TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Question B: What in Scripture must be accepted as certainly true?

1. If the Church as a whole is infallible in believing and preaching its faith, still, apart from the apostles, all members of the Church as individuals can make mistakes in attempting to identify revealed truth. Acts by which the Church’s belief is expressed must therefore be carefully distinguished from acts by which members of the Church, even popes, express their individual belief. The belief of the Church must be distinguished from belief within the Church. Infallibility essentially belongs to the former; it belongs to the latter only insofar as what is believed “within” the Church arises from and is true to the belief “of” the Church.

2. Sacred Scripture expresses and bears witness to divine revelation. It is “the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit” (DV 9). Having been accepted and handed on by the whole Church, Scripture is both an expression and a norm of the Church’s belief: The books of Scripture, that is, communicate the belief of the Church and not merely belief within the Church. From the Church’s infallibility in believing, it follows that Scripture can contain no error in its identification of divinely revealed truth.

3. Vatican II formulates anew and reaffirms the belief of the whole Christian tradition that Scripture, including all the books of both the Old and New Testaments, was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These books thus have God as their author; they contain his word. At the same time, in Scripture God speaks only in and through human writers who by his inspiration are also true authors of their own works. It should not be supposed that either cause, divine or human, must be limited to make room for the work of the other, since the two cause in diverse ways. The result is that these humanly written works—the word of God in human words—contain precisely what God wants in them. Vatican II says: “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 firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation [note 5 omitted]. Therefore ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for instruction in justice; that the man of God may be perfect, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tm 3.16–17, Greek text)” (DV 11). Since the assertions of the writers are assertions of God, the teaching of Scripture is without error. Hence, in identifying divine revelation by the norm of its own understanding of Scripture, the Church—infallible in believing—can make no mistake.

Vatican II does not use the word “inerrancy” in Dei verbum, 11, perhaps because this word had acquired undesirable connotations from its use in polemics and inadequate theological treatments of the problem. However, in teaching that everything asserted by the inspired authors is without error, Vatican II reaffirms constant Catholic teaching on the inerrancy of Scripture. When “inerrancy of Scripture” is used in what follows, it means precisely what Dei verbum, 11, affirms in the first sentence of the paragraph quoted above.

4. A fundamentalist rightly believes that what is asserted in the Bible is true, separates out what he or she takes to be asserted in the Bible, and holds these propositions. A theological liberal thinks some less important propositions asserted in the Bible are false, sets up what he or she considers to be adequate criteria of importance, and censors the Bible. In contrast with both, Catholics believe that all propositions asserted in the Bible are true (because God is faithful), believe that the Church as a whole can make no mistake in identifying divine truth, and so work toward an ecclesial understanding of the Bible (see S.t., 1, q. 1, a. 10; 2–2, q. 5, a. 3, ad 2). Precluded by this are both the private interpretation of fundamentalism, which assigns the value of divine truth to those propositions which each individual extracts from the text for himself or herself, and liberalism’s attempt to judge the truth of God’s word by some extrinsic standard.7

To understand the teaching of Dei verbum, 11, concerning inerrancy, one must understand what assertions are. They are propositions proposed as certainly true; one asserts a proposition if and only if one expresses it in a way which definitely claims assent from those to whom it is addressed. This definition requires an understanding of what a proposition is.

A proposition is something thought which can be true or false. Propositions must be distinguished from language. If I say “The sun is shining” or “Sol lucet” or (tomorrow at this time) “Yesterday at this time the sun was shining,” then I express the same proposition, although the language is different. Propositions usually are partly conveyed by the nonlinguistic context of communication.

Conversely, language often expresses no proposition. Scripture conveys much more than asserted propositions, for its concrete style provides many images and poetic symbols, which perhaps presuppose propositions but do not express any proposition. “Glory to God in the highest” does not express a proposition. Nor do many expressions in polite conversation—for example, “I am fine” is not a statement about one’s health when it responds to a conventional “How are you?”

Language depends heavily upon context for its meaning. Therefore, it is relative to culture and has to be interpreted with this in mind. But propositional content is not relative to culture; its many conditions and limitations are built into it. Interpretation and translation attempt to disengage the propositional content from one linguistic vehicle and rearticulate it in another.

Very often, propositions are expressed in language without being asserted. One might wonder whether something is so; one might suggest a view as possibly true, or even as likely, yet not be prepared to assert the proposition. In reflecting upon and talking about common beliefs or the beliefs of other individuals, one very often expresses propositions without providing any clear indication whether one is asserting them. Sometimes, one does not even ask oneself whether one wishes personally to assert such propositions.

Moreover, the conventions of narration are different in different times and places, and even in the same culture in different social situations. Often, in telling a story one asserts only the main point, and fills in a background without taking care to be precise about the many subordinate details. If someone narrating in this manner is challenged on a factually erroneous statement, he or she is likely to say: “Well, that’s only incidental. My real point is . . ..”

With these distinctions in mind, it is clear that Dei verbum is far from saying that every sentence in the Bible is true, since many of the sentences in the Bible express no proposition. Nor is it saying that every proposition articulated in the Bible is true, for many propositions articulated in the Bible are not asserted; in very many cases, the human authors either did not ask themselves whether the propositions they articulated were true, or did not propose them as true, or at least did not demand assent from their readers.8

5. Moral norms are proposed in Scripture.9 But a genuine moral norm is a true proposition (4‑H). Thus some of the moral norms formulated in Scripture—namely, those asserted by the inspired authors—are inerrant moral teachings.

6. In considering the moral teaching contained in Scripture, one must bear in mind that most moral norms are nonabsolute. Furthermore, most moral norms can be commended with varying degrees of force; only those proposed as certainly true and definitely to be followed are asserted in Scripture.10

7. For these reasons, instances in the Bible of norms which admit of exceptions or seem unsound do not argue against the truth of absolute norms which are proposed there as absolute and certainly true. For instance, what St. Paul says about women covering their heads in church (see 1 Cor 11.2–16) is subject to limitations implied by the context which do not condition what the Bible teaches about adultery (see Ex 20.14; Dt 5.18; Jer 7.9–10; Hos 4.2; Mt 5.27–32; 19.18; Mk 10.19; Lk 18.20; Rom 13.8–10; Jas 2.11). Moreover, nonabsolute norms proposed in Scripture as certainly true are not falsified by their exceptions, and Scripture itself generally indicates their limits clearly enough. For example, St. Paul’s injunction, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13.1), is true but nonabsolute; many passages of Scripture make clear the limits to obedience, such as the prior claims of faithfulness to God.

8. Within the New Testament, Christian morality is presented as the perfection and superabundant fulfillment of the Decalogue.11 In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus broadens and deepens several of the commandments and demands their interiorization (see Mt 5.21–37). All the synoptics, moreover, present Jesus as affirming the commandments as a necessary condition for entering eternal life (see Mt 19.16–20; Mk 10.17–19; Lk 18.18–21). St. Paul, in asserting that Christian love fulfills the law, assumes the truth of the Decalogue and its permanent ethical relevance, extols the superiority of love, and rejects any suggestion which would empty love of its practical, normative implications (see Rom 13.8–10). This recognition of the continuing validity of the Decalogue indicates that the norms it contains are asserted by the human authors and so, too, by the Holy Spirit.12

9. The Ten Commandments have a unique place within the Mosaic law; they are represented as being the very words of the covenant, dictated by God (see Ex 34.27–28).13 Their religious and liturgical significance makes them no less functional as a moral foundation for legal enactments.14 The prohibitions of the commandments were no doubt understood more narrowly in their original context than in their unfolding in later Jewish and Christian tradition. Still, no reasonable reading of the Decalogue can deny it the status of fundamental revealed moral truth—a status always recognized by common Christian practice in moral instruction (see S.t., 1–2, q. 100, aa. 1, 8; q. 107, a. 2, ad 1).15

10. To say that the Decalogue has the status of fundamental, revealed moral truth is not to deny that it needs interpretation and development. This process begins in the Old Testament itself and, as indicated, is continued in the New. However, this does not justify the claim that the Decalogue is mere moral exhortation to follow an existing code, which always must be read with proportionalist riders—for example, Thou shalt not commit adultery, unless it happens to be the lesser evil.16

Some commentators on Dei verbum, 11, have taken “for the sake of our salvation” to be a restriction upon the kind of assertions of the sacred authors which must be considered free of error. They say Scripture contains errors, but can be trusted to the extent that its content bears upon matters of faith and morals.

However, those who assert that Vatican II has limited biblical inerrancy to some part of the assertions contained in Scripture misinterpret the text of the Council’s document. To some extent, mistranslation of the conciliar document explains the tendency to misinterpret it. The Abbott edition translation of Dei verbum, 11, for example, is misleading, for it makes “for the sake of our salvation” part of a restrictive clause. In the Latin text, however, this phrase is nonrestrictive. It indicates God’s purpose in revealing without limiting the truth he reveals: “Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturae libri veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt.”

The following considerations show that Dei verbum, 11, teaches that all propositions asserted by the inspired authors are true. First, inerrancy is concluded from the premise that the Spirit asserts what the human authors assert; therefore, to admit any erroneous assertion in Scripture is to admit a false assertion by the Spirit. Second, the Council’s footnote five refers to passages in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, and encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XII. These passages, most clearly those in Pope Leo’s Providentissimus Deus, exclude altogether the possibility of error from all assertions in Scripture (see DS 3291–93/1950–52). (The passages cited also show that the concern of Scripture is to communicate truth relevant to salvation, not assorted information which in no way affects our relationship with God.) Finally, the history of Dei verbum shows that the Council’s Theological Commission made it clear that the text was not meant to restrict the inerrancy of the Bible to some subset of the assertions contained in it.17

Precisely because the Council does reaffirm the inerrancy of Scripture, it proceeds directly to insist upon the importance of careful interpretation to find out what God wants to communicate—that is, what the sacred writers really intended. The result of careful interpretation will be to discern as asserted by the sacred writers only propositions which do pertain to faith or morals, at least in some indirect way. This outcome should be no surprise, since the Bible contains a witness to God’s revealing words and deeds and an expression of their initial appropriation. The whole, considered together, richly hands on revealed truth, which is a personal communication directed toward establishing and perfecting a personal relationship between God and his adopted human family (20‑C).

The primary truth revealed in the Bible is the firmness and faithfulness of God himself, who never abandons or betrays his people.18 It is precisely God’s fundamental truth which precludes error in the propositions asserted in the Bible. At the same time, the purpose of God in providing the Bible limits its propositional content to the truth which we need to know to form our relationship to him and our lives in response to his love.

Does this conclusion amount to the same thing as the position of those who take Vatican II’s phrase, “for the sake of our salvation,” to be a restriction upon the inerrancy of Scripture? Not at all. They assume that other propositions are asserted in Scripture and that these might be false. I deny this, and in denying it hold the point which the Church obviously is intent upon maintaining: The Holy Spirit inspires the whole of Scripture and makes no false assertions.

Moreover, in practice there is a great difference. When one supposes that the Bible contains some false propositions, one tends to ask oneself whether what one takes to be an assertion in the Bible is true, and one tries to answer the question by extrinsic criteria. This process will lead to the exclusion of propositions which are saving truths, but happen to be hard to understand and accept. When one supposes, as the Church does, that the Bible contains no assertions of false propositions, one tends to ask oneself how what one takes to be an assertion in the Bible can be true. To answer the question, one must try to discover what the statement means in its larger context and ultimate reference to salvation. In the last resort one will give up the supposition that apparently asserted propositions are really such. When necessary, one will do this with the help of what is found in other parts of the Bible, in the whole of tradition, and in current documents of the Church’s teaching office.

7. An extraordinarily suggestive article concerning a Catholic approach to the interpretation of Scripture: George T. Montague, S.M., “Hermeneutics and the Teaching of Scripture,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 41 (1979), 1–17.

8. For a treatment of some of these matters, with references to other authors, see Pierre Grelot, The Bible Word of God: A Theological Introduction to the Study of Scripture (New York: Desclee, 1968), 106–37. Although written before Vatican II and questionable on some details, Grelot’s treatment remains quite helpful.

9. For a summary of the evidence for this statement with respect to the New Testament, see the excellent article of a leading non-Catholic Scripture scholar: W. D. Davies, “Ethics in the New Testament,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2:167–76.

10. This point is most obviously but not only true with respect to the problem of Old Testament teaching. See L. Johnston, “Old Testament Morality,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 20 (1958), 19–25.

11. See Matthew Vellanickal, “Norm of Morality according to the Scripture,” Bible Bhashyam: An Indian Biblical Quarterly, 7 (1981), 121–46, for a remarkably clear and balanced synthetic statement of the biblical teaching of moral truth, centrally in Christ, but also including specific and unchanging norms.

12. On the essential unity and continuity of the moral teaching of Scripture, see three articles by A. Feuillet: “Loi ancienne et Morale chrétienne d’après l’Epître aux Romains,” Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 92 (1970), 785–805; “Morale ancienne et Morale chrétienne d’après Mt V.17–20; Comparaison avec la Doctrine de l’Epître aux Romains,” New Testament Studies, 17 (1970–71), 123–37; “Loi de Dieu, Loi du Christ et Loi de l’Esprit d’après les Epîtres Pauliniennes,” Novum Testamentum, 22 (1980), 29–65.

13. See Edouard Hamel, S.J., Les dix paroles: Perspectives bibliques (Brussels: Desclée de Brouwer, 1969), 18–20.

14. See Gordon Wenham, “Law and the Legal System in the Old Testament,” in Law, Morality and the Bible, ed. Bruce Kaye and Gordon Wenham (Leicester, Eng.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), 24–52; Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 88–89.

15. For a very detailed study of this point in the Fathers of the Church, see Guy Bourgeault, S.J., Décalogue et Morale Chrétienne: Enqu*#234;te patristique sur l’utilisation et l’interprétation chrétiennes du décalogue de c. 60 à c. 220 (Paris: Desclée, 1971), 405–18 (summary of conclusions). An important textual study: Patrick Lee, “Permanence of the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Modern Interpreters,” Theological Studies, 42 (1981), 422–43.

16. Here is another instance of the question-begging tendency of proportionalists to claim that all limitations of nonabsolute moral norms and all precisions in understanding any moral norm support proportionalism. As was explained (10‑C), the specification of moral norms is fundamentally different from the commensuration of human goods which proportionalism takes for granted without being able to perform. See Timothy E. O’Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 129; Richard A. McCormick, S.J., Notes on Moral Theology: 1965–1980 (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), 528–29. McCormick and others beg the question by assuming without proving that moral texts proposed in Scripture are parenetic (exhortation) rather than paracletic (reaffirmation of duties). In other words, they say but do not even try to prove that what the Bible says on morality is like a pep talk rather than like Humanae vitae. Until they show this, merely asserting it proves nothing. Bruno Schüller, “Christianity and the New Man: The Moral Dimension—Specificity of Christian Ethics,” in Theology and Discovery: Essays in Honor of Karl Rahner, S.J., ed. William J. Kelly, S.J. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980), 307–27, asserts that what is distinctive about Christian ethics is solely in its “paraenesis” which he sharply contrasts with “normative ethics.” But Schüller fails to clarify what he means by “normative ethics” and so does not begin to prove it is not found in Scripture. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. John Bowden (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 586–600, makes a similar move; note his definition (904) of “paraenesis.” By an inadequate, question-begging division between a “socio-culturally determined ethics” conceived as mere convention and the “utopian-critical goad” of the gospel conceived as an ideal subject to situational exceptions, Schillebeeckx leaves no room for moral truths knowable by reason, and so leaves no room for conscience and natural law as understood by the Church, including Vatican II (see 3‑B and 7‑A). Underlying this move is an uncritical acceptance and absolutization of post-Kantian dialectic: “Ethical norms were recognized as a cultural creation of mankind in search of a higher humanity” (657, to be read in the context of the whole of Part IV) which pervades and vitiates Schillebeeckx’s Christological project. On “parenesis” and “paraclesis” see E. Hamel, “La théologie morale entre l’Ecriture et la raison,” Gregorianum, 56 (1975), 317. O’Connell (op. cit., 129) stresses the liturgical and religious significance of the Ten Commandments, and the limitations which some exegetes see in the specific prohibitions, and concludes: “From all this, then, it is clear that the Decalogue did not present a particularly sensitive ethic, that the revelation of God’s election of Israel neither included a revelation of moral specifics nor guaranteed that the people would quickly perceive the ideal of human behavior.” After further discussion, he summarizes: “So the Decalogue was a tremendously important document, indeed a primary statement of Israel’s life. But its importance was not precisely ethical.” O’Connell’s contrast between the religious and liturgical, on the one hand, and the ethical, on the other, is alien to both Jewish and Christian morality, which locates personal life within a community in covenant bonds with God. See William G. Most, “A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 29 (1967), 1–18; Oswald Loretz, The Truth of the Bible (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), 64–69. The true significance of the Decalogue can be judged more adequately by considering it within the framework of interpretation prescribed by Vatican II—that is, one must interpret the Old Testament in light of the New (see DV 15).

17. For a fuller discussion and references to relevant synodal documents: Augustin Cardinal Bea, The Word of God and Mankind (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1967), 184–91. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), claims (16) that “critical investigation points to religious limitations and even errors” in the Bible, citing passages in Job (14.13–22) and Sirach (14.16–17; 17.22–23; 38.21) which he thinks “deny an afterlife” as an example. Brown claims that a sound and critical interpretation of Vatican II’s teaching (in DV 11) supports his view, and cites the commentary of Alois Grillmeier, “The Divine Inspiration and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 3:214. However, Grillmeier’s examination of the conciliar documents (211–14) shows that even before Paul VI’s intervention the Theological Commission was explaining “the truth of salvation” (replaced by the nonrestrictive phrase “which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation”) as implying no material limitation of the truth of Scripture but only indicating its formal specification. Brown fails to notice that inerrancy is limited to what is asserted and even (18) paraphrases Dei verbum as saying that “everything in Scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit,” which is not what the document says. If one pays attention to what Vatican II actually says, one can solve problems posed by passages such as those in Job and Sirach. The former contains dialogue whose propositions can hardly be thought to be asserted by the sacred writer; the latter include propositions which deny afterlife according to some conception of it, but do not deal with the question of resurrection and so do not contradict New Testament teaching concerning the afterlife for which we hope.

18. A generally sound clarification of the idea of biblical truth: see Loretz, op. cit., 64–137. Loretz argues (sometimes too exclusivistically, 71–86) that in the Bible truth is always centered on God’s faithfulness in the covenant relationship. But he does admit (90–91) propositional truths in Scripture about God, while insisting on the relationship of these to God’s own solidity.