Many denominations teach that the Bible is the "inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God." Detractors of Christianity, and even some denominations within Christianity, disagree with all or some of those three descriptions. Quite often, they counter with examples of errors in the Bible, or in various translations that show errors (such as the Wicked Bible's translation of Exodus 20:14).

Various questions and answers on this site have touched on one or all of these three statements, but we've yet to have an answer that describes how all three of these Biblical statements relate to each other, and to the nature of Scriptures. Granted, there are different understandings, and per the site guidelines, I want to keep this scoped to the classic Fundamentalist understanding of the statement - namely that of the Churches and traditions that hold that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

I want to have this in layman's terms, in order to address the straw-man arguments leveled against the statement.

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    possible duplicate of What is the difference between "infallible" and "inerrant"?
    – warren
    Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 14:36
  • I agree with warren - BUT I would also want to merge this answer, b/c its really good... Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 15:07
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    I did see that one, but thought this was different enough to be a different question, listed as "borderline duplicates" here: blog.stackoverflow.com/2009/04/handling-duplicate-questions I know this is self serving, but I'd argue to let it stand based on Jeff's statement: "There’s often benefit to having multiple subtle variants of a question around, as people tend to ask and search using completely different words, and the better our coverage, the better odds our fellow programmers can find the answer they’re looking for. " Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 22:21

3 Answers 3


As noted in the question, these are layman's terms. However, I am providing links to more official definitions, which have been used as source material.

Definition of the term "Inspired": The doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible means that the Bible in the original documents is God-breathed, that it is a divine product, and, because it is divine, the original documents are inerrant.

  • "inspired" does not mean "inspired" in the common sense, as in an artist is inspired to produce a great work, or a football team is inspired to perform better than normal due to a very motivational speech. In the doctrine of Divine Inspiration, the term carries the connotation that the words are the actual words of God.

  • Many cite 2 Timothy 3:16 as the source for the term "inspired". The term "God Breathed" is translated from the Greek word "Theopneustos", which conveys the idea of God directly filled the writer with the necessary knowledge - the God breathed the knowledge into the writer.

  • From Clarke's Commentary on the Bible, we get two possible meanings for the idea of how this worked:

    1. That every thought and word were inspired by God, and that the writer did nothing but merely write as the Spirit dictated.
    2. That God gave the whole matter, leaving the inspired writers to their own language; and hence the great variety of style and different modes of expression. (This is the understanding that is most common in Baptist Churches in particular, and in most Fundamentalist Churches in my admittedly limited experience.)
  • There are many, many verses in Scripture, other than 2 Timothy 3:16, that claim that the Bible is the direct Word of God, not that of man. A more full treatment, including lists of such passages can be found at gospelgateway.com:

  • Note that inspiration and inerrancy are intertwined, but more specifically that they apply to the original documents. Neither quality is attributed to translations o and/or the copies of the original documents.

  • This leaves open the question of whether the translations we have today, all of which are based on copies, have been accurately transmitted through history. Fortunately, we can answer that with a resounding "Yes, we can be very confident that what we have today is a fair representation of the original manuscripts".

  • It does mean that the Bible is the Word of God, not that it contains the Word of God.

Definition of "Inerrant": The doctrine of inerrancy stems from the doctrine of inspiration. Simply put, if all Scripture is indeed of God, then it cannot be erroneous. God, being perfect, cannot make mistakes, and He has the power to ensure the original writers wrote down exactly what He intended. A much fuller and more detailed exposition can be found in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

  • Again, as with Inspiration, the doctrine of inerrancy applies only to the original autographs, not to copies and translations.

  • The doctrine of inerrancy does not imply hyper-literalism. As noted above, in the second possible mechanism for Biblical Inspiration, we believe God allowed the writer's literary style to be used in the writing of Scripture. Hyperbole (the use of exaggeration as a figure of speech. Example, "I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse.") is allowed.

  • It also does not imply that our interpretation (understanding) of Scripture is necessarily without error. Verses taken out of context, differences in understanding of meaning and original phrases, cultural differences, and misunderstanding of the meaning of certain phrases at the time the original document was written can (and have) led to many disagreements over the meaning of Scripture.

Infallible has a stronger meaning than inerrant. Inerrant means the Bible contains no errors. Infallibility means it cannot contain errors; that is, it would not be possible. Again, this concept is a direct result of the doctrine of inspiration. The Bible cannot contain errors because it is wholly the inspired word of God.

Taken together, the statements do not mean we believe that we have a perfect understanding of Scripture. They do not mean our current Scriptures are perfect, even if we remove our imperfect comprehension and understanding from the equation.

So, what does the phrase "The Bible is the Inspired, Inerrant Word of God" mean to a Fundamentalist?

In simple terms it means God's Word was originally, accurately, and perfectly recorded by the prophets, kings, peasants, fishermen, political leaders, a tax collector, a rabbi, a cupbearer, and ministers that God used. It was originally perfect, through God's divine power.

Combined with the evidence that we have that it was, for the most part, transmitted accurately through time, and the high degree of confidence we have in the reliability of today's manuscripts, the phrase tells us we can trust the Scripture we have. It is therefore up to study it, understand it, and weed out erroneous teachings. As Christians, we have a responsibility to understand correct doctrine because God has provided us with the information we need to do so. The phrase means God's word is indeed profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

I wanted to include this summary, from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy but it didn't quite fit in with the above answer, as it's not really "Layman's Terms". It is clear and concise, however.

  1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God's witness to Himself.
  2. Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.
  3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
  4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.
  5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited of disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.


To answer all three questions at once, here is 2 Pet 1:21:

For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:21 - KJV, emphasis added)

Longer Answer

  • Inspired means that a scribe penned it as a prophet spoke what the holy spirit of God had to say. It was written down by a man, but is exactly what God has to say.
  • Infallible simply means its the complete truth, "it won't ever fail you".
  • Inerrant simply means it is without errors or mistakes. There are no translation errors, the scribe wrote down exactly what the prophet said, the prophet said exactly what God wanted him to say, and we have the correct version of the text..
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    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 20:06

Having attended what might be called a ‘fundamentalist’ church allow me to present what is meant by these terms from their perspective.

Inerrant = without error, flawless

Infallible = unfailing, dependable, trustworthy, reliable

Before I explain the view of ‘inspiration’ it is worth outlining what a fundamentalist believes regarding the above two terms. With regards to inerrancy it can be defined as NOT meaning:

  • Everything in the Bible is true The words of Satan (lies) are recorded in the Bible, as well as the lies told by men.
  • There are no apparent contradictions These contradictions are only due to our limited knowledge – when fully investigated, all apparent contradictions can be resolved.
  • Every copy is inerrant Inerrancy only applies to the original text Every fact is absolutely precise There are many times in the Bible where large numbers are quoted, whether counting people, money, animals, etc. These are probably rounded figures in many cases, which doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong, but rather we must understand the intent of the text (it is not a tax return, but a summary!)

Where inerrancy does start to shape the fundamentalist view is how the above implicates their practice for example: It informs their interpretation and response to science. Belief in this doctrine will determine whether they use science to test Scripture or use Scripture to test science.

Infallibility is a lot simpler, this simply arises as a result of inspiration and the link to an infallible God, where inerrancy smooths things over is more do to with the transmission of the word from God to Scripture, there are several theories concerning this in Fundamentalist circles, some more liberal than you may have first thought.

1. Parts of the Bible are the Word of God

  • Those who support this view would say that the Bible “contains the Word of God” or that it “becomes the Word of God.”

  • This theory provides for the possibility of errors in Scripture, as some of the text was written by fallible humans and therefore mistakes are inevitable.

  • The problem with this view is who decides which parts of Scripture are inspired and which are not – it ultimately leaves this decision in the hands and hearts of the reader.

  • This makes the interpretation of Scripture subjective, which is dangerous and leads quickly to an individualistic approach and can be manipulated to suit the needs or preferences of an individual, group or church.

  • This view is directly in contradiction to 2 Timothy 3:16 which states that ALL Scripture is God-breathed (i.e. inspired by God.

2. The Bible was dictated by God to human authors

  • This theory states that God literally dictated the text of Scripture to the authors to write down, robot-fashion, therefore removing the element of human personality, style, culture etc. in the writing of the different books.

  • If this were the case, then how does one explain the clear diversity in approaches between authors? The writings of Paul for example differ greatly in style from those of Peter, James and John. Luke’s historical accounts are very different from Mark’s.

  • Luke, in the preface to his gospel writes “it seemed good to me” (Luke 1:3), which is a very human turn of phrase – he is explaining his reasons for researching and writing his account.

  • Other factors present in the Biblical canon which would indicate human involvement in the writing process include: i. Historical research (Luke 1) ii. Relying on earlier sources (1 and 2 Chronicles) iii. Borrowing from another book (2 Peter and Jude)

3. The Bible is divine revelation recorded by human authors

  • This perspective holds to the fact that the Bible is God’s revelation of himself, communicated through, but not corrupted by, human authors.

  • In this view, the personalities, experiences, cultures and perspectives of the authors complement God’s revelation rather than restrict it.

  • In example of this communication by God through man can be seen in the prophets of the Old Testament. i. When they speak to the people, they speak for God, hence their assertion “Thus saith the Lord…”. ii. God Himself confirms this when he calls Isaiah and Jeremiah by saying “I have put my words in your mouth” (Isaiah 6:7-9; Jeremiah 1:9)

  • The Bible itself claims this view of Scripture and therefore this is the one we uphold and adhere to.

With regards to the above viewpoints it is worth noting that most fundamentalists will lean towards 3. There are also two variants of the extent of inspiration, namely plenary and verbal. Plenary suggest that ALL scripture is inspired (complete, whole and entire), there is no superfluous additions added after inspiration of the authors etc. This is backed up by various scriptures (2 Tim 3:16, Matt 5:17-18, Rom 15:4, Jer 26:2, 36:2). They do stress at this point that every scripture is ‘accurate’ but not necessarily true e.g. the words of Satan recorded accurately but they may be lies etc. It is also noted that although all Scripture is inspired it is not all equally significant.

Verbal inspiration is relevant to the words used, this extends beyond the message or intention of a passage to the actual words used. This is found in Matt 4:4, Exo 34:27, they also note that certain church members placed great emphasis on certain definitions e.g. Galatians 3:6 ‘seed’ vs ‘seeds’. A fundamentalist may stress the importance of verbal inspiration not being dictation theory.

I think as you can see above a Fundamentalist definition of the above terms is still pretty wide, I think maybe what you want to know is how does a biblical literalist account for the terms ‘inspired, inerrant and infallible'.

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