The Inspiration of Scripture
by Jeff Cavins
What did St. Paul mean when he called Scripture "God-breathed"? (2Tim. 3:16)
I remember growing up with a love for books. It wasn't unusual for me to read a book through three or four times, each time finding intriguing new bits of information about characters and plots that I didn't see before. This happens each time I read the Bible.
After experiencing a deeper conversion to Christ, I started reading the Bible with great enthusiasm. Understanding that it was actually God's Word made reading the Bible different than any other book. My zeal for the Bible was bolstered by this understanding that the entire book was inspired; God was the author. Without the assurance of its inspiration, my love for Scripture could have easily slipped into skepticism, and my Bible would have collected dust on the shelf.
Thank God for the Catholic Church, which not only assures us that God is the Author of the entire Bible, but "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,' by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 133).
The Catholic Church teaches that divine revelation comes to us through three channels: the Bible, Tradition, and the magisterium (the bishops of the Church who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome). Vatican II describes the relationship between these three channels, saying that they "are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others" (Dei Verbum 10 ).
While all three of these elements are infallible, that is to say incapable of error, in a particular sense it can be said that only the Bible is divinely inspired.
The term "inspired" comes from the Greek compound word theopneustos, which means "God-breathed" (Theos, "God," pneo, "to breathe"). When the Church speaks of the Bible as inspired, she means that the principal author of Scripture is God. Dei Verbum declares: "For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (cf. 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" (no.11). The phrase "God is the author" is the classic formula used by the Fathers and doctors of the Church to describe inspiration, and it occurs repeatedly in most of the official Church documents that deal with the subject of biblical inspiration.
St. Paul describes how the principal author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, made known the wisdom of God by communicating spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. (1 Cor. 2:13). We marvel at how far God "has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature" (DV 13). He has stooped down to us like a Father to His child and has adapted His thoughts to both our words and ability to understand.
An important term related to the subject of inspiration is divine "accommodation" or "condescension." This refers to the "adaptation and adjustment of the transcendent to the mundane" (Stephen D. Benin, The Footprints of God [New York: State University of New York Press, 1993], xvii). In other words, through Scripture, God discloses the wisdom of the ages in "baby-talk," so that you and I can understand Him. The Church trusts in the genius of the Holy Spirit as author to consign to writing (baby-talk) everything and only those things which God wanted written. This is what we mean when we speak of Scripture being inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Keeping in mind that breath is what gives life to words, we can more easily understand why the Bible is called God's "Word." It's God's own breath that has filled the human words of Sacred Scripture with their divine meaning - He is the primary cause of every part of Scripture. Just as, in His Incarnation, God the Son came to us as Christ, the Word of God in human flesh, so too the Word of God comes to us clothed in human words. This is why St. Jerome could say, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ."
Pope Pius XII said in Divino Afflante Spiritu, "For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, except sin,' so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error" (no. 37). And this is where the mystery of Scripture's inspiration becomes most obvious. Somehow, and we don't know exactly how, God directly inspired Scripture with His own words and at the same time the human authors (eg. Moses, St. Matthew, St. Paul) were completely free in the process. How did God do this? It's easier to explain what God did not do when He inspired Scripture. Here are some common misconceptions many people hold about the inspiration of Scripture. Each of them is wrong.
First, inspiration does not mean that God merely assisted man in the writing process. He actively caused and inspired those men to write what He willed them to write. What was written in Scripture is there because God wanted it there.
Second, God did not "approve" the work of the inspired writers of Scripture after they were finished. In other words, God didn't review what St. Paul had written and decide that He would approve it because it was correct.
Third, the human authors of Scripture were not mere scribes, passive recipients of revelation. They did not engage in "automatic handwriting," merely writing out whatever God whispered in their ears. No, the Lord "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" (DV 11).
In a mystical harmony man wrote what he wanted and God wrote what He wanted. The human writer cooperated to write all that God willed, without error, and retained his complete freedom. That's why we can clearly see the human author's unique personality shine through - his own literary style, sense of humor, and grammatical skill. And this mysterious synergy between the human authors and the Divine Author was not even always apparent to the inspired men themselves as they wrote Scripture!
The Church concludes that "the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put
into sacred writings for the sake of salvation" (DV 11).
At some point you may encounter skeptics (yes, I met one several years ago) who challenge or confuse certain aspects of the Church's teaching on Scripture's inspiration. Some question the inspiration of the Bible, suggesting that individual books, such as the book of Jonah, are mere fables or pious mythology, not fact. But the fact is quite to the contrary. The Catholic Church teaches and has always taught that all 73 books of the Bible are inspired.
Some argue that certain stories of the Bible, like the creation story, or Noah and the flood, taken from Genesis chapters 1-11, are not inspired, but merely popular narrations borrowed from ancient cultures. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani Generis, taught that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are "truly a kind of history; and that the same chapter, in simple and figurative speech suited to the mentality of a people of little culture, both recount the principal truths on which the attainment of our eternal salvation depends, and also the popular description of the origin of the human race and of the chosen people."
The pope went on to say, "But if the ancient sacred writers draw anything from popular narrations (which indeed can be conceded) it must never be forgotten that they did so assisted by the impulse of divine inspiration, by which in selecting and passing judgment on those documents, they were preserved free from all error. Moreover, these matters which have been received into Sacred Literature from popular narrations are by no means to be identified with mythologies or other things of this kind."
Some people will only affirm the Bible's inspiration in those parts of the text that contain revealed doctrine or those parts that pertain only to matters of faith and morals. Their false presupposition is that the portions of the Bible that are absolutely true and free from error are only the portions that deal directly with religion, and that all non-religious material in the Bible is merely the clothing in which Divine truth is presented. This approach is dangerous because it draws a false distinction between so called "primary texts," that presumably pertain to religion, and those "secondary texts," which presumably do not. Following this line of approach leaves the reader of Scripture in a precarious position of having to determine which portions of Scripture are "religious" in nature, and therefore inspired.
In 1920, Pope Benedict XV dealt with this incorrect approach in Spiritus Paraclitus: "The method of those who extricate themselves from difficulties by allowing without hesitation that divine inspiration extends to matters of faith and morals and to nothing more" can not be tolerated. The Church "teaches that divine inspiration extends to every part of the Bible without the slightest exception, and that no error can occur in the inspired text" (Spiritus Paraclitus 21).
The Council Fathers at Vatican II explained that "the obedience of faith is to be given to God who reveals an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him" (DV 5). By our response, the world will know whether we believe that God's word is inspired or expired.
For further study on the Church's official teachings on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, read Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus (dealing with the study of Sacred Scripture), Pope Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu (dealing with the promotion of biblical studies); Dei Verbum, Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church 74-141.
I like to remind people that Catholic teaching on the inspiration of Scripture should give us great confidence when dealing with skeptics who deny the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. We can trust Scripture, because God is its author. We can derive hope from Scripture because it contains God's message of hope and salvation. St. Paul reminds us that, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). Not only are the Scriptures inspired, they were written to inspire you to love Christ more and to be a more fervent apostle for Him.
This article by Jeff Cavins originally appeared in Envoy Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.
This article is featured in the Catholic Bible Study and the Jeff Cavins sections of The Crossroads Initiative Library.
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