Saturday, October 08, 2005

What does it mean that the Bible is inspired and inerrant?


How would you respond to someone who insists that scripture is only inspired in matters of faith and morals?

My wife says I can never answer anything briefly....she's right. Take a swig of your coffee, cuz here goes...

I would respond by quoting the papal instructions and encyclicals which teach us Catholic doctrine, which all Catholics owe their religious assent of mind and will, according to the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium.

Paul VI, in his Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, Sancta Mater Ecclesia (1964), [] affirms the sacred writers "faithfully recounted [Jesus'] life and words." The sacred writers did not transform Jesus "into a 'mythical' personage"(ibid.) and his teachings were not "distorted by reason of worship which the disciples now paid him" (ibid.). Rather, they handed on "the things which in actual fact the Lord has said and done" (ibid.). While they may have tailored their accounts according to the needs of their hearers, consolidating, synthesizing, using different contexts, etc., "the Evangelists report the sayings or the doings of our Lord in a different order ... us[ing] different words to express what he said, not keeping to the very letter, but nevertheless preserving the sense." (ibid.). So, although various literary genres are used by the sacred authors, "the Gospels were written under the INSPIRATION of the Holy Spirit, and that it was he who preserved their author IMMUNE FROM ALL ERROR." (ibid.)

Paul VI was simply affirming the constant teaching of the Church regarding the inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture. According to Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus (1893),

... 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. For 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. 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 Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist 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 of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican.

Leo XIII specifically writes against those who would claim that inspiration, and therefore inerrancy, is materially limited to those passages of Sacred Scripture that touch upon faith and morals, those that would discount the historicity, for example, of the infancy narratives of the Gospels.

This again affirmed by Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943):

When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the "entire books with all their parts" as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as "obiter dicta" and--as they contended--in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, published on November 18 in the year 1893, justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the Divine Books by most wise precepts and rules.

According to Paul VI, this tendency to assert a material limitation on the doctrine of inerrancy, even rejecting the historicity of the Gospels continued to plague the Church, even in his day. In 1964, one year before promulgating Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, Paul VI warns against those who would reject the historicity of Scripture, those who would reject an a priori view of the historicity and character (e.g., inerrancy) of Sacred Scripture.

Paul VI, Sancta Mater Ecclesia (1964)

"... the truth of the events and sayings recorded in the Gospels is being challenged. In view of this ... [we] insist on the following... For certain exponents of this [historical-critical] method, led astray by rationalistic prejudices ...practically deny a priori the historical value and character of the documents of revelation. ... these abberations are ... opposed to Catholic doctrine ... ... at all times the interpreter must cherish a spirit of ready obedience to the Church's teaching authority, and must also bear in mind that ... the Gospels were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that it was he who preserved their authors immune from ALL ERROR. It is doctrine above all that they must impart... They must altogether shun what is merely new-fangled or what is insufficiently proved ... Let them regard themselves as in duty bound never to depart in the slightest from the common doctrine and tradition of the Church. ... they should keep altogether clear of the precarious fancies of innovators..."
In the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (1965), Paul VI continues to upholds the teaching of Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu by asserting that all parts of Scripture are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and immune from error. Paul VI specifically refers to these encyclicals in footnote 5 of Dei Verbum 11 to affirm the continuity of Vatican II with the constant faith of the Catholic Church on inspiration and inerrancy.

Paul VI, Dei Verbum (1965),

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself (1). In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4) 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. Therefore "all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).

Chapter III
Article 11:

1. cf. First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chap. 2 "On Revelation:" Denzinger 1787 (3006); Biblical Commission, Decree of June 18,1915: Denzinger 2180 (3629): EB 420; Holy Office, Epistle of Dec. 22, 1923: EB 499.

2. cf. Pius XII, encyclical "Divino Afflante Spiritu," Sept. 30, 1943: A.A.S. 35 (1943) p. 314; Enchiridion Bible. (EB) 556.

3. "In" and "for" man: cf. Heb. 1, and 4, 7; ("in"): 2 Sm. 23,2; Matt.1:22 and various places; ("for"): First Vatican Council, Schema on Catholic Doctrine, note 9: Coll. Lac. VII, 522.

4. Leo XIII, encyclical "Providentissimus Deus," Nov. 18, 1893: Denzinger 1952 (3293); EB 125.

5. cf. St. Augustine, "Gen. ad Litt." 2, 9, 20:PL 34, 270-271; Epistle 82, 3: PL 33, 277: CSEL 34, 2, p. 354. St. Thomas, "On Truth," Q. 12, A. 2, C.Council of Trent, session IV, Scriptural Canons: Denzinger 783 (1501). Leo XIII, encyclical "Providentissimus Deus:" EB 121, 124, 126-127. Pius XII, encyclical "Divino Afflante Spiritu:" EB 539)

Note the frequent reference to Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu, with which Dei Verbum maintains a continuity of teaching.

Paul VI also cited from a Decree of Benedict XV of June 18, 1915. This is what that decree affirmed:

... the Catholic dogma on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, according to which all that the sacred writer asserts, declares, and introduces ought to be maintained as asserted, declared, and introduced by the Holy Spirit;

I've heard the thesis that these "old documents" of Leo XIII and Pius XII, et. al., no longer apply. Such a thesis is complete rubbish, as Paul VI, even after Dei Verbum was promulgated in 1965, continued to warn against those who would discount the Catholic dogma on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, specifically the historic value of the Gospels, including the historicity of the infancy narratives.

According to Paul VI, Allocution of Dec 18, 1966 (Insegnamenti di Paolo VI), he complained that some...

"... try to diminish the historical value of the Gospels themselves, especially those that refer to the birth of Jesus and His infancy. We mention this devaluation briefly so that you may know how to defend with study and faith the consoling certainty that these pages are not inventions of people's fancy, but that they speak the truth... . The authority of the [Vatican II] Council has not pronounced differently on this: 'The Sacred Authors wrote... always in such a way that they reported on Jesus with sincerity and truth' (Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, n. 19)."
What about Pope John Paul II? Does he disregard these "old documents" as no longer the "current" teaching of the Catholic Church? Not at all.

Pope John Paul II, Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, April 23, 1993, commemorating the centenary of the encyclical of Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, and the fiftieth anniversary of the encyclical of Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu:

"I want to highlight some aspects of the teaching of these two encyclical [Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu] and the permanent validity of their orientation...For as the substantial Word of God became like to human beings in all things 'except sin' (Heb 4:15), so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect except error. ... This statement sheds light on a parallelism rich in meaning.... What was true in 1943 remains so even in our day."
As for the "current" teaching of the Catholic Church on inerrancy of Scripture, the following is from Cardinal Augustin Bea, a Vatican II peritus who asserts the correct understanding of inerrancy in accord with Vatican II

"In fact, we declare in general that there is no limit set to this inerrancy, and that it applies to all that the inspired writer, and therefore all that the Holy Spirit by his means, affirms" (Cardinal Augustin Bea, The Word of God and Mankind, Fransican Herald Press, 1967, p. 189)
Cardinal Augustin Bea was the Jesuit Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and was the Vatican II peritus (expert) chosen to instruct bishops on biblical matters at the opening of Vatican II. He was also the President of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. His understanding of Biblical inerrancy is in accord with Vatican II, is current and authoritative. He asserts, as do other post-Vatican II scholars, that "Every assertion of the sacred writer--whether it be religious or moral or scientific or historical--is free from error, because God wanted these writers to convey to us unalloyed truth for the sake of our salvation." (MSgr George Kelly, The New Biblical Theorists, 1983, pg. 157)

Another current understanding of the dogma of inerrancy is from June 29, 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), then the president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and the prelate of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, who asserted that "the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts" is an infallible, immutable dogma of the Catholic Church, "to be believed as divinely revealed," and is "of divine and catholic faith which the Church proposes as divinely and formally revealed and, as such, as irreformable." This Catholic dogma "require[s] the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy" (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Doctrinal Commentary on Professio Fide, approved and promulgated by Pope John Paul II).

As such, the following proposition, having been condemned by St. Pius X, remains an authentic condemnation of Catholicism: "[The proposition that asserts] Divine inspiration does not extend to all of Sacred Scripture in such a way that it renders all of its parts free from every error [is condemend.]" (Pius X, Lamentabili Sane, July 5, 1907).

Catholics may not re-assert errors once definitely condemned by the Catholic Church. From Pope St. Gelasius I, Licit inter varis, (493):

... since the Lord is superior, the pure truth of Catholic faith drawn from the concordant opinions of all the Fathers remains present.... What pray permits us to abrogate what has been condemned by the vernable Fathers, and to reconsider the impious dogmas that have been demolished by them? Why is it, therefore, that we take such great precautions lest any dangerous heresy, once driven out, strive anew to come [up] for examination, if we argue that what has been known, discussed, and refuted of old by our elders ought to be restored? Are we not ourselves offering, which God forbid, to all the enemies of the truth an example of rising again against ourselves, which the Church will never permit? Where is it that it is written : Do not go beyond the limits of your fathers [Prov 22:28], and: Ask your fathers and they will tell you, and your elders will declare unto you [Deut. 32:7]? Why, accordingly, do we aim beyond the definitions of our elders, or why do they not suffice for us? ... are we wiser than they, or shall we be able to stand constant with firm stability, if we should undermine those [dogmas] which have been established by them?
So what does the Catholic Church teach regarding the dogma of inerrancy of Scripture?

Does it mean that every word in Scripture must be taken as literally and historically accurate, and/or scientifically true, apart from the intent of the sacred author? Not at all. Neither did Pope St. Pius X intend that inerrancy be so understood. Observe,

According to the decree of the Pontifical Bible Commission, approved and promulgated by Pope St. Pius X, June 30, 1909 (Responsa de charactere historico trium priorum capitum Geneseos, AAS 1 (1909) 567-69):

"Q: Whether we may call into question the literal historical sense where there is a question of facts narrated in these chapters that touch upon the fundamentals of the Christian religion...

Response: Negative.

Q: Whether all and each of the parts of these chapters---namely, the single words and phrases--must always and of necessity be taken in the literal sense so that one may never deviate from it, even when it is clear that expressions are used figuratively, that is, either metaphorically or anthropologically, and when reason forbids us to hold, or necessity impels us to reject, the literal sense.

Response: Negative.

Q: Whether, granting the literal and historical sense, an allegorical
and prophetical interpretation of certain passages in these chapters--a practice exemplified by the Fathers and the Church--may be wisely and profitably applied.

Response: Affirmative.

Q: Whether, since in writing the first chapter of Genesis, the sacred writer did not intend to teach in a scientific manner the innermost nature of visible things and the complete order of creation, but rather sought to provide people with a popular account--such as the common parlance of that age allowed--that was adapted to the intellectual capacities of his audience, we are strictly and always obliged, when interpreting these chapters, to look for the precision proper to scientific discourse.

Response: Negative.

Instead, Catholicism teaches that everything the writer affirms is true, without ANY error, but not everything the writer affirms is understood. Thus, Catholic doctrine continues to insists, as did St. Augustine:

If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood." (Augustine,Reply to Faustus the Manichean,11:5(A.D. 400),in NPNF1,IV:180)
Furthermore, the current teaching on Biblical inerrancy is explained by my post-graduate professors of Catholic Religious Studies in the following manner:

The Catholic Church teaches that inerrancy is defined as: "the theological concept that the Bible is free from errors, not just in faith and morals, but in all that pertains to and which God wished to teach for our salvation... Inerrancy flows from inspiration. So the whole Bible is thus inerrant. To say only parts are inerrant would mean only parts are inspired.... One guiding principle is to discern the intention of the author... Looking at the overall thrust of the book is also necessary. The Evangelists did not intend to write a biography of Jesus. Thus they differed in some particulars." (Fr. Leonard Obloy, Introduction to Sacred Scritpure, Second Edition, 1989).
Likewise, from the anthology readings from the same course, Fr. Ignace de la Potterie writes:

[Some prior to Vatican II proposed] a purely material limitation of inerrancy to certain categories of texts: the truth of the Bible would only be guaranteed in those places where it teaches "faith or morals." A distinction of this type is ill-chosen and artificial. It supposes a conception of revelation too highly intellectualist, as if God had only revealed himself to men by communicating some "truths", some religious doctrines pertinent to faith and morals. The conciliar Constitution of Vatican II clearly moved beyond this conception and tells us that God revealed himself in words and deeds, "gestis verbisque intrinsece inter se connexis" ("in words and deeds instrinsically connected").

Furthermore, a limitation of inerrancy to only "religious" matters seems to suppose that the Bible contains other material which would be "profane"--another unfortunate distinction! For the Bible is entirely inspired. How could it be admitted that God was able to inspire the holy authors to make them write purely profane things? Rather it is necessary to say that the word of God refers above all to the salvific design of God and that consequently, Scripture has always in some way a religious character.... the truth of Scripture ought always to be considered from the viewpoint of the revelation of God's salvific design, i.e., of the history of salvation. There can be no question then of only "religious truths" of the Bible (in the plural!) but the truth in the order of salvation, present everywhere in Scripture. From the viewpoint of the formal object of this truth, no material limitation ought to be introduced into the domain of biblical truth. In the particular perspective which was mentioned, everything in the Bible is free from error.... it will be necessary always to insist on the fact that God has revealed himself throughout a true history, the history of salvation. But the facts recounted in the Bible are not there to instruct us in the profane history of the ancient East. They are there to make us know the divine plan of salvation progressively manifested in the course of this history. It is precisely this relationship of the biblical facts with the mystery of salvation which formally constitutes their "truth."... The historicity of biblical events is guaranteed by inspiration when these events are related to the history of salvation and in the very measure in which they are related.... We are saying ... that the "truth" of Scripture presupposed the reality of the historical events when these touch on the mystery of salvation and insofar as they do.

...The first patristic text to which the Council has recourse it St. Augustine [cf. footnote #5]. To those who would seek in Scripture divine instruction on the composition of the world, Augustine answers that the Holy Spirit did not want to teach those things having no use for the salvation of men: "nulli sluti profutura (things that will be of no benefit to salvation)."... the Doctor of Hippo says in a more decisive manner elsewhere: "In the gospel one does not read that the Savior said: 'I am sending you the Paraclete who will teach you how the sun and the moon turn." He wanted to form Christians, not mathematicians." Applying this principle to the realm of history we could say equivalently: the Holy Spirit did not want to instuct us precisely about ... profane history but rather of the history of salvation. He wanted to make us Christians and not historians.

Does inerrancy extend to the whole of the sacred text, including historical details when the sacred writer meant to give an historical account?

When the sacred writer intended to affirm history, then, yes, that which he affirmed is without error. He may have given his historical account in a manner that was not intended to be a strict history, however. Thus, they may have tailored their accounts according to the needs of their hearers, consolidating, synthesizing, using different contexts, etc., "the Evangelists report the sayings or the doings of our Lord in a different order ... us[ing] different words to express what he said, not keeping to the very letter, but nevertheless preserving the sense." (ibid.).

There are aspects of Genesis, for example, that are historical fact, which touch upon matters of faith. Just because the author does not intend to write a strict historical account, does not mean that the events of his work are not based upon true history or that one can simply discount the historicity of everything in Genesis. Thus, one does not have to take as strict history what the sacred author does not intend as strict history. Pope St. Pius X made this clear to the faithful.

For example, humanity certainly did have one set of historical first parents (i.e., monogenism is a historic fact of Genesis). Some historical affirmations are at times mixed with non-historical affirmations by the sacred author of Scripture. However, one cannot simply call such narratives fable or fiction simply because the author did not intend to write a strict history. Epic, for example, is a long narrative poem based upon historical figures and events. Just because the genre is epic, doesn't mean the historical figures and events were make believe, even if some details were added from the author that have no basis in actual history. The Illiad and Odessy are epic--not strict history, but based upon historical figures and events. Determining what was history, strictly-so called and what was not is difficult and highly speculative, especially when the source is ancient.

Does this apply only to the originals?

Only the "genuine passage[s] of the sacred writings" ,"the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error." (Providentissimus Deus). Such passages are referred to as "critically accurate." The Catholic Church describes later manuscripts, such as the Latin Vulgate, as authentic as well. The Church does not mean that the Latin Vulgate exactly matches the original autograph, thus the Latin Vulgate is not asserted by the Church to be "critically accurate" in all its passages. Instead the Church intends that the Latin Vulgate is "juridically accurate." That is, the Vulgate faithfully represents the original intent of the sacred authors, when the manuscript is authentically interpreted by the Catholic Magisterium, even though the manuscript may be inexact if one could theoretically compare them to the original autographs.

The notion of critical accuracy is a problem of Sola Scripturists who discount any authority excepting the Bible. It is not, however, a problem of Catholics, who accept the authority of the Church's interpretation of Scripture, and are not bound to asserting critical accuracy of a particular manuscript, which is always rather speculative given that we do not have the original autographs extant.

"Scientific" Exegesis

Although Bible scholars often attach the word "scientific" to their opinions, as a person who studied science and earned a living as a spacecraft and missile systems engineer for many years, I know the difference between real science (experimentally verifiable hypothesis) and "soft" sciences (which always remain theoretical and speculative). Biblical theories are nothing more than speculative science (like philosophy and theology), nothing more than opinion which cannot be experimentally or scientifically proved. Nonetheless, whose opinion do Catholics find authoritative as a matter of faith, based upon the Divine authority given to them? The Catholic magisterium. It is a matter of Catholic faith that the magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, not only in her solemn pronouncements, but in her ordinary teachings.

The magisterium teaches that the historical facts of Sacred Scripture often touch upon doctrines of Catholic faith, and as such they cannot be called into question (eg. Genesis affirmation of monogenism versus any contrary and condemned theories of polygenism).

Does Scripture faithfully teach mathematics?

No, because that is not what the sacred writers affirm. So that truth, which is everywhere presented in Scripture, is to be understood from the authorial intent, which is always in the order of salvation, not profane science or profane history.

Does the Scriptures faithfully teach salvation history?

Yes. As salvation history is central to the message of Sacred Scripture, and such sacred history cannot be divorced from doctrine without doing violence to the Catholic faith. For example, Jesus was historically and factually crucified, and factually rose from the dead. To pretend as some scholar have asserted, that Jesus' resurrection was merely a theological interpolation of the Church and that it did not factually occur is contrary to Catholic faith.

Everything asserted by the sacred writer is "for our salvation."

God did not inspire the sacred writers to write anything that was unimportant for our salvation. The intent of the sacred author, everywhere in Scripture is not profane science or profane history, but to express and affirm the history of salvation. This is called by Fr. Potterie (above), "the truth in the order of Salvation."

In Dei Verbum, the word veritas (truth) is used 30 times, and is never found in the plural. There is but ONE truth that God wished to teach for the sake of our salvation, and it is everywhere present, although in a progressive character, in Sacred Scripture when the Bible is interpreted from the view of the sacred writer's authorial intent.

How does one judge what the writer intended to affirm?

Very carefully. ;)

And for Catholics, our study of Sacred Word of God must always be in union with the solemn and ordinary teachings of the magisterium. The following is from the Pontifical Bible Commission promulgated and approved by Pope John Paul II. It's lengthy, but it describes several methods of Biblical interpretation, discusses strengths and weaknesses, and asserts that historical critical methods are necessary but insufficient by themselves. Diachronic methods are also indispensable for exegesis. Synchronic approaches, while valuable, are not sufficient.

The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church
Pontifical Biblical Commission
Promulgated by Pope John Paul II on March 18, 1994