The doctrine of biblical inerrancy asserts that the original texts or teachings of the Bible contain no errors. The word infallibility sometimes appears as a synonym for inerrancy, but strictly speaking, the term infallibility has a slightly different sense, namely, that the claims of a religious authority cannot fail.
A good case can be made that all major branches of the Christian faith historically embraced biblical inerrancy or its equivalent, yet also that the definition of biblical inerrancy took on additional connotations and significance for Protestant evangelicals in the late 19th century. Roman Catholics generally prefer to discuss religious authority in terms of the infallibility of the Church, which entails the teachings of its councils, leaders (especially the pope), and official documents, including the Bible. Eastern Orthodoxy looks particularly to the religious authority of the seven ecumenical Church councils.
For some Protestants, biblical inerrancy provides a litmus test for determining who is an evangelical. Thus biblical inerrancy became the theological basis for founding both the National Association of Evangelicals (1942) and the Evangelical Theological Society (1949). While the most widely accepted evangelical confession of the 20th century, the Lausanne Covenant (1974), states that the Bible is “without error in all that it affirms,” the phrase implicitly allows some ambiguity since there are serious debates over what in fact the Bible actually affirms. Hence, while many evangelicals would agree with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the meaning and implications of that belief have often been contested.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) was an attempt by certain evangelical theologians to articulate clearly and delimit the meaning of biblical inerrancy. Nevertheless, there are at least four rather different senses in which the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has been understood by those who embrace it. For some, biblical inerrancy means that every propositional statement in the Bible—including statements bearing upon science or history—must be accepted as a divinely sanctioned literal truth.
For others, the Bible is still in some important sense true when referring to nonreligious domains, but such references should not be pressed too literally, especially when they are merely describing human experiences of the physical world. A third approach turns the focus upon the reliability of the Bible’s religious teachings. The fourth way of understanding biblical inerrancy emphasizes the Bible’s overall purpose of bringing people into fellowship with God, rather than asking whether this or that proposition is true.
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is frequently defended by one or more of the following arguments: an appeal to the nature of God (God cannot lie and the Bible is his divine word), the teachings of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth about the trustworthiness of Scripture, the Bible’s own self-authenticating claims, the threat to religious authority if the Bible is errant, or the analysis of test cases to show that apparent errors in the biblical text are instead true and that supposed contradictions are actually in harmony with each other.