The Religion of the Scriptures – Inspiration

– by Father J. P. Arendzen, D.D., M.A., Old Testament Professor at Saint Edmund’s College, Ware, and Father R. Downey, D.D., both of the Catholic Missionary Society, London

According to the Catholic Church the Bible is different from all other books in the world in that it is inspired. What does she mean by this word inspired? She does not mean it in an off-hand, general, vague sort of sense in which Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, or other great poets are said to be inspired, or as great reformers, politicians, lawyers may be inspired in expressing high ideals. The inspiration she predicates of the Bible is different not merely in degree but in kind, from that human enthusiasm for the beautiful, the noble, the good, which carries away poets and politicians in their speeches and books. The Catholic Church means something not merely human, but something in a unique sense divine.

Again she does not mean that the Bible is merely a record of an inspired nation or of the careers of inspired prophets, such as Moses, Isaias, or Amos. The Old Testament does indeed contain the record of a divine revelation, but such a record might well in itself be merely human, not divine.

She does not mean that the contents of the Bible are necessarily revealed by God, for obviously the Bible contains a great deal that is not revealed at all – long books full of historical records, in some cases laboriously gathered from pre-existing works and writings, such as the Book of the Wars of the Lord, or the five books of Jason, of which II Maccabees is a resume, or the sources which Saint Luke diligently searched and often verbally copied into his gospel.

She does not mean that inspiration is necessarily a sort of conscious state of the writer when he penned his inspired book. Obviously in many cases the inspired writer did not himself know that he was inspired. Apparently Saint Luke did not know, clearly the author of II Maccabees did not know, otherwise he would scarcely have asked the leniency of his readers for his literary shortcomings. Some authors may have known personally that they were inspired, but the Catholic Church has in no individual case decided whether they knew or not.

She does not mean that the Bible is merely guaranteed by God as being true and containing no error. Inerrancy is one thing, inspiration another. She believes the ex cathedra definition of Popes to be infallibly true, but she has never made the claim that they were inspired. It is infallibly true to say that there was a war between England and Germany from 1914 to 1918, but the statement could hardly be described as inspired.

She does not mean that the Bible in a supreme sort of way is devotional or stimulating to faith or piety, or that it is the highest expression of souls in mystic union of God. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis is much more devotional, sublime, and stimulating to piety than, say, the Book of Leviticus or Numbers or Ecclesiastes.

She does not mean by inspiration the drawing up of the catalogue or list of books, put by her in the Canon of Scripture, or the Library of Sacred Books of Jewry and Christianity, as if her registration in the official religious library of Christianity or her official sanction and approval made these books inspired. She utterly repudiates such a notion. She cannot make a book inspired, though she believes herself empowered in- fallibly to decide that a book has been inspired by God.

She does not mean that the Sacred Books are inspired because they have been written by prophets or apostles. In many instances she does not know who wrote the books of the Old Testament – to suppose that prophets wrote them would be utterly gratuitous. Mark and Luke were not apostles; the end of Mark may be by a person totally unknown. She does not teach as of faith that Saint Peter approved of Saint Mark, or Saint Paul of Saint Luke, as if apostolic approbation were of the essence of inspiration. Inspired for her is far more than merely being backed by the authority of prophets or apostles.

She does not mean that the Old Testament is accounted inspired because it is the official sacred literature of the Jews as the people of God, or the New Testament because it contains the official record of earliest Christianity. But if she does not mean any of these things, what then does she mean?

She does not mean that at any time God whispered audibly, or within the mind of the human author miraculously created the mental pictures or phantasms of the words, and that the sacred writer had only to copy out what was given to him by the Deity. It is too obvious that these sacred writers kept their own style and mode of expression and remained in some sense “just themselves,” though they were inspired.

Inspiration is some kind of unique relation in the order of efficient causality between God and the inspired book. Such inspiration is a supernatural fact, by its very nature known only to God and to whomsoever He pleases to reveal it. Hence the only judge whether a book is inspired or not is the Catholic Church. As is well known, she hands to her children as inspired the books of Tobias, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and the two books of the Maccabees, together with the last seven chapters of the book of Esther, and some chapters in the Book of Daniel. These writings are not accounted inspired by Protestants, and are styled by them Apocrypha. Yet they are attested as inspired by the same authority which attests the inspiration of the Gospels or the Epistles of Saint Paul. If that authority erred in attesting the inspiration of Ecclesiasticus, it may have erred in attesting the inspiration of Saint Mark, and the only ground on which our assent to the inspiration of any book in the Bible rests would be gone. Inspiration is a fact in itself not ascertainable by unaided human reason, and depending for its proclamation exclusively on revelation from God, who alone can attest that a certain writing stands in that unique relation to Himself.

God Himself is the author of the Book. The divine and the human author do not share the production of the book in the sense that one half of it is God’s and the other half man’s. It is totally God’s and totally man’s. God is the primary Author, using a free agent as His instrument. They are but instrumental causes in the hands of God.

Who these agents were, Moses, or Isaias, or Matthew, is a matter of indifference as regards the fact of inspiration, and in consequence not necessarily confided to the teaching authority of the Church. In the case of some writings she clearly professes ignorance as to who the human authors were and lets her children freely dispute about the human authorship. In other cases where the authorship of a particular human being seems demanded, either by an apparently unbroken tradition, or by reason of the relation of the book to other Scripture texts, or because the question of authorship is bound up with the maintenance of certain revealed doctrines, she has gravely warned her children not too easily to set aside the commonly reputed author. She could, moreover, although she has never as yet done so, define infallibly the human authorship of certain books if she found this implied in the deposit of the Faith. Thus she might define the Davidic authorship of some Psalms, because of their being quoted as such by Christ, or the Mosaic authorship of some sections of the Pentateuch because it is implied in our Lord’s reference to Moses as testifying to Him.

Now inspiration necessarily involves the absolute veracity of every statement of the Bible; for as God wrote it, and God cannot lie, the Bible cannot contain error of any kind. This complete inerrancy of Scripture does not, however, of necessity imply that every statement must be taken in a literal sense, and as true in that literal sense.

God speaks to men in a human way, and He speaks to them in a language representing a certain period of human progress. He uses language commonly used by the contemporaries of the human writer. The “sun rises and sets,” the rain “comes down from heaven.” Even in reference to historical matters He uses terms and designations in currency at the time. If God referred to the battle between William and Harold in 1066, He might call it the “Battle of Hastings,” because that is the only term now used to designate that particular conflict, though some people now try to show the inaccuracy of that local designation. The Bible, however, could not contain a definite assertion that a certain battle took place at a certain date and locality, if this were not really true. Any statement which is the direct assertion of a certain fact must be true, for God can neither deceive nor be deceived.

Furthermore, God can use any literary composition He chooses. God could inspire a novel if He so chose. Apparently He has not done so, but there is nothing in the doctrine of inspiration which would preclude the possibility. God can inspire poetry. The Book of Job is in metrical lines practically throughout. It is poetry, hence we are not bound to believe that Job sat on the dunghill and recited hundreds on hundreds of verses, and that his friends answered him in verse too. The Book of Job is inspired throughout, and is absolutely true throughout, but it must be understood as poetry is normally understood.

What, then, does inspiration really involve? Here we can only quote the passage of Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus, issued in 1893, which has become classical in its precise exposition of the results of inspiration as far as we can understand it. Herein we learn that the Holy Ghost “by supernatural power so moved and impelled them [the sacred writers] to write – He was so present to them – that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise it could not be said that He was author of the entire Scripture.”

If we analyse this classical passage we find first of all that it excludes the notion – already by implication condemned by the Vatican Council – that a writing could become inspired by any subsequent approbation, adoption or guarantee of infallibility by the Holy Ghost. The action of the Holy Ghost is antecedent and concomitant, but not subsequent to the composition of the book. It is an impulse and a movement not a following sanction. Then we find that it describes the effect produced by divine action on the human faculties, that is to say: the intelligence, the will and the executive faculties. God first moved the will. The initiative comes from God. He set the human will in action by physical premotion. He moved the human writer spontaneously and freely to write the book which God willed to be written precisely as God willed it. How God can move the human will without forcing it we do not understand. It is not a question that need detain us here. The writer was often aware of this inspiration, oftentimes he was not. Then God illumines the mind so that the mind correctly conceives the book to be written. Not that God necessarily reveals anything, for everything contained in the book may already have been known, or laboriously gathered from other informants or books; not that God must needs throw words or sentences as it were from outside on to the screen of the mind, but God enlightens the mind and, supernaturally aiding the intellect, makes it conceive, judge, reason, as He wills, without necessarily adding to the objects of knowledge. Finally, God so guards the executive faculties, hand, eye, ear, memory, that what the writer conceived and willed to write is written correctly.

In consequence, God is the primary author of the book when finished. True the style of Isaias is not the style of Jeremias, just as a man writing with a quill produces other script than a man who writes with a steel nib. God used a living, free-will and an intelligent agent, and used them exactly as they were. He could have used other instruments, but He did not. He could have overridden imperfections of style, but He did not. He willed the book as it is. Hence, though we do not hold verbal inspiration in the sense that the words were directly supplied to the human author by God, nevertheless God is immediately responsible for, and acknowledges as His own, the whole of the Scriptures and every word of it, so that we cannot say either that now and then words or sentences slipped through which were uninspired and merely human, or that the words are human and only the underlying thoughts divine. The ultimate result of inspiration is the written book, not the internal thoughts of the writer. Least of all, of course, dare we say that the devotional or religious parts are God’s and the matters pertaining to revelation or morality, but that the historical parts are only human. As God, then, is the author of the Bible, for the Catholic there never can be any question as to its truth, the only question is as to its meaning. In discussing this meaning Catholic scholars have in a few cases the infallible decision of the Church, which has settled definitely the meaning of a small number of texts. For the bulk, however, they are left to the resources of scholarship to infer the meaning from the context, from the interpretation of antiquity, and from the light thrown upon them by history and science. Hence, Catholic Biblical scholars are untrammelled in their scientific research work with regard to the Bible. The decisions sometimes issued by lower – not infallible – tribunals of the Church on Biblical matters must, indeed, be received with internal as well as external reverence, but they aim at producing a much-needed and rational caution in treating such a sacred matter as the Written Word of God. Catholic scholars of whatever eminence realize that, official, though not final, utterances of Church authorities, to whom the custody of the Bible is divinely committed, are at least more likely to be true than the findings of their own individual scholarship.

Catholics, then, in studying the Bible realize that they are face to face now with poetry, now with prose, now with primitive history but metaphorically told, now with history proper in its minute and modern sense, now with law, now with exhortation and prophecy; and all need their own rules of interpretation. Yet inspiration is not something which ebbs and flows, which is at its highest say in Saint John or Isaias, at its lowest in Leviticus or Judges. It is as inspiration something absolute, a fact admitting no degrees. True Saint John, when he wrote the Prologue to his Gospel, may have been favoured by divine revelation, whereas the author of II Maccabees was not. But revelation is not inspiration, and the Fourth Gospel and II Maccabees are equally inspired.

But you may ask what does inspiration in the case of II Maccabees really come to? It is only an abridgment of the five books of Jason. Were these books extant we might find the whole of the Bible book in the larger uninspired work, with the exception perhaps of a sentence here and there.

To this we answer it was God who wrote II Maccabees, using the material of Jason’s book, hence God reaffirmed His statements and made them His own by His selection and endorsement and embodiment in His book, thus becoming truly author of them as they stand in II Maccabees.

But again you may ask: may we not see in the Bible a great number of tacit quotations, passages which are just given for what they are worth, and therefore not adopted by the inspired writer as his own, and thus possibly containing many errors for which the human authors of the sources only are responsible? Cannot we say that Moses or Isaias or Ezra make a quotation while declining responsibility for its truth?

Speaking in the abstract, this is possible, and a small number of such quotations might possibly be found, but we are warned by the Church not to extend this “tacit quotation” theory beyond its true limits. Such quotations are only to be admitted on the gravest and clearest grounds, and in individual instances, for the wholesale application of this theory is utterly alien to the mind of the Church, and would completely eviscerate the Bible of its contents and make inspiration a phantom and a mockery. Would our concept of inspiration allow us to acknowledge that Biblical history was only history as it was understood in those days with all the latitude allowed to such primitive history? When, for instance, speeches are put on the lips of Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, may we regard them as we do the speeches put into the mouth of various worthies by Livy or Caesar, which no one believes were actually spoken, but just manufactured by the historian to express what one may well guess to have been the sentiments of the party concerned? Speaking purely in the abstract, this might have been conceivable, but it is not admissible in the concrete. With regard to the words put on the lips of Our Lord and His Apostles in the New Testament, the Church, which hands us the books as inspired, also hands them to us as historically correct in detail. What sort of method a Matthew, a John, or a Luke pursued in their own historical books is as a matter of fact known within the Church on historic data. With regard to the words of the Saviour Himself, mere common sense would suggest that unless they were truly His as they stand, and not merely the historian’s idea of what the situation demanded, they would be valueless. Since, however, trifling variations occur in the same speeches as recorded by different evangelists, and since, as a matter of fact, these speeches of Our Lord are only given in a Greek translation, not in the Aramaic original, it is plain that inspiration did not supply as it were shorthand reports of the words as actually spoken, but as a veracious listener of truthful memory would correctly render a speech which he had heard. Mistakes in report would be irreconcilable with the veracity of the Primary Author, i.e. God; but imperfection, not implying falsehood, God might of course allow. For Catholics the speeches in the New Testament are recorded by the Holy Ghost Himself, for He is the Primary Author of the Sacred Books, hence inaccuracy, as far as it implies any element of untruth, is utterly excluded; but such imperfections and lack of completeness as may arise from the imperfection of the secondary or instrumental cause, i.e. the human author, may be admitted.

Hence, for instance, the omission of the Petrine text Tu es Petrus, etc., from Saint Mark might conceivably be due to the fact that Saint Mark did not know it. Personally, we do not think this opinion is historically tenable, but that is on account of historical convictions, not theological prepossessions. Any inference, however, that because the Petrine text occurs only in Saint Matthew, it is somehow of less value or certainty, is against fundamental Catholic principle, for the complete weight of divine authority is at the back of every text in Saint Matthew on account of its inspiration.

That Saint Matthew or Saint John should give us not strict history, but rather the “Christ of faith” at the end ot the First Century, the Christ as conceived by the first Christian community, not as He was in historical fact, is formally excluded, not only by the literary form of the Gospels, which is evidently historical in the strict sense, and not imaginative, but is likewise directly excluded by the common teaching of the Church throughout the centuries, which gave these gospels to her children as in the strictest detail historical throughout. This common teaching or magisterium quotidianum is an undeniable historical fact and an infallible criterion of truth just as much as the magisterium solemne exercised now and then by Pope or Council. Moreover, even if we could concede that Saint Matthew or Saint John gave us only the Christ as conceived at the end of the first century, this “Christ of faith” would still be identical with the Christ of history, not merely because it is historically untenable that the Christian community should have changed the character of its Founder during the lifetime of those who had intimately known the twelve Apostles and Paul, but because the teaching body of the Church between 60 and 120 a.d. would on this supposition have erred. Such a supposition is destructive of the funda- mental doctrine of Catholicity, which maintains that the Church is infallible every minute of her existence between Pentecost and the Second Coming of Christ.

More difficult is the question of the interpretation of the first ten chapters of Genesis – whether they may not contain history indeed, but metaphorically told. Here again the fact of inspiration by itself only guarantees that they cannot contain anything at variance with the veracity or dignity of God. For further study of their meaning it is necessary to appeal, not to inspiration, but to the interpretation to be gathered from the text itself and from the teaching of the Church. The Church decidedly rejects the idea of their being sagas, or myths, or legends, or merely moral truths, or merely ideas expressed in parables. The Church has ever maintained that they are historical, though real history may be metaphorically told. One could narrate the story of the Great War 1914-1918 under the symbols of a struggle between the Lion, the Eagle, the Cock, the Bear and the Ewe Lamb, signifying Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Belgium. Yet such an account would be history, not legend – real history, but metaphorically told. Thus with regard to the creation of Man and the Fall, the Church teaches that these things are facts, not ideas clothed in story form; but she does not insist that the facts of God’s immediate creation of Man, His secondary creation of woman, their being placed in a privileged supernatural condition, their temptation by an external Evil Agent, their fall, their punishment, may not have been clothed to some extent in symbolic phraseology. It is possible. It is not irreconcilable with the idea of inspiration. Perhaps some reader may at this point exclaim: ”Where is all this going to stop? Once you begin to whittle down the literal meaning the whole historical edifice crumbles.” But the Catholic has his immediate and ready answer: “It is going to stop the very instant the Church wants it to stop.” Her decision is absolutely final. She possesses within herself the inexhaustible source of all the means to defend and to further the maintenance of God’s revelation amongst her children, and should an answer to these questions ever become a real need of the faithful, she will answer them.

Meanwhile, it is not true to say that to allow the metaphorical meaning of some passages must mean the destruction of the whole edifice, for in his interpretation the Catholic scholar is continually guided by the conviction that no interpretation can be right which would reflect on the divine veracity or dignity of the Primary Author. We are interpreting a book written by God, and our interpretation is cautious and restrained, because the Catholic scholar realizes that one day he shall stand before the judgment seat of that book’s Author, and He may hold it a crime if with careless ease we have tinkered away at the book He wrote.

Moreover, Catholic scholars have not merely the bare text itself to go by. They have to consult the interpretation which, as a matter of fact, has been given by the Fathers of the Church before them. If the interpretations of these Fathers are given only as a matter of their own private speculation, they are not matter of faith, but only to be respected according to the weight and position of them as scholars and thinkers. But if such interpretations are given as merely handing down the traditional meaning current in the Church, and if such traditional meaning is accepted as part of the revelation originally committed to the Church or as a necessary deduction therefrom, then such interpretation is infallibly true, and no scholar may set it aside.

Maybe no Pope or Council has ever made it a matter of solemn definition, none the less for those who realize that as a matter of fact such is the teaching of the Church, it constitutes an absolutely final authority, even before the rare solemnity of an anathema to its contradictors. Thus there is no likelihood of Catholic scholars rashly abandoning the Mosaic authorship of the bulk of the Pentateuch. First of all, they retain greater liberty in face of the formidable array of modern non-Catholic scholars, who proclaim as settled acquisition of modern learning the well-known J.E.D.P.H.R. division of the Hexateuch. Then, furthermore, the very importance of the matter involved and the (at least apparent) endorsement of Mosaic authorship by the Saviour and the very constancy of the tradition supporting it, all these things render Catholic scholars not less but rather more scientific in their treatment of that sacred text.

With the infallible authority of the Church behind them Catholic scholars possess a freedom and fearlessness of interpretation which none but they can fully have. Take, for instance, their study of the Six days of Creation. Some have maintained that these were long ages of evolution, others that they were days only seen in vision by Adam, for previous to man’s creation there was no man to witness what happened, and God only could reveal, which He did under this symbolism; others saw in this chapter a Psalm in which with poetical imagery God’s week’s work was sung; others again saw in it a counterblast to the worship of Sun and Moon and Tiu and Wodan and Thor and Freia and Satur, as later on they came to be called, the gods to whom the days of week were dedicated, that the Jews might dedicate their week to the Creator and not to His creatures; others, again, a transformation of the oldest account of creation corrupted through superstitions and polytheism.

As with the days of Creation, so with the story of the Creation of Adam in the second chapter. If ever the theory of evolution should cease to be the mere theory it is now and be scientifically proven, no Catholic biblical scholar will claim that of itself the biblical account of man’s creation makes an application of evolution to man’s body impossible. The soul is the immediate creation of God, for the Church teaches so; the biblical account of the origin of man’s body is certainly partially metaphorical, for God has no physical breath to breathe into the human form He made. How far the metaphor goes the Bible itself does not decide.

So likewise with the prodigiously long ages of the Patriarchs. Some fact – not merely a moral or philosophical idea – underlies them. Above all they are not merely childish folklore to fill up gaps of unknown history. But what that fact is the Church has never authoritatively settled. At present we seem to have lost the key to those enormous numbers, perhaps we are on the eve of rediscovering their meaning through the finding of the lists of the Babylonian or Sumerian antediluvian Patriarchs corresponding not in sound, but in meaning apparently to the biblical names. If once we could ascertain what they conveyed to Abraham and his tribe, who came from Ur in the Chaldees, we would have solved the riddle.

Thus Catholic scholarship will go on with utmost freedom, yet in utmost security, ever venturing farther out into the ocean because never severed from the Rock on which Christ built His Church, ever forward, yet in utmost safety, for the Infallible Interpreter of the Bible is always on the alert and living and teaching in the bark of Peter.