Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Inerrancy vs Infallibility: A Theological Primer

A book inscribed with the Greek letters alpha ...
A book inscribed with the Greek letters alpha and omega. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What's in a word?

I have been mulling the difference between the concepts of Biblical Inerrancy and Biblical Infallibilityin my mind for several months now, mostly because I hear them used inaccurately all the time. It seems like most people consider them synonymous while, although they are closely related terms, they most certainly do not mean the same thing.

What do they relate to?

Both the terms infallibility and Inerrancy refer to paradigms for the interpretation of God's Word (the Bible). Both terms seek to justify the Bible as authentic, genuine and full of truth. To state it negatively, neither term seeks to downplay or  deny the primacy of God's authority through the scriptures, though they highlight these principles in different ways.

Defining Biblical Inerrancy

The basic tenet of the dogma of Biblical Inerrancy is that Biblical documents:
in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind.  --Wikipedia
This means that if there are any errors in the Bible you hold in your hand, it must have been come by way of translation or typographical error since the inspiration of the Holy Spirit never makes a mistake about anything.
English: Bible in candlelight.
English: Bible in candlelight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This leads us to the logical end of this theological frame of mind: the scope of scripture. Individuals who hold to Biblical Inerrancy also hold that the scriptures are the absolute authority in all matters concerning this world and life, this includes psychology, science, history, geography, etc. Regardless of the topic, the Bible is always the standard for truth and can be relied upon without question.

SIDE NOTE: This paradigm also lends itself to the Homeschooling movement that uses the Bible as it's only textbook. If the Bible is THE authority on these topics, then why read anything else?

Distinctions of Biblical Inerrancy


  • The Bible is literally, scientifically, historically (etc.) accurate in it's original languages as inspired by God.
  • Error of any kind in the scriptures must be due to translation or an insufficient current body of knowledge (i.e. - Archaeology will find proof for the Bible).
  • The scope of scripture is infinite.
  • Given the scope, admission of error anywhere equates to the weakening of the veracity of scripture.

Defining Biblical Infallibility

The basic tenet of the dogma of Biblical Infallibility is that what Biblical documents:
say... regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. Wikipedia
This says that if there are any errors in your Bible, they are of no consequence to the ultimate message of the scriptures which is to serve as a guide to salvation and to a life of faith. All accounts are meant to promote this ultimate message and the scriptures will never fail to accomplish its purpose.

The logical end of this frame of mind is to remain open to potential inaccuracies with regard to science, history and the like without demeaning the message of scripture. This allows the individual the flexibility to remain true to scripture while adhering to modern advances in knowledge, much like the Mythopoetic reading of the first few chapters of Genesis (Part 2 of the reading).

SIDE NOTE: This is not to be confused with Biblical Criticism as proposed by the historical Jesus and similar groups. The supernatural is not necessarily done away with because it is difficult to explain. What is mostly referred to here are the little inaccuracies that do not change the message of the Bible.

Distinctions of Biblical Infallibility


  • The Bible's message is directly inspired by God, and though he used human vessels to transport this message it remains accurate and trustworthy.
  • Error in scripture is limited to the shortcomings of the vessel and not the message. These errors are limited to tertiary facts that have no bearing on the ultimate message of the scriptures.
  • The scope of scripture is finite.
  • Given the scope, admission of error in areas outside the scope does not weaken the veracity of scripture in any way.


Conclusion

While both of these terms share many of the same sentiments and adherents of said positions certainly share a common respect for the veracity of God's Word, it is clear that these positions lead to very different outcomes and challenges.

The adherent to Biblical Inerrancy is open to the charge of anti-intellectualism, while the adherent to Biblical Infallibility should be wary of potential relativism. It is important to evaluate where you stand and from there you may equip yourself to guard against any potential pitfall.

SIDE NOTE: Most churches publish a mission statement which includes the official church position on many topics. This is a popular one to include. As you investigate where you stand, perhaps that belief statement could be a starting point.
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2 comments:

  1. Really good definitions. Just wanted to let you know that you have a typo under biblical infallibility. You accidentally use the word inerrancy when describing infallibility. No biggie, just want to alert you.

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  2. Thanks Kate! I went ahead and corrected my blunder. :) While I was editing, I updated the HTML so that it reads nicer.


    God bless!

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