Inerrant Text ≠ Inerrant Interpretation (TGC)


I recently ran across a couple of different writers raising questions about the value of affirming inerrancy or infallibility for the Bible, both of which hinged on the link between the text and interpretation. One wondered aloud at the coherence of claiming an infallible text when you’re a finite sinner, whose faculties are limited, likely disordered by sin and self-will, and whose interpretations must therefore be flawed. The other, a little more boldly, claimed the doctrine unnecessary, only serving human arrogance by lending added weight to the claimant’s own fallible pronouncements.

While both objections are quite understandable, and the first quite reasonable, they share a common failure to distinguish between theological claims being made about the Bible itself, and those for our interpretation of the Bible. In other words, it’s the difference between inspiration and illumination, and their relationship to the text.

I clarify these relationships and give two reasons why an infallible text matters despite our errant interpretations here at the The Gospel Coalition.

7 thoughts on “Inerrant Text ≠ Inerrant Interpretation (TGC)

  1. I have really struggled with this issue! Here is my bottom line question: Isn’t it true that we only have access to fallible texts? An infallible text of Scripture doesn’t exist for us today! For some reason, God in His good providence has seen to it that we wouldn’t possess an infallible text of Scripture. Any thoughts on why and why this is good for us?

    • Brad –
      why do you say we only have access to fallible texts? B/c we don;t have the originals? What if i told you i didn’t have the original plays written by Shakespeare but that i had over 2500 copies of the play from various times w/i 50-100 years of those plays being written and they were all virtually identical? Would you say i had Shakespeare’s plays or just “fallible”, copies that were probably not what Shakespeare wrote?

      • I think everyone on all sides of the discussion admit that we only have “fallible” and “errant” copies. The doctrine of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture only deals with the autographa, or original manuscripts. And this doctrine does not teach that inerrancy and infallibility are part of the transmission or translation process.

        With the Shakespeare example, I would check the copies and see if there are any differences or contradictions between one another. If there were, I would then say we had “fallible” or “errant” copies of the original.

      • I woud agree that most statements of faith are quick to state that inerrancy/infallibility relate to the original manuscripts, yes. But i would be quick to ask you to define your terms carefully. The informed reader may be able to say, “yes, my ESV translation of the OT/NT canon are not infallible,” but to many uniformed readers, they often see those words and say, “Oh good – we don’t even know if the bible is right and so i don’t have to follow it/live by it/etc.” We still need to be able to say that centuries of Hebrew/Greek study give us an accurate representation of the infallible Words of God and they can be trusted absolutely.
        As to why it is good that we don’t have the original manuscripts, i think part of the answer could lie in the way we also don’t have the Arc of the covenant or the 10 commandments on the stone tablets b/c human nature often defaults to idolatry even of good things. Ergo, there could be a danger of men and women venerating (even worshiping) the manuscripts and not the God they write about. Beyond that, God probably also knew that the rest of the world would not be speaking two, now dead, languages for all human history and location and so we were permitted accurate translations into our own language. This is one of the problems with a faith like Islam that would say it is better that you not be able to read their Scriptures/know about Allah, than to translate them accurately into English/French/etc.

  2. I find it encouraging that you are careful enough to associate inerrancy with truthfulness rather than factual accuracy. It would be great to hear your thoughts on the issue of truth and fact.

  3. Pingback: Inerrancy: Which methodologies? Who Decides? | Political Jesus

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