Biblical Inerrancy

Yesterday, Thursday, April 12, 2012, a notice was posted on the Vatican Information Service (VIS) blog, announcing that the Pontifical Biblical Commission is soon to take up the subject “Inspiration and Truth in the Bible.” Here is the full text of the notice:

ANNUAL PLENARY OF THE PONTIFICAL BIBLICAL COMMISSION

Vatican City, 12 April 2012 (VIS) – The annual plenary session of the Pontifical Biblical Commission is to be held from 16 to 20 April at the “Domus Sanctae Marthae” inside Vatican City under the presidency of Cardinal William Joseph Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, according to a communique made public today.

The meeting will be chaired by Fr. Klemens Stock S.J., secretary general of the commission, and the participants will continue their reflections on the theme of “Inspiration and Truth in the Bible”. As a first stage in its examination of this subject, the commission has chosen to focus attention on the way in which inspiration and truth appear in Sacred Scripture. On the basis of their individual competencies, each participant will present a report which will then be discussed by the assembly as a whole.

The findings of this commission, whatever they may be, will have no binding doctrinal authority. Such commissions — like the ITC, with its position paper on Limbo — are not protected by the charism of infallibility. Whatever the result of the Biblical Commission’s work, it is worth our effort to study the subject in light of the Church’s traditional teaching.

Some years ago, I wrote a short academic paper on Biblical inerrancy while in pursuit of my Masters Degree. The assignment was to summarize, in three pages, “the traditional doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture and how the Catholic Church since Vatican II understands this doctrine.” My contention, of course, being a traditionalist, is that the “teaching” of the Catholic Church has not changed — and saying that the Church “since Vatican II understands this doctrine” differently is a not-entirely subtle way of saying that the doctrine itself has changed. That the doc who asked the question meant it that way became clear when I read the comments that accompanied my grade.

In the paper, I set out to read a controversial passage in Dei Verbum using the “hermeneutic of continuity” that Pope Benedict XVI extols. I acknowledge full well that there are certain passages of the conciliar texts where such a thing is very difficult, perhaps even impossible (although such a judgment is the Supreme Pontiff’s to make, not mine). That does not deny the ecumenical character of Vatican II or the Catholic teaching on the nature of an ecumenical council. Be that as it may, the passage in Dei Verbum that the liberals use against inerrancy, while unnecessarily ambiguous, easily admits of an orthodox reading, especially when one reads the footnotes. My guess is that the passage I focus on here, from Dei Verbum, 11, will be very important to the proceedings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

What follows is my paper exactly as I wrote it.

* * *

In his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI impugned an approach to Vatican II which he termed “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture… [which] risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.”1

That Vatican II must be seen as a continuity with tradition — a familiar theme which Cardinial Ratzinger carried into his pontificate — forms an underlying principle of my answer to the question at hand. That answer is this: The Catholic Church understands the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture the same today as she always has. I will prove this assertion of continuity — at the same time describing the traditional conception of the extent of biblical inerrancy — using authoritative texts.

The traditional position, as articulated by Pope Leo XIII, is one of absolute inerrancy: “For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the [First] Council of the Vatican.”2

There is a liberal view that limits inerrancy to those truths only which are for our salvation, allowing for Scriptural errors in the areas of science and history. This limited inerrancy is the view advocated by Dr. d’Ambrosio in the lectures: “But, what is it God is trying to teach? That is a critical question. What is God trying to communicate? Here’s what Leo XIII said, and later on, what the second Vatican Council said: ‘What the Holy Spirit inspires the writers to assert is truth pertaining to salvation.’ What is revelation about? It’s [about] God and our relationship with him. Is God interested in teaching us historical or scientific detail? No. Does our relationship have anything to do with how many years a king was ruling in Israel, or a scientific detail about whether rabbits have cloven feet or not… No, it has nothing to do with it…. So we trust the Bible completely in all that it teaches us about salvation, but we don’t look for science lessons and we don’t look for secular history lessons in the Bible…3

The first view refuses to admit any error at all into the inspired word. The second admits the possibility of historical or scientific error, since these matters are not relevant to salvation.

The locus classicus for this question is Dei Verbum, 11: “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.”

There was furious debate over this passage on the floor of the Council, producing a number of widely varying revisions of the text. Upon reading its fourth draft4, a minority of Fathers were not satisfied. They were disturbed that it could be interpreted in such a way as to limit inerrancy exclusively to those truths revealed “for the sake of our salvation” — i.e., strict matters of faith and morals — while admitting the possibility of error where the Bible mentioned things of an historical or scientific nature.

Two official relationes informed them that the text in no way derogated from the traditional conception of inerrancy, but some were still not satisfied. Pope Paul VI himself intervened, requesting that the somewhat ambiguous adjective salutarem be dropped. Instead, the Theological Commission modified the text to the current form.5

Another last-minute change, one that is very important for an authentic hermeneutic of the text, was the insertion of footnote five. In this footnote, there are eight references: two from St. Augustine, one from St. Thomas, one from the Council of Trent, three from Pope Leo XIII, and one from Pope Pius XII. In the remainder of this paper, I will briefly touch upon each of these passages to show that they either support the traditional view only, or are at least silent on the specific question of absolute versus limited inerrancy.

The first Augustinian passage, from On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, is quoted by Leo XIII, infra, so I will treat it there.

The second passage is from St. Augustine’s Letter 82. Writing to St. Jerome, the Doctor of Grace protests that he will resolve an apparent contradiction between Scripture and other known truths only in favor of the inerrancy of the original manuscript: “For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.”6

The passage from St. Thomas’ De Veritate addresses the question “Does prophesy deal with conclusions which can be known scientifically?” He affirms that “conclusions which are demonstrated in the sciences can belong to prophesy.” Further, he says: “We believe the prophets only in so far as they are inspired by the spirit of prophesy. But we have to give belief to those things written in the books of the prophets even though they treat of conclusions of scientific knowledge… Therefore, the spirit of prophecy inspires the prophets even about the conclusions of the sciences.”

He does say that “those things which cannot pertain to salvation are outside the matter of prophecy,”7 but clearly refrains from limiting biblical inspiration when he adds: “But many things which can be proved from the sciences are useful for this…. Hence, we find that mention of these is made in Holy Scripture.”8

The Reference to Session IV of the Council of Trent refers to the “Gospel … first promulgated with [Christ’s] own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline… [which] are contained in the written books… [which books] the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us. … [This Synod] receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament — seeing that one God is the author of both…”

Here, the “saving truth and moral discipline” is in no way contrasted with truths not pertaining to salvation. While a limited inerrancy adherent could proffer that the passage does not address the subject of historical or scientific truth, neither can he cite this mute witness in his favor. Clearly, Pope Leo XIII read the traditional doctrine of absolute inerrancy into it, as we saw in the beginning of this paper.

After the Tridentine citation, there follow four references to Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus. In the first, Leo cites St. Augustine asserting that the conclusions of natural science must conform to those certitudes we have from revelation: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so. (De Gen. ad litt. 1, 21, 41).”9

The second passage deserves to be quoted at length, as it censures, verbatim, the theory advanced by the limited inerrancy school: “It may also happen that the sense of a passage remains ambiguous, and in this case good hermeneutical methods will greatly assist in clearing up the obscurity. But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. As to the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it — this system cannot be tolerated.”10

In the third passage there is another explicit rejection of the liberal view: “And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they labored earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance — the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the ‘higher criticism’; for they were unanimous in laying it down, that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the afflatus of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true.”11

The passage from Pope Pius XII’s Divino afflante Spiritu reiterates Leo XIII’s teaching above with direct citations from Providentissimus Deus. It also cites Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus, where that pontiff spoke of the absolute inerrancy of Scripture, “defending the historical truth of Scripture from [the adversaries’] assaults.”

I conclude that the Catholic Church teaches the absolute inerrancy of Holy Scripture, that is, that the Bible is wholly and entirely free from all error. This is “the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church” affirmed by Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus, Pope Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus, Pope Pius XII’s Divino afflante Spiritu, and Vatican II’s Dei Verbum.

Bibliography:

Flannery, Austin, O.P, editor, Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1980.

Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” in Living Tradition, No. 59 (July, 1995) Online. Available from: http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt59.html [accessed 15 February 2006]

Aquinas, Thomas, St., The Disputed Questions on Truth, Translated by James V. McGlynn, S.J., Ph.D. Chigago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953.

John F. McCarthy, “Lesson 3: Historical Criticism of the New Testament,” in The Roman Theological Forum Study Program (November 1998 ) Online. Available from: http://www.rtforum.org/study/lesson3.html [accessed 15 February 2006]

John F. McCarthy, “Lesson 4: The Inspiration of Sacred Scripture” in The Roman Theological Forum Study Program (December 1998 ) Online. Available from: http://www.rtforum.org/study/lesson4.html [accessed 15 February 2006]

Endnotes:

1 Benedict XVI, “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings,” Thursday, 22 December 2005, Online; available from:
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2005/december/documents/hf_ben_xvi_spe_20051222_roman-curia_en.html
[accessed 15 February 2006]

2 Providentissimus Deus, EB 124-125, cited in Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” in Living Tradition, No. 59 (July, 1995). Online; available from: http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt59.html (Italics mine).

3 DVD of Lecture 4: “Scripture, Inspiration and Inerrancy” (Italics mine).

4 “[The Bible] teaches the saving truth without error.”

5 For this history, see: Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” in Living Tradition, No. 59 (July, 1995). Online; available from: http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt59.html.

6 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series One, Volume 1, American Edition, 1887. Online; available from: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102082.htm [accessed 15 February 2006] (Italics mine).

7 In the lecture, Dr. D’Ambrosio cited only the following passage, in a slightly inaccurate translation: “Any knowledge which is profitable to salvation may be the object of prophetical inspiration […] but things which cannot affect our salvation do not belong to inspiration.” Where I have inserted ellipses, Dr. D’Ambrosio omitted this text: sive sint praeterita, sive praesentia sive futura, sive etiam aeterna, sive necessaria, sive contingentia, that is, “whether these be things past or present, or also eternal, necessary, or contingent things…” A more accurate rendering of “Illa vero quae ad salutem pertinere non possunt” would be this: “But those things which cannot pertain to salvation” This has a less subjective connotation.

8 Thomas Aquinas, St., The Disputed Questions on Truth, trans. James V. McGlynn, S.J., Ph.D. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953) Q. 12, A. 2, pp. 110-112 (Italics mine.).

9 EB 121, cited in Harrison, op. cit.

10 EB 124, cited in Harrison, op. cit.

11 EB 126-127, cited in Harrison, op. cit. (Italics mine).

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  • Tyrel

    This greatly confuses me. surely you can’t tell me that The Catholic Church teaches that there are no minor errors in the Scriptures of any nature? What about Paul’s spelling mistakes in 1 Corinthians? What about the numerical copiest errors between 1st and 2nd Chronicles and 1st and 2nd Samuel? No Catholic scholar denies the existence of such examples. I cannot believe that the Church teaches anything false, but the modernist notion of inerrancy, which is an idea of protestant reformed theology as developed in North America alone, is what you are proposing the Catholic Church teaches. I really recommend we take a serious look at these things, in love and charity, with the Church’s statements about these things in full focus. Do you think Spelling mistakes make the Bible errant? What about Grammatical mistakes? What about Copiest errors? Then, what about historical inaccuracies which may result from copiest errors? What about direct contradictions in matters where a Copiest error seems the likeliest explanation? I do not believe that you have thought through these things properly, and I don’t think you are in line with the mind of the Church on this. Respectfully I’d like to suggest that we understand first what we mean by “errant” and then how we should, in that light, define inerrancy. Please email me.

  • Brother André Marie

    Dear Tyrel: To know the mind of the Church, we read her perennial teachings, which were cited fairly explicitly in the paper to which you object. This is the teaching of the popes. It may not be popular with scripture scholars today, but they are not the magisterium.

    I’m nonplussed by your accusation of neo-protestantism. What I cite is the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and a long line of popes. I find the logic that has their teaching anachronistically dubbed “fundamentalist” to be, well, illogical. That modernist scripture scholars have begun to question inerrancy does not retroactively make all those authorities into Protestants.

    The difficult passages have all been exhaustively explained by the Fathers and other Catholic authorities. Their answers are very sophisticated and not “fundamentalist” at all. That some things require explanation, I acknowledge; but to state that there are errors in the bible is against the Faith.

  • Tyrel

    Thank you for your response. I suppose I wonder though, where do you distinguish error from something lesser than error? Does a spelling mistake become an “error” under the guise of inspiration? In what sense were the texts inspired? Surely you aren’t advocating verbal inspiration, which I don’t take to be orthodox or from the Fathers. However, where then do you distinguish error? By what standard? The modernist-empiricist standard perhaps? Why? I don’t mean to suggest that you are unorthodox, or that the teaching of the Church is altogether ambiguous, but I don’t think it’s as defined as you seem to be making it sound. What about particular grammatical errors such as in the Gospel of Mark? What about misquotations, such as where mark says he’s quoting Isaiah the prophet and then quotes Malachi? What about Matthew spelling the name Jeremiah three different ways throughout the book? Do these “count” as erroneous? If not, where do you propose we start saying something IS in error, and by what specific and defined standard? If you think the mistakes do start there, then our faith is dead, and I wonder what you are doing fooling yourself into wearing the old cloth again today? (I don’t believe this faith is dead, but alive).

    In love,

  • Stephen Galanis

    Humour me. The errors in 2 Maccabees – what does a Catholic do with those? :) Splitting hairs about the letters at the start of the book, arguing whether they are forgeries or not, is rather beside the point. Never mind the other inaccuracies such as Timotheus dying in 2 Mac. 10:37 and commanding campaigns in 2 Mac. 12:2 (there are many contradictions in 2 Maccabees), on the evidence of the letters alone it can be said unequivocally that Rome canonized a lie. There are two different versions of one man’s death: only one can be true. You may euphemistically call the story of Antiochus’ death in 2 Maccabees 1 a “false account”, as the Catholic Encyclopaedia does, but that won’t do here when you’ve argued for absolute inerrancy. Why is such a fable in Scripture? By all means lets keep such letters in an archive as a curiosity, but in Scripture? This is more than a misquotation or copyist error. Is 2 Macc 1:1-2:18 inspired or not?

  • A note in the old (19th century) Haydock Bible says that the Timotheus mentioned in 12:2 was simply another military leader of the same name as the one killed earlier in the cistern.

    The idea that two men have the same name does not strike me as implausible.

    As regards these two letters to the Jews of Egypt (1:1 – 2:18), you appear to be setting the bar for inerrancy too high, and so are assailing a straw man. These two letters are not inspired by God. The Catholic faith doesn’t require us to believe that they are, any more than many other reported statements (written or oral) in the Bible are themselves inspired and inerrant, e.g., “cure God and die,” “there is no God,” and various statements made by people in the NT, but who were not speaking truthfully.

    Our Catholic faith tells us that “all that is affirmed by the sacred author must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit,” who cannot err. But the sacred author of II Maccabees is not affirming the content of these two letters to be true. He is not their human author at all; he just cites them as documents whose authors are self-evidently the anonynous Jews who sent them to their compatriots. The sacred author’s own explicit affirmations only begin with his Preface in 2:19. As the Jerusalem Bible note says about the second letter, “The author [of 2 Mac], while making it the prelude to his book, offers no guarantee of its historical accuracy.” (I’m no fan of this particular translation, mind you, just quoting the scholar.)

    I hope this is helpful.

  • Stephen Galanis

    I appreciate the reply. Thank you. I’m going to disagree heartily. But this is an old thread and the topic is more thrust upon you than it is upon me.

    I’m well aware 2 Maccabees properly begins in 2:19. It may be true that the author offers no guarantee of inerrancy, but then why is it Scripture? You can hardly set up the author as a final authority when Pope Leo XIII said, as you quoted, “For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit”. I will simply shrug and say and author of 2 Maccabees – and of those letters/forgeries – might not know he is guided by God, and yet he must be because Rome receives it as Scripture. The author needn’t vouch for those 2 letters when Rome does. Dei Verbum might allow some loopholes, but Providentissimus Deus less so. And that’s just it. This article only exists because the magisterium is demonstrably not perspicuous, to use a highly charged but suitable word.

    And if the content of the letters was clearly marked as spurious, I’d take your point about clearly falsifiable… doctrine? “There is no God” is not an historical error. The examples you give are beside the point. When I read about a bad man doing bad things, I don’t take that as true or exemplary. Quite so. This is invariably signalled in the text by the narration or direct speech or whatever. But lets not strain out a gnat to swallow a camel. No reasonable person with average comprehension skills considers such example as you give to be the author’s error that undermines credibility. The context tells us how to read statements like that, so it’s a straw man. And one can say more: the Average Joe, again with normal comprehension skills, when presented with 2 Maccabees chapter 1 will accept the account of Antiochus’ death at face value. There is no larger context that says, “here’s a false letter”, or “this didn’t happen”, or “this is a parable”. Nothing like that exists. It is presented with no disclaimer as part of the canon. Antiochus is clearly labelled the enemy, so we don’t condone his actions, and that is perhaps a closer parallel to your examples. To make excuses for the errors in the apocrypha and argue that they don’t count, is essentially arguing for limited inerrancy.

    We both know the letters don’t properly belong with the rest of 2 Maccabees, so there is no literary obligation to include them in the book, and you have implicitly agreed they are historically inaccurate. The question “is 2 Mac. 1:1 – 2:18 inspired or not?” still stands. It must have a yes or no answer. (There can be no middle ground. Avoiding the dilemma by arguing for a middle ground would be a logical fallacy.) You cannot say “no” without undermining Rome’s authority and wondering why the letters are part of Scripture. Answering “yes” is no better, because then inspiration is compatible with error, and God Himself can utter that which is not true.

    I don’t think further commenting will be profitable, though if there’s something I feel I have to say no doubt I will. The historical and geographical errors in the apocrypha are a peculiarly Catholic problem. The inerrancy dilemma is not mine.

  • You have authored a very verbose straw-man argument. Congratulations. Are you a Protestant or an Atheist?

  • Stephen Galanis

    Verbose? :) Maybe. I have a reasonable vocab. I speak well.

    I wasn’t the one who equivocated between errors of the narrated and the narrator. I think we all know that even though the story of Judas betraying Jesus is in the Bible, that doesn’t make Judas good, nor the person who says “there is no God” good. And that “see, the Bible has this sort of untrue statement that no Catholic believes” (in which context must be ignored) being conflated with historical error was essentially your argument. But if Judith says Nebuchadnezzar was king in Nineveh, or 2 Maccabees says Antiochus died in a temple ambush, that undermines absolute inerrancy.

    Saying I made a straw man without explaining how is empty assertion. That you take the preface in 2:19 to be a disclaimer for the letters too is no doubt part of your objection. But that requires proving the letters are part of the original body of 2 Maccabees, not later additions. I am not the dogmatist. I don’t need to prove a negative. My own beliefs are not the topic of debate. If you decline to say whether or not 2 Maccabees 1 is inspired (which surely should be settled by now, and the answer freely available, if the magisterium is meant to offer any certainty), I will decline to answer your question.

  • Suit yourself, my friend. I have more prudent things to do with my time than carry out a polemic with someone who refuses to say what side he’s on.

  • Stephen Galanis

    It’s beside the point. It’s ad hominem. Where I fall on the spectrum will not the least affect whether Catholicism is consistent with itself.

  • mortimer zilch

    I really enjoyed my weekend at the Newton, Ma monastery of your community when your founder was still alive and gave the blessing at Benediction. Was it you who crawled under the cow and lifted it off the ground on your back so its all four feet dangled in the air? I subscribe to your email as well. Thank you Brother Andre. I would like to comment on your statement in the preface to your paper above, that the teaching of the Church on inerrancy has not changed – and neither has our understanding of it changed….

    Doctrinal formulations remain unchanged in explicit language. The Bible, likewise, is unchangeable in its text. However, I do not see how you can hold that our understanding does not develop, i.e. change. The Word of God is profound and alive, and we understand it more and more. Right?

    thanks.

  • Mr. Zilch: I’m not the bovine-hefting brother in question. I was seven years old when Father Feeney died in early 1978, and I was still in New Orleans. There were some legendary “macho men” among our early brethren, but I’ve never heard that story.

    To answer your other question, there is such a thing as “doctrinal development” that it not heterodox. In a word, I can say that this orthodox sense of doctrinal development is “homogeneous,” as opposed to the “heterogeneous” notion of doctrinal development that the Modernists advance, and that is deeply entrenched in today’s theological establishment all across the Catholic world.

    I have written something on this here: http://catholicism.org/ad-rem-no-186.html . I hope you find it helpful.

    Does a Catholic teaching “change”? Not in the sense that what was once Yes is now No. (And it is in that sense that I negated the notion of Church teaching changing in this paper.) We may have a clearer understanding of a teaching, as I explain in the piece I linked to a paragraph up.