Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

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

"Chapter 7: Scriptural Inerrancy in Science and Religion "


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Inspiration rules out any sort of error in the Bible whatsoever. Thus Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, wrote that since God is the author, "it follows that they who think any error is contained in the authentic passages of the Sacred Books surely either pervert the Catholic notion of divine inspiration, or make God Himself the source of error." Note that Pope Leo said that one of two things happens: either they pervert the notion of inspiration, or they make God the author of error.

Charges of error refer primarily to three fields today, matters of science, of religion, or of history. We will take up each of these in detail, putting off the matters of history until after our chapter on literary genre.

In regard to matters of science, Raymond E. Brown wrote: "Already in 1893 Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus ... excluded natural or scientific matters from biblical inerrancy, even if he did this through the expedient of insisting that statements made about nature according to ordinary appearances were not errors. (An example might involve the sun going around the earth.)"1

Here is what Leo XIII actually said: "We must first consider that the sacred writers or, more truly, 'the Spirit of God, who spoke through them,' did not will to teach these things (that is, the inner constitution of visible things) which were of no use for salvation, wherefore they at times described things . . as the common way of speaking at the time they did."

Brown, straining mightily, says that this is a "backdoor way" of admitting scientific error. We even today commonly speak of the sun as rising or setting, or as moving around the sky, when we know perfectly well that it is the earth that is moving. Who would say we are involved in habitual error on this account?

Far more serious is the fact that the same Raymond Brown charges that there are even religious errors in Scripture. "Critical investigation points to religious limitations and even errors. For instance, many recognize that Job 14: 13-22 and Sirach 14:16-17; 17:22-23; 38:21 deny an afterlife."2 Brown tries to claim that Vatican 11 authorizes us to admit all sorts of error in Scripture, including religious errors.3 Scripture, he thinks, can be inerrant only on things needed for salvation. Other religious teachings can be wrong. "Many of us," Brown writes, "think that at Vatican II the Catholic Church 'turned the corner' in the inerrancy question by moving from a priori toward the a posteriori in the statement of Dei verbum 11: '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.'" (Emphasis added. Dei verbum is the Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation.)

Brown focuses on the last clause he cited from Dei verbum. He wants to consider that clause as restrictive instead of descriptive. If it were restrictive, it would mean that only things put into Scripture for the sake of salvation are inerrant, that there could be error in anything else. But if the clause is descriptive, it merely comments that Scripture is for the sake of salvation. What is true here?

First, Brown says, that the statement of Vatican II "is not without ambiguity." Had the Council wanted to say what Brown wishes, it could have removed all ambiguity by the Latin construction qui ... quidem with the subjunctive.

But the decisive reason against Brown is his supposition that a General Council could teach heresy. For since Vatican I, according to Pius XII, gave a solemn definition that there is no error in all Scripture, if Vatican II were to say that there could be error,-religious error at that-we would have Vatican II teaching heresy by contradicting a solemn definition. And no matter on what level of teaching we think Vatican II was speaking here, it still remains that if it contradicted a solemn definition, it would be teaching heresy. Then the promises of Christ would he null and void. Finally, Vatican II itself added a note on this sentence. referring us to statements of the Council of Trent. Leo XIII. and Pius XII which reject the possibility absolutely of error in Scripture.

Raymond Brown thinks that he has found a clear example of error in Job 14:13-22 and in some passages of Sirach/Ecclesiasticus.

In Job 14:9-12 just before the lines in question. Job had said that although a tree may seem to die and then shoot up again, man when he falls does not return. Job is merely denying a return to life as we know it. He does seem to know of some sort of resurrection (probably not a glorious one such as we know from the New Testament), as will be seen presently in Job 19:25-27. He means that no one leaves the tomb and rejoins family and community.

In verse 13. Job says: "Oh that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldest conceal me until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again'?" Again. Job is denying a return to the present life. But after that. in high-flown poetry. Job is wishing fancifully, that God would let him hide alive in Sheol, the abode of the dead, until God's anger would pass. Then Job might emerge again.

Job knows this is only a fancy, yet poets do indulge in fancy. So Marvin Pope in his Anchor Bible commentary on Job, says, "If only God would grant him asylum in the nether world, safe from the wrath that now besets him, and then appoint a time for a new and sympathetic hearing, he would be willing to wait, or even to endure the present evil" (p. 102). Such fancies occur not only in Job's poetry; other places in Scripture provide similar thoughts. Marvin Pope adds: "Isaiah xxvi 20 calls ironically on the people of Judah to hide in their chambers till Yahweh's wrath be past, and Amos ix 2 ff. pictures the wicked as trying vainly to hide in Sheol, heaven, Mount Carmel, the bottom of the sea."

The text of Job continues the fancy he began in the previous lines: "All the days of my service I would wait, till my release should come. Thou wouldest call and I would answer thee; thou wouldest long for the work of thy hands." Then Job adds more on the state he enjoys dreaming of: "For then thou wouldest number my steps, thou wouldest not keep watch over my sin; my transgression would be sealed up in a bag, and thou wouldest cover over my iniquity."

Then Job pushes aside his fancy, knowing it is only a fancy: "But the mountain falls and crumbles away, and the rock is removed from its place; the waters wear away the stones; the torrents wash away the soil of the earth; so thou destroyest the hope of man. Thou prevailest for ever against him, and he passes; thou changes" his countenance and sendest him away." Job is saying here that nothing can hold out against God. All go down into the grave and return no more to this life.

While the father is in Sheol, "his sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low and he perceives it not." Job is saying that when a man goes to Sheol he no longer knows what goes on upon the earth. Why? If a soul reaches the beatific vision, he will know all that pertains to him on earth. Without that vision, is there any means of knowing? Even today, we do not see any means, unless of course God chooses to reveal things to a soul in purgatory.

But-and this is of capital importance-conditions in the afterlife were radically different in the day of Job from what they are today. Why? Jesus had not yet died. Heaven, the vision of God, was not open, even to the just who had paid in full the debt of their sins. Theologians commonly speak of this state as the Limbo of the Fathers.4

Job was quite right. In Sheol there is no knowledge of what goes on on earth. Since there is no such knowledge, "he feels no pain for anything but his own body, makes no lament, save for his own life." But those words do imply consciousness in Sheol.

Really, it would be strange if Job would have no knowledge of an afterlife. The Book of Job probably was composed between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C. Before that, in the eighth century, Isaiah 14:9-11 pictures the souls in Hades as taunting the fallen rulers of Babylon as they arrive. Isaiah 26:19 says: "Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall."

The Jerome Biblical Commentary, of which Brown was an editor, has this to say of the above: "There is an explicit hope in the resurrection of individuals" (I, p.277). Of course, but not to the conditions of present life. Job denies a return to present conditions and he does not seem to know of a glorious resurrection. Isaiah does not hint at glory.

Jesus Himself refuted the Sadducees by pointing out that Sheol does not mean annihilation. He reminded them that God had said to Moses, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Then Jesus added: "He is not God of the dead, but of the living..." (Mark 12:26-27).

In fact, though the sense of the passage is debated, many think that Job (19:25-27) does look ahead to a resurrection, even if not the glorious kind we know: "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God." These lines cannot be taken to mean a rescue for Job in this life, for in 7:6-7 Job had given up on that: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and come to their end without hope. Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good."

It should be recalled that the Hebrews spent centuries in Egypt, where there was a well-developed idea of the afterlife. Afterward they lived in Canaan among a people who also had such ideas. How could they fail to have an idea of an afterlife?

Raymond Brown also thinks there is a denial of an afterlife in Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus. In 14:16-17 we read: "Give, and take and beguile yourself, because in Hades one cannot look for luxury." We already know the answer. The afterlife before the death of Christ was the dull Limbo of the Fathers, where they waited to enter the vision of God.

Unfortunately, not all versions use the same numberings for the verses of our next passage. What Brown calls Sirach 17:22-23 is 17:27-28 in the Revised Standard Version: "Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades, as do those who are alive and give thanks? From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased." M. Dahood, in Anchor Bible commentary on Psalms 6:6 (6:5 in Revised Standard Version), has a similar thought: "The psalmist suffers not because of the inability to remember Yahweh in Sheol, but from being unable to share in the praise of Yahweh which characterizes Israel's worship."

Israelites loved the grand liturgical praises of God, but there is no such thing in the dull Limbo of the Fathers. Isaiah 38:18 has a similar thought: "For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee." The Hebrew for extol there is hallel, the same word that is used in I Chronicles 16:4 and 2 Chronicles 5:13, 31:2, for the liturgical praise of God.

Raymond Brown also appeals to Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 38:21: "Do not forget, there is no coming back; you do the dead no good, and injure yourself." There is no "coming back," again, means that there is no return to the present form of life. So this verse, too, is no real problem and does not at all prove an error in Scripture.


1 Brown, op. cit. p. 15.
2 Ibid. p. 16.
3 Ibid. p. 18.
4 The early Fathers of the Church refer to it many times, e.g., Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 9.16.5; St. Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 72; St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.20.4; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.6; St. Athanasius, Ad Epictus 6; Origen, On Romans 5.1, and many, many more. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that in his Summa, Suppl. 69.7c.

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