Ad Gloriam Dei

"Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." - 1 Corintians 10:31

"Let us pursue the things which make for peace and those by which one may edify another"- Romans 14:19

"As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." - Proverbs 27:17

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Biblical Infallibility and Belief in Scripture for Salvation (and Rowan Williams Again!)

This post is really an offshoot of a discussion in the comments section of another post.

What do We Mean when We Say that Scripture is Infallible?

Infallible comes from the Latin “fallere”, to deceive or lead astray. Therefore at its root it means “does not lie or mislead” and points to absolute truthfulness and reliability.

Although infalliblity and inerrancy are exceptionally close in meaning, as I see it, infallibility has the nuance of absolute truthfulness and reliability, so as not to mislead; whereas, inerrancy has the nuance of being without mistakes.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy defines “infallible” and “inerrant” as follows:

Article XI.
WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

WE DENY that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.

Article XII.
WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

Article XIII.
WE AFFIRM the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

WE DENY that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

In the exposition, the Committee went on to make these further definitions:

“lnfallible signifies the quality of neither misleading nor being misled and so safeguards in categorical terms the truth that Holy Scripture is a sure, safe, and reliable rule and guide in all matters.

“Similarly, inerrant signifies the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.”

There is a very fine distinction between the two terms!

The Anglican ‘patriarch’ J.I. Packer uses these definitions in his article, “Infallibility and Inerrancy of the Bible” in the “IVP New Dictionary of Theology”:

“Infallibility signifies the full trustworthiness of a guide that is not deceived and does not deceive. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) spoke of the Bible's infallible truth, the Belgic Confession (1561) called it an infallible rule and Wyclif (1380) named it the infallible rule of truth.”

“Inerrancy signifies the total truthfulness of a source of information that conatins no mistakes; the word is 19th-century, but the belief it expresses is as old as Christianity… Augustine declared, ‘I believe most firmly that none of these [canonical] authors has erred in any respect of writing.

Contrary to John's belief expressed in his blog post, these terms have been on the go for a long time! They weren't a reaction to 19th-century Liberalism. Even if they were, it wouldn't be a problem. A lot of theology and theological terms are carved-out in the midst of controversy, e.g. the Catholic Creeds and the term Trinity.

Are the Use of the Terms “Infallible” and “Inerrant” Legitimate when Applied to Scripture?

Words mean what they conventionally mean, or what we try to communicate through their usage. Ultimately, Evangelicals mean by these terms that the Bible is absolutely truthful and without error in conveying ideas as they are conventionally understood.

John (a.k.a. “Custard”) says in his blog post criticising the terms “infallible” and “inerrant”, “Jesus illustrated his teaching by telling a lot of stories, many of which weren't actually true.” Jesus wasn’t necessarily describing an actual event that has a presence in the space-time continuum, but was He lying? No. Did He speak the truth? Yes.

Similarly, John refers to Psalm 19 speaking about the sun being a mighty man coming from a tent. He recognises this as poetry. Was the Psalm trying to convey that the sun actually was an athlete and lived in a tent in the sky? No. So was it being truthful? Yes.

So both accounts were truthful and didn’t make mistakes. Could they be relied upon to convey the message that they were meant to convey? Yes. Would any sensible person be misled and go away thinking, “The sun is a mighty man in the sky, and there were these actual virgins that ran out of oil, etc.”? No. Did Jesus or the Psalmist make a mistake? No. Their words were infallible and inerrant.

To reject the terms “infallibility” and “inerrancy” because Scripture contains stories that aren’t presented as history (i.e. parables) and uses personification to describe the sun is pedantic. Language conveys what we mean it to convey. If Christians use these terms in a known way that is received by convention, then we should accept that, and not muddy the waters.

John suggests the terms "infallible" and "inerrant" be replaced with "perfection". Surely this is a more ambiguous term? The Liberals would be glad to say that Scripture is "perfect". "It mightn't be true historically or scientifically, but is perfect for teaching us moral truth and guiding on us in our pilgrimage through this world as we struggle with God's silence as he speaks to us in the likeness of a spastic child." (A la RW's blasphemy!)

The term "perfection" doesn't protect the truth about Scripture from the attacks of the unbelievers. A Liberal can say that the Bible is "perfect", but ask him to say "infallible" and "inerrant" and he chokes at the words. An Evangelical shouldn't because no one means by these words that we have to affirm that the sun is an actual mighty man in the sky or that the parables detail actual historic events.

Belief in Scripture and Salvation

In my opinion, there must be a belief in Scripture as the Word of God and as absolutely true at a basic level for someone to be saved. This is not to say that they need to have formulated an exhaustive doctrine of Scripture. This is what I understand by what the ICBI were trying to say in Article XIX of the Chicago Statement:

WE AFFIRM that a confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith…

WE DENY that such confession is necessary for salvation.

There is a world of difference between pedanticism over the terms “infallibility” and “inerrancy”, and RW’s (Rowan Williams’) blatant rejection of the Bible as the Word of God, and as true and without mistake.

Also there is a big difference between Luther’s doubt about whether James was canonical and RW’s belief, because Luther’s problem arose out of his belief in every word in the rest of Scripture and that God can’t contradict Himself. RW rejects the Bible wholesale!

There is also a difference between someone who comes to faith from an evolutionist background grappling with Genesis 1 and 2, and RW’s belief.

Someone like this may need to consider this text: Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure... (2 Pet. 1:10) But RW needs to hear, "But without faith it is impossible to please Him..." (Heb. 11:6), and Let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: That You may be justified in Your words, and may overcome when You are judged.(Rom. 3:4)

The thief on the Cross didn’t fall out of the sky! He knew the OT Scriptures and a lot about Jesus, and what He taught and did. He mightn’t have understood then what Jesus was doing on the Cross, but he did know that he needed free forgiveness from God through Christ. He would also have believed God was truthful and didn’t mislead, which is the key question in this discussion about the Bible.

How do we know about Jesus? From the Bible. Does God tell us the truth about Jesus? Yes. Would someone who turns to Christ for salvation believe all this? Yes. Would he believe that the Bible is God’s Word? Yes. Would he believe that God is absolutely truthful? Yes.

RW wouldn't, as quoted in Garry Williams' discussion of RW's theology (the italised quotes are from GW's critique, with quotes from RW in single quotation marks):

'What of this can be confidently affirmed to be true of the Jesus of history” is unclear, and actually immaterial for our present purposes.'

The description which Williams gives of John the Divine and his Book of Revelation is the plainest example here. The book contains two scripts, one with a clear and ‘haunting authority’, but the other ‘tightly written, pen driving into cheap paper, page after page of paranoid fantasy and malice, like the letters clergymen so frequently get from the wretched and disturbed’. It is true that for Williams even this script contributes to our hearing the Word of God, but it does so by its stark contrast with the other script: ‘Perhaps, as we read the Revelation of John, we should let its ugly and diseased elements speak to us in this way. The very disorder, the madness and vengefulness, of certain passages can help us to hear more clearly the depth and authority of others.’ Or again, ‘The rantings of John the Divine about his theological rivals are part of the by-product of the very vision of the Living One that shows these ravings for what they are, by showing the radical and unconfined purpose of God in Jesus Christ.’

With people like John, ‘We aren’t called to believe and endorse all they say, only to ask ourselves what we are taught here about the strangeness and sometimes the terror of the Word of God to fragile minds.

‘[T]he revelation of God comes to us in the middle of weakness and fallibility’

[T]he parable of the unjust steward is ‘a story which St Luke does not seem to have understood particularly well’, and hence ‘In the letters to Timothy and Titus we can see how Paul’s own insight was bundled together by a later generation with a lot of anxiety about being respectable and having a good reputation.’

‘[I]f the New Testament is less a set of theological conclusions than a set of generative models for how to do Christian thinking, our own consideration of how we should speak of the unity of doctrinal language must be shaped by the methods displayed in these writings.’

Of course, these are just a few quotes on his view of Scripture. There is lots more such as the following blasphemous view of God:

‘This is the solitude of truth, the solitude, finally, of God: God as a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting.’


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Blogger John said...

Where to start? I don't agree with the conclusions of many of these lines of reasoning; I think they actually suggest the weakness of the definition.

FWIW, I think inerrancy as defined e.g. by the Chicago statement is a modernist construction. Yes, other people thought similar stuff for a long time (and I think so now), but not with the same definition.

far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

Misleading who?
Who is to say which matters it addresses?
Who is to determine that, for example, Jesus' parables are not meant to be historical, but Job is? What is the difference?

The Liberals would be glad to say that Scripture is "perfect

Well, some of them.
That's part of the point - it's far wiser when trying to persude people that you establish common ground, then show them why that common ground implies your view than to confront them and tell them they are wrong using arguments they don't accept. Best to keep pride out of these things if we can help it.

I think you go against the plain sense of Article XIX in saying they need to believe infallibility/inerrancy, but not confess it.

It's interesting that most evangelicals I know who have read both R Williams and G Williams' critique of him think it's a badly done character assassination. Have you read RW, or do you trust GW's word as infallibile?

Sunday, August 06, 2006 9:39:00 pm  
Blogger John said...

Oh yes - I think making holding certain beliefs as required for salvation is possibly dangerous when it comes to thinking about the mentally ill, etc.

I did a post on that here.

Sunday, August 06, 2006 9:47:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

I am assuming that someoene is not mentally-ill, etc. That's another topic altogether.

Monday, August 07, 2006 6:57:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...


Re. RW, I hope you have seen the quotes from him at the end of this post. How can someone be a believer who assaults the Word of God like this? RW does his own character assassination.

I wonder whether you and the evangelicals you have discussed this with are not in denial?

Monday, August 07, 2006 7:04:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...


You say, "I think you go against the plain sense of Article XIX in saying they need to believe infallibility/inerrancy, but not confess it."

You must misunderstand me. See the examples I give of people who are true believers, and fundamentally believe Scripture and take it as truth, but have some issues.

By the way, I read the following in Grudem's ST last night:

"Although Luther placed James near the end of his German translation of the New Testament, he did not exclude it from the canon, and he cited over half of the verses in James as authoritative in various parts of his writings."

Monday, August 07, 2006 7:22:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

P.S. Have you read GW's critique of RW? It is full of quotes and it is the quotes that condemn RW, not GW's interpretation. You can't use the "it's out of context" argument either.

Monday, August 07, 2006 7:24:00 pm  
Blogger John said...

Yes - I've read the critique several times. Every time I read it, it seems clearer that GW does not understand postmodern thought whereas RW does.

Have you read McGrath's debate with GW about RW? I generally agree with McGrath in that - it's interesting that his predictions (rather than GW's) of RW's actions have been borne out by events.

Monday, August 07, 2006 7:59:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

I think it may be rather that RW is a postmodernist.

Monday, August 07, 2006 8:59:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Moreover, what do you think of the comments made by RW that I have quoted? What do you think of his view of Scripture? Do you think like RW, that God is non-communicative like a spastic?

Monday, August 07, 2006 9:01:00 pm  
Blogger John said...

That's not what RW thinks - that's him describing (using a poor metaphor) how he thinks God speaks through the dialogue sections of Job, which consist of long arguments where no-one is completely right.

I agree - RW is a postmodernist. But he's a Christian one, just as you seem to be a modernist, but a Christian one. Most criticisms of RW as a postmodern seem to be modernist criticisms of postmodernism, which is just silly, coz they don't work.

Ditto with inerrancy and infallibility. I think they're essentially modernist ways of expressing the Christian relationist truth that God is trustworthy. So they don't stand up well to postmodernist critiques. I notice you haven't yet answered my challenges about subjectivity.

Monday, August 07, 2006 10:46:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

I'd be interested in your definition of modernist, because you seem to be using it in a non-conventional sense.

Modernism and post-modernism, as the rest of the world uses these terms, are opposed to Biblical thinking. Unless you think I'm a modernist artist, which I doubt ;)

You'll have to clarify what you mean by your "challenges about subjectivity".

No Christian should speak irreverently and blasphemously of the glorious, majestic and holy God as "a spastic". Such a man should tremble!

Brother, are you not disturbed by RW's heretical comments on Revelation, Luke, and the letters to Timothy and Titus?

I coincidentally happen to be reading through Grudem's "Systematic Theology" and last night I was reading his chapter on inerrancy.

Under "Some Current Challenges to Inerrancy", there is the following:

2. The Term Inerrancy is a Poor Term
People who make this second objection say that the term inerrancy is too precise and that in ordinary usage it denotes a kind of absolute scientific precision that we do not want to claim for Scripture...

The response to this objection may be stated as follows: first, the scholars who have used the term inerrancy have defined it clearly for over a hundred years, and they have always allowed for the "limitations" that attach to speech in ordinary language...

"Second it must be noted that we often use nonboblical terms to summarize a biblical teaching...

It should be noted that no other single word has been proposed which says as clearly what we want to affirm when we wish to talk about total truthfulness of language...

...further objections to such a widely used and well-defined term seem to be unnecessary and unhelpful for the church."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006 7:57:00 am  
Blogger John said...

I'm using "modernism" in the very loose sense to contrast with "postmodernism". It's still an acceptable sense, as seen in some of the features listed in Wikipedia's article on postmodernism.

The features in particular are a belief in an objective truth (fine) with a realistic possibility of reaching it with absolute certainty via reason (and in your case revelation); the belief in the perfect apprehension and interpretation of communication, etc.

I've read Grudem - I just happen to disagree with him. Wouldn't be the first time - I mean, look how little space he gives to the key doctrine of faith-union with Christ!

Here are my challenges about the subjectivity which the standard doctrines of inerrancy introduce. They usually end up with so many caveats that Spong could sign them!

Misleading who?
Who is to say which matters it addresses?
Who is to determine that, for example, Jesus' parables are not meant to be historical, but Job is? What is the difference?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006 2:55:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy said...

You've been tagged over at my blog!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006 4:45:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...


We could discuss this in circles ad infinitum. If you think yourself wiser than generations of great Christian theologians, then I doubt I will convince you.

Thanks for the opportunity to think about infallibility and inerrancy.

I still think that you are avoiding the more necessary subject of the heretical statements emanating from your Primate, and others. I pray that in time God may convict you of these things.

As for now, I must move on, having given these things enough time already.

I am always open to your thoughts on other matters. "As iron sharpens iron..."

Your brother in Christ,


Tuesday, August 08, 2006 6:30:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the man is a heretic...that rw guy...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006 3:47:00 am  
Blogger John said...

I agree that I have a (healthy) questioning attitude to traditions of godly men that don't go back to the NT. Lets face it, if we didn't, we'd all be Eastern Orthodox...

Hope you find the extra time helpful.

If you ever want to come back on the whole subjectivism issue, I'd be very interested to hear what you (or any other "classic" inerrantist) has to say on the issue. It was questions like that that got me realising that the way inerrancy (as it is often expressed) doesn't do exactly the job we want it to do.

Do feel free to continue to contribute stuff on my blog - there are others of similar background there, and I'm very interested in what you have to say. It's certainly very close to where I used to be doctrinally (and not that far from where I am now - I want to see whether the reasons I moved were any good or not.

God bless,


Wednesday, August 09, 2006 10:15:00 am  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...


I don't see anything to say you are differing doctrinally re. infallibility, etc. The problem is that your maths/ physics backgrond is making you too perfectionist in the area of semantics. As Grudem says the alternative terms aren't better, including your own.

My bigger concern is that it is making you say that maybe RW's view on Scripture isn't so different. I regret to say that this indicative of modern Evangelical Anglicans, who more concerned about "unity" with heretics, rather than disciplining them as Iain Murray and others have rightfully pointed out.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006 11:02:00 am  

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