Saturday, August 18, 2007


I've elected to present this post in the time-honoured form of a Socratic dialogue. Readers familiar with this format will be aware that it involves a discussion, usually imaginary, between two (or more) people. Socrates acts as a gadfly, asking annoying questions in order to force his interlocutor to carefully examine his opinions and root out any false ones. The only rule is that Socrates always wins. Those who have sampled Socrates at his "forged-by-Plato" best will recognise the swift caving-in and general kow-towing of the interlocutor as a necessary ingredient of a successful dialogue.

Without further ado...

Socrates: I should very much like to hear something about your doctrine of the word of God - it's a subject that has always interested me, but about which I know very little. (For it is the way of Socrates to feign ignorance).
Jim the Conservative Evangelical (for it is he): Well, Socrates, I'm very glad you asked, for this is a subject on which I know a great deal. What do you want to know?
Socrates: Well, I have heard the word of God described as "infallible" - would that be a view to which you would subscribe? And what exactly would you mean by it?
Jim the CE: I would indeed take that view, Socrates, though I might prefer in general discourse to use the word "inerrant" so as not to be thought unduly liberal. This reservation notwithstanding, it seems clear to me that such verses of Scripture as Isaiah 55:9-11 show that God's word is infallible, by which I mean simply that by it God always achieves what he intends.
Socrates: Wonderful - that was precisely the passage of Scripture I had in mind. But tell me, do you think that we can tell the intent of God's word from the content of it?
Jim the CE: Despite my vast knowledge of this subject, I am not sure I understand you Socrates. Perhaps you could speak more clearly.
Socrates: Of course. Entirely my fault, I'm sure. What I meant was this: if we read God's word, does God intend to achieve by it what he declares in it? So, for example, if God says "repent", does he mean to achieve repentance, or does he mean to achieve something else?
Jim the CE: Well, God being no deceiver (as both Descartes and the Scriptures inform us), surely if God's word says "repent" then God intends to achieve repentance by it.
Socrates (with a wry grin): Very interesting. I wonder, Jim, have you ever engaged in evangelism?
Jim the CE: Why, of course. I am a Conservative Evangelical, you know. I have memorised all of the best gospel outlines, including Two Ways to Live, One Way to Live, No Other Way to Live and Living - Why Not? Often I have deployed these tools in the context of friendly discussion with my friends, and have found them useful both with and without napkin-based illustrations.
Socrates: Would you say then, that you have delivered the word of God to your friends?
Jim the CE: Yes.
Socrates: And the content of that word has been to call them to repent and trust in Christ?
Jim the CE: Yes.
Socrates: And have any of them failed to do so?
Jim the CE: Er... well...
Socrates: I'll take that as a yes. And yet haven't you delivered the infallible word of God calling them to repent and believe?
Jim the CE: Um... perhaps I didn't do it right, Socrates.
Socrates: Your learning of gospel outlines is exemplary, and so I'm sure we cannot put it down to that. Perhaps the word of God is not infallible all the time?
Jim the CE: I do remember hearing something about the Holy Spirit being needed to persuade people of the truth of the word... But still, I am quite sure that the word of God is infallible.
Socrates: Then it seems that we have only one possible conclusion before us - that what you have been telling your friends is not the word of God.
Jim the CE: Ah, but some have responded in repentance and faith, which I am sure could only be the result of the infallible word of God coming to them.
Socrates: Well, could it be the case that sometimes the same message is the word of God, and sometimes it is the word of men? It seems odd, I know - it was your mention of the Holy Spirit that got me thinking along these lines.
Jim the CE: I'm not sure I follow you Socrates. (For it is essential to the Socratic dialogue that the interlocutor be a little slow-witted).
Socrates: Well, I suggest that the Holy Spirit plays a role analagous to human breath. When I speak to you, my words are carried by my breath - that's what makes them my words. You could repeat them, and in a sense they would still be my words, but not carried by my breath. Perhaps God's word functions in a similar way. If he speaks them, carried by his breath (namely, the Holy Spirit), then they are directly his words, and as such infallible. But if you merely report them, then although they are in a sense still God's words, they are not "first-hand" as it were, and perhaps lack infallibility.
Jim the CE: 'Pon my word, Socrates, I think you've nailed it. Who would have thought that the Holy Spirit did so much! He's even more important than a napkin.
Socrates: Hmm.

Okay, it's partly a wind-up, and I'm not sure how much I want to identify with Socrates here. But I would appreciate any comments!


  1. Socrates and Jim,

    I admit my experience is limited, but I do not think most evangelical Christians are refering to a soprt of magical effectivness when they say the Bible is infallable.

    Then too does not the Bible say that not everyone will respond the same way to the Word? Some parble about seed I believe.

    I rather had the impression that by infalibility evengelicals ment something about the Bible's accuracy within the type of communication and context of the communication - poetry being "true" in the way a poem is true, theological propositions being true propositions, proverbs being good generalizations about life - that sort of thing.

    The Holy Spirit would have a role in how people respond to what God caused men to write. I mean without God's help we don't seem to listen to God very well.

  2. Well, it's just as well I checked your profile before calling you Dean...

    Thanks for the comment. I think I largely agree with you, and the parable of the sower is clearly something that Socrates has overlooked. Having said that, the Isaiah passage he cites does seem to indicate the effectiveness of the Word of God in actually achieving something rather than just being 'true', and I'm interested to think more about how that fits with our doctrine of Scripture.

    Essentially, more thought needed on my part...