Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Traditional Catholic views on the inspiration of the Bible

The initial response of the Catholic Church to the advent of modern biblical criticism was to reaffirm the traditional doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture.  Pope Leo XIII stated in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, issued in 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 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. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church….
However, less traditional views on the Bible were already stirring in some quarters.  Within the English-speaking world, this was evident in a well-known exchange that took place in 1884 between Cardinal Newman and Bishop John Healy, in which Newman put forward a relatively liberal interpretation of biblical inspiration (see further e.g. S.L.Greenslade (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Bible, p228-229 and Cardinal Avery Dulles, Newman, p67-69).  Another source of challenge to traditional ideas came from the modernist movement.  This is what George Tyrrell had to say, for example:
Such a tradition we find in the sacred books of the Old and New Testament, and in the authentic teachings of the Christian Church. Here, mingled inextricably, as gold in the ore, with much that is mere history and sacred legend, we have that revelation of Himself which God has given at sundry times and in divers manners to the prophets, and last of all through His Son Jesus Christ and his chosen apostles. We have, so to say, the utterance of a collective and continuous experience of the human spirit in varying degrees and modes of contact with the Divine. It is ever one and the same truth, one and the same Love, that strives to break into full consciousness, and find a sufficing self-utterance, which it finds at last in Him who was pre-eminently the Word of God.  (Through Scylla and Charybdis (1907), p307)
The backlash against the advance of modern criticism was led by Pope St Pius X.  Under his reign, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (originally established by Leo XIII) was staffed with arch-conservative members and issued a series of pronouncements which flew in the face of the insights of contemporary Bible scholarship.  It affirmed, for example, the traditional notion that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch.  This is what it had to say on the historicity of the Book of Genesis:
Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls?
Reply: In the negative to both parts.
Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil's persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer?
Reply: In the negative. 
It is only fair to say, however, that the Commission did recognise that Genesis was not to be interpreted in a scientifically literal manner.

Not all contemporary scholars thought highly of the Commission:
[T]he Commission is singularly destitute of Biblical critics…. I recall my studies of the large work of Rector Janssen on Dogmatic Theology. I have used it, with profit and admiration, in the field of Scholastic Theology; but his treatment of the Bible is so unscholarly, and his use of the Hebrew language shows such profound ignorance, that no serious worker could deem him competent to give an opinion in matters of Hebrew Scholarship, and his name discredits at once the report of the Commission. The name of Vigouroux stands for an antiquated apologetic, distinguished by special pleading and a closing of the eyes to everything that does not count for his side of the case…. (C.A.Briggs and F.von Hügel, The Papal Commission and the Pentateuch (1906), p7-8)
At around the same time, the arch-conservative Cardinal Louis Billot published his De Inspiratione Sacrae Scripturae (1906), in which he laid into liberal exegetes:
In truth, we readily comprehend the position of the rationalists, to whom the errors and fables of the Bible are an indication of its human and purely natural origin.  But it exceeds all belief that some are willing to adopt the incoherent position that inspiration coexists with error, and, moreover, that truth is reconcilable with falsehood of every kind....

As for general observations, the first which we may make is that the critics always draw a distinction between religious truths in Scripture and historical facts or facts recounted in the manner of history.  It is as if those facts, at least generally speaking, were nothing more than a mere form of literature which has no interest in itself, but only by virtue of the abstract ideas which it encompasses, and as if for this reason such facts pertained solely to the literary style, as it were, of Scripture and not at all to the actual matters to which God directly intended to apply his inspiration.  They give no other justification for this conception of theirs than that Scripture is not a textbook of history but a religious document.  What profound reasoning!  How worthy of admiration it is!  It is as if history and religion had nothing in common.  It is as if in revealed religion the first place and the leading role were not to be given to history.  It is as if revealed religion were not entirely founded on historical facts, were not proven entirely through historical facts, and did not indeed consist in its entirety of a particular great historical fact....  I take note of three general principles which particularly require a judgement on their truth or falsity, since they encompass the whole substance of the critics' system....

First principle:  That the biblical writers were neither more nor less writers than any other, secular writers.  This is false....  For secular writers are the principal authors of their works, constructing them entirely from their own efforts, their own virtue and their own thoughts.  But the biblical writers are only instrumental authors, and are subject to the influence, direction and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in devising and composing everything they wrote.  How, then can they be authors like any other, neither more nor less?

Second principle:  That it was for the biblical writers to determine the literary genre of their books.  This is false....  For we are concerned here with the literary genre on which the entire sense of the book in question depends... and therefore with the literary genre by which the book is defined.  But if that which defines the book does not come from God but from man, how, to that extent, can God be its principal author?

Third principle:  That there is no literary form known among humankind which the inspiration of the Holy Spirit rejects....  This is false, I say, and will remain false for as long as it remains true that divine inspiration does not embrace our faults, our ignorance, our vices, our temerity and our vanity.  For what they call genres of literature [genera litteraturae] might more accurately be called types of vanity [genera vanitatis] in which there is either no excuse, or else ignorance excuses the error and temerity excuses the ignorance.  But God corrects our defects: he does not take them on....
There is still a constituency for very traditional views of biblical inspiration, though traditionalist scholars are honest enough to recognise that they face an uphill struggle.  Here is the Australian theologian Fr Brian Harrison, writing in 2010:
Insistence on the unrestricted inerrancy of Sacred Scripture is a notoriously “hard saying” of Christ and his Church. It is not at all easy to defend, and this is undoubtedly the basic reason why the seeming escape-route of restricted inerrancy has proved to be so popular among modern biblical scholars. The orthodox doctrine requires repeated acts of faith, just like believing in Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist against the witness of our five senses. For, as has been recognized from patristic times onwards, Scripture presents a great many difficulties in the form of seeming contradictions and other kinds of error. And I doubt that any believer so far has ever claimed to have found the definitive solution to every one of them. Opting for the easy ‘solution’ of restricted inerrancy... will probably always remain a perennial temptation for believers. It is therefore worth making the point that the Catholic who insists on the traditional doctrine of unrestricted inerrancy does not thereby place himself under an obligation to be able to offer a convincing solution for any or all of these innumerable biblical difficulties. He is simply witnessing to the unchanging faith of the Church; and it is quite sufficient for him, in that context, to insist that even though we may not at present be able to solve the problem presented by some apparent instance of biblical error, there must indeed be a solution.