The err and fallibility of Innerancy and Infallibility: Biblical Dialectics

The Bible:

Act I.

Inerrant or Infallible?

Both of these delineations, while the later surely has some heuristic use, suggest to me idolatry.

Idolatry: depending on, trusting in, rendering service to – all of which is summed up in: the worshiping of anyone/thing except that which is worthy, e.g. God.

“The foundation of our faith!” Scripture?

This is what the conservatives and fundamentalists of all stripes would have. The Tea Party takes this same logic with the Constitution (as if some static text will secure and justify for us our very mode of existence in the world!).

Are texts static? Do they speak?

No to both.

Texts are dynamic. More important, however, is the fact that texts don’t speak!

The exclamation mark highlights the shock that many are bound to feel when the implications of this apparent banality are spelled out.

If texts don’t speak, then God doesn’t speak to us through the Bible, or at least not the way we suggest that (S)he does.

So what do texts do?


Texts, if left on their own, sit and decay like everything else (which, it is worth noting, is still not a static act!).

However, texts, at least in the case of the Christian Scriptures are not left alone, they are read.

Reading is an event.

Intermission for a Digression:

Within the epoch conventionally labeled Modernity (late 17th century to late 19th century) a certain way of understanding knowledge was established. This way of thinking about knowledge (in philosophical jargon, representational correspondence epistemology) was based upon a distinction between subject and object.


On one side, we have the thinking subject, while on the other we have the object that the subject is trying to get to through thought.

S   –> –> –> –> –> O

The subject and object are forever split. There is a gap between them. It was thought that what this enabled was an objective viewpoint.

What does this have to do with the way we view Scripture?

In this case the subject (S) is a biblical scholar, a pastor, a Christian community, or the Church catholic (understood as the dialectically unfolding universal Church of which the Roman Catholic Church is a part but not the whole) trying to approach the object (O), Scripture.

S (Church) –> –> –> –> –>  O (Scripture)

The perceived benefit of this is that the text is secured. Within this framework Scripture is looked upon as an inanimate object to be investigated, studied, and probed like a scientific specimen. Method becomes of paramount importance because it is the proper scientific method of interpretation that will enable the subject (the Church) to get to the object (Scripture) in the proper way and thus secure the right interpretation.

One must remember here that all of this (the Enlightenment, knowledge as representation of reality, the objectification of Scripture) is all arising out of/after the Reformation. This is important.




Because the Reformation made the human subject engaging the Scriptures central. We must think Luther’s sola fide and sola scriptura here. We must also remember his famous words concluding the Diet of Worms, “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, for to disobey one’s conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Or “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”


It is the subject (Luther as Christian scholar, pastor, and practitioner) who is able to access the object (the Scriptures) and come away with an interpretation that can challenge the history, legacy, and authority of the Church. This was a radically destabilizing challenge. No longer could the Church hierarchy offer the definitive interpretation of the Scriptures. There were now as many interpretations as there were communities and even individuals as the Scriptures were translated into the vernacular. All of this is well known.

There are two points that must be understood.


1.) Scripture was on its way to be sundered from the life of the Church. The inherent humanism in Luther’s position would find its culmination in German critical-historical scholarship (the father of the discipline Biblical Studies, taught throughout virtually every seminary in the world) making the text a definitive object of study approachable by any subject with the proper method.


2.) Once interpretation was separated from Church authority chaos quickly ensued, or at least what looked (and still does) like chaos. Now anyone could not only read the Scriptures him or herself but offer an interpretation as well. This chaos fed into the desire for a definitive method of interpretation that could objectively secure the one meaning.

All of these tendencies: the subject/object split of Modernity, the separation of the Scriptures from the Church’s life, and the desire for an objective method of interpretation; fed into the reification of the Scriptures. This is where we find ourselves today.

Reification can be defined as objectification. Something is reified when it is turned into an object existing in itself, an object divorced from its surrounding environment to be approached objectively by a subject. We need a whole new theory of knowledge: luckily we have one.

From Plato to Aristotle to Plotinus to Aquinas to Hegel we get a different view of knowledge. True knowledge (understood as propositional statements in our minds, such as, “That rose is red.”) is not something that corresponds to reality (something existing out there, such as a red or not-red rose), but rather is identity with reality. To think the red rose truthfully is not to think about the red rose. All the difference in the world resides in the about. Knowledge is not thinking about objects that are distinct from the subjects thinking them. Knowledge is thinking objects (notice no about here), thinking reality rightly.

We must switch from viewing consciousness and human cognition as something that exists in itself and seeks to get to the outside world through true propositions. Rather, we must think of consciousness as openness/receptivity to/a reaching out and embracing of reality, which itself is given. Being is that which is intelligible. This does not mean that Being is immediately intelligible. It must be mediated through the complex process of dialectic.

What does all of this mean for Scripture and our views of it?

For one it means that the Church must stop viewing the Scriptures as an object that exists independently of it (the subject).

The Scriptures are a part of the life of the Church. They arose out of its life through the long human process of writing, disseminating, collecting, disseminating, and eventual canonization: a process that is still in process.

Is God in this process?

One can say yes. I do.

Yet, any responsible telling of the story of the formation of the Christian Scriptures must recognize the human, all too human, process of canonization. It is not enough to say that God was in the process, leave it at that and then reify the Scriptures.

If God was in the process at all, (S)he was in it in an analogous manner to the way (S)he is in every process: in and out of the human collective processes, at times apparent, at others apparently absent, with all of the ambiguity inherent in any notion of progress.

The Scriptures also (in)form the Church’s life. They tell its story. They remind the Church of where she has come from and where she is going. They tell her how leaders within the Church dealt with existential, communal and ethical problems. They reveal, in a unique way, what the Church views as the perfect revelation of God: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is no view of Scripture outside of a view of the Church. The Church made the Scriptures and the Scriptures made the Church: the Church-Scripture dialectic. These two peaces of the Christian language game can only be used rightly when they are not divorced from one another.

This view aligns itself nicely (in fact much better then the reified views signified by “inerrant” or “infallible”) with the view that the Scripture has of itself,

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

This is a benefit.

What this view cannot do is offer any objective, inerrant or infallible interpretation of reality. It does not work well for those who want to definitively secure their views on sexuality, politics, money, the world religions, in short their mode of being in the world for all time on the secure foundation of the Bible.

In reality this is no loss. There is no foundation, or rather there is no foundation other than God, and God does not function in the way that Foundationalists hope a foundation will.

Scripture is not a foundation for anything! To treat it as such is to give in to idolatry.

Scripture is authoritative, but only as it is read within the life of the Church and only as the Church decides collectively how the Spirit is leading her reading. This itself will be a long process involving an incredible amount of humility amongst people with radically different ways of being in the world as Christians.


One can see this in the Bible politics that occurred during the abolitionist movement. Those who opposed slavery did so from an ethical, progressive stand point. A stand point well in line with the general movement of Scripture and the best of the Christian tradition, but in direct opposition to a specific commands in Scripture.

Every one should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God.

1 Corinthians 7:21-24 (Italics mine)

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.

Ephesians 6:5-8

There are many arguments made to get Paul off the hook, those do not concern me here. (Neither does the fact that Paul likely didn’t write Ephesians.) The point is that the abolitionists had to deal with these texts. And what texts they were! It is hard to imagine any text more conducive to slaveholder ideology than the Ephesians passage!

At this moment in history the Church catholic would view any position that considered slavery to be in line with Christianity with the highest suspicion and disdain. The Christian community has collectively decided that slavery is inherently wrong and its abolition is something to be continually fought for.

The problem is that this doesn’t work if the Bible is inerrant or infallible. Paul was wrong! Or, possibly, he was right for his day, but is not for ours.

“Yet, this opens up the possibility that his commands aren’t right for our day either?”


“This makes me anxious! This means I may not be able to exclude the people who make me uncomfortable from participating in my community as full members.”

I know. Praise God!

“But how will we know if it is God leading us?”

We must proceed in humility, with a constant openness to repentance. We must proceed with trust. Trust that God is actually who (S)he says (S)he is: Love. We must follow Jesus who refused to exclude the other. We must embrace the incredible precarious but life giving task of living into and thus creating the Kingdom of God.

Final Act:

William Faulkner, so the hagiography goes, was once on tour, reading some of his short stories. At one point during a Q and A session a young woman stood up. She gave a detailed description of her metaphorical reading of a specific scene in one of Faulkner’s stories (what it was about escapes me now). Afterwards she asked if this was what he intended. Faulkner’s response was, “I didn’t then, but I do now!”


4 thoughts on “The err and fallibility of Innerancy and Infallibility: Biblical Dialectics

  1. Dan, thank you for posting, I found it clear and pregnant with candor.
    I couldn’t help but recall Hauerwas’s book “Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America”. Many of your remarks go hand in hand with his criticisms of Biblical fundamentalism/historical criticism.
    You said something that really caught my attention: “Reading is an event”.
    How curious. Can you write about that a little bit more?

    Thanks again. It was great to run into you the other night.

  2. Merrick,

    Thanks for you comment.

    I have not read that book by Hauerwas, but I am sure it is great. I am also sure that many others have said what I am attempting to say here and have probably done so better. Nevertheless, I am glad you enjoyed it.

    The point about reading being an event is taken from Gadamer (or at least that is where I got the idea from). For Gadamer interpretation happens the horizon of the text meets the horizon of the interpreter. For Gadamer horizon designates something similar to the background practices of what the early Hiedegger calls factical life worlds. As an example, just think about all of the shared practices, history, language and understanding that goes into making a simple cell phone call within our culture. If you really think about all of these things deeply you would eventually get to a point where you would want to stop tracing out all of these lines of thought, because there would be too many and they would go to far. (For Heidegger it would be litterally impossible to understand all of the background practices of Dasien). Gadamer builds off this theme and argues that each text, or peace of art, presents a world in itself. This is relate to his notion of tradition, which is also related to Hiedegger’s idea of life worlds. Tradition is what enables one to live in the world. It gives what Gadamer calls enabling prejudices. These allow the person to confront the world and understand it in a way that enables a certain mode of life.

    What happens in the event of interpretation is that the life world of the text meets the life world of the interpreter. Both are different, however both share similarity in that both are part of a tradition. This especially true for someone interpreting a text that helped shape his or her culture, such as a Christian reading Scripture.

    The danger is to fall off on one side or the other, to either affirm the difference between the interpreter and the text or their similarity. Gadamer, and here he reveals his Hegelian leanings, wants both. This meeting of alterity and similarity is what he calls the fusion of horizons. The fusion of the life world of the text and the life world of the reader. In this fusion both the reader and the TEXT are changed. This, again revealing his Hegelian leanings, is one thing that is important for Gadamer. The text itself is not a holder of static truth, but is rather a dynamic entity continuelly revealing what he calls the subject matter of the text. Here again we see Hegel’s influence. Gadamer’s subject matter is revealed through the dialectical historical process of interpretation just as Hegel’s concept (begriff) is revealed through the dialectical historical process of of sublation (aufhegbun).

    All that being said, I tried to illustrate this with the Faulkner example. What happened in this situation is the exact event that Gadamer is talking about, however you must remove Faulkner’s authoritative authorization from the scene. At least I have never heard the Big Other yell his approval from some nebulous heavenly region when someone offers one reading over another. Interpretive life in religious communities is a bit more precarious than that. This is what freaks people out. They want certainty. In this way I am an ironist like Rorty. I will post on that soon.

    Peace and thanks again.

  3. this really spoke to me. i mean, reading this was really an event for me.

    so good to hang out with you tonight…although I think we’re due to interact in a different social situation so that we have more space to listen. or, more accurately, so that i have more space/incentive to listen. you’re a little better at that than i am 🙂

    grace and peace to you.

  4. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a radically different Understanding of the fabricated origins and political purposes of the Bible via this reference. Political purposes which consolidated the worldly power of the church fathers who won the culture wars battles of their time and place. And who thus gave themselves the “authority” to define “heretics” – and of course to terminate them.

    Plus a critique of conventional self-serving religiosity, which is essentially the only kind of religion that exists in the USA.

    Plus references on how to live Right Life (and much more)

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