Friday, June 10, 2005

Turning-points in Catholic dogma

One of the ironic challenges of countercult ministry is that oftentimes a Christian apologist must first educate the target-audience in its own theological tradition before he can knock it down.

Both Trent and Vatican I affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture. But when we get to Vatican II, certain caveats are introduced. Inspiration is limited to what the Bible writers are said to “assert” or “affirm,” while inerrancy is limited to the saving articles of the faith. Does this represent a contraction and retraction of traditional Catholic dogma? Has Vatican II traded plenary inspiration for partial inspiration?

If you study, not only the wording of the text itself, but also the conciliar deliberations which were going on behind-the-scenes, and even in open session, you will find that this is exactly what the bishops had in mind.

Any memory of old theories of verbal inspiration was to be omitted, and hence any form of an impersonal, mechanistic interpretation of the origin of Scripture… But this little word veritas that intruded here proved to be a living cell that continued to grow. But what did it mean? Only, "religious" or even "secular7' truth, to use the language of the 1962 schema? This was the real problem that now had to be taken up with full force both inside and outside the conciliar discussion. This did not happen, and new suggestions for the solution of the inerrancy question, as modem research posed it, could be made only hesitantly.

Form F was worked out in the third session of the Council. The first change that strikes us is in the title of Article 11: "Statuitur factum inspirationis et veritatis S. Scripturae." Inerrantia is replaced by the positive term veritas, which is notably extended in the text. In the course of the discussion on the schema in the autumn of 1964, various fathers from the Eastern and the Western Churches made important speeches on the necessity of an interpretation of the inerrancy of Scripture that would be in harmony with the latest findings of exegesis. It was variously pointed out that the doctrine of inerrancy received its particular and narrower formulation in the 19th century, at a time when the means of secular historical research and criticism were used to investigate the secular historical accuracy of Scripture, and this was more or less denied - which had inevitable consequences for its theological validity. The teaching office of the Church sought to concentrate its defense at the point of immediate attack: i.e. to defend the inerrancy of Scripture even in the veritates profanae generally defending the claim of the Bible and of Christianity to be revelation. To defend scriptural inerrancy in this sphere of secular truths various theories were employed which sought to prove the absolute inerrancy of Scripture on the basis of these conditions and attitudes. Because of the apologetical viewpoint from which they started, they were in danger of producing a narrowness and a false accentuation7 in the doctrine of inerrancy. Also in the area of the interpretation of Scripture and the rules pertaining to this we can see a similar phenomenon, which the Council observed in different spheres of theology and endeavoured to nullify: namely, the tendency to an apologetical isolation and the claim to absolutism of a partial view. With this kind of motivation for the defense of the inerrancy of Scripture in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, there was a weakening of the awareness that Scripture as the inspired, written word of God is supposed above all to serve the preservation and expansion of the saving revelation and reality given through Christ in the world. Of course it was always realized that this was the real purpose of Scripture. In the question of inerrancy, however, the emphasis was placed on the one-sided and isolated - accentuation of the veritates profanae. This tended to create uncertainty rather than a joyful confidence that God's truth and salvation remain present in the world in an unfalsified and permanent form--namely through the inspired word. It was necessary to reawaken this awareness. The doctrine of inerrancy needed its own centre and the right accentuation.

In this respect the most important contribution was undoubtedly the speech by Cardinal Koenig on 2 October 1964. Several other fathers who took part in the discussion from 2 to 6 October either verbally or in writing came back to this point. The Cardinal first of all pointed out the new situation that exists in relation to the question of inerrancy. As a result of intensive Oriental studies our picture of the veritas historica and the fides historica of Scripture has been clarified. Many of the 19th century objections to the Old Testament in particular and its reliability as an account of historical fact are now irrelevant But Oriental studies have also produced another finding: “ . . . laudata scientia rerum orientalium insuper demonstrat in Bibliis Sacris notitias historicas et notitias scientiae naturalis a veritate quandoque deficere." Thus Cardinal Koenig admitted that not all the difficulties could be solved. On the contrary, in certain cases they have an urgency that is borne out by scientific research. His speech mentioned a few examples: according to Mk 2: 26 David had entered the house of God under the high priest Abiathar and eaten the bread of the Presence. In fact, however, according to 1 Sam 21: l ff. it was not under Abiathar, but under his father Abimelech. In Mt 27:9 we read that in the fate of Judas a prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled. In fact it is Zech 11: 12f. that is quoted. In Dan 1: 1 we read that King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem in the third year of King Jehoiakim, i.e. 607 B.C., but from the authentic chronicle of King Nebuchadnezzar that has been discovered we know that the siege can only have taken place three years later. Other geographical and chronological points could be quoted in this connection.

The fact that this speech could be held in a plenary session without any protest being made is surely significant… Thus Cardinal Koenig implicitly gives up that premise that comes from the aprioristic and unhistorical thinking that has dominated teaching on inerrancy since the age of the Fathers: if one admits that a sacred writer has made a mistake, then one is necessarily admitting that God has made a mistake with the human author. The actual aim of inspiration allows us to find a better solution: one can still maintain the true influence of God on the human authors without making him responsible for their weaknesses. These relate only to the form or the outer garment of the Gospel, and not the latter itself, however much the two might be inwardly connected- indeed, without this genuine humanity, with all its limitations, Scripture would appear like a foreign body in our world. But God speaks to us in this way, in our language, from out of our midst.

A number of Council fathers followed the example of Cardinal Koenig and refer to him as an authority: others, admittedly in the minority, produced the traditional statements, without, however, dealing with the new points raised by Cardinal Koenig.

H. Vorgrimler, ed. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (Herder & Herder, 1969), 3:204-207.


It is not my immediate aim to address these objections to the inerrancy of Scripture, but to merely point out that the Catholic church is now allows for error in the secular subject-matter of Scripture, and--in so doing—has also backed down from prior Catholic dogma.

This is not only the case with respect to the Tridentine doctrine of Scripture, reaffirmed in Vatican I, but the Tridentine doctrine of sacred tradition well, which was also reaffirmed at Vatican I; for there, sacred tradition was identified with the unanimous consent of the church fathers. Hence, a repudiation of the patristic doctrine of Scripture is, at one and the same time, a repudiation of the Tridentine doctrine of Scripture and sacred tradition alike.

As Hans Kung wryly observes, “Paradoxically, one can talk more openly about the infallibility of the Bible than one can about that of the pope, although this in turn is said to be grounded in the Bible,” My Struggle For Freedom (Eerdmans 2003), 366.

On Dan 1:1, the reader should consult G. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan 1982), 284-85; J. Baldwin: Daniel IVP 1978), 20,77-78; D. Wiseman, Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon (Oxford, 1991), 23; D. Wiseman, ed., Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel (Tyndale, 1965), 16-18.

On Mt 27:9, seems to be a conflate allusion to Jer 18-19,32 and Zech 11:12-13. As such, it’s hardly a misquotation. This practice is not unexampled (cf. Mk 1:2). Before chapter and verse division, locating a quote was necessarily imprecise (cf. Heb 2:6; 4:4). This verse represents a typical understanding of the OT—which is characteristic of Matthew. The persecution faced by faithful prophets like Jeremiah and Zechariah, and its impact on the life of the nation, is taken to parallel and presage the experience of Christ. One should keep in mind that Jeremiah’s action was allegorical to begin with. So that dimension was already present in the original context. And Zechariah is consciously typical (cf. 3:8). It is not, then, as though Jesus (or Matthew) were twisting Scripture to his own ends. To classify this as a misquotation, as if merely Matthew slipped up, is insensitive to the internal hermeneutical framework of this Gospel, with its subtextual allusions and intertextual associations.

As one scholar remarks,
“Matthew quotes Zechariah 11:13 as if yosher (“potter”) could be read ‘osher (“treasury”), revocalizing to provide a new interpretation, as we know later Jewish interpreters often did…By appealing to “Jeremiah” rather than Zechariah, Matthew makes clear that he intends his biblically literate audience to link an analogous passage in Jeremiah (32:6-14) and to interpret them together,” C. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 1999), 657.

Keener adds that “given his ability to retranslate the entire Hebrew text based on revocalization…it is unlikely that Matthew simply got his attribution wrong” (ibid., 657, n.140).

On Mk 2:26, another scholar concludes, on the basis of comparative cross-referential methods (e.g., Mt 23:35; Mk 2:26; Lk 11:51, the superscript to Ps 34, and other Jewish literature), that nominal substitutions were an accepted literary convention, trading on a type of free association. Cf. R. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Eerdmans, 1986), 212-220,229-233.


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  3. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."