I remember growing up with a love for books. It was not unusual for me to read a book through three or four times, each time finding out new bits of intriguing information about interesting characters and plots. After experiencing a deeper conversion to Christ, I started reading the Bible with great enthusiasm, understanding that it was actually God’s Word that 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 new love for the Bible may have easily slipped into skepticism, resulting in my Bible collecting dust on the shelf. Thank God for the Catholic Church who 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). Dei Verbum (DV), the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, states these three channels “are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others” (DV 10).
While all three are infallible, that is to say incapable of error, only the Bible is divinely inspired. What do the words “inspired,” and “inspiration” mean? The term “inspired” comes from the Greek 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 this when it states:
For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Timothy 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” ( DV 11).
The phrase “God is the author” is the classic formula used to describe inspiration, and it occurs in most of the official Church documents on biblical inspiration.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit
The Apostle Paul describes how the principal author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, made known the wisdom of God by communicating spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. Or as the New American Bible says, the Spirit was “describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms” (1 Corinthians 2:13).
We must never stop marveling 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 to learn in relation to this subject of “inspiration” is “divine accommodation” or “condescension.” Succinctly put, divine accommodation is the “adaptation and adjustment of the transcendent to the mundane” (Stephen D. Benin, The Footprints of God, [Albany: State University of New York Press,1993], xvii). In other words, God is disclosing the wisdom of the ages in “baby-talk.” 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 is meant by 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 is God’s breath that has filled human words with divine meaning. God, who is the primary cause of every thought and every sentence of Scripture, has transformed the common words found in the Bible into uncommon words by the fact that he is its author. Just as Jesus Christ came clothed in human flesh and was in every way made like men, so does the word of God come to us clothed in human words. The holy comes clothed in the common. This is why St. Jerome could say, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (CCC 133). Pope Pius XII said in Divino Afflante Spiritu, On Promoting Biblical Studies, “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” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 37).
Communicated through Human Authors
Remarkable yet is the realization that God fully communicated his intentions while at the same time fully utilizing human authors. How did God do this? Clearly this is a mystery of faith which cannot be completely understood, but we do know what inspiration is not. First, inspiration is not God merely assisting man in the writing process. God does not merely assist man; he causes man to write what he wills. Secondly, God does not approve the work of the writers after they are finished. In other words, God does not review what man has written, decide it coincides with his will and subsequently approve the work, putting as it were, his imprimatur on it.
And thirdly, the individuals that God employed in the writing of Scripture, such as Moses, Matthew, Peter, and Paul were not passive recipients, merely typing out what God had recorded on his divine dictation machine. No, God “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. In other words, the human writer was cooperating to write all that God wills, yet without error, and all the while retaining their own literary style and grammatical skill. This means that everything asserted by the human authors must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit. 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).
Some question the inspiration of the Bible, suggesting that individual books, such as the book of Jonah are mere fable or myth. Is this what the Church teaches? The answer is emphatically NO! Quite to the contrary, the Church teaches that all seventy-three books of the Catholic Bible are inspired. Pope Leo XIII teaches in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, On the Study of Sacred Scripture, “It would be wholly impious to limit inspiration to certain portions only of Scripture or to concede that the sacred authors themselves could have erred.”
And again, some may argue that certain stories of the Bible, like the creation story, or Noah and the flood, taken from chapters 1-11, are not inspired, but merely popular narrations borrowed from ancient cultures. Pope Pius XII states in his encyclical, Humanis Generis, 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.
He goes 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 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 those portions of the Bible that are absolutely true and free from error are the portions that directly pertain to religion, and that all non-religious knowledge 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 do not. This leaves the reader in a precarious position of having to determine which portions of Scripture are religious in nature, thus inspired. 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).
An interesting note to those who question the historical validity of Scripture: The Church teaches that those “who hold that the historical portions of Scripture do not rest on the absolute truth of the facts but merely upon what they are pleased to term their relative truth, namely, what people then commonly thought, are out of harmony with the Church’s teaching” (Spiritus Paraclitus, 22).
The teachings of the Catholic Church concerning the inspiration of Scripture give the Christian great confidence. One can completely trust in them as having been authored by God. The Scriptures are also a source of great hope. The Apostle Paul writes: “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” (Romans 15:4).
For Your Inspiration
Not only are the Scriptures inspired, but they are written to inspire you. The question one needs to address is: “How will the Bible inspire you?” Jesus asked his followers, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” Since Jesus is the word made flesh, it is fair to ask, “what do you say about the Bible?” What is your response?
The Church teaches in Dei Verbum, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, “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.
If you want to read more about what the Catholic Church teaches about the inspiration of Scripture, there are three important Church documents on the topic. In these three documents topics such as the nature, source and handing on of divine revelation are clearly spelled out for the layman to understand:
- Providentissimus Deus, “On the Study of Sacred Scripture,” Pope Leo XIII (1893).
- Divino Afflante Spiritu, “Promotion of Biblical Studies,” Pope Pius XII (1943).
- Dei Verbum, Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” Pope Paul VI (1965).
This article was originally published in Envoy Magazine.