Sunday, February 03, 2008


In a class on the Pentateuch this week we were given to read a few exerpts from Pope Pius XII's 1950 Encyclical Letter Humani Generis (Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine) touching upon the theory of evolution. His concern regarding said theory in this letter (as is well known) is to state the Church's insistence upon the direct creation of man's soul by God, that is, even if the body evolved [IMHO: not bloody likely], the soul did not, and Her condemnation of polygenism (the notion that we are not all descended from the same original parents).

Never having read this encyclical in full, I set out to do so that afternoon. In the course of which reading, however, my attention was diverted to the topic of Biblical interpretation. Pius XII mentions the Church's teaching on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and refers to Pope Leo XIII's 1893 Encyclical Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Holy Scripture), Pope Benedict XV's 1920 Encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus (On St. Jerome), and Pius XII's own 1943 Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (On Promoting Biblical Studies). Having now read through these also, I offer for your edification a short collection of their statements regarding the inspiration and inerrancy of the sacred writings. Note the frequent recurrence of the word "dictation", anathema to liberal Scripture "scholars".

"For the Sacred Scripture is not like other books. Dictated by the Holy Ghost, it contains things of the deepest importance, which in many instances are most difficult and obscure" (Providentissimus Deus, 5).

"But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred... 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" (Providentissimus Deus, 20).

"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" (Providentissimus Deus, 21).

"You will not find a page in [St. Jerome's] writings which does not show clearly that he, in common with the whole Catholic Church, firmly and consistently held that the Sacred Books - written as they were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - have God for their Author, and as such were delivered to the Church. Thus he asserts that the Books of the Bible were composed at the inspiration, or suggestion, or even at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; even that they were written and edited by Him. Yet he never questions but that the individual authors of these Books worked in full freedom under the Divine afflatus, each of them in accordance with his individual nature and character…" (Spiritus Paraclitus, 8).

"Yet no one can pretend that certain recent writers really adhere to these limitations… Their notion is that only what concerns religion is intended and taught by God in Scripture, and that all the rest - things concerning 'profane knowledge,' the garments in which Divine truth is presented - God merely permits, and even leaves to the individual author's greater or less knowledge…" (Spiritus Paraclitus, 19).

"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'" (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 3).

"For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the Vatican Council's definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters…" (Humani Generis, 22).

Intrigued by the use of the word "dictation", I looked to the Council of Trent and found there also the same word:

"The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent, - lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein, - keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating [Spiritu Sancto dictante], have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand..." (Council of Trent, Session IV, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures, 1546).

Compare all of the above to this famously ambiguous line from Vatican II's Dei Verbum 11:

"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" (Dei Verbum, 11).

Read after, and in light of all that came before it is easy to interpret this in an orthodox manner. Everything in the Bible was written for the sake of our salvation, and it is all entirely free from error. No problem. But, due to the prevalent "magisterialism" (see Boniface's excellent post below on the disappearance of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum) of the Church in the post-VII era, no one reads magisterial pronouncements dated prior to 1962. The reading usually given to Dei Verbum 11 is that the Bible says many things, only some of which are said "for the sake of salvation," and it is only these latter that are divinely protected from error. To this I say, DAS IST QUATSCH! [You see I've learned some important German theological terms over here in Austria].


Jeffrey Pinyan said...

I have read HG and PD and Dei Filius and DAS. They've allowed me to read the later documents (such as DV and Sancta Mater Ecclesiae) in the right light.

What's baffling is that the ITC had this to say in 1993: "The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that ... it refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit."

I've been looking for an explanation of the actual teaching of the Church on the nature of Scripture's inspiration and transmission.

Boniface said...


I have always understood Scriptural dictation to mean that the Holy Spirit inspired everything the authors said, not just in the content or theme of what was written, but in the actual way in which it was communicated. I do not think, however, that this dictation is in the manner of the Muslim verbaitm dictation; ie, Gabriel talks to Muhammad and the sayings are recorded like a secretary recording a memo from her boss.

However, if you read the commentaries on inspiration from such sources as the NAB, they have such a watered down version of it that they end up saying that all that is inspired in the Isrealites'"search for truth" and that the Old Testament is a recording of their inspired search. What the hell does that mean?

I think Anselm has done well in demonstrating that, at least from Trent and I'm sure going back to the Fathers, the nature of the Scriptures has been understood in a way that approaches dictation, although I do not think we have to affirm actual verbatim dictation in all of the Scriptures (though this clearly happened in some cases, as with the prophets).

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Right; when a prophet spoke "Thus says the Lord: '...'", I think we can be certain he was acting as a mouthpiece of God in the most literal sense imaginable. The documents cited above quote, among others, St. Augustine and Pope St. Gregory the Great:

"His members executed what their Head dictated." (Augustine, De consensu Evangel. 1. I, c. 35)

"He wrote it Who dictated it for writing; He wrote it Who inspired its execution." (Greg I., Praef. in Job, n. 2)

But the question of just what "dictation" means when it comes from God is a matter for (orthodox) theologians. St. Augustine tackles this issue in his De consensu Evangelistarum, esp. book II, ch. 21

Anonymous said...

In reading the documents that I mentioned, there was also clear teaching on the full freedom of the human authors. I think is where we can distinguish between a slavish Moslem dictation theory in which the writer is nothing more than a human pen in God's hand, and the Catholic theory of dictation in which God does indeed dictate what is to be written, but in such a way as to preserve the freedom and individual character of the author.

In other words, if you can handle the Catholic position on human cooperation with divine grace, you can handle this. I think they are analogous.

Unlike Protestantism we can understand that when God moves the will, he moves it to act freely. The more God moves the will the freer and more personal is the act of the will. This should allow one to see that the more God dictates to the will of the author what he wants written, the more does the human author write as a fully free and uniquely personal human author.

100% God and still 100% human. But God is the primary author, the men are secondary authors.

St. Jerome, by the way, uses the word dictation constantly as you can see by reading Spiritus Paraclitus.