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

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. Thank you for taking my response so very seriously and for such a thoughtful response.

    An advantage of interpretation 2 is that it coheres with what is, as far as I can tell, the unanimous approach of the Church Fathers. (Certainly, I know of no patristic text where one of the Church Fathers tells us that Scripture asserts p, but p is false.)

    I had a look at the PBC document's section on fundamentalism, and it is interesting both for what it says and for what it does not say. The section starts with: "Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by 'literal interpretation' it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development."

    Notice the same distinction that I made between the literal and the literalistic. The PBC does not deny that the Bible is "inspired and free from error". On the contrary, three paragraphs later it endorses inerrance: "Fundamentalism is right to insist on the divine inspiration of the Bible, the inerrancy of the word of God and other biblical truths included in its five fundamental points." But it does bemoan literalistic interpretation.

    The real problem with fundamentalism according to the PBC is that it is not incarnational. "It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations."

    Finally, we get to the question of historical or scientific error. "Fundamentalism also places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth. It often historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense, failing to take the necessary account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning."

    Notice that the PBC does not deny all the texts are inerrant. It looks like their way of handling apparent cases of historical error is not by admitting there is error but by saying that this is material that "never claimed to be historical", and allowing for the possibility of "symbolic or figurative meaning."

    This is a nuanced critique of fundamentalism, and fully in line with my interpretation of Dei Verbum.

    Of course, different texts of Scripture differ in theological importance. But this does not imply that any of them are unimportant or false.

  2. In "Verbum Domini" Pope Benedict XVI wrote that more work is needed on inerrancy which seems to imply that Church is still figuring out interpretation 2 vs 3.

    It might be helpful to ask in what sense is a particular statement in holy scripture true. The nature of that truth is considerably more nuanced than a simplistic understanding would suggest. Genre and ways of speaking can be very helpful here, as can uncovering the literal meaning (what the human/divine author intended) - often an ongoing task !

    God Bless

  3. And now to the harder part, the question of the alleged "claims made in Scripture which seem not to be true, at least regarding history, science, geography, and the natural world".

    Here I need to speculate (previously, I took myself simply to be exegeting the implications of Dei Verbum). A crucial thing in Dei Verbum 11 on my reading is the verb "assert". Not everything in a sentence is asserted.

    We now need to think philosophically about assertion.

    Very relevant to this will be a famous paper in the philosophy of language by Keith Donnellan, where Donnellan argues that we need to distinguish between two ways of using a definite description (definite descriptions [dd's] are phrases like "the president of the United States", "the shortest Frenchman", "the woman drinking champagne in the corner"). There is a referential and an attributive use. When the dd is used attributively, its content becomes a part of the content of the assertion. Donnellan gives this example. Smith is a lovable person and you come on his foully murdered body. You say: "Smith's murderer is insane." This is the attributive use. In using this, you are asserting that whoever Smith's murderer may be, he or she is insane.

    On the other hand, Donnellan writes, "suppose that Jones has been charged with Smith's murder and has been placed on trial. Imagine that there is a discussion of Jones's odd behavior at his trial. We might sum up our impression of his behavior by saying, 'Smith's murderer is insane.' If someone asks to whom we are referring, by using this description, the answer here is 'Jones.' This, I shall say, is a referential use of the definite description."

    Now suppose it turns out that Jones didn't kill Smith, but someone else, say Kowalski, did. And let's suppose that while Jones is insane, Kowalski is quite sane. If you were using "Smith's murderer" attributively, you would have attributed insanity to Kowalski. But you didn't. You asserted nothing about Kowalski. You attributed insanity not to Smith's actual murderer, but to Jones, and you simply used the phrase "Smith's murderer" as a fancy way of referring to Jones. Now, of course, your assertion presupposed Jones's insanity. Thus, your statement "Smith's murderer is insane" bears the mark of your human fallibility. But while it bears the mark of your human fallibility, it is nonetheless not an assertion of a falsehood. It is an assertion that attributes insanity to Jones, and Jones indeed is insane. The proposition asserted is a truth, but the sentence was phrased in a way that can mislead the listener and implicate (in one of the technical philosophy of language senses of "implicate") a falsehood.

    We need to distinguish between the words used and the proposition asserted.

  4. Here's an easy example of the use of the above approach. Genesis 1:7 says "God made the firmament". The word "firmament", I understand, normally means a certain large, hard, bowl-shaped kind of object. But "firmament" here is used referentially, not attributively. The inspired author is not intending to teach or assert that there exists a large, hard, bowl-shaped object that was created. Rather, "firmament" simply refers to the heavens or the sky. It is to the heavens or the sky that the author is attributing the property of being created by God. And so the author is asserting a truth, but in a way that reveals the author as having had an incorrect astronomy. But it is one thing for a text to reveal that an author was mistaken about something and another for the text to be an assertion of a falsehood.

    This was an easy case. There are much harder cases, where it's not a matter of a single word or short definite description. But I think the approach can be generalized. We need to distinguish between the words and what the author asserts with them.

    I haven't read it yet, but I am told that Richard Swinburne brilliantly develops this in his book on Revelation (this one?).

  5. A recent example is from Genesis 22. In what sense is it true that God told Abraham to offer up Isaac ?

    1. The rabbinic sense of binding and offering but certainly not killing ?

    2. God never said it but Abraham thought he did.

    3. God never said it but it sets the scene for a story the author wants to tell.

    4. God did say it and he did want to kill Isaac ?

    God Bless

  6. Thanks for these comments Alexander and Chris! So much of this, of course, has been found in the great Patristic writers and elsewhere, such as in someone I study, Philo of Alexandria, and Moses Maimonides. I will try to respond in the comment boxes in the next day or two, if I feel I can add to the conversation, but I am currently reading The Guide for the Perplexed again, which is always helpful in matters of biblical reading and interpretation.

  7. I do think the combination of the three principles: incarnationality of Scripture, the issue of assertion and the reality of genre are essential here. "Assertion" cannot be understood apart from genre, since genres "assert" in different ways. In addition, these are ancient genres so to apply 21st century notions of historical asserions onto a text like Genesis 22 is also a serious genre error. The imposition of post-Hellenistic philosophical categories on pre-Hellenistic ancient Semitic texts bothers me as your local Old Testament, history-loving, Semitic-lit-loving OT scholar.

  8. Corri,

    Thanks for your comment!

    I wonder if you are in a position to flesh out a bit more your point about the imposition of post-Hellenistic philosophical categories on pre-Hellenistic ancient Semitic texts, perhaps witha view to Gen 22 ?

    Thanks & God Bless

  9. Mr Sullivan:

    God isn't actually asserting anything to Abraham when he tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. He's simply commanding. Commanding is a different kind of speech act from asserting. We do not call commands true or false, though we can distinguish between authoritative and non-authoritative ones.

    My claims were only about the assertions in Scripture, not about other kinds of speech acts. It is a very difficult and very interesting question what divine inspiration implies about speech acts other than assertions (prayers, commands, questions, etc.)


    I fully agree that to determine what it is that a text is asserting one must take genre into account, in a historically sensitive and intellectually sophisticated way. That is one of the things that the literalist is not doing. Interestingly, I think many critics of inerrance commit the very same mistake.

  10. Mr Sullivan:

    "In 'Verbum Domini' Pope Benedict XVI wrote that more work is needed on inerrancy which seems to imply that Church is still figuring out interpretation 2 vs 3."

    Dei Verbum seems to me to say as clearly as can be that "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit", and this is also, as far as I can tell, the universal teaching of the Church Fathers.

    Where I think there is a need for development is in regard to questions like:

    1. What is assertion, and how does it differ from such things as presupposition and implicature? (This is a question in large part for the philosopher of language.)

    2. How to tell what is asserted, as opposed to presupposed or implicated, in texts from the cultural milieu in which the Bible is written? (This is a question, interdependent with the first one, mainly for the Biblical/ANE scholar. Because of the interdependence of the questions, what is needed is interdisciplinary work here.)

    3. How does the determination of what is asserted differ into the case of the Bible from other texts in the same milieu?

    4. What does inspiration say about texts that aren't assertions?

    But that everything that is asserted by the authors is asserted by God, and hence true, does not seem to me to be an open question for Catholics.