Inerrancy and Accuracy


Inerrancy and Accuracy

The better part of charity forbade me from responding on an individual blog, and particularly from responding before I had gathered the correct information. Having seen evidence for a young Earth cited at one place, I went on to look at other locations that supported a Catholic view of a young Earth. One of the principle supports for the view of a young earth was an understanding of Biblical inerrancy that I believe to be faulty. Just as understanding papal infallibility is facilitated by proper definition, I thought I would throw this open to all and sundry.

The explanation of inerrancy that I have read goes something like this: "The bible contains nothing that was known by the author at his time and in his place to be untrue (there are no deliberate untruths in it). However, there are things that appear to modern eyes and modern study as errors, they cannot be so adjudged because the authors at the time of the composition of the Bible did not have access to this information.

Here is one view of the matter from Fr. Matteo.

The Catholic Dictionary of Theology article on inerrancy says (vol. 3, p. 99): "Leo XIII, by citing the sentence of Augustine that the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach men the inner constitution of matter as it was in no way profitable to salvation, had marked out a line of solution which could be followed in questions of physical science. The inspired writers were not miraculously brought up to date with their science but spoke according to the knowledge available at the time."

In his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, 42, Pius XII wrote: "In many cases in which the sacred authors are accused of some historical inaccuracy or of the inexact recording of some events ... a knowledge and careful appreciation of ancient modes of expression and literary forms and styles will provide a solution to many of the objections made against the truth and historical accuracy of Holy Scripture." In these words the Pope implied the necessity and validity of the work of textual criticism and the observance of literary genera.

In Letter 82:1, Augustine remarks: "If I come upon anything in the Scripture which seems contrary to the truth, I shall not hesitate to consider that it is no more than a faulty reading of the manuscript, or a failure of the translator to hit off what his text declared, or that I have not managed to understand the passage."

Pius XII (D.A.S., 47) is not afraid to suggest that some absurdities may remain forever. And Augustine (Letter 149:34) humorously remarks that God put these obscurities in the Bible to make the work of scholars meritorious!

Was there only one, or were there two cleansings of the Temple? There are weighty arguments on both sides--none of them can be called "crazy"--but a fairly sensible suggestion is made by W. Leonard: "(The cleansing of the Temple) did indeed occur ... where John places it. The reason why the synoptic gospels place it at the end may be that Mark and Luke in general follow the arrangement of Matthew which is logical rather than chronological, and which accordingly groups all incidents connected with Jerusalem under the last Jerusalem visit.

From Father Conway, 1929:


Do Catholics regard the Bible as absolutely inerrant? Is not the Bible incorrect on scientific matters? Ares there not many errors and contradictions to be found is the text of both the Old and New Testaments?

Yes, it is an article of faith that the Bible is inerrant, i. e. it contains no formal error. As God is the Author of the Bible it must needs be true. "Inspiration," says Pope Leo, "not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily, for it is impossible that God, thus Supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church" (Encyc. Providentissimus Deus).

1. We cannot restrict inspiration to certain parts only of this Bible, as Cardinal Newman held in his theory about the unimportance of "obiter dicta" (XIX Century, February, 1884).

2. We cannot restrict inspiration to faith and morals alone.

3. We do not look for precise scientific formulas in the Bible for it does not teach science ex professo. Nothing in its page: contradicts the teachings of natural science, because the same God is the author of natural and supernatural truth. But the sacred writers generally speak of scientific matters in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time they wrote.

4. May Catholics hold the theory of "implicit quotations," i. e., may they set aside a certain passage on the supposition that the sacred writer is merely copying what he finds in some historical record, without thereby guaranteeing its veracity? Yes says the Biblical Commission (February 13, 1905), if solid reasons exist for believing that there really is a quotation, and that the sacred writer does not really intend to commit himself to what he quotes.

5. We must remember that the Bible on its material side is a human document handed down to us in a human way. Therefore we naturally expect to find in each succeeding copy or version material variations, additions, omissions and other errors with which critical scholarship has to grapple. St. Augustine mentions this in a letter to St. Jerome: "When in the pages of Sacred Writ I come upon anything that is contrary to the truth, I judge that the text is faulty, that the translator did not strike the right meaning, or simply that I do not understand it" (Letter to St. Jerome, lxxxii., 3).

6. The poetic imagery and symbolism in both the Old and New Testament, in the Prophets, the Psalms, the Apocalypse, is to be understood figuratively. But "this exuberant symbolism must not be conceived as supplanting reality, but as supporting it, as bringing out its full reality, not so much to our prosaic selves, as to the Orientals for whom so much of it was primarily written" (The Bible, Its History, 159).

It seems clear from these quotes that we are not to regard Holy Scripture as an astrophysics textbook, nor are we to look for complete, concise scientific theories of much of anything within it. Nevertheless, the bible is completely free from all error--so then what is one to make of Adam and Eve and the young Earth? It seems as though certain pockets of Catholicism have become contaminated with an unseemly literalism that has never been the fullness of the understanding of the Church. There is a legitimate debate as to what comprises figurative language. And it seems reasonable to talk about the multiple possible interpretations of Genesis. But even at the time of Leo XIII, it seemed fairly evident that the Church was well aware of seeming contradictions between science and faith. And they are only seeming contradictions. When Scripture is interpreted absolutely literally, you are stuck with contradictions that cannot be resolved--even in simple rhetorical matters. Look at the book of proverbs--"These three things are abomibable to God, yeah these four things earn His wrath." Read it literally, and you're stuck with contradiction.

The choice to believe a literal interpretation of Genesis is up to the individual; however, the attempt to construct a science from it is a serious error of judgment. To attempt to build a young-earth science involves so many contradictions in the scientific record that it calls into doubt the credibility of the persons arguments in favor of the Faith that they have which is true. It also raises very troubling questions of rates of sedimentation, the plethora of fossils and why they would be there, etc.

No, one can believe in absolute inerrancy--which until I understood it correctly I rejected--and in modern scientific method. They are not contradictory, nor do they teach the same things. Gould referred to nonoverlapping magisteria--I don't know that I buy his full argument, but I do side with St. Robert Bellarmine, or at least the quote attribute to him, "The Bible does not tell us how the heavens go, but how to go to Heaven."

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 28, 2003 7:02 PM.

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