Catholic Teaching on the Truth of Scripture

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Is the Bible true? Just about everyone asks that question, and different people give different answers to it. For example, fundamentalists claim that every single word of the Bible is literally true, while many on the other end of the theological spectrum argue that at best, it contains mythical stories that teach some true principles. And between these two extremes lie a whole host of other positions as well. So where should we Catholics stand on this issue? What does our Church say about the truth of Scripture?

We fall somewhere in the middle. The Church recognizes that not everything in the Bible is literally true, but she also teaches that we cannot reduce everything in it to mere myth. Now, there is some confusion out there over what the Church currently says about this question, so to really understand the Catholic position on the truth of Scripture, we have to examine carefully what the Magisterium says about it. To do that, let’s look at Vatican II’s document on divine revelation, Dei Verbum, and see where exactly the Church stands on this important issue.

The Controversy

Dei Verbum is a relatively short document, and its teaching on the truth of Scripture comes in one famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) passage:

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 for the sake of salvation. (DV 11)

Unfortunately, the wording here is ambiguous, allowing for two different interpretations. First, we can take it to mean that Scripture is without error only when it teaches “that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of salvation” but that it can be wrong in other matters (such as science and history). In other words, this interpretation takes the phrase “for the sake of salvation” to be a limit on what is free from error in the Bible. On the other hand, we can also take these words to mean that everything in Scripture is true and that all of it is “for the sake of salvation.” On this understanding, the key phrase is simply a description of the contents of Scripture, so it doesn’t imply any limit on its truth.

Following the Clues

So how can we know which interpretation is correct? If we read the text closely, one interpretation does in fact stand out as clearly true, and we can see this in two ways. First, let’s look at the logic of the passage. The text starts off by saying that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.” What conclusion logically follows from that? Does it follow that what is relevant for our salvation must be free from error but other statements do not have to be? No, it doesn’t. Rather, since the text says that everything the human authors assert is asserted by God, it follows that everything the human authors assert is therefore free from error. Otherwise, the text would be saying that God lies or makes mistakes, but we know he does not. Consequently, just by following the logic of the text, we can see that it has to be teaching that everything Scripture asserts is true.

Secondly, this passage has a footnote that helps to explain its teaching. This footnote cites numerous sources, and when we look them up, we find something very telling: none of them says that the Bible can be mistaken in areas that aren’t relevant for our salvation. It cites the Church Fathers, St Thomas Aquinas, and previous magisterial documents, but not a single one of them supports the interpretation that De Verbum is limiting the truth of Scripture to those things that deal with our salvation.

The Footnotes

So let’s take a look at some of those sources. There are a lot of them, so we cannot go through every single one, but we can examine some of the more pertinent ones:

For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error…I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error. (St. Augustine, Letter 82, 3)

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….It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error. (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissiumus Deus, 20-21)

Finally it is absolutely wrong and forbidden “either to narrow inspiration to certain passages of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred,” since divine 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 constant faith of the Church.” (Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 3)

These sources are all very clear: Everything the Bible teaches is true. Period. We cannot limit the truth of Scripture to certain passages or to certain subjects. As a result, we have to take the phrase “for the sake of salvation” in Dei Verbum as a description of the contents of Scripture; it merely explains why God wanted the Bible written.

Nuancing Our Understanding

However, this doesn’t mean that we side with the fundamentalists and say that everything in the Bible is literally true. No, we have to nuance our understanding of the truth of Scripture. The key here is that the Church’s teaching flows from the fact that everything asserted by the human authors is also asserted by God. This means that whatever the human authors affirm as true is without error, but they didn’t intend everything they said to be taken literally.

For example, when they used metaphors, they did not intend us to take their words literally any more than I want to be taken literally if I say I am so hungry I could eat a horse. Of course I could never literally eat a whole horse in one sitting, but that’s not what I am actually asserting. That is not what I am intending to affirm as true. Similarly, the biblical authors sometimes say things that are not supposed to be taken literally. Now, metaphors are the easiest cases to which to apply this principle, but there are others as well. For example, we also need to take into account the genres of the various biblical texts. Some genres, like song and poetry, are not meant to convey literal truths all the time, so when certain passages in the Bible uses those genres (the psalms, for instance, are nothing but songs and poetry), we should not take everything they say literally. We can see this nuance in another source that De Verbum cites:

It is also frequently asked what our belief must be about the form and shape of heaven according to Sacred Scripture.  Many scholars engage on lengthy discussions on these matters, but the sacred writers with their deeper wisdom have omitted them…Hence, I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation. (St. Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 2, Chapter 9, no, 20)

In this text, St. Augustine is applying this general principle to specific passages. He is saying that the creation stories in Genesis are not intended to teach about science; they are not supposed to teach the literal truth of how exactly the universe came to be. For example, we can’t fault these stories for saying, for example, that the world was created in seven days when we know it was not. Consequently, we do not need to take every story in the Bible literally in order to believe that it is without error. All we need to believe is what the human authors of Scripture asserted, the meaning they intended to convey to their readers.

The Truth of Scripture

From all this, we can see clearly where our Church stands on the question of the truth of Scripture. She agrees neither with the fundamentalists who take everything in it literally nor with the secularists who try to demythologize it all. Instead, with typical Catholic nuance, she occupies a middle ground between those two extremes, teaching that everything the biblical authors assert is true while also recognizing that not everything they say is supposed to be taken literally.

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