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, spiritual and natural limitations of its writers, and of the means of communication and transmission (such as print or translation or preaching), and of the readers/hearers. ('Transcend' means that the Bible' message is so much bigger, broader, and stronger that it bursts right through its material-world character.) The Bible is not fooled, nor is it fooling you.
According to the idea of infallibility in its best sense, the Bible does not fail in its objective to put the Gospel message of God's love and forgiveness before you. The Bible becomes the way we find out that the fallen human race is being made whole and worthwhile through Christ.
Christians Differ On Infallibility
Fundamentalists overplay the term, saying that the 'infallible word of God' 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. Thus, in effect:
Point 1: The Bible gets just about everything right;
Point 2: If it doesn't, then go back to Point 1.
They use 'infallible' and 'inerrant' in tandem, as a team, to defend the idea that the Bible is always correct. Those on Fundamentalism's edges sometimes pit 'infallible' vs. 'inerrant', favoring less the one they see as more constrictive.
Mainline Protestants choose not to use the term 'infallible'. They would rather start reading their Bible by thinking it through and learning to trust the Bible than by starting with a conclusion and working backward. They see that the most common use of the term is for sowing turmoil and separation within the Church. The word 'infallible' is now a tool of polemics (fighting words) rather than as a way to help us think about the broader framework of the Bible and its message. It is being used as a tool for expelling Christians who don't hold the fundamentalist view. Mouths open, ears shut, and tempers flare. Jesus and the apostles called on His followers to use all words in a way that honors God and unites His people in love.
Some mainline 'progressive' Protestants (especially among US Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ) believe there is nothing in the Bible which escapes the weak earthly wisdom, motives and intents of the human authors, so even each part 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. Yet the Scriptural message rather clearly says that some matters are simply too important and too true for followers of Christ 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. There's a lot they didn't know, but there's a lot we still don't know, and what we do know (or think we know) we don't fully or rightly understand. Our task is to leave ourselves open to the Spirit speaking through the Bible.
Evangelicals, Pentecostalists, and many Lutherans, Methodists, and Anglicans are not willing to call the Good News flawed or failed, but recognize that there are things happening in the Bible that its authors didn't understand. 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. Postmodernist Christians see infallibility the same way they do inerrancy, as a relic of modernist/Enlightenment thinking (see below).
Inerrant [Latin in- (not) + errāre (to wander, stray) < prob. Indo-European root ers- (to move around, be in motion). The term 'inerrant' first came into English in the 17th century to describe the fixed ('non-wandering') position of the stars.] As defined in its best sense that's closest to mainstream 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 or fault in every way on all sorts of matters: chronology, history, biology, sociology, psychology, politics, physics, math, art, and so on. Every word of it is a word from God. There can't be any mistakes in a divine work, fundamentalists say, for God is perfect and cannot lie. The ideas behind an inerrant Bible existed long ago, but the word 'inerrant' itself wasn't used in a specific way about the Bible until the late 19th century. At that time, a complex ideological defense of literalism, inerrancy, and infallibility began through B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge, and grew over the years through the works of J. Gresham Machen. In the 1960s and '70s, biblical inerrancy became normative for the main part of evangelicalism, due largely to the writings of Harold Lindsell, an editor at Christianity Today, and his Battle For the Bible. This approach is summed up in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Yet many evangelical writers and thinkers, especially outside of the US, continue not to hold to inerrancy.
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 the wide spread of matters mentioned above. 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, andyour 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 this literalist misunderstanding of the Bible, mainline Protestants (such as the Methodists, ABC Baptists, United Church, Anglicans, most Presbyterians, and most Lutherans) choose to reject the term 'inerrant'. This helps to set the record straight. How true are we being when we make exaggerated claims for our most precious written resource?
Some Evangelicals show a 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 much like the approach of African churches and the 'new breed' Pentecostalist churches. It's also much like the Lutherans in the Missouri Synod, the European Inner Missions, and (in practice) most of the 'church growth'-oriented community churches. However, those churches have long felt fundamentalism pulling them toward a more rigid kind of inerrancy. The term 'inerrant' is foreign to Eastern Orthodoxtraditions, even though the concepts and attitudes behind it can be found in some of its parts. The Roman Catholic Church, in the Second Vatican Council document Dei verbum ('God's word', 1965-11-18), used the term "without error", but in a different sense than the Fundamentalist evangelicals. Essentially, the Bible's inerrancy concerned the truth which God wanted to convey "for the sake of our salvation", and "must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written".
For postmodernist Christians, the whole concept of an inerrant Bible is 'foundationalist' (that is, that the Bible stands on something rational or demonstrable, namely, its having no faults). 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' structure of truth which inerrantists speak of. Scripture is not seen as standing up by itself. It is held together in a net with not just God, but also with humanity and with the world of which we are a part. This critique can at times be helpful in arguments about infallibility 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 into their place with the other such books over time. Also, there is movement in the Bible from earlier understandings (such as animal sacrifice and wars seen as divinely commanded) to fresh 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'. Moderate and conservative Protestants see that there is a direction in this. That would make it much more accurate to use the New Testament's language and treat these changes as fulfillment or completion of what God intended all along. An inerrantist has trouble understanding the whole idea of change within the Bible and ever since, because they set up such a rigid, unchanging system about what it says to us today.
Where Points of View Fail
Some writers claim that, like nearly all philosophical differences, truth claims (such as those built on inerrancy and a literal Bible) 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 to be true just goes away". There is a partial truth in this. The new angle reveals some things, however it also hides others.
Look at the inside face of your hand. You see the fingerprints, the palm, the lines formed over time by the gripping action 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 or the knuckles are still there and are still important, even when it's unseen.
Many inerrantists (and some others) speak as if the Bible shares a 'different kind of truth' that is beyond 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? When does 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 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 unlike the meaty, bloody, dirty, un-nice, demanding, tough stuff of the Bible. Or, they would treat the Bible like Lord of the Rings or Dianetics 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 and purpose. Our points of view don't allow us to understand enough to make up a worthy substitute.
The Bottom Line
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 intended to make a solid ground on which to stand. It fails, because the fudge factor is built-in every time any humans interpret anything. Yet it also fails if we say that the Bible should be followed 'because the Church's tradition and leaders says so', or because 'I feel it in my heart' or 'I can just tell what's up'. Every one of these is quite often wrong, occasionally in a very serious way. Whittling it all down to a few core basics may be a way to start, but we don't grow unless we move onward to much more complex questions of how to live it and how the world really is. None of these reasons make the Bible true or right, and certainly not inerrant. Ultimately, the Bible's authority comes from the Spirit of the God who 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 don't see. All our words about the Bible, especially '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. back to word list
What's Inherent In the Bible?
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, 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. ('Inherent' 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 howthe 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.
What's Intrinsic To the Bible?
Another word with a definition like 'inherent' 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.
How is the Bible Indelible?
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. It does not come back empty. 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 find the dictionary definition of
What Is A Literal Interpretation of the Bible?
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, which has one meaning. Yet the human writers of the Bible were inspired by the Spirit to tell stories and histories, write poems and songs, tell epic adventures and epic failures, and share visions with their readers/hearers. It is literature. And that is the context in which you discover the 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. back to word list
"As soon as you think you know what the Bible is, you turn the page and it turns into something different."
-- Rowan Williams, fmr Archbishop of Canterbury, in *Being Christian* (Eerdmans, 2014), p.25
Literalism and the Bible
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 'infallible' or 'inerrant' word of God, 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 the God of Scripture, not a web site.
You can also literally find a definition for 'literal' in the dictionary.
How Does It All Add Up?
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. Concepts like 'inerrancy', 'infallibility', and 'literal' are not needed to do this task; indeed, they are so artfully constructed that at times they get in the way of believers and non-believers. Trust the Spirit who's using the Bible, rather than the words people invent to describe the Bible.