Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Catholic View on Biblical Inerrancy

What is the Catholic Church's view of Biblical inerrancy? She certainly holds to the view that the Bible is inerrant, but to what degree? Recently, I have been in email correspondence with a reader over this issue. He has pointed out that there is a great deal of Catholic Bible scholarship that holds to a more limited view on inerrancy, which, to him, seems to contradict the pronouncements by some Popes like Leo XII, but most notably Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu. I produce that quote from the first paragraph of that document:

"Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order "to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work." This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness. In more recent Times New Roman, however, since the divine origin and the correct interpretation of the Sacred Writings have been very specially called in question, the Church has with even greater zeal and care undertaken their defense and protection. The sacred Council of Trent ordained by solemn decree that "the entire books with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old vulgate Latin edition, are to be held sacred and canonical." In our own time the Vatican Council, with the object of condemning false doctrines regarding inspiration, declared that these same books were to be regarded by the Church as sacred and canonical "not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author, and as such were handed down to the Church herself." 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."

Since then, however, the most notable contribution to this issue comes from the Second Vatican Council's Constitution Dei Verbum. Perhaps I am wrong, and please correct me if I am, but I believe this was the first statement on Biblical inerrancy found in a document of an Ecumenical Council. Concerning Dei Verbum and inerrancy, the main issues comes down on how one interprets 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 for the sake of salvation."

There are some, like Fr. Raymond Brown and most notably some of the editors of the NAB commentary, which hold to a more limited view of inerrancy, which simply covers Biblical truth which God intended for our salvation. For them, this does not included apparent discrepancies, particularly in regards to historical or scientific information. They point out that the pre-vote debate on on Dei Verbum at Vatican II showed an "awareness of errors in the Bible (NJBC 1169)." Thus, for those who agree with the more limited form of Biblical inerrancy: "Scriptural teaching is truth without error to the extent that it conforms to the salvific purpose of God (Ibid)." For this view, you read more about it in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary pages 1168-1170, in the section on Church Pronouncements.

Then there are others that would hold to a more broad view of inerrancy, closer to the unlimited inerrancy as found in Leo XIII's encyclical. Those in this group contend that the Dei Verbum quote "for the sake of salvation" tells us not what is deemed inerrant, but rather why God wished the truth to be recorded in the Bible. They will point to the footnote to this statement in Dei Verbum, which references various Church Fathers, Popes, and Councils, which upholds the fuller form of inerrancy. Thus, unlimited inerrancy "is the belief that the Scripture is completely and comprehensively true in all that it intentionally affirms (Catholic Bible Dictionary 389)."

In some ways, there is still debate in the Church on this issue. Perhaps there is a desire, by the Church at this time, to be ambiguous on this issue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the section that deals with the inspiration of Scripture, paragraph 107, simply quotes from Dei Verbum 11 without any qualification.

It should be pointed out that the limited and unlimited view groups both recognize that there are difficulties in inerrancy. In addition, they both reject, in any case, that the Catholic Church's position is similar to fundamentalism. The key being that Catholic's are called to use modern Biblical scholarly methods in order to find out what is the literal not literalistic meaning of any given text. Certainly, this calls for the use of literary criticism, which seeks to find out what type of literary genre the author is using in his work. Thus, understanding the intent of the author and the literary form used in his writing can help to alleviate some of the difficulties in this area.

These are some of my opening thoughts on this issue. There is certainly more that can be said and added to this discussion, so I open this question up to you, my readers. What are your thoughts?

Work Cited:
Divino Afflante Spiritu
Dei Verbum
Catechism of the Catholic Church
New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy
The Catholic Bible Dictionary, edited by Hahn

14 comments:

Diakonos said...

Tim

I have been SO interested in this topic for a long time and am so confused as to what we should/must hold as Catholics. I tend toward the more limited then I read something by a trustworthy theological author and become unsure again...

Thanks for this post and for any further enlightnment you or the readers might offer.

Jonathan Watson said...

I just happened to wander in here from a blog from a blog, so I apologize if I'm blundering into a conversation illegitimately.

I, too, have been wondering how to square this one, especially since getting my MA at Steubenville and reading all these documents.

Currently, I've been thinking like this: everything the Bible asserts as true is to be held as true by the church, but you have to be really careful in your conclusions as to what the Bible is, in fact, asserting. The philosophy, language, and literature of the Hebrews was way different from ours, and a difference in context, philosophy, and expectation changes the meaning of an otherwise simple sentence quite drastically.

Diakonos said...

Thanks Jonathan, that's exactly my predicament. WHO can/do we trust to be telling us (without their moral presupposition or agenda interferring) what these cultural things are? For example, God's Word syas that woem should not teach men and should have their heads covered for worship. We know that was cultural. How? Some trustworthy experts told us. (I am NOT proposing this for women, just FYI...only an easy example). Anohter Scripture tells us Onan's seed-spilling was an offense to the Lord. One expert tells us it's a cultural abyuse of descendecy of heirs another that its a kind of anti-contraceptive scene (I am not dealing here with the Church's magisterial declaration, just what the Scripture was asserting). And there are so many more examples.

I studied theology at a time when Fr. Raymond Brown was the darling of Scriputre classes and developed a bitter taste for anything with hisname attached. others tell me that'snot quite accurate assessment. I read a lot of late scholar Fr. William Most (the theological polar opposite of Brown)and had others tell me HE was all wrong....

OI VEY. Sometimes I want to just throw my desire to study Scriputre further out the window and be content with reading the Bible only in a devotional prayer setting.

Paolo said...

All the answers to your questions can be found in the NABRE - 57th edition...

Diakonos said...

Paolo...hahahahahahahahaha. THANKS!

Anonymous said...

without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation

I think the answer is very clearly expressed in the above statement. The statement was formulated precisely to accommodate both views (imho). IOW, the Church itself is not certain and both views are valid.

There is no use parsing the above statement -- it's not like it was written hundreds of years ago. If we had wanted to we could have asked the framers what they really meant with that statement.

Anonymous said...

Paolo,

NABRE 57th ed!! :-) I was hoping we'd find out with the Ignatius Old Testament Study Bible

Anonymous said...

But, there is a part in Dei Verbum that is always omitted when the teaching on inerrancy is quoted:

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).

If everything asserted by the text must be said to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, and the authors wrote everything and only what the Holy Spirit wanted, then we must conclude that "he who cannot deceived nor be deceived" was deceived or deceived us if we admit substantial errors in the Bible. I'm not talking about how things appear phenomenologically. The problem is historical discrepancies.

The other issue is, if the Church has revised her teaching on inerrancy and restricted it to limited inerrancy...then she has contradicted a previous solemn definition of hers and her claim to infallibility is in tatters.

Anonymous said...

Diakonos:

WHO can/do we trust to be telling us (without their moral presupposition or agenda interferring) what these cultural things are? For example, God's Word syas that woem should not teach men and should have their heads covered for worship. We know that was cultural. How? Some trustworthy experts told us. (I am NOT proposing this for women, just FYI...only an easy example). Anohter Scripture tells us Onan's seed-spilling was an offense to the Lord. One expert tells us it's a cultural abyuse of descendecy of heirs another that its a kind of anti-contraceptive scene (I am not dealing here with the Church's magisterial declaration, just what the Scripture was asserting). And there are so many more examples.

You'd think there would be much more clearer authority on these issues. My suspicion is, we're being hoodwinked by experts. How can head-coverings be mere customs when St. Paul argues for a page and a half that the Churches of God recognize no other practice? How can it be a custom limited by time and locality when it has always and everywhere been practiced by all times and localities?

Michael Barber said...

Timothy:

A timely post! The PBC is currently writing a document on this topic which will then be forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then submitted to the Holy Father (phew!). One of the key people sitting on the PBC is Dennis Farkasfalvy, O. Cist. He has just done a massive study of the issue. He has a summary article in a recent collection of essays on Vatican II, published by Oxford Press. Email me and I'll get it to you. (My email address is posted over at my TheSacredPage.com). Also, my co-blogger Brant Pitre has recently written on this, publishing an essay in another collection of essays.

. . . Actually, come to think of it, I've got a lot on this! : )

Brian Oleniacz said...

You'd think there would be much more clearer authority on these issues. My suspicion is, we're being hoodwinked by experts. How can head-coverings be mere customs when St. Paul argues for a page and a half that the Churches of God recognize no other practice? How can it be a custom limited by time and locality when it has always and everywhere been practiced by all times and localities?

When you read that passage, you have to look at why he is commanding that women wear head coverings. You'll notice that it is not simply a command "women should wear head coverings." and then moving on to something else. Instead, in verse 3, he makes clear that the head coverings being a symbol of being submitted to authority- namely, the authority of their husbands. The argument against abandoning head coverings is the argument against dishonoring her husband, who is her "head." (The word "head" has double meaning throughout). Thus it seems apparent to me that the head covering was the same as a wedding ring in our culture, and that some women were taking their "wedding rings" off as they prophesied, implying that they didn't have to submit to their husbands anymore because they spoke prophetically. Paul's statement about "we have no such (Gk toioutos "of this sort") practice, nor do the churches" refers to "being contentious," which is what the women were doing by dishonoring their marriage vows while prophesying.

Because head coverings are no longer used to indicate submission to one's husband in our culture, wearing them in church is not honoring what Paul is saying here- unless we recreate the culture of 1st century Rome/Judea, which some Protestants try to do. If your wife wore a hat to church, that doesn't mean she is submitting to you, and her not wearing one doesn't mean she is dishonoring you. The specifics of this passage are irrelevant in our culture, but the essence is the same- women who speak prophetically or have a powerful supernatural gifting must continue to honor their husbands.

Anonymous said...

This is a very confusing subject which appears to be contradicted often. I went to a Catholic School for 8 years in Chicago which was headed by a branch of Benedictine nuns. I expressly remember being taught by the nuns that the bible was written by man inspired by God. This was idea was reinforced over the 8 years I attended. I grew up believing that the Catholic Church did not consider the Bible to be inerrant. Honestly I wish the church would clarify its position on this important issue.

Gerardo Moochie said...

What I think doesn't really matter. I will go back to the early Church fathers for the answer. They declared absolute and total inerrancy. Any opinions to the contrary are the result of the thinking of heretical modernists who place man above God. That is a dangerous proposition. It is a real pity that this site and those who represent the Catholic Church do not take a more proactive and dogmatic position for inerrancy, leaving it to the opinion of people like myself is not the best approach. This "maybe yes", "maybe no" approach is part of the moral relativity problem that is permeating our culture.

Mark Vatuone said...

The Catholic Church professes “…the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts.” She has consistently and unhesitatingly taught this doctrine from the beginning though some have tried to obscure this teaching (please see paragraph 11 in the Doctrinal Commentary on the 1998 Profession of Faith). For an authentic interpretation of Dei Verbum 11 - “..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” please consider: 1) footnotes(please see "The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture According to Dei Verbum, Article 11," by Brian W. Harrison, available on the Internet), 2) Latin grammar(please see "Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars" - Chapter 7, by Father William Most, available on the Internet), 3) history of the proceedings (please see Father Ralph M. Wiltgen, S.V.D. - "The Rhine Flows into the Tiber - A History of Vatican II" and 4) Commentary(please see "Vatican II and the Truth of Sacred Scripture" by Cardinal Augustine Bea(available on the Internet). With respect to Vatican II, according to Father Ralph M. Wiltgen, S.V.D., Pope John XXIII appointed Cardinal Bea as a second president of a joint theological commission that was tasked with revising a proposed schema of Dei Verbum for a final presentation to the Fathers at the General Assembly. Further, according to Father Wiltgen, Pope John Paul explicitly dictated, in a letter from the Secretary of State, to the Joint Commission a request to invite Cardinal Bea to attend meetings to consider debated language when it was learned that problem clauses had been drafted without the oversight of Cardinal Bea, as requested by Pope John the XXIII. Additional investigation confirms that Cardinal Bea was a driving force in authoring the preliminary and final drafts of Dei Verbum. Accordingly, I look to Cardinal Bea’s to interpret Dei Verbum.