You don’t have to spend long in Christian circles before running up against a question: is the Bible infallible? “Infallible” means “without error”. Is it possible the Bible has mistakes in it? Is believing in every word at all times and places necessary?
Some Christians hold this up as a litmus test of faith. Asked to name a characteristic of God’s Word, they’ll lead with, “It’s absolutely never wrong.” Technically they may be correct, but that’s a poor starting point for any relationship. If somebody asks you to name the first quality that comes to mind about your spouse or significant other and you say, “They’re never wrong!” we’re going to begin to question your taste and judgment. That kind of talk is often a prelude to abuse, which is often how “infallible” is used. It justifies all kinds of wrongdoing against people we deem lesser, codifying and cementing our prejudices in God’s name. Even if God’s Word is error-free, this is not the purpose it was meant for.
Upholding the integrity of scripture has value. We must deal with the word as it comes to us. Picking out parts we think are legitimate while rejecting others eliminates the need for a Bible in the first place. We have become our own gods, our minds sitting in judgment over the text rather than the text guiding and opening our minds. None of us can be trusted with that kind of authority. We need a common Word to gather around. We need an actual God, not a figment of our imagination or bias.
This does not mean that God’s Word strikes each of us the same way. God is big. A person of faith walking alongside of him on one side may see things quite differently from a person walking alongside of him on the opposite side. They stand in different spots. They view from different angles. Someone attached to God’s right hip is going to view the person grabbing God’s left pinkie finger as strange…maybe even in error. They won’t understand how the other person can see God the way they do. Yet they’re still both attached.
The Bible itself allows for this. Despite attempts to reduce it to a simple rulebook, it doesn’t let the reader take it in just one way. At some points scripture contradicts itself. A famous example from Proverbs 26 reads:
4 Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes.
These verses sit right next to each other. They appear to say the exact opposite thing. We could twist ourselves into a theological pretzel attempting to justify both, probably emerging with dissatisfaction and resolving never to read this section again. Or we could simply say, “Sometimes you’re on God’s hip, sometimes you’re holding the pinkie. There’s a time for each.”
Even without the contradictions, Biblical scholars have trouble ascertaining what should be included in the text. There’s no ancient, unified copy of the Bible sitting in a vault somewhere…the Template for All Times. The Bible as we know it was compiled from multiple sources, copied and recopied throughout history. Bible translators will generally look for the oldest source possible, reasoning that changes increase the more times the text gets copied. But the oldest texts aren’t always complete. They’re supplemented by bits and parts from other copies. Sometimes a translator will have to choose between competing texts of relatively equal weight. This is why your Bible contains footnotes saying, “Other ancient texts read…”
As scholarship has advanced over the years, some sections of scripture have come under scrutiny. The ending of the Gospel of Mark is one example. We’re still not sure how it finished originally, but it’s certain that Mark 16: 9-20—included for centuries without prejudice but now offset with double brackets in most Bibles—was not part of the ancient gospel.
With all the fracturing, layering, and editing, how can we be sure that no errors crept into the Bible over the ages? As with everything in faith, it comes down to a matter of trust…not trust that you hold in your hands the original document as each author intended it, but trust that however it got into your hands today, it was meant to be there. God’s Word challenges us, comforts us, arrests us and sets us free. That process still happens even if the medium looks slightly different than we expected. Some interpretations are more helpful than others but no translation or editorial choice can interfere with God’s intention for us.
Our relationship with scripture is just that: a relationship. It’s a conversation between us and God. In those terms, it hardly matters whether scripture itself is infallible. Any relationship is only as good as its weakest link and we’re certainly not infallible. Even if the Bible is without error, we’re not capable of hearing, processing, or interpreting it without messing it up. We introduce errors into the system the moment God’s Word passes our eyes and ears. If the relationship stands or falls on the absence of errors, we’re all doomed.
Fortunately God’s Word is better than infallible. It conveys a message of love, forgiveness, and redemption despite the world’s sin and error. It doesn’t show us how to not make mistakes. We’re not capable of that. It shows us how goodness triumphs over our mistakes.
In the end, we aren’t saved by our own knowledge, interpretation, or goodness. If we’re saved, it’s because God loves us enough to save us. The Bible is less infallible than it is persistent in delivering that message, then assuring us that God does, indeed, care that much.
When confronted with a person who proclaims loudly, “I believe that the Bible is infallible!” I always respond with, “Maybe? But you and I aren’t. So let’s work together to figure out what this word means in the midst of our mixed-up world rather than assuming we already know.”