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Posts Tagged ‘biblical inerrancy’

I’ve passed over several comments on this blog and on BeingFrank about biblical inerrancy – so many comments and so little time! I hope this post goes some way to providing that lack.

As far as I can gather, the argument has these major steps.

  1. God knows everything
  2. God wrote the Bible
  3. Therefore everything in the Bible must be true (with ‘true’ meaning historically and scientifically factual)
  4. If 3. is incorrect (as shown through a scientific error, a moral error, or a contradiction), this proves that either 2 or 1 (or both) are false.
  5. Therefore there is no God.

Leaving aside any discussion of the logical flow of the argument, points 2 and 3 are just not consistent with Catholic understanding of the Bible.

The early Church also placed more emphasis on the message of scripture over actual words on pages. This is why early Christians almost unanimously read the Old Testament typologically (finding allegorical, hidden, references to Jesus and other New Testament truths), rather than only literally. St. Paul often read the scriptures this way (Galatians 4:21-31), as did the author of Hebrews. Most Church Fathers read the Old Testament this way (see the Epistle of Barnabas, written about 120 AD). Thus, early Christians were not so much concerned with the words per se, but rather with what the text told us about Jesus and the Christian faith. In this way, they often found multiple layers of meaning in the text, which of course included, but was not limited to, the literal one. Nonetheless, they had a high view of Scripture as uniquely divinely inspired and accurate writings. However, the Bible was never officially declared inerrant to the letter before the Reformation, and even then, it was declared as such in some Protestant denominations only. No early creed says one must believe the Bible is inerrant to the letter to be a true Christian.

The early Fathers held that the Bible was inerrant. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches affirm this as well. However, this is the case only when the Bible is properly understood, interpreted by the Church. This is inerrancy by ancient standards and not modern, fundamentalist standards. The early Fathers did not think that minor contradictions rendered the Bible errant, nor did they insist all stories were meant to be interpreted literally. For instance, the creation stories were often allegorized, interpreted in ways so as to prefigure Christ, or interpreted through the lens of the science of the day (or all three!). Thus St. Augustine could say each day in the Genesis creation story was equal to a thousand years, or that the science of the day should shape our understanding of the creation stories, without ever denying the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. So when a Catholic affirms the inerrancy of Scripture, the idea has far less baggage than the fundamentalist understanding.

For example, many early Christian writers were well aware of minor contradictions within the Scriptures, even in the gospels, and did not seem too bothered by it. Tertullian (AD 200) said, “Never mind if there does occur some variation in the order of the [gospel] narratives. What matters is that there is agreement in the essential doctrine of the Faith” (Against Marcion, IV:2). St. John Chrysostom (AD 390) was even bolder (at least to modern ears) to suggest that contradictions in the gospels actually strengthen the conviction that Christianity is true. If the gospel authors agreed in every small detail, then it was obvious that the stories were forgeries by a group of dishonest early Christians in collusion with one another. He even says, “the discord which seems to be present in little matters shields [the authors] from every suspicion and vindicates the character of the writers” (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, I:6). Even today, we Christians are far more credible if we admit to minor Biblical contradictions rather than trying come up with absurd, non-realistic stories designed to make the gospel accounts completely harmonize. So without denying the Bible’s inspiration or essential accuracy, many Church Fathers recognized minor contradictions and variants in the text.

Thus the view of the early Church is that the Bible is an accurate, God-inspired testimony, the written document accurately reporting the foundations of the faith, but not necessarily inerrant as defined by modern criteria, and the Old Testament is certainly not inerrant when exclusively interpreted literally. (David Bennet)

Actually, the term ‘Biblical inerrancy’ is not precisely defined in the Church, though this could change. But it is very clear that the Catholic way of reading the Bible is to read it as a whole, and to read it seeking what it reveals about Christ.

Since Scripture is inspired by God, it must be interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written (Catechism, No. 111).  Here, the Pope calls on biblical scholars to avoid a myopic reading of Scripture that focuses only on the historical. He reminds us of the three criteria from Vatican II for authentic interpretation of the Bible: (1) one must read individual biblical texts in light of all the books of the Bible, since the same Holy Spirit coauthored them all; (2) one must read Scripture in light of the living Tradition of the Church, since the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures is animating the Church’s tradition; and (3) one must interpret Scripture in light of the coherence of truths revealed by Christ and taught by the Church, which also is guided by the same Spirit (see Catechism, Nos. 112-114).

When, however, biblical scholarship fails to interpret the Scriptures theologically — from the standpoint of faith in its inspiration and faith in the God who acts in history — two tragic consequences follow. First, “the Bible becomes solely a history book.” Instead of being experienced as God’s divine words spoken personally to each individual, “the Bible remains in the past, speaks only of the past.”

Second, interpreters tend to deny the divine acting in history. Consequently, when miracles, prophecy or anything else supernatural is found in the Bible, it is automatically discredited as not being even possibly historical. Benedict critiques this bias toward the supernatural: “When there seems to be a divine element [in the Bible], the source of that impression must be explained, thus reducing everything to the human element. As a result, it is the grounds for interpretations that deny the historicity of divine elements.” (Edward Sri)

So let’s look at the five steps again from a Catholic understanding:

  1. God knows everything
  2. God inspired certain people to write historical accounts, legends, poetry, and other records that progressively revealed the relationship between God and humankind
  3. These people worked within their own historical context and their own intellectual abilities to produce their accounts
  4. God inspired the Church to select those texts which made the best fist of revealing Him as appropriate for reading in Church
  5. The image of God revealed in the Bible, as interpreted by the Church, is inevitably incomplete (given our human understanding) but without error.

Yes. I can live with that.

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