Previously: The inerrancy of Scripture
This is the third in a series of columns on the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture.
When Christians say the Bible is true, we often use terms to describe the manner in which God has spoken to us through His written Word.
One such term is “infallible.” But what does that mean?
Incapable of error
By infallibility, we mean the original manuscripts are incapable of error. This is because the Bible is inspired, or God-breathed, resulting in “autographs” that are inerrant and infallible.
If the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, and His breathed-out words are exactly what He wanted to communicate to us, then we can rightly say these autographs are incapable of error because God is wholly dependable. He does not lie, make mistakes, or lead us astray.
This eight-part series addresses common objections to the Bible as the Word of God.
Objection 4: It’s silly to assume that one book – the Bible – contains all of God’s truth and that other great writings, from the Vedas to the Book of Mormon, do not come from God.
In addressing this objection, we must begin with the claims of the documents themselves. The Bible specifically and repeatedly declares itself to be the written Word of God, while the Vedas do not. Even the Book of Mormon is called “another testament of Jesus Christ,” dangerously ignoring a Biblical mandate not to add to or take away from the Scriptures (Rev. 22:18-19).
While many religious writings contain moral and ethical truths, some of which are consistent with Scripture, only the Bible claims to be God’s written and complete revelation to mankind. “To begin with,” writes Paul E. Little, “the Bible itself claims to be the inspired Word of God. While these claims alone are not final proof, they are a significant body of data that cannot be ignored” (Know Why You Believe, p. 75).
Consider as well that the Bible answers life’s most important questions: Is there a God? How did the universe come to be? What’s my purpose in life? Why is there so much evil in the world, and what’s being done about it? Is there life after death? Are heaven and hell real? Can I know my eternal destiny? And so on. The Bible’s claim to be the Word of God is backed up by unparalleled textual, archaeological, and historical evidence. Most compelling, however, is the testimony of the Holy Spirit, who authored the Scriptures and who confirms in our human spirits the truth of God’s Word.
It’s also important to keep in mind that God has revealed Himself to mankind in three primary ways: creation, Christ, and Scripture. All people can observe creation, as the Psalmist did, and conclude that there is a divine designer behind all things (Ps. 8:3-4). And the apostle Paul wrote that God will hold us responsible for the revelation He has given us of Himself in nature (Rom. 1:18-23). At the same time, God became flesh in Jesus the Christ and declared not only to have the truth, but to be the truth (see John 1:1-3, 14, 17; 14:6). The testimonies of creation, of Jesus, and of the Bible are in complete harmony in declaring the truth of God’s revelation to us.
Four attributes of Scripture
In Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem writes that the ways in which the Bible teaches us about itself may be classified into four attributes:
1. The authority of Scripture. “The authority of Scripture means that all the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, p. 73).
- All the words in Scripture are God’s words. This is what the Bible claims for itself. In the Old Testament, for example, the phrase “thus says the Lord” appears hundreds of times. Sometimes God is quoted directly; at other times, a prophet speaks at God’s command. In the New Testament, several passages indicate that all of the Old Testament writings are God’s Word (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-1). In addition, there are two places in the New Testament where New Testament writings are called “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Peter 3:16). The Bible employs the phrase “The Word of God” 394 times in the Old Testament to refer to itself, plus it uses various synonyms such as law, statutes, precepts, commands, ordinances, and decrees, according to J.D. Douglas in The New Bible Dictionary.
- Jesus recognized the Scriptures as authoritative. To cite but two examples, He states emphatically in Matt. 5:18, “For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished.” And in John 10:35 He says “the Scripture cannot be broken.”
- We are convinced of the Bible’s claims to be God’s words as we read the Bible. The Holy Spirit, who inspired all of Scripture, speaks in and through the words of the Bible to our hearts and confirms their truth. Writes Grudem, “In a world free from sin, the Bible would commend itself convincingly to all people as God’s Word. But because sin distorts people’s perception of reality, they do not recognize Scripture for what it really is. Therefore it requires the work of the Holy Spirit, overcoming the effects of sin, to enable us to be persuaded that the Bible is indeed the Word of God and that the claims it makes for itself are true” (p. 79).
- To disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God.
- God cannot lie of speak falsely. Paul writes in Titus 1:2 of “God, who cannot lie.” And Heb. 6:18 says “it is impossible for God to lie.”
- Therefore all the words in Scripture are completely true and without error in any part. Since the words of the Bible are God’s words, and because He cannot lie, we may be confident that there is neither untruthfulness nor error in the Bible.
The authority of Scripture includes the inerrancy of Scripture. “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact,” writes Grudem (p. 90). Put another way, “In the original manuscripts, the thoughts God wanted written were written. The words the writers used were guarded by God” (Little, p. 83).
- Since the Bible is God’s Word, it always tells the truth. “God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind” (Num. 23:19).
- The Bible is inerrant yet speaks in the ordinary language of human beings. The Holy Spirit inspired 40 men over a period of more than 1,200 years to record His written revelation to mankind. These men used their own thoughts, expressions and writing styles yet were so guided by the Holy Spirit as to record exactly what God placed upon their hearts. “God worked through the instrumentality of human personality but so guided and controlled the people that what they wrote is what he wanted written” (Little, p. 77).
- The Bible is inerrant yet includes “loose” or “free” quotations. For example, written Greek at the time of the New Testament had no quotation marks or equivalent kinds of punctuation, and an accurate citation of another person needed only to include an accurate representation of the content of what the person said.
- To the charge that the Bible is only authoritative for “faith and practice” it may be argued that the Bible repeatedly affirms that all Scripture is profitable for us and all is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17); it is pure (Ps. 12:6); it is perfect (Ps. 119:96); and it makes no restrictions on its application to our lives.
2. The clarity of Scripture. “It would be a mistake to think that most of Scripture or Scripture in general is difficult to understand. In fact, the Old Testament and New Testament frequently affirm that Scripture is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by ordinary believers” (Grudem, p. 105).
- The Bible frequently affirms its own clarity. Moses, for example, tells the people of Israel: “These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:6-7).
- The New Testament writers frequently state that the ability to understand Scripture rightly is more a moral and spiritual ability than an intellectual one (see 1 Cor. 2:13-15; 2 Cor. 3:14-16, 4:3-4; Heb. 5:14; James 1:5-6).
- “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” (Grudem, p. 108).
- There are two causes for disagreements over the clarity of Scripture: 1) we may be seeking affirmations where Scripture is silent; and 2) we may be wrongly interpreting Scripture. This is no reflection on Scripture; it is a reflection on us.
- Scholars play an important role in understanding Scripture. They may teach Scripture clearly, explore new areas of understanding the teachings of the Bible, defend the doctrines of Scripture against attacks, and supplement the study of Scripture for the benefit of the church.
3. The necessity of Scripture. “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral laws” (Grudem, p. 116).
- The Bible is necessary for salvation in this sense, writes Grudem: One must either read the gospel message in the Bible for itself, or hear it from another person. Even those believers who came to salvation under the old covenant did so by trusting in the words of God that promised a Savior to come (p. 117).
- The Bible is necessary for maintaining spiritual life. For example, Jesus, quoting Deut. 8:3, said, “Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And Moses spoke to the Israelites concerning the words of God’s law, “they are your life” (Deut. 32:47).
- The Bible is necessary for certain knowledge of God’s will. If there were no written Word of God, we could not gain certainty about God’s will through other means such as conscience or wise counsel; while they might provide a general sense of God’s will, they do not spell out in detail God’s perfect and holy standards, and we are left with the best that our sinful and fallen natures can ascertain.
- General revelation – the knowledge of God’s existence, character, and moral law – comes to all people through creation. But Scripture nowhere indicates that people can know the way of salvation through general revelation. It takes special revelation – God’s words addressed to specific people, as well as the revelation of Christ through His incarnation and finished work on the cross – to know these truths.
- “The Bible never views human speculation apart from the Word of God as a sufficient basis on which to rest saving faith,” writes Grudem. “Such saving faith, according to Scripture, is always confidence or trust in God that rests on the truthfulness of God’s own words” (p. 124).
4. The sufficiency of Scripture. “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, p. 127).
- We can find all that God has said on particular topics, and we can find answers to our questions. It is possible to study systematic theology and ethics and find answers to our questions.
- The amount of Scripture given was sufficient at each stage of redemptive history. At the time of Moses’ death, the first five books of the Old Testament were sufficient for God’s people. And for Christians today, the Old and New Testaments are sufficient for us during the church age.
- This does not imply that God cannot add any more words to those he has already spoken to His people. Rather “it implies that man cannot add on his own initiative any words to those that God has already spoken. Furthermore, it implies that in fact God has not spoken to mankind any more words which he requires us to believe or obey other than those which we have now in the Bible” (Grudem, p. 129).
- The sufficiency of Scripture reminds us that we are to add nothing to, or take anything away from, the Bible.
- It tells us that God does not require us to believe anything about Him or His redemptive work that is not found in Scripture.
- It tells us no modern revelations from God or man are to be placed on a level equal to Scripture in authority.
- It reminds us that nothing is sin that is not forbidden by Scripture either explicitly or by implication.
- It tells us that nothing is required of us by God that is not commanded in Scripture either explicitly or by implication.
- Finally, the sufficiency of Scripture reminds us that we should emphasize what Scripture emphasizes and be content with what God has already revealed to us in His Word.
In summary, there are countless good and moral writings that have been left with us since ancient time, many of which agree in part or in full with Scripture. These may be read for encouragement, comparison, study, or a variety of other reasons. But only the Bible makes the unique claim to be the full written revelation of God. It is authoritative, clear, necessary, and sufficient.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips