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Is the Bible the word of God? Inspiration, Reliability, Infallibility and Inerrancy.

For most critics of Christianity it is the Bible that is the intellectual stumbling stone which prevents them from accepting the Gospel. Once treasured in our culture, the Scriptures are today more an object of ridicule than they are an authority.

The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride- price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

In contrast, there are still those that treasure the Bible.

The existence of the Bible, as a book for the people, is the greatest benefit which the human race has ever experienced. Every attempt to belittle it is a crime against humanity.

Immanuel Kant

Two very different attitudes!

Since the inspiration of the Bible is not necessary for a reasonable belief in the existence of God and that this God was decisively revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we do not need the Bible to be inspired to confirm these two important aspects of Christian theology. The Bible could be an unreliable source of information, looked upon with great suspicion, and these things still be established. However, there are many other aspects of Christian theology which cannot be reasonably derived from experience, the arguments of Natural Theology, and historical research and argumentation. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of salvation all require the Scriptures to testify to some basic facts we could not have known otherwise.

The Bible however is more than just a source of information. It is – or so it is claimed – an authority. In order to stake your life on the truths it contains, the Bible needs to be a reliable guide to faith and practice. So before attempting to argue for this authority, we must be clear on exactly what we mean by a reliable guide and how this corresponds to Christian ideas about scripture.

1. Reliable: This means that it can generally be trusted to be accurate. It is not guilty until proven innocent. If it is reliable, believing a detail in it is rational until it is proven false, rather than it only being rational to believe until it is proven true. There are at least two types of reliability.

  1. The strong sense, in which the Bible is found trustworthy in everything, down to the historical and scientific details within.
  2. The weak sense, in which the teaching of Bible is trustworthy, but not necessarily true on such secondary details.

2. Inspired: This is the idea that somehow God was involved in the authorship. The Bible claims inspiration for itself. Paul writes

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

As such, the Church has always affirmed that the Bible is inspired by God and is therefore God’s Word to mankind, authoritative in all that it teaches. This verse claims that the Scripture’s inspiration is plenary (applies to all parts) and verbal (the words of scripture). The historic Christian tradition has also affirmed the confluence of Scripture (the product of both divine and human authors).

The inspiration of scripture does not only imply that is reliable in some way. It is also the source of the Bible’s authority. When we read it, we understand that these are not merely the opinions of man, but the very words of God.

Different false theories of inspiration have arisen throughout the years that seek to explain the relationship between the divine authorship and its human authors.

  1. Intuition theory: This is that the Bible is inspired because of the insight of the authors.
  2. Partial theory: This is the idea that the Bible is infallible (without error) in matters of faith and morals, but not in history or science.
  3. Thoughts (not the words) are from God theory: This would be the idea that the thoughts are from God but the words are not. However Jesus says in Matthew 5:18 that “…not one jot or one tittle shall in pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.”
  4. Neo-orthodox theory: This is the view championed by the existentialist theologian Karl Barth, which says that the Bible contains God’s word but that the Bible is not God’s word. This is a subjectivist and mystical theory that Bible become God’s word in an inexpressible way when we encounter it, but until we do it is just another book.
  5. Dictation theory: This is idea that God dictated his words to human authors who were only instruments. The doctrine of inspiration moved in the direction of dictation at the time of the Reformation when this type of language was utilised, but came under scrutiny at the Enlightenment when the humanity of scripture was emphasised. Indeed, we can see the different personalities of the authors through their writings, with different stylistic differences of expression. The idea of dictation is a way to protect or emphasise the Bible’s authority and inerrancy (complete lack of error).

The inspiration of the scriptures is what philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls one of the great truths of the gospel. For him this means that most Christians become aware of the inspiration of the scriptures through a properly basic belief. Christians experience God in a special way when reading or hearing the scriptures and a verse or idea is illumined to them. This revelation through experience is enough for the belief in the inspiration of Scripture to be a fully warranted belief. In order to to lose that warrant defeaters for it must be offered.

It is worth noting that one can defend the inspiration of the scripture without the dictation theory. An error in the Bible, if one can be found, will not overturn inspiration.

3. Infallible: This means that it is without error in the theology it teaches, but may contain error in historical or scientific details. Infallible implies the Bible is reliable (in at least the weaker sense), as well as its divine authorship.

4. Inerrant: This term is used with various meanings by different people, and so requires clarification when encountered. The skeptical community may take inerrancy to mean completely without error, even to the extent of taking verbal expressions as literally true. Fundamentalist Christians take it to mean the Bible is completely without error, implying the strongest sense of reliable. Inerrancy in this sense encompasses infallibility, but without the admission of the possibility of error. That is, all of its contents; theology, history, science, even incidental facts, are true. This view is looked upon with great suspicion by those who are critical of the Bible. They understandably feel like these Christians are not being objective or properly critical of their religious beliefs, and sometimes mistake this view to be the view of all Christians. On the contrary, some theologians (of a more liberal tendency) have a more more nuanced approach to inerrancy. That is, inerrancy means all of what the scriptures teach is true. This they argue does not compromise divine inspiration. It implies reliability in the weaker sense, but does not rule out the stronger sense of reliability, instead holding the possibility of error out as an hypothesis for further investigation. Evangelical theologians typically hold to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), which applies only to the original autographs and include the facts of history and science in the scope of what cannot err. This statement insists that things like history, poetic devices, phenomenological language, hyperbole, metaphor, generalisation and approximation should be understood as in the context of the literary genre in which they appear and not as errors.

When we defend the Bible, it is good to make sure we don’t argue for more than we need. Unbelievers don’t need to accept the scriptures are infallible, inerrant, or inspired to accept that Jesus is the Saviour and they are in need of salvation. Apologists will however want to argue for things like the inspiration of the Scriptures, the generally reliability of the scriptures, and even infallibility and inerrancy.

There are at least two ways we can argue for the inspiration of the Scriptures. The first way is with arguments from above by deduction (see here), and the second is with arguments from below with induction (see here).


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