Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Is There Error in the Bible?

by Peter P. Dobrowski


A brief examination of the Church's teaching on Biblical inerrancy and how to deal, in general, with difficult passages.

Larger Work

The Priest



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, August 1997

Vision Book Cover Prints

I've been a priest for almost a quarter of a century. I received an M.A. from The Catholic University of America in 1970, and I've taught adult Bible studies for most of my priesthood. But several years ago, I noticed that I was seldom reading the Scriptures in my personal life.

I listened to myself arguing with people holding "fundamentalist" positions and realized that I was criticizing them because they were unfamiliar with what modern scholars were saying and were not following the methods of interpretation I'd been taught. I was interpreting texts by means of scholars; the people I was arguing with were interpreting texts in the light of other texts. This meant they were reading the Bible while I was reading scholars. I needed to know why. After some reflection, I approached an administrator of a Catholic teaching institution. I asked him, "Is there error in the Bible?" He said, "It depends on what you mean by error."

When I asked if he'd agree with the statement "If the Bible is interpreted properly, there's no error in the Bible," he repeated: "It depends on what you mean by error."

I asked several priests and every one of them agreed with him, one even pointing out Mark 2:26 as a historical error placed in the mouth of Jesus.

It soon fell together for me that if there's error in Scripture, then the only "reliable" interpretation can come from scholars who study the texts so they can point out what is true and "demythologize" what is erroneous. The problem with relying on scholars to do this is the way modern scholarship is based on hypothesis.

No one can be sure about what a scholar has written until other scholars have published their findings on the same passage, since their acceptance or rejection of an original hypothesis is how it gets beyond being just one scholar's opinion. Following this method, Catholics need to read the scholars rather than to read the Scriptures because the truth of the Bible is available only to those who have the resources and patience to evaluate the findings of one scholar with those of another.

However, in contrast to people in teaching institutions and to the Catholic priests they've trained, official Catholic teaching unhesitatingly rejects the notion that there is error in the Scriptures. In fact, the 20th century has been blanketed with solemn statements from the highest teaching office defending the reliability of the Bible and the truth of its teaching. As this century was about to dawn, in 1893, Pope Leo XIII issued his major biblical encyclical, Providentissimus Deus, in which he affirmed that "God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true" (no. 21).

In 1920, Pope Benedict XV in his encyclical marking the 15th century of the death of St. Jerome, Spiritus Paraclitus, continued Pope Leo's teaching: "Divine inspiration extends to every part of the Bible without the slightest exception and no error can occur in the inspired text" (no. 21).

At mid-century, in 1943, Pope Pius XII in his biblical encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, reasserted the teachings of his predecessors "with our authority" (no. 4). Twenty-two years later, the Second Vatican Council repeated this teaching in Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation): "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 confided to sacred Scripture" (no. II).

Finally, this same teaching was repeated again at the end of the century by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "God is the author of sacred Scripture because He inspired its human authors; He acts in them and by means of them. He thus gives assurance that their writings teach without error His saving truth" (no. 136).

However, in spite of this blanket of teaching, some who find "error" in Scripture argue that just as infallible papal statements are limited to matters of faith and morals, so truth in the Bible is only found in matters that are "saving" or "for the sake of our salvation." This means the Bible can have "errors" in science, history and anything else that is not an issue of faith and morals.

The proponents of this position should have read the 20th century's papal biblical encyclicals, which soundly rejected limitation on biblical truth. Pope Pius XII made that clear in Divino Afflante Spiritu when he wrote:

When subsequently some Catholic writers . . . ventured to restrict the truth of sacred and to regard other matters, whether in the no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor cal letter Providentissimus Deus . . . justly and rightly condemned these errors" [no. 1].

Vatican II and the Catechism did not change this teaching. They recognized as sources the encyclicals from which the teaching was drawn, and they did not amend or withdraw the encyclicals. In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Vatican II quoted from all three papal biblical encyclicals (twice from Providentissimus Deus and Spiritus Paraclitus and five times from Divino Afflante Spiritu).

The Catechism quotes from Vatican II but cites five passages that reference Divino Afflante Spiritu and one that references Spiritus Paraclitus. "Saving truth" and "truth for the sake of our salvation" are descriptive of the motives God has in offering us Scripture without effort; they are not limitations on the truth that's offered.

This does not mean, however, that a Catholic has to be a fundamentalist who ignores or denies difficult Bible passages, like Mark 2:26. Pope Leo XIII offered St. Augustine as a model for what to do when confronted with difficulties: "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' " (Providentissimus Deus, no. 21). Pope Benedict XV praised St. Jerome who when finding "apparent discrepancies" in the sacred books would "use every endeavor to unravel the difficulty," and the Pope noted that the saint sometimes "solved" a problem, "not always with the happiest results" (Spiritus Paraclitus, no. 15). Pope Pius XII devoted seven sections of the 63 in his encyclical to the subject of a "Way of Treating More Difficult Questions" (nos. 42-48), cautioning that "no one will be surprised if all difficulties are not yet solved and overcome" (no. 44).

In Mark 2:26, Jesus speaks about David and his men eating the Bread of the Presence "when Abiathar was high priest," though modern scholars contend Ahimelech, Abiathar's father, was the actual high priest when this happened.

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, a non-Catholic work (Vol. I, Page 7), says that "Abiathar" is "obviously a mistake for Ahimelech." The Jerusalem Bible notes that "The high priest of I S 21:1-7 was in fact Ahimelech. Either his son Abiathar is named here because, as high priest in David's reign, 2 S 20:25, he was the better known or else Mark is following a different tradition according to which Abiathar was Ahimelech's father (2 S 8:17 Hebr.)."

Because there is confusion and a lack of evidence, it might be more honest to admit that we really don't know the relationship between Abiathar and Ahimelech in the high priestly office when David ate the Bread of the Presence. After all, in Jesus' day it seems the high priesthood was shared by Annas and Caiaphas.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no, 131), the contemporary Church teaches in the words of Vatican II (Dei Verbum, no. 22) that "access to sacred Scriptures ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful."

Leaving Scripture in the hands of scholars who "alone" are able to distinguish truth from "error," and myth from fact, in reality closes Scripture; this means that the faithful who want to know the truth need to go to secondhand (scholarly) sources where truth and "error" can be identified according to the scientific methods (hypothesis) of scholars. In contrast, by insisting that the Scriptures are free from error, the Church opens the sacred writings to the faithful who can trust and accept all that the inspired authors wrote.

Since realizing this, I've found myself reading the Scriptures more than I did in the past. I might be less regarded for my "scholarship," but I'm not a believer in order to be a scholar. I'm a believer so I can know Christ (Phil 3:10). And, as Pope Pius XII, quoting St. Jerome in Divino Afflante Spiritu (no. 57) teaches, "To ignore the Scriptures is to ignore Christ." •

FATHER DOBROWSKI writes from St. Margaret Mary's Catholic Church, Bullhead City, Ariz.

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