In my previous post, I explored the revision process and debate that led to the final wording of Dei Verbum (DV) 11, which says 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.”[1] Now I will answer the question: how exactly should we interpret this passage today? There are a few options.

Total inerrancy: no change in teaching

You can argue that DV means the same thing Pius XII meant, namely, that the Bible is free of all error, even on historical details that have nothing to do with salvation. This interpretation minimizes the significance of the phrase “for the sake of our salvation,” saying that it only refers to the nature of the Bible in general. The reasoning goes like this: the Bible teaches all kinds of truth without error. The reason it does this is because God wanted us to learn the truth in order to save us. It’s not a limitation of what kinds of truth the Bible may contain, but only an explanation of why the Bible is inerrant. Nothing in DV contradicts this.

This is the view of those who want to minimize—or even deny the existence of—any “ruptures” or “discontinuities” between what Vatican II says and what earlier popes said.[2] Their best argument is to cite footnote 5 in DV 11, which refers back to PD and DAS. According to them, this proves that DV, despite the new phrasing, should be reduced back to DAS.

A weakness of this position is that it has a hard time credibly explaining the various historical errors that are in fact in the Bible. The neo-scholastic position was that the mistaken statements were intended non-literally. Thus, for example, when the Book of Daniel says that Nebuchadnezzar was the father of Belshazzar (5:2)—his father was actually Nabonidus—it was somehow meant metaphorically. This example was used because it is neat, straightforward, and (in their view) plausible. Other historical claims are harder to explain, such as the supposed empire-wide census under Quirinius in Luke 2:1-2.[3]

A more serious danger, in my opinion, is that the total inerrancy position tends strongly toward fundamentalism. Rather than interpreting the factual errors in the Bible “metaphorically,” the temptation is just to declare the Bible infallible and reject or ignore anything that contradicts it. Almost inevitably, modern science is discarded. This mindset leads to the attitude that secular knowledge is wrong, and learning it will destroy your faith! This attitude is anti-rational, sectarian, and contrary to the goal of theology, which is faith seeking understanding.

Worse still, the mindset can lead people to a spiral of anxiety about every little detail that happens to be in Scripture. Some become consumed with trying to find explanations for every apparent mistake, no matter how obscure. Whole books are devoted to the topic. They devote their energy to ingenious apologetics and intellectual gymnastics, which are too clever by half, when their time would be better spent actually studying the message of the Bible. The entire mentality, in my opinion, makes an idol out of the Bible at the expense of reading it to understand what it is trying to teach us about God and salvation.

Limited inerrancy: St. John Henry Newman and “passing remarks”

The alternative to this, which DV seems to suggest, is that inerrancy is limited only to things pertaining to salvation. There may be mistakes and inaccuracies on things that have nothing to do with salvation. Though inspired by God, it was actually written by human beings, not God. These authors wrote from particular socio-historical contexts.[4] As a result, it contains many statements of a historical nature that have no salvific content in themselves and so need not be inerrant.

This was the view of St. John Henry Newman, who called such statements “obiter dicta,” which is a Latin juridical term that means “said in passing,” as in, passing remarks that are not germane to the argument. Here is how Newman explained it:

“Being inspired because written by inspired men, [the Scriptures] have a human side, which manifests itself in language, style, tone of thought, character, intellectual peculiarities, and such infirmities, not sinful, as belong to our nature, and which in unimportant matters may issue in what in doctrinal definitions is called an obiter dictum.” (§30)

Such passing remarks, according to Newman, do not relate to faith and morals, and therefore “may without violence be referred to the human element in [Scripture’s] composition” (§34). This does not mean such remarks are meaningless or that they should be excised from the text, for they could hold some literary meaning. It only means that, considered in isolation as merely historical data, they are not germane to the salvific message. Often called the “absent father of Vatican II” (absent because he died 72 years before it began), the wording of DV recalls Newman’s position. The theologians who wrote it knew and positively appreciated his views.[5]

When Pope Leo XIII said in 1893 that limited inerrancy “cannot be tolerated” (Providentissimus Deus 20), it was understood that he had the recently-deceased Cardinal Newman in mind. Fifty years later, Pius XII renewed this, explicitly naming “obiter dicta” but not Newman himself (Divino Afflante Spiritu 1). Vatican II and the post-conciliar popes have brought about many theological and liturgical developments. Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman on October 13, 2019, and it seems likely that a future pope will declare Newman a Doctor of the Church. If that were to happen, it would mean that he had been judged as useful for the whole Church. Given Newman’s canonization and prominent influence on the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, I think his views deserve serious re-consideration.

In fact, DV 11 is widely understood to mean some kind of limited inerrancy; it is the de facto default position of most Catholic theologians and even bishops. In 2005, for example, the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, together with the bishops’ conference of Scotland, interpreted DV 11 as follows:

It is important to note this teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the truth of Scripture is to be found in all that is written down ‘for the sake of our salvation’. We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters. We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision.[6]

The two bishops conferences specifically labeled this a “teaching document,” meaning that it exercised the ordinary magisterium of the bishops of those countries.[7] The same position was taken in the working document (Instrumentum Laboris) of the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. It is even stronger:

The following can be said with certainty: […] with regards to what might be inspired in the many parts of Sacred Scripture, inerrancy applies only to “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV 11).

There must have been some disagreement about this among the bishops, however, because in their final propositions (#12), they asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to clarify the matter. Following this, Benedict XVI, in his 2010 apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, quoted DV 11 and then added:

One must acknowledge the need today for a fuller and more adequate study of these realities [inspiration and truth], in order better to respond to the need to interpret the sacred texts in accordance with their nature. Here I would express my fervent hope that research in this field will progress and bear fruit both for biblical science and for the spiritual life of the faithful. (19)

He wisely judged a magisterial intervention inopportune, and instead handed the issue back to biblical and theological researchers.

As for post-conciliar theologians, some version of limited inerrancy is almost universally espoused (outside of traditionalist circles). The two giants of twentieth-century American Catholic biblical scholarship, Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ,[8] and Fr. Raymond Brown, SS,[9] espoused this view.[10] The advantages of limited inerrancy are that it is rational, it has the authority of Newman, it accords best with the final wording of DV, it is more coherent with the view of revelation given in chapter 1 of DV than is total inerrancy (self-revelation, not facts), and it allows Catholic theology to bypass fruitless and self-defeating debates about trivia and minutiae. This is what I tell my students: when you get to the pearly gates, is St. Peter going to give you a pop quiz about who was high priest when David ate the show-bread or who Belshazzar’s father was? No, he’s going to ask you whether, by God’s grace, you performed the works of mercy.

In the next and final part of my analysis of DV 11, I will discuss limited inerrancy as understood by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. The future Pope Benedict XVI served as a peritus (expert theologian) at Vatican II for the German-speaking bishops who helped write Dei Verbum and has written about the subject of truth and error in the Bible.


[1]   My translation of the original Latin, which reads, “Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturae libri veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt.

[2] This is an enormous topic that I cannot address here, but a good starting point is Benedict XVI’s 2005 curial address in which he espoused a “hermeneutic of reform” and “renewal in continuity” that encompasses certain “ruptures” in which the Council really did change some particulars (his example being religious liberty) on the basis of deeper doctrinal principles. The continuity lies in these deeper principles. This is also Pope Francis’s view.

[3] Joseph Fitzmyer gives a detailed account of this problem in his Anchor Bible translation and commentary: The Gospel according to Luke I-IX (AB 28, 1982).

[4] I will return to this point and its significance for biblical interpretation in my next post.

[5] See Juan Velez Giraldo, “Newman’s Influence on Vatican II’s Constitution Dei Verbum,” Scripta Theologica 51 (2019): 711-40.

[6] The Gift of Scripture: A teaching document of the Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, and of Scotland (2005)

[7] Not the universal magisterium, which would require the explicit approval of the pope or Ecumenical Council.

[8] Quoting DV 11, Fitzmyer writes: “Inerrancy is the quality of all assertions in the Bible that pertain to human salvation. That important phrase saves Catholic interpreters from crass fundamentalism, because it means that the charism of inerrancy does not necessarily grace every statement made with a past tense verb as if it were historically true” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method [2008], 8).

[9] Brown was well aware of the ambiguity of DV 11, but argued that it means: “It is not as if some parts of Scripture teach without error ‘truth for the sake of salvation,’ and other parts do not. Everything in Scripture is inerrant to the extent to which it conforms to the salvific purpose of God” (The Critical Meaning of the Bible [1981], 20).

[10] Theologian Joseph O’Leary gave a robust and polemical defense of it at Durham University shortly before the aforementioned synod of bishops on the Word of God: “Scriptural Inerrancy” (4/20/08).

Image: St. John Henry Newman. Pixabay.

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Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

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