The Bible is infallible, but infallible for What?

By Robert Brow - June 1999 (web site -

If we look at a book or article by human author we might focus on the factual accuracy of the details recorded. I would prefer to ask if it successfully achieves the purpose of the writer. A writer who was infallible would be one who perfectly achieved what he or she had in mind.

That suggests that infallibility resides in the mind of the author, not in the details of the text.

A great writer includes all sorts of behaviour, opinions, judgments, rules, motive, outcomes which he or she does not approve. It is therefore wrong to take any part of a book or article out of context and say it is the writer's infallible word.

Now turning to the Bible, Christians view the 66 books of the Old and New Testament as the word of God. I view myself as an evangelical because I believe the Bible as a whole is the infallible word of God. Over two thousand years and through many fallible writers, God has brought it into being to perform His infallible purpose. And that is to convey to us the good news of his love and his purpose to perfect us in love.

The Old Testament therefore includes many examples of religious and political wrongness that needed to be corrected. And the New Testament reveals how the Son took birth among us to correct Jewish interpretations of the ten commandments, and laws and attitudes which they had adopted.

It therefore seems to me pernicious to pick on Old Testament details of behaviour, opinions, judgments, rules, precepts, motives, outcomes, etc. and call these infallible. Infallibility only resides in what God has in the mind for the Bible to achieve his purpose in every nation and my life in particular.

In selecting and arranging the contents of the Bible God gives us a very unvarnished story of the political and religious history of the Jewish people. It is put in 'warts and all' with many examples of failure and disastrous behaviour. God could have chosen to begin with the story of any other nation, but the Bible would have been unreadable if it included the story of every nation. I therefore guess that God as the ultimate author of the Bible wanted us to look at the outworkings of the Jewish story, and the prophetic comments on it, and then observe the same kinds of mistake in our national story.

When the Son of God came into our world he made it clear that some Jewish interpretations of the ten commandments (see Matthew 5:21-48) were just plain wrong. Their patriarchal view of marriage and divorce was equally wrong. And their animal sacrifices (which were at first a means of giving thanks for the life of the animals killed for their food) had changed into ritualism and priestcraft. These were already found faulty by the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah 1:11-13), and they are decisively replaced in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Orthodox Jewish people still try to keep the kosher laws written in Leviticus 11. These food laws may have been useful for surviving in the wilderness. But Jesus decisively undermined these as universal rules for all nations. "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?" Mark added the comment "Thus he declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:18-19). But Peter was so convinced of the rules in Leviticus that the Lord himself had to tell him three times that he must disobey them to free the universal church from this bondage. "What God made clean, you must not call profane" (Acts 10:11-16. The usual translation is : "what God has made clean" as if the laws were only changed at that time, but the Greek verb is an aorist).

I therefore view the Old Testament as an infallible account of the Jewish patriarchal culture, but we are not to accept their laws as reflecting the mind of God. All nations who go to war claim that God has ordered them to do it, or is at least on their side (the recent high tech ravaging of Serb territory is an example of this). To this day the Taliban in Afghanistan and many other Muslims view the subjection of women as required by God. The keeping of slaves and apartheid only a century ago was also justified by the idea that God ordered it.

God therefore correctly reported for his infallible purposes the way the Jewish people used God to justify all sorts of immoral behaviour (as we have done in all other nations). Through His Son he then showed how and why much of what Moses (and the Pharisees) imagined was the mind of God was erroneous. That means all of the ten commandments need to be interpreted in the light of Jesus principle of loving God with all one's heart and one's neighbour as oneself. And Jesus defined and exemplified love as caring about the freedom of the other.

We can therefore view the Bible as infallible without the enormity of trying to defend a God who is pictured as being as immoral as Hitler and the Taliban. It is the Bible as a whole (the OT as corrected by the life and words of Jesus and explained in the Epistles) that is infallible, not particular texts quoted out of the total context of what God has in mind.

I do not use the category of "inerrant in the original documents." I don't deny that God could have guaranteed some form of inerrancy, but the definition I like is functional : "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4.12). It does not help to ask if a sword is inerrant. It does help to ask if a particular person can use it effectively. By any standard God uses the Bible with astonishing effect. I assume that he uses it infallibly for the purpose He has in mind.

This model allows me to say that the written word of God has always been infallible for God's particular purpose at that time and in that place. When the story of the Exodus was first written by Moses and Joshua God used it to form the Jewish people. As the prophetic writings were included, they conveyed a view of history which viewed the Messiah (the Lord as anointed King) as intervening in days of the Lord. When David wrote psalms, and others added to that hymn book, God used that as a guide for human emotions.

When the OT was translated into Greek, the Septuagint became a very effective "two-edged sword" for the Greek world. The Coptic and Latin translations also worked powerfully, as did Luther's German version, the King James, and each modern translation has been used by God to touch different groups of people in our world. In India I saw the incredibly beautiful Urdu version doing its work, as has happened in a thousand other languages.

In God's hand a first rough translation of the Gospels by a Wycliffe Bible Translator for a primitive tribe has astonishing effects. Mistakes in translation will be corrected in due course, but meanwhile God can infallibly use a sword that looks pretty rusty to us.

(This an edited extract from a discussion on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list June 20 to 22, 1999)

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