What Is Meant By ‘Infallible’

One of the critiques of the statement last week from the leading pastors and theologians group calling for conversation around the possibility of amicable separation, involved the claim that orthodox, evangelical, and traditionalist United Methodists believe in the “infallibility” of Scripture.  The statement includes this description of one aspect of our current crisis:

It is a crisis regarding the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures, where some believe that, rightly understood, the Bible is the infallible word of God, and where others believe that significant parts of the Scriptures do not provide an accurate understanding of God’s heart and mind and may be discarded as uninspired and in error.

The criticism has been made that United Methodists have never believed in the infallibility of Scripture, and that the word is too undefined to be helpful in this discussion.  I would like to address this criticism, not on behalf of the group of leading pastors and theologians, but on behalf of the evangelical movement within United Methodism, of which Good News has been a leading participant for many years.

First, it is important to note that John Wesley himself used the word “infallible” to describe the Scriptures.  In his sermon on “The Means of Grace,” Wesley says, “The same truth (namely, that this is the great means God has ordained for conveying his manifold grace to man) is delivered, in the fullest manner that can be conceived, in the words which immediately follow: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God;’ consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true; ‘and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness;’ to the end ‘that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)” (emphasis added).  So it is false to say that Methodists have never believed in the infallibility of Scripture.

But what does “infallible” mean when applied to the Bible?  The dictionary definition of “infallible” in a theological sense is:  “incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals” (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary).  So the emphasis of the word infallible is that the Bible can be trusted to tell the truth when it comes to the doctrinal or moral teachings of the Christian Church.

Some who believe in the infallibility of the Bible are also inerrantists, believing that the Scripture is without error in all it teaches or affirms.  (This would include the historical information contained in Scripture, as well as other matters not related to doctrine or morals.)  Others who believe in the infallibility of the Bible would restrict their understanding that the Bible is without error to only the doctrinal or moral matters that it addresses, and would thus not be true inerrantists.

What we mean when we say that the Bible is the infallible word of God is no more or less than what our doctrinal standards affirm about Scripture.

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation (Articles of Religion, Article V). 

Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral (Articles of Religion, Article VI).

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.  Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation (Confession of Faith, Article IV).

In other words, the Bible is our supreme authority for faith and practice, doctrine and morals.  We are not entitled as Christians to set aside or ignore the teachings of Scripture.

The group’s statement qualifies the infallibility of the Bible with the phrase “rightly understood.”  So the discussion on the theological and moral teaching of the church turns on the “right” understanding of Scripture.  This is where tradition, reason, and experience step in to help us rightly understand the Bible.  These can help us to correctly interpret the Bible’s teachings.  They are servants of the word, however, not judges of it.  It is not acceptable to override the teaching of Scripture based on human reason or personal experience, for example.

The presenting issue of the current crisis is the church’s teachings about homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage.  Many of the approaches to using Scripture to justify same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior arise out of a desire to accommodate people’s personal experience of homosexuality (either their own or that of a loved one).  Although these approaches must be fairly considered, one must guard against the possibility that one’s personal experience is skewing one’s interpretation of Scripture.  (That is why tradition can be such a helpful anchor, since it encompasses the Church’s teachings across the centuries and in many different cultures, guarding against interpretations that are too closely bound to a particular culture or experience.)

Others who support same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior simply believe that the Bible is wrong about this issue, based on recent “findings” of science.  While it is important to take the results of scientific study into account, one must guard against the tendency to reject Scriptural teaching as “pre-scientific” and therefore inferior to modern understandings.  After all, science deals with “what is,” not with “what ought to be.”  It is descriptive, not prescribing what is morally right or wrong.

If the Bible is the infallible word of God, it is God’s self-revelation to us.  As such, it ought to inform our personal experience, not the other way around.  It ought to inform our human reasoning and our scientific understanding, not the other way around.

The Bible is not God, and those who believe in its infallibility do not worship the Bible.  But the Bible is God’s most objective and detailed way of communicating with us, God’s people.  Its infallibility means we can trust the Bible to truly communicate to us what God wants us to believe and how God wants us to live.  To ignore or disobey the teachings of Scripture is to contradict its infallibility, which puts us on a completely different theological path altogether.  What do you think?

21 thoughts on “What Is Meant By ‘Infallible’

  1. This is a common-sense, balanced perspective. I don’t know how anyone could disagree with the main points in this article since they strike me as so obvious.

  2. If the Bible is not the infallible Word of God, then one can logically assume that there is no Absolute Truth, therefore, no full atonement for our sins. Without absolute truth then moral relativism runs rampant. A might vs. right mentality. Jesus asked, “Who do you say I AM?” Without absolute truth, He is just another mouth piece who walked this earth dispensing “fortune cookie” advice. The theological divide is great and can be debated until we all die or Christ does indeed return. Putting theology aside: I’m afraid that there are many clergy and laity who are so entrenched and invested in our UMC “buracacy” that they are more concerned with who has control of the UMC financial assets. Their desire for power and money trumps theology!

  3. This is very well written. It will be well received by those who support a Biblical theology. It will not be well received by those whose theology is not Biblical.

  4. I believe the Bible is God-breathed and is infallible. Wonderful posting on the infallibility of God’s word.

  5. What then do we do with 1 Timothy 2:12? Is The UMC in error to permit women to preach, teach and be ordained? We cannot claim the bible to be infallible and ignore the differences in reading between the nineteenth and twentieth century regarding women and leadership.

    1. Because of the personal pronoun “I” the passage in question is perhaps best understood as an individual concern (opinion?) of the apostle Paul and therefore may not meet the litmus test for determining doctrinal standards. With that being said just because one may find it unpalatable doesn’t make it less than true.

      On the other hand the question of sexual sin transcends the personal views of Biblical authorship and timeline of Scripture….

    2. Please note the pronoun “I” in that verse. This is not a broad-ranging declaration of church policy. On the other hand, we have seen a breakdown in male leadership that seems to go hand-in-hand with mainline decline. Something to think about.

  6. Exactly Jenny! The bible was written by men. End of story. Adaptations from other religious traditions ABOUND!

  7. Actually the Timothy text needs historical perspective. Why was Paul writing this to Timothy? This was during a time of persecution and when Christianity and Judaism were not yet fully separate. Paul was telling Timothy to follow the Jewish ways. The Romans would not allow “New” religions under their rule but abided old ones. If Chistianity split from Judaism, it would be considered “new” and therefore and enemy of the state. There were pal ready plenty of issues and lots of persecution of individuals. Paul was trying to protect the young church from separation and it’s members from all out attack by the Romans.

  8. No matter how many times I check out the Good News Magazine, the “Good News” seems to elude me. I find instead closed mindedness, attempted intellectual bullying and seeds of hatred. How can this be good? May the love of Christ penetrate your calloused hearts and your minds that have apparently been welded shut.

  9. Jenny, if by infallible we mean “the Bible [rightly understood] is our supreme authority for faith and practice, doctrine and morals” then I can go with infallible. It is quite possible to argue that passages which seem to disallow women in teaching/preaching positions are meant for very specific situations, considering that Paul clearly acknowledged women as apostles and teachers in other passages. And the ways of reading the bible have nothing to do with whether or not it is infallible in this sense. It just means we haven’t always been good readers.

  10. Jenny and Eugene, Paul was dealing with a group of bullies that happened to be women. As a Methodist Elder I strive (though I am fallible) to look at the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, and Both Testaments in the light of the witness of Christ. Jesus sent forth the Samaritan Woman and a whole village was primed for Salvation. Jesus sent a woman to first proclaim the risen Savior, as the men were afraid and locked in a room. The fullness of the witness of Scripture in regards to women in leadership is routine and thorough- Deborah, Chloe, Pricilla… I cannot find a comparative witness of Scripture or the witness of Christ to define Marriage as other then between a man and a woman. I am still searching.

  11. I was not bothered as much by the use of “infallible,” Tom – I remember a MIckey Efird Bible study where he talked about infallibility being in reference to faith and practice, and inerrancy being a whole different can of worms. I do think it was a poor word choice to use without clarification (even if just “in terms of faith and practice” was added); using it gave ammo to those who wish to jump to the worst possible conclusions about the evangelical/charismatic/psuedo-Catholic conglomeration on the right (drawing on Billy Abraham’s description of the traditionalist coalition).

    I am glad for your elaboration here, though – so thanks. Peace to you.

  12. Jenny, you asked “what then do we do with 1 Timothy 2:12?” – we study the Scriptures as a whole. We look at context, other occurrences of women in leadership found in Paul’s teachings and elsewhere in the Bible, we study the culture, we pray for illumination and we interpret the passage in light of thorough study. Here is a good article which may help: http://seedbed.com/feed/was-paul-for-or-against-women-in-ministry/

  13. If you study the early church, you can see that women were coworkers with Paul and others until about the time the church was taken on by the Romans. There is plenty of tradition that supports women in service and leadership. It really wasn’t until the industrial revolution that women were really expected to stay at home and not contribute to society, except for in its moralization. Many think that churches ordain women now to political correctness, but there are many Biblically correct reasons. An interesting little book is “Ordaining Women” written about 1895 by B.T. Roberts, who left the larger Methodist church to start the Free Methodist church. His book is biblically centered before any one worried about being politically correct and is a very nice quick read affirming men and women as equals in God’s economy.

    I am more of inerrant myself, but have no trouble with women in leadership. I know it is the original languages that are inerrant, and our translations don’t do a good job of handling some words, so we need to see the bigger context. The argument in favor of homosexuality tries to copy that, but is missing biblical and historical background to support their claim.

  14. The Bible was written by heterosexual males, Eugene and Jenny. I really don’t think it is fair to take six or seven scriptures and one or two translations of those scriptures to point fingers and condemn people. What about divorce? What about indifference to the homeless, the orphans, the hungry? There are a lot more God-breathed words about that. And greed? Don’t even get me started. I’ve heard those few scriptures interpreted through the lens of context and they have absolutely nothing to do with gay marriage.

  15. If the Bible is not the infallible word of God, then I’m lost and so are you. Thanks for a very good article

  16. Our author defines infallibility through Biblical application. “Its infallibility means we can trust the Bible to truly communicate to us what God wants us to believe and how God wants us to live. To ignore or disobey the teachings of Scripture is to contradict its infallibility, which puts us on a completely different theological path altogether.”
    May 27 3:49PM Jennie asks: What then do we do with 1 Timothy 2:12?
    Greg, Mark, Eugene and Jennifer and others dismiss Jennie’s question as Paul speaking only for himself or as naive without understanding Biblical context. I found most interesting everyone chose context other than the real Biblical context.
    I believe using “I” means Paul is declaring the remainder of the chapter to be God’s instruction through Jesus Christ. This is shown unequivocally in verses 5 to 7.
    1Timothy 2 (NIV) 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.
    Is there a person that does not understand that Paul was stating that he was writing as a herald, as an apostle, as an appointed true and faithful teacher form God?
    Jennie’s question is not naïve. Her question and the Bible’s applicable context, within that chapter, as the rest is assumption and not scripture show the author’s statement “To ignore or disobey the teachings of Scripture is to contradict its infallibility, which puts us on a completely different theological path altogether.” maybe true. We have been picking and choosing what we accept in our Bible for a long time without first looking through the lens of Love. Is that not what John Wesley wanted? Is that not why there are four parts to his quadrilateral approach to our faith?

  17. I’ll have to agree with Drew, above, generally, that your explanation is fair but that the choice of the word “infallible” was perhaps not best suited for the purposes of the larger statement.

    I think that in theological and biblical discussion, “infallible” has a much more loaded meaning than one could reasonably expect from the dictionary. Along these lines, I believe it is a stretch so to link Wesley’s use of the adjective “infallibly” to current meanings and usage of the noun “infallible.”

    We all do, as Scot McKnight so well reminds us in The Blue Parakeet, read the Bible from some particular perspective or another. ALL of us. So, again, merely adding the descriptor “rightly understood” is hardly helpful.

  18. I agree with most of your article, and subscribe to the fact the bible provides our most insightful moral guide we have from our creator. But it is healthy to challenge and test issues through objective scrutiny. In that tradition let me offer this thought on the topic of homosexuality. Is it a choice? If it is not a choice then the homosexual souls delivered to earth by our creator can not be condemned as sinners. Every sin is a choice, but I doubt a man would ever choose to be gay. I struggle with this question because it is the heart of the question in my opinion, and should be for everyone because it removes bias. Simply stated, are we prepared to condemn a man because of the way God created him, of which he has no choice to change, by saying that God was wrong in creating him this way? If you believe it is a choice then the scriptures provide proper guidance. If you do not believe it is a choice then I think you have to question how this issue is viewed. How could you not?

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