Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Inerrancy Debate Continues

"I think we need to be careful about discussing inerrancy, which has an important place in magisterial texts prior to VCII, but is curiously absent from Dei Verbum. DV says that ”he books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation,” but it does not teach that the texts are inerrant in faith and morals." - Joshua B, Evangelical Catholicism

We must be careful when discussing inerrancy? I second that, third that with the other hand and bang both on the table for emphasis!

During the Second Vatican Council, one Council Father, namely Franz Cardinal Koenig, read a list of Biblical “errors” and declared that scripture is not inerrant. That his argument had the impact that it did on the Council Fathers – preventing them from being able to unanimously approve of language that would affirm Biblical inerrancy in the same strong language that it had been affirmed in prior Church documents shows that those men had not, individually, in the course of their lives, their study, their walk of faith, come to terms with passages such as those. They did what almost everyone else does with them – they intellectually shelved them and ignored the collection on that shelf. It only took someone drawing their attention to its contents in detail, forcing them to examine item after item, to really shake the faith of some of these men.

I had an experience like that when I was in my first year of college. I wasn’t a Cardinal, ensconced in wealth, power and position, so I lacked some of the motivation that those men had to continue to act like a believer after my faith was shaken. From the data of apparent errors, I assumed the presence of actual error, rejected inerrancy, and with it, the only authority that I at that time accepted for the essentials of my faith. I no longer had any reason to consider myself a Christian. Those men could not have considered themselves at similar liberty, so they must have struggled to hold on to as much of their faith as they could, or at least act like it.

What I find remarkable is this – even though many of the Council Fathers were at that point convinced that the doctrine of inerrancy was a false, that conviction did not find its way into the Conciliar documents. The weak way that inerrancy is affirmed in Dei Verbum is still an affirmation, and not a denial of anything affirmed by Popes and Councils prior to Vatican II.

Here is how things stand now – the Church has always affirmed inerrancy and has done so infallibly. In the past it did so in the strongest terms. When it did so in those terms, it did it infallibly. In the most recent council, the faith of many of the Fathers was shakem but the Holy Spirit did not allow that to result in a statement in Dei Verbum that would contradict any of the strongly worded prior affirmations of biblical inerrancy.

Logically, if a strongly worded proposition P1 is affirmed as true, and then a later proposition, p2, a weaker version of P1, is put forward, we can confirm p2 in light of the truth of P1. But the weakness of p2 does not weaken P1. P1 is still just as true in its entirety as it ever was. Logically, it is just not the case that p2 implies P1 Light (which, strictly logically, is Not-P1).

The weak statement in Dei Verbum does not blunt the atrong affirmations declared by previous councils and encyclicals in which the Pope was teaching under the charism of infallibility. Catholics are not permitted to re-examine and weaken the force of the doctrine of inerrancy taught for millennia based on a weak affirmation in a recent council. To do so would not only be a lapse of faith, but a lapse of logic.

We should be careful when discussing inerrancy, because we do not have all the answers to all the questions and all the solutions to all the problems. A list of apparent errors can get very long, especially if one is inclined to read scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion, in which anything that looks even remotely questionable is assumed to be error, instead of with a hermeneutic of charity in which the author of ancient text is given the benefit of the doubt whenever possible (which is necessary, but not sufficient, for the greater hermeneutic of faith). As the list of problems grows in length, a conviction emerges and begins to grow - there must be something to this…these can’t all be misreadings or copy errors of scribes absent from the autographa, can they? Lists of what look for all the world to be contradictions in scripture can be very persuasive, and very dangerous.

The one Kyle brings up is one of my favorites, because of how contradictory it looks, and how easily that appearance of error is dispelled. For me, it is a perfect paradigmatic example of a biblical “error” or “contradiction” – I wish they were all so easily resolved. Here is what I do with that one:

I start with a hermeneutic of charity. Before the issue of inspiration even comes into it, I assume that the human author at least was not a moron or a lunatic. If two statements are in the same passage, and we can know with as much certainty as we know anything about the text, that the two apparent contraries were penned by the same hand, probably within minutes of each other, it is unlikely that he is both affirming and denying the same thing simultaneously in the same sense. If any other reading is possible, I accept that one. If several are possible but only one is plausible, I take the plausible one. So what is the human author trying to affirm when he writes that God “regrets” making Saul king? If we assume, charitably, that he is not affirming that which he denies later in the same passage, namely, that God literally changes His mind, then he must be affirming something else. Is he using anthropomorphic language to indicate Saul has lost the favor of God, that by sinning Saul’s reign no longer enjoys the blessing of God and that without God’s support, his days as king are numbered? I think that is a plausible reading of the statement in the text about divine regret over Saul, and perfectly consistent with the later literally-intended theological negation.

Because the loss of my faith was largely due to the examination of apparent errors and contradictions in scripture, I knew when I returned to the faith that one day I would have to face that list again. Eventually I did. I was aware of a great many more problems the second time (I had a book length list of them, far longer than the one recited by Cardinal Koenig) and I no longer approached this challenge with the faithful assumption of inerrancy, but when I went down the list and read the text in context with a hermeneutic of charity that I was taught to apply to philosophical texts (but had not heard of the first time I dealt with these problems), the problems began to disappear. I found reasonable interpretations that did not support charges of error or contradiction, and, one-by-one, I was able to scratch off the items. Soon it got to be a game – I was positively hunting for the ONE indisputable error, the one pair of outright contradictories, that would settle the issue. But, when playing by the rules of a hermeneutic of charity, I could not find even one that fit the bill. I did not get more than halfway through my list before I threw it out, satisfied, and now as fully convinced of Biblical inerrancy as ever (but in a more doctrinally and theologically informed way). Today it strikes me as ironic that the first time I dealt with the issue of problems with inerrancy, I assumed inerrancy (in a na├»ve, fundamentalist way), but it did not take the presentation of very many scriptural difficulties to shake that assumption of faith, and I wound up losing my faith, but the second time, with renewed faith in Christ and a reasonable scholarly hermeneutic of charity, but no meaningful belief in inerrancy, I not only kept my faith, but became convinced of the truth of the Catholic doctrine of inerrancy!

When I argued for the Catholic doctrine of inerrancy at Vox Nova, I was repeatedly told by more than one poster that there was no such thing, that I was attributing my view to the Church, but there was no one official Catholic position on inerrancy. I was told that a view like mine was rejected at Vatican II. But such a “rejection” emerging in discussion and debate during the minutes of a council is not covered by the charism of infallibility. The final documents are, and nowhere in them is the Church’s traditional position on inerrancy retracted. Raymond Brown notwithstanding, the traditional doctrine of inerrancy stands. I close with a quote from Fr. William Most which confronts such Brown-inspired modernist heterodoxy head-on:

“Raymond E. Brown in many places, such as NJBC (p. 1169) , insists that Vatican II allows us to say that there are all kinds of errors in Scripture, in science, history and even in religion - only things needed for salvation are protected by inspiration. Hence he insists that Job 14. 13 ff raises the possibility of an after life, and then denies it. Brown said that if anyone tries to differ from this position of his, it is an "unmitigated disaster". He claims to found his view on a line in Vatican II, DV §11: "since all that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert should be regarded as asserted by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error teach the truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be confided to Sacred Scripture." Brown insists the underlined passage is restrictive, not descriptive, i.e., that it means to say only such things are inerrant. Brown points to the "prevoting debates", i.e., the day when Cardinal Koenig arose and gave a list of errors in Scripture. Sadly, a large number of bishops chimed in with him. Yet the Holy Spirit was at hand, and no trace of this idea is found in the final text of Vatican II. Most importantly, Brown ignores the fact that the Council itself gave several notes on the very passage, sending us to earlier pronouncements of the Church, including the statement of Vatican I that God Himself is the chief author of Scripture. Of course, Brown thinks he can get around it. He says there are two ways to look at Scripture. One is a priori, in which we say God is the author, and so no error is possible. But there is also, he asserts, the a posteriori way:look at the text, see all the errors, decide there are errors.

“The incredible thing is that today, now that we have new techniques for studying Scripture, not possessed by earlier scholars, even at the beginning of the 20th century, we have the means of answering countless claims of error, which earlier exegetes could not answer. Yet at this very point, those, like Brown, who are supposed to know these techniques, insist on saying the problems cannot be solved, that to try, e.g., to solve the problem of Job 14:23 - which is really easy -- is an "unmitigated disaster"!”


Teresa said...

Great Post! It seems like having a hermeneutic of suspicion and appraoching this type of text like it were a scientific text, in needing empirical evidence to prove their doubts false, would affect a person and their faith would be shaken. It seems like the interpreter who uses this approach would be reading certain Bible passages with a skewed view and therefore not understanding the true meaning of the passages. The interpreter would be reading the passages how he or she saw fit, but not how God intended the passages to be, or not how God divinely inspired the authors to write the passages.
Just because inerrancy wasn't affirmed just as strongly in Vatican II as in previous Councils doesn't mean the Church was nullifying 2000 years of Tradition, or that a person can choose to follow Cardinal Koenig's version of interpretating scripture, when he was actually dissenting from the Teachings of the Magisterium with regards to inerrancy, and expect that he/she is not departing from Church Tradition and the Church's teachings on divine scripture.

Kevin T. Rice said...

On re-reading my post, I find that I am no longer sure that even the documents of Vatican II are infallible (though I am not calling the validity of the Council into question). Vatican II was a pastoral council, not a domatic one, and there was no intention on the part of the council fathers to declare any doctrine infallibly. Vatican II was unique in that was not called to address any heresies, correct any errors, or declare any anathemas, as the other councils were (which was precisely what made them dogmatic and thus doctrinally infallible).

Anonymous said...

Two comments: (1) Are you quite sure that the prior pronouncements of Popes preceding Vatican II as to the issue of inerrancy were proclaimed under circumstances where the consciences of all the faithful were bound on pain of excommunication? If not, I respectfully submit (see, e.g., Code of Canon Law, Canon 749, sections 1 and 3; see also Catholic Encyclopedia, "Infallibilty" (posted at that the positions taken in said documents are not covered by infallibility. (2) Do please resolve as honestly as possible the crux (a) of the divergence between the Matthean and the Lucan genealogy, as also that (b) of the time-of-crucifixion in Mark 15: 25 v. the time of the proceedings at the Lithostrotos in John 19: 14. - David peccator

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