But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:14-17
scripturae enim non in legendo sunt, sed in intelligendo.
[“For Scripture is not in the reading, but in the understanding”]
St. Hilary of Poitiers, ad Constantium Aug.,lib. II, cap. 9, ML X, 570; the phrase is repeated also by St. Jerome, Dial. c. Lucifer., cap. 28, ML XXIII, 190-191
It has been the usual trend nowadays in more conservative Evangelical and Reformed circles to adopt the twin concepts of infallibility and inerrancy to describe the “reliability” and “authority” of the Scriptures. I wish in this note to reject the concept of “inerrant” as irrelevant to the Scriptures and more as a concept (improperly!) borrowed from more rationalistic/scientific context, a borrowing which would damage the fundamental theological purpose of the Scriptures. Then I would go on to give a substantial theological interpretation of the concept of “infallibility”.
To say that something is “inerrant” just means of course that, it is without error. Thus, it is possible to have an inerrant piece of mathematical deduction or exam paper, in the sense that one can get full marks for a mathematics paper, and that one can provide the correct solution to all the mathematical problems posed in the mathematics exam paper. Heck, one can even have an “inerrant” spelling test in the sense that one spells all the words correctly.
But what possible sense could there be in speaking of an “inerrant” Scriptures? To apply the concept of “inerrancy” to any document entails that the document or text in question must necessarily be a series of propositions whereby the question “Is it true or false” can be meaningfully applied. Therefore, to say that such a document is inerrant is to say that all the propositions in the document is “true” or “correct” and without any errors.
Such an attitude towards the Scriptures however is very much a distortion. In many places the Scriptures do certainly contain propositional claims or confessions which are either true or false, but in many others, the Scriptures cannot be shoehorn so conveniently. Consider for example the Psalms. What does it mean to say that, for example, the following is “inerrant”?
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
Is “true” or “false”? This is a prayer, it is not a proposition or an assertion which is either true or false, it is simply a request. How about this part?
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
This is of course a lament, an expression of distress, a question, etc, not a statement or proposition of which it is either true or false. But notice here that it is possible to reduce this to a propositional statement by the following reasoning:
(1) The Psalmist laments to God why has God forgotten him or hid his face from him
(2) The Psalmist’s lament will only “make sense” provided God has truly forgotten him or hid his face from him
(3) It must be true that God has forgotten him or hid his face from the Psalmist
While this is entirely possible, but it should be obvious that by reducing the Psalms to its propositional significance whereby one can force it into the “true/false” binary, one has effectively destroyed it. Paradoxically, in making this verse “say” an inerrant proposition, one would have distorted what it was really trying to say, The point of the Psalm is not about making assertions about God’s memory or the presence of God’s face, the point is the expression of the depths of despair and alienation from God which the Psalmist subjectively feels independently of whether God has “truly” forgotten about him. It is not meant to be turned into a theological statement of truth or falsehood but it is an “authentic” expression of faith in the face of despair and depression, etc.
The Scriptures “Asserts”?
Thus, it should be evident that the attempt to apply the concept of “inerrancy” to the Scriptures would fundamentally distort and alter the meaning of the Scriptures by turning it into a document containing a set of binary true or false discrete propositions.
However, related to this problem of what does it mean to say “the Bible asserts” or the “Scriptures says”, etc? The phrase “the Bible says/asserts” is simply used to say that whatever assertion or proposition which bears this special phrase automatically acquires the all the privileges which comes with it, e.g. inerrancy, etc. But as it have been demonstrated “the Bible says” a lot of stuff which cannot be forced into a propositional form. Thus, if we want to retain a proper sense of “the Bible says”, we need a richer notion of that phrase then simply that of making propositional assertions, which I shall make in the next section.
It would, however, be necessary as a preliminary to first reject the simplistic reduction of something being written in the set of canonical text to something being “what the Bible says”, and by deduction, “inerrant” or propositionally true. This simple reduction is fundamentally problematic because the Bible is a collection of many different books with many various authors, characters, persons, etc, saying many different things to many different people and audiences. How is it possible to simply pick one such saying and immediately apply it to us as something which “the Bible says”?
What I am trying to say is that simply because something is written in the Bible, does not follow that it is something which the Word of God “says” or “asserts” to us. The Scriptures certainly contains assertions, claims and confessions, but its text does not directly make assertions or “says” anything as the Word of God.
Consider this paradox. Without looking up the reference, tell me if the assertion in 1 Cor 7:12 is the Word of God or something which the Word of the Lord “says” or “assert”. The fact is that well, it isn’t. Now before there be gasps of horror, let’s see what does it actually say,
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.
Thus, 1 Corinthians 7:12 isn’t the Word of the Lord, it is simply the word of St Paul. Why? Because St Paul himself says so!
Being a text of the Scriptures, or simply because something is “written” there, doesn’t automatically make it true or false, even less the Word of the Lord; not every single “assertion” in the Bible is true simply because it is an assertion contained in the Scriptures. After all, Judas asserts that oil was wasted on being poured on Jesus feet and that it would have been much better for it to be sold and given to the poor, but obviously this assertion, though it is in the Scriptures, is false.
Consider also the common refrain of opponents of the Bible who claims that the Old Testament “says” or “asserts” a lot of Old Testament commands and instructions which we today no longer practice, and therefore we don’t really obey everything which the Bible “asserts” or “says”. While it is obvious that these are commandments, assertions or sayings contained in the Bible, it does not follow, paradoxically, that these are what “the Bible says”, at least, not directly to us.
Therefore, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy which proclaims that:
… Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.
is a more or less useless formula without a way of bridging the gap between the assertions contained in the Scripture, to what the Scriptures “assert”. The Holy Scripture contains a lot of assertions which are not true or not inerrant, such as St Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:12 and Judas’ assertions, as well as a lot of assertions which are true and inerrant, such as “Christ is risen” or “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, etc. If we want to speak of the Holy Scriptures itself as a whole “asserting”, rather than the many many different assertions contained inside it, we need to have a coherent conception of what does it mean to speak of the Bible “saying” stuff as a whole, over and above the many particular assertions and sayings contained within the Bible.
Infallible Testimony: The Scriptures Does not Fail in its Task
What does it mean for us to say, “The Scripture teaches” or “The Scriptures asserts”, etc. What is a good place to begin? Why not the Scriptures itself?
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…
Therefore, we understand that the Scriptures are primarily a witness, a testimony, in that it points to or speaks of certain realities. To what reality does the Scriptures testify? Naturally, it is of Christ, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) Thus, before we can speak of the “infallibility” of the Scriptures, we need first to understand the task or purpose of the Scriptures, which task or purpose cannot fail, therefore making it infallible. Thus, the first task or purpose of which the Scriptures have been entrusted is that of testimony or witness. It is an “infallible” witness, in that the Scriptures does not fail in its task or purpose to testify to Christ.
But of course, to say that the Scriptures merely testify to Christ isn’t very interesting in itself. From here we need to expand a little as to the realities to which the Scriptures testify. Heilsgeschichte or Salvation History was the concept developed by Protestant theologians during the first half of the 20th century to describe the object of the Scriptures testimonies. God reveals himself in our spatio-temporal world first and foremost by acting, that is, God acts and performs deeds in our spatio-temporal world, and in so acting, reveals himself. Thus, Salvation History, being the history of God’s actions for us and for our salvation in history, is divine revelation. God creates the world, he makes promises, he commands, he calls Abraham, covenants with Israel, performs signs and wonders, delivers them from the Egyptians, etc, etc, all culminating in Jesus Christ, the supreme and final Word and Act of God in history, from the incarnation to his death and resurrection unto Pentecost, etc. Thus, the primary object of Scripture’s testimony is events, that is, the actions and deeds of God for us.
From here, we can get a sense of what we mean when we say, “the Scriptures asserts…” The Scriptures speaks of events, of occurrences, or deeds and words of various characters, God, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Judas, St Paul, etc. To say that the Scriptures are infallible of course says that the Scriptures does not fail in its testimony or witness to these events. We would get a better sense of this if we look at the Bethel Confession of 1933 as framed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse in response to the Nazi threat to the German Church,
The Holy Scriptures alone witness to the divine revelation. They reveal a one-time, unrepeatable and self-contained history of salvation, beginning with the promise given to the fallen Adam and culminating in the founding of the church. This history that the church proclaims is God’s revelatory act, meant for us. In bearing witness to these acts of God, the Scriptures are God’s Word to us. The church can proclaim God’s revelation only by interpreting this Word which bears witness to it.
The history to which the Scriptures bear witness is salvation history, that is, the history of salvation, which God brings to the world…
Thus in a strict sense of the word, “revelation” refers to the events of salvation history, “direct” divine acts and words, while the Scriptures itself are only indirectly revelation, being witnesses to it. The Scriptures are divine revelation in “bearing witness” to the acts of God in salvation history. From here we can get a better sense of what we mean when we say, “the Bible says”. The Bible “says” or witnesses and testifies to the events of Salvation History. It records the acts of God in the giving of covenants, punishments, blessings, miracles, for Israel, etc, and all the events surrounding it, including that of Judas, Moses, the Israelites, and ultimately at its heart, Christ.
It would be important for us to develop further the shape and meaning of this witness as the essential form of the Scripture’s “saying” before we move on to the point about how the Scriptures, in speaking about the events of Salvation History, speaks to us through the events of Christ’s life.
As already noted, the Scriptures speaks by witnessing to events. However, the Scriptures are composed of many different authors and writers, and each book speaks with a different voice and persona. We have the Moses and the Prophets who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21), by “prophetic inspiration” as it were. Then we come to the Gospels and the Apostolic epistles, where we realise that they also write as witnesses to Christ. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16) Thus, the Apostolic men of the Apostolic Scriptures (where the Evangelists and those epistles such as Hebrews of whom we are ignorant of the author can also be considered “Apostolic Men”, men under the Apostles) wrote as infallible apostolic witnesses to Christ. This is the ultimate goal and purpose of the their writings, to testify to the work and life of Jesus and in so doing, make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”. Therefore prima facie, the orientation of the Gospels and the epistles is to testify to the work and life of Christ and his will for the Church.
To summarise this section, when we speak of the “infallibility” of the Bible, we speak of the Bible as an infallible witness to divine revelation and the events surrounding this divine revelation, that is, salvation history. Thus, the Pentateuch (or the first five books of Moses), the Historical books, the Prophets etc, are the exemplar of witnessing to the acts and words of God in the formation of the world and his guiding of Israel, etc, while the Psalms speaks of their own experiences with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, etc. When it comes to the New Testament, the Gospels with Acts are a direct account and testimony to the words and deeds of Christ, while the Apostolic epistles are also witnesses to Christ, but with a in depth interpretation as to the meaning of the events of Christ’s life.
Testimony of Christ
It is vital for us to note that the Bible does not directly say anything to us, “Thou shalt”, rather, the Bible witnesses or testify to God saying it to Israel, “I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of the bondage.” (Exodus 20:2), and then he says to those whom he has brought out of Egypt, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
This witness concerning what God said to Israel is not directly applicable to us. Only by reading it in the light of Christ, who has delivered us out of the bondage of sin, and that we are part of the spiritual Israel now, and with what all that means, are we now the object of the address of the commandments. In the course of witnessing, they would sometimes air their own opinions (the 1 Corinthians 7:12 example), issue particular instructions to the church to which they are writing (such as to greet each other with a “holy kiss”). This is how we can explain the non-infallible and non-inerrant instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:12, St Paul there explicitly stated that what he was going to say was just his personal opinion on a certain point in contrast to a testifying to a divinely commissioned message or command. Thus, because 1 Corinthians 7:12 is not an act of witness but a discussion on a practical point, therefore it is not the Word of the Lord. Remember, they wrote and taught as witnesses to Christ, and it is by this testimony of Christ that the Scriptures are the Word of God to us.
It is interesting to observe here how the Church combined the teaching of 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, which speaks of how Israel of old was “baptised” into Moses “in the cloud and in the sea”, with that of 1 Peter 3:20-21 teaching about how the flood of Noah “corresponds” to baptism “which now saves you”, to preach about the significance of Christian baptism as the event whereby we are washed from sin and saved corresponding to God’s deliverance of Israel and Noah when he drowned Pharaoh’s men at the Exodus and at the Noahnic flood, as we can see from the Book of Common Prayer 1549 baptismal liturgy,
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, which of thy justice didst destroy by floods of water the whole world for sin, except eight persons, whom of thy mercy (the same time) thou didst save in the Ark: And when thou didst drown in the red sea wicked king Pharaoh with all his army, yet (at the same time) thou didst lead thy people the children of Israel safely through the midst thereof: whereby thou didst figure the washing of thy holy Baptism: and by the Baptism of thy well beloved son Jesus Christ, thou didst sanctify the flood Jordan, and all other waters to this mystical washing away of sin…
This is why every catechumen for baptism are taught their Ten Commandments, for it is understood that the baptism into Christ was sort of like an “exodus” out of the kingdom of darkness and the bondage of sin, the world and the devil, and thereby likewise under God’s address of those whom the Lord God has brought “out of the house of the bondage”.
From this example we can see how we are to bridge the gap between:
(1) Testimony/witness to divine revelation or Salvation History
(2) the Word of God to us
The Scriptures are the Word of God to us by in it’s testimony to divine revelation or Salvation History in their fulfilment in Christ for us.
To cite the Bethel Confession here again:
The Holy Scriptures constitute a whole. They have their unity in Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, who speaks throughout the Scriptures. We are not the judges of God’s Word in the Bible; instead, the Bible is given to us so that through it we may submit to Christ’s judgment.
As St Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 1:20, ” … all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” All the covenants, promises and blessings given by God throughout the whole of Salvation History, are fulfilled by Christ for us, and they “find their Yea in him”, to which “we utter our Amen to God for his glory”. This is how the Old Testament witnesses to Christ, and in so witnessing, is the Word of God to us. It is on par to this episode in Luke 4:16-21, where after Jesus was handed a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and he reads out a passage from there, sat down and declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It belongs to the work of the preacher to read the Scriptures in the light of Christ, and to demonstrate the manner and form by which the promises and the covenants throughout Salvation History are fulfilled in Christ, and in so demonstrating their fulfilment in Christ, to preach Christ to us by whom and through whom these promises, covenants or laws are given to us. The heart of the preaching of the Gospel is simply the the proclamation of “Christ for us” (as we confess in the Nicene Creed concerning Christ, “who for us men and for our salvation”… ) and it belongs to the task of interpretation to discern precisely how and in what manner does Salvation History find their Yea and Amen in Christ for us men and for our salvation.
In a sense, we can see the concept of infallibility as simply a deduction from the concept of the preaching of the Gospel. The preaching of the Gospel is the administration and proclamation of the sure promises of Christ for us and that it will indeed be fulfilled and given by God. To speak of the infallibility of the Scriptures is to that say the Scriptures are sure and that the promises written within will be effective for us and the Scriptures will not fail in its communication of salvation for us.
The “Authority” of the Bible
It is important to trace the roots for conservative’s zeal to affirm the “inerrancy” of the Bible. Does not saying that the Bible contains non-inerrant words denigrate the authority of the Bible? What if people start simply picking and choosing the bits which they like arbitrarily and simply discards the rest? As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy puts it, “…we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.” Thus, what they are alarmed with is the whole rejection of Biblical teachings and truths, and they believe that they would require the concept of biblical inerrancy to combat this.
However, if this is so, this is a rather strange sort of argument. Are people going to submit to the Word of God and going to change their minds on the basis of a carefully formulated definition of inerrancy? As Kierkegaard once puts it,
People try to persuade us that the objections against Christianity spring from doubt. That is a complete misunderstanding. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.
Thus, most people do not reject biblical teachings or imperatives because they are lack some precise and technical notion of what it means that the Bible is “inerrant”, as if they are going to repent and obey the Word upon hearing some precise definition of inerrancy. Rather, they reject biblical teachings and imperatives because they are sinful and rebellious and only the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and his regeneration can bring about obedience to the Word, not some exact theory of inerrancy.
As N.T. Wright once pointed out, we must not forget that ultimately all authority is God‘s authority. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” as Jesus declares in Matthew 28:18. The will to obey and submit to the will and authority of God comes about by the work of the Holy spirit alone, not because we have some definition of inerrancy. Nobody obeys the Scriptures because of some definition of inerrancy, rather people hear the Scriptures solely out of reverence and submission of all their selves and desires to the authority of Christ, which is exercise through the witness of the Scriptures. People must first be willing to submit to the authority of Christ before we can discuss what does that consist in. But for people who are unwilling to submit their desires and their deepest convictions to the will of Christ, beating their heads with inerrancy is pretty much a lost cause.
Only after recognising the authority of Christ and being willing to submit the totality of one’s self can we raise the legitimate question as to where, and how, is the authority of Christ exercise through the Scriptures. And we have sufficiently articulated how the Scriptures are the Word of God to us, that is, as it witnesses and preaches Christ to us, thereby being authoritative on the basis of Christ’s authority. If we are still worried about arbitrary picking and choosing, this statement from the Bethel Confession should suffice which emphatically insists that the Christ which is preached to us is always the Christ of the entire Scriptures, not subject to our picking and choosing,
We reject every attempt, for one’s own arbitrary reasons or based on one’s personal devotional experience, to separate God’s words from human words in the Holy Scriptures. Luther’s saying that the Holy Scriptures are God’s Word wherever they bring us Christ does not give us room to arbitrarily choose whatever we want from the Scriptures. The entirety of the Scriptures as they have been collected in the canon brings us Christ. But the Holy Spirit may reveal Christ to us anywhere in the Scriptures and at any time. The Holy Spirit that speaks to us through a word in the Holy Scriptures is always the spirit of the whole of the Holy Scriptures, and thus can never be confused with one’s own pious experience in selecting whatever one pleases. Instead, Christ as Lord of the Scriptures must be brought to bear on the Scriptures wherever the Scriptures are in danger of being used against Christ. But such freedom to use the Holy Scriptures comes only from submission to the written Word in its entirety. (Cf. Luther’s introductory remarks on the Letter of James, 1522). This humble submission expresses the realization that the Word of God is never in my power, but rather receives power over me from God, that God’s Word for me is always a foreign one.
To sum up the argument of this post, the Scriptures are infallible because they do not fail to testify or witness to Salvation History which heart is Christ. The Scriptures is effective in communicating Christ to us and will indeed accomplish without fail the purpose which as stated in 2 Timothy 3:14-17, “… to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus… for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
And to this apostolic promise, we have Christ’s own yea and we reply Amen.