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by John F. McCarthy
(December 1998)            

       18. Regarding a "centrist" view of biblical inspiration.   Father Raymond E. Brown presents what he calls "the larger Christian centrist approach" to biblical inspiration as follows: "In this approach, God who providentially provided for Israel a record of salvific history involving Moses and the prophets also provided for Christians a basic record of the salvific role and message of Jesus. Yet those who wrote down the Christian record were time-conditioned people of the 1st and early 2d century, addressing audiences of their era in the worldview of that period. They did not know the distant future."1 In keeping with this approach, Brown limits biblical inerrancy to the "salvific purpose" for which God intended it, and he claims that the constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council teaches this limitation (see no. 16 above). In addition to the reasons already given (no. 17 above) to show that Dei Verbum did not limit biblical inspiration to this narrowing idea of "salvific purpose," another reason may be added. In the sentence of Dei Verbum (no. 11) immediately preceding the one quoted by Father Brown, it is stated: "To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while He employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties2 so that, though He acted in them and by them (Heb 1:1, etc.), it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever He wanted written, and no more."3 Thus we see that God Himself, according to the Second Vatican Council, as according to the previous teaching of the Church, "chose certain men" to put down in writing whatever He wanted written and no more, and, therefore, to attribute contradictions or errors to the Scriptures would necessarily imply that God made contradictions or errors, while, to limit divine inspiration to what interpreters see as of "salvific purpose" would also necessarily imply that the human authors set down more than the Holy Spirit had inspired them to write, which is contrary to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, as just quoted above.

       19. The definition of biblical inspiration.   "In the reference to Providentissimus Deus (EB 125) made by the Second Vatican Council (DV 11) in the preceding paragraph, the following definition of biblical inspiration is given:
Hence, the fact that it was men whom the Holy Spirit took up as his instruments for writing does not mean that it was these inspired instruments - but not the primary author - who might have made an error. For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write - He so assisted them when writing - that the things which He ordered, and these 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. Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers (Prov. Deus, EB 125).
The neo-Patristic approach accepts without limitation or equivocation this authentic and precise definition of biblical inspiration, and it excludes in the Catholic tradition every attempt to reduce its span of inerrancy, as explained in the great encyclical letters of Popes Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Pius XII.

       20. The Catholic exegetical tradition.   Pope Leo XIII upholds the Catholic exegetical tradition where he says:
But it is most unbecoming to pass by, in ignorance or contempt, the excellent work which Catholics have left in abundance, and to have recourse to the works of non-Catholics - and to seek in them, to the detriment of sound doctrine and often to the peril of faith, the explanation of passages on which Catholics long since have successfully employed their talent and their labor. For, although the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student, he should, nevertheless, bear well in mind - as the Fathers also teach in numerous passages - that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside the Church, and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without the true faith, only gnaw the bark of Sacred Scripture and never attain its pith (Prov. Deus, EB 113).
       21. Against higher-criticism.   Already in 1893 Pope Leo XIII cautioned against the use of higher-criticism where he said:
There has arisen, to the great detriment of religion, an inept method, dignified by the name of `higher criticism,' which pretends to judge of the origin, integrity, and authority of each book from internal indications alone. It is clear, on the other hand, that in historical questions, such as the origin and the handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance, and that historical investigation should be made with the utmost care; and that in this matter internal evidence is seldom of great value, except as confirmation. To look upon it in any other light will be to open the door to many evil consequences. It will make the enemies of religion much more bold and confident in attacking and mangling the sacred books; and this vaunted `higher criticism' will resolve itself into the reflection of the bias and the prejudice of the critics. It will not throw on the Scripture the light which is sought, or prove of any advantage to doctrine; it will only give rise to disagreement and dissension, those sure notes of error, which the critics in question so plentifully exhibit in their own persons; and seeing that most of them are tainted with false philosophy and rationalism, it must lead to the elimination from the sacred writings of all prophecy and miracles, and of everything else that is outside the natural order (Prov. Deus, EB 119).
       22. Four false approaches to biblical inerrancy.   In 1920 Pope Benedict XV warmly recommended the use of critical methods in seeking to discover new ways of solving problems relating to Sacred Scripture, but, at the same time, he reminded scholars that they would "only come to miserable grief," if they neglected the injunctions of Pope Leo XIII and overstepped "the limits set by the Fathers" (Spiritus Paraclitus, EB 453). And Pope Benedict went on to exclude four false ways then in use of attempting to limit the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. Those false way were: a) by distinguishing falsely between primary and secondary elements; b) by distinguishing falsely between absolute and relative truth; c) by claiming that the biblical accounts are historical, but not in the modern sense; d) by claiming that the sacred writers were tacitly quoting from documents for which they were not taking responsibility for the historical truth. Regarding these four false methods, Pope Benedict XV says:

a) There are no primary (religious) vs. secondary (profane) elements of truth in Sacred Scripture:
Yet no one can pretend that certain recent writers really adhere to these limitations. For while conceding that inspiration extends to every phrase - and, indeed, to every single word of Scripture - yet, by endeavoring to distinguish between what they style the primary, or religious, and the secondary, or profane, element in the Bible, they claim that the effects of inspiration - namely, absolute truth and immunity from error - are to be restricted to that primary, or religious, element. Their notion is that only what concerns religion is intended and taught by God in Scripture, and that all the rest - things concerning `profane knowledge,' the garments in which divine truth is presented - God merely permits, and even leaves to the individual author's greater or less knowledge. Small wonder, then, that in their view a considerable number of things occur in the Bible touching physical science, history, and the like, which cannot be reconciled with modern progress in science! Some even maintain that these views do not conflict with what our predecessor [Pope Leo XIII] laid down, since - so they claim - he said that the sacred writers spoke in accordance with the external -and thus deceptive - appearance of things in nature. But the Pontiff's own words show that this is a rash and false deduction (Spiritus Paraclitus, EB 454).
b) There is no valid distinction between absolutely true vs. relatively true facts in Sacred Scripture:
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. Yet they are not afraid to deduce such views from the words of Leo XIII on the ground that he allowed that the principles he had laid down touching the things of nature could be applied to historical things as well. Hence, they maintain that precisely as the sacred writers spoke of physical things according to appeaarance, so, too, while ignorant of the facts, they narrated them in accordance with general opinion or even on baseless evidence; neither do they tell us the sources whence they derived their knowledge, nor do they make other people's narrative their own. Such views are clearly false, and constitute a calumny on our predecessor (Spiritus Paraclitus, EB 456-457).
c) Historical truth in the modern sense is observed in the Bible:
Nor do modern innovators stop here: they even try to claim St. Jerome as a patron of their views on the ground that he maintained that historical truth and sequence were not observed in the Bible, `precisely as things actually took place, but in accordance with what men thought at that time,' and that he even held that this was the true norm for history. A strange distortion of St. Jerome's words! He does not say that, when giving us an account of events, the writer was ignorant of the truth and simply adopted the false views then current; he merely says that in giving names to persons or things he followed general custom. Thus, the Evangelist calls St. Joseph the father of Jesus, but what he meant by the title `father' here is abundantly clear from the whole context (Spiritus Paraclitus, EB 459).
d) There is no recourse to tacit quotations from erroneous sources:
Then there are other assailants of Holy Scripture who misuse principles - which are only sound if kept within due bounds - in order to overturn the fundamental truth of the Bible and thus destroy Catholic teaching handed down by the Fathers. If Jerome were living now, he would sharpen his keenest controversial weapons against people who set aside what is the mind and judgment of the Church, and take too ready refuge in such notions as `implicit quotations' or `pseudo-historical narratives' or `literary genres' in the Bible such as cannot be reconciled with the entire and perfect truth of God's word, or who suggest such origins of the Bible as must inevitably weaken - if not destroy - its authority (Spiritus Paraclitus, EB 461).
       23. Divino afflante Spiritu on biblical inerrancy.   In 1943 Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, encouraged Catholic exegetes to continue to seek solutions to questions of biblical interpretation in accord with the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture:
Nevertheless, no one will be surprised, if all difficulties are not yet solved and overcome, but that even today serious problems greatly exercise the minds of Catholic exegetes. ... But this state of things is no reason why the Catholic commentator, inspired by an active and ardent love of his subject and sincerely devoted to Holy Mother Church, should in any way be deterred from grappling again and again with these difficult problems, hitherto unsolved, not only that he may refute the objections of the adversaries, but also may attempt to find a satisfactory solution, which will be in full accord with the doctrine of the Church, in particular with the traditional teaching regarding the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture, and which will at the same time satisfy the indubitable conclusions of profane sciences Let all the other children of the Church bear in mind that the efforts of these resolute laborers in the vineyard of the Lord should be judged, not only with equity and justice, but also with the greatest charity .... (Divino afflante Spiritu, EB 563-564).
       24. Humani generis on biblical inerrancy.   In 1950 Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical letter Humani generis, renewed the traditional teaching on inerrancy:
For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the [First] 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. They even wrongly speak of the human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning, lies hidden. In interpreting Scripture, they will take no account of the analogy of faith and the `tradition' of the Church. Thus they judge the doctrine of the Fathers and of the sacred Magisterium by the norm of Holy Scripture interpreted by the purely human reason of exegetes, instead of explaining Holy Scripture according to the mind of the Church which Christ Our Lord has appointed guardian and interpreter of the whole deposit of divinely revealed truth. ... Everyone sees how foreign all this is to the principles and norms of interpretation rightly fixed by Our Predecessors of happy memory, Leo XIII in his encyclical Providentissimus, and Benedict XV in the encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, and also by Ourselves in the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (Humani generis, EB 612-613).4
       25. A neo-Patristic approach to the literal sense.   Guided by these teachings of the Magisterium regarding biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the neo-Patristic interpreter undertakes to study the insights presented by the great exegetes of the past and to search for new insights into problems and obscurities as yet unsolved. The literal meaning of the words is usually rather plain, but not always so. In fact, as St. Augustine says, some problems have been deliberately left in the sacred text by the Holy Spirit in order to provoke the reader to search for the answers. The neo-Patristic interpreter always strives to ascertain the exact literal meaning of the words before searching for additional spiritual meanings sown within the text. An example of an ambiguity in the literal reading of the New Testament is the text of John 1:3-4. Many of the Fathers of the Church, such as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West, and most of the Greek Fathers read the text as follows: "All things were made by him and without him was made nothing. What was made in him was life, and the life was the light of men." But St. John Chrysostom read the text with different punctuation: All things were made by him and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men." St. Jerome seems to have favored this second reading, but editions of the Vulgate before the publication of the Roman Missal in the sixteenth century did not clearly bring out this second reading, but it did become the common reading in the West. St. Thomas favored the first reading, but he gives beautiful explanations for both, and he does not try to decide the question. Some modern versions of the New Testament give the first reading as an alternative in the footnotes, and others, such as the New English Bible and the New American Bible, adopt the first reading.

       26. Conclusion.   The Second Vatican Council, in its constitution on divine Revelation Dei Verbum, in spite of what some Catholic historical-critics say, does teach the total inerrancy of the inspired text of Sacred Scripture, as is evident, not only from the wording of its article 11, but also from its footnote references to the papal encyclicals Providentissimus Deus of Pope Leo XIII, Spiritus Paraclitus of Pope Benedict XV, and Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII, confirmed again in Humani generis by Pope Pius XII. The neo-Patristic method assumes the total inerrancy of the sacred text and, therefore, works to defend its historical truth from attacks by its critics. Neo-Patristic interpreters strive to determine the exact wording of the sacred text, and then the exact meaning of the literal sense, in places where this is obscure. In John 1:3-4, for example, the punctuation is uncertain, but the doctrine is not.

  1. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, p.10.
  2. Divino afflante Spiritu, EB 556 (= Enchiridion Biblicum or Rome and the Study of Scripture, no. 556).
  3. Providentissimus Deus, EB 125.
  4. These four encyclicals, along with some other pertinent documents, are reprinted in the Appendices of Steinmueller, Companion, vol. 1.

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