On the Inspiration of Scripture

[from The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 15, No. 84, Feb. 1884.]

{185} 1. It has lately been asked what answer do we Catholics give to the allegation urged against us by men of the day, to the effect that we demand of our converts an assent to views and interpretations of Scripture which modern science and historical research have utterly discredited.

As this alleged obligation is confidently maintained against us, and with an array of instances in support of it, I think it should be either denied or defended; and the best mode perhaps of doing whether the one or the other, will be, instead of merely dealing with the particular instances adduced in proof, to state what we really do hold as regards Holy Scripture, and what a Catholic is bound to believe. This I propose now to do, and in doing it, I beg it to be understood that my statements are simply my own, and involve no responsibility of any one besides myself.

2. A recent work of M. Renan's is one of those publications which have suggested or occasioned this adverse criticism upon our intellectual position. The author's abandonment of Catholicism seems, according to a late article in a journal of high reputation, in no small measure to have come about by his study of the Biblical text, especially that of the Old Testament. 'He explains,' says the article, 'that the Roman Catholic Church admits no compromise on questions of Biblical criticism and history' ... though 'the Book of Judith is an historical impossibility. Hence the undoubted fact that the Roman Catholic Church ... insists on its members believing … a great deal more in pure criticism and pure history than the strictest Protestants exact from their pupils or flocks.' Should, then, a doubting {186} Anglican contemplate becoming Catholic by way of attaining intellectual peace, 'if his doubts turn on history and criticism, he will find the little finger of the Catholic Church thicker than the loins of Protestantism.'

3. The serious question, then, which this article calls on us to consider, is whether it is 'an undoubted fact,' as therein stated, that the Catholic Church does 'insist' on her children's acceptance of certain Scripture informations on matters of fact in defiance of criticism and history. And my first duty on setting out is to determine the meaning of that vague word 'insists,' which I shall use in the only sense in which a Catholic can consent to use it.

I allow, then, that the Church, certainly, does 'insist,' when she speaks dogmatically, nay or rather she more than insists, she obliges; she obliges us to an internal assent to that which she proposes to us. So far I admit, or rather maintain. And I admit that she obliges us in a most forcible and effective manner, that is, by the penalty of forfeiting communion with her, if we refuse our internal assent to her word. We cannot be real Catholics, if we do not from our heart accept the matters which she puts forward as divine and true. This is plain.

3. Next, to what does the Church oblige us? and what is her warrant for doing so? I answer, The matters which she can oblige us to accept with an internal assent are the matters contained in that Revelation of Truth, written or unwritten, which came to the world from our Lord and His Apostles; and this claim on our faith in her decisions as to the matter of that Revelation rests on her being the divinely appointed representative of the Apostles and the expounder of their words; so that whatever she categorically delivers about their formal acts or their writings or their teaching, is an Apostolic deliverance. I repeat, the only sense in which the Church 'insists' on any statement, Biblical or other, the only reason of her so insisting, is that that statement is part of the original Revelation, and therefore must be unconditionally accepted,—else, that Revelation is not, as a revelation, accepted at all.

The question then which I have to answer is, What, in matter of fact, has the Church (or the Pope), as the representative of God, said about Scripture, which, as being Apostolic, unerring Truth, is obligatory on our faith, that is, de fide?

5. Many truths may be predicated about Scripture and its contents which are not obligatory on our faith, viz., such as are private conclusions from premises, or are the dicta of theologians. Such as about the author of the Book of Job, or the dates of St. Paul's Epistles. These are not obligatory upon us, because they are not the subjects of ex cathedrâ utterances of the Church. Opinions of this sort may be true or not true, and lie open for acceptance or rejection, since no divine utterance has ever been granted to us about them, or {187} is likely to be granted. We are not bound to believe what St. Jerome said or inferred about Scripture; nor what St. Augustine, or St. Thomas, or Cardinal Caietan or Fr. Perrone has said; but what the Church has enunciated, what the Councils, what the Pope, has determined. We are not bound to accept with an absolute faith what is not a dogma, or the equivalent of dogma (vide infra, section 17), what is not de fide; such judgments, however high their authority, we may without loss of communion doubt, we may refuse to accept. This is what we must especially bear in mind, when we handle such objections as M. Renan's. We must not confuse what is indisputable as well as true, with what may indeed be true, yet is disputable.

6. I must make one concession to him. In certain cases there may be a duty of silence, when there is no obligation of belief. Here no question of faith comes in. We will suppose that a novel opinion about Scripture or its contents is well grounded, and a received opinion open to doubt, in a case in which the Church has hitherto decided nothing, so that a new question needs a new answer: here to profess the new opinion may be abstractedly permissible, but is not always permissible in practice. The novelty may be so startling as to require a full certainty that it is true; it may be so strange as to raise the question whether it will not unsettle ill-educated minds, that is, though the statement is not an offence against faith, still it may be an offence against charity. It need not be heretical, yet at a particular time or place it may be so contrary to the prevalent opinion in the Catholic body, as in Galileo's case, that zeal for the supremacy of the Divine Word, deference to existing authorities, charity towards the weak and ignorant, and distrust of self, should keep a man from being impetuous or careless in circulating what nevertheless he holds to be true, and what, if indeed asked about, he cannot deny. The household of God has claims upon our tenderness in such matters, which criticism and history have not.

7. For myself, I have no call or wish at all to write in behalf of such persons as think it a love of truth to have no 'love of the brethren.' I am indeed desirous of investigating for its own sake the limit of free thought consistently with the claims upon us of Holy Scripture; still my especial interest in the inquiry is from my desire to assist those religious sons of the Church who are engaged in biblical criticism and its attendant studies, and have a conscientious fear of transgressing the rule of faith; men who wish to ascertain how far certain religion puts them under obligations and restrictions in their reasonings and inferences on such subjects, what conclusions may and what may not be held without interfering with that internal assent which they are bound to give, if they would be Catholics, to the written Word of God. I do but contemplate the inward peace of religious Catholics in their own persons. Of course those who begin without belief in the religious aspect of the universe, are not {188} likely to be brought to such belief by studying it merely on its secular side.

8. Now then, the main question before us being what it is that a Catholic is free to hold about Scripture in general, or about its separate portions or its statements, without compromising his firm inward assent to the dogmas of the Church, that is, to the de fide enunciations of Pope and Councils, we have first of all to inquire how many and what those dogmas are.

I answer that there are two such dogmas; one relates to the authority of Scripture, the other to its interpretation. As to the authority of Scripture, we hold it to be, in all matters of faith and morals, divinely inspired throughout; as to its interpretation, we hold that the Church is, in faith and morals, the one infallible expounder of that inspired text.

I begin with the question of its inspiration.

9. The books which constitute the canon of Scripture, or the Canonical books, are enumerated by the Tridentine Council, as we find them in the first page of our Catholic Bibles, and are in that Ecumenical Council's decree spoken of by implication as the work of inspired men. The Vatican Council speaks more distinctly, saying that the entire books with all their parts, are divinely inspired, and adding an anathema upon impugners of this definition.

There is another dogmatic phrase used by the Councils of Florence and Trent to denote the inspiration of Scripture, viz., 'Deus unus et idem utriusque Testamanti Auctor.' Since this left room for holding that by the word 'Testamentum' was meant 'Dispensation,' as it seems to have meant in former Councils from the date of Irenĉus, and as St. Paul uses the word, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, the Vatican Council has expressly defined that the concrete libri themselves of the Old and New Testament 'Deum habent Auctorem.'

10. There is a further question, which is still left in some ambiguity, the meaning of the word 'Auctor.' 'Auctor' is not identical with the English word 'Author.' Allowing that there are instances to be found in classical Latin in which 'auctores' may be translated 'authors,' instances in which it even seems to mean 'writers,' it more naturally means 'authorities.' Its proper sense is 'originator,' 'inventor,' 'founder,' 'primary cause;' (thus St. Paul speaks of our Lord as 'Auctor salutis,' 'Auctor fidei;') on the other hand, that it was the inspired penmen who were the 'writers' of their works seems asserted by St. John and St. Luke and, I may say, in every paragraph of St. Paul's Epistles. In St. John we read 'This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and has written these things,' and St. Luke says 'I have thought it good to write to thee' &c. However, if any one prefers to construe 'auctor' as 'author,' or writer, let it be so—only, then there will be two writers of the Scriptures, the divine and the human. {189}

11. And now comes the important question, in what respect are the Canonical books inspired? It cannot be in every respect, unless we are bound de fide to believe that 'terra in ĉternum stat,' and that heaven is above us, and that there are no antipodes. And it seems unworthy of Divine Greatness, that the Almighty should in His revelation of Himself to us undertake mere secular duties, and assume the office of a narrator, as such, or an historian, or geographer, except so far as the secular matters bear directly upon the revealed truth. The Councils of Trent and the Vatican fulfil this anticipation; they tell us distinctly the object and the promise of Scripture inspiration. They specify 'faith and moral conduct' as the drift of that teaching which has the guarantee of inspiration. What we need and what is given us is not how to educate ourselves for this life; we have abundant natural gifts for human society, and for the advantages which it secures; but our great want is how to demean ourselves in thought and deed towards our Maker, and how to gain reliable information on this urgent necessity.

12. Accordingly four times does the Tridentine Council insist upon 'faith and morality,' as the scope of inspired teaching. It declares that the 'Gospel' is 'the Fount of all saving truth and all instruction in morals,' that in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, the Holy Spirit dictating, this truth and instruction are contained. Then it speaks of the books and traditions, 'relating whether to faith or to morals,' and afterwards of 'the confirmation of dogmas and establishment of morals.' Lastly, it warns the Christian people, 'in matters of faith and morals,' against distorting Scripture into a sense of their own.

In like manner the Vatican Council pronounces that Supernatural Revelation consists 'in rebus divinis,' and is contained 'in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus;' and it also speaks of 'petulantia ingenia' advancing wrong interpretations of Scripture 'in rebus fidei et morum ad ĉdificationem doctrinĉ Christianĉ pertinentium.'

13 But while the Councils, as has been shown, lay down so emphatically the inspiration of Scripture in respect to 'faith and morals,' it is remarkable that they do not say a word directly as to inspiration in matters of fact. Yet are we therefore to conclude that the record of facts in Scripture does not come under the guarantee of its inspiration? We are not so to conclude, and for this plain reason:—the sacred narrative carried on through so many ages, what is it but the very matter for our faith and rule of our obedience? What but that narrative itself is the supernatural teaching, in order to which inspiration is given? What is the whole history, traced out in Scripture from Genesis to Esdras and thence on to the end of the Acts of the Apostles, but a manifestation of Divine Providence, on the one hand interpretative, on a large scale and with {190} analogical applications, of universal history, and on the other preparatory, typical and predictive, of the Evangelical Dispensation? Its pages breathe of providence and grace, of our Lord, and of His work and teaching, from beginning to end. It views facts in those relations in which neither ancients, such as the Greek and Latin classical historians, nor moderns, such as Niebuhr, Grote, Ewald, or Michelet, can view them. In this point of view it has God for its author, even though the finger of God traced no words but the Decalogue. Such is the claim of Bible history in its substantial fulness to be accepted de fide as true. In this point of view, Scripture is inspired, not only in faith and morals, but in all its parts which bear on faith, including matters of fact.

14. But what has been said leads to another serious question. It is easy to imagine a Code of Laws inspired, or a formal prophecy, or a Hymn, or a Creed, or a collection of proverbs. Such works may be short, precise, and homogeneous; but inspiration on the one hand, and on the other a document, multiform and copious in its contents, as the Bible is, are at first sight incompatible ideas, and destructive of each other. How are we practically to combine the indubitable fact of a divine superintendence with the indubitable fact of a collection of such various writings?

15. Surely, then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so systematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation? Such is our natural anticipation, and it is only too exactly justified in the events of the last three centuries, in the many countries where private judgment on the text of Scripture has prevailed. The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility.

Where then is this gift lodged, which is so necessary for the due use of the written word of God? Thus we are introduced to the second dogma in respect to Holy Scripture taught by the Catholic religion. The first is that Scripture is inspired, the second that the Church is the infallible interpreter of that inspiration.

16. That the Church, and therefore the Pope, is that Interpreter is defined in the following words:— {191}

First by the Council of Trent: 'Nemo suâ prudentiâ innixus, in rebus fidei et morum ad ĉdificationem doctrinĉ Christianĉ pertinentium, Sacram Scripturam ad suos sensus contorquens, contra eum sensum quem tenuit et tenet Sancta Mater Ecclesia, cujus est judicare de vero sensu et interpretatione Scripturarum Sanctarum, aut etiam contra unanimem consensum Patrum, ipsam Scripturam Sacram interpretari audeat.'

Secondly by the Council of the Vatican: 'Nos, idem Decretum [Tridentinum] renovantes, hanc illius mentem esse declaramus, ut in rebus fidei et morum ad ĉdificationem doctrinĉ Christianĉ pertinentiuin, is pro vero sensu Sacrĉ Scripturĉ habendus sit, quem tenuit et tenet Sancta Mater Ecclesia, cujus est judicare de vero sensu et interpretatione Scripturarum Sanctarum,' &c.

17. Since then there is in the Church an authority, divinely appointed and plenary, for judgment and for appeal in questions of Scripture interpretation, in matters of faith and morals, therefore, by the very force of the words, there is one such authority, and only one.

Again, it follows hence, that, when the legitimate authority has spoken, to resist its interpretation is a sin against the faith and an act of heresy.

And from this again it follows, that, till the Infallible Authority formally interprets a passage of Scripture, there is nothing heretical in advocating a contrary interpretation, provided of course there is nothing in the act intrinsically inconsistent with the faith, or the pietas fidei, nothing of contempt or rebellion, nothing temerarious, nothing offensive or scandalous, in the manner of acting or the circumstances of the case. I repeat, I am all along inquiring what Scripture, by reason of its literal text, obliges us to believe. An original view about Scripture or its parts may be as little contrary to the mind of the Church about it, as it need be an offence against its inspiration.

The proviso, however, or condition, which I have just made, must carefully be kept in mind. Doubtless, a certain interpretation of a doctrinal text may be so strongly supported by the Fathers, so continuous and universal, and so cognate and connatural with the Church's teaching, that it is virtually or practically as dogmatic as if it were a formal judgment delivered on appeal by the Holy See, and cannot be disputed except as the Church or Holy See opens its wording or its conditions. Hence the Vatican Council says, 'Fide divinâ et Catholicâ ea omnia credenda sunt, quĉ in verbo Dei scripto vel tradito continentur, vel ab Ecclesiâ sive solemni judicio, sive ordinario et universali magisterio, tanquam divinitus revelata, credenda proponuntur.' And I repeat, that, though the Fathers were not inspired, yet their united testimony is of supreme authority; at the same time, since no Canon or List has been determined of the {192} Fathers, the practical rule of duty is obedience to the voice of the Church.

18. Such then is the answer which I make to the main question which has led to my writing. I asked what obligation of duty lay upon the Catholic scholar or man of science as regards his critical treatment of the text and the matter of Holy Scripture. And now I say that it is his duty, first, never to forget that what he is handling is the Word of God, which, by reason of the difficulty of always drawing the line between what is human and what is divine, cannot be put on the level of other books, as it is now the fashion to do, but has the nature of a Sacrament, which is outward and inward, and a channel of supernatural grace; and secondly, that, in what he writes upon it or its separate books, he is bound to submit himself internally, and to profess to submit himself, in all that relates to faith and morals, to the definite teachings of Holy Church.

This being laid down, let me go on to consider some of the critical distinctions and conclusions which are consistent with a faithful observance of these obligations.

19. Are the books or are the writers inspired? I answer, Both. The Council of Trent says the writers ('ab ipsis Apostolis, Spiritu Sancto dictante); the Vatican says the books ('si quis libros integros &c. divinitus inspiratos esse negaverit, anathema sit'). Of course the Vatican decision is de fide, but it cannot annul the Tridentine. Both decrees are dogmatic truths. The Tridentine teaches us that the Divine Inspirer, inasmuch as he acted on the writer, acted, not immediately on the books themselves, but through the men who wrote them. The books are inspired, because the writers were inspired to write them. They are not inspired books, unless they came from inspired men.

There is one instance in Scripture of Divine Inspiration without a human medium; the Decalogue was written by the very finger of God. He wrote the law upon the stone tables Himself. It has been thought the Urim anti Thummim was another instance of the immediate inspiration of a material substance; but anyhow such instances are exceptional; certainly, as regards Scripture, which alone concerns us here, there always have been two minds in the process of inspiration, a Divine Auctor, and a human Scriptor; and various important consequences follow from this appointment.

20. If there be at once a divine and a human mind co-operating in the formation of the sacred text, it is not surprising if there often be a double sense in that text, and, with obvious exceptions, never certain that there is not.

Thus Sara had her human and literal meaning in her words, 'Cast out the bondwoman and her son,' &c.; but we know from St. Paul that those words were inspired by the Holy Ghost to convey a spiritual meaning. Abraham, too, on the Mount, when his son asked {193} him whence was to come the victim for the sacrifice which his father was about to offer, answered 'God will provide;' and he showed his own sense of his words afterwards, when he took the ram which was caught in the briers, and offered it as a holocaust. Yet those words were a solemn prophecy.

And is it extravagant to say, that, even in the case of men who have no pretension to be prophets on servants of God, He may by their means give us great maxims and lessons, which the speakers little thought they were delivering? as in the case of the Architriclinus in the marriage feast, who spoke of the bridegroom as having kept the good wine until now;' words which it was needless for St. John to record, unless they had a mystical meaning.

Such instances raise the question whether the Scripture saints and prophets always understood the higher and divine sense of their words. As to Abraham, this will be answered in the affirmative; but I do not see reason for thinking that Sara was equally favoured. Nor is her case solitary; Caiphas, as high priest, spoke a divine truth by virtue of his office, little thinking of it, when he said that 'one man must die for the people;' and St. Peter at Joppa at first did not see beyond a literal sense in his vision, though he knew that there was a higher sense, which in God's good time would be revealed to him.

And hence there is no difficulty in supposing that the Prophet Osee, though inspired, only knew his own literal sense of the words which he transmitted to posterity, 'I have called my Son out of Egypt,' the further prophetic meaning of them being declared by St. Matthew in his gospel. And such a divine sense would be both concurrent with and confirmed by that antecedent belief which prevailed among the Jews in St. Matthew's time, that their sacred books were in great measure typical, with an evangelical bearing, though as yet they might not know what those books contained in prospect.

21. Nor is it de fide (for that alone with a view to Catholic Biblicists I am considering) that inspired men, at the time when they speak from inspiration, should always know that the Divine Spirit is visiting them.

The Psalms are inspired; but, when David, in the outpouring of his deep contrition, disburdened himself before hisGod in the words of the Miserere, could he, possibly, while uttering them, have been directly conscious that every word he uttered was not simply his, but another's? Did he not think that he was personally asking forgiveness and spiritual help?

Doubt again seems incompatible with a consciousness of being inspired. But Father Patrizi, while reconciling two Evangelists in a passage of their narratives, says, if I understand him rightly (ii. p. 405), that though we admit that there were some things about which inspired writers doubted, this does not imply that inspiration allowed {194} them to state what is doubtful as certain, but only it did not hinder them from stating things with a doubt on their minds about them; but how can the All-knowing Spirit doubt? or how can an inspired man doubt, if he is conscious of his inspiration?

And again, how can a man whose hand is guided by the Holy Spirit, and who knows it, make apologies for his style of writing, as if deficient in literary exactness arid finish? If then the writer of Ecclesiasticus, at the very time that he wrote his Prologue, was not only inspired but conscious of his inspiration, how could he have entreated his readers to 'come with benevolence,' and to make excuse for his 'coming short in the composition of words'? Surely, if at the very time he wrote he had known it, he would, like other inspired men, have said, 'Thus saith the Lord,' or what was equivalent to it.

The same remark applies to the writer of the second book of Machabees, who ends his narrative by saying, 'If I have done well, it is what I desired, but if not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me.' What a contrast to St. Paul, who, speaking of his inspiration (1 Cor. vii. 40) and of his 'weakness and fear' (ibid ii. 4), does so in order to boast that his 'speech was, not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in the showing of the Spirit and of power.' The historian of the Machabees, would have surely adopted a like tone of 'glorying,' had he had at the time a like consciousness of his divine gift.

22. Again, it follows from there being two agencies, divine grace and human intelligence, co-operating in the production of the Scriptures, that, whereas, if they were written, as in the Decalogue, by the immediate finger of God, every word of them must be His and His only, on the contrary, if they are man's writing, informed and quickened by the presence of the Holy Ghost, they admit, should it so happen, of being composed of outlying materials, which have passed through the minds and from the fingers of inspired penmen, and are known to be inspired on the ground that those who were the immediate editors, as they may be called, were inspired.

For an example of this we are supplied by the writer of the second book of Machabees, to which reference has already been made. 'All such things,' says the writer, 'as have been comprised in five books by Jason of Cyrene, we have attempted to abridge in one book.' Here we have the human aspect of an inspired work. Jason need not, the writer of the second book of Machabees must, have been inspired.

Again; St. Luke's gospel is inspired, as having gone through and come forth from an inspired mind; but the extrinsic sources of his narrative were not necessarily all inspired any more than was Jason of Cyrene; yet such sources there were, for, in contrast with the testimony of the actual eye-witnesses of the events which he records, he says of himself that he wrote after a careful inquiry, 'according as {195} they delivered them to us, who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word;' as to himself, he had but 'diligently attained to all things from the beginning.' Here it was not the original statements, but his edition of them, which needed to be inspired.

23. Hence we have no reason to be surprised, nor is it against the faith to hold, that a canonical book may be composed, not only from, but even of, pre-existing documents, it being always borne in mind, as a necessary condition, that an inspired mind has exercised a supreme and an ultimate judgment on the work, determining what was to be selected and embodied in it, in order to its truth in all 'matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine,' and its unadulterated truth.

Thus Moses may have incorporated in his manuscript as much from foreign documents as is commonly maintained by the critical school; yet the existing Pentateuch, with the miracles which it contains, may still (from that personal inspiration which belongs to a prophet) have flowed from his mind and hand on to his composition. He new-made and authenticated what till then was no matter of faith.

This being considered, it follows that a book may be, and may be accepted as, inspired, though not a word of it is an original document. Such is almost the case with the first book of Esdras. A learned writer in a publication of the day [Note 1] says: 'It consists of the contemporary historical journals, kept from time to time by the prophets or other authorized persons who were eye-witnesses for the most part of what they record, and whose several narratives were afterwards strung together, and either abridged or added to, as the case required, by a later hand, of course an inspired hand.'

And in like manner the Chaldee and Greek portions of the book of Daniel; even though not written by Daniel, may be, and we believe are, written by penmen inspired in matters of faith and morals and so much, and nothing beyond, does the Church 'oblige' us to believe.

24. I have said that the Chaldee, as well as the Hebrew portion of Daniel requires, in order to its inspiration, not that it should be Daniel's writing, but that its writer, whoever he was, should be inspired. This leads me to the question whether inspiration requires and implies that the book inspired should in its form and matter be homogeneous, and all its parts belong to each other. Certainly not. The Book of Psalms is the obvious instance destructive of any such idea. What it really requires is an inspired Editor [Note 2]; that is, an {196} inspired mind, authoritative in faith and morals, from whose fingers the sacred text passed. I believe it is allowed generally, that at the date of the captivity and under the persecution of Antiochus, the books of Scripture and the sacred text suffered much loss and injury. Originally the Psalms seem to have consisted of five books; of which only a portion, perhaps the first and second, were David's. That arrangement is now broken up, and the Council of Trent was so impressed with the difficulty of their authorship, that, in its formal decree respecting the Canon, instead of calling the collection 'David's Psalms,' as was usual, they called it the 'Psalterium Davidicum,' thereby meaning to imply, that although canonical and inspired and in spiritual fellowship and relationship with those of 'the choice Psalmist of Israel,' the whole collection is not therefore necessarily the writing of David.

And as the name of David, though not really applicable to every Psalm, nevertheless protected and sanctioned them all, so the appendices which conclude the book of Daniel, Susanna and Bel, though not belonging to the main history, come under the shadow of that Divine Presence, which primarily rests on what goes before.

And so again, whether or not the last verses of St. Mark's, and two portions of St. John's Gospel, belong to those Evangelists respectively, matters not as regards their inspiration; for the Church has recognised them as portions of that sacred narrative which precedes or embraces them.

Nor does it matter whether one or two Isaiahs wrote the book which bears that Prophet's name; the Church, without settling this point, pronounces it inspired in respect of faith and morals, both Isaiahs being inspired; and, if this be assured to us, all other questions are irrelevant and unnecessary.

Nor do the Councils forbid our holding that there are interpolations or additions in the sacred text, say, the last chapter of the Pentateuch, provided they are held to come from an inspired penman, such as Esdras, and are thereby authoritative in faith and morals.

25. From what has been last said it follows, that the titles of the Canonical books, and their ascription to different authors, either do not come under their inspiration, or need not be accepted literally.

For instance the Epistle to the Hebrews is said in our Bibles to be the writing of St. Paul, and so virtually it is, and to deny that it is so in any sense might be temerarious; but its authorship is not a matter of faith as its inspiration is, but an acceptance of received opinion, and because to no other writer can it be so well assigned.

Again, the 89th Psalm has for its title 'A Prayer of Moses,' yet {197} that has not hindered a succession of Catholic writers, from Athanasius to Bellarmine, from denying it to be his.

Again, the Book of Wisdom professes (e.g., chs. vii. and ix.) to be written by Solomon; yet our Bibles say, 'It is written in the person of Solomon,' and 'it is uncertain who was the writer;' and St. Augustine, whose authority had so much influence in the settlement of the Canon, speaking of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, says: 'The two books by reason of a certain similarity of style are usually called Solomon's, though the more learned have no doubt they do not belong to him.' (Martin. Pref. to Wisdom and Eccl.; Aug. Opp. t. iii. p. 733.)

If these instances hold, they are precedents for saying that it is no sin against the faith (for of such I have all along been speaking), nor indeed, if done conscientiously and on reasonable grounds, any sin, to hold that Ecclesiastes is not the writing of Solomon, in spite of its opening with a profession of being his; and that first, because that profession is a heading, not a portion of the book; secondly, because, even though it be part of the book, a like profession is made in the Book of Wisdom, without its being a proof that 'Wisdom' is Solomon's; and thirdly, because such a profession may well be considered a prosopopœia not so difficult to understand as that of the Angel Raphael, when he called himself 'the Son of the great Ananias.'

On this subject Melchior Canus says: 'It does not much matter to the Catholic Faith, that a book was written by this or that writer, so long as the Spirit of God is believed to be the author of it; which Gregory delivers and explains, in his Preface to Job, "It matters not with what pen the King has written his letter, if it be true that He has written it."' (Loc. Th. p. 44.)

I say then of the Book of Ecclesiastes, its authorship is one of those questions which still lie in the hands of the Church. If the Church formally declared that it was written by Solomon, I consider that, in accordance with its heading (and, as implied in what follows, as in 'Wisdom,') we should be bound, recollecting that she has the gift of judging 'de vero sensu et interpretatione Scripturarum Sanctarum,' to accept such a decree as a matter of faith; and in like manner, in spite of its heading, we should be bound to accept a contrary decree, if made to the effect that the book was not Solomon's. At present as the Church (or Pope) has not pronounced on one side or on the other, I conceive that, till a decision comes from Rome, either opinion is open to the Catholic without any impeachment of his faith.

26. And here I am led on to inquire whether obiter dicta are conceivable in an inspired document. We know that they are held to exist and even required in treating of the dogmatic utterances of Popes, but are they compatible with inspiration? The common {198} opinion is that they are not. Professor Lamy thus writes about them, in the form of an objection: 'Many minute matters occur in the sacred writers which have regard only to human feebleness and the natural necessities of life, and by no means require inspiration, since they can otherwise be perfectly well known, and seem scarcely worthy of the Holy Spirit, as for instance what is said of the dog of Tobias, St. Paul's penula, and the salutations at the end of the Epistles.' Neither he nor Fr. Patrizi allow of these exceptions; but Fr. Patrizi, as Lamy quotes him, 'damnare non audet eos qui hĉc tenerent,' viz., exceptions, and he himself, by keeping silence, seems unable to condemn them either.

By obiter dicta in Scripture I also mean such statements as we find in the Book of Judith, that Nabuchodonosor was king of Nineve. Now it is in favour of there being such unauthoritative obiter dicta, that unlike those which occur in dogmatic utterances of Popes and Councils, they are, in Scripture, not doctrinal, but mere unimportant statements of fact; whereas those of Popes and Councils may relate to faith and morals, and are said to be uttered obiter, because they are not contained within the scope of the formal definition, and imply no intention of binding the consciences of the faithful. There does not then seem any serious difficulty in admitting their existence in Scripture. Let it be observed, its miracles are doctrinal facts, and in no sense of the phrase can be considered obiter dicta.

27. It may be questioned, too, whether the absence of chronological sequence might not be represented as an infringement of plenary inspiration, more serious than the obiter dicta of which I have been speaking. Yet St. Matthew is admitted by approved commentators to be unsolicitous as to order of time. So says Fr. Patrizi (De Evang. lib. ii. p. 1), viz., 'Matthĉum de observando temporis ordine minime sollicitum esse.' He gives instances, and then repeats 'Matthew did not observe order of time.' If such absence of order is compatible with inspiration in St. Matthew, as it is, it might be consistent with inspiration in parts of the Old Testament, supposing they are open to rearrangement in chronology. Does not this teach us to fall back upon the decision of the Councils that 'faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine' are the scope, the true scope, of inspiration? And is not the Holy See the judge given us for determining what is for edification and what is not?

There is another practical exception to the ideal continuity of Scripture inspiration in mere matters of fact, and that is the multitude of various manuscript readings which surround the sacred text. Unless we have the text as inspired men wrote it, we have not the divine gift in its fulness, and as far as we have no certainty which out of many is the true reading, so far, wherever the sense is affected, we are in the same difficulty as may be the consequence of an obiter {199} dictum. Yet, in spite of this danger, even cautious theologians do not hesitate to apply the gratuitous hypothesis of errors in transcription as a means of accounting for such statements of fact as they feel to need an explanation. Thus, Fr. Patrizi, not favouring the order of our Lord's three temptations in the desert, as given by St. Luke, attributes it to the mistake of the transcribers. 'I have no doubt at all,' he says, 'that it is to be attributed, not to Luke himself, but to his transcribers' (ibid. p. 5); and again, he says that it is owing 'vitio librariorum' (p. 394). If I recollect rightly, Melchior Canus has recourse to the 'fault of transcribers' also. Indeed it is commonly urged in controversy (vide Lamy, i. p. 31).

28. I do not here go on to treat of the special instance urged against us by M. Renan, drawn from the Book of Judith, because I have wished to lay down principles, and next because his charge can neither be proved nor refuted just now, while the strange discoveries are in progress about Assyrian and Persian history by means of the cuneiform inscriptions. When the need comes, the Church, or the Holy See, will interpret the sacred book for us.

I conclude by reminding the reader that in these remarks I have been concerned only with the question—what have Catholics to hold and profess de fide about Scripture? that is, what it is the Church 'insists' on their holding; and next, by unreservedly submitting what I have written to the judgment of the Holy See, being more desirous that the question should be satisfactorily answered, than that my own answer should prove to be in every respect the right one.


Top | Works | Home


1. Smith's Dictionary.
Return to text

2. This representation must not be confused with either of the two views of canonicity which are pronounced insufficient by the Vatican Council—viz. 1, that in order to be sacred and canonical, it is enough for a book to be a work of mere human industry, provided it be afterwards approved by the authorities of the Church; and 2, that it is enough if it contains revealed teaching without error. Neither of these views supposes the presence of inspiration, whether in the writer or the writing; what is contemplated above is an inspired writer in the exercise of his inspiration, and a work inspired from first to last under the action of that inspiration.
Return to text

Top | Works | Home

Essay II. Further Illustrations

[from Stray Essays on Controversial Points variously illustrated, by Cardinal Newman, 1890, privately printed.]

§ 30. Prefatory Notice

{39} IN the February Number of the Nineteenth Century, an article of mine appeared, which has elicited a criticism from a Catholic Professor of name. As I acquiesce neither in his statements nor in his reasonings, I have been led to put on paper Remarks in answer to him; and that without availing myself of the offer made to me by the Editor of the Review to re-publish, together with these Remarks, my Article itself: an indulgence beyond its rules, which I feel I have no right to accept, unless the Article shall be expressly called for by the public.

At present, in order to make these Remarks intelligible to those who have not seen my original Article, it is sufficient, I conceive, to say that they aim, as that Article did, at answering the question proposed in my title-page [Note]: "What is of obligation {40} for a Catholic to believe concerning the Inspiration of the Canonical Scriptures?" This being the sole question, I observed, that, since two Ecumenical Councils have spoken upon Inspiration, it is obvious to have recourse to them, if we would learn what is de fide, or obligatory on our faith in the matter. To this, of course, must be added any teaching which comes to us incidentally from the ordinary magisterium of the Church, or from the joint testimony of the Fathers; but the two Councils, the Tridentine and the Vatican, give us by far the most distinct and definite information.

These two Councils decide that the Scriptures are inspired, and inspired throughout, but they do not add to their decision that they are inspired by an immediately divine act, but they say that they are inspired through the instrumentality of inspired men; that they are inspired in all matters of faith and morals, meaning thereby, not only theological doctrine, but also the historical and prophetical narratives which they contain, from Genesis to the Acts of the Apostles; and lastly, that, being inspired because written by inspired men, they have a human side, which manifests itself in language, style, tone of thought, character, intellectual peculiarities, and such infirmities, not sinful, as belong to our nature, and which in unimportant matters may issue in what in doctrinal definitions is called an obiter dictum. At the same time, the gift of inspiration being divine, a Catholic must never forget that {41} what he is handling is in a true sense the Word of God, which, as I said in my Article, " by reason of the difficulty of always drawing the line between what is human and what is divine, cannot be put on the level of other books, as it is now the fashion to do, but has the nature of a Sacrament, which is outward and inward, and a channel of supernatural grace."

This is why the second great definition of the Councils, on which I proceeded in my Article to insist, is so important, viz., that the authoritative interpretation of Scripture rests with the Church."

So much on the view of Scripture which offends the Professor in question, to whose criticisms in the March Number of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record I now make my answer.

§ 31. Prefatory Notice (continued)

A not over-courteous, nor over-exact writer, in his criticisms on my Essay on Inspiration, gives it as his judgment upon it, that "its startling character" must be evident to "the merest tyro in the schools of Catholic Theology." ‘Tis a pity he did not take more than a short month for reading, pondering, writing, and printing. Had he not been in a hurry to publish, he would have made a better Article. I took above a twelve-month for mine. Thus I {42} account for some of the Professor's unnecessary remarks.

If I understand him, his main thesis is this—that, virtually or actually, Scripture is inspired, not only in matters of faith and morals, as is declared in the Councils of Trent and of the Vatican, but in all respects, and for all purposes, and on all subjects; so that no clause all through the Bible is liable to criticism of any kind, and that no good Catholic can think otherwise. If this is his position, it is plain that I approach the question on quite a distinct side from him; but I do not see that personally and practically I have very much to differ from him in, except in his faulty logic, and his misrepresentations of what I have written.

§ 32. Divine Inspiration of Scripture in all matters of Faith and Morals

This proposition must be accepted as de fide, or of obligatory faith, by every Catholic, as having been so defined by the Councils of Trent and of the Vatican.

Now I say first, that the inspiration of religious and moral truth, of which these Councils speak, is a divine gift, in the first instance given to divine ministers, and from them carried on, as into their oral teachings, so also into such of their writings {43} as the Church has declared to be sacred and canonical.

And next: divine gifts, as we read of them in the history of Revelation, did not extend in every case to all departments of ministration, but had in each instance a particular service and application. These various favours were ordinarily but partial, given for precise and definite purposes; so that it is but in harmony with the rule of Providence in parallel cases, if there should be found, in respect to Biblical Inspiration, a distribution and a limitation in the bestowal of it. St. Paul's account of the gratiĉ gratis datĉ, may be taken to illustrate this principle, without my meaning at all thereby to imply that the inspiration of an Evangelist was not in its intensity, refinement, abundance, and manifoldness, far superior to the gifts spoken of by the Apostle in the chapter to which I refer. I refer to that chapter in order to draw attention to what was the rule of Providence at the first in the disposal and direction of the gratiĉ gratis datĉ, viz., that they had a special scope and character, and, in consequence, as is intimated in the parable of the Five and Ten Talents, were limited in their range of operation. I am not here affirming or denying that Scripture is inspired in matters of astronomy and chronology, as well as in faith and morals; but I certainly do not see that because Inspiration is given for the latter subjects, therefore it extends to the former. {44}

The Apostle tells us that, whereas there are "diversities of grace," there is "the same Spirit"; and that "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit"; that is, the gift is given according to the measure of the need. Then he says, "To one by the Spirit is given the Word of Wisdom, to another the Word of Knowledge according to the same Spirit." To both of them there was given "the Word" of God; but one was the minister of the Word as far as Wisdom went, and the other as far as Knowledge went; and, though the same man might indeed have both gifts, we could not logically argue that he had wisdom on the mere ground of his having knowledge.

It may be observed too that it was by information from those who thus had "the Word" of God that St. Luke wrote his Gospel; for he says expressly that the things which he recorded "were delivered to us" by those "who from the beginning were eye-witnesses, and servants of the Word"; that is, those who saw, or who were inspired to know, what the Evangelist reported from them: a statement which would imply that their particular gift was that of bearing faithful witness, or otherwise being endowed with the gift of knowledge. As another instance of the limitation of a gift, I may refer to the history of Jonas. "The Word of the Lord" came to him to denounce judgment against Nineve; but he did not know that the divine menace was conditional. Again, Eliseus says to Giezi, "Was {45} not my heart present when the man turned back to meet thee?" yet, when the Sunamitess had "caught hold on his feet," he had said, "Her soul is in anguish, and the Lord hath hid it from me and hath not told me."

I return to St. Paul: he continues, "To another, Faith in the same Spirit; to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit; to another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy." and so on. He ends a long chapter on the subject by enumerating the offices which needed and determined the gifts—"Apostles, Prophets, Doctors," and the rest; and by intimating that, as not all are Apostles or Prophets, so the gifts, necessary to these, were not given to others. This is from 1 Cor. xii. The 4th Chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians is on the same subject.

I should infer from this, that those who were chosen by the Spirit to minister between God and man, such as Moses, Samuel, Elias, Isaias, the Apostles and Evangelists, would be invested with the high gifts necessary for their work, and not necessarily with other gifts.

I do not, then, feel it any difficulty when I am told by the infallible voice of more than one Ecumenical Council, that the writers of Scripture, whether under the New Covenant or the Old, ethical and religious writers as they were, have had assigned to them a gift and promise in teaching which is in keeping with this antecedent idea which we form of the work of Evangelists and Prophets. If they {46} are to teach us our duty to God and man, it is natural that inspiration should be promised them in matters of faith and morals; and if such is the actual promise, it is natural that Councils should insist upon its being such;—but how otherwise are we to account for the remarkable stress laid on the inspiration of Scripture in matters of faith and morals, both in the Vatican and at Trent, if after all faith and morals, in view of inspiration, are only parts of a larger gift? Why was it not simply said once for all that in all matters of faith or fact, not only in all its parts, but on every subject whatever, Scripture was inspired? If nothing short of the highest and exact truth on all subjects must be contemplated as the gift conveyed to the inspired writers, what is gained by singling out faith and morals as the legitimate province of Inspiration, and thereby throwing the wider and more complete view of Scripture truth into the shade? Why, on the contrary, does the Vatican Council so carefully repeat the very wording of the Tridentine in its statements about inspiration in faith and morals, putting no other subject matter on a level with them? It may perhaps be said that it is a rule with Councils, that the later repeat the very words of the earlier; true, the Holy Trinity, the Creation, the Incarnation, the Blessed Virgin's prerogatives, are often expressed in language carrying on a tradition of terms as well as truths; but this is done because the truths or words are {47} important. It is a paradox to say that the Vatican declarations about Scripture are in their wording so much of a fac simile of the Tridentine, only because they mean so very little. Even when a phrase is not easy to translate, the identity is preserved; for instance, the clause "in rebus fidei et morum, ad ĉdificationem doctrinĉ Christianĉ pertinentium," not "pertinentibus," is found in both Councils.

This is the obvious aspect under which I first view the inspiration of Scripture, as determined by the Councils.

§ 33. Inspiration in matters of Historical Fact

Here we are brought to a second and most important question. When I say that the writers of Scripture were divinely inspired in all matters of faith and morals, what matters are included in the range of such inspiration? Are historical statements of fact included? It makes me smile to think that any one could fancy me so absurd as to exclude them, especially since in a long passage in my Essay I have expressly included them; but the Professor has done his best so to manage my text, as to make his readers believe that the Bible, as far as it is historical, does not in my view proceed from inspired writers. Professing to quote me, he omits just the very passage in which I have distinctly avowed the {48} inspiration of the whole of its history. This is so strange, so anomalous a proceeding, as to make it difficult to believe that the same person who had the good feeling to write the first page of the Review wrote those which follow.

I am obliged to take notice of this great impropriety in pure self-defence; for if I am not able to show that the writer has ill-treated me, he will have an argument against me stronger than any which by fair means he is able to produce. On the other hand, if I show that he has been guilty of an indefensible act, third parties will not be so ready to think him a safe guide in other judgments which he makes to my discredit.

To begin, then: in § 13 of my Essay, pp. 5, 6, I write thus: "While the Councils, as has been shown, lay down so emphatically the inspiration of Scripture in respect to faith and morals, it is remarkable that they do not say a word directly as to its inspiration in matters of fact. Yet are we therefore to conclude that the record of facts in Scripture does not come under the guarantee of its inspiration? we are not so to conclude."

These are my words, as they stand; but he quotes them thus: "[The Cardinal] asserts that, while the Councils, as has been shown, lay down so emphatically the inspiration of Scripture in respect to faith and morals, it is remarkable that they do not say a word directly as to its inspiration in matters of fact," p. 139; and there he stops: he quotes neither {49} my question nor my answer which follow, my question being,

Qu: "Are we therefore to conclude that the record of facts in Scripture does not come under the guarantee of its inspiration?"

and my answer being,

Answ.: "We are not so to conclude, and for this plain reason," &c., &c.

With such notions of a critic's duty, much less does the Professor think it necessary to quote, or, I suppose, even to read, the twenty lines on behalf of the inspiration of the Bible history which follow thus:

"For this plain reason—the sacred narrative, carried on through so many ages, what is it but the very matter for our faith and rule of our obedience? What but that narrative itself is the supernatural teaching, in order to which inspiration is given? What is the whole history, traced out in Scripture from Genesis to Esdras, and thence on to the end of the Acts of the Apostles, but a manifestation of Divine Providence, on the one hand interpretative, on a large scale and with analogical applications, of universal history, and on the other preparatory, typical and predictive, of the Evangelical Dispensation? Its pages breathe of providence and grace, of our Lord, and of His work and teaching, from beginning to end. It views facts in those relations in which neither ancients, such as the Greek and Latin classical historians, nor moderns, such as {50} Niebuhr, Grote, Ewald, or Michelet, can view them. In this point of view it has God for its Author, even though the finger of God traced no words but the Decalogue. Such is the claim of Bible history in its substantial fulness to be accepted de fide as true. In this point of view, Scripture is inspired, not only in faith and morals, but in all its parts which bear on faith, including matters of fact."

All this he leaves out.

If a finish was wanting to this specimen of, what I must call, sharp practice, he has taken care to supply it. For, after cutting off my own statement at its third line, as I have shown, he substitutes, as if mine, a statement of his own, which he attributes to me, about obiter dicta, adding the words, "Hence he [the Cardinal] raises the question," which I do not raise till eight pages later, and not "hence" even then. And next, whereas obiter dicta are according to him in their very nature exceptions to a rule, viz., the rule that Scripture statements of fact are inspired, he is obliged for the moment to imply that I do maintain the rule, in order that he may be able to impute to me, in cases of obiter dicta, a breach of it.

§ 34. Obiter Dicta viewed relatively to Inspiration

The subject which naturally comes next to be considered is that of the possible presence of obiter {51} dicta in inspired Scripture: by obiter dicta being meant phrases, clauses, or sentences in Scripture about matters of mere fact, which, as not relating to faith and morals, may without violence be referred to the human element in its composition.

Here, however, I observe with satisfaction that the Professor so far does me justice as to allow that what I have conceded, or have proposed to concede, to the scientific or literary inquirer, is not inconsistent with what the Church pronounces to be obligatory de fide on the Catholic. He says, "while the Church is silent, we of course do not dare to censure these views, but neither do we dare to hold them." This being the case, I shall, in the interest of the untheological student, under correction of the Church, continue as I have begun, to treat my subject as a question open to argument.

1. Now I observe, first, that any statement about the inspiration of Scripture is far too serious a matter in its bearings to be treated carelessly; and consequently the Professor explains, while he complains of, my "raising the question" of obiter dicta "and not answering it." Of course; I do not go further in my Essay than saying, "There does not seem any serious difficulty in admitting" that they are to be found in Scripture. Why is not that enough for a cautious man to say? The decision of the point does not rest with me; but still I may have an opinion as long as there is no decision. {52}

2. And next, why does he always associate an obiter dictum with the notion of error or moral infirmity, or, even as he sometimes expresses himself, with "falsehood"? At least what right has he to attribute such an association to me? I have implied no such thing. I very much doubt whether I have even once used the word "error" in connection with the phrase "obiter dictum," though (as I shall show directly) no harm follows if I have. I have given my own sense of the word when I parallel it to such instances of it as occur in a question of dogma. Does the Professor mean to say that such a dictum is necessarily false when it occurs in a dogmatic document? No—it is merely unauthoritative. Mind, I am not arguing that such an unauthoritative dictum is possible in a matter of inspired Scripture on the ground that it is possible in a matter of dogma; but I am showing by a parallel case what my own meaning of the word is.

Obiter dictum means, as I understand it, a phrase or sentence which, whether a statement of literal fact or not, is not from the circumstances binding on our faith. The force of the "obiter" is negative, not positive. To say, "I do not accept a statement as a literal fact," is not all one with saying that it is not a fact; I can not hold without holding not. The very comfort of an obiter dictum to the Catholic, whether in its relation to infallibility or to inspiration, whether in dogma or in Scripture, is, that it enables him in controversy to pass by a difficulty, {53} which else may be pressed on him without his having the learning perhaps, or the knowledge, or the talent, to answer it; that it enables him to profess neither Yes nor No in questions which are beyond him, and on which nothing depends. In difficult questions it leaves the Catholic student in peace. And, if my Critic asks, as I understand him to do, who shall decide what is important and what is not, I answer at once, the Church, which, though he seems to forget it, claims the supreme interpretation of Scripture according to the force of that second dogma about the written Word which was defined both at Trent and the Vatican.

It is plain then, as an obiter dictum, in my understanding of it, does not oblige us to affirm or to deny the literal sense, neither does it prohibit us from passing over the literal sense altogether, and, if we prefer, from taking some second, third, or fourth interpretation of the many which are possible, (provided the Church does not forbid,) as I shall show from St. Thomas presently.

3. And now take one of the instances with which Scripture may be said to provide us. St. Paul speaks of "the cloak which he left at Troas with Carpus." Would St. Timothy, to whom he wrote, think this an infallible utterance? And supposing it had been discovered, on most plausible evidence, that the Apostle left his cloak with Eutychus, not with Carpus, would Timothy, would Catholics now, make themselves unhappy, because St. Paul had committed {54} what the Professor calls "a falsehood"? Would Christians declare that they had no longer any confidence in Paul after he had so clearly shown that he "had" not "the Spirit of God"? Would they feel that he had put the whole Apostolic system into confusion, and by mistaking Eutychus for Carpus he had deprived them henceforth of reading with any comfort his Epistle to the Romans or to the Ephesians?

I fear seeming to use light words on a sacred subject; but I must ask, is St. Paul's request to Timothy about his penula, a portion of "the Word"? is it more than an apparent exception, in the text of his Epistle, to the continuity of the Divine Inspiration? And was not that continuity still without any break at all in St. Paul, if we consider Inspiration as a supernatural habit? May I ask an urgent, important question without profaneness? Could St. Paul say, "Thus saith the Lord, Send the penula," &c., &c.? I do not deny, however, that in a certain case he could so speak; but are we driven to that hypothesis here?

Theology has its prerogatives and rights; but its very perfection as a science causes theologians to be somewhat wanting in tenderness to concrete humanity, to those lay Catholics who in their grasp of religious truth do not go much beyond the catechism, and who, without entering into the expedients which system demands, wish to preserve their obedience to Holy Church. {55}

4. Let us see, however, whether St. Thomas, the greatest of theologians, will not accompany at least my first step in this question.

In his Summa, i, qu. 102, he takes for granted the Inspiration of Scripture, and its truthfulness as the consequence of that inspiration; for where truth is not an effect, inspiration is not a cause. And he inquires what statements of fact in Scripture are to be taken as true literally, and what are not and, in answer to the question, he lays down, as a rule or test, decisive of the point, this circumstance, viz., whether the manner or bearing of the sacred writer is historical or not. This being kept in mind, let us consider his words:—

"In omnibus quĉ sic [per modum narrationis historicĉ] Scriptura tradit, est pro fundamento tenenda veritas historiĉ"; that is, "In all matters which Scripture delivers after the manner of historical narrative, we must hold, as a fundamental fact, the truth of the history."

Now observe what follows from this. In giving a rule or test of the truth of historical statements, he surely implies that there are, or at least that there may be, statements which do not embody, which do not profess to embody, historical truth. If, in a military gathering or review, I were told, "You may know the English by their red coats," would not this imply that there were troops on the ground who were not English and not in red? And in like manner, when St. Thomas says that the test of historical truth is {56} the inspired penman's writing in the historical style, he certainly implies that there are, or might be, statements of fact, which in their literal sense come short of the historic style and of historic truth, or are what I should call obiter dicta. I repeat, obiter dicta are but "unhistoric statements." So far I consider I speak with the sanction of St. Thomas; now let me go on to say what I hold without (as I fear) his sanction.

5. I feel very diffident of my ability to speak with ever so much restraint of the words of St. Thomas; but, if I am forced to speak, certainly he scorns to me not only to hold as literal truth that "Paradisus est locus corporeus," which is the matter before him, but to see little difficulty, supposing (which of course he does not grant) that the literal sense was not historic, or was doubtful, in interpreting the whole account spiritually or even figuratively. Therefore, if the case occurred of small inaccuracies of fact in Scripture history, instead of countenancing me in saying that, in matters which did not infringe upon faith and morals, such apparent error was of no serious consequence, I grant that he would have preferred, (and with St. Augustine,) to interpret a passage, so characterised, in a spiritual sense, or according to some other secondary sense, which he thinks it possible to give to Scripture. Here it is, I grant, that I should not have his countenance; he would not indeed forbid me to say that a statement was literally inaccurate, but he would rather wish me to find some {57} interpretation for it which would give it an edifying sense. Thus St. Augustine, when questioned as to Jacob's conduct towards his father and brother, appeals from that grave question to its typical and evangelical meaning: "Non est mendacium, sed mysterium."

What makes me so conclude is a passage in his Quĉst. iii de Potentia. He there speaks of the danger, "ne aliquis ita Scripturam ad unum sensum cogere velit, quod alios census, qui in se veritatem continent, et possunt, salvâ circumstantia litterĉ, Scripturĉ aptari, penitus excludantur.'' Then he says that the dignity of Scripture requires many senses under one letter. He concludes by saying, "Omnis veritas, quĉ, salvâ litterĉ circumstantia, potest divinĉ Scripturĉ aptari, est ejus senses."

§ 35. Restrictions upon Inspiration

St. Augustine and St. Thomas are such great names in the Church that he must be a bold Catholic, who, knowing what they are, should contradict them. But they cannot rightly be taken instead of her Voice. There are numbers of good Catholics who never heard of them, and many of these learned and accomplished in their respective ways and callings, and earnestly desirous to remain in the faith and fear of Holy Church. And, as I would not dare to treat the above-mentioned {58} Fathers with disrespect, much less should I dare to speak against the teaching of the Church herself; and when the Church has distinctly taught us in two Ecumenical Councils, once and again, at the interval of three hundred years, and in very different conditions of human society, that the divine inspiration of Scripture is to be assigned especially rebus fidei et morum, it shocks me to find a Catholic Professor asserting that such a dogmatic decision is what he calls a restriction; a charge as inconsistent with good logic as with tenderness towards a decision of the Church. Of course I have no intention of complaining of his adding to the Church's decision the conclusions of theology or the anticipations of devotion, but her person (if I may so speak of the Church) is sacred; and she has reasons for all she does, and all she does not do. We should never forget who is minister and who is Lord.

So much for (what I fear I must call) the impropriety of the word restriction "when applied to a literal quotation of mine from the definitions of two Ecumenical Councils. Now for its failure in logic.

The Professor affirms, speaking (as I understand him) of what he seems to consider in this case not more than an hypothesis, namely, the "clause" in rebus fidei et morum, that it is "a restricting clause," and that "the Catholic dogma is adequately and accurately expressed only by eliminating that clause." Eliminating! He cannot be using so great a word {59} with reference to any mere statement of mine; it fits on to nothing short of the dogmatic utterances of the two Ecumenical Councils. He has said nothing in order to guard against this natural conclusion, and as if to make it the clearer, he contrasts it with my own words, to the effect that "sacred Scripture is inspired throughout."

But I would observe, that, easy as it is to speak against "restrictions" being placed on the gift of inspiration, those who would impute the blame, whether to the Church or to me, are also incurring it themselves. For instance, if Scripture is the Word of God (as in a true sense it is), and inspiration is (in the Professor's sense) throughout it, it cannot but be verbally inspired; but the prevalent opinion now is that this is not the case. How is thus not putting a restriction upon inspiration? How is it thorough, if the language of Scripture is not included in it? Yet the Professor, who is so disturbed at my appealing to the dogmatic force of "fides et mores," has no scruple whatever in depriving inspiration of its action upon the language of the writers of Scripture. He ventures to say, in spite of the dissent of great Fathers, that "God in most cases did leave the choice of the words to the writer"; and he speaks of the opinion, that the Holy Spirit dictated the sacred books word for word, as having been "held by a few, and now generally and justly rejected." Thus he speaks. It seems that he may say without Ecumenical Councils what another may not say with them. {60}

Nor is this the only "restriction" which he allows upon the inspiration of Scripture. He does not quite commit himself to it as an opinion, but he does not quarrel with those who hold it, viz., that inspiration goes as far as, but not further than, the "res et sententias" of Scripture, beyond which, it seems, the inspiration does not reach; he calls for no "eliminating" process here.

But something more has to be said still on the Professor's mode of arguing. Nothing is more difficult in controversy than the skilful use of metaphors. A metaphor has a dozen aspects, and, unless we look sharp, we shall be slain by the rebound of one or other of our deductions from them. Now if there be an idea intimately connected or present to us when in theology we speak of a "word," it is that of a personal agent, from whom the word proceeds. It is an effect which does not exist without a cause. It must have a speaker or writer, and but one such. In this case one effect cannot have two causes. If two are ascribed to it, one or other must be ascribed metaphorically. We cannot refer it to each of two causes at one time in its full sense. But the Professor takes it in its highest sense, as the Word of God, when he would prove that Scripture had no imperfection in it; yet when he would relieve himself of the difficulties, and account for defects, of language, then it is the word of man. Of course the inspiration of Scripture is from above; but what I want to be told is, are we {61} to consider a book of Scripture, whether written or spoken, literally the Word of God or literally the word of man?

§ 36. Plenary as well as Present Inspiration

But it may be objected, in answer to what I have been saying in explanation of "restriction," that the Council of the Vatican, treating of inspiration, has added to the dogma of Trent a clause which destroys the distinction which I have been making as to the special object with reference to which the sacred writers were endowed with the gift. For the Vatican Council has dogmatically determined the books of holy Scripture, "libros integros cum omnibus suis partibus, inspiratos esse"; and if the whole of Scripture in all its parts is inspired, how can inspiration be restricted to the matters of faith and morals? Yet I conceive this difficulty admits of an easy reply.

Certainly I have no wish to explain away the words of the Council; but is there no distinction between a gift itself, and the purpose for which it was made, and the use to which it is to be applied? We meet with this distinction every day. Might not a benefactor leave a legacy to the whole of a large family of children, one and all, yet under the condition that it was expended solely on their {62} education? And so Scripture is in its length and breadth, and is brought into the compass of one volume by virtue of this supernatural bond; whenever, wherever, and by whomsoever written, it is all inspired: still we may ask the question, In what respect, and for what purpose?

When we speak of the Bible in its length and breadth, we speak of it quantitatively; but this does not interfere with our viewing it in relation to the character, or what may be called the quality, of the inspiration. According to the two Councils, Scripture is inspired as being the work of inspired men, the subject of faith and morals being the occupation or mission assigned to them and their writings, and inspiration being the efficient cause of their teaching.

Each of these truths is independent of, is consistent with, each. The plenary extent of inspiration, and the definite object of it, neither of these can interfere, neither can be confused, with the other. Because a cup is full, that does not enable us to determine what is the nature and the effects of the liquor with which it is filled; whether, for instance, it is nutritive or medicinal or merely restorative; and so, though Scripture be plenarily inspired, it is a question still, for what purposes, and in what way.

In a word, Inspiration of Scripture in omnibus suis partibus is one thing; in omnibus rebus is another.

It may be asked how inspiration could be given {63} to the Sacred Writers for faith and morals, whereas they were not always writing, and when they did write, needed not be writing on religious and ethical subjects. Thus St. Paul, when he wrote about his penula, was he not in possession of a divine gift which on that occasion he could not use? But we see instances of this every day. A man may be strong without opportunity of using his strength, and a man may have a good memory or be a good linguist though he exercises his gift only now and then; and so a passage of Scripture may have spiritual meanings, as St. Thomas would hold, and may avail for edification with a force which an uninspired writing has not, though the literal sense may refer to matters purely secular and human, as the passage in John ii, 10, which I have quoted in my Article.

§ 37. Inspiration as Co-ordinate with Error

There is one subject more, on which it may be expedient to dwell for a few minutes.

The Professor insists on its being a conclusion theologically certain that everything that is to be found in the Sacred Writers is literally the Word of God; and in consequence he would imply that I, by questioning whether some words in Scripture may not come from the writers themselves mainly, {64} have committed the serious act of rejecting a theological truth. Now, of course it is indisputable that a proposition, which is the immediate consequence of a truth of Revelation, is itself a certain truth. Certainly; but it is a further question whether this or that conclusion is an instance of such a real demonstration. This indeed I say frankly, that, if my certainties depended on the Professor's syllogisms, I should have small chance of making a decent show of theological certainties.

For instance, in the present question, he has proved just the contrary to what he meant to prove, as can easily be shown. He has to prove that it is theologically certain that the whole of Scripture, whatever is contained in it, is the Word of God, and this is how he does it. He says, "It is as absurd to say that a man could commit sin under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, as to say that the Sacred Writers could write error under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost." Why does he change "impulse" into "inspiration" in the second clause of his sentence? Who ever fancied that the impulse of the Holy Spirit might cause error? Who will deny that the impulse of the Holy Spirit would certainly be accorded to an Apostle or Prophet to hinder, even in a statement of fact, any serious error? If the Holy Spirit does not hinder varieties and errors in transcribers of Scripture which damage the perfection of His work, why should He hinder small errors (on the hypothesis that such there are) {65} of the original writers? Is not He, with the Church co-operating, sufficient for a Guardian?

But this is not all. He says that error cannot co-exist with inspiration, more than sin with grace; but grace can co-exist with sin. His parallel just turns against him. Good Christians are each "the Temple of God," "partakers of the Divine Nature," nay "gods," and they are said "portare Deum in corpore suo"; and priests, I consider, have not less holiness than others; yet every priest in his daily Mass asks pardon "pro innumerabilibus peccatis et offensionibus et negligentiis meis." Grace brings a soul nearer to God than inspiration, for Balaam and Caiphas were inspired; yet the Professor tells us that, though sin is possible in spite of grace, error is impossible because of inspiration.

Thus I answer the special remarks made by my Critic on my February Article; should other objections be urged against it, I trust they would be found to admit of as direct an explanation.

J. H. N.
May, 1884.

Top | Works | Home


The original title-page.
Return to text

Top | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright İ 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.