You may remember that back in 2008 the Holy See held a session of the synod of bishops devoted to the theme “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.” The synod of bishops is a gathering of bishops from around the world, shy of a full ecumenical council, who gather in Rome to reflect on a particular topic and then deliver their recommendations to the pope. In 2008 they were called to reflect on the word of God, as contained in Scripture and Tradition.
Among the topics that they dealt with, at least in brief, was the inerrancy of Scripture. This has been a fractious subject in the last several decades, with many people claiming that Scripture is not, in fact, inerrant or free from error.
This debate has been facilitated by the fact that the Second Vatican Council’s constitution Dei Verbum contains a passage (see section 11) that is ambiguous on the subject. At first glance it might appear to restrict the scope of inerrancy only to truths having to do with our salvation. On other subjects, the Bible might be chocked full of errors.
But a closer reading reveals that it contains principles which would seem to be incompatible with that interpretation. According to Dei Verbum, the human authors of Scripture recorded everything that the Holy Spirit wished them to and no more. Consequently, whatever is asserted by the Scriptures is asserted by the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is omniscient, infallible, and all holy, any assertions made by him are true.
Even if one allows maximal room for non-literal readings of various passages Scripture, it seems that Scripture contains at least some assertions that are not directly related to our salvation—for example, that Andrew was the brother of Peter according to some accepted first century usage of the term “brother.” But if Scripture makes assertions that aren’t directly related to our salvation, and if those are asserted by the Holy Spirit and therefore guaranteed to be true, then one can’t reduce Scripture’s inerrancy to just truths connected with our salvation.
A good bit more about the debate over this passage can be said, but the bottom line is that it is not as clear as it should be and is basically a compromise text worked out at the council between parties on different sides of the debate. (The behind-the-scenes history of it is quite interesting; it’s recorded in then Father Joseph Ratzinger’s contribution to the Vorgrimler commentaries on Vatican II, but these are very hard to come by).
When the 2008 synod of bishops came around, I was quite concerned how this topic would be handled, because while the synod is a function of the magisterium and thus is guided by the Holy Spirit, we do not have a guarantee of its infallibility. Consequently, though human weakness, the synod could conceivably have muddled the waters on this question even further or, God forbid, said something false regarding biblical inerrancy.
I was heartened, therefore, when the final list of propositions they submitted to the pope contained the following:
Inspiration and Truth in the Bible
The synod proposes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarify the concepts of inspiration and truth of the Bible, as well as the relationship between them, so as to better understand the teaching of Dei Verbum 11. In particular, we need to emphasize the originality of the Catholic Biblical hermeneutics in this area.
There were also press accounts at the time suggesting that the answer from the CDF would likely come back along solidly inerrantist lines, acknowledging that Scripture must be understood according to its ancient cultural context and that many things in it are not intended to be read literally, but when it does assert something as a matter of fact, that assertion is true.
So I was relieved. And I’ve been waiting to see what would happen.
Well, the CDF apparently decided, before preparing a potential document of its own, to consult with the Pontifical Biblical Commission. This is a group of biblical scholars that the Holy See appoints to advise the CDF on Bible-related questions. The president of the PBC is the prefect of the CDF (currently Cardinal Joseph Levada), who oversees its operations.
The CDF thus apparently asked the PBC to produce a document reflecting on the “inspiration and truth of the Bible.” This document will presumably inform whatever action the CDF may choose to take in addition.
And so for the last couple of years the PBC has been working on a document dealing with this subject.
So why am I telling you about this now?
Because a few days ago, the following came across the wire from Vatican Information Service:
VATICAN CITY, 14 APR 2011 (VIS) - The Pontifical Biblical Commission will hold its annual plenary session [that is, their big annual meeting where all the members of the commission fly to Rome for a face-to-face] from 2 to 6 May in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (Vatican City), under the presidency of Cardinal William Joseph Levada. Fr. Klemens Stock, S.J., secretary general, shall direct the work of the assembly.
According to a communique issued today, “during the meeting the members will continue their reflections on the theme ‘Inspiration and truth in the Bible’. In the first phase of study the Commission will attempt to examine how the themes of inspiration and truth appear in the Sacred Scriptures. Subsequently, on the basis of their individual competences, each Member shall present a report which shall then be discussed collectively in the Assembly”.
So they’re gearing up for this year’s big session on the topic, and they could use our prayers.
Because the PBC (these days) is an advisory body, it is not part of the magisterium, and its documents do not represent official Church teaching. Nevertheless they are important and influential and if they get botched it can create a worse problem than existed before.
If Vatican II, which was not just an exercise of the magisterium but an extraordinary exercise, and therefore even more under the protection of the Holy Spirit, could produce a problematically worded passage on the subject of inerrancy, how much more are prayers needed for a non-magisterial advisory body.
It may be some time—years even—before we see what the PBC comes up with (if we ever see it), but the issue of biblical inerrancy is an important one.
I therefore invite you to join me in praying that the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the pope are all guided to provide an accurate and clear statement that recognizes both the many human and literary aspects to the Bible but also the fullness of the divine truth that it conveys without error, so that the faith of scholars and the simple alike may be strengthened with regard to the Scripture God gave us through the Holy Spirit.