Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Literary Forms and Catholic Teaching on Inerrancy

Magisterial documents clearly show that biblical inerrancy is the teaching of the Catholic Church, including of Vatican II. Nevertheless, many have been confused by a common mistranslation of Vatican II's document Dei Verbum:
Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that 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. (Emphasis added)
In fact, Dei Verbum says this:
Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturae libri veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt.
In truth, the document just claims that "the books of Scripture teach truth." No demonstrative "that" can be found. There is no "eam" or "illam." Hence, no phrase "that truth" which might limit the truth of the Scriptures' statements to only the (presumably smaller) number of statements which are there "for the sake of our salvation." So there's no reason at all to think that Vatican II justifies abandoning previous unambiguous papal statements on inerrancy, statements which only have ever been affirmed and then reaffirmed.

Furthermore, it is clear that Vatican II's teaching on inspiration positively entails inerrancy given the first half of this passage, which identifies "all that the sacred authors assert" as also being "asserted by the Holy Spirit." Since the Holy Spirit by His very essence cannot be in error, it is analytically true (by definition) that His assertions are true. Hence, "all that the sacred authors assert" is true.

We can formalize this argument:
  1. The set of statements that are asserted by the sacred author in Scripture = the set of statements asserted by the Holy Spirit in Scripture. [Statement actually made by Dei Verbum. Also see end-note.*]
  2. If A asserts p, and A is not in error, then p is true. [Analytic truth; by definition]
  3. The Holy Spirit cannot be in error. [De fide; also known by reason]
  4. So, all the statements that are asserted by the sacred author in Scripture are true. [By 1-3]
1 - 3 logically entail 4, which is what inerrancy is. I see no way out of this.

Of course, all this still leaves open the question of what the sacred authors assert. Here, the Church has plainly noted the value of historical-critical studies of the Bible, and obviously does not insist on a literalistic interpretation of all of Scripture. Furthermore, the Church has clearly exhorted interpreters to be attentive to the authors' uses of "literary forms" or "genres" - phrases that rather inadequately express the full range of interpretive tools available to orthodox biblical exegetes.

In actuality, it might be better to speak of sacred authors' uses of "literary devices," and of "literary customs" that were taken for granted among the authors and their peers (although even here, this is still probably inadequate to cover all that is meant by "literary forms"). See, for example, Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritusecs. 33 ff. - a text that absolutely must be read by Catholic interpreters to understand the nuances of the Catholic position on inerrancy.

So, for instance, at least to the best of my understanding I cannot see a problem with views like Michael Licona's, which claim that Gospel authors rearranged materials in a partly non-chronological way in accordance with literary customs of their time, and were therefore neither trying to mislead the audience nor trying to convey an exact chronology of events. At least, that is, I cannot see a problem from the perspective of Catholic dogmatic teaching on inerrancy. (This isn't necessarily to say I agree with Licona's view, of course.)

The Church's acknowledgment of "literary genres" (or Pius XII's somewhat better phrase "forms of expression") is just the acknowledgment that literary conventions and devices can affect the assertoric content of a given Scriptural statement. In other words, the meaning and therefore the "truth-conditions" of a given passage of Scripture might not be what they seem to us on a first reading, since the authors of Scripture may have been working (perhaps even unconsciously) under somewhat different literary conventions than we are used to or familiar with. 

Incidentally, this is just a simple application of the more general view, widely accepted in linguistic theory nowadays, that what is said in a given utterance is determined by many factors, including wider communicative conventions - a point which is all the more salient in the case of written literature, which also involves literary and cultural customs. (Again, these conventions can cause the meaning of an utterance to go beyond even what the author himself consciously intends or realizes.)

As a simple example, consider some of the rather large numbers given in the Old Testament, such as the sentence in Exodus 12: "And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children." Reading this as if it were a statistic from the US Census Bureau, we would conclude that the Scriptures claim that a count of the people leaving Egypt would have shown there to have been approximately 600,000 men leaving Egypt (and therefore an estimated 2.4 million people total).

However, Pius XII (Divino Afflante Spiritu sec. 37) clearly indicates that an orthodox Catholic may interpret some passages with numbers like these as hyperbolic.
Nevertheless no one, who has a correct idea of biblical inspiration, will be surprised to find, even in the Sacred Writers, as in other ancient authors, certain fixed ways of expounding and narrating, certain definite idioms, especially of a kind peculiar to the Semitic tongues, so-called approximations, and certain hyperbolical modes of expression, nay, at times, even paradoxical, which even help to impress the ideas more deeply on the mind.
In other words, the sacred author might just be saying a lot of people left Egypt.

While we have applied this idea to a smaller unit of Scripture - one verse - it can of course be applied to larger units or components of Scripture as well.

Note that this is quite different from claiming that a given biblical statement is merely intended to be "allegorical," "symbolic" or "figurative." That can often be the case too, but that is not the point here. For instance, it need not be that the number "600,000" was chosen because of some deep symbolic significance to Jews. It also needn't be that the claim that 600,000 Israelite men left Egypt was an "allegory" for something else (the reference to which only the cleverest readers might figure out).

Instead, the point is that even the literal meaning of a given sentence or passage of Scripture might be different from what that passage would mean if it were transposed into a different genre, or a different cultural, literary, or social context - for example, ours.

Importantly, this is entirely different from claiming the Scriptures contain errors or contradictions. The sacred author is not in error in putting forward the sentence "The people of Israel journeyed ... about 600,000 men on foot," because despite how it might appear to some modern readers devoid of any context, he wasn't saying the same thing as the US Census Bureau does when it claims "there are 600,000 men."

As a side-note, I have sometimes wondered what people who doubt inerrancy because of passages like these think the sacred author was doing in writing them. Suppose that this particular number is the result of some later, individual author's redaction. Do they think the author just lied, and was trying to deceive his audience? Or that the author insanely thought he could accurately guess the number hundreds of years later?

Of course, sometimes the author might be reporting an oral tradition, which was itself perceived by the author clearly to be a tradition trying to convey precisely accurate history. But two questions arise here: (1) Do we really think ancient authors were not intelligent or critically-minded enough to realize what parts of oral tradition were probably a historically accurate core, and which were likely hyperbolic manners of phrasing? I would argue that in fact the opposite is probably true. (2) When the author really is repeating what he takes to be a tradition that is attempting to convey information with historical accuracy, then maybe we should take that information seriously as actual history! 

But again, because of (1), I suspect we often will need to distinguish that part of the tradition the author understands to be historically accurate from that part which the author himself would realize to be an "artistic embellishment." So suppose the author heard verbally, perhaps via orally-given stories or narrations, "And the number of Israelite men leaving Egypt numbered 600,000 -- not to mention all the women and children!" If the sacred author, hearing this, could make these distinctions about what is "asserted" by the oral tradition, then it is reasonable to assume that in repeating the tradition in writing the sacred author too was asserting the "historically accurate core" through the entirely acceptable form of a classic, ancient Semitic "hyperbole," of the sort identified by Pius XII. In our case (translating into common, contemporary idiom) the author may well be making the historical claim that a large number of Israelites did, in fact (as a historical matter!) leave Egypt - and there were a lot of them! But when it comes to that, the sacred author's claim may well be reliable, and we cannot simply assume the tradition is unhistorical.

As I have already noted, while I have chosen a simple example, and have only tried to interpret a single verse, biblical exegetes can apply these interpretive methods at higher levels to larger units or components of the text. Of course, this doesn't mean "anything goes," and biblical interpreters should not engage in eisegesis, or try to hide from difficulties merely by invoking "literary forms." I certainly do not think all Scriptural difficulties can be resolved by the discernment of literary devices, and from what I can tell even an acknowledgment of literary forms will require Catholics to often take a "conservative" view in interpreting Scripture (although this is a phrase I do not particularly like here). 

Nevertheless, noting the importance and relevance of these interpretive methods might make Scriptural inerrancy less difficult for some people to accept in certain cases.

Of course, I should note that due to confusion about biblical inerrancy over the last 60 years, this is a topic that the Vatican has been asked to issue clarification on, and if I have made a mistake in all this I happily submit to the guidance of the "Church of the living God, pillar and bulwark of the truth."

[*] Maybe someone will try to deny 1 by noting the slight semantic ambiguity in the Latin word "assero," which can also have slightly less precise meanings like "declare." However, it is utterly clear in context that it should be translated "asserted" or "affirmed" (as the original translation above does). But apart from the fact that this is patently reaching and is not a plausible interpretation, it doesn't matter anyway, because the phrase "quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto" uses "assero" in both clauses, and the phrase certainly includes assertion. Thus, 1 follows anyway: Whatever is asserted by the sacred author falls under the extension of "assero", and is therefore also asserted ("assertum") by the Holy Spirit - even if we grant the implausible reading that some things might somehow only be "declared" but not "asserted" by the Sacred Author.

Incidentally, it should be noted that the inspiration and veracity of the Scriptures is not, for Catholics, a conclusion reached merely by historical study of the books of Scripture. It is not just the rational conclusion of an inductive process of looking at all the biblical writings and determining that they seem pretty good accuracy-wise. On the contrary, it is a revealed truth, handed to the Church through the Apostles orally and in their writings, declared and protected by the Magisterium, and accepted by faith (albeit in harmony with reason). The doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures is like the doctrine of the Trinity: And just as the latter was authoritatively taught by Nicaea and Constantinople to be a truth of revelation, so the former is taught to be a truth of revelation by councils like Vatican II.

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