The belief in the inerrancy of Scripture is as old as the Church and extends to the Jewish people’s trust in the Old Testament texts which comprise an integral part of the Christian Bible.
This teaching has been defined over the ages as well as reduced to erroneous blurbs and misquotes. Part of what you are quoting, just part, is not reflective of Church teaching…but you hear it again and again.
A Product of Its Day
First of all the Church does *not *teach that the Bible contains errors. What it *does *teach is that since it is the product of ancient cultures and thinking, the truths of written revelation are often placed in a narrative of limited scope and vision. This means that where the inspired writers were not necessarily enlightened by the Holy Spirit about a subject (such as the concept of “outer space”) one cannot take such passing remarks as equal to the spiritual truths of which they were inspired.
For instance, the prevailing “science” of the day taught that the earth was flat. Instead of a vacuum of space, it was believed that waters surrounded our planet. The flat surface of the earth was surrounded by a material dome that had floodgates which allowed some of this “outer” water to descend to the earth in the form of precipitation. The sun, moon, and stars were but luminary objects affixed to the surface of this protective dome which rotated around the earth.
This accepted paradigm of the time got transferred into the pages of the Bible each time the inspired writers wanted to use the physical universe as a backdrop for some spiritual or religious lesson. It appears in the first chapter of Genesis as well as in the story of Noah and as part of an eschatological discussion in the second epistle of Peter.–Genesis 1:1-8, 14-19; 7:11-12; 2 Peter 3:5, 6.
In each of these instances the Bible writer is not saying that there is no vacuum of space or that it is impossible for the earth to be a round sphere–we know these things to be true today. No, the inspired writers were merely using the physical universe and their limited understanding of it as a setting for far more important information, namely religious truths and lessons. These lessons are true regardless of the fact that the writers had no idea of the true nature of the physical universe around them (and to be honest, we have only scratched the surface regarding what is really out there).
Does It Have to Be Dry Fact? Can’t I Express My Truths in Song?
There was also an accepted narrative device employed in all forms of ancient literature in which a true story would often be placed in a fictional backdrop. The technique is used in the book of Judith and employed in Jonah to help certain details stand out in order to teach important lessons from God. This was an ancient way of telling the reader not to miss the point by making the setting fanciful or even impossible so it wouldn’t be confused with the real lesson at hand.
We do the same today via musical theater. For instance, the modern opera “Evita” is a true story about the life of Argentina’s famous Evita Peron. But the entire thing is put to music, practically every line is sung, and a narrator named “Che” is added that jumps in and out of the scenes at will in order to move the story along. Is “Evita” any less true because it is set to music this way? No. It’s a true story. In fact the truths of Evita Peron’s life come through even more clearly, some say, because it is set into this genre. Music and dance can say things that basic, dry facts cannot.
The Bible did not create the preconceived ideas and cultural quirks of its authors. The writers brought these with them. If they are erroneous it is not because they originate with the Bible. These details are merely reflective of the limited understandings of the day. And the writers did not limit themselves to writing in only one genre or reporting facts in a dry, journalistic manner. They employed techniques like the poetry of the Psalms, the proverbs in the wisdom writings, the parables of Jesus, even the fictional narrative of Judith. The Bible is a collection of religious truths, not a history book. It explains history, yes, but through the lens of faith.
The Magna Carta of Catholic Biblical Scholarship
While this has been understood even to a lesser extent as far back as before the time of Christ, in the Christian era it was when Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical *Divino Afflante Spiritu *(on the Feast of St. Jerome, September 30, 1942) that this became an earmark of basic Biblical study and scholarship. Especially since then Catholics have been careful to read the Scriptures as a product of yesterday written for the people of every era.
Especially since then and more clearly since Vatican II has the Church been careful to teach that religious truth in the Bible is not to be confused with the narrative devices and limited understanding of the writers who were used to compose its pages.
I think the clearest and most direct Catholic statement in the modern era is in Providentissimus Deus (Pope Leo XIII), most specifically in paragraph 20, the following of which is an excerpt:
“…For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the [First] Council of the Vatican.”
Although ancient ways of reading prior to the Reformation were quite different from the way we read today (today we have a much greater emphasis on the plain meaning of the text), people often like to quote Augustine on the topic, from a letter to Jerome:
“On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error.”
I really appreciate all of your answers. I used to be a Protestant until I began to learn more about Church history specifically worship and how it was practice by first century Christians.
Recently I’ve been debating Muslims online and they’ve inserted some doubt in my mind because I used to think the Bible was the literal word of God as if God used the writers as animatrons to dictate his truths.
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.