The doctrine of biblical inerrancy doesn't belong only to those who cry "Sola Scriptura!" Inerrancy has emerged as a key issue in the Roman Catholic Church's Synod of Bishops, which started October 6.  Focused on "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church," the synod provides 180 Catholic bishops and other participants a rare opportunity to share their concerns and listen to colleagues from around their world. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the synod on October 14 and lamented the divide between biblical scholars and theologians. Church leaders have warned that this divide leads many Catholics to question the vitality and authority of God's Word.

According to the official Vatican bulletin, Pope Benedict XVI "dwelt upon the fundamental criteria of biblical exegesis, upon the dangers of a secularized and positivistic approach to the sacred Scriptures, and upon the need for a closer relationship between exegesis and theology."

"Reading between the lines, this is an effort to call the Roman Catholic Church back to the scriptural sources," said Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School. "We should read this discussion in light of Pope Benedict XVI's book Jesus of Nazareth. He comes down as a conservative on issues of critical scholarship, though he is not likely a Chicago Statement inerrantist."

Noted Vatican observer John Allen Jr. has been filing daily synod reports from Rome. He described the Catholic Church's view of biblical authority as steering a "middle course between two extremes — evangelical-style fundamentalism on the one hand, and secular skepticism on the other. In a sound bite, Catholicism falls somewhere between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Jesus Seminar."

According to Allen, some of the more conservative Catholic leaders expressed concern over early drafts of the synod's working document, InstrumentumLaboris. The document does not express authoritative church teaching. But Allen noted, "The discussion over inerrancy suggests that careful treatment of that topic is likely in the synod's final documents, whether in the propositions the bishops will submit to the pope, or in the apostolic constitution that Benedict XVI is eventually expected to issue."

Allen reported that the working document said, "With regards to what might be inspired in the many parts of sacred Scripture, inerrancy applies only to 'that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.' (emphasis added)" This paraphrase and quote comes from the seminal 1965 statement Dei Verbum from Vatican II. But the authoritative Latin from that statement nowhere included the word might, Allen noted.

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Dei Verbum went through several drafts before striking a delicate balance. The first draft at Vatican II said "the entire sacred Scripture is absolutely immune from error." But the final draft concluded 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."

"The dogma of inerrancy was limited to the area of saving truths," said Gregg Allison, associate professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matters related to history and science fell outside the purview of inerrancy. "This significantly reduced biblical problems raised by Roman Catholic scholars, but it also went against the church's historical view of Scripture's truthfulness."

The English translation from the current synod's working document would signal further weakening of the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine of inerrancy.

"It looks like the papered-over compromise from Vatican II is coming to the fore at the conference in Rome," said John Woodbridge, research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. "After years of 'don't ask, don't tell,' they are asking and telling."

Catholic challenges to inerrancy in the late 20th century went against longstanding church teaching. No less an authority than Augustine of Hippo set the church's standard. "The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind," Augustine wrote in a response to Faustus the Manichaean. "If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, 'The author of this book is mistaken;' but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood."

Pope Leo XIII cited Augustine in his landmark 1893 encyclical on the study of Holy Scripture. The Vatican subsequently launched a decades-long crackdown on higher criticism. At the same time, controversies over the authority of Scripture were wreaking havoc in Protestant seminaries and denominations.

More recently, Catholic seminaries and universities have tolerated scholars who deny the historicity of some biblical events, such as Jesus' miracles. Pope Benedict XVI is an Augustinian, and his years as a university professor have acquainted him with the challenges posed by critical scholarship. According to Allen, the pope advocates "canonical exegesis," which "takes the unity of the Bible for granted and aims at a theological rather than a simply literary-historical interpretation."

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Before the synod, the Catholic Biblical Federation commissioned a study of 13 countries to learn how they viewed the Bible, according to Allen. "In broad strokes, the survey found that even in highly secularized nations, people have a basically positive attitude towards the Bible, finding it 'interesting' and wanting to know more about it," Allen reported. At the same time, few surveyed knew anything about the Bible — even whether Paul or Moses was an Old Testament leader.

The problem at the congregational level has been diagnosed. Reaching a solution among the church's leadership will be much more difficult, as history indicates. After fighting their own battles over inerrancy, Protestants will be watching.

"The only way forward in ecumenical dialogue is the biblical pathway," George said. "The Roman Catholic Church is taking the Bible more seriously now than it did 30 to 50 years ago. This is a good sign."

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.

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