ORGAN OF THE ROMAN THEOLOGICAL FORUM
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Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA
|No. 59||Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program||July 1995|
by Brian W. Harrison
If it is said that the sacred books teach "saving truth ... without error," this appears to restrict inerrancy to matters of faith and morals; all the more so because, according to the relator himself, this formula has been chosen in order to satisfy the requests of those Fathers who were asking that the effects of inspiration be expressed positively, and that the object of inerrancy be clearly circumscribed. The relator explains the mind of the Commission by saying that by the word salutarem we are also to understand the facts which in Scripture are linked to the history of salvation. But with that explanation, such a circumscription of the object of inerrancy is inadmissible, for it seems to me that such expressions cannot be reconciled with the firm doctrine of the Church's Magisterium. ... Therefore it should not be said that the sacred books "teach" salvific truth without error, because this insinuates a distinction among the Scriptural affirmations themselves, as if some of them taught without error truths pertaining to salvation, while others had no such content and were thus not necessarily immune from error. ... I request that we restore the expression "without any error," as in the previous draft, since the documents of the Magisterium ... always express themselves in such a way as to exclude completely from the sacred Scriptures every kind of error (cf. EB 124, 452, 538, 539, 560, 564). 6As matters turned out, the Commission did not accede to Archbishop Philippe's request, but it did revise its official explanation of the ambiguous amendment, making clear that it was to be understood in a more traditional sense. In this revised explanation, which is definitive for interpreting the Council's teaching correctly, the Fathers were told:
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. 7This explanation still did not satisfy a significant minority of Fathers, who asked Pope Paul VI himself to intervene personally so as to require the deletion of the controversial word salutarem. The Pope heard both sides of the question, considered the matter, and agreed that this word was ambiguous and inopportune. Accordingly, while he did not go so far as to order the word to be deleted, he did request that this be done. The request was communicated to Cardinal Ottaviani, President of the Theological Commission, via a letter of 18 October 1965 from the Secretary of State, Cardinal Cicognani. When the Commission reconvened, the Supreme Pontiff's request just failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority of positive votes required by Council rules for this kind of last-minute change. It was agreed, however, to make two other changes which the Commission anticipated (correctly) would satisfy the Holy Father.
The first and greatest care of Leo XIII was to set forth the teaching on the truth of the Sacred Books and to defend it from attack. Hence 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." For "the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately - the words are St. Augustine's - the Holy Spirit, Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things - that is, the intimate constitution of visible things - which are in no way profitable to salvation"; which principle "will apply to cognate sciences, and especially to history," that is, by refuting, "in a somewhat similar way the fallacies of the adversaries and defending the historical truth of Sacred Scripture from their attacks." Nor is the sacred writer to be taxed with error, if "copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible," or, "if the real meaning of a passage remains ambiguous." 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." 11It is certainly arguable that by the last sentence in this quotation Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius XII who is quoting and confirming him, are in effect proclaiming that the absolute freedom from error of Sacred Scripture - including its treatment of science and history - is an infallible, de fide teaching of the ordinary Magisterium. 12
For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which he had in saying it - this system cannot be tolerated. 13What, now, were the additional authoritative statements included in the final version of the Vatican II footnote which made it even clearer, as we have said, that the Council was not to be understood as allowing for the view that Scripture can err on certain matters? As regards science, the main additional reference was to the paragraph EB 121 of Providentissimus Deus, part of which had already been cited indirectly in the footnote by virtue of its inclusion in the paragraph EB 539 from Divino afflante Spiritu which we have reproduced above. But, as well as what Pius XII had selected from that paragraph of his predecessor's encyclical, it contains a passage in which Leo XIII confirms St. Augustine's explicit negation of the possibility of any scientific error in Scripture:
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.' 14The other added reference from Providentissimus Deus is the passage EB 126-127. In the first of these two paragraphs Pope Leo cites Augustine and Gregory the Great to the effect that God takes full responsibility for everything written in Scripture, so that "those who claim that anything false can be contained in authentic passages of the Sacred Books either pervert the Catholic notion of divine inspiration, or make God Himself the author of error." 15 In the second paragraph, EB 127, the Pope refers to an obvious corollary of this absolute freedom from error, namely, the necessary absence of self-contradiction in Scripture. Vatican II thus makes its own Leo XIII's appeal for exegetes to continue following the example of the Fathers and Doctors in painstakingly striving to reconcile apparent contradictions which might be found in the Bible. This is further unmistakable evidence that the Council's teaching on the truth of Scripture does not allow for the existence of historical errors in the Bible, because the majority of apparent or alleged contradictions within Scripture are in fact to be found in its historical books. The key sentence reads:
All the Fathers and Doctors were so utterly convinced that the original versions of the divine Scriptures are absolutely immune from all error that they laboured with no less ingenuity than devotion to harmonize and reconcile those many passages which might seem to involve some contradiction or discrepancy (and they are nearly always the same ones which today are thrust at us in the name of modern scholarship). 16Unfortunately, the prevailing trend among today's Catholic Scripture scholars is to dismiss and even ridicule this time-honored exegetical duty of harmonization as naive and even useless. The irony is that in disparaging this apologetic task as "concordism," such exegetes usually appeal to the authority of that very Council which followed Pope Leo XIII in confirming its perennial necessity.
In the last hundred years we have moved from an understanding wherein inspiration guaranteed that the Bible was totally inerrant to an understanding wherein inerrancy is limited to the Bible's teaching of "that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation." In this long journey of thought the concept of inerrancy was not rejected but was seriously modified to fit the evidence of biblical criticism which showed that the Bible was not inerrant in questions of science, of history, and even of time-conditioned religious beliefs. 17By allowing the existence of biblical "errors" even in religious as well as profane matters, Fr. Brown goes beyond even the boldest and most innovative position voiced at the Council - that of the German-language bishops who claimed that Scripture sometimes errs in matters of science and history. 18 While the Pope and the Council as a whole refused to endorse even this more moderate admission of error in Scripture, Fr. Brown is claiming, in effect, that they endorsed his own still more radical view!
As we have said, the Second Vatican Council reversed a tendency of applying inerrancy to almost every aspect of the Bible and applied it only in a very general way: "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" (Dei Verbum, iii, 11). 20Fr. Brown not only depends on a questionable translation here, but has also neglected the official explanation of the 'salvific-purpose' amendment given by the Council's doctrinal Commission in reply to those Fathers (such as Archbishop Paul Philippe 21) who had astutely foreseen and warned against precisely that kind of "restricted-inerrancy" reading which Fr. Brown is now in fact proposing. The relator, as we saw, reassured the assembled Fathers that the new insertion regarding the Bible's salvific purpose should in no way be taken as a dilution of the Church's teaching that everything asserted in the Bible is true, "not only matters of faith and morals and facts bound up with the history of salvation." 22 Fr. Brown also takes no account of the footnote references which, as we have seen, were added at this point to reinforce and amplify the relator's explanation.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, the acceptance of biblical criticism has caused a reinterpretation but not a rejection of the concepts of inspiration and inerrancy. Notice the qualified description of inerrancy in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum (iii, 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." A faithful Catholic would have to ask: Should one rank the biological manner of Jesus' conception as a truth God wanted put into the Sacred Writings for the sake of our salvation? 29From our analysis of Vatican II's teaching so far, it should be clear that this is by no means the question a "faithful Catholic would have to ask." On the contrary, asking the purpose of Mark's and Luke's references to this miraculous "manner of Jesus' conception" seems exactly the same kind of question which the Council, quoting Pope Leo XIII in footnote 5 to the very passage cited here by Fr. Brown, rejects as illegitimate, based as it is on "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." 30 Thus, the "faithful Catholic" who rightly understands Vatican II, if he is inquiring into the historical truth of the Virginal Conception as related in Scripture, will not ask why it is mentioned (i.e., whether "for the sake of our salvation" or for some other reason), but only whether it is indeed affirmed or asserted. And since it plainly is, he will conclude from this very fact both that the Virginal Conception is historically true and that it has been recorded "for the sake of our salvation."
The Bible was not written in order to teach the natural sciences, nor to give information on merely political history. It treats of these (and all other subjects) only insofar as they are involved in matters concerning salvation. It is only in this respect that the veracity of God and the inerrancy of the inspired writers are engaged. This is not a quantitative distinction, as though some sections treated of salvation (and were inerrant), while others gave merely natural knowledge (and were fallible). It is formal, and applies to the whole text. The latter is authoritative and inerrant in what it affirms about the revelation of God and the history of salvation. According to the intentions of its authors, divine and human, it makes no other affirmations. 34(i) Theological Objections. Much of Fr. MacKenzie's exposition here is undoubtedly in conformity with both Catholic tradition and with the official explanation given to the conciliar Fathers regarding the salvific purpose of Scripture. However the last two sentences in the above passage seem to raise serious problems. In the first place, they do not appear to be in harmony with the genuine meaning of the conciliar text, as this was officially explained to the Fathers who gave it their approval. The second-last sentence ("The latter ... salvation") neglects the doctrinal Commission's second and most authoritative explanation of the textual reference to the Bible's salvific purpose. What Fr. MacKenzie says here is substantially identical with the first explanation of Schema IV, in which the Fathers were told that the insertion of salutaris was meant to "circumscribe clearly" the object of inerrancy, and to express the idea that inerrancy covers revelation itself and "the facts which are linked to the history of salvation in Scripture." 35
My proposal is to replace the words "therefore ... it follows" by "therefore the divinely inspired Scripture must be said to teach no error whatsoever." Reason: the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is better expressed by speaking of the formal criterion of teaching, since it is according to that criterion that no error can be found. For, in another sense, i.e., the material sense, it is possible for expressions to be used by the sacred writer which are erroneous in themselves, but which, however, he does not wish to teach. 50In presenting the third draft of the sentence on inerrancy, 51 the relator told the conciliar Fathers that the drafting Commission had accepted the Chilean Cardinal's proposal "in substance," 52 which implied that his reason for introducing the verb "teach" (docere) was seen as a sound one. That verb remained in the text from then on, and the relator also subsequently clarified that "affirm" (asserere), which is used in the same sentence, 53 is to be understood here to mean the same thing as "teach." 54 Now, the important point for our present purposes is expressed in the last sentence of Cardinal Silva's proposal, where he speaks of the contrast between expressions which are formally "taught" (i.e., "affirmed") by the biblical author, and others which are there only in the "material sense," i.e., they are merely "used" by him. Only the former are guaranteed to be free from error.
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. 56The Council, then, is not saying that some propositions affirmed by the inspired writers do not have God for their author, and hence may be false. That would be "material limitation" of biblical truth - the idea of dividing those propositions up quantitatively into "divine" ones (with salvific relevance) and "merely human" ones (with no such relevance). Rather, as we noted at the conclusion of section 1 above, the Council reaffirms the traditional teaching that all the sacred writers' affirmations are simultaneously of divine origin. The idea of salvific purpose as a "formal specification" simply means that the Bible sets out to be a book (or collection of books) whose master-plan or overall objective is to teach us what God has done in history for the salvation of the human race, and what we are to do and believe in order to attain that salvation. That is, Scripture does not set out to instruct us about science or history for their own sakes, as do textbooks dedicated purely to those branches of knowledge. In saying that this needs to be "kept in mind in deciding in what sense everything affirmed in the Bible is true," the relator for Dei Verbum was alluding to the fact that, when physical or historical matters are in question, one cannot require from the Bible, as a condition of its inerrancy, the same kind of precision in detail, or exactitude in terminology, as one would require in a textbook of natural science or history - particularly a modern academic text. As regards natural science, the classic case of neglecting the Bible's formal object of religious or salvific truth was probably that of Galileo's inquisitors when they pondered Psalm 18:6-7. This passage speaks "materially" of the sun moving across the sky and "running" its daily course around the earth:
He hath set his tabernacle in the sun, and he, as a bridegroom coming out of his bride chamber, hath rejoiced as a giant to run the way: his going out is from the end of heaven, And his circuit even to the end thereof.In seeking from this verse an answer to a strictly astronomical question - whether it is the sun which moves around the earth or vice versa - the inquisitors did not advert to the fact that such a question never entered the Psalmist's mind (even though he would presumably have taken for granted, like all other men of his time, that it was the sun that moved). His object in this Psalm was to praise the glory of God as reflected in the beauty of the heavens, and for that purpose it sufficed for him to affirm - truthfully - what appears to our eyes, while expressing that poetically with the metaphor of the sun as a giant athlete. 57
And he said to them: Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer and to rise again from the dead, the third day: (47) And that penance and remission of sins should be preached in his name, unto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (48) And you are witnesses of these things. (49) And I send the promise of my Father upon you: but stay you in the city till you be endued with power from on high. (50) And he led them out as far as Bethania: and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. (51) And it came to pass, whilst he blessed them, he departed from them and was carried up to heaven. (52) And they adoring went back into Jerusalem with great joy. (53) And they were always in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen.However, we know from what Luke himself subsequently tells us in Acts 1:3 that "forty days" actually passed between the events of v. 49 and those he begins to relate in v. 50. Is there, then, a historical error here? Not if we remember that from the standpoint of the Bible's religious purpose the author is not obliged to explain all such chronological points with the greatest clarity - especially when, as in this case, he himself gives greater chronological precision in a subsequent account. It is important to note that, as the above Douay-Rheims translation expresses it, v. 50 begins with the word "And" (Greek dé as the second word). Thus, Luke does not affirm, or even rigorously imply, that the events reported from that point on took place immediately after what is reported in the preceding verses; only that they did indeed take place - which is true. 59