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April 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 2 · pp. 3–18 

Biblical Infallibility: An Examination of Lindsell's Thesis

Howard J. Loewen


The current debate on the nature of biblical authority has within the past year been significantly intensified with the publication of Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible. Within a relatively short period of time this book has drawn considerable attention by its attempt to establish scriptural infallibility as the watershed issue in American theology.

The current editor of Christianity Today has obviously touched sensitive nerves in the ecclesiastical bodies on this continent, witnessed by the response, both positive and negative, that this book has evoked.

From these rejoinders one can be quite certain that the book is an outgrowth of doctrinal tensions that have existed below the surface and have been creating suspicion for quite some time in American evangelicalism. One might well explore these factors that have contributed to the present debate, epitomized in The Battle for the Bible; that is, to determine what in fact has shaped the present “battle” lines. 1 However, our purpose here will be rather to examine carefully whether the present battle lines established by Lindsell have been drawn at the right place, or whether in fact we are fighting the right battle. This kind of investigation becomes quite necessary both in light of the intensity of the present debate and in view of the serious allegations that are made in Lindsell’s study itself.

The thesis of The Battle for the Bible is that a serious disease is currently spreading through American evangelicalism—namely, a view of the Bible that promotes its errancy. Lindsell argues his case with the conviction that the Bible itself (Chapter 2) as well as the historical {4} orthodox position (Chapter 3) consistently promote a particular view of biblical inerrancy. For him it is the erosion of this biblical and historic position that reflects the emergence of a crisis situation in American evangelical theology. For him, a great number of denominations, institutions, para-church groups and individuals have succumbed, or are in the process of succumbing, to this theological malady.

Lindsell’s message is a serious one, and his admonition and accusations cannot be dismissed, for they are in principle grounded in the same biblical and historical data that others would use to contend for a position antithetical to his. Therefore a careful examination of Lindsell’s thesis must necessarily involve a review of some of the essential data upon which he bases his entire case, a procedure which is in keeping with his own methodology. Accordingly, our examination must first of all involve an analysis of the biblical argument followed by an investigation of the historical one.


For Lindsell the inerrancy of the Bible stems from the very nature of inspiration. “Inspiration extends to all parts of the written Word of God and it includes the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit even in the selection of the words of Scripture.” 2 Consequently the Bible “is wholly trustworthy in matters of history and doctrine.” 3

However limited may have been their knowledge, and however much they may have erred when they were not writing sacred Scripture, the authors of Scripture, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, were preserved from making factual, historical, scientific, or other errors. The Bible does not purport to be a textbook of history, science or mathematics; yet when the writers of Scripture spoke of matters embraced in these disciplines, they did not indict error; they wrote what was true.” 4

Therefore, for Lindsell, Scripture is not only inerrant in matters pertaining to salvation (“salvatory matters”). For him “if there is any doctrine of infallibility based upon the biblical data, it must include all of Scripture or none of it.” 5

The primary biblical data upon which Lindsell bases this view of biblical infallibility are to be found in the loci classici of 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (“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”) and 2 Peter 1:21 (“No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”). 6 The important matter here, for Lindsell, is that Scripture has its origin in God and must {5} therefore itself be inerrant in the manner defined above. For him, these passages clearly teach that unless the Bible itself is without error in every way, its authority is compromised.

The authority of the Bible for man is viable only if the Bible itself is true. Destroy the trustworthiness of the Bible and its authority goes with it. Accept its truthfulness and authority becomes normative . . . Infallibility and authority stand or fall together (italics mine). 7

Lindsell’s position is clear: the authority of the Bible is based upon its own inerrancy and that it is inerrant in whatever area it speaks. In assessing Lindsell’s claim we must ask the basic question of whether he has indeed captured the New Testament emphasis on biblical authority. He maintains that the two crucial passages in the New Testament support his position. But does a more detailed analysis bear out his fundamental assumption that the Bible’s authority is based on its own inerrancy and that it is inerrant in whatever area it speaks? We must limit our inquiry to the New Testament locus classicus, 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

The subject matter of this text must be viewed in the context of the dual and interwoven themes of faithfulness and suffering that dominate the letter as a whole (3:10-22; 1:8; 4:14-15; 1:15; 4:10; 4:16; 2:3, 9; 1:11-12; 2:17-18; 3:8; 3:1-7; 4:3-5). Clearly, it is the danger of defecting from the truth, together with the impending suffering that Timothy may face in his ministry, that impels the apostle to encourage and urge on the young minister. In exhorting Timothy to be faithful, the apostle continually stresses two realities toward which the young man must look for assurance: the apostolic instruction and example (1:13; 2:2; 3:14; 2:7; 3:10) and the grace of God in Jesus Christ (2:8; 2:13; 1:14, 1:9-10; 2:1, 10; 3:15; 1:8; 4:6-8).

What is evident in the larger context becomes obvious in the immediate context of our passage, in verses 10-13. Here again the themes of faithfulness and suffering are strongly asserted immediately preceding the crux interpretum on biblical inspiration. Our understanding, therefore, of the meaning of verses 14-17 cannot be dissociated from the apostle’s emphasis in verses 10-13 that persecution and affliction perhaps will, and often must, accompany the godly, and that Timothy is thereby both commended for having been faithful and strongly encouraged to remain so.

It is the opening sentence of our passage that makes evident how the larger motifs of faithfulness and suffering relate to what the apostle now says about Scripture: “But for your part, stand by the truths you have learned and are assured of” (v. 14a). The direct connection of these words with what immediately precedes (especially with verse 10) {6} as well as with the broader concern of the letter, makes verse 14a the generating principle of this passage. What follows must, therefore, be related to this single and foremost thought that Timothy is to continue in what he had learned and believed.

The reason for Timothy to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ is two-fold: 8 first, because he knows from whom he has learned the truths in which he must remain (v. 14b), and second, because he has known Scripture from childhood (v. 15b). The apostle has not yet mentioned the latter reason in his letter. He takes the opportunity here to discuss the role of Holy Scripture in relation to the main assertion that Timothy is to remain faithful in his ministry. This becomes the major supportive theme of our text. From the immediate as well as the broader context, therefore, it becomes evident that the apostle is primarily stressing the usefulness of Holy Scripture in its application to the life of the believer, particularly Timothy. It is our contention that the remainder of this passage bears out this practical function of Holy Scripture as it speaks of its nature (v. 15b), its confirmation (v. 16) and its purpose (v. 17).

The nature of the Holy Scriptures to which the apostle has pointed Timothy is set forth in verse 15b: “which have power to make you wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” Three things must be emphasized in connection with this assertion. First, Scripture itself has the ability, the power (ta dunamena), to be useful for Timothy’s faith. It is not we who have that capacity but Scripture itself. This truth becomes more certain when we realize that it is simply an elaboration and extension of the preceding phrase in which it is affirmed that through the study of Scripture from childhood Timothy has remained faithful. Thus the apostle speaks here of the functional authority of Scripture.

Secondly, Scripture’s power lies in the fact that it is able to make us wise unto salvation (soterian). This, in a nutshell, constitutes the efficacy of Scripture: Scripture here tells us to look for the knowledge of salvation in its message, that and nothing more. Biblical authority, therefore, pertains only to salvation matters. Thus the apostle speaks here of the functional authority of Scripture as it relates to salvation alone.

Thirdly, the source and means by which the power within Scripture becomes effective for us is the faith in Jesus Christ (pisteos . . . Jesou). These words state at once both the subjective and the objective side of the power and authority of Scripture—through the gift of truth (subjective) which is given by Jesus Christ (objective). Scripture, in and of itself, does not automatically become an effective means to guide and direct us. Only through Christ do the Scriptures have the authority to make us knowledgeable in salvation. Therefore it is incorrect to speak {7} of the authority of Scripture apart from faith in the living reality of Christ. Thus the apostle speaks here of the functional authority of Scripture as it relates to a saving and living faith in Jesus Christ. His purpose is to encourage Timothy to remain faithful to the apostolic teachings.

What is stated about the nature of Scripture in verse 15b is confirmed in verse 16: “Every inspired scripture has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, or for reformation of manners and discipline in right living . . .” (NEB). Verse 15b established the practical authority of Scripture which is to make those rooted in faith in Jesus Christ knowledgeable in matters pertaining to salvation. In verse 16 that functional authority of Scripture is asserted even more strongly. Once again it is stressed that every (pasa) Scripture 9 has its origin and power in God, 10 and that it is the living connection with God which is its authoritative basis. Indeed it is the practical authority of Scripture that constitutes the basic thrust of verse 16. 11 The Scripture’s profitability for doctrine and practice clearly echoes the earlier affirmation of the Bible’s ability to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. And this, of course, is the point that the apostle wanted to establish for Timothy whose faithfulness was here at stake.

The purpose for which the apostle is instructing Timothy on the ability of Scripture, and its usefulness in the life of the believer, is “so that (hina) the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind.” The explicit statement of this purpose again demonstrates the essential thrust of this entire passage, namely, its practical concern for providing a biblical basis (the message of Jesus Christ) upon which the believer, particularly Timothy, should ground his faith.

Therefore, the burden of this entire passage falls upon the authority of Scripture in the life of the believer. In its context it clearly speaks of a call of faithfulness and obedience to God’s efficacious message as recorded in Scripture and as grounded in Jesus Christ who constitutes its authority. Thus the concern here is with the effectiveness with which the biblical message of salvation governs the believer’s life and, conversely. the obedience of faith which must necessarily be rendered to this living Word in order for its true message to be perceived and actually realized. Hence, according to this passage, the Bible’s most basic understanding of itself is its authority in the life of the believing community which is grounded in Jesus Christ. Thus it is to the life in and through Christ that the Bible directs our understanding. Unless 2 Timothy 3:14-17 is understood in this light its essential message is bypassed. 12 In our conclusion we will seek to determine to what extent Lindsell has captured this emphasis. {8}


What Lindsell contended for on the basis of some essential biblical data, he then attempts to corroborate from church history: “It is my contention that, apart from a few exceptions, the Church through the ages has consistently believed that the entire Bible is the inerrant or infallible Word of God.” 13 A brief survey of the church’s confessions on Scripture adequately convinces Lindsell of this fact (Chapter 3). One cannot of course review and examine this historical data in one article! We must content ourselves with a case study of the one figure whose theological formulations represent, at least for the Protestant tradition, a return to biblical Christianity. Martin Luther is one whom Lindsell cites in favor of his concept of inerrancy.

He makes two important assertions about Luther. First, for Luther, inerrancy is not really an issue and that he simply accepts it as a fact.

Luther did not spend any time arguing about biblical infallibility in the Ninety-Five Theses, nor did he elsewhere. It was not a live question, for there was correspondence of belief between himself and the church on that score. Luther believed and taught that the Bible was infallibly true in all its parts. Of that there can be no doubt. But it is useless to look in his writings for a developed thesis to support biblical inerrancy. He believed it; it was not in dispute. . . . 14

Lindsell uses two contemporary orthodox Lutheran scholars, H. Engelder and J. Theodore Mueller, as his sole sources to support his case. The preliminary question that emerges from this major contention is that if in fact Luther made very little of infallibility (and in this Lindsell is indeed correct) how can he then, from an argument based on Luther’s virtual silence, claim Luther in support of his particular definition of inspiration? Is this not seriously begging at least the question of what Luther may have meant by inerrancy? Does it not become quite meaningless to assert that Luther believed in inerrancy when no attempt is made to relate this assumption to the major aspects of his theology and ask what Luther meant by it? 15 Lindsell begins to make this attempt in his second major assertion on Luther, but only in such a manner as to raise the problem in an even more acute way.

Secondly, against those who would assert that Luther’s claim of infallibility applied to the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, Lindsell claims that “clearly Luther knew there are two ‘Words of God,’ the Word of God incarnate and the Word of God written, and he held both of them to be completely trustworthy.” For Lindsell “there are enough evidences available (he cites none) to prove conclusively that Luther also used the term ‘the Word of God’ to mean Scripture.” Therefore, “no one need get hung up on this issue nor spend time arguing whether {9} on this occasion or that Luther meant Jesus Christ or the Scripture when he spoke of ‘the Word of God.’ ” 16

Lindsell’s quick dismissal of this centrally important concept (the “Word of God”) is most unfortunate. For it is precisely Luther’s total doctrine of the Word of God that directs us to the heart of his understanding of biblical authority. We must turn, therefore, to an analysis of Luther’s understanding of Scripture within the larger context of his understanding of the Word of God. Moreover, we must again ask whether Luther’s concept of biblical authority was inextricably tied to the inerrancy of the written Word itself or whether the basis of biblical authority really lies elsewhere. In other words, to what extent can Lindsell legitimately claim Luther to be a supporter of his doctrine of inspiration in which the Bible’s authority is based upon its own inerrancy and that it is inerrant in whatever area it speaks?

As a theologian, Luther was first and foremost an expositor of Scripture and it will be our purpose to try to capture his view of Scripture from the writings in which we see him actually using Scripture. That Luther was primarily an expositor of Scripture offers to us a key with which to unlock the thoughts of a man who in no one book, chapter or page reveals to us a clearly formulated view of Scripture. This very fact predisposes us to look for a view of Scripture that is more functional than formal in nature, a point that will become abundantly evident in our discussion. From his exegetical writings it soon becomes clear that Luther’s view of Scripture is conceived within the larger concept of the Word of God, of which Scripture is an integral, indispensable part. 17

Formally put, there are for Luther three (not two, as Lindsell states) forms or manifestations of the Word of God—the incarnate Word (Christ), 18 the written Word (Scripture), 19 and the spoken Word (proclamation). 20 Luther uses the expression “Word of God” to refer interchangeably and inclusively to these differing expressions of God’s Word, for they are inseparably and dynamically related. As integrally related forms of God’s Word they are all necessary to the revelation of God’s message to us. Christ as the primary Word is present in each of the manifest forms of the Word of God. But his revelation does not come to us except through human instrumentality which is also involved in each manifestation of the Word of God—through the man Jesus, through the prophets and apostles, and through the preachers of the biblical Word. For Luther it is the complete manifestation of the Word of God that is active among us in its authority, 21 its receptivity (the hearing, experiencing and proclaiming of the Word), 22 and its powerful effect on our lives. 23

Naturally this interrelation of the three manifestations of the Word has far reaching implications for Luther’s concept of biblical authority. Two basic questions emerge from the observations made thus far: the {10} relation of Scripture to the living, personal Word of God, and the relation of the one who hears, experiences and proclaims Scripture to the written Word of God. (We shall call that one the interpreter, for proclamation presupposes interpretation.)

With regard to the first question it is clear that within the larger context of the Word of God, Scripture exists as a derived form of the Word of God, a Word which has its primary manifestations in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. 24 In relation to the living Word of God, Scripture, for Luther, is viewed instrumentally and personally, that is, as a necessary vehicle that extends to us, in written form, the person and work of Christ. 25 Luther thus sees Scripture as essentially christocentric in nature in that its basic purpose is to reveal Christ.

Furthermore, the christocentricity of Scripture, for Luther, necessarily points to its christological nature. Scripture is not only a divine document in the sense that it is given by God and testifies of Christ. It is also, and at the same time, a human document in the sense that its christocentric message is written and transmitted by man. This raises the question of Luther’s understanding of the humanity of Scripture. Luther’s attitude toward the text of Scripture, and his judgment regarding it, is cautiously critical. 26

This fact cannot be underestimated, for as Luther worked with the text of Scripture he exercised his critical faculties to a significant degree. This critical approach to the text seems altogether natural for one who stressed so much the need to take the literal (historical-grammatical) sense of Scripture seriously.

Luther’s attitude toward the text of Scripture invariably raises the matter of his view of the infallibility of Scripture. Interestingly enough, Luther speaks very little of the infallibility of Scripture as such. We must, therefore, be careful not to put to Luther questions which he never asked. Rather, we must again consider Luther’s view of infallibility in relation to the complete sense of the Word of God—incarnate, written, proclaimed. In this context Luther does not stress the infallibility of Scripture itself. He stresses instead the purity and certainty of the Word of God as such. Since the primary form of the Word is clearly Christ Himself, we must first and foremost associate that purity and certainty with Him. This, of course, does not prevent Luther from asserting the infallibility of Scripture itself from time to time. Indeed, he explicitly states that the Scriptures are true and do not lie. 27

However, the real point here is that one cannot separate Luther’s concept of the infallibility of Scripture from the purity and certainty of the Word of God in Christ. In other words, for Luther there is no such possibility of an infallible Bible apart from its relation to the infallible Christ. To ask whether the Bible per se is infallible is to pose the wrong {11} question to Luther. That line of questioning leads us away from the heart of Luther’s view of inspiration and authority.

For him the theological certainty of Scripture lies in the affirmation that Christ is himself the Lord of Scripture, the implication of which is that for Luther the infallibility of Scripture is instrumental and personal in nature. It is an infallibility that is primarily located not in the text alone, but in the person of Christ who, as the Lord of Scripture, reveals Himself through Scripture infallibly by His Spirit. Thus the infallibility of Scripture for Luther lies in the fact that Scripture accomplishes what it says it will accomplish (namely, salvation), not in and of itself, but only through Christ and His Spirit and only as it relates to Him. The infallibility of Scripture, therefore, extends from the incarnate Word through the written Word to the spoken word, at which point it takes effect in the hearts of men. Thus Luther’s view of biblical authority is clearly dynamic and becomes severely distorted when approached merely from the standpoint of an infallible biblical text. For it extends beyond the text of Scripture to the Word of God in all its dimensions.

We must turn now to the second question that emerges from Luther’s view of Scripture: the relation of the interpreter (the one who speaks the Word) to Scripture. This question is most important for Luther and needs to be discussed in the larger context of the relationship of the written Word, the Bible, to the spoken Word, preaching.

Luther frequently informs us of the fact that the spoken Word has primacy over the written Word, that proclamation has a definite priority over Scripture. 28 He bases this assertion on the fact that the Gospel in its original form was presented orally and not in written form. That the Gospel finally needed to be recorded does not change the fact that the spoken Word is primary and the written secondary in nature. The implication of this is that Scripture as the written Word cannot stand by itself but must be related to the oral, living Word which precedes it (the original proclamation of the Gospel) and which also follows it (the subsequent proclamation of the Gospel). In other words, Scripture must again become an oral Word, as it was before the need arose to put it into writing.

Luther’s strong emphasis on the oral Word explains his equally strong emphasis on the necessity of hearing the Word (cf. n. 21 on centrality of hearing the Word). The Word of God must be heard because it is communicated most powerfully through the spoken Word. The Word, therefore, cannot only be communicated verbally (written Word); but it has also and ultimately to be communicated personally (spoken Word). Scripture must once again be transformed into an oral Word so that it may be heard most effectively—in person and in word. This fact accounts for Luther’s stress on the importance of preaching, indeed good biblical preaching. In one sense, therefore, human instrumentality in {12} revealing God’s Word is as important now as it was when the apostles first revealed it. For God’s Word is nearest to its original historical form when it is presented orally and personally. Therefore what the Word of God is, and what it wants to do, is not found primarily and essentially in Scripture, but in the Person and Word of Christ and through the personal and verbal Word of the apostles which must be repeated personally and verbally in and through the preacher (the interpreter) today. Scripture, then, functions as an authority instrumentally and personally. It possesses a mediating authority which it receives from Christ Himself.

But Luther takes us one step further. For the Word to be proclaimed effectively there must be a special commitment to the Word on the part of its interpreters, those who proclaim it. For unless there is a commitment to the Word of Scripture one cannot truly perceive its subject matter, which is the crucified Christ. The commitment, then, must be to the Christ of Scripture, through whose Spirit Scripture has been given and through whose Spirit, therefore, it must be understood. 29 In this sense Christian experience plays an integral role for Luther in the understanding of Scripture. In effect it constitutes his first hermeneutical (interpretational) principle. 30 Luther insists that one’s understanding of biblical truth is directly proportional to the extent of one’s experience of that truth; in fact a true understanding comes only in the experiencing of it. Specifically, this experience involves the suffering and trials that come with life and with obedience to Christ, the living Word. 31 Such experiences deepen one’s understanding of the Word of Scripture in that one is thereby better able to understand the suffering Christ who is indeed the subject matter of Scripture.

Having said this, however, we must recognize that for Luther an understanding of the Word of Scripture does not come simply by being spiritually obedient to it. This is indeed a necessary presupposition, but it must be supplemented by the equally important task of continuously reading and carefully studying the text and language of Scripture itself. 32 For the Word of God does not come to us apart from Scripture. It must be sought in and through Scripture. In this regard Luther’s own exegetical writings speak for themselves. Indeed the Reformation as such centered on this very matter. Nevertheless, important though the study of the text was for Luther, he continually insisted that one cannot arrive at the true sense of Scripture on the basis of language and grammar (the outer Word) alone. What was also required was a perception of the inner Word of Scripture (the subject matter) which could not be attained apart from the ministry of the Spirit in the life of the believer.

It is this latter point which we must stress as we attempt to understand the totality of Luther’s view of Scripture. The Word of God must take hold of us subjectively (concretely in obedient action) before it {13} can be properly understood in both its nature and its activity. We cannot begin to speak about the nature of the incarnate, written, or spoken Word on the one hand, nor the function of this Word in terms of its authority, receptivity and efficacy on the other, unless we have first concretely appropriated that Word for our lives. Therefore, whatever our claims for Scripture are, they must be made from this vantage point. And from this vantage point Luther saw the Word of Scripture in terms of what it accomplished in the lives of people. He did not speak of the character and function of Scripture in the abstract, but from the concrete position of one who had been affected by its message, so that when he spoke of the authority of Scripture in the life of the individual and the church he was thinking more of the practical efficacy of Scripture than of its metaphysical nature.

On the basis of quantity alone, Luther gives substantially more room to discussing the hearing, the experiencing, and the efficacy of the Word of Scripture, than he does to either its inspiration, infallibility, or authority as such. This fact, together with the additional fact that his view of Scripture clearly culminates in our subjective experience of it and in its effect upon us, is crucial to the understanding of biblical authority in Luther. It is against this orientation of Luther’s thinking, together with the emphasis of 2 Timothy 3:14-17, that we must assess Lindsell’s conclusions.


In order to assess accurately Lindsell’s understanding of biblical infallibility we must now summarize the basic conclusions that we can draw from our discussion of the essential biblical and historical data that he himself has used to argue his case:

1. That the emphasis is fundamentally on the functional and practical authority of Scripture in the life of the believing community.

2. That the authority of God’s Word is essentially a confession of our faith regarding its ability to accomplish its purpose, not a definition of the accuracy of the biblical text itself.

3. That the authority of Scripture pertains solely to its redemptive purpose: making us knowledgeable in salvation.

4. That the believing community (the church) is the primary context in which the authority of Scripture is enacted, given concrete expression, and witnessed to.

5. That the question of biblical authority demands as its ultimate answer our obedience to the Christ of Scripture.

6. That the nature of biblical authority is such that it can never be satisfactorily formulated by an assertion regarding the accuracy of textual details. {14}

7. That the belief that the Bible is infallible is an integral part of the basic affirmation that Scripture is the church’s essential authority for faith and life. It is not in itself a ground or proof for the Bible’s authority, for infallibility is not a statement about the status of the historical text itself but an affirmation about the liberating power of the Word of God testified to Scripture. Thus the basis for the authority and for the infallibility of Scripture is the same: the power of the Word of God to make us wise unto salvation. To speak of infallibility is to speak of the concrete authority of Scripture in the life of the church. 33

In the light of these conclusions we must now evaluate Lindsell’s two-fold assertion that the authority of the Bible is based upon its own inerrancy and that it is inerrant in whatever area it speaks. A corresponding two-fold weakness emerges.

1. Regarding the historical nature of Scripture. When Lindsell speaks of the authority of Scripture being based on the total inerrancy of the text of Scripture itself there is a strong tendency to establish the authority of God’s Word on a foundation other than which we ascertained from the biblical and historical data. His procedure tends to place the emphasis in establishing the authority of Scripture upon historical reasoning alone. That is, if the Bible can be shown to be without error in places where there are discrepancies then its authority has been strongly vindicated (cf. especially Chapter 9). The danger here is to place the authority of Scripture on a basis from which one is constantly put into the position of having to demonstrate by historical reasoning that the Bible is inerrant. One must then either embarrassingly admit to certain ambiguities or boldly attempt to assert its perfection. In either case, not only does this become a difficult task, it also tends to violate the Bible’s own norm for accepting its authority. It tends to place the emphasis in establishing the authority of Scripture upon human ability alone, not upon the inherent power of the Word of God to evoke a response of humble obedience.

2. Regarding the redemptive purpose of Scripture. Lindsell’s tendency to establish inerrancy as a separate ground for the authority of Scripture necessarily forces him to apply that claim of inerrancy to all areas and subjects that the Bible addresses. For if there is an inaccuracy (apparent or real) of any kind then of course the historical basis upon which the authority is grounded is severely shaken. However, our biblical and historical analysis demonstrated that the claims of biblical authority pertain solely to its redemptive message, that is, to the ability of God’s Word to make us knowledgeable in salvation. That is the only area in which the Bible’s authority needs to be demonstrated, and that not essentially by a definition of its inerrancy, but by obedience to its redemptive message.

Insofar as Lindsell has not understood adequately the biblical and {15} historical data that he himself adduces, to that degree his conclusions and judgments regarding the view of many institutions, individuals, denominations, and para-church groups on biblical infallibility must be subject to re-evaluation. Such a reassessment may well, in some instances, draw the battle lines at different places, and in others, declare the battle to be over.

However, although Lindsell may not have entirely captured the New Testament and Reformation emphases regarding biblical authority, his concerns regarding the current promotion of an “errant” view of the Bible may have some justification. For it is also our contention that the alternative to Lindsell’s view of biblical infallibility is not the “errancy” of Scripture, as some might think. For it is, theologically speaking, as incorrect to contend for the necessary errancy of Scripture itself as it is to contend for the necessary inerrancy of Scripture itself. For in both instances one is dealing with the Bible in terms of itself, merely as an historical phenomenon, and not also and at the same time in terms of the Spirit’s activity which gives to us the Word of God. At no time are the Spirit and the Word inseparable. For one must always speak of the Bible in the context of the objective activity of the Spirit (who has given to us the deposit of Scripture) and the personal, subjective appropriation of the Word of Scripture, accomplished in us by the activity of the same Spirit who originally gave the Scriptures to us. Thus we speak of the infallibility of the Scriptures in terms of the complete process of the giving and receiving of the Word of God. It is within this context that we speak of the abiding reliability and sufficiency of the Scriptures as God’s Word.

This emphasis, rather than minimizing the concept of biblical authority, strengthens it by basing the authority of the Bible on the living Word of God as revealed in the incarnate Christ and by placing a great responsibility on God’s people to radically and concretely manifest that authoritative, redemptive message in obedient living and doing. In this the demand to take seriously the written message of God’s Word becomes far greater than the challenge to demonstrate by definition that the text of the Bible is inerrant. For the real infallibility of the Word of God can never be established unless the message of Scripture has in fact transformed heart and mind, thought and deed. And when the saving message of Scripture has in fact taken root in human life then it is primarily witnessed to in obedience, not essentially demonstrated by definition. That always has been and still remains the fundamental apologetic of Scripture. When, however, from time to time, the need arises to define and demonstrate the historical reliability of the text of Scripture, it must be done with the humble realization that we can at best do it in terms of historical probability, never in absolute terms. For in the final analysis it is God (not we) who establishes his infallible Word in us. and that through his redemptive love which must be incarnated in those who claim to be his people. For it is in the incarnation of the Word that {16} we see its nature and authority most convincingly manifested. That holds true not only for the Christ, who once for all has established that authority for us, but also for his body, the church, which must continue, in the presence of the Spirit of Christ, to exist as the concrete manifestation of that living authority. Jesus himself said, in the context of speaking about the Bible’s authority, that “anyone who keeps the Law, and teaches others so, will stand high in the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19, NEB).


  1. Some mediate and immediate factors that have helped to shape the present battle lines are: the dominant theologies of the twentieth century, the development and direction of twentieth century biblical scholarship, the influence of theological institutions and church leaders (ecclesiastical politics), the trends of religious studies in universities. social-ethical issues in posing new hermeneutical questions. the recognition of a changing world view for twentieth century man.
  2. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), p. 31.
  3. Lindsell, p. 30.
  4. Lindsell, pp. 30-31.
  5. Lindsell, p. 32.
  6. Lindsell, pp. 34-35.
  7. Lindsell, p. 39.
  8. Eidos (knowing) functions here in v. 14b as a causal participle.
  9. Whether pasa should be translated as “every” or “all” is not a crucial exegetical problem since a distributive or collective use of the term does not alter the central meaning of this passage. Also the Scriptures of v. 16 (graphe) are the same Scriptures referred to in v. 15 (hiera grammata).
  10. Theopneustos literally means God-breathed. The breath of God is in Scripture the symbol of his almighty power, the bearer of his creative Word (cf. Psalm 33:6), and we have here a clear reference to the fact that Scripture has its source and meaning in the powerful activity of the self-revealing God. This is the meaning that must be applied to the English term inspiration (from the Latin inspirare). It does not mean, as is sometimes thought, “to breathe into,” as though the words of Scripture are infused with a magical quality. Inspiration is a simple affirmation that the teachings of Scripture have their ultimate source in the creative and revealing activity of God; the context really tells us nothing more.
  11. In its context the central thrust of verse 16 is not significantly altered in choosing the NEB rendition (“Every inspired Scripture is also profitable”) over the RSV (“All Scripture is inspired and profitable”). The external evidence of the earliest New Testament translations and versions, as well as the best translations and commentators since the Church Fathers, have chosen the NEB rendering. In my estimation the internal evidence (syntax and context) likewise tends to favor the NEB translation in that it accentuates the practical, functional authority of Scripture in the life of the believing community. {17}
  12. Likewise, 2 Peter 1:19-21 addresses itself to the practical authority of Scripture (its certainty) in the believing community. In the context of the coming of Christ (1:12-18) and the prevailing godlessness (2:1-3). the apostle encourages the believers to rely on the Scriptures (which have been made more sure by the first event of Christ (vv. 16-19) as a guiding light in a time of darkness. It is within this context that the affirmation of the God-breathed nature of Scripture is made (v. 21).
  13. Lindsell, pp. 42-43.
  14. Lindsell, pp. 56-57.
  15. The fact that Lindsell tends to do this with all of his historical case studies in Chapter 3 reflects an historiography in which church history is read very much in the flat. Unfortunately, this is a serious deficiency in Lindsell’s approach for it reflects a method of argumentation that says that because most of the church has believed something for most of the time it must, therefore, be correct and true. For what the historic church has believed about inerrancy as it related to biblical authority varies greatly. Therefore, at every point one must ask what is meant by the claims of inerrancy, just as one would ascertain what is meant by belief in Jesus Christ at any point in church history.
  16. Lindsell, pp. 58-59.
  17. Our study is based on the exegetical writings of Luther which are found in the standard English source, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia; Muhlenberg Press, 1955), hereafter referred to as LW.
  18. “. . . for Christ works and rules more and more in us—Christ who is the Word of God and King over all” (LW 16, 31; cf. 16,95; 23, 96; 23, 99; first number indicates volume, the second, page).
  19. “They are called ‘sacred’ accounts because the Word of God shines in them” (LW 2, 251; cf. 2, 352; 3, 336; 5, 258; 26, 295).
  20. “Thus the spoken Word is indeed the word of a human being but it has been instituted by divine authority for salvation” (LW 3, 273; cf. 2, 82; 4, 294-95; 5, 258).
  21. “. . . we should arrange our life in such a way that we are sure of walking according to the rule of the Word whether we are awake or asleep” (LW 8,82-83; cf. 3, 120; 15, 233).
  22. “. . . God nevertheless comforts us far more effectively when to His works He adds the spoken Word, which the eyes do not see but the ears hear, and which the heart understands as a result of the working of the Holy Spirit” (LW 2, 112; cf. 4, 20; 4, 89; 4, 29495).
  23. “But such is the power of the Word of God that it restores to life the hearts that have died in this manner; the word of men cannot do this” (LW 4, 68; cf. 3, 241; 4, 106; 14, 1011; 16, 30; 27, 249; 27, 303; 29, 165; 30, 126).
  24. “. . . here is Christ, and over there are the statements of Scripture about works. But Christ is Lord over Scripture and over all works. He is the Lord of Heaven, earth . . . and absolutely everything” (LW 25, 295). “All of Holy Writ points solely to Him, attesting that He alone possesses seal and letter . . .” (LW 23, 16; cf. 7, 781; 14, 168; 14, 204; 15, 339; 22, 339; 23, 17; 23, 198; 23, 193; 25, 405).
  25. “. . . God’s Son, for whose sake all Holy Scripture has been given, in order that He might become known and be celebrated” (LW 7, 17; cf. 15, 194; 26, 146; 29, 69).
  26. “The histories in the Scriptures are often concise and confused, so that they cannot be easily harmonized, as, for example, the denials of Peter and the history of Christ’s Passion, etc.” (LW 26, 62). “These disagreements of evangelists are problems and will remain problems. I shall not venture to settle them, nor are they essential. . . . The evangelists do not all observe the same chronological order” (LW 22, 218; cf. 1, 105; 2, 94; 2, 209; 2. 277; 3, 35; 3, 230; 3, 358; 4, 21; 6, 314; 30, 166). {18}
  27. “This much is sure: Scripture does not lie” (LW 2. 233; cf. 1. 127; 26. 295: 27. 234). Luther’s statements on the inspiration of Scripture also confirm this stance.
  28. “The Holy Spirit speaks to those who read the Word of God. In this way speaking and writing become identical, only that the oral Word is more powerful than the written Word” (LW 22, 473; cf. 2, 82; 2, 112; 2, 171; 2, 272; 3, 16; 3, 273; 4, 89; 4, 294-95; 5, 258; 15, 197; 16, 122; 16, 223; 16, 320; 17, 203; 22, 48; 22, 473; 23, 95; 23. 97; 23. 100; 23. 275; 24, 69; 24, 362; 25, 4; 27, 138; 27. 308; 27, 398; 29, 3; 29, 13; 29. 34; 29. 200; 30. 19; 30. 106).
  29. “And it is evident that even if one has and hears Scripture, it is also necessary to have the revelation of the Holy Spirit, who gives the enlightenment that enables one to understand such reading and hearing” (LW 24, 367; cf. 13. 17; 22. 8; 26, 289:30. 166).
  30. “. . . when interpreters with unwashed feet and hands leap into the Holy Scriptures and bring with them their human inclination and . . . ‘let reason rule,’ they inevitably fall into all kinds of error” (LW 2, 13; cf. 1, 264; 1, 298; 2. 15; 2. 104; 2. 308; 5. 338; 7. 290; 8. 199; 8,309; 23,401).
  31. “For those who are afflicted have a better understanding of the Holy Scriptures . . .” (cf. 4, 101; 5, 6; 5, 10; 5, 14; 16, 79; 16, 157; 16, 166; 16, 224-225; 16. 233; 16. 321; 23. 283; 23, 303; 24, 210; 25, 150; 26, 383; 26, 418; 27, 159; 30, 126).
  32. “But this is what happens to lazy readers and to those who superimpose their own ideas on the reading of Sacred Scripture. What they should do is to come to it empty, to derive their ideas from Sacred Scripture, then pay careful attention to the words, to compare what precedes with what follows, and to make the effort of grasping the authentic meaning of a particular passage rather than attaching their own notions to words or phrases that they have torn out of context” (LW 27, 29; cf. 1. 231; 2. 16; 3. 319; 7. 251; 9. 21; 9, 24; 20, 108; 24, 104; 25, 192).
  33. Thus infallibility is an affirmation about the nature of the Bible’s authority and can be used in a meaningful sense. Some think it is best to dispense with the term “infallibility” and express the equivalent concept in other terms. Yet theological currency devalues slowly and new currency often does not readily replace the old. Only time will tell whether infallibility (or inerrancy) will continue to be a useful term in expressing a fundamental truth about the Word of God.
Dr. Howard Loewen is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Theology at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Canada. He is the Managing Editor of Direction.

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