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Truth of scripture concerns salvation

Deacon Owen Cummings


Q — Is it still the teaching of the Catholic Church that all scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, or did Vatican II change that teaching to only those portions of scripture that are necessary for salvation are inspired?

A — For a succinct summary of the church’s teaching on the inspiration of Holy Scripture one could not do better than consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 105-108. Those four brief paragraphs summarize the tradition of the church’s teaching culminating in Vatican II, “The Constitution on Divine Revelation.” Paragraph 105 reiterates the notion that God is the author of Sacred Scripture. Paragraph 106 acknowledges that God inspired the human authors of these sacred books that constitute the Bible. 

Paragraph 107 is centrally important for this question and so I reproduce it here: “The inspired books teach the truth. ‘Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wish to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.’” The quote within the quote is from Constitution on Divine Revelation, paragraph 11. The church therefore teaches clearly that the truths guaranteed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are the truths that pertain to our salvation. In that very precise sense the Holy Scriptures’ primary witness is to the salvation that God desires for humankind. That affirmation does not mean that historical truths, for example, are not to be found in the Scriptures — clearly the entire salvific event of our Lord Jesus Christ is also historical event — but it does mean that the historical events’ final truthfulness is theological, that is to say, to do with our salvation.





Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, December 23, 2013
Article comment by: Lee Gilbert

This response from Deacon Cummings is ambiguous and possibly misleading, for it is and has been the constant teaching of the Church that all scripture is inspired by God and inerrant in its entirety. Many years ago, precisely to resolve this very ambiguity, Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J. addressed the meaning of the phrase from Dei Verbum 11 which Deacon Cummings emphasizes above: "for the sake of our salvation." As we shall see, Bea is surely very qualified to comment.
Naturally, those scholars who see the Scriptures as riddled with errors seized on this phrase, “for the sake of our salvation,” as a resolution of their conundrum, namely, how can the Scriptures be said to inerrant when it seemed obvious to them that this or that passage is in fact erroneous. They see this phrase as asserting that inerrancy applies only to that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation. In other words, passages that do not bear on our salvation may well be erroneous. This Bea calls a restrictive interpretation of the phrase.
This notion Bea wishes to refute, and so, placing Dei Verbum in context, he begins by observing that it “quotes as its foundation passages from St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Council of Trent and some recent documents of the supreme magisterium of the Church…concerning the proof of the doctrine of inerrancy,” noting in particular the conclusion of Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus: “Consequently, any who were to admit that there might be error in the authentic pages of the sacred books must certainly either betray the Catholic concept of divine inspiration or make God himself the author of error.”
Cardinal Bea then goes into a history of Dei Verbum itself, quoting a draft schema which “asserted that the Scriptures taught ‘firmly, faithfully and without error the saving truth.’” He relates that in subsequent voting one hundred and eighty-four council fathers asked that the word “saving” be deleted lest it lead to the misunderstanding that the inerrancy of scripture embraced only matters of faith and morals whereas error might be present in dealing with other issues.
From sources outside his essay we learn that Bea was not only a bishop at the Council, but that in response to the above mentioned vote the pope withdrew that draft schema from consideration and appointed Bea head of a commission to draft a new schema. 1 In other words, he addresses this question as a recent participant in the deliberations that formulated the phrasing he is now clarifying.
Therefore he finds no need to be prolix or to lumber through elaborate argumentation. He was there. In his disciplined way he bring his essay to a convincing conclusion with these concise remarks,
“Does the text of Dei Verbum we have before us now imply a restrictive interpretation of inerrancy? Here…the answer is firmly in the negative. The first proof of this is seen in the fact that all those (and in the first place the pope himself) who had been anxious to prevent the possible misunderstandings that might have arisen from the expression, ‘the saving truth’ have instead accepted the present form.…The phrasing we have now does not admit of any such interpretation because the idea of salvation is no longer directly linked with the noun ‘truth,’ but with the verbal expression ‘wanted to put into the sacred writings.’ In other words, the phrase in which the text speaks of salvation explains God’s purpose in causing the Scriptures to be written, and not the nature of the truth enshrined therein.” 2

In light of that it seems necessary to reiterate passages from the following papal encyclicals by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XII respectively:
Providentissimus Deus (Enchiridion Biblicum, 126-127):
"Hence, because the Holy Spirit 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…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…"3

Divino Afflante Spiritus (Enchiridion Biblicum, 539):
"The first and greatest care of Leo XIII was to set forth the teaching on the truth of the sacred Books and to defend it from attack. Hence with grave words did he proclaim that there is no error whatsoever if the sacred writer, speaking of things of the physical order, “went by what sensibly appeared,” as [St. Thomas Aquinas] says, speaking either in “figurative language or terms that were commonly used at the time and in many instances are in daily use at this day, even among the most eminent men of science.…divine inspiration “not only is essentially incompatible with error but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and as necessarily as it is impossible that God himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church." 4
In brief, in response to the question posed to Dr. Cummings it is still the teaching of the Church that all Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore inerrant down to the last word.
1. Robert Murray SJ, Vatican II and The Bible, a paper presented at the Symposium at the Fortieth Anniversary of Vatican II, Downside Review, January 2003:
2.Augustin Cardinal Bea, The Word of God and Mankind (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1967)190-191.
3. Dean P Bechard, ed. The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2002) 56.
4. Bechard, Scripture,116-117.




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