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The Timeless Value of the Inerrent, Infallible Christian Scriptures

Updated on December 10, 2014

Introduction

The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: the Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”[1] This is not a quote from the webpage of The Christian Book Distributors. This is not a quote from the introduction to a new Bible translation. This is not even a quote from a press release of a Christian publishing house. This quote is from the New Yorker archive, an excerpt from the article, The Good Book Business; Why Publishers Love the Bible.

From both Christian and secular standpoints, the popularity of “the Good Book” is unconstrained, unsurpassed and inexplicable. This article found in the bastion of liberal secularism goes on to state that in 2005, 25 million copies of the Bible flew off the shelves in America, more than double the number of the Harry Potter books sold that year. In addition, according to the New Yorker, the Bible graces the shelves (under how many layers of dust, we can never be sure) of 91% of American households.

As a Christian in a secular workplace, I am surrounded by owners of Bibles who, though they may even read it are hesitant to accept it as authoritative, asking questions such as, “How can I possibly rely on a book that has been translated so many times and handled by so many people?” and, “Why should I believe what man says about God is true? Isn’t it just their opinion?” Alas, the arguments of the unbelieving skeptics that I find myself among are often limited to whatever few cynicisms are currently floating around social media and are often un-researched.

I will endeavor to answer a few of these basic questions and summarize and explore the concepts and relationships between inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, perspicuity and canonization. In the second portion, I will sum up and examine Jason Sexton’s article “NT Text Criticism and Inerrancy” from “The Master’s Seminary Journal,” as textual criticism has a crucial place in understanding the Bible.

[1] "The Good Book Business." The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.

Inspiration

First, the doctrine of inspiration is the belief that the Bible is the word of God, composed by God using human beings as His writing implement. Understanding inspiration’s place in Christian doctrine must come before any attempt to explore the following concepts of infallibility, inerrancy and perspicuity. Without inspiration, there is no point in discussing the following ideas. Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary explains inspiration well, as being “’God-breathed’ meaning ‘breathed forth by God’ rather than ‘breathed into by God’[1] Many unbelievers assume the latter to be true which confuses all following notions of Christianity and requires them to accomplish the equivalent of building a house without a solid foundation. The concept of inspiration is inherently complex because God used depraved human minds to record His unadulterated words ( II Peter 1:21 states that no prophecy of Scripture comes from man’s own mind but was produced as he was “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” ESV), but there is significant internal evidence for the understanding of the inspiration of Scripture as being God’s authorship through human conduits.

[1] Myers, A. C. (1987). The Eerdmans Bible dictionary (523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Infallibility

Infallibility follows inspiration and is the doctrine that the Bible is infallible, i.e. without fallacy (invalid arguments and errors in reasoning) and “incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals.[1]” To believe in infallibility is not to assert that nowhere does the Scripture record a lie; it is to insist that the Scripture is not misleading in what it upholds. Infallibility is closely related to inerrancy, but this will be examined later on. For now, it is sufficient to say that infallibility affirms that what the Scriptures say to be true is true in all matters of doctrine, principles and morals and is “authoritative for all the activities of the church.”[2]


[1] Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

[2] Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright. "Scripture, Authority of." Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. London: SPCK, 2005. N. pag. Print.

Perspicuity

Perspicuity is simply an elaborate word for the clarity of Scripture and is closely related to illumination. Perspicuity stands against the traditional Roman Catholic view that the masses must be shielded from direct contact with the Scripture and that the interpretation of the Word of God must be left to those who oversee them. An interesting definition of Perspicuity put forth by J.I. Packer in Concise Theology is “straightforward and self-interpreting on all matters of importance.”[1] Perspicuity holds that the layperson is equipped to handle the Scriptures and though some passages may not be easily interpreted and hold potential for misinterpretation (II Peter 3:16) with the illumination of God and careful study (II Timothy 3:16-17, Psalm 119:18) the precepts of God’s Word can be understood (II Timothy 2:7). The clarity of Scripture is linked with the Reformers[2] who felt that it was crucial that Scripture be available to everyone who desired it and that the Holy Spirit would guide those individuals in their studious endeavors.


[1] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

[2] Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright. "Scripture, Clarity of." Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. London: SPCK, 2005. N. pag. Print.

The Relationship Between Inerrancy and Infallibility

Inerrancy and inspiration are closely related because the God who inspired (“exhaled”) the Scriptures into man’s environment is a Being whose fundamental nature includes such attributes as omniscience, omnipotence and inherent holiness beyond the comprehension of humankind. If God were not inerrant, neither would His Scripture be. The Scriptures are the only irreproachable work of art because they were composed by the only irreproachable Artist. The Scriptures were not corrupted by the Artists fallible brushes any more than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was corrupted by deficient brushes. Nor do we admire that work of incredible art and exclaim, “My, what brushes those must have been!” but “What an artist Michelangelo must have been!” The perfect Author of All Things did not write an errant literary work, but perfectly guided His brushes in creating His masterpiece.

This Scriptures are also infallible because their Author is infallible beyond all human comprehension. They are faultless in all they uphold because their Author is faultless. Fallibility implies lapses in logic and arguments that cannot be pressed without collapsing. When the Scripture is pressed by countless men of science, history and archaeology, they do not collapse. Moreover, the principles presented in Scripture are the direct consequences of the characteristics of God. He is holy, therefore our worship is to happen in very specific ways (1 Chronicles 16:29, Psalm 29:2). He is all-powerful working all things to end in good for those who have been called which causes us to direct our lives in certain ways (Romans 8:28, Hebrews 6:19). He does not change and therefore our eternal relationship to Him is secure and this gives us confidence to walk through life with hope (Hebrews 13:8, John 10:28).

The Relationship Between Inspiration and Perspicuity

As for the relationship between inspiration and perspicuity, a logical question follows: How can Scriptures that are inspired (i.e. all of them) include some passages that are “clear” in one way to one person and “clear” to another in an opposite way? Free will is a perfect example of a concept that the modern evangelical church cannot come to identical conclusions over. It would seem that if the Scriptures were entirely clear in the same way to everyone all the time, the idea of denominations would be unheard-of. However, does perspicuity as it relates to inspiration have to mean that there will be no disagreement between Biblical scholars? Being inspired by God, the Scriptures reveal Him with clarity to the degree that He chose. He allowed a certain amount of mystery to remain, but that which He chose to reveal was written in a manner so as to be understood. Thus perspicuity does not have to mean all of Scripture is always clear in all the same ways to all people. Perspicuity does, however, include that the Bible is sufficiently clear on matters pertaining to salvation that the reader may believe.

Keeping Our Terms Distinguishable

As is the case with perspicuity and inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy are closely related. According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, “These negative terms have a special value, for they explicitly safeguard crucial positive truths.”[1] There is very little difference between them and “they may be distinguished but not separated.”[2] Many modern scholars have muddied the waters as it relates to these words, creating a synonymy between them (P.S. Karleen in the Handbook to Biblical Studies is an example) by either claiming them to be identical for their purposes or by using them back to back without definition or explanation.

In an attempt to distinguish the two: infallibility represents truth in the precepts of Scripture as not being misleading. For example, the Scripture is without fallacious arguments and faulty logic in those passages that are intended to convey truth. However, not all passages are meant to convey truth. Rahab’s lie in defense of the spies is recorded but it is not intended to promote lying. (However, some use it to prove a system of graded morality i.e. a lie is permissible if it saves a life). The fact that Rahab’s lie is recorded does not mean that the Bible is fallible; it is simply relaying information as it happened.

Inerrancy is similar to infallibility, but it represents truthful precision in the more individual assertions of Scripture. Where infallibility says the Bible is without logical fallacy, inerrancy says the Bible is without error in its assertions. The Bible asserts that the earth is round: the earth is round. The Bible asserts that the universe is expanding: the earth is expanding. The Bible is without error in all that it proclaims to be true. As with infallibility, the Bible, in many cases, records information as it was understood within a cultural context. Where certain things may have been appropriate practices in the time and culture in which they were written, they may not be proper today, but this does not make the Bible untrue in any way just like a newspaper from 1950 is not untrue today. Also, it should be mentioned that where the texts are not culturally bound (and this is easily discovered through study and the illumination of the Holy Spirit) timeless truths are found with which we direct our personal and public lives. These timeless truths are both inerrant and infallible.


[1] "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy with Exposition." Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

[2] "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancywith Exposition." Article XI Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Proper Scriptural Interpretation

Naturally, Scripture must be interpreted for what it is; poetry cannot be read as science in the Bible or in any other work of literature. Certain interpretive rules apply to all of literature. Because so many different genres are included in the Bible skeptics often make erroneous cases for the unreliability of Scripture trying to interpret one genre as another; this does not make the Bible either errant or fallible; it makes the skeptic a fool. Even if one does not approach the Bible as being the authoritative work of God, it must still be given the same fair reading as one would give the works of Plato, Aristotle or any other historical document.

The Bible skeptic or unbeliever may also confuse the issue of canonicity as it relates to inspiration. (“Why are some books in the Bible and some aren’t? Isn’t the selection of ‘canonical books’ arbitrary?”) Canonicity absolutely does not prove inspiration. Canonicity is the direct result of inspiration and once this premise becomes confused, the entire concept of orthodox Christianity comes into question. Without an inspired Bible beyond the work and knowledge of mere man, we have no reasonable basis to build our doctrinal system upon. In Defending Your Faith this relationship between canonicity and inspiration is explained as hinging on the work of the Holy Spirit: “Ultimately, canonicity is not based on human rationality but on divine inspiration… In other words, God determined canonicity by inspiring the writing of certain books, and man discovered through the power of the Holy Spirit which of these writings (books) are canonical or authoritative and which are not.”[1] Obviously, this is an extremely simplified explanation, but it is clear nonetheless: without the work of the Holy Spirit, the relationship between inspiration and canonicity cannot be defined.

[1] Story, D. (1997). Defending your faith (67–68). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Textual Criticism

An essential mainstay in the structure of our understanding of the Scriptures is the discipline of textual criticism. Textual criticism is both and art and a science because it incorporates both the precision of a scientific endeavor and the intermittent educated deduction of more artistic pursuits. Without textual criticism, our understanding of the Bible would be very limited. Because many scholars have dedicated years of their lives to providing us with the most accurate rendering of the ancient manuscripts, we have the luxury, and it is a luxury, of holding in our hands a Bible that is so very near to the autographs and is truly, the Word of God.

Detractors of textual criticism may assert that any attempt to discern what the original writer wrote is futile. How can we be certain of any interpretation when all we really have at the end of the day are “copies of copies?” [1] Because the Jewish scribes took such great care in their work on the Old Testament books, “fewer mistakes have crept in than might be imagined.”[2] However, the New Testament copies are said to be less precise in the older texts than those of the Old Testament.

In his article, NT Text Criticism and Inerrancy Jason Sexton affirms “Through application of text critical principles, one may retrieve the original text in spite of errors in its transmission” and surely, this is possible. For a thesis he states, “This article will examine current NT textual criticism and its relationship to the evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.” Also, “The inerrantist case for engaging in textual criticism will be defended, along with why inerrancy should be a prerequisite for all textual critics who seek the original text.” He does this with powerful precision, tracing the intimate relationship between the two ideas and the progression of thought on this topic through the decades. Sexton assumes a certain amount of biblical and extra-biblical academic understanding in his reader and proceeds to make a strong case for why the modern reader should give credence to the science/art of textual criticism.


[1] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row, & Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). Harper’s Bible dictionary (1st ed.) (129). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[2] Wenham, G. J. (1996). Biblical Criticism. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer & D. J. Wiseman, Ed.) (3rd ed.) (139). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

In an attempt to select points with which I do not agree with Sexton, I find myself feeling much as an ant standing in the footprints of a giant; I cannot even see the horizon, because of my lack of stature. However, I do feel that Sexton’s argument is over the heads of (if not mildly patronizing to) those surface thinkers under the mistaken impression that textual criticism is an impossible and unproductive (or even harmful) pursuit. Though Sexton makes a fabulous case for his cause, one could not very well use his article apologetically or persuasively to sway those who disagree. This may not be a true fault however, because Sexton’s aim does seem to be to deepen the understanding of those who already hold to his position. Yes, “A careful implementation of textual criticism is the answer to those who would question the value, plausibility or practicality of a doctrine of an inerrant New Testament,” but I wonder if those detractors (at least as far as laypeople are concerned) really care or stick around long enough to explore the answer?

Yet, there is much in Sexton’s article with which I agree. He makes a strong case for the importance of textual criticism in today’s modern biblical scholarship. One of my favorite points of his is that if we do not believe in inerrancy or frown on today’s Scriptures because we do not have the original manuscripts we are showing a “great lack of confidence in the God who has given His written word.” Sexton makes this clear while still holding to belief in inspired originals, holding up textual criticism as “methodology to discover what the biblical writers wrote when God inspired the original text.” He masterfully demonstrates that if we claim to believe in a truly sovereign God than the lack of autographs should be no cause for faith shattering concern.

Conclusion

And ultimately that is the answer is it not? Would not God in His sovereignty, protect the inerrancy and infallibility of His Word through generations, preserving their clarity and authority for His own sake because they are His own inspired Word? In the words of B.B. Warfield: “defenders of the trustworthiness of the Scriptures have constantly asserted, together, that God gave the Bible as the errorless record of His will to men, and that he has, in his superabounding grace, preserved them to this hour- yea, and will preserve it for them to the end of time.”

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