“Did it really happen this way?” “How can that be in the Bible?” These questions rang loudly in my mind when I began attending my first FOCUS Bible study as a student. I suspect that if you have ever attended a Bible Study or have been keeping up with Fr Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year, you may have wrestled with these kinds of questions yourself, especially as you encountered passages that are difficult to reconcile with our modern scientific worldview. When I began leading my own Bible Studies as a FOCUS missionary, I remember getting the sense that this was often a question at the back of students’ minds. “Did this really happen?” is one of those questions that we are often afraid to ask for fear of seeming unfaithful or unbelieving.
Yet we should not be afraid to ask. The Church’s biblical theology is robust enough to handle our questions. At the heart of this difficulty is the Church’s doctrine of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. It is impossible to examine this doctrine in full in a blog post, but I will offer a principle that has been incredibly helpful for me in thinking through what the Church means by the Bible’s infallibility.
Infallibility and Inerrancy: The Church’s Teaching
It is helpful to quote in full the Church’s articulation of this teaching in the Second Vatican Council. Dei Verbum states: “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 to put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” (Dei Verbum 11).
Let’s break down the quote into two main points and treat each individually:
- Because the words asserted in Scripture are the words asserted by the Holy Spirit, they must be true since God does not lie.
- Therefore, we must learn to discern that truth which God wants to communicate.
From this we can see that the Bible’s infallibility rests on the doctrine of divine inspiration. But how exactly are the words of the human author the words of the Holy Spirit?
Divine Inspiration: Words asserted by the Holy Spirit
An analogy might be helpful here. In Islam, the Qur’an is believed to be the verbatim word of God that Muhammed received through direct revelation and faithfully passed on to his followers. This is why any translation of the Qur’an into a language other than Arabic cannot be considered the Qur’an itself but rather “the interpretation of the Qur’an.” This is also why reciting the Qur’an in Arabic is an act of supreme devotion for a Muslim — in doing so, the believer is reciting God’s own words.
While the devout Muslim’s respect and devotion for his scriptures can be inspiring for us Catholics, this is not how the Church understands revelation to work in the Bible. Rather, as we do for all things, we look to Jesus himself to understand how divine revelation functions in Scripture. It is in the person of Jesus that we come to see how the Father communicates with His children most fully.
The Incarnation and Scripture
Dei Verbum puts it neatly: “The words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when He took Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (Dei Verbum 11). With this striking analogy the Church is asking us to think of the Bible’s divine inspiration in light of the mystery of the incarnation. That is, just as the Word in his very person is fully divine and fully human, so also are the words as they are found in Scripture fully divine and also fully human.
This is what I like to think of as “the principle of the incarnation,” and it is this principle that has been most helpful for me in thinking about the inerrancy of Scripture. Just as Jesus, in assuming human flesh, looked like a 1st Century Palestinian Jew in skin, eye and hair color, clothing etc. so also it should come as no surprise to us if our biblical texts look much like other contemporary texts from the Ancient World, both in their beauty and also their difficulties.
But this means that we must learn how to listen to Scripture and to discern carefully that truth which God proposes through its words. What are some practical ways we can do this?
Discerning God’s message in Scripture
When we encounter passages that we find are difficult to reconcile either to a scientific perspective or even to other biblical passages, we must pause and discern what is the truth that God desires to communicate to us in that difficult passage. Origen, a prolific and influential early Christian theologian, once wrote that God sometimes places “stumbling blocks” within the Scripture precisely so that we stop, dig deeper and discern His voice more carefully.
To sharpen our ear to God’s voice we can turn to the Church’s rich tradition of interpretation. She understands that God speaks in different ways throughout Scripture (CCC 116-7). As such, she teaches that there are four senses to Scripture:
- The Literal Sense: This sense discerns what is the meaning of the words we find in the text. For this, we use all our linguistic, literary, historical, and archeological knowledge to guide our exegesis.
- The Allegorical Sense: The sense teaches us to perceive the meaning of the passage in light of Christ. For example, we can understand God’s promise to David of an eternal kingship in 2 Sam 7 in Jesus’ kingship as proclaimed by the Gospel.
- The Moral Sense: The main question guiding our interpretation in this sense is is this passage teaching to act in a certain way? To avoid a certain evil? We can read the story of David’s failure with Bathsheba in 2 Sam 11 in this way. How is David’s failure and contrition instructive for us?
- The Anagogical Sense: Here we look for what the passage is teaching us about our eternal destiny. As an example, when we see prophecies concerning Zion and Jerusalem in the Old Testament, we can understand some of them to also point to the Heavenly Jerusalem, where we will dwell with God (see Rev 21).
We can see, therefore, that we ought to discern the truth of Scripture through the sense (or senses) in which God is speaking in that particular passage.
At the same time, this does not mean that we can untether Scripture from the historical events it seeks to witness to. Although God may be desiring moral instruction through a particular passage, Scripture is grounded in a real historical encounter with God. Yet Scripture narrates this history in the way it was conveyed in its own historical context. This is where the “incarnational principle” is helpful: when we consider questions of history, we cannot look to the biblical text to report historical information as we would expect today in a history textbook. This would be akin to expecting Jesus to speak Spanish in the Gospels. Rather, it is our responsibility to understand Scripture’s historical witness in the register with which it sought to speak. This means, for example, that sometimes thematic, theological and literary concerns are more important for the biblical author than chronology or photorealistic description. It is only from within the biblical world that we can hear what it is that the Bible wants to tell us.
To close, it is significant that the Church invites us to “discern” the truth of Scripture. Discernment is always done in relationship with God. This means that, at the end of the day, a faithful understanding of Scripture is achieved only in prayer. Through her teaching on the infallibility of Scripture the Church does not intend to “wall-in” our intellect, but rather to offer a bridge to a deeper and well discerned divine intimacy. Perhaps the question, “did it really happen this way?” is not the right question to ask at the end of the day. All history is an exercise in trust, especially ancient history. We might ask instead, “What are God and Scripture’s human author saying in this passage?”