Can We Infallibly Know the Bible?

Make no mistake, what we believe about the Bible is important—not as important as believing what is in it, but still crucial to our Christian faith.

We cannot casually dismiss the “battle for the Bible” raging in evangelical Christianity over such terms as inerrancy (“making no mistakes”) and infallibility (“being unfailing”). Important matters are at stake. We’re forced to face the question of whether God really speaks to us in the Bible in a special and authoritative way.

Many people are willing to acknowledge that we can all hear God speaking to us in our own way. But they get indignant when we claim that God has spoken definitively in the Bible. They think it’s arrogant to think our way is the only way, that we have some special hotline to God that lets us specifically know what God says. Isn’t that the very attitude that leads to hatred, bigotry, and war? To imagine that we infallibly know the truth is a recipe for disaster.

Is such criticism valid? Where do we go when we face difficult questions of faith? We go to the Bible, of course. And here we honestly face a challenge. The Bible does not provide us with a text that proves its own infallibility. We do have texts such as

2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21 that teach us the Bible was inspired by God. From this we may properly conclude, on the basis of what we know and experience of God’s faithfulness, that the inspired Word is also trustworthy and will not deceive us. Nor will it be full of mistakes. Notice how this directs our attention more to the God of the Bible than to the Bible itself. Because God is true and does not lie, we believe that the Bible is true and does not lie.

This indirect way of talking about the Bible’s infallibility is the official stance of the Christian Reformed Church. The CRC synod of 1961 adopted this recommendation from a study committee on inspiration and infallibility:

That synod declare that both Scripture and the creeds

establish an essential relationship between inspiration and infallibility, in which the infallibility of Scripture is inferred from inspiration, and inspiration secures the infallibility of all of Scripture.

So the Bible is inspired and therefore infallible. And this inspiration and infallibility is true of the whole Bible.

What about the criticism that this view is arrogant? Here we need to be clear. The Bible is infallible. And it is inerrant in the sense that it is “free from falsehood, fraud, or deceit” (Article 12 of the “Chicago Statement” by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy). But that does not make us infallible interpreters of the Bible.

Understanding what God is saying to us in the Bible is an ongoing task of every church in company with the universal church of all ages and places. The answer to the question posed by the title is, “No, we do not infallibly know the Bible.” We vigorously confess that the Bible is infallible. But our interpretation of it requires a humble attitude.

On some things, like the basics we find in the Apostles’ Creed, all Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians agree. But on other matters, such as the sacraments or details about Christ’s return, Christians differ, even when we share a common commitment to an infallible Bible.

That’s OK. That should not disturb us. Nor should it lead us to forsake our commitment to making the Bible the touchstone for all our knowledge and understanding. The Bible alone is our completely reliable and unfailing guide. We can bet our salvation on it.


For Discussion
  1. What does it mean that the Bible is “infallible”? How do we know it is?
  2. How do we answer the complaint that it’s arrogant to say that the Bible is the only inspired and infallible written revelation of God?
  3. If the Bible is infallible, does that mean that our interpretation of it is also infallible?
  4. Is the Bible inerrant? Does it make mistakes?
  5. How should we treat the Bible, as opposed to how other religions treat their holy texts, i.e. Quran, Confucius’ meditations . . .

About the Author

Dr. John Bolt is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich.
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