In 2005 the Bishops of England and Wales produced a teaching document titled The Gift of Scripture (CTS). If you search for it on the internet you will not find the text but instead you will find it denounced on countless Catholic blogs, in accord with the slanted theological perspective that is prevalent in cyberspace. The Bishops recall the teaching of Vatican II: “the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error teaches that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum 11). Focusing on the phrase, “for the sake of our salvation,” they conclude: “We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters. We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision” (The Gift of Scripture, no. 14).
Fundamentalism, they declare, “disregards the diversity of views and the development of understanding which is found in the Bible and does not allow for the presence of ‘imperfect and time-conditioned elements’ [imperfecta et temporaria] (Dei Verbum, 15) within Scripture.” It “actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide,” because it gives “insufficient consideration of the place of a given text within a developing tradition” and it “will often take a simplistic view of literary genre, as when narrative texts which are of a more complex nature are treated as historical” (The Gift of Scripture, no. 19).
Conservative Catholics, firmly entrenched in what the Bishops would see as a fundamentalist position, have a ready riposte to this. They point out that the footnotes of Dei Verbum cite Leo XIII’s encyclical of 1893, Providentissimus Deus, which has Vatican I behind it, and which upholds scriptural inerrancy in a most stringent form. Vatican II, they add, invoking some obiter dicta of Cardinal Ratzinger, was a merely pastoral council, forswearing infallibility, and the 1994 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”, which the bishops refer to, has no magisterial authority, since the PBC has not been part of the Magisterium since the 1960s.
Leo XIII did speak out against extreme fundamentalism when he said that “the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost ‘Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation’ (Augustine, De Gen. ad litt. II, 9, 20). Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science” (#18).
However, with Vatican II, Leo tightly connects inspiration with divine inerrancy, giving less attention to the autonomy of the human authors and their literary genres than has become common in the Church since Divino afflante Spiritu (1943): “But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture [as J. H. Newman had proposed], 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… 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… 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… 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” (#20).
Vatican II chose not to challenge this status quo position, since reflection on inspiration and inerrancy had no sufficiently ripened among theologians to provide the basis for any new doctrinal clarification. However, in setting Scripture in the light of new theologies of revelation and of the Word of God, in accepting more fully the autonomy of the human authors and their literary conventions, in calling for a more central position for Scripture in theology and in the life of the Church, and above all in facilitating the explosion of Catholic scriptural studies in the 1960s and the opening up of Scripture in the lectionary of the new liturgy, Vatican II did bring about a revolution in the Catholic relationship to Scripture. Here as so often it is not the rather drab text of Dei Verbum, less eloquent than Leo XIII, but the spirit behind the text, or the event, process or trajectory to which the text bears witness, that is the chief significance of the Council. It is to be hoped that the forthcoming Roman Synod on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” will launch the Church further along this trajectory rather than attempt to curb and blunt the impact of Vatican II.
Like Vatican II, the English Bishops shy away from the possibility of admitting actual historical or scientific errors in Scripture, even though they clear the ground for seeing such errors as immaterial, since the truth Scripture is concerned with is of the order of salvation. To expect an ancient text or library of texts to be free of historical or scientific error is a very unrealistic expectation, indeed it savors of magical thinking. The prevalence of a broad, communal theory of biblical inspiration over the model of the Holy Spirit dictating every word entails a greater readiness to accept the imperfections and culture-conditioned blind spots of the biblical writers.
The Problem of Divinely Sanctioned Violence
A much more difficult question is whether it is possible to admit that the texts of Scripture contain moral and religious error. It is perhaps only today that the sanctification of violence in certain corners of Scripture has become truly scandalous to us, though it troubled individuals in the past and was used for polemical purposes by Enlightenment writers. For reasons that are obvious, including the extermination practices of the last century, the bloodthirsty aspect of certain scriptural texts, Jewish, Christian and Islamic, has become a neuralgic point in current religious reflection.
The herem or ban was a common institution of antiquity and is clearly blessed and commanded by God in Scripture. These texts reflect a real-life violent world. John J. Collins cites a ninth century parallel, the Moabite stone : “And Chemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel. So I went by night and fought against it from break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maidservants, for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh’ (I, 13)”. Biblical texts as late as the seventh century BCE glorify the herem, and its spirit lives on in much later texts. Wars of extermination were as intrinsic to the religion, polity, law, culture and spirituality of ancient Israel as crusades and inquisitions were to those of the Catholic Church for centuries. The latter also are phenomena that we used to gloss over, despite the efforts of Protestant and Enlightenment critics to rub our nose in them; now we feel a duty to gaze on what John Kent calls ‘the unacceptable face’ of church history and draw what lessons we can from it. The “purification of memory” John Paul II eloquently called for must be based on facing the facts in all their ugliness, not in administering a coat of whitewash.
The Bible is interpreted by the Church today as a charter of respect for life, in the spirit of Albert Schweitzer, and this is indeed fundamentally true to the sense of Scripture. Today when we teach “the Bible as literature” we seek to bring out the brighter colors of the texts, ignoring such “twilight zones” as the closing chapters of the Book of Judges, for example. The basic thrust of Scripture respects life as holy. Yet though ancient Israel rejoiced in the gift of life, they often regarded rival tribes as encroachers to be eliminated and had little if any thought of celebrating a communion of life with them.
Even though the enlightened conscience of humanity today cannot be squared with a God who commands the slaughter of women and children, and the abduction of virgins as war booty (Numbers 31), these tales hold a morbid fascination for us. Their sublime, sacral style, the sanctification of violence they enact, comes from a primitive stratum of human history, like voices from an exotic other planet. This aura has led biblical inerrantists to glorify the genocidal activities, blaming their victims. Tackle them, say, on the bashing of innocent babies’ heads against the stones (Ps. 137), and they will reply: ‘First, who say they were innocent? Second, can you deny that God appoints humans as agents of his vengeance? Third, who are you, a corrupt sinner, to criticize the Word of God?’ That dogmatic rhetoric may be old-fashioned, but it is intoxicating, and can be reactivated at any time. The tortured efforts of fundamentalists to justify divinely ordained biblical violence shows how dangerous these ancient texts still remain, at least to the degree that they dull the intellectual and moral integrity of such apologists and the numerous believers they represent.
Such attitudes translate into deeds. Oliver Cromwell declared that “there are great occasions in which some men are called to great services in the doing of which they are excused from the common rule of morality”. This is an example of what Karen Armstrong calls antinomian fundamentalism. The genocide of Indians in America was based on similar biblical imagination. The obsession with inerrancy in America today goes hand in hand with a readiness to see even the most ill-thought-out and illegal military aggressions as somehow commanded by God. The inerrancy of Scripture translates into my inerrancy and my country’s inerrancy, and inspiration, as it reduces the word of God to a magic oracle, letting it lead them into one catastrophic misadventure after another.
At present the most the Church seems prepared to concede is that there is a growth or development in moral and religious insight in the biblical books. In the 1994 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on “The Interpretation of Scripture in the Church”, we read:
The Bible reflects a considerable moral development, which finds its completion in the New Testament. It is not sufficient therefore that the Old Testament should indicate a certain moral position (e.g. the practice of slavery or of divorce, or that of extermination in the case of war) for this position to continue to have validity. One has to undertake a process of discernment. This will review the issue in the light of the progress in moral understanding and sensitivity that has occurred over the years. The writings of the Old Testament contain certain “imperfect and provisional” elements (Dei Verbum, 15), which the divine pedagogy could not eliminate right away.
This remains evasive, for it suggests that extermination of civilian populations is not intrinsically evil but had validity under the circumstances of pentateuchal times. Concern to safeguard scriptural inerrancy seems here to be opening the doors wide to moral relativism. Looking benignly on the development of humanity, one might argue that ancient wars were actually ennobled by being fought as holy wars. One might claim that Numbers 31 or 1 Samuel 15 are not genocidal texts, since they are not motivated by race-hatred but by the attitude of radical obedience that devotes the enemy as a sacrifice unto the Lord. Yet it seems impossible to iron out all moral and religious error from these texts. The question of moral judgement is forced on us again and again, and there is a sense that to fudge it out of respect for the archaic but inerrant texts is to have lost the legitimate freedom of Christians in their handling of Scripture. We must renounce exaggerated claims of inerrancy not only for reasons of honesty, but because they are themselves forms of violence. They make Scripture an intrinsically violent document.
Pious hermeneutical principles, such as Luke Johnson’s claim that “God’s wisdom is somehow seeking to be communicated even through the impossibilities of the literal sense” and that we must wrestle with apparently difficult texts instead of condemning them “until they yielded a meaning ‘worthy of God’” prevent one from reading the texts with full sensitivity to their literary texture. They prescribe in advance that the texts must have an edifying sense. In contrast, John J. Collins writes: “The power of the Bible is largely that it gives an unvarnished picture of human nature and of the dynamics of history, and also of religion and the things that people do in its name”.
One could say that the power of the Bible is primarily that it corrects these evils, offering a medicine-chest for the religious pathologies of humanity (as Gregory Baum once remarked). But the evils do show themselves clearly, and are not entirely controlled, analyzed and overcome by Scripture itself, even at the last redactional level, though perhaps they are if we take into account at every step the total vision of the entire canon. If the Bible tells us something about the divine it tells us much about the human, and in the end the divine is best revealed in the process of humanization that the Bible attests. The Bible corrects itself but it is also corrected by the wider revelation of the divine that is coterminous with the spiritual history of humankind. If it is cut off from that background even the New Testament becomes a sectarian and violent text.
Scripture is always correcting itself. An obvious way it does this is when later redactors take some old text and modify it or join it with other texts in such a way as to make it more acceptable as an expression of Israel’s faith. These redactional efforts to impose an edifying reading offer a clue on which exegetes may build. The old allegorical method of finding an edifying spiritual sense – taking Samson as a type of Christ, for example – has lost authority. But attention to the theological vision of the Book of Judges as a whole may discover an initial theological reaction against the Samson lore in its primitive original form, and reference to the wider canon may discern here a pointer to values worked out more fully further along the Bible’s trajectory of moral reflection.
That is the general direction of the biblical trajectory, but in practice elements of the older projections persist unchanged even in such summit documents as the Gospel of John, with its insidious polemic against “the Jews”. Human nature shows its violent side even as it confides itself to the mercy of Christ, and the God it projects remains a barbaric killer or torturer. In defusing the notion of Christ’s sacrifice of the idea than an angry God is calling for blood we might draw on the softer soteriology of Luke, for whom the death of Christ has a saving impact due to the remorse and conversion it inspires rather than as a blood-price. Even if we find the best corrections of Scripture within Scripture itself, we can learn much from our modern experience as well. Psychoanalysis, for example, will have much to teach us about the human dynamics of scriptural violence, and about how to draw on the resources of Scripture in a discerning, critical fashion.
Taking the Enlightenment on board
This more nuanced attitude to inerrancy – which distances the Church from fundamentalist literalism – allows us to take on board the genuine insights of the Enlightenment critique of religious scriptures, while allowing the scriptural texts to speak to us anew with power. The trajectory of Scripture encourages us not to put our faith in authorities but to trust the instinctive reaction of reason and conscience. There is nothing to apologize for if we find biblical language barbaric and intolerable. We need to discover this freedom of discernment, within a general respect for the overall message of Scripture.
Scholarly hermeneutics without a faith-investment will seek to grasp the historical and literary texture of the scriptural writings in all its richness. It will reap the anthropological insights these texts contain just as it draws out the anthropological vision of Greek classics. When it comes to ethical judgment, the secular scholar will argue freely with the scriptural text, assessing its codes without respect for their hallowed status in still living traditions. Differentiation between what is viable and what is unacceptable in scriptural ethics will emerge in this process, and the Bible will become a repertoire both of classical ethical mistakes, or primitive bypaths in the genealogy of morals, on the one hand, and of seminal ethical breakthroughs of the Axial Age on the other. This critical reappropriation of sacred scriptures as part of the heritage of secular humanity provides a broad basis to which the specifically religious retrieval of this heritage would do well to attend. This naturalistic outlook on Scripture has entered theology through the critical-historical study of biblical texts, which recovers their human, historical texture, reconstructing the real motivations of the authors in their contexts.
For the religious reader, and particularly for the community of faith that accepts the Scriptures as authoritative, the secular critique of Scripture can be taken up as a moment within the immanent critique of Scripture itself. The Christian Church has always enjoyed freedom over against Scripture, seeing it as a book to be used. Revelation is not handed to one on a plate; it is an event that occurs when one reads Scripture in community and in dialogue with the “signs of the times.” The fullest form of critical overcoming and reappropriation occurs when an engaged faith-community uses the text as an occasion of potential revelation, or enlightenment for present action. The sacredness of Scripture lies then primarily in its inexhausted capacity to produce effects of liberation and enlightenment in the present. Christians judge the Bible not only from the standpoint of the modern conscience, but also under the impulsion of the Holy Spirit. The real, spiritual authority of Scripture – its capacity to elicit faith and inspire hope – emerges when they wrestle with it in prayer and loving debate. They are moved to correct, in charity, Paul’s occasional sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic remarks, but they do so in order to free the core teachings of the Apostle and make them audible today. They work on biblical traditions, cleansing them of their toxins, in order to retrieve them as living traditions for today.
Inerrancy as an Ideal
We could re-interpret inerrancy as a regulative ideal. It means that “the Bible cannot be wrong”, that is, it urges us to use the Bible in an “inspired” way, so that we draw from it only healing truth.
Israel was a people who opened themselves to God, came before the Holy One and experienced their own wretchedness and sin under his gaze. But as they persisted in their quest for, and orientation, to the divine they found also a God who was attested in respect for the life and rights of one’s neighbor, a God of justice. Biblical holiness is more a matter of justice than of spirituality or mysticism. The phrase “I, the Lord, am holy” is appended to commandments concerning social justice (Lev. 19). Fundamentally, biblical justice is of the humane, restorative sort that reconciles the offended party. “An eye for an eye” is an effort to compensate the injured party, not to vindictively and vengefully punish the culprit. Further acquaintance with the God of justice revealed that he was also a God of mercy and forgiveness. A culture of justice could not come to fruition without becoming a culture of mercy and forgiveness as well, something we still need to learn. In the Christian dispensation we bring our sin to Christ and receive in exchange his righteousness, and in this more intimate exchange of human and divine all the rougher earlier projections of a fearful God of vengeance are allegorized or integrated as lower stages or, with Luther, as an “alien work” of God, preparing his “proper work” of forgiveness and redemption.
Inerrancy as a regulative ideal means that “the Bible cannot be wrong”, that is, it urges us to use the Bible in an “inspired” way, so that we draw from it only healing truth, while leaving in obscurity, or quarantining, texts that could create attitudes incompatible with the Bible as the Church now interprets it. The Bible stands over against the Church and judges it, to be sure, but only insofar as it can be actualized as a living word. Scripture founds the Church and embraces it; yet it is the Church that established the Canon of Scripture and it is the present community of faithful who embrace Scripture with their understanding and bring forth its sense for today. To take dusty passages from little-known corners of Scripture, which have never lived and breathed in the Church’s worship, and to jump them on people as the Word of God is be a bizarre parody of effective scriptural authority, which depends on the Bible being voiced in a church context of spiritual discernment. Today we can see Scripture in historical and interreligious perspective with a clarity of vision that has no precedent. As we open ourselves to the challenge of Scripture we need not be afraid to challenge it in return. “Wrestling with difficult texts” is not a matter of apologetical acrobatics, but of frank pitting of our misgivings against what seems brutal in the old texts. The process of this ongoing learning from the Holy Spirit, through wise use of the hallowed texts as a skillful means, is an indefectible one, in which we are held in the truth, despite the many errant and fallible sidetracks of history.
A talk given at Durham University, April 20. 2008