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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: May 4, 2002
By Charles Sullivan
The Gospels are not biographies but testimonies. They testify, based upon certain selected historical facts and events, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God who reveals the Father and brings salvation to a fallen world.
The faith-inspired insight into the mystery and meaning of Christ throws new light on every word and event in his life. The intention of the evangelists was to record the deeds and teachings of Jesus insofar as these had significance and relevance in support of the faith of particular Church communities.
It is only in the last few centuries that critical suspicion regarding the historical reliability of the Gospels has made its way into mainstream religious thought. For the first 17 centuries of the Christian era, believers more or less took for granted that the holy Scriptures faithfully and accurately recorded the life of Christ: His actions, teachings, ministry, passion and resurrection from the dead.
But with the dawn of the enlightenment in the 18th century, many began to question the “truthfulness” of the sacred writings and argued that the Gospels were constructs of the faith proclamation of the early Church and therefore historically suspect.
This skeptical position has been repeatedly condemned by the Catholic Church which affirms that “....the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 107) This affirmation brings us to a brief consideration of the Church’s teaching on biblical inerrancy.
Inerrancy means “free from error.” Since all the books of the Bible were composed by human writers under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they truly have God as their author and communicate without error all that God intends to reveal to us via the written word.
Inerrancy is a great gift: it insures that the Scriptures remain a credible and trustworthy source about what we are to believe and how we are to comport our lives. When read within the Church’s living Tradition (and under the watchful care of the magisterium), the Bible is a sure guide to salvation.
The Church teaches that the Bible is inerrant in all that the human writers, in collaboration with the Holy Spirit, intended to confirm. In determining that which was “intended” by the sacred writers, we must carefully interpret the texts according to the literary conventions of the time, considering genre, form, style and historical context.
This calls for a prayerful and studious approach to the Scriptures and underscores the need for guidance and oversight on the part of Church leadership. The Bible does not interpret itself. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.” (CC, 111) The Scriptures are the product of the living Church; the Bible is the Church’s book.
By means of the holy Bible, “... God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wished to reveal to us by their words.” (CC, 109)
Thus, Catholics who seek to discern the truth of the Gospels must bear in mind the critical distinction between a literal (what is actually intended by the author) and a literalist (focusing on the words themselves rather than on their underlying meaning) interpretation of Scripture.
Charles T. Sullivan, a member of St. Bernard Church in Bella Vista, has a master’s degree in theology from the University of Dallas.