Your choice is neither infallible or inerrant, but it's yours to make. When speaking about the Bible, what is:
Home for the seeking spirit > Words About the Bible > Inerrant and Infallible
Infallible [Latin in- (not) + fallibilis < fallere (to deceive)]. When defined in its best sense, 'infallible' means that when the Bible is speaking the Good News of Christ and describing the character, vision and purpose of God, through the Holy Spirit's work it transcends the sin, deception, and spiritual or material flaws or limitations of its writers, and of the means of communication (such as print or preaching), and of the readers/hearers. ('Transcend' doesn't mean to get rid of the Bible's material-world character, but to be so much bigger, broader, or stronger that it overwhelms and comes right through that character.)
According to the idea of infallibility, the Bible's Gospel message of God's love and forgiveness is not itself 'fallen' (= corrupted by sin). The Bible becomes the way we find out that the 'fallen' human race is being restored and made worthwhile again through Christ. Fundamentalists overplay the term, saying that the Bible is infallible on every matter it covers, in just about all its uses. Fundamentalists hold that whatever is from God is 'fully holy' (= totally separate), and thus can't possibly have any of the tarnish that humanness puts on all it touches. They use 'infallible' and 'inerrant' in tandem, as a team; those on their edges sometimes pit 'infallible' vs. 'inerrant'. Mainline Protestants choose not to use the term 'infallible'. They see that the most common use of the term is for creating turmoil and separation within the Church - that it has become a tool of polemics (fighting words) rather than an aid to thinking about the broader framework of the Bible and its message. Christians are called on to use all words in a way that honors Christ and unites His people. Some mainline Protestants (especially among US Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, and most of those in the Westar bible-critical project) believe there is nothing in the Bible which escapes earthly corruption, so even each aspect of its Gospel message (such as the New Testament's answer on the cosmic role of Jesus of Nazareth) must pass the bar of human reason. This sounds fine to those who think open-mindedness and reasoning are all that matter, but the Scriptural message rather clearly says that some matters are simply too important and too true to waffle about. The Spirit inspired the biblical writers so they would get these matters right no matter what other ideas or motives were floating through their minds. We are no more infallible than they were. There's a lot we don't know, and what we do know we don't fully or rightly understand. Our task is to leave ourselves open to the Spirit speaking through it. But why bother with the Bible if you'll disregard what it says, sure that you know best? And when you think that it's right to discount or devalue Scripture's core themes and the narrative which carries them, are you really listening to God at all?
Evangelicals, Pentecostalists, and many Lutherans, Methodists, and Anglicans are not willing to call the Good News 'fallen', and hold to a limited form of infallibility. Roman Catholics can speak of the 'infallibility' of the Bible, but only within the framework of the historic Roman Church tradition and the God-guarded teaching role of the Roman Church leadership ('magisterium'). The Eastern Orthodox don't think in any of these terms, seeing the Bible and churchly tradition as one flowing stream in which the Gospel message remains truthfully conveyed through the work of the Spirit (a sort of limited 'infallibility', but without a fallen 'magisterium' as its master). Postmodernist Christians see 'infallibility' the same way they do 'inerrancy', as a relic of modernist/Enlightenment thinking.
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You can also find a fallible definition for 'infallible' in the dictionary.
Inerrant [Latin in- (not) + errāre (to wander, stray) < prob. Indo-European root ers- (to move around, be in motion)]. In its best sense that's most in line with Christian tradition, it means that the Scriptures are always right (do not err) in fulfilling their purpose : revealing God, God's vision, God's purposes, and God's good news to us. The teachings of Scripture are not to be disregarded or tossed away as if they were a mistake. They must be dealt with straightforwardly, in a way which affects what we say and do as persons and as a body of believers.
Some Christians ('fundamentalists' or 'literalists') teach that the Bible is without error in every way on all sorts of matters: chronology, history, biology, sociology, psychology, politics, physics, math, art, and so on. There can't be any mistakes in a divine work, fundamentalists say, for God is perfect and cannot lie. The idea behind an inerrant Bible existed long ago, but the word 'inerrant' itself wasn't used or made specific about the Bible until the 19th century. Though the literally-taken Bible is sometimes more right than many people think it is, it is quite far from being an inerrant authority on such matters. It wasn't written to be; that's not why it's there. It's a divine work, but it never claims to be inerrantly dictated from on high, like some other holy works. The books of the Bible were written by divinely-inspired human beings, for the good of other human beings. The Bible itself shows how the inerrant Holy Spirit works through errant people, for that's the only kind of people there are. (Remember, that means you, and your favorite teachers.) In a way, the Bible is God's communication incarnated into the stuff of material earth -- pages and ink, literary forms, languages, human minds, and spoken words. This combination gives us a Bible that can be mistaken on matters which are not directly tied into what the Bible exists for. It must be learned and interpreted, not assumed. Because of the literalist misunderstanding of the Bible, 'mainline Protestants' (such as the Methodists, American Baptists, United Church, Anglicans, most Presbyterians, and most Lutherans) choose to reject the term 'inerrant'. This helps to set the record straight. It's important that we don't make exaggerated claims for our most precious written resource.
Some Evangelicals show a somewhat better understanding of the term in the Lausanne Covenant, which holds the Bible to be "without error in all that it affirms" (Sect. 2, The Authority And Power Of the Bible). That is meant to put the focus on the Bible as an instrument of God for a particular task ('what it affirms'). This is the approach of African churches and the 'new breed' Pentecostalist churches. It's much like the view of the Lutherans in the Missouri Synod, the European Inner Missions, and (in practice) most of the 'church growth'-oriented community churches. However, these churches have long felt fundamentalism pulling them toward a larger realm for inerrancy. The term 'inerrant' is foreign to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, even though the idea behind it can be found in some parts of their traditions.
For postmodernist Christians, the whole concept of an inerrant Bible is 'foundationalist' (that is, that the framework of the Bible stands on something rational or demonstrable). Postmodernists reject foundationalism, by holding that any philosophy, set of ideas, the Bible, or even life itself, can only have meaning as a part of the web or relational network of all life, truths, and facts. And their 'web of truth' is different than the rigid "modernist" form of truth which inerrantists speak of. That can at times be helpful in arguments about inerrancy that generate much more heat than light.
Progressive Christians see evidence that the Bible itself 'evolved', in several ways. One is that it was gathered from materials which, for the most part, had to prove their way to their place with other such books. Also, there is movement in the Bible from earlier understandings (such as animal sacrifice and wars seen as divinely commanded) to new understandings through new revelation (Jesus and his way of peace). A 'progressive' Christian would think of those changes as part of the normal process of 'evolving', while more moderate and conservative Christians point to it as 'fulfillment' or 'completion' of the earlier way, as intended by God all along. (The latter two terms are from the New Testament.) An inerrantist would have trouble understanding change within the Bible, because they set up such a rigid system about what it says to us today.
Some writers further claim that most philosophical differences, truth claims (such as those built on inerrancy and a literal Bible), or even factual conflicts simply 'dissolve away' by looking from a different angle, so that they don't really matter or mean anything. They say, "change your point of view, and see how what you have always held true goes away". There is a partial truth there. The new angle reveals some things, but also hides others. Look at the palm of your hand. Now turn it slowly. Eventually, you see the side of your hand, and no longer see the palm or any fingers but the thumb and pointer. Turn it more, and you see the back of the hand and the knuckles, the small folds, the hairs, the other fingers, but still not the palm. Each angle misses something and reveals something, but that does not mean what's seen on the other side 'dissolves away' or becomes irrelevant; the palm is still there, even when it's unseen.
Many inerrantists (and some others) speak like the Bible, and the faith as a whole, shares a 'different kind of truth' that is beyond (or outside of) logic or proof or testing. But at what point does the claim to a 'different kind of truth' become like the dark side of the moon, or like the other side of the hand, which leaves too much undiscovered? Or perhaps, it becomes a mask to hide behind, a way to duck the questions? Even worse, if it doesn't matter that there's anything factual behind the Bible, why would a non-believer bother to think about even its good news? Why would they bother taking up with the poor deluded people who actually believe that a real God really is forgiving us and is giving us life beyond death in God's new world? The postmodern non-believer would create their own matrixed philosophy of love instead, which would be much shallower than the meaty, bloody, dirty, un-nice, demanding, tough stuff of the Bible. Or, they would treat the Bible much as they would Lord of the Rings or Dianetics or Celestine Prophecy or even Green Eggs and Ham. The Bible is much more than that - not totally different from other books and not fully outside of reasoning, but nonetheless it is different in kind. We can't understand enough to make up a worthy substitute.
While it's impossible to draw a clear line as to when 'interpretation' becomes dishonest with its source, at some point it does. We interpret away the Bible at our own risk. Truth matters, and in different ways so do fact, logic, and rational processes. Taking rigid stances through concepts like 'inerrancy' are no help, but it also doesn't help to say that the Bible should be followed because the church traditionally has said so, or because 'I feel it in my heart'. None of those make the Bible true or right, and certainly not inerrant. Ultimately, the Bible's authority comes from the Spirit of the God that keeps choosing to work through Scripture in a unique and special way. The Spirit turns the hand to the other side, but still reminds you about what you no longer see. All our words about the Bible, including 'inerrant', do little more than try to describe some small part of how that can be. Because 'inerrant' is a word that misses so many important points, and because its use is almost always for polemics (fighting words), it's best to use other terms in its stead.
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You'll also find a definition for 'inerrant' in the dictionary. But the dictionary itself is not inerrant.
Also, Derek Ouellette takes a look at what this term, combined with 'perspicuity', when pushed to an extreme, can (and does) lead to.
inherent [ Latin inhaerare, to be attached or be an inseparable part of, < in- (in) + haerare (to stick to) ] that which is part of the essential character of something; part of its nature or habit, or something that is so much at its core that it can't be separated or removed from it.
This word was popularized among mainline Protestants through its use by Walter Brueggemann and Martin Marty. Unfortunately, it was quickly put to use by mainline seminarians and theological liberals to simply blow off important Evangelical challenges to the mainline attitudes toward the Bible. (It sounds like the polemical Evangelical term 'inerrant'.) That was not the main intent of Brueggemann or Marty; they were trying to find a more truthful and helpful word to describe how the Spirit communicates through Scripture. For the Bible tells the story of God's covenant relationship with a people, the Hebrews. From there, it became the story of how the Lord of Life lived among us as a human, to die as a human, to be alive again as a human. By telling us of the story of the life of Christ and God's dealings with humanity, the Bible can't help but communicate what God wants of us, what God is up to, and how to find out what is of God. God's Word is thus inherent in it - it comes with the story, as the heart of the story.
Another word with a like meaning is "intrinsic" [Latin intrinsecus, inwardly; akin to Latin intra within], meaning "belonging to the essential nature of". God's call to all of us is intrinsic to the Bible's telling us about God's relationship with ancient Israel and the earliest Christians. If one is told, you get the other with it.
Indelible [Latin in- (not) + dēlēbilis (able to be defaced or covered over) < dēlēre (to delete, wipe out, take away)] : When you get into the habit or practice of reading the Bible regularly, its lessons seep through despite attempts to white it out or paint it over. It leaves its mark on us, somehow, in some way. The Spirit keeps calling to us through the Bible, telling us of God's love and grace. God's word will be heard, and it will have an impact.
You can also check out 'indelible' in the dictionary.
literal : One of the most misused words about the Bible. The word 'literal' is defined as 'what the words say', or 'letter by letter'. Yet the same exact word with the same exact spelling says different things in different settings around different other words, using different literary forms. (For instance, 'love' means one thing in Jesus' command to love, and a very different thing in a steamy sex poem, and still another when a child talks about a pet puppy.) A literalist believes that every word of the Bible is not just a part of the divine creative Message (Greek logos), but is also a specific word from God. Yet the human writers of the Bible were inspired by the Spirit to tell stories and histories, write poems and songs, and share visions with their readers. It is literature. And that is the context in which you discover each word's true 'literal' meaning. Biblical literalists act like the Scriptures were written to teach high theology and support sermons, but they were written to show us how God works in the day-to-day world we live in.
This word is often used when Christians fight amongst themselves. When people fire out words like 'infallible' and 'inerrant', 'literal' is usually launched with them.
What many people mean when they say 'literal' is 'face-value' or 'in the strictest / narrowest sense'. But the
Bible's human writers, like most writers everywhere, don't just operate at face value. How can anyone who believes in an unseen spiritual realm be satisfied with learning just the face value or the narrowest sense of anything? Spirituality is about what lies beneath the face, a wide realm of complex simplicity and the deepest of meaning. There is another side to it, though: it's foolish to simply disregard the literal face value meaning, for it's what the fuller meaning of the word grew from. A word starts from its face value, but rarely stays there. And you can learn a lot from the trip it takes.
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You can also find a definition for 'literal' in the dictionary.
A site user emailed me this :
> Another problem I have is my continued doubt about the inerrancy
> of the Bible and the need for literal interpretation of the
> Bible (particularly the account of creation and the rejection
> of science by many denominations).<
I try not to use terms like 'inerrant' or 'infallible', because the church of today uses them for dividing people instead of helping them embrace truth. It's best to look to the Bible for faith and faithful living rather than science. It tells facts, yes, but it tells them in order to tell the truth. You can look at the site http://www.spirithome.com/bible-descriptives.html, if you want more on that. You may not agree with all of what's there, but that's fine - you are to believe Scripture, not a web site.
One of the lessons of biblical criticism is that the Bible is a completely, totally, entirely, unrepentantly biased resource, first word to last. As I see it, that's what makes it so good. The prophets, priests, story-tellers, and apostles who wrote the Bible wrote it not as a neutral or impartial observation of fact, science, or history, but as an account of God's work written and passed along by His enthusiastic, passionate, extreme, committed, monomaniacally partisan supporters. They want you to lay your life into God's hands. They want you to believe the Good News, follow Christ, love your neighbor, and trust the Spirit. They want that because they discovered for themselves that nothing else matters -- or better, that all else matters because these things matter. That's why they wrote! The Spirit enabled them to see through the events of their day to get at the grand purposes behind them. Those grand purposes still underlie the events of our day. God speaks to us through the Bible as it is, above any other source. Most of us are too busy being obsessed partisans of our selves to see God's purposes. The Bible takes us out of that. Trust the Spirit who's using the Bible, rather than the words people invent to describe the Bible.
More on the Bible as Scripture and as God's message to us. Also, why it is so important, and hints on how to study the Bible.
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|ver.: 20 September 2014
Infallible and Inerrant. Copyright © 1998-2014 by Robert Longman.