Vatican II and the Inerrancy of the BibleOct 10th, 2010 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
This is a guest post by Jeffrey Pinyan. Jeffrey is the seventh of eight children and a life-long Catholic. A graduate of the Computer Science program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, he works in the Princeton area as a software developer for an Internet investigation company. In 2007 he experienced a reawakening of his faith, resulting in a deeper love of Scripture and the liturgy. He put his programming expertise to work for his faith, resulting in a USCCB-approved online search engine of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He is now the author of a series on the new English translation of the Roman Missal, entitled Praying the Mass. The Prayers of the People was published in September 2009 and The Prayers of the Priest will go to print this November, with a third volume, The Eucharistic Prayers, due out in the summer of 2011.
In the October 2010 issue of Ordained Servant Online, an organ of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, an article by Danny E. Olinger titled “A Primer on Vatican II” presented the Orthodox Presbyterian understanding of the four constitutions promulgated by the Second Vatican Council: Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium, and Gaudium et Spes.
Olinger begins his article by calling attention to an article written by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in First Things two years earlier in which Fr. Neuhaus reviewed two books offering competing viewpoints on the Council: What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley, and Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering. O’Malley’s argument — which Neuhaus summarized as proposing that Vatican II constituted “a radical break from tradition” and “proposed … a different Catholicism” — is the one accepted by Olinger; he ends his article by stating that “Rather than bringing Rome closer to a biblically-based Christianity, Vatican II has moved it further away.” If this is true, then communion with the Catholic Church is less desirable than ever for Evangelical and Reformed Protestants.
The most distressing change, according to Olinger, is not in the Catholic Church’s liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) nor her ecclesiology (Lumen Gentium) nor her relation to the world (Gaudium et Spes). Instead, it is the perceived change in the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. Olinger begins his commentary on Dei Verbum, the constitution on divine revelation, by stating matter-of-factly that “Dei Verbum represented a break with Catholic past regarding the doctrine of revelation.” By his interpretation of the constitution, the Catholic Church no longer believes that revelation is “propositional truth” — that is, “information about God” — but is rather “an inspired testimony to the living Word of God (Jesus).” This change means that the Church “no longer need[s] to protect the Bible from accusations of historical and scientific error.”1 Olinger claims that paragraph 11 of Dei Verbum declares that the inerrancy of inspired Scripture “only concerns the religious message and not the historical information conveyed by its human authors.” (emphasis added)
The Traditional Doctrine
Olinger’s claim, that the Catholic Church has abandoned the traditional doctrine of the total inerrancy of Scripture, is not based on the Council’s documents, but on a faulty interpretation of them. This interpretation belongs to the “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” a way of reading the Second Vatican Council as a break from tradition and a rupture with the Church’s history.2 This faulty interpretation, based on a selective reading of the Council’s documents out of the context of the Church’s Tradition, is countered by the “hermeneutic of reform,” of renewal in continuity with Sacred Tradition.3
Before we consider the text of the Council which Olinger believes deviates from the traditional doctrine of inerrancy, we should briefly survey previous documents from the Church Fathers and Magisterium. These quotations clearly and plainly state the traditional and constant teaching of the Church: the entirety of the Sacred Scriptures, as written by their original authors, is inspired by God (thus making Him its primary author) and completely inerrant.
St. Augustine, c. 400
It is also frequently asked what our belief must be about the form and shape of heaven according to Sacred Scripture. […] But the credibility of Scripture is at stake, and as I have indicated more than once, there is danger that a man uninstructed in divine revelation, discovering something in Scripture or hearing from it something that seems to be at variance with the knowledge he has acquired, may resolutely withhold his assent in other matters where Scripture presents useful admonitions, narratives, or declarations. Hence I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation. (De Genesi ad Litteram II, 9, 20)
From this first quotation we can draw two important conclusions: first, according to St. Augustine the Holy Spirit did not wish to teach things that “would be of no avail for [our] salvation” such as the “form and shape of heaven,” and second, that whatever the Holy Spirit teaches (through the sacred writers, for example) is taught for our salvation. Elsewhere he writes:
For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. (Letter 82 [to St. Jerome], 3)
St. Thomas Aquinas, 1256-1259
We believe the prophets only in so far as they are inspired by the spirit of prophecy. But we have to give belief to those things written in the books of the prophets even though they treat of conclusions of scientific knowledge, as in Psalms (135:6): “Who established the earth above the waters,” and whatever else there is of this sort. Therefore, the spirit of prophecy inspires the prophets even about conclusions of the sciences. (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, A. 2, C)
Pope Clement VI, 1351
In the fourteenth place, if you have believed and now believe that the New and Old Testaments in all their books, which the authority of the Roman Church has given to us, contain undoubted truth in all things [veritatem indubiam per omnia]. (Super quibusdam: Denz. 570q [English], 1065 [Latin])
Pope Leo XIII, 1893
[I]t 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. For 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 co-exist 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. […] Hence, because the Holy Ghost employed men as His instruments, we cannot therefore say that it was these inspired instruments who, perchance, have fallen into error, and not the primary author. 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. […] It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error. (Providentissimus Deus 20-21)
Pope Benedict XV, 1920
[Pope Leo XIII taught] that Divine inspiration extends to every part of the Bible without the slightest exception, and that no error can occur in the inspired text: “It would be wholly impious to limit inspiration to certain portions only of Scripture or to concede that the sacred authors themselves could have erred.” Those, too, who hold that the historical portions of Scripture do not rest on the absolute truth of the facts but merely upon what they are pleased to term their relative truth, namely, what people then commonly thought, are — no less than are the aforementioned critics — out of harmony with the Church’s teaching, which is endorsed by the testimony of Jerome and other Fathers. (Spiritus Paraclitus 21-22)
Ven. Pope Pius XII, 1943
[When] some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the “entire books with all their parts” as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as “obiter dicta” and — as they contended — in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, published on November 18 in the year 1893, justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the Divine Books by most wise precepts and rules. (Divino Afflante Spiritu 1)
Ven. Pope Pius XII, 1950
[A] number of things are proposed or suggested by some even against the divine authorship of Sacred Scripture. For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the Vatican Council’s definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters. (Humani Generis 22)
The Paragraph in Question: Dei Verbum 11
So then, what did the Second Vatican Council pronounce that has led Olinger to claim that the Catholic Church has changed her doctrine on the inerrancy of Scripture? You will not find it quoted or directly referred to in his article, nor even relegated to a footnote. The paragraph in question, Dei Verbum 11, reads as follows in the most widely available English translation, found on the Vatican web site (emphasis added):
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 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 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, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).
The footnotes for paragraph 11 direct the reader to St. Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram and his Letter 82 to St. Jerome, and to St. Thomas’s Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, and to the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Ven. Pius XII; all of these sources, which are quoted above, affirm the complete inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. Why, then, would Olinger claim the Council has abandoned this traditional doctrine?
The reason is that numerous Catholic theologians and biblical scholars came to the same erroneous conclusion based on an impartial and incorrect interpretation of paragraph 11 of Dei Verbum. Exemplifying the “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” they read the paragraph in isolation from the nineteen hundred years of tradition preceding it (as well as the rest of the document itself), and interpreted it to mean that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error only that truth pertaining to salvation which God wanted put into sacred writings.” The false interpretation — which can be described as “limited inerrancy” — is that there are parts of Scripture that do not pertain to our salvation, and that there could be errors in those parts in matters of history and science. Only the doctrinal and moral truths in the Scriptures are taught “solidly, faithfully and without error.”
This problem of misinterpretation is not exclusive to laity and priests. The instrumentum laboris (“working document”) of the recent XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” included the following troubling excerpt:
In summary, the following can be said with certainty: […] with regards to what might be inspired in the many parts of Sacred Scripture, inerrancy applies only to “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” (15c)
While the “working document” is not an official teaching document, and thus carries no magisterial weight whatsoever, it is distressing to see such a misconception of the Church’s doctrine on inerrancy in a document related to a Synod on the Word of God.4 However, even when individual members of the Church call into question a certain doctrine, we as Catholics can know that the Church will perpetually and faithfully maintain and hand on the faith in its fullness. The doubt of St. Thomas did not negate the veracity of the Apostles’ testimony of the risen Christ.
The Potential Repercussions
If limited inerrancy were true, it would have a disastrous implication: that God inspired all of Scripture but only kept part of it free from error, that part which pertains to salvation. This would require an (infallible) arbiter who could determine which parts of Scripture pertain to salvation and which parts do not. Logically, any part of the Bible determined to contain an error could not pertain to salvation, so if some “experts” determined that the Apostles did not actually see the risen Christ with a resurrected, glorified body — a body capable of passing through walls and also of eating fish! — those passages of Scripture would be deemed errant and thus not pertinent to salvation. That would result in a radical redefinition of our doctrine on the Resurrection; such a redefinition has already been advanced by certain theologians who consider the Resurrection a “shared experience” rather than an historical and transcendent event as the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it.5
Scripture is hard enough to understand as it is. (cf. Acts 8:30ff; 2 Peter 3:16) But limited inerrancy would also mean that God made it deliberately hard for us to believe in His Word as recorded in Scripture. People would wonder if the doctrinal content of Scripture (that is, that which pertains to salvation) is really inspired and inerrant if the non-doctrinal content is inspired but errant. This would inevitably lead to a continually changing faith (decreasing in content, no doubt) over time.
Dei Verbum 11 states that the human authors of Scripture wrote “everything and only those things which [God] wanted,” and that “everything asserted by [them] must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.” If limited inerrancy were true, that would mean that God deliberately willed the human authors to write things that are not true: it “make[s] God the author of […] error,” a scenario explicitly condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus 21. It would mean that, in the writing of Scripture, God’s word is not necessarily truth, and that the Holy Spirit asserts untruths through the human authors of Scripture. On the contrary, Jesus says that His Father’s words “are truth” (John 17:17) and that the Holy Spirit — the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) — would “guide [the Apostles] into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Catholic Church does not believe that God teaches and instructs His people with untruths and lies.
The “limited inerrancy” interpretation is produced by isolating the words “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” This error can be corrected simply by restoring these words to their context, taking into account these statements in the very same paragraph:
In composing the sacred books, God chose men [so that] 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 […]
“[A]ll Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error […]”
When all four statements are read together, it is clear that the Council is saying that the sacred authors wrote only what God wanted them to write, that everything they wrote was inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus attributed to God, and that everything they wrote was written for the sake of salvation. The phrase “for the sake of our salvation” is not a restrictive clause which separates the “truth” in Scripture from the rest of its contents. On the contrary, it affirms for us that what is taught in Scripture is the truth, and it is taught for our salvation.
In a 1998 doctrinal commentary on the Oath of Fidelity (Professio Fidei), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) included the belief in “the absence of error in the inspired sacred texts” — without qualification — as belonging to the divinely and formally revealed articles of the Catholic faith. Since the whole of Scripture is inspired (as taught by Vatican II), the absence of error “in the inspired sacred texts” means that the whole of Scripture is without error. The CDF commentary cites Dei Verbum 11 in support of this belief in the absence of error in Scripture. This is the most clear post-conciliar indicator that Dei Verbum teaches the traditional doctrine of inerrancy, and it is a magisterial affirmation of the “hermeneutic of continuity,” rather than the “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” as the proper approach to the Second Vatican Council.
Lost in Translation
There is another way to refute the misinterpretation of Dei Verbum 11, as demonstrated by Fr. Brian Harrison, O.P., in his masterful defense of the document and the traditional doctrine of inerrancy. His article “Does Vatican Council II Allow for Errors in Sacred Scripture?” from a 2009 issue of the Roman theological journal Divinitas6 calls into question the English translation of the original Latin text of the constitution; the latter reads:
Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturæ libri veritatem, quam Deus nostræ salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt.
Fr. Harrison notes that the word veritatem (‘truth’) is mistranslated as “that truth,” which would only be a proper rendering of “eam veritatem” or “illam veritatem.” Instead, the word ‘veritatem’ should be translated with the definitive article: “the truth.” He argues that
Gratuitously adding this demonstrative adjective [‘that’] reinforces the false impression that the Council is singling out a certain restricted species of biblical truth — a certain subset of the set of all biblical truths — as the “only” one guaranteed to be free from any admixture of error.
One can see from the Latin text that the popular English translation does not respect the punctuation of the Latin either: “veritatem, quam Deus” should be translated as “the truth, which God” rather than “that truth which God.”7 Fr. Harrison provides a more accurate translation of the entire sentence which removes any ambiguity:
Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors or hagiographers affirm must be held as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must in consequence acknowledge that, by means of the books of Scripture, the truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wanted recorded in the form of the Sacred Writings is taught firmly, faithfully, and without error.
Abbot Denis Farkasfalvy, O. Cist., a contributor to Lamb and Levering’s Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, voiced the same concern as Fr. Harrison in his essay “Inspiration and Interpretation” (pp. 77-99), that “in some ambiguous translations and intepretations, Dei Verbum misleadingly appears to teach that inerrancy covers only those statements that regard our salvation.” (p. 87)8
Setting the Record Straight
The “Jesus of history” is not different from the “Jesus of faith,” as Pope Benedict XVI argues in the introduction of his non-magisterial book Jesus of Nazareth. Given the analogy between the enfleshed Word of God and the written Word of God, it follows that the history set forth in the Bible is not a “history of faith” to be distinguished from some “actual” history. For the perfection of the written Word can be argued from the perfection of the incarnate Word. This argument was, in fact, put forward by the Second Vatican Council:
For 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. (Dei Verbum 13)
We know from Scripture that the Word “had to be made like his brethren in every respect.” (Hebrews 2:17) But the same sacred author then clarifies himself, that Jesus, throughout His temptations, remained “without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) So too the Word of God in written form is without flaw. In fact, Dei Verbum was only paraphrasing Ven. Pope Pius XII:
For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, “except sin,” so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error. (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 37)
Since the Council Fathers could not possibly be suggesting that the Word-made-flesh was not without sin, we should believe that they were simply echoing — regrettably without a reference to Hebrews 4 or Divino Afflante Spiritu, but echoing nonetheless — a previous magisterial statement, not changing it.
One of the aims of the Second Vatican Council was “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 1) To have deviated from the traditional doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, and so lose such precious common ground between Reformed and Catholic Christians, would have been contrary to the Council’s intentions. It should now be clear that the Second Vatican Council did not deviate from the traditional teaching of the Church on the inerrancy of the whole of Sacred Scripture. We should adopt for ourselves the rule of St. Augustine, that Scripture is inerrant, although how it is so may not always be readily apparent to us. As he says in one place,
“[I]f in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript9 is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.” (Letter 82, 3)
- Olinger’s footnote for this claim: “The whole Bible is without error — but with an eye to salvation, not with an eye to historical or scientific accuracy.” (Edward Hahnenberg, A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II (Cincinnati: St. Anthony’s Press), 32-33) [↩]
- See Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. [↩]
- The “hermeneutic of reform” has also been explicitly called a “hermeneutic of continuity.” See Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, footnote 6. [↩]
- The final product of the Synod is the list of “propositions” for the Holy Father to consider and address in another Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Proposition 12 reads: “The Synod proposes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarify the concepts of inspiration and truth of the Bible, as well as their reciprocal relationship, in order to understand better the teaching of Dei Verbum 11. In particular, it is necessary to highlight the originality of the Catholic biblical hermeneutics in this field.” This proposition does not take any stand on the doctrine of inerrancy, unlike the “working document.” [↩]
- cf. nn. 639-647 [↩]
- Year LII, No. 3, pp. 279-304, reproduced at http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt145-6.html [↩]
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the same popular English translation of Dei Verbum in paragraph 107. The normative text of the Catechism is the Latin, which matches the Latin text of ‘Dei Verbum.’ [↩]
- It should be noted that, contrary to Olinger’s claim that the history of the formulation of Dei Verbum points to a victory for the progressivists in the Church, Farkasfalvy comes to the opposite conclusion, that the final wording “saved the document from ambiguity and possibly error as well. […] Moreover, since the phrase ‘sine errore’ was eventually reinserted into the text, ‘inerrancy’ in its traditional sense also returned.” (p. 87) [↩]
- That is, the copy, not the original. [↩]