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Inerrancy and Infallibility: What’s the Difference?

Inerrancy is a word that is used a lot in some Christian circles. But sometimes it’s helpful to remind ourselves what words like this mean. A few years ago, I wrote a series with another blogger dealing with big questions around this: How do we define inerrancy? Where did the idea of come from? What would happen if we lost it?

This article focuses on a nagging issue that comes up in discussions of inerrancy. That is, what’s the difference between inerrancy and infallibility?

Understanding Inerrancy: A Quick Recap

Inerrancy¬†means that the Bible is entirely truthful and reliable in all that it affirms in the original manuscripts.¬†At the risk of oversimplifying, inerrancy means that the Bible is free from error.¬†Because God is truthful¬†(cf. Titus 1:2 among others),¬†and the testimony of Scripture is that it itself is “God-breathed” (what theologians have referred to as “verbal plenary inspiration”)1 we can trust that what He has said, through authors inspired by the Holy Spirit, is true.

So that, at it’s most basic level, is the idea behind inerrancy. But what about infallibility?

Understanding Infallibility

Infallibility is closely related to inerrancy, yet distinct. In fact, infallibility is a much stronger term than inerrancy in many respects. To say that the Bible is infallible is not simply to say that it is free from error, but that it is incapable of erring. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is extremely helpful on this point:

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.2

So, can something or someone be fallible yet still inerrant? Theoretically, yes. Here’s what I mean: It is possible for a person who is capable of erring (making a mistake) to not err. He or she is fallible, yet made no error. But what about the reverse? Is it possible for someone to be infallible, yet err?

Not at all. If infallibility means being incapable of error, then it is not possible in any way, shape or form.

This again draws us back to the source of Scripture, that being God. If God is indeed perfect, always true, always doing exactly what He promises and always doing what is right, then it is impossible for Him to err. He is not only free from error, but incapable of committing it. Thus, if Scripture is truly inspired of God, if it is truly all that it claims to be, then it too is incapable of committing error. It is infallible and inerrant. 

Infallibility addresses possibility‚ÄĒinerrancy addresses fact. They are distinct, but they are inseparable.

  1. 2¬†Timothy 3:16. See also¬†Ex. 20:1;¬†2 Sam. 23:2;¬†Is. 8:20;¬†Mal. 4:4;¬†Matt. 1:22;¬†Luke 24:44;¬†John 1:23;¬†5:39;10:34,¬†35;¬†14;¬†16:13;¬†19:36-37;¬†20:9;¬†Acts 1:16;¬†7:38;¬†13:34;¬†Rom. 1:2;¬†3:2;¬†4:23¬†among other passages that either implicitly or explicitly point to this truth. ‚Ü©Ôłé
  2. 1. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Art. XI as quoted in Can I Trust the Bible? by R.C. Sproul, p. 35 ‚Ü©Ôłé

4 thoughts on “Inerrancy and Infallibility: What’s the Difference?”

  1. While the words may err, the message is true.

    For example; when did the disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? In the Upper Room…or at Pentecost?

    Who showed up at the empty tomb first? There are differing answers in Scripture.

    So what? These inconsistancies do NOT matter. The story is true. The story is infallible. it will do what the Lord wills it to do.

    As our Lord uses the poor words of sinners, He also uses a book that did NOT fall from heaven with a bow tied around it for His perfect purpose.

    Even our Lord was fully man, while being fully God.

    Here’s the overriding principle:

    “The finite contains the infinite.”

  2. Good points.

    There is one other distinction with these terms I think important.  Inerrancy can be applied to a thing, like a book, or to a being, like your wife.  Infallible cannot be correctly applied to a non-being, as it implies an ability to do, which is a component of animate being.

    Therefore, it is appropriate to talk of God as being infallible, but it is not entirely correct to speak of the Bible as being infallible.  It is indeed inerrant, as it contains no error.  But to say it is infallible implies it has the potential to make a mistake.  But it is not a being, and cannot change itself.  If it contained an error, that error would have always been a part of it, and therefore it would have always been errant.  Since it is inerrant, it is unnecessarily redundant to call it infallible, as it has no power to change itself and thus become fallible.

    Another way of saying this is, the Bible may or may not contain error, but it should not be spoken of as having the ability to err or not to err.  Semantics for sure, but worth the thought.

    By the way, my wife is trustworthy, but she is not inerrant.¬† And that is why I dislike the left’s willingness to apply the term ‘trustworthy’ to Scripture, but not the term ‘inerrant’.¬† Trustworthy is humanistic in nature, as it moves the emphasis of trust from the inherent nature of the Scripture to the perspective of the external observer.¬† It also moves the believers focus of trust from the ultimate author of Scripture (God) to the book itself.¬† Thus the Bible and man’s handling and translation become the primary focus related to our trust rather than God and his inspiration of Scripture.

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