue to explore next. I’m actually going to post soon on this and other related issues. Briefly, one thing to remember is that it’s not the physical autographs that are inspired and inerrant, it’s the text of the autographs that is inerrant. To the extent that a translation reflects the meaning contained in the original text, to that extent it’s inspired, inerrant and infallible.
This really isn’t as big an issue as some make it because we’re confident of the reading of practically all of the text. And whatever issue it is, it would be an issue for anyone who believes the original text is inspired and infallible. I don’t think anyone would claim a blatant mistranslation would be divinely inspired and spiritually infallible! If we had a perfect, error-free physics textbook—in German—we could also have a corresponding perfect, error-free English textbook as long as we translate it correctly. So this becomes a translation issue. There can be different ways of rendering something accurately in a different language, we just need to strive to convey the meaning of the original (which I think Bible translators do very well).
Any place where the text is uncertain, then we can’t be dogmatic about its inspired, inerrant and infallible nature. But these passages are few and far between and, as I said, an issue for all of us who believe the Bible is inspired and infallible.
Hi Curt, I know you wrote this last year, but I was googling this topic and your blog came up. I come from a conservative evangelistic background and I married a liberal Protestant. We have actually had this discussion before but I wasn’t able to put into words what I wanted to say. You are much smarter than I am and I feel this post puts the words to the thoughts I have. I emailed this post to myself in hopes that I can have a more productive conversation with my husband. Thank you for your post
Thank you, Cathy. I pray these ideas will be helpful to you when you talk with your husband, and that he’ll be open to considering what you have to say.
I think that a key to my understanding also points to a logical leap that you made when you spoke of the idea of scripture being, like Jesus, both divine and human. When you said, “But Jesus was both divine and human, yet he never sinned. Why is this not similar with the written Word of God? Why can Scripture not be both divine and human, yet without error?” you came very close to how the scripture CAN be infallible while having errancy. Jesus was human, and did not sin, that is true. But Jesus was human and was subject to human frailty. In the physical aspect, this is manifest: he got hungry, tired, and when his skin was broken, he bled. One can also argue plausibly that Jesus occasionally changed his mind. (See the Samaritan woman asking for her child to be healed, as well as his general stance on divorce.) I know that intelligent minds will draw different conclusions on these two examples, but my point is that there are valid arguments to be made.
Given all that, I’d suggest that if the Word of God (Jesus) was subject to human frailty, even though he didn’t sin, then the word of God (Scripture) is very likely to be at least as subject to human frailty, as its “mother” was just as much human as was His. This frailty does not come from “sin” in the sense of one or more of the human authors deliberately lying or stating error. It comes from the humanness of the human side of the scripture equation. And we don’t even have golden plates! Even the very stone tablets upon which God originally wrote could be fractured, couldn’t they?
This is how I am able to place my faith in the Word of God contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments without requiring that they be textbooks of physics or biology or even psychiatry.
This doesn’t address your very important questions of where to draw the line, or what criteria to use to draw it. That will require a deeper thinker than me. Thanks!
Hi, Chuck. Thanks for your comment. We’ve been getting settled into a new apartment, so I’m a little late in responding.
I think there’s a valid comparison here, but I don’t think it can be stretched as far as you’re taking it. Yes, Jesus dealt with the limitations of being human, but was still completely sinless and, I might add, completely trustworthy. For instance, we don’t have any examples of Jesus having to retract or change a statement.
The written Word also has certain limitations because of its human character and also due to it being verbal (i.e. in word form) and written. Many have written (ironically) of the limitations of verbal communication. Some have even claimed that you can’t communicate anything meaningfully or faithfully by using words. I think this is not only wrong but ultimately self-defeating (since this argument is invariably itself communicated by using words!), but there are real limitations to written communication. Scripture, even though divinely inspired, includes by necessity the limitations of the medium, and God had to deal with the limitation of using humans to communicate his truth.
But the limitations of Jesus’ human, bodily form and of Scripture’s human, written form do not equate to error. So, again, there is a valid comparison here, but I don’t see where the limitations of humanity would have caused Jesus or Scripture to be in error. I don’t see the basis for such a claim.
I also don’t think this addresses the main point of my original post. If Jesus did communicate what was erroneous, this wouldn’t simply be an example of his humanness—it would have called the claim of his divine nature into question. And if Scripture does, in fact, communicate error as something true, then this calls its divine inspiration into question. I don’t see any way around this.
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