Wholly Inspired: Historical-Critical Studies and Contradictions in the Bible

The illustrious ancient biblical exegete Origen represents the traditional views of Christians and Jews in his firm faith that “the sacred books are not the compositions of men, but . . . composed by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”[1] He infers that, as these books were inspired by God, it would therefore be a mistake to treat the Scriptures as merely partially inspired; we should attend to that meaning which “the wisdom of God had constantly in view over the whole range of inspired Scripture, even to the mere letter.”[2] That is to say, the whole of Scripture has a meaning inspired by God and aims to teach the truth; “not a single title of the sacred Scriptures is without something of the wisdom of God.”[3]

Origen’s view on those matters is out of fashion now. Many believe that contemporary biblical scholarship has discredited such views because it has shown us that the Bible contains many instances of errors and contradictions.

And the phenomenon of biblical fundamentalism is recognizable as a ridiculous version of fanaticism, on which some deny the very possibility that the results of contemporary evolutionary biology or astrophysics, for example, could be reliable since these contradict a “literal” reading of the first books of Genesis or the biblical genealogies (on the basis of which some have calculated that the universe cannot be more than 6000 years old).

Much can and should be challenged in both views. For example, the fact that a false sentence occurs in Scripture is not, by itself, in contradiction with the classical orthodox view of scriptural inspiration and inerrancy expressed by Origen. This is apparent from common sense. For instance, we can cite a view that is false where, in context, we intend to refute it (as happens in the book of Job); or we can tell a story and not thereby assert or intend to communicate that the story really occurred (as Christ does in his parables). There is no difficulty in holding, as Vatican II’s Dei Verbum teaches, that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit” (§11). The key word here is “assert.” All that is required to avoid the charge that the Scripture teaches error or contradicts what is taught elsewhere is to deny that the biblical author intends to assert, that is, intend to teach as true, whatever apparently erroneous claim we find.

Origen employs exactly this sort of principle to deal with apparent errors and contradictions. He believes that “the Scripture interwove in the history (the account of) some event that did not take place, sometimes what could not have happened.”[4] But he thinks the appropriate response is to infer that these events were not meant to be taken as literally true. And, therefore, he famously employs as a principle of interpretation that, in these cases when Scripture, if taken in its literal sense, would appear to teach what is false, we should instead interpret these passages in a “spiritual” (allegorical or metaphorical) sense. And it is certainly true that God, as the author of Scripture, might intend to communicate, by means of what an author writes, more than what the author intended. So, even in cases where a non-metaphorical interpretation is acceptable, Christians after Origen saw spiritual interpretation of Scripture as legitimate extensions of the literal meaning of passages. God is that sort of agent who could intend what actually happened to contain various kinds or levels of spiritual significance; the story of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea might have actually been accurate—as a matter of historical fact—and also have really been intended by God to also constitute a symbol of baptism and of the Church and of many other spiritual truths. There is no reason to think this is impossible unless we assume miracles and an omniscient, omnipotent God are also impossible.

Origen’s belief that Scripture is wholly inspired and therefore wholly inerrant follows from our doctrine of God. God is, on classical orthodox Christian theology, the source of all goodness and being, truth itself subsisting. It is literally metaphysically impossible that God cause someone to assert or teach a falsehood under His inspiration. This is because falsehoods are lacks or failures of being, goodness, and truth. But God only causes what is good and true. What God could do is permit someone to write something false. But then it would be false that God inspired or caused what was written. So, if an entire biblical text in all its parts was inspired by God, then the biblical text cannot teach or assert falsehoods, nor can one biblical text come into anything more than merely apparent contradiction with what another biblical text intends to teach or assert.

However, unlike the fundamentalist, and in keeping with Dei Verbum, Origen arguably takes this metaphorical or allegorical sense of Scripture to be what the biblical author intended to assert or teach us. This perspective was reflected in Dei Verbum’s note 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.” This is a principle of hermeneutical restraint: we know God inspired the authors to write what was necessary for our salvation, and so we also can know that the authors had no reason to teach us any scientific facts in what they wrote, nor would they have intended to teach us any historical facts that are not necessary for the sake of our salvation. In John Henry Newman’s short treatise on inspiration, he begins by asking:

In what respect are the Canonical books inspired? It cannot be in every respect, unless we are bound de fide to believe that “terra in æternum stat,” and that heaven is above us, and that there are no antipodes. And it seems unworthy of Divine Greatness, that the Almighty should in His revelation of Himself to us undertake mere secular duties, and assume the office of a narrator, as such, or an historian, or geographer, except so far as the secular matters bear directly upon the revealed truth.[5]

Galileo Galilei appealed to a similar principle in his interpretations of the Bible, when they appeared to contradict his own research: “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”[6]

And, in fact, historical-critical studies are not at all unfriendly to this hermeneutic for the simple reason that the biblical authors quite obviously wrote for theological purposes, not for scientific or even strictly historical ones. When it comes to the creation story in Genesis, for instance, no mainstream historical-critical scholar believes that these stories were intended by their authors to be scientific accounts of how the world came to be, and so intended to teach us facts about how long it took God to create the world or even that the order of days represents a temporal order. For example, even though ancient pre-scientific people knew plants need sunlight, the biblical author wrote that the plants were created on the third day, and the sun and moon on the fourth. Whatever the author intended to teach us by giving this precise order of days in creation, it cannot plausibly include the assertion that widespread pre-scientific knowledge about plants needing sunlight to survive is false. The stories instead are obviously constructed to depict and teach truths about creation’s relationship with God, its internal order and goodness, and the way in which sin was a product of human choices rather than God’s design. Fundamentalist readings that the authors intended to teach and assert that the world was created in six distinct twenty-four-hour days are as silly as those which would hold that the biblical author intended to teach us that plants do not need sunlight to survive. These simply and obviously are not the best historical interpretation of what the text’s ancient author/editor intended for us to learn. When we come upon assertions that appear to contradict good sense, or whose literal meaning would be otherwise mysterious in light of other things we know, it is always open to us either simply to suspend judgment until we have better data to surmise what the historical author intended, or to see in this a spiritual meaning that God might have intended even if the author did not (as Origen does), or, even better, to do both.

Unlike Newman, who held to the traditional theory that Scripture was wholly inspired even in teaching matters of historical fact when they were relevant to faith, some could think that the clause “for the sake of salvation” constitutes not a principle of restraint, but an open acknowledgment that Scripture is only partially inspired. Someone might reason that Scripture can contain errors or contradictions in what the biblical authors properly intend to assert or teach if what they are teaching about is neither faith nor morals. A radical version of this would be the view of the nineteenth-century liberal Protestant “demythologizers,” such as Rudolf Bultmann, who held that Scripture cannot in principle teach anything supernatural since the supernatural was impossible. “It is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”[7] Many such views take their inspiration from Immanuel Kant, holding that we can only know what we (directly?) experience. But we cannot directly experience whether God revealed a given text or what passages and in what sense they are asserted by God or that God exists or what God is like in himself.[8] We, therefore, have no good reasons to believe in what cannot be experienced directly. As with Bultmann, then, commitment to a “metaphysics” that goes beyond what we can directly experience, such as belief in Christ’s divinity or the Trinity, is unnecessary (and possibly even harmful) for proper Christian belief.[9]

We can therefore combine this perspective on Revelation with the claims that Scripture contains apparent contradictions or errors as follows: nothing in Scripture that we could not know independently of Scripture (by direct experience) should be considered morally or objectively necessary for anyone to believe as Christian or as a matter of salvation, since nobody can have infallible access to anything not directly experienced. These views seem to rule out a priori even the possibility that God’s revelation can reveal anything necessary for salvation. Indeed, it is unsurprising that partisans of such views are inclined to hold that “salvation is already a reality. Christ has already accomplished the salvation of all participants,” so that disbelief in God or Scripture or what God reveals could not possibly affect our salvation—thus evacuating theological controversy of any stakes.[10] Yet these views therefore, in my opinion, simply rule out the possibility of what Christians and Jews have always understood to be the virtue of faith, since they rule out belief “in what is unseen” and the moral value of faith as a response to God.

An apparently more promising strategy aims to preserve the role for classical faith by combining belief in partial inspiration with selective elements of Origen’s appeal to a spiritual sense. Even if Scripture contains errors intended and asserted by the human authors, the divine author intended us to accept something like the spiritual sense of their words. The spirit of this idea is: “Of course there are errors in Scripture—they’re right where God wants them to be!” Now, it would make little sense to hold to a theory on which all inspiration is fallible, and then appeal to an inspired interpreter to resolve problems in an inspired text, since it would generate an infinite regress: if every inspired person is fallible, then adding another one does not help resolve what is true. A better way to put this view is to deny that Scripture is partially inspired, and instead affirm that it is not inspired at all. God uses erroneous texts in our Scriptures as an occasion for us to come to know inspired truths. The interpreter is inspired to reveal, on this view, not the texts properly speaking.

Some at the time of the Reformation theorized that we need to be privately inspired. Yet, it seems unfair for God not to privately inspire all. Atheists, on such a view, look inexplicable. That is why the more plausible way to make this work is to hold that there is one unique public-inspired interpreter, such as the Church. Consider the view on which the Church’s acceptance and interpretation of Scripture is what constitutes Revelation. This view can then admit that belief in the Trinity, or in Christ’s divinity, are taught by Scripture, even though these doctrines are not taught by the human authors, nor implied by what the human authors intended to say. The Church revealed these dogmas, teaching them using the words of the human authors of Scripture, even if these doctrines were not there in Scripture to begin with. All that matters is how the Church reads Scripture.

These views also do not match the data of how the Church arrives at her views about Revelation or how own self-stated views of this: “The Holy Spirit was not promised [to the Church’s ministers] . . . that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith [and] set it forth” (Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus). The Church is providentially protected from teaching error, and its ministers have authority from Christ to teach, but they do not have any independent source of revelation apart from what it received. The Church’s bishops and theologians discover what God revealed through no other way than by reading and reasoning about Scripture, just like anyone else. If the writers of the sacred texts taught falsehood, the Church would have no independent means for knowing what God intended to teach by means of these texts. In fact, nobody could. That is because the most important things these texts teach us concern what God is like in himself (as a Trinity), his relation to what happened (his Providence or that Jesus is God incarnate), or God’s special will—and nobody knows those things except God.

It would therefore be a very serious error to think of the Church as introducing novel doctrines that are not found in what it received from Christ. St. Paul condemns it in the strongest possible terms: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). This is why the Church herself condemned this theory of inspiration by acceptance of texts into the canon.[11]

There are very good reasons for rejecting partial inspiration. Theologians who accept a partial inspiration theory might appear to accept a principle on which God inspires a spiritual sense of the Scriptures, but they understand this principle not as Origen did. It is obvious that if revelation comes from the interpreter, and not the text—as the view of these contemporary thinkers entails—then both Origen’s biblical project and that of contemporary historical-critical scholarship are unnecessary or even misguided. Nothing about the historical situation of the human writers, what they aimed to say, what genre of writing their works fall into, what manners of speech they employ, or how one canonical author took himself to be responding to another canonical author, would need to be known to know what God teaches by means of these texts.

Partial inspiration might seem liberating. It frees us to recover a spiritual sense of Scriptural texts and makes doctrine immune to challenges from skeptics. Yet these theories would require rejecting the very thing their modern advocates attempt to insist upon: the necessity for careful, historical, scientific exegesis in understanding Scripture, rather than insisting fanatically on whatever sense we read the text as teaching. Partial inerrancy insulates Christian doctrine from the hard work of biblical exegesis and systematic theology that would aim to determine what the biblical authors intended to teach (which is often difficult in many marginal cases to determine) and the way in which their views cohere.

A scientific understanding of biblical studies as aiming to determine what the authors intended to teach or assert is compatible, on the one side, with investigating how the biblical texts were edited from pre-existing works or transmitted through a fallible manuscript tradition that involved copyist errors, etc. Inspiration applies to the “final” compiler of a text, not to every author of pre-existing materials, and it does not apply to the manuscript tradition. On the other hand, scientific understanding of the authorial intent is compatible with recognition that the “literal” sense does not exhaust that which God intended to assert through the biblical authors. God can aim for more than was before the minds of the author. Far from exempting us from investigating what the authors themselves intended, the plenary theory of inspiration holds that God intended any further senses of a passage precisely in virtue of its literal sense.[12]

A last objection comes from skeptics about biblical inspiration generally. Is it not irrational to engage in historical-critical studies with a presumption that what the human biblical authors intended to teach can form (somehow) a coherent whole with other works in the canon, despite being composed by disparate authors, in disparate situations and times? Does their faith not prevent Christian exegetes from struggling with the text scientifically and objectively, as being open to the possibility that these texts contain true discrepancies which might be impossible to harmonize? These questions presume that coming to biblical studies in faith will necessarily lead to bad results: the Christian will force the text to fit their preconceptions or will be dogmatic in rejecting results that contradict their Church’s doctrine.

The assumption that believers cannot engage objectively in biblical studies presumes that belief in inspiration so controls exegesis that Christians will be unable to deal honestly with the text. The first thing to point out is that dogmatic beliefs are at a high level of generality—Catholic dogma, for instance, does not mandate reading particular passages in any specific way (even Matt 16:18 is not so defined), beyond commitment to finding some interpretation consistent with our dogma. Belief in inspiration is not particularly prejudicial to an impartial and objective investigation of historical fact, as there is no necessary material content to the way in which that whole should be formed, even if there are some high-level formal constraints. And it certainly seems an open question whether Scripture is a consistent whole in this way, as there are no “assured results” of biblical scholarship showing that there are true contradictions in Scripture. The reason is simple. Determining definitively what authors intend to assert or teach in such a way as to rule out all other potential interpretations definitively is hard and controversial. We can often gauge a better or worse reading of a passage, certainly, but even this is often relative to criteria that change over time in the field of scholarship.

And, for example, the Christian exegete’s claims about potential links between the intended meaning of an author in one text, and the prophetic meaning that that text has in relation to a later event does not imply that the exegete must hold that the author had this intent in mind when writing. Rather, God can intend meanings that the human author did not, in addition to what they wrote. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a solid theory of plenary inspiration is what secures that this possibility of spiritual meanings does not undermine the scientific spirit of the scholar: such spiritual meanings can be intended by God, the theory holds, only insofar as they depend on what the author intended historically. Then, the appeal to spiritual meanings is unreliable unless we can first arrive at a clear idea of what the “literal” meaning of such passages are. Spiritual or prophetic readings of biblical passages are then not opposed in principle to a scientific or objective spirit.

These facts are clearly illustrated by systematic theology, which relates particular biblical texts, and what that author teaches, with doctrinal claims developed later, such as the Trinity. The systematic exegete attempts to determine—through ordinary reasoning and historical scholarship—what the text intends to teach. People in the ancient world understood what it was to assert truths or teach, as opposed to telling fictional stories (or bullshitting), and so were capable of speech acts that are recognizably assertions. Nobody needs a philosophical theory in mind to assert a truth.

The task of systematics is to determine the relationship among those truths asserted or taught. This is not substantially different from how philosophers move from ordinary language claims or intuitions to clarify and make consistent common-sense ethical principles, or what sort of things we ordinarily take to exist, or discover the rules of logical inference, or classify the kinds of speech act involved in ordinary language. The success of the endeavor lies in whether the resulting systematic exegete’s dogmatic theories successfully represent the claims of the authors, making the best sense of the data, and not merely in whether it is an internally consistent theory.

As we often only over time discover further logical connections among texts or other possible interpretations in light of progress in biblical theology more generally, it is not surprising that systematic exegesis develops over time in complexity, applying the texts to problems that the authors of the texts might not have had in mind when writing them. Nothing about this process involves an unscientific or unhistorical outlook. The systematician is merely aiming at a kind of intellectual history that ranges across the biblical texts, as opposed to a more local or manuscript-centric perspective.

Beneath these questions is a more fundamental problem: is it rational to believe when you do not know? This wide-ranging question is beyond the scope of this essay. But the generic problem has a specific application to biblical studies: what seems odd, many think, about reading spiritual meanings or prophecies into biblical texts is that claims of this sort would presume that God has inspired the Bible. We cannot know these facts from the historical study of the text itself or from any naturalistic evidence that the exegete has access to while in his armchair. For that reason, it seems inappropriate for the Christian exegete to suggest that. their results form part of the scientific results of biblical scholarship.

This apparent problem looks to be nominal disagreement. Is “science” necessarily methodologically naturalistic? It seems to me that there is some broad and uncontroversial sense of “methologically naturalistic history” which would translate in this biblical context into “aiming solely at discovering what the historical author intended.” This project would require the Christian exegete to bracket those meanings God might have intended beyond what the human author did when aiming specifically at historical-critical study. But this kind of naturalism looks uncontroversial in light of the plenary inspiration theory, as the literal sense is the ground for any other in addition to readings of the text that God might have intended. “Permission” to bracket spiritual readings is built into the theory of inspiration itself. Although the notion of “methodological naturalism” would need to be worked out carefully—as the authors themselves often claim something is a miracle or God’s will, etc., and methodology cannot merely rule a priori that these authors are mistaken—I see no reason in principle such a rule about doing historical work accurately would call into question the possibility that these texts tell the truth about God and the supernatural.

Conversely, there is nothing obviously unintelligible with thinking of a comprehensive theological reading of a text as “scientific.” Although systematics has its own standards of evidence and argument that aim to construct a consistent interpretation of the text, and which are not naturalistic since they admit in principle the possibility of miracles, prophecy, and so forth, we can note that systematics is comprehensible to a great extent even on a naturalistic picture of investigation. The authors themselves intended to tell us about what they took to be miracles, or prophesies, or God’s actions, or God’s intentions. It is a perfectly reasonable enterprise—as a matter of “intellectual history”—to attempt to understand the mindset and commitments of the authors on their own terms, and how later authors attempted to integrate their thoughts about God or his role in history as part of an on-going theological conversation among Jews and Christians. Systematics is merely a way of doing biblical interpretation that aims to understand these texts as a conversation aimed at the truth, rather than in terms of its external and accidental historical circumstances.

The notion that Scripture is wholly inspired and inerrant is found witnessed to in biblical works themselves, such as 2 Timothy. But the proper interpretation of the doctrine of inspiration, like belief in the canon, can only come from holding the faith of the community in which these works were written. The community—the Church—aims to understand these texts as the voice of God speaking to her, believing that “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” (Dei Verbum, §11). In the end, we miss the conversation entirely if we try to tease apart either whom they were speaking about or to whom they were speaking.

[1] Origen, De Principiis, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Frederick Crombie (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 4.2.2.

[2] Origen, The Philocalia of Origen, trans. George Lewis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1911), 32.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] De Principiis, 4.2.9.

[5] John Henry Newman, “The Inspiration of Scripture,” in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 15, No. 84 (Feb. 1884), 189.

[6] Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, ed. Stillman Drake (New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1957), 173–216.

[7] Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), 5.

[8] On such a picture, it seems we could not know that the world or that other minds exist, since they are not “directly” experienced. If such a view admitted that these “metaphysical” facts could be experienced, then it is unclear why we cannot similarly experience God.

[9] Steven Nemes, “Theology without Anathemas,” Journal of Analytic Theology 9 (2021): 180-–200, esp. 189–191; see also, Theology of the Manifest (New York: Lexington Press/Fortress Academic, 2023).

[10] Nemes, “Theology without Anathemas,” 197.

[11] Vatican I, Session III, Cap. 2. Condemnation repeated in: Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus; Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu.

[12] See Thomas Aquinas, ST I, q. 1, a. 10.

Featured Image: Pages from the Kennicott Bible, 1476; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


James Dominic Rooney

Fr. James Dominic Rooney, OP, is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great and an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University. His work is primarily in metaphysics, medieval philosophy, Chinese philosophy, and his most recent book is Material Objects in Confucian and Aristotelian Metaphysics.

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