When we say that biblical inerrancy is “limited,” we need to be careful to define exactly how and in what way it is limited. St. John Henry Newman wrote that the Bible was inspired in “all matters of faith and morals,” which he directly connected to the scope of the infallibility of the Church.[1] Although this is neat- and clean-sounding, it is too narrowly construed. It implies an artificial distinction between history on the one hand and faith and morals on the other. Such a distinction does not hold up to scrutiny. Many central aspects of the Catholic faith are historical in nature. Think, for instance, of the life of Christ: his virgin birth, his miracles, his death by crucifixion, and his bodily resurrection. These are all assertions about things that happened to a particular man in history; they are not metaphors. As such, it is clearly wrong to say that “inerrancy” does not apply to history at all. God’s revelation occurred in history. There are historical assertions in Scripture that all Christians agree are true, such as that Christ died and rose again. To exclude history would result in a completely demythologized Christianity in which God never intervenes in history (in which case we will have left Catholicism far behind). Nor can we entirely exclude science, since revelation touches on it, too. We Catholics believe that God created the universe from nothing “from the beginning of time”[2] and created humanity in his own image (Gen 1:26).[3]

At the same time, limiting the inspiration and truth of Scripture to “faith and morals” is also too broadly construed. There are religious and moral elements in the Bible that Christians do not follow, and in some cases an earlier notion is overturned by an earlier one.[4] This is something the Church has been dealing with since St. Paul, as the New Testament diverges in important respects from the Old Testament, which is just as inspired Scripture as the New. To say flatly that the Bible is “inerrant” on all religious and moral matters would seem to bind the Church to religious and moral ideas that we do not in fact follow. For example, it is well known that slavery is practiced within the Bible, even in the New Testament (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Tim 6:1-2; 1 Pet 2:18), yet the Second Vatican Council taught that it is a “shameful act” that dishonors God (Gaudium et Spes 27), and John Paul II said it is “intrinsically evil” (Veritatis Splendor 80). A more nuanced understanding, taking into account God’s progressive revelation, his “condescension” to human weakness (DV 13), and the development of doctrine (DV 8), is necessary.

Many different approaches are possible within the boundaries of Catholic doctrine, including that of one distinguished theologian: Joseph Ratzinger. At the time he first put his views into writing, he was a peritus (expert theologian) at Vatican II for the German-speaking bishops. He helped write DV. His basic premise for re-thinking the scope of Scripture’s truthfulness was the same as later theologians (such as Frs. Brown and Fitzymer). In a speech he gave to the German bishops on the very eve of the Council, he said:

It is not surprising that according to a practically irrefutable consensus of historians there definitely are mistakes and errors in the Bible in profane matters of no relevance for what Scripture properly intends to affirm.[5]

He cites some of the same examples Cardinal König later cited during the Council. Ratzinger then uses Newman’s phrase (19 years after Pius XII rejected it) “mentioned in passing” (obiter dicta). Then he gives the key explanation of how he understood  inerrancy:

Scripture is and remains inerrant and beyond doubt in everything that it properly intends to affirm, but this is not necessarily so in that which accompanies the affirmation and is not part of it. As a result, [. . .] the inerrancy of Scripture has to be limited to its vere enunciata [what is really affirmed].[6]

Inerrancy is limited, but not simply to “matters of faith and morals.” Rather, it is limited to whatever is “properly” and “really” affirmed in Scripture. This is a much more robust—and potentially fraught—concept.

It is fraught because everyone will ask how we can reliably determine what is “truly” affirmed? Do we get to pick and choose to suit our arbitrary fancy? No. According to Ratzinger, we have to make a careful, informed discernment, not according to our own intentions, but according to the what God’s Word intends to assert. This concept of inerrancy being limited by “intention” was already accepted within pre-conciliar neo-scholastic thought. This is how historical errors could be explained away as having been intended “metaphorically,” and how statements about, for example, the apparent movement of the sun (the Galileo affair) could be accepted as customary ways of speaking that weren’t intended scientifically (see Providentissimus Deus 18). But Ratzinger radically broadened the intentionality principle by tying it to the salvation principle: revelation is God’s self-disclosure given “for the sake of our salvation.” For Ratzinger this means—which DV also says (12)—it is necessary to take into account the totality of all Scripture together with Tradition. If an individual statement found within the Bible is historically inaccurate, but the specific detail is not necessary for salvation (such as the name of the particular high priest at a certain time), it may justly be classified a “passing remark.” As such, according to Ratzinger, it would not be “properly affirmed.”

How does Ratzinger explain this radical shift? He does so by returning to the concept of divine authorship and adding a crucial middle layer between divine Authorship and the numerous individual human authors, who sometimes contradict or even correct each other, or simply make mistakes regarding historical details. This middle layer of authorship is the People of God, which journeys through history in communication with God. Here is how he explains this in the preface to his popular book Jesus of Nazareth (published after he became pope but non-magisterially as the theologian Fr. Joseph Ratzinger):

We get a glimmer, even on the historical level, of what inspiration means: The author does not speak as a private, self-contained subject. He speaks in a living community, that is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, not even by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work. [. . .] The Scriptures emerged from within the heart of a living subject—the pilgrim People of God—and lives within this same subject. One could say that the books of Scripture involve three interacting subjects. First of all, there is the individual author or group of authors to whom we owe a particular scriptural text. But these authors are not autonomous authors in the modern sense; they form part of a collective subject, the “People of God,” from within whose heart and to whom they speak. Hence, this subject is actually the deeper “author” of the Scriptures. And yet likewise, this people does not exist alone; rather, it is led, and spoken to, by God himself, who—through men and their humanity—is at the deepest level the one speaking. The connection with the subject we call “People of God” is vital for Scripture. [. . .] The People of God—the Church—is the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that the words of the Bible are always in the present.[7]

The true and proper scope of inspiration (Ratzinger does not use the word inerrancy, an example we really should follow) is measured by the whole revelation. The individual authors and editors of the Bible do not matter as such but only as the particular parts through which the community of faith spoke with God. In Ratzinger’s estimation, it would be better to call the People of God the “true author” of Scripture. The two authors—God and his people—work in synergy, as God speaks to his Beloved.

With regard to errant “passing remarks,” it does not matter to Ratzinger whether the individual intended it literally or metaphorically; what matters is the intentionality of God and of the People of God to whom he revealed himself. Collectively, the many different—sometimes contradictory—writings from this People form a single Book: the Bible. This process even continues into Tradition, as the Church continues to interpret revelation through the Spirit’s assistance. God still speaks to his Church.[8]

This holistic perspective to biblical interpretation is also presented in DV 12, which says:

To correctly draw out the meaning of the sacred texts, Sacred Scripture must be interpreted through the same Spirit through which it was also written. Therefore, one must no less diligently look at the content and unity of the whole Scripture, while taking into account the Church’s whole living Tradition and the analogy of faith.[9]

This, then, is how we should understand the first part of the sentence in DV 11, when it says that “everything that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert must be held to have been asserted by the Holy Spirit” (DV 11).[10] Scripture’s divine quality (inspiration and truth) is not about the individual, but the totality of revelation as a message of salvation. Incidental remarks unrelated to salvation are beside the point and are not expressions of God’s intention, affirmation, or revelation. The totality must be considered, or the Bible will be shattered into a thousand isolated and contradictory remarks. For Ratzinger, intentionality—understood not as a human individual’s intention but as God’s intention expressed through the totality of Scripture and Tradition—is the bridge between the pre-conciliar and conciliar understanding. He also cites (quite rightly!) the multivalent medieval concept of the four senses of Scripture—literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical (see CCC 118)—as expressing this concept “with remarkable accuracy.”[11] This, then, is where the underlying continuity of doctrine lies. In this way, the re-conceptualized salvation-based understanding of the truth of Scripture is a prime example of how Vatican II developed Catholic doctrine on the basis of fundamental principles and beliefs.

If we wish to interpret the texts of Vatican II historically and not Platonically, as I do, we must take into account the beliefs and ideas of those who wrote it, such as Joseph Ratzinger. Consequently, I believe the contested phrase “for the sake of our salvation” should be understood as a rejection of total inerrancy. We should not, however, limit Scripture’s truthfulness through a facile division between “faith and morals” and “history and science,”as this distinction does not work. Instead, we should affirm that Scripture, being inspired for salvation, teaches the truth without any error in “all assertions that pertain to human salvation,”[12] provided these assertions are understood, not as isolated oracles, but as parts of the totality of the whole canon of Scripture, together with Sacred Tradition (DV 12). And in the last analysis, whenever it becomes necessary, it falls to the Magisterium of the Church both to make biblical interpretations and to clarify the doctrine of inspiration itself: “For all these things about the way to interpret Scripture are ultimately subject to the Church’s judgment” (ibid.)

My discussion has been framed negatively because of how the question is normally asked: “Are there any errors in the Bible?” But I would like to end positively, because that is how DV formulates it. When the Bible tells us about God, about what God has done in history, what God expects of us, and how to be saved, it is completely trustworthy; it teaches us these truths without error. On historical details that have no effect on salvation, such as who was whose father, we do find inaccuracies. It is not true—as fundamentalists claim—that if the Bible is wrong on even the smallest, most insignificant detail, it must also be untrustworthy in every respect. We can distinguish between its salvific content, which is free from all error, and human incidentals. We do this by looking at the big picture, which is God’s salvific self-revelation, as attested to in both Scripture and Tradition.

[1] John Henry Newman, On the Inspiration of Scripture 8.

[2]Simul ab initio temporis utramque de nihilo condidit creaturam, spiritualem et corporalem” (DS 800). My translation of the original Latin.

[3] This does not, however, exclude evolution, as both Pius XII (Humani Generis 36) and John Paul II (Message to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, 10/22/96) have said.

[4] See Brown, Critical Meaning, 16-17, where he uses the example of the afterlife and bodily resurrection. One could also consider the idea that the sins of the father are inherited, which, though found in several places in the Bible (e.g., Exod 20:5—within the Third Commandment no less), is rejected in Deut 24:16; Ezek 18:20; and John 9:2-3. As with historical problems, these are by no means the only examples!

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, On the Schema On the Sources of Revelation: Address to the German-Speaking Bishops (10/10/62), tr. Jared Wicks in “Six Texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as Peritus Before and During Vatican Council II,” Gregorianum 89, no. 2 (2008): (233-311) 280.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (2007), xx-xxi. I slightly abridged this, as indicated by the brackets, purely for brevity’s sake.

[8] For more on Ratzinger’s view, see the third chapter of Fr. Aaron Pidel’s Biblical Inspiration and Inerrancy according to Joseph Ratzinger (STL thesis; Boston College, 2011).

[9]Sed, cum Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit, ad recte sacrorum textuum sensum eruendum, non minus diligenter respiciendum est ad contentum et unitatem totius Scripturae, ratione habita vivae totius Ecclesiae Traditionis et analogiae fidei.” My translation of the original Latin.

[10]Omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto.” My translation of the original Latin.

[11] Ibid., xx.

[12] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ, The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method (2008), 8.

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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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