How Is Scripture The Word Of God?

September 2, 2009


 The capacity of the Bible to suggest ever deeper interpretation is sometimes referred to as its carrying a “sensus plenior”. In Biblical exegesis, the phrase “sensus plenior” is used to describe the “deeper meaning intended by God” but not intended by the human author. The phrase originates from the Latin, and means “fuller sense,” the plenary sense in the mind of its divine author.

The theological basis of such a claim lies in the fact that the Bible has to serve as our guide in the life of faith right until the parousia. Thus we have to believe that God has placed in Scripture a fullness of meaning, which will help and satisfy people very different from ourselves in the future just as it has helped and satisfied people very different from ourselves in the past. Scripture transforms us by turning us toward our ultimate future, our salvation.

Scripture, the word of God, uses the human words, but in terms of transformative power it is infinitely more effective than any purely human language. The word of God in Scripture brings to birth a new person. In more characteristically Catholic language for the life of grace, it generates supernatural faith, hope, and love, and in this way radically alters the pattern of human existence.

It is in this sense that we see the Bible as the Word of God: a very human product that is also a divine gift. In a saying no less true for being oft repeated, the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men.

Aidan Nichols in The Shape of Catholic Theology explores how Catholics came to view Scripture. I have cut, pasted, stitched and summarized below:

Scriptural Inspiration
The Church says that God is the source of Scripture.  If canonicity deals with the question of which books have divinely given authority for the theologian, then inspiration concerns the problem of how this authority is actually mediated or present in the books that the canon includes and there have been different solutions over the years to this problem. The earliest theory of biblical inspiration saw the writing of the Bible as ecstatic or even hypnotic in character. The origin of this way of looking at the subject seems to have been the Jewish philosopher Phio of Alexandria, who was writing in about A.D. 50. Philo imagined that the writer was possessed by God, losing ordinary consciousness and letting his personality be taken over by the divine power. He would write, therefore, ecstatically, or in a trance.

Problems with Ecstatic Theory The problem with this theory is that  it would no longer be possible to speak about the “literal sense” of the Bible, in other words, the meaning which the human author intended. If Scripture were a form of automatic writing, no such authorial intention would exist for us to appeal to. Nor would it be possible to speak of a historically original meaning to a biblical text, that is, a meaning constituted by the writer’s relationship to his own contemporaries.

Further the writing of Scripture would not be historically conditioned. It would only be historical in the sense that the persons used by God as mediums for the transcribing of his message lived at definite points in historical time. But, if there is no literal sense and so no historically original sense, then there would be no need for the theologian to bother with the study of Scripture using the historical, and more especially, the historical-critical method. In other words, ninety-five percent of modern biblical scholarship would become irrelevant at a stroke, leaving only the five percent which is concerned with establishing the best texts from the manuscripts available.

Verbal Dictation The first real alternative to the hypnotic theory was the theory of verbal dictation. The remote origins of this theory lie in the patristic period; it uses concepts drawn from the Scholastics, and especially St. Thomas. Nevertheless, in its mature form it is a product of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this theory God is said to communicate the language of Scripture to the human author, giving him supernaturally those words which best suit the writer’s individuality. The author’s task is simply to be as consciously receptive as possible to what God is doing. This theory may be seen in illustrated form in many Renaissance and baroque paintings of the evangelists. A dove representing the Holy Spirit hovers around the head of a man seated at a writing desk, his ears attentive to the dove and with pen at the ready. The relation of the divine author to the human writer is now seen in terms of what the Scholastics termed “instrumental causality.” The divine author is said to be the “principal efficient cause,” the human author the “instrumental efficient cause.” An instrumental efficient cause is one that truly acts, and with a power properly its own, yet only does so when moved or used by another, the principal efficient cause. The latter, by activating the potential of the former, enables it to have an effect quite beyond it when left to itself. The stock example is of a man writing with chalk. The piece of chalk I use at the blackboard in my classroom is soft and white. It is capable, then, of producing its own proper effect, namely thick white lines. Yet left to itself the chalk is inert. To produce an effect at all it must be picked up and used. When I activate the power of the chalk I give it the effect, otherwise beyond it, of producing intelligent writing, or at any rate intelligible writing. At the same time, the instrumental cause has truly acted with its own proper power, forming the thick white lines, which are a small thing, but its own.

Problems with Verbal Dictation What would follow for theology if the verbal dictation theory were true? To begin with, the literal sense could be reinstated. The intention of the divine author is represented (adequately if not exclusively) by the intention of the human author, because the divine author uses and elevates the capacity of an individual to be a writer of literature. Similarly, we could once again speak of a historically original meaning. Because if God accommodated himself to the styles of expression of a particular individual, he must also have accommodated himself to the styles of expression of a particular age and culture of which that individual was a part. And to understand these styles of expression we must look at the styles of expression found generally in the literature contemporary with the biblical books. We can thus use the expertise of Orientalists and ancient historians to help us gauge as theologians what is being said in the biblical corpus.

But this is not to say that there would be no theological inconveniences if we decided to opt for the dictation theory. First, although Scripture would have a literal sense, it would have that sense in a purely technical way. That is, the human author would not have acquired the intention to write on a certain subject in a certain way by natural means. That intention would simply be the effect of the divine intention. Thus, even though we could determine a historically original meaning coordinate with God’s accommodation of the revealed message to the writer’s individuality, we could not determine historically the author’s intention. And to this extent the literal sense would not be securely rooted in the soil of its historical context, thus rendering theological exegesis that much more difficult. Second, the verbal dictation theory would necessarily bind the theologian to a doctrine of verbal inerrancy. Every word in the Bible would have to represent prophetic knowledge, that is, either supernatural truth or supernaturally guided natural truth. It may safely be said that if theologians are obliged to defend the verbal inerrancy of Scripture, they will have neither time nor energies left for doing anything else with their lives. This is not to say that theologians are free to deny the inerrancy of Scripture as such. But, if possible, some view of inerrancy should be adopted which takes into account the intrinsic purposes of there being a Bible in the Church in the first place. And these purposes can have little to do with advising gardeners on how to grow hyssop.

Both the hypnotic theory and the dictation theory start from the conviction that God is the author of Scripture and then try to explain how God’s authorship comes to be humanly mediated. What they regard as problematic is the human side, not the divine side. This comes through dearly in references to God as the “principal author” of Scripture (St. Thomas) or as the “only author of Scripture in the strict sense” (Henry of Ghent, a slightly later Scholastic, who died in 1293.

Subsequent Approbation And Negative Assistance Two other theories on the mediation of Scripture start from the opposite assumption, namely that Scripture is manifestly human, and then try to work up to God from below. The first such theory to emerge was the so-called theory of subsequent approbation, first associated with the Dominican friar Sixtus of Siena (1520-69) and revived in the nineteenth century. This theory holds, in effect, that inspiration is retroactive. When the Church solemnly judges a book worthy of inclusion in the canon, then owing to the church’s infallibility, from that moment on the book can be known to be an expression of divine truth — in other words, it may henceforth be called “inspired.”

As one representative of this school put it: “A book is written in a purely human manner, but later is elevated, through reception into the canon, to be an expression of divine communication to men; the Spirit of God knew from the beginning that we would adopt this work, without, however, any direct intervention in the spirit of man.” But the idea of inspiration is not simply the idea of revealed truth. The subsequent approbation theory really reduces inspiration to canonicity, forgetting that when the Church declares a book to be part of the canon she does not render it inspired but, on the contrary, claims that God has already been operative in its making, that “merely giving one’s approval to what someone else has written does not make one the author of the canon.” So this theory falls down by claiming for the Church something the Church has never dared to claim for herself.

The second theory which starts from the human side is the theory of negative assistance, which originated at Louvain under the influence of the Jesuit theology of grace but which in the nineteenth century was particularly associated with a German Premonstratensian canon, Johann Jahn (1750_1816. According to this idea, God leaves the biblical writers alone unless he sees that they are about to commit some egregious error, in which case he intervenes negatively so as to prevent them. He gives them, in other words, negative assistance.

Problems But this theory really takes the stuffing out of inspiration by saying that unless something goes hopelessly wrong, the Scriptures are just ordinary human artifacts. Neither of these theories is now open to Catholic theologians. Both were rejected by the Catholic Church at the First Vatican Council. To cite Del Filius, the Church “holds these books to be sacred and canonical not because, having been carefully composed by mere human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor because they merely contain revelation with no admixture of error, but because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author and have been delivered as such to the Church herself.”[ Vatican Council I, Dei Filius 2, DS, 3006]

However, for the sake of completeness we can note the principal implications of these theories for theology, If, per impossibile, these theories were true, then there would be nothing other to Scripture than the literal sense. There would be no possibility of a sensus plenior, a further dimension of meaning intended by the divine author but not consciously grasped by the human author yet made available to us by such factors as the interrelation of the biblical books, their relation to Christ, the Church, and the Christian life, and their being read in light of Tradition. This further dimension, which makes all the difference between a purely historical-critical reading of the Bible and a fully theological reading, would no longer exist. The Church could of course still make whatever use she wanted of the Bible in preaching the faith, but in so doing she would as often as not be using the Scriptures by abusing them — accommodating them to purposes for which they were never intended by anyone, not even by God, since he, on these theories, is not their author.

Pope Leo XIII The modern Church understanding of mediation of Scripture emerged  in 1893 when Leo XIII (1810-1903) promulgated the first papal encyclical on the Bible, Providentissimus Deus, in which he noted that unless God has in some manner influenced the minds, wills, and writing abilities of the human authors, there is precious little point in calling him the author of Scripture at all.[ Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, DS, 393] The Second Vatican Council, in its remarks about inspiration, was content to endorse this unexceptionable statement.[ Vatican Council II, Dej verbum ii.] However, between the First Vatican Council and Pope Leo on the one hand, and the Second Vatican Council and ourselves on the other, a number of new theories of inspiration emerged, all sharing a good deal of common ground.

To begin with, it is accepted, following tradition, that Pope Leo’s core statement must be respected. Divine inspiration must mean divine influence on the minds and wills of biblical writers, or the words are so many vibrations of the air. Second, and following this time not the truth of tradition but the truth of established scholarly fact, the biblical writers remained people of their own time and place. It may be said that the problem of biblical inspiration consists in relating these two points in the most convincing and elegant way possible. In order to do this, theologians have sought enlightenment by comparing inspiration to our understanding of how God reveals himself to humans, as that is found in Christian doctrine as a whole. To do this is to appeal to the analogy of faith, to profit from the fact that the common faith of the Church is not a set of disparate teachings, each unconnected with the rest, but is a coherent, interconnected unity in which any one part can be illuminated by looking to the rest.

Chalcedonian Theories Of Biblical Inspiration Two points are relevant in a comparison of biblical inspiration with the general pattern of God’s self-disclosure to us. First, God as Creator can modify directly any aspect of his creation, and in particular the human mind and will, since these are intrinsically open to his action. But, second, God does not normally modify our minds and wills, bringing them to faith, without the cooperation of other creatures in this process.

My coming to faith was made up to two things: the preaching of the Church and so the cooperation of creatures on the one hand, and on the other interior divine grace, assisting me to recognize and respond to divine truth in that preaching. Using the analogy of faith, we can compare this to what goes on in biblical inspiration. To the church’s preaching would correspond the natural environment of the biblical author. This environment is providentially placed there by God, just as the pamphlets of the Catholic Truth Society have providentially awaited a convert poking about at the back of a Catholic church. To interiorize divine grace there would correspond, then, to the charism of inspiration, God assisting the biblical author to respond to the providential but natural environment in the way God wants.

The natural environment, or materials of the author, are all the relevant creaturely realities known to that person — nature, historical events, general human traditions, distinctively Jewish traditions, the words, actions, and sufferings of Jesus in his humanity, the common life of the early Church, and, finally, ideas about how to write a book concerned with some or all of these. The author responds in a normal authorial way to this human environment, but God so acts on the mind and will that the author’s response to his or her environment is the saving message that God wants to communicate. To resume the Christological comparison, the human life of Jesus is the life of the eternal Word as projected into space and time. So much for what is, I think, common ground to all Chalcedonian theories of biblical inspiration.

Three major but divergent perspectives on the common ground can be noted:

  1. First, there is the theory of formal inspiration put forward by the Austrian Jesuit Johann Baptist Cardinal Franzelin (1816-.86) Frauzelin’s theory of inspiration attained a vastly wider audience through its adoption in C. Perrone, Praelectiones theologicae, a work of foundational theology which went into thirty-one editions between 1835 and 1865] Franzelin argued that what God did in inspiring was to communicate the divine meaning of the relevant human realities. Thus inspiration is purely formal; it has no material content in terms of actual language in the way that the verbal dictation theory alleged. Somewhat confusingly, Franzelin’s theory is also called “idea” or “content” inspiration, because it holds thought content to be given by God, but not linguistic expression. But the trouble with this is that it is hard to see how a meaning could be communicated independently of language.
    A discarnate, unembodied meaning might be compared to the smile on the face of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland A world where smiles remain when the faces they have wreathed have disappeared can only be labelled “wonderland” Franzelin’s theory found itself criticized, therefore, as “Psychological vivisection”
  2. Second, there is directionalism, the idea of Eugene Lévesque (1855-1944), who was professor of exegesis at the great Parisian seminary of St. Sulpice from 1893 onwards. Lévesque suggested that the interior aspect of inspiration is an impulse to communicate one’s materials in a certain way, a certain “direction.” [E. Lévesque, in the Revue biblique for 1895.] This theory has much in common with the view of inspiration put forward by the late Père Pierre Benoit of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem For Benoit, the biblical author’s act of writing follows from a practical judgment; not a judgment which consists in starting to believe a particular thing, but a judgment which is a decision to do a particular thing, namely, to write a particular kind of book. Benoit points out that much of the Bible is not concerned with propositional truths or even with truth as such at all. A great deal of Scripture is made up of commands, exhortations, thanksgivings, acts of penitence, expressions of joy, and so forth, and these are kinds of human utterance which can only with difficulty be said to be true or false. But while speculative judgment, judgment about what to believe, is scarcely engaged in such texts, practical judgment, judgment about how to act, is. But Benoit admitted that, obviously, other parts of the Bible are concerned with intellectual truth, and here we must speak of God as inspiring a speculative judgment as well as the practical judgment.[ P. Benoit, Aspects of Biblical Inspiration (English trans., Chicago: 1965) 96-101. To some extent these ideas had been anticipated by a disciple of Lévesque: C. Crets, in his De divina Bibliorum inspiratione (Louvain: 1886). See also P. Synave and P. Benoit, Prophecy and inspiration (English trans., 1961).] In other words, Lévesque’s directionalism is not enough by itself. Biblical inspiration always gives the author a practical direction, but sometimes there must also be an illumination of the mind as well as a direction of the will.
  3. And this is where it is valuable to introduce a third variant, the illuminationism of Benoit’s greatest predecessor at the Ecole Biblique, Marie-Joseph Lagrange, a scholar who preserved the dignity of Catholic biblical studies in the hard times that fell upon them in the wake of the Modernist movement. Lagrange argued that the directly divine part in inspiration is simply an illumination of the mind of the biblical author, enabling the author to judge the natural materials in a way that conforms to God’s will. In effect, Lagrange was returning to the texts of St. Thomas and developing the notion of prophetic judgment he found there. We can say that Lévesque, Lagrange, and Benoit between them have produced a minimalizing but convincing and credible version of Thomas, in place of the maximalizing version that held sway between the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.

An Ontology Of Inspiration If we wished, we could write, therefore, an ontology of inspiration. Just as all things that exist share in being to different degrees and in ways that are analogically related, so the inspired men and women of the Old and New Testaments shared in different degrees in the gift of inspiration in ways that are analogically related. To each of these individuals, the analysis offered by such writers as Lévesque, Lagrange, and Benoit would apply in various ways. All of these ways would coincide, however, in being ordered to the final emergence of the canon. When the canon is closed, the charism of inspiration, like the Marxist state, withers away, its task completed. At that point, the Catholic Church ceases to be inspired, although it does not cease to be infallible, that is, to be able to preserve what it understood when it was inspired.  On such a theory, certain consequences would follow for theological method.

  1. First, the literal sense, what an author intended, would be both real and also accessible to historical investigation.
  2. Second, we should have to regard an individual book of the Bible as an accumulation of literal senses, of which the principal or super-ordinate literal sense would be that of the book in its final form, the sense of its final editor.
  3. Third, the ordering of inspiration to the canon, to the existence of a recognizable body of literature attesting what God has revealed and sufficiently comprehensive to guide the Church for the rest of time, would imply that the revealed meaning of a book must be sought beyond the literal sense of any individual book, in the interrelated corpus of biblical books as a whole.
  4. Fourth, the fact that inspiration is ultimately the charism of a divine society, Israel-Church which eventually produced the canon, implies that the interpretation of the revealed meaning found in that canon must be made within the tradition of the Church and not without it.
  5. Fifth and finally, the cumulative and indefinitely extensible nature of this entire process may be explained, humanly speaking, by referring to hermeneutics, that is, the study of how a text offers more and more new interpretations to its readers; yet theologically considered, the same facts raise the question of a sensus plenior, that is, of the ecclesially experienced difference between a limited human authorial intention and the fullness of the divine intention, granted that the Scriptures are meant to guide humanity until the parousia. No finite consciousness could have been elevated by God in such a way as to comprehend the total mystery of salvation. So we must postulate, then, a supernatural plus of meaning, which the Church unfolds until the end of time.
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One comment

  1. [...] folks who reject any historicity whatsoever. While elsewhere I have discussed the process by which Scripture became the Word of God  but Walter Brueggemann’s explanation of imaginative remembering here also shows how the interplay [...]

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