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The Inspiration and Inerrancy of Sacred Scripture

The Four Evangelists – Jacob Jordaens (17th century)

The rise of liberal Protestantism and its later Catholic equivalent, Modernism, sowed many seeds of doubt in the minds of Christians about the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. If ‘error’ is defined as a false assertion, it is not uncommon to find Catholic teachers today who nonchalantly maintain that Scripture contains plenty of errors. Moreover, the only “inspiration” that some Catholic scholars recognize is a sort of heightened psychological condition found in religious people who, out of their fervor, write things about God that the community later accepts as a divine message. Such reductive notions are not only false but extremely dangerous, for they undermine one of the three pillars of the Faith: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.

The Creed states of the Holy Spirit: Qui locutus est per prophetas, “Who spoke through the prophets.” This dogmatic formula contains two assertions: (1) “Who spoke”: the Bible is the Word of God, He is the primary one speaking; (2) “through the prophets”: the Bible is also the word of man. When we speak of “divine inspiration,” we are referring to the manner in which God acted upon the sacred writer, as Leo XIII explains:

All the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that 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. . . . [B]y supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them [the sacred authors] to write—He was so present to them—that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the whole of Scripture.[1]

Inspiration, understood according to the very meaning of the word—the “inbreathing” of God’s spirit into the soul of the writer while he conceives words and commits them to writing—is simply incompatible with error, that is, any assertion of error. God cannot be the author of falsehood as such. This doctrine is reaffirmed by Vatican II in Dei Verbum 11:

Holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (cf. Jn. 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted [to be] put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.

Now, precisely because prophets and evangelists are true authors cooperating with the primary Author, God, the books of the Bible bear and ought to bear obvious marks of their human authorship. For example, there are many passages that seem to present ideas we now hold to be false, such as the cosmology implicit in the creation accounts of the opening chapters of Genesis. Moreover, there appear to be factual errors, such as narrations of events or dates, or descriptions of persons, with which secular historical records conflict; there seem to be internal discrepancies in the Gospel accounts. Many of these things have been noticed and discussed for centuries—by Jewish rabbis, Church Fathers, medieval scholars, and modern exegetes. There is nothing novel about such observations. The question is: How do we reconcile the existence of apparent errors in Scripture with the Church’s assertion of its inerrancy as a whole and in all its parts?[2]

Two basic points frame the answer.

First, as Dei Verbum 13 reminds us, “the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” Thus, the words of Scripture, because they are truly words thought and written by men (without ceasing to be words whose meaning God was the first to understand—words He then willed should be written by the human authors), will contain and display every characteristic of human authorship except for error, even as the Son of God became a man like us in all things except for sin. Each inspired author has his own distinctive personality, education, and writing style, and various things he wants to dwell on—and the corresponding limits that a human author must have. God works with these limits, He does not obliterate them; He employs instruments, at times rough and ready, to convey His message, yet by a gift of grace He guarantees that when the author finally sets down the message in writing, it is not only free from error but conveys what God wants to convey in that context, neither more nor less.

In his outline of the order of the books of Scripture, St. Thomas Aquinas shows how God, according to His wise plan, did not wish to say everything everywhere, but says some things here, some there, in a manner accommodated to different audiences and periods. We are dealing, after all, not with a treatise of philosophy but with salvation history. Revelation is deeply enmeshed with real people in real situations. As Pope Benedict XVI likes to say, God is so great that he can come down even into our smallness. A God less great—one who is, like the pagan gods, jealous of his higher status—would think it beneath him. The true God has no jealousy, no “pride.”

Second, 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. If I were to say: “At sunrise tomorrow I plan to go swimming in the lake,” this statement contains the naïve geocentric language that all of us use, but it surely does not intend to take up a position about astronomy; rather, it simply conveys a plan about swimming at a certain time of day. We understand readily enough what it is saying as well as what it is not saying. Or when I sing the nursery song “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” I am not asserting that stars flicker on and off. The song is about the night sky, where it looks like the stars are flickering on and off, and so I can use this description without encroaching on the question of whether stars, as such, twinkle.

Similarly, if an author asserts that God created the heavens and the earth and at the same time manifests an opinion or assumption about the location of the heavens and the earth, he need not be asserting that this opinion or assumption is scientific fact, that is, an exact description of how things stand, as if we were measuring, sampling, mapping, and theorizing. He is narrating how the world appears to him to have been made and how it stands, in order to convey certain fundamental truths: that God created all things, summed up in the phrase “heaven and earth”; that God, being Himself intelligent and loving, fashions an orderly and beautiful world that is good for its inhabitants; that He has provided for the needs of all creatures through the availability of air, earth, fire, and water; that man, at the pinnacle of this creation, receives stewardship over it, as an imitator of the provident God; and so forth. Even if the inspired author happened to believe that the heavens are a relatively small vault surrounded by water and writes in accordance with this belief, he is not asserting it as fact, however much he may think it factual. His statements proceed on the basis of an assumption that is never itself the subject of affirmation or denial. Put differently, the details are in service of the narrative and its theological message, not objects of independent and unqualified affirmation.

The distinction I am making is clearly illustrated in the opening verse of Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart: ‘There is no God.’”  Grammatically, There is no God is an assertion. Does Scripture, then, or the Psalmist, or even God, assert that There is no God? That would seem very strange for a book which, from start to finish, is about the reality of God and comes from His gracious hand. But does Scripture report the assertion? Yes, it certainly does. It reports the false opinion of those who think there is no God. It transmits a view that it simultaneously rejects. What Scripture asserts in this verse is that it is precisely a fool who says in his heart, “There is no God.” This statement, then, is merely reported, and reported as a fool’s thought: “There is no God.” In this way, too, the statement can be converted into an assertion: “The fool thinks that there is no God.”

It is important, therefore, to keep distinct what an author of Scripture is asserting as true, and what he is reporting, manifesting, or assuming. He might very well assume something to be true, and speak according to that assumption, without asserting it to be true. We do this all the time. I might assume it to be true that girls learn to talk sooner than boys do, and that boys are more interested in tools and machines than girls are. I might act according to this conviction, buying a truck for my son, and a new storybook for my daughter. But it is entirely possible that I will never assert this opinion to be true, but rather, simply act as if it were true. This is otherwise known as an assumption.

Now, there is no reason to think that God would not want the authors of Scripture to hold assumptions just as everybody else does; nor is there reason to think He would mind if they held and even manifested some false opinions, e.g., the immobility of the earth, the location of waters above the heavens, or an inexact sequence of secular rulers. But He would and did prevent these authors from asserting false opinions as true, since this would discredit the true message He wanted to convey through them, “firmly, faithfully, and without error,” as Dei Verbum puts it.[3]

The Canon of Scripture

Since the written word of God was entrusted by Christ to the Church He founded, those books are to be venerated as divinely revealed which the Catholic Church recognizes as such. In the canonization of a saint, the Church’s declaration does not make a soul to be holy, it recognizes the holiness already there. Similarly, when we speak of “the canon” of Scripture, we speak of those books acknowledged to be inspired by God and thus the inerrant instruments designated by Providence for the salvation of men. Scripture, always taken together with and not apart from apostolic Tradition, conveys to us the mystery of salvation as God wishes to deliver it to us, although right understanding of such lofty content demands an authorized interpreter and, for those appointed to preach, careful study combined with holiness of life.

The fact that all the books of the Bible are inspired and inerrant does not, of course, make them all of equal importance. There is an order of precedence that both Jews and Christians acknowledge. The Pentateuch is the core, the heart, of the Old Testament; all other books are in some way related to it; much of the content of the prophets, for example, is a reminder to the people of what God has done for Israel and a call to repentance and renewed adherence to the Law. The Prophets come next in importance; finally the other writings, which vary considerably in origin, content, and style. Of the Old Testament books, Deuteronomy arguably holds the highest rank. In the New Testament a similar hierarchy can be perceived: the Gospels hold front rank, and among these, arguably John holds the highest place (the Acts of the Apostles may be linked with Luke’s Gospel as its intended continuation). Then follow the Epistles of St. Paul, and among these, the greater (both in length and in doctrinal content) are, by tradition, placed first.[4] Next come the “catholic” or general epistles, so called because they are addressed not to specific churches but to the entire Church. Last in order, though not least in importance, is the Revelation to St. John, a book whose apocalyptic style is unique in the New Testament. In his inaugural sermon at the University of Paris in the year 1256, Thomas Aquinas presents the Book of Revelation as the point of arrival of the New Testament, for it speaks, in mystical language, of the ultimate end of the New Covenant, eternal life with God—depicted as the wedding of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church, a wedding already anticipated in this life in the one-flesh communion of the Christian with the Eucharistic Lamb.[5]

There have been and are many so-called “private revelations,” but their status is quite different: they are messages directed to individuals, not to the People of God, for temporally specific, not timelessly general, purposes. The Church may declare that some of these private revelations are free from dogmatic and moral error and may even urge her children to take them seriously (for example, the institution of feasts in honor of Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Our Lady of Guadalupe amounts to an endorsement of the messages delivered to the respective visionaries, and the institution of Divine Mercy Sunday amounts to an endorsement of the messages delivered to St. Faustina), but she never places them on the same level as Scripture. Yet one should not thereby infer that there is anything “esoteric,” strictly speaking, about private revelations, since their content tends to repeat and to deepen a particular saint’s or period’s grasp of central teachings of divine revelation. We see this most clearly, perhaps, with the devotion to the Sacred Heart unveiled to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, in a Jansenistic period when the world desperately needed to be reminded in a vivid way of the love and mercy of God revealed in the Word made flesh.


Originally published in March of 2015. 

[1] Providentissimus Deus 20; see the whole of this paragraph, which explains why it is inadequate and false to say that Scripture is inerrant as regards assertions on matters faith and morals, but not as regards other things affirmed by the authors.

[2] I want to emphasize “apparent errors,” because in so many instances the “errors” cited are not genuine problems but result from a superficial reading of the Biblical text.

[3] To put the matter aprioristically, if a sacred author happened to assert something false, this would ipso facto not be part of revelation, and hence it would not be found in the books defined as canonical. The author is sacred when, and only when, he is acting under divine inspiration, and therefore conceiving and speaking or writing words that are inerrant in respect to everything to which truth or falsehood can properly belong—namely, in respect to what those words assert or deny.

[4] With the exception of Hebrews, which has never unanimously been ascribed to St. Paul, but is recognizably Pauline in its theology.

[5] See my article “The Book of Revelation: Guide to Catholic Worship

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