There is something uniquely intense about words that start with the letter ‘I’ when it comes to the study of religion and scripture. It is an unfortunate quirk in the English language that leads negatives – or negations – to begin with the letter ‘I’.
We are talking about infallible, inerrant, and inspired.
The important thing to know right off the bat is that:
- Those words are not interchangeable
- Those words are vastly different in intensity
These three ‘I’ words exhibit the most intense aspect of the difficulties when delving into matters of faith. Many people point to words like these as an example of exactly why they are not interested in studying the Bible. It can be both intimidating and infuriating to caught up in these contentious issues.
This is the sort of stuff that keeps some people away all together. For our purposes here, we will be as generous as possible but we will also be clear in our commitment as progressive christians.
We live in a unique time of history where those who claim to believe the Bible the most attempt to place two words not found in scripture upon the Bible:
Inerrancy: The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to *salvation. Some, however, have gone further and try to affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history.
This is admittedly a tough line to hold. The more that one learns about Biblical scholarship or historical criticism the tougher it gets. Inerrancy is an outside idea imposed upon the Bible that the Bible itself and thus has a tough time living up to its claim. It does not, however, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy!! One can trust the Biblical narrative without having to elevate it to the level of inerrant.
Infallibility: This concept is a little simpler says that, “the scripture will accomplish that purpose for which God gave it”.
The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of *salvation to humans. In Roman Catholic theology infallibility is also extended to the teaching of the church (“*magisterium” or “*dogma”) under the authority of the pope as the chief teacher and earthly head of the body of Christ.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 726-731).
Infallibility is better than inerrancy. Infallible can simply mean that the Bible will accomplish that which it is meant to accomplish. That seems fair enough on the surface.
Here is my contention: Why do we need to assert that it is guaranteed to accomplish the task? Where does that need for certainty come from?
Why isn’t it enough to say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ and leave it at that?
Inspiration: “A term used to designate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors of the Bible to record what God desired to have written in the Scriptures. Theories explaining how God “superintended” the process of Scripture formation vary from dictation (the human authors wrote as secretaries, recording word for word what God said) to ecstatic writing (the human authors wrote at the peak of their human creativity). Most *evangelical theories of inspiration maintain that the Holy Spirit divinely guided the writing of Scripture, while at the same time allowing elements of the authors’ culture and historical context to come through, at least in matters of style, grammar and choice of words.”
– Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 731-736). Kindle Edition.
2 Timothy 3:16 talks about scripture being ‘god breathed’ . It should probably suffice for believers to say that we recognize the work (activity) of God in the scriptures and by that same Spirit we come to read, interpret, and apply those lessons to our lives.
I would love if Christians would simply be satisfied with believing that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and not attempt to make a claim on it that it can not sustain.
Artwork by Jesse Turri