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What is Biblical inerrancy?

Challenges to the Catholic faith are common in every age. The 21st century testifies to skepticism on the veracity of the sacred Scriptures. This is the subject of the inerrancy of the Bible. Admittedly, this is a detailed and complex topic. A brief article, making limited use of Scripture, tradition and the magisterium (the church’s teaching authority), can only cover some highlights.  

At the outset, here is a key point: biblical inerrancy is linked to biblical inspiration. The popular Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament comes to our aid: “The principle of biblical inerrancy follows logically from this principle of divine authorship. After all, God cannot lie, and he cannot make mistakes. Since the Bible is divinely inspired, it must be without error in everything that its divine and human authors affirm to be true.” Thus, inerrancy is a consequence or effect of inspiration. The classic passages on inspiration are 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which focuses on divine authorship, and 2 Peter 1:20-21, which emphasizes the human authors. Consider also the implicit endorsement of inerrancy in John 10:35, which should be read in context (Jn 10:22-39).

With that groundwork, we may move to inerrancy in the proper sense. One more extract from the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament: “The guarantee of inerrancy does not mean, however, that the Bible is an all-purpose encyclopedia of information covering every field of study. The Bible is not, for example, a textbook in the empirical sciences, and it should not be treated as one. When biblical authors relate facts of the natural order, we can be sure they are speaking in a purely descriptive and ‘phenomenological’ way, according to the way things appeared to their senses.” This statement makes plain some necessary qualifications, which allude to the formal specification of Scripture (i.e., it is given for the sake of our salvation). 

Another fine point, on the matter of biblical interpretation, will throw light on inerrancy. When reading God’s Word, one must be aware of its wide variety of literary “genres” or patterns. These may be historical accounts, legislative codes, wisdom sayings, prophetical utterances, poetical sections, hymns and doxologies, apocalyptic writings, and others. Some books, such as Daniel and Revelation, have a number of genres throughout their chapters. One cannot view each genre with a crass literalism.

Moving forward, tradition, especially from among the Church Fathers, has given a great amount of attention to inerrancy. St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) is a typical witness: “To the books of Scripture I have learned to pay such reverence and honor as most firmly to believe that none of their authors committed any error in writing. If in that literature I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I will have no doubt that it is only  the manuscript which is faulty, or that the translator has not hit the sense, or that I have failed to understand it” (Epistle 82.3; A.D. 405). This doctor of the church makes three observations. Firstly, copyist errors are possible (especially among hand-written documents). Secondly, there may be a problem in rendering the text from one language to another, or misinterpretation. Thirdly, the reader has not comprehended properly the sacred page (stressing the humility that must permeate the student of God’s Word). Additional citations may be found in Father William Jurgens’ “The Faith of the Early Fathers” and Father John Willis’ “The Teachings of the Church Fathers.”  

Finally, both inspiration and inerrancy have been addressed by the magisterium of the Catholic Church. The teachings have come down from the ordinary (i.e., universal) level, such as papal encyclicals, and the extraordinary (i.e., solemn) level, such as ecumenical councils. One encyclical is Pope Benedict XV’s “Spiritus Paraclitus” (1920), and one council is the First Vatican Council’s “Dei Filius” (1870). One may consult the relevant ecclesiastical documents, up to our time, in Father Dean Bechard’s “The Scripture Documents” and Father Dennis Murphy’s “The Church and the Bible.”    

In closing, one notes that inerrancy is a rich area that requires careful study and analysis. This is not “death by a thousand qualifications,” but an approach to an intricate part of biblical studies. Such clarifications enable a popular work on the Bible from Cardinal P. Taguchi to insist: “Inerrancy means that the sacred books are totally free from error in all their statements” (“The Study of Sacred Scripture”). Put simply, holy Scripture, when properly understood, is free from all error. For those interested in specific difficulties and solutions, consider Dr. Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and Trent Horn’s “Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties.”

Ciresi is a faculty member of the Christendom Graduate School of Theology and directs the St. Jerome Biblical Guild.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020