(the following is a post my friend Dan Tsouloufis)
The Nature of Inerrancy and Infallibility
Within the Evangelical tradition, the first thing we usually assert about the Bible is that it is God’s divine Word. More specifically, we assert that it is God’s breathed-out Word, since the apostle Paul describes to Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed…” (NIV, 2 Tim. 3:16). Thus, Evangelicals hold that God is the ultimate author of Scripture, and God (through the Holy Spirit) inspired and illuminates God’s Word to us. As the apostle Peter states clearly, “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). This theological concept of the divine origin of the Bible is the foundation of the authority of Scripture.
As the Protestant Reformers emphasized above all else, Scripture is our final authority, not Popes, or church councils, or the church fathers, or any church traditions. And just as Jesus challenged the scribes and Pharisees who had equated their oral traditions as authoritative with Old Testament Scripture, so the Reformers challenged the Catholic Church that their authority cannot be equated with Scripture. All authority for Christian faith and practice must ultimately rest on God’s Word. Otherwise, without an objective standard (i.e., canon) that all Christians should adhere to, we would instead be subject to the whims and authority of man, not God.
Since it is firmly established that the Bible is God’s Word and is thus the final authority for Christian faith and practice, I would like to examine two specific attributes of Scripture that pertain to its infallibility and its inerrancy. As Timothy Ward explains:
The idea that the Bible is ‘infallible’ means that it does not deceive. To say that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ is to make the additional claim that it does not assert any errors of fact: whether the Bible refers to events in the life of Christ, or to other details of history and geography, what it asserts is true. (Ward 130)
As we can see, there is a clear contrast between infallibility and inerrancy. Thus, one can hold to the infallibility of Scripture without holding to its inerrancy. As Timothy Ward describes:
An infallibilist would not worry too much about allegations that some of the Bible’s more small-scale historical assertions are wrong. Infallibilism can grant that some of the details of time and place in the Gospels might be wrong, without concluding that the Bible’s teaching on salvation and godliness is unreliable. (131)
In fact, as Wayne Grudem points out, “Its advocates often prefer to say that the Bible is infallible but they hesitate to use the word inerrant” (Grudem 93). As Grudem further explains:
Until about 1960 or 1965 the word infallible was used interchangeably with the word inerrant. But in recent years, at least in the United States, the word infallible has been used in a weaker sense to mean that the Bible will not lead us astray in matters of faith and practice. (93)
However, one who maintains both the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture would disagree with the aforementioned sentiments, and would insist that “every assertion that the Bible makes must be taken to be true, and this includes not just its statements about salvation and godliness, but also what it states about history and geography” (Ward 131).
I believe the inerrancy of God’s Word is a critical attribute to adhere to in order to maintain a theologically grounded doctrine of Scripture. Without it, it calls into question the authority of God over Scripture, and it places too much emphasis on the human aspect of Scripture over its divine aspect.
As Timothy Ward states, “the claim that Scripture is inerrant is an outworking of the authority of Scripture. Specifically it is an outworking of the trustworthiness of Scripture…and which follows from Scripture’s identity as God’s breathed-out word” (130). Thus, while Scripture includes many genres as well as many types of speech, it is important to maintain that “whatever one decides that Scripture intends to assert, that content must be regarded as free from error” (134). As Millard Erickson puts it, “our doctrine of inerrancy maintains merely that whatever statements the Bible affirms are fully truthful when they are correctly interpreted in terms of their meaning in their cultural setting and the purpose for which they were written” (Erickson 238).
It is important to point out though, as Erickson does, that “the doctrine of inerrancy applies in the strict sense only to the originals, but in a derivative sense to copies and translations, that is, to the extent that they reflect the original” (239). And since we don’t have the original manuscripts of any of the books of the Bible (commonly known as the autographs), we can still trust that “God providentially oversaw the naturally fallible process of the copying and transmission of the texts, with the result that those many texts which have been preserved make it possible, where they do differ from one another, to reconstruct the wording of the original with a very high degree of confidence in almost every case” (Ward 89). Nevertheless, there are those who do not subscribe to the attribute of biblical inerrancy (for various reasons), even those who claim to be Evangelicals. In fact, inerrancy “is often ridiculed as a subterfuge, and it is pointed out that no one has seen the inerrant autographs. Yet, as Carl Henry has pointed out, no one has seen the errant originals either” (Erickson 239-240).
In conclusion, Timothy Ward insightfully states that “inerrancy is no more and no less than a natural implication of the fact that Scripture is identified as the speech act of a God who cannot lie, and who has chosen to reveal himself to us in words” (Ward 135). As Christians who seek to know and trust God and follow His will for our lives, we can be confident that whatever the Bible asserts to be true is indeed true, because it originated from God and it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is “the Spirit of truth.” As Jesus declared, “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17). “When he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).