“Ask a Priest: Why Do We Accept Scripture as Divinely Inspired?”

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Q: Why do we as Catholics believe that the letters and writings found in the Bible are divinely inspired? Clearly they are very important documents because of the time, but what sets them apart and makes them 100% true and infallible? -D.B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The basic reason we accept Scripture as divinely inspired is because the Church teaches us to. That might seem simplistic, but it’s not. Let me explain.

We accept the Old Testament because Christ himself esteemed it. “Scripture cannot be set aside” (John 10:35). In his day “Scripture” meant what we came to call the Old Testament. Now, our believing that the Old Testament is inspired is based on Jesus’ esteem for it. And the evidence for this is the New Testament. Which leads to an obvious question: So why accept the New Testament texts? Well, again, we accept them because the early Church accepted them.

A key criterion for texts being accepted into the canon, or list, of New Testament books was their apostolic origins. They were either written by apostles (who had personal contact with Jesus) or people closely connected to the apostles. Beyond that, we don’t know a lot about the way early Christians made their choice of the New Testament books. Some texts seem obvious (such as the Gospels), others less so (think of the Letter to Philemon). The process of formalizing a list of the books in the New Testament was slow and complex. The list wasn’t recognized in an official way until the Church councils of Hippo and Carthage in the late fourth century. This doesn’t mean the Church “invented” the list at that time; it simply took time to discern what was and wasn’t inspired text.

The notion that Scripture is “100% true and infallible” needs qualification. The Second Vatican Council’s constitution Dei Verbum says, “Since 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” (No. 11).

Note that the phrase “without error” refers to salvific truths, those that help us reach salvation. The Bible, then, might get something wrong regarding a date or historic event, but that isn’t its main purpose. It is communicating something deeper from God, to help us reach heaven.

Who helps us understand and interpret the Bible correctly? The Church. “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on,” says Dei Verbum in No. 10, “has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

So the Church’s authority concerning Scripture is based on the authority it receives from Christ. I hope this helps.

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