In May Gallup released a poll showing how American opinions towards the Bible have changed in the last twenty years. The poll is summarized well in the graphic to the right, but for easy reference here are the results:
1. The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word (-9%)2. The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally (+1)3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man (+9)
The biggest problem with this poll is that the terms used in the questions are not defined. For example, what is the difference between the “actual word of God” and the “inspired word of God?” As far as I know, only Jesus Christ himself is the “actual Word of God” (see John 1:1-14).
It’s possible that the difference meant here is that the “actual word of God” refers to scripture coming from God’s mind alone while the “inspired word of God” refers to men writing the Bible using their own words with God still being involved in that process. If that’s the case, then response #2 most closely corresponds to Catholic teaching. The Second Vatican Council taught that:
[B]oth 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. In composing the sacred books, 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)
Another confusing aspect of this question is that response #3 is not entirely wrong — it just contains loaded language. For example, men did record the Bible, since the human authors of scripture were “true authors.” Human beings simply weren’t the sole authors of scripture, as response #3 implies.
Second, the Bible does contain history, as well as a genre that you could call “legend” but that doesn’t necessarily mean those legendary stories aren’t true. For example, Henry Wadsworth Longsfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride isn’t a strict historical account (the details probably didn’t occur in such a convenient rhyming order). But the use of creative imagery in a description of this event does not mean Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” never happened!
Likewise, the Catechism says of the Bible’s description of the fall of man: “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.” (CCC 390)
The most inaccurate part of this question is saying that the Bible contains “fables.” A fable is a short, fictional story that contains talking animals (or other anthropomorphic creatures and objects) that is used to teach a moral lesson. The Bible only includes two instances of talking animals (the serpent in the garden of Eden and Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22:30) but neither of those stories fits the pattern of fables, such as the ones written by Aesop.
The closest thing in the Bible to “fables” would be parables, or short fictional stories about human beings that are used to teach a moral lesson. This includes not just the parables Christ taught but possibly entire books of the Bible like Jonah or Tobit (see Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 129).
Of course, the fact that some parts of the Bible are fictional does not prove that the entire Bible is fictional. That would be like saying that because the local library contains fictional books it follows that the encyclopedias that are also housed there are “made up” fictions.
I’ve seen a few atheist blogs crowing about how the category of people who think the Bible is merely a human book of “fables” has increased 9 percent in the last year. But I’m actually encouraged by the small growth we see in the more accurate response #2. I think the best explanation for what has happened in recent years is summarized well in an observation made by Christian blogger and apologist Randal Rauser who said, “The extremists have just switched sides.” Rauser writes:
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that even as the religious fundamentalists have dropped 9% in the last thirty years so the other position has grown by 9%. In other words, while fundamentalists may shift their identity from “Christian” to “atheist” or “skeptic”, many of them never question their own errant assumptions about textual meaning and authority. Nor do they question their simplistic, absolutist picture of the world borne out in the stark categories of a culture war.
Prior to his “de-conversion,” a fundamentalist might believe that the Bible is an inerrant letter from God himself that conforms to 21st century standards of literary genre and style. However, when faced with the evidence from science and history that the universe is not 6,000 years old or that there was not a flood that inundated the entire planet, he may come to believe that the Bible’s supposedly literal and scientific descriptions of the world are false. This would mean that the Bible is not divinely inspired since God would not inspire error into the Biblical text.
So what does the Catholic Church teach about the Bible’s inerrancy, or its freedom from being in error? According to the Second Vatican Council:
[S]ince everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows 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 . . . However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. (Dei Verbum, 11-12)
Remember, the Bible is only inerrant in what it asserts, not what the text happens to say. Not everything the Biblical text says should be understood in the literal sense (like the description of God’s wings in Psalm 91:4) and sometimes the literal sense isn’t always clear to us. In Divino Afflante Spiritu Pope Pius XII said that,
What is the literal sense of a passage is not always as obvious in the speeches and writings of the ancient authors of the East, as it is in the works of our own time. For what they wished to express is not to be determined by the rules of grammar and philology alone, nor solely by the context; the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use.For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East (35-36).
When we talk about things like the events described in the first few chapters of Genesis, we must be careful to not judge the truth the sacred author was communicating by modern scientific standards. That’s because the sacred author was not trying to write a scientific description of the world, even though he was communicating truths about God and the world he created (for more on that see our tract Adam, Eve, and Evolution).
Finally, if you want a good treatment of the Catholic view of the Bible and the issue of inerrancy, then I recommend my friend Karlo Broussard’s article on the subject in Catholic Answers Magazine.
Written By Trent Horn