Biblical Inerrancy Revisited (but not Revised)

With the Synod on Holy Scripture currently meeting in Rome, the Church’s teaching on Biblical inerrancy has become a timely topic of discussion. A little further down is a clip from John Allen’s interview with Cardinal Francis George on the subject.

Before posting it, I propose that what Cardinal George is calling for has already been done; namely, that the Church has given us a clear-cut doctrine regarding Biblical inerrancy, and it is NOT the idea of “limited” inerrancy. It extends to the Bible “in all its parts.” We don’t need to be fundamentalists to assert that the whole Bible is free of any error (historically and scientifically). Catholics have never been fundamentalists in the Protestant sense, and have always believed that the whole Bible is free of error even in matters of history or science. Saint Augustine’s careful exegesis of Holy Scripture shows he believed this, as did the work of the other fathers, great medieval commentators, and everyone else until the dawn of rationalist-Protestant Biblical exegisis in the 19th century. Saint Augustine and his fellow Catholic commentators were neither theological troglodites nor hyper-critical scholars that thought there could be errors in God’s inspired written word.

For more on this, please read Biblical Inerrancy, a posting from my old Theology Blog that we’ve imported into the new

Here is the snip of the interview with Cardinal George:

You mentioned a moment ago the discussion within the synod about inerrancy. Some have suggested that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ought to prepare a document on inerrancy. What’s the issue there?

The question, finally, is what kind of confidence can those who hear the Word of God proclaimed from scripture have that it’s the truth? Fundamentalists would say that it’s all literally true, so we have every reason to be confident. But that ignores what exegesis has done for us in the last 200 years, identifying the different forms of literature in the Bible, the contexts of the communities in which it was written, and all the rest.

You’ve still got the problem, however, of the affirmation in faith that inspiration and inerrancy go together, so that what is inspired is also inerrant. At the same time, you have to discover what inerrancy means when you’re not reading a newspaper, but you’re reading poetry, or a myth of some sort, or a fable or a parable. We can make that distinction more easily in the New Testament, when Jesus is speaking in parables. It’s harder sometimes for us to make those distinctions in the Old Testament.

One way of solving it came out of the Second Vatican Council. It wasn’t Cardinal Bea’s way of solving it, but that of some commentators. [Note: Cardinal Augustin Bea was a German Biblical scholar and influential figure at Vatican II. Bea, who died in 1968, also headed the Vatican’s office for Christian unity.] It holds that what God intended for our salvation is what’s inerrant. It didn’t say that the rest wasn’t inspired, but nonetheless scripture’s inerrancy is more or less limited to what God intended to teach for our salvation. The other school is a little bit broader, and I think it’s more where we’re at now. It says no, inerrancy applies also to what the human author intended to teach, under God’s inspiration. However, what the human author did not intend to teach, but rather brought in to his writings because it was part of the zeitgeist, the understanding of the world at the time, is not necessarily factually inerrant. So there are all kinds of places where you can split it, but you’ve got to determine what those places are and how you should go at it. In that sense, a document might be helpful.

So you’re supportive of a document on inerrancy?

I would be, but you have to allow the scholars time to continue those discussions and to make the distinctions necessary. There’s been forty years of discussing it, and I think we might be ready to have some kind of more definitive document now. I think the study would be good. Whether or not it’s the time to do the document, I don’t know. We have to consult with a lot of the scholarly community and see where we are.