In the combox on a prior post about the existence of Satan being debated on Nightline, a dust-up began about the inerrancy of scriptures that started to get a little personal. Rather than let that get out of hand, I decided to hold a few comments and post on the subject directly.
Some may remember that I posted Fr. Brian Harrison’s letter to the editor of the St. Louis Review on the subject of the proper interpretation of the Vatican II document Dei Verbum. He wrote about the interpretation that he advocates as the proper interpretation consistent with the constant magisterium of the Church.
Father Harrison wrote an article called “On Rewriting the Bible” for Christian Order. You can read the entire article at the link; below are his three principal points of proper and authentically Catholic Biblical studies, as required by Dei Verbum and the writings of the Popes:
First, Sacred Scripture is free from error in all that the sacred writers affirm, regardless of subject-matter. Again and again the magisterium has insisted that no Catholic interpreter may dare to restrict biblical inerrancy to the kinds of affirmations which he thinks have some religious or ‘salvific‘ value, while allowing for the possibility of biblical errors in other supposedly ‘profane’ matters; for, as Vatican II puts it, everything affirmed by the human writers of the Bible is affirmed by the Holy Spirit Himself. That is precisely what the divine inspiration of Scripture means.
Secondly, Scripture must be interpreted in accord with Sacred Tradition, in particular, the unanimous consensus of the early Fathers, and the declarations of the Church’s magisterium; and
Thirdly, while the identification of the precise literary genres of some parts of the Bible may be legitimately debated, the four Gospels, from start to finish, definitely belong to the literary genre of history in the strong and full sense of that word. As Vatican II puts it, the Gospels “always” (semper) tell us “the honest truth” about Jesus, handing on “faithfully” what he “really did and said for our salvation until the day He was taken up.”
The quintessential pre-conciliar encyclical on the subject of Biblical inerrancy is Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus. The Holy Father wrote on the subject of Biblical interpretation to respond to the rise of a mode of Scriptural critique that would be labelled by him “rationalist”; by Pius X “modernist” and by Fr. Harrison “neo-modernist”. In Pope Leo’s own words:
10. But first it must be clearly understood whom we have to oppose and contend against, and what are their tactics and their arms. In earlier times the contest was chiefly with those who, relying on private judgment and repudiating the divine traditions and teaching office of the Church, held the Scriptures to be the one source of revelation and the final appeal in matters of Faith. Now, we have to meet the Rationalists, true children and inheritors of the older heretics, who, trusting in their turn to their own way of thinking, have rejected even the scraps and remnants of Christian belief which had been handed down to them. They deny that there is any such thing as revelation or inspiration, or Holy Scripture at all; they see, instead, only the forgeries and the falsehoods of men; they set down the Scripture narratives as stupid fables and lying stories: the prophecies and the oracles of God are to them either predictions made up after the event or forecasts formed by the light of nature; the miracles and the wonders of God’s power are not what they are said to be, but the startling effects of natural law, or else mere tricks and myths; and the Apostolic Gospels and writings are not the work of the Apostles at all. These detestable errors, whereby they think they destroy the truth of the divine Books, are obtruded on the world as the peremptory pronouncements of a certain newly-invented “free science;” a science, however, which is so far from final that they are perpetually modifying and supplementing it. And there are some of them who, notwithstanding their impious opinions and utterances about God, and Christ, the Gospels and the rest of Holy Scripture, would fain be considered both theologians and Christians and men of the Gospel, and who attempt to disguise by such honorable names their rashness and their pride. To them we must add not a few professors of other sciences who approve their views and give them assistance, and are urged to attack the Bible by a similar intolerance of revelation. And it is deplorable to see these attacks growing every day more numerous and more severe. It is sometimes men of learning and judgment who are assailed; but these have little difficulty in defending themselves from evil consequences. The efforts and the arts of the enemy are chiefly directed against the more ignorant masses of the people. They diffuse their deadly poison by means of books, pamphlets, and newspapers; they spread it by addresses and by conversation; they are found everywhere; and they are in possession of numerous schools, taken by violence from the Church, in which, by ridicule and scurrilous jesting, they pervert the credulous and unformed minds of the young to the contempt of Holy Scripture. Should not these things, Venerable Brethren, stir up and set on fire the heart of every Pastor, so that to this “knowledge, falsely so called,”28 may be opposed the ancient and true science which the Church, through the Apostles, has received from Christ, and that Holy Scripture may find the champions that are needed in so momentous a battle?
I don’t know about you, but I remember learning about the “proper” approach to scripture studies in high school in what I like to call the “New American Bible Commentary” method. You may remember, the multi-source origins of Genesis, for example, as opposed to the traditional assignment of Moses as the author of the first five books of the Old Testament. It is indicative of the way all scripture was to be approached. Everything known before was now up for grabs. Authorship of books, dates of books, accuracy of histories and miraculous events. Funny enough, the “new learning” always had the tendency to lessen faith in the accuracy of the Bible from a historical sense, and lessened the belief in the truth of the spiritual matters contained therein as well.
But Scripture cannot contain error, as it is inspired by the Holy Ghost. It cannot contain factual error, it cannot contain doctrinal error– error is inimical to the nature of God. Of course the words must be interpreted as the sacred writer intended, and the only authentic interpreter of Scripture is the Church. This is not an excuse to assign passages of scripture intended to relay historical fact as not scientifically accurate, just because they don’t comport with our notions of what is possible or likely. Father Harrison’s article lays out the only possible way to reconcile the documents of Vatican II with the constant tradition of the Church.