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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 1: Inspiration and Authorship"


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The most remarkable face concerning Holy Scripture is that it is not only the Word of God but that God Himself, the Holy Spirit, is its chief author. This the Church tells us. At the same time, the Church also says that there is a human author, who remains free yet infallibly does what God wants him to do. How is all of this possible? What does it really mean to say that God is the author?

Before answering those questions, another important fact strikes us. A record from the fifth or sixth century of the Church states for the first time that God is the author of Holy Scripture. Ancient Statutes of the Church, a document from that period, says that a man who is to be ordained a bishop must first be asked "if he believes that God is the one and same author of the New and Old Testament...."

There are earlier statements about Scripture, but there is none in which God is explicitly identified as their author. For example, about 95 A.D., Pope St. Clement I wrote this to Corinth: "You have studied the sacred writings, which are true, which are through the Holy Spirit" (1:45).

Athenagoras, a second century apologist, spoke of the Holy Spirit as using the human writers "as if a flutist breathed into his flute" (Legation 9). A bit later, about 181 A.D., St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote, "Moses ... or rather, the Word of God, who used him as an instrument, said, 'In the beginning God made heaven and earth"' (To Autolycus 2:10). Around 200 A.D. St. Hippolytus said of the prophets that "like instruments, always having the Word as a plectrum (a pick), united with themselves, in themselves, when moved by Him, they announced what God willed" (On Antichrist 2).

While not explicitly saying that God is the author of Holy Scripture, these texts present the concept of God's authorship because He uses humans as instruments.

It will be both interesting and helpful to investigate how it is that only after five or six centuries of existence did the Church clearly teach that God is the author of Holy Scripture. The key is found in the words of our Lord at the Last Supper: "The Holy Spirit ... will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all I have said to you" (John 14:26). This text does not mean that there would be new revelations. No, the great Deposit of Faith was complete when the last Apostle died and the New Testament was finished. After that point, we receive no new public revelation, though there are private revelations. (The word private is not very helpful, but it is standard; even Fatima, though addressed to the world, is technically a private revelation.)

Our Lord promised the Church, not new revelations, but an ever deeper penetration into the Deposit of Faith. A striking instance is the teaching on the Immaculate Conception, which was defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Was the dogma of the Immaculate Conception so clearly present in Scripture so that without the help of the Church one could see it? Not really. But with the help of the Church, we know, thanks to Pius IX, that this dogma is implied in the words of God to the serpent in Genesis 3:15: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed." The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is similarly implied in the greeting of the archangel to the Virgin Mary: "Hail full of grace" (Luke 1:28). (It should be noted that there is debate about the interpretation of Genesis 3:15 and the translation of Luke 1:28.)

So, if Mary was never under the dominion of Satan, being in a perpetual state of enmity with him, she must have been immaculately conceived. Similarly, her being "full of grace" implies the grace of the Immaculate Conception. Nonetheless we need the help of the Church to be sure of these implications.

What of the words of the Fathers of the first centuries? Teachings found in the early Fathers are thought to imply the Immaculate Conception. They often spoke in glowing, sweeping terms about Mary's holiness. That could imply an Immaculate Conception. Again, the Fathers, practically all of them, speak of Mary as a New Eve.

St. Paul had called our Lord "a New Adam"—the new head of the race, who reverses the damage resulting from the sin of the first Adam. The Fathers add that Mary shares in that work, in undoing the harm resulting from the sin of the first Eve. But then, one could argue: If Mary is the New Eve, and since the first Eve had no sin when she began her existence, Mary must have been conceived immaculate. The trouble here is that not one of the Fathers ever reasoned in this way about the Immaculate Conception.

Since both Scripture and the Fathers were unclear regarding Mary's immaculateness, there was room for denial. And denial came from a surprising source: St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In the twelfth century, Bernard, who was so fond of devotion to Mary, clearly denied Mary's Immaculate Conception. Beginning with St. Bernard. then, most of the major theologians of the Middle Ages, including even St. Thomas Aquinas, denied the Immaculate Conception.

The tide began to turn with the help of Duns Scotus (c.12651308). Gradually the popes began siding with the arguments for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The result was that a century and a half before the definition of the Immaculate Conception, the whole Church had come to believe the doctrine.

Now we can see that the Immaculate Conception was quite unclear, even dim, in the first centuries of the Church. Yet later. under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church was enabled to see it clearly, even to define it. Therefore, we need not be surprised to find, at a comparatively late date, a statement by the Church that God is the principal author of Holy Scripture.

Additional statements by the Church were to follow, after some centuries. For example, Peter, Bishop of Antioch, asked Pope Leo IX to send him a correct profession of faith. Leo complied. "I believe," wrote the Pope, " ... that there is one author of the New and Old Testament, of the law and Prophets and Apostles, God, and almighty Lord" (April 13, 1053). We find many similar statements later: in the Council of Florence (1441); in the Council of Trent (1546): in Leo XIII's Proventissimus Deus (1893); in Benedict XV's Spiritus Paraclitus (1920); in Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).

Vatican II, in its Constitution on Divine Revelation. n. 11, taught that "Holy Mother Church, from the apostolic faith, considers the entire books of the Old and New Testament, with all their parts, as sacred and canonical because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author...."

Having accepted the Church's pronouncement, we still need to know what it means to say that God is the chief author of Scripture. In other words, precisely how does He interact with the human writer?

A few authors suggest that God dictated the words of Scripture to the human writer, as a man might dictate to a secretary. But then the question arises as to how the human being could also be called an author? And what of the words of St. Paul in I Corinthians 1:14-18, where Paul's memory wakes up, as it were, in stages?

First Paul says he is glad that he baptized only two persons, Crispus and Gaius, so those clique-loving Corinthians could not say that they had such a special attachment to St. Paul. Then he adds, as his memory awakens, that he also baptized the household of Stephanas. And, in a further awakening, he adds that he is not sure if he baptized any others. Such a gradual gathering of recollections hardly coincides with the idea that the omniscient God was dictating those words to Paul. Though the Church has never condemned it, this theory of dictation was generally given up by the end of the nineteenth century.

In the sixteenth century, Sixtus of Siena suggested that Scripture was a merely human product that the Church later approved. In this view, of course, God would not be the author of Scripture at all. Hence Vatican Council I explicitly rejected this theory, saying, "The Church however considers them [the books of Scripture] sacred and canonical, not because they were written by mere human industry and were then approved by her authority, nor because they contain revelation without error, but because, since they were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author" (EB 77).

Vatican I also said that it would not be enough to say that the books of Scripture "contain revelation without error." They do that, of course, but that point alone would not be enough to establish the fact that God is actually the author of Scripture. To contain revelation without error is largely negative. It is a protection against mistakes, which is different from divine authorship.

Late in the nineteenth century, Cardinal Franzelin developed a different theory of inspiration, which enjoyed much popularity for a while. He thought that divine inspiration affected the human writer only as far as the content of Scripture was concerned. The composition and verbal expression, Franzelin thought, were contributed by the human writer.

This theory was an improvement over the earlier attempts, but it, too, was insufficient. It made an artificial division, and did not adequately explain how God can really be called the author. The view of Cardinal Franzelin, accordingly, has been abandoned.

M. J. Lagrange, a great Scripture scholar closer to our time, suggested that inspiration is primarily a divine illumination of the mind of the human writer, making him able to judge in a higher, clearer, and more certain light. But again, this seems more like assistance on the part of God, not authorship by God.

Pierre Benoit, in 1965, suggested that God's influence on the speculative mind of the human writer was a revelation. That is, it gave the writer new content, new material, while God's influence on the practical working of the man's mind, in composition and communication, would be called inspiration. But inspiration does not always or necessarily include revelation of facts not previously known to the human author.

Drawing on some of the more recent statements of the Church, let us attempt to go beyond these theories. Pope Pius XII, in his great Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), wrote this: "The sacred writer in producing the sacred book is the organon, that is, the instrument of the Holy Spirit, an instrument living and endowed with reason.... He, working under inspiration, still uses his own faculties and powers in such a way that all can easily gather from the book he produces 'the proper character, and, as it were, the individual lines and characteristics"' of the human writer.

Pius XII was quoting, in part, from the Spiritus Paraclitus of Pope Benedict XV (1920). He wanted to draw the lines in such a way that both God and the human writer would be true authors, even though God would be the principal author, really in control of the situation. To bring out the role of God, the Pope spoke of God as the principal cause, the human as the instrumental cause. Yet, to show that the human was not like a lifeless instrument—a pen or a typewriter— he added that the human writer did utilize his own talents and powers so that his distinctive style and character became apparent. Hence we see how it is that not all things in Scripture are in magnificent literary style. If God alone had produced them, of course, they would be. But the human writer retains his own characteristics, even under inspiration.

How is such a combination as this possible? God is transcendent, completely above and beyond our categories and classifications. His knowing is unlike ours. Human beings have both an active and a passive way of knowing things. When we know in a passive way, we take on an impression from outside ourselves, much as a tablet of wax takes on the impression of a signet ring. But this cannot be the way in which God knows. He would then be receiving something He did not have before. He cannot receive for He lacks nothing.

When a human knows actively, he knows something is happening simply because he is causing it. A blind man pushing a chair knows the chair is moving because he is pushing it. But while the blind man is limited, God is not. The active way is not a complete explanation, but it is a small part of the answer.

Therefore, God's way of knowing is unlike any knowing we can imagine. It is simply transcendent. Similarly, God can use a human as an instrument, insuring that the human writes all God wants, as He wants, yet leaving the human writer free to utilize his own human skills and characteristics.

A comparison may be helpful. We want to consider two modes, or manners, in which God affects people by his grace, even outside of inspiration. First, through ordinary actual graces, God guides and moves a person to reach the right thought and decision in a process that is commonly done step-by-step. This is a discursive process. In this mode, God works mostly through the human faculties, causing them, as it were, to churn out the needed effect in such a way that the human being is active too, while receiving all the power to act from God.

But there is a higher manner in which God moves souls. It is by way of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. (The Gifts are not confined to moving a man to decide and act; they do other things too. But here we are considering only one kind of effect of the Gifts.) When God moves a man via the Gifts, the man does not need any step-by-step process to reach the right idea and decision. The answer is, as it were, dropped ready-made into the hopper of his mind. The man's human faculties have little to do with generating the thought. The man's cooperation consists largely in consenting to be moved in this way.

Something comparable happens when God inspires a human writer. The human writer's faculties and powers are indeed somewhat active (not as active as in the first mode), and somewhat passive (as in the case of a man being moved by the Gifts). In this way, God has full control, fully produces the sacred book; yet the human puts his imprint on the style and expression as much as even a lifeless instrument would do when handled by an artist.

So we can see how two things can be said in the book of the prophet Amos. In chapter one, we see that we are about to read "the words of Amos." Yet at the end of the same short book, we find: "Says the Lord your God."

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