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Catholic Culture Solidarity

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

"Chapter 6: Inspiration and Inerrancy-General "


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Since God is the principal author of Holy Scripture, it follows that Scripture can contain absolutely no error of any kind.

Yet today there are numerous charges of error in Scripture, even from Catholics. They often begin by confusing the issue with terminology. They say that there are two ways of looking at the question, a priori, and a posteriori. If we look a priori, that is in advance of checking the text of Scripture, we say, "God is the author; therefore no error is possible." But these people say, "Let us look a posterior), that is, let us consider the question after looking at the text." When they do that, they say, in effect: "Look at all the errors we found in Scripture! Since there are errors, of course there can be errors!"

A strong example of this new position is provided by Thomas A. Hoffman, SJ.1 As essential for the sacred character of Scripture, Hoffman requires that the writings be: "(1) inspired, that is originating from and communicating the Spirit of God; (2) in some sense normative for the community; and (3) canonical, having official and unique authoritative status."

At first sight, Hoffman's criteria seem to be in accord with the Church. But we need a closer look. As to inspiration, Hoffman says, "I maintain that what they meant was simply a writing in which they experienced the power. truth, etc., of the Spirit of Christ ...." But this is really subjective and does not at all imply freedom from error. Hence. Father Hoffman adds, "The term inerrancy is dropped in this paper as having no positive theological contribution to make." Father Hoffman says this because he uses the a posteriori approach. He looks at the text and judges it to be so full of errors that to try to explain them away is "basically patching holes on a sinking ship."

To try to defend Scripture against charges of error, Father Hoffman adds, shows a lack of faith. "What is at work here is a search for a security that is not only non-existent but incompatible with the total dependence upon the faith-covenant that is at the heart of Judeo-Christian religion, a kind of idolatry that gives a certitude that trespasses upon the true Christian faith-relationship with God."

At first sight, these words may seem a strong expression of faith. Actually, they deprive faith of its basis. "Believe because you will to believe." is what they are saying. Neither the Catholic Church nor Holy Scripture takes such an attitude. Thus the First Epistle of St. Peter admonishes us: "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you ..." (3:15).

As we saw in chapter 2, there is a solid, rational process that starts by regarding the Gospels merely as ancient documents and moves forward to prove the teaching commission of the Church, given to it by a Messenger sent by God, who has promised it His protection.

The situation becomes clearer when we compare the proposal of Father Hoffman to that of Rudolph Bultmann, father of "form criticism."2 Bultmann's contention is that faith cannot be logically proven. "The man who wishes to believe in God as his God," says Bultmann, "must realize that he has nothing in his hand on which to base his faith. He is suspended in mid-air, and cannot demand a proof of the word which addresses him .... Security can be found only by abandoning all security."

If Bultmann meant that we should first arrive at the divinity of Jesus, the Divine Word, and then without further question believe Him, that would be splendid. But he does not mean that at all. Thinking that we can know hardly anything with certitude about Jesus, Bultmann reinterprets the Gospels to make them mean the same as a bizarre modern German existentialist, Martin Heidegger.3 Bultmann says that his "demythologizing" of the New Testament (making it mean the same as Heidegger and removing the myths) is "in fact a perfect parallel to St. Paul's and Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone .... It destroys every false security," of trying to work to a rational preliminary to faith. Just as in justification by faith, we have no basis in works, so in faith we have no basis in rational preliminaries. Bultmann goes still further: "The old quest for visible security, the hankering after tangible realities ... is sin .... Faith means turning our backs on self and abandoning all security."4

In short, the proposals of Father Hoffman and Bultmann remind us of the desire of the Danish existentialist Kierkegaard to make faith just "a leap." We, as it were, jump up to Cloud 9, and believe because we decide to believe. We must not be prepared, as St. Peter wishes, to "have an answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope you have." We are reminded-of St. Paul's warning in 2 Corinthians 11:13-14: "Such men are false apostles. They practice deceit in their disguise as apostles of Christ. And little wonder! For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."

Raymond E. Brown speaks much like Father Hoffman. He writes: "If one has an a priori view of inerrancy that forbids a religious error, one will have to argue insistently that Job (14:13-22) did not mean what he seems to say."5 Father Brown means that Job 14:13-22, denies the afterlife. Brown describes the efforts of those who seek to show Job did not do that as "an unmitigated disaster." One almost wonders whether Father Brown has a sort of faith in reverse that assures him of the presence of error in Scripture. For, as we shall see, it is easily possible to answer this charge, which Brown considers his strongest case.

Before getting into the specifics, we should see on the positive side and in general what the Catholic Church teaches about inerrancy in Scripture. We already saw that Vatican Council I taught that the books of Scripture are sacred, not only 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."

Now it is completely obvious that if God is the author, there can be no error. Pius XII, in his encyclical on Scripture, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), after quoting this statement of Vatican I, commented: "In our age, the Vatican Council, to reject false teachings about inspiration, declared that these same books [of Scripture] must be considered 'as sacred and canonical' by the Church, 'not only because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and as such have been handed down to the Church.'"

"But then," Pius XII adds, "when certain Catholic authors, contrary to this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, in which authority of this kind is claimed which enjoys immunity from any error whatsoever, for these books 'whole and entire, with all their parts'-when these authors had dared to restrict the truth of Holy Scripture to matters of faith and morals ... our Predecessor of Immortal memory, Leo XIII, in an encyclical, Providentissimus Deus.... rightly and properly refuted those errors...."

Some writers had said that matters of natural science or history, or things said in passing, are not protected by inerrancy. Only things pertaining to faith and morals, they said, are so protected. Pius XII pointed out the obvious: that if God is the author, there can be no error whatsoever, of any kind. And he spoke of the teaching of Vatican I on this point as "a solemn definition." Raymond Brown, however, insists there can be errors, even in religious matters! The next chapter will consider these charges.

Correct method is vital in studying any matter. Failure to use proper method in science resulted in such scant progress, mixed with manifold errors, until rather recent times. When scientists switched to the right method, the result was the splendid explosion of progress that has not yet subsided.

The point concerning method to be made here is this: one must distinguish the fact from the how. The fact that there is no error in Scripture, we know from the teachings of the Church. But how to explain certain difficulties requires additional work. However, and this is the vital point, even if we were not able at present to find the how that will solve particular problems, that should not blind us to the fact that there is an answer. We know infallibly that there is an answer, from the Church's teaching that there is no error. Moreover, there can be no error whatsoever in Scripture, precisely because the principal author of Scripture is God Himself.

Today, thanks to new techniques in the study of Scripture, we can solve numerous problems that utterly baffled scholars even as recently as the early part of this century. These earlier scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, knew how to solve some problems in Scripture, but they were well aware they could not solve certain others. Yet because they were persons of excellent faith, they knew that every difficulty must have an answer, even if they couldn't find it.

Today, incomprehensibly, we have the reverse situation. Precisely at the time when new techniques enable us to do what seemed impossible before, so many scholars are not only not solving the problems but even saying that problems are insoluble whose answers have been known for a long time! For example, Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ notes two seeming contradictions in the three accounts of the conversion of St. Paul, in Acts 9:3-19, 22:6-16, and 26:12-18.6

In one account of Paul's conversion, his companions heard the voice that spoke to him; in another they did not. In one account, Paul's companions were thrown to the ground; in the other, they stood amazed. Fitzmyer says that "the variants may be due to the different sources of Luke's information." But these difficulties have been resolved for a long time. As to the question about hearing vs not hearing, the explanation lies in the meaning of the Greek akouein, which signifies either to know that there is a sound or to understand what it says. A case of hearing a sound without knowing what it says is found in John 12:29, where a voice from the sky speaks to Jesus. He understands, but people in the crowd thought that they had heard thunder.

As to the second problem, if one is literally knocked off his feet by such an experience, he will in a moment scramble to his feet and then stand and look puzzled.


1 "Inspiration, Normativeness, Canonicity and the Unique Sacred Character of the Bible," Catholic Biblical Quarterly (July 1981), pp. 447-469.
2 "Bultmann replies to his critics," Kerygma and Myth, Vol. l, 2nd ea., ed. Hans W. Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: SPCK, 1964), p. 210.
3 Ibid. pp. 1 44, especially pp. 26-28.
4 Ibid. p. 19.
5 Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), pp. 16-17.
6 Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. 11, 2nd ea., ed. R. E. Brown et al. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1968), p. 218.

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