One of my friends made a commitment in the New Year to spend more time with our sacred scriptures. As she was sharing this new resolution with her sister who attends a non-denominational Christian church, she was taken aback when her sister declared “Well, you know, Catholics don’t believe in the literal, infallible and inerrant truth of the Bible.” In a panic, my friend came to me asking if this was true.
For some this might sound a bit like splitting hairs, but there is an important distinction to be made here between the way we Catholics and other “mainline” denominations (Episcopal, ELCA Lutheran, United Methodist, etc.) approach the bible and the way many of our brothers and sisters from “non-denominational” churches are taught to read and understand our shared sacred texts. My friend’s sister sounds like she supports what’s called a fundamentalist approach to our scriptures which declares verbal inerrancy, infallibility, and literal truth of the Bible in every detail. In this approach the words of the Bible are believed to be plain and simple: their meaning is self-evident and does not need to be researched, put in historical context or interpreted. All that is required is that it be read in faith, with prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Now, if we take this to mean that anyone asking for an accurate interpretation will be given one without any research necessary, then the multiplicity of interpretations, even among fundamentalists themselves, should give people a gnawing sense that the Holy Spirit is not doing its job very effectively.
We run into all sorts of problems when we read the Bible literally, that is, without trying to interpret its meaning. Noted Catholic Scripture scholar Fr. Eugene Laverdiere once said “Fundamentalism is not a particular interpretation of the Bible, but rather the lack of any interpretation.”
As Catholics we do not adhere to the literal truth of all the words in the Bible, because we don’t believe that all of them were meant to be understood literally. There are several literary forms other than chronological, scientific history represented in the bible: prose, poetry, religious history, prophesy, apocalyptic, fiction, myth, etc. and in each case we must know this literary genre to understand the meaning correctly, just as we would do with any other piece of literature. There are people who spend their whole lives researching whether or not a man can live three days in the belly of the whale, entirely missing the profound spiritual truth found in the allegorical story about Jonah.
The church states that the Bible is “humankind’s experience of God” written down. We recognize that there was a long, complex process from the original inspiration to the written words found in the Bible today and if we are going to discover the meaning of our ancient sacred texts we need to be as informed as possible of their context, literary form, and the author’s historical situation and original intention.
The church states that:
- Revelation is first and foremost God revealing God’s self in human history, and Jesus is the high point of this revelation of God to human beings.
- Only secondarily is revelation to be understood as the written expression of and witness to God’s revealing of God’s self.
In other words, our faith is in a living God not slavish adherence to words on a page. So, in short, we DO believe scripture to be the “inspired” and “inerrant” revelation of God to which human beings have given expression and witnessed to in words. Scripture is not apart from tradition but rather a privileged moment within our tradition, for truly it is the Church which gave us the Bible, and not the Bible which gave us the Church.
Our Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from 1965 reads, “Since God speaks in sacred scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of sacred scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.”
The bible may indeed hold all truths, but not everything in the bible is “literally true” in our modern understanding of the word.