Most of the postings on this blog are academic papers I wrote. This one on Biblical inerrancy was to summarize, in three pages, “the traditional doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture and how the Catholic Church since Vatican II understands this doctrine.” I wanted to read a controversial passage in Dei Verbum using the “hermeneutic of continuity” that Pope Benedict XVI extols. I acknowledge full well that there are certain passages of the conciliar texts where such a thing is very difficult, perhaps even impossible. No, that does not deny the ecumenal character of Vatican II or any Catholic teaching on the nature of an ecumenical council, but this is a subject for a future entry here. Be that as it may, the passage in Dei Verbum that the liberals use against inerrancy, while unnecessarily ambiguous, easily admits of an orthodox reading, especially when one reads the footnotes.
In his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia of December 22, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI impugned an approach to Vatican II which he termed “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture… [which] risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.”1
That Vatican II must be seen as a continuity with tradition — a familiar theme which Cardinial Ratzinger carried into his pontificate — forms an underlying principle of my answer to the question at hand. That answer is this: The Catholic Church understands the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture the same today as she always has. I will prove this assertion of continuity — at the same time describing the traditional conception of the extent of biblical inerrancy — using authoritative texts.
The traditional position, as articulated by Pope Leo XIII, is one of absolute inerrancy: “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.”2
There is a liberal view that limits inerrancy to those truths only which are for our salvation, allowing for Scriptural errors in the areas of science and history. This limited inerrancy is the view advocated by Dr. d’Ambrosio in the lectures: “But, what is it God is trying to teach? That is a critical question. What is God trying to communicate? Here’s what Leo XIII said, and later on, what the second Vatican Council said: ‘What the Holy Spirit inspires the writers to assert is truth pertaining to salvation.’ What is revelation about? It’s [about] God and our relationship with him. Is God interested in teaching us historical or scientific detail? No. Does our relationship have anything to do with how many years a king was ruling in Israel, or a scientific detail about whether rabbits have cloven feet or not… No, it has nothing to do with it…. So we trust the Bible completely in all that it teaches us about salvation, but we don’t look for science lessons and we don’t look for secular history lessons in the Bible…”3
The first view refuses to admit any error at all into the inspired word. The second admits the possibility of historical or scientific error, since these matters are not relevant to salvation.
The locus classicus for this question is Dei Verbum, 11: “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 solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.”
There was furious debate over this passage on the floor of the Council, producing a number of widely varying revisions of the text. Upon reading its fourth draft4, a minority of Fathers were not satisfied. They were disturbed that it could be interpreted in such a way as to limit inerrancy exclusively to those truths revealed “for the sake of our salvation” — i.e., strict matters of faith and morals — while admitting the possibility of error where the Bible mentioned things of an historical or scientific nature.
Two official relationes informed them that the text in no way derogated from the traditional conception of inerrancy, but some were still not satisfied. Pope Paul VI himself intervened, requesting that the somewhat ambiguous adjective salutarem be dropped. Instead, the Theological Commission modified the text to the current form.5
Another last-minute change, one that is very important for an authentic hermeneutic of the text, was the insertion of footnote five. In this footnote, there are eight references: two from St. Augustine, one from St. Thomas, one from the Council of Trent, three from Pope Leo XIII, and one from Pope Pius XII. In the remainder of this paper, I will briefly touch upon each of these passages to show that they either support the traditional view only, or are at least silent on the specific question of absolute versus limited inerrancy.
The first Augustinian passage, from On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, is quoted by Leo XIII, infra, so I will treat it there.
The second passage is from St. Augustine’s Letter 82. Writing to St. Jerome, the Doctor of Grace protests that he will resolve an apparent contradiction between Scripture and other known truths only in favor of the inerrancy of the original manuscript: “For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.”6
The passage from St. Thomas’ De Veritate addresses the question “Does prophesy deal with conclusions which can be known scientifically?” He affirms that “conclusions which are demonstrated in the sciences can belong to prophesy.” Further, he says: “We believe the prophets only in so far as they are inspired by the spirit of prophesy. But we have to give belief to those things written in the books of the prophets even though they treat of conclusions of scientific knowledge… Therefore, the spirit of prophecy inspires the prophets even about the conclusions of the sciences.”
He does say that “those things which cannot pertain to salvation are outside the matter of prophecy,”7 but clearly refrains from limiting biblical inspiration when he adds: “But many things which can be proved from the sciences are useful for this…. Hence, we find that mention of these is made in Holy Scripture.”8
The Reference to Session IV of the Council of Trent refers to the “Gospel … first promulgated with [Christ’s] own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline… [which] are contained in the written books… [which books] the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us. … [This Synod] receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament — seeing that one God is the author of both…”
Here, the “saving truth and moral discipline” is in no way contrasted with truths not pertaining to salvation. While a limited inerrancy adherent could proffer that the passage does not address the subject of historical or scientific truth, neither can he cite this mute witness in his favor. Clearly, Pope Leo XIII read the traditional doctrine of absolute inerrancy into it, as we saw in the beginning of this paper.
After the Tridentine citation, there follow four references to Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus. In the first, Leo cites St. Augustine asserting that the conclusions of natural science must conform to those certitudes we have from revelation: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so. (De Gen. ad litt. 1, 21, 41).”9
The second passage deserves to be quoted at length, as it censures, verbatim, the theory advanced by the limited inerrancy school: “It may also happen that the sense of a passage remains ambiguous, and in this case good hermeneutical methods will greatly assist in clearing up the obscurity. But it 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. As to the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it — this system cannot be tolerated.”10
In the third passage there is another explicit rejection of the liberal view: “And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they labored earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance — the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the ‘higher criticism’; for they were unanimous in laying it down, that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the afflatus of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true.”11
The passage from Pope Pius XII’s Divino afflante Spiritu reiterates Leo XIII’s teaching above with direct citations from Providentissimus Deus. It also cites Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus, where that pontiff spoke of the absolute inerrancy of Scripture, “defending the historical truth of Scripture from [the adversaries’] assaults.”
I conclude that the Catholic Church teaches the absolute inerrancy of Holy Scripture, that is, that the Bible is wholly and entirely free from all error. This is “the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church” affirmed by Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus, Pope Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus, Pope Pius XII’s Divino afflante Spiritu, and Vatican II’s Dei Verbum.
Flannery, Austin, O.P, editor, Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1980.
Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” in Living Tradition, No. 59 (July, 1995) Online. Available from: http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt59.html [accessed 15 February 2006]
Aquinas, Thomas, St., The Disputed Questions on Truth, Translated by James V. McGlynn, S.J., Ph.D. Chigago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953.
John F. McCarthy, “Lesson 3: Historical Criticism of the New Testament,” in The Roman Theological Forum Study Program (November 1998 ) Online. Available from: http://www.rtforum.org/study/lesson3.html [accessed 15 February 2006]
John F. McCarthy, “Lesson 4: The Inspiration of Sacred Scripture” in The Roman Theological Forum Study Program (December 1998 ) Online. Available from: http://www.rtforum.org/study/lesson4.html [accessed 15 February 2006]
1 Benedict XVI, “Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings,” Thursday, 22 December 2005, Online; available from:
[accessed 15 February 2006]
2 Providentissimus Deus, EB 124-125, cited in Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” in Living Tradition, No. 59 (July, 1995). Online; available from: http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt59.html (Italics mine).
3 DVD of Lecture 4: “Scripture, Inspiration and Inerrancy” (Italics mine).
4 “[The Bible] teaches the saving truth without error.”
5 For this history, see: Rev. Brian Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” in Living Tradition, No. 59 (July, 1995). Online; available from: http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt59.html.
6 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series One, Volume 1, American Edition, 1887. Online; available from: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102082.htm [accessed 15 February 2006] (Italics mine).
7 In the lecture, Dr. D’Ambrosio cited only the following passage, in a slightly inaccurate translation: “Any knowledge which is profitable to salvation may be the object of prophetical inspiration […] but things which cannot affect our salvation do not belong to inspiration.” Where I have inserted ellipses, Dr. D’Ambrosio omitted this text: sive sint praeterita, sive praesentia sive futura, sive etiam aeterna, sive necessaria, sive contingentia, that is, “whether these be things past or present, or also eternal, necessary, or contingent things…” A more accurate rendering of “Illa vero quae ad salutem pertinere non possunt” would be this: “But those things which cannot pertain to salvation” This has a less subjective connotation.
8 Thomas Aquinas, St., The Disputed Questions on Truth, trans. James V. McGlynn, S.J., Ph.D. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953) Q. 12, A. 2, pp. 110-112 (Italics mine.).
9 EB 121, cited in Harrison, op. cit.
10 EB 124, cited in Harrison, op. cit.
11 EB 126-127, cited in Harrison, op. cit. (Italics mine).