How Not to Refute Biblical Infallibility
A Reply to William Edelen (2000)
Jeffery Jay Lowder
In his recent column, "The Bible and the Gullible," William Edelen rails against anyone who believes that the Bible is without error or contradiction. I agree with Edelen that the Bible does contain both errors and contradictions. What I disagree with is the way in which Edelen argues against Biblical infallibility.
Edelen begins his attack by declaring, "There is not one major theological seminary, nor one Department of Religion in any major university, that teaches that nonsense." At the outset, note that this is a reverse appeal to authority. Even if Edelen's claim were true, that would not make the doctrine of infallibility false (though it would make the doctrine highly suspicious). But is it really true that there is "not one major theological seminary [or] Department of Religion in any major university" which teaches infallibility? Depending on how Edelen defines "major" seminary or university, this claim is either false or question-begging. Off the top of my head, I can think of several seminaries and religion departments which teach both infallibility and inerrancy, including Dallas Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Talbot Theological Seminary, Southern Evangelical Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Bethel Seminary, Liberty University, etc. Of course, Edelen could say that these institutions are not "major," but he would then need to justify that assertion. If by "major" seminary or university Edelen simply means "those institutions which do not teach infallibility," then Edelen is simply begging the question.
Edelen's next attack on infallibility is simply an ad hominem argument. He writes, "Anyone who tries to tell you that the bible is without error or contradiction is a biblical and historical illiterate. It is ignorance at the most pathetic point." Moreover, Edelen is once again mistaken. I can think of several infallibilists (if that's a word) who are "biblically and historically literate," including Norman Geisler, the late Greg Bahnsen, John Warwick Montgomery, to name just a few.
I also disagree with Edelen's argument that the Bible is not infallible because of differences in the various translations of the Bible. While there are some lay Christians who claim that the King James Version (for instance) of the Bible is infallible, that claim is strictly irrelevant to Biblical infallibility. Rather, as I understand the term, Biblical infallibility is simply the claim that the original autographs of the Bible are true on theological matters (but not necessarily other matters). Of course, as Edelen points out, "There has never been found an original manuscript of any book in the bible." But given the abundance of manuscripts and manuscript fragments, modern textual criticism has been able to reconstruct what the original documents probably looked like. By their very nature, these reconstructions often lack the errors present in extant manuscripts. But, again, this is all moot anyway since infallibilists do not (or need not) claim that extant manuscripts are infallible.
Edelen is mistaken when he objects that an infallible Bible would "need an infallible interpreter, or infallible reader to infallibly interpret the infallible translations." For a text to be infallible does not require that anyone other than the author be able to interpret it infallibly, much less that everyone be able to do so.
Finally, it is false that "an 'infallible' bible would be worthless without 'infallible' readers who could 'infallibly' read an 'infallible' translation." Even if no one reads the Bible infallibly, people might still be able to read the Bible with a high degree of accuracy.
In conclusion, although I join Edelen in rejecting the infallibility of the Bible, I think that every one of his objections are fallacious. We should not refute infallibility by engaging in ad hominem arguments (which only alienate infallibilists anyway) or by attacking caricatures of infallibility. Rather, we should discredit infallibility by discussing specific contradictions and errors in detail, paying special attention to attempted infallibilist 'solutions' to those problems and how they fail. This is the approach taken in The Skeptical Review edited by Farrell Till; critics of infallibility would be well-advised to adopt Till's approach.*
* I am grateful to Richard Carrier and Mark Vuletic for helpful comments on a previous draft of this essay.