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.

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