Is the Bible Spiritually Infallible?

A paragraph from a book I picked up today from the library, Samuel and His God by Marti J. Steussy of Christian Theological Seminary, captured my attention.

I also do not consider the Bible spiritually infallible, and my reasons are empirical. There has been too much mischief and flat-out evil committed in its name for me to be able to say with a straight face that the Bible provides reliable guidance to anyone who sincerely seeks it. Others might reasonably reply that the problem is not with the Bible but with the depravity of those who interpret it. I might even agree with them, except that if a Bible intended to communicate God’s message to humans is so easily corrupted by human interpretation, what sense does it make to call it infallible? As soon as we qualify infallibility with the requirement of correct interpretation, the game changes: we are not longer talking about the Bible as a simple, reliable source in which anybody can look up the right answers. Instead we are dealing with the competing authority claims of its interpreters. Granted, many of those interpreters deny that they are advancing their own authority. They claim that they are just following the rules set by the Bible itself. The trouble is, the same claim can be and often is made by other interpreters who arrive at different results. Even when we seek to be faithful to the Bible’s own principles, human judgment plays an inescapable role in biblical interpretation. (8)

I have previously argued that confessions of inerrancy based on non-extant textual witnesses (i.e. the biblical autographs) are of little value. If we had them, the discussion would be different. What we do have is fragmentary and occasionally disparate witnesses to ancient pieces of literature and traditions which bring these literary works together into a unified Bible. This is where confessions about the Bible should begin insofar as we are speaking of our interaction with sacred literature. If God is speaking to us today, it is not by means of texts that do not exist.

Steussy is using similar logic to make a slightly different argument. Because we never come to the Bible without the need to interpret it, any attempt on our part to make claims about the Bible’s efficacy that does not take into consideration this interpretive dimension is misguided. We do not have access to the Bible apart from interpretation, and our attempts at interpreting it are marred by our own intellectual and spiritual insufficiencies/deficiencies. The Bible has great potential for enriching our lives and the world in which we live, yet nothing about the Bible prevents it from being abused—even by the most sincere individual. Confessing the Bible to be an infallible guide tends to obscure this latter detail.

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20 thoughts on “Is the Bible Spiritually Infallible?

  1. I have to disagree with this assessment on a couple of points.

    1. If I make a true factual statement and someone misinterprets what I have said, does his misinterpretation make my statement any less true or factual?

    2. Misinterpretation of the Bible is not simply the result of “our own intellectual and spiritual insufficiencies/deficiencies.” It is a built in prophetic feature of the Bible and it is used by God.

    (John 12:39-40) “The reason why they were not able to believe is that again Isaiah said: 40 “He has blinded their eyes and he has made their hearts hard, that they should not see with their eyes and get the thought with their hearts and turn around and I should heal them.”

    (Matthew 13:18-19) “YOU, then, listen to the illustration of the man that sowed. 19 Where anyone hears the word of the kingdom but does not get the sense of it, the wicked one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart; this is the one sown alongside the road.”

    (Matthew 13:10-11) “So the disciples came up and said to him: “Why is it you speak to them by the use of illustrations?” 11 In reply he said: “To YOU it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those people it is not granted.”

    (Matthew 13:36-39) “Then after dismissing the crowds he went into the house. And his disciples came to him and said: “Explain to us the illustration of the weeds in the field.” 37 In response he said: “The sower of the fine seed is the Son of man; 38 the field is the world; as for the fine seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; but the weeds are the sons of the wicked one, 39 and the enemy that sowed them is the Devil.. . .”

    (2 Timothy 4:3-4) “For there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, whereas they will be turned aside to false stories.”

    (2 Peter 2:1) “However, there also came to be false prophets among the people, as there will also be false teachers among YOU. These very ones will quietly bring in destructive sects and will disown even the owner that bought them, bringing speedy destruction upon themselves.”

    1. Regarding point 1, you misunderstand the quote/my response. While Steussy rejects historical inerrancy (that the Bible is always true or factual), she does so on other grounds and in portions not quoted. She is responding in the quote to those who hold to “spiritual infallibility,” that the Bible presents “plain truth that needs only to be embraced.” If we confess this about the Bible but sincere attempts to ascertain this plain truth fail because of intellectual insufficiencies and spiritual deficiencies, then the confession is rendered null and void. This is what Steussy is addressing.

      Regarding point 2, the fact that you add a third category, Scripture’s own befuddling purposes, only further reinforces that sometimes the Bible does not simply lead us to its plain truths.

      1. Joseph, thanks for responding, if you do not mind I would like to clarify what I wrote. First, you are correct in that I had confused Steussy’s words and yours. Here is what I believe on these issues,

        First, the biblical text itself is not infallible. This is quite obvious from the manuscript evidence and the thousands of variant readings. This is true more so for the NT rather than the OT.

        The Bible is not a complete mystery, there are many straight forward statements that are not very hard to understand the way they were intended. However, there is a much bigger picture or theme that runs through the Bible and this is closely related to the mysteries that we are told were revealed in the NT. But these mysteries or this theme is not attainable merely by reading the text. God must first draw the person to himself, (John 6:44) “No man can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him. . .” Therefore, it does not matter how sincere a person may be, it is not up to him. (Romans 9:15-16) “For he says to Moses: “I will have mercy upon whomever I do have mercy, and I will show compassion to whomever I do show compassion.” 16 So, then, it depends, not upon the one wishing nor upon the one running, but upon God, who has mercy.” But the bottom line is are they really sincere? (Proverbs 21:2) “Every way of a man is upright in his own eyes, but Jehovah is making an estimate of hearts.”

        I was simply pointing out that there are only two options regarding biblical interpretation. Either God allows it or he doesn’t. But in the end, if you believe in God, the Bible is always spiritually infallible, it is the interpretation, not the Bible, that is either spiritually infallible or not. So obviously, anyone who has not been approved by God does not possess the correct interpretation and their claim to spiritual infallibility based on their interpretation is also false.

        I hope it was a little more clear this time.

      2. You speak of a “much bigger theme that runs through the Bible,” but you cite only two NT passages and 1 OT proverb. Your interpretation of John 6:44 doesn’t appear to account for the way the verb “draw” is used in John 12:32. The OT proverb is not an absolute statement (no proverbs are). Generally I am not persuaded by Calvinist theological frameworks (which is precisely what this is), and thus I don’t accept the dichotomy you present. I do appreciate, however, your interest in the subject and willingness to engage the discussion.

  2. I was not attempting to discuss this biblical theme at all in what I wrote. I was merely responding to what you had said. I am not sure if you agree with Steussy or not, and I even said I agree with it to a point. But I feel that it is the interpretation that is not necessarily spiritually infallible. To say the Bible itself is not spiritually infallible is to deny its divine origin either in whole or in part. I’m not saying that we didn’t lose some individual words or phrases through the years of copying, but the thoughts and ideas are not significantly affected by these issues.

    In my explanation, I may have given you the wrong impression. I was in no way saying that God simply picks and chooses who he wants to save regardless of the persons feelings on the matter. With reference to John 6:44, I’ll let the “Word Biblical Commentary” explain what I was trying to say since it does it so well.

    “To this Jesus replies, in harmony with vv 37 and 39, that only they whom the Father “draws” can come to him; in them the promise of Isa 54:13 is fulfilled—they are “taught of God.” This leads Bultmann to interpret the “drawing” by God as taking place when man abandons his own judgment and “hears” and “learns” from the Father, and so allows God to speak to him: “The ‘drawing’ by the Father occurs not, as it were, behind man’s decision of faith, but in it” (232). Like the related Jer 31:34, the quoted prophecy relates to the knowledge of God in the last days. They have arrived! Those who listen to the Father “come” to the Son, since he, and he alone, has seen the Father (1:18). For such, v 47 contains a word of promise; to the “grumblers” it is an implicit appeal to receive the word, to believe, and so to gain the life (cf. 5:39–40).” – (Beasley-Murray, G. R. (2002). Vol. 36: Word Biblical Commentary : John. Word Biblical Commentary (93). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)

    Before a person can hear or learn from the Father, he has to approach God with a clean heart. Then when God has determined that they are truly sincere and willing to obey, he draws them to Jesus to learn the truth about God and his purposes. (Hebrews 4:12-13) “For the word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints and [their] marrow, and [is] able to discern thoughts and intentions of [the] heart. 13 And there is not a creation that is not manifest to his sight, but all things are naked and openly exposed to the eyes of him with whom we have an accounting.” See also, Psalm 24:2-4, Psalm 73:1, Psalm 94:11, Proverbs 2:1-9, Jeremiah 4:14, Matthew 15:7-8, Mark 7:20-23, 1 Timothy 1:5-7, 2 Timothy 2:22.

    I am not sure why you can not accept this dichotomy about biblical interpretation. Obviously I do not know what you believe about the Bible, but to me it seems pretty clear that we have only two choices. For instance Jesus says, (Matthew 13:49-50) “That is how it will be in the conclusion of the system of things: the angels will go out and separate the wicked from among the righteous and will cast them into the fiery furnace.” And contrary to what many think, a wicked person is not just someone who commits horrible crimes. (Revelation 21:8) “But as for the cowards and those without faith and those who are disgusting in their filth and murderers and fornicators and those practicing spiritism and idolaters and all the liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur.” Besides “murderers, how many of these other things are committed by so called church goers? Does God’s spirit reside in such ones? According to the Bible, this spirit is required to fully understand. (1 Corinthians 2:10) “For it is to us God has revealed them through his spirit, for the spirit searches into all things, even the deep things of God.”

    I feel the Bible is pretty clear that only those who approach God with a clean heart will be approved to understand his word. The rest are just running in darkness. (Matthew 11:25-27) “At that time Jesus said in response: “I publicly praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intellectual ones and have revealed them to babes. 26 Yes, O Father, because to do thus came to be the way approved by you. 27 All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one fully knows the Son but the Father, neither does anyone fully know the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son is willing to reveal him.”

    As for John 12:32, I have to agree with the “Word Biblical Commentary” again.

    “The redemptive purpose of God in Christ is emphasized in the third clause of the sentence: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself.” The lifting up is not simply on the cross, but via the cross to the throne of heaven. The thought is not that Jesus will draw all to his cross, but that he will draw all to himself as the crucified and exalted Redeemer. In virtue of his dying and rising the Son of Man brings the saving sovereignty to the world, and he exercises that sovereignty by drawing all to himself in the kingdom. The term πάντας, “all men,” expresses the universal scope of the eschatological event disclosed in ὑψωθῶ (“if I be lifted up”); the saving sovereignty is for all humankind. But, as Schnackenburg remarked, “There is no limit to Jesus’ saving power—except the resistance of unbelief. In spite of the universalistic overtone and intention of the statement, faith is still included as a condition …” (2:393). – (Beasley-Murray, G. R. (2002). Vol. 36: Word Biblical Commentary : John. Word Biblical Commentary (214). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.)

    1. “Before a person can hear or learn from the Father, he has to approach God with a clean heart. Then when God has determined that they are truly sincere and willing to obey, he draws them to Jesus to learn the truth about God and his purposes.” Steussy and I both reject that sincerity is in some way the bridge to any kind of infallible knowledge or interpretation.

      1. I never meant to imply that even for those who were granted to understand had perfect knowledge or interpretation. Even the apostles were not infallible. May I ask what you consider the bridge to true knowledge or interpretation?

      2. I don’t know what you mean by “true” knowledge. If you are asking how one comes about knowing in any meaningful sense, I would suggest that many interpretive paths provide meaningful knowledge, one need only interact with ancient Jewish/Christian interpretations of Scripture and modern academic biblical studies (preferably in tandem).

      3. What I mean by “true” knowledge, is the specific knowledge that Yehowah wanted his followers to know and put faith in, as apposed to such God dishonoring ideas as the trinity, immortal soul, eternal hell fire, and many more. It seems you do not believe the Bible contains one set of God approved truths.

  3. “To say the Bible itself is not spiritually infallible is to deny its divine origin either in whole or in part.” – howardma, I would love a detailed argument of how you get to this conclusion! Sounds interesting.

  4. I have a whole chapter devoted to this problem in my book, “The Christian Delusion.” I call it “The Problem of Divine Miscommunication.” In it I go through the Bible showing how several passages led to murder and mayhem. Then I go through the various Christian answers to this problem. Did you know eight million Christians were killed by other Christians over the fact that God did not reveal himself clearly? My argument is that God is at least partially to blame. I suggest how a God with foreknowledge could have done better than he did.

    Cheers

  5. John Loftus, refresh my memory, which Scripture was it again that said if another Christian disagrees with you, you should kill him? Just because human tyrants used and abused the words of the Bible to their own advantage does not mean God is responsible for any blame. Besides, how can you put fourth any kind of argument that blames a God that you do not believe exists?

  6. howardma, oh I forgot. I don’t believe in God. Why oh why did I say that in the first place? Any guesses?

    Anyway, go back in time and explain your thinking to the Christians of the late 1500’s and early 1600’s. See if they won’t kill you for heresy.

    ;-)

  7. John Loftus, my guess would be that your conception of God is based on the actions and thoughts of men who have not been granted to understand God’s true message. How about I go back in time a little further to the time of the apostles and be accepted as speaking the truth.

    (Acts 20:29-30) I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, 30 and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.

  8. howardma, I’m sure you quoting from a book John W. Loftus, presumably, has no belief in, is going to persuade him in any way, shape or form. But it does make for interesting postings.

  9. John G., When having a discussion or even an argument about a specific object, it makes sense for that object to be brought up in the conversation/argument. If I say, evolution never happened. Now refute my claim without mentioning any so called scientific evidence related to the theory of evolution. ;-)

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