Inerrancy or infallibility: What's the difference?

November 11th, 2015

Should we say that the Bible is “inerrant” or would it be better to say that it is “infallible”? What do these two terms mean and which is more appropriate for describing the kind of thing that the Bible is and how God uses it in the church today?

Roger Olson raised this question in a recent blog post. Since it’s a question that I often hear my students wrestling with as well, I thought it would be worth a few minutes of reflection. This is especially the case since Olson’s post reflects an ambiguity that I think makes it more difficult for people to understand what’s at stake when talking about these two terms.

In essence, Olson argues that “infallibility” is a better term for describing the Bible than “inerrancy.” And there’s an important sense in which he’s right. My concern is not with the claim that infallibility may be “better” in some meaningful way for describing the Bible as a whole. Instead, I want to focus on how Olson defines the terms themselves and suggest that there’s a more useful way of explaining how they differ. In the end, I think we’ll see that both terms make important but different claims about the Bible.

Quick and dirty Definitions

Olson doesn’t actually define inerrancy. I assume that’s because part of his argument depends on pointing out that there’s too much disagreement about what inerrancy means for it to be an effective concept. (I’ve responded to this kind of argument before, so I’ll just refer you to “Inerrancy and the Death by a Thousand Qualifications” for more on this part of Olson’s post.) Instead, he just points us to the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy for explanation. So let’s just take inerrancy as shorthand for something like “Scripture is without error or fault in all of its teachings,” which Chicago affirms in its opening statements.

In contrast, Olson defines infallibility as the idea that the Bible “cannot fail to communicate the truth we need about God in order to be saved and transformed.” In other words, Olson’s thinks that “infallible” focuses on the conceptual content of the Bible (its truthiness) while “inerrant” focuses on the specific details of the Bible. And he aligns these with different views of “inspiration” — whether the words themselves are inspired (which leads to inerrancy) or whether it’s just the thoughts/concepts of the biblical authors that were inspired (which leads to infallibility).

With these distinctions/definitions, Olson is not doing anything terribly unusual. It’s not hard to find other people offering largely the same definitions and then wrestling with the pros/cons of each term. But there’s a different way of explaining the difference between these terms, one that is also quite common in theological discussions of the Bible, but which I find far more useful for capturing what is really at stake in the discussion.

(One more important note. I’m going to set aside the question of whether it works to make the kind of distinction Olson does between the conceptual content of Scripture and the words the biblical texts use to convey that conceptual content. That’s an important issue worth discussing, but I want to go in a different direction.)

Overlapping definitions

Olson recognizes that many people think these two terms mean basically the same thing. But he rejects this conclusion because he thinks there’s an important difference we need to recognize. It is not at all clear, though, why he thinks this. According to his definitions, they both mean something like “incapable of making mistakes or being wrong” (Webster). The only difference is the aspect of the text in view — i.e. is it the conceptual content of the Bible that cannot be wrong (infallibility) or the words themselves that cannot be wrong (inerrancy). He even seems to think that the theological use of the terms is basically equivalent since the “cannot be wrong” nature of the text flows from its relationship to inspiration. Both terms affirm that something about the text “cannot be wrong” simply in virtue of the fact that God inspired that aspect of the text. On Olson’s definition, then, the terms seem largely synonymous, even though theologians use them to refer to different aspects of the text.

This is what I have in mind when I say that I don’t find such definitions terribly helpful. Viewed in this way, the two terms should be largely interchangeable. We can talk about the inerrant truths of the Bible just as easily as the infallible words. The terms don’t make any real difference to the conversation, only that to which they are applied. (As far as I can tell, by the way, that is largely how the terms have functioned historically.)

Keep in mind that even though I’m about to go on and make a different distinction between these two terms, Olson’s definitions capture the way many people actually use the terms. So, when you hear people make distinctions between the two terms, pay attention. It’s entirely possible that the two terms actually mean the same thing even if they’re being used to affirm different things about the Bible.

A more purposeful distinction

Another way that people often explain the difference, and one that I find more useful, focuses on the idea that people use texts to accomplish different purposes. For example, when I leave home this morning, I can write a note to my daughter in which I leave her the following:

  1. A list of chores to do after school. 
  2. A promise that I’ll be home by 6:00. 
  3. A description of where she’ll find her backpack (hall closet) 

All three of those have different purposes. The first conveys a command, the second a promise and the third a fact.

All three of these statements could be talked about in terms of their “fallibility.” I’m goofy enough that it’s entirely possible for me to mess up any one of those. I could easily have worded the first so that it looked to my daughter like a list of things she could do if she has time after school rather than an explicit list of things she must do regardless of whether she “has time.” Or I could have mistakenly indicated that I’d be home by 6:00 when I really meant that I’d be home by dinner (not necessarily the same thing). And, of course, no one in their right mind thinks that I would actually know where my daughter’s backpack is. So I almost certainly got that one wrong. In other words, it’s not hard to think of ways where each of the three statements could have failed to accomplish what I’d intended.

But saying that one of the statements could have failed to accomplish my purposes is importantly different from from saying that one of the statements contained an error. For example, on the analogy above, it’s entirely possible to say that the first statement failed (it did not convey the notion of command that I’d intended) even if the list of chores on the list was factually correct (they were in fact what I wanted her to do). And it’s not at all clear what it would mean to say that a promise (the second statement) could be factually incorrect. Promises don’t primarily give facts; they make commitments. We could say that I failed to live up to my promise if I wasn’t home by six. We could even say that I made a mistake in that I gave the wrong promise. But in that case the “error” is more in the one who promised than in the promise itself. It’s really the third kind of statement where issues of error become more prominent. When the purpose of an utterance is to convey certain kinds of information, we assess the truth value of the statement according to the standards of error or factuality.

(Another important note: Keep in mind that I’m not saying this is what these terms really mean or that we have to use them this way. In reality terms get used in all kinds of different ways. But I am saying that we need to differentiate between the different kinds of purposes texts can have and that defining infallible/inerrant in this way helps us to capture at least some of those distinctions in a useful way.)

Infallibility, inerrancy and the Bible

If we define infallibility and inerrancy in this way, we see that infallibility is the broader of the two terms. It emphasizes the idea that all the texts in the Bible will unfailingly accomplish their purpose. (Or, sometimes the term is used more holistically to convey the notion that the Bible itself unfailingly accomplishes the purpose for which God gave it.) Inerrancy, on the other hand, is a narrower term that refers primarily to those biblical texts whose purpose is to make the kinds of factual claims that we can assess according to the standards of error. On this account, then, I would say that biblical texts that convey (for example) God’s commands, promises and descriptions are infallible because they actually convey what God was really commanding, promising and describing with those texts. But only the latter might properly described as inerrant because they are the ones whose purpose is to make factual statements about the world. (To be precise, even commands and promises can contain factual statements. For example, I could say, “I promise that I was at home yesterday.” That’s a promise which contains an embedded truth claim that could be either factual or errant. But “promise” is still the essence of the statement as a whole.)

Thus, I want to say that the Bible as a whole is infallible and that those biblical texts whose purpose is to make the relevant kinds of truth claims are inerrant. That’s why I said at the beginning that I think infallible is the better term for describing the Bible as a whole. It captures the notion that the Bible unfailingly accomplishes all of its purposes. Inerrancy is the more restrictive term since it focuses properly on only certain kinds of biblical texts (those that make factual kinds of claims). Both are true, but infallibility covers more territory.

Of course, that still leaves us with the interesting task of discerning the various purposes of the biblical texts and which ones are really trying to make the kinds of claims that could be viewed as errant or inerrant. But the essence of biblical interpretation is figuring out what kinds of texts we’re dealing with and what those texts are trying to do. So there’s nothing about that task that is unique to the inerrancy discussion.

And all of this only works if we think that God is actually at work in the biblical texts. It’s only if God himself is the one commanding, promising and describing that we can talk about the texts as being infallible and/or inerrant. Since that’s something that most evangelicals agree on regardless of whether they affirm infallibility or inerrancy, though, we can save that for a different post.

Marc Cortez is a theology professor at Wheaton College, husband, father and blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books and life in general. You can follow his other posts at Everyday Theology

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