Tuesday, July 05, 2011

'Nouvelle' Exegesis: A Neo-Conservative Interpretation of Biblical Inerrancy


The Problem.  Some neo-conservative Catholic biblical scholars (nouvelle theologie exegetes), such as Andrew Minto from Franciscan University of Steubenville, are using the techniques of ressourcement to re-interpret the dogma of the inerrancy of Scripture.  

As is well known, they are interested in a 'dynamic orthodoxy', an orthodoxy that affirms (at least verbally) the traditional dogmatic formulae of our faith, but one according to which the understanding of those formulae is--according to their post-conciliar rhetoric--'continuously being renewed' (i.e., evolving), or 'understood anew in every age' (i.e., reinterpreted), in order to 'meet the demands of the times' (i.e., accomodate modern trends of thought).  In plain English, they accept the traditional words of our dogmas, but reject their traditional meaning.

So what is their novel interpretation of inerrancy?  They now take that dogma as meaning, not that the Bible is free from all falsehood (or false statements), but merely that it is free from intentional deceit.  To do this, they re-interpret the meaning of 'error', to include only intentional, false affirmations and to exclude unintentional errors.  In other words, they narrow down the meaning of “error” to “deceit,” such that “inerrancy” means “lack of deceit” and not “absence of false affirmations.”  They then conclude that the Bible can contain false statements--not only historical and 'scientific' falsehoods, but even moral and doctrinal falsehoods--but that this does not take away its inerrancy because those false statements are not 'errors' in the sense of deceitful statements.  They are unintentional falsehoods.  This novel interpretation ultimately allows them to cede to the peer-pressure of (faithless) historical-critical scholars who have supposedly found hundreds or even thousands of errors in Scripture--without thereby becoming heretics (at least in their minds).  And, what is perhaps most insulting: as is so typical of the ressourcement movement, these scholars even cite the teachings of the Magisterium and of the Church Fathers, in particular St. Augustine, in their favor.

The Truth of the Matter.  This is a grossly heterodox interpretation of the dogma of inerrancy.  This interpretation contradicts, not only the consensus of Fathers and approved Theologians (which of itself is authoritative) and the explicit teaching of the Magisterium, but also sound reasoning. 

In particular, it is a gross misinterpretation of the Church Fathers and of the Magisterium to say that they believed in the ‘inerrancy’ of Scripture only in the sense of lack of deceit, but not in the sense of an absence of false affirmations. Indeed, the Fathers of the Church argued that there are no errors in Scripture because God cannot be deceitful, but they also believed that Scripture lacked any false affirmations. In fact, given of the nature of God, the divine attribute of God's veracity, inerrancy follows necessarily from lack of deceit. 

For St. Augustine, for instance, there is no possibility of any error in Scripture (in particular a merely unintentional error), because he, like all the Fathers, were aware that the Scriptures have an all-knowing God as their primary author, and thus any error on the part of the human author (whether intentional or unintentional) would entail deceit on the part of God. In other words, there is nothing unintentional in Scripture, because God willed all of it. St. Augustine clearly understands the inerrancy of Scripture as meaning that there is nothing contrary to truth in Scripture. Hence, to claim that St. Augustine admits there are errors in Scripture is to misunderstand his words. 

He writes to St. Jerome: 

“On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand...” (Epistle 82.1: ‘Et crebrius alibi’). 

But this is not the teaching of St. Augustine alone. Pope Leo XIII (Providentissimus Deus 21) says that these “words of St. Augustine to St. Jerome may sum up what [the Fathers] taught.”  

Indeed, let us learn from the Church what exactly the mind of the Fathers on this matter is. Pope Leo (ibid.; DS 1952 [3293]) continues:

And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they labored earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance—the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the "higher criticism;" for they were unanimous in laying it down, that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the inspiration of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true.” (Emphasis added.)

Recommendations.  For an excellent site dedicated to defending the dogma (and the traditional understanding) of the inerrancy of Scripture, visit the Saint Jerome Biblical Guild.   You will find there lots of nice resources and reading suggestions.  Also Salvatore J. Ciresi, the guild's founder and director, publishes a periodical newsletter which you can receive via email for free.

Another great site for learning sound biblical teaching is the Roman Theological Forum.  It provides many articles regarding theological and polemical issues.  Although I cannot recommend all the articles, the articles on biblical matters are quite good.



Michael Sirilla said...

Don Paco, Would you be so kind as to substantiate your claims regarding Andrew Minto with some kind of evidence? Please know that I am not doubting you and this is not an antagonistic post. I'm genuinely curious. Has he written or recorded the position you claim he holds? Would you provide us with a link or a document or something of that nature?

Thanks so much,
Mike Sirilla

Matthew said...

Do you have a citation for where Dr. Minto has argued for such things?

MaestroJMC said...

Don Paco,

I have no disagreement with anything you have said here. But I'd like to know, how would you counter the objections which point to the apparent contradictions within the Gospels? If there are indeed contradictions between different accounts, however small and unimportant they are, does it follow that one of the accounts must be in error? Or could be shown that in fact these apparent contradicts are just that: merely apparent?

Thanks in advance.

Don Paco said...

Dear AMDG and Matthew: Andrew Minto has argued thus in one of his graduate theology courses. The course title is "Biblical Foundations." This course was recorded, I believe, in 2005. You can purchase it from the Franciscan University website, under "distance learning."

I'm still trying to figure out what are his sources for this claim, if any.

Maestro: the way you deal with those apparent contradictions is indicated in the St. Augustine quote above. St. Augustine also does the job of harmonizing these apparent contradictions, at least those in the gospels, in his work, The Harmony of the Gospels:


A modern, Catholic attempt at a chronological harmony of the Gospels, I heartily recommend Hartdegen, OFM:


felapton said...

Could You please comment on the PBC statement contained in the document 'Interpretation of the Bible in the Church' regarding the 'fundamentalist interpretation' - does it refer here to the traditional notion of inspiration?

,,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. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations.

Fundamentalism also places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth. It often historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense, failing to take the necessary account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning.''


Don Paco said...


Well, I certainly hope it does not mean the traditional understanding of the dogma. I had wondered that myself. If it meant that, it would mean a glaring rupture with the tradition. It has to mean a more Protestant approach, one which pays no attention to the human element in Scripture, which practically speaking means a disregard for the differences in literary genre, for example, but which takes everything face-value, according as the individual believer may interpret it (that day).

But I don't think that acknowledging the human element in Scripture entails admitting that there are errors. It is perfectly possible (indeed, it is a divinely-revealed fact) that Scripture has a human element or aspect without thereby possessing any errors or any kind. This is analogously true in Christ, who is truly human, and yet committed no sin.

This is, in fact, what modern Biblical scholars like to call the "Christological analogy"--which they then go on to criticize.

Which brings me back to Minto. He draws his novel notion of inerrancy from this Christological analogy. The traditional understanding of the analogy is that, just as Christ--the Word of God--is truly human, yet sinless, so Scripture--the Word of God--is truly human, yet sinless. But Minto says that the analogy has been misunderstood. From the fact that Christ is human, and nonetheless free from sin we should not conclude that Scripture is free from error, but free form sin, or deceit.

Don Paco said...

NB. Also that the document derides the idea that God has "dictated" Scripture. But this is the exact expression used by the dogmatic definition of the Council of Trent (Session IV, Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures):

"It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves,[3] the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand."

Pope Leo XII in Providentissimus Deus (no. 20) also uses the language of "dictation":

"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 Spirit."

To give credit to Minto, he thinks it is problematic to reject the language of "dictation" as "fundamentalist." He thinks that "dictation" and "inspiration" are equally useful metaphors, each of which has its own advantages over the other. I tend to concur with this point, and think that both are metaphors for the reality of God being the "primary author" of Scripture--this latter language not being metaphorical, but analogical. But I have to think it through more...

Anonymous said...

I believe it is helpful also to understand that the reports of the Pontifical Biblical Commission do not carry with it the weight of the teaching of the Magisterium, that is, they do not officially speak for the Magisterium rather the commission is more of an advisory board made up of various biblical experts. Under Pope Paul VI things were moved around to such an extent that while the commission before around 1964 was an official organ of the Holy See, the commission after the reordering is NOT and official organ of the Holy See.

In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,


Quanah said...

I think it is important to keep in mind that the PBC's IBC did not simply say "dictated," but says "dictated word for word." I believe that their inclusion of "word for word" was very intentional and that they were right to do so. One does not need to affirm a word for word dictation in order to affirm that everything the Spirit wanted written was written and nothing He did not was not. This is an area where we are faced in a beautiful way with the reality of the mystery of the interaction between the Divine and human of which the IBC speaks. A good example of the human component of Scripture is the stylistic differences between the four Gospels. Different people write in in different ways with different writing styles. So too with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If we interpret dictation as being strictly word for word than the stylistic differences (that human characteristic) of each Gospel could not be attributed to the human authors, but only to the Holy Spirit. As such the human authors would be nothing more than typewriters.

In Christ through Mary

Don Paco said...

Dear Quanna,

I agree with the fact that there are stylistic differences among the books of the Bible. Yet from this premise, I do not quite reach the same conclusion as you.

You seem to take these stylistic differences to mean that God is not the author of every word in Scripture. If He were, then the human author would not be an author at all, and God would be the sole author, such that we would not be able to explain the human elements of Scripture, especially the differences in style between the books.

You say: "If we interpret dictation as being strictly word for word then the stylistic differences (that human characteristic) of each Gospel could not be attributed to the human authors, but only to the Holy Spirit."

Assuming I understand you correctly, I disagree: I believe the Holy Ghost's dictation is, in fact, "word for word." Or, more precisely, to use the Magisterium's language, God is the author of Scripture, "whole and entire, with all its parts"; and yet all of Scripture was also written by human writers. It is not the case that God dictated some parts and humans filled in the gaps. Rather, BOTH God AND man cooperated to produce together, as primary and secondary causes, every single word in Scripture, such that every word is willed BOTH by God AND man. Therefore, the stylistic differences of each book are to attributed to BOTH the Holy Ghost AND to the human authors.

Moreover, I see two problems with your view, which I respectfully wish to bring to your attention. (Feel free to continue the conversation by giving your feedback.)

(1) The first is metaphysical. Your reasoning seems to rely on a dubious metaphysical premise. The notion of inspiration that you seem to hold--at least as I understand it--implies that the idiosyncrasies in style in each book of the Bible are EITHER caused by God OR by the human author. And this--you seem to be thinking--is a true dichotomy because there is no third option: i.e., those idiosyncrasies in style can't be caused or attributed to both human and divine authors.

But I cannot accept this premise. It runs afoul of the concept of primary and secondary causality. Take for example the fact that, when I do a good work (e.g., I pray the rosary) God is the primary cause of my act, and I am its secondary cause--without making that act any less free, or any less mine. All that there is of good in such an act is caused by God, AND it is also caused by me!

So also, God is the primary cause (author) of every part of Scripture, and the human writer is its secondary cause or author--twofold without this reducing or diminishing the role of either cause in writing all the parts of the Bible.

So what I'm saying is that the premise that at least seems to be grounding your reasoning is false: it need not be "either/or." We know metaphysically that it CAN be both.

(2) The other is dogmatic. Dogmatically, we must assert that it not only CAN, but IS the case that both God and man are the authors of all parts of Scripture, including those idiosyncrasies in style.

The Church has already defined that God is the author of every part of Scripture. The Council of Trent teaches that:

"The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts... are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred ... because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author."

Hence, the Church speaks of:

"the Catholic dogma on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, according to which all that the sacred writer asserts, declares, and introduces ought to be maintained as asserted, declared, and introduced by the Holy Ghost."

This is another, more precise way of saying that the Holy Ghost dictated the Bible "word for word."

I hope this helps.