Scripture’s freedom from error will now be proven by authority, and first from the authority of Scripture itself. The objection that this manner of argument is circular will be considered after the exposition of the argument itself. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament witness to Scripture’s inerrancy in various ways. The Old Testament testifies explicitly to the truth of God’s words: “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”1 In the context this refers to God’s fidelity to his promises, but the statement regarding the truth of God’s words is more universal. The same is true in the following text. “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.”2 As well as asserting the truth of God’s word, the Old Testament makes the corresponding claim that no false statement is from God. “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.”3 In this case the claim is clearly more universal than a claim concerning God’s fidelity. No false statement whatsoever may be attributed to divine authority.
But these statements alone cannot be used to prove that there is no error in Scripture, because although it has been shown that the Old Testament asserts the truth of God’s word, it has not yet been shown that Scripture is the word of God. This claim can be found in various places in Scripture, but most explicitly in the New Testament. For example, the divine authorship of Scripture is asserted directly, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…’”4 The text quoted is from the Psalms and the Holy Spirit is named as the author. In the Old Testament David makes the same claim: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.”5 Not only texts immediately expressing God’s own words are attributed to God, but also other texts of Scripture.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you?” Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him. ” Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.”6
Similarly, the Apostle Peter attributes the prophecies of the Old Testament to the Holy Spirit: “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas… For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it.’”7 Thus it was the Holy Spirit who said this through David.
Once it is granted that Scripture is the word of God and that the word of God cannot be false, it follows that Scripture cannot be false. This cannot be understood to be true only in a general way which would allow for particular exceptions, because the text from Deuteronomy proves that this rule can be used to test whether a particular statement is from God. Thus, for example, if there were a particular mistake concerning history in some part of Scripture, the rule given in Deuteronomy 18:22 could be used to prove that the word was not a word of God and therefore not part of inspired Scripture.
The argument from the Old Testament depends upon the twofold truth that Scripture is the word of God and that the word of God is free from error. In the New Testament Christ testifies directly to the conclusion of this argument, removing the necessity of reasoning from two independent statements. To the accusation of blasphemy Jesus responds, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled…”8 When Christ says that Scripture cannot be annulled he intends to say that Scripture cannot be mistaken. If it were possible that those who were called gods were falsely so called, then Christ’s argument would fail. Thus Christ must be taken to be asserting that there is no error in Scripture. One might object to this argument in three ways. First, Christ’s statement is hypothetical. He says that if one thing is so, then another follows. The answer to this objection is that the question is only rhetorical. This is evident from the first question, “Is it not written in your law…” and from the first clause of the second question, “If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’…” Neither of these is really open to question. Similarly, there can be no question concerning the claim that Scripture cannot be annulled, that is, proven false.
The second objection that could be made is that Christ’s claim must be understood to imply a general property of Scripture, but cannot be understood to imply the truth of every particular assertion. But the answer to this is that just as the rule stated in Deuteronomy 18:22 regards particular claims, so also Christ’s rule stated in John 10:35 regards particular claims. If it did not regard each particular assertion, it would not follow that the assertion concerning the gods was true. Thus the Jews could conclude that those men were falsely called gods, and Christ falsely called the Son of God, and thus Christ’s argument would fail. But we cannot say that Christ was mistaken in his reasoning, and so it is necessary to say that his statement is a universal one, embracing every particular assertion of Scripture.
Third, one might say that the ‘scripture’ (graphe) that cannot be annulled is not the Old Testament in general, but that it refers to the particular text cited. But this is not reasonable, because Christ would not be understood to be making an argument that the text cited cannot be false, but a mere assertion, while if ‘scripture’ is taken universally there is an intelligible argument. Nor can it be said that the reason that this text cannot be annulled is that it is expressed in the form of God’s own words. For if scripture in general could be false, there could be statements falsely attributed to God, and the statement, “I said, ‘you are gods,’” could be one such statement. One must take ‘scripture’ to be Scripture in general, therefore, if one wishes to understand Christ’s argument as a valid argument.
Similarly, Christ speaks against the idea that he wishes to abolish the law: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”9 This has been used to argue that there are false statements in Scripture:
Then Peter: “As to the mixture of truth with falsehood, I remember that on one occasion He, finding fault with the Sadducees, said, ‘Wherefore ye do err, not knowing the true things of the Scriptures; and on this account ye are ignorant of the power of God.’10 But if He cast up to them that they knew not the true things of the Scriptures, it is manifest that there are false things in them….
And His saying, ‘The heaven and the earth shall pass away, but one jot or one tittle shall not pass from the law,’ intimated that the things which pass away before the heaven and the earth do not belong to the law in reality.11
There are some things in the law that seem to have passed from the law. Thus it seems to follow that these things were not part of the law. Therefore there are some things in the written law that do not pertain to God’s law, whether false statements or commands which should not be obeyed. But if one holds that everything in the written law does pertain to God’s law, which appears to be the meaning of Christ’s claim, then by the same argument the opposite conclusion follows. In the written law there cannot be any false statements or commands that were not to be obeyed when they were given, since these things would have to be rejected and thus would pass from the law.
In the words of Christ given above there is explicit testimony to Scripture’s inerrancy. In other places in the New Testament there are implicit testimonies concerning this matter. The gravity of the question is revealed in the following example from a letter of St. Peter.
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and the unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.12
St. Peter suggests that the ignorant and the unstable misinterpret Scripture in such a way that it leads them to destruction. But since he says that St. Paul wrote according to the wisdom given to him, it seems to follow that St. Paul wrote something true, but the ignorant misinterpreted it to mean what is in fact false. If this is extended to Scripture as a whole, as St. Peter suggests, then it is necessary to say that the authors of Scripture spoke the truth, according to the wisdom given to them, and that any other understanding of Scripture is a misunderstanding. This manifests the importance of the issue under consideration, since such a misunderstanding of Scripture leads to destruction. Thus St. Peter continues, “You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability.”13
As in the case of the words of Christ, one might object that the word ‘scriptures’ (graphas) does not necessarily mean Sacred Scripture. This objection might seem more likely in this case, because at that time the New Testament, at least as a whole, had not been written, collected, and recognized as Sacred Scripture.14 But the precise sense of the term does not matter, since St. Peter is speaking of Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Scripture alone, even if he does not speak of it under the formal account of Sacred Scripture. It is not true of writing in general that twisting the meaning due to ignorance leads to destruction, but this consequence is a special property of Sacred Scripture.
Other arguments from Scripture could be made, but the ones that have been presented above, and the testimony of Christ in particular, are sufficient to conclude reasonably that Scripture testifies to its freedom from error.15 Now, as was mentioned above, someone might object to this manner of argument. No authority can be used to establish its own authority. The position that there are false statements in Scripture cannot be proven false by Scripture, because any suggested proof might itself contain false statements.
The answer to this objection is that no authority can be used to establish its own authority, if its authority is entirely in question. But if authority is already established in some way, the authority can be used to establish its precise limits. For example, if one takes a teacher of mathematics as an authority in mathematics, one will trust the teacher if he says that he knows the solution of some differential equation but not of another. Thus if one does not accept the authority of Scripture to any degree, as one who is neither Christian nor Jew, the above arguments establish nothing. But the purpose of this work is not to persuade unbelievers to embrace the faith, but to offer a true understanding of Scripture to Catholics. Now, all Catholics accept Scripture as an authority, and thus a Catholic can use the authority of Scripture in order to establish its limits in a more precise manner.
But one could still raise an objection. Whenever an authority is not an absolute authority, it is possible for the authority to state something false. Thus the mathematician spoken of above might say that he knows something of which he happens to be ignorant, although in general he is to be trusted. But according to the position being considered, Scripture is not an absolute authority. Thus it remains possible that the statements in Scripture which extend its authority to all matters are false statements, and so it follows that this argument cannot be used to establish the inerrancy of Scripture in all matters.
In part it is necessary to concede the above objection at this point.16 If an authority is not taken as an absolute authority, then it cannot be used to establish anything with absolute necessity. One nonetheless employs arguments from authority, although they do not conclude with necessity, but only with probability. Thus it is reasonable to use the above arguments with someone who does not take Scripture as an absolute authority, if he holds that Scripture is an authority in any way.
Now that the authority of Scripture with respect to its inerrancy has been considered, it is necessary to consider the Church’s tradition concerning the question, beginning with Jewish tradition, because the truth possessed by the Jews was handed down to the Church and perfected by Christ. Now, one might object on Scriptural grounds to the use of Jewish tradition as an authority. It can be seen from the teaching of Christ that the traditions of the Jews added many errors to the Law. Christ addresses the Pharisees,
And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,” then that person need not honor the father.17
This accusation reveals that the Jewish tradition sometimes went so far as to contradict divine law. Thus it seems that the traditions of the Jews do not have authority.
It is possible to answer this objection by distinguishing between various kinds of Jewish tradition, but this is not necessary for the purpose of this work. Jewish tradition is here considered only insofar as it is a part of the Church’s tradition. Thus Jewish tradition is considered to have authority only insofar as it is confirmed and received by the later tradition of the Church. But then it might seem that the Jewish tradition adds nothing to the tradition of the Church, and so it is not necessary to discuss it. But even if the traditions passed down both by the Jews and by the Church do not have greater authority than those passed down by the Church alone, they have a more fundamental status in the faith. The reason for this is that the teaching of Christ builds upon and perfects the revelation given to the Jews. For example, the teaching concerning the unity of God is common to Jews and Christians, while Christians alone teach the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. Now, both he who denies the Trinity of persons and he who denies the unity of God are mistaken, but the latter makes a mistake with respect to something more fundamental. Thus, if it can be shown that the inerrancy of Scripture is contained in both Jewish and Christian tradition, it will follow that this matter is most fundamental to the faith.
That this doctrine is contained in the tradition of the Jews can be shown from Scripture. In the first place, the Jews receive the Old Testament as inspired by God, and the Old Testament teaches this doctrine, as was shown above. Similarly, the arguments given above from the New Testament show that the Jews in fact accepted this doctrine. When Christ says, “If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled—”18 he makes it manifest that the Jews accept this teaching. Even if one should deny that Christ accepted it himself, by saying that this is only a conditional argument, it would remain evident that the reason that Christ gives this argument is that the antecedent is accepted without question by the Jews.19 Again, the fact that the Jews held this doctrine can be seen from the way Scripture is used as an authority in argument. For example, when the Pharisees object to Christ’s teaching concerning divorce, “Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce, and to put away?”20 it does not seem that they admit the possibility that Moses was wrong. At times it even seems that some of the Jews, taking an extreme position, give Scripture a negative as well as a positive authority. If something is not contained in Scripture, it is judged to be false. This seems to be the reason for the Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection, and is also implicit in the Jews’ argument against Nicodemus: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”21
If one investigates the Jewish testimony regarding their tradition, one discovers, as was suggested above, that some of the Jews go far beyond the doctrine of inerrancy. Some seem to maintain that Scripture is perfect in every respect, and reject all human limitations of the sort posited by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the quotation at the beginning of this work.
This can be clearly seen in the Jewish commentary on Genesis, Genesis Rabbah. The root of its teaching can be seen in its doctrine concerning the creation of the Torah:
Six things came before the creation of the world, some created, some at least considered as candidates for creation.
The Torah and the throne of glory were created [before the creation of the world].
The Torah, as it is written, “The Lord made me as the beginning of his way, prior to his works of old” (Prov. 8:22).22
So the Torah, according to this teaching, was created before the beginning of the world. The meaning of this is not that it preceded the world in intention alone, as is stated about Israel, “Intention concerning the creation of Israel came before all else.”23 Rather, the claim is that the Torah existed as an actual work preceding the world in time. This can also be seen in the statement, “Along these same lines, if the Holy One, blessed be he, had not foreseen that, after twenty-six generations, the Israelites would be destined to accept the Torah, he would never have written in it, ‘Command the children of Israel.’”24 God wrote the Torah before the creation of the world. It follows from this position that God alone is the author of the Torah, and man played no part in its authorship. This position does not deny that Moses was involved in giving the Torah to Israel, but it does deny that he was involved as an author.
R. Samuel bar Nahman in the name of R. Jonathan: “When Moses was writing out the Torah, he wrote up the work of each day [in sequence]. When he came to the verse, ‘And God said, Let us make man…,’ (Gen. 1:26), he said, ‘Lord of the age, in saying this you give an opening to heretics.
“He said to him, ‘Write it anyhow, and if someone wants to err, let him err.’25
According to this, Moses either copied down the original of the Torah, or he wrote it out from God’s dictation. It is not surprising that Jews holding such a position would tend to deny the existence of human limitations in Sacred Scripture.
One element of this denial is the rejection of error. Thus the Rabbis prove that there is only one God:
R. Isaac commenced [discourse by citing the following verse]: “‘The beginning of your word is truth [and all your righteous ordinance endures forever]’ (Ps. 119:16).
Said R. Isaac [about the cited verse], “From the beginning of the creation of the world, ‘The beginning of your word was truth.’
“‘In the beginning God created’ (Gen. 1:1).
“‘And the Lord God is truth ‘(Jer. 10:9).
“Therefore: ‘And all your righteous ordinance endures forever’ (Ps. 119:16).
“For as to every single decree which you lay down for your creatures, they accept that decree as righteous and receive it in good faith, so that no creature may differ, saying, ‘Two powers gave the Torah, two powers created the world.’
“[Why not?] Because here it is not written, ‘And gods spoke,’ but rather, ‘And God spoke’ (Ex. 20:1).
“‘In the beginning [gods] created’ is not written, but rather, ‘in the beginning [God] created’ [in the singular].”26
The Rabbis cite verses showing that God and his word are truth in order to show that no one is permitted to reject his decrees as erroneous. The proof is completed with verses by which Scripture attests to the unity of God. It is not difficult to see that the Rabbis extend this teaching concerning the truth of God’s word to all matters whatsoever. For example, the Rabbis discuss the structure of the world:
R. Phineas in the name of R. Hoshayya: “Like the empty space that lies between the earth and the firmament is the empty space between the firmament and the upper water.
“[That is in line with the verse]: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters’ (Gen. 1:6), that is to say, right in the middle, between [the water above and below].”27
There is no suggestion that Scripture might be wrong about the distance between the firmament and the waters above and below it.28
Genesis Rabbah, then, does maintain the complete freedom of Scripture from error. But it goes beyond this, as has been stated above. Its general position seems to be that Scripture is entirely intelligible in every respect, even if men cannot always understand it. For example, the Rabbis ask the question, “Why was the world created with [a word beginning with the letter] B?”29 Various answers are proposed:
“Just as [in Hebrew] the letter B is closed [at the back and sides but] open in front, so you have no right to expound concerning what is above or below, before or afterward.”…
To tell you that there are two ages [this age and the age to come, for the letter B bears the numerical value of two]….
Because that is the letter that begins the word for blessing….
Because the letter B has two points, one pointing upward, the other backward, so that [if] people say to it, “Who created you?” it will point upward.30
None of the commentators suggest that the letters of Scripture might not be intelligible in themselves, but only insofar as they are ordered to composing the words of which they are parts. Now, even if the Rabbis were right to hold that God alone is the author of Scripture, it would not follow of necessity that there would be a meaning to the letters of Scripture beyond the fact that they are needed to form words. But it is more reasonable for one who holds this position about authorship to posit this intelligibility than it would be for one who holds that Scripture was written by men. The reason for this is that the works of God are nobler and therefore more intelligible than the works of man. From this viewpoint it can be seen that if part of the Jewish tradition went to an extreme in positing a perfect intelligibility in Scripture, this was an understandable consequence of its position regarding the authorship of Scripture.
The argument that the inerrancy of Scripture is contained in Jewish tradition is strengthened by the argument that its position is sometimes much more radical. If it wishes to assert a perfect intelligibility in the choice and order of words and letters, then with even greater force it must reject the possibility of error. What is false is not intelligible, since there is no sufficient reason present in the things of which one speaks for saying something false. There may be a reason present in the mind of the speaker to say what is false, but this reason is not present in the things themselves, since if the speaker understood the things, he would speak the truth. But on the other hand, the fact that the Jewish tradition presented above maintains an extreme position weakens its authority with respect to the thesis of inerrancy. This has been addressed above, since the Jewish tradition is used only insofar as it is confirmed by the Church’s tradition. But one might use this as an objection against the Catholic tradition as well. Perhaps the Church received an extreme position from the Jews and only slowly corrected its position over time. Perhaps this process has not yet been completed, so that the Church still maintains or has maintained a greater perfection in Scripture than actually exists in Scripture. This objection will be addressed later, since the precise answer depends on the precise nature of the Catholic tradition in regard to the question.
Next it is necessary to consider Christian tradition with respect to the inerrancy of Scripture, and first the position of the Fathers of the Church. That the Fathers teach the doctrine under consideration with at least moral unanimity can be gathered from three things:31 first from their general remarks with regard to the issue, second from their attempts to reconcile even minute differences in the Scriptures, and third from their use of Scripture as an authority in argument. Since the first reason is in itself sufficient, only a few examples will be given illustrating the second reason. It is not necessary to offer illustrations of the third reason because the Fathers’ trust in the authority of Scripture is sufficiently manifest in any text of any of the Fathers.
Examples will now be given illustrating the first reason, taken from the earlier Fathers. Justin Martyr testifies,
If you spoke these words, Trypho, and then kept silence in simplicity and with no ill intent, neither repeating what goes before nor adding what comes after, you must be forgiven; but if [you have done so] because you imagined that you could throw doubt on the passages, in order that I might say the Scriptures contradicted each other, you have erred. But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext [for saying] that it is contrary [to some other], since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded...32
Irenaeus holds the same opinion:
We should leave things of that nature [Scripture when we cannot understand it] to God who created us, being most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than, the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that account destitute of the knowledge of His mysteries...
If, therefore, according to the rule which I have stated, we leave some questions in the hands of God, we shall both preserve our faith uninjured, and shall continue without danger; and all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found to be perfectly consistent...33
Theophilus testifies to the same thing, and explicitly extends it to minute details:
On this account all the prophets spoke harmoniously and in agreement with one another, and foretold the things that would come to pass in all the world. For the very accomplishment of predicted and already consummated events should demonstrate to those who are fond of information, yea rather, who are lovers of truth, that those things are really true which they declared concerning the epochs and eras before the deluge: to wit, how the years have run on since the world was created until now...34
The claim found here that the Scriptures are accurate even in minor historical details, while other historical writings are inaccurate, seems to be a common one in early Christian apologetics. Tatian speaks thus:
Thus, concerning the age of the aforesaid poet, I mean Homer, and the discrepancies of those who have spoken of him, we have said enough in a summary manner for those who are able to investigate with accuracy. For it is possible to show that the opinions held about the facts themselves also are false. For, where the assigned dates do not agree together, it is impossible that the history should be true. For what is the cause of error in writing, but the narrating of things that are not true?
But with us there is no desire of vainglory, nor do we indulge in a variety of opinions.35
That is to say, the Greeks disagree in historical questions because they do not have the truth. But Christians, possessing the inspired Scriptures, do not disagree even with respect to minor questions. Tertullian briefly summarizes the teaching of the early Fathers as presented above, “The statements, however, of Holy Scripture will never be discordant with truth.”36
The testimony of the early Fathers shows that the common opinion of the early Church was in favor of the infallible truth of Scripture. Next it is necessary to show that the later Fathers also testify to the same truth. The opinion of St. Augustine has been made sufficiently manifest in the first few pages of this work. St. Ambrose, St. Augustine’s teacher, is fully in accord with his student. He addresses the teaching of the Arians,
“It is written they say, that ‘There is none good but God alone.’ I acknowledge the Scripture—but there is no falsehood in the letter; would that there were none in the Arians’ exposition thereof. The written signs are guiltless, it is the meaning in which they are taken that is to blame.37
In the context St. Ambrose is making a statement concerning a particular verse of Scripture, but there is no reason to think that he would not wish to make his claim universal. St. Athanasius holds the same position in the East that St. Ambrose and St. Augustine hold in the West:
Now it is the opinion of some, that the Scriptures do not agree together, or that God, who gave the commandment, is false. But there is no disagreement whatever, far from it, neither can the Father, Who is truth, lie; ‘for it is impossible that God should lie,’ as Paul affirms.38
St. John Chrysostom reveals his position by speaking of the apparent disagreements among the four Evangelists:
“But the contrary,” it may be said, “hath come to pass, for in many places they [the Evangelists] are convicted of discordance.” Nay, this very thing is a very great evidence of their truth. For if they had agreed in all things exactly even to time, and place, and to the very words, none of our enemies would have believed but that they had met together, and had written what they wrote by some human compact; because such entire agreement as this cometh not of simplicity. But now even that discordance which seems to exist in little matters delivers them from all suspicion, and speaks clearly in behalf of the character of the writers.
But if there be anything touching times or places, which they have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said.39
The fact that Chrysostom says that discordance in little matters ‘seems’ to exist, and that he says that this does not detract from the truth of their narratives, shows that he does not believe that discordance exists in any matter whatsoever. He therefore proceeds to reconcile such discrepancies, as will be illustrated below.
Many other similar testimonies can be brought forward. Gregory of Nyssa states: “No one can say that Holy Scripture is in error.”40 Similarly, Hilary denies the existence of contradictions in Scripture, “lest these [seemingly contradictory] passages, as the heretics think, should prove that the contradictions of the law make it its own enemy.”41 Eusebius the historian, who cannot be unaware of apparent contradictions in historical matters, claims, “One who understands this [the relation between the Gospel of John and the other Gospels] can no longer think that the Gospels are at variance with one another.”42 An earlier writer, Julius Africanus, states the reason that false statements cannot be found in Scripture:
For if the generations are different, and trace down no genuine seed to Joseph, and if all has been stated only with the view of establishing the position of Him who was to be born—to confirm the truth, namely, that He who was to be would be king and priest, there being at the same time no proof given, but the dignity of the words being brought down to a feeble hymn,—it is evident that no praise accrues to God from that, since it is a falsehood, but rather judgement returns on him who asserts it, because he vaunts an unreality as if it were reality.43
A false statement brings no praise to God, and one must hold that all of Scripture glorifies God. Thus no false statement can be present in Scripture, even for the sake of bringing about some good.
Now that the general position of the Fathers has been presented in their own words, several examples will be given to illustrate the second reason manifesting their opinion, namely, their attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions. The reason that this reveals their position is that if it is possible for false statements to exist in Scripture, then there is no reason to attempt to reconcile apparently contradictory passages if it would compel one to assert something which seems very unlikely. Rather, in such cases one would admit that the sacred author had erred.
St. John Chrysostom offers an example of such an attempt: “But Mark saith, ‘In the days of Abiathar the High Priest:’ not stating what was contrary to the history, but implying that he had two names...”44 The history in question says, “David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech.”45 Later it appears that Abiathar is the son of Ahimelech. “But one of the sons of Ahimelech son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David.”46 So at first it might appear that St. Mark confused the father and son. But St. John Chrysostom asserts that the father had two names, Ahimelech and Abiathar. This is not impossible, especially since a son is often named after his father, and so this account would explain the name of the son. Yet it does not seem to be a very likely account, since the supposed double naming of the father goes unmentioned in the Old Testament, and so there is no apparent means by which St. Mark could have known this. Consequently, if St. John Chrysostom believed that the authors of Scripture could be mistaken, he would be likely to say that in this particular instance St. Mark was mistaken and confused the two men in his mind. At another point Chrysostom reveals his general position with respect to such possible disagreements: “But since Luke, also relating this miracle [of the centurion], inserts by the way a good many things which seem to indicate disagreement; these too must be explained by us.”47 He intends to explain them in the sense that he intends to show that what seems to be a disagreement between Matthew and Luke is not a disagreement at all.
A somewhat similar example can be taken from St. Jerome:
“So that there might come upon you all of the just blood, which has been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just even to the blood of Zachariah the son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the temple and the altar.” ... But others wish [this Zachariah to be understood as] Zachariah, who was killed by Joas the king of Juda between the temple and the altar, as the history of the Kings narrates. But it is to be observed that that Zachariah is not the son of Barachiah, but the son of Joiada the priest.... We ask why he is called the son of Barachiah, and not of Joiada. Barachiah in our tongue means blessed of the Lord: and the justice of the priest Joiada is shown by the Hebrew word.48
St. Jerome attempts to reconcile what appears to be a disagreement concerning names by showing that the things signified by the names agree with one another. This would reconcile the texts, presuming that the names are to be understood according to what they signify, rather than merely as names. But once again this kind of interpretation is evidently a consequence of St. Jerome’s belief that Scripture cannot be in error, not simply a result of a careful consideration of the texts themselves. Pope Leo XIII summarizes this argument for the position of the Fathers:
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 labored 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.49
The third argument establishing the position of the Fathers is their trust in the authority of Scripture. They assume that a teaching in theology can be established by a single text in Scripture, given that the meaning of the passage is clear. But if it were possible for false statements to be in Scripture, then such an argument would be insufficient. In fact, as was conceded above, the Scriptural reasons for any position, even if abundant, could never be conclusive, until one limited the possibility of error in Scripture. But the Fathers do not need to make such a limitation because they do not admit the possibility of error in any matter whatsoever.
There might seem to be one exception to the general agreement of the Fathers that error cannot be found in Scripture. Origen seems to teach that God put false statements into Scripture for a useful purpose.
But since, if the usefulness of the legislation, and the sequence and beauty of the history, were universally evident of itself, we should not believe that any other thing could be understood in the Scriptures save what was obvious, the Word of God has arranged that certain stumbling-blocks, as it were, and offences, and impossibilities, should be introduced into the midst of the law and the history... And this also we must know, that the principal aim being to announce the “spiritual” connection in those things that are done, and that ought to be done, where the Word found that things done according to the history could be adapted to these mystical senses, He made use of them, concealing from the multitude the deeper meaning; but where, in the narrative of the development of super-sensual things, there did not follow the performance of those certain events, which was already indicated by the mystical meaning, the Scripture interwove in the history (the account of) some event that did not take place, sometimes what could not have happened; sometimes what could, but did not....
It was not only, however, with the (Scriptures composed) before the advent (of Christ) that the Spirit thus dealt; but as being the same Spirit, and (proceeding) from the one God, He did the same thing both with the evangelists and the apostles—as even these do not contain throughout a pure history of events, which are interwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur.50
In these passages Origen appears to hold that there are false statements in Scripture which are for the sake of some useful purpose, and for the sake of a spiritual sense. But even if this is his position, Origen alone cannot be taken as an authority, especially in this particular work, On Principles, which contains many other errors.51 Thus the authority of the Fathers stands on the side of the doctrine of inerrancy, even if this exception is granted.
But it is not necessary to grant the exception. In another place Origen asserts that apparent contradictions between various passages of Scripture must be reconciled. “If the discrepancy between the Gospels is not solved, we must give up our trust in the Gospels, as being true and written by a divine spirit, or as records worthy of credence...”52 Here Origen maintains, along with the rest of the Fathers, that it is not permissible to admit the existence of errors in Scripture. Then he attempts to reconcile this claim with his position presented above.
We must, however, try to obtain some notion of the intention of the Evangelists in such matters, and we direct ourselves to this. Suppose there are several men who, by the spirit, see God, and know his words addressed to the saints, and His presence which he vouchsafes to them, appearing to them at chosen times for their advancement. There are several such men, and they are in different places, and the benefits they receive from above vary in shape and character. And let these men report, each of them separately, what he sees in spirit about God and His words, and His appearances to His saints, so that one of them speaks of God’s appearances and words and acts to one righteous man in such a place, and another about oracles and great works of the Lord, and a third of something else than what the former two have dealt with. And let there be a fourth, doing with regard to some particular matter something of the same kind as these three.... He then, who takes the writings of these men for history, or for a representation of real things by a historical image, and who supposes God to be within certain limits in space, and to be unable to present to several persons in different places several visions of Himself at the same time, or to be making several speeches at the same moment, he will deem it impossible that our four writers are all speaking truth....
In the case I have supposed where the historians desire to teach us by an image what they have seen in their mind, their meaning would be found, if the four were wise, to exhibit no disagreement; and we must understand that with the four Evangelists it is not otherwise.53
Thus Origen’s position is that the four Evangelists seem to contradict each other because they did not always intend to write history, but sometimes they intended to communicate the spiritual truth through an image. But there is no disagreement between the spiritual truth given by one Evangelist and that given by another. Nor is there disagreement with respect to the historical facts, when the Evangelists intended to convey these facts. Thus Origen holds that there is no error in what the authors of Scripture intended to communicate, but that there is sometimes error in the sentences of Scripture taken in the proper sense of the words, because the writer did not always intend this sense. Origen also intended to say this in the cited passage from On Principles. This can be shown from his examples. He says, “And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries...”54 This example shows that when Origen says that something is false according to the letter, he intends to indicate figurative expressions such as God’s ‘walking,’ which are true according to the intention of the author. Origen’s more specific claim is that there are many statements mixed into the histories and into the Gospels which at first sight seem to be historical statements, but which are actually figurative expressions for spiritual truths. This might seem to be a very strange position, but it indicates the intensity of Origen’s agreement with the rest of the Fathers concerning the truth of Scripture according to the meaning intended by the authors. The reason for this is that if there is any error in the intended meaning, “we must give up our trust in the Gospels.”55
Thus it has been shown that the position of the Fathers is that no error whatsoever may be found in Sacred Scripture. As Vincent of Lerins says concerning a similar determination of the teaching of the Fathers,
A much greater number of the ancients might have been adduced; but it was needless, because neither was it fit that the time should be occupied by a multitude of witnesses, nor does anyone suppose that those ten were really of a different mind from the rest of their colleagues.56
With reference to the authority of such teaching, Vincent states, “whatsoever these may be found to have held, with one mind and with one consent, this ought to be accounted the true and Catholic doctrine of the Church, without any doubt or scruple.”57
The force of Vincent’s claim can be intensified by the consideration that this teaching was held with one mind not only by the Fathers, but also by the entire Christian people. In some instances cited above the Fathers mention certain men who hold the contrary position. It is not difficult to determine that these men are not faithful Catholics, but rather belong to heretical groups.
A first illustration of the nature of those men who deny this teaching can be found in Irenaeus.
So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own peculiar doctrine. For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first book.58
Thus, each heresy denies various parts of Scripture in order to maintain its own truth, although, as Irenaeus points out, it remains possible to refute the heresy from the Scripture that remains. Irenaeus is not merely saying that each heresy denies some part of Scripture implicitly, as one might say that a Protestant denying the primacy of the Pope implicitly denies Christ’s gift of the keys to St. Peter. The heretics of whom he speaks explicitly deny the truth of some parts of Scripture, just as most Protestants reject the Old Testament works absent from the Hebrew canon. For example, the Marcionites reject parts, sometimes books, sometimes individual statements, from both the Old and New Testaments.
For all those who are of a perverse mind, having been set against the Mosaic legislation, judging it to be dissimilar and contrary to the doctrine of the Gospel, have not applied themselves to investigate the causes of the difference of each covenant. Since, therefore, they have been deserted by the paternal love... they have apostatized in their opinions from Him who is God, and imagined that they have themselves discovered more than the apostles, by finding out another god; and [maintained] that the apostles preached the Gospel still somewhat under the influence of Jewish opinions, but that they themselves are purer [in doctrine], and more intelligent, than the apostles.59 Wherefore also Marcion and his followers have betaken themselves to mutilating the Scriptures, not acknowledging some books at all; and curtailing the Gospel according to Luke and the Epistles of Paul, they assert that these are alone authentic, which they have themselves thus shortened.60
Thus Marcion rejected the Old Testament as coming from a God inferior to the God of the New Testament, and rejected parts of the New Testament as remaining under the influence of the Old. This of course is not consistent, as Irenaeus points out:
It follows then, as of course, that these men must either receive the rest of his [Luke’s] narrative, or else reject these parts [contained in Luke alone] also. For no persons of common sense can permit them to receive some things recounted by Luke as being true, and to set others aside, as if he had not known the truth.61
The same might be said of all others who reject the truth of parts of Scripture. For the argument is not that it is impossible for a man to be right about some things and wrong about others, but that it is impossible for a man teaching with God’s authority to do this.
Another example can be found in the Clementine Homilies, cited earlier as maintaining the existence of false statements in Scripture. First it must be noted that this work has no authority, but is the work of a heretical sect or individual, such as those mentioned by Irenaeus. This is sufficiently established by the following purported conversation between the Apostle Peter and Simon Magus:
And Peter answered: “Our Lord neither asserted that there were gods except the Creator of all, nor did he proclaim Himself to be God, but with reason pronounced blessed him who called Him the Son of that God who has arranged the universe.” And Simon answered: “Does it not seem to you, then, that he who comes from God is God?” And Peter said: “Tell us how this is possible; for we cannot affirm this, because we did not hear it from Him.
“In addition to this, it is the peculiarity of the Father not to have been begotten, but of the Son to have been begotten; but what is begotten cannot be compared with that which is unbegotten or self-begotten.” And Simon said: “Is it not the same on account of its origin?” And Peter said: “He who is not the same in all respects as some one, cannot have all the same appellations applied to him as that person.” And Simon said: “This is to assert, not to prove.” And Peter said: “Why, do you not see that if the one happens to be self-begotten or unbegotten, they cannot be called the same; nor can it be asserted of him who has been begotten that he is of the same substance as he who has begotten him?”62
In this conversation Simon Magus is represented as holding the Catholic position concerning the nature of Christ, while St. Peter is represented as arguing for what is substantially the Arian position. Thus is it evident that an Arian or one holding some equivalent position is the author of the Clementine Homilies.
As was shown above, the book’s general position regarding Scripture is that it contains false statements mixed with revealed truth. The reason for this doctrine seems to be that the author believes it to be necessary in order to defend the divine perfection. The following passage offers an example of this belief:
“... But if thou say in thy heart, How did he do that sign or wonder? thou shalt surely know that he who tried thee, tried thee to see if thou dost fear the Lord thy God.” The words, “he who tried thee, tried thee,” have reference to the earliest times; but it appears to be otherwise after the removal to Babylon. For God, who knows all things, would not, as can be proved by many arguments, try in order that He Himself might know, for He foreknows all things. But, if you like, let us discuss this point, and I shall show that God foreknows. But it has been proved that the opinion is false that He does not know, and that this was written to try us. Thus we, Simon, can be led astray neither by the Scriptures nor by any one else; nor are we deceived into the admission of many gods, nor do we agree to any statement that is made against God.63
Here “Peter” asserts that a false addition was made to the text of Scripture, indicating that God needs to test men in order to discover something. In order to defend God’s perfection, therefore, it is necessary to say that God allowed the addition of false statements to Scripture for a useful purpose. But the irony is that this writer, so insistent on the perfection of God, falls himself into statements against God, and not only against God incarnate as cited above, but also against God as God. “For He [God] has shape, and He has every limb primarily and solely for beauty’s sake, and not for use.”64 Thus this author asserts that God has a body.
It is sufficiently manifest from these examples that those who maintain the existence of false statements in Scripture are not faithful Catholics, but belong to heretical sects. But this becomes even more evident from the testimony of this same author:
Simon, therefore, as I learn, intends to come into public, and to speak of those chapters against God that are added to the Scriptures, for the sake of temptation, that he may seduce as many wretched ones as he can from the love of God. For we do not wish to say in public that these chapters are added to the Bible, since we should thereby perplex the unlearned multitudes, and so accomplish the purpose of this wicked Simon. For they not having yet the power of discerning, would flee from us as impious; or, as if not only the blasphemous chapters were false, they would even withdraw from the word. Whereby we are under a necessity of assenting to the false chapters, and putting questions in return to him concerning them, to draw him into a strait, and to give in private an explanation of the chapters that are spoken against God to the well-disposed after a trial of their faith; and of this there is but one way, and that a brief one.65
Here the author testifies that it cannot be stated in public that there are false statements in Scripture, because the multitude will either consider it impious or reject Scripture as a whole. Thus it is manifest that the opinion of the multitude is that there are no false statements in Scripture. And so it is sufficiently evident that both the Fathers and the early Church as a whole held this opinion.
The teaching of the later Doctors of the Church will not be explicitly cited here, for three reasons. First, in this matter they follow the teaching of the Fathers, and consequently the argument would be repetitious and somewhat tedious. Second, it is not likely that many will doubt that the teaching of the Doctors agrees with that of the earlier Church. Third, the teaching of the Doctors can be sufficiently summarized by the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest among the Doctors according to the mind of the Church.66 At this point, therefore, it will be sufficient to cite the authority of St. Thomas, and his teaching will be used in more detail later. He teaches this doctrine in many places, including the first question of the Summa Theologiae: “In this it is evident that something false can never be [contained] under the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.”67
Now it is necessary to proceed to consider the formal teaching of the Church in regard to the question. It seems that the Church found it necessary to issue formal statements relating to the matter on account of the opposition of heretics such as those discussed above. In the year 260 Pope Dionysius condemned the position of the Marcionites:
For foolish Marcion’s doctrine which divides and separates the monarchy into three principles is surely diabolical; moreover, it is not of the true disciples of Christ or of those to whom the teaching of the Savior is pleasing. For these know well that the Trinity is indeed proclaimed in Scripture, moreover, that three gods are taught neither in the Old nor in the New Testament.68
This statement directly concerns the position that God the Father and God the Son are diverse Gods. This was reformulated by the Council of Toledo (400): “If anyone says and [or] believes, that there is one God of the Law, another of the Gospels, let him be anathema.”69 Later this becomes the statement that God is the author of the whole of Scripture. “I believe also that there is one author of the New and Old Testament, of the law both of the Prophets and of the Apostles, namely the omnipotent God and Lord.”70 The same was forcefully taught by the Council of Florence (1441).71
It was shown above that various heresies not only rejected various books of Scripture, but also denied the truth of particular statements contained in Scripture. Thus it became necessary for the Church to reject the positions that would allow such errors. For example, the Church condemned a certain error regarding the poverty of Christ,
Since among learned men it often happens that doubt is again raised as to whether it should be branded as heretical to affirm persistently that our Redeemer and Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles did not possess anything in particular or even in common… we, in a desire to put an end to this controversy, declare on the advice of our brethren by this perpetual edict that a persistent assertion of this kind shall henceforth be branded as erroneous and heretical, since it expressly contradicts Sacred Scripture, which in many passages asserts that they did have some possessions; and since with regard to the aforementioned it openly submits that Sacred Scripture itself, by which surely the articles of orthodox faith are approved, contains a ferment of falsehood and consequently, in so far as in it lies, completely voiding the faith of Scripture it renders the Catholic faith, by destroying its approval, doubtful and uncertain.72
Here the Pope echoes the opinion of the Fathers that if one asserts that there are false statements in Scripture, then one must reject it and the Church as reliable teachers. But in this case such an opinion is declared to be definitely heretical. Similarly, Clement VI suggests that the faith requires one to reject such opinions: “In the fourteenth place, [we ask] if you have believed and now believe that the New and Old Testaments in all their books, which the authority of the Roman Church has given to us, contain undoubted truth in all things.”73 This time the claim is formulated positively. It is necessary to say that the whole of Scripture is true with respect to all the things of which it speaks.
The Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council promulgated similar teachings, but in earlier and more general terms. The Council of Trent teaches, “[The Synod] following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and holds in veneration with an equal affection of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament, since one God is the author of both…”74 Then it condemns an opposing opinion: “If anyone, however, should not accept the said books as sacred and canonical, with all their parts… let him be anathema.”75 The First Vatican Council makes a similar statement:
And, indeed, these books of the Old and New Testament, whole with all their parts, just as they were enumerated in the decree of the same Council [of Trent], are contained in the older Vulgate Latin edition, and are to be accepted as sacred and canonical. But the Church holds these books as sacred and canonical, not because, having been put together by human industry alone, they were then approved by its authority; nor because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and, as such, they have been handed down to the Church itself.76
This statement intends to say not only that Scripture is free from all error, but also that it is so because God is the author who inspired it. But because of the contrast between inspiration and containing revelation without error, it would be possible to interpret this text otherwise. Similarly, the Council of Trent, although demanding acceptance of all the books of Scripture and all the parts of the books, does not specifically assert the position of John XXII and Clement VI that Scripture is true with respect to all things. On account of this, certain Catholics after Vatican I suggested that there might be minor errors in Scripture. For example, John Henry Newman wrote the following in an essay on the inspiration of Scripture:
And now comes the important question, in what respect are the Canonical books inspired? It cannot be in every respect, unless we are bound de fide to believe that ‘terra in aeternum stat,’77 and that heaven is above us, and that there are no antipodes. And it seems unworthy of Divine Greatness, that the Almighty should, in His revelation of Himself to us, undertake mere secular duties, and assume the office of a narrator, as such, or an historian, or geographer, except so far as the secular matters bear directly upon the revealed truth. The Councils of Trent and the Vatican fulfil this anticipation; they tell us distinctly the object and the promise of Scripture inspiration. They specify ‘faith and moral conduct’ as the drift of that teaching which has the guarantee of inspiration.78
Here Newman seems to suggest that inerrancy and inspiration extend only to matters of faith and morals. But this is not his final position. After showing that Trent and Vatican I seem to relate inspiration especially to matters of faith and morals, he proceeds:
But while the Councils, as has been shown, lay down so emphatically the inspiration of Scripture in respect of ‘faith and morals,’ it is remarkable that they do not say a word directly as to its inspiration in matters of fact. Yet are we therefore to conclude that the record of facts in Scripture does not come under the guarantee of its inspiration? We are not so to conclude, and for this plain reason: -- the sacred narrative, carried on through so many ages, what is it but the very matter of our faith, and rule of our obedience? What but that narrative itself is the supernatural teaching, in order to which inspiration is given? … Such is the claim of Bible history in its substantial fulness to be accepted de fide as true. In this point of view, Scripture is inspired, not only in faith and morals, but in all its parts which bear on faith, including matters of fact.79
Thus Newman does believe that history and other matters fall under inspiration at least to some degree. But nevertheless he accepts the possibility of minor errors in Scripture.
And here I am led on to inquire whether obiter dicta are conceivable in an inspired document. We know that they are held to exist, and even required, in treating of the dogmatic utterances of Popes, but are they compatible with inspiration? The common opinion is that they are not….
By obiter dicta in Scripture I also mean such statements as we find in the Book of Judith, that Nabuchodonosor was King of Nineve. Now it is in favour of there being such unauthoritative obiter dicta, that, unlike those which occur in dogmatic utterances of Popes and Councils, they are, in Scripture, not doctrinal, but mere unimportant statements of fact: whereas those of Popes and Councils may relate to faith and morals, and are said to be uttered obiter, because they are not contained within the scope of the formal definition, and imply no binding of the consciences of the faithful. There does not then seem any serious difficulty in admitting their existence in Scripture.80
Elsewhere Newman gives an example of what he means by obiter dicta.
St. Paul speaks of ‘the cloak which he left at Troas with Carpus.’ Would St. Timothy, to whom he wrote, think this an infallible utterance? And supposing it had been discovered, on most plausible evidence, that the Apostle left his cloak with Eutychus, not with Carpus, would Timothy, would Catholics now, make themselves unhappy, because St. Paul had committed what the Professor [who opposed Newman’s essay] calls ‘a falsehood’? Would Christians declare that they no longer had any confidence in Paul after he had so clearly shown that he ‘had’ not ‘the Spirit of God’?81
Thus Newman’s position is that it is at least possible that certain statements in Scripture, due to their unimportant character, are not strictly a consequence of inspiration, and are therefore possibly false.82 Others held similar positions.83
On account of such misunderstandings of the teaching of the Councils, the Popes after the First Vatican Council reinforced the earlier teaching by clearly linking the two errors addressed above, that God is not the author of all of Scripture and that there are false statements in Scripture. Leo XIII teaches, “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.”84 To narrow inspiration to certain parts of Scripture is equivalent to the error of the heretics who denied that the Old Testament was from the true God, while to admit that the sacred author has erred is the second error of the same heretics. Leo XIII then relates these two errors:
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 Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist 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….
Hence, because the Holy Spirit 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 so assisted them when writing—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.85
Leo XIII, therefore, teaches that there can be no false statements in Scripture precisely because God is the author of Scripture.
St. Pius X follows Leo XIII in the same teaching:
Thus, even according to themselves [the Modernists] much in the Sacred Books within the field of science and history is affected by error…. Now We, Venerable Brethren, for whom there is one, unique truth, and who regard the Sacred Books thus, “that written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they have God as their author” declare that this is the same as giving the lie of utility, or the officious lie to God Himself…86
If God is the author of Scripture, and there are false statements in Scripture, then God tells lies. But this cannot be admitted, and so one cannot say that there are false statements in Scripture.
Benedict XV repeats the teaching of his predecessors:
By the doctrine of Jerome those statements are well confirmed and illustrated by which Our predecessor, Leo XIII, solemnly declared the ancient and constant faith of the Church in the absolute immunity of Scriptures from any errors: Tantum abest… And, introducing the definitions of the Councils of Florence and Trent, confirmed in the Vatican Synod, he has the following: “Therefore, nothing at all matters… otherwise He Himself were not the Author of all Sacred Scripture.”87
Pope Pius XI shows that he holds the same opinion in a certain Motu Proprio:
Since non-Catholics and rationalists have by it [biblical studies] advanced with temerity and audacity to attack Holy Scripture’s authority and immunity from error, it was necessary for our [scholars], instructed with a great abundance of sound learning, to descend into battle, that they might defend the divine gift of Heavenly Wisdom from the contrivances of the false science.88
Pope Pius XII also reiterates the same doctrine:
For just as the substantial Word of God was made like man in all things “without sin,” so also the words of God, expressed in human language, in all things have been made like human speech, without error… Therefore, let the Catholic exegete, in order to satisfy the present day needs of Biblical matters, in explaining Sacred Scripture, and in showing and proving it free of all error, prudently use this aid [investigation about the time of the writing, the literary genres in use, and other such things], to inquire how the form of expression and the kind of literature employed by the Sacred writer, contribute to a true and genuine interpretation…89
This text and the previous text do not explicitly say that the men who wrote Scripture did not say anything false; they simply state that Scripture is without error.90 But because of the teaching of the previous Popes, and because Pius XII is here suggesting that when one rightly understands the sense intended by the men who wrote Scripture, this sense is found to be free of error, it is necessary to understand this as a repetition of the previous teaching in its integrity. The later teaching of Pius XII also makes this evident.
To return, however, to the new opinions mentioned above, a number of things are proposed or suggested by some even against the divine authorship of Sacred Scripture. For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the Vatican Council’s definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they 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. They even wrongly speak of a human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning, lies hidden…. Everyone sees how foreign all this is to the principles and norms of interpretation rightly fixed by our predecessors of happy memory, Leo XIII in his Encyclical “Providentissimus,” and Benedict XV in the Encyclical “Spiritus Paraclitus,” as also by Ourselves in the Encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu.”91
In this text Pius XII holds that the human sense of the Scriptures is the same as the divine sense, and therefore that the human sense is free from error. And he clearly affirms that the previous teaching is to be held in its fullness, speaking explicitly of the principles found in the earlier encyclicals.
Thus it is clear that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture has been taught by the Popes repeatedly. The force of this teaching can be gathered from the Second Vatican Council’s statement on the authority of the Pope.
This religious docility of the will and intellect must be extended, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.92
The precise doctrine under discussion was taught explicitly and solemnly by five successive Popes within 60 years, and was characterized as pertaining to the ancient and constant faith of the Church, and the opposite teaching characterized as absolutely wrong and forbidden. Thus it is clear that according to the mind and intention of these Popes the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture must be accepted with the assent of faith. In order to conform to their mind and intention, therefore, it is necessary to accept the doctrine as pertaining to the deposit of faith.
Even many of those who oppose this doctrine confirm that it pertains to the deposit of faith. For example, Norbert Lohfink, whose position will be examined later, says, “If it is necessary today to discuss the inerrancy of the Bible, it is not the idea itself which is under dispute, for this is an ancient and unequivocal tradition of faith.”93 But he then proceeds to make it quite equivocal by distinguishing various ways in which the doctrine can be proposed:
In reading the patristic writers, medieval theologians and modern treatises on inspiration, we can clearly see that the inerrancy of the Bible is predicated of three grammatical subjects: the Bible (as a whole), the books of the Bible, and the biblical writers (for which the technical term is “hagiographers” or “sacred writers”). The three ways of speaking of the matter are used simultaneously, the context deciding the choice. In the past century, however, the third mode was brought into the foreground. This happened in treatises on inspiration, as well as in ecclesiastical documents (which we should, in this case, consider not in so far as they state doctrine, but only as they reflect contemporary modes of thought and language—the problem of the exact subject of the statements concerning inerrancy was never subjected to analysis).94
Here Lohfink suggests that the doctrine does not demand that the human authors of Scripture stated nothing false, but only that in some way Scripture does not say anything false. But with respect to the teaching of the Papal encyclicals previously cited, it is clearly not true that the Popes spoke according to custom rather than carefully considering the subject of predication. In the passage cited from Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII carefully distinguishes the human author from the divine author, and makes not only the divine author, but also the human author the subject of inerrancy, and he was followed in this teaching by his successors.95
Similarly, with respect to the teaching of the previous Catholic tradition, it is not true that the earlier writers did not think about the subject of predication. For example, St. Augustine distinguishes between what God intended and what man intended in the writing of Scripture:
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?” … He, surely, when he wrote those words, perceived and thought whatever of truth we have been able to discover…
Finally, O Lord, who art God, and not flesh and blood, if man doth see anything less, can anything lie hid from “Thy good Spirit,” who shall “lead me into the land of uprightness,” which Thou Thyself, by those words, wert about to reveal to future readers, although he through whom they were spoken, amid the many interpretations that might have been found, fixed on but one? Which, if it be so, let that which he thought on be more exalted than the rest. But to us, O Lord, either point out the same, or any other true one which may be pleasing unto Thee…96
Thus, St. Augustine says, there is no good reason to suppose that the human author of Scripture did not see all the true meanings of a passage. But even if in fact he only saw one, and God saw others, nonetheless the meaning intended by the human author is also true and intended by God, and perhaps even more exalted than the other meanings. St. Augustine is not speaking according to a custom or by chance, but he understands what he is saying.
Similarly, if one returns and examines the tradition regarding the consistency of the Evangelists and of Scripture in general, it becomes manifest that the position being maintained is that the assertion of the human author of Scripture, as his assertion, is without error. The only exception seems to be elements of the Jewish tradition, in which the distinction between the human author and the divine author is not always clear.97
Thus Lohfink, while granting that the inerrancy of Scripture is a dogma of the Church, suggests that the doctrine does not have to be understood in the way that the Church has understood it in the past. But this is not to develop doctrine, but to deny doctrine: “If anyone shall have said that it is possible that to the dogmas declared by the Church a meaning must sometimes be attributed according to the progress of science, different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”98 A true development of doctrine must preserve the meaning of the doctrine. In the words of Vincent of Lerins,
The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.99
Thus it is necessary to say that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture taken precisely in this sense, that the human author of Scripture does not assert anything false in the part of Scripture written by him, belongs to the deposit of faith.
The Church as a whole reaffirmed this teaching at the Second Vatican Council:
To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties, so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.
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.100
Here the Council teaches that the reason that the books of Scripture are without error is that all that is affirmed by the human author is affirmed by the Holy Spirit. But it is assumed that everything affirmed by the Holy Spirit is without error. Thus it follows that all that is affirmed by the human author is without error.
But two objections can arise at this point. First, although the Second Vatican Council certainly seems at first sight to confirm the earlier teaching of the Church, it has been interpreted by some men in such a way that it is taken to contradict the earlier teaching. Alois Grillmeier says of Chapter 3 of Dei Verbum:
Chapter III of the Constitution gives a short account of the Church’s doctrine on the inspiration of Scripture, its truth (inerrancy) and the principles of Catholic exegesis. In the course of the growth of the text as a whole, the position, title and text of this chapter underwent important changes. At a cursory glance they may seem unimportant; but in their development they reveal a particular intention of the Council that cannot be found directly in the actual words of the text. Hence it is essential to indicate the different stages of the growth of the text in order to have an historical basis for the interpretation of its final form.101
Grillmeier’s claim is that the document in its final form does not express everything the Council intended to teach, and that in order to show what the Council intended to teach it is necessary to understand the historical process by which the document came to be. He then raises the issue of the inerrancy of Scripture:
It is of special interest to look at the version of the teaching on the inerrancy of Scripture, as it is set out in the former article 12:
“Ex hac divinae Inspirationis extensione ad omnia, directe et necessario sequitur immunitas absoluta ab errore totius Sacrae Scripturae. Antiqua enim et constanti Ecclesiae fide edocemur nefas omnino esse concedere sacrum ipsum errasse scriptorem, cum divina Inspiratio per se ipsam tam necessario excludat et respuat errorem omnem in qualibet re religiosa vel profana, quam necessarium est Deum summam Veritatem, nullius omnino erroris auctorem esse.”102
Thus the “absolute inerrancy” of Scripture is stated here in very strong terms, being presented as the ancient and constant conviction of the Church. With this text, in contrast to the final form of the Constitution, the question of the development of teaching on inerrancy at Vatican II must begin.103
From the previous parts of this work, it is clear that the form of the teaching on inerrancy presented here quite accurately expresses the faith of the Church. Nor is there any apparent contradiction between this form and the form that was ultimately taught by the Council and presented above. But Grillmeier wishes to use the changes in order to deny the truth of the earlier formulation.
In the course of the discussion on the schema in the autumn of 1964, various fathers from the Eastern and Western Churches made important speeches on the necessity of an interpretation of the inerrancy of Scripture that would be in harmony with the latest findings of exegesis….
In this respect the most important contribution was undoubtedly the speech by Cardinal König on 2 October 1964. Several other fathers who took part in the discussion from 2 to 6 October either verbally or in writing came back to this point. The Cardinal first of all pointed out the new situation that exists in relation to the question of inerrancy. As a result of intensive Oriental studies our picture of the veritas historica and the fides historica of Scripture has been clarified. Many of the 19th century objections to the Old Testament in particular and its reliability as an account of historical fact are now irrelevant. But Oriental studies have also produced another finding: “…laudata scientia rerum orientalium insuper demonstrat in Bibliis Sacris notitias historicas et notitias scientia naturalis a veritate quandoque deficere.”104 Thus Cardinal König admitted that not all the difficulties could be solved. On the contrary, in certain cases they have an urgency that is borne out by scientific research. His speech mentioned a few examples: according to Mk 2:26 David had entered the house of God under the high priest Abiathar and eaten the bread of the Presence. In fact, however, according to Sam 21:1 ff. it was not under Abiathar, but under his father Abimelech. In Mt 27:9 we read that in the fate of Judas a prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled. In fact it is Zech. 11:12f. that is quoted.105
Here it seems that the Cardinal objects to the inclusion of profane truths under the inerrancy of Scripture on the grounds that scientific studies have shown that there are mistakes with respect to particular matters of history and science in Scripture.106 But as Grillmeier points out, the Cardinal “chose a cautious phrase in order to describe the situation.”107 If the Cardinal is taken to be saying only that the sacred authors did not know all things in science and history, or even held erroneous positions with regard to these things, and that their lack of knowledge is manifested in some way in the Biblical text, then he does not contradict the doctrine of inerrancy, even in its strict formulation.108 But if he means that the sacred authors asserted something false with respect to science and history in the Biblical text itself, then he does contradict the doctrine. Grillmeier understands him in such a way that he does contradict the teaching:
Thus Cardinal König implicitly gives up that premise that comes from the aprioristic and unhistorical thinking that has dominated teaching on inerrancy since the age of the Fathers: if one admits that a sacred writer has made a mistake, then one is necessarily admitting that God has made a mistake with the human author.109
But the doctrine is precisely that whatever is asserted by the human author is asserted by the Holy Spirit, and thus it follows, in accord with the “aprioristic” thinking of the Church Fathers, that if the human author has made a mistake, then God has made a mistake. But Grillmeier says that the Cardinal implicitly denied this conclusion. Thus, according to Grillmeier’s understanding, the Cardinal denied the previous teaching concerning inerrancy at least implicitly.110 Grillmeier continues by quoting several other Council fathers who “refer to him [Cardinal König] as an authority”111 in rejecting the traditional teaching regarding inerrancy:
On 5 October 1964 Cardinal Meyer of Chicago called for both a more profound doctrine of inspiration… “Etenim facilius intelligemus, quomodo divina revelatio componi possit cum humanis debilitatibus, et limitationibus, in instrumento humano, sicut constat ex haud paucis exemplis ipsius Scripturae ad quae etiam Em. Card. Koenig ultima sessione se retulit.”112
But this does not support Grillmeier’s point concerning the rejection of the traditional teaching, since Cardinal Meyer does not say that there are false statements in Scripture, but that it is necessary to understand how divine revelation is consistent with the limitations in Scripture present in Cardinal König’s examples. It is possible that his examples reveal human limitations without false statements.
The same is true in a second example:
Archbishop Joao J. da Mota e Albuquerque [receiving this from]113 S. Luis do Maranhao of Brazil, made the same point (in writing)…. The Council father closes his remarks on Article 11 of the Constitution with the words: “Criterium veritatis Sacrae Scripturae non est illa accurata adaequatio cum factis praeteritis, quam periti scientia historicae profanae obtinere conantur; sed est intentio auctoris inspirati, quae semper aliquo modo se refert ad revelationem salutis.”114
Once again it is not clear that the Archbishop wishes to deny the traditional doctrine. Rather he says that the reason that Scripture is true even when there is not an identity between what is narrated and the past facts is that the sacred author did not intend to give the account of a historian, but intended to give the revelation of salvation. There are problems with this explanation, since in some cases the sacred authors may have intended to give a historical account for the sake of the truth of salvation, and in this case truth is not preserved unless historical truth is preserved. But in any case the Archbishop does not explicitly deny that truth is preserved, even if this may be an implicit consequence of his position. In any case, his explicit position is that the truth of Scripture is indeed preserved.
The same is true in the rest of Grillmeier’s examples. None of the fathers explicitly deny the traditional doctrine, but they seek a general explanation for difficulties such as those raised by Cardinal König. Grillmeier gives the following examples:115
For in his speech to the Fathers on October 2, His Eminence Cardinal König rightly showed and contended that Sacred Scripture exhibits errors of fact. But Scripture does not teach these errors. In other words: if the text is considered materially, there are errors, but if the intention with which the sacred books are written is considered, then errors are not taught. The expression ‘without any error’ is not only merely negative, but also ambiguous, as the same speaker showed. It would be a great help for the thing to be proposed in a clear and positive manner.116
On one hand the general principle of inerrancy is to be asserted; on the other hand its theological elaboration should remain open, that it might be perfected by the positive study of Sacred Scripture; for it is very dangerous to develop this principle by a purely deductive method, ignoring biblical reality. Therefore the most certain and undebated formula taken from the First Vatican Council is proposed. Further, from semantic change, it is evident that the term “error” is obscure today, and if it is not accurately defined, its indiscriminate use can generate grave scandal.117
The affirmation of the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture should be made in other words. This formula is proposed: Since therefore all that the inspired author or hagiographer says ought to be held to be said by the Holy Spirit in the way in which it is said by the hagiographer, thence the books of Sacred Scripture are to be said to exhibit truth in all their parts, but in diverse ways according to the quality of the affirmation of the hagiographer. The reason is that the text [of the Decree in progress] just as it lies does not seem to have considered the diverse strength of truth in diverse sentences of Sacred Scripture, according to the common teaching of exegetes.118
The first example claims that the sacred author manifests erroneous beliefs, but does not teach his errors. This may or may not contradict the traditional doctrine, depending on the precise meaning of ‘teaching’. The second statement does not contradict the doctrine, but merely says that it is dangerous to make demands on the text without considering the text, and that a clear statement of absolute inerrancy without an explanation of the biblical text as it stands could cause scandal. The third statement explicitly affirms the traditional doctrine, but states that it is necessary to qualify inerrancy by saying that the statements of the sacred author are true in the sense that he asserts them to be true. They are not necessarily true if he does not assert them, or if he only asserts them to be probable, or sets them down as the opinion of others, or other such things.
Thus none of the Council fathers cited by Grillmeier expressly contradicts the traditional teaching, although a denial of the traditional teaching could be the implication of several statements cited. From this it is reasonable to say that the fathers did not wish to contradict the traditional teaching, but wished to add something to it that would explain the appearances of the biblical text. A clear statement, even if true, of the doctrine of absolute inerrancy such as was first proposed does not explain these appearances, and so the fathers supposed that such a statement without an explanation of the appearances of the biblical text could be a cause of scandal. If some of their statements contradict the traditional teaching in their implications, this is not because the fathers wished to contradict the teaching, but because the problem had not been fully worked out.
Grillmeier continues by stating that these events led to a new understanding of inerrancy:
We have quoted these points made by the Council fathers in some detail, for we must be aware of this background if we are to understand the final formulation of the nature of the truth of Scripture. In accordance with the legitimate method of the interpretation of conciliar documents in general, here also the whole discussion in the Council and the Theological Commission must be used as sources for a better understanding…
We can see clearly that the old account of inerrancy did not fit in with the general trend of the whole Constitution. Thus the basic idea of Chapter II was to be further developed. This was attempted in a new formulation on the inerrancy of Scripture: “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 firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth of salvation.”119
But an objection was raised to the new formula:
The first difficulty was not long in coming: if it was only and exclusively the veritas salutaris that was intended as the material object of inerrancy, then the veritates profanae are simply placed outside this truth. Would this not mean that the Council was coming close to an interpretation of the extent of inspiration that had been rejected in the nineteenth century, namely as being limited to doctrines of faith and morals? … The vote of 22 September 1965 showed, in the modi submitted, that the fathers feared this false interpretation of the veritas salutaris. Hence a large number of fathers suggested simply returning to Form E, i.e., cutting out “salutaris” and speaking now of “truth”. Their reasoning was that the expression “truth of salvation” would, as against the documents of the teaching office, limit inerrancy to matters of faith and morals.120
This objection manifests what was stated above concerning the intention of the Council fathers. They object that the new formulation seems to contradict the traditional doctrine concerning inerrancy. Thus it is manifest that they accept the traditional doctrine. This objection caused a change in the document:
Only in order to avoid a misuse of this expression—in the direction of a limiting of inspiration—a new formula is chosen.121 Veritas salutaris thus becomes “veritas, quam Deus salutis nostrae causa litteris sacris consignari voluit.”122 …
Here the Theological Commission has followed a particular aim—in opposition to the marked activity of a particular group in the Council and the attitude of the Pope to it—namely, to present the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture in a way that was in harmony with the concept of Chapters I and II of the Constitution on Revelation and took more account of the modern difficulties than was possible in the strict formulation of the papal encyclicals on Scripture, and especially the schema of 1962.123
Grillmeier claims that the document was changed on account of the objection that it seemed to limit inspiration to the truth of salvation, and that the Theological Commission wished to extend inspiration to all matters, but did not wish to extend inerrancy to all matters. Thus Grillmeier concludes that the Second Vatican Council is to be interpreted in opposition to the traditional teaching regarding inerrancy:
In interpreting the doctrine of inerrancy we must start from this point: “veritas, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit”. “To have the truth written down in the sacred books for our salvation” is thus presented as the motive (formal object) of inspiration. Whereas veritas salutaris had rather the character of a material object from which veritas profana was distinguished, the words “to have written down for the sake of our salvation” show a more careful approach, which makes possible a new solution of the problem of inerrancy, and this is intentional. It would be a simplification of the Council’s position if one were to say that the inerrancy of Scripture applied only to the material that contained the truth of salvation (veritates salutares) as opposed to secular truths (veritates profana). This would be to confront Scripture again with the 19th century position. It would also be a misunderstanding of the Council’s intentions if one said that it had not produced anything new on the question of inerrancy beyond the position of the well-known scriptural encyclicals. The Council starts from a profounder understanding of the nature of Scripture, which presents an inseparable combination of divine and human activity and yet leaves to each its own area. The development of the text has shown us that “monophysitism” in the understanding of inspiration and inerrancy is to be given up, as presented in the thesis of verbal inspiration, but also in the version of the teaching on inerrancy found in the form of 1962 (and in the scriptural encyclicals).124
In this passage Grillmeier’s position is that the Council must be understood to deny the traditional doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. He does not merely divide statements regarding faith and morals from other statements and say that only one class is free from error, but he does say that not all statements are free from error. Thus he holds either that some statements regarding matters other than faith and morals are false, or that error infects even statements regarding such matters.125
But there are four reasons that this interpretation of the Council cannot be correct. First, it was sufficiently shown above that the traditional teaching is a dogma of the Church, and so the Council should not be interpreted to contradict this teaching unless it does so according to its plain sense, and unless no other interpretation is possible. But the plain sense of the Council is fully in accord with the traditional teaching. Grillmeier himself would admit that the inerrancy of Scripture is a dogma of the Church, but would assert that there has been a development in the Church’s understanding of the teaching. But the possibility of this kind of development in the teaching of the Church has been refuted above.
Second, Grillmeier’s method of interpretation is flawed from the start. The Council cannot be interpreted according to the historical method that he employs, because the Council fathers who voted for the document could not assume that all would know this historical process. Thus the fathers voting for the document must be taken to be teaching what the document asserts in its final form and in its plain sense, which is not only entirely consistent with the traditional teaching, but reaffirms this teaching. It is true that one may take into account the discussions which went into the formation of a document, but not in order to interpret it against its manifest sense. And if one maintains nonetheless that their teaching must be understood to oppose the traditional teaching, a Council has authority only insofar as it has Papal confirmation. But Grillmeier concedes, as cited above, that the Pope did not wish to put any limitation on inerrancy. Thus even if some of the Council fathers desired such a limitation, the Council insofar as it has authority cannot be interpreted in this way.
Third, even if it is granted that Grillmeier uses the correct method of interpretation, he misunderstands the intention of the Council fathers. It was shown above that the Council fathers did not wish to contradict the traditional teaching on inerrancy, but wished to avoid scandal and to explain in a general way the presence of difficulties in Scripture.
Fourth, even if it is granted that Grillmeier uses the correct method of interpretation and has rightly understood the thought of the Council fathers, it does not follow that what they said in the Council itself contradicts the former teaching. From the text of the Council itself it is evident that it does not contradict that teaching. One cannot take the statement that whatever is asserted by the human author is asserted by the Holy Spirit to mean either that the human author asserts some false things, or even that it is not necessary to hold that the human author does not assert anything false. But the authority of the Council could be used against the former teaching of the Church only if the Council contradicted that former teaching or stated that it was not necessary to accept that former teaching. It thus follows that to use the Council against the former teaching of the Church is rather an abuse than a use of the Council.
Thus the Second Vatican Council must be understood according to its plain sense, which is that God asserts everything asserted by the human author, and it follows from this that Scripture is perfectly free from error.
But it is not sufficient to show that this is the meaning of the Council. Besides the objection that interprets Dei Verbum to contradict the earlier teaching, a second objection that has been made is that regardless of the meaning of Dei Verbum, the earlier teaching does not bind, because the Church has in any case rejected the teaching in the period after the Council. Raymond Brown holds such a position.126
Essential to a critical interpretation of church documents is the realization that the Roman Catholic Church does not change her official stance in a blunt way. Past statements are not rejected but are requoted with praise and then reinterpreted at the same time. It is falsely claimed that there has been no change towards the Bible in Catholic Church thought because Pius XII and Vatican II paid homage to documents issued by Leo XIII, Pius X, and Benedict XV and therefore clearly meant to reinforce the teaching of their predecessors. What really was going on was an attempt gracefully to retain what was salvageable from the past and to move in a new direction with as little friction as possible. To those for whom it is a doctrinal issue that the Church never changes, one must repeat Galileo’s sotto voce response when told that it was a doctrinal issue that the earth does not move: ‘E pur si muove’ (‘Nevertheless, it moves’). And the best proof of movement is the kind of biblical scholarship practiced by ninety-five percent of Catholics writing today, a kind of scholarship that would not have been tolerated for a moment by church authorities in the first forty years of this century.127
In the first place, Brown’s position cannot be correct because it asserts the mutability of dogma, openly and deliberately contradicting the definition of Vatican I cited above.128
Second, Brown is not quite accurate in his description of the facts. The injustice that Brown does to Pius XII by saying that he intended to move away from the teaching of his predecessors is manifest from the previous pages. It is indeed evident that Pius XII intended to reinforce the teaching of his predecessors in its integrity, and he says explicitly that this is his intention. Similarly, as was shown above, Vatican II did not wish to oppose the earlier teaching, but wished to avoid scandal and to seek an explanation for difficulties. And thus it is not falsely but rather truly claimed that there has been no change in the Church’s teaching in regard to the doctrine of inerrancy.
Brown’s “best proof of movement” is answered quite simply by the fact that biblical scholars do not constitute the Church’s teaching office. Even if there were no explanation for the Church’s relative silence since the Council, one would not thereby be justified in rejecting the past teaching of the Magisterium, or in saying that the past teaching is no longer binding. In any case, it is reasonable to suppose that the reason for this relative silence is the same as the Council’s reason for not adopting the more rigorous formulation: namely that there has not yet been an adequate explanation for the appearances of Scripture.129
Thus the teaching of the Second Vatican Council remains binding, and must be understood according to its plain sense, which is that all that is asserted by the human author is asserted by the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit cannot be said to assert any error whatsoever, and therefore it is necessary to say that the original formulation was quite correct. Everything asserted by the human authors of Scripture is free from error in every matter, whether sacred or profane. But it is necessary to reconcile this truth with the general appearances of the text of Scripture as it stands in order to fulfill the intentions of the Council fathers, and so this will be in part the purpose of the remainder of this work.
On the Inerrancy of Scripture - Table of Contents