Inspiration and Infallibility
In this article we intend to cover in a straightforward way the meaning and importance of two concepts which are associated with the written Word of God – inspiration and infallibility. At one time it could be assumed that evangelical believers held unswervingly to each of these, but no longer. Many now hesitate to affirm that the terms apply to the Bible which they hold in their hands and some are even unsure as to their relation to the original writings. Can we be confident that the Scriptures are truly trustworthy?
"And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
OUR English word "inspiration" is derived from Latin and occurs just twice in our English translation of the Scriptures. Firstly it is found in the Old Testament, where we read in Job: "But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding" (Job 32:8). "Breath" is the meaning of the Hebrew word used here. The speaker is Elihu. He is hesitant to contribute to the discussion between Job and his three companions because of his youth. But he is also conscious of the fact that wisdom is from God. His Spirit is in His people and this is the source of true knowledge pertaining to salvation.
The second use of the word is in the verses quoted from Timothy, which form the key passage in the biblical conception of inspiration.
1. The Need of Inspiration
"...the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation..."
Timothy is reminded by the apostle Paul of the place which the Word of God had occupied in his life since his infancy. It was the instrument graciously used to lead him to a saving trust in Jesus Christ.
The general revelation which God has given of Himself, in man's spiritual constitution and in the works of creation and providence, is not adequate to provide men with that knowledge which they require for salvation. Since the fall sinners hold back in unrighteousness the truth which constantly confronts them (Rom. 1:20). Natural revelation now speaks to man's depraved state, revealing the wrath of God as well as declaring His glory (Rom. 1:18-20).
Even in paradise special revelation was required, for we read of the instruction our first parents received regarding their duties and privileges and the particular command which had respect to one of the trees of the garden (Gen. 1:28-30; 2:16,17). Subsequent to the fall God provided further revelation, now making known the way of reconciliation (Rom. 1:16,17). This revelation was 'special' in that it was not given to mankind generally but to those from among whom the Lord would gather His elect. The psalmist highlights this fact: "He sheweth his word to Jacob, his statutes and his judgments to Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them. Praise ye the Lord" (Psa. 147:19,20).
Special revelation always signifies word revelation, which in turn implies inspiration. Whether that revelation to His people was by theophany, vision or dream, there was always made ready a man of God through whom the Lord would also communicate verbally. "God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets" (Heb. 1:1). The long ages of the patriarchs enabled the safe transmission of this immediate revelation to their posterity. Latterly God was pleased, for the benefit of His church, to commit the whole of His revealed will to a written form.
Inspiration was essential to secure the faithful transcription of that will. For us the Scriptures are "most necessary" (Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. I.i). All the other modes of special revelation have ceased too, contrary to the wilder claims of the charismatic movement. The Bible is a marvel, not simply because it was inspired, but because it is inspired by a perpetual "re-inspiration". The Old Testament, first written centuries before, made Timothy truly wise. Moreover, although his mother was Jewish his father was Greek (Acts 16:1) and it is likely that the young boy was given his schooling from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
The process of translation does not at all destroy inspiration: a faithful rendering of the original Hebrew or Greek text into a different language carries with it this precious quality. Thus the purpose declared by Paul is fulfilled, that believers under the New Testament should receive a blessing for their souls from the Scriptures of the Old Testament: "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom. 15:4; cf. 1 Cor. 10:11).
2. The Fact of Inspiration
"...scripture is given by inspiration of God..."
In these words the bare fact of inspiration is stated. The mechanics of inspiration are nowhere revealed to us in the Bible but the reality of it is. Even the term in the Greek original, θεόπνευστος, does not present us with an indication of the exact method God employed in bringing His Word to man. The best writers have been wisely cautious when attempting to give a definition of the process of biblical inspiration; they typically describe the power which the Holy Spirit exercised upon the human authors as "mysterious."
Certainly it is the belief of true evangelicals that God has secured an infallible transmission of His own special revelation to man; but does this force us to fix upon a particular theory of inspiration? Liberal opponents of the historic position wish to box evangelicals into a corner here by unfavourably characterising our belief as "divine dictation" and comparing the process to the passive way in which the stenographer or shorthand-writer functions.
We may go as far as to say that in the Holy Scriptures God has secured the same result as would be obtained by a mechanical dictation, in that the thoughts of His mind have been conveyed through selected human instruments to writing; we may also say that the Scriptures themselves contain the suggestion of a sort of dictation (e.g. 2 Sam. 23:2; Isa. 51:16, 1 Cor. 2:13; Rev. 2:1). How else are we to understand the experience of the Lord's servants such as Jeremiah: "Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth" (Jer. 1:9)? It is a caricature though of our position to suggest that it reduces the role of the apostles and prophets to something like that of a fax machine.
The liberal critics believe that they have the 'fundamentalist' on the horns of a dilemma. They say that there are only two possibilities: firstly, if the Bible text was entirely from God, it would have had to be dictated mechanically (which idea is absurd); or secondly, if man enters into it throughout, the Scriptures are inevitably fallible, full of legend, exaggeration and other mistakes (which would make its testimony unacceptable).
The problem for these critics is their refusal to believe in the miraculous. We have a Bible which is fully divine, yet not to the exclusion of the element of human personality. "For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Pet. 1:21). Men spoke but the Spirit of God controlled their utterances. He "moved" them. They were carried along, as Paul and his companions were by the mighty wind Euroclydon when on a ship sailing to Italy (Acts 27:17).
Moreover we are not to think that the Lord seized upon men who were unprepared and untrained for the purpose. It was "holy men of God" who spoke. There had been a work of providence and of grace to produce men fit for the task. The preparatory work had been going on culturally, intellectually and even emotionally throughout their former lives and even in their ancestors. The Lord said to Jeremiah: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations" (Jer. 1:5). Paul could recount: "But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen" (Gal. 1:16,17). If the Incarnate Word could be so prepared ("a body hast thou prepared me" – Heb. 10:5) then so could the humble penmen of the written Word.
The method of inspiration used by God in the production of Holy Scripture is such that the divine and human cannot be identified or distinguished. The same words of Holy Scripture may be attributed alternately to God Himself and to the human penman. This is clear from the way in which Psalm 110 is cited in the New Testament:
"And David himself saith in the book of Psalms, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I make thine enemies thy footstool" (Luke 20:42).
"He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?" (Matt. 22:43-44).
"For David himself said by the Holy Ghost, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool" (Mark 12:36).
"But to which of the angels said he (i.e. God – v.1) at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?
Do we maintain the inspiration of the human penmen themselves or of their writings? These authors were fallible men: their sinful failings are exhibited in Scripture for us. Indeed it is not the least of the arguments in favour of biblical inspiration that the penmen record so frankly their own faults (e.g. David in Psa. 73:22). Some seem not to have been conscious of inspiration at all times (Luke 1:3; cf. John 11:49-52). Others certainly were aware of being under inspiration (2 Pet. 3:2; 1 John 4:6; 1 Thess. 2:13). Yet it is to their words as preserved by God in the Bible that we now look, not to the men themselves.
3. The Extent of Inspiration
"...All scripture is given by inspiration of God..."
On theological grounds some have sought to evade the force of the word "all" in our text. Gaussen describes three ways in which the orthodox doctrine is challenged:
(i) Divine inspiration is non-existent. This view attributes to Holy Scripture nothing more than the 'inspiration' of the poet or novelist, a purely natural power. Therefore the Bible is no more inspired than the writings of Cicero or Shakespeare. Such a view is at a complete loss to explain the content of the Bible, which includes many things that men could not have known apart from supernatural revelation. Messianic prophecy is a case at point. Scripture itself affirms that its human authors were not always aware of the significance or meaning of what they were writing (1 Pet. 1:10,11).
(ii) Divine inspiration is not universal. The existence of divine inspiration is allowed, but only in a portion of the canon, not the whole. This is the realm of the so-called "Higher Critic", who by some uncanny skill is able to determine for us which parts of the Scripture are authentic, and which are the mere compositions of men. Rarely do such critics agree with one another! That the prejudice of such men blinds them to the wonderful truth of the divine inspiration of the Word of God is seen in the following dogmatic assertions of C.H. Dodd, who incredibly was for many years a Vice-President of the British and Foreign Bible Society:
"Moses.....was a magician, a medicine man, whose magic wand wrought wonders of deliverance and destruction. That was how the people regarded him. To separate history from legend in the stories of his career is impossible and not very profitable."
"There are sayings (of Jesus), not many indeed, which either simply are not true, in their plain meaning, or are unacceptable to the conscience or reason of Christian people."
(iii) Divine inspiration is not plenary. This view approaches nearest to the orthodox one. The whole Bible is indeed inspired, it is said, but not to an equal degree, i.e. it is not all fully or plenarily inspired. On this view, Scripture is only fully inspired, in the sense of the individual words, when certain aspects of revelation are involved – prophecy rather than history, doctrine rather than narrative.
It has to be said that nowhere does the Bible itself warrant such a distinction. History and narrative are inextricably linked to prophecy and doctrine: all are involved for instance in that great theme of the Bible, the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. We stress that all the writings of the Bible are equally inspired of God – whether it is the speech of a man cursing God's servant (2 Sam. 16:6,7) or the sublimest statement on the love of God (John 3:16). True, the former was not inspired by the Holy Spirit in its original utterance, but equally with the statement of the beloved disciple it is inspired in its recording in Scripture.
We believe that inspiration extends to the very words and to all the words of the Bible (1 Cor. 2:13). Some of these words the human authors "sought to find out" (Ecc. 12:10). We may go further and state that inspiration must extend to the very letters of Scripture. In Galatians 3:16 the apostle builds his argument on the distinction between the singular and the plural of the word "seed" – a difference indicated at the level of individual letters. To settle the argument, the Living Word Himself speaks of the "jot" and the "tittle" – the smallest letter and the smallest part of a letter in the Hebrew language – as being of significance in the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 5:18).
4. The Consequence of Inspiration
"...and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works."
Because the Bible is inspired Jesus could pray for His own, "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (John 17:17). The Bible must be the supreme authority therefore in the Christian's life, our only rule to direct us. Only in feeding upon the Holy Scriptures and heeding the voice of the Good Shepherd speaking in them will the believer know fellowship with God.
The power of the inspired Word is seen as Paul speaks in universals: "perfect", "throughly furnished", "every good work". There is no situation in which we as believers are placed, no demand that arises, for which the Scriptures as the deposit of the manifold wisdom of God are not adequate and amply sufficient. This is so because they are nothing less than the lively oracles of God.
"The scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35).
In his book on the Shorter Catechism published last century the Rev. Robert Steel provides the following anecdotes – among many others – which help to illustrate the proper regard we should have for the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God written:
"A motion was once made in the English Parliament to raise and embody the militia; and, in order to save time, to exercise them on the Sabbath. When the motion was about to pass, an old gentleman rose up and said, 'Mr. Speaker, I have one objection to this, – I believe in an old book called the Bible.' The members looked at one another, and the motion was dropped."
"In the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, during a cold age, one of the members asked what right had they to send missionaries among the heathen. Dr. Erskine rose up and said, 'Moderator, reach me that Bible;' and he read Christ's command in Matthew 28:19,20."
To be "infallible" is to be reliable, to be certain and sure. When our Lord said to the Jews who were threatening to stone Him, "the scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35), He was in fact affirming the infallibility of the Old Testament, and, by implication, of the whole Bible. He did not say "this scripture cannot be broken," referring to the particular verse in Psalm 82 which He had just quoted, but "the scripture," meaning the whole canon. The word "broken" might be rendered in a literal way "loosed." A believer may break God's law by transgressing it and yet retain his respect and love for that law. The unbeliever though 'looses' himself in his mind from the law of God; to him it has no force, it is not binding, for he does not believe it, just as he does not believe in its Author. In God's account however the Scripture is 'unbroken', binding upon all: men are bound to obey it, as it will witness against them in the Judgment Day. It is "the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy God."
Although the terms "infallibility" and "inerrancy" are often used interchangeably it is possible to make a distinction between them. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of twenty years ago, drawn up by assorted evangelicals, included the following definitions:
"Infallible signifies the quality of neither misleading nor being misled and so safeguards in categorical terms the truth that Holy Scripture is a sure, safe and reliable guide in all matters.
Similarly, inerrant signifies the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistakes and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions."
The sum of the foregoing is this: inerrancy is that quality of the Bible which means that it is wholly true; infallibility is that quality of the Bible which means that it is wholly trustworthy. It can be seen that the latter really depends upon the former - and that both are the inevitable consequence of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.
Character of God
We believe, as the Shorter Catechism teaches, that God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in all His attributes, including His truth. He is "the true God" (Jer. 10:10) and He is "abundant in goodness and truth" (Exod. 34:6). It is expressly said that God "cannot lie" (Tit. 1:2; cf. Num. 23:19, 1 Sam. 15:29). This is an obvious presumption in favour of the belief that the Word to which His name is so constantly attached is itself wholly true and trustworthy.
The divine perfection of truth or truthfulness means that God is true firstly to Himself, in that He always brings to pass what He has purposed in His eternal counsel. In the second place it means that God is true to His creation, in that He always fulfils the promises He has made to the work of His hands. Never can we say that the Lord has not kept His word to us! He is ever faithful in His acts of providence. We think of that great promise respecting the world, made millennia ago and fulfilled each year: "While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease" (Gen. 8:22). We think moreover of the promises made to His people for their comfort: "The works of his hands are verity and judgment; all his commandments are sure. They stand fast for ever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness. He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name" (Psa. 111:7-9). God is unerring in His providence.
The truthfulness of God is most clearly displayed in the Scriptures, for "thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name" (Psa. 138:2). Scripture is the mouthpiece of God; the two Testaments are the two lips by which the Holy Spirit speaks to men. Thus we have statements such as the following: "this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake" (Acts 1:16; cf. 28:25; Heb. 3:7). By inspiration God secured that all that the human penmen of the Bible wrote was true, although not all in the same way. We read sublime utterances about Christ and His saving work and rejoice in the truth of these. But we may also read the words of wicked men like the high priest who said of Christ, "He hath spoken blasphemy" (Matt. 26:65). Clearly these are not true in the same sense. The first is objectively true; the second is true only in that it is a faithful record of what a man said amiss.
When God by His Spirit placed His chosen words in the minds and mouths of His chosen instruments He did not then abandon those precious words, entrusting them thereafter to fallible men. He continued to superintend them in His providence through the dictation, writing, copying and translation processes which were necessary to bring His truth to the world. The Lord Jesus Himself assures us: "My words shall not pass away" (Matt. 24:35). So the church has always confessed her confidence in "the Scripture of truth" – as for example in these words from the Formula Consensus Helvetica, the doctrinal standard of the Swiss Reformed Church which Francis Turretin helped to compose:
"God, the Supreme Judge, not only took care to have His word, which is the 'power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth' (Rom. 1:16), committed to writing by Moses, the Prophets, and the Apostles, but has also watched and cherished it with paternal care over since it was written up to the present time, so that it could not be corrupted by craft of Satan or fraud of man. Therefore the Church justly ascribes it to His singular grace and goodness that she has, and will have to the end of the world, a 'sure word of prophecy' and 'Holy Scriptures' (2 Tim. 3:15), from which, though heaven and earth perish, 'one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass' (Matt. 5:18)."
In the Scriptures we find the veracity of the divine promises to saints and threatenings to sinners asserted by both God and men, e.g. 1 Kings 8:56; Jer. 4:28; 2 Cor. 1:20. All these most surely come to pass, having their ultimate fulfilment at the return of Christ and the last judgment.
There have of course been many attempts to allege and to actually demonstrate inconsistencies in the Bible. Men have found fault with its morality, its history, its science. All such attempts have failed and are bound to fail. The Bible is an anvil which has worn out many hammers; it is a rock which has proved impregnable against all the winds and waves of unbelieving criticism.
The great design of the Bible is revealed in 2 Timothy 3:17: "That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works." It is perfectly suited to that end, although it is not a complete textbook on every discipline that must be acquired in order to fulfil the divine mandate, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion..." (Gen. 1:28). E.J. Young in his Thy Word is Truth describes how we should view the Scriptures in connection with science, etc.:
"The Bible, it is often said, is not a textbook of astronomy. That we freely grant. The Bible nowhere claims to be such a textbook. It is, however, a textbook of the philosophy of astronomy; when the Bible speaks, as in Genesis 1, upon astronomical matters, it is absolutely in accord with fact in what it says.....The Bible, we must conclude, is infallible in all that it says, or we cannot be sure that it is infallible in anything. We cannot with any consistency maintain that only in the realm of faith and practice is it without error."
The Bible itself tells us to expect a rising tide of opposition to revealed truth in the times in which we now live. "There shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation" (2 Pet. 3:3,4). Are there not many today who mock at the idea of "the end of all things"? Because they have wilfully rejected the teaching of Scripture concerning the first cataclysm, the Flood, for all their learning they are sadly ignorant regarding the cataclysm to come, the fire which shall consume the heavens and the earth. To them an infallible Bible says: "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness....the day of the Lord will come" (2 Pet. 3:9,10).
The great fact which flows from the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture is the authority it therefore has over our lives. As the Word of God the Bible must be the supreme standard for belief and behaviour in the life of the church and in the life of every individual.
In conclusion, Professor Gaussen indicates the preciousness of an infallible Bible to the Lord's people:
"The Scriptures descend, like Moses from the holy mount, bearing to us the tables of testimony. Where you have dreaded obscurity, there you find light; where there has been raised an objection, God converts it into a witness; where there has been a doubt, there rests an assurance."