Biblical Inerrancy


Biblical Inerrancy

Comments on a meditation on Mark below have provoked a certain strain of comment that seems to demand more than comment box reflections.

The "problem" of Biblical Inerrancy is one with which scholars have contended and are still contending. Regretably, the only defense I can offer comes from the words of others. I have some difficulty explaining and fully understanding them myself, but they seem to teach what they teach infallibly.

From an article by William Most

Inspiration rules out any sort of error in the Bible whatsoever. Thus Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, wrote that since God is the author, "it follows that they who think any error is contained in the authentic passages of the Sacred Books surely either pervert the Catholic notion of divine inspiration, or make God Himself the source of error." Note that Pope Leo said that one of two things happens: either they pervert the notion of inspiration, or they make God the author of error.

Charges of error refer primarily to three fields today, matters of science, of religion, or of history. We will take up each of these in detail, putting off the matters of history until after our chapter on literary genre.

In regard to matters of science, Raymond E. Brown wrote: "Already in 1893 Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus ... excluded natural or scientific matters from biblical inerrancy, even if he did this through the expedient of insisting that statements made about nature according to ordinary appearances were not errors. (An example might involve the sun going around the earth.)"1

Here is what Leo XIII actually said: "We must first consider that the sacred writers or, more truly, 'the Spirit of God, who spoke through them,' did not will to teach these things (that is, the inner constitution of visible things) which were of no use for salvation, wherefore they at times described things . . as the common way of speaking at the time they did."

Brown, straining mightily, says that this is a "backdoor way" of admitting scientific error. We even today commonly speak of the sun as rising or setting, or as moving around the sky, when we know perfectly well that it is the earth that is moving. Who would say we are involved in habitual error on this account?

Very honestly, I am ignorant in these matters and not fit to put up much of a defense. All I can do is site from previous teaching that suggests that the Catholic Church teaches that the Bible is inerrant in all that it says--in all respects. Perhaps the difficulty is with my phrasing, but I my intention is merely to restate the first sentence of Fr. Most's excerpt above. "Inspiration rules out any sort of error in the Bible whatsoever." This seems to me to say that the Bible is inerrant in all respects. This seems to have been taught by Leo XIII and affirmed by Vatican II. If I truly understand it correctly, I have no real problem with what it is saying.

Now, I will grant you that it sounds as though it were a case of special pleading to say that an error is not an error if it is spoken according to the common understanding of the times (which is in error). And yet, it makes a sort of sense to me. God was not teaching science, He was teaching salvation. To have complicated His inspiration with a right a proper discussion of the natural world, which would have been beyond His human subject at the time, might have precluded future understanding. Because the subject is salvation and not science, God allowed the person to speak with the understanding of his time, which in his time was without error. That it was later proven not to be correct does not make it an error in its time and place. I will not argue the point--I will merely accept what I understand of it. I cannot explain further.

However, I do think it important to stand by the absolute inerrancy of scripture in all respects. I do think I can, in good conscience contend that the Bible is without any error whatsoever, even in the matter of science and history understood according to the people of the time and kept preserved to better clarify the essential message.

I guess I think of it like this. If God inspired it, it cannot be false. If God wished to convey the message of salvation first, it is unlikely that He would spend time giving special knowledge of the natural world to the writers. If He had done so, the people of the time would not have listened to His message because they would have thought the prophets and writers even more unhinged than they already considered them. Because the knowledge of salvation is eternal, it is without error. Because the statements of the natural world are confined to their time and culture, they are without error in their milieu.

I know, it isn't completely satisfactory. On the other hand, it does seem to be the teaching from time immemorial--rearticulated by Leo XII, Pius XII, and Vatican II. I would say its pedigree is, if not impeccable, at least very, very fine.

I append hereto the relevant portions of Providentissimus Deus

Inspiration Incompatible with Error

20. The principles here laid down will apply cognate sciences, and especially to History. It is a lamentable fact that there are many who with great labour carry out and publish investigations on the monuments of antiquity, the manners and institutions of nations and other illustrative subjects, and whose chief purpose in all this is too often to find mistakes in the sacred writings and so to shake and weaken their authority. Some of these writers display not only extreme hostility, but the greatest unfairness; in their eyes a profane book or ancient document is accepted without hesitation, whilst the Scripture, if they only find in it a suspicion of error, is set down with the slightest possible discussion as quite untrustworthy. It is true, no doubt, that copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible; this question, when it arises, should be carefully considered on its merits, and the fact not too easily admitted, but only in those passages where the proof is clear. 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. 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. These are the words of the last: "The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council (Trent) and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical, not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author."(57) Hence, because the Holy Ghost employed men as His instruments, we cannot therefore say that it was these inspired instruments who, perchance, have fallen into error, and not the primary author. For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write-He was so present to them-that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture. Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers. "Therefore," says St. Augustine, "since they wrote the things which He showed and uttered to them, it cannot be pretended that He is not the writer; for His members executed what their Head dictated."(58) And St. Gregory the Great thus pronounces: "Most superfluous it is to inquire who wrote these things-we loyally believe the Holy Ghost to be the Author of the book. He wrote it Who dictated it for writing; He wrote it Who inspired its execution. "(59)

21. 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. 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 laboured 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. The words of St. Augustine to St. )erome may sum up what they taught: "On my part I confess to your charity that it is only to those Books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honour and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these Books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand."(60)

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 26, 2003 8:10 PM.

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