‘Infallibility’?

Posted on February 15, 2008

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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!)?

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