Synod: Debate over inerrancy bubbles up around the edges


So far, the Synod of Bishops on the Bible has not featured particularly intense doctrinal debate. Most of the leading themes appear basically pastoral in nature – how to foster better preaching, for example, or more widespread prayer with scripture, especially the use of Lectio Divina.

Around the edges, however, one doctrinal can of worms has been at least partially pried open, focusing on the extent to which the Bible is “inerrant,” meaning free from error.

During a Vatican briefing this morning, reporters were told that some speakers had raised the issue of inerrancy during the last hour of yesterday’s session, as part of the time set aside for free discussion. A cardinal taking part in the synod confirmed to NCR this afternoon that there had been “some grumbling, especially from the more traditional Bible scholars” about the treatment of inerrancy in the Instrumentum Laboris, or working paper, for the synod.

By way of background, the inerrancy of scripture was a bone of contention during and after debates at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) over the document Dei Verbum, which dealt with divine revelation. In summary, there are two schools of thought: “restricted inerrancy,” which holds that only a limited range of statements in the Bible are free from error (usually those concerned with salvation), and “unrestricted inerrancy,” which asserts that all of scripture is inspired and therefore true (although in the sense of truth which the Bible itself intends.)

The dangers in extreme forms of both positions are reasonably obvious. If one concedes that only some parts of the Bible are inspired, then the door seems open to bowdlerization (a temptation both ancient and new, as examples ranging from Marcion’s edited gospel to Thomas Jefferson’s miracle-free New Testament amply illustrate). Claiming that the whole Bible is free from error, on the other hand, seems to end in fundamentalism – insisting that the world really was created in six days, or glossing over obvious problems in geography and dating. (The Gospel of Mark, for example, has Jesus taking a highly improbable route from Jericho to Jerusalem; one synod member today joked that it’s as if someone were said to have gone from Louisville to Nashville by way of Seattle.)

As is often the case with documents crafted by committee, the final formula in Dei Verbum did not directly settle this dispute. The crucial passage, in paragraph 11, reads: “…we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.”

Ever since, debate has swirled over what exactly that means. Some exegetes saw in the phrase “for the sake of our salvation” a warrant for restricted inerrancy, though that interpretation was rejected by German Cardinal Augustin Bea, who was involved in the drafting of Dei Verbum. In his 1967 book The Word of God and Mankind, Bea wrote that the language of Dei Verbum “explains God’s purpose in causing the scriptures to be written, and not the nature of the truth enshrined therein.”

All of which brings us back to the Instrumentum Laboris, which, in paragraph 15(c) of its English translation, sums up paragraph 11 of Dei Verbum as follows: “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.’”

That’s a slightly different twist than appears in the Latin version, which is regarded as definitive. It reads: Quamvis omnes Sacrae Scripturae partes divinitus inspiratae sint, tamen eius inerrantia pertinet tantummodo ad “veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit". In English, that’s roughly: “Although all parts of Sacred Scripture are divinely inspired, nevertheless its inerrancy pertains just to ‘that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see consigned to the sacred writings.’”

In other words, there’s no “might” in the Latin about whether all of scripture is inspired.

That point is maintained in the other languages. In Italian, for example, point 15(c) of the Instrumentum Laboris reads: Quantunque la Sacra Scrittura sia ispirata in tutte le sue parti la sua inerranza si riferisce solo … In English, that works out to: “Although Sacred Scripture is inspired in all its parts, its inerrancy refers only to …”

The nuance in the English translation brought protest prior to the synod among some Bible experts and in the conservative Catholic blogosphere, with critics charging that the Instrumentum Laboris, or at least its English version, was endorsing restricted inerrancy by linguistic sleight of hand – in effect, altering the meaning of Dei Verbum on the fly.

To put the point a bit whimsically, the critics have charged that the English translation of the language on inerrancy is, well, rather errant. Yesterday’s discussion indicates that this debate has made its way to the synod floor.

For the record, it should be noted that advocates of “unrestricted inerrancy” are usually prepared to concede that at times, some Bible passages cannot be said to be “free from error” in the literal, face-value sense. Often, they’ll invoke an example from contemporary speech such as, “It’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” There’s a sense in which that may be perfectly true, even if attempts to actually cook eggs on sidewalks would be futile. By extension, they would argue, one should approach scripture with the assumption that every passage is true, even if one has to consider what kind of truth is involved in any given case.

In terms of where things go from here, it does not seem likely that anyone will insist upon revisiting the Instrumentum Laboris itself. It’s intended as a guide for discussion, and by the time the synod is over it will have become more or less a dead letter. In itself, it does not express authoritative teaching, still less its English translation.

On the other hand, the discussion over inerrancy suggests that careful treatment of that topic is likely in the synod’s final documents, whether in the propositions the bishops will submit to the pope, or in the apostolic constitution that Benedict XVI is eventually expected to issue.

If nothing else, there will likely be keen attention to how any language on inerrancy is phrased and translated, so that potentially consequential shifts in meaning aren’t slipped in through a back door.

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