Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible

Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible
By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

THE hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true.

The Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect “total accuracy” from the Bible.

“We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture.

The document is timely, coming as it does amid the rise of the religious Right, in particular in the US.

Some Christians want a literal interpretation of the story of creation, as told in Genesis, taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools, believing “intelligent design” to be an equally plausible theory of how the world began.

But the first 11 chapters of Genesis, in which two different and at times conflicting stories of creation are told, are among those that this country’s Catholic bishops insist cannot be “historical”. At most, they say, they may contain “historical traces”.

The document shows how far the Catholic Church has come since the 17th century, when Galileo was condemned as a heretic for flouting a near-universal belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible by advocating the Copernican view of the solar system. Only a century ago, Pope Pius X condemned Modernist Catholic scholars who adapted historical-critical methods of analysing ancient literature to the Bible.

In the document, the bishops acknowledge their debt to biblical scholars. They say the Bible must be approached in the knowledge that it is “God’s word expressed in human language” and that proper acknowledgement should be given both to the word of God and its human dimensions.

They say the Church must offer the gospel in ways “appropriate to changing times, intelligible and attractive to our contemporaries”.

The Bible is true in passages relating to human salvation, they say, but continue: “We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters.”

They go on to condemn fundamentalism for its “intransigent intolerance” and to warn of “significant dangers” involved in a fundamentalist approach.

“Such an approach is dangerous, for example, when people of one nation or group see in the Bible a mandate for their own superiority, and even consider themselves permitted by the Bible to use violence against others.”

Of the notorious anti-Jewish curse in Matthew 27:25, “His blood be on us and on our children”, a passage used to justify centuries of anti-Semitism, the bishops say these and other words must never be used again as a pretext to treat Jewish people with contempt. Describing this passage as an example of dramatic exaggeration, the bishops say they have had “tragic consequences” in encouraging hatred and persecution. “The attitudes and language of first-century quarrels between Jews and Jewish Christians should never again be emulated in relations between Jews and Christians.”

As examples of passages not to be taken literally, the bishops cite the early chapters of Genesis, comparing them with early creation legends from other cultures, especially from the ancient East. The bishops say it is clear that the primary purpose of these chapters was to provide religious teaching and that they could not be described as historical writing.

Similarly, they refute the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, in which the writer describes the work of the risen Jesus, the death of the Beast and the wedding feast of Christ the Lamb.

The bishops say: “Such symbolic language must be respected for what it is, and is not to be interpreted literally. We should not expect to discover in this book details about the end of the world, about how many will be saved and about when the end will come.”

In their foreword to the teaching document, the two most senior Catholics of the land, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, and Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh, explain its context.

They say people today are searching for what is worthwhile, what has real value, what can be trusted and what is really true.

The new teaching has been issued as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council document explaining the place of Scripture in revelation. In the past 40 years, Catholics have learnt more than ever before to cherish the Bible. “We have rediscovered the Bible as a precious treasure, both ancient and ever new.”

A Christian charity is sending a film about the Christmas story to every primary school in Britain after hearing of a young boy who asked his teacher why Mary and Joseph had named their baby after a swear word. The Breakout Trust raised £200,000 to make the 30-minute animated film, It’s a Boy. Steve Legg, head of the charity, said: “There are over 12 million children in the UK and only 756,000 of them go to church regularly.

That leaves a staggering number who are probably not receiving basic Christian teaching.”



Genesis ii, 21-22

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man

Genesis iii, 16

God said to the woman [after she was beguiled by the serpent]: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

Matthew xxvii, 25

The words of the crowd: “His blood be on us and on our children.”

Revelation xix,20

And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had worked the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with brimstone.”,,13509-1811332,00.html


  1. I'm glad that we have the Catholic Church to stand as a bulwark against the corrupting influences of modernism. I'm sure that men like Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus would have agreed with these Catholic leaders' comments about scripture.

    "Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them." (Clement of Rome, First Clement, 45)

    "if you have done so because you imagined that you could throw doubt on the passage, in order that I might say the Scriptures contradicted each other, you have erred. But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext for saying that it is contrary to some other, since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself." (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 65)

    "If, however, we cannot discover explanations of all those things in Scripture which are made the subject of investigation, yet let us not on that account seek after any other God besides Him who really exists. For this is the very greatest impiety. We should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than, the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destitute of the knowledge of His mysteries....all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances of Scripture there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things. If, for instance, any one asks, 'What was God doing before He made the world?' we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions in reply to it; so, as by one's imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2:28:2-3)

    Jason Engwer
    New Testament Research Ministries

  2. Jason,

    Those bishops don't represent the true teaching Magisterium of the Catholic Church!

    To get that, you need to consult the Dogmatic & Uneducated Lay Internet Apologists (DULIA – to be carefully distinguished from their more extreme representatives – the HYPER DULIA’s and also the Latin And (therefore) Truly Romanist Internet Apologists - LATRIA), who will give you the unmediated and true Catholic perspective!

    And how do the DULIA have this type of access to true Catholicism one asks? (and btw, all of these dualistic qualifications are making my post-structuralist head spin - Great thinkers like Michel Foucault & Tim Enloe are no doubt aghast!)

    Very simple – you don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy from St Louis U. or a J.D. from Harvard to understand that!

    A reified Church woke them up last night and answered all their questions personally.

    Kind of like Oral Roberts and God, except with a Catholic spin.

    How many times do these dogmatic & uneducated lay internet apologists have to make this point to you before you get it through your thick Protestant and anti-Catholic skull?!


  3. I guess I am surprised that anyone is shocked at this. Taking the bible as 100% true from a historical and scientific perspective creates huge problems. Not accepting this creates huge problems if you believe in Sola Scriptora. The question then becomes "Why not reject the resurrection?". For Catholics this issue does not come up. When you have scripture, tradition, and the magisterium you have a logical basis for interpreting some scriptures literally and others not. This document is just one of many out there in the Catholic church. It is not official church teaching. The church gives individuals a lot of freedom when it comes to the how of creation (not with the who and the why). It doesn't when it comes to the resurrection or other core doctrines. The bible is inerrant. It just needs to be interpeted correctly. God gives His church the grace to be able to do that.

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  5. Excellent post Randy.

    And it is true... the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura, which isolated the Bible from the living Tradition, did indeed cause many Protestants to turn themselves into pretzels in defense of the text against its obvious discrepancies. Once they relegated the divine revelation to words on a page, all that remained for anti-Christians like Thomas Paine was to attempt to use textual evidence to discredit Christianity. Sola Scriptura, which took the biblical texts outside of the religous community from which they were written (so as to make them absoultely independent of it), developed completely outlandish ideas of Scriptural inspiration. Louis Bouyer provided an excellent analysis of this aspect of Protestant belief in his classic book, "The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism".

  6. Randy,

    I see - Protestants are left with nothing but arbitrary criteria for interpreting some Scriptures "literally and some not."

    Apart from the fact that that's a rather simplistic and indelicate way of framing the question of Protestant hermeneutics, I wonder how exactly your communion deals with the same epistemological problem that you've raised.

    Let me put the question this way: When you speak of such nebulous entities as "tradition" and especially "the magisterium" what specifically do you mean? I’m not looking for an abstract definition, but I’m asking you to lay out the specifics – especially since these two entities allegedly provide you with some practical advantage with regard to interpreting Scripture.

    Did "tradition" or "the magisterium" speak to you today and tell you which Scriptures you have the latitude to interpret “literally” and which you do not?

    Assuming that you have not personally conversed with "tradition" or "the magisterium" recently, I'd be curious as to how, exactly, you have come to a knowledge of what "tradition" is (I suspect the answer involves a literary encounter, which requires an act of personal interpretation) and what specific inferential moves you've made beyond coming to a personal apprehension of the nature and content of "tradition."

    The same questions apply to "the magisterium."

    And assuming that you provide a satisfactory answer to those questions (and I am hoping that the answers are more than bald unsupported assertions in need of justification themselves), here's a follow up:

    What do you do when "tradition" and "the magisterium" speak with discordant voices (not only today but throughout history)? So for example, when a magisterial voice of antiquity seems to conflict with a magisterial voice of more recent vintage – what then?

    What was poor Galileo Galilei to do when the magisterial voice of his day (Bellarmin et al) condemned his “heretical” heliocentric theory?

    Well, we know the answer to that, don’t we?

    Since “tradition” and “the magisterium” are (and always have been) such eminently useful hermeneutical devices, the declaration from The Congregation of the Index (“the doctrine of the double motion of the earth about its axis and about the sun is false, and entirely contrary to the Holy Scriptures”) led poor Galileo to recant his heliocentric “heresy.”

    Based on such an illuminating example, I can see how helpful “tradition” and “the magisterium” is for your communion Randy!

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  8. In a strict sense tradition just puts boundaries on you interpetation. Those are set out in Vatican I where the idea of infallability is defined. In a less formal sense tradition is interpeting in the light of all the generations of christians who have gone before you. You give more weight to the popes and saints but nothing is absolute. You just need a humble recognition of where the body of Christ as a whole has gone with this text.

    As far as contradictions go. There are apparent contradictions in both scripture and tradition. They are not real but they reflect our dim understanding of the realities of God. We have a living magesterium. They continue to interpete tradition as well as scripture for us. Again that might be binding or it might be just insights to be reflected on.

    The Galileo example is good to show how using the bible for scientific facts is not a great idea. The church has been down that road before which is why it is careful not to condemn evolutionists now.

    Still your point is valid. The magesterium has disciplined some thinkers who were right. Some suffered through that, continued to respect the pope even thought he was wrong, and eventually transformed the church. That is hard to do. Luther was in that boat and he didn't have the humility to repect a pope who was wrong about some things. I'm not sure what I would have done.

  9. Mark Shea talks about this same article on hos blog.

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