Interpreting “The Infallibility Report”

One of the most crucial of all theological discussions of modern times concerns the nature, authority, and trustworthiness of Scripture. Historically this discussion arose as a result of modern critical studies of the Bible, most of which have been undertaken out of a spirit of skepticism toward all traditions, under the impulse of philosophies of history which allow little or no room for the presence of the—supernatural in history, and with tools designed for the—critical investigation of literature in general, including historiography. Because Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, is so much a religion of a book, and because critical conclusions have been predominantly so destructive of traditional Christian convictions regarding its sacred book, these discussions have been long and heated. Beyond .a doubt, they will continue as long as anti-supernatural criticism continues and historic Christian faith lives.


No Christian community can ignore these discussions .and no Christian community that takes its faith and task seriously can fail to participate in them. It is a sign of spiritual vitality in the Christian Reformed Church that it has not been altogether silent. It is a sign of lack of theological vigor that the Christian Reformed Church has sometimes seemed to act as if these discussions did not exist or that they were not her concern. Events, however, have not allowed it to be long complacent in pretended isolation. Although manifesting no particular desire to get involved, it has been compelled from time to time to speak on the matter.

The occasion for her most recent speaking is well-known to all who read these words. There is good reason to suppose that this occasion arose because the church community had been too long silent. It had been silent so long that few really knew what their fellows were thinking. Perhaps few knew what they themselves really thought. The fuzziness and uncertainty—and false assurance—which silence always breeds had had time for large development. When the silence was finally broken we were troubled. We were troubled by the positions which had been conceived in the silence and by our own inability, also bred in the silence, to speak authoritatively to the point—which is something else than speaking dogmatically. It was good, therefore, that the silence was finally broken and that we, as a church community, were compelled to speak again.


And now we have spoken. That is to say, the church, the Christian Reformed Church, has spoken. It has spoken by means of a study Report on “Infallibility and Inspiration in the Light of Scripture and the Creeds.” In doing so it has once more entered the modern discussion concerning Scripture.

Let us keep the record straight. When we say that the Christian Reformed Church has “spoken” by means of the above·named Report we do not mean that it has spoken a dogma. It has not spoken to silence all further speaking. It has rather spoken in such fashion as to stimulate and guide further conversation. It has genuinely entered the discussion. It has said of the Report, and it has said it officially through the agent of its General Synod, that it “commends” the Report to the church because it is “a frame. work for further study of the nature of the relationship between inspiration and infallibility.”

To be sure, the Christian Reformed Church did not leave itself wholly uncommitted by its action. It did not say that the Report in question was a good stimulant to further study. It said expressly that it was a “framework” for further study. By so saying, it obviously endorsed the general thrust of the Report while refraining from expressing itself with respect to all the scriptural and creedal exegesis and all the points of argument contained in the Report.

It is, then, by means of the general thrust of the Report that the church has spoken. It is this general thrust of the Report, which provides “a framework for further study of the nature of the relationship between inspiration and infallibility,” that has been the Christian Reformed Church’s contribution to the present discussions concerning the Bible.

But what is it that the Christian Reformed Church has said? This must be determined before its contribution is truly understood and before this contribution can be evaluated. The first task, therefore, which faces us all is to interpret the Report.

A word of caution is in order at this point. In interpreting the Report it will do no good to appeal to the authors of the Report in order to discover what they intended to say. Nor will it profit any to appeal to members of the Synod which acted on the Report in order to learn from them how Synod intended the report to be understood. The Report must now be interpreted in terms of itself and what it actually says. That is to say, the Report must speak for itself.

So then, what does the Report say? This question should occupy us for a while. Until we are clear on this we cannot profitably address ourselves to “further study.”


Various attempts to interpret the Report have already been forthcoming. It is hoped that more will follow. One of the more recent of such attempts appeared in The Reformed Journal, Nov. 1961, under the title “Infallibility 1961.” I recommend to all who are interested in following the discussion that they read the article with care. In the remaining space available to me I wish to evaluate this attempt. The writer’s obvious attempt to interpret the Report carefully and soberly makes his article worthy of a response. At the same time his ability to provide the appearance of plausibility for his misinterpretation (as it appears to me) of the Report requires response.

The author’s chief interest, it appears, is to interpret what the Report has to say about infallibility and historical fact. He concludes that the view of Scriptural infallibility set forth in the Report allows the possibility that “many of the statements in Scripture may be inaccurate, inconsistent, or in error when judged from a merely (italics his) historiographical point of view.” He draws this conclusion from the fact that the concept infallible (infallibility) was carefully defined and limited in the Report “to the theological context of the redemptive intent and purpose of Scripture,” and from the fact that the Report affirms that the uniquely redemptive purpose of Scripture allows “a different kind of accuracy and consistency when we turn to the historical, psychological, and phenomenological facts given in Scripture” from that allowed when Scripture speaks in terms of precepts, doctrines, promiSes, and predictive prophecies.

This interpretation of the Report leaves our interpreter with the question: “To what extent does the revelatory purpose of sacred history allow for (merely) historical inaccuracy?” He goes on to explain his question by saying, “an the one side we are assured that the facts asserted in Scripture need not show precise correspondence with event, circumstance, nature, and parallel statement. On the other side, we are warned that no inaccuracy of this kind must jeopardize the historical trustworthiness of Scripture.” So explained, the question seems to ask: how wild can the historical inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and errors allowed by the doctrine of infallibility set forth in the Report be without jeopardizing the historical trustworthiness of Scripture? This, we are told, is one of the questions to which “further study” must address itself.




To the present writer it seems that the author of “Infallibility 1961” has misinterpreted the Report at two important points. In the first place, he misinterprets the Report when he supposes that it defines and limits the concept of infallibility to “the theological context at the redemptive intent antI purpose of Scripture.” I must admit that I find this to be a vague and ambiguous statement of which I am somewhat uncertain as to its specific meaning. However, it can be construed to mean that the central interest of Scripture is. to communicate a body of theological truth which is redemptively oriented, and that for this reason Scripture may be more or less careless when speaking on historical and phenomenological matters. All that can be required of Scripture for the maintenance of its infallibility is that when speaking of such matters Scripture does not distort or corrupt its redemptive theology. So long as its statements are faithful to the redemptive intent and purpose of Scripture no challenge can be made of its infallibility irrespective of how loosely Scripture may deal with historical fact.

This is the way the statement can be construed. Furthermore, this seems to be the way in which the author intended it. That is why he can say that carefulness in the reporting of history is not demanded by infallibility but only by the Holy Spirit’s intent and purpose in some instances. Therefore, Biblical history may be inaccurate or even erroneous as judged by historiography while being infallible as judged by the “theological context of the redemptive intent and purpose of Scripture.”

Now the Report does indeed define and limit the concept of infallibility as applied to Scripture. Moreover, it does so in the light of the redemptive purpose of God which is revealed in Scripture. However, it does not limit infallibility to “the theological context of the redemptive intent and purpose of Scripture.” It rather defines and limits the infallibility of Scripture in the light of the nature of redemptive revelation, which, it recognizes, is as truly historical (i.e. partakes of the nature of event—event taking place in a world of phenomena) as it is propositional. Nor does the Report adopt the view that event-revelation becomes revelation only when taken up into Scripture so that it becomes revelation only by the manner in which it is reported in Scripture. (Rarely this may be the case as in the instance of Melchizedek who enters Scripture as a type of Christ, in part at least because he is without genealogy, Heb. 7:3.) Event-revelation is revelatory because of the nature of the event even when it needs prophetic word to illumine it. For that reason the revelatory purpose of Scripture does not allow it to be careless with history. The revelatory purpose of Scripture requires that Scripture be trustworthy in the reporting of history. And let it be remembered that when we speak of revelatory history we do not speak of isolated events in history but of a true history which possesses organic continuity and which is an organic part of world history. It is not a parallel stream narrowly channeled so as to flow in glorious isolation from history in general.

To be sure. and this the Report acknowledges, the revelatory reporting of revelatory history does not always require minute precision and detailed description. Whether such precision or detailed description is necessary depends on the way in which the revelation is embodied in event. In many areas or instances the revelation may be so embodied as to allow for an inexact sketching of events. The intent and purpose of the Spirit for reporting events, an intent and purpose which may be defined as communicating redemptive revelation, must always be kept in mind. But this is to say something else than that Biblical history may contain many inaccuracies and errors.


In the second place. the author of “Infallibility 1961”misinterprets the Report when he states as its position that “we find a different kind of accuracy and consistency when we turn to the historical, psychological and phenomenological facts given in Scripture” from that which we find when Scripture speaks “in terms of…precepts, doctrines, promises, and predictive prophecies….” In fact, the Report says just the opposite. It declares that the same kind of accuracy and consistency obtains throughout.

At this point the Report is very careful. Having defined infallibility in terms of “non-falsifying, non-deceiving, inerrant, and non-failing” (Agenda, 1961, p. 156 ) and having already declared that “Scripture presents itself solely as a divine self-revelation of God for redemptive purposes” (p. 156), it proceeds to apply this concretely to Scripture. In doing so it still remembers that whenever Scripture speaks it does so with a view to communicating “with absolute authority and trustworthiness the self-disclosure of God” (p. 157).

Therefore it declares that with respect to precepts, doctrines, promises, and predictive prophecies Scriptural infallibility requires “consistency, mutual compatibility and trustworthiness.” Then it adds immediately: “With respect to historical, psychological and phenomenological facts it [infallibility] means that we must confidently expect that Scripture possesses such ‘accuracy’ and such ‘consistency’ us is required by the Spirit’s purpose for speaking of such facts.”

Now it should be obvious that the Spirit’s purpose for speaking in terms of precept, doctrine, promise, and predictive prophecy requires “consistency, mutual compatibility, and trustworthiness.” So then when it is said that “with respect to historical, psychological and phenomenological facts it [infallibility] means that we must confidently expect that Scripture possesses such ‘accuracy’ and such ‘consistency’ as is required by the Spirit’s purpose for speaking of such facts” it is declared that the same standard obtains. In fact. by placing the words “accuracy” and “consistency” at this point within quotation marks the Report warns us against doing what we might otherwise be prone to do, viz. to judge of Scripture’s statements in these areas by foreign criteria, such as those of modern science, psychology, and historiography. Care must be had, we are told, “to apply such words as ‘accuracy’, ‘inerrancy’, and ‘consistency’ in no other way than the nature of Scripture allows.” Scriptural accuracy, inerrancy, and consistency in matters historical, psychological and phenomenological is not a matter of precise and exact description. Because of Scripture’s peculiar focus, a focus which it retains in all its speaking, this is not its manner of speaking. Its manner of speaking is determined by the nature of inspiration, viz. “organic,” and by the Spirit’s purpose to communicate in writing the redemptive self-disclosure of God in history. And because redemptive revelation participates of event in a phenomenological world this purpose of the Spirit does not allow for the “rewriting” of history or for the distortion of history, even while it docs not in all instances require detailed and exact reporting of history or a scientifically correct description of human psychology or natural phenomena.

As I see it then, the question we face is not, how far off can the statements of Scripture pertaining to history be without undermining the historical trustworthiness of Scripture? It is rather, What is the manner of Scripture’s speaking in its reporting of history? Within the framework of Scripture’s manner of speaking we may expect that Scripture is altogether true to history. This the Report affirms, or so it seems to me.


In closing I would remark on one more matter. The author of “Infallibility 1961” states that according to the Report “we might say that there are historical inaccuracies in Scripture only in the same sense that there are nonsense (italics his) statements in Scripture.” He then goes on to say, “Many statements in Scripture are complete nonsense when judged from a strictly literal point of view…” Reference is made to Psalm 91:4.

Now it so happens that I think that the writer is correct in the first of these two statements. We may indeed “say that there are historical inaccuracies in Scripture only (italics mine) in the same sense that there are nonsense (italics his) statements in Scripture.” But I am of the feeling that faith need find no occasion for, and that due reverence for Scripture hardly allows for, saying that there are “nonsense statements in Scripture.” Beyond a doubt, if one insists on interpreting certain passages of Scripture without regard to the manner of Scripture’s speaking he can make nonsense out of Scripture. But this is to say something different from what is said by the writer of the words: “Many statements in Scripture are complete nonsense when judged from a strictly literal paint of view…” (Notice that he goes on to speak of “this ‘admission’ of nonsense in Scripture…”) Or if it is not saying something different, it is saying it differently and with greater care. One does not gain respect in others for Scripture by “admitting” that there are “many nonsense statements in Scripture.” Neither, it seems to me, will one gain respect in others for Scripture by “admitting” that there are many “inaccuracies,” “inconsistencies,” and “errors” in Scripture. Nor are such “admissions” in line with the general thrust of the Report.