An excerpt from J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 126–31.
[W]ords, being tools of thought and tokens of meaning, are neither magical nor impregnable, and we abuse our minds if we think otherwise. Anything you really understand you can express in more than one form of words, and no verbal formula is exempt from the possibility of reinterpretation, misinterpretation, and debasement by those who come after its framers.
It is well to remind ourselves of this as we weigh two words which twentieth-century English-speaking theologians have regularly applied to the view of Scripture as God-given verbal revelation which this book has been setting forth. The words are infallibility and inerrancy, both denoting qualities which adherents of this view ascribe to the Bible.
The first thing to say, in light of the last paragraph, is that nobody should feel wedded to these words. We can get on without them.
If we speak of Holy Scripture as altogether true and trustworthy, or as wholly reliable in its own terms, making no false assertions, claims or promises on its own account (however many lies told by good men, bad men, and devils it records), we shall be expressing in formula terms exactly what these words mean.
If we prefer these formulae to the words themselves (both of which, be it admitted, have turned into noses of wax, malleable and often misshapen in recent discussion), that is our privilege, and none should want to deprive us of it.
Conversely, adherence to traditional terms does not necessarily argue the profoundest grasp of what they stand for; it may only be a sign of a traditional mind.
Yet this is an age in which the view I am stating is often dismissed without argument, and indeed without understanding . . . In such an age, it is more useful to explain and defend the words, and rebut the criticisms, than to renounce the words because they have been mishandled. Rightly understood, they are useful theological shorthand, and by explaining them we can clarify and develop some of the implications of what this chapter has said so far. Briefly, then (or as briefly as we can!):
[1. The Meaning of the Terms]
First, their meaning.
Infallibility is the Latin infallibilitas, signifying the quality of neither deceiving nor being deceived.
Inerrancy is the Latin inerrantia, meaning freedom from error of anything, factual, moral, or spiritual.
Infallible as a description of the biblical Word of God goes back at least to the English Reformation.
Inerrant is an adjective that gained currency in the second half of the last century, in debates that arose from the budding “higher criticism.”
Both words take color from the contexts in which they were mainly used; thus, though they are virtually synonyms, infallible suggest to most minds Scripture determining a faith-commitment, while inerrant evokes rather the thought of Scripture undergirding an orthodoxy. But for practical purposes the words are interchangeable.
[2. The Significance of the Terms]
Second, their significance.
Though negative in form, they are positive in thrust, like the Council of Chalcedon’s four negative adverbs about the union of Christ’s two natures in his one person (“without confusion,” “without change,” “without division,” “without separation”). What those adverbs say is that only within the limits they set is truth about the incarnation found.
What infallible and inerrant say is that only those who accept as from God all that Scripture proves to tell us, promise us, or require of us can ever fully please him. Both words thus have religious as well as theological significance; their function is to impose on our handling of the Bible a procedure which expresses faith in the reality and veracity of the God who speaks to us in and through what it says and who requires us to heed every word that proceeds from his mouth. The procedure, best stated negatively, is that in exegesis and exposition of Scripture and building up our biblical theology we may
not (i) deny, disregard, or arbitrarily relativize anything that the writers teach,
nor (ii) discount any of the practical implications for worship and service which their teaching carries,
nor (iii) cut the knot of any problem of Bible harmony, factual or theological, by allowing ourselves to assume that the writers were not necessarily consistent with themselves or with each other.
It is this procedure, rather than any particular results of following it, that our two words safeguard.
[3. The Justification for the Terms]
Third, their justification.
The ground for affirming that Scripture is infallible and inerrant is its inspiration, which we defined earlier in this chapter in terms of God-breathedness or divine origin.
No Christian will question that God speaks truth and truth only (that is, that what he says is infallible and inerrant). But if all Scripture comes from God in such a sense that what it says, he says, then Scripture as such must be infallible and inerrant, because it is God’s utterance.
What our two words express is not confidence that by our own independent enquiries we can prove all Scripture statements to be true (we can’t, of course, and should never speak as if we could), but certainty that all Scripture can and should be trusted because it has come to us (in Calvin’s phrase) “by the ministry of men from God’s very mouth.”
[4. How the Terms Are Misunderstood]
Fourth, how these words are misunderstood.
Critics persistently suppose that both words, highlighting as they do the divinity and consequent trust of the Bible, express or entail a policy of minimizing the Bible’s humanity, either
by denying its human literary sources or ignoring the marks of its human cultural milieu, or
by treating it as if it were written in terms of the communicative techniques and conventions of the modern West rather than the ancient East, or
by professing to find it in “technical-scientific,” as distinct from “naïve-observational” statements about the natural order, when the “technical-scientific” study of nature is less than five centuries old.
It is understandable that Christians who have not weighed the differences between our culture and that (or those!) of the biblical period should naively feel that the natural and straightforward way to express their certainty that the contents of Scripture, being divine, are of contemporary relevance (as they certainly are) is to treat Scripture as contemporary in its literary forms. No doubt many have done this, believing that thus they did God service.
But our words have no link with this naivety; they express no advance commitment of any kind in the field of biblical interpretation, save that whatever Scripture, rightly interpreted (interpreted, that is, a posteriori, with linguistic correctness, in terms of the discernibly literary character of each book, against its own historical and cultural background, and in the light of its topical relation to other books), proves to be saying should be reverently received, as from God.
[5. The Self-Involving Logic of the Terms]
Fifth, the self-involving logic of these words.
For me to confess that Scripture is infallible and inerrant is to bind myself in advance to follow the method of harmonizing and integrating all that Scripture declares, without remainder, of taking it as from God, however little I may like it, and whatever change of present beliefs, ways, and commitments it may require, and of seeking actively to live by it. Both words are often seen as belonging to worlds of doctrinaire scholasticism, but in fact they express a most radical existential commitment on the Christian’s part.
[6. The Objections to the Terms]
Sixth, the objections to these words.
Some deprecate them because using them, they think, has a bad effect.
Affirming inerrancy is thought to cause preoccupation with minutiae of Bible harmony and factual detail to the neglect of major matters, and to encourage the unhistorical kind of exegesis that we glanced at two paragraphs back, and thus to thwart good scholarship.
Asserting infallibility is held to spawn a superstitious bibliolatry which reveres the Bible as a sort of everyman’s-enquire-within-about-everything, and also, thwarts good scholarship.
It may be replied that none of this is necessarily so, and that it is worth disinfecting both words from association with these failures in responsible biblical interpretation. But if it is still thought best to eschew the terms as tainted, the point is not worth pressing; as we said, we are not wedded to words.
Others, however, reject the terms on the grounds that factual, moral, and theological error in the Bible is now proven.
Here I must limit myself simply to replying: not so at all.
A responsible biblical scholarship exists with inerrancy as one of its methodological presuppositions; it appears no less successful in embracing and making sense of the phenomena of Scripture than is the scholarship which lacks this presupposition. (All scholars, of course, borrow from and interact with each other, and share a community feeling in consequence, whatever their presuppositions, but that is not the point here.) As long as a consistent Bible-believing scholarship can maintain itself in debate on problem passages, it is sheer triumphalist obscurantism to say that error in the Bible has been proved. And even if adequate Bible-believing scholarship were lacking, “proved” would still be too strong a word, for the various skeptical hypotheses are never the only ones possible.