The National Catholic Review

This is my last entry, a little late, in a series; you can find links to all of the previous entries at What is the Good Word (4)? Revelation, Inspiration and Inerrancy (Part 1).

We are called to contemplate and to study the revelation we have been given. “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (Dei Verbum, 8). Once received, we must attempt to grasp the meaning of that which “totally transcends” the human mind, which also suggests or hints at the process of inspiration in those who continue to receive the revelation as well as in those who first received the revelation.

This focus on “total transcendence” indicates the inspired nature of the texts and the inspired nature of the human authors – “Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum 11). The notion of inspiration is closely related to that of revelation, since “they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” (Dei Verbum 11). This does not mean the human authors necessarily understood the full import of what they were writing at the time, at least not at a spiritual level, or in light of what was to come, but in naming them authors we indicate that their human minds, reason and abilities were operative and at work. Inspiration was not an alien force in the sense that it operated in opposition to their deeply help religious beliefs and experiences. In fact, inspiration in the act of thinking and writing must have illumined and expanded their understanding of what they already knew and held. Inspiration was not at odds with their faith or reason, but the act of divine insight.

Inspiration in that same sense can be operative in readers. Revelation is not a dead letter, but the Word of God, living and active. Inspiration operates in the practice of careful reading, lectio divina, linguistic study, historical research, source criticism and searching theological study. This is not to say that every example of such study or reading is “inspired,” but I think it can be. Listen to Dei Verbum again: “This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.” Note that revelation is not attributed simply to scholars but to the far broader group of “believers,” which both does and does not include scholars. It is this inspiration in conjunction with the tradition of the church, in conversation with scholars throughout the ages, and even the movement of genuine insight in interpreters, that truth is located – “For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (Dei Verbum, 8).

This makes reading the Bible an intriguing task because the first level or layer of interpretation is the translation of the biblical texts from their original languages into a vernacular language, which is why knowledge of the original languages is such a key to excellent interpretation. Excellent interpretation can be done without the original languages and the fact that one knows them does not guarantee inspired interpretation, but it does help. Most people, though, rely on translations and certain translations are better than others at a scholarly level and approved by the church. Dei Verbum 22 states that “the Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation; of the Old Testament which is called the Septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones especially the Latin translation known as the vulgate. But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them.”

The relationship of translations and inspiration is difficult to determine. Is every “good” or ‘excellent” translation inspired? Can God speak through a “bad” translation? There are so many English translations that it is truly baffling to keep track of them all and I just received in the mail a copy of the New Testament translation for the Common English Bible,  about which I will say more in the future. Let me say this now: why do we need another English translation? In the USA the NAB is approved for use in the Church, which is not the case in other English speaking countries, where the RSV or the NRSV are approved. The NJB is also a fairly well-known Catholic translation. Other translations are used widely in other churches, such as the NIV, the KJV or NKJV, or the NEB…but this does not exhaust the list. If you think I am exaggerating go to Online Translations of the Bible  and see the bounty unending! The bottom line for me is that the words of the Bible matter because it is said that the Bible is the word of God; while many translations will be identical or very similar, others will not, which puts the reader at the whims of translators and their agendas. This is why having well-trained interpreters of the original texts continues to matter. Ordinary readers need to know the kinds of decisions that go into translations and the choices that are possible for a translation.

Inerrancy is, of course, related in some ways to translation and more profoundly to the construction of the original texts in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. Some readers of the Bible, mostly Protestant fundamentalists, insist on the King James Only, for instance, as proof of inerrancy. Even deeper than these claims, however, which transcend the claim that one particular English translation is “inerrant” is the broader claim that the Bible is “inerrant.” What this means has also been debated. Some claims of inerrancy state that everything taught and described in the Bible is literally true and these claims do require a literalist reading of the creation texts, for example, to prove that the Bible teaches all truths, scientific, historical, cosmological, geographic, without error. This claim can be found even amongst some Catholics. Others, however, would claim that “inerrancy” has to do with the Bible teaching “without error” those truths necessary for human salvation. This seems to be the best reading of Dei Verbum 11, though it has been disputed: “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (my italics). When we speak of “that truth…for the sake of salvation” we are in the realm of theological truths, not particular historical or scientific claims which biblical authors might have asserted thousands of years ago.

There is, then, always something to do as readers of the Bible, though we stand on a mountain of learning and teaching which has come before us, both in Judaism and in Christianity, concerning the Scriptures. We need always to read carefully, with sensitivity both to our own age and the age in which a particular text was written. We need to read the text carefully in terms of the actual words – do I assume meaning instead of seeking it out? Could another translation aid me in my search? We need to read and listen carefully in terms of the urging of the Spirit, in public readings and in our own private reading. We need to be careful, for those of us who read professionally, to be receptive to the reality that God might speak not to biblical scholars alone, but to ordinary readers whose insights smash through tired constraints of scholarship – and I would ask that ordinary readers be attuned to the reality that sometimes professionals have something of value to add also. If it is true as Dei Verbum, 8 states that “as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” then our work as readers of the Bible is not just far from complete, it is a task in which we are always and inexorably engaged until that day when we can say all together, “oh, I get it now. That makes sense.” This is not exactly an issue of knowledge, for as Paul says, “it {knowledge} will come to an end” (1 Corinthians 13:8).  What we will know, ultimately, is God, and God’s love, to which the Scripture draws us, and what “I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Love is the end of the Scripture and it is with love that we should always explore it.

John W. Martens