Does Human Fallibility Imply a Fallible Bible?
Humanity is broken. Few would deny the biblical affirmation: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All people stand in need of redemption and are incapable of currying God's favor by their own imperfect efforts (Ephesians 2:3-9; Galatians 3:22). Even for those who “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7) personal sin remains a reality (1 John 1:10-2:1). The question, “Are Christians sinners who are forgiven or saints who sin?,” bespeaks the perplexity that saved people feel in the face of their daily struggles with the evil one (Saucy, 1995). This realization has driven some people to wonder whether it is even possible for the Bible to be infallible, since fallible humans were employed in its production.
WHO WROTE THE BIBLE?
The belief that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible has a long, venerable history. Although some conservative scholars are willing to grant that Moses may have employed ancient cuneiform tablets in his composition of Genesis (Harrison, 1969, p. 548), the case favoring his personal authorship of the Pentateuch is quite compelling (Archer, 1974, pp. 109-123). Moses was a man who at times was given to self-doubt, frustration, anger, and disobedience (Exodus 2:12; 3:11; 32:19; Numbers 20:10-13). Could he, with all his fallibilities, have written an infallible record of the first 2,500 years of sacred history?
The great giant-fighter, David, is credited with the authorship of much of the Psalter. As the sweet psalmist of Israel, his songs have inspired millions to rely on God when everyone else proves unreliable. Countless saints have been laid to rest under the comforting lyrics of Psalm 23. And yet, the shepherd-king had bloodstained hands. He fell prey to lust, deceit, and even murder. Could such a man compose poetic verses for an infallible volume?
The all-too-carnal actions of God’s prophets, priests, and kings embarrassingly remind us of humankind’s hopeless condition. Even apostles were unable to rise above the charge of sin and the threat of condemnation (Galatians 2:11). Is it reasonable to believe that sinners such as these—with the same penchant for error as the rest of us—collectively produced a volume that can be trusted?
One might even wonder how a book could at the same time be both of human and divine origin. Mechanical dictation (the view that the Bible’s human authors were totally passive and acted like a computer that converts voice input into typed words) has long been rejected as unsatisfactory (see Paché, 1969, pp. 66-70). The obvious stylistic differences between biblical writers have been the major objection to this view. In principle, the dictation view would be unable to alleviate the possibility of fallibility anyway, since it still requires some human involvement; if human involvement is inherently problematic, then anything short of God’s actually writing Scripture and handing it to humanity as a finished product would be suspect. The biblical writers do not shy away from ascribing human authorship to the Scriptures, which they viewed as of divine origin (Luke 24:27; Acts 4:25; 2 Peter 3:15). For them, human participation did not diminish Scripture’s divine authority (Acts 1:16; 2 Timothy 3:16; Mark 12:36; Matthew 19:4-5). Would their confidence have been so strong had they believed the Scriptures were fallible?
MUST HUMANS ERR?
The error-prone condition of humans and the imperfections of their handiwork, might lead us to the natural but incorrect conclusion that error, sin, and brokenness is inextricably inherent in being human. While it is true that nothing originating in humanity is sufficient to deal with the universal problem of sin, it is false to view sin as part of the essential definition of humanity. It is helpful to understand the difference between “truly essential” and “merely common” properties. Gerald O’Collins illustrates this point:
Until recently all human beings were conceived within their mother’s body. With the advent of in vitro fertilization, we now know that being conceived within our mother’s body is a common property but not an essential one (1995, p. 269).
While sin certainly is a “common property,” it is not essential to humanity. In their original state, Adam and Eve were sinless. Yet, they were nonetheless fully human. Sin amounts to a departure from the ideal humanity God intended for us. Since sin is not inherent in the definition of “human,” human involvement in the writing of Scripture does not demand that it is fallible.
AN ANALOGY FROM THE LIVING WORD
The incarnation of Jesus provides a helpful analogy to understanding the inspiration of Scripture. The New Testament writers unhesitatingly affirmed three propositions about Jesus: He was divine (John 1:1-3); He was human (Galatians 4:4); and, He was sinless (1 Peter 2:22). Just because the Savior was human, and bore the likeness of “sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), does not imply that He sinned. Instead, Jesus’ sinlessness reminds us of the original state of Adam (see Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22,45; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Timothy 2:5). Like the Living Word, we might say the written Word is both fully human and fully divine. Clearly, if God could produce a human being (Jesus) Who was infallible, then, reasonably, God could also produce a “human” book that is infallible (see Geisler and Brooks, 1990, p. 152). How this was accomplished has not been revealed. Apparently, like the prophets of old, all biblical writers were “borne” along by the Holy Spirit in their writing (2 Peter 1:21).
Archer, Gleason L., (1974), Old Testament Introduction (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, revised edition).
Geisler, Norman and Ron Brooks, (1990), When Skeptics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor).
Harrison, R.K. (1969), Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
O'Collins, Gerald, (1995), Christology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press).
Paché, René (1969), The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Saucy, Robert L. (1995), “ ‘Sinners’ Who Are Forgiven or ‘Saints’ Who Sin?,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 152:400-412, October-December.