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Biblical inerrancy infallibility and authority

A more detailed introduction

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A shorter introduction to inerrancy is also available.

Diversity within Christianity:

There are over 1,500 Christian faith groups in North America, teaching a wide diversity of religious beliefs. All consider themselves Christians. In fact, many consider their own denomination or theological views to be the only true Christian path. Yet their beliefs and practices are so varied that some religious commentators have suggested that we should view Christianity as a group of religions which share the name "Christian," the Bible, but not much else.

Many differences among faith groups can be directly traced to their divergent views of the Bible itself:

bulletSome regard the Bible as the word of God.
bulletSome perceive the Bible as containing the word of God along with material that they believe to be against God's will.
bulletStill others view the Bible as a historical document written by very human and fallible authors who were not directly inspired by God and who were intent on promoting their own beliefs.

The link between inerrancy and one's view of the Bible:

Inerrancy and inspiration by God are two related concepts:

bulletIf one accepts that the Bible is the word of God, then a case can be made that it must be inerrant. Otherwise one would have to believe that God makes mistakes. Proneness to error is not one of the normal attributes that Christians associate with God.
bulletConversely, since human beings are error prone, if the Bible merely contains the word of God or is only an ordinary historical document, it can be expected to contain errors, and even material that is opposed to the will of God.

Definitions of "inerrancy" and some related terms:

Inerrancy refers to text that is considered accurate, truthful, totally free of error, without mistakes.

bulletSome Christians apply the term to all statements of fact in the Bible, including those referring to "scientific, historical, or geographical" topics. 1 2 Timothy 3:16 supports this belief. Referring to the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) the author wrote: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." (KJV).
bulletOther Christians use the term "limited inerrancy" to describe to the belief that the Bible is perfectly free of error only on matters of moral, spiritual and religious truth. That is, material that describes such topics as cosmology, origins of life, the Earth and the rest of the universe, place names, some events, etc. are not necessarily accurate.

Generally, "inerrancy" refers only to the original handwritten (a.k.a. autograph) copy of each of the books of the Bible. All autograph copies have been lost. Subsequent copies may well contain accidental copyist errors or intentional additions/deletions by forgers.

Inerrancy is a major part of the belief of conservative Protestants. Liberal theologians generally approach the Bible as a series of historical documents written by very human authors who were trying to promote their own group's spiritual and theological beliefs. The latter believe that, like other religious books, it contains factual errors, distortions, religious propaganda, stories copied from nearby Pagan cultures, exaggerations, etc.

Inspiration is the belief that God influenced the authors of the Bible so that their writings would be free of error. Some Christians believe that The Holy Spirit, in effect, dictated the words in the Bible to its authors; others believe that God allowed the authors to write in their own style, but prevented them from committing errors. More information

Infallible, when applied to the Bible, means that it is fully trustworthy. Its text does not deceive the reader. "Traditionally, [conservative] Protestants have reserved the term [infallible]...to refer to the Bible as the only true source of faith and doctrine." 2 However, it does not necessarily imply that every verse in the Bible is infallible. Some wiggle room is possible. During the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2001-JUN,  officials from the PC (USA) stated: "Our confessions do teach biblical infallibility. Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail."3

In contrast, Roman Catholics generally use the term "infallible" to refer to the teachings of the pope which, in some limited circumstances, are believed to be free of error and thus are binding on the membership.

Authority: Biblical authority is the belief -- near universally held among conservative Christians -- that: "the Bible, as the expression of God's will to us, possesses the right supremely to define what we are to believe and how we are to conduct ourselves." 4 Steven Ibbotson states: "The Bible is authoritative because it is God's inspired word to humanity." 5 Religious liberals commonly discount some sections of the Bible as authoritative because they are viewed as profoundly immoral when compared to today's religious and secular moral standards.

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Are there inerrant books that are not in the Bible?

In the early days of the Christian religion, there were about 40 gospels, hundreds of epistles, and a few apocalypses in circulation. Each was deeply revered by various theologically diverse Christian faith groups. Nobody knows exactly how many books there were. Many did not survive until the present time. Some are known only by having been mentioned in other Christian writings.

Larry Taylor comments that in order to decide on which books should be accepted into the official canon in the fourth century CE:

"...some bishops [at]...several church councils voted for conflicting lists, the contradictions of which took centuries more to resolve. These votes came after a long period of sorting and choosing by the churches at large, so that the choice was not haphazard..." 6

The bishops' main criteria was whether the book in question was actually written by an important leader in the primitive Christian church -- usually an apostle or someone closely affiliated with an apostle. Some theologians suggest that another criterion was the degree to which the book's religious beliefs were compatible with the theology of the bishops in the fourth century. The Gospel of John, for example, barely made it into the canon. There was considerable resistance to its inclusion because of its extensive Gnostic content.

The question remains: did the bishops make the right choices:

bulletWere there some books that were inerrant but were left out of the canon and are now lost? There is no way to find out with the information available to us.
bulletWere there some books that were not inerrant, but were included in the canon?
bulletMost conservative Protestants believe that the Epistles that say they were written by Paul, James, Jude (actually Judas, a brother of Jesus) and John were actually written by those early Christian leaders.
bulletMost liberal theologians believe that Paul did not write Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus, even though the books identify Paul as their author. Liberals suggest that the Epistles 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus were written 35 to 85 years after Paul's death. Their main reason is that these Epistles discussed church matters that only became of concern to the church after Paul's death.  Most liberal theologians believe that James and Jude were not written by Jesus' brothers, and were composed after 100 CE. Also, they believe that 2 Peter and 1,2 & 3 John were not written by the apostles. More details.

If the bishops made a perfect choice, then one might argue that they must have been directly inspired by God to do so. Otherwise choosing precisely the 27 inspired books in the New Testament from among the hundreds of early Christian writings would have been very difficult if not impossible. One might make the case that for the Bible to be inerrant, not only would God have had to inspire each author to write error-free text, but God must have also inspired the fourth century bishops to make the correct choices. This belief not discussed frequently by believers in biblical inerrancy.


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Dave Miller, "Why I Believe in the Inerrancy of the Scriptures" http://www.infidels.org/
  2. S.B. Ferguson et al, "New Dictionary of Theology", Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL (1988), Pages 337-339.
  3. "Homosexual ordination vote widens gap between Presbyterian factions," ReligionToday, 2001-JUN-20, at: http://news.crosswalk.com/
  4. Millard J. Erickson, "Christian Theology," Baker, (1985), Page 241.
  5. Steven Ibbotson, "Biblical Authority," Prairie bible Institute, (2000), at: http://instructor.pbi.ab.ca/
  6. Larry Taylor, "The canon of the Bible," (1999) at: http://www.infidels.org/

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