Chapter 4: Is the Bible Infallible?

What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By
by Louis Cassels

Chapter 4: Is the Bible Infallible?

There is far more diversity in the Roman Catholic Church than the average Protestant realizes. Catholics not only are free to disagree on politics, economics, international affairs, art, literature, music, and whether a steak should be cooked rare or medium; they also differ on a number of religious questions, as the lively debates at the Second Vatican Council have demonstrated.

But on central doctrines of the faith — such as the Incarnation — Catholics are united. Their unity is the result of obedience rather than consensus. When the Church declares a doctrine to be based on revealed truth, all Catholics must accept it on pain of mortal sin, whether or not they have previously found the evidence persuasive. They accept it because they believe that the Church is divinely endowed with infallible teaching authority — that God will not allow it to err on really vital points of faith.

To Protestants, this is the great scandal of Catholicism: people are "told what to believe."

To Catholics, the great scandal of Protestantism is that people are not "told what to believe."

When Protestants disagree on a point of doctrine, there is no final arbiter to say who is right. The sixteenth-century Reformers expected the Bible to take the place of the Pope as the ultimate yardstick of doctrine. But history has abundantly demonstrated that sincere men can draw quite different meanings from the Bible. Once Protestants had embraced the principle of private interpretation, there was nothing to prevent them from drifting into widely divergent views on basic theological questions — including the authority of the Bible itself.

When Luther and Calvin Disagreed

This danger became evident fairly early in the Reformation. Martin Luther accepted it as a price that had to be paid for the kind of religious freedom that can lead to genuine personal commitment as opposed to mere assent. But John Calvin tried to forestall the problem by attributing to the Bible the same kind of infallibility that Roman Catholics attribute to the Church. Although Luther protested this creation of a "paper pope," Calvin’s view gradually prevailed. By the seventeenth century, most of Protestantism was committed to Calvin’s dictum that believers should accord to Scripture "the same complete credit and authority . . . as if they had heard the very words pronounced by God Himself."

Belief in the "verbal inerrancy" of the Bible is based on logic very similar to that which Catholics use in defending the concept of papal infallibility. God could not take a chance on men misunderstanding the self-revelation which He accomplished through the history of Israel, and supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore He inspired the writers of the Bible to set down a wholly accurate, completely dependable record. His "superintendency" of the writing of the Bible extended to the very choice of words. Thus the Bible must be revered as "the Word of God" in a quite literal sense.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the doctrine of verbal inerrancy was brought sharply into question. The scientific knowledge which man was beginning to acquire flatly contradicted some of the things stated in the Bible — for example, the assertion in the first chapter of Genesis that only six days elapsed between the creation of the cosmos and the emergence of human life on this planet. These contradictions would not have bothered Luther, who never regarded all parts of the Bible as being of equal value, and who held that the primary importance of Scripture was its witness to Jesus Christ. But the admission of the slightest error in the Bible was intolerable to Protestants who had staked their faith on the proposition that every word in the Old and New Testaments was virtually dictated by God.

The Birth of Liberalism

This crisis led to a theological revolution in Protestantism, and the emergence of a school of thought known as Liberalism. It began, as do most new fashions in theology, in German universities. By the latter part of the nineteenth century it had spread widely through Europe, Great Britain, and America.

The theological high priests of Liberalism were such German professors as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack, and Rudolf Bultmann. In the United States, its notable proponents included Harry Emerson Fosdick, A. N. Wieman, and Rufus Jones.

Although these men differed on many points, they shared a common concern for making Christianity palatable to modern minds. In Dr. Fosdick’s words, they sought to differentiate between the "abiding essence" of the Christian message, and the myths, legends, and stories used to convey that message in the Bible.

The Liberals did not merely abandon the idea that the Bible was infallible. Many of them went further and refused to accord any special authority to the Scriptures. They increasingly came to look upon the Bible simply as an ancient book which might, if subjected to proper critical study, yield some reliable data about the life of Jesus and the history of Israel. This attitude was reflected in the vogue of "higher criticism" which swept through German theological schools in the nineteenth century.

In their attempt to reduce Christianity to its "essentials," Liberals proceeded on the a priori assumption that God always acts through "natural" forces and there is no such thing as a "supernatural" event. Thus Liberalism sought to find natural explanations for the miracles recorded in the New Testament, from the feeding of the five thousand to the Resurrection. What it could not explain away, it soft-pedaled, or labeled "myth."

The most radical expressions of Liberalism jettisoned the concept of a personal God in favor of what Professor Daniel B. Stevick has aptly described as "the worship of abstractions spelled with capital letters." God became an Immanent Principle of the natural universe, which worked toward goodness. Jesus was "the most admirable embodiment so far of this divine principle," a Way-shower whose example all men should emulate. But he was just an humble, human teacher, trying to preach a simple message about the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and he doubtless would have been appalled at the thought that his followers would some day be calling him the Son of God.

The less extreme liberals, including such leaders as Fosdick and Jones, continued to believe in a God who transcends the order of nature (as well as works through it) and to insist on the uniqueness of Jesus. Some of these "moderate" liberals were prepared to look upon Jesus as the Incarnate Self-Expression of God. But many others were inclined to the view that Jesus is supreme and unique only in that he fulfilled more completely than any other person ever has the potentiality of every human be-lug to become a child of God.

The Social Gospel

The left wing of Liberalism shaded off imperceptibly into humanism, and the whole movement was infected with a strong faith in the perfectibility of man and his society. This led to Liberalism’s greatest constructive achievement: its powerful emphasis on the "social gospel," which commits Christians to work here and now for the elimination of injustice and the bettering of human living standards. If Protestant Christianity today is at long last taking an effective part in the struggle for Negro rights, and an intelligent interest in the maintenance of peace, Liberalism is largely responsible. However skeptical they may be about some of the other things Jesus is reported to have said and done, Liberals have always taken very seriously the words attributed to him in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew: "Inasmuch as you have done it [kind deeds] to the least of these my brothers, you have done it [them] unto me."

But Liberalism’s faith that man could be saved from sin by education and from travail by science proved to be its Achilles’ heel. The rise of Adolf Hitler and the murder of 6 million Jews in the very country that gave birth to Liberal theology; the terrible slaughter which the most highly educated nations inflicted upon one another in World War II; and the realization that science had opened the door to total annihilation by nuclear weapons — these and other events of recent history have made even the most dedicated Liberal wonder whether there may not be something after all in the classic Christian view that man is helpless to save himself, that he is rather dependent on the mercy of God to extricate him from his human predicament.


Liberalism was one Protestant response to the challenge of modern science. There was another response, exactly opposite to Liberalism and bitterly hostile toward it. This second response came to be known as Fundamentalism. It developed in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. Its great theologian was J. Gresham Machen. Its popular lay leader was William Jennings Bryan (who defended the Fundamentalist cause against the slashing ridicule of atheist attorney Clarence Darrow in the famous Scopes evolution trial at Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925).

Fundamentalism got its name from a series of pamphlets published between 1909 and 1915 under the title The Fundamentals: A Testimony to Truth. Written by various conservative Protestant scholars, these theological essays upheld the following as "fundamental" Christian doctrines: belief in the inerrancy of the Bible; the virgin birth; the physical resurrection of Jesus; a "substitutionary" theory of the atonement (that is, one which holds that Jesus died in man’s stead, satisfying the requirements of Divine justice through vicarious suffering for the sins of the whole world); and the expectation of a physical "Second Coming" of Christ, when he will judge the world.

These doctrines were singled out for defense not because they sum up the Christian faith (after all, the linchpin doctrine of the Incarnation is included only by inference), but because they were under attack by liberal theologians bent on stripping away all "supernatural" elements from Christianity. Fundamentalism can be understood only as a strong emotional reaction against the reductionism of Liberal theology.

The cornerstone of Fundamentalism from the start was an uncompromising insistence on the "verbal inerrancy" of all parts of the Bible. This often-used phrase meant that the Bible was totally without error, and that its very language, as well as its general content, was directly inspired by God. "To the Fundamentalist, this doctrine became the first defense against error," says Professor William Hordern. "If one began by doubting any statement of the Bible, he had started down the slippery slope that, the Fundamentalist believed, would lead to the denial of God and the divinity of Jesus, the loss of certainty of salvation, and finally the loss of ethics."

In fairness to the Fundamentalist position, which is more often caricatured than explained, it should be pointed out that belief in the Bible’s infallibility is not the same thing as "taking the Bible literally." The Fundamentalist recognizes that there is poetic and allegorical language in the Bible, and that Jesus himself often used vivid figures of speech, such as his advice to cut off an offending hand, which he meant to be understood in spiritual rather than literal terms. What the Fundamentalist tries to do is to follow the "natural" meaning of each scriptural passage. When the Bible claims to be recording factual history — as it unquestionably does, for example, in the accounts of the Resurrection — the Fundamentalist takes it as literally "God’s truth."

Salvation and Piety

Whereas Liberalism was concerned with the social implications of the Christian gospel, Fundamentalism focused its attention on individual salvation and personal piety. It was not indifferent to the ills of society, but it held that the best way to deal with them was to "change the hearts of men." It also was much preoccupied with the end of the world and the traumatic sequence of "last things" that would accompany the return of Christ as Judge. Its ethical concerns reflected a distrust of modern life, and were expressed in prohibitions on dancing, card-playing, Sunday movies, and the use of alcoholic beverages and tobacco.

Fundamentalism had great appeal for Protestants who found Liberalism’s gospel a very thin soup, and who were looking for the same kind of religious "certainties" which the Roman Catholic Church promises to its adherents. During the 1920s and 1930s, Liberalism and Fundamentalism waged a titanic struggle for control of Protestant denominations in America. When the smoke of battle cleared, the Liberals had apparently won in most of the major communions. But Fundamentalists were clearly dominant in two large denominations — the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. They also held sway in scores of smaller denominations (including some which split off from the major Methodist and Presbyterian bodies during the struggle). And there were Fundamentalist minorities of various sizes in other Protestant communions.

Modern Orthodoxy

By the mid-1930s, Liberalism had a firm grip on the seminaries and other seats of institutional power of the major Protestant denominations. But its dominance proved to be short-lived. Within a very few years, it was in headlong retreat before a new theology to which various labels have been applied, but which is probably best described in the term Modern Orthodoxy. Among the theologians who have played formative roles in the emergence of Modern Orthodoxy are Karl Barth and Emil Brunner in Europe; William Temple and C. S. Lewis in England; John and D. M. Baillie in Scotland; Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett in the United States.

Professor William Hordern gives an excellent capsule summary of Modern Orthodoxy in his book A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology (which is warmly recommended to any reader who would like to delve more deeply into the questions discussed in this chapter): "The heart of this movement lies in loyalty to the faith of historic orthodoxy, not because it is ancient or orthodox, but because it is believed to be true. Modern Orthodoxy believes that in the orthodox Christian tradition we have a precious heritage of truth which must not be thrown overboard just because someone has split the atom and someone else has looked farther through a telescope. Nevertheless, it is willing to understand the old truth more fully insofar as modern thought makes that possible."

Modern Orthodoxy rejects the Fundamentalist doctrine of "verbal inerrancy" as an aberration that crept into Protestant theology during the post-Reformation quest for an authority to take the place of the Pope. Instead of pinning its faith on an infallible book, it focuses on Christ as the only completely trustworthy source of knowledge about God. To treat the words of the Bible as the words of God is to erect an idol. It is to Christ the Revealer that men must look if they wish to encounter the Living God and hear His authentic Word to mankind.

"The Bible as a book is not the revelation," says John C. Bennett. "Every part of the Bible must be subjected to rigorous criticism and understood on its human side as the work of fallible men whose minds reflected the limitations of outlook of a particular time and culture. No event or teaching is to be guaranteed as authentic merely because it is in the Bible.

"On the other hand, the Bible is the record of the revelatory events in which God has made Himself known to man. It also contains the earliest record of the response of the Apostles and the earliest Christian community to these revelatory events — to Christ, his teaching, his death and the events associated with his resurrection."

Karl Barth goes further. While he welcomes the most radical scrutiny of biblical texts, he reminds theologians that — once they have satisfied themselves what the biblical authors really meant to convey — they have no right to substitute their own judgment for what the firsthand witnesses say they saw and heard.

"The post-biblical theologian may, no doubt, possess a better astronomy, geography, sociology, psychology, physiology, and so on than these biblical witnesses possessed," says the great Swiss theologian. "But he is not justified in comporting himself in relationship to those witnesses as though he knew more about the Word of God than they. . . . Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, scholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian. From his special point of view, the witness has written about the revelatory act in direct confrontation with it." In other words, he was there.

While recoiling on one hand from the "bibliolatry" of Fundamentalism, Modern Orthodoxy is equally emphatic in rejecting Liberalism’s attempt to reduce the Christian gospel to a few simple ethical teachings. From Reinhold Niebuhr and others, it has learned that the great biblical themes of sin, grace, and redemption are as relevant to modern man as they were to his forefathers. Modern Orthodoxy has not settled on any one doctrine of atonement. But it takes very seriously the basic biblical affirmation that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself." In the words of Professor Hordern, it looks upon the Resurrection as "not simply an announcement that there is a life hereafter" but "a decisive turning point for the human race," a mighty act at the juncture of time and eternity through which God "proclaims the fact that there is a power at work in the world which is mightier than all the forces that crucified our Lord."

Modern Orthodoxy has retained Liberalism’s passion for social justice, while learning to be far more realistic about the obstacles that human nature places in the way of its achievement. It is characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy to denounce segregation as a sin and to preach human brotherhood as a Christian ideal, while lobbying effectively for passage of a strong federal civil rights law to curb overt acts of discrimination by persons who don’t really care about God’s will in regard to race relations.

Another distinctive feature of Modern Orthodoxy is its rediscovery of the Church, not as a convenient institution for propagating Christian beliefs, but as the mystical Body of Christ. The inevitable result of taking the Church more seriously has been concern about its disunity, and it is no coincidence that the ecumenical movement has received its greatest impetus from the main-line Protestant denominations, in which Modern Orthodoxy has most thoroughly displaced Liberalism and Fundamentalism.

The Radical Reinterpreters

Although it casts a much smaller shadow than it did in the first half of this century, Liberalism is still a live option in Protestantism, and it has lately showed some evidences of new vitality. Thirty years after it ceased to be a burning issue in Europe, Rudolf Bultmann’s "demythologizing" approach to the Bible has become a burning topic of conversation among American seminarians. A few theologians, such as Schubert M. Ogden, Paul van Buren, and William Hamilton, have written books expounding a Neo-liberal belief that traditional Christian doctrines must be "radically reinterpreted" (by which they usually mean abandoned) in order to sell the faith to modern intellectuals.

In 1963 Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson stirred up several old themes of German liberalism and marketed them to a mass audience in a book entitled Honest to God, which was so muddled in its theological concepts that Professor Alasdair McIntyre felt constrained to welcome the Bishop into the ranks of atheism. Dr. Robinson hastily rejected the welcome. He said he was only trying to make God "real and relevant and urgent for our generation" by separating the essential Christian message from "the envelope in which the message was sent." That, of course, is precisely what Bultmann said he was trying to do: separate the "kernel" of Christian truth from the "husk of a pre-scientific world view."

The trouble with this effort, as Karl Barth has repeatedly pointed out, is that each theologian brings to the biblical message his own presuppositions about what constitutes "kernel" and what may be discarded as "husk." The net effect of most recent Neo-liberal attempts to rewrite the Gospel has been to scrap all its supernatural elements, on the unproved (and unprovable) premise that they are "husk," and to translate what is left into the terminology of existential philosophy. Thus, sin becomes "alienation," salvation becomes "realizing the potential of authentic existence," and the Resurrection becomes a "symbol" of the early Christian community’s faith that this is a pretty good world after all.

So far, Neo-liberalism seems to have nothing to say that was not said earlier — and on the whole, better — by Liberalism.

The Evangelicals

Meanwhile, Fundamentalism still holds the strongholds it won during the twenties. Because of their strong emphasis on evangelism, Fundamentalist denominations have grown more rapidly than main-line Protestant bodies, and Fundamentalism today encompasses a substantial portion — perhaps a third — of the total membership of Protestant churches in the United States. It is much weaker in Western Europe, where it never won a very wide foothold, but is thriving in Latin America as a result of vigorous missionary efforts.

In recent years, it has showed signs of mellowing, of becoming slightly less embattled and truculent in its attitude toward the "heretics" who do not share its beliefs. There also have been signs of a greater openness to intellectual inquiry, and a desire to communicate with the contemporary world in its own language — if not on the basis of its presuppositions.

Many of the modern heirs of the Fundamentalist movement prefer to be called "evangelicals," or "conservatives." They include such theologians as E. J. Carnell and Carl F. Henry, who can hold their own in scholarly disputation with anyone. Some of them — Carnell is one — are even willing to go along with a modified theory of evolution. But one and all stand firmly on the doctrine of verbal inerrancy. Regarding themselves as the only true "Bible-believing Christians," they tend to stand aloof from the ecumenical movement that is drawing other Protestants closer together, and to eschew any ties with such cooperative organizations as the National Council of Churches (which most Fundamentalists look upon as being heavily infiltrated with unrepentant Liberals or worse). About forty Fundamentalist bodies have banded together in the National Association of Evangelicals.

On the extreme right wing of Fundamentalism are the followers of radio preacher Carl McIntyre and like-minded souls, who have formed the American Council of Christian Churches. They are so Fundamentalist that they regard Southern Baptists as dangerous liberals. Someone has suggested that they really should be given their own designation — perhaps "Separatists" — because of their insistence on avoiding any kind of fellowship With other Christians whose views on the infallibility of the Bible they regard as insufficiently rigorous.