Sunday, October 19, 2008

Fiction, the Bible and Thoughts on Inerrancy

I thought today I would make a few comments on the Bible, springboarding off of the current Synod and an interview with Cardinal George. As the issue of inerrancy of Scripture has become something of an undercurrent theme of the synod that will hopefully eventually rise to the surface, this gives me a chance to vent some thoughts on the topic.

It's not an easy topic. Whoever says so is just stupid.

What does it mean for Scripture to be inerrant? That is the great battle. It depends on whether one accepts a minimalistic, maximalistic, or middle of the road position on the issue. But before even these become issues, it certainly does not mean certain things.

It does not mean that on the literalistic level, Scripture is always without error. It does mean that on the literal level Scripture always teaches truth. Let me explain. When I teach my 9th graders about the books of Tobit, Judith, and Jonah, I will teach them to read them literally. By that I will mean that they should read them on the literal level as they would read a Flannery O'Connor short story, a work of fiction. Since that is what they are. They are inspired works of fiction, inspired short stories that convey a message which God, through the human author, wanted them to convey. To read them in any other literalistic way -- presuming them to be journalistic history, for example -- would be a gross mistreatment of the text and of its literal meaning.

People seem to have trouble getting this.

When I read the genealogies in Genesis and say that they all don't match, they borrow names to fill in spaces, they skip people, and therefore say that Genesis is not historically true, I have again missed the mark. The purpose of genealogies in Genesis is to give the book narrative structure. They were probably included in the text by Priestly school redactors after the return from the Exile. Genealogies serve a special theological purpose for the authors: they reveal that God's plans continue despite human sin, and that God is capable of working through fallible human agents. Their purpose is thus primarily theological, not historical. It doesn't take a very careful reading of Genesis to notice the function they perform.

Or you just have to read it like an adult, and not like a kid.

Cardinal George had a couple interesting things to say on this topic. He briefly summarizes the dispute:

One way of solving it came out of the Second Vatican Council. It wasn’t Cardinal Bea’s way of solving it, but that of some commentators. [Note: Cardinal Augustin Bea was a German Biblical scholar and influential figure at Vatican II. Bea, who died in 1968, also headed the Vatican’s office for Christian unity.] It holds that what God intended for our salvation is what’s inerrant. It didn’t say that the rest wasn’t inspired, but nonetheless scripture’s inerrancy is more or less limited to what God intended to teach for our salvation. The other school is a little bit broader, and I think it’s more where we’re at now. It says no, inerrancy applies also to what the human author intended to teach, under God’s inspiration. However, what the human author did not intend to teach, but rather brought in to his writings because it was part of the zeitgeist, the understanding of the world at the time, is not necessarily factually inerrant. So there are all kinds of places where you can split it, but you’ve got to determine what those places are and how you should go at it. In that sense, a document might be helpful.

So, there are two things going on when historical facts are not "true" in Scripture. First, are we judging them by a post-Enlightenment understanding of truth, or by an ancient Hebrew understanding of truth? They are not univocal in meaning. Second, what was part of the ancient author's zeitgeist, the human element of scripture, that may strike us as odd or inaccurate, but is not central to his claim concerning God and the world? And how far can we stretch this second notion? That is a very important and complex question that I hope the synod touches on. How much of the zeitgeist can you be rid of if you don't like it?

The interview then goes in an interesting direction following a question about John Paul II:
But the temptation of nationalism isn’t just fueled by European nostalgia for the ancien regime, a sentiment that’s now largely passé, is it? Isn’t there a streak of nationalism in American Catholicism too, which has to do partly with geography, a congregationalist ethos, and a strong sense of American patriotism?

You also find it in Latin America, in Asia … you have the same temptation to nationalism around the world. They haven’t conceived of the church nationally the same way they did in some European nations, but it’s always there. Whom do you adore, the people or God? What’s more important, the nation or the church?

In reality, it’s more ‘sectarian’ to be American or French than it is to be Catholic …

Of course that’s true, but …

Don’t say ‘of course.’ A lot of people don’t think that’s true at all, including in our own country. Take a look at the way they use the word ‘sectarian.’

Who’s ‘they’?

In the public conversation in the United States. If you say something’s ‘sectarian,’ people automatically think you mean it’s religious. They never assume that it means ‘nationalist.’

I wonder if there’s something uniquely insular, to use that word, about the United States, and therefore about Catholicism in the United States, that cuts a bit deeper than some other places. After all, we’re the world’s exporter of culture. We produce the books and movies and TV shows and music that everyone else consumes, but it doesn’t come as naturally to us to import culture.

What you’re saying is that the insularity of the United States affects Catholics in the United States, who become insular because they’re Americans.

Do you think that’s true?


What do we do about it?

(Laughs). That’s a very good question, and I wish I knew the answer. I don’t believe that I do. The answer to that question would be how we should shape our ministry.
Though seemingly off topic, this analysis of current American Catholicism touches closely on another aspect of Biblical interpretation, namely, the need for interpreting Scripture in our times. Since the Bible must be interpreted, as Dei Verbum claims, "in the same Spirit in which it was written," then there is a need for reading the Bible in our times in the Church as the Spirit guides its reading and interpretation. No interpretation is only historical and literal. It is always also a contemporary interpretation according to a contemporary spirit. It will be better interpreted if that spirit is the Spirit, who dwells and acts in the Church. For that reason, interpretation must be carried out within the whole Church.

A great principle, but difficult. This does not mean interpreting Scripture according to my "sectarian" nationalistic Catholicism, but with the whole Church. Truly a challenge.

Those are my thoughts for now. Have a great meal at the table of the Word and Body.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

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