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Biblical inerrancy (freedom of error)

 as viewed by Roman Catholics

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Overview:

The term "inerrancy" is not used by the Roman Catholics church as often as it is used among conservative Protestants. However, the concept of inerrancy pays a major role in many of their beliefs about the Bible.

The teachings of the Church have evolved over the years. In recent decades, Catholic sources have given conflicting views about biblical inerrancy:

bulletAbsolute inerrancy: Some Catholic theologians have claimed that, in its original autograph version, the Bible is inerrant -- without error. This appears to be the consensus of popes, of most of the Catholic scholars and of other church leaders until the mid 20th century. This belief developed naturally from their conviction that God inspired the authors of the Bible. If God controlled the writers' words directly or indirectly, then he would not have led them into error. Deceit and error are not normally attributes expected of God.
 
bulletLimited inerrancy: Other Catholics teach a more recent concept: that the Bible is without error in certain matters such as faith, morals and the criteria for salvation. However, the Bible contains errors when describing other matters, such as scientific observations and historical events. This belief had its origins in the church with the writings of Richard Simon (1638 - 1712) who rejected Moses as author of the Pentateuch. He partly inspired the literary-criticism method of analyzing biblical passages which became influential among some 19th century Christians.
 
bulletNo inerrancy: Still other Catholic theologians and scholars have deviated entirely from the church's official teaching. They agree with liberal Protestants in rejecting the inerrancy of the Bible. They interpret it as containing much legend, myth, historical and scientific inaccuracies, religious propaganda, etc. Of these intellectuals, Dominic Crossan is one of the most popular Catholic writers among the general public.

Statements on inerrancy:

bulletEarly church fathers: David Bennett, a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and co-owner of the Ancient and Future Catholics web site comments on the the early church fathers' beliefs about inerrancy. Bennett writes:
"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." 1

bulletAugustine of Hippo (354-430 CE): He supported absolute inerrancy in a letter to St. Jerome. He wrote:

"On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand. ..."

He emphasizes that inerrancy only applies to the original autograph copy as written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek:

"For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it."

bulletThe Council of the Vatican (1869-1870): They determined:

"The books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council [Trent] and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without errors, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their Author."

[Note that it is not the Vulgate version, in Latin, which is considered to be "without errors." It is the original  Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek documents, now lost.] 

bulletPope Leo XIII (1893): His encyclical letter "Providentissimus Deus" (124-125) said in part:

"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. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the [First] Council of the Vatican." 2

He wrote that the Holy Spirit assisted the authors of the books of the Bible so that they "expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture.  Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers." He wrote this letter at a time when liberal elements in Christianity had embraced biblical criticism. They had largely abandoned the idea of the inerrancy of the Bible, had rejected God's inspiration of its authors, and were interpreting the Bible like any other historical religious document.

bulletPope Benedict XV (Reigned 1914-1922): According to Catholics United for the Faith, Pope Benedict XV wrote in "Spiritus Paraclitus" (On the Fifteenth Centenary of the Death of St. Jerome) that he:

"...also emphasized the Bibles absolute immunity from error. He went so far as to say that 'belief in the biblical narrative is as necessary to salvation as is belief in the doctrines of the faith' (no. 24). After explicitly condemning any position that restricts inerrancy only to so-called 'religious' elements of the Bible, he quotes Saint Jerome, the Father of biblical science, who wrote more than 1,500 years ago that '[i]t would be wholly impious to limit inspiration to only certain portions of Scripture or to concede that the sacred authors themselves could have erred'." 3,4

bulletPope Pius XII (1943): in his 1943-SEP-30 encyclical "Divino Afflante Spiritu" (On the Most Opportune Way to Promote Biblical Studies ), he compared the inerrancy of the Bible to the sinlessness of Jesus:

"For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error."

He also condemned the concept of limited inerrancy. He wrote:

"The sacred Council of Trent ordained by solemn decree that 'the entire books with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old vulgate Latin edition, are to be held sacred and canonical.' ... When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the 'entire books with all their parts' as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as "obiter dicta" and - as they contended - in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter 'Providentissimus Deus' ... justly and rightly condemned these errors." 5

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bulletThe Second Vatican Council (Ended 1965): Over the previous three centuries, some liberal Roman Catholic writers had promoted limited inerrancy by suggesting that that God preserved the authors of the Bible from error only in matters of "moral and dogmatic teaching, excluding everything in the bible relating to history and the natural sciences." 6 So, for example, when the Bible talks about a dome over the earth supporting heaven or of a flat earth, or of the sun stopping in the sky, we can accept that it is in error. The authors were limited by the pre-scientific culture in which they lived. During Vatican II, some theologians suggested that the Church modify its traditional stance on Biblical inerrancy. The document issued by the Council, titled "Dei Verbum,"  (Constitution on Divine Revelation). Article 11 discusses the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. A key clause states

"...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."

This phrase appears to be ambiguous: 7

bulletSome Catholic theologians interpret it as supporting absolute inerrancy:  that the entire Bible is totally without error, whether it is writing about spiritual matters, the afterlife, cosmology, geology, historical event, etc. This has been the traditional teaching of the church throughout its history.
 
bulletOthers believe that it supports limited inerrancy by restricts inerrancy only to matters of faith, morals, and salvation. They believe that  Bible may be in error on matters of science, history, etc. Fr. R.E. Brown, for example, writes of Vatican II:

"In this long journey of thought the concept of inerrancy was not rejected but was seriously modified to fit the evidence of biblical criticism which showed that the Bible was not inerrant in questions of science, of history, and even of time-conditioned religious beliefs." 8

Wikipedia explains:

"This document states the Catholic belief that all scripture is sacred and reliable because the biblical authors were inspired by God. However, the human dimension of the Bible is also acknowledged as well as the importance of proper interpretation. Careful attention must be paid to the actual meaning intended by the authors, in order to render a correct interpretation. Genre, modes of expression, historical circumstances, poetic liberty, and church tradition are all factors that must be considered by Catholics when examining scripture. The Roman Catholic Church holds that the authority to declare correct interpretation rests ultimately with the church through its magisterium."

bulletThe Catechism of the Catholic Church (Imprimi Potest) 1994, states in section 107:

"The inspired books teach the truth. 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 confined to the Sacred Scriptures."

Again, this statement is ambiguous. It could imply that the Bible is errant if God was not particularly concerned about error creeping in on matters that are only of scientific or historical significance.

bulletThe Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published the results of a conversation between scholars and church leaders of the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention in 1999. They emphasized limited inerrancy, and rejected the literal inerrancy that is seen among most fundamentalist Protestants. The Secretariat wrote:

"For Roman Catholics, inerrancy is understood as a consequence of biblical inspiration; it has to do more with the truth of the Bible as a whole than with any theory of verbal inerrancy. Vatican II says that 'the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation" (Dei Verbum, 11). What is important is the qualification of 'that truth' with 'for the sake of our salvation'." 9

bulletThe Catholic Encyclopedia: Under the topic of "Authenticity of the Bible," the Encyclopedia states that the contents of the Bible "...possess a higher authenticity, because invested with a Divine, supernatural authority through the Divine authorship which makes them the inspired word of God." 10

Under the topic of "Inspiration of the Bible," the Encyclopedia states that: "...on several occasions the Church has defined the inspiration of the canonical books as an article of faith...Every Christian sect still deserving that name believes in the inspiration of the Scriptures, although several have more or less altered the idea of inspiration." 6

Later in the essay, it implies the inerrancy of the Bible: "As for the inerrancy of the inspired text it is to the Inspirer [God] that it must be finally attributed..."

Yet the Encyclopedia elsewhere implies that the Bible is errant, at least in its  statements about the authorship of the Pentateuch. These are the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). They state in numerous locations that Moses is the author of all 5 books. This is confirmed by passages in the Christian Scriptures/New Testament. The exact date of Moses' death is unknown. However, we might use the Schofield Reference Bible's estimate of 1451 BCE. The Encyclopedia states:
bulletGenesis: was written between 950 and 550 BCE. This would be over 500 years after Moses' death.
bulletExodus: Its "authorship is attributed to Moses but most probably it was compiled by later writers"
bulletLeviticus: It was "written by Moses with revisions made by members of the priestly class..."
bulletNumbers: It was "written by scribes of the priestly school."
bulletDeuteronomy: It was "authored by several members of the levitical school and was written probably within the years 740 to 530 BCE." This would be over 750 years after Moses' death.
 

bulletNew Advent, a massive Roman Catholic website, supports a concept of limited inerrancy. They commented on a point raised by a visitor to their site:

Question: "I read a book by a scripture scholar who said the Bible is inerrant only in religious matters that pertain to our salvation. He quoted Vatican II as the source of this "limited inerrancy" doctrine."

Answer: "If the whole of Scripture is inspired, and if what the biblical writer asserts the Holy Spirit asserts, then, unless error is to be attributed to the Holy Spirit or unless the biblical authors assert only religious truths (which isn't the case -- some make historical assertions, such as the historical existence of Jesus), inerrancy can't be limited to religious truths....Although inerrancy isn't limited to religious truths which pertain to salvation but may include non-religious assertions by the biblical authors, this doesn't mean Scripture is an inspired textbook of science or history. Inerrancy extends to what the biblical writers intend to teach, not necessarily to what they assume or presuppose or what isn't integral to what they assert. In order to distinguish these things, scholars must examine the kind of writing or literary genre the biblical writers employ." 11

bulletCatholics United for the Faith appear to insist on absolute inerrancy:

"Inerrancy simply means the state of being free from error. The Catholic Church has always taught that Sacred Scripture is inerrant. Since all the books of the Bible were composed by human authors who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-21; 3:15-16), they truly have God as their author and communicate without error Our Heavenly Father's saving truth....The Church has always taught that we can approach the Scriptures with a rock-solid confidence because they are inspired by God Himself and therefore contain no error. This inerrancy is a great gift because it gives the Bible a credibility on which we can base our lives" 3

Related essays on this site:

Biblical inerrancy as understood by

bulletConservative Protestants
bulletMainline, liberal and progressive Christians

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David Bennett, "The Bible: Inerrant, Inspired, or Just a Good Read?," Ancient and Future Catholics, 2008-JAN-04, at: http://www.ancient-future.net/
  2. Cited in Rev. Brian Harrison, "The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,? Living Tradition, No. 59 (1995-JUL). Online at: http://www.rtforum.org/.
  3. "Taking God at His Word: A Catholic Understanding of Biblical Inerrancy," Catholics United for the Faith, 2005-AUG-29, at: http://www.cuf.org/
  4. Pope Benedict XV, "Spiritus Paraclitus," The Vatican, 1920-SEP-15, at: http://www.vatican.va/
  5. Pope Pius XII, "Divino Afflante Spiritu," The Vatican, 1943-SEP-30, at: http://www.vatican.va/
  6. "Inspiration the Bible," Catholic Encyclopedia at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  7. R.E. Brown, "The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus," Paulist Press, (1973)
  8. M. J. Sawyer, "Theories of Inspiration" http://www/bible.org/
  9. "Southern Baptist - Roman Catholic Conversation. Report on Sacred Scripture," 1999-SEP-10, at: http://www.usccb.org/
  10. "Authenticity of the Bible," Catholic Encyclopedia at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  11. "Quick Questions (1991)," Catholic Library, at: http://www.newadvent.org/

Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2009-APR-1
7

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