For many centuries there were a lot of holy writings or “scriptures” being passed around by groups of Christian believers.  It took hundreds of years for the various branches of the church to agree on which of these scriptures they would officially recognise and which ones they would leave out of their lists of reliable documents.  Catholics made their decision at the Council of Trent in 1546.  The Church of England decided which books to include in 1563.  Calvinists decided at the Westminster Confession of Faith, held in 1647.  And the Eastern Orthodox Church listed which books they accepted at the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672.

Within the 66 books contained in most Bibles, reference is made to 22 other books, many of which have never been found.  For example, Colossians 4:16 mentions an epistle from Laodicea, and Ephesians 3:3 refers to an earlier epistle to the Ephesians.  But others of these books have been found.  For example, Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18 talk about the Book of Jasher, Jude 1:14 refers to the Book of Enoch, and 1 Corinthians 5:9 makes reference to an earlier epistle from Paul to the Corinthians.  All three of these documents have been found.

Nevertheless, somewhere along the line, it became popular to teach that the original list of books to be included by each branch of the church was perfect and infallible.  Every word in the canonised books, some say, was dictated by God, and anything written outside of those books was not, in any way, inspired by God.

‘Inspired’ vs ‘Infallible'

A verse from Paul’s second letter to Timothy (3:16) is used to “prove” that this teaching is true.  Paul said to Timothy that all holy writings are inspired by God and they are useful for teaching and for instruction in righteousness.  Of course the verse does not distinguish what constitutes a “holy writing”, since strictly defined lists of acceptable scriptures (called ‘canons’) had not yet been made by any of the branches of Christianity when Paul wrote that.  

In recent years it has been popular amongst certain fundamentalist believers to translate the word “inspired” in the verse mentioned above as “God-breathed”, in an effort to further support the infallibility teaching.  The idea put forward is that, if God “breathed” every word in those books, then every word must be perfect.  One gets a picture of a voice inside the head of everyone who wrote, saying, “Repeat after me…"

Many problems arise from this teaching.  One is the questionable practice of saying that not only the words, but also the person who is “inspired” is “infallible”.  The word “inspired” simply means "with spirit in it", and the word “spirit” comes from the same root word as “wind” or “breath” (which explains why they say that something which is “inspired” is “God-breathed”).  

However, New Testament teaching is that God has sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in all of his followers.  So does that make us all infallible?  Of course not.  We often speak of a preacher or singer or song-writer as having been “inspired” in what they have done.  Yet no one assumes that it makes such a person infallible.  So why should we believe otherwise with regard to writers of ancient Christian manuscripts?

This teaching of infallibility has created an overall feeling that the Apostle Paul could not have been wrong in anything he ever did, even when he appeared to be doing or saying something wrong.  

Contradictions in the Doctrine

A further dilemma arises when it comes to passages of scripture which openly confess to being less than perfect.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:6 & 7:12):
“I speak this by permission, and not of commandment…” and then, "To the rest speak I and not the Lord…"

We have to ask ourselves, “What he says after such an introduction… Is it “God-breathed”?  If Paul says, “This is NOT from the Lord?” do we insist that it is, because of a doctrine which says that every word in his epistles is inspired, and thus infallible? And if it really is inspired, then why don’t we believe it when it says it isn’t?

Discernment

Obviously it takes a lot more effort to decide where to draw the lines on what we put the most faith in, when we read the Bible in this way.  But even now people take some verses over and above others.  Surely we don’t give equal importance to the genealogies as we do to the 23rd Psalm.  Nor do we rate the great Love Chapter in 1 Corinthians (chapter 13) on the same par with Paul saying, “Don’t forget to bring my cloke and the parchments I left at Troas when you come.” (2 Timothy 4:13)

Many Christians and Christian organisations prefer to distribute New Testaments (minus the entire Old Testament), as a reasonable option if we want people to get the “best bits” of the Bible.  So the assumption that the New Testament takes priority over the Old Testament is fairly widespread.

We would strongly argue for the position that the teachings of Jesus take priority over all of the rest, i.e. that we use Jesus as the “cornerstone” by which to judge everything else, including the writings of the apostles.  If our understanding of anything needs to be adjusted, then it needs to be adjusted in the direction of more conformity to the teachings of Jesus and not vice versa.

In fact, this approach (just reading the Bible as inspired, but not infallible) brings a much clearer understanding of much that was written in the Bible.  Take, for example, Paul’s instruction to Timothy, “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, able to correctly discern the word of truth.”  (2 Timothy 2:15)

We just naturally assume that Timothy had a few copies of the Bible lying around, that he would pore over in the evenings, attempting to memorise as much as possible, to be used in making sermons.  But, in fact, books as we know them today were almost non-existent.  Even letters from Paul were not mass produced, and so one copy would be passed on from one community of believers to another, so that everyone could hear what he had written.  

The “word of truth” that Timothy was learning to discern was most likely just whatever God was trying to tell him in each situation.  “Studying” meant learning how to practice wisdom and discernment in uncovering what it is that God is telling you from moment to moment and from day to day… through circumstances, through other people, and through various writings.

Conclusion

Obviously people can abuse any strategy that we use for finding God’s will.  They do an awful lot of that today, despite the infallibility doctrine.  But it scares many of us to think that we won’t be justified by God just on the basis of how many Bible verses we can quote.  We are convinced that God will be looking most closely at what we have done with the message that he delivered to us through his Son.  What Jesus said needs to come first, with the rest of the New Testament next, and then the Old Testament, as a rough description of how we approach the Bible as a whole.

As Jesus predicted, those whom he left in charge of the vineyard have repeatedly and successfully silenced the messengers whom he has sent, and they have especially hidden the message that he sent to us through his Son, whom they have executed.

Sadly, one of the most effective tools used to hide the teachings of Jesus from the masses has been the teaching that what Jesus said is no better than anything Paul or Moses or Solomon or anyone else in the Bible has ever said.

The fault is not in the Bible, for it never makes the kind of claims that these people have made about it.  Those who proclaim most loudly that they believe the Bible, are the ones who teach most strongly stuff that never appears in the Bible… especially with regard to the Bible’s so-called infallibility.  We need to seriously question this ourselves, and resolve that we will return Jesus to his rightful place as the Cornerstone, by which every other part of the foundation must be measured.  As Paul himself said in Galatians 1:8-9, if he or even an angel from heaven teaches anything contrary to the gospel of Christ, let them be cursed rather than use them as an excuse to sidestep Jesus.

The history of the Bible is an interesting one, but that history is often depicted in much the same way that the manufacturers of idols depict their creations as having fallen out of the sky to earth, to be worshipped and venerated far beyond what they deserve.  Let’s stop worshipping the vessel through which God has revealed his Son, and get back to worshipping his Son, the Word made flesh.