bible infallibility & the act of reading

Someone on my Facebook News Feed wrote the other day something along the lines that God used fallible people to write his infallible Word (the Bible) and so people should stop thinking they are smarter than God (I assume by questioning this apparent fact).

I don’t mean to disrespect this person (if they are reading this, hello!) …

… but I do wish to ask questions about this way of thinking.

To me the idea of an infallible Bible is riddled with problems. This is not because I doubt the power of God in any way, but rather because I doubt the ability of humans to write anything that is infallible, even under divine inspiration.

(Yes that’s right, I am differentiating infallibility and inspiration – they are not the same thing.)

Some may argue that God can overcome the shortcomings of humans to achieve his will, including the composition of the biblical text. This is however a problematic claim – does God override the will of the person to do so? Why use a person at all?

We could explore this for ages, so I’ll move on to my main question – even if the Bible is an infallible text, and God somehow used fallible humans to compose it, what good is this if the readers/interpreters of the Bible are themselves fallible?

This is a genuine question by the way.

I mean, if the Bible really is infallible it is nonetheless written at a particular time, in a particular cultural setting, in a particular language.

Since I don’t come from the time periods of the Bible I will have problems interpreting the text.

Since I don’t naturally comprehend the cultural settings of the Bible I will have problems interpreting the text.

Since I don’t speak all the original languages I will have problems interpreting the text.

(By the way, is the English translation I have infallible even though fallible translators translated it?)

Since the act of reading is just as important as the act of composition for communication, what good is an infallible text if the reader is unable to perpetuate the infallibility of the meaning? Meaning is, after all, complex, particularly across time, culture and language – it is not simply the case that texts contain meaning that can and should be objectively extracted. Even if it were the case it would nonetheless be impossible in practice, particularly after a couple of thousand years.

Couldn’t God foresee this issue?

Surely the Bible continues to have central meaning in the Christian faith without infallibility. What if God never intended infallibility; could it be that we make the text into something it is not by insisting on it? Could this descend into idolatry?

Or could it be that the whole infallibility debate is a recent creation that would have made no sense to pre-modern, pre-scientific people? Certainly inspiration is possible without necessitating infallibility, particularly when you consider the complexity of meaning.

I look forward to your thoughts on this one.


Posted on November 24, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Hermeneutics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Haha… asking some dangerous questions there, Matt. I mean, if you were a “real” Christian you’d *never* question the infallibility of scripture, right? If you don’t think the bible isn’t infallible, you’ll inevitably become an atheist, because there’s no point in believing… /sarcasm.

    But seriously, I think this line of reasoning is a little perverse because it’s fundamentally illogical and more than a bit irrational; it’s not something that is able to be questioned within the framework that most Christians exist in, from my experience: the question almost doesn’t make sense to them.

    And why would it? The idea of infallibility is, due to the reason you’ve outlined above, effectively meaningless. It does not (and cannot) describe anything about the world in which we live, it has no actual reference point, which means you can basically stretch it into whatever contorted shape you need to keep your worldview intact.

    So great question, but I don’t know if it will make sense to anyone except those who already agree with you…

  2. The Bible is infallible if it is the Word of God, if it is not then it does not have any “central meaning in the Christian faith”.
    The question in my mind is this: is the Bible Gods’ word for us? If it is then it surpasses culture time and language, it is infallible every day in every culture and at any point in time, because God is sovereign over time language and culture; and everything about Him is sovereign including His Word.
    We cannot explain that in a scientific way, it is like trying to explain Jesus resurrecting Lazarus in a scientific way! As far as I am concerned, the Bible is a miracle beyond explanation. If the Bible is fallible that means that God is Fallible and we have no hope whatsoever, because everything that we know about God we know it from The Bible, and if we can’t trust the Bible we can’t trust God.

  3. Peter – As always thanks for your insight.

    Fadi – Obviously we will disagree on this issue. Still I am interested to nut out the specifics of what some people believe about infallibility, and it is good to hear it from such people themselves.

    There’s lots of things I could say in response to your comments, but I will reduce my reply down to four (and a half) main concerns that are raised for me:

    1) I think there is a logical gap between God being infallible and this necessitating that the Bible is infallible. Among other things this completely bypasses the issue of human authorship. I am happy for you to make that connection, but what is the justification?

    1) ii. Connected to this first concern is that you seem to suggest that the Bible is somehow equal to God (“everything about Him is sovereign including His Word“). Isn’t this a form of idolatry?

    2) What is the basis/evidence for your doctrine of infallibility, since the Bible itself never proposes this doctrine?

    3) You argue that everything we know about God we know from the Bible. Really? I don’t see how you can say this. What about people who don’t have Bibles? Or people who lived before the biblical books were composed? What of people’s experiences of God separate from the BIble? What of Paul’s comments in Romans 1:18-23?

    4) I would love for you to respond to the actual questions I raise in my post, not least what I have said about the act of reading. In particular I would love to know why you think infallibility is so central given that no reader is infallible – what’s the functional point? (You say that God is sovereign over time, language and culture, but humans are not sovereign – how do you factor this in?)

    This is not about being “scientific” as about following the logical implications of a doctrine. My concern with simply saying that the Bible is a miracle and using that to explain every difficult question is that we end up with a God of the gaps.

    Moreover if God displays his sovereignty by suspending both the physical laws of creation and human will and imperfection in the miraculous composition of the Bible, why not do so more often in areas such as war and violence, injustice and exploitation, etc. etc.


  4. Hey Matt,

    I agree; we will disagree on this issue! Well at least we agree on this.

    Let me start by saying that I find it very funny that you don’t necessarily think that The Bible is infallible, yet you are quite happy to quote it to me as if it had some sort of authority! And this, my friend, is the heart of the matter.
    If The Bible is the Word of God, it has to be infallible, no matter how it was delivered, in what culture or what language…. If it’s the Word of God, it means that it has authority over all humanity across all ages and cultures.
    If it is just words of men, then it doesn’t necessarily need to be infallible and it doesn’t hold any authority and we can quote it till the cows come home, it means NOTHING.

    If some of it is infallible and other parts aren’t, my guess would be just as good as your guess about which part we should take and which part we can ignore, actually our guess would be just as good as Muslims guess or JW’s or Mormons… no matter how educated your opinion may be about why certain parts we can ignore and not others, it would still be a guess, moreover how can we be sure about anything that we believe in if that’s the case?

    Furthermore, if we can pick and choose, we are sitting in judgment over the Word of God, that for me is heretical and blasphemous. We should not sit in judgment over the Word of God, but we should sit in security under it. That security comes from knowing that The Bible is The infallible Word of God and we can trust in what God is saying through it.

    This is the functional point of infallibility: The Bible has authority. Without infallibility the Bible is not the Word of God and it doesn’t hold any authority over me you or anyone.
    I can say more, but I’ve said it before in a different reply to one of your posts, so I won’t take more of your time, but I hope that this explains why many of us still believe in the unavoidability of the infallibility of The Bible.


  5. Hi Matt and Fadi,

    Very interesting debate. One point Matt didn’t touch on, but that I think strengthens his overall argument, is that the bible is actually a canon, a collection of books, not just one.

    Fadi, when you say “If some of it is infallible and other parts aren’t, my guess would be just as good as your guess about which part we should take and which part we should ignore” you forget that this is precisely what humans have done throughout history to actually create the book. I.e the books included in the bible I assume you are talking about were selected by the council of Nicaea, a group of mere men ‘guessing’ which books to put in and leave out.

    When I was little, the church I went to had batches of bibles bought by the congregation at different times when they had the money. Some of them had the book of Judith in them, others didn’t, so you could have a whole extra book at your fingertips depending on which pew you sat in. I guess this is where my skepticism of the logical feedback loop of ‘the bible is infallible because it says it is’ germinated.

    Saying that, I still read it, still believe it is divinely inspired, and use it to navigate my life. I take it as a historical document, used, abused and lovingly followed by people throughout our existence on this planet. If you ignore the fact its meaning is being processed by the synapses in our heads, in this particular time and space, I think you are to some extent denying the hand of God constantly tilling his creation, and the work of the holy spirit in our lives. Also, as I think Matt said, you may be worshiping a text rather than its creator.

  6. Fadi,

    It’s a bit disappointing that you haven’t addressed any of my questions, either in the post or in my last comment.

    Unfortunately I think your understanding of authority is far too black and white, as if something must be infallible to hold authority. You also seem to make out as if because I am implying that infallibility is problematic that I think everything in the Bible is somehow wrong. This is another black and white fallacy.

    I think it is also problematic that you imply you can be sure about what you believe. What does this assurance mean? I concur with your belief in the Resurrection, for example, but not in your belief in young-earth creationism or premillenialism – who is right? This illustrates one of my questions from the original post, namely what good is an infallible book if you have fallible interpreters?

    Another problem seems to be that when you talk about the authority of the Bible what you are really taking about is the authority of your particular strand of theology. Indeed, what do you do when the Bible provides multiple, even contradicting, answers on a topic. Should we go to war as in the Old Testament, or denounce violence as in the New? How exactly do you make that choice? What about the different approaches to the Law in the NT? What about different accounts of the words of Jesus, since sometimes they are not exactly the same in different Gospels? How do we make these decisions? Indeed, just appealing to the difficulty of making these decisions about which traditions we accept (as you have done) is not an argument for infallibility; it is merely hopeful thinking.

    It is quite strange to me to start claiming the Bible has some kind of inherent authority. Authority to do what? Following N.T. Wright I believe that it is God who has authority, not the Bible. The Bible simply mediates God’s authority. Infallibility is not necessary to mediate such authority because the Bible is a record of people’s wrestling with who God is and what serving him means, coming out of their inspired experience with him, often in narrative form. Narratives do not need to be infallible to teach us – that is often not their point.

    The scientific level of precision you require of the Bible because it is “God’s Word” is a modern demand, not one required by ancient people; you are importing your own values onto the text.

    I find it interesting that you appeal to infallibility to bolster the authority of the Bible, yet the Bible itself never teaches this doctrine. My guess is you are making a logical deduction, which I think is okay, but you have chided me above for utilising a scientific approach (i.e. logic). Unless you take back your antithesis to scientific deduction, doesn’t your whole argument and method fall apart?

    My personal hope is that your authority comes from God, not from the Bible, as does your security.



  7. I haven’t read the above article but will do so shortly. The Bible is a wonderfully complex library of God inspired books. It is however, not God. I do not worship the Bible. I worship the God of the Bible. God is bigger than any book, regardless of how inspired it is. It does, however, reveal to me the God of patient, persistant, and everlasting love. Part of the problem (and there are many) with viewing scripture as infalliable is the process of translation. There are NO original text. There are copies of copies of copies and none of them are alike. Please read this again, there is no original text and the text that we have are copies of copies of copies of copies….and there are no 2 identical copies…………. And then we have translations.
    Translating ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek is an arduous process and scholarship in this area is always improving due to continued discoveries in the field of archeology. Scholars must look at the copies (that are all different) and decide the best translation. Since they are human (and discoveries are still being made) many differences have gone unnoticed at different times during history. For instance, in Rom 16:7 Paul names a woman, Junia as an apostle. There is no ancient manuscript that contains this name as anything but feminine and yet the name Junius (its male counterpart) was translated for centuries.
    Well, that is just a sneak peak in the process of biblical translation. At the risk of being labeled an atheist, I refer to the Bible less and less these days as the word of God and more and more as Scripture. I am learning that this sacred text is not so much the word of God as it points to the Word of God made flesh, namely Jesus Christ.

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