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)


John said...

I've noticed today that the equivalent section in the IFES doctrinal basis reads "The divine inspiration and entire trustworthiness of Holy Scripture, as originally given, and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.".

I could certainly agree with that.

Susan A said...

Thanks for your thoughts. While I mostly agree with your analysis on the perfection of scripture, I think you're almost entirely wrong about infallibility and reactionary doctrine.

Most of the great doctrines of the reformation were defined from a reactionary point of view - indeed, I believe that God often uses the context of enacted false beliefs to sharpen the theology of his people - reaction against attacks on orthodox doctrine has always required more specific statement or exegesis as the situation is new and the same glorious truths need to be restated in a way that engages with the problems at hand.

As a starting point against liberalism, re-establishing the factual basis of scripture is very important, and to argue that it is debased by sharing its factuality with other things seems a trifle ridiculous (I could equally say that _King Lear_ is debased by being written in the same language as its contemporary bawdy comedies.

By saying that the Bible is inspired and the supreme authority in all matters I think the DB makes the application of what is stated fairly clear - believers are to live in all things under the authority of God as expressed in scripture. In that specific context, its perfection is clearly woven into its infallibility.

Of course I do not think UCCF's DB is perfect, or even as clear as things like the Westminster Confession, but it is playing a different role. If you are going to take issue with it, better start with the logical inconsistencies in the points about original sin and Jesus' manhood and divinity (although I could give you an argument of context in reply to that as well).

For more on infallibility and inerrancy, I would recommend J.I. Packer's book _Beyond the Battle for the Bible_. For effectively the same doctrines in a different guise at the Reformation, Bullinger's Helvetic confession seems a good starting point.

John said...

I'm still inclined to think that while false beliefs do serve to sharpen the true, they also bring a heavy risk of over-reaction. For example, some evangelicals use sola scriptura as an over-reaction to reject everything everyone has said for the last 1900-odd years.

I think such a problem has happened with liberalism - that many people today hold a far more unhealthily literalist view of Scripture (for example, believing that Jesus' parables must have happened as real events, some aspects of Young Earth Creationism) than the corresponding people did beforehand.

Of course I agree with the inspiration / expiration / authority / trustworthiness of Scripture, and I think that one aspect of its perfection is that the historical bits are historically totally accurate and the theological bits are theologically totally accurate.

I don't think I was arguing that sharing inerrancy with other things debases Scripture - I was trying to argue that because it is a shared property, inerrancy is necessarily an incomplete description of Scripture.

DFH said...

Further to your thoughts on Infallibility, Inerrancy and Perfection of Scripture, you might find it useful to consider the paper by The Presence of God Qualifying Our Notions of Grammatical-Historical Interpretation (2006) by Vern Poythress, at this link.

John said...

Thanks - that's helpful.

The link you sent didn't work, but I requested the paper from here.

As I understand it, Poythress emphasises the importance of the presence of God in the writers, in the text and in the readers of the Bible, thereby enabling proper communication in the face of arguments from postmodernism, etc.

Certainly a helpful emphasis.

Susan A said...

I agree with what you say about some evangelicals using sola scriptura as an excuse not to learn from church history, which is rather odd considering the origin of the phrase...

And of course inerrant or infallible alone would be incomplete, but that's not all the db has to say about scripture .

John said...

Ah, but I'm coming from a scientific view of explanations, where the explanation / theory with greater explanatory power / applicability is to be preferred.

Hence, for example, "F=ma" (if verified) is to be preferred to "on Tuesday afternoon, at around 3pm, in Stockport, a force of 8N on a mass of 4kg produced an acceleration of 2m/s/s".

My point was meant to be that perfection does the same work as infallibility is meant to do, but has greater explanatory power and so should be preferred.

Susan A said...

You seem to be forgetting about people and unity. To make comments about doubting whether you could sign the db, and then later to claim you were arguing about what was preferable, is all very inflammatory and makes it sound as if you have problems with unity. Our God is precise and awesome, but as Christians we come at things from a starting point of sinfulness and fallibility. We can't change everything right away. I'm thinking increasingly that we need to look at things carefully, and how they got to be the way they are, before we jump in and change them, especially if they are doctrines with which we essentially agree and it's just semantics we're arguing about. But sorry for shoving my oar in so much.

John said...

Sorry - I'm not sure I understand you.

I gave several reason why I'm not happy with the term "infallibility" (viz that it's talking about the wrong categories and that it's an over-reaction to liberalism) and several additional reason why I prefer the term "perfection", of which that was one.

True, the point about infallibility not being a complete description is not a valid reason to debate over whether to sign the DB. I agree that I could probably have been a bit clearer, but I don't think I've been ambiguous on that.

Please explain how that is me having a problem with unity.

Anonymous said...

Your thoughts on the perfection of scripture are very interesting, and, I think, use language which is much more useful than the more usual inerrancy/infallibility terminology. I agree that to formulate any doctrine in opposition to a particular, different, doctine is a process fraught with, often hidden, danger.

The term I prefer to use to describe Scripture is "inspired", though I would not balk too much at "perfect". The reason for this preference is that there are occasions where "perfection" as you define it, could still cause problems. Take, for example, the book of Ezra. This is, in part, an account of the call by the prophet for a return to the "core values" of the conquest, specifically, by the putting aside of non Jewish spouses. How are we to take this book? Was Ezra right in his reading, so to speak, of what God wanted. Your definition of perfection might imply this since you believe (I think) that objective truth is a prerquisite for perfection. An alternative reading of the book is that God allowed it to be put into the canon as a warning about the danges of too much zeal and too little compassion. We know the negative effects of Ezra's policy from the problems Jesus encountered when dealing with the Samaritans, the very descendants of those condemned mixed marriages. Now, for me, I can, and do, read Ezra with this understanding, and it does not violate my perception of Scripture as inspired, but I think it would be difficult, though by no means impossible, to contain such an understanding within the common use of the word "perfect". I think Ezra got it wrong, but that doesn't prevent God interacting with me through that passage, and it is this interaction which, to me, is the meaning of Scriptural inspiration.

John said...

Sorry SAA - my last comment was a bit hasty. Would the piece make more sense if the bit about infallibility being an incomplete doctrine of scripture were moved into the section on abvantages / implications of the doctrine of perfection of scripture?

JJ - thanks for your thoughts. I totally agree that inspiration is an important part of the doctrine of Scripture (as is "expiration" or "breathed-out-ness", though I don't think that means we should stop at a notion of inspiration if there's more to be said.

As to Ezra - none of infallibility, inerrancy or perfection require you to believe that everything done by "heroes" in the Bible was right. Samson, Gideon, David, Peter, etc all made pretty shocking mistakes at times. What infallibility and inerrancy would require is that the events recorded actually happened that way (including the correctness of author's commentary).

Perfection would imply that what is recorded is exactly what we need to read - no more, no less, no changes. So it means that if I was preaching through Ezra, for example, I'd have to spend some time figuring out what the point of chapter 2 was. It doesn't a priori commit us to one interpretation of the passage or to another (unless of course one interpretation is that the passage isn't perfect).

I agree that the situation between the Jews and Samaritans quite possibly does reflect on the large-scale mishandling of a pastoral issue, but I'm not at all convinced it's Ezra's fault.

He is a skilled scribe, who knew the Law and was passionate about it and that God's hand was on him (7:6,10). We also see that God answers at least some of his prayers (8:23).

Ezra's actual actions in response to the intermarriage issue are very interesting (chapters 9 and 10). He is gutted about it because of the faithlessness to the Law it demostrates, so he repents publically. Lots of people then come to him and join in the repentance. He doesn't tell them to do anything until they've all voluntarily gathered round him to repent.

It's quite possible of course that the esteem Ezra was held in led to people being unloving towards the children of such unions, which would indeed have been wrong.

Even on your criteria, I don't see that perfection would cause a problem for the interpretation of Ezra.

Susan A said...

In reply to your Q re: moving the bit about infallibility, yes it would make more sense, but it would also defeat the apparent purpose of your post.

I'm sorry guys, but needing to define things negatively is inevitable in this world, and is where creeds and confessions come from. I know it's sad but it's true.

And custardy, I think your problem with unity is that you are very willing to jump in and say people are using the wrong categories and make comments about what your reaction would be to them without having much of an informed idea about why they are using those categories and without being able to empathise with them. If you care about unity, you will listen to people and ideas and note that the world and categorisations of things are complex and multifaceted instead of trying to make everything so easy and clear cut. Life and systematic theology are not the same as science.

Inspiration is of course a helpful way of looking at it, but what does inspiration itself say? Inspiration, perfection, infallibility and inerrancy are all subtely nuanced things. To jump in as a layman and claim that categorisations of things are unhelpful is itself extremely unhelpful. Surely instead we want to be saying 'why is this category being used? Is this still the best way of saying it today?'

John said...

Again, I'm afraid I don't quite follow you. The purpose of my post was to suggest that "perfection" is a better way of talking about Scripture than "inerrancy" or "infallibility".

As someone who used to use the categories of infallibility and inerrancy, I know that I used to use them because I hadn't thought about whether perfection would be a better category. I have yet to discuss this with anyone who thinks that inerrancy is a better category than perfection. If I did meet someone, I would be very interested to discuss it with them, to understand why they thought that way and if appropriate to change my views as a result of that discussion.

Why was the category of inerrancy being used? As far as I can tell, it was in reaction to people suggesting that Scripture was errant. Again, as far as I can tell, that position did not persuade those who held the opposing view. You're the theological historian - you tell me if you know better why inerrancy was used or why anyone sees it as a more helpful category than perfection.

Susan A said...

I don't have much time to write this so sorry if you don't understand it.

Well firstly in your post you sound as if you're going to make a clear distinction between infallibility and inerrancy, then you use them pretty much synonymously, suggesting to the reader that you're probably not very clear what you're talking about (and making you're 'you don't need to worry too much about the difference' comment even more patronising. You also draw the theological liberal movement in extremely broad (and not particularly accurate) terms, as the big bad wolf which doesn't like the Bible. So these antiquated Christians are a bit stuck - what shall we say to people who think the Bible is bad? - they think... and then they say 'aha! let us say 'inerrant' and 'infallible' to show ourselves and others that we think the bible is good.

You say that perfection is a much better way of saying that the bible is good, as if it would deal more effectively both with their nineteenth-century big bad wolves and their descendents ever since. And of course this means, you seem to suggest, that we should be wary of doctrinal bases etc that use the terms, because they're not as good as terms we could be using (even though they mean slightly different things, which is just bizarre). Yes of course the UCCF DB is defining itself partly against the liberal phenomenon. There is a good reason for that. You seem to be confusing the DB with a 'Regula Fidei' or a kerygma, or even with a creed. It is not trying to say everything that a believer needs to believe. It is time-specific, situation specific, and still relevant now (or have I failed to notice that no-one questions fallibility or errancy any more?).

A couple more points:

a) Perfection and Infallibility are subtle and nuanced and are NOT saying exactly the same thing, as you point out.

b) This does not mean that Perfection is a 'better' doctrine than infallibility. That's just silly. It's a bit like a small version of saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is 'better' than the doctrine of the humanity of Christ.

c) The analysis in your original post, in which you suppose that inerrancy applied means you must take Jesus' parables as if the events he describes in them actually occurred, is both ill-informed and wrong.

So to me it seems strange that, despite not really seeming to know the context in which infallibility and inerrancy became important, or even what they actually mean in practice, you are so keen to disregard them and replace them with another doctrine that, though equally orthodox and valid, just doesn't cover exactly the same ground. I'll put it this way: many of the liberals in the nineteenth-century you are talking about would not have a problem with saying that scripture is either inspired or perfect. Perfection, like everything else, can be interpreted in different ways. By using two very specific terms, the people that came up with these doctrines focused on the problem that was at hand.

And may we all learn to focus on the problems at hand as well.

John said...

Thanks for that.

A few quick thoughts:

Of course Infallibility and Inerrancy are different, but as far as I can tell, they relate to Perfection in the same way, hence can be treated the same way when discussing their relations to the doctrine of Perfection.

Your analogy with the humanity of Christ / Trinity doctrines is a false one. If we take the model that doctrines are deductions from Scripture, then the humanity of Christ is a primary deduction, whereas the Trinity is a secondary doctrine (from an epistemological point of view), as it is a very good way of bringing together and putting together a lot of other doctrines.

When it comes to infallibility, inerrancy and perfection, then perfection is the primary doctrine, and implies what is usually meant by the other two. Granted, there is some direct evidence for infallibility / inerrancy, but it is noteworthy that the evidence cited is usually secondary in nature. Since therefore in perfection we have a doctrine that is both more primary and more wide-ranging, I see no need for infallibility and inerrancy except as suitably qualified implications of perfection.

I certainly have things I'd like to write about the issue of unity and whether people would agree with perfection who wouldn't agree with infallibility, but I don't have time now. Maybe tomorrow...

John said...

OK - time briefly to tackle questions of unity.

I agree, SAA, that some people would sign onto perfection who wouldn't agree with inerrancy or infallibility. I think that's partly my point.

There are Christians who do not believe in inerrancy or infallibility.

My question is which is the better way of relating to them. Do we take the inerrancy / infallibility line, confront their views head on and run the risk of pushing them into a more "liberal" position than they would have had otherwise?

Or do we take the perfection line, which they are more likely to agree on, then show them gently that it implies trustworthiness, then hopefully get into constructive dialogue about whether the passage in question is intended literally?

I know I over-polarised that, but was trying to make a point quickly.

Oh, and on the parable front, how does the logic not work? Thinking e.g. of what it means for Jesus' words in Luke 10:30 or 14:16 to be inerrant (as well as the first half of Ps 19). Or maybe I'm believing a stereotype of my own position.

DFH said...

Just found this article about inerrancy linked from another blog I visit.

Kevin Vanhoozer on Biblical Inerrancy

The blog was Exiled Preacher post for April 4th.

Steven Carr said...

If God can intervene to make Scripture perfect, could he intervene to prevent children dying of malaria?

I suppose it is all a question of priorities.

Unknown said...

This book by A.T.McGowan The divine spiration of scrpture is helpful in this debate. He argues for the authenticity of scripture as a more helpful term than infallibility/inerrancy.