The Accuracy of Scripture
by James Akin
The Catholic blogosphere was recently set on fire by word of a document issued by the bishops of England, Wales, and Scotland entitled The Gift of Scripture.
The firestorm was triggered by an October 5 article in The Times of London carrying the inflammatory headline "Catholic Church no longer swears by the truth of the Bible."
The Times article contained a number of errors and distortions, but it also contained a number of quotes from the British bishops' document that were of concern to faithful Catholics.
For example, the document is quoted as saying that "we should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision" and that, while the Bible is reliable when expressing truths connected to salvation, "we should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters."
Such statements are common these days from catechists, theologians, and biblical scholars. They are trying to express something important that there are certain things we should not expect from Scripture but they have not used the right language in expressing these facts.
The Traditional View
Scripture presents itself to us as the very word of God, and the Christian Church has always honored it as such. Historically, Christians have held that the Bible is absolutely free of error, or inerrant.
Yet it has also been clear that there are many difficult and perplexing things in the Bible. This has led some to entertain the idea that Scripture may be protected from error in a way different than previous generations of Christians have held. Instead of being totally free of error, these thinkers have said, perhaps it is only free from error on certain matters.
For example, some have said that the Bible is meant for teaching us faith and morals, so perhaps it is inerrant on faith and morals but not on other matters. Other have suggested that Scripture is oriented toward our salvation, so maybe it is inerrant only on matters of salvation.
This might be called the limited or restricted inerrancy view, as opposed to the total or unrestricted inerrancy position.
As attractive as limited inerrancy may be, it faces significant problems.
It does not seem that the Bible understands itself in these terms. When the authors of Scripture quote each other, they speak in a way that suggests that every single word is authored by God.
The authors of the New Testament, for example, regularly quote the Old Testament with introductions such as "The Holy Spirit says" (Heb. 3:7), and Jesus himself said that "not an iota, not a dot" would pass away from the law of Moses before it was fulfilled (Matt. 5:18).
In the last couple of centuries the Church has weighed in on this question and rejected limited inerrancy. The First Vatican Council taught:
These books [of the canon] the Church holds to be 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 error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author ( De Fide Catholica 2:7).
Pope Leo XIII stated that "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" and condemned "the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond" ( Providentissimus Deus 20).
Pius XII stated that the Vatican I passage cited above was a "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." He repudiated those who "ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals" ( Divino Afflante Spiritu 1).
And then came Vatican II.
The Vatican II decree Dei Verbum taught:
In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things that he wanted. 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 solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth that God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (DV 11).
The last phrase of this passage "for the sake of salvation" has become a sticking point, and many have argued that it restricts the scope of scriptural inerrancy to just those things that have to do with our salvation.
There was actually an intense behind-the-scenes controversy at Vatican II over this clause, which ended up being appealed to Pope Paul VI, and there is no doubt that some at the Council wanted the phrase understood as allowing restricted inerrancy. In fact, some wanted a formula that would even more clearly allow for restricted inerrancy.
But ultimately this position did not prevail. The text as it stands continues to affirm that the Bible contains all and only what God wanted written that everything asserted by the human authors is asserted by the Holy Spirit.
There are countless instances where Scripture is clearly making an assertion that is neither of faith and morals nor connected in any direct way with our salvation. For example, the Bible clearly asserts that Andrew was the brother of Peter in some accepted first-century understanding of the word brother.
Dei Verbum thus teaches the unrestricted inerrancy of Scripture, and the "for the sake of our salvation" clause is thus most plausibly read as a statement of why God put his truth into Scripture, not a restriction on the scope of his truth.
What to Do?
That leaves us with the problem of how to explain the limits of what Scripture can be expected to do and how we can go wrong if we approach it the wrong way. How can these limitations be explained to the faithful in a way that does not charge Scripture with error?
Dei Verbum has given us an important tool for doing this. The Council spoke of those things "asserted by the inspired authors" as asserted by the Holy Spirit and thus protected from error. So we need to determine what the inspired author is trying to assert, for that is what is protected from error.
What a person asserts is not the same as what he says. Suppose someone says, "It's raining cats and dogs out there today." What he has said is perfectly obvious, but he is not asserting that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. Instead, he is asserting that it is raining hard.
His assertion may well be true. It may indeed be raining hard, and if so then he should not be charged with error.
Native English-speakers are familiar with the phrase "raining cats and dogs" and recognize what is meant. But non-native English-speakers could be perplexed by the statement. It's the same with Scripture.
The Example of Genesis
We don't come from the same culture that authored Scripture. We aren't ancient Israelites, and we don't have a native's feel for how their literature works. When people from our culture read the Bible they are particularly liable to miss symbolism that the text may be using. We know that God can do amazing, miraculous things, and if we don't know how ancient Hebrew literature worked, we can read perplexing things as miracles rather than symbols.
Throughout history many have taken the six days of creation in Genesis as six literal twenty-four-hour periods, but there are clues that this may not be what is meant. For example, the sun is not created until day four, though day and night were already in existence on day one. The ancients knew that it's the sun that causes it to be day as well as we do, and so this may mean that the passage is not to be understood literally.
By asking ourselves what it does mean what the inspired author is asserting then we see that he is asserting that the whole of the material world was created by God the true God and not a bunch of pagan deities.
One could look at the passage and conclude that the inspired author is not trying to give us a scientific account of the creation of the world. The magisterium has recently favored this view (CCC 337, 283).
So would it be right to say, as The Gift of Scripture does, that "we should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy"?
Finding the Right Words
Because Genesis is not making scientific assertions, it is wrong to charge Genesis with scientific error. If someone draws erroneous scientific conclusions from a misreading of Genesis, the error belongs not to Genesis but to the person who has misread it.
Therefore we should not say that Genesis does not have "full scientific accuracy" a statement that is bound to disturb the faithful and undermine their confidence in Scripture. Instead we should say that Genesis is not making scientific assertions and that we will draw erroneous conclusions if we treat the text as though it were.
The same applies to statements such as "We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible." In fact we should, for everything asserted in Sacred Scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit, and he does not make mistakes.
The burden is on us to recognize what the Spirit is and is not asserting, and we may stumble into error if we make a mistake in doing this.
This applies to science or history or faith or morals or salvation or any other subject. The error belongs to us as interpreters, not to the Holy Spirit and not to the Scripture that he inspired.
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