This article is inevitably going to be shorter than I want it to be, but I just thought I would say a few things. First of all, this is the belief which I find perhaps the most difficult to accept and which at times I would rather wasn’t part of the tapestry of Catholic doctrine. This doctrine, more than any other, acted as a stumbling block for me on my run into the Catholic Church. Ultimately it was an issue I had to bring to prayer and think about constantly. I have become convinced not only that inerrancy is true, but that all the objections I used to have against inerrancy can be adequately dealt with.
First, a note about past heresies – I brought this point up with an Eastern Orthodox friend of mine who had, like me, come from a Baptist background. Both of us had trouble with inerrancy, and the East gave him the freedom to disagree about inerrancy since it wasn’t infallibly proclaimed a part of the Church’s faith. I noted that all the errors of intelligent people in ages gone past seemed palpably obvious to both of us. For instance, Arianism seemed obviously wrong, as did Docetism, Donatism, Calvinism, the idea that miracles cannot occur, or any number of other “heresies.” However, in every age the intellectual climate simply seduces many of the most intelligent people who do not take epistemological refuge in the Church’s teaching. It is no surprise, then, that in an age where Biblical criticism has been a principle concern in theology, and a field injected with often radical scepticism, that many people would be persuaded away from the Church’s teaching about the nature of the Scriptures in our age. Thus, I argued, if we are to be honest, can’t we imagine that a few hundred years from now people look back on our mistakes and consider them just as obvious? The point was to make a rather weak inductive argument for holding to the Church’s teaching as it is represented by all the saints prior to our age – since all the saints East and West who addressed the question of inerrancy answered in the affirmative that the Scriptures most definitely were inerrant. Now, I had made some very interesting arguments against inerrancy, perhaps the sharpest being that I suggested it would constitute an immoral act for God to make the Scriptures inerrant with the appearance of errancy. Perhaps I’ll deal with those objections a little bit here, but Primarily I just want to give a survey of Church Fathers, Documents, Councils and other sources of authority from a Catholic perspective defending and defining inerrancy.
Some arguments against inerrancy can be outlined. First, the Scriptures do not ever teach themselves to be inerrant. Additionally, the Scriptures do not appear to be inerrant in all matters both because of internal contradictions or apparent contradictions, and because of conflict with modern science, morality et al.
More formally, I had once written the following points:
1. In what way do we mean that the Scriptures are inerrant? If it means that they are void of all error whatsoever, then what do we do about the Jewish Authors of the Greek New Testament who often make spelling or grammatical mistakes? Do we send God back to Greek school to learn Greek before he is allowed to write his own book? Obviously not. However, since these mistakes evidently exist, then obviously the Scriptures cannot be wholly without any kind of error.
2. If there are no errors and it was God’s intention that there be no errors in the way he communicates his truth to us in inspired revelation, then why does he make it seem as though there are so many, so numerous and often so serious errors? Why would God reveal himself in disguise? Why would he make it so that any reasonable objective person who peruses through the scriptures would be led to conclude without a doubt in their minds that this collection of books does in fact contain some errors in matters of science and history at least.
3. If we were to consult the Bible first of all, and try to form our doctrine of inspiration from the Scriptures themselves, rather than throw an alien a priori theological assumption onto the text we read, then wouldn’t we come out with something much more like an incarnational model of inspiration, such as that suggested by Peter Enns? Why is this not viable?
Working out those difficulties was no easy task, but it was a task I thought incumbent because I became convinced, much to my chagrin, that the Church did teach inerrancy. Here is why:
First, because it is the common assumption of the Saints. This is especially interesting when it comes to Augustine, who apparently struggled with this as well and eventually turned to St. Jerome on this matter.
“it would be wholly impious to limit inspiration to only certain portions of Scripture or to concede that the sacred authors themselves could have erred”
~St. Jerome, Greatest Biblical Scholar, Composed the Latin Vulgate
“It is not allowable to say, ‘The author of this book is mistaken;’ but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”
~St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Doctor of Grace
“None of these [canonical] authors has erred in any respect of writing.”
“Therefore, since they wrote the things which He [God] showed and uttered to them, it cannot be pretended that He is not the writer; for his members executed what their head dictated.”
“On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand.”
~St. Augustine, Writing to Jerome
“Ye are fond of contention, brethren, and full of zeal about things which do not pertain to salvation. Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them.”
~ Pope Clement I, Epistle to the Corinthians Ch. XLV
Moreover, it seems clear that the Popes and the Church have addressed the issue of inerrancy with their authority.
“…we loyally believe the Holy Spirit to be the author of the book. He wrote it who dictated it for writing; He wrote it who inspired its execution.”
~ St. Pope Gregory the Great
“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”
~ St. Pope Leo XIII
“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 Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist 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. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the [First] Council of the Vatican.”
~Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus
“The books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council [Trent] and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without errors, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their Author.”
~ First Vatican Council
“The sacred Council of Trent ordained by solemn decree that ‘the entire books with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old vulgate Latin edition, are to be held sacred and canonical.’ … When, subsequently, 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’ … justly and rightly condemned these errors.”
~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.”
~Pope Pius XII
It is in the Catechism:
“the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”
~ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 107
“[Pope Benedict XV] …also emphasized the Bibles absolute immunity from error. He went so far as to say that ‘belief in the biblical narrative is as necessary to salvation as is belief in the doctrines of the faith’ (no. 24). After explicitly condemning any position that restricts inerrancy only to so-called ‘religious’ elements of the Bible, he quotes Saint Jerome, the Father of biblical science, who wrote more than 1,500 years ago that ‘[i]t would be wholly impious to limit inspiration to only certain portions of Scripture or to concede that the sacred authors themselves could have erred‘.“
Finally, the question must be posed, why would God make the scriptures appear to be errant when in fact they are errant? There are a few reasons one can provide for this.
First, John Chrysostom’s answer is attractive to me:
“the discord which seems to be present in little matters shields [the authors] from every suspicion and vindicates the character of the writers”
~John Chrysostom, , I:6
It not only vindicates the writers, but to an extent also the entire Church, since in copying these Gospels with their apparent discord the Church (as a whole) never presumed the authority to change anything for the sake of appearances. This is an excellent point to make with Muslims, since if they suggest that the Bible does have such disparities they cannot simultaneously suggest that Christians felt free at any time to change the content, since if Christians did wish to change anything surely the first thing to change would have been any discord between the Gospels themselves.
Moreover, both Pope Pius XII and St. Basil the Great recognize this explicitly as a test of faith.
We must neither doubt nor hesitate with respect to the words of the Lord; rather we must be fully persuaded that every word of God is true and possible, even if our nature should rebel against the idea – for in this lies the test of faith.
~St. Basil the Great
Perhaps I should take a moment to note what Catholics are not obliged to believe (and what I personally do not accept). Plenary verbal inerrancy is one version of inerrancy which I do not see any good sense in accepting. This model says not only that the original autographs are inerrant, but that every word, every letter, is completely free from error and (more than being free from error, since inerrancy implies more than merely being free from error) that word order and such things matter. Thus, if Paul’s Greek is confused at some point, that confusion is itself inspired. Moreover, if somebody miss-spells a word that would qualify as an ‘error’. If this were true, then the Church would be adamant about reading the Scriptures in their original language all the time. No, it is the substance rather than the accident of the words which is inerrant. Therefore, let us suppose, as a thought experiment, that Tertius (who wrote down many epistles at Paul’s dictation, like Romans) made spelling mistakes in the first draft of Romans while trying to keep up with Paul’s dictation. These would not qualify as errors on my view, but they would qualify as errors on the plenary verbal inerrancy view.
Therefore, one can recognize that the many variants there are which make practically impossible any confident rendering of original New Testament texts down to each word, are simply irrelevant for my view of inerrancy. Where three texts differ in that they say “He” or “he Jesus” or “he Jesus Christ” or “Jesus Christ”, I have no need to worry about the wording when wondering about inerrancy.
At the same time, views which say that the Scriptures are only inerrant when speaking about faith and morals, and not when speaking about science or history, are deficient and not strong enough to satisfy the (plausibly infallible) teaching to the contrary (at least in my estimation, but it seems pretty uncontroversial).