On the Inerrancy of Scripture


In many of the recent writings of Scripture scholars there appears to be a certain reluctance to discuss the nature of the inspiration of Scripture and its relation to the interpretation of Scripture. For example, the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, denies that it intends to consider the theology of inspiration.

The Commission does not aim to adopt a position on all the questions which arise with respect to the Bible—such as, for example, the theology of inspiration. What it has in mind is to examine all the methods likely to contribute effectively to the task of making more available the riches contained in the biblical texts.1

But in order for the Biblical Commission to achieve its stated goal, it is necessary for it to take some position regarding the nature of inspiration and its effects on Scripture, if only implicitly, even if this is contrary to the Commission’s intentions. For example, the document certainly presupposes that the human authors of Scripture were not mere scribes, and that they contributed something of their own to the text of Scripture. The document criticizes fundamentalism in its interpretation of Scripture:

As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired Word of God has been expressed in human language and that this Word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit.2

If the Commission wished to be true to its intention to make no statement regarding the nature of inspiration, then it should not make this criticism, since it accuses the fundamentalists of suggesting, whether implicitly or explicitly, that inspiration is a divine act of dictation to a human scribe. Thus the Commission by this passage makes it clear that it holds a position contrary to the position allegedly held by the fundamentalists concerning the nature of inspiration.

In making this criticism, the Commission rightly supposes that it is necessary to consider the effect of inspiration on the human author in order to consider the interpretation of Scripture. For example, if it were true that Scripture was dictated by the Holy Spirit in the sense suggested, then the words of the Gospel, “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first…”3 would acquire a very strange meaning. One would be forced to conclude that God must investigate in order to speak.

Examples such as this reveal both that the Commission is right to reject this kind of interpretation, and that it is necessary to consider the influence of inspiration on the human author, at least to some degree, if one wishes to interpret Scripture correctly. If one does not consider this influence, one will not be able to consider Scripture as the effect of man and God conjointly, since the causality of man and of God are joined in the act of inspiration. Thus, one who does not consider this influence will understand Scripture as though it were from God or from man, but not from both. Fundamentalism as characterized by the Pontifical Biblical Commission tends to consider Scripture as from God, but not from man, while much of modern Scripture scholarship tends to consider Scripture as from man, but not from God, because it tends not to consider God’s influence on man.4 It is necessary to counter this tendency by the consideration of the science of interpretation insofar as it is in some respects subordinate to the doctrine of inspiration. Thus it will be possible to avoid the opposite extremes mentioned above and to understand Scripture as written by men inspired by God.

The purpose of this work is to derive one of the principal rules of the interpretation of Scripture from the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, and to defend and to explain this rule. This rule can be taken from St. Augustine, whom Pope Leo XIII says “was so marvelously acute in penetrating the sense of God’s Word and so fertile in the use that he made of it for the promotion of the Catholic truth…”5

St. Augustine offers many examples of rules for the interpretation of Scripture. Several of his rules are derived from an understanding of inspiration. St. Augustine presents his first rule:

Of all, then, that has been said since we entered upon the discussion about things, this is the sum: that we should clearly understand that the fulfillment and end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture, is the love of an object which is to be enjoyed, and the love of an object which can enjoy that other in fellowship with ourselves. For there is no need of a command that each man should love himself. The whole temporal dispensation for our salvation, therefore, was framed by the providence of God that we might know this truth and act upon it…6

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.7

St. Augustine’s argument is that the ultimate end of the inspiration of Scripture, together with the whole temporal dispensation for salvation, is the twofold love of God and of neighbor. Thus it is necessary that Scripture be understood in such a way that it promotes this end. If Scripture, or some part of Scripture, did not promote this end, God would have used an unfitting means toward this goal, which would imply a lack in the divine understanding, since God would not use an unfitting means if he knew that it was unfitting.

A second general rule is that Scripture must be read according to the rule of faith:

Accordingly, if, when attention is given to the passage, it shall appear to be uncertain in what way it ought to be punctuated or pronounced, let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church…8

Scripture, then, must be read in conformity with itself and with the teaching of the Church. Other rules such as this one are needed in addition to the rule regarding the love of God and neighbor as the end of Scripture, because this end is remote rather than proximate. A more proximate goal of Scripture is the communication of God’s mind and will. “And in reading it [Scripture], men seek nothing more than to find out the thought and will of those by whom it was written, and through these to find out the will of God, in accordance with which they believe these men to have spoken.”9 Because Scripture has proximate goals in addition to its remote goal it follows that there are more proximate rules of interpretation, such as the rule that Scripture must be read in conformity with itself and with the teaching of the Church. The reason for this rule is that the Church and the plain passages of Scripture are both believed to communicate the mind and will of God, and his mind and will cannot be in opposition to themselves.

But even this goal is attained through an end still more proximate. One cannot use Scripture to come to know the will of God without an understanding of particular sentences of Scripture. Consequently, St. Augustine gives other rules, all of a lesser scope than the two rules presented above. For example, he writes in reference to commands,

If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or a vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative.10

The rules of faith and of charity are universal rules for the interpretation of Scripture, while rules such as the last two are rules for the interpretation of certain passages. But even the rule of faith as formulated above is somewhat restricted. St. Augustine says that Scripture must not be understood to contradict itself or the teaching of the Church. But elsewhere St. Augustine suggests that the rule of faith must be understood in a broader manner.

Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises, which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.11

St. Augustine thus indicates that the rule of faith requires that the Scriptures not be interpreted in a manner contrary to the truth of physical science. This, together with the requirement that Scripture not contradict itself or the teaching of the Church, suggests that the rule of faith is to be understood to exclude any interpretation of Scripture which maintains that some statement of Scripture is false.12 St. Augustine says clearly in another place,

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.13

The rule of faith broadly understood, then, is that no passage of Scripture is to be interpreted so as to make it assert something false. This rule is more universal than any of St. Augustine’s other rules, if they are taken precisely as rules of interpretation. It is evidently more universal than his rules governing whether a passage is to be understood figuratively or literally, and other such rules, since these rules govern only particular passages, while the rule of faith is a rule for the interpretation of Scripture as a whole, and for every sentence of Scripture.

The rule of charity alone seems to have an equal universality, because the whole of Scripture is ordered to the love of God and of neighbor. But in practice the rule of charity, taken as a rule of interpretation, does not have the same scope because it is very difficult or impossible to prove that a given interpretation is incapable of building up charity, except by showing that the given interpretation conflicts with the rule of faith. In theory it is possible to make an argument that a certain interpretation, even if true, is not the meaning of Scripture because it cannot build up the love of God and of neighbor. For example, someone could argue that Scripture must not assert that Judas was lost, even if this may be true, because it is not clear that believing this can build up charity. But a counter argument could be made: the knowledge of Judas’ loss could lead to a greater care that one does not fall, and thus lead to a greater charity. If one orders one’s love of self to the love of God, a greater love of self implies a greater love of God. Just as there can be a special love for those related to one’s friends, on account of friendship, so there can be a special love of self as ordered to God, on account of friendship with God. Thus the knowledge of Judas’ loss could strengthen one’s friendship with God. In general, it does not seem to be possible to show that a given interpretation is contrary to the rule of charity unless the given interpretation encourages crime or vice. Such a case is a particular case falling under the rule of faith, which also excludes interpretations contrary to the truth of moral life. St. Augustine implicitly supports this position:

Thus, when one shall say, “He [Moses] meant as I do,” and another, “Nay, but as I do,” I suppose that I am speaking more religiously when I say, “Why not rather as both, if both be true?” And if there be a third truth, or a fourth, and if any one seek any truth altogether different in those words, why may not he be believed to have seen all these, through whom one God hath tempered the Holy Scriptures to the senses of many, about to see therein things true but different?14

St. Augustine thus suggests that an interpretation can only be excluded in an absolute manner if it makes the Scripture false, while any true interpretation is a possible interpretation, unless the interpretation is impossible in virtue of the text and context of the passage. This supports the claim made above, that the rule of charity, at least in most cases, is only intended to exclude falsehoods against the truth of moral life. Thus the rule of charity is in practice less universal as a principle of interpretation than the rule of faith broadly understood, although the love of God and of neighbor is truly a universal end of Scripture and of all that it contains. The reason for this is that the rule of faith immediately concerns the proximate end of Scripture, which is communication, while the rule of charity bears on the more remote end.

The rule of faith, then, is the most universal rule for the interpretation of Scripture, and applies to every passage of Scripture. This rule guides the use of all other rules. For example, if a passage when taken literally seems to advocate a vice, St. Augustine’s rule that such a passage must be taken figuratively cannot be applied if the figurative sense implies something false.15 One must rather reevaluate the passage for other possible literal senses, or examine the original for a possible mistranslation, or extend one’s investigation in other directions. In other words, other rules of interpretation can have exceptions, while the rule of faith can have none. The rule of charity is also without exception, but it is more limited in scope as a rule of interpretation for the reasons given above.

The rule of faith broadly understood also determines the immediate purpose of the interpretation of Scripture. If this rule is correct, then the attaining of truth is the immediate goal of Scriptural interpretation. As soon as one has found a determinate assertion in Scripture, one has attained a determinate truth.16 If this rule were not correct, then to establish the meaning of Scripture would not be sufficient to manifest any truth immediately, but it would be necessary to take additional steps in order to reach the truth, making Scriptural interpretation only indirectly ordered to the knowledge of truth. This would be so even when some passage of Scripture asserts something true, because it would be necessary to prove that the passage is such a passage.

The purpose of this work is to defend the rule of faith broadly understood. In virtue of what has been stated above, this is a task of great importance in the interpretation of Scripture, because the rule applies to interpretation universally, and sets the end of interpretation as well. First the validity of the rule will be established by authority, that is, by Scripture, by tradition, and by the teaching of the Church, and then the rule will be defended and explained theologically, along with the consideration of possible modes of denying this rule and their consequences. Then objections both to the truth of the rule and to the usefulness of the rule will be considered, and finally the affirmation or denial of the rule will be considered in relation to theology as a whole.

1 The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, trans. J. Kilgallen and B. Byrne (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), 32-33.

2 The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 71.

3 Luke 1:3. Quotations from Scripture found in this work have been taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

4 This tendency does not arise from the science of exegesis, but from extraneous sources. Molinism is one such source, because it tends to derogate from the authority of God’s providence over the human mind and will. See James Burtchaell’s book, Catholic Theories of Biblical Inspiration since 1810 (Cambridge: University Press, 1969). Other sources are rationalism and the simple fear of ridicule by those who do not believe in God’s authorship.

5 Providentissimus Deus (Boston, Mass.: Daughters of St. Paul, n.d.), 10.

6 On Christian Doctrine, I, 35, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, 2:532-533.

7 On Christian Doctrine, I, 36, in NPNF, 1st Series, 2:533.

8 On Christian Doctrine, III, 2, in NPNF, 1st Series, 2:556-557.

9 On Christian Doctrine, II, 5, in NPNF, 1st Series, 2:536-537.

10 On Christian Doctrine, III, 16, in NPNF, 1st Series, 2:563.

11 De Gen. Ad Litt., I, 21; cited by Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 24.

12 One reason for this might be that all of Scripture is useful, while a lie is never useful. “Now every man who lies commits an injustice… Either then, injustice is sometimes useful (which is impossible), or a lie is never useful” (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I, 36, in NPNF, 1st Series, 2:533). But “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching…” (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore Scripture cannot contain lies.

13 Ep. Lxxxii, 1; cited by Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 27.

14 Confessions, XII, 31, in NPNF, 1st Series, 1:188.

15 St. Augustine’s example of something that must be taken figuratively, the eating of the body of Christ, might be such a case, since such eating sometimes figuratively expresses the destruction of one’s enemies, as in Psalm 27:2 and in Micah 3:3. Thus this eating is to be understood literally, but as referring to the sacramental eating of the body of Christ, rather than to cannibalism.

16 It does not follow that as soon as one understands a single sentence, one has attained a truth, however, because not all the sentences of Scripture are assertions.

Next section: The Rule of Faith Proven by Authority

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