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No. 145-146 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March-May 2010

Does Vatican Council II Allow for Errors in Sacred Scripture?

by Brian W. Harrison

This article was first published in the Roman theological journal Divinitas, Year LII, No. 3 (2009), pp. 279-304.
It is reproduced here, in slightly amplified form, with the kind permission of the editor of Divinitas.


At the conclusion of the October 2008 Synod of Bishops in Rome, dedicated to “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”, 55 propositions were adopted for submission to the Supreme Pontiff for his consideration. Among these propositions, no. 12, entitled, “The Inspiration and Truth of the Bible”, reads as follows:

The Synod proposes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarify the concepts of the Bible's inspiration and truth, together with their reciprocal relationship, so as to enable a better understanding of the teaching of Dei Verbum, 11. In particular, there is a need to bring out clearly the originality of Catholic biblical hermeneutics in this field.1

This appeal for an official clarification was evidently the result of an unresolved debate arising during the Synod over a controversial proposition in the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) – the working paper that was used as a starting point for discussion by the Synod Fathers. The IL, which had already been made public on June 12, 2008, by the Synod Secretariat at a Vatican press conference, included the following proposition in its section 15(c):

Although all parts of Sacred Scripture are divinely inspired, inerrancy applies only to ‘that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation’ (DV 11).2

This reading of Dei Verbum, characterized pointedly here by the restrictive words “Although” and “only”, has indeed been very widespread for over four decades in Catholic faculties of theology and seminaries. Nevertheless, it was challenged by some participants in the Synod, and the Synod Fathers finally refrained from endorsing it. Critics of the above IL proposition saw it as being contrary to the authentic mind of the Council Fathers in DV 11, and indeed, to the Church’s entire bimillennial tradition. Since then, evidently as a result of the Synod’s final proposition 12, the Pontifical Biblical Commission has been preparing a document on the inspiration and truth of Scripture, and this was the theme of the Commission’s plenary meeting held in Rome from 20-24 April 2009. At the time this article is being written, it is not known when, or even if, the final version of this paper will be made public. But since documents of the PBC have not in any case enjoyed magisterial status since the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s 1971 Motu Proprio Sedula Cura3, the insights into this problem of the respected biblical scholars who compose the Commission, while they will no doubt be highly useful to theologians and exegetes alike, will not have the authority to terminate legitimate public discussion among other Catholic scholars.

Now, since this discussion over inerrancy does in fact continue in the Catholic academy, it seems important that both sides of the controversy be given a fair hearing. The purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that Vatican Council II, in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, upholds the traditional Catholic doctrine that all of the sacred writers’ affirmations, regardless of subject-matter, are guaranteed to be free from error. However, this does not mean I will concede that Sacred Scripture contains affirmations that are not there “for the sake of our salvation”, and then insist that these too are guaranteed to be without error. On the contrary, I read DV 11 as implying that such affirmations simply do not exist in the Bible. In other words, it will be argued here that Dei Verbum, rightly understood, means that each and every one of the biblical authors’ affirmations is both guaranteed to be true and recorded “for the sake of our salvation”.

Since this is an avowedly traditional doctrinal position, it seems appropriate to make the following preliminary clarification, in order to obviate any possible misunderstanding or even misrepresentation of what my position implies and does not imply.

In recent decades, insistence on the assured truth of all affirmations of the inspired writers, regardless of subject-matter, has often been wrongly brushed aside as “fundamentalism”, ”literalism”, or as going hand-in-hand with a position that fails to appreciate contemporary Church teaching on the differing literary genres found in Sacred Scripture. This teaching has been expressed authoritatively, for instance, in Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, in Dei Verbum, article 12, and in what is probably the most important magisterial intervention on biblical studies since Vatican Council II, the allocution of Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993, commemorating the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Providentissimus Deus.

It seems opportune, therefore, that I and other Catholic scholars who uphold the classical doctrine should make clear, when treating of the inerrancy issue, our full awareness of, and adherence to, these magisterial teachings on the importance of taking into account, with the aid of the appropriate human sciences, the literary devices, conventions and genres commonly used in ancient Near Eastern cultures and often found in the biblical books. Indeed, I know of no Catholic scholar who does not dissociate himself/herself from the kind of approach that ignores this essential aspect of hermeneutics, and so confuses insistence on inerrancy with a naïve or superficial ‘literalism’ that will often fail to discern the true intentions of the sacred writers. We all accept the “historical-critical method” of biblical scholarship in the sense that this term has been used approvingly by the Supreme Pontiffs4; but not in the sense in which that term is very frequently used today, that is, as designating a method which not only concedes the existence of real errors on the part of the sacred writers, but which incorporates, overtly or covertly, an a priori skepticism about the credibility and historicity of miraculous and other supernatural elements in the biblical accounts.

Now, keeping in mind this clarification, let us consider the teaching of DV 11 in more detail. The above proposition of the pre-Synod Instrumentum Laboris will be referred to as a convenient expression of that widespread interpretation of the Council’s teaching which, we submit, is incorrect.

1. Inerrancy: guaranteed only for some biblical affirmations?

As the words “Although” (quamvis) and “only” (tantummodo) in the cited proposition make manifest here, its authors were arguing for what can be called restricted biblical inerrancy – the thesis that some affirmations5 of the human writers of Sacred Scripture are not there “for the sake of [our] salvation” and these affirmations enjoy no guarantee of inerrancy.

Now, this thesis – that some biblical affirmations may be erroneous – has been censured as contrary to Catholic doctrine in every papal encyclical including substantial teaching on biblical studies. The traditional doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy insists that everything affirmed by the human authors of Sacred Scripture has been written down “for the sake of our salvation”, and that its simultaneous affirmation by the Holy Spirit guarantees its freedom from error.

The following considerations, taken together, are, I believe, sufficient to demonstrate that Vatican Council II upholds this traditional doctrine in DV 11:

1.1 First, and most conspicuously, the word “only” (tantummodo) in the IL proposition is a gratuitous addition on the part of its authors. No Latin word or expression in the conciliar text they appeal to (DV 11) corresponds to it.

1.2 The IL translations (in most languages) of the relevant text of DV 11 open the way for the restricted-inerrancy thesis by mistakenly treating the term Litteris Sacris as if it were in the dative case – an indirect object of the verb consignari. Hence, the Council is made to say that salvific or saving truth (truth relevant to our salvation) is something “put into”, or “confided to”, the Sacred Writings. But this misleadingly depicts the Bible as a kind of recipient or container for the aforesaid truth. As such, it could also in principle receive and contain salvifically irrelevant material, just as a field sown with the seeds of nourishing fruits and vegetables is equally capable of receiving the seeds of inedible plants and even noxious weeds.

The reason DV 11 is commonly translated this way seems to be that consignare is assumed to mean something like “consign” – or consegnare, consigner, consignar, etc. – in modern Latin-derived vernaculars. In such languages, these derivatives of consignare now mean much the same as “give,” “deliver”, “entrust”, or “hand over” (which would be dare, tradere, concedere or committere in Latin). They require both a direct and an indirect object: we speak of “consigning” one thing to some other thing or person. But in fact the basic meaning in Latin of consignare is quite different. The Oxford Latin Dictionary gives as the meaning relevant to the present case: “To record in a sealed document, . . . to place on record in any manner, attest.”6 From this sense of the word, which comes from Cicero’s prose and takes only a direct object, the expression “Aliquid litteris consignare” became a standard expression in all subsequent Latin literature. Clearly, the word litteris here is an instrumental ablative, not a dative, since the “letters” do not pre-exist physically as a potential recipient of the writer’s ideas, but come into being as the means by which he expresses them. The strictly literal meaning of the above three-word expression is thus “to record something by means of letters”. That is, in standard English, “to put (or set down) something in writing”.

Nor does contemporary ecclesiastical usage afford any reason to suppose that litteris in conjunction with consignare could be in the dative case.7 The only reasonable conclusion, then, is that Litteris Sacris in DV 11 is indeed an ablative. The idea is that God has used the Sacred Writings as a means or instrument by which, or the form in which, he wanted his saving truth to be expressed and recorded. In short, the Council’s statement in DV 11 – contrary to the implication of the IL proposition – means that everything in Sacred Scripture is given by God “for the sake of our salvation”: there is no room in the Bible for ‘non-salvific’ (or ‘salvifically irrelevant’) affirmations that might not be exempt from error.

Another common inaccuracy in translating this sentence of DV 11 is to replace the definite article by the demonstrative “that” before “truth” (“. . . that truth which God wanted . . . “). This would be justified only if the original was “eam veritatem” or “illam veritatem”, which is not the case (see Latin text below). Gratuitously adding this demonstrative adjective reinforces the false impression that the Council is singling out a certain restricted species of biblical truth – a certain subset of the set of all biblical truths – as the “only” one guaranteed to be free from any admixture of error.

Here is the original text of this sentence, followed by a new English rendition which does not include the gratuitous “that” before “truth”, duly translates Litteris Sacris as an instrumental ablative, and follows the Latin in emphasizing the phrase “without error” by placing it at the end, rather than leaving it inconspicuously located further back in the sentence:

Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturæ libri veritatem, quam Deus nostræ salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt.

Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors or hagiographers affirm must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must in consequence acknowledge that, by means of the books of Scripture, the truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wanted recorded in the form of the Sacred Writings is taught firmly, faithfully, and without error.8

1.3 The gloss ascribing “only” to the second clause of the above sentence renders it incompatible with the first clause – from the standpoint of both reason and faith. Here is the same sentence again, with emphasis added to the words that bring out its logical structure:

Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturæ libri veritatem, quam Deus nostræ salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt.

As regards reason, the Council Fathers clearly intend the second half of the sentence to follow logically from the major premise expressed in the first, together with the unexpressed (because so obviously true) minor premise that the Holy Spirit cannot affirm error. But if one tries to read the word “only” into the second half of the sentence, then not only does it no longer follow logically from the first half; it draws a ‘conclusion’ that is positively excluded by the first half. For the inference then becomes the following: “Since everything affirmed by the sacred writers must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must therefore acknowledge that only some of what they affirm (namely, what is “for the sake of our salvation”) is without error”. But this is logically at the same level as arguing, “Since you have paid me for six apples, I am therefore obliged to give you only three apples”. How could it be seriously maintained that an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church has taught such a flagrant and elementary non sequitur, in which the conclusion not only does not follow from the premise, but contradicts it?

As regards faith, Dei Verbum – a Dogmatic Constitution – is clearly presenting the real conclusion to be drawn from its premises in 11, namely, that everything affirmed by the sacred writers must be free from error,9 as a truth of Catholic doctrine. But according to the IL, some things they affirm may be erroneous.

1.4 In the very next sentence after the one just cited and discussed, the Council Fathers confirm the point we made at the beginning of this section A – namely, that they are saying everything in Sacred Scripture is both inspired by God and relevant for our salvation. For not only do they cite II Timothy 3: 16-17 to that effect (“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable . . .”), but they introduce this citation with the word Itaque (“thus”, or “accordingly”) to show that they regard these words of the New Testament as providing biblical confirmation or backing for what they have just taught in the previous sentence. In no way would this Itaque make sense if, in that previous sentence, the Council Fathers had intended to teach that some things in Scripture are not profitable for salvation.

1.5 Since the IL’s proposition is incompatible with the text itself of DV 11 (cf. 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 above), it is not surprising to find that it also conflicts with the official explanation of this same passage given to the conciliar Fathers by the relator when he told them why the Theological Commission was introducing the notion of the Bible’s salvific purpose into the sentence affirming its freedom from error. His explanation was given at that point when the draft under discussion affirmed that the books of Scripture “teach saving truth [veritatem salutarem] without error”; but it clearly applies equally to the final text, in which the adjective salutarem was replaced by an adjectival clause similar in meaning: “veritatem, quam Deus nostræ salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit”. The relator stated:

By the term “salvific” (salutarem) it is by no means suggested that Sacred Scripture is not in its integrity the inspired Word of God. . . . This expression does not imply any material limitation to the truth of Scripture, rather, it indicates Scripture’s formal specification, the nature of which must be kept in mind in deciding in what sense everything affirmed in the Bible is true – not only matters of faith and morals and facts bound up with the history of salvation. For this reason the Commission has decided that the expression should be retained.10

The idea of a “material limitation” to biblical truth would mean that a certain quantity of affirmations made by the sacred authors have salvific value and are certainly true while the remaining ones do not, and are open to possible error. But that kind of limitation, which the relator denied is intended by the conciliar text, is precisely what the IL proposition reads into it. In contrast, the official explanation of what the conciliar text does mean is quite explicit: “[E]verything affirmed in the Bible is true – not only matters of faith and morals and facts bound up with the history of salvation.”

1.6 The sources of Catholic doctrine referenced in note 5 to Dei Verbum 11 also confirm unmistakably that the Council did not intend to teach the doctrine expressed by the IL proposition, but rather, the perennial doctrine that Scripture is completely free of error. We shall consider first those sources already referenced in the footnote in the drafts prior to the controversy that arose when the text was amended by adding salutarem to veritatem (cf. section 1.5 above).

1.6 (a) The ‘primordial’ reference in this footnote is actually that which appears last in the finally approved text: the passage EB 539 from Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu. (The sources are listed in the footnote in chronological order, and this one, dating from 1943, is the most recent.) This source is the only one that was referenced in every successive draft of the document, from first to last. And indeed, if the Council had appealed to no previous magisterial statement on biblical inerrancy other than this one, wherein Pius XII quotes extensively from, and strongly confirms, his predecessor Leo XIII, this one reference would really have been quite sufficient to manifest the Fathers’ intention to uphold the classical doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy. In rebuttal of the idea that Scripture can err when it treats of certain subjects, Pius refers to what Leo said in Providentissimus:

With grave words did he proclaim that there is no error whatsoever if the sacred writer, speaking of things of the physical order, “went by what sensibly appeared”, as the Angelic Doctor says, speaking either “in figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even among the most eminent men of science”.

Pope Pius goes on to recall that his predecessor also insisted that the Bible’s historical passages must likewise be defended from every charge of error. He then concludes this section of his encyclical (i.e., the section selected by Vatican II for its footnote) with the following declaration, in which the thesis of restricted inerrancy is described as absolutely incompatible with “the ancient and constant faith of the Church”. (The expressions in quotation marks are again citations from Providentissimus Deus):

Finally, it is absolutely wrong and forbidden “either to narrow inspiration to certain passages of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred”, since divine inspiration “not only is essentially incompatible with error but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church” (DS 3292-3293).

1.6 (b) In the third draft of the schema on Revelation the above footnote reference to Divino Afflante Spiritu was supplemented by the passage EB 124 from Providentissimus. This includes the passage quoted by Pius XII in EB 539 (cf. 1.6 [a] above), but also the following, wherein Leo XIII, acknowledging the existence of apparent errors in Scripture, nevertheless firmly rejects any theory of restricted inspiration or inerrancy as a supposed solution to such problems. He describes as “intolerable”

. . . the theory of those who, in order to unburden themselves of these difficulties, have no hesitation in maintaining that divine inspiration pertains to nothing more than matters of faith and morals. This error arises from the false opinion that, when it is a question of the truth of biblical affirmations, one should not so much inquire into what God has said, but rather, into why He has said it.

This illicit question as to “why” rather than “what” would in practice be very frequently invited by the IL proposition we are criticizing. For when faced with any seemingly erroneous statement of a biblical author, the apologist or Scripture scholar who follows the IL teaching will inevitably be led to ask the obvious “why” question: “Is this statement here for the sake of our salvation, or not?” And if he can persuade himself that the problematic biblical affirmation is not salvific in purpose (as he almost certainly will when it is about history or the physical cosmos), then he will complacently dispense himself from the task of having to defend its truth. For the IL school of thought reassures him that biblical authors can in fact perform the remarkable feat of penning statements that are erroneous and yet divinely inspired.

1.7 The above two magisterial references, EB 539 and EB 124, made up the complete footnote in the third draft (Schema III). Controversy then arose when Schema IV was released. While it made no change in the footnote references, the word “veritatem” in the main text was now qualified by the adjective “salutarem”, so that, according to the new schema, the biblical books teach “saving (or salvific) truth without error”. We have discussed in 1.5 above the official explanation given to the Fathers for this amendment – an explanation equally valid for the finally promulgated document – and have seen that it confirms the classical doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy already proposed in the main text. Further confirmation of the Council’s intention to uphold this traditional doctrine is found in the fact that no less than six further footnote references were added by the Commission in the final version of the text, precisely in order to reassure those Fathers who were worried that mentioning the Bible’s salvific purpose in this context would be taken to imply the restricted inerrancy thesis. We shall consider these new footnote references in turn:

1.7 (a) The first is a citation from St. Augustine’s work On the Literal Sense of Genesis (De Genesi ad Litteram) which criticizes those who try to draw more detailed scientific information from the Scriptures than their authors intended to give us: e.g., by attempting to deduce from the creation account in Genesis whether the heavens completely envelop the earth like a sphere, or merely cover it on one side like an inverted hemispherical bowl.11 The point being made here by Augustine is certainly not that Scripture may err when it describes the cosmos, but rather, that guidance for our salvation is the purpose of Scripture: for he reminds us that “the Spirit of God who spoke through [the inspired writers] did not wish to teach men such matters [as] the intimate structure of visible things – since they are not profitable for salvation.”12

1.7 (b) Another quotation from Augustine (Epistola 82,3) is added to the footnote here, reinforcing the teaching that Scripture is free from error in whatever the sacred writers affirm. In this classical locus for the said teaching, the Bishop of Hippo affirms in a letter to St. Jerome:

For I confess to your charity that I have learnt to regard those books of Scripture now called canonical – and them alone – with such awe and honor that I most firmly believe none of their authors has erred in writing anything. And if I come across anything in those Writings which troubles me because it seems contrary to the truth, I will unhesitatingly lay the blame elsewhere: perhaps the copy is untrue to the original; or the translator may not have rendered the passage faithfully; or perhaps I just do not understand it.

1.7 (c) The question might now arise, however, as to whether (and if so, why) there is any place at all in the Scriptures for ‘profane’ affirmations about history or natural science, given that the purpose of these books is to lead us to salvation, not to instruct us in the complexities of mundane knowledge. In order to clarify this point, a passage from St. Thomas Aquinas’ De Veritate is the next source to be referenced in this final version of the footnote. Here the question is considered “whether scientific conclusions can be the subject-matter of prophetic inspiration.”13 Aquinas answers that indeed they can. Following Augustine, he recognizes that the charism of prophecy (under which heading he includes biblical inspiration) is given only for the good of the Church, i.e., for the salvation of souls. Nevertheless, the fact is that “Many things proved by science can be useful” for salvation – that is, “for building up our faith or for our moral formation.” He specifies, by way of example, “those features in nature which induce us to contemplate with wonder the divine wisdom and power. Thus, we find such things mentioned in Sacred Scripture.”14 In short, in citing and endorsing St. Thomas here, the Fathers of Vatican II are ruling out the position expressed in the IL proposition. Far from implying that some biblical affirmations, such as those about the cosmos, (i.e., empirical science) are irrelevant for salvation, and are therefore possibly erroneous, Aquinas, the ‘Common Doctor’, is actually teaching that the very presence of such affirmations in Sacred Scripture is proof of both their “prophetic inspiration” (i.e., their divine authorship) and their usefulness in one way or another for our salvation.

1.7 (d) Next in footnote 5 comes a reference to the Council of Trent’s Decree De canonicis Scripturis which also highlights the salvific purpose of the Scriptures. Referring to both Scripture and Tradition, the decree says that their message was preached by the Apostles “as the source of all saving truth”.15

1.7 (e) Finally, in the definitive version of the footnote, two more references to Providentissimus Deus were added. The first of these additional paragraphs from Leo XIII’s encyclical, EB 121, is dedicated to the theme of Scripture in relation to the natural sciences. What is new to the footnote here is another papal quotation from De Genesi ad Litteram wherein St. Augustine lucidly sets out the general hermeneutical principles for recognizing the essential harmony between science and Scripture. The Pope’s words here16 make it abundantly clear that inerrancy covers assertions about the physical cosmos made by the sacred writers – often the very first biblical passages to be dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ to salvation and so open to error. Leo says:

No real dissension will ever arise between the scientist and the theologian, provided each stays within the proper bounds of his discipline, carefully observing St. Augustine’s admonition ‘not to assert rashly as known what is in fact unknown’. But if some dispute should arise, the same Doctor sums up the rule to be followed by the theologian: ‘If they have been able to demonstrate some truth of natural science with solid proofs, let us show that it is not contrary to our Scriptures; but if they maintain anything in any of their treatises which is contrary to Scripture (that is, to the Catholic faith), let us believe without hesitation that it is completely false, and if possible find a way of refuting it.’

1.7 (f) The second new reference to Providentissimus in the final footnote covers two consecutive paragraphs of the encyclical, EB 126 and 127. Here Leo XIII reinforces the point made by the drafting Commission, that mentioning the Bible’s salvific purpose did not imply any “material limitation of the truth of Scripture.” In EB 126 Pope Leo XIII makes the point, citing both St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, that since the sacred writers wrote only what the Holy Spirit wanted them to write, everything which they assert has Him for its author, and is therefore necessarily true.17 Finally, in EB 127, Leo again reinforces the rejection of any “material limitation” of biblical truth by praising the exegetical procedure of the great Fathers and Doctors, who “labored with no less ingenuity than devotion to harmonize and reconcile those many passages which might seem to involve some contradiction or discrepancy.”18 That kind of effort at reconciliation is precisely the procedure now very often dismissed as futile and unnecessary – and in the name of the very Council which here endorses it. It is brushed aside as ‘concordism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ by those who seek to convince us that the Council admitted the existence of real contradictions and other errors in the inspired texts, and so did away with the need to reconcile the problematic passages in question.

1.8 It also needs to be said that if (per impossibile?) the Church’s magisterium were ever to relinquish the doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy, that step would almost certainly prove to be a mere ‘half-way house’ in a drift toward official skepticism and possibly denial regarding inerrancy per se. That is, even passages in Scripture that undeniably treat of matters relevant to salvation would eventually be deemed open to error (as they already are in liberal Protestant and some dissident Catholic circles). For, if elevated to the status of authentic Catholic doctrine, the restricted-inerrancy thesis – after having been positively and repeatedly rejected, by a solid, centuries-long block of emphatic patristic and papal teaching – would be a “doctrine” based on the flimsiest and sandiest of foundations, namely, a highly questionable interpretation of half of one sentence in a Vatican II document. The bolder and more radical biblical scholars would be quick to argue that since the Church eventually came round to allowing dissent from the bimillennial and much more authoritatively proposed doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy, then she must, a fortiori, allow dissent also from the doctrine of restricted inerrancy, which arrived on the scene only yesterday – rootless and out of nowhere.

1.9 Our claim that DV 11 teaches unrestricted inerrancy is supported by the high academic authority of Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J. As former Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and Co-President of the drafting Commission for Dei Verbum, Bea enjoyed the particular confidence of Paul VI when it came to biblical matters: the Pope more than once publicly quoted him and praised his work in that area. In a work published shortly before his death,19 Bea, who had presided at the last key meeting of the conciliar Commission at which the text of DV 11 was finalized, devotes several pages (187-190) to its redactional history and correct interpretation. His verdict is unambiguous: “Let us ask, therefore, if the text we have now20 implies a restrictive interpretation of inerrancy. Here also the answer is certainly negative.”21

1.10 Even before Cardinal Bea’s commentary was published – indeed, only months after the ink was dry on the Vatican II documents – the Church’s magisterium itself had already spoken clearly on the precise point that interests us. A circular letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was sent to the presidents of all episcopal conferences and major religious superiors, warning against false and dangerous interpretations of the Council's teaching that had begun to erupt almost immediately after its conclusion.22 Heading the list of ten widespread false interpretations denounced in this letter is the following: “1) In the first place, there is Sacred Revelation. Some, purposely disregarding Tradition, have recourse to Sacred Scripture, but restrict the scope and force of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, and hold false views on the historical value of the texts.”23

1.11. In 1993, in what is probably the most important magisterial statement to date on biblical studies since DV itself, John Paul II’s allocution marking the fiftieth and hundredth anniversaries of the encyclicals DAS and PD respectively, the Pope cited and confirmed Pius XII’s analogy between God’s word in Scripture and the Incarnate Word:

The strict relationship uniting the inspired biblical texts with the mystery of the Incarnation was expressed by the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in the following terms: “Just as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect except error”. Repeated almost literally by the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum (n. 13), this statement sheds light on a parallelism rich in meaning.24

We have seen above, in 1.6(a), that Pius XII, like his predecessors, insisted that the Bible’s inerrancy is unrestricted in its scope; and John Paul, in citing Pius here, could not have understood his statement in any other sense. Not only are the words written by the human authors said to be “words of God” himself, but this parallel with the Incarnation demands by its very nature that the Bible’s exemption from error not be limited to what it says on certain themes. Otherwise the parallel would imply – not just mistakenly, but blasphemously – that Christ’s exemption from sin was also limited in some way.

1.12 Finally, a highly authoritative interpretation of DV 11 is found in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1998 Nota Doctrinalis explaining the three levels of Catholic doctrine identified in the Church’s Profession of Faith. Appealing to both Providentissimus and DV 11 in a footnote, no. 11 of the Nota Doctrinalis presents without qualification “the absence of error in the inspired sacred writings”25 as an example of a doctrine of the first and highest category: a truth “divinely revealed” and so requiring “the assent of theological faith” (ibid., #5). Prior to citing DV 11, the footnote references DS 3293, which begins with Leo XIII’s declaration that the unrestricted inerrancy of Scripture is “the ancient and constant faith of the Church”. By looking at the second citation in 1.6 (a) above, the reader can readily verify that Leo – and therefore also Pius XII and the CDF in appealing to and confirming his judgment – do indeed mean absolute or unrestricted inerrancy. Yet the thesis we are criticizing, while appealing to the self-same conciliar text, DV 11, teaches not the “absence”, but the presence, of error in the inspired sacred writings.

2. Related hermeneutical observations

Thus far we have seen abundant evidence that Dei Verbum 11 upholds the traditional Catholic doctrine that everything affirmed by the sacred authors is free from error. This fact in turn, however, raises some further considerations that can be discussed briefly by way of conclusion.

2.1 If, as we have argued, the Council should be understood to mean that all affirmations of the biblical writers have been written and transmitted in Sacred Scripture “for the sake of our salvation”, it might be objected that there are innumerable biblical affirmations in which no discernible ‘salvific’ or spiritual value is in any way apparent. How could it be plausibly said, for instance, that each of the rather tedious census affirmations for which the Book of Numbers takes its name (cf. Nm 1-4) has some such value?

We do not maintain, however, that some discernible “salvific” relevance is necessarily to be found in each and every biblical affirmation taken as an isolated ‘atom’ of information. But each affirmation will at least always form part of a greater whole that shows something about what God has done for the salvation of his people. The Pentateuch narratives of God’s dealings with Israel, for example, are a foundational part of salvation history. Analogously, the myriad splinters of wood making up the handle of an axe are all there “for the sake of cutting”, even though the contribution to that end of any given individual splinter would be negligible, and even though the cutting action itself occurs directly only at the edge of the metal blade. In short, while each affirmation of the inspired authors, taken individually, is guaranteed by its simultaneous divine authorship to be true, the thesis we are defending does not require us to hold that each such affirmation, taken individually, must necessarily have some intrinsic spiritual, moral, or salvific ‘message’.

2.2 Insistence on the unrestricted inerrancy of Sacred Scripture is a notoriously “hard saying” of Christ and his Church. It is not at all easy to defend, and this is undoubtedly the basic reason why the seeming escape-route of restricted inerrancy has proved to be so popular among modern biblical scholars. The orthodox doctrine requires repeated acts of faith, just like believing in Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist against the witness of our five senses. For, as has been recognized from patristic times onwards, Scripture presents a great many difficulties in the form of seeming contradictions and other kinds of error. And I doubt that any believer so far has ever claimed to have found the definitive solution to every one of them. Opting for the easy ‘solution’ of restricted inerrancy (just like the easy ‘solution’ of a merely symbolic presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the easy ‘solution’ of contraceptive devices for struggling married couples) will probably always remain a perennial temptation for believers. It is therefore worth making the point that the Catholic who insists on the traditional doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy does not thereby place himself under an obligation to be able to offer a convincing solution for any or all of these innumerable biblical difficulties. He is simply witnessing to the unchanging faith of the Church; and it is quite sufficient for him, in that context, to insist that even though we may not at present be able to solve the problem presented by some apparent instance of biblical error, there must indeed be a solution.

2.3 Many theologians and exegetes, including the authors of the IL proposition we have criticized in this essay, wish to uphold simultaneously the theses of unrestricted biblical inspiration and restricted biblical inerrancy. Some of these scholars have tried to reconcile their two seemingly incompatible theses by postulating a difference, and at times a discord, between the human meaning of a given scriptural passage and its supposed divine meaning. The text itself, we are told, is indeed inspired by God and so is true at the level of what God wants to say in and through it, and this will always be of some salvific relevance; but the sense intended by the human writer may (so it is said) be mistaken. However, this seems to be in substance the same hermeneutical approach already censured by Pope Pius XII:

For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the [First] Vatican Council’s definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters. They even wrongly speak of a human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which is a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning.26

It seems hard to see any substantial difference between what Pius XII disapproves in the first sentence quoted above and what the IL was asking the world’s Catholic bishops to approve. For the respective notions of being written “for the sake of our salvation”, and of “treat[ing] of God or of moral and religious matters” are very close in meaning. Who would seriously maintain that, although Pius XII rejected the latter notion as a restricting criterion for the scope of biblical inerrancy, he might perhaps have accepted the former, had it been proposed to him? After all, in the light of his own teaching only seven years earlier in Divino Afflante Spiritu (cf. section 1.6 [a] above), it is clear that what this pope intends to censure in Humani Generis is not one version among others of the restricted inerrancy thesis, but that thesis itself, per se.

As regards the second sentence in the above citation, regarding a supposed contrast between an infallible divine meaning and a fallible human meaning in one and the same biblical passage, are we to believe that Vatican Council II taught this idea – only fifteen years after Pius XII censured it? Some have claimed to find a basis for this contrast in article 12 of Dei Verbum. The Flannery version of the documents translates this passage very satisfactorily, as follows:

Seeing that, in sacred Scripture, God speaks through men in human fashion, it follows that the interpreter of sacred Scriptures, if he is to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words (“. . . quid hagiographi reapse significare intenderint et eorum verbis manifestare Deo placuerit.”).

The Council thus tells us that the only means of discovering what God teaches in a given passage is to determine first what the human authors teach therein; for that will ipso facto be the divine teaching. However, in the Abbott version of the Council documents, this sentence is incorrectly translated as though it had another “quid” between “et” and “eorum”: the Council is made to say that interpreters should carefully investigate “what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” (emphasis added). But this version, which opens the way for the idea of a divine meaning different from the human meaning, not only mistranslates the original of #12, but is also incompatible with 11, which insists that “all that the sacred writers affirm must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit”.27

Some recent Catholic writers have tried to reconcile this last conciliar statement with the supposed occurrence of errors in Scripture by claiming that the errors they have in mind are never in fact affirmed by either the divine or human authors. We are asked to believe that the human authors, while intending to affirm only what are “for the sake of our salvation”, have also left passages of Scripture in which they express error while somehow managing to avoid affirming it. But, in addition to our criticism of this approach already set out in footnote 5 above, it needs to be said that this involves a contorted hermeneutic that would never be taken seriously if applied to non-inspired, non-biblical literature (literature, that is, which nobody feels the need to present or defend as being necessarily free of error). For it unreasonably attempts to determine what is being affirmed in a given text of Scripture by appealing to content rather than form – subject-matter rather than syntax. That is, on the basis of theological instead of linguistic criteria. But this procedure – trying to identify an author’s assertions by looking at what he is talking about instead of how he talks about it – violates basic, common-sense principles of verbal communication.28 There is indeed an equation taught in DV 11 between what is affirmed in a biblical text and what has salvific value; but this makes sense only if the equation is understood in the form, “All that is affirmed here has salvific value”,29 and not, “Only what has salvific value here is being affirmed”. In other words, the exegete’s task is first to determine according to the ordinary rules of language what the inspired author really affirms in a given passage, and then inquire as to how that may be profitable for salvation. He should not put the cart before the horse by trying to determine first what seems profitable for salvation in that passage, and then concluding that nothing apart from that is being affirmed there. Not only will the latter procedure be contrary to reason; it will also be at least potentially contrary to faith. For it will open the way for any amount of subjective flights of the imagination on the part of each Bible student, as he tries to determine in a priori fashion what in fact might be of relevance to our salvation in any given biblical sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book.

2.4 Finally, it might be objected that if, as we have argued here, Vatican Council II is upholding the traditional doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy, i.e., if it is not limiting inerrancy to a supposed subset of biblical affirmations which alone were written “for the sake of our salvation”, then this leaves unexplained the Council’s final insistence (against the initial opposition of conservative Fathers and of Paul VI himself) on introducing a clause about salvific purpose into DV 11. Why should salvific purpose even be mentioned in a magisterial sentence about inerrancy, if inerrancy does not depend on it?

This objection prompts us to reflect on what the Fathers of the recent Synod of Bishops probably had in mind when, in their final proposition 12 asking for a CDF clarification on biblical truth, they added, “In particular, there is a need to bring out clearly the originality of Catholic biblical hermeneutics in this field”.30 The Synod Fathers do not explain what “originality”, precisely, they have in mind here. What I suspect, however, is that they are referring precisely to the Council’s introduction of the Bible’s salvific purpose as a relevant factor in understanding biblical inerrancy; for this is a hermeneutical principle not found explicitly in previous official Catholic Church teaching. Nor – as far as I know – is it an established position among Protestant and Orthodox biblical scholars and theologians.

What, then, is this relevance of the Bible’s salvific purpose in a discussion of its inerrancy? As we have already noted,31 The relator at Vatican II told the Fathers that the phrase “. . . for the sake of our salvation”, inserted into the final draft of the sentence affirming the Bible’s freedom from error, “does not imply any material limitation on the truth of Scripture, but indicates its formal specification, which must be kept in mind when deciding in what sense . . . all those things affirmed by the sacred writers are true, not only matters of faith and morals, and facts connected with the history of salvation”.

The relator did not give any further explanation of what he and the Commission meant by this. But it seems reasonable to suppose that what they had in mind is that some biblical affirmations – above all, those that are per se less directly concerned with salvation – may be only approximations, or it may be that they express certain truths only in simple, popular language rather than in precise or technical terminology.32 For since the formal object of Sacred Scripture is to teach us God’s plan of salvation for the human race, and not profane history, natural science, or other forms of merely worldly knowledge for their own sakes, one should not expect or demand, as a condition of the Bible’s freedom from error, when it touches upon these subjects, the same standards of accuracy and clarity in description and terminology as we would expect and demand in works (especially modern academic works) whose formal object is these ‘secular’ branches of knowledge. In short, the Catholic “originality” referred to by the Synod means (if I am not mistaken) the insight that, given the human as well as divine authorship of Scripture, we should not set the bar unreasonably high in deciding what is to count as truth, as opposed to error, when the sacred writers make statements about secondary matters that are only indirectly linked to the Bible’s principal and overall purpose of teaching us what God has done, and what he expects us to do and believe, in regard to our eternal salvation. We may well pray that the See of Peter does indeed soon “clarify” this difficult issue effectively and authoritatively.


1 This is the present writer’s translation of the Italian text that was placed on the Vatican website (cf. The original reads as follows: “Il Sinodo pro­pone che la Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede chiarifichi i concetti di ispirazione e di verità della Bibbia, così come il loro rapporto reciproco, in modo da far capire meglio l’insegnamento della Dei Verbum 11. In particolare, bisogna mettere in rilievo l’originalità dell’erme­neutica biblica cattolica in questo campo.

2 Again, this is the present writer’s translation of the Latin text of the IL, which reads“- quamvis omnes Sacrae Scripturae partes divinitus inspiratae sint, tamen eius inerrantia pertinet tantummodo ad «veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit» (DV 11)”. In the English-language version of IL released on June 12, the first clause of this sentence was so badly translated that it explicitly called in question the full extent of the Bible’s divine inspiration: “With regards [sic] to what might be inspired in the many parts of Sacred Scripture, . . . ” (emphasis added).

3 Cf. AAS 63 (1971), 665-669.

4 For instance, in ##7-8 of his allocution commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Providentissimus Deus, John Paul II endorses the “historico-critical” study of the Bible in the sense that Leo XIII already endorsed it when he established the Pontifical Biblical Commission almost a century earlier. In this address of April 23, 1993, the Pope said: “The Church of Christ . . . attaches great importance to the ‘historico-critical’ study of the Bible. Far from condemning it, as those who support ‘mystical’ exegesis would want, my predecessors vigorously approved. ‘Artis criticae disciplinam,’ Leo XIII wrote, ‘quippe percipiendae penitus hagiographorum sententiae perutilem, Nobis vehementer probantibus, nostri (exegetae, scilicet, catholici) excolant’ (Apostolic Letter Vigilantiae, establishing the Biblical Commission, October 30, 1902: EB, n. 142)”. Pope John Paul goes on to remind us that Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, stressed the importance of studying the literary genres used in Scripture, so as “to understand the meaning of the texts with all the accuracy and precision possible, and, thus, in their historical, cultural context”. (Cf. EB 1246-1247.)

5 Although the IL proposition itself does not explicitly mention “affirmations”, “statements”, or “assertions”, it is evident that only the biblical writers’ expressions of that sort – that is, their own judgments of truth expressed in the indicative mood – are capable of being either in accord with, or in conflict with, what is true. Questions and commands, for instance, can be neither true nor false. Hence, it would be absurd (because oxymoronic) to argue for the IL’s compatibility with what DV 11 says about the divine authorship of all biblical assertiones (cf. 1.2 below) by claiming that, although the IL proposition admits errors on the part of the biblical writers, it does not necessarily imply that they affirm or assert any of these errors. It does imply precisely this, for where there is no affirmation or assertion, there can, strictly speaking, be neither truth nor error. While it is clearly truth and error in this strict or proper sense that are at stake in the present controversy, the numerous utterances of the sacred writers that are not affirmations about reality (i.e., their questions, precepts, parables, prayers, wishes and aspirations) can also be said to constitute biblical ‘truth’ in a broad or improper sense. That is, they are all given to us by God in Scripture for our profit and instruction (cf. II Tim. 3: 16-17), so that much truth – in the strict sense – can be learned from studying and meditating upon them.

6 P.G.W. Glare (ed.), Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 415. In the other standard Latin-English lexicon, C.T. Lewis & C. Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), give this meaning as “To note, write down, to register, record” (p. 432).

7 The verb consignare (in various forms) occurs just four times in all the sixteen documents of Vatican Council II in connection with something being written. All of these four instances are in Dei Verbum, the most pertinent possible context for making a comparison with the instance under discussion. In addition to its occurrence in the clause following veritatem, the verb occurs earlier in the same article (11), as well as in articles 9 and 21. In none of the three cases is there any trace of a ‘recipient’ being mentioned as an indirect object in the dative case.

8 The verb docere has been rendered in the passive voice (“is taught”) in the above translation for reasons of clarity and style. If this verb is left in the active in English, the only way to leave the three adverbial expressions that qualify it till the end of the sentence will be to separate them from it awkwardly by a least fourteen words. Only when they are placed at the end is the logical inference constituted by the complete sentence, which begins with “Since, therefore . . . ”, brought out adequately. For it is the Bible’s freedom from error, not its salvific purpose, that follows as a logical consequence from its integral divine authorship. (The Holy Spirit would be perfectly free, if He wished, to reveal truth that is not salvific in purpose. As Creator and ‘Lord and giver of life’, for instance, He might conceivably have chosen to reveal a lot more detailed information about Creation as such, i.e., not only that minimum about Creation which we need to know in order to understand the subsequent Fall and Redemption – i.e., what God has done ‘for the sake of our salvation’.)

9 That is, provided each such affirmation is correctly understood, in conformity with the inspired author’s own intention and taking into account the literary genre being employed, it cannot be contrary to the truth.

10Voce ‘salutaris’ nullo modo suggeritur S. Scripturam non esse integraliter inspiratam et verbum Dei. . . . Hæc expressio nullam inducit materialem limitationem veritatis Scripturæ, sed indicat eius specificationem formalem, cuius ratio habeatur in diiudicando quo sensu non tantum res fidei et morum atque facta cum historia salutis coniuncta . . . sed omnia quæ in Scriptura asseruntur sunt vera. Unde statuit Commissio expressionem esse servandam” (Acta Synodalia, IV, V, 708, emphasis in original). This relatio is also reproduced and discussed in G. Caprile, S.J., “Tre emendamenti allo schema sulla rivelazione” (La Civiltà Cattolica [1966/I] 224).

11 This passage is sometimes cited as supposed evidence that, according to St. Augustine, Scripture may at times be mistaken in its affirmations concerning nature and the cosmos. But that this was by no means Augustine’s meaning is evident from what he says elsewhere in De Genesi ad Litteram, in another passage quoted by Leo XIII in EB 121. This paragraph of Providentissimus Deus was also added to note 5 of Dei Verbum 11 in the final redaction.

12 “. . . Spiritum Dei, qui per ipsos loquebatur, noluisse ista (videlicet intimam adspectabilium rerum constitutionem) docere homines, nulli saluti profutura” (Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteram, 2,9,20, quoted also in Providentissimus Deus [EB 121]).

13Utrum prophetia sit de conclusionibus scibilibus” (Q.12, art. 2, c).

14Respondeo. Dicendum quod in omnibus quæ sunt propter finem, materia determinatur secundum exigentiam finis, ut patet in II Phys. Donum autem prophetiæ datur ad utilitatem Ecclesiæ, ut patet I ad Cor., XII, 10. Unde omnia illa quorum cognitio potest esse utilis ad salutem sunt materia prophetiæ, sive sint præterita, sive futura, sive æterna, sive necessaria, sive contingentia. Illa vero quæ ad salutem pertinere non possunt, sunt extranea a materia prophetiæ; unde Augustinus dicit, II super Genesim ad litteram [cap. IX], quod quamvis auctores nostri sciverint cuius figuræ sit cælum; tamen per eos dicere noluit Spiritus veritatem, nisi quæ prodest saluti; et Ioannis cap. XVI, vers. 13 dicitur Cum venerit ille Spiritus veritatis, docebit vos omnem veritatem; Glossa [interlin.] saluti necessariam. Dico autem necessaria ad salutem, sive sint necessaria ad instructionem fidei, sive ad informationem morum. Multa autem quæ sunt in scientiis demonstrata, ad hoc possunt esse utilia; utpote intellectum esse incorruptibilem, et ea quæ in creaturis considerata in admirationem divinæ sapientiæ et potestatis inducunt. Unde et de his invenimus in sacra Scriptura fieri mentionem” (ibid.). The emphasis here is as given in the ‘Marietti’ edition of the works of St. Thomas: Quæstiones disputatæ, vol. 1 (Turin & Rome: Marietti, 10th edn., 1964), vol. 1, 238.

15 “. . . tamquam fontem omnis et salutaris veritatis” (DS 1501).

16 Cf. also 1.6 (a) above, first citation from Divino Afflante Spiritu, quoting Leo XIII in Providentissimus.

17 The passage quoted from St. Augustine stresses this intimate link between the divine and human authors, depicting the latter as acting obediently as God’s instruments, just as the members of a human body obey the head: “Thus, since they wrote what He showed and told them, it cannot be said that He Himself wrote nothing; for what His members did was what they were told to do by dictation from the Head. (Itaque, cum illi scripserunt, quæ ille ostendit et dixit, nequaquam dicendum est, quod ipse non scripserit; quandoquidem membra eius id operata sunt, quod dictante capite cognoverunt.)” (De Consensu Evangeliorum, I, 1, c. 35 [PL 34, 1070]). The excerpt from St. Gregory if anything places even more emphasis on the divine authorship of Scripture: “It is quite superfluous to inquire who wrote these things when one faithfully believes the Holy Spirit to be the author of the book. Thus, the one who wrote them was the One who ordered them to be written; the one who wrote them was the One present in their composition as their Inspirer. (Quis hæc scripserit, valde supervacante quæritur, cum tamen auctor libri Spiritus Sanctus fideliter credatur. Ipse igitur hæc scripsit, qui scribenda dictavit: ipse scripsit qui et in illius opere inspirator exstitit)” (Moral. in Job, præf. 1, 2 [PL 75, 517AB]).

18 “. . . ut propterea non pauca illa, quæ contrarii aliquid vel dissimile viderentur afferre . . . non subtiliter minus quam religiose componere inter se et conciliare studuerint.” Many – perhaps most – of these problematical passages involve ‘profane’ or historical matters. The passage concludes with a citation of that same passage from a letter of Augustine to Jerome which was included separately in this final version of footnote 5 to DV 11. Since that letter was now already quoted in its own right, it follows that EB 127 was not mentioned merely because it contains this teaching of St. Augustine, but above all to draw attention to what was new in that paragraph, namely, Leo XIII’s statement about the importance of seeking the true reconciliation of apparent contradictions in Scripture.

19 La Parola di Dio e l’Umanità: la dottrina del Concilio sulla rivelazione (Assisi: Citadella Editrice, 1967). An English translation was published as The Word of God and Mankind (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1967).

20 Bea is referring to the final and approved text of DV 11, which added the clause indicating the Bible’s salvific purpose after veritatem. He is contrasting it with the penultimate and more controversial draft which had expressed this idea by qualifying veritatem with the adjective salutarem

21Domandiamo pertanto, se l’attuale testo comporti una interpretazione restrittiva dell’inerranza o no. Anche qui la risposta è senz’altro negativa” (op. cit., p. 190, emphasis in original).

22 This document, signed by the Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, is described on the Vatican website (in the list of titles of all CDF documents since Vatican II) as follows, beginning with the first three words of the text of the letter: Cum oecumenicum concilium (Epistula ad Venerabiles Praesules Conferentiarum Episcopalium et ad Superiores Religionum: De nonnullis sententiis et erroribus ex falsa interpretatione decretorum Concilii Vaticani II insurgentibus (“Circular Letter to the Venerable Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences and Religious Superiors on certain opinions and errors arising from false interpretations of the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council”), July 24, 1966, AAS 58 (1966) 659-661.

23 “1) Imprimis occurrit ipsa Sacra Revelatio: sunt etenim qui ad Sacram Scripturam recurrunt Traditione consulto seposita, sed Biblicae inspirationis et inerrantiae ambitum et vim coartant et de historicorum textuum valore non recte sentient” (ibid., 661).

24Le rapport étroit qui unit les textes bibliques inspires au mystère de l’Incarnation a été exprimé par l’encyclique Divino afflante Spiritu dans les termes suivants: “De même que la Parole substantielle de Dieu s’est faite semblable aux hommes en tous points, excepté le péché, ainsi les paroles de Dieu, exprimées en des langues humaines, se sont faites semblables au langage humain en tous points, excepté l’erreur”. Reprise presque littéralement par la Constitution conciliaire Dei Verbum (n. 13), cette affirmation met en lumière un parallélisme riche de signification” (Discours de Jean Paul II, 23 April 1993, section II, no. 6 (EB 1245).

25 “. . . absentia erroris in scriptis sacris inspiratis” (AAS 90 [1998], p. 549).

26 Humani Generis, 22.

27 It is worth noting that the reverse is not necessarily true. That is, the Church has never taught that “all that the Holy Spirit affirms must be held as affirmed by the sacred authors”. For it may well be that, in addition to the primary (literal) sense of each affirmation, taught by both the divine and human authors, God intends a deeper meaning which the human author may have been unaware of – a sensus plenior or one of the classical ‘spiritual senses’ (allegorical, tropological and anagogical – cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #115-117). In short, God may well be saying more than the human author has in mind; but he can never be saying less.

28 Indeed, the ‘inerrancy’ of practically any piece of human writing could be ‘defended’ by an analogous application of this procedure. The commentator would just single out one or two general and relatively uncontroversial theses of the entire work as the “only” thing(s) the author intends to “affirm” – with the felicitous result that none of his many incorrect statements (no matter how clearly or emphatically expressed) will be counted as “errors”. For none of them, we will be assured, is truly “affirmed” or “asserted”: they are all just obiter dicta. Since nobody would take this kind of sophistry seriously in regard to non-biblical literature, we need to ask why it should be taken seriously in regard to Sacred Scripture.

29 Although see our qualifications on this point in note 5 above.

30 Cf. first citation in Preamble above.

31 Cf. section 1.5 above.

32 Leo XIII had already pointed out in Providentissimus that there is no error involved when biblical authors describe certain things in nature according to the way they appear to our senses. Some reported speeches and sayings of biblical figures – even Jesus himself – give us the substance of their teaching without necessarily reproducing their ipsissima verba. Popular but imprecise language is sometimes employed in accord with accepted ancient usage; and while events presented in Scripture as historical really did occur, they did not necessarily occur chronologically in the same order as that in which they appear on the pages of the Bible. Many other examples could no doubt be given.

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