The Unbreakability of Scripture

Andrew Wilson raised the issue of the “inerrancy” of Scripture recently, and questioned whether the term itself was a helpful one. Some people complained in the comments that it wasn’t even a term that the Bible uses of itself. It left me wondering if there was a better word we could use and John 10:35 came to mind, where Jesus says that the “Scriptures cannot be broken”. That would certainly be a cool name for a doctrine: “the unbreakability of Scripture”, but what did Jesus mean by it?

If you had asked me to speculate what Jesus meant by “Scripture cannot be broken”, my initial guess would be that Jesus is using the language of promises: Scripture can be thought of as a promise from God that cannot be broken. But that just goes to show how a translation of the Bible can cause you to read meanings into the text that are not present in the original language, since none of the commentators I consulted consider this a viable option (although apparently Jungkuntz argued that it meant the passage from Psalms that Jesus had just quoted must be fulfilled).

It seems this is a tricky phrase to translate, as the majority of versions simply leave it as “Scripture cannot be broken” without giving us any clues as to exactly what that means. However, there are some versions who attempt to interpret this tricky phrase for us. Here’s a summary of various interpretations:

NIV84, ESV, KJV, NASB, HCSB, JBP, NET: “Scripture cannot be broken”
NLT: “the Scriptures cannot be altered”
ISV: “Scripture cannot be disregarded”
GNT: “what the scripture says is true forever”
AMP:  “the Scripture cannot be set aside or cancelled or broken or annulled”
CEV: “You can’t argue with the Scriptures”
MSG: “Scripture doesn’t lie”
NIV2011: “Scripture cannot be set aside”
Tom Wright: “you can’t set the Bible aside”
Don Carson: “Scripture cannot be annulled or set aside or proved false”

The Greek word for “broken” is λυθῆναι, which actually crops up in several places in John’s writing, and is typically translated “break” or “destroy”. For example breaking the Sabbath (Jn 5:18), destroying the temple (Jn 2:19), breaking the law (Jn 7:23), destroying the devil’s work (1 Jn 3:8).

So Scripture is unbreakable, or “indestructible” even. Not in a physical sense – plenty of Bibles have been successfully destroyed by fire. But in the sense that Jesus uses in Matt 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” The doctrine of the unbreakability of Scripture means that God’s words never lose their truth, relevance or power. We never move beyond Scripture, and we never argue with Scripture. Or as J C Ryle explains it:

“Wherever the Scripture speaks plainly on any subject, there can be no more question about it. The case is settled and decided. Every jot and tittle of Scripture is true, and must be received as conclusive.”

2 thoughts on “The Unbreakability of Scripture

  1. Indeed, but open to much interpretation leading to a range of, similarly, unbreakable conclusions and applications?

  2. @Mark Robins, that’s a vital question too, and related to the “perspicuity” or “clarity” of Scripture. I hope to write at some point on my blog about Christian Smith’s accusation of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” which basically argues that what is the point of having an inerrant Bible if no one can agree on what it means? I think that we can have the sort of “epistemelogical humility” which admits that our interpretations are fallible and therefore tentative to a certain extent, while at the same time recognising that there is actually a lot that is abundantly clear.

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