Trust is a fundamental concern for all of us. Intellectually, for example, everyone trusts that some ideas are true and others false, and we trust some sources of ideas more than others. For Christians, the information we trust most is found in the Bible. But how do we know it’s reliable?
The foundation for trust in the Bible is its inspiration. A number of men over several centuries penned the words of Scripture, but the enduring constant is that God inspired every word. Closely related to inspiration are the ideas of inerrancy and infallibility. In more recent centuries, the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible have served as the ultimate basis for Christian orthodoxy, even serving as a shibboleth for orthodoxy itself.
When we speak of inspiration today we typically mean the process of being mentally stimulated in some way that leads to a creative end. But the word, as it was first applied to Scripture, is based on the King James translation of 2 Timothy 3:16. In the Elizabethan era the word that was translated as inspired had broader range.
Inspiration then suggested breathing from someone into someone else. Hence, as God breathed into Adam the breath of life (see Genesis 2), He breathed the Scriptures into the men who wrote them.
The word inerrant means, simply, “without error.” Similarly, infallible means “unable to fail.” Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit, inerrant in its original form, and infallible in all that it teaches.
The Importance of Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Infallibility
These truths are vital, because they affect our trust in the Bible’s reliability, authority, and sufficiency.
When someone sits in a chair, he trusts it to hold up under his weight. If the chair breaks he naturally questions if it is a style, type, or design he should trust. Is it from a maker that is reliable?
How much more important are the things we hold to be eternal truths? Yet if the Bible contains errors or if there is reason to suspect that God did not inspire it, we couldn’t trust it.
Likewise, our capacity to receive the Bible as the Word of God, and not merely the teachings of sinful men, is bound up in our trust that it is free of error and fully able to instruct us in what we must know about God, ourselves, and our spiritual condition. This is especially true because the Bible claims itself as the basis of its own authority, and we believe that “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9). If Scripture is fallible, its authority is lost; it is the work of something or someone less than our holy, righteous, and unfailing God. (This is among the reasons we dismiss works such as the Book of Mormon as being unauthoritative.)
Finally, a Bible that contains errors is insufficient. We trust that all we need to know for saving faith, and for the practice of that faith, is found within the Scriptures. That trust is based on the presumption that the Scriptures are complete, fully containing the truths we need for our spiritual well-being. If the Bible is not inerrant and infallible, it isn’t sufficient either.
Thus, the importance of the Bible’s inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility goes to the core of our confidence and trust in the faith that we believe and proclaim. Without them, the whole of it is called into question.
The Path to Trustworthiness
Historically, the concepts of inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility have been understood from an inductive, a posteriori (from after) basis. That is, we arrive at them as general conclusions derived from the particular truths we learn and believe about Scripture. Seldom do Christians approach the Bible as historians or scientists first; rather, we approach it as those who believe and who expect to find the contents to be historically reliable. Theologian B.B. Warfield wrote: “Inspiration is not the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, nor even the first thing we prove about the Scriptures. It is the last and crowning fact as to the Scriptures. These we first prove authentic, historically credible, generally trustworthy, before we prove them inspired. And the proof of their authenticity, credibility, and general trustworthiness would give us a firm basis for Christianity prior to any knowledge of their inspiration and apart indeed from the existence of inspiration.”
In other words, if the Bible is reliable about some things — what it says about history, for example — then it is also reliable about others, such as what it teaches regarding its own inspiration. This in turn leads to confidence in its inerrancy and infallibility.
But how do we get there? What is the path to confidence in the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible? There are a number of steps involved, and each is crucial.
The Historical Reliability of Scripture
There is substantial reason to trust the historical accuracy of the Bible. We have, for example, the archaeological evidence lending credibility; there’s the appeal to witnesses who would have confirmed (or denied) the legitimacy of the claims made; there are outside sources that affirm the accuracy of what Scripture claims about history; and we have good rationale for trusting what the Bible says. One of the things the Bible claims is that it is God’s Word: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and f or training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Put another way: We trust the Bible for empirical reasons. What we read and experience in testing the Bible’s accuracy affirms its trustworthiness.
The Attributes of God
Parallel to the historical reliability of the Word is what we believe about God, from Whom we received it. By definition, God possesses qualities and attributes that lead us to conclude He is trustworthy. (See Westminster Larger Catechism No. 7).
Some particular attributes are especially applicable: God’s omniscience (He is all-knowing) means that He lacks no understanding of anything. Because of His immutability (He is unchanging), what God says about Himself will endure throughout eternity. In His wisdom, God knew when and how to communicate to His people the Word they need. Through His abundance in truth we know that all that comes from Him is true. And finally, His dual nature as both transcendent and imminent means He had both a purpose and an interest in giving us His Word.
The Validation of Christ
Jesus gave credibility to Scripture. Throughout His ministry, He reinforced the fact that the Old Testament was the work of God’s inspiration, and thus inerrant and infallible. In fact, His life fulfilled and affirmed what was written there (see Matthew 5:17-19). We believe Jesus to be the Son of God incarnate, and thus God Himself has attested, in person, to the veracity of the Bible. Likewise, His apostles — handpicked and commissioned by God as those who would speak for Him, and who penned or supplied the bulk of the New Testament — similarly affirmed the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible, including other portions of the New Testament itself.
Warfield’s apparent “circular reasoning” has an end point (or, perhaps, a starting point) in Christ, and in His affirmation of Scripture. If we trust in Jesus, we will trust in the Bible that He proclaimed is inspired.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
“The Old Testament in Hebrew [which was the native language of the people of God of old], and the New Testament in Greek [which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations], being immediately inspired by God …” (WCF 1.8, clarification added).
God, whose attributes lead us to great trust in what He says, has spoken — through the immediate inspiration of the Old and New Testaments by the Holy Spirit. Thus, if we trust God, we will trust His Bible; the Word carries the full authority of God.
The Bible is not merely the work of men, but of the Holy Spirit inspiring those men, as 1 Thessalonians 2:13 describes: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” We are therefore granted greater confidence in its authority: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God” (WCF 1.4).
Inerrancy and Infallibility as a Consequence of Inspiration
The inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit, in whose attributes we find affirmation for our convictions about the Bible, confirms inerrancy in the original documents received by men as Scripture. How could a God who is immutable, omniscient, wise, and abundant in truth inspire a Bible that contains errors? Why would the teaching of that Word fail to communicate what is right regarding “all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life” (WCF 1.6)?
In other words, if we believe God possesses these attributes, we will trust that He has inspired the Bible which, by our own empirical experience, bears up under scrutiny; and that inspiration will give credence to the reliability of that Bible as inerrant and infallible.
This indirect progression toward belief in inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility is enlightening as to why some have come to question or dismiss them. Should a foot slip on one of the steps along the path, the journey may not be completed. But given the preponderance of reasoning and evidence for each (only a scant amount of which is offered here), a discerning mind can follow this path with conviction.
The Holy Spirit’s Work In Superintending
The Holy Spirit’s work in God’s Word was not finished at its inspiration but is ongoing in His superintendence of it through the ages. In fact, the Spirit’s oversight is present in several ways that further undergird our trust in the Bible. Peter wrote, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed … knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21). The meaning of this verse has implications for both past and present senses.
The Preserving Work of the Spirit
The Confession tells us that the authenticity of Scripture is due to the work of the Spirit: “The Old … and New Testament[s] … being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical” (WCF 1.8, emphasis added).
Was God indifferent to the potential errors of scribal transmission as the books of the Bible were copied by hand? Is the Spirit absent in the ongoing work of translation? By no means; rather, the WCF shows us that the Spirit’s work continued past inspiration, into and through the care and preservation of the Bible’s integrity and purity.
The Need of the Spirit to Discern
The wisdom and truth of God, as contained in the Scriptures, is “foolishness” to the world (1 Corinthians 1:20-25) — those who lack the new life of the Holy Spirit whereby the scales fall from our eyes and we are able to see the Word of God for what it is. Through that new life, “the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God” (WLC No. 4).
This quickening work of the Spirit not only reveals to us the truth of Scripture, but it affirms the authority and reliability of it as well. As WCF 1.5 says: “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” Believers can recognize the Bible’s authority because of the Holy Spirit and should not be surprised when those who lack the Spirit also lack the discernment of Scripture as authoritative (though, WCF 1.7 affirms, a “sufficient understanding” is attainable even for the unbeliever).
The Illumination of the Spirit for Understanding
Just as the Spirit’s work to enliven a Christian toward recognition of the Word of God is vital, so too is His work in giving understanding of its teaching. “We acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” (WCF 1.6). The justifying truth and sanctifying wisdom of the Bible are bound up in our capacity to comprehend it according to the illuminating Holy Spirit. We cannot interpret Scripture apart from Him.
The Authority of Scripture
In the 1980s, R.C. Sproul taught on the theology of Scripture, including its authority, inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility. He spoke about how, in the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the presenting issue was justification by faith alone. This was what drove Martin Luther to take his stand, facing excommunication and even the penalty of death. Clearly, justification by faith alone was a matter of utmost importance in the events leading to Protestantism.
But, Dr. Sproul pointed out, as central as the topic of justification by faith alone was (and is), it was not the most fundamental issue. It was the material issue — the one on the surface. The issue that was even more fundamental was the authority of Scripture. Underneath the question of whether justification was by faith alone was another question: What is our ultimate authority? Is it the Bible in tandem with the teachings and traditions of the church? Or is it Scripture alone?
Almost every major schism in the history of the church since then has been similar. The presenting issue may be something cultural or theological. It may be an old debate or a relatively new one, but the underlying issue is the same: What is the final authority? Is it Scripture or something else?
Trusting the Bible as our ultimate authority is a matter of faith. There is evidence that supports it, and there are objective reasons that lead us to greater confidence, but in the end these are dependent on something beyond ourselves. As people of faith, however, it is certainly within our grasp, and the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture become clear through the Spirit’s work in us.
Ed Eubanks is a pastor and writer in west Tennessee; find more of his writing at edeubanks.com.