KARL KEATING, Catholicism and Fundamentalism,
Inspiration of the Bible
The Reformers said the Bible is the sole source of religious truth, and its understanding must be found by looking only at the words of the text. No outside authority may impose an interpretation, and no outside authority, such as the Church, has been established by Christ as an arbiter, 1 as heirs of the Reformers, fundamentalists work on the basis of sola scriptura, 2 and they advance this notion at every opportunity. One might think it would be easy for them to explain why they believe this principle. Yet there is perhaps no greater frustration, in dealing with fundamentalists, than in trying to pin them down on why the Bible should be taken as a rule of faith at all, let alone as the sole rule of faith. It all reduces to the question of why fundamentalists accept the Bible as inspired, because the Bible can be taken as a rule of faith only if it is first held to be inspired and thus inerrant. Now this is a problem that does not keep most Christians awake at night. Most have never given it any serious thought. To the extent they believe in the Bible, they believe in it because they operate in a milieu that is, if post-Christian in many ways, still steeped in Christian ways of thought and presuppositions. A lukewarm Christian who would not give the slightest credence to the Koran would think twice about casting aspersions on the Bible. It has a certain official status for him, even if he cannot explain it. One might say he accepts the Bible as inspired (whatever that may mean for him) for some “cultural” reason, but that, of course, is hardly a sufficient reason, since on such a basis the Koran rightly would be considered inspired in a Moslem country. Similarly it is hardly enough to say that one’s family has always believed in the Bible, “and that’s good enough for me It may indeed be good enough for the person disinclined to think, and one should not disparage a simple faith, even if held for an ־ultimately weak reason, but mere custom cannot establish the inspiration of the Bible. Some fundamentalists say they believe the Bible is inspired because it is “inspirational”, but that is a word with a double meaning. On the one hand, if used in the strict theological sense, it clearly begs the question, which is: How do we know the Bible is inspired, that is, “written*’ by God, but through human authors? And if “inspirational” means nothing more than “inspiring” or “moving”, then someone with a deficient poetic sense might think the works of a poetaster are inspired. Parts of the Bible, including several whole books of the Old Testament, cannot be called inspirational” in this sense in the least, unless one works on the principle of the elderly woman who was soothed every time she heard “the blessed word Mesopotamia” One betrays no disrespect in admitting that some parts of the Bible are as dry as military statistics—indeed, some parts are nothing but military statistics—and there is little there that can move the emotions. So, it is not enough to believe in the inspiration of the Bible merely out of culture or habit, nor is it enough to believe in its inspiration because it is a beautifully written or emotion-stirring book. There are other religious books, and even some plainly secular ones, that outscore most of the Bible when it comes to fine prose or poetry.
What about the Bible’s own claim to inspiration? There are not many places where such a claim is made even tangentially, and most books in the Old and New Testaments make no such claim. At all. In fact, no New Testament writer seemed to be aware that was writing under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, with the exception of the author of Revelation. Besides, even if every biblical book began with the phrase “the following is an inspired book”, such phrases would prove nothing. The Koran claims to be inspired, as does the Book of Mormon, as do the holy books of various Eastern religions. Even the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, claim inspiration. The mere claim of inspiration is insufficient to establish a book’s bona fides.
These tests failing, most fundamentalists fall back on the notion that “the Holy Spirit tells me the Bible is inspired”, an exercise in subjectivism that is akin to their claim that the Holy Spirit guides them in interpreting the text. For example, the anonymous author of How Can I Understand the Bible? A booklet distributed by tile Radio Bible Class, lists twelve rules for Bible study • The first is “seek the help of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has been given to illumine the Scriptures and make them alive to you as you study them. Yield to his enlightenment/’ If one takes this as meaning that anyone asking for a proper interpretation will be given one God—and that is exactly how many fundamentalists understand the assistance of the Holy Spirit to work—then the multiplicity of interpretations, even among fundamentalists, should give people a gnawing sense that the Holy Spirit has not been doing his job very effectively.
Most fundamentalists do not say, in so many words, that the Spirit has spoken to them directly, assuring them of the inspiration of the Bible. They do not phrase it like that. Rather, in reading the Bible they are “convicted” that it is the word of God, they get a positive “feeling” that it is inspired, and that’s that-־־־ which often reduces their acceptance of the Bible to culture or habit. No matter how it is looked at, the fundamentalist’s position is not one that is rigorously reasoned to. It must be the rare fundamentalist who, even for sake of argument, first approaches the Bible as though it is not inspired and then, on reading it, syllogistically concludes it is. In fact, fundamentalists begin with the fact of inspiration—just as they take the other doctrines of fundamentalism as givens, not as deductions—and then they find things in the Bible that seem to support inspiration, claiming, with circular reasoning, that the Bible confirms its inspiration, which they knew all along.
The man who wrestles with the fundamentalist approach to inspiration at length is unsatisfied because he knows he has no good grounds for his belief. The Catholic position is the only one, ultimately, that can satisfy the intellect. The Catholic method of finding the Bible to be inspired begins this way. The Bible is approached as any other ancient work. It is not, at first, presumed to be inspired. From textual criticism we are able to conclude that we have a text the accuracy of which is more certain than the accuracy of any other ancient work.
Sir Frederic Kenyon notes that for all the works of classical antiquity we have to depend on manuscripts written long after their original composition. The author who is the best case in this respect is Virgil, yet the earliest manuscript of Virgil that we now possess was written some 350 years after his death. For all other classical writers, the interval between the date of the author and the earliest extant manuscript of his works is much greater. For Livy it is about 500 years, for Horace 900, for most of Plato 1,300, for Euripides 1,600.
־Yet no one seriously disputes that we have accurate copies of the works of these writers. Not only are the biblical manuscripts we have older than those for classical authors, we have in absolute numbers far more manuscripts to work from. Some are whole books of the Bible, others fragments of just a few words, but there are thousands of manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and other languages. What this means is that we can be sure we have an accurate text, and we can work from confidence.
Next we take a look at what the Bible, considered merely as a history, tells us, particularly the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels. We examine the account of Jesus’ life and death and his reported Resurrection. Using what is in the Gospels themselves, what we find in extra biblical writings from the early centuries, and what we know of human nature (and what we can otherwise, from natural theology, know of divine nature), we conclude that Jesus either was just what he claimed to be, God, or was a madman. (The one thing we know he could not have been merely a good man who was not God, because no merely good man would make the claims he made.)
We are able to eliminate his being a madman not just from what he said—no madman ever spoke as he did; for that matter, no sane man ever did either—but from what his followers did after his death. A hoax (the supposedly empty tomb) 1s one thing, but one does not find people dying for a hoax, at least not one from which they have no prospect of advantage. The result of this line of reasoning is that we must conclude that Jesus indeed rose from the dead and that he was therefore God and, being God, meant what he said and did what he said he would do. One thing he said he would do was found a Church, and from. “both the Bible (still taken as merely a historical book, not at this point in the argument as an inspired one) and other ancient works, we see that Christ established a Church with the rudiments of all see in the Catholic Church today—papacy, hierarchy, priesthood, sacraments, teaching authority, and, as a consequence of the last, infallibility. Christ’s Church, to do what he said it would do, had to have the note of infallibility.
We thus have taken purely historical material and concluded that there exists a Church, which is the Catholic Church, divinely –protected against teaching error. Now we are at the last part of the argument. That Church tells us the Bible is inspired, and we can take the Church’s word for it precisely because the Church is infallible. Only after having been told by a properly constituted authority (that is, one set up by God to assure us of the truth of matters of faith) that the Bible is inspired do we begin to use it as an inspired book. Here is how Arnold Lunn put it in a 1932 letter to C.E.M. Joad:
We now approach the Bible, and approach it in the same spirit as that in which we should approach any other human document, do not believe the Bible merely because it is the Bible, but because we are convinced of its veracity by rational inferences similar in kind to those which convince us of other historical facts. We do not, for instance, accept the fact that Christ rose from the dead merely because we find the Resurrection recorded in the Gospels; we accept the Resurrection because, of all theories which have been put forward to explain the origin of Christianity, the only theory which fits all the facts is the theory that Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God and proved his claim by rising from the dead.. ,. The Roman Catholic, then, claims to prove from the Bible, which he is still treating as a purely human document that Christ intended to found an infallible Church. Where, then, is this Church? The Roman Catholic Church alone possesses, so the Catholic believes, all the “notes” which enable us to distinguish between the Church Christ founded and its heretical rivals. The Catholic claims “by pure reason that Christ was God, that Christ founded an infallible Church, and that the Roman Catholic Church is the church in question. Having travelled thus far by reason unaided by authority, it is not irrational to trust the authority, whose credentials have been proved by reason, to interpret difficult passages in the Bible.
Note that this is not a circular argument. We are not basing the inspiration of the Bible on the Church’s infallibility and the Church’s infallibility on the word of an inspired Bible. That indeed would be a circular argument.
What we have is really a spiral argument. On the first level we argue to the reliability of the Bible as history. From that we conclude an infallible Church was founded. Then we take the word of that infallible Church that the Bible is inspired. It reduces to the proposition that, without the existence of the Church, we could not tell if the Bible were inspired. As Augustine said, “I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.”
What has just been discussed is not, obviously, the kind of mental exercise people go through before putting trust in the Bible, but it is the only truly reasonable way to do so. Every other way is inferior—psychologically adequate, perhaps, but actually inferior. In mathematics we accept on “faith” that one and one make two and that one, when added to any integer, will produce the next-highest integer. These truths seem elementary to us, and we are satisfied to take such things at face value, but apprentice mathematicians must go through a semester’s course the whole of –which is taken up demonstrating such “obvious” truths. Fundamentalists are quite right in believing the Bible is inspired, their reasons for so believing are inadequate because knowledge of the inspiration of the Bible can be based only on an authority established by God to tell us the Bible is inspired, and that authority is the Church.
Here a more serious problem enters. It seems to some that it makes little difference why one believes in the Bible’s inspiration, just so one believes in it. But the basis for one’s belief in its inspiration directly affects how one goes about interpreting the Bible. The Catholic believes in inspiration because the Church tells him. So—that is putting it bluntly—and that same Church has the authority to interpret the inspired text. Fundamentalists believe in inspiration, although on weak grounds, but they have no interpreting authority other than themselves. Newman put it this way in an essay on inspiration published in 1884:
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 unsystematic, 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 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.
J. Derek Holmes emphasizes that
Throughout his argument Newman never ignored the main point, that since the writing was irregular, inconsistent, or incomplete, it was antecedently highly improbable that it would contain the whole of the revealed Word of God. The Bible did not contain a complete secular history, and there was no reason why it should contain a complete account of religious truth. It was unreasonable to demand an adequate scriptural foundation for Church doctrines, if” the impression gained from the Bible was of writers who took solemn and sacred truths for granted and who did not give a complete or full treatment of the sense of revelation. The writings did not reflect all the beliefs of the writer and events were often presented without comment or moral implication.
Fundamentalists’ understanding of inspiration directly affects the way they interpret the Bible and the doctrines they discover in it. Many—not all those writing treatises, but some of them and certainly many in the pews—subscribe to what reduces to a dictation theory of inspiration. This is unfortunate, because “a ‘dictation’ theory may seem a natural account of some experiences of the prophets, but it is psychologically incredible when applied to St. Luke writing his prologue or St. Paul writing to Philemon.” A suggestion of the troubles faced by fundamentalists who subscribe to the dictation theory or its practical equivalents comes in passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:14-16. Here is what Paul writes: ״Thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius; so that no one can say it was in my name you were baptized. (Yes, and! Did baptize the household of Stephanas; I do not know that I baptized anyone else.)” Under the dictation theory, with Paul simply transcribing what God whispered in his ear, one would have to conclude God temporarily forgot who it was Paul baptized. Other examples could be given to show that inspiration is more subtle than many people suspect.
Here is another problem. How does one, on fundamentalist terms, decide when more than one interpretation of a particular passage is allowable and when only one can be admitted? The Catholic Church is silent on the proper interpretation of many׳ biblical passages, readers being allowed to accept one of several understandings.
Take, as an example, Jonah’s escapade at sea, which readers often find disturbing. Ronald Knox said “no defender of the sense Scripture ever pretended, surely, that this was a natural event. If it happened, it was certainly a miracle; and not to my mind a more startling miracle than the raising of Lazarus, in which I take it Catholics are certainly bound to believe. Surely what puts one off the story of Jonah is the element of the grotesque which is present in it, “10 actually, what happened to Jonah can be looked at three ways, one of which relies on nothing miraculous occurring at all.
The most common interpretation nowadays, and one that is held by indubitably orthodox exegetes, is that the story of the prophet being swallowed and then disgorged by a “great fish” is merely didactic fiction, a grand tale told to establish a religious point. Catholics are perfectly free to take this or a more literal view, but one seldom will find a fundamentalist who thinks of Jonah as allegory or anything of that sort, although he really has no authority for opting for one interpretation over another.
Strictly literal interpretations of what happened to Jonah actually come in two forms. One relies on the fact that people apparently have been swallowed by whales and lived to talk about it. In. 189! A seaman, James Bartley, from a ship named the Star of the East, was found missing after an eighty-foot sperm whale had been caught- He was presumed drowned. The next day, when the crew cut up the whale, Bartley was discovered alive inside, 11 Jonah’s three days in the whale were counted like Christ’s three days in the tomb, after the Semitic fashion—that is, parts of three distinct days, but perhaps only slightly more than twenty-four hours total—then it is possible that Jonah could have been coughed up by that great fish just as his story says. This would be a purely natural explanation of the episode.
The other literal interpretation is that Jonah indeed underwent what the story, read as straight history, says he did, but survived only because of a positive miracle, and several different sorts of miracles have been suggested, such as suspended animation on Jonah’s part or a fish with a remarkably large air supply and decidedly mild gastric juices.
Related to the problem of inspiration is the problem of the canon of Scripture. What books constitute the Bible? Catholics can repair to the decisions of the Church, most clearly formalized at Trent and at the fourth-century councils at Hippo and Carthage; these produced lists of books that are to be accepted as inspired on the authority of the infallible Church. Inspired books, taken together, form the Bible. That is the Catholic way to answer the question. What does a fundamentalist fall back on?
“William G. Most discusses the rather surprising comments made in 1910 by Gerald Birney Smith, professor at the University of Chicago and speaker at that year’s Baptist Congress. As Most says, “Smith’s frankness was really remarkable. He reviewed every way he knew to determine which books are or are not inspired” and thus to be included in the canon.
Smith explained that “Luther proposed a practical test… The distinction which he actually had in mind was between those, writings which have the power to bring men the assurance of forgiveness through Christ and those which have no such power.” Luther was of course relying on his doctrine of salvation by faith alone (not, as Paul would have it, salvation by faith, which is a different thing, implying faith is a prerequisite for salvation but by itself insufficient). “Luther thought a book that intensely preaches this doctrine was inspired”, explains most, “otherwise not. Of course, he never provided proof for such a standard. Nor could it be a standard, for Luther, or any other writer, could pose a book that would preach according to Luther’s requirements; yet that book need not on that account be inspired.”
Smith, continuing his analysis of the Protestant basis for determining the canon, noted that John Calvin, in his Institutes, offered a different test: “The word will never gain credit in the hearts of men till it be confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit.” This claim, too—relying on subjective “feelings”—was useless, Smith said, referring to the assaults on the Bible that were prevalent even a long lifetime ago. “The application of this test… would eliminate the existing distinction between canonical and non-canonical writings more completely than would the most radical conclusions of biblical criticism.” After all, many parts of Scripture do not seem uplifting at all, such as 1 and 2 Chronicles, also known as I and 2 Paralipomenon, which, like much of Numbers and Deuteronomy, are dull—not the style of writing that shouts, “I’m inspired!” And some clearly noncanonical and thus noninspired books such as Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ are more moving than many whole books of the Bible.
Most notes that “what Professor Smith demonstrates is that for a Protestant there simply is no way to know which books are inspired. That means, in practice, that a Protestant, if he is logical, should not appeal to Scripture to prove anything; he has no sure means of knowing which books are part of Scripture!”
One consequence of this inability to ascertain the canon has been that the Protestant Bible is an incomplete Bible. Missing are t:he books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and the two books of Maccabees, as well as sections of Esther (10:4 to 16:24) and Daniel (3:24—90 and chapters 13 and 14). These are known to Catholics as the deuteron-canonical works. They are just as much a part of the Bible as the rest of the Old Testament, the proto-canonical books. Luther rejected the deuteron-canonical books and passages largely because they conflicted with his theological theories. In 2 Maccabees 12:46, for instance, it is said that ‘‘it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins”—a reference to purgatory. Such a book had to go—it did not mesh with the Reformer’s doctrines. (Luther even spoke disparagingly about some New Testament books, such as James, but he was unable to find a rationale for removing them from the canon.)
However easy it may have been for the Reformers to say that some books are inspired and thus in the canon, while others are not, they in fact had no solid grounds for making such determinations. Ultimately, an infallible authority is needed if we are to know what belongs in the Bible and what does not. Without such an authority, we are left to our own prejudices, and we cannot tell if our prejudices lead us in the right direction.
The advantages of the Catholic approach to proving inspiration are two. First, the inspiration is really proved, not just “felt”. Second, the main fact behind the proof—the fact of an infallible, teaching Church—leads one naturally to an answer to the problem that troubled the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:31): How is one to know what interpretations are right? The same Church that authenticates the Bible, that establishes its inspiration, is the authority set up by Christ to interpret his word.