The Myth of an Infallible Bible

Bible held up

It is literally an article of faith for some Christians that the Bible is infallible. By that descriptor they are claiming at least two things: (1) The Bible is without any errors, and (2) the Bible is a guide for faith which will never mislead or fail to provide a reliable guide to the spiritual wisdom that a person needs at any time in their life.

Christians have actually killed each other over these claims, and even in recent times people have lost their jobs as seminary professors and congregational pastors under suspicion of somehow not defending such a view of the Bible.

All the same, and without wishing to offend colleagues and co-religionists who insist on believing the incredible and the ridiculous, this is a nonsensical claim for anyone to make about any historical text.

Let’s start at the very beginning, as it is a very good place to begin according to another canonical text of western civilization, The Sound of Music.[1]

Which Bible are we talking about and which set of books do we consider to constitute this collection of supposedly infallible texts? Already the heads of our fundamentalist friends will be hurting.

There is no such thing as “the Bible.”

To the contrary, there are many collections of books which various sets of Christians recognise as the Bible for them.[2] The Bible which is most likely in the mind of people who claim biblical infallibility is an expurgated edition the Bible which is much beloved among Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian communities.

Category error?

Yes, indeed.

This whole debate is an ecclesiastical mad hatters party. The rare individual who enters the rabbit hole with some basic religious literacy feels a remarkable affinity to Alice in Wonderland, where the powers that be insist that words can mean whatever they choose to make them mean. But that is not so.

Leaving aside for now the rather important fact that Christians do not even agree on which books comprise the Bible, or in which order they should be arranged, the claim to possess an infallible sacred text fails on numerous other grounds.

It is simply impossible to have an infallible book:

  • All texts are generated by people in particular contexts and under the influence of various personal assumptions, many of them entirely beyond their conscious knowledge.
  • The texts will be inscribed using technologies and linguistic conventions at the time, and some of those features will be incomprehensible to readers from later times.
  • The documents will need to be preserved, and copies will need to be made. Indeed, we have thousands of handwritten copies of the biblical texts and no two of them agree in every single details. Oops!
  • In many cases they will need to be translated, even if just to update the font or the syntax for current readers.
  • The readers will change over time. There will be different individuals at various points in time. The kind of readers will change from the original audience to the clerics of the religious institutions to the mass readership of an industrial society with general education for all its citizens. The social location and existential context of the readers will vary enormously. They will each be influenced by some obscure mix of their personal experiences and their prior religious beliefs, not to mention their psychological needs.
  • Some of them will need to persuade us that their reading of their Bible is the only reading of an infallible Bible given to us by God, with absolute truths which remain constant for all time and across all cultures.

I would not buy a car from such a person and I will not embrace their concept of biblical infallibility either.

Fortunately for me as an Anglican, the community of spiritual practice of which I am both a member and a cultic official has a more nuanced understanding of the Bible, as well as a wider definition of the Scriptures—a definition which reflects ancient Christian wisdom.

I am encouraged to believe that all the spiritual wisdom which I need can be found in these sacred texts, but I am not required to subscribe to fairy tales about the divine origins of my Scriptures nor to ascribe ultimate truth status to everything my Bible says.

Thanks be to God.

The Very Revd Dr Gregory Jenks is Dean of Grafton and a religion scholar who has devoted his life to biblical scholarship.


[2] For a current example of a reasonably ecumenical edition of the Christian Scriptures see the New Oxford Annotated Bible, which carefully explains which of the apocryphal texts that are part of the Bible for the vast majority if Christians over most of the 2,000 years are recognized in one or another faith community. It may not be sold in your local “Christian” (sic) bookstore, but that is another essay for another day.