Sunday, January 08, 2012

FAITH Magazine's definitions of "Inspiration"

In the Diocese of Lansing, we have this magazine called FAITH that gets mailed out for free to the household of every regular Catholic. Though there are some decent elements in FAITH magazine, it often happens that what I read gets my eye twitching; sometimes I have had to take FAITH magazine out to the woodshed (here and here). This month was no surprise. In a section called "Theology 101", the magazine interviews two theologians and asks them to answer "What does the Church mean when it says that the Scriptures are inspired?" Oh boy. (If you want to see the actual source, check out this article from FAITH's website)

The first theologian, a priest from Mundelein Seminary, offers this definition of inspiration:

"The notion of the sacred Scriptures as inspired means that what is in the Scriptures is what God wants to be there, i.e. the Holy Spirit is behind the human words through which God communicates to us. Because of this inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the human words that comprise the Scriptures are trustworthy in regard to both faith and the moral life and contain the revelation of who God is to us, and of who we are in relation to God and to each other."

This definition is not totally deficient, but it gives me pause. In what sense is the Holy Spirit "behind" the words of the Bible? The Holy Spirit could, in the more common sense of the term, 'inspire" me to create a beautiful poem or song. In this common sense of the word inspiration, it could also be said that the Holy Spirit is "behind" the words of my song or poem. But the mere idea that the Holy Spirit is "behind" something does not include the ideas the inerrancy.

Also, this priest's statement that the Scriptures are "trustworthy in regard to both faith and moral life" is also too vague. Trustworthy? The words of Fulton Sheen are trustworthy; heck, the words of Jimmy Akin are generally trustworthy. To use the adjective "trustworthy" in explaining the authority of the Scriptures is vastly deficient, since this can be predicated of any other trustworthy teacher. What needs to be said is that the authorship of the Holy Spirit makes the Bible inerrant and infallible, not simply "trustworthy."

I also hesitate when he says this trustworthiness applies to "both faith and moral life." He seems here to be restricting inerrancy ("trustworthiness") to only those portions of Scripture that have to do with faith and morals, whichever those are! In other words, he appears to be interpreting Dei Verbum 11 in a strict sense, which is not the way the Council intends the document to be interpreted, and not the way Tradition has understood it (see here).

In short, all the answers of this priest are structured in such a way as that it avoids the apparently unpleasant topic of inerrancy. Let's see how the second theologian interviewed explains the concept of inspiration.This second theologian, a lay theologian, also from Mundelein, says:

"The Church has made clear that any ultimate definition of inspiration must consider the very real contributions of both its divine and human authors. Further, the Church has eliminated three inadequate definitions of inspiration because they fail to recognize this balance of divine – human cooperation, namely mechanical dictation, mere assistance and subsequent approbation. Mechanical dictation, often depicted in stained-glass windows as an evangelist writing on a scroll as an angel whispers in his ear, places too much emphasis on God while reducing human cooperation to mere passivity."

Before we go on, we ought to ask ourselves, in what way, and when, has the Church "eliminated" dictation as a way of understanding inspiration? Of course, the theologian offers no evidence to back this up. It is a common theme in modern biblical theology to try to distance oneself from the idea of dictation. Has the Church "eliminated" dictation? I don't think so. Look at the following Magisterial statements:

"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).

"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).

We could also look to the Council of Trent, which did not shrink from utilizing the word dictation:

"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).

Clearly, the Church has not "eliminated" dictation. On the other hand, it seems that Tradition actually favors this interpretation of inspiration. I understand that it was not FAITH magazine but the theologians from Mundelein who gave these answers, but FAITH ought to have known better than to publish these inadequate and misleading statements.

It may be objected that the popes and Council of Trent support dictation, but not "mechanical dictation," and this is the phrase the theologian initially uses. Of course, if by "mechanical dictation" the theologian means a sort of inspiration that completely denies the human element (in other words, denies that the Scriptures can truly be said to have human authors), then I would also reject this definition as inadequate. But is this what this theologian means?

The theologian explains dictation by equating it with a very traditional image. Dictation is "often depicted in stained-glass windows as an evangelist writing on a scroll as an angel whispers in his ear." In other words, this theologian sees mechanical dictation as that form of dictation that is traditionally depicted; in other words, the Church's traditional understanding of dictation. Thus, while I do acknowledge that there is the potential for "mechanical dictation" to be something different from simple dictation, the fact that the theologian cites the traditional image of the inspired evangelist receiving the Gospel from the whispering of an angel as an example of mechanical dictation, I can only assume that "mechanical dictation" is the same thing as "dictation", as it is used in the passages above cited.

By the way, if you are wondering what answer the second theologian finally did give to what constitutes inspiration, here is what she offered:

"[A] believing community passes down traditions that capture faithfully their experience of God, and that subsequent generations also experience these as compelling and pass them on until eventually the traditions reach the written form that we now call sacred Scripture."

The emphasis is laid on the experience of the community rather than on the actual, historical revelation of God to an individual person. This is cited as the idea behind the "process" of inspiration, but again, this definition totally leaves out the concept of inerrancy.

I don't know what more to say, except to restate my earlier opinion that this magazine has the nutritional value of styrofoam.


Joseph Bolin said...

It looks to me like the second theologian (Elizabeth Nagel?) is not intending to give a positive definition of inspiration, but seems to hold that the Church is still in the process of rethinking what inspiration means, and her comment is not aimed at defining inspiration (it obviously isn't a definition, at any rate), but just at saying something about some reflections by "the Church" (through the Pontifical Biblical Commission).

Regarding Fr. Schoenstene's rejection of "mechanical dictation", you don't make any mention of the "mechanical" there, a term which is also not used in any of the texts you cite. It seems that what he is saying the Church has rejected is the position that the person who wrote Scripture down is no more its true author than, for example, the scribe who write down Paul's words is the author of Paul's epistles. The Church has indeed rejected this position by teaching that while God is a true and the primary author of Scripture, the human author is also a true author. This cannot be said of a scribe, that he is a true author of the text.

Boniface said...

Thank you for these distinctions. The author did not make any distinction between "mechanical dictation" and "dictation", so neither did I. By her attribution of "mechanical dictation" to the traditional depiction of an evangelist with an angel whispering in his ear, I can only assume that what she meant by "mechanical dictation" was what the Church has traditionally understood by dictation.

Boniface said...

I have modified the post to address your points.

Anonymous said...

I often try to avoid the term "modernism" because it has become too broad, but it does seem to me that the last quote is properly an example of modernism in the specific sense in which it was explained and opposed by Pope St Pius X-- that is to say, theology that reduces all religion to "spiritual experience" and the external forms of religion to the broad socialization and cultural expressions of these basic experiences. I do not like to throw the term around too wildly, but, at least based on the small piece you have shared here, this is a proper example of modernism (as opposed to rationalism, atheism, secularism, and anything else that might generally be condemned under the blanket term of modernism).

Boniface said...

You know, I thought the same thing about the term modernism...but this quote does seem to be in line with St. Pius X's idea.

Tony W. said...

We need not, I think, be too averse from calling the definition of the second theologian modernist. In fact, it seems to be a text-book example of how they understand doctrine - rather than inspiration. For the modernist, doctrine is the intellectual expression of an individual or group's experience of God's pervasive presence (as posited in immanentism), rather than a body of truths which are true independently of the experiences of any individual or group. One of many unhappy corollaries of this view, it would seem, is that Christ is both the son of God and is not, for if the 'son-of-God tradition' of Catholicism did not 'faithfully capture' the early Church's 'experience of God' it would not have been passed on as a tradition; and the same would have happened if subsequent generations had not 'experienced it as compelling'. I don't know about about the nutritional value of this magazine's being equal to styrofoam; I rather suspect that such publications are like small but regular doses of poison.