The Doctrine of the Scriptures (8): Inerrancy and Infallibility

Evangelicals affirm that the Scriptures are both inerrant and infallible. If there is misunderstanding of the term inerrancy, that misunderstanding and confusion multiples when you add the word infallible.

Many today conclude inerrancy is the stronger term, infallibility the weaker. Many believe that the term infallible is a way of avoiding inerrancy, of affirming the authority of the Scriptures though without needing to affirm they are inerrant, i.e. without error. This is related to and a carry-over of the inerrancy debates in the 1960s when the expression "limited inerrancy" was used in relation to the Scriptures.

Is this accurate?

It is actually a misunderstanding. Both terms affirm the authority of the Scriptures and that they are without error. Inerrant means there are no errors, they are without error; infallible means there can be no errors, it is impossible for them to have any errors. The Scriptures are both inerrant and infallible.

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, helpfully defines the terms (169):

To say that a text is inerrant is to say that there are no errors in it. To say that a text is infallible is to say that there can be no errors in it, that it is impossible for that text to contain errors. . . . Inerrant means, simply, ‘without error.’ Infallible denies the possibility of error. . . . Scripture is both inerrant and infallible. It is inerrant because it is infallible. There are no errors because there can be no errors in the divine speech.

One of the criticisms of inerrancy is that the reality of what the term means dies a thousand deaths through caveats, concessions and qualifications. To claim a text is inerrant and then to follow that up with all the qualifications seems to undermine the very definition. But this is to misunderstand the nature of God’s revelation in written words, the Bible.

Once again Frame provides an important answer to this objection by distinguishing between qualifications and applications of inerrancy (174).

So I think it is helpful to define inerrancy more precisely [!] by saying that inerrant language makes good on its claims. When we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that the Bible makes good on its claims.

Now, many writers have enumerated what are sometimes called qualifications to inerrancy: inerrancy is compatible with unrefined grammar, non-chronological narrative, round numbers, imprecise quotations, prescientific phenomenalistic  description (e.g., “the sun rose”), use of figures and symbols, and imprecise descriptions (as Mark 1:5, which says that everyone from Judea and Jerusalem went to hear John the Baptist). I agree with these points, but I do not describe them as “qualifications” of inerrancy. These are merely applications of the basic meaning of inerrancy: that it asserts truth, not precision. Inerrant language is language that makes good on its own claims, not on claims that are made for it by thoughtless readers.

The Scriptures are both inerrant and infallible. Because the Scriptures are infallible, they are inerrant. In the EFCA we affirm both truths as they relate to the Scriptures.

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