Friday, February 11, 2011

On What Catholics Believe about the Inspiration of Scripture


The last time I talked about authority to speak on the Catholic position compared to those who misunderstand what we believe and make claims based on that misunderstanding. Now we need to write about what Catholics do believe about the authority of Scripture and about the Church herself.

In light of what I said earlier about irrelevant authority, let me state that as a member of the laity, my only authority of what I say is linked to my ability to accurately express what the Church teaches about herself. To the best of my knowledge I have done so, but if there is any divergence between what the Pope says and what I say, I would offer my submission to the authority of the Pope. Hopefully the answer to why I do so will become clear below.

I also wish to stress that while I am doing my best to explain the Catholic view of why Scripture is inspired, I do not claim infallibility and I recognize this article may be inadequate, or have blind spots I overlook. Please do not assume that any undetected errors in this attempt reflect errors in the teachings of the Church.

The reader should note that I am primarily dealing with the New Testament here, though what I say does apply to the Old Testament as well, with Moses and the Prophets filling a similar role in the Old Testament as the Apostles do in the New Testament.

Preliminary Note: Read before Posting Comments

Because I am speaking to Christians who believe in the Divinity of Christ, I am beginning with this assumption as true. (When physicists meet, they don’t start by proving matter exists. It’s a given). (See HERE, in the section labeled “True or False?” to see the different starting points of discussion based on who believes what). So comments that I haven’t “proven” the existence of God will be considered a Red Herring fallacy in terms of this article and will probably be deleted on grounds of trolling (in the sense of attempting to derail the discussion).

Caveat: I DO Believe Scripture is Inspired

Anyone who reads this article and assumes I am denying the Inspiration of Scripture or putting it on par with other documents misses the point of this article.

I want to make clear that in discussing the authority of Scripture, I understand it would be a circular argument to assume Scripture is inspired. I need to give a demonstration of why Catholics actually believe the Scriptures are inspired. We do not believe that “The Bible is inspired because God says so, and God is all powerful because the Bible says so.”

The reason I am not starting with the assumption that Scripture is inspired is because the reason Scripture is seen as inspired seems to be different between Catholics and Protestants, and thus is the issue being debated. Since some people make false assumptions of what we believe, this article is aimed at explaining why Catholics believe Scripture is inspired. Since we are often accused of arguing in a circle (See below, “The Common Misunderstanding”) this is important to discuss.

We, as Christians, do start with the belief that God exists, and is all powerful[*]. From there, we have to assess the claims of Christ and His teachings. The Bible is consulted as a historic work, but at this stage it is not assumed to be inspired. Instead we say, “Jesus said this… so what follows from our belief He said these things if we look at it as a historical book?”

The Common Misunderstanding: Scripture and Infallibility as a Circular Argument

This is important to remember when we get into the idea of what the Catholic Church believes about Scripture and Infallibility.

For example, there is an old misrepresentation on the Catholic teaching on the Inspiration of Scripture which still gets repeated by respected non-Catholic theologians, such as Sproul and Gerstner[†], and this is the misrepresentation which claims the Catholic teaches the following:

  1. The Catholic Church infallibly defines Scripture as Inspired.
  2. The Catholic Church points to Scripture to prove infallibility.

The Catholic Church does not teach this, and in fact formally rejects this misrepresentation in the Vatican I document, Dei Filius (chapter II, #7). The fact that the Catholic Church formally repudiated this view demonstrates that those who repeat such a claim are uninformed about what we believe.

A Caveat: I am Not Judging the Intentions of Those Who Misrepresent Us

Far be it from me to claim that those who speak falsely about the Catholic Church automatically do so from malice. Some may simply assume that what they were taught (wrongly) is true and don’t question the truth of what they assume to be true.

It is not for me to judge the motives of those who repeat such stories. I merely assert they do speak wrongly about us, and the commandment against false witness demands that the person who would speak against the Catholic Church verifies that he or she verify that what they claim is true.

The reason I have used the example of Sproul and Gerstner is that they seem to be non-Catholic theologians of renown and respect among those who have heard of them. I have no doubt they are examples of highly educated theologians who have sincere faith — yet they do misunderstand the Catholic faith and oppose us on grounds of this misunderstanding.

Whether they have any moral responsibility for their misunderstandings is something God will judge, not I.

Christ is the Source of the Catholic Claim to Authority

Anti-Catholic views generally come from the claim that the Catholic Church wrongly claimed for herself the authority to create “new doctrines.” The assertion is generally that The Church invented claims of authority and Catholics follow blindly what the Church says.

However, we do not believe that “The Church says it, therefore it must be true.” Rather, we believe the Church is to be followed because of Who gave her the authority.

What the Church believes is that Jesus came and taught His disciples and commissioned them with the authority to teach in His name. The Vatican II document Dei Verbum describes this as follows:

Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. (Dei Verbum #7).

This is important because, even if Scriptures were not considered as being inspired (remember: inspiration not yet being assumed at this point, though we believe it is), we have a record in Scripture — as a historical document — which claims that Jesus established a Church and entrusted to this Church the authority to preach His word to the whole world.

This brings us to the first principle to consider, if one rejects the authority of Christ to begin with, they won’t accept the authority of the Church. However, if one does accept the authority of Christ, then what He teaches and who He grants authority to is indeed important.

Even if one rejects the idea of Scripture being inspired and inerrant (which would be heterodox among Catholics and Protestants alike), the acceptance of the New Testament as a historical document which tells us what Jesus required of His apostles points to Christ, not to the Bible which tells us of what He said and did.

So the second principle, which all Christians should accept, is: Jesus gave His disciples a command to His disciples to bring His teaching to all the nations and gave them the authority to teach in His name.

Of course the question remains what authority Christ had to begin with. Human beings merely have authority based on what they appeal to after all. If we are free to pick and choose from what Christ taught, we are free to accept or reject those who He selected to teach in His name. However, if He is more than just another man, His teachings are not merely optional.

Aut Deus Aut Homo Malus

From the point of accepting that Jesus gave His disciples authority to bring His teaching to the nations, we need to then look at on why we should consider His claims as something that is not merely optional.

This is where CS Lewis’ aut Deus aut homo malus comes into play. The argument essentially requires people to recognize from the following points:

  1. Good men do not claim to be God [or to be more than they are]
  2. Jesus claimed to be God [Which is certainly to claim to be more than He is, if this is not true].
  3. Jesus is not a good man if He claimed to be more than He was.
  4. However He is generally not believed to be a bad man intellectually or morally[‡].

So, if Jesus was a good man (generally accepted — except by diehard anti-Christians), and He made claims to divinity, it follows He cannot merely be a good man. Rather, we have to either accept His claims as true, or else reject Him as either insane or evil for claiming such authority[§].

Christians accept that Jesus was good, demonstrated wisdom and did not speak falsely. So when it comes to deciding on God or Bad Man, we believe He speaks truly when He says He is God.

Now, again, we are not yet assuming Scripture is inspired. Instead, we are recognizing this fact, which can be our third principle: Faithful Catholics and Protestants believe Jesus is the Son of God, and not a bad man or merely a good man.

Of course, we do need to consider that the Apostles believe what they pass on to us — that Jesus Christ is Divine and not merely a human teacher passing on wisdom. As witnesses to Christ, who knew Him on Earth and believe Him to be risen, what we know of Christ and His teachings come to us through the Apostles.

The Empty Tomb and the Appearance to the Apostles

The easiest way to debunk the claim of the Resurrection would be for the Sanhedrin or the Romans to produce Jesus’ body. This would be the easiest way to debunk the new religious movement that was arising in Jerusalem. The Apostles claim to have been witnesses to the Resurrection. That is to say, they claim to have seen Jesus, alive and risen from the dead.

Now I won’t get into all the arguments about the Apostles being deluded or lying, or that their claims were interpreted later in a way they did not intend. (I’ve dealt with those in the past). The point is, we have an empty tomb, and we have the Apostles claiming to have seen Him alive.

If there was a body to be found, the Apostles could have immediately been demonstrated to be fools or liars. However, the point is, there was no body to be found, and we must ask what the significance of this is.

The empty tomb makes an important point about Jesus being who He said He was. If Jesus was a bad man, or even merely a good man, why is the tomb empty? Moreover, if the Apostles were deluded or intended merely in some sense of “alive in the memories of the apostles,” then why is the tomb empty? Claims that the Apostles somehow stole the body or that Jesus wasn’t really dead to begin with require proof if they are to be considered anything more than “Resurrection is impossible, therefore there must be another explanation.”

Not an Argument from Silence

DON’T call this an Argument from Silence (that is: We don’t know where the body is, therefore He is risen). We believe the witness of the Apostles who claim to have seen Him alive. We believe them to be credible witnesses and that their character reflects that credibility — they do not act like fools or liars.

That is where the negative evidence of the Empty Tomb moves to the positive evidence of the accounts of history that the Apostles went out to preach the good news that Christ had died and risen from the dead for the for our Salvation.

Remember, the Apostles were the ones not expecting Jesus to rise again. They thought the account of the women who saw Him alive was nonsense. What they found was an empty tomb. They were in hiding, fearing arrest. They had run away when He was arrested.

Yet 50 days after the Resurrection, we see a dramatic change. They were publicly speaking, enduring persecution and hardship to preach the risen Christ, and were even martyred for their belief. Certainly they gained no physical benefit for proclaiming what they said they were to pass on to the world (see Matt 28:19-20, John 20:21-23 for example).

Cui bono? A Potential Objection and Why It is not likely

The point is the Christian believes the Apostles to be credible witnesses[**]. One arguing that the Apostles claiming Jesus gave them power sounds suspiciously convenient needs to answer the police maxim, Cui bono? ([to] whose benefit?). The phrase cui bono:

Refers to a question which inquires as to the beneficiary of a certain action or object. Knowing for what or whom something is of benefit (i.e., “good”) is often helpful for determining the inherent worth of the issue or object under discussion. Cui bono also can be used as a principle to help indicate probable responsibility for an act or event by looking to determine the one who would stand to gain most from this act or event.[††]

So, if one wants to say, “This is convenient how the Apostles claim they were left in charge by a dead man who claimed to be God,” we can ask them for the evidence they can offer for the question cui bono — especially what they gained for their claim.

  1. The Apostles gained nothing from their actions from a human perspective. Indeed, they suffered hardship and eventual martyrdom for their actions.
  2. Yet they continued to preach the Gospel, considering themselves bound to do so.

So the person who says the Apostles were doing this for their own gain needs to answer the question, what gain? The person who claims them to be deluded or their accounts to be false must answer the question, what proof?

What Follows from Jesus Being God and Giving His Apostles Authority

However, this objection (based on denial of the Christian message and not based on any evidence) does require the Christian to recognize what their faith in Jesus leads to.

Since Christians believe the Apostles were witnesses to the Resurrection, we have to look at what this signifies. While others may not believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, the Christians do believe this and recognize that what He teaches has authority.

This is the beginning of the faith which was preached. What we know of Christ is what the Apostles have preached to us. Deny the authority of the Apostles to teach and the Bible is merely a book which is claimed ipse dixit to be inspired without even a legend to say how it was given to us.

This brings us to our fourth principle: The teaching of the Apostles is the teachings given them by the risen Christ and it is only through the teaching of the Apostles that we can know Christ.

What We Know of Christ’s Teachings Comes from the Apostles

Also remember: What was written down in Scripture is what the Apostles taught. The Bible is not a book like the Koran or the Book of Mormon — both of which are claimed by their followers to be given directly by God, and we have to take solely on the claim of Mohammed and Joseph Smith respectively.

What Jesus taught to the Apostles and commanded them to teach predated the Gospels and the Epistles. Jesus was crucified and rose again in AD 33. The first Epistle was written in AD 51. The earliest dates proposed for the Gospels were about AD 58, while the Gospel of John was believed to been written sometime between AD 81 and AD 95.

That means for a minimum of 18 years, we have nothing written down to be a New Testament, and the last item was not written for 50-60 years after Jesus died and rose again. So in theory, one could accuse the Apostle John of “adding to the teachings of Christ,” since His gospel was believed to be written sometime between AD 81 and 95. Yet, this was not a problem for the early Christians. They accepted the Gospel of John.

This brings us to our fifth principle which lays out the line which begins to demonstrate the difference between Catholic and non-Catholic views: Before the Apostles wrote any Epistle or Gospel, we have the Apostles proclaiming the Good News to all the nations.

A Summation of the Five Principles

So we have these five principles, which Christians need to accept about their faith:

  1. If one does accept the authority of Christ, then what He teaches and who He grants authority to is indeed important. (If we claim to be followers of Christ, we must follow those to whom He gives His authority)
  2. Jesus gave His disciples a command to His disciples to bring His teaching to all the nations and gave them the authority to teach in His name. (Jesus did give His authority to the Apostles)
  3. Faithful Catholics and Protestants believe Jesus is the Son of God, and not a bad man or merely a good man. (We believe Jesus is God)
  4. The teaching of the Apostles is the teachings given them by the risen Christ and it is only through the teaching of the Apostles that we can know Christ. (We believe this teaching about Jesus Christ is passed on from the Apostles)
  5. Before the Apostles wrote any Epistle or Gospel, we have the Apostles proclaiming the Good News to all the nations. (The teaching authority of the Apostles exists before the writing of the New Testament).

Denial of any of these principles leaves us with no way of knowing the teaching of Jesus Christ.

In other words, we believe that Jesus had an authority which we follow. We believe that Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to teach in His name. We believe this authority is divine and not merely human. We believe His teaching was made known to us through the Apostles and their successors, and we believe that teaching predated the written New Testament.


So the reader might at this time wonder what all this has to do with the Inspiration of Scripture. The answer is, Catholics believe that Christ gave His Church the authority and the responsibility to pass on the faith and promised to protect His Church from the gates of Hell. The Church could not do these things apart from Christ. Nor could Christ’s promise be true unless He protected His Church from error.

Thus, when it comes to what the Apostles taught about Christ, we believe God protected them from error. This protection applies both to what they said and to what was written down in Scripture. Furthermore, we believe that God inspired the Apostles to teach what He wanted to make known to the world.

Does this mean that whatever Pope Benedict XVI says is placed on the same level as the Gospel of John? Does this mean that Sts. Augustine and John Chrysostom are just as authoritative as Christ?

No. The Apostles knew Christ and were witnesses to His resurrection. They passed on what Christ gave to them directly. The Bishops are successors to the Apostles yes, and they have the authority and responsibility to determine whether a view is in keeping with what the Apostles taught. However, Pope Benedict XVI (or any other Pope) does not claim to have a revelation from Christ which was not given by the Apostles.

The Patristics, the Medieval Church, the Popes today all bear witness to the authentic interpretation of how the teachings of Christ given to us by the Apostles are properly understood.

What the Catholic belief of Inspiration can be summed up as is this:

We believe that God protected those to whom He gave His revelation from teaching error about His revelation. Thus, we believe that God protected Moses, the Psalmist, the Prophets and the Apostles from misrepresenting what He revealed to them. This protection pertained to both their spoken teachings and their written word.

Thus we are assured that we have from the words and writings of Moses, the Psalmist, the Prophets and the Apostles the revelation of God as He intended it to be revealed, and we have no fear of corruption of that teaching through the ages.

[*] I would recommend St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles as a good (if difficult) work to understand the philosophical understandings of what an all-powerful God means.

[†] Sproul and Gerstner, in repeating this long refuted claim, tend to demonstrate the problems with assuming they know what the Church believes and never verifying for themselves. Because the Church specifically repudiates what they accuse us of, they cannot be considered knowledgeable of Catholic teaching, and the appeal to men like Sproul and Gerstner falls under the fallacy of irrelevant authority.

[‡] The person who does claim Jesus was a bad man (intellectually or morally) is required to demonstrate this to be true.

[§] We need to recognize here the view that some put forward: That Jesus was speaking in a way similar to the Eastern Mystics. Peter Kreeft refutes this view in Between Heaven and Hell, by pointing out that Jesus could not be a good teacher if He could not recognize His disciples (who were Jews) were failing to understand him. He also points out the absurdity of how people misunderstood him for two thousand years and only now certain people figured out what He really meant.

[**] To say they were deluded because the dead do not rise is to beg the question. It merely assumes something which needs to be proven.

[††] Bretzke, J. T. (2000, c1998). Consecrated phrases : A Latin theological dictionary : Latin expressions commonly found in theological writings. "A Michael Glazier book." (electronic ed.). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

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