Saving Truth

Biblical inspiration has sometimes been misunderstood as simply synonymous with 'inerrancy' or immunity from error—a view that creates impossible difficulties for those who cherish the Bible. One should prefer positive talk here (truth rather than immunity from error) and, even more importantly, appreciate that truth is a result or consequence of inspiration. Despite a mechanical view of inspiration that highlighted the role of the Holy Spirit as 'principal author' and hardly allowed for the sacred writers being genuine human authors (DH 3293; ND 227), Pope Leo XIII in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus clarified the distinction between biblical inspiration and truth: the Bible is inspired, and therefore it is true (DH 3292; ND 226). But is the Bible always and necessarily true? And what does one mean here by 'truth'?

Errors and inconsistencies have been seen to abound in the scriptures. The account of the world's creation being completed in a week (Gen. 1: 1—2; 3) looks incompatible with the findings of cosmology and the theory of evolution. The Psalms and other OT books reflect in places the view that the earth is a flat disc and the sky above is a solid vault supported by columns at the ends of the earth. Particular books have their special puzzles. How could Jonah have survived three days in the belly of the whale, not to mention the puzzle about his passage into and out of the great fish?

Add too the fact the Bible gives us conflicting accounts of the same episode. How did the Israelites elude their Egyptian pursuers? In describing the escape through the Red Sea, Exodus 14—15 offers three versions. Moses stretched out his hand and—as in the Cecil B. de Mille scenario—the waters piled up like walls to let the Israelites pass through. Then the waters flooded back over the Egyptians (Exod. 14: 16, 21a, 22, 27a, 28). In a second version, an east wind proved decisive. It dried up the sea for the Israelites, while the Egyptian chariots got stuck. Then God stopped the Egyptians with a glance and threw them into the sea (Exod. 14: 21b, 25—6). Finally, an angel of the Lord and the column of cloud no longer went in front of the Israelites, but behind them. As a result the pursuing Egyptians

On reading the scriptures with openness and faith, see G. O'Collins and D. Kendall, The Bible for Theology (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997).

could no longer see their quarry, who thus happily escaped (Exod. 14: 19—20). Then who killed Goliath—David or Elhanan (1 Sam. 17; 2 Sam. 21: 19)? Did the site of the Jerusalem Temple cost David 50 shekels of silver or 600 shekels of gold (2 Sam. 24: 24; 1 Chr. 21: 25)? In short, factual inconsistencies and errors of a historical, geographical, and scientific nature turn up frequently in the scriptures.

Worse than that, various moral and religious errors appear in the Bible. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes denied life after death. Could God really have given Saul and his followers the command to kill every human being and animal in the city of Amalek (1 Sam. 15: 3)? St Paul and other early Christians apparently expected the world and its history to be terminated speedily with the second coming of Jesus and the definitive arrival of God's kingdom (e.g. 1 Thess. 4: 15-5: 11).

Faced with such evident factual, moral, and religious errors, those who put the case for biblical truth frequently recall three interconnected points: the intentions of the sacred authors, their presuppositions, and their modes of expression. Thus the authors of the opening chapters of Genesis could be defended. They intended to teach a number of religious truths about the power and goodness of the Creator God, about the sinfulness of human beings, and so forth; they did not intend to teach some doctrine of cosmogony and cosmology. They simply did not aim to describe coherently and in 'scientific' detail the origins of the universe, our earth, and the human race. In recalling the second coming of Jesus, Paul did not intend to communicate a timetable of its arrival but to encourage a full and urgent commitment to Christian life. In sum, it is unfair to accuse biblical or any other writers of falling into error by ignoring the difference between the points they really wished to communicate and those that lay outside any such intentions.

Second, some biblical authors show that they shared with their contemporaries certain false notions about cosmology and astronomy. But their acceptance of a flat earth, for instance, remained at the level of their presuppositions; it was not the theme of their direct teaching. The Bible was not artificially protected against geographical, cosmological, and astronomical errors to be found in the presuppositions of the sacred authors. Similarly the view that genuine human life ends at death formed a presupposition for the drama of Job and not the direct teaching of that book. At a time when death was believed to end all, how could an innocent person interpret and cope with massive suffering? Job did not debate with his friends whether or not there is life after death, but whether undeserved suffering can be reconciled with the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God.

Third, Pope Pius XII in a 1943 encyclical letter pointed out how alleged errors are often simply no more than legitimate modes of expression used by biblical writers:

In many cases in which the sacred authors are accused of some historical inaccuracy or some inexact recording of certain events, on examination it turns out to be nothing else than those customary forms of expression or narrative style which were current among people of that time, and were in fact quite legitimately and commonly used. (Divino Aifflante Spiritu; DH 3830; ND 226; trans. corrected)

Modern historians would be expected to scrutinize the evidence and settle the issues. Just how did the Israelites escape their pursuers? Who really killed Goliath? How much did David pay for the Temple site? But the kind of religious history represented by the Books of Exodus, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles did not need to tidy up inconsistencies and settle disputed details. Admittedly, the honesty of Hebrew historiography put it in a class by itself in the Middle Eastern world. It recorded King David's shameful sins of adultery and murder, along with other failures on the part of leaders and people. It showed itself clearly superior to the stereotyped and empty glorification of monarchs found in the records of other nations. Nevertheless, the religious significance of events mattered more to the Hebrew historians than any 'merely' material exactitude. They felt no overwhelming curiosity that would have pushed them into clarifying the record when various traditions reported conflicting details.

In the case of the Book of Jonah, asking about the prophet's survival inside the fish overlooks the work's literary genre. The book is a piece of fiction, an extended parable about God's mercy towards everyone and keeps its religious punch for the last few verses. Any question about its truth or error will be decided by one's assessment of that religious message. To read Jonah as if it were a historical work lands one in absurd questions about the storyteller's details. Was Nineveh, for instance, really such a huge city that it took three days to cross (Jonah 3: 3)?

Likewise we save ourselves from unnecessary and silly trouble by recognizing the kind of literature we face in Genesis. The early chapters of that book reflect on the nature of God and the nature of human beings;

they are not attempting to give an account of the prehistorical origins of the human race. If we ignore that fact, hopeless puzzles turn up. When, for example, Cain murdered Abel and was about to be sent away as 'a fugitive and a wanderer on earth', God 'put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him'. So Cain left Eden for the land of Nod, 'knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch' (Gen. 4: 14—17). We would mistreat this story if we started asking: where did these others come from who might have threatened Cain's life? For that matter where did Cain's wife come from, if Adam and Eve were the parents of all the living? We must recognize that Genesis does not purport to be a detailed version of human origins.

Doubtless, respect for the intentions, presuppositions, and modes of expression used by the sacred authors goes a long way towards mitigating the force of many difficulties about biblical truth. All this concerns the human authors of the Bible.67 St Augustine of Hippo makes a similar point apropos of the divine intention when inspiring the writing of the sacred texts. The inspiration from the Holy Spirit had a religious purpose and did not as such aim to further secular truth: 'We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said, "I shall send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the movements of the sun and the moon." He wished to make Christians, not mathematicians.'68 Nevertheless, more needs to be said—not to mount a fully successful rescue operation but to elucidate the truth of the scriptures. What has been said so far concerns the intentions, presuppositions, and literary styles found in one biblical book after another. What if we stand back and view the Bible as a whole? What is the truth of the Bible in general?

Adrian Hastings rightly points out how human society depends on 'the basic sense of correspondence between what is asserted and reality'; this notion of truth 'grounds order and justice as much as science

'Fundamentalist' interpretation, along with its proper respect for central truths of divine revelation and for the uniquely sacred quality of the inspired Bible, neglects the intentions of the human authors, the literary forms in which they wrote, and the whole historical formation of the scriptural texts. By ignoring the historical and human factors involved in the making of the Bible, such a naive approach creates many false problems, especially over questions of biblical truth.

Contra Felicem Manichaeum 1.10. In 1633, when censuring Galileo Galilei for his heliocentrism, the Roman Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) forgot Augustine's guideline for interpreting the scriptures; see the 1992 observations by Pope John Paul II on the Galileo case in ND 184a—c.

and history'.69 This basic and common way of understanding truth assesses propositions about the ownership of property, perpetrators of crimes, chemical elements, and past events by their correspondence with the available data. How does this correspondence version of truth fit the Bible? We would grievously mistreat the scriptural texts if we tried to reduce them all to a mere set of informative propositions whose sole function was to make factual judgements that correspond to reality. The Bible is much more than a catalogue of propositions which are to be tested for their correspondence to the data. To be sure, the scriptures do contain many true statements that correspond to the 'facts', but they also contain many items that cannot be tested in this way. Questions in the biblical text, like questions elsewhere, may be helpful and meaningful, but as such questions do not make assertions, cannot correspond to the data, and hence may not be assessed as 'true' or 'false'. To ask a question does not involve saying anything true or false. Furthermore, exhortations abound in the Bible. Such language may evoke and/or change attitudes, but in themselves exhortations cannot be true or false. Likewise laws, whether recorded in the Bible or elsewhere, can be just, clear, demanding, or impossibly burdensome, but precisely as such a law cannot be true or false.

In brief, we may not reduce the scriptures to a set of infallibly true propositions. All the verses of the Bible are inspired or written under the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. But that is not to say that all the verses of the Bible make factual claims or communicate truth in propositions that can or must be checked for their correspondence with the 'facts' and declared to be true.

We do better here to recall what biblical 'truth' (emet in Hebrew and aletheia in Greek) purports to be. Biblical versions of truth, if not utterly different from that common understanding of truth just described above, have their own special accents. They tend to be interpersonal, less one-sidedly intellectual, oriented towards transformation and action, progressive and essentially Christocentric. In both the OT and the NT the language of truth, whether writers use emet, aletheia, or equivalent terms, locks into the people's experience of a highly personal God. In the OT God is shown through word and deed to be 'true'—that is to say, constantly trustworthy and reliable. 'The Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains

69 A. Hastings, 'Truth', in A. Hastings et al . (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 718.

covenant of loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations' (Deut. 7: 9). By their fidelity to the covenant, the people should prove themselves to be loyally conformed to the divine reality and so persons of 'truth' (e.g. Exod. 18: 21). In the NT the God who remains utterly faithful and true (Rom. 3: 1—7) is fully revealed through the person of his Son. 'The truth is in Jesus' (Eph. 4: 21); 'grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ' (John 1: 17). The powerful presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit enables believers to 'do what is true' (John 3: 21) and to 'belong to the truth' (John 18: 37). The truth that will 'make them free' (John 8: 32) does much more than conform their minds to reality; it transforms their entire person. This rapid account of 'truth' in the OT and NT allows us to suggest four interrelated considerations.

First, biblical truth is progressive, in the sense that the biblical record shows the divine pedagogy (Dei Verbum, 15) at work in guiding people towards a truer knowledge of God and of the human condition. As a record written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Bible faithfully recalls, for instance, a 'savage' view of God that made the Israelites attribute to God a command to wipe out all the inhabitants of the city of Amalek (1 Sam. 15: 3). They needed to be guided by the great prophets to an appreciation of God's tender mercy towards everyone.

Second, to recognize biblical truth as progressive means looking for that truth in the complete Bible. The truth is to be found in the whole canon of scriptures. In this sense the truth of the Bible is coextensive with inspiration. The whole Bible is both inspired and (therefore) true.

Third, biblical truth is primarily a person; for Catholics and other Christians it is the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Truth (upper case) attested prophetically in the OT and apostolically in the NT. Biblical writings point to him and participate in his truth. Ultimately the Bible does not convey a set of distinct truths but has only one truth to state, the personal disclosure of God in Jesus. In his 1920 encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus., Pope Benedict XV wrote: 'All the pages of the Old and the New Testament lead toward Christ as the centre.'70 A twelfth-century Augustinian canon, Hugh of Saint Victor, shared a similar christological vision: 'All divine Scripture speaks of Christ and finds its fulfilment in Christ, because it forms only one book, the book of life which is Christ.'71 Many

70 Enchiridion Biblicum (Bologna: Dehoniane, 1993), 486—7.

others could be cited who endorsed a similar Christocentric view of the scriptures—not only early Christian writers and later Catholic teachers but also such leading figures of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation as Martin Luther and William Tyndale.

Here we should warn against letting such a healthy Christocentrism lapse into a rigid Christomonism, which forcibly finds references to Christ everywhere in the OT. Many OT writings do record words and deeds that prepared for Christ's coming, and various persons in the OT prefigure him. But that does not mean forcing everything into a promise-fulfilment mould. Many passages in the OT, for instance in Wisdom literature, are connected with Christ rather remotely, and sometimes only in the sense that they shed light on the human condition which the Word of God was to assume at the incarnation.

Fourth, the scriptures create and illuminate situations in which God speaks to us, so that we are enabled to see and practise the truth. Here if anywhere the truth will be known by living in it. Biblical truth is to be experienced and expressed in action even more than it is to be seen and affirmed in our judgements. The Second Vatican Council hoped to see every group within the whole Catholic Church enlivened by the Bible and its truth (Dei Verbum, 21—6). It was not surprising to find John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, which drew together the work of the 1997 synod of bishops from North, South, and Central America, warmly endorsing a prayerful reading of the Bible, not only for all Catholics but also for 'all Christians' (no. 31).

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