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Literalism, Infallibility and Inerrancy

There are four reasons why claims that the Bible is literally the infallible or inerrant word of God are misleading.  First, the Bible has a history and because of that history Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles are not the same.  How are we to decide which Bible is infallible or inerrant?  Second, in English we read the Bible in translation and there are many human choices made in the process of reconciling ancient manuscripts and interpreting the meaning of Hebrew and Greek texts.  If there is no original manuscript of the Bible available to us, what does it mean to claim that the Bible is literally the word of God?  Third, confessions in the Reformed tradition of Christian faith do not simply support the view that the Bible is literally the infallible or inerrant word of God.  These confessions clearly affirm the authority of the Bible but acknowledge the need for interpretation.  And fourth, arguments in theology for the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible were developed after the Reformation to resist Catholic claims of infallible teaching authority and also methods for historical and literary analysis of the Bible.  The Bible does not present itself as infallible or inerrant, but Christians have made these claims in order to advance their own interpretations of scripture.

History of the Bible

The disciples of Jesus, who founded the first church in Jerusalem, were Jews who read the Hebrew Bible as their scripture.  This is clear in the Acts of the Apostles of the New Testament.  Presumably, these disciples, the apostles of the first church, read the Torah, the Wisdom Writings, and the Prophets either in Hebrew from scrolls used in the synagogues or in Aramaic, their spoken language, in commentaries called Targums also used in the synagogues.  Paul, however, and other apostles engaged in ministry to the Gentiles, read the Hebrew scriptures in Greek using the Septuagint, a translation prepared in Alexandria by Jewish scholars for use in synagogues in the cities of the Roman Empire, where Greek continued to be the language of culture and commerce.

The first century church, therefore, began without the Bible as we know it.  The gospel was proclaimed before written gospels existed and before Paul's letters were accepted in the church as "scripture."  The church was not founded on the Bible, but rather created the Bible by authorizing some of the church's writings as its New Testament and by reaffirming the books of the Septuagint (in a reordered form) as its Old Testament.

It is important to note that no original manuscripts survive, and there is no single manuscript that can be identified as the earliest or most authentic.  Different versions of books in the Hebrew Bible, which were discovered together at Qumran and are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, confirm that before about 100 A.D. there was no single authorized version of the books the church would later include in its Old Testament.  

Furthermore, Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament number almost 5,000.  Of these the four gospels of the New Testament are preserved in about 3,500 manuscripts, but all 27 books of the New Testament are included in only 59 manuscripts.  The earliest manuscripts were written on papyrus or parchment scrolls, none of which was long enough to include either all the Old Testament or all the New Testament.  By the second century, however, the church began to used the "codex" or leaf-form of manuscript in order to bind together different writings, and this technological advance in publishing contributed to the creation of the Bible as we know it.  

Also by the second century the four gospels and some of the letters of Paul that would later be included in the New Testament were being used with the Septuagint as scripture in Christian communities.  But other gospels, such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas, and other letters and writings, such as the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and the Shepherd of Hermas, were being read in churches alongside the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  Moreover, in some churches there was strong opposition to the letters of Paul, who was accused of mythologizing Christ and thus deviating from the apostolic teaching of the church. (Paul's differences with the apostles in Jerusalem can be seen in his letter to the Galatians and in Acts of the Apostles.) 

Disputes within the church over what should be read as scripture were not settled until the fourth century.  In 367 in Alexandria, Athanasius published the first definitive list of the New Testament, and in 382 Pope Damasus I adopted this list.  In 419 the Second Council of Carthage confirmed the New Testament canon and Pope Boniface officially promulgated it for use throughout the Roman Empire.  

Jerome prepared a Latin translation of the Greek Bible, and so the Vulgate became the scripture of the church that was under the control of the Pope.  Early translations of the gospels and letters into Coptic and Syriac continued to be used in Egypt and Asia Minor, and Greek texts of the Bible also were used in places where Latin did not replace Greek as the language of culture.  The first known English (Saxon) translation of the Bible was completed in the seventh century by a monk named Caedmus.  Other English translations were prepared before the King James Version was completed in 1611 and became the standard Bible for English-speaking Christians.

The King James Version of the Bible and all subsequent Protestant translations used the Hebrew canon, which was authorized by leading Jewish rabbis about 100 A.D. as the basis for the Old Testament.  However, the first Greek Bibles and the Vulgate had used the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, for the Old Testament, and the Septuagint contains several books that were later excluded from the authorized Hebrew Bible.  When the Vulgate was finished by Jerome in the fifth century, it included in the Old Testament only the books in the Hebrew Canon.  But the Vulgate also contained the books of the Septuagint that had later been excluded from the Hebrew canon, with prefaces explaining that these books had been part of the scriptures of the earliest church.

The books in the Vulgate but not in Protestant Bibles are known among Protestants as the Apocrypha.  Roman Catholics refer to these materials as Deuterocanonical, meaning their inspiration was officially recognized later than the other biblical books, which they identify as Protocanonical.  During the medieval period the Deuterocanonical books were used in the life of the church as scripture, and in 1546 the Council of Trent decreed that the canon of the Old Testament included them (with the exception of the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras).  This is why the Old Testament in Catholic Bibles contains books that are not part of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.

Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize several other books as authoritative.  Editions of the Old Testament approved by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church include, besides the Deuterocanonical books, 1 Esdras, Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees.  (4 Maccabees is given as an appendix.)  Slavic Bibles approved by the Russian Orthodox Church contain, besides the Deuterocanonical books, 1 and 2 Esdras (called 2 and 3 Esdras), Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees.

Whenever someone says the Bible is inerrant or infallible, we should ask, "Which Bible?"  The Protestant Reformation attempted to translate into contemporary language the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testament, but nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship has shown that it is impossible to identify an original Bible manuscript.  Moreover, the Bible took different forms within the life of the church and, thus, today within the church there are different Bibles

Translations of the Bible

The books of the New Testament were written in the common Greek (koine) of the first century.  This form of Greek lacks many of the subtleties of classical Greek, but it was the language used throughout the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries.  Some of the New Testament writings, however, such as the gospel of Luke, Acts of the Apostles, and the Letter to the Hebrews, employ classical sentence structure and vocabulary.  In addition, the New Testament is filled with Greek phrases taken from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.  Finally, the gospels and the first half of Acts contain traces of Aramaic, which is the Semitic language related to Hebrew that was spoken by Jesus and his disciples.

After 1611 the King James Version of the Bible was used throughout the English-speaking world in Protestant churches.  In the nineteenth century the availability of more manuscripts than had been used by the translators of the King James Version and the development of historical and literary study of the Bible led church leaders to authorize new translations.  The (British) Revised Version of the Bible was published in 1881-1885, and the American Standard Version was published in 1901.  In 1928 the copyright of the American Standard Version was purchased by the International Council of Religious Education, which appointed a committee of scholars to consider further revision.  

The International Council of Religious Education published in 1952 in the United States the Revised Standard Version of the Bible with both Old and New Testaments.  Five years later the Council published a revised version of the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Bible, and in 1977 the Council produced an expanded edition that contains three additional texts included in scripture by Eastern Orthodox communions.  Thereafter, the Revised Standard Version was officially authorized for use by all major Christian churches: Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox.

In 1974 the Policies Committee of the Revised Standard Version, which is a standing committee of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., authorized the preparation of a revision of the entire Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  For the Old Testament the Committee made use of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1977; ed. sec. emendata, 1983).  This is an edition of the Hebrew and Aramaic text as current early in the Christian era and fixed by Jewish scholars (the "Masoretes") of the sixth to the ninth centuries.  For the New Testament the Committee based its work on the most recent edition of The Greek New Testament, prepared by an interconfessional and international committee and published by the United Bible Societies (1966; 3rd ed. corrected, 1983; information concerning changes to be introduced into the critical apparatus of the forthcoming 4th edition was available to the Committee).  The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, published in 1989, uses the most recent scholarship to present a literal translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament in contemporary English.

In the United Kingdom a majority of the British churches commissioned The New English Bible, which was published with both Old and New Testaments in 1970.  Widespread use of the new translation in public worship led the Joint Committee of the Churches in 1974 to commission a revision that would make the text more suitable for reading aloud in the churches.  The Revised English Bible published in 1989 took care to ensure that the style of English used is fluent and of appropriate dignity for use in worship, yet intelligible for Christians of different ages and educational backgrounds.  Without compromising scholarly integrity or English style the revisers avoided complex terms and structure, referred to God as "you" rather than "thou," and used gender inclusive language.

There are other translations, but these details confirm that much has been learned about ancient manuscripts since the King James Version was completed in 1611.  Moreover, obvious changes in the use of English language in the past century also help to explain why new English translations of the Bible have recently been completed both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.  However, neither the New Revised Standard Version nor the Revised English Version of the Bible claims to be the inerrant, although each is thought to be an accurate rendition into contemporary English of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament.  Those who claim that the King James Version of the Bible is the only true translation simply choose to ignore the facts of history.

Reformed Confessions

After the canon of the Bible was authorized in the fourth century under Emperor Constantine, the church began to resolve disputes about the meaning of its scriptures by issuing authoritative statements on doctrine.  These statements became the creeds and dogma of the Church, which were used to condemn heretical teaching as well as to encourage proper Christian living.

During the Reformation Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and other Protestant reformers rejected the authority of the Pope over the church and argued for the authority of scripture.  Beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing through the twentieth century Reformed confessions have affirmed the authority of scripture and established guidelines for interpreting the Bible.  These confessions all assert that the Bible is the word of God, but they differ in their understanding of that conviction.

For instance, the Scots Confession (1560) rejected any interpretation of the Bible that is "contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love."  These guidelines for interpreting the Bible assume that the word of God is not necessarily revealed by a literal reading of the plain text, or there would be no need to consider as well the principals of Christian faith and the commandment to love others.

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) affirmed "interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agrees with the rule of faith and life, and contributes much to the glory of God and man's salvation." Clearly, this is not a claim that the Bible is word for word the literal word of God.  Furthermore, the Second Helvetic Confession does "not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises concerning sacred matters as far as they agree with the Scriptures," but modestly dissents "from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures."  The Confession recognizes that Christians have been debating the meaning of the word of God in the Bible from the earliest centuries of the church.

Eighty years later the Westminster Confession (1646) clearly stated that "all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all," but affirmed that all Christians could understand the things in the Bible that are necessary for salvation.  The Westminster Confession asserts that "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself," which means that a particular text is to be understood in the context of the Bible as a whole.  The judge of all controversy about the Bible, the Confession concludes, "can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."  The Holy Spirit is taken to be infallible, but the Confession recognizes that there may be disagreement in the church about how the Holy Spirit is speaking in the Bible.

Modern Arguments

Claims that the Bible is literally the infallible word of God were first voiced in the Reformation in response to the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and the rise of textual criticism of manuscripts.  The seventeenth century Swiss theologian Francis Turretin argued that the first handwritten scriptures were entirely inspired by God, and he and British scholar John Owen asserted that even the vowel points of the Hebrew words of the Bible were of divine origin.  This had not been the teaching of the Catholic church. Moreover, later historical research revealed that vowel points were not in early biblical manuscripts but were added by medieval scribes.

The word "inerrant" was first used in English to describe the fixed location of stars in the sky in contrast with the planets, which were seen as wandering (errant).  A century later British theologians, who saw the universe as rational and orderly, taught that the truth of the Bible was as self-evident as the truths of nature known through Newtonian science.  In the newly formed United States of America Charles Hodge, a theologian at Princeton, also taught that God's nature and laws could be known through the Bible without interpretation.  Hodge argued that Calvinist theology supported the inerrancy of Bible, which was taken to mean that the Bible is free from error of fact in every way including science and history as well as ethics and doctrine.

The Civil War in the United States in the 1860s and changes in science after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 led many to challenge the idea that the Bible was literally the word of God and factually true in every respect.  Arguments about evolution and biblical authority for slavery divided churches and led to a revised view of inerrancy among some factions that claimed only the original manuscripts of the Bible to be without error.  Until the late 1920s this position dominated teaching at Princeton Seminary and also the doctrine of the Presbyterian church.

World War I and the Great Depression, as well as advances in scientific research and understanding, shattered the idea of an orderly world progressing toward the realization of our highest ideals.  Theologians such as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner understood the teachings of John Calvin to assert that the Bible is not inerrant, but rather is God's instrument of self-revelation in the world.  They taught that the Bible does not contain propositions about truth, but instead reveals God's saving grace in Jesus Christ and his continuing presence through the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.

In the 1960s and 1970s the civil rights struggle, the war in Vietnam, advocacy for women's rights, and conflict over homosexuality as well as growing support within American Protestant churches for the infallibility of the Bible led some theologians to assert that the Bible is a very human book with a divine message.  Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer argued that 2 Tim. 3:16-17, which states "all scripture is inspired by God and profitable . . . for training in righteousness," is about inspiring love and acts of justice rather than verifying the divine origin of the Bible.  

He and other theologians looked to John Calvin for teachings that emphasize the practical use of scripture to encourage reverence and right living.  They noted that the deviance between scientific understanding and scriptural descriptions of creation did not undermine the authority of the Bible for Calvin, who understood that scripture was shaped by its historical and cultural circumstances.  Calvin emphasized the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the divine will expressed in the limited form of human flesh.  For many Christians today this means reading scripture with awareness of its historical and literary composition even as we remain open to the Holy Spirit to reveal the meaning of the Bible for our faithful and living witness to God's grace.


There is nothing in the Bible about scripture being literally true, or infallible or inerrant. These are ideas that have been imposed on the Bible by Christians in order to defend certain interpretations of it. To argue that the Bible is literally true, word for word, and not in some places figuratively true or allegorically true, is to interpret the Bible. To assert that the Bible is the infallible word of God, as though it is fixed in time and does not require any translation or interpretation, is to defend an interpretation of the Bible that flies in the face of church history.

Christians continue to defend the inerrancy and the infallibility of scripture, but this is an interpretation that has little evidence to sustain it and is by no means a plain reading of the text.  Any reader of the Bible can find factual inconsistencies.  For instance, the first three gospels report that Jesus was crucified the day after Passover, but the gospel of John has Jesus crucified on Passover.  Similarly, the first three gospels report that Jesus cleansed the temple of the money changers a few days before he was arrested and put on trial, whereas in the gospel of John this story is placed at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.  

There are also many examples of teachings in the New Testament that are inconsistent.  In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus teaches that he has not come to abolish Jewish law, and in Romans 10:4 Paul teaches that Christ came to abolish Jewish law. Which of these contradictory teachings is inerrant? The church has come to agree with Paul and thus has chosen to ignore the literal meaning of the teaching about Jewish law in the gospel of Matthew. The church has long dealt with contradictions in the Bible by interpreting some passages literally and other passages as figurative or spiritual in meaning.  For instance, teachings in the gospel of Matthew and elsewhere in the New Testament about keeping Jewish law are interpreted to mean keeping the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.  This interpretation is based on a reading of the entire New Testament, which includes Paul's letters and other gospel texts that present Jesus violating the law for the sake of a greater good.

We cannot read and understand Christian scripture without interpreting it.  Therefore, it is misleading to claim that the Bible is the literal word of God, or the infallible word of God, or the inerrant word of God. God did not dictate the Bible. Human beings wrote the books of the Bible in their own languages, using words that had meanings in their own time and place. Centuries later, when the Bible was translated into English from manuscripts that were not original, scholars interpreted the meaning of its ancient languages so that you and I might understand passages written in Hebrew for Israelites and in Greek for Christians.

Christians trust in the Bible as the word of God, but the church throughout history has had the responsibility of discerning what that word is. The Scots Confession affirmed in 1560 that "we dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love." We should be guided by these words and by the history of biblical interpretation that is central to the Reformed tradition of Christian faith.

For more information on how Reformed churches have read the Bible, please go to confessions.




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1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Copyright 2000 by Robert Traer