Since God is the principal Author of Sacred Scripture, it can contain no error, no self-contradiction, nothing contrary to scientific or historical truth. The Encyclical “Providentissimus Deus” is most explicit in its statement of this prerogative of the Bible: “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 Ghost; 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.” The Fathers agree with this teaching almost unanimously; we may refer the reader to St. Jerome (In Nah., I, iv), St. Irenæus (C. hær., II, xxviii), Clement of Alexandria (Stromata VII.16), St. Augustine (Reply to Faustus II.2; cf. “In Ps. cxviii”, serm. xxxi, 5; “Ad Hier.”, ep. lxxxii, 2, 22; “Ad Oros. c. Prisc.”, xi), St. Gregory the Great (Præf. in Job, n. 2). The great African Doctor suggests a simple and radical remedy against apparent errors in the Bible: “Either my codex is wrong, or the translator has blundered, or I do not understand.”
But inerrancy is not the prerogative of everything that happens to be found in the Bible; it is restricted to what the inspired writers state as their own, unless they quote the words of a speaker who is infallible in his utterances, the words of an Apostle, e.g., or of a Divinely authorized speaker, whether angel or man (cf. Luke 1:42, 67; 2:25; 2 Maccabees 7:21), or again words regarded as having Divine authority either by Scripture (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:19; Galatians 4:30) or by the Church (e.g., the Magnificat). Biblical words that do not fall under any of these classes carry merely the authority of the speaker, the weight of which must be studied from other sources. Here is the place to take notice of a decision issued by the Biblical Commission, 13 Feb., 1905, according to which certain Scriptural statements may be treated as quotations, though they appear on the surface to be the utterances of the inspired writer. But this can be done only when there is certain and independent proof that the inspired writer really quotes the words of another without intending to make them his own. Recent writers call such passages “tacit” or “implicit” citations.
The inerrancy of Scripture does not allow us to admit contradictions in its statements. This is understood of the genuine or primitive text of the Bible. Owing to textual corruptions, we must be prepared to meet contradictions in details of minor importance; in weightier matters such discrepancies have been avoided even in our present text. Discrepancies which may appear to obtain in matters of faith or morals should put the commentator on his guard that the same Biblical expressions are not everywhere taken in the same sense, that various passages may differ from each other as the complete statement of a doctrine differs from its incomplete expression, as a clear presentation differs from its obscure delineation. Thus “works” has one meaning in James, ii, 24, another in Rom., iii, 28; “brothers” denotes one kind of relationship in Matthew 12:46, quite a different kind in most other passages; John 14:28 and 10:30, Acts 8:12, and Matthew 28:19, are respectively opposed to each other as a clear statement is opposed to an obscure one, as an explicit one to a mere implication. In apparent Biblical discrepancies found in historical passages, the commentator must distinguish between statements made by the inspired writer and those merely quoted by him (cf. 1 Samuel 31:9, and 2 Samuel 1:6 sqq.), between a double account of the same fact and the narrative of two similar incidents, between chronologies which begin with different starting-points, finally between a compendious and a detailed report of an event. Lastly, apparent discrepancies which occur in prophetical passages necessitate an investigation, whether the respective texts emanate from the Prophets as Prophets (cf. 2 Samuel 7:3-17), whether they refer to the same or to similar subjects (the destruction of Jerusalem, e.g., and the end of the world), whether they consider their subject from the same point of view (e.g. the suffering and the glorious Messias), whether they use proper or figurative language. Thus the Prophet Nathan in his private capacity encourages David to build the Temple (2 Samuel 7:3), but as Prophet he foretells that Solomon will build the house of God (ibid., 13).
The inerrancy of Scripture excludes also any contradiction between the Bible and the certain tenets of science. It cannot be supposed that the inspired writers should agree with all the various hypotheses which scientists assume today and reject tomorrow; but the commentator will be required to harmonize the teaching of the Bible with the scientific results which rest on solid proof. This rule is clearly laid down by the Encyclical in the words of St. Augustine: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures, and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so” (De Gen. ad litt., I, xxi, xli). But the commentator must also be careful “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known” (St. Aug., in Gen. op. imperf., ix, 30). The Encyclical appeals here again to the words of the great African Doctor (St. Aug., de Gen. ad litt., II, ix, xx): “[The Holy Ghost] who spoke by them [the inspired writers], did not intend to teach men these things [i.e., the essential nature of the things of the visible universe], things in no way profitable unto salvation.” The pontiff continues: “Hence they . . . described and dealt with things in more or less 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 by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way, the sacred writers — as the Angelic Doctor reminds us (Summa Theologiæ I.70.1 ad 3um) — ‘went by what visibly appeared’, or put down what God, speaking to men, signified in a way men could understand and were accustomed to.” In Genesis 1:16, e.g., the sun and the moon are called two great lights; in Joshua 10:12, the sun is commanded to stand still; in Eccl., i, 5, the sun returns to its place; in Job 26:11, the firmament appears solid and brazen; in other passages the heavens are upheld by columns, and God rides on the clouds of heaven.
Finally, the commentator must be prepared to deal with the seeming discrepancies between Biblical and profane history. The considerations to be kept in mind here are similar to those laid down in the preceding paragraph. First, not all statements found in profane sources can be regarded a priori as Gospel truth; some of them refer to subjects with which the writers were imperfectly acquainted, others proceed from party-feeling and national vanity, others again are based on imperfectly or only partially translated ancient documents. Secondly, the Bible does not ex professo teach profane history or chronology. These topics are treated only incidentally, in as far as they are connected with sacred subjects. Hence it would be wrong to regard Scripture as containing a complete course of history and chronology, or to consider the text of its historical portions above suspicion of corruption. Thirdly, we must keep in mind the words of St. Jerome (in Jer., xxviii, 10): “Many things in Sacred Scripture are related according to the opinion of the time in which they are said to have happened, and not according to objective truth”; and again (in Matthew 14:8): “According to the custom of Scripture, the historian relates the opinion concerning many things in accordance with the general belief at that time.” Father Delattre maintains (Le Criterium à l’usage de la Nouvelle Exégèse Biblique, Liège, 1907) that according to St. Jerome the inspired writers report the public opinion prevalent at the time of the events related, not the public opinion prevalent when the narrative was written. This distinction is of greater practical importance than it, at first, seems to be. For Father Delattre only grants that the inspired historian may write according to sensible appearances, while his opponents contend that he may follow also the so-called historic appearances. Finally, the first two decisions of the Biblical Commission must be mentioned in this connection. Some Catholic writers had attempted to remove certain historical difficulties from the sacred text either by considering the respective passages as tacit or implied quotations from other authors, for which the inspired writers did not in any way vouch; or by denying that the sacred writers vouch, in any way, for the historical accuracy of the facts they narrate, since they use these apparent facts merely as pegs on which to hang some moral teaching. The Biblical Commission rejected these two methods by decrees issued respectively 13 Feb. and 23 June, 1905, adding, however, that either of them may be admitted in the case when, due regard being paid to the sense and judgment of the Church, it can be proved by solid argument that the sacred writer either really quoted the sayings or documents of another without speaking in his own name, or did not really intend to write history, but only to propose a parable, an allegory, or another non-historical literary concept.
[Anthony Maas, “Biblical Exegesis,” The Catholic Encyclopedia]
The inerrancy of the Bible follows as a consequence of this Divine authorship. Wherever the sacred writer makes a statement as his own, that statement is the word of God and infallibly true, whatever be the subject-matter of the statement.
It will be seen, therefore, that though the inspiration of any writer and the sacred character of his work be antecedent to its recognition by the Church yet we are dependent upon the Church for our knowledge of the existence of this inspiration. She is the appointed witness and guardian of revelation. From her alone we know what books belong to the Bible.
[Francis Gigot, “The Bible,” The Catholic Encyclopedia]
For the last three centuries there have been author-theologians, exegetes, and especially apologists — such as Holden, Rohling, Lenormant, di Bartolo, and others — who maintained, with more or less confidence, that inspiration was limited to moral and dogmatic teaching, excluding everything in the Bible relating to history and the natural sciences. They think that, in this way, a whole mass of difficulties against the inerrancy of the bible would be removed. But the Church has never ceased to protest against this attempt to restrict the inspiration of the sacred books. This is what took place when Mgr d’Hulst, Rector of the Institut Catholique of Paris, gave a sympathetic account of this opinion in “Le Correspondant” of 25 Jan., 1893. The reply was quickly forthcoming in the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus of the same year. In that Encyclical Leo XIII said:
It will never be lawful to restrict inspiration merely to certain parts of the Holy Scripture, or to grant that the sacred writer could have made a mistake. Nor may the opinion of those be tolerated, who, in order to get out of these difficulties, do not hesitate to suppose that Divine inspiration extends only to what touches faith and morals, on the false plea that the true meaning is sought for less in what God has said than in the motive for which He has said it. (Denz., 1950)
In fact, a limited inspiration contradicts Christian tradition and theological teaching.
[Alfred Durand, “Inspiration of the Bible,” The Catholic Encyclopedia]
It is common to dismiss those who uphold the Church’s teaching on Biblical inerrancy with the careless epithet of “fundamentalist.” More substantively, it is a common opinion among Catholic exegetes that inerrancy does not apply to matters not pertinent to faith and morals, and some even quote Dei Verbum as endorsing this position. Yet it is by no means necessary to compromise the Church’s perennial teaching on the divine inspiration of Scripture in order to avoid the pitfalls of geocentrism, young-earth creationism, and the like. The Council allows that not all of Scripture is to be understood in the plain literal sense, while at the same time leaving intact the traditional doctrines of divine inspiration and inerrancy.
It is one thing to deny or compromise Scriptural inerrancy on rationalistic grounds, but quite another to claim that the universal Magisterium has abandoned it. The Pontifical Biblical Commission continued to exist after the Council, even to this day, yet it never once in this half-century rescinded or superseded any of its responsa of the early twentieth century. At the time of the Council, it issued the document De historica evangeliorum veritate (1964), which upheld the historical character of the Gospels, yet allowed that the Evangelists may have changed the order, specific wording, and context of the same deeds, for the benefit of their readers.
In Evangelium Vitae (1995), Pope John Paul II matter-of-factly mentioned the “Yahwist account of creation,” (EV, 35) apparently giving sanction to the “documentary hypothesis” made famous by Wellhausen. Yet the use of the term “Yahwist” by no means entails endorsement of a specific hypothesis about how, when, and by whom the Pentateuch was composed. This term is used even today by modern critics who have abandoned the documentary hypothesis in favor of other models. Even advocates of a strong view of Mosaic authorship allow that Moses used written sources in composing his work, and it has been recognized that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis at least since the time of Flavius Josephus (1st cent.).
Still, it is hardly deniable that the Church allows considerably more latitude in Biblical form criticism than it did prior to the Council. The question arises as to whether the Magisterium has thereby given tacit consent to modern critical hypotheses that openly deny traditional teachings about the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The argument from silence, however, proves too much. By that standard, we could note that many Catholic theologians deny Church teaching about transubstantiation, contraception, abortion, etc. without penalty. Yet not even the dissidents themselves pretend that the Magisterium has abandoned its teaching on these issues. On the contrary, their disaffection is predicated on the the fact that the Magisterium has not endorsed their views, but opposes them. The absence of punishment is merely consequent to the fact that the Church has abandoned the temporal sword (where it has not already been seized from her).
There is no question that the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy is a “hard saying,” so it is always tempting for exegetes and apologists to make their work easier by softening the teaching. Every age finds its own set of problems in Scripture, depending on its perspective. Our current ethical and historiographical presuppositions make much of the Old Testament problematic in a way that was not so in earlier eras. Dei Verbum—like all other Magisterial pronouncements—does not presume to solve all Scriptural difficulties. Our faith in Scripture is not based on its self-evident truth—in many places, we do not even know what it asserts, much less how to evaluate the assertion. It is grounded in the authority of the Church, which comes from the Apostles, who were commissioned by Christ. Catholics believe in the Scriptures because they trust in Christ’s promises to His Church.
Yet there is a further reason, touched on by Origen and reaffirmed by the Council: Holy Scripture speaks to us in a way that impresses upon us its truth, so that we need no exterior convincing. We recognize the Spirit of truth as we would a person; such has been the conviction of all the saints who have remarked on the subject. Without this recognition of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, there would be no reason for us to have any more concern for it than another set of ancient texts.
The remainder of the document deals with the inspiration and interpretation of Holy Scripture. Even if we agree that Scripture and Tradition are equally binding in authority, it can hardly be disputed that appeals to Scripture have always been favored by theologians, especially the Fathers, for the firm establishment of doctrine. This is because Sacred Scripture gives us an especially direct and less equivocal expression of the word of God, owing to its particular mode of inspiration. Questions of Biblical inspiration and interpretation take special importance in a highly literate age, as the Church must make clear the relationship between her doctrines and Scripture, and explain what is meant by Scripture as the “word of God.”
For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles, 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. (DV, 11)
The first sentence parallels a similar statement by the Council of Trent, which includes: “…having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author.” The second sentence clarifies that the Catholic notion of Biblical inspiration does not involve the suppression of human agency. In Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII had taught:
For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them 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 entire Scripture. (PD, 20)
Pope Benedict XV forcefully reaffirmed Leo’s teaching on Biblical inspiration in Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), yet he also described with approval St. Jerome’s view:
Thus he asserts that the Books of the Bible were composed at the inspiration, or suggestion, or even at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; even that they were written and edited by Him. Yet he never questions but that the individual authors of these Books worked in full freedom under the Divine afflatus, each of them in accordance with his individual nature and character. (SP, 8)
Dei Verbum likewise affirms that the sacred authors wrote only what God willed for them to write, while emphasizing that this did not entail a suppression of their natural human abilities. In fact, God made use of their abilities, so that they too were true authors. This agrees with the perennial faith of the Church, for we say without contradiction that St. Paul was the author of the letter to the Romans, and so was the Holy Spirit.
As the inspired authors retained the free use of their faculties, they were not mere puppets or stenographers, but cooperated in the composition of Holy Scripture, using their own literary skills. This notion of inspiration is different from that of Islam, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have recited the Qu’ran from a heavenly exemplar, and so the Muslims consequently affirm that its literary style is without peer. Christians make no such claim about their Scripture, and freely admit that its literary quality is frequently limited by the skill of its human authors. What is divine is its message, which is to say its content or significance.
Therefore, since everything that is 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 solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error…” [2 Tim. 3:16] (DV, 11)
The first clause establishes a reasonably clear rule for determining the scope of Biblical inspiration. Whatever the inspired authors assert is also asserted by the Holy Spirit. This principle guarantees that the meaning of the Scriptures will be generally accessible to us, for this does not demand the impossible task of scrutinizing the mind of God. We have only to determine what the human author intended to assert, and thus learn also what the Holy Spirit asserts. The Latin verb assero comes from the root meaning “to bind” or “to join,” since we are committing ourselves to a declaration, or making a composite statement relating a predicate to some subject. Thus it applies only to propositions, not individual words or letters, which standing alone, do not admit of truth or falsity. Yet it is not enough to read Scripture grammatically, for we must also know what the author intends. He might intend to assert a historical fact, or to relate a didactic parable, or merely quote what someone else said without concurring.
Once it is accepted that everything asserted by the inspired authors in Scripture is also asserted by the Holy Spirit, it logically follows there can be no error in any of these assertions, since God can neither deceive nor be deceived. At the insistence of more progressive bishops, the phrase “for the sake of salvation” was appended to the original statement. Consequently, they and various liberal exegetes have held that this phrase limits the scope of Biblical inerrancy. In other words, a Biblical statement about history or science might admit error if it is not related to the truths about salvation. While this restricted notion of inerrancy might make exegetes’ lives easier, it is incompatible with the basic logic expounded a couple lines earlier in Dei Verbum. Everything asserted by the inspired authors is also asserted by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can neither deceive nor be deceived, as even liberal Catholics will admit. From this it inexorably follows that everything asserted by the inspired authors is free from error, and this logic holds for historical and scientific statements no less than statements about faith and morals. As Pope Leo taught in Providentissimus Deus:
…it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. 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 mind in saying it—this system cannot be tolerated.
…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 unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent…(PD, 20)
Pope Leo’s teaching is grounded not only in perennial Christian teaching, but in basic logic. Once divine authorship of the Scripture, including all its assertions, is admitted (as Dei Verbum explicitly confirms), it does not matter one whit whether or not a particular assertion is related to the primary purpose of divine revelation. God does not momentarily or intermittently cease to be Truth and commit error when asserting things incidental to His primary purpose.
Still, the purpose of Scripture—to expound the faith and morals necessary for salvation—does have an important exegetical role. Pope Leo had already acknowledged as much, citing St. Augustine and St. Thomas:
“[The Holy Ghost] …did not intend to teach men these things… things in no way profitable unto salvation.” Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less 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 by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers—as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us—`went by what sensibly appeared,” or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to. (PD, 18)
Since the Holy Spirit was not concerned with teaching men the secrets of nature or other matters unessential to salvation, we should not expect such topics to be discussed with greater precision than the culture of the time permitted. In other words, we should not read too much into every phrase as though it were a special revelation about some worldly truth, but instead regard expressions according to the common modes of speech used by the ancients. This does not mean there can be overt falsehood in Scripture, but neither should we demand that the ancient author have a complete knowledge of natural facts. He will know no more than what God has revealed to him, and revelation is oriented toward faith and morals. Nonetheless, since in his entire writing he is guided by the Spirit of Truth, there will be no falsehood in anything he asserts.
All this is consistent with St. Jerome’s teaching on Biblical inspiration, which according to Pope Benedict XV “in no wise differs the common teaching of the Catholic Church”:
For he holds that God, through His grace, illumines the writer’s mind regarding the particular truth which, “in the person of God,” he is to set before men; he holds, moreover, that God moves the writer’s will—nay, even impels it—to write; finally, that God abides with him unceasingly, in unique fashion, until his task is accomplished. (Spiritus Paraclitus, 9)
[Daniel J. Castellano, “Commentary on Dei Verbum”]
The authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church proclaims the Scriptures to be God’s infallible word, and consequently free from error. It is clear that it is the mind of the Church to make the inerrancy of the Scriptures the effect of its inspired character, to derive it from God’s authorship. If a man denies the infallibility of Holy Scripture in things of faith and morals he is a heretic: if he limits the inerrancy of Holy Scripture to things of faith and morals only he is not far from being a heretic. Of course this applies to the Scriptures as they came from the inspired writers; and to the versions in the measure that they are authentic. The definition of the Council of Trent guarantees that the Vulgate is authentic in things of faith and morals.
While all Scripture is true, all Scripture is not true in the same way. The sense that the Scriptures affirm is always true. The parable and allegory are not true as history, because they are not written as history. They are true as moral illustrations, because their sense is a moral illustration. That which is written as parable is true as parable; that which is written as poetry is true as poetry; that which is written as allegory is true as allegory; that which is writ-ten as history is true as history; and that which is written as doctrinal or moral teaching is a true law of belief and conduct. For this cause the historical method of Lagrange is rejected, because it makes a congeries of folk-lore, legends, and myths that which is written as history.
There may be times when it is difficult to discern that which is strictly historical from that which is fictitious history. Such difficulty will never obscure the way of belief or conduct. Some believe that Tobias or Judith or Ruth is a fictitious history. The Church has not defined the question. To deal with it, one must examine the evidence, and see whether the object of the writer be to write real or fictitious history. The object of the writer is always to write the truth; his fictitious history is not less true than his real history: it is true in the sense proper to its nature as a genus of literature which the Holy Scripture can use. It inculcates principles of truth and duty by concrete examples. While conservative opinion holds that Job is a historical personage, the great drama of the Book of Job is largely a creation of the poet’s inspired mind to illustrate infallibly true principles. Hence in judging of an inspired book, we must have regard to its character to determine in what sense it is true. Prophecy has its peculiar character, its visions and its symbols; poetry has its poetic flights of imagination; parable and allegory make fictitious entities act and speak their message; while real history declares its message by relating facts. There is no place in Scripture for folk-lore or myth, for these relate the legends of a people as real history.
We must realize also that inspiration is only a partial participation of the divine light. God does not speak to us in the Scriptures more divino, but in a human manner. He condescends to us as we condescend to address a child. The books therefore of Holy Scripture contain the evidences of imperfection due to their human origin; but God’s inspiration moves the writers to write nothing but the truth. The writers were not critical historians; but the Spirit of God supplied where human knowledge failed.
Another important hermeneutical principle is that the sense of an inspired writer may have a wider range than he comprehends. That which he means to utter is the sense of God, but that very sense may be greater than he comprehends. This principle was clearly admitted by the Fathers: “Perhaps not even St. John spoke (of the Word) as it is, but as he, being a man, was able; because he, a man, spoke of God, he was verily inspired but still a man. . . . Therefore being a man inspired, he uttered not all; but what he could, being a man.” (Aug. On John I., i.) St. Jerome (On Eph. III., 5) admits that the mystery of the incarnation “was not known to the patriarchs and prophets as it is now known to the apostles and saints: it is one thing to know future things in a vision; it is another thing to contemplate them now fulfilled.” St. Thomas sums up the question in his usual clear way: “We must know that since the mind of the prophet is an imperfect instrument, even the true prophets did not know all that the Holy Ghost intended in their visions, words, and deeds.” (2. 2. 173. 4.) This principle is also promulgated in the bull Providentissimus Deus.
It results therefore that the Church, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, may grow in the understanding of certain truths whose full import not even the original writers grasped. We see also a certain growth in the clearness of the revelation of Christ in the Old Testament, and those closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies saw with clearer view than those of old. Similarly in the Church there is a lawful growth in the understanding of doctrine. The Church has always taught the infallible truth; has always been adequately equipped to teach men; and must always preserve an identity of doctrine. But she is a living Church; and the Holy Ghost abides with her all days to teach. It follows from her life, and from the abiding of the Spirit that she grows in knowledge of the truths which were delivered to her in the beginning. Thus her unity and identity of teaching stand with her growth in knowledge.
We have before spoken of the manner in which the in-spired Scriptures deal with natural sciences. St. Augustine rightly declares: “It is not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: ‘I send you the Paraclete who shall teach you of the course of the sun and the moon.’ He wished to make them Christians, not mathematicians.” (De actis cum Felice Manichaeo, I., 10.)
It does not follow from this that when the Scriptures speak of the stars, plants, animals, etc., that they are not veracious, for “no one except an impious man or infidel doubts of the veracity of Scripture.” (Aug. On Gen. VII., 28)
The truths of salvation are directly inspired; the other truths are indirectly inspired, on account of their relation to the direct object of inspiration. But in speaking of things of natural science, the Holy Scriptures have not treated them to the end to teach the people science; they have not treated such matters from the scientist’s viewpoint: “Moses con-descending to a rude people, spoke of things as they sensibly appeared.” (St. Thomas, Summa, I., q. 70.) The sacred writers make use of the common parlance of the people: “secundum opinionem populi loquitur Scriptura.” (S. Th.1. 2. 198.) A question of vital importance, in our days, is the relation of Scripture to science. Men’s minds have been active ever since the writing of Scripture itself, and have found many things unknown at the time of the writing of the Holy Books. They have delved down deep into the mysterious storehouse of nature, have discovered her treasures, have imprisoned her mighty forces to do their will and serve them in the affairs of their civil and domestic life. They have penetrated the heavens, and investigated the secrets of the vast expanse which men call the firmament. Many truths, and many more or less reasonable hypotheses have been thus found out. But science, proud of her achievements, and restless under restraint, too oft turns her powers against the God-given truths of the Sacred Text, and here the warfare waxes bitter indeed, and many there are who incline too much to the side of science, even of those of the household of faith. Since the time of Galileo, men have conceded that the Scriptures spoke according to the com-mon opinions of the people, and attributed significations to words, which the vulgar speech of the day warranted. For God made use of a human medium to convey his message to man, and he did not startle the people by strange expressions, which would have been unintelligible to all people at that stage of human development. Men speak thus to-day, and are not accused of inexactness or with combating science. Hence, with this in mind, we can reconcile the assertions of true science with the inspired Word of God, for there can be no combat between truth and truth; for the Author of both human and divine science is the Essential and Infinite Truth. “For although faith is above reason, no real discussion, no real conflict can be found between them since both arise from one and the same fount of immutable and eternal truth, the great and good God.” (Pius IX., Encyc. of Nov. 9, 1846.) Some hypotheses broached by the incredulous and shallow dabbler in science may conflict with the truths of Scripture, but this imports nothing. The Church blesses scientific research, and fears nothing therefrom. She invites investigation into every field of human thought, and only good to herself can come there-from. The greatest scientists and historians are her faithful children. The Vatican Council approved of scientific research explicitly, even when all the resources of science were brought to bear to oppose the Church. It leaves science free to use its own methods. “Neither does the Church forbid that these sciences should, in their own do-main, use their own principles and methods.” (Cone. Vat. De Fide, IV.)
Hence we should guard against attributing to a passage of Scripture a signification, which in se it has not, but which may have been given to it by some interpreter. When we find by incontestable evidence that science has demonstrated a truth, which is in seeming opposition to what has by some been held to be the opinion gleaned from the Holy Scriptures, we should seek some other interpretation, which the text must bear, as truth and truth cannot conflict, and we can thus reconcile these two truths coming from different sources. In this manner, we may reconcile Gen. I. 14: “And God said let there be luminaries in the firmament of heaven. . . And God made two great luminaries, a greater luminary to rule the day and a lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars.” Now it would seem from this that the stars were less in magnitude than the moon’. As science has in-disputably proven the contrary, what must we admit? That the inspired writer spoke according to the appearance of things, and for us the moon is a greater luminary than the stars. Hence, even the sun is not necessarily asserted to be a greater luminary in fact than the stars, but only in appearance.
Two obstacles obstruct the way of harmony between Scripture and science; videlicet, the narrowness of view of many who essay to defend the Scriptures, and the pride and presumption of orientalists and scientists who fail to recognize that there is:
“A deep below the deep,
And a height beyond the height;
Our hearing is not hearing,
And our seeing is not sight.”
Shallow draughts of science intoxicate the brain; drinking deeply sobers us. The man of large mind will be conscious of his own limitations; conscious that much that passes as science is a congeries of hypotheses, many of which change with the course of time. The exegete must also realize that where the Church has not defined the question4 ‘one should not so tenaciously adhere to any exposition formerly believed to be true, that he would not abandon it when clearly proven to be false, lest the Scriptures be derided by the unbelieving, and a way to belief be cut off from them” (St. Th. 2. Sent. 12.)
At no time in the history of the world have men’s ideas of natural science been absolutely correct. In time they never will be absolutely correct. We may know somethings better than the ancients; but there are many more which we shall never know. God decreed to use men at certain epochs of history to deliver a body of truths to men. Incidentally they spoke of certain natural phenomena. They used the language of their time, as men have done in every age of the world. They spoke of the material universe as it appeared to men. The language which they employed was scientifically imperfect; but they uttered no falsehood. They used an imperfect medium to convey to man the in-fallible message of God. The inspired writer’s conceptions of nature were imperfect, and God did not by a necessary miracle remove this imperfection before making him an instrument to utter a message in which scientific facts are only indirectly contemplated. In these enunciations concerning natural phenomena there is a direct sense and an indirect sense. When it is said that at the voice of Joshua the sun stood still, the direct sense is that the light of day was miraculously prolonged; and that fact is affirmed in the language of the writer’s time.
A question of paramount importance is now to determine whether we shall apply to history that same latitude that we give to things of natural science; that is whether we shall concede that the inspired historians wrote history according to popular belief. Lagrange and his school affirm this, and make that the cardinal principle of the so-called “historical method.” Not content with asserting the theory, some of them, with amazing audacity, appeal to the encyclical “Providentissimus Deus” in support of their hypothesis. It is to set a low value on human intelligence to ascribe such a view to the encyclical. The Holy Father wishes “his principles applied to cognate sciences and especially to history;” but it is clear that what he means is that we must defend Scripture not only against scientists, but against orientalists and historians, whose methods the Holy Father exposes in the very same paragraph. There is not a word in the whole encyclical favorable to the “historical method.” The con-text clearly establishes the pontiff’s meaning to be that, as we are to refute scientists when they teach falsely, and as we are to show that what they have proven is not contrary to the Scriptures, so we are to deal with history and other cognate sciences. And the pontiff immediately proceeds to state the errors of historians who wage war on the Holy Scriptures.
It is clear that there is a vast difference between the scientific statements and the historical statements of the Bible. The very essence of history is to narrate facts. We have given a fit place to allegory and parable, lyric poem and drama. Here we speak of history which the writer wrote as history. Every genus of literature which the Bible employs must be true in the mode competent to its nature. Therefore that which is written as history must be true as history. When the Scriptures say: “God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament,” the purpose of the proposition is not to teach men the nature of the heavens, but to assert that God created the heavens, and gave to nature her laws. The truths of Scripture are conceived in a human manner. Nature is spoken of as men contemplated it: in this regard the inspired writer is a child of his time, and his scientific knowledge is not in advance of his epoch. There is truth in his statement, the truth he intended to convey: there is imperfection in the accessory.
But when the Scriptures say that Cain rose against Abel and slew him, or that God rained fire and brimstone upon Sodom, if these events be the creation of folklorists, there is no truth in them; they are false beliefs narrated as his-tory. The nature of the narration of such facts and their context take them out of the category of allegory and parable; they are narrated as history, and must be true as his-tory. The object of the writer is to teach men this very history, and to move men to believe it. It may be called primitive history; but it still remains true history. The fact that many myths and fables mingle in the primitive history of other peoples does not necessitate that the history of the origin of the universe as related in the Bible must also have its myths and legends. By the fact of divine inspiration the history narrated in the Bible transcends all other history, for the reason that it is infallibly true. The historical parts of Holy Scripture, and in fact all its parts, are subject to proper hermeneutical laws to determine their sense; but in the last analysis every sentence of the Bible, as it came from the inspired writer, must be true in its proper sense. History according to popular beliefs is false history, and cannot be a part of the word of God.
Moreover the historical parts of the Bible are in great part the foundation of our faith. The history of the fall of our first parents bears an essential relation to the doctrine of original sin. The Redemption, the Resurrection of Christ, the foundation of the Church, the descent of the Holy Ghost are historical facts. It is needless to declare how vital these are to faith.
One of the common phrases of the “new exegesis” is to declare the historical parts of Scripture relatively true. If they wish to assert that the Scriptures are not God, that the Scriptures are not God’s own infinitely perfect utterance, it is well. The Scriptures are God’s message through human utterance by the power of God. They have the impress of their human origin upon them; but they also bear the stamp of their principal Author, and by His power they are true in every part. Wherefore if by the phrase relatively true they mean to say that the Scriptures contain anything that is not objectively true, the statement conflicts with Catholic belief.
It is evident therefore that while we admit fictitious history which has its proper sense of truth, we exclude myth, legend and folklore; for these are false narrations in the guise of history. It is an abuse of the relative sense theory to assert that “all the wonders related during the forty years in the desert make no necessary claim to be miracles as we define them, i. e. strictly supernatural occurrences.” (The Tradition of Scripture, Barry, p. 254) The writer of “The Tradition of Scripture” falls in with the tendency top are down the supernatural, and exalt the natural. It is the trend of the age ever since protestants invented a religion that is not religious. If the miracles of the Exodus are in reality only natural phenomena believed by a credulous age to be miracles, the Bible has spoken falsely, for not in one place only does it proclaim these to be true miracles. The tendency that endeavors to eliminate miracles from the Old Testament will not stop there. It will invade the New Testament even to a “clever cut” at Christ himself. In the Syllabus of Pius IX this proposition was condemned: “The prophecies and miracles set forth in narration in the Sacred belief. Scriptures are the creations of poets, and the mysteries of Christian faith are a synthesis of philosophic investigations: myths are found in both testaments, and Jesus Christ is himself a myth.” The “Providentissimus Deus” most explicitly deplores and condemns the myth and legend theories of the “historical method.”
We have before explained that when the inspired writer cites a testimony without either explicit or implicit approbation, inspiration does not vouch for the truth of the testimony. In such case it is only inspiredly true that the writer has made such a citation; the matter of the testimony stands on its own merit. But when the writer uses a historical source, and embodies it into his history without sufficient indication that he is relating the words of another without endorsing them, then, by every law of history, the inspired writer confers his own authority to what he writes, and makes it his own. If it were not so, history would become a jugglery of words, and no man could know what to believe.
It cannot be denied that many of the sources whence Moses drew his knowledge of the first chapters of Genesis were popular tradition. The form in which facts are handed down by popular tradition differs from the style of written history. In the course down from age to age as a general thing many legends, myths, and superstitions mix in with the stream of truth. The divine agency of inspiration saved the inspired writer from handing down to us anything false; it allowed him to preserve the popular mode in which the truths were expressed. Abstract principles are expressed as concrete facts. The true historical fact that man was created immediately by God in a state of happiness, was tempted by the devil, and fell through ambitious pride, is expressed in the form of the allegory of the garden scene at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God becomes anthropomorphic, walks in the garden, communes with Him-self, descends to see the tower of Babel, etc. The truth of history only demands that there shall be always an objective reality of fact in all these narrations. The fact is historical; the mode in which it reached us through popular tradition is sometimes allegorical.
[A general introduction to the study of Holy Scripture, A.E. Breen, pp. 229 – 239]