Inerrancy and Infallibility

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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.]

8 Comments

The concept of infallibility meaning "without error in matters of faith and practice but not necessarily when it comes to matters of science and history" certainly predates the 1970s. It goes back at least to the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870, which defined papal infallibility as restricted to matters of faith and morals - as confirmed in the Roman Catholic definition you link to. What may have been new in the 1970s was the reapplication of this formula to the Bible. Although biblical infallibility is clearly a rather different concept from papal infallibility, the use of the same language clearly suggests that the biblical application has been modelled on the papal one.

But I must agree that technically "infallibility" is not the right word to use for the Bible because it is already complete, and so the issue is not whether it is able to be at fault or err but whether it actually has done so.

The heart of your objection is your claim that "Inerrancy itself is a fairly weak concept in comparison to infallibility." This may be true in terms of the general use of these terms. But because of the prior use of "infallibility" in relation to the pope this word was already understood in theological discussion as restricted to matters of faith and morals. So it had already acquired a sense which is weaker than "inerrancy" and fitted with the intention of the Fuller authors.

The rest of your post is fallacious because it assumes that "infallibility" is being used in the strong sense that you insist on, whereas in fact it is being used in the weaker sense which goes back to the First Vatican Council.

I think that the Fuller view has created a lot of unnecessary confusion and it continues to do so. Tragic really.

On the Fuller view, infallibility =df limited inerrancy.

Stephen T. Davis, in his book, The Debate About the Bible, also gave the Fuller view wider currency by re-defining infallibility as "the Bible is infallible if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice."

I think that the way that philosophers (Craig, Zagzebski, etc) tend to use the terms make the most sense... and heck we should re-re-define it as such.

- Raj

Defining papal infallibility as restricted to matters of faith and morals does not amount to defining the word 'infallible' as meaning "without error in matters of faith and practice". All it does is restrict papal infallibility to those matters. The claim is that the pope is infallible (as opposed to merely inerrant). Then the further issue is what matters is the pope infallible about, and the claim is that he's infallible about matters of faith and practice. So as far as I can tell the Catholic use of these terms is fully in step with their historic meanings. The Fuller group could have done the same, but instead they insisted on using the word itself to mean that restricted view rather than separating the issues the way I've done. That's the confusion I'm talking about.

The rest of your post is fallacious because it assumes that "infallibility" is being used in the strong sense that you insist on, whereas in fact it is being used in the weaker sense which goes back to the First Vatican Council.

I'm not following you. My point is that they use the term in the weaker way that's out of step with the history of its meaning. How am I assuming the opposite in trying to argue for that?

The infallibility/inerrancy discussion revolves around Western enlightenment concepts that were different when the text of the Bible was actually written.

I get a bit leary of applying modern concepts to the Bible.

To get inerrancy you have to have a very narrow limited definition of error (because of the imperfect communicative ability of the author's 'words').

The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy is trying to capture what the early church would have said. The fact that they're trying to make important distinctions in contemporary language is a reflection of the fact that they're trying to speak English in our era to people with our current categories. But that doesn't mean they're trying to reshape the biblical materials in modern concepts. It's more that they're seeking to explain ancient understandings of inspiration in a culture that has distinguished a number of possible views with important distinctions and clarifications. It's not illegitimate in the least to try to explain a view among those without that distinction in terms of that distinction. Sometimes it leads to getting it wrong, but your objection makes it sound in principle wrong, and that can't be true. Otherwise we'd never be able to read ancient texts and learn from them.

As for "a very narrow limited definition of error", I think you're the one applying modern concepts. When I say there's no milk in the fridge, and there's a puddle of milk, no one would ever take me to be making an error, not without some modern notion of absolute precision that is foreign to the ancient mindset. The same is true of those who artificially impose a genre category that the original authors wouldn't have recognized and those who take a rounded number as if it's supposed to be precise (e.g. the rounding off of pi to 3 in the Chronicles account of the temple building). It's the modern notions of precision, genre, and semantic literalness that make these turn out to look like errors. The Chicago Statement makes this point, and I applaud them for it.

Jeremy, let me try to explain more clearly. Yes, the First Vatican Council, in declaring the pope infallible in matters of faith and morals, was using "infallible" in the historic way. But in subsequent theological and popular debate, among both Catholic supporters and non-Catholic opponents, the word "infallible" has come into regular use with the qualification "in matters of faith and morals" omitted. And so "infallible" has acquired a new sense as an abbreviation for "infallible in matters of faith and morals". And it is in this new sense that the Fuller writers have used the word, probably initially with the qualification stated but with it subsequently being elided.

Now I can understand why someone like you who values precision in language objects to this. But in practice, outside law and perhaps philosophy, this is how language works. Words acquire new meanings. Authors feel free to use old words in different ways from how they have been used in the past - new ways which are initially explicitly defined but gradually become implicitly understood. You may not like it. Sometimes I don't. But it has been a feature of scholarly discussion for millennia (yes, I can certainly find examples in the New Testament, others probably can in the classical Greek authors), and it is not going to stop now just because you complain about it.

Suppose you're right. Where I don't follow is that that this isn't a new meaning that's become widespread. It's within a narrow segment of academia that you find this. Perhaps it's become a technical term in theology, but not even all theologians will use it this way (as evidenced by the Chicago Statement's refusal to go along with it, and Kevin Vanhoozer is a pretty heavy-hitter to be resisting it if it's true that it's pretty much changed its meaning). I cited a dictionary definition that conflicts with this, and it's pretty much how most Protestants use the word in my experience.

But I'm not even convinced by the data you present. Assuming it's true that Catholics regular speak of papal infallibility without reference to which matters the pope is infallible about. Couldn't that be simply because they already have a sense of which matters they think the pope is infallible about? In most contexts, scope terms do act that way. If someone says someone is knowledgeable with no qualifier, you assume that they have a generally above-average level of knowledge. If they speak of a scientist as very knowledgeable, it seems inappropriate to me to expect the person to be able to do well at a game show trivia context, at least if the context involved some sense that you were speaking of the person's role as a scientist. Might the same be true of the pope? In his role of the pope, speaking of him as pope assumes a scope similar to what Catholics generally take popes to infallible about, i.e. not things like Fermat's last theorem or the number of angels you can fit on the head of a pin but matters that religious authority might have some business pronouncing upon. It doesn't mean that the word itself has become restricted to those matters. As you said, the word is being elided. But this doesn't mean the semantic content of the word now includes what's being elided. It may well be (and I'm almost certain it is) that pragmatic considerations are allowing that elision even though the meaning of the word hasn't changed.

The main complaint here is not so much that anyone is misusing language, anyway. I do think it's bad that they're confusing people, but I think it has a harmful effect other than that. It obscures past use of the terms. People will quote Augustine or some other classic figure and then claim that he only held to this new view that they're now calling infallibility, whereas an understanding of the historic meaning of the term shows that Augustine held a view that entails what inerrantists believe. The confusion over this term is thus masking the fact that a shift in interpretation has been going on, one that is clearly illegitimate once we've cleared up the historic meaning of the term.

Bible is infallible on Faith and Morals

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