Trustworthy and True

Certain things are completely trustworthy; these are called "infallible". Certain teachings of the Church are infallible; for example, the gospel message of salvation, and the doctrines regarding the Trinity and the deity of Christ.

For those of you who aren't convinced the doctrine of infallibility is important, consider it this way: why should we believe something that is not true? Or, should we believe in error? Of course we should always prefer truth to error. Thus, we should believe things that are infallibly true; there is no chance of error.


Who to Believe?

It is perplexing as a Christian to know who and what to believe since there are so many contradictory teachings. The key ingredients...

  1. Study the Bible.
  2. Learn the beliefs and practices of the early church.
  3. Study the early church fathers.
  4. Study church history.
  5. Harmonize with the physical and social sciences and with evidence from archaeology.
  6. Ensure there are no weird side-effects.
  7. Emphasize Jesus, the Trinity, salvation, the virtues.

Inerrancy of the Bible

All Christians believe the Bible is inerrant, free from errors, inspired by the Holy Spirit. But how do we know this? Three possibilities...

  1. Assume it's inerrant.
  2. Believe it because the Catholic Church says so.
  3. Deduce it from (1) the info it contains, (2) what the church fathers say about it, and (3) conclusions drawn from the analysis of history (this is my view).

The New Testament itself cannot be used to claim its own inerrancy, nor does it claim this. Biblical inerrancy must be determined in the context of the historical Christian Church.


Deriving Inerrancy

How do we discover the doctrine of inerrancy? The procedure I recommend, starting with the Bible...

  1. Consider the Bible as with any other ancient text. Validate that the copies are accurate and that they are basically what the writers wrote.
  2. Read what it says and determine whether it appears to be a factual account of what happened historically. Compare with other historical records and with archaeological evidence. This evidence must demonstrate its basic trustworthiness (which it does).
  3. Assume what it says is true.
  4. Validate it from subsequent writings of the church fathers and the results of history.

Of course, the early Christians did not follow this procedure. Here's how they learned infallible truth...

  1. Hear the gospel from your bishop, this, in the context of a presentation of the historical facts of Jesus and the apostles.
  2. Believe the historical facts are true and, therefore, that the message is true.
  3. Since the New Testament recounts these facts, assume it is infallible.

Sadly, the bishops are no longer trustworthy as the source of inerrant truth since they have, over time, modified the message. Thus, the written word (the Bible) takes on a more significant role than in the early days of the Church.


Another View of Inerrancy

There is another way to understand inerrancy. The question is whether or not we can trust the Bible to be free from error. But this question depends on the more foundational question of whether or not we can trust the apostles and writers of the Bible.

The early Christians trusted the apostles to give them a historically accurate account of what Jesus did and said. They didn't require a doctrine of "the inerrancy of the apostles" to do this. Jesus selected his disciples and trained them to carry the banner and to start his church.

The apostles made decisions based on what they had learned during their training with Jesus. And, yes, the Holy Spirit was involved in every step of the process as he is today. But the apostles weren't "inerrant". They made mistakes and helped each other figure out the correct course as they evangelized people and established the early church.

Others, such as Paul, who were not part of the original twelve disciples of Jesus were either involved with the apostles from very early, or in the case of Paul, instructed by Jesus himself. This was their authority. They were trained by Jesus or those who had been with him; they were tested to prove they were qualified to establish the Church; and Jesus trusted them to do the job and passed the banner on to them.

The Bible describes this process in a lot of detail but is not comprehensive in every detail. In the same way that the apostles started the early church and passed the banner on to the next generation of church leaders, orthodox Christian teachers passed-it on over subsequent generations. Yes, there have been many false teachers over the centuries, but this has been discovered by comparing their teaching and practices with the writings of the early church fathers and the writers of the Bible. So today, we have a rather large collection of writings to help keep us from doctrinal error. In addition, we have the reflection of great men of God over the course of history who have provided important insights.

The Bible is inerrant in the same way that Paul's or Peter's real-life speeches were inerrant — they contain the truth about God and salvation. Really the Bible is just a way for us who live centuries after the historical days of the apostolic era to understand the message and the truth of God's plan of redemption. The Bible is inerrant for two reasons...

We should return to the simplicity of the gospel as we read and study the Bible. As we read the New Testament, we should seek to understand what the people of the day understood the words to mean and should apply the lessons to our own lives and to our modern world. In doing so we should accept the historical church teachings (such as the Nicene Creed) to keep us from inventing new doctrines and distorting others by giving a private interpretation to scripture.


Fiction

Certain books and passages of the Old and New Testaments are fiction. Can fiction be considered inspired, inerrant, and infallible?

Inspired: As we read fiction, images and thoughts fill our minds. The implications of these can have spiritual value and can lead us closer to God. The fiction of the Bible does exactly this. Things that draw us towards God are from God; they are inspired by God.

Inerrant: How is fiction free from errors? Certainly the events and facts presented are untrue because they didn't occur. Is it even valid to refer to fiction as inerrant? (I suppose you could claim that inerrancy is limited to whether or not the text is accurate, but this distinction is not useful.)

Fiction by definition doesn't claim to be factual, so the inerrancy of fiction must be limited to the concepts and ideas presented. If these malign God's character then the writing is not inerrant. The writer of fiction is not attempting to deceive the reader; the problem is when, centuries later, the readers don't recognize the writing as fiction.

The Bible can be inerrant even if discussing false ideas or immoral practices. For example, the genocide of Joshua was grossly immoral and supposedly commanded by God, but yet the account in the Bible is inerrant. Joshua thought God commanded him to wage war like this but he was mistaken; he mistook the practices and beliefs of the culture of his day as being commands from God. The account of all this is inerrant even though it contains errors of thinking by the author. But note that you have to have the true and correct views clearly in mind to correctly discern that these passages are inerrant; if you assume everything presented is from God, then you end up in error.

Infallible: Perhaps means the same as inerrant. An inerrant writing is also infallible, having no errors. A writing is infallible because the writer was tuned in to God, seeking to love him, to accurately represent his nature and character. God can never be described with words so the words are always limited in their effectiveness. Nevertheless, if the intent of the author is to accurately express God then their writings are infallible even if having errors.

Inerrant and infallible writing must be properly interpreted to preserve its inerrancy and infallibility. Skeptics apply a wooden lifeless approach to the text, ignoring the culture and practices of the time of writing.

Two objections come to mind...

The solution to these is to recognize that the writings comprising Jewish and Christian scriptures are based on accurate understanding of God's nature and characteristics. God inspired the writers who were concerned to accurately present truth regarding God (they were inspired). Therefore, their writings are, by definition, inerrant and infallible even if some are fiction and even if having errors of fact. It is the overall religious system which is inerrant and infallible, not each word and phrase of the writings of scripture.

Infallibility means: (1) the writers accurately conveyed their intentions to their audience within their culture, and (2) their objective was to expresses truths of God as he really is and to the best of their knowledge. This is not to say it was written well or that each statement truly corresponds to objective and historical reality. New Testament infallible writings can only be written by apostles or their helpers. Old Testament infallible writings can only be written by the Patriarchs or subsequent leaders of the Israelite tradition and Judaism.

I suppose you could say the Koran is inerrant and infallible in the sense that it accurately portrays Islam and its teachings. But in the Christian view and Christian perspective, the words "inerrant" and "infallible" can only be used for the Christian Bible; the Koran is not inerrant nor infallible in the context of Christianity. Thus, we have to know that Christianity is true before we can claim the Bible as inerrant and infallible.

This definition, of course, makes no sense at all. But neither does the definition used by fundamentalist evangelical Protestants. At least I'm in good company.

A side effect of all this is that you can't use the Bible as your authority for the Christian faith. Rather, you have to use the truths of the faith as your authority. These are contained in the Bible, in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, in the faith passed-down over the centuries, and in known truth verified in history. Thus, for example, we know Christendom to be false bcause we can observe its bad historical effects. We know genocide to be grossly immoral because we just do, even though back then, they just didn't.



The writers of the Bible were not always concerned with getting every fact correct. Rather than bog down an account with detailed information verified as true, they would just make up something approximately correct. These can be named, I suppose, as "little fictions". Skeptics of the Bible call them errors and are all too happy to point them out (but I wonder why they find the topic so fascinating, what drives them?)



An analogy from science: Isaac Newton discovered his laws of motion and force. They seemed to perfectly describe matter within the accuracy of the measurements they were capable of. But with better instruments new theories were needed and Albert Einstein proposed special relativity and general relativity. Now there are newer theories for quantum mechanics. Was Newton in error? Was Einstein in error? No. Their equations are accurate within the applicable domains. In like manner, the Old Testament stories are accurate within the limited knowledge and experience available at the time. Just as Newton did not lie, neither do the biblical writers. In this sense, then, they are infallible.


Style

It is common for modern Bible scholars to confidently state that Peter or Paul or John or Moses or whoever did not write the book or letter associated with their name. Sometimes this is based on the style of writing. They might say, for example, that Peter could not have written his letters because he was illiterate. But likely, the books and letters were dictated to a scribe who wrote it all down. It is the writing skill of the scribe we observe in the book or letter, not the skill of the author. Thus, using the writing style to determine who wrote a book or letter is not trustworthy.

Evidence of this: Each sentence took some time so the author's thoughts would easily go off on tangents while waiting for the scribe to write it down. We notice the scatterbrained structure of much of biblical writing. They would have enjoyed the modern luxury of having word processors to edit their writings.


Related Topics

The following: infallibility / literal interpretation / fiction / miracles

Infallibility and inerrancy refer to being free from errors. Infallibility emphasizes doctrine, faith, and morals. Both assume no errors in claims of historical fact. I believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God. I also believe it contains factual errors as skeptics are all too happy to point out.

How can the Bible be free from errors yet contain errors? The answer: the sections having errors are fiction. Fiction is by definition infallible having no correspondence to actual physical historical events or to scientific reality. But we must consider what the writer intended to communicate. Also, it's possible he thought what he was writing was historically true and factual, but it wasn't. It's still fiction because somewhere along the long chain of passing down the story orally it was altered consciously or unconsciously; it was fictionalized.

I believe miracles occur, both in the Bible and even today. But miracles can't be scientifically proven because they are by definition outside of scientific reality, and miracles from Bible days certainly can't be proven. I interpret Bible miracle stories as either: (1) true exactly as described, or (2) generally true but having fictional elements, or (3) fiction. But on a case by case basis I can't know which is which except when option (1) is clearly proven false by archaeology, historical scholarship, or reason. For example, the Nile River did not literally turn to blood.

Another factor usually ignored: certain events that seem impossible or implausible actually occurred, but in the spiritual realm, not the physical realm.

The Bible is infallible because it is trustworthy as a source to lead us into a correct understanding of God's true nature and of our proper relationship with him.

Fundamentalist evangelical Protestants claim to interpret the Bible literally, but they really don't. An example...

And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:38)

They say taking up our cross means we are to endure the burdens that come our way as disciples of Christ. But it doesn't mean this. Carrying a cross refers to the slow painful journey to imminent crucifixion. We must mentally visualize ourselves carrying a cross along with Jesus as he went to his crucifixion.

The problem with interpreting the phrase "carry your cross" figuratively is that you can invent whatever meaning you wish for the phrase, and then you insert it into the sentence as if the sentence had your new invented phrase instead. The phrase "carry your cross" becomes merely a placeholder for your new invented meaning, a mere literary device.