by Robert Sungenis, M.A., Ph.D.
On October 20, 2005, a Wanderer reader wrote to James Drummey’s “Catholic Replies” column with this question:
Q. During Vatican II, when the bishops were debating the schema on Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, they did not like “for our salvation” in the paragraph about the historicity of the Gospels. Pope Paul VI wrote a footnote that was to be inserted in the document. I cannot find this note in my copy of the documents of Vatican II. Could you give the wording of the note and tell me where to find it? P.O. Alberta.
Unfortunately, Mr. Drummey didn’t pay close attention to the question. The question asked whether Paul VI wrote a footnote that was to be inserted in the Dei Verbum document. The correct answer is: “No, there was no footnote from Paul VI that was to be inserted in the document.” Nevertheless, the Wanderer reader should have been made privy to the fact that a dispute about the wording of Dei Verbum 11 was brought to the attention of Paul VI. The dispute regarded the Latin word “salutarem” (salvific) in the phrase “salvific truth,” which we will cover momentarily.
Be that as it may, Mr. Drummey does two more things that are rather disturbing. Instead of addressing Paul VI’s contribution to the debate, he quotes a long commentary from Fr. Abbott, the “general editor” of the collection of 16 Vatican II documents. Fr. Abbott, of course, was not Pope Paul VI, and thus, why Mr. Drummey includes Fr. Abbott’s commentary becomes somewhat suspicious. (Wait until you find out who Fr. Abbott’s ghost writer was!).
Second, Mr. Drummey quotes Fr. Abbott’s commentary without any disclaimer or evaluation as to whether the comments are orthodox, or follow the true teaching of Vatican II, or follow the tradition of the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II. Mr. Drummey leaves Fr. Abbott’s commentary in solitude, thus giving the impression that Fr. Abbott had the last word on the subject.
Suffice it to say, Fr. Abbott not only did not have the last word, his words shouldn’t have even been entered into the discussion, not only because the questioner didn’t ask about Fr. Abbott, but because Fr. Abbott’s comments are simply out of protocol, let alone a dubious commentary on Dei Verbum 11. Fr. Abbott was not a “general editor” in the sense that he had the prerogative of replacing words and phrases from the 16 documents of Vatican II, or that he had the allowance to make commentary for the reader; rather, he merely collated and translated the 16 documents. Translators are supposed to give an accurate rendering of the original documents, not inject their biased interpretation in an effort to steer the reader to a certain viewpoint never intended by the Council.
So far my little tirade against Mr. Drummey might be confusing to you, since I haven’t yet told you what Fr. Abbott said that has me so concerned. So let us examine Fr. Abbott’s commentary and thereby correct any misinformation he disseminated to the Catholic reader about biblical inerrancy.
The subject at issue is the paragraph in Dei Verbum 11 regarding Scripture and the degree to which Scripture is inerrant. The paragraph in Dei Verbum 11, as recorded in Mr. Drummey’s response to his Wanderer questioner, is as follows:
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledge as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.
The phrase in question is “for the sake of our salvation.” Liberals who wish not to ascribe total inerrancy to Scripture claim that Dei Verbum 11 is teaching that Scripture is only inerrant when it speaks about matters of salvation. From their point of view, “for the sake of our salvation” necessarily means that Scripture could be, and often is, erroneous when it is speaking about history or science. Those who know their Catholic dogma, of course, recognize this to be a completely novel interpretation when compared to the rest of Catholic Tradition, since no official (or even unofficial) statement in Catholic history has ever held that Scripture could be in error regarding history or science, since both the history and the science is authored by the Holy Spirit, Who knows all and cannot lie.
Based on Tradition, the proper interpretation of Dei Verbum 11 is that Scripture is inspired and inerrant in all that it says so that it can serve as a sure guide for our salvation. In other words, it is inerrant “for the sake of our salvation.” In fact, this is precisely the interpretation formulated by Vatican II’s Theological Commission assigned to the drafting of Dei Verbum 11. The Commission stated that the original introduction of the word “salvific” into the sentence was meant to show that inerrancy applied to “the facts which are linked to the history of salvation in Scripture” (Harrison, p. 2, from the Latin: “facta quae in Scriptura cum historia salutis iunguntur”). Naturally, no one would want to base his salvation on a divine word that had error in it. If we found even one error within its pages, how could we trust what it said on anything?
But Fr. Abbott, being one of the liberals coming out of the Vatican II era, wanted to make sure he forestalled the traditional interpretation. Mr. Drummey reveals his commentary as follows:
An earlier draft of the Constitution had joined the adjective salutaris (‘tending to salvation’) to the word ‘truth.’ Another last-minute change substituted the phrase ‘for the sake of our salvation’ to avoid seeming to limit the truth itself. The point remains the same, and can be shown by quoting a text from the following official footnote. St. Thomas Aquinas says: ‘Any knowledge which is profitable to salvation may be the object of prophetic inspiration, But things which cannot affect our salvation do not belong to inspiration.’
First, let me enlighten you to what Fr. Abbott is not divulging. The liberal periti of Vatican II were seeking to have inerrancy limited to “salvific truth.” Knowing this, Paul VI requested that the word “salutarem” be removed from the sentence specifically because it may imply that inerrancy was limited to truth dealing only with salvation. The Commission took a vote but it failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority by two votes. In any case, the Commission redrafted the sentence to satisfy the pope. As it turned out, the phrase “salvific truth” was removed and the sentence now read: “which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” As Fr. Brian Harrison points out:
This is less ambiguous than before, since the “salvific” idea is no longer directly adjectival, qualifying “truth,” but adverbial, qualifying the verb “wished to see confided” (Latin: consignari voluit). In other words, the Council is saying that our salvation is the purpose God had in mind in giving us biblical truth – and this is certainly what the Church has always taught. Nevertheless, the ambiguity is not completely removed (and indeed, tends to be accentuated in the most common vernacular translations), because the whole clause is still adjectival, qualifying “truth.” If taken out of its historical and literary context, therefore, it is also capable of being given that unorthodox interpretation which Archbishop Philippe warned against in his observations of the insertion of salutarem. (The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture According to Dei Verbum 11, see here)
Second, let’s notice Fr. Abbott’s tactic. As recorded by Mr. Drummey, the footnotes attached to Dei Verbum 11’s phrase “for the sake of our salvation” consist of the following:
The official footnote at the end of this sentence cites the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, along with the encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII (Providentisimus Deus) and Pius XII (Divino Afflante Spiritu). This footnote can be found in Fr. Walter Abbott’s The Documents of Vatican II (Guild Press) and in volume I of Fr. Austin Flannery’s Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (St. Paul’s edition).
So what does Fr. Abbott do? He ignores all the footnotes directing us to the official statements from the Council of Trent, Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XII and goes right to St. Thomas. Obviously, he thinks Thomas is going to support his novel interpretation (that Scripture is only inerrant when it speaks about salvation), and he also must think that neither Trent nor Pope Leo XIII nor Pius XII provide him with any support for his interpretation.
Before we get to Thomas’ statement, let’s see what Dei Verbum’s footnotes teach us in the writings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII. Notice the uncompromising language regarding the total inerrancy of Scripture:
Pope Leo XIII, in Providentissimus Deus, “It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Sacred Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred.”
Pope Leo XIII: Providentissimus Deus: “For the sacred Scripture is not like other books. Dictated by the Holy Spirit, it contains things of the deepest importance, which, in many instances, are most difficult and obscure” (I, B, 2, b). He also says: “For all the books in their entirety...with all their parts, have been written under the dictation of the Holy Spirit” (DS 3292).
Pope Leo XIII: Providentissimus Deus: “It is futile to argue that the Holy Spirit took human beings as his instruments in writing, implying that some error could slip in...For by his supernatural power he so stimulated and moved them to write, and so assisted them while they were writing, that they properly conceived in their mind, wished to write down faithfully, and expressed aptly with infallible truth all those things, and only those things, which He himself ordered; otherwise He could not Himself be the author of the whole of Sacred Scripture” (DS 3293).
Pope Pius XII, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, repeats Leo XIII decree: “It is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Sacred Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred.”
Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu: “Hence the Catholic commentator, in order to comply with the present needs of biblical studies, in explaining the Sacred Scripture and in demonstrating and proving its immunity from all error, should also make a prudent use of this means, determine, that is, to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the sacred writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation; and let him be convinced that this part of his office cannot be neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis. Not infrequently – to mention only one instance – when some persons reproachfully charge the Sacred Writers with some historical error or inaccuracy in the recording of facts, on closer examination it turns out to be nothing else then those customary modes of expression and narration peculiar to the ancients [e.g., the sun rises], which used to be employed in the mutual dealings of social life and which in fact were sanctions by common usage.” In addition, in Humani Generis, Pius XII condemns the notion: “...immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters.”
As you can see, none of these passages say that Scripture is inerrant only in matters of salvation. In fact, in the above quote from Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius XII condemns the very hermeneutic espoused by Fr. Abbott and the liberals, a hermeneutic that, instead of “demonstrating and proving [Scripture’s] immunity from all error,” they “reproachfully charge the Sacred Writers with some historical error or inaccuracy in the recording of facts.” No one has ever said it better than Pius XII.
That Fr. Abbott is of this mold is also noted in the way the leading liberals of his day were interpreting Dei Verbum’s phrase “for the sake of our salvation.” The best example is Fr. Raymond Brown. In The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, pp. 8-9, listen to these amazing accusations against Holy Scripture from Fr. Brown:
In the last hundred years we have moved from an understanding wherein inspiration guaranteed that the Bible was totally inerrant to an understanding wherein inerrancy is limited to the Bible’s teaching of ‘that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.’ In this long journey of thought the concept of inerrancy was not rejected but was seriously modified to fit the evidence of biblical criticism which showed that the Bible was not inerrant in questions of science, of history, and even of time-conditioned religious beliefs.
Note that Fr. Brown admits Tradition had a totally opposite understanding of biblical inerrancy than his view. In addition, both Leo XIII and Pius XII, contrary to Fr. Brown’s assertion, never said that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was being “seriously modified” or that “the Bible was not inerrant in questions of science, of history, and even of time-conditioned religious beliefs.” As we noted from Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu, they stated just the opposite, and actually warned against the very hermeneutic that Fr. Brown and his liberal colleagues espouse, since they warned us that what was at one time thought to be an error in Scripture was found to be merely the way the ancients expressed themselves; and that knowing this, Pius XII insists it is the exegete’s job to make sure he does not “charge the Sacred Writers with some historical error or inaccuracy in the recording of facts.”
Apparently, Fr. Brown forgot Pius XII’s admonition, and perhaps that is why he doesn’t mention it in his New Jerome Biblical Commentary, but instead insists that at Vatican II “pre-voting debates show an awareness of errors in the Bible,” and then Fr. Brown uses this as a basis to conclude that “Thus, it is proper to take the clause [“for the sake of our salvation”] as specifying: Scriptural teaching is truth without error to the extent that it conforms to the salvific purpose of God” (p. 1169).
Unfortunately for Fr. Brown and his colleagues, “pre-voting debates” don’t determine Conciliar doctrine. Moreover, only the liberal periti were insisting that Scripture contained errors. The rest of the Vatican II fathers never gave their consent to it. (See my essay: Fr. Raymond Brown and the Demise of Catholic Scripture Scholarship). As we noted previously, Paul VI requested that the language of the third draft be changed specifically to protect the doctrine of total inerrancy. So yes, there were “pre-voting debates” but the evidence shows that the outcome of those debates preserved the traditional understanding of biblical inerrancy. That is why Dei Verbum 11 contains no unequivocal statement saying that Scripture contains errors.
In addition, Fr. Brown is trapped by his own words. If, as he stated, it as true that “Scriptural teaching is truth without error to the extent that it conforms to the salvific purpose of God,” the operative word here is “conforms,” and thus, in order to find error in Scripture Fr. Brown must demonstrate that certain statements in Scripture do not “conform” to the salvific purpose of God. Since “conforming to the salvific purpose of God” is an undefined and indefinite category, how would Fr. Brown be able to prove that a certain statement in Scripture did not “conform” (whatever he means by that word) to God’s salvific purpose? In other words, what in Scripture would not “conform” to God’s salvific purpose, especially if we presuppose that Scripture was given to us for the sake of our salvation? We will deal with this topic more in-depth in the latter part of this essay.
Incidentally, you will see above in Fr. Brown’s quote that not only does he believe that Scripture could be in error when it speaks “in questions of science and history,” but “even of time-conditioned religious beliefs.” And what might Fr. Brown designate as “time-conditioned religious beliefs”? I hope you’re sitting down. If not, grab a chair and hold your jaw:
I do not believe the demons inhabit desert places or the upper air, as Jesus and Paul thought….I see no way to get around the difficulty except by saying that Jesus and Paul were wrong on this point. They accepted the beliefs of their rimes about demons, but those beliefs were superstitious. (St. Anthony’s Messenger, May 1971, pp. 47-48).
But there is even more to this sordid story. The similarity in the teaching of Fr. Abbott and Fr. Brown on the phrase “for the sake of our salvation” is not coincidental. In the introduction to Fr. Abbott’s edition of Vatican II’s documents, Fr. Abbott mentions that he employed various “experts” to write short commentaries and unofficial footnotes regarding the 16 documents. Fr. Abbott specifically mentions Fr. Raymond Brown as one of his expert panel of “contributors and advisers,” yet none of their names are attached to the commentaries or footnotes they contributed. Only the name of Fr. Abbott appears as the “general editor.” Thus, it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that the “expert” behind Fr. Abbott’s footnote on Dei Verbum 1 was actually Fr. Raymond Brown, the one man who spent practically his whole life disseminating the idea that Scripture contained massive errors in its historical narratives.
With this in the background, let’s examine Fr. Abbott’s quote of St. Thomas:
“Thomas Aquinas says: ‘Any knowledge which is profitable to salvation may be the object of prophetic inspiration, but things which cannot affect our salvation do not belong to inspiration.’”
Now, what Fr. Abbott hopes you will conclude from this quote from Thomas’ De Veritate q. 12 is that there are certain statements in Scripture that concern salvation, and thus only those statements are provided to us by prophetic inspiration. Logically, Fr. Abbott also wants you to conclude that things in Scripture that are not concerning salvation are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Quite an audacious assertion, is it not?
But as audacious as it is, if read Fr. Abbott’s way, it simply proves too much for him. Note that the operative word in Thomas’ sentence is “inspiration,” not “inerrancy.” The word “inspiration” denotes the process by which the Holy Spirit gave to the human authors the words God decided to put into Scripture. Or, as Pope Leo XIII says above in Providentissimus Deus: “For the sacred Scripture is not like other books. Dictated by the Holy Spirit, it contains things of the deepest importance.”
“Inspiration” is similar to, but technically not the same as “inerrancy.” “Inspiration” refers only to the process of transmitting the words God chose for Scripture, while “inerrancy” refers to the fact that Scripture’s propositions are without error. The difference is noted in the following example: If Saul lied to David and said “God told me to kill you,” that statement of Saul’s, if recorded in Scripture, would be inspired, but it would also be a lie, since God didn’t tell Saul to kill David. So, not everything that is inspired is necessarily a true statement about life. It is true that Saul said it, but it is not true that God said it.
Hence, Fr. Abbott’s attempt to employ Thomas’ quote ends up saying that only the parts of Scripture that are speaking about salvation are inspired by God. The corollary of that premise is that God was not involved in the writing of any of Scripture’s other words. Again, it is quite an audacious claim. Fortunately, there is not a shred of truth to it, and Thomas never taught it.
But that’s not even the most important thing to see in Thomas’ statement. Let’s read the statement again:
‘Any knowledge which is profitable to salvation may be the object of prophetic inspiration, but things which cannot affect our salvation do not belong to inspiration.’
If we interpret this sentence in line with Catholic tradition, and in line with everything else Thomas said on the subject of biblical inerrancy, one can easily see that Thomas is not saying that only matters of salvation are inspired by God in Scripture; rather, he is simply saying that things profitable to salvation are usually given to us by prophetic inspiration and in that case they are found in Scripture. By the use of the word “may,” Thomas is not saying that everything profitable to salvation is always found in Scripture, but merely that Scripture is the main vehicle God has chosen to give us things profitable to salvation. Logically, there may be things that are profitable to salvation that are not found in Scripture. For example, someone may inspire us toward God by his good deeds or the advice he gives us. In addition, many oral traditions, inspired by the Apostles, are not written in Scripture (2 Thess 2:15), yet they lead us to salvation.
Likewise, when Thomas concludes the sentence with: “but things which cannot affect our salvation do not belong to inspiration,” he is merely saying that God communicates with us through inspired Scripture in order to lead us to salvation, and that those things that are not necessary for our salvation God does not put in Scripture. Notice how this thoroughly undercuts Fr. Abbott’s interpretation. Thomas is saying that everything put in Scripture is for our salvation, and he thus destroys the false dichotomy the liberals have made for the last forty years, that is, a dichotomy that erroneously distinguishes between Scripture’s salvation message and Scripture’s history.
Contrary to what Raymond Brown believed, Thomas is saying that the history of the bible IS part of the message of salvation, and that is why history is inspired and included in Scripture. The Bible’s history tells us how the redemptive plan developed, generation after generation, so that we can believe that the Bible is true. Why, for example, does Scripture spend time on genealogies (Adam begat Seth, Seth begat Enosh, etc)? Does Scripture do this because it wants to bore us with irrelevant details? No, not at all. It does so because it wants to show us an accurate record of history so that we will have an impregnable witness of redemption, unstained by the whims and prejudices of man. With that foundation we can thus believe that all of Scripture is the truth God wants us to believe (cf., John 20:31). If the history is true, then so is the salvation message, and vice-versa. To put it more bluntly, if one cannot be sure that Adam, Seth and Enosh existed then one cannot be sure Jesus Christ existed; and if one cannot be sure Jesus Christ existed, one cannot be sure he has salvation. Thus, Scripture is inerrant “for the sake of our salvation.”
Moreover, neither Fr. Abbott nor Fr. Brown can mollify the above equation by claiming:
“Well, we’re not saying that Scripture is so filled with error that we don’t know that the baby born in Bethlehem is Jesus Christ. We are saying only that there are some errors in Scripture, but the major historical facts are correct.”
Sorry, that won’t work. If Scripture is in error in one historical fact, it can be in error in many, or in all of its historical facts. As we will see later, Thomas himself accedes to this fact.
If Fr. Abbott or Fr. Brown attempt to refute this fact by claiming that Scripture’s historical events can be compared with non-Scriptural accounts in order to discover if Scripture’s history is correct (e.g., using Josephus’ history to verify the history of Scripture), this only begs the question, for how could one be certain that the non-Scriptural accounts are correct? One can’t use as proof what one hasn’t first proven. If one is not going to believe that Scripture’s historical events are accurate, how or why should one believe a non-Scriptural account is accurate, especially since the non-Scriptural account doesn’t claim to be inspired by the Holy Spirit? This is simply a case of a dog chasing its tail.
The facts are these: if there is one error in Scripture’s history, then no one is required to believe a word of Scripture, for one can simply conclude with all confidence that one error may mean there are millions of errors, and if Scripture is riddled with errors, it is not worth the paper it is written on. In essence, the view that Scripture is inerrant only when it speaks specifically about salvation is a view that actually destroys the possibility of salvation, since then there are no accurate historical facts to substantiate that the salvation message is based on real events.
In a court of law, the testimony of the witness is based upon his credibility and character. In fact, it is the prosecutor’s primary goal to impeach an opposing witness as an unreliable source so as to convince the jury that anything he says simply cannot be trusted. If we put Scripture on the witness stand, what jury in their right mind is going to believe what it says about one event if it lies about another? But this is exactly what the modernists and liberals are trying to make of Scripture – an entity that both lies and tells the truth.
But not only can we use the above arguments to explain what St. Thomas meant, we can use St. Thomas himself. Here is what St. Thomas says about biblical inerrancy in the Summa Theologica:
A thing is of faith, indirectly, if the denial of it involves as a consequence something against faith; as for instance if anyone said that Samuel was not the son of Elcana, for it follows that the divine Scripture would be false. ST, Q. 32, A. 4
In another place Thomas says:
But, as Augustine says in an Epistle to Jerome (Ep. 28), if but one untruth be admitted into the Sacred Scripture, the whole authority of the Scriptures is weakened. ST, Q. 55, A. 4
Notice that Thomas said the same thing I said above. If there is one error in Scripture, then Scripture has no authority.
Below is most of the letter Augustine wrote to Jerome that Aquinas cites. Notice that Augustine and Aquinas are in complete agreement about the total inerrancy of Scripture:
3. For it seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. It is one question whether it may be at any time the duty of a good man to deceive; but it is another question whether it can have been the duty of a writer of Holy Scripture to deceive: nay, it is not another question, it is no question at all. For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.
4. For if the Apostle Paul did not speak the truth when, finding fault with the Apostle Peter, he said: "If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?"; if, indeed, Peter seemed to him to be doing what was right, and if, notwithstanding, he, in order to soothe troublesome opponents, both said and wrote that Peter did what was wrong; if we say thus, what then shall be our answer when perverse men such as he himself prophetically described arise, forbidding marriage, if they defend themselves by saying that, in all which the same apostle wrote in confirmation of the lawfulness of marriage, he was, on account of men who, through love for their wives, might become troublesome opponents, declaring what was false, saying these things, forsook, not because he believed them, but because their opposition might thus be averted? It is unnecessary to quote many parallel examples. For even things which pertain to the praises of God might be represented as piously intended falsehoods, written in order that love for Him might be enkindled in men who were slow of heart; and thus nowhere in the sacred books shall the authority of pure truth stand sure. Do we not observe the great care with which the same apostle commends the truth to us, when he says: "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain: yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ; whom He raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not." If any one said to him, "Why are you so shocked by this falsehood, when the thing which you have said, even if it were false, tends very greatly to the glory of God ?" would he not, abhorring the madness of such a man, with every word and sign which could express his feelings, open clearly the secret depths of his own heart, protesting that to speak well of a falsehood uttered on behalf of God, was a crime not less, perhaps even greater, than to speak ill of the truth concerning Him? We must therefore be careful to secure, in order to our knowledge of the divine Scriptures, the guidance only of such a man as is imbued with a high reverence for the sacred books, and a profound persuasion of their truth, preventing him from flattering himself in any part of them with the hypothesis of a statement being made not because it was true, but because it was expedient, and making him rather pass by what he does not understand, than set up his own feelings above that truth. For, truly, when he pronounces anything to be untrue, he demands that he be believed in preference, and endeavors to shake our confidence in the authority of the divine Scriptures.
5. For my part, I would devote all the strength which the Lord grants me, to show that every one of those texts which are wont to be quoted in defense of the expediency of falsehood ought to be otherwise understood, in order that everywhere the sure truth of these passages themselves may be consistently maintained. For as statements adduced in evidence must not be false, neither ought they to favor falsehood. This, however, I leave to your own judgment. For if you apply more thorough attention to the passage, perhaps you will see it much more readily than I have done. To this more careful study that piety will move you, by which you discern that the authority of the divine Scriptures becomes unsettled (so that every one may believe what he wishes, and reject what he does not wish) if this be once admitted, that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us, could in their writings state some things which were not true, from considerations of duty; unless, perchance, you propose to furnish us with certain rules by which we may know when a falsehood might or might not become a duty. If this can be done, I beg you to set forth these rules with reasonings which may be neither equivocal nor precarious; and I beseech you by our Lord, in whom Truth was incarnate, not to consider me burdensome or presumptuous in making this request. For a mistake of mine which is in the interest of truth cannot deserve great blame, if indeed it deserves blame at all, when it is possible for you to use truth in the interest of falsehood without doing wrong.
So, contrary to the implication Fr. Abbott tried to posit with St. Thomas’ quotation, Thomas and Fr. Abbott’s are not even in the same playing field. We know this also by the fact that nowhere in all of Thomas’ writings does he ever say that Scripture contains error. Moreover, he never suggests that when Scripture speaks on matters concerned with salvation that only then is it error-free. If the Fr. Abbotts and Fr. Browns of the world think otherwise, then the challenge is for them to show us in the writings of Thomas where he sides with their view. Where does Thomas or any other doctor, council, pope or saint ever say that Scripture is inerrant only when it speaks about salvation? I can save them the time. They won’t be able to find any. But they will find a number of references in which Thomas says that Scripture is inerrant.
Now, let me deal with Fr. Abbott’s quote from St. Augustine. Mr. Drummey records Fr. Abbott’s commentary concerning Augustine as follows:
“Hence, Augustine says that although the sacred writers may have known astronomy, nevertheless the Holy Spirit did not intend to utter through them any truth apart from that which is profitable to salvation. He adds that this may concern either teaching to be believed or morals to be practiced.”
“The Bible was not written in order to teach the natural sciences, nor to give information on political history. It treats of these (and all other subjects) only insofar as they are involved in matters concerning salvation. It is only in this respect that the veracity of God and the inerrancy of the sacred writers are engaged. This is not a quantitative distinction, as though some sections treated of salvation (and were inerrant), while other gave merely natural knowledge (and were fallible). It is formal, and applies to the whole text. The latter is authoritative and inerrant in what it affirms about the Revelation of God and the history of salvation. According to the intentions of its authors, divine and human, it makes no other affirmations.”
Before we get to Augustine’s statement, let us clear the air regarding Fr. Abbott’s contention that “Augustine says that although the sacred writers may have known astronomy, nevertheless the Holy Spirit did not intend to utter through them any truth apart from that which is profitable to salvation.”
Scripture’s treatment of science has become the favorite whipping boy for the liberal exegetes who want to find error in Scripture. Because Scripture doesn’t use formulas like E = mc2or F = ma, many regard its words about nature as primitive musings of uneducated people. Moreover, we’ve all heard the adage: “Scripture is not a science book.” That statement is true enough, but it is often abused and exaggerated by the liberal exegetes. Yes, Scripture is not a science book, and I dare say that if God spoke to us in scientific language neither Fr. Abbott nor Fr. Brown would be able to understand it because it would be so far over their heads. But even though we can all agree that Scripture is not a science book, we should also agree that in the few times Scripture decides to touch upon an area of science, then its statements are true and inerrant.
Let’s take a familiar example to understand this relationship. We can certainly agree that the Constitution of the United States and Declaration of Independence are not religious documents. But everyone will also agree that when either of them address a matter of religion, everyone gives their undivided attention and are ready to obey, since everyone in the United States accepts that they are giving factual statements about how the founding fathers regarded religion, and which recognition forms the basis of the two documents.
Constitution: Amendment 1: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof...”
Declaration of Independence: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...”
As such, we take their statements on religion as factual, even though the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were not designed to be religious treatises. The same is true with Scripture. Since Scripture is inerrant in all that it says, in the few times Scripture ventures into the area of science, we can trust that it is giving us factual truth about science without the slightest error. As John Henry Newman notes:
...it is true...that Revelation has in one or two instances advanced beyond its chosen territory, which is the invisible world, in order to throw light upon the history of the material universe. Holy Scripture...does declare a few momentous facts, so few that they may be counted, of a physical character. It speaks of a process of formation out of chaos which occupied six days; it speaks of the firmament, of the sun and moon being created for the sake of the earth; of the earth being immovable; of a great deluge and of several other similar facts and events. (The Idea of a University (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), p. 399.)
Now, let’s deal with the citation Fr. Abbott makes from Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis, and which is also cited by Dei Verbum 11. When we examine this passage in context, you will see a completely different picture than what Fr. Abbott and Fr. Brown are trying to paint. The passage at issue from Augustine is the following:
Hence, I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation. (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis Book 2, Chapter 9, paragraph 20).
But let’s begin by examining the context of Chapter 9 of The Literal Interpretation of Genesis
Concerning the shape of the material heaven, Augustine writes:
20) It is also frequently asked what our belief must be about the form and shape of heaven according to Scared Scripture. Many scholars engage in lengthy discussions on these matters, but the sacred writers with their deeper wisdom have omitted them. Such subjects are of no profit for those who seek beatitude, and, what is worse, they take up very precious time that ought to be given to what is spiritually beneficial. What concern is it of mine whether heaven is like a sphere and the earth is enclosed by it and suspended in the middle of the universe, or whether heaven like a disk above the earth covers it over on one side?
But the credibility of Scripture is at stake, and as I have indicated more than once, there is danger that a man uninstructed in divine revelation, discovering something in Scripture or hearing from it something that seems to be at variance with the knowledge he has acquired, may resolutely withhold his assent in other matters where Scripture presents useful admonitions, narratives, or declarations. Hence, I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation.
Now a few comments. Notice in the second paragraph that Augustine is concerned about “the credibility of Scripture” that he has mentioned other times in his writings. One of those instances is in the Confessions (“...the credibility of the Scripture is at stake,” Bk 2, Ch 9). Hence, this is a very important topic for him.
Augustine’s concern is that a scientist not familiar with Scripture or how its authors write may read a scriptural passage that seems to be at odds with what the scientist believes to be true from science. And because he thinks Scripture is in error concerning that particular scientific topic, he may then be tempted to question the veracity of Scripture in places where it speaks about even more important matters, e.g., faith and morals. So, in order to avoid this temptation, Augustine says that the sacred writers did not delve too deeply into the areas of science, since providing such detailed information would not enhance the path to salvation any more than what Scripture already provides for us. According to Augustine, it is enough to know that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, not whether he created the heavens in a doughnut-shape or a sphere.
Now, let’s ask the fair question: Did Augustine, at any time, say that Scripture was inerrant only when it spoke about faith and morals? No, he merely said that Scripture refrained from getting into many areas of science precisely because the sacred writers did not want to cause confusion in the minds of men. But Augustine did not say that during the times Scripture touched upon an area of science that it could then be in error. In fact, as we will see in subsequent paragraphs, Augustine says just the opposite. He says that, when Scripture speaks about science, it is not in error, and that it is our job to interpret science in light of Scripture! Let’s move on in the context:
21) But someone may ask: “Is not Scripture opposed to those who hold that heaven is spherical, when it says, who stretches out heaven like a skin?” Let it be opposed indeed if their statement is false. The truth is rather in what God reveals than in what groping men surmise. But if they are able to establish their doctrine with proofs that cannot be denied, we must show that this statement of Scripture about the skin is not opposed to the truth of their conclusions. If it were, it would be opposed also to Sacred Scripture itself in another passage where it says that heaven is suspended like a vault. For what can be so different and contradictory as a skin stretched out flat and the curved shape of a vault? But if it is necessary, as it surely is, to interpret these two passages so that they are shown not to be contradictory but to be reconcilable, it is also necessary that both of these passages should not contradict the theories that may be supported by true evidence, by which heaven is said to be curved on all sides in the shape of a sphere, provided only that this is proved.
Notice how gently but firmly Augustine handles this subject. First, Augustine gives no hint that, when Scripture decides to speak about an area of science it could be giving us erroneous information. He does his best to show that Scripture could never be in error. If it happens that men can prove that the universe is not “stretched out,” then Augustine says “we must show that this statement of Scripture about the skin is not opposed to the truth of their conclusions.” St. Robert Bellarmine used the same reasoning in his deliberations with Galileo. If Galileo could prove that the earth went around the sun, then Bellarmine conceded that Scripture would have to be interpreted differently to accommodate the proof of science. Note that neither Augustine nor Bellarmine said that in such cases Scripture would be in error; rather, Scripture would be reinterpreted. (Incidentally, Galileo never provided any proof of his claims. All the Galileo historians have admitted as much).
But this brings up a very crucial point. Notice above how many times Augustine says that the scientist must first “prove” his claims, not merely have a strong belief in them or think them plausible. Twice Augustine says that proof is required: “But if they are able to establish their doctrine with proofs that cannot be denied” and “provided only that this is proved.”
Augustine is no fool. It is one thing for a scientist to assert what he believes as evidence for his theory; it is a much more difficult task for him to provide us with absolute proof of his theory; that only his and no other theory explains the phenomenon; that his theory has been tested and retested without flaw; and that by the accepted laws of science we do not expect that anyone at anytime will overturn his theory. That is quite a tall order. Being involved in science for over 30 years, I can tell you that no one has proof of hardly anything in science, let alone proof of the esoteric undertakings of cosmology and the inner workings of the atom. Most scientists admit this problem. They have evidence, hunches, suspicions, statistics, guesses, estimates, hypotheses, but virtually no proof. That is why scientific theories change about every 50-100 years or so, since new theories continually replace the old theories. As Max Born once said: “Science progresses funeral by funeral.”
As such, Augustine’s dictum that science must first prove its case before we even entertain the idea of interpreting Scripture figuratively, let alone allow Scripture to be accused of containing error, is an almost impossible task for scientists to accomplish. With the state of science the way it is now, we can safely say that there is no scientific proof in existence that would put in doubt any proposition of Scripture.
Now, let’s continue on with Augustine’s context in Chapter 9 of The Literal Interpretation of Genesis:
22) Our picture of heaven as a vault, even when taken in a literal sense, does not contradict the theory that heaven is a sphere. We may well believe that in speaking of the shape of heaven Scripture wished to describe that part which is over our heads. If, therefore, it is not a sphere, it is a vault on that side on which it covers the earth; but if it is a sphere, it is a vault all around. But the image of the skin presents a more serious difficulty: we must show that it is reconcilable not with the sphere (for that may be only a man-made theory) but with the vault of Holy Scripture. My allegorical interpretation of this passage can be found in the thirteenth book of my Confessions. Whether the description of heaven stretched out like a skin is to be taken as I have interpreted it there or in some other way, here I must take into account the doggedly literal-minded interpreters and say what I think is obvious to everyone from the testimony of the senses. Both the skin and the vault perhaps can be taken as figurative expressions; but how they are to be understood in a literal sense must be explained. If a vault can be not only curved but also flat, a skin surely can be stretched out not only on a flat plane but also in a spherical shape. Thus, for instance, a leather bottle and an inflated ball are made of skin.
Notice how Augustine persists in trying to find a scientific answer regarding the two seemingly contradictory statements: heaven is “a vault” but is also a “skin.” It is not our concern, however, whether Augustine can provide us with a scientific answer; rather, our only concern is his methodology of biblical hermeneutics. Does Augustine ever accuse Scripture of error when such difficult propositions face him? Certainly not. Even if science could prove its case against a face-value reading of Scripture, Augustine does not commit to saying that Scripture erred; rather, he insists that we must reinterpret Scripture to conform to provable facts, that is, if science can provide us with provable facts.
Although now that we have shown Augustine cannot be interpreted to mean that Scripture contains errors when it speaks about science or history, it is interesting to note that modern science does, indeed, now provide evidence that the universe was “stretched out like a skin,” and that this expansion presumes the skin is at the outer edge of the universe. The “expanding universe” is almost common parlance in astrophysics today. As such, there are many passages in Scripture that confirm this to be the case: Jb 9:8; Ps 104:2; Is 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 51:13; Jr 51:15; Zc 12:1. Based on the stipulation in Gn 1:8 that “God called the firmament heaven,” the term “heaven” is often interchangeable with “firmament.” In regards to the “expansion of the heavens,” Jb 9:8 contains the Hebrew Qal participle, which can refer to a progressive “stretching out,” and matches the progressive speech in the preceding verse: “the One speaking to the sun, and it does not rise and to the stars he sets a seal.” The same Qal participle appears in Ps 104:2 and Is 42:5 in a similar context of progressive action, whereas Is 44:24 uses the same Qal participle but could refer to a single act or a progressive action. Is 45:12 uses the Qal perfect referring to a past act, as does Jr 51:15. In Is 51:13 the Qal participle is coupled with a past act (“founded the Earth”), yet Zc 12:1 uses the Qal participle coupled with two other Qal participles (“founding the Earth” and “forms the spirit of man within him,” the latter of which is a continuing action). All in all, the evidence leans towards the “stretching out” as an event with a definitive beginning in the past but in continual progress, at least for some indefinite period of time, and thus a process that did not cease on Day Two of creation week.
What we have shown, then, is that not only is science disallowed from declaring that Scripture is in error when Scripture speaks about science, but also that some of the evidence we have obtained from science actually supports the biblical language concerning the cosmos, and thus we have answered Augustine’s scientific inquiry.
Other passages in Augustine’s The Literal Interpretation of Genesis:
In discussions about Scripture and science, one of the most oft quoted passages from Augustine that is commandeered by those who think Scripture has nothing to say about science, or by those who attempt to make it appear as if Augustine taught that science trumped Scripture in regard to scientific issues, is the passage below:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world...Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.… Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Bk 1, Ch. 19, No. 39)
Seizing on Augustine’s words, many chide those who seek to extract scientific knowledge from Scripture, accusing them of “presuming a meaning on Scripture” that in scientific terms is “nonsense,” which causes an “embarrassing situation” and a “laughing to scorn” of the “wiser brethren” of Christianity. For example, Catholics who seek to interpret the opening chapters of Genesis in a more literal fashion are usually accused of imposing science on Scripture, or vice-versa.
In his search for solutions, the literalist retorts that he is not causing an “embarrassing situation,” and he can prove it by bringing Augustine to his aid. He will tell the non-literalist that he is misconstruing Augustine’s words, and that in reality, Augustine’s admonition is more applicable to the non-literalist than the literalist. For Augustine goes on to explain to whom he is applying his words a few pages later.
In Book 2, Chapters 4-5 of The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, the question of the “water above the firmament” (Genesis 1:6-9) comes to the fore. These distant waters have been one of the more divisive issues between literalists and non-literalists, since the firmament is, according to Genesis 1:14-17, the heavens in which the sun and stars were placed, yet Genesis 1:7 insists that there are waters above the firmament, that is, above the heavens. The logical question is: if the “water above” is to be taken literally, then how is this possible, for it seems to contradict what some claim we know from science. In answer, Augustine begins by referring to vaporous waters in the air as a possible solution. He writes:
Taking these theories into account, a certain commentator [Basil] has made a praiseworthy attempt to demonstrate that the waters are above the heavens, so as to support the word of Scripture with the visible and tangible phenomena of nature....Hence, from the existence of the air between the vapors that form the clouds above and the seas that stretch out below, our commentator proposed to show that there is a heaven between water and water. This painstaking enquiry is, in my opinion, quite praiseworthy.
But Augustine goes even further in the next analysis, for now he tries to show that there are waters even above the starry heavens. He does so by calling into question the prevailing scientific theories of his day, and in the end, he relies on the veracity of Scripture, no matter how hard it may be to accept. He writes:
Certain writers, even among those of our faith, attempt to refute those who say that the relative weights of the elements make it impossible for water to exist above the starry heaven. They base their arguments on the properties and motions of the stars. They say that the star called Saturn is the coldest star, and that it takes thirty years to complete its orbit in the heavens because it is higher up and therefore travels over a wider course.
Augustine will go on to argue that Saturn, which was then understood as a star, generates heat as it makes its orbit, but it is cooled by the waters near it, above the heavens, even though some in Augustine’s day denied that these waters existed. He writes:
It is true, indeed, that by its own motion, moving over a vast space, it takes thirty years to complete its orbit; yet by the motion of the heavens it is rotated rapidly in the opposite direction...and therefore, it ought to generate greater heat by reason of its greater velocity. The conclusion is, then, that it is cooled by the waters that are near it above the heavens, although the existence of these waters is denied by those who propose the explanation of the motion of the heavens and the stars that I have briefly outlined.
Finally, although admitting he may not have the precise solution to the issue, nevertheless, Augustine maintains that Scripture is the greater authority in this realm of science, and if Scripture says that the water is there, then it is there:
With this reasoning some of our scholars attack the position of those who refuse to believe that there are waters above the heavens while maintaining that the star whose path is in the height of the heavens is cold. Thus they would compel the disbeliever to admit that water is there not in a vaporous state but in the form of ice. But whatever the nature of that water and whatever the manner of its being there, we must not doubt that it does exist in that place. The authority of Scripture in this matter is greater than all human ingenuity. (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 2, Ch. 5, No 9.)
In contrast to Augustine’s determination to take Scripture at its word and afterward seek for evidence, Stanley Jaki, another liberal theologian who rarely interprets Scripture in its literal sense, sees Augustine’s resolve as misguided. After recognizing that “Augustine looked for it in a vaporous layer in the orb of Saturn,” (p. 26), Jaki writes:
Augustine’s search for the firmament should seem baffling. It certainly seemed to slight the very sound principle he had already laid down in respect to reconciling truths known by reason about the physical world with corresponding propositions in the Bible (Bible and Science, p. 95.)
We can understand why it is “baffling” for Jaki since Augustine had earlier suggested that it was proper to give due diligence to scientific truths and only then find the corresponding proposition in Scripture which matched it. But in reality Jaki is “baffled” because he has misunderstood Augustine. It was never Augustine’s intention to give an absolute authority to science. The only time Augustine allowed science to have the first place was when it could prove its claims. In effect, although he tried to be fair with science, Augustine always held that Scripture’s propositions had the first place, and then could one search for a corresponding scientific truth, not vice-versa. Obviously, that is the case with Augustine’s view of the waters above the firmament, since for him, regardless of whether he had the right scientific answer to its location and composition, “the authority of Scripture in this matter is greater than all human ingenuity.”
The most penetrating aspect of Augustine’s bold defense of Scripture is that it is said in a context in which the objector doubts whether water above the firmament exists at all! Augustine’s answer is simple: We may not know where or in what form it resides, but based on Scripture we know for certain that it exists. This is where Augustine starts. Scripture is his bedrock of truth. Hence we can safely say that, for Augustine, the “embarrassing situation” does not occur when a faithful expositor tries to find scientific support for biblical propositions, but when the biblical skeptic tries to elevate scientific theory into fact without proof, requiring Scripture either to conform to the theory, or make Scripture totally ignorant of any theory.
Incidentally, since Dei Verbum 11 also cited Thomas Aquinas to verify the understanding of biblical inerrancy, we might add that Aquinas said the same as Augustine regarding the superiority of Scripture to decide such matters:
Whether, then, we understand by the firmament the starry heaven, or the cloudy region of the air, it is true to say that it divides the waters from the waters, according as we take water to denote formless matter, or any kind of transparent body, as fittingly designated under the name of waters... (Summa Theologica, Bk. 1, Q. 68, A. 3).
As we can now see, the case is closed. Every reference cited in the footnotes of Dei Verbum 11 (namely, Trent, Leo XIII, Pius XII, Aquinas, Augustine) supports the fact that there are no errors in Scripture, including science and history. This is the total opposite of what liberals such as Fr. Abbott and Fr. Brown have taught the last forty years.
As such, it is Fr. Abbott and Fr. Brown who are in error, not Dei Verbum and certainly not Scripture.
Robert A. Sungenis, M.A., Ph.D. (cd)
Catholic Apologetics International