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Is Scripture Inerrant?

Is Scripture inerrant? If you are a typical Catholic, this might seem to be an easy question to answer simply by quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The inspired books teach the truth. “Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (CCC 107, quoting the Vatican II document Dei Verbum 11).

But when a synod of bishops devoted to “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” met under Pope Benedict XVI’s direction in 2008, its working paper included the statement, “[T]he following can be said with certainty . . . with regards to what might be inspired in the many parts of Sacred Scripture, inerrancy applies only to ‘that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation’ (DV 11).” The use of the word only seems to put a limitation on the scope of Scripture’s inerrancy, an incorrect limitation in the eyes of many. At the conclusion of the synod, the bishops asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to clarify the teaching of Dei Verbum 11. A CDF response is yet to come.

Historical teaching on Scripture’s inerrancy

So how are we to answer the question of inerrancy? If Dei Verbum 11 is not clear, other doctrinal statements on the matter are. In 1893 Pope Leo XIII issued the most comprehensive treatment of Scripture interpretation the world had seen. Providentissimus Deus was a landmark encyclical that sought to correct the plethora of error about Scripture then circulating the world. In it, the pontiff traced the history of Scripture in the Catholic Church, addressed challenges, and defended the truth of Scripture. Pope Leo affirmed an unrestricted understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture:

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. . . . It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration or make God the author of such error (Providentissimus Deus, 20-21).

Pope St. Pius X in his 1907 Lamentabili Sane condemned the proposition “Divine inspiration does not extend to all of Sacred Scriptures so that it renders its parts, each and every one, free from every error” (LS 11).

Pope Benedict XV re-affirmed Pope Leo XIII’s teaching in his own encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus in 1920:

But although these words of our predecessor leave no room for doubt or dispute, it grieves us to find that not only men outside, but even children of the Catholic Church—nay, what is a peculiar sorrow to us, even clerics and professors of sacred learning—who in their own conceit either openly repudiate or at least attack in secret the Church’s teaching on this point (SP 18).

Benedict appealed to the life and teaching of St. Jerome as a model for timeless treatment of Scripture. Specifically, he noted, “Jerome further shows that the immunity of Scripture from error or deception is necessarily bound up with its divine inspiration and supreme authority” (SP 13). Also, “St. Jerome’s teaching on this point serves to confirm and illustrate what our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, declared to be the ancient and traditional belief of the Church touching the absolute immunity of Scripture from error” (SP 16).

Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu again affirmed the teaching of Leo XIII in light of biblical criticism and the difficulties of his own time. Of significant note, the pontiff used the incarnational analogy to compare the unrestricted inerrancy of sacred scripture with the absolute sinlessness of Jesus: “For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error” (DAS 37).

Thus, just as the Word took on human flesh in Jesus, the Word took on human language in Sacred Scripture. And just as Jesus is fully human yet fully divine, Scripture is authored by both human authors and the divine Author. And finally, just as Jesus is like men in all ways except he is without sin, Scripture is like human literature in all ways except it is without error.

In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII dealt with the issue yet again: “For some . . . put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters” (HG 22).

As we can see, popes taught the unrestricted inerrancy of Scripture over the decades leading up to Vatican II. Pope Paul VI, in 1965, promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, which would become one of the most important Church documents in history. This document explained Scripture from the ground up, beginning with divine revelation and moving on to its transmission in the Church through both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition by the authoritative magisterium. The incarnational analogy was repeated as the council, according to many, upheld the unrestricted inerrancy of scripture.

Specifically on the interpretation of Scripture, Dei Verbum taught that God is the author of Scripture, but the human authors also were true authors and that both must be considered when interpreting Scripture. In considering human authorship, genre, language usage, history, and culture must all be considered in order to discover the author’s intention. To discover God’s intention, three criteria must be considered: (1) the content and unity of the entirety of Scripture, (2) Sacred Tradition, and (3) the analogy of faith (which is essentially the magisterial teaching of the Church). Dei Verbum also taught divine pedagogy and condescension as means to clearing up apparent contradictions in Scripture.

The controversy

So why would any bishop waiver on the unrestricted inerrancy of Scripture as late as 2008? Interestingly, it all seems to boil down to Dei Verbum’s use of the phrase “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

To understand how this could be so controversial, compare and contrast the arguments of Fr. Raymond Brown and Scott Hahn, evaluating each of them in light of the papal teaching discussed above. (For reference, Fr. Brown’s argument is printed on page 1169 of The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990). Hahn’s argument is found on pages 35-36 of Letter & Spirit (Vol. 6): For the Sake of Our Salvation; The Truth and Humility of God’s Word (Steubenville, OH: St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, 2010).)

Brown isolates the last phrase of Dei Verbum 11—“that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation”—to argue that the Council intended to teach that Scripture’s inerrancy is limited “to the extent that it conforms to the salvific purpose of God.” Hahn concedes that a reading such as Brown’s “is firmly entrenched in modern Catholic scholarship,” but he explains that, due to the grammatical structure of the phrase, “the wording of the Constitution does not support such an interpretation.” He notes:

[T]he grammar of the text does not in fact delimit the kind of truth under discussion. The prepositional phrase nostrae salutis causa, “for the sake of our salvation,” functions as an adverbial phrase modifying the verbal expression, consignari voluit, “wished to be recorded.” As such, it elucidates the purpose behind God’s desire to put his truth in the Bible without differentiating between different classes of truths it may be said to express.

To support his reading, Brown argues that Dei Verbum’s “statements on disputed subjects reflects careful compromise, stemming from the five revisions through which the document passed.” But Hahn points out:

[A]nalysis of the debates and earlier schemas that led to the final draft of Dei Verbum reveal a concern among the majority of the Council fathers, prompting even the intervention of Pope Paul VI, to avoid a wording of the text that would limit Scripture’s inerrancy to “saving truth,” an expression which could easily be misinterpreted to mean the truths of faith and morals and nothing beyond.

Hahn expands his view of the sentence in question in light of its footnote:

[T]he lengthy footnote attached to this sentence cites multiple sources from the tradition which speak of Scripture’s comprehensive conformity to the truth. Thus, in agreement with the document’s use of footnotes in general, the references in the present footnote underscore the continuity of the Council’s teaching with theological and magisterial positions of the past.

Among the sources in that footnote are Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus and Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu, both of which teach unrestricted inerrancy. Hahn also considers the sentence in light of its broader textual context:

[S]ince the preceding clause insists that everything (omne id) asserted by the human authors is likewise asserted by the Holy Spirit, a restricted inerrancy reading leaves no way to avoid imputing misstatements of fact to the divine author. Yet earlier papal statements declare such a proposition flatly “impossible.”

Finally, Hahn points out the absurdity of a supposed silent doctrinal shift:

[I]t borders on inconceivable that the Council fathers were introducing a development of doctrine with virtually no indication that they were doing so and no explanation as to why the time was ripe for taking such a momentous step. If this were the case, the Council could only be charged with dodging a grave responsibility to the people of God.

Hahn concludes that Dei Verbum did not change the Church’s teaching on inerrancy:

Taken together, the cumulative force of these observations supports the contention that Dei Verbum’s teaching on biblical truth stands in doctrinal continuity with previous ecclesiastical teaching on the inerrancy of Scripture. One can legitimately speak of a new emphasis on the Bible’s salvific purpose, but not of a fundamental departure from the Church’s historic position on its unlimited truthfulness.

Considering both of these scholarly arguments in light of Church teaching, it seems to me that Hahn is correct and that Dei Verbum is not to be understood as a change in the Church’s constant teaching concerning the unrestricted inerrancy of Scripture. But since there are numerous scholars on both side of the fence in this argument, it would be foolish to not admit that Dei Verbum 11 can be read and understood differently.

A hermeneutic of continuity

What are we to do when faced with such disagreements? We must beware that we are not “carried away with the error of lawless men” (2 Pet. 3:17) and lose our own stability. We must look to the authoritative teachers of the Church and consider their constant teaching, as Hahn does, recognizing that the Church is and was the same Catholic Church that was active before, during, and after Vatican II. Thus, the documents of Vatican II must be read and understood in their proper setting: in light of the historical, authoritative teaching of the magisterium.

Pope Benedict XVI said as much the December 22, 2005, Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them his Christmas Greetings:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” . . . On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform,” of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God. . . . The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time.

So, is Scripture inerrant? Certainly it is! Is its inerrancy unrestricted? The Church’s constant teaching seems to indicate that it is. In 2010 Pope Benedict published his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini. This was his response to the 2008 synod of bishops. In it, he reaffirmed the aforementioned teachings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII as well as Dei Verbum’s three criteria of biblical interpretation. He also taught that Scripture must be understood within the context of the Church and her liturgy, consistent with magisterial teaching:

The Synod Fathers also stressed the link between the theme of inspiration and that of the truth of the Scriptures. A deeper study of the process of inspiration will doubtless lead to a greater understanding of the truth contained in the sacred books. As the Council’s teaching states in this regard, the inspired books teach the truth: “since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.” Thus, “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Certainly theological reflection has always considered inspiration and truth as two key concepts for an ecclesial hermeneutic of the Sacred Scriptures. Nonetheless, one must acknowledge the need today for a fuller and more adequate study of these realities, in order better to respond to the need to interpret the sacred texts in accordance with their nature. Here I would express my fervent hope that research in this field will progress and bear fruit both for biblical science and for the spiritual life of the faithful (VB 19).

And so, we wait.

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