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The Bible: Inerrant, Inspired, or Just a Good Read?

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The Bible, photographed by David BennettThe Bible occupies a central place in Christianity, because it contains the record of salvation history, God's love for humanity, beginning with His creation of the world, and culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible contains important truths related to our salvation, and guides us to live the most full life possible. However, widely differing views of the Bible exist throughout the Christian world. This piece examines the Bible from a Catholic perspective, and examines some forms of modern biblical interpretation from an ancient Christian perspective.

Pope Pius XII, in 1943, described the importance of the Bible for Catholics:

Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order "to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work." This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals (Divino Afflante Spiritu 1).

Thus, for Catholics, the Bible is more than just an ordinary book of practical instructions; it is an inspired book, a "heaven-sent treasure." However, the Bible has a history just like any other book, and in order to understand the Bible, it is important to study its development, and the way that the earliest Christians read it and used it.

First, we should start at the beginning. The early Christians firmly believed that the Word of God was eternal, divine, and living. However, they were not referring to the Bible, but Jesus, the Word (logos) of God (see John 1:1-18). The Bible, then, is the inspired testimony of various writers to God's saving action throughout history, culminating in God the Word becoming human. Thus, Jesus is the eternal Word of God, and the Bible is the word of God, because it points to Him and contains God's revelation throughout history. While this realization may seem to lower the status of the Bible, it does not. It is simply giving the credit for all Truth, contained in the Bible, Tradition, and even in the natural world, to Jesus. Thus, Catholics do not believe that the Bible is the only source of Truth, for that honor belongs to God, who reveals himself in Tradition as well. However, the Bible is the word of God in a special way, but it is not to be equated with the eternal Word.

Even though the last book of the New Testament was written around 100 AD (120 AD at the latest, if, like many scholars, we assume a late date for 2 Peter), it took awhile for the Church to officially determine which books were a part of the canon (the books included in the Bible), and which were not. Additionally, due to cost, most early churches did not own complete copies of the Bible. Copying a book was expensive and time-consuming, so individual churches usually had only a few books from the Bible on hand, perhaps a few gospels and some of Paul's letters. An individual possessing a copy of the Bible would have been rare. Only the very wealthy could have afforded such an expense. Nonetheless, through oral preaching (kerygma) of the apostolic faith, Christ-centered worship (liturgia), catechesis (didache), and the Scriptures they had in their possession, early Christians knew Jesus, the eternal Word, quite well. (A question for thought: could the concept of reading the Bible for oneself, outside of the Church, even have been possible before the invention of the printing press?)

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The early Church also placed more emphasis on the message of scripture over actual words on pages. This is why early Christians almost unanimously read the Old Testament typologically (finding allegorical, hidden, references to Jesus and other New Testament truths), rather than only literally. St. Paul often read the scriptures this way (Galatians 4:21-31), as did the author of Hebrews. Most Church Fathers read the Old Testament this way (see the Epistle of Barnabas, written about 120 AD). Thus, early Christians were not so much concerned with the words per se, but rather with what the text told us about Jesus and the Christian faith. In this way, they often found multiple layers of meaning in the text, which of course included, but was not limited to, the literal one. Nonetheless, they had a high view of Scripture as uniquely divinely inspired and accurate writings. However, the Bible was never officially declared inerrant to the letter before the Reformation, and even then, it was declared as such in some Protestant denominations only. No early creed says one must believe the Bible is inerrant to the letter to be a true Christian.

The early Fathers held that the Bible was inerrant. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches affirm this as well. However, this is the case only when the Bible is properly understood, interpreted by the Church. This is inerrancy by ancient standards and not modern, fundamentalist standards. The early Fathers did not think that minor contradictions rendered the Bible errant, nor did they insist all stories were meant to be interpreted literally. For instance, the creation stories were often allegorized, interpreted in ways so as to prefigure Christ, or interpreted through the lens of the science of the day (or all three!). Thus St. Augustine could say each day in the Genesis creation story was equal to a thousand years, or that the science of the day should shape our understanding of the creation stories, without ever denying the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. So when a Catholic affirms the inerrancy of Scripture, the idea has far less baggage than the fundamentalist understanding.

For example, many early Christian writers were well aware of minor contradictions within the Scriptures, even in the gospels, and did not seem too bothered by it. Tertullian (AD 200) said, "Never mind if there does occur some variation in the order of the [gospel] narratives. What matters is that there is agreement in the essential doctrine of the Faith" (Against Marcion, IV:2). St. John Chrysostom (AD 390) was even bolder (at least to modern ears) to suggest that contradictions in the gospels actually strengthen the conviction that Christianity is true. If the gospel authors agreed in every small detail, then it was obvious that the stories were forgeries by a group of dishonest early Christians in collusion with one another. He even says, "the discord which seems to be present in little matters shields [the authors] from every suspicion and vindicates the character of the writers" (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, I:6). Even today, we Christians are far more credible if we admit to minor Biblical contradictions rather than trying come up with absurd, non-realistic stories designed to make the gospel accounts completely harmonize. So without denying the Bible's inspiration or essential accuracy, many Church Fathers recognized minor contradictions and variants in the text.

Thus the view of the early Church is that the Bible is an accurate, God-inspired testimony, the written document accurately reporting the foundations of the faith, but not necessarily inerrant as defined by modern criteria, and the Old Testament is certainly not inerrant when exclusively interpreted literally.

Now let's examine some views of the Bible that are inadequate from a Catholic perspective. The first is the tendency to cut-up the canon of Scripture, or "find" the Word of God within the Bible. This is a tendency among liberal Christians and modern religious scholars. This is not a new approach. A man by the name of Marcion did this in the 2nd century. He threw out the Old Testament and accepted only a mutilated gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul's letters. In response, the Church agreed that cutting up the (then developing) canon to suit one's theological suppositions was wrong. The early Fathers asserted that the entire Bible (which for most early Christians included what is now called the deuterocanon, accepted by Catholic and Orthodox Christians as Scripture) was God's word, not just the parts that we happen to find appealing. Marcion's heresy had one positive effect: it forced the Church to develop a canon (authoritative books) of Scripture.

Another inadequate view of Scripture is one that looks at Scripture primarily in a rationalistic and mechanistic manner, treating the Bible more as a scientific and historical textbook than the revelation of God. While some Christians from earlier periods held this view, it primarily developed during the modern period with the Reformation and Renaissance. It was then that words became more important than symbol, sacrament, and mystery, probably because of the advancement of empirical science. At this point the accuracy of the message of the Bible became tied to the absolute inerrancy of the Bible to the letter. Also (again due to the study of empirical science), in many Protestant churches a literal reading became the only appropriate way to read the Bible, and finding other layers of meaning was condemned. In contrast to the early Church's more sacramental and symbolic outlook, modernist writers (both conservative and liberal) taught that truth must be scientifically rational and provable by science. So if the Bible was not inerrant to the letter (as literally and individually interpreted), under these new criteria, the Christian faith fell apart. European critical thinkers soon found contradictions in the Bible, as well as passages that conflicted with modern scientific observations. So using the same presuppositions as the early Protestant councils (the Bible's message is tied to its inerrancy and being read literally), some began to say that we must reject the Christian faith because the Bible is full of contradictions. The extreme modernist positions were that the Bible was either fully literally true, or else an outdated error-riddled product of Hebrew imagination. While both sides seem opposed, they share the same foundation: if the Bible is not inerrant as interpreted literally, Christianity falls apart, a presupposition that the early Church did not share.

A good example to illustrate this shift in thought is the story of Noah's ark. In the early Church, Noah's ark, the temporary home of the righteous remnant, was often viewed as a type (a symbol or prefiguring) of the Church, the ark of salvation amidst a troubled and immoral secular world. While the Church Fathers most likely believed that the story of Noah's ark was literally true, their main emphasis was the typology within the story. Today, many are more concerned with finding the ark to prove the story actually happened, or in the case of skeptics, that it did not. The Church Fathers' interpretation gets at the heart of the story in light of Christian revelation, in addition to revealing the highest and truest meaning of the text, again in light of Christian revelation. By "in light of Christian revelation," I mean that as Christians, Christ is the interpretive lens through which we read the Old Testament. This is unpopular today in Academic circles, so much that many Christians learn in seminary that it is wrong to "find" Jesus in the Old Testament. Nonetheless, reading the Old Testament in light of Jesus is faithful to the early Christian method of reading and exegeting Scripture. While the meaning given by the Church Fathers in the Noah's ark example is not the purely literal meaning of the text, it is still true in the most true way possible, and it does not exclude a literal reading.

Finally, we must deal with the issue of the Deuterocanon, or as Protestants often say, the Apocrypha. The Deuterocanon consists of books not commonly accepted by Protestants as inspired: 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, and parts of Daniel and Esther. Many claim that the Catholic Church added these books to the Bible in the 16th century. This is a common misconception. It is more accurate to say that the Reformers removed the books from the Bible. The ante-Nicene Church Fathers (100 AD-325 AD) quote from these books over 300 times, frequently using them in their Scriptural arsenal against heretics. While some Church Fathers of the 4th and 5th century questioned the canonical status of these books (including St. Jerome), most Christians, including St. Augustine, accepted them. For example, the Synod of Hippo in AD 393 came up with an official biblical canon exactly like the modern Catholic canon. This decision was approved by the Council of Carthage a few years later. While the Catholic Church officially and universally canonized the extra books in the 16th century along with the books Protestants accept, clearly (as demonstrated above) these books were in use long before the 1500s, accepted as authoritative Scripture throughout Christian history. These books are currently in the Bibles of Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as those of many Anglicans.

In conclusion, Catholics believe that the Bible is God-inspired, inerrant when interpreted correctly by the Church (and this is fluid to a degree, as science and other observations help us with this task), but not necessarily inerrant by the Protestant definition. The Bible has a sacramental character, as it is a physical vehicle that God uses to provide us with His grace. As such, God uses the Bible to teach us about his Son, and His saving actions within human history. Additionally, the Bible's origins are both divine and human, written by humans over the course of thousands of years in their own literary styles, yet these humans ultimately were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write accurately about divine truths. Finally, Catholics believe that the Bible has multiple layers of meaning, including, but not limited to, the literal meaning. Thus, the Catholic Church, like the early Church, believes the Bible is more than just a good read, and is in fact, a unique and accurate book inspired by God Himself.

Last Updated 10-14-2009

For more information check out
There is No Plain Meaning of Scripture
The Christian Tradition: Living, Holy, and Relevant
A Catholic Reflection on Biblical Criticism