Why Biblical Inerrancy May Be Catholicism’s Biggest Problem

Why Biblical Inerrancy May Be Catholicism’s Biggest Problem December 28, 2016
Pope Francis. Source: WikiMedia Commons


Over the past several years, I’ve gotten the impression that many people believe the idea of Biblical inerrancy—that the Bible is totally free from error, whether in its ethical teachings, its historical claims, or perhaps even its claims about the natural world more generally¹—to be a particularly Protestant notion, or a particularly fundamentalist or even American Protestant notion, associated with Southern Baptism and other types of so-called evangelical Christianity.

We could certainly venture a few educated guesses as to why this is.

Perhaps first and foremost, one of the defining principles of various Protestant theologies—one that sharply differentiated them from their Catholic forebears—has been the construction of theology sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone”: that fundamental tents of Protestant doctrine have been formulated with little or no attention paid to the mediating traditions of Catholicism (whether its formal dogma or historic interpretive traditions), with the greatest emphasis being on the Bible itself and more direct interpretation.

It’s not that hard to see, then, how some have the impression that Protestants’ emphasis on the sufficiency and indeed perfection of the Bible alone for formulating theological doctrine has ended up elevating the Bible to a status far beyond what was intended²—perhaps even to sacrilegious levels, as “equal to God himself” and so on.

And to be sure, it is in particularly Protestant circles that aberrant types of, say, Biblical literalism have dominated: where the emphasis on the Bible and the authority ascribed to it is so radical that it’s treated not just as an authority on spiritual matters, but on the natural world itself, too—leading to the pseudoscience of Young Earth creationism and so on.

It might come as a surprise to some, then—particularly to Catholics themselves, at least those not up-to-speed on the intricacies of dogmatic theology—that Catholicism’s commitment to Biblical inerrancy is just as strong as in various branches of Protestantism; or in many senses even stronger. Inerrancy is, in fact, an essential doctrine in Catholicism; and for essential doctrines—what we know as “dogma”—the assured falsification of this would (by its own principles) entail the invalidation of Catholic faith itself.

That the presence of any true error in the Biblical texts would severely harm if not invalidate the authority of Scripture, or even impugn the nature of God himself, has been made unambiguous on a few different occasions over the past 100 years or so, by several eminent Catholic authorities.

One of the most straightforward expressions of these principles is found in Pope Leo XIII’s famed 1893 encylical Providentissimus Deus—in the context of responding to contemporary views that inerrancy might only be limited to some parts of the Bible, and not every part:

It is absolutely wrong either to limit inspiration to certain parts only of Sacred Scripture, or to concede that the sacred writer himself has erred. . . . indeed, far from being compatible with any kind of error, divine inspiration by its very nature not only excludes every error, but necessarily prevents and excludes it by the same necessity which renders it impossible for God, the supreme Truth, to be the author of any error whatsoever. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican. . . . It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error.³

In 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most authoritative ecclesiastical body for clarifying Catholic doctrine, published its “Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei” affirming this interpretation, placing total Biblical inerrancy alongside other mainstays of the faith in a list of those things that have been “divinely and formally revealed”:

the articles of faith of the Creed, the various Christological dogmas and Marian dogmas; the doctrine of the institution of the sacraments by Christ and their efficacy with regard to grace; the doctrine of the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist . . . the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts [absentia erroris in scriptis sacris inspiratis]; the doctrine on the grave immorality of direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being…

Most significantly, the footnote to “the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts” here cites precisely the section of Providentissimus Deus quoted above (§20).

Further, in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, a highly revered technical handbook of Catholic dogma, even “[t]he profane facts of natural science and history contained in Holy Writ,” although they’re said to not be directly inspired, are nonetheless still “without error”⁴; and finally, in a recent collection of articles by prominent Catholic theologians largely devoted to the subject of Biblical inspiration (For the Sake of Our Salvation: The Truth and Humility of God’s Word), total Biblical inerrancy is affirmed as the official Catholic dogmatic position by the majority of contributors.

The problems with the Catholic theology of Biblical inerrancy, however, are threefold.

The first problem is a minor ambiguity in the Catholic theological principles themselves here, particularly with how to determine what exactly constitutes a true historical claim or claim about the natural world in the Bible in the first place.

From whatever perspective we come from here, we should be careful when we level the accusation of error against a particular Biblical text or its author here. As Catholic theologian Peter Kwasniewski rightfully cautions,

a careful distinction must be drawn between what a human author manifests, reports, or assumes, and what he intends to assert as true. An assertion is a statement that something is or is not so, simply speaking. A report is an assertion about what someone believes or thinks or feels. An opinion can be manifested without being asserted; indeed, there can be descriptions that do not amount to assertions. For example, every day we all describe the “rising” and “setting” of the sun—accurate descriptions of what we see, of the appearances. Were someone to stop us and say: “Wait a minute, are you really asserting that the sun is what is moving through space, while the earth remains motionless?,” we would perhaps reply, “That’s not what I meant by what I said; I think the sun is at the center of the solar system and the earth is moving round it. But since it doesn’t look like that, the way I talk follows how things look, not how they are.” Talking about sunrise and sunset does not amount to an assertion of geocentrism.

For that matter, we should be careful not to confuse the speeches of human characters in the Bible, and the beliefs expressed by them, with what are considered “claims” by the Biblical authors themselves (with, of course, God himself being the true “author” of Scripture in Catholic theology⁵).

Further, for the sake of productive and nuanced dialogue with Catholic inerrantists, we should also be willing to concede at least the logical possibility that in God’s speech to humans throughout the Bible, he “meets” them on their own level of knowledge and social development—though some of this can still be dicey territory. For example, can we really concede the possibility of a truly omniscient and omnibenevolent deity tolerating and indeed decreeing the sort of slavery we find in Leviticus 25:45-46 and elsewhere?⁶

The second problem has to do with the traditional Catholic interpretative strategies for dealing with apparent error in the Bible.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned a sort of aberrant Biblical literalism that’s come to prominence especially in certain fundamentalist Protestant circles. We should remember here that although the extent to which, say, non-literal interpretation has dominated historic Catholic Biblical exegesis throughout history has been greatly exaggerated, it’s nonetheless true that Catholicism hasn’t been committed to literalism across the board.

But if an apparent Biblical error can only be alleviated by non-literal interpretation, there’s nothing to say that a particular non-literal interpretation will truly be warranted; or that any metaphorical interpretation for a particular Biblical passage or episode will ever be more plausible than a more literally-grounded one. In this regard, even the most ancient example of apparent Biblical error (and its proposed interpretive solutions) comes to mind: in Genesis chapter one, the narrative begins enumerating various creations on consecutive “days”—and normal solar days, by all indications—despite the fact that the creation of the sun itself doesn’t take place until the fourth day; and yet the bizarre allegorical or otherwise non-literal interpretations of those like Augustine that attempted to explain this apparent contradiction are hardly more plausible than the suggestion than that we do have a genuine contradiction here.⁷

To be sure, there are complications—especially here in Genesis, or the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) more broadly—with how the relationship between the Biblical authors, on one hand, and God as the divine “author” inspiring them, on the other, is understood. In traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation, God was understood to be the author of the Torah in a quite literal way; and so at least in this regard, the presence of genuine contradiction here may truly be less explicable—if, of course, a lot of the traditional recourse to, say, allegorical interpretation is deemed implausible here.

However, the most problematic aspect of all this for critically-informed inerrantists comes from the fact that if, across the board, scholars have less recourse to various types of non-literal interpretation these days—due primarily to the highly implausible ad hoc nature of, say, allegorical interpretation—the only alternative that allows Catholic inerrantists to really dispel the prospect of Biblical error is to argue that less and less Biblical material was ever really intended as making particular historical claims at all in the first place (perhaps in line with the Peter Kwasniewski quote from earlier), etc.

But doesn’t this itself send one down an ad hoc spiral? For example, if we somehow found irrefutable archaeological evidence that suggested that John the Baptist actually died in the year 26 AD—a few years before his prophetic mission began, according to the New Testament—would we then have to interpret Luke 3:1-2’s

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius [=29 AD], when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness 

as not having truly been intended as an actual historical claim, despite all appearances to the contrary?⁸

The above was simply presented as a hypothetical. And yet there’s an undeniable similarity between this and debates over when Jesus was born (as well as to what age he lived⁹), with, for example, the narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke commonly held to be contradictory in this regard—which certainly seems to be the same species of chronological error as in the hypothetical.

And this leads into our final and perhaps most troublesome problem with Catholic Biblical inerrancy: simply the fact that complete inerrancy is an extreme minority position among modern Biblical scholars, held mostly by fundamentalist Protestant scholars—who mostly only affirm and defend the position in specialized theological publications at some distance from mainstream academic publications, at that.

By way of concluding:

The conflict thesis was a minor academic historiographical framework that suggested that the battle between religion and science has been an eternal one, always manifesting in historical conflict, perhaps never to be resolved. It’s massively fallen out of favor among historians and others these days, despite having still found a receptive (and often uncritical) audience among some New Atheists and others.

And yet there’s been a small, quietly emerging band of philosophers of religion over the past decade who’ve managed to salvage something from the idea of a fundamental irreconcilability between science and the tenets of some particular revealed religions like Christianity (especially those with rigid dogma like Catholicism); or, rather, their understanding of where the irreconcilability exists has been more accurately pinpointed or broadened, understood now as between particular revealed religions and their dogma, on one hand, and particular insights from critical academic disciplines in general, on the other.¹⁰

I’ve previously written about how this model might be understood in relation to Catholicism in general. Through my post here, though, there may now be some clearer picture of how this could be applied more specifically to the relationship between insights from critical academic disciplines, including academic Biblical studies, and Catholic dogmatic theology on Biblical inerrancy.

That is, it may very well be that the entire underlying methodologies and assumptions of the two disciplines or pursuits are fundamentally irreconcilable. In a provocative and incisive essay, the eminent Catholic Biblical scholar and theologian John J. Collins located the intrinsic conflict between the certainty of (Catholic) faith and/or the particular dogma that it sometimes entails, and the probability that guides critical scholars working outside of Catholic dogmatic confines.¹¹

The divide goes beyond this, though. More fundamentally, it comes from the unique nature of Catholic dogma in tandem with the simple fact that scholars working in other critical disciplines aren’t prohibited (at least not any more¹²) from taking positions that either implicitly or overtly conflict with Catholicism’s specific religious certainty.

And more than this, not only are, say, individual scholars not prohibited from proposing or contemplating positions that conflict with this, but it’s likely—in fact, as suggested, it’s already happened—that widely-shared consensuses develop among scholars affirming these positions, creating an even greater divide between the two.

Indeed, in critical Biblical studies, there are instances in which the best interpretations of some Biblical passage or another—interpretations that, again, sometimes have the full weight of academic consensus behind them—are those that entail (whether by implication or overt suggestion) that there’s some clear Biblical error. And yet, as said, in Catholic dogmatic theology—particularly as suggested in Providentissimus Deus, quoted above—even the possibility of this is denied
(on “a priori” grounds), by virtue of the principle that this would be tantamount to God himself erring.

Perhaps it’s not totally impossible that Catholic dogmatic theology on Biblical inerrancy will eventually be discarded; or, less drastically, that the extent to which “inerrancy” has traditionally been thought to stretch will be defined, in light of the ambiguities of “historical claim,” etc.

But, ironically, in either case this would raise the thorny question of how the Church could have gotten it so wrong in the first place. Similar to the prospect of Biblical error, the inevitable question that this itself raises is what else could it have gotten so wrong?

In the meantime, it’s hard not to predict the further obfuscation of how, for example, “historical claim in the Bible” itself is understood among the very few Catholic theologians who are actually doing work on Biblical inspiration and inerrancy.

Yet in affirming Biblical inerrancy, Catholic theology will always avoid truly confronting the sometimes assured conclusions of critical Biblical study and their implications (cf. the critical theology informed by this) head-on: conclusions that suggest that clear error, ethical and historical, can be found in many places in the Bible, in contexts that are far from trivial or incidental, and even placed in the mouth of God himself.¹³

⁂       ⁂       ⁂

(Important Postscript and footnotes on next page.)

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