Michael Bird has a nice post about inerrancy, most of which I'd agree with. I don't have anything further to say about his post itself, at least nothing I want to take up now, but a discussion in the comments reminded me that I've twice now set out to write a post on infallibility and inerrancy and not gotten around to it. I'm remedying that now.
In the comments at Michael's post, Danny Zacharias says he's confused at the use of the word 'infallible' in Michael's favorite expression of inerrancy. His confusion is because he thinks the word 'infallible' means something weaker than inerrancy. Inerrancy, on this view, means the whole Bible is without error, including in historical details and matters of science. Infallibility means the whole Bible is without error in matters of faith and practice but not necessarily when it comes to matters of science and history.
Under the influence of George Marsden, several faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a number of other scholars who began to write about this issue around the late 70s and early 80s, it has become somewhat standard in some circles of theologians to use the terms this way. I will call this approach the Fuller view for lack of a better term. I want to show that this way of using the terms involves a basic confusion about two completely different issues. One issue is what scope of inspiration, i.e. what aspects of scripture are inspired (matters of faith and practice, matters of history and science, and so on). The other issue is whether scripture is merely correct about those things (i.e. inerrant or without error) or whether the inspiration is such that it couldn't be wrong about them (i.e. infallible or unable to err).
The issue the Fuller view deals with is not whether scripture is inspired in an infallible or inerrant way. It's merely about the scope of inspiration. Around the time of this controversy, Fuller Seminary removed its inerrancy language from its statement of faith, no longer requiring its faculty to hold that scripture is inspired in all of the details of history and science. What's strange about calling this a move from inerrancy to infallibility it that such a view is consistent with both inerrancy and infallibility about matters of faith and practice, as long as it isn't inerrant or infallible about matters of science and history. The view in question is completely independent of the inerrancy or infallibility issue. It's about the scope of inerrancy or infallibility, whichever they might choose to go with, not about whether the inspiration is an inerrant or infallible sort of inspiration.
Inerrancy itself is a fairly weak concept in comparison to infallibility. Something is inerrant if it happens not to have any errors. A newspaper article can be inerrant. I'm sure many articles are. Infallibility, on the other hand, is true only if the thing is incapable of having errors. Scripture, according to the historic teaching of the church, does not just merely happen to have no errors. It is infallible. It is impossible for it to have errors. Given that it is a revelation from God, inspired in a way that God ensures its correctness, it cannot be wrong.
So what the Fuller view has done is co-opt a term about the nature of inspiration, a term used for describing the impossibility of God's word containing errors, to use it to apply to a view about the scope of inerrancy or infallibility, i.e. the view that scripture can or does have errors about some matters while not having, or being unable to have, other kinds of errors. A more accurate description of their view, then, would be that the Bible is infallible or inerrant about matters of faith and practice but not infallible or inerrant about matters of history and science. Calling that infallibility as opposed to inerrancy is wildly confused.
It is thus really strange to hear them calling their view infallibility and the view they're disagreeing with inerrancy. That gets things wrong in two ways. These words are about a different issue entirely from the one they're using them to distinguish, and, even stranger, this use of the terms tries to make infallibility out to be weaker than inerrancy rather than stronger, as the historic use has always been (even if it's stronger about a different matter, infallibility is the stronger term).
I thought it was worth linking to some other sources on this issue. The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy is probably the best source of what contemporary inerrantists believe. It uses the word 'infallibility' in a way that's incompatible with how those who hold the Fuller view do. Kevin Vanhoozer also insists that inerrancy is a feature of infallibility, but infallibility is broader. I've only been focusing on one way that's true, but I don't think he's wrong in the others. Merriam-Webster defines 'infallibility' as being "incapable of error". (It gives another definition, but that one is also not in accord with how those who hold the Fuller view use it.) See also what dictionary.com gives for the Roman Catholic definition. The Roman Catholic Church sees infallibility as stronger than inerrancy, and their views on tradition mean they see the terms meaning this throughout longstanding Christian tradition. The Westminster Seminary statement of faith also agrees.
I also want to point out that philosophers have never stopped using the term 'infallible' to mean an inability to be wrong. This is the main reason I was so surprised to notice that theologians were using it in this strange way. In my entire academic career I've always seen it used in the traditional way. William Lane Craig uses it here in this way about a completely unrealted issue (divine foreknowledge), as does Linda Zagzebski here on the same issue. Stephen Hetherington does the same thing about yet another issue (fallibilism in epistemology). It's only a particular group of people in theology who have taken part in this revisionist use.
[Note: Though I've never written a post on this before, I have several times in the past engaged in conversations about it, e.g. at Kenny Pearce's blog. I succeeded in getting the Theopedia article on inerrancy changed to reflect these points, although I would word them differently now that I've separated out the two issues (see the conversation here for my process of getting the article changed, which I've since realized comes more from arguing behind the scenes to get other editors to agree than from just changing things, which can just get changed back). I've also discussed some of these issues here, which was in part supposed to be a precursor to the post I wanted to write on this subject but at the time didn't.]