“Jesus didn’t treat Scripture as infallible”: really?

Having given a copy of an NT Wright’s “Surprised by Scripture” to someone for Christmas, knowing that they sympathise with his “neoevangelical” theology and voluminous writing style, I was surprised when they thanked me, and commented that they also liked Brian Mclaren’s new “We make the Road by Walking” on the Bible.

I came across this article in which McLaren (above) summarises his position. In a nutshell I think it is fair to say that he is against the notion of the infallibility of the Bible, seeing this as a modernist and restrictive doctrine, and that his diagnosis is that post-modern humility following two World Wars and a Holocaust demands that we recognise not just that the Church (tradition) is fallible, but that the Bible is too. And he claims to justify this from the teaching of Jesus.

Biblical scholar BB Warfield described a century ago1 how the Bible writers use words like “revelation” to describe God’s communication to mankind. The words (Hebrew גָלָה, galah, Greek αποκαλυψισ, apocalypsis) describe seeing what was veiled before, hidden things being laid bare.

The idea that the Bible is trustworthy rests on this habit of it describing itself first as a “revelation”, a divine oracle not a manmade work.

In 2 Peter 1:19-21 Peter describes the apostles of Jesus as eyewitnesses  of Jesus’ glory. He also goes on to say that this revelation is “made more sure” by the words of the Old Testament prophets :

no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit“.

Those whom God enabled to write the Scriptures had their unique personalities. They were not simply buckets into which God poured his undifferentiated revelation.Yet all of the Bible writers were speaking from God. So the New Testament writers always refer to the Old Testament writings (their “bible”) as true and authoritative, whether calling them “the Scriptures” (eg 1 Corinthians 15:3,4) or “Scripture” (as here), or whether referring to God who “spoke” in the past (Hebrews 1:1-3) or who “speaks” through those ancient writings still (Hebrews 3:7).

The Bible is inspiredGod speaks

Peter says that the prophets who wrote the Old Testament were “carried” by the Holy Spirit. This is not the same as saying they were “guided” or “led”. To be guided means I play a part, but to be carried is to be entirely passive. The Bible writers are wholly reliant upon the Spirit of God in them to bring the Word of God through them.

In fact the translation “inspired” (2 Timothy 3;16) is better translated “breathed-out” by God (Greek θεοπνευστοσ, theopneustos)2. It is not that God breathes into Scripture but that God breathes out Scripture . That is why the prophetic message is “made more sure” or “completely reliable” (NIV translation, 2011). It’s not made up by man in some words. It is breathed out or inspired by God  in every word.

Hence God said to  Jeremiah “I have appointed you a prophet…I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:5-9) and the repeated refrain of his colleagues is “Thus says the LORD“. Apostles like Paul were aware of a similar authority to speak God’s words. This is very different from me today saying “I think God might be saying…” and is the unique privilege of the Bible writers, because they were “carried along” by the Spirit.

So it is because God in his love chose to reveal himself that he inspired the Bible, and because he inspired the Bible that he reveals Himself in it. I think it is right to criticise theologians (however right in other ways) who last century hesitated to affirm what Peter says here about verbal inspiration. It is not enough to say  like Barth that Christ is the true Word who encounters us when we read the (fallible) Bible (McLaren sounds so close to Barth here),  or like von Rad that God only revealed himself in the great redemptive acts of history like the Red Sea.

He revealed and still reveals Himself in God’s written Word, through which we encounter Christ His living Word.

The Bible is infallible

Theologians call this being “infallible” or “inerrant” (though there is a difference in that the latter is a narrow version of the former). Liberal Bible readers dislike either word, because they prefer to see parts of the Bible as untrue or contradictory. But when we say the Bible is inspired and therefore infallible we are not saying it gives a literal account of evolution (it does not intend to teach science) or of time (the great ages of some people in the Bible are sometimes symbolic of blessing).

No, we are saying that the Bible is absolutely true and trustworthy (the positive way of saying it is infallible) in what it intends to say about about God, humanity, the world and salvation. (Inerrancy however is often taken to mean that the Bible is correct in every factual statement it appears to make and I find this less helpful).

The Protestant Reformation bequeathed some very helpful clarifications of how this works. First, the New Testament sheds light on the Old through showing prophecy  being fulfilled. Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jericho, Ruth and Jonah  all make more sense when seen as pointing ahead to the salvation God will send through Jesus. Biblical theology, and Tom Wright’s “five-act model”3 of the Bible, follow from this. Second, parts of the Bible should be harmonised. Rather than setting parts of the Bible against others (for instance, Paul’s emphasis on faith and James’ on works) as if one or other is mistaken, we should make the effort to see how each contributes a unique perspective without contradicting the other.

So the (Reformation) Church of England statement of faith, the 39 Articles, says in Article VII, “the Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for in both everlasting life is offered to Mankind through Christ“. Article XX goes on “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

Theologians and Archbishops are not infallible. Nor are sermons of clergy and decisions of Synods. Even the church creeds are potentially fallible because written not by Spirit-inspired Bible writers but by later church leaders. They are only to be trusted, says Church of England Article VIII, because “they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture“.

“Almighty God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; so help us to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen”.

(Collect for the Last Sunday after Trinity)

The next post on how we view the Bible will look specifically at Jesus’ attitude to the Scriptures.

BB Warfield “The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible” (1955 Edition), p97

2 Ibid, p133

3 Scripture and the Authority of God, 2005


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Rector of Holy Trinity, Norwich, since Sept 2017, writing on pastoring, preaching, resourcing discipleship, and apologetics/philosophy.

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