I am preparing a lecture on differing Evangelical views of Scripture, particularly in trans-Atlantic perspective, which I will post up here when it is done. I stumble over the word ‘infallible’: in normal English usage, it means ‘will not fail’, and so demands a qualifier (‘will not fail’ to do what?); thus confessing the Bible to be infallible without any indication as to its purpose is precisely meaningless in logical terms.

The standard claim, which I can trace back no further than Packer’s God has Spoken, although it then crops up in the Chicago Statement, the Westminster Handbook, and various other reference works, seems to be that ‘infallibility’ means ‘the quality of neither deceiving nor being deceived’ (Packer, p.111). This is generally defended etymologically: Latin in + fallo, which primarily means ‘to deceive’.

OK, but: 1. Warfield and Hodge used ‘infallibility’ to mean ‘inerrancy’ in 1881: not ‘not deceiving’ but ‘not erring’; 2. fallo does not primarily mean ‘to deceive’ when applied to inanimate objects; there it basically means ‘to fail’; 3. infallibilis is used (admittedly fairly rarely) in medieval and early modern Latin, first by Augustine I think, always with the sense of ‘not failing’ (Augustine uses it of the certainty of the divine decree of election); 4. ‘infallibility’ is never used with the sense Packer et al. want to give it in English (so the OED); 5. as far as I can presently tell, no Reformation or post-Reformation writer or confession used infallibilis of Scripture in any sense, with the sole exception of the Latin translation of Westminster, where it was a back-translation of the English ‘infallible’, and so must be assumed to have the natural sense of that word (Schleiermacher cites the ‘conf. March.’ as describing Scripture as infallible, but I have no idea what the ‘conf. March.’ is!) ; 6. the most common use of infallibilis in theology is in debates over the status of the Pope, where the word always means ‘unable to err’ (in particular circumstances, of course).

So, whence Packer’s supposed meaning of ‘unable to deceive’? Can anyone enlighten me before I have to give this lecture (Tue 26th!)?


  1. seanthebaptist
    Feb 15, 2008

    Hi Steve
    And I suspect that the last point is the pertinent one – namely that Protestant usage developed in response to post 1870 Catholicism – hence it cropping up in Warfield and Hodge in the late 19th century. Not sure that helps, but it sure as hell means that Packer seems to be pleading a special case. What does Carl Henry do with it?

  2. Steve H
    Feb 15, 2008

    Hi Sean
    Henry’s a good thought. But no copy in St Andrews…

    Actually, the English usage goes way back, (Leigh & other Puritans; Westminster Confession; translators’ preface to the 1611 printing of the Bible; …), but always as far as I can see with the sense of inerrancy.

    I suspect someone just flipped open Lewis & Short, got fallo = ‘deceive’, and made the rest up. But I would not have thought that that was Jim Packer’s style.

  3. Michael Bird
    Feb 16, 2008


    I’d like to see you interact with Andrew McGowan’s recent book over this subject and what he says about infallibility vs. inerrancy.

  4. Steve H
    Feb 16, 2008

    Hi Mike,

    I’m reading Andy’s book at the moment–thus far mostly for helpful historical details for the lecture I’m writing, but the positive proposal looks worth engaging with, certainly. Perhaps I’ll put something up here.


  5. Jordan
    Feb 16, 2008

    In terms of Henry and infallibility, I came across this link which may prove helpful in determining his views. Unfortunately I did not come across any primary sources


  6. Jason
    Feb 17, 2008

    Steve, you may also want to have a quick glance at EJ Young (1957, 113f.), writing just prior to the point where matters were beginning to boil in California.

  7. Steve H
    Feb 18, 2008

    Jordan, Jason,
    Thanks for your help!

  8. Steve H
    Feb 23, 2008

    A couple of updates, in case anyone but me is interested:
    1. Peter van Mastricht uses infallibilitis several times in his treatise on Scripture in the Theoretico-Practica Theologia… (1699) Mostly, it describes the actions of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the prophets and apostles, but once Scripture itself is spoken of as ‘an infallible law’.
    2. Jason very kindly scanned and sent me the relevant chapter of Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority; Henry distinguishes between ‘inerrant’ autographs and ‘infallible’ copies, where ‘infallible’ means that, by a special providence of God, the copies ‘are subject to incidental verbal variation and linguistic deviation [but] they faithfully convey the propositional truth of the original.’ (IV.220, n.1)

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