The Bible: Literal? Inerrant? Infallible? Authoritative? True?

There are just so many semantic and linguistic nuances flitting about regarding the bible that a person hardly knows what to make of it. For many of us, the designations “inerrant” and “infallible” are academically split hairs that have become the weapons of war for those who find in them ultimate meaning. But we find no such meaning in them.

A quick distinction.

Let’s just start out with what these terms actually mean. First, inerrant literally means without error; that every word and punctuation in the bible is without error. The second term, infallible, means that the intentions of the bible are always successful; literally, incapable of being wrong or of failing.

Further messiness.

However, when we get to tossing around terms like “error” and “failure” we need more distinction. What is an error? An error according to intention? An error according to standards of inquiry? Whose standards? What about success? Again, according to intention? According to other standards?

It gets worse.

Now, there is a distinction between what the words mean in a lexical sense and how people use them. When someone says “the bible is literally true” they may mean that the bible contains no errors in intention, but mostly what they mean is that everything in the bible happened woodenly and literally as it is recorded. When the Israelites were fighting the Amorites in Joshua 10 and the text says that “the sun stood still int he heaven,”literalists take it to mean that the sun is moving and the earth stood still. Now, we understand scientifically that as far as we are concerned the sun does not move, but that we move in relation to the sun. If the sun stopped moving it would have no impact on us whatsoever. So the passage in Joshua 10 makes no sense from this perspective.


This is where the inerrantist or infalliblist steps in and says, well, that was just a figure of speech. The intention of the text was to say that God made the day last extra long so that Israel could destroy the Amorites (a questionable ethical concession, but one that we will avoid for today). It was not a scientific explanation of how the feat was accomplished, but was rather a subjective account of what happened from their perspective.

Not helpful.

I’ve thought for many years that these designations were not only unhelpful, but were just plain silly. The bible is not a science text book; the modern concept of history did not exist when the bible was written. The intention of the bible was not to prove itself by the criteria we’ve constructed for it. Rather it was to bear witness to the movement of God of restoring the whole world to Godself. The renewal of all things. So often we get it into our heads that the bible exists to prove us right. It doesn’t. Our being right about the bible makes no difference to the bible. Nor does it to God.

Some questions.

When can we get beyond these unhelpful ways of talking? And what is a better way of talking about the bible? Do we really need to assent to one of these designations to be a follower of Jesus?

Are we too stuck on this bible thing?

Jesus said that the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath in Mark 2. I wonder if he would say the same thing about the bible: the bible was made for humans, not humans for the bible. Just a little something to consider.

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