What do Catholics believe about the divine inspiration of scripture?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Friday 14, December 2012 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Scripture

Roman Catholicism is a Bible-grounded religion and couldn’t be otherwise. Granted, Catholics don’t espouse the sola scriptura ("scripture alone") angle of Martin Luther: along with scripture, Catholics and many other Christians weigh the authority of the tradition which collected, preserved, and promoted the holy writings to begin with. In no way does this cheapen our relationship to the Bible itself. From sacraments to catechisms, everything we do and believe is steeped in scripture.

Vatican II said it best: “The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum, no. 11). We believe the Bible was written, edited, and selected under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that both Testaments are so inspired, and that God is their author in an ultimate sense. It should be noted that the word “author” in Latin has wider range than in English and means “producer” more than writer. That means God worked with the Bible’s human authors, called “true authors” in Dei Verbum, using their skills to bring these truths to light. The human writers weren’t simply taking dictation but were genuine collaborators in the message they rendered.

Our understanding of scripture has evolved, obviously: Justin Martyr (100-165) described the evangelists as mere stenographers. Second-century apologist Athenagoras said God used scripture writers “as a flautist might blow into a flute.” In the same period, however, Origen was writing about “illumination” of the writer’s mind rather than a complete mental invasion. He also considered levels of inspiration and the possibility of error in both Testaments owing to the authors’ humanity. Errors in the text, it should be said, would not contradict our present understanding that there is no error in “the truth which God . . . wished to see confided” there for the sake of our salvation. Acknowledging such historical or prescientific miscalls is a far cry from saying the Bible is either factually accurate with every word or altogether poppycock.

Augustine allowed for inaccuracies and how literary form shapes divinely inspired truth. Fellow 4th-century citizen John Chrysostom said if God’s Word could come to earth in human flesh as Jesus, it could likewise “condescend” to the forms and humble talents of human authors. Thomas Aquinas called inspiration “something imperfect” within the larger category of prophecy. The imperfection, no doubt, resides as much in the hearer as in the writer.

Scripture
2 Samuel 23:2; Matthew 1:22-23; John 20:30-31; 21:24-25; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 4:7; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16

Online
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum

Books
The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings ed. and trans. by Dean P. Bechard (Liturgical Press, 2002)
Listening to God’s Word
by Alice Camille (Orbis Books, 2009)

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