In part 1 of my analysis of the third chapter of the Vatican II document Dei Verbum (DV), I showed how the Church understands the creation of the Bible as a divine-human synergy. God is its Author insofar as he inspired it, but human beings are its “true authors” (DV 11). They actually wrote the words, which are therefore human words. In this second part I will examine the second paragraph of section 11, which tells us that when it comes to salvation, the Bible teaches truth without error.

Is the Bible “inerrant”? The words inerrant and inerrancy are neologisms coined during the largely Protestant contests of the early-19th century about the factual truthfulness of the Bible (as well as occasionally being used to refer to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility).[1] Disputes arose from the new field of biblical archaeology as well as the burgeoning of critical historiography, which called the Bible’s historical reliability into serious question. Insofar as Catholics at the time were more caught up in the codification of the doctrine of papal infallibility (achieved in 1870 at the First Vatican Council), the word inerrancy is principally associated with Protestant fundamentalism.

The original “schema” on the Sources of Revelation,[2] drafted by the pre-conciliar Preparatory Theological Commission in 1960, twice used the word inerrancy. One instance was replaced by “immunity from error” for the version presented to the bishops at the Council. This document, and all the preparatory documents prepared by the Commission, were rejected by a super-majority of bishops, who then enlisted theologians to draft new documents. This was the moment that truly made the Council, as it effectively liberated itself from the neo-scholastic Roman curia and their regressive and self-referential approach to Catholic teaching. Dei Verbum does not use the words inerrant or inerrancy, which have never appeared in any magisterial document.[3]

What does DV say about truth and error in Scripture? Here is the exact wording:

Since everything that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert must be held to have been asserted by the Holy Spirit, it must be confessed that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach the truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be put in writing in Holy Writ. (11)

This teaches a kind of inerrancy, but not the fundamentalist kind, for the nature of “inerrancy” is qualified. What does the Bible teach without error? “The truth.” What truth? “The truth that God, for the sake of our salvation” wanted in it. The phrase “for the sake of our salvation” is the key.

At this point, let us recall the purpose of Scripture. From chapter 1 of DV, we learned that revelation is not an information dump, as if we could be saved by knowing certain facts, which is essentially the heresy of Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge”). Revelation is God’s disclosure of himself and his will for the human race. What is that will? Salvation. To become one with God (even in a certain sense to “become God”). If revelation were a body of knowledge laid out in the Bible (as many Christians take it to be), then it would follow logically that that body would have to be flawless, without error of any kind. After all, if being saved required knowing all the right facts, then salvation would be endangered by even the slightest mistake. But according to DV, revelation is not about information (though it contains information) but salvation. Therefore, immunity from error is necessary only insofar as salvation is concerned. Which is what DV says: the Bible teaches without error the truth revealed by God for the sake of salvation

But what exactly does this salvation-focused understanding of “inerrancy” imply? Does this mean the Bible may contain errors on issues that are unrelated to salvation? At this point it is necessary to acknowledge that this question was debated by the bishops themselves and has been the subject of heated controversy ever since. As in all aspects of Catholic theology, multiple interpretations are possible and permissible. The final wording of DV is by design open to some interpretation. And that is okay. To rightly understand the different possible interpretations, it is necessary to look at the drafting process that DV went through as well as the debates that took place during the Council.

The original schema De fontibus differed radically from DV. It said inspiration “necessarily excludes and repels error in any matter, religious or profane” (12). The word profane encompassed historical statements. When Dei Verbum was first drafted to replace De fontibus, it said something similar, namely that the Bible is “completely free of all error.”[4] This wording was taken more or less from Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu: “freedom from any error whatsoever” (1); “immunity from all error” (38). The third draft changed it to “without any error.” While this is the same assertion, it is less emphatic, as if the document were moving farther and farther away from the original, at least rhetorically.

Cardinal Franz Konig

During the Council Cardinal Franz König, the Archbishop of Vienna, advocated against total inerrancy, famously reading aloud a list of well-known errors in the Bible, such as the locus classicus of Mark 2:26, which mistakes Abiathar for his father Achimelech (2 Sam 8:17). In this he seemed to have the support of the majority, and so the fourth draft of DV was substantially changed, so that it now said the Scriptures “teach saving truth without error.” Far from saying the Bible is free of any error, it now asserted that it was free of error only with respect to “saving truth.” This wording clearly implied that inerrancy was limited and caused a stir among the more conservative bishops, who asked Paul VI to intervene. As a result, the pope had the word saving removed. However, when this was done, the clause “for the sake of our salvation” was added in its place! One hand gives, while the other takes away. Thus, the final, authoritative wording –approved by 99.7% of the assembled bishops[5]– states that the Scriptures “teach without error the truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be put in writing in Holy Writ” (DV 11).

As a historical theologian, I believe magisterial documents should be interpreted within their historical context. I despise attempts to interpret them purely Platonically, as if the words stood apart from history and the men that wrote them in some Ideal realm. What does this drafting and debate process tell us about what DV 11 means? It seems to suggest that the majority of bishops favored some kind of salvation-centric limited inerrancy. However, since the conservative minority went to the pope about this, and he was sympathetic to their concern (which is no surprise, given the view of his predecessor Pius XII), the Council had little choice but to settle for a somewhat-ambiguous compromise.

In my next article, I will evaluate several ways to interpret this contested phrase and what it tells us about how God uses Scripture to reveal himself to us.


[1] See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “inerrancy.”

[2] De fontibus revelationis. Notice the plural. The draft strongly defends the ideas that Tradition and Scripture are two sources and that some truths are found in Tradition only. Both were rejected by Dei Verbum, as I showed in my earlier post on chapter 2. The text has been translated into English with commentary by (my teacher) Fr. Joseph Komonchak.

[3] It can be found in the heading attached to Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus 20 in Denzinger (DS 3291): “De inspiratione et inerrantia s[acrae] Scripturae.” PD itself, however, does not use the word.

[4] These changes are documented in Robert P. Miller, “’For the Sake of Our Salvation’: Interpreting Dei Verbum, Art. 11, Fifty Years Later,” The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning 15, no. 2 (2016): (1-12) 3.

[5] This is the number from the final, ceremonial vote. There were a few more dissenters at the last meaningful vote.

Main Image: The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Testament manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. Most likely originated in Egypt. Also part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P. oxy. 2). By Unknown author – University of Pennsylvania Library [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10717414 

Cardinal Konig image: By The original uploader was Walter Ching at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6067656

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