There has been some recent discussion over a small part of Ember Church’s statement of faith. When declaring our beliefs about Scripture, we state this:
We believe that God sovereignly provided human beings with the sixty-six books of the Protestant Canon as his written revelation, and that these books are authoritative for all Christians, infallible in all matters of faith and practice.
The part I’ve put in bold is the statement in question. Within some evangelical circles, saying that the Bible is infallible in all matters of faith and practice is code for theological liberalism. Let me say, definitively, that neither I nor Ember Church are “theologically liberal”. Neither are we “fundamentalist”. Instead, we consider ourselves historically orthodox in the Protestant, evangelical tradition.
Why, then, does our Statement of Faith not declare the Scriptures to be “inerrant in the original manuscripts”? For many evangelicals, the inerrancy of the Bible is a “watershed issue”, meaning that it is fundamentally definitive of evangelicalism, and a hill on which one should die. Inerrancy is not a position that should be compromised, and anyone who does is slipping toward theological liberalism.
I think this is untrue. In fact, I understand infallibility to be a much stronger position on the Bible than inerrancy. Let me explain why.
The Questions of the Enlightenment
Inerrancy is an apologetic doctrine. That is to say, it is a belief formulated in defense of Scripture. Inerrancy is not so much motivated by the desire to explain Scripture, but rather to defend its authority and accuracy as God’s revealed word. Inerrancy is evangelicalism’s attempt to answer the skeptical questions of modernism and the Enlightenment. “The Bible is so full of contradictions and errors,” cry the skeptics! “No it’s not,” retort the believers, “it is without error in the original manuscripts.”
But I believe that the questions of the Enlightenment are designed to trap believers. When the skeptics tried to trap Jesus with trick questions, he skillfully evaded them and turned the tables on the doubters. Inerrancy, however, tries to answer the trick questions of the Enlightenment, whereas infallibility says to the Enlightenment, “You’re asking the wrong questions.” The precision of details and the length of days have absolutely no bearing on what God is trying to communicate in his word.
It’s as though the Enlightenment has come along and said, “If football is the perfect game, then why can’t you hit a home run in it?” And we’ve gone ahead and tried to explain just how one might hit a home run in football. Their questions are nonsense, and we need not spend time addressing them. When the doubters questioned Jesus about paying taxes, he turned the tables on them and said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” I believe the doctrine of infallibility, properly understood, does likewise.
The Standard of Error
Who decides what is error and isn’t? Should an ancient document be judged by modern standards? Who gets to set the standard of errancy?
God sovereignly ordained the Scriptures to be written in premodern times, long before the advent of modernism, the Enlightenment, and the supremacy of science. Paul, Isaiah, and Moses had different standards of error and definitions of precision than the team of scientists that flies people to the moon. This seems so obvious as to go without saying, and yet I see that people on both sides of the aisle–both skeptics and believers–are demanding that Scripture conform to the precision of modernity. Isn’t it more remarkable that the Bible was written over a period of 1500 years by dozens of different people in wildly divergent cultures and environments, all forming one cohesive story which explains life and all of history from beginning to end? Isn’t that so unfathomably amazing that whatever tiny errors of precision (according to the standard of modern science) are absolutely inconsequential?
Just as it is nonsense to apply the standards of baseball to the game of football, so it is nonsense to apply the standards of modern science to the content of Scripture. The Bible wasn’t written last year. It was written on scrolls and parchments by shepherds and itinerant preachers long before printing presses, copy machines, and ctrl+c ctrl+v were invented. You don’t have to defend the Bible. Anyone who knows anything about ancient manuscripts and literature knows that the Bible is the gold standard.
And that’s one of the main problems I have with inerrancy–it looks to a standard outside of Scripture. It says, “there is no error.” But as John Frame says, infallibility declares of Scripture, “there can be no error.” In other words, the Bible, not the Enlightenment, sets the standard of error. The Bible is its own standard.
As an apologetic doctrine, inerrancy is intellectually weak in that it points to “the original manuscripts” as being without error, but we no longer have any original manuscripts. They no longer exist. In my opinion, then, inerrancy is an incredibly weak position apologetically, because we can’t produce the evidence to substantiate our claim. We are, in effect, putting our faith in some documents that no longer exist.
Moreover, we are also unintentionally undermining the very good science by which we reconstruct the Scriptures through the manuscripts we do have–and we have a lot! The New Testament, in particular, is, by far, the most well-attested ancient document in the world. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to early and reliable manuscripts. For a rundown on how the science works, check out this post. This is a strength of Scripture to be embraced, not a weakness to be ignored.
The Historicity of Christianity
One critique of what we have in our Statement of Faith is that it doesn’t account for history. But our faith is fundamentally historical. The Gospel is the account of the historical crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Christian faith is rooted in Jewish history. Because infallibility allows the Bible to set the standard of error, we believe that everything the Bible says happened, happened.
In conclusion, infallibility is a richer, more robust understanding of Scripture than inerrancy. In fact, infallibility includes inerrancy, but only according to the standards that Scripture itself ordains, and not according to the standards of skeptical modernity. The way that I understand infallibility is that, rather than being code for theological liberalism, it is actually more theologically conservative than inerrancy because it allows the Bible to speak for itself, on its own terms; it honors God’s sovereignty in his decision on the where and when and how and by whom of biblical authorship; and it honors God’s power in preserving, for the church, a superabundance of ancient manuscripts from which we can get a solid understanding of what was written in those elusive original manuscripts.
If you’ve managed to make it through this ridiculously long post, I’d love to hear your feedback. You can either leave a comment or send me an email.
Thank you, Andy. I’ve had a few conversations about the differences between “inerrant” and “infallible” in the past; future conversations will go (even) better having read this. For what it’s worth, the Christian Reformed Church uses the word “infallible” together with “inspired” and “authoritative” (http://www.crcna.org/pages/positions_authority.cfm). Blessings to you! ~Stan
Stan, glad you found it helpful. It was certainly helpful for me to get these thoughts out. In doing research for a class I taught on the development of the canon, I discovered that the early church didn’t consider the inspiration of Scripture anything unique. For them, it seemed, anything that was orthodox was “inspired”. Interesting perspective, no?