Modernism vs. History in Genesis & Biblical Inspiration

Modernism vs. History in Genesis & Biblical Inspiration July 23, 2018

This all occurred when a man came onto one of my comboxes, chiming in about an existing discussion with an agnostic / deist, saying about himself, “I’d be OK with the label progressive or even liberal.” He has (by his own report) a Ph.D. in philosophy from Catholic University, Washington, D.C.”, and is “a retired teacher of Church, theology, liturgy, the Bible, science, children’s books, traditional virtues, social justice, ecological responsibilities, . . .”; also a “lector, cantor, and extraordinary minister of communication in my parish.” I highly commend him for all those activities / accomplishments, and admire it, but it doesn’t follow that every jot and tittle of his theology is, therefore, without error, according to magisterial criteria.

A wide-ranging discussion about biblical inspiration, the knowledge of Christ, alleged errors in Scripture, historicity and symbolism in Genesis, literal biblical interpretation, and what Catholics required to believe ensued. I’ve edited it only slightly. The absolutely unabridged version can be found at the above link. My friend’s words will be in blue.


I’ve been following with interest your discussions with Dave Armstrong. I note one of your questions was about ranges of belief in Catholicism. Perhaps that is where I fit in. I’ll tell you about myself, and you can decide whether what I have to say might be worth your while.

I am Catholic. I’d be OK with the label progressive or even liberal, but I do intend to stay within the Catholic tent. When it comes to the Bible, that tent is fairly large. I stand with scholars, both Catholic and mainline Protestant, who use a variety of methods for interpreting the Bible, including: historical criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, and (there must be) more. The gist is that the Bible is a human product and can be analyzed like any human product.

Officially the Catholic Church says that God “made full use of [the human authors’] faculties and powers.” (Catechism 106) I’d put it more bluntly: There’s no obvious clue that God was operating in the formation of the Bible, and I don’t think there ever was.

Here are some conclusions, by the type of scholars I mentioned, regarding some famous Bible problems:

• The first 11 chapters of Genesis are stories, not history. This includes the story of creation in 7 days, the Adam and Eve story, Cain and Abel, those very old folks in the genealogies, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. I realize that here Dave and I disagree as do Catholic scholars, but my position is not considered controversial. 
• Where the Bible does present history, it’s never straight history but always geared toward the faith of the authors and their communities. 
• The Bible is not consistent with itself or with what can be known from historical records and archaeology. Somewhat more controversial, but still within bounds for Catholics: The mass migration of Exodus probably didn’t happen; there may have been a small band of escaping slaves who joined up with a newly forming Israelite culture. Joshua’s blitzkrieg through Palestine probably didn’t happen; archaeologists doubt even the existence at that time of the cities Joshua was supposed to have massacred. 

See my paper: “Joshua’s Altar on Mt. Ebal: Findings of Recent Archaeology”.

• I would go so far as to say, with competent scholars (I’m only an amateur), that besides scientific and historical errors, there are also moral and theological errors in the Bible.

Again Dave would surely disagree, but I think it’s wrong to attribute massacres and “hardening of hearts” to God’s will.

[God didn’t harden hearts, as I have explained]

In other words, some of the points that you have raised I completely agree with. Modern Bible scholarship has made it possible for me to stay Catholic. I have written in detail about a number of issues in Bible interpretation . . . 


Here are your [i.e., the agnostic / deist’s] two recent questions: -Can there be moral and theological errors in the New Testament as well as the Old?
-If we accept that Christ was fully human as well as fully divine, could he, as a human being, speak in error?

I’m inclined to say yes to both, but there are complications, which I’ll get to shortly. Your second question about Jesus doesn’t specify moral and theological. Clearly Jesus can make some mistakes. I’m thinking of Mark 2:25-26, where Jesus misidentifies the priest who gave David and his band bread from the house of God.

I see two complications that make it hard to identify precisely a theological or moral error in the New Testament. I feel fairly comfortable talking about the first, not so much the second. The first deals primarily with the Gospels, also Acts and Revelation, I think.

Scholars say that the Gospel writers have differing theologies. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they contradict each other or that one or more of them are wrong. The complication consists in the fact that these writers embed their theologies in story. It’s commonly said that the Bible (Old and New Testaments) don’t give us straight history but history interpreted in the light of faith. We might say, well, there are the facts of history and their interpretation, and you should be able to find both in the Bible. Presumably we could agree on the facts and disagree on the interpretations. But then we see that individual author’s “facts” contradict each other. (The reports surrounding Jesus’ resurrection are a striking example.)

What’s going on here is that the Gospel writers present their theologies in story form. They adjust or make up details and even whole events (or they choose from different stories floating around in oral or written form) to get across what they wanted to say. So getting at the theology is always our (also the original readers’) interpretation. In the long run I think that’s a plus. Christian theology is not stuck in a first-century slab of concrete. It can develop; it can respond to new facts and ideas. But not in any way it pleases. It does, after all, have a text to which it has to be faithful.

It’s different with the letters, which are less story-like and more like essays. They are always in response to particular situations, and understanding the situation has a great deal to do with understanding the response. This is an area I’m not so familiar with.

After avoiding the “chase” for so long, I’ll cut to it now. I think it’s a theological mistake when the Gospel of Mark says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (16:16) You could try to interpret your way around this, but I think it’s better just to say that’s not right. The Bible as a whole shows that God is both more just and more merciful than that.

There are many heterodox assertions to disagree with here. Do you even believe that the Bible is inspired (“God-breathed”) revelation? Catholic liberalism is not the same as orthodox Catholicism: the doctrines that we are required to believe as Catholics.

My responsibility as an apologist is to proclaim and defend what the Church teaches according to her authoritative magisterium.

my position is not considered controversial

It certainly is if you deny the historicity of “Adam and Eve . . . Cain and Abel, . . . Noah and the Flood” because the Catechism and the New Testament directly contradict you.

I have stated many times — in agreement with Pope Benedict — that early Genesis uses symbolism (e.g., the trees, the snake), but that there are also actual persons and events that literally took place in history (including the very fall of mankind, leading to original sin). See my papers:

Defending the Historical Adam of Genesis (vs. Eric S. Giunta) [9-25-11]
Adam & Eve of Genesis: Historical & the Primal Human Pair? (vs. Bishop Robert Barron) [11-28-13]
New Testament Proofs of Noah’s Historical Existence (Seton Magazine article, 22 April 2014)


Dave, I think the image of a tent might be helpful here. As I see it, we occupy different parts of the Catholic tent. (To you I’m outside the tent, but let’s keep the image for a while.) I don’t expect you to come over to my area of the tent, but I hope you can see that I’m in the tent. One reason I think you should is that I’m relying on Catholic sources. One of my favorites is “The Catholic Bible (NAB), Personal Study Edition,” published by Oxford University Press, with an imprimatur. That imprimatur doesn’t prove the contents are correct, but it does indicate a certain level of acceptance by the Church. Then there’s “The Catholic Youth Bible,” St. Mary’s Press, also with an imprimatur. Here’s what this one says about Genesis Chapters 1-11: “As you red these chapters, remember that they were written not as historical accounts or scientific explanations but as inspired stories that share a faith perspective and teach important religious truths.”

I don’t know what you think of the theologian and Bible scholar John L. McKenzie. Here’s a scholar who has never been disciplined or censured by the Church; on the contrary, his writings have met with wide acceptance and commendation. He says this about the first 11 chapters of Genesis: “The effect of this series of myths … is powerful. It denies to man any escape from responsibility for the human condition. We are sure that the author had a broad acquaintance with ancient Near Eastern mythology, that he chose some myths and rejected others. … Lacking history, ancient scribes dealt with the reality which lies beyond experience by mythology. It deserves to be treated seriously ….” (“The Old Testament Without Illusion,” p. 51) McKenzie uses the category “myth”; other more recent scholars think that’s misleading and prefer the term “story.” Either way, and without necessarily agreeing, I don’t see how you can say these ideas are either controversial in Catholic scholarship or heterodox.

You are an apologist. I salute you for that. I’m pretty sure that good work can be done better if it would admit the possibility, at least, of more than one Catholic way of interpreting Scripture.

You’re a Catholic who holds to several ideas that are impermissible within Catholic dogmatic theology. I asked you if you denied the inspiration of Holy Scripture. You didn’t reply. If so, you seriously think that is consistent with Catholicism? You’ve claimed that the Gospels contain theological mistakes. Mark 16:16 is [in some respects] typical Jewish hyperbole. Rightly interpreted, it means, “baptism is normally essential for salvation (but there can be exceptions).” The latter presupposition is understood. The Bible teaches baptismal regeneration in several places. To not believe is to be condemned. This is self-evident. In the Bible, “believe” includes the actions we do as well.

I specifically replied to your claims about early Genesis. It’s not straight history; it contains symbolic and allegorical or metaphorical elements. But it also contains historical things as well. Among these were the persons mentioned: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah. The NT itself regards them as historical figures, as I proved in one of my papers.

Adam and Eve are mentioned eight times [as actual human beings who existed in history] in the Catechism. Here is most of my most directly relevant article, since you seem to not want to read it or interact with it.

God made a covenant with Noah. It’s pretty difficult to make a covenant with an imaginary, fictional person. Thus, the Catechism refers to Noah and the flood, and what is called the Noachic Covenant, nine times.

There is also abundant NT evidence of the casual assumption that all these early human beings were indeed historical figures. Paul connects Adam with Moses, in Romans 5:14. In 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 15:45 he draws a direct parallel between Adam and Jesus Christ: the one bringing death upon the human race, and the other being the cause of spiritual and eternal life (pretty weird, if Adam didn’t even exist historically). He again mentions Adam and Eve and assumes they were real persons, in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. Jude 14 describes Enoch as a descendant of Adam. St. Paul refers to Eve as having been deceived by the devil, in 2 Corinthians 11:3.

Our Lord Jesus refers quite literally to Abel:

Matthew 23:34-35 (RSV) Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari’ah the son of Barachi’ah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (cf. Lk 11:51)

The author of Hebrews includes Abel in his catalogue of the heroes of the faith:

Hebrew 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking. (also, he refers to “the blood of Abel” in 12:24)

Noah is included in this same recitation of heroic faith. Note how Abraham is mentioned in the next verse. There is no indication whatsoever that one was a real person and the other a mythical figure only:

Hebrews 11:7-8 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.

St. Peter believed that Noah was a real person too:

1 Peter 3:18-21 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, . . .

2 Peter 2:4-5, 9 For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,

Again, the text moves from the fallen angels to Noah, and then to Lot (2:7), who lived in the time of Abraham, and was his nephew, to the time he was writing. St. Peter is arguing by analogy: “God rescued Noah and Lot; He can do the same for you today.” This makes absolutely no sense if the earlier people are imaginary, because you would have the real fallen angels (demons), then the imaginary Noah, then back to reality with Lot and the early Christians. This utterly violates the tenor and nature of the passage, as is the case in similar passages noted above.

This is your burden: the New Testament, and also what the Church teaches about these early figures. They were real people. Ven. Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950) refers to the historical elements of the first eleven chapters of Genesis:

[T]he first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, . . . (section 38)

Cardinal Ratzinger [later, Pope Benedict XVI], in his 1986 book, “In the Beginning…”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Our Sunday Visitor, 1990, translated by Boniface Ramsey, OP) writes about Genesis and Adam:

In the Genesis story that we are considering, still a further characteristic of sin is described. Sin is not spoken of in general as an abstract possibility but as a deed, as the sin of a particular person, Adam, who stands at the origin of humankind and with whom the history of sin begins. The account tells us that sin begets sin, and that therefore all the sins of history are interlinked. (p. 89)

Pope St. John Paul II, in a 1986 teaching about original sin, stated this about early Genesis, Adam, and original sin:


1. In the context of creation and of the bestowal of gifts by which God constitutes man in the state of holiness and of original justice, the description of the first sin which we find in the third chapter of Genesis, acquires a greater clarity. It is obvious that this description which hinges on the transgression of the divine command not to eat “of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” is to be interpreted by taking into account the character of the ancient text and especially its literary form. However, while bearing in mind this scientific requirement in the study of the first book of Sacred Scripture, it cannot be denied that one sure element emerges from the detailed account of the sin: that it describes a primordial event, that it is a fact, which according to Revelation took place at the beginning of human history. For this very reason, it presents as well another certain element, namely the fundamental and decisive implication of that event for man’s relationship with God and consequently for the interior “situation” of man himself for the reciprocal relationships between people and in general for man’s relationship with the world. [my bolding emphasis]

The saint-pope is talking about history, not myth. In the entire public audience he used the word “history” or “historical” 13 times. The word “myth” never appears. “Symbolically” appears once: describing “The tree of the knowledge of good and evil” or a characteristic thereof. I fully agree!

CCC 390 states:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

These things aren’t optional or up for grabs. This is Church teaching. If you deny it, then you dissent from Church teaching on these points. You need to understand this and be straightforward about it.


A few things that I do believe:

• Holy Scripture is inspired. God was indeed working through human authors to communicate the truths necessary for salvation, as the Catechism says. 
• All human beings are descended from the same first human beings. All of us have inherited the consequences of their original sin; those consequences include concupiscence, or sinful inclinations as well as effects in the material and social worlds.
• The Catholic Church has allowed many ways of interpreting Scripture in its history. Since Pius XII’s Divino afflante spiritu, that has included modern historical-critical methods. 
• Today the Church does not teach that one must believe and be baptized to be saved nor that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” I admit that one can interpret Mark 16:16 to make it come out right, but I wonder if that isn’t just reading in to the saying what we now believe—eisegesis rather then exegesis.

I did read some of your work on the symbolic nature of the early Genesis chapters. I appreciate that. But I don’t think you’ve recognized that an entire story, e.g., the Flood story or the Babel story, may be of a literary genre other than history. How else can one deal with the fact that the entire Flood story appears to be based on an earlier Babylonian tale, with just enough changes to communicate God’s truth rather than Pagan nonsense? How do you deal with the lack of scientific evidence for a worldwide flood during the time when humans were on earth.

The New Testament evidence that you cite isn’t compelling. No Catholic doctrine says the apostles, evangelists, and even Jesus couldn’t have believed erroneously that certain stories in their Scriptures were historical. A striking example is Jonah, a pretty obviously made-up tale, which Jesus thought was true history. Well, I suppose you don’t believe Jonah is made up at all, but a lot of Catholic scholars do. How many Catholics are you willing to write off as heterodox?

Just to pick out one of your arguments: “God rescued Noah and Lot. He can do the same for you today.” You say this analogy makes no sense if the earlier people are imaginary. But it makes sense if the author didn’t know the characters were imaginary. It even makes sense if the author did know they were imaginary. (Incidentally, what Catholic doctrine tells you that Lot was a real person or, if real, that the story of his rescue from Sodom is real.

I would have you read this from the USCCB webpage on the introduction to Genesis:

How should modern readers interpret the creation-flood story in Gn 2–11? The stories are neither history nor myth. “Myth” is an unsuitable term, for it has several different meanings and connotes untruth in popular English. “History” is equally misleading, for it suggests that the events actually took place. The best term is creation-flood story. Ancient Near Eastern thinkers did not have our methods of exploring serious questions. Instead, they used narratives for issues that we would call philosophical and theological. They added and subtracted narrative details and varied the plot as they sought meaning in the ancient stories. Their stories reveal a privileged time, when divine decisions were made that determined the future of the human race. The origin of something was thought to explain its present meaning, e.g., how God acts with justice and generosity, why human beings are rebellious, the nature of sexual attraction and marriage, why there are many peoples and languages. Though the stories may initially strike us as primitive and naive, they are in fact told with skill, compression, and subtlety. They provide profound answers to perennial questions about God and human beings.

Final thoughts: The first chapters in Genesis do indeed pertain to history in a true sense, as Pius XII says. That’s their whole point–to tell us what our history with God is like. My point is that they don’t have to BE history to do that. I’ve already agreed with the part in which you quote Ratzinger on the sin of our first parents.

1. You don’t accept the Catholic view of biblical inspiration if you think Scripture is filled with errors. This is contrary to Pope St. Pius X’s Decree Against Modernism (Lamentabili Sane, 1907), and the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1909) [related article / 2nd article / 3rd article].

See Denzinger, #3401-3519 and Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 101-102 in the 2018 version; pp. 92-93 in the older version. I have been giving you scriptural and magisterial arguments. You offer me liberal / modernist (or modernist-influenced) / heterodox scholars and bishops’ documents, which are not magisterial. The bishops are only magisterial in union in ecumenical councils, as ratified by popes.

2. Adam and Eve (the ones described in Genesis) were the first primal human pair. This belief is not necessarily contrary to either evolution or genetics.

For a solid philosophical / scientific defense of monogenism (all human descent from one primal pair), see, “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” by Kenneth W. Kemp (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 217-236, 2011).

Abstract: “Francisco Ayala and others have argued that recent genetic evidence shows that the origins of the human race cannot be monogenetic, as the Church has traditionally taught. This paper replies to that objection, developing a distinction between biological and theological species first proposed by Andrew Alexander in 1964.”

Dr. Kemp is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He obtained an M.A. in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Notre Dame in 1983, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the same university in 1984. He is fluent in seven languages besides English, and also knows four more languages to some extent.

Another serious, extensive philosophical / scientific explanation that is consistent with traditional Catholic theology and dogma is from Edward Feser: “Modern Biology and Original Sin” (+ part two). Dr. Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California.

3. Scripture is interpreted differently according to the literary genres involved (and in harmony with the magisterium). I have no problem with that. I’m not a Protestant fundamentalist. I was Protestant, but I’ve never been a fundamentalist.

4. As to the Flood, so what if other cultures mentioned it? We would fully expect that. I don’t see how that casts into doubt the Scriptural story.  C. S. Lewis makes a similar argument about how pagan precursors to Christianity were how God planned it, in His providence. Far from being disproofs of Christianity, they confirm it. Chesterton makes an elaborate argument along those lines in his Everlasting Man (a marvelous book, and the one that Lewis said was his biggest influence).

The Flood need not be universal at all. I didn’t believe that as a Protestant, having read Bernard Ramm’s excellent work, The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Nor do the six days of creation have to be literal (as Augustine argued against in his time). I’ve written about the non-universal flood, too. Even the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (“Deluge”) stated that the Flood didn’t have to be interpreted as literally universal:

Neither Sacred Scripture nor universal ecclesiastical tradition, nor again scientific considerations, render it advisable to adhere to the opinion that the Flood covered the whole surface of the earth.

I’ve also argued vigorously against young earth creationist flood geology (which presupposes a universal flood).

5. You dismiss the clear NT evidence about early Genesis figures and events as actual (not merely fables) by attributing error to the text and the persons writing them. This is contrary to the Catholic view of inspiration, as explained, and also, when it involves Jesus,. contrary to the de fide Catholic dogma that He is omniscient, and cannot make such errors even in His human nature (which is always united with His Divine). This is simply more modernism, condemned by the Church over 100 years ago.

6. You dismissed, for example, the historicity of Lot. That casts into doubt the entire Sodom and Gomorrah narrative. Since that was in the time of Abraham, perhaps you doubt his historical existence, too? Jesus referred to Noah and the Flood, and Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as literal historical events:

Luke 17:26-32 (RSV) As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man.  [27] They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.  [28] Likewise as it was in the days of Lot — they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built,  [29] but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all — [30] so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.  . . . [32] Remember Lot’s wife.

So you ignore that by using the time-honored modernist game of denying scriptural inspiration and/or the omniscience of Christ.

7. USCCB and other documents of bishops have no magisterial authority. This one you cite was simply in error, as it contradicts clear Church teaching.

You are operating on a head count of (liberal) scholars. I operate on the basis of the magisterium of the Catholic Church: what all Catholics are bound and obligated to believe. This is why you openly (in this thread) called yourself a “progressive or even liberal.” Yes you are. You’re a modernist, who chooses to openly dissent against various Church teachings that Catholics are required to believe.

I don’t despise you (not at all!). I admire your zeal and amiability. I’m trying to help you by correcting your errors, in my capacity as a Catholic apologist. It does no one any good to believe falsehood. If you want to pick and choose what you want to believe, that’s not the Catholic rule of faith; it’s Protestant (what I used to believe). And it’s what is called “Cafeteria Catholicism.”

I can’t in good conscience and in my duty as an apologist, let what I firmly believe to be false teaching regarding Holy Mother Church, Holy Scripture, and even our Lord Jesus, go out unopposed.

There is a reason why St. James wrote: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1, RSV). I tremble over that every day. Woe unto me if I lead anyone astray.


Once again thanks for taking the time to respond. I’m not sure how long we can go on like this. It’s good to hear opposing views, but there comes a time when we’ve said all we can say.

We clearly have serious disagreements. The one that bothers me most – and is hardest to understand – is that you persist in calling my ideas heterodox. The approved scholars and bishops I referenced in my last answer ought to be enough to convince you that, though I may be wrong, it’s a bold move to call us all heterodox. That label may apply to some liberals, but that doesn’t mean there are not different, legitimately Catholic points of view on a spectrum from fairly conservative to fairly liberal. Now to your specific points:

1. I don’t know how many errors there are in Scripture, but there definitely are some. (I never said “filled with errors.” I mentioned an error that Jesus made, and you didn’t respond to that. Here’s another error. Luke says Jesus was born near the end of Herod the Great’s reign and also that there was a Roman census at the time. The only Roman census anywhere near that time was ordered by Quirinius in 6 A.D. Herod died in 4 B.C. No big deal. A simple error that anyone could make who’s trying to remember or research back about 80 years. I don’t have Denzinger or Ott available. I took the opportunity to read the Oath against Modernism. There’s nothing in it concerning Scripture that I disagree with. Pius spoke pretty strongly against the idea of development of dogma. I don’t know if he meant there could be no such thing or if there could be a kind of development which does not contradict what was believed before.

2. I agree with what the Church teaches about Original Sin and the origin of the human race. An article in “First Things,” which I can’t find, explained the Catholic doctrine in conformity with modern science. There may have been an initial gene pool of a couple thousand human-like ancestors, as science now thinks. But God instilled into one or a pair of these a spiritual soul. This would be the original Adam and/or Adam and Eve. They may have mated with others in the group. If so their children would have both spiritual souls and the consequences of whatever sin the first pair undoubtedly committed. While the others would have continued mating among themselves, their children would not have human souls unless and until they or their children mated with a descendant of “Adam and Eve.” After several generations (I don’t know how many statistically) all of the descendants of the whole original group would have “Adam and Eve” for a direct ancestor. This works for me. 

3. No problem. Welcome to the Church.

4. A real disagreement on the Flood. (Cain and Abel would be another and oprobably also Methuselah.) Sure it’s possible that a Pagan story could have been God-directed. I’ll gladly admit that interpretation into the Catholic “tent.” But it seems like grasping at straws to me just to save the New Testament’s references to the Flood as a real event. Much more natural simply to see the Flood story as a story, modified from an original that was also just a story. I don’t see why God can’t have stories in his book. Stories are wonderful things. 

5. Here you object to my attributing errors to New Testament authors and even to Jesus. You mention Jesus’ omniscience, which you claim even for his human nature. That is surely wrong. If Jesus were omniscient in his human nature, it wouldn’t be human nature. A very old monk (old at the time decades ago) explained to me: Jesus had a divine and a human nature. Once in a while that divine nature enlightened or maybe empowered the human nature so that Jesus in his human nature could be aware of some truth or perform some deed that otherwise is humanly impossible. The point is this didn’t happen on a regular basis but only as needed. Otherwise, at other times, Jesus could make mistakes the same as the rest of us.

6. I don’t dismiss the historicity of Lot, although I would say his historical existence is neither certain nor Catholic dogma. The U.S. Catholic bishops say (I’m remembering this rather than taking the time to look it up), “It is reasonable to accept that the patriarchs are the historical ancestors of the Hebrew people. Notice that, even for the patriarchs, they don’t insist on it; it’s “reasonable.” Lot isn’t even a patriarch. I expect that the patriarchs are real people, but nowhere does the Church say (you might be able to correct me on this) that all the stories about the patriarchs are historical events. I won’t insist on anything here since it gets away from my main interest, which is the first 11 Chapters.

7. I agree that a document put forth by the American bishops has no magisterial authority. I’m not asking you to believe what they or any liberal or progressive or even middle-of-the-road scholar says. But these people, especially the bishops, know their faith. They’ve been brought up on Denzinger. They aren’t about to go spouting heterodox opinions. The bishops, at least but not only they, believe that what they are saying is acceptable Catholic theology. And a more prudent group of Catholics, I think, would be hard to find. All I’m saying is that it would be prudent for you to admit that their statements are (not necessarily correct, but) at least within the Catholic fold.

Finally, you mention your role as an apologist and my picking and choosing what I want to believe. You and I both have or believe we have good reasons for our choices. I’m thinking that your work as an apologist is directed toward a narrower range of choices that it needs to be. I think you are more certain of your choices than you have a right to be. I might be the same, but my point is neither of us should reject the other as heterodox or outside the faith. I also think apologetics will go better if we don’t force positions on others that the Church doesn’t force.

I agree that we have exhausted the usefulness of this discussion. We’re basically ships passing in the night. I will make just a few responses (referring to your own listed numbers).

If you don’t like “heterodox” substitute “wrong” or “in error” or “mistaken.” I deny that there is or should be “a spectrum from fairly conservative to fairly liberal.” One either accepts Catholic doctrine (orthodox) or picks and chooses (cafeteria / heterodox / modernist / liberal / progressive / dissident; make your choice). It’s not difficult to determine what the Church teaches. You say you have neither Denzinger nor Ott. You should obtain them.

1. I wrote about the census issue at great length.

Pope St. Pius X condemned evolution of dogma, but was a big proponent of Cardinal Newman and development of dogma (an essentially different thing) that Newman excelled in writing about (the thing that made me a Catholic). See my paper in reply to an anti-Catholic apologist who argued the same point.

4. “I don’t see why God can’t have stories in his book.” Me, neither. My point is that they are true stories, just as Tolkien told C. S. Lewis that there was such a thing as a true myth, and that Christianity was that. This played a key role in Lewis’ conversion from atheist to Christian.

5. As to Christ’s human knowledge, Dr. Ott provides the following dogmatic statement:

Christ’s human knowledge was free from positive ignorance and from error. (Sent. certa.) Cf. D2184 et seq. (p. 165)

Dr. Ott explains “Sent. certa.” (pp. 9-10) as follows:

A Teaching pertaining to the Faith, i.e., theologically certain (sententia ad fidem pertinens, i.e., theologice certa) is a doctrine, on which the Teaching Authority of the Church has not yet finally pronounced, but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation (theological conclusions).

See also the related article by Fr. William Most: “An Ignorant Jesus?” The most interesting and in-depth treatment of our topic that I have found is “The Double Consciousness of Christ”, by Bertrand de Margerie, S. J. (Faith and Reason, Spring, 1987). Those who wish to truly have a “handle” on these issues are strongly urged to read this entire piece.

7. Bishops can’t be wrong en masse? You are obviously unfamiliar with the massive (and abominable) dissent after Humanae Vitae (an infallible doctrine), that almost split the Church. If even that almost occurred, then clearly they can be wrong in individual statements, and are not protected by the Holy Spirit from error, since these aren’t magisterial.

[last paragraph] “neither of us should reject the other as heterodox or outside the faith.” I do not; repeat, NOT believe that, as I have already indicated (“You’re a Catholic who holds to several ideas that are impermissible [i.e., what I’ve been calling “heterodox”] within Catholic dogmatic theology.”).

May God bless you abundantly in all your endeavors.


Photo credit: Abraham, Sarah, and the Angel, by Jan Provoost (1462-c. 1529). Abraham was a real, historical person, who lived at the time of Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah: both mentioned as historical persons and events by Jesus [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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