Thursday, March 8, 2012

Some time ago I wrote a blog post in which I responded to a post by Alexander Pruss on the relationship between inerrancy and literalism. In a comment which Pruss made on my post, he clarified for me some confusion I had between his use of the word “literalism,” which I thought was directly connected to the “literal sense” of Scripture, but which he explained was used by him to refer to “the literalistic sense”.  This “literalistic sense” does not, for instance, take genre into account in its readings of Scripture. His comments on “literal” sense and “literalistic” sense cleared up these issues of definition for me, at least as he was using these terms, but his last comment on inerrancy required time for reflection on my part.


He starts with an assumption that a strange marriage exists between biblical inerrancy and biblical literalism, but the first problem is the sloppy definition of inerrancy, “that every proposition asserted by Scripture is true.” One can, of course, assert that, but Catholic interpretation, for instance, does not ask that one accept that “every proposition asserted by Scripture is true,” except in a specific sense:

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 solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. (Dei Verbum 11).

Inerrancy, as stated in Dei Verbum, is “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV, 11). Now, this might be what Pruss means by “oeconomic necessity,” but I read his post on that term a few times and could not determine if that was the case. At any rate, if one defines “inerrancy” not in a broad way, but in a specific, theological manner, the claim is simply that God’s truth, that truth essential for spiritual salvation, is found in the Scriptures.
My basic point, then, was that the Catholic Church’s understanding of inerrancy in Scripture was not so broad as that found in some fundamentalist or evangelical churches, but  Pruss’s comment on my post was significant in that he took on Dei Verbum’s definition of inerrancy directly:

3. As for Vatican II, the text seems to be making the following argument:

A. Everything asserted by the writers of Scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit.
B. Therefore: Scripture correctly teaches the truth needed for salvation.

In making the argument, the text asserts both A and B. Now, it is true that B concerns the truth as needed for salvation. But there is no such restriction in A. Without any restriction, A tells us that everything the writers of Scripture assert (in Scripture) is asserted by the Holy Spirit. But of course, and uncontroversially, whatever the Holy Spirit asserts is true. So it follows logically that everything asserted by the writers of Scripture is true.

It is also possible that Vatican II is implying that that everything asserted in Scripture is relevant to salvation.

But in any case, everything asserted in Scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit, and hence is true, since the Holy Spirit knows all truth and never lies.

Pruss's statements above do seem to reflect fairly the description of inerrancy in Dei Verbum 11 and points to a tension in the text:  if everything in Scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit, everything in Scripture is true. The problem is there are a number of claims made in Scripture which seem not to be true, at least regarding history, science, geography, and the natural world, or claims made that seem to be irrelevant with respect to the truth, and it is difficult to find a Catholic Scripture scholar or a document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission which would accept Pruss's reading of Dei Verbum 11. What is missing, I think, from just looking at a singular claim from DV is the context for Scripture in all of its complexity.

In Peter Williamson’s study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” he says that “fundamentalism’s crucial flaw is its failure to accept Scripture’s human dimension” (35). This is not only Williamson’s claim, but that of the PBC itself, which takes into account the literary roles of the authors and editors of the biblical books; the historical nature of the process; and the limitations of human authors and editors (35).

This leads to some significant qualifications regarding both the nature of inspiration and, it seems to me, that of inerrancy. A key claim is that “although all Scripture and all of its parts are inspired, not every verse or paragraph is of equal theological value” (36). A second assertion is that elements of the biblical message are “permanent” and others are “contingent,” especially those relating to particular historical realities or institutions which no longer apply or exist (36). Third, the human authors and editors were not able, even though inspired, to transcend the human limitations of memory, historical inaccuracies or mistaken scientific notions common to their own age (37).  All of this adds up, it seems to me, to a notion of inerrancy that does not claim that everything stated in the Bible is “true,” at least not as the word “true” or “truth” is commonly used.

There are, as a result,  three possible approaches to the Catholic notion of inerrancy.

1)      You dump the notion, at least with the use of the word "inerrant" or "without error," and say that not only are there historical, scientific and other mistakes in Scripture, there are theological and moral claims, regarding slavery, women, or the family, for instance, which are unacceptable to people today, though Scripture remains foundational, inspired, and the Word of God;
2)      You read Dei Verbum 11 as Pruss has, in its maximal sense, to indicate that if everything in Scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit, then everything in Scripture is true. This position is to be maintained (and here I am making a general claim, not asserting that Pruss has said this or intends this) regardless of data in the Bible that seems not to be true – these “apparent contradictions” can be smoothed over in some way or another – or regardless of institutions and realities reflected in the Bible that trouble people morally today – just get over your squeamishness and accept the "truth";
3)      You accept that the phrase in Dei Verbum 11, “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,” is limited by the humanity of the authors and the historical time in which Scripture emerged. It is a different claim than proposing  that everything in Scripture is true and it does not assert that everything in Scripture is necessary for our salvation today, even though all Scripture is inspired.

Obviously, many people could and do accept approach 1), but this approach does not arise from an interpretation of Dei Verbum 11, but a jettisoning of it. For approach 1) to be be accepted widely would require a new statement by the Church. I personally accept approach 3) and reject approach 2), but the reality is, as Pruss has shown, that approach 2) is a possible reading of the text of Dei Verbum.

The question for me is this: the issue of inerrancy as stated in Dei Verbum 11 is in need of clarification, so why has it not been clarified? Or is it being left deliberately vague in order not to “solve” these issues in a particular manner? That is, is the statement allowed to stand so that some can say, “this relates only to the theological truth necessary for salvation,” while others can argue, as Pruss clearly demonstrates is possible philosophically, “all Scripture teaches the truth, it contains no error of any kind”? Is it attempting to meet the needs of everyone without satisfying anyone?

John W. Martens

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