Protestants might be surprised at what Catholics actually believe about the Bible
September 5, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Recently, the Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, declared that “the devil exists only as a symbolic reality.” He has said similar things in the past. He also made news in 2017 when he asserted, concerning Christ’s condemnation of divorce and remarriage, that we can’t know for sure what Jesus really said because no one recorded him on the spot.
These and similar remarks make it clear that at least this Jesuit does not believe that Scripture—which teaches manifestly both the reality of the devil and the sinfulness of active divorce and remarriage—is actually the word of God, inspired by Him and altogether free from error.
It is surprising how often nowadays one hears Catholics and Protestants contrasted in the following way: it is as if “evangelical” or “fundamentalist” Protestants believe the Bible to be all these things, whereas Catholics believe it to be an interesting record of the religious experiences of certain men and women over a long period of time, a witness to their “pilgrimage” or “journey of faith,” through which we can learn some good stuff that, duly modified and updated, is applicable to our own lives. Protestants see the Scripture as solid gold, while Catholics see it as (mostly) reliable on big questions, but sketchy in the details, where it doesn’t matter so much.
This is a totally flawed description of Catholic doctrine. Indeed, it fits to a T the description given by St. Pius X of the Modernist.
Pope Leo XIII taught in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus:
It is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration only to certain parts of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it—this system cannot be tolerated. 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 Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. ( bold added)
The same pope reminds us that this is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, as solemnly defined by three ecumenical councils—Florence, Trent, and Vatican I. He then quotes Vatican I’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith:
The Books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council [Trent] and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical, not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author, and were as such committed to the Church. (Dei Filius, ch. 2, nn. 6–7)
Having cited Vatican I, Pope Leo goes on to explain that the fact that God is the primary author means that the true but secondary human authors could not have “gotten in the way,” so to speak, of God’s proclamation of the truth, however much their personalities may have colored the manner or style in which they wrote:
Hence, because the Holy Ghost employed men as His instruments, we cannot therefore say that it was these inspired instruments who, perchance, have fallen into error, and not the primary author. For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write—He was so present to them—that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture. … It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error.
Pope Pius XII is often said to have “softened” or “modified” Pope Leo XIII’s trumpet-like assertions, but at least on the question of the absolute authority and error-free truthfulness of the Bible, Pius XII taught exactly the same thing—something that will surprise only those who expect popes to disagree with one another on matters of faith, which of course is impossible. (The only thing it would show is that the later pope is wrong.) He opens his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu by quoting and agreeing with Vatican I and Leo XIII on just these points. Later, he notes: “For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things ‘except sin’ (Heb 4:15), so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error” (n. 37). The “Catholic commentator,” the pope says, should demonstrate and prove Scripture’s “immunity from all error” (n. 38).
The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum of 1965 states:
Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim 3:16–17). ( bold added)
Some have tried to twist these words into saying that Scripture is without error only in regard to “truths pertaining to salvation”—as if there are elements in Scripture that are altogether disconnected from or indifferent to salvation. This interpretation of Dei Verbum, however, is ruled out for three reasons: first, the Constitution teaches that everything asserted by the authors must be held to be also asserted by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth; second, the well-chosen quotation from 2 Timothy emphatically says “all Scripture is divinely inspired and useful for teaching the truth and refuting error”; and third, the footnote given by the Council at this point sends us to exactly the passages in Trent, Leo XIII, and Pius XII that we have cited above (in addition to some equally clear passages in Augustine and Aquinas).
In summary: the Catholic Church teaches that Sacred Scripture is written by God as the primary author and by men as true secondary authors, “intelligent instruments” employed by the Lord to convey a message that, rightly understood, is always and only true. Scripture is true as a whole and in all of its parts, according to the meaning that its authors (primary and secondary) intended for these parts. Catholics therefore accept the literal meaning of every passage of the Bible, yet not according to a superficial notion of what “literal” means, but with a nuanced understanding of what the “letter”—i.e., the meaning intended by the author—really is in this or that passage (see the good treatment of this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 105–119).
It is true, of course, that the Bible does not interpret itself and that it contains many passages challenging due to their philological obscurity, a lack of historical knowledge on our part, or apparent contradictions. But we know, from Scripture itself, from Tradition, and from the Magisterium, that there are no actual contradictions in the Bible (as, e.g., between St. Paul and St. John in the New Testament), no assertions of fact that are factually incorrect, and no obscurity that would prevent us from having access to saving truth, since, as St. Augustine reminds us, nothing of salvific importance in the Bible is taught obscurely in one place if is not also taught openly and clearly elsewhere.
These things being so, we cannot simply dispense with the aid of the Fathers of the Church, the great exegetes from the Middle Ages, and the guidance of popes and councils in doubtful or controversial matters. But this is a far cry from saying that Scripture itself has positive errors or substantive omissions that are subsequently corrected by human wisdom, as in the false notion of “development of doctrine” so popular among today’s progressives.
For Catholics, Scripture in every word of every page is inspired by God. It is inerrant, that is, free from any error of any kind. It is a more certain foundation than any merely human source of knowledge. It is an infallible guide to faith and life, such that when we understand its teaching and follow it, we can never go astray. Should we be surprised, then, that every great saint of the Catholic Church has made the prayerful, trustful, humble reading of the Bible (lectio divina) a basic part of his or her daily routine? It seems that Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal could learn a thing or two from the saints, beginning with St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Readers who are interested in a fuller exposition of these points may find helpful my article at OnePeterFive, “The Inspiration and Inerrancy of Sacred Scripture.”