Sunday, January 15, 2006

Infallibility, Inerrancy and Perfection of Scripture

When I was involved in the Christian Union at university, leaders in the CU had to sign a statement of belief known as the Doctrinal Basis. I happily signed it quite a few times, but I'm not sure I could any more, even though my views haven't changed...

The UCCF Doctrinal Basis includes this point:

c. The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.

Infallibility, and it's slightly stronger cousin inerrancy is basically the language people use to assert that the Bible means what it says - that it doesn't make mistakes in what it is trying to assert (infallible) and that it doesn't contain any errors (inerrant). You don't need to worry too much about the difference - I'll just write about "infallibility" for short, but I'm really talking about "infallibility and/or inerrancy".

Why Infallibility?

As far as I'm aware, the term "inerrancy of Scripture" started to be used around the time of the theological liberal movement of the 1800s. People within the church started publically denying that things mentioned in the Bible had happened, or that facts stated in the Bible were true. As a reaction to this, people who still believed the Bible needed a way of saying that it was true. And infallibility was what they came up with.

Where I'm coming from

Since my time involved with Christian Unions, I don't think my actual views on underlying doctrine have changed, but I think that my understanding of them has deepened and this has often led to changes in how I'd express them.

I don't know whether or not I'd be happy signing the UCCF DB now. I guess I'd want clarification as to how the person who was asking me to sign it understood it themselves. I know that as I am now, I'd be able to satisfy me as I used to be that I believe it.

Problem 1 - Infallibility uses the Wrong Categories

The Bible is not just one type of literature. If the Bible was just telling a story, for example, or just Paul writing down facts about God, then I can see what it would mean for the Bible to be infallible. It would mean that everything the story said really happened, or that all the facts about God were true facts.

But what does it mean for poetry to be infallible?

In the heavens he [God] has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.
Psalm 19:4b-6, NIV

I can recognise that there is poetic language here, that it doesn't literally mean that God has put a load of canvas held up with poles in the sky for the sun to live in. But what does it mean for the poem to be infallible? "Infallible" is a word used for things that assert facts. But what about things that don't? Infallibility is the wrong category to be using when we talk about poetry.

It's not just poetry though - it's also parables. Jesus illustrated his teaching by telling a lot of stories, many of which weren't actually true. Sometimes he pointed out it was a story to illustrate a point, sometimes he didn't. What does it mean for those stories to be infallible?

People tend to argue for infallibility because the Bible is essentially said to be written by God, using people to do so. But if that means that everything it says is true, what about the very words spoken by God as a man, Jesus Christ? If we try applying the category of inerrancy to the whole Bible, we end up saying that many of Jesus' parables must have really happened.

The only way out of this I have come across is to say that Scripture is infallible in what it is trying to assert. But who is to say what it is trying to assert? By that argument, why could the whole Old Testament not be a kind of long parable to tell us something? I don't think that the term "infallible" does the job it is meant to do.

Problem 2 - Nothing is Infallible

No, I don't mean it like that.

"Nothing is infallible" in the sense that if I got a blank piece of paper, and didn't write anything on it, then that would still be infallible. This suggests that the idea of infallibility is too weak - it doesn't cover the idea that the Bible contains everything we need. This is the doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture.

Infallibility is not a sufficient description of an evangelical understanding of Scripture.

Note that this isn't actually an argument against infallibility per se, it's simply saying that it can be improved on as way of explaining what we mean about the Bible.

Problem 3 - Infallibility is a Reaction to Liberalism

In my experience, if we need to say something clearly and well, the best way to do it is not to react against what other people say. The problem is that people are rarely entirely wrong; they get some things right. So if we take up our position in opposition to theirs, we might get some things right, but we'll also get some things wrong when we throw away what they are saying. For example, some people within the infallibility camp have essentially been forced into judgementalism and a simplistic, literalistic reading of Scripture as a result of their total rejection of liberalism.

Because of seeing this in action, I have come to be distrusting of any theology that is defined primarily in reaction to what is going on around it. It is far better simply to say, for example, what the Bible teaches about itself, and then apply that to the current situation.

It also means that it is far too easy to attack infallibility. It can look as if there is a choice to make between some kind of infallibility and some kind of "liberalism", with people who seem to be committed Christians on both sides. That means that a new Christian coming into this situation may well reject infallibility because we set ourselves up in opposition to people they trust.

A Way Forwards - Perfection of Scripture

My suggested way forwards is through recognising that Scripture is perfect.

As for God, his way is perfect;
the word of the LORD is flawless.
2 Samuel 22:31 and Psalm 18:30, NIV

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure
and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.
Psalm 19:7-10, NIV

To all perfection I see a limit;
but your commands are boundless.
Psalm 119:96, NIV

This position clearly has the benefit of being much more frequently asserted in Scripture. It is also better linked to other doctrines. For example, we can see that Scripture is perfect because it is inspired by a perfect God, and that "men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21).

Understanding the Bible to be perfect has several important implications. We need to be careful when doing this, however, as our notions of what perfection means may be wrong.

Implication 1 - Perfection as Optimality

If the Bible is perfect, that means it is also optimal - we can't make it better. If we take something away from the Bible, that makes it worse. If we add something, that makes it worse. If we change how something is worded, that makes it worse.

That means that we can legitimately ask questions such as "Why did Paul write the passage like this?" and "Why is this section here?" and get answers which increase our understanding of the passage. Good students of the Bible ask those questions anyway, and assume there will be good answers. Perfection of Scripture tells us that there are good answers; infallibility doesn't, as a random list of facts is infallible.

Implication 2 - Completeness of Scripture

If Scripture is perfect, then we cannot add anything to it to make it more useful in general. Adding the Highway Code might make it more useful for motorists in the UK, but would make it less useful for everyone else. Hence it must be sufficient - it must contain everything that everyone needs to know in common in order to follow God, and it may contain much that some people need to know.

This means that it contains everything that people need to know in order to be saved. To add anything to Scripture would ultimately be to take away from Scripture.

Implication 3 - Perspicuity of Scripture

As Scripture is perfect, it must be sufficiently clear on the most important issues that people are not hindered from following God by worrying about lack of clarity.

That does not mean that it has to be clear on anything - it could certainly be argued that perfection means that it has to be perfect at many levels and to reward study, which would require it not to be perfectly clear.

Implication 4 - Perfection and Inerrancy

But does perfection do the job that infallibility and / or inerrancy were meant to do?

If a statement about God is perfect, that means it is not only true, but also the best way of putting it. If a statement about a historical event is perfect, that means it reliably tells us about that event, focusing on what it is important to know.

If, for example, the accounts of the Resurrection are perfect, then it would take a vast (and probably impossible) amount of explaining to even begin to claim that they were perfect and not true. It certainly implies that we should live as if they are true.

Perfection and Literalism

Does perfection require a literalistic approach to, for example, Genesis 1-2?

I'm not going to go into whether or not I think Genesis 1-2 are literally true and why - that's a long discussion for another time. But I think we have to be clear that they are perfect. They (along with the other passages in the Bible about creation) are the best account of creation that there could possibly be for the people who have read and will read the Bible.

Does that mean they are exhaustive - that they cover everything it is possible to cover? No, of course not. Whatever happened then, it certainly had some complex subatomic physics involved, which could be explained. But to go into the detail of the physics might well confuse too many readers, and distract from the main point - that God did it. So the passage won't say everything there is to say; it will say only what it is best to say in that context.

So perfection does not mean that the Bible has said everything - there might have been intermediate stages between, for example "God said 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night.'" and such lights appearing. The point is that they appeared in response to God's command.

Perfection and Purpose

This highlights a very important issue - the idea of purpose. Scripture is perfect, but perfect for what? It is perfect for at least the following:

So the accounts in the Bible of past events are perfect accounts for those purposes. They are the details that we need to know in order that we might come to Jesus and follow him with our whole lives.


I think that we would be much better to speak about the perfection of Scripture that the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture. It is better attested Scripturally, it is better linked to other doctrines, it is much harder to argue against, it promotes unity rather than controversy within the Church and it works better. The only argument I can see against it is inertia.

(slightly edited 16/1/2006)
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