In the Intro to Christian Theology course that I am currently taking, we recently had a discussion on Biblical inerrancy and infallibility. This particular debate between the two ideas has been the cause of much diversion in the Christian community. Unfortunately, much of the problem lies in having differing understandings of the concepts, especially inerrancy.
First, it will help to have a general definition of the two terms:
- Biblical Inerrancy: The belief that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind.
- Biblical Infallibility: The belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true.
In looking at inerrancy, a huge problem lies in how you define “error.” Here is an example: In 1 Corinthians 10:8, Paul is referring back to the book of Numbers, and he says that 23,000 Israelites died. But, looking at Numbers 25:1-9, it says that 24,000 Israelites died. Is this an error? If not, what is it?
Here is another example: In Mark 4:30-32, Jesus is describing the kingdom of God which he says “is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” The mustard seed is definitely not the smallest seed on earth. Is this an error?
While the debate between those who believe in Biblical inerrancy and those who believe in Biblical infallibility continues, it should be known that even those within each group disagree, especially those who believe in infallibility. A great example of this can be highlighted with some comments that John Piper made to Bethel University’s affirmation of faith statement when he was applying to become a professor there in 1976, which is now posted on Desiring God’s website entitled “How Are the Synoptics ‘Without Error’?”. When you read through this article, you will notice that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish his belief from Biblical inerrancy – though he stands by the term inerrancy. Are you able to tell the difference? If so, I’d like to hear!
My professor, Roger E. Olson, believes everything that John Piper believes about the Bible in the article linked above. Yet, he prefers to call it infallibility instead of inerrancy. Here is an article that Dr. Olson wrote back in 2010 entitled, “Why inerrancy doesn’t matter“. He prefers to be more accurate in terminology so as to not confuse or cloud meanings.
This is definitely an interesting debate. From what I know and have studied thus far, I absolutely agree with everything John Piper wrote in his article. But, I also agree with Roger E. Olson in that the term that seems better suited for this is infallibility.
What do you think? Do you have any input or insight you’d like to add?