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Proof that Christianity is tells lies to promote an error-ridden Bible as error-free

Excerpts from the Gifford Lectures Brand Blanshard


The ecumenical Council of Trent decreed with Papal approval that ‘if anyone receive not as sacred and canonical the said books entire and with all their parts as they have been used to be read in the Catholic church, and as they are contained in the Old Latin Vulgate edition… let him be anathema’. Nor is anyone at liberty to take one part as more reliable than another; the Council declared that it ‘accepts and venerates all the books of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both, with equal piety and reverence’. This position was reaffirmed by the Vatican Council of 1870. Leo XIII committed the church to it in unequivocal terms. ‘All the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration is not only essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God himself, the supreme truth, can utter that which is not true.’

Here is an array of conflicting statements which are taken impartially from the Old Testament and the New, and which could be multiplied many times. Given any pair of them, one member of the pair must be incorrect. Is it objected that they are all trivial, that they concern only petty details? That is true of most of them, but it is beside the point. The question is not whether the writers of these books, when they made mistakes, made big ones or little ones, but whether they made mistakes at all; the church holds that they did not, since these books ‘in their entirety with all their parts… have God as their author’. And for the settlement of this question, conflicting statements on a trivial point like the height of a pillar are more useful than statements about the ultimate nature of things. We may be sure that no pillar can be at once eighteen and thirty-five cubits high, and that a woman cannot both be childless and have five sons, while it is very hard to be sure that, if the doctrine of predestination is affirmed in one place and denied in another, there is any genuine conflict; in these more nebulous regions, a term may bear different meanings. No one cares about the height of the pillars; granted. But if that height is stated incorrectly, as it obviously has been by one or other of the Biblical writers, what follows is that the book the writer wrote is not infallible, that the collection of books in which this one appears is not infallible, and that the doctors, councils, and popes who pronounced it infallible were not themselves infallible.

On these matters, however, the Catholic has a resource not open to Protestants. The meaning he is bound to accept is not necessarily what his own reading would find in the Bible, even when the sense seems plain, but the sense that the church officially imposes on the text. Indeed so anxious has the church been that its own interpretation be accepted that it has often warned against the reading of the Bible except under controls. For example, Leo XII in 1824 issued an encyclical against the activities of the British and Foreign Bible Society, describing its efforts to promote the reading of the Bible in the vernacular languages as a deadly pestilence;10 and its efforts were still opposed even when the Bibles circulated were in approved Catholic translations, so long as the Catholic annotations were not included.

Incidentally, this insistence that Scripture is authoritative only as interpreted by the church implies that the Bible is hardly recognised as an independent authority at all. It could be thus independent only if its pronouncements, as interpreted by competent scholars free from prior commitments, were accepted as authoritative. But when such scholars have questioned the authenticity of the meaning of passages relied on by the church for validating its own claims, it has had a short and practically effective way of dealing with the questioners: it has ruled that its own interpretation is final. However successful in practice, this procedure is logically costly, since it invalidates the favourite argument for the church's own authority, the argument that rests this primacy on Scripture. If the church is to be accepted as authoritative because the New Testament says so, but the New Testament can be interpreted as saying so only because the church says it must, the argument comes to this, that the church is authoritative because it authoritatively says so. This is not an argument calculated to remove doubts.

Granting for the moment, however, that the church's interpretation is final, how is it to proceed with such passages as we have cited? It is committed by the most solemn Papal pronouncement to the view that passages which on their face are contradictory are still errorless. At least four lines of escape have been employed.


Authentic vs quoted statements
(1) One is to draw a distinction between what a writer says himself and what he quotes or reports from someone else. When he says in one place that the daughter of Saul died childless and in another that she had five sons, we may hold that in one place he was saying what he himself believed, which is errorless, while in the other he was reporting what he had heard from someone else, which may be mistaken. Consistency is thus preserved by throwing one statement out.

But this course does not give us what is needed. For
(a) both sides of the contradiction are usually stated in the same straightforward way, with no indication in either case that the writer meant merely to offer an unverified quotation; and to read him as meaning to do so is to take a liberty unwarranted by anything in the text,
(b) Even if he did mean to do so in one case rather than the other, we have no means of judging which, and hence to take either statement in preference to the other as the correct one is likewise unwarranted. To say that a book would be errorless if we had means, which it is admitted that we have not, to dismiss the errors with which it is admitted to be strewn is for practical purposes to abandon the claim to errorlessness.
(c) It is incredible that a writer should be so inspired that what he says in his own person should be preserved from all error, and yet that this inspiration should be unable to protect him against the most palpable errors of others. If he was able to see profound truths and remote facts undisclosed to common eyes, how could he report as true, in the mouths of others, statements that flatly contradicted what he had seen to be true without alloy? On the other hand, if he was so confused or careless as to report as true the obvious errors of others, how can we repose confidence in him anywhere? Gullibility is not a convincing witness to infallibility.

Literal vs metaphorical statements

(2) Sometimes another tack is taken. It is held that one passage is literal and the conflicting one metaphorical, and that, so read, both may be true. We may still hold, as Aquinas did, that ‘there can be no falsehood anywhere in the literal sense of Holy Scripture;’ if a passage appears to be false, we can say that the writer was stating a truth, but stating it rhetorically or figuratively.

Such interpretations are, without doubt, often sound. The Psalms and the Song of Solomon are, in the main, poetry, and to take them as chains of literal statements would be impossible for any serious student of literature. But the question is whether the method of metaphor can save the consistency of what appear to be statements of fact. It seems clear on reflection that it cannot.

(a) In the passages we have cited it would involve imposing on one or other of the conflicting texts a meaning to which neither the language nor its tone nor its context gives any support. If a writer says that the Lord is his shepherd, or his shield and buckler, or his high tower, or the shadow of a rock in a weary land, we know at once that he is speaking in metaphor, and may well recall that some of the most exquisite poetry in the language is to be found among these passages. But when the writer is recording historical facts such as the height of temple pillars or the number of years lived by the various patriarchs, it is not very plausible to say, when one of his facts is inaccurate, that he has suddenly abandoned the language of fact and is speaking metaphorically. He gives us no warning of such a change; there is nothing in his matter or manner to suggest it; indeed the suggestion is a purely ad hoc hypothesis with nothing to recommend it except the fact that it cannot be ruled out as a priori impossible.

(b) Furthermore, it has unfortunate consequences. If apparently plain statements of fact do not mean what they say, but something else that is veiled and remote, the Biblical writings in general must be read with uncertainty. In these writings are many thousands of statements, most of them quite incapable of being checked. Some of them we find in conflict with other Biblical statements, and where this happens, we say that one or other of the conflicting statements can at best be metaphorically true. But what of the thousands of other statements for which no check is practicable? Is it not more than likely that an indefinite number of these would similarly turn out to be metaphorical if such a check were open to us? The conclusion seems inevitable. But if accepted, it would spread suspicion over the entire body of the text. If what seems to be offered as the plainest statement of fact may not mean what it says, but something inscrutably different, how can we approach Scripture with any confidence at all? We cannot tell from the text whether what we are offered is fact or poetry.

The compromise of Vatican II

(c) The attempt to save Biblical inerrancy by metaphorical interpretation is thus self-defeating. It tends to be self-defeating also in a more important sense. The critic who uses it is committed to the attempt to get inside the mind of the writer, to catch the sort of meaning with which he uses his words; and success in such an endeavour is bound to carry him beyond the confines of Catholic or Protestant fundamentalism. The deliberations of the most recent Council provide an apt illustration.

Vatican Council II made a considered attempt to bring Catholic interpretation of the Bible into line with modern criticism. A protracted struggle between conservatives and liberals ended in a compromise that satisfied neither party. The struggle began in the first session with the presentation by Cardinal Ottaviani, one of the most conservative members of a conservative Curia, of the draft of a ‘constitution on revelation’ which set out the traditional position of the church. The bishops listened to more than a hundred speeches on this draft and then, by a vote of 1,368 to 822, rejected it and sent it back for rewriting. It was rewritten by a commission which was itself so divided that, some two years later, it submitted both a majority and a minority report. The Council debated these reports for five days through dozens of further speeches, and finally adopted a statement that was essentially a compromise.
In this statement the position of Trent and Vatican I was repeated, namely that the Bible was inspired and errorless, both in whole and in part. This inerrancy applied, of course, only to the Bible as interpreted by the church. But Catholic scholars were now encouraged to adopt a latitude in such interpretation that had not been allowed them before. In what did the new freedom consist? Chiefly in a permission to use certain techniques of literary and historical scholarship in determining what the Biblical writers meant. Interpreters of Scripture, ‘in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended…’; and ‘those who search out the intention of the sacred writers must, among other things, have regard for “literary forms”… due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time.…’ It seems clear that the doctors were here recognising that the remarkable succession of German higher critics whose work has culminated in the ‘form criticism’ of recent years had something important to say.

Unfortunately the compromise achieved by the Council was that unstable sort of compromise that unites the two sides of a contradiction. There is no way of combining the inerrancy of Scripture with the application to it of modern critical scholarship. For what such scholarship reveals is that in the comparatively primitive times before any precise science or history had emerged the line between prose and poetry was loosely drawn. Is the book of Genesis a record of fact or an exercise in creative imagination? To us the difference is clear enough, and since we cannot take the account as history, we should take most of it, with little hesitation, as legendary. But to impute our own sharp distinction between history and legend to Hebrew chroniclers of twenty-five centuries ago is to saddle early minds with modern conceptions in a thoroughly unhistorical fashion. What exactly went on in the minds that produced Genesis and Exodus and Daniel we shall never know. What does seem certain is that in a time when critical history and science did not exist, imagination would be invoked in all innocence to fill the gap. Not that it would be invoked as mere imagination or poetic fancy; that again presupposes the firm modern distinction. It is absurd to suppose that the writers of Genesis, who supplied conflicting accounts of the creation, were either indulging in irresponsible rhapsodies or recording deliberate lies. They were reflecting, with limited resources of knowledge, on the origin of things, and saying, ‘This is how it must have been’. For the details—the days and nights of creation, man's first parents, with their temptation and fall, the deliverance of the tables of the law on a mountain top—they used their imagination because that was all they had to use. But did they conceive of themselves as merely romancing? Assuredly not. They were giving the most faithful account they could of how the world and man and sin and law began. If we ‘search out the intention of the sacred writers,’ the dominant one is surely not far to seek. It was to tell the truth as they saw it.

If this was in fact the writers’ intention, then the attitude prescribed to us by the Council is also clear. What the writers put forward as truth we must accept as truth. But here comes the difficulty for any fundamentalist, Catholic or Protestant. However simply and seriously it was believed by its authors, we now know that much of it is mythology. The grounds for this judgement will be more apparent when we come in a later chapter to study the nature and function of myth. But we shall not argue the matter here. We shall assume—with a near unanimity of theologically uncommitted scholars—that Eden and the apple and the serpent were not historical facts, that the interview between Moses and his Deity through a thick smoke on Sinai never happened. If anyone believes that such things did happen, we shall leave him where he stands. The fact is, however, that many Catholic scholars are as ready as their non-Catholic colleagues to take these recitals as apocryphal. And then they are in trouble. They must manage to believe and disbelieve at the same time. If they follow their church, they must accept as truth what the sacred writers offered as truth, and then they will accept a vast mass of assertions which their modernised minds must reject unhesitatingly. If they follow the lead of their research, they will say that these recitals wear the marks of legend on their face, and then to accept them because their writers meant them as true becomes impossibly naive. The new freedom allowed to scholars by Vatican II thus turns out to be an ineligible kind of freedom, the freedom to contradict oneself. Scholars are at liberty to unearth the meanings or intentions of the sacred writers if only they will take them, however incredible, as altogether inerrant.

Thus the privilege of winnowing out metaphorical or poetic from literal statements gives less latitude than appears. The Catholic scholar resents being called a fundamentalist, and it is true that in sobriety of argument and cumulative intellectual resources he has the advantage of most Protestant fundamentalists. But to suppose that he is really at liberty to accept Freud on Moses, if he thinks the argument convincing, or Frazer on the Pentateuch, or Arnold on literature and dogma is to misunderstand his situation. On such excursions into rationalism his church has spoken formally and unequivocally, and it was beyond the power even of Vatican II to reverse the earlier judgements without undermining the church's authority. The present tension between the church and the ‘demythologising’ thought of Germany repeats at many points the tension with French ‘modernism’ early in the present century. That movement was led by the Abbé Loisy, who attempted to explain the Scriptural writings as historical and human products. It was crushed by Pius X in two encyclicals of 1907, Lamentabili Sane Exitu and Pascendi Gregis, which denounced it in general and in detail. Sixty-five doctrines attributed to it were enumerated for explicit condemnation. No Catholic scholar was permitted to undertake the examination of Scripture as if it were a ‘merely human document’, and the proposition that ‘Divine inspiration is not to be so extended to the whole Sacred Scripture that it renders its parts, all and single, immune from error’ was among the propositions condemned. In 1902 Leo XIII had set up a Biblical Commission to advise him about permissible and impermissible interpretations of Scripture. Under the sweeping condemnations of the two encyclicals, the Commission was left very little latitude, and it has acted over the years with extreme caution; in 1909, for example, it pronounced that the first three chapters of Genesis were to be regarded as historical rather than legendary. What else, indeed, could it have done? Roma locuta erat. The Second Vatican Council was similarly chained to the authoritative pronouncements of the past.
Corruptions in the text

(3) Another obvious way to save the inerrancy of Scripture is to say of passages found erroneous that they are not parts of Scripture at all, but insertions by an unauthorised hand. It is clear that in some of the books that have come down to us as the work of certain authors there are parts done by others: Moses did not write the account of his own death; the book of Isaiah is plainly the product of at least two Isaiahs; the last twelve verses of Mark, by the almost universal admission of scholars, are not by Mark, even supposing Mark to have written the gospel attributed to him. Is there any possibility of preserving a consistent and inerrant Scripture by saying, where error appears, that it has been insinuated into the text by some uninspired and anonymous hand?
Unfortunately there is none. The effect of the church's ruling is that even if insertions have been made by foreign hands these insertions too must be held inerrant. All the books with all their parts as recognised at Trent must be accepted as true without defect. In the early manuscripts of most reliable texts, the familiar ending of Mark does not occur at all; in some others it is reduced to a few lines; in one, there is a second long ending widely differing from the first. It happened that Jerome, in making his Vulgate translation, had before him a manuscript with the first long ending, now rejected by free scholars. It therefore appears in the Vulgate Bible, and since the content of that Bible was formally pronounced inerrant by a succession of popes, this extraneous appendage was itself inerrant. Whoever wrote it, and even if his appearance in the text was that of an interloper, he possessed, during that brief appearance, the privilege of speaking unqualified truth.

This inerrancy of the Vulgate text did not mean, of course, the inerrancy of any meaning that the reader or even the scholar attached to it, but its inerrancy as interpreted by the church; and so guarded, the claim seemed safe enough. The Council of Trent could hardly have anticipated the curious way in which this claim was soon to be tested. Not long after the meeting of the famous Council, there appeared upon the Papal throne Sixtus V, who thought that Jerome's version was in need of revision and that he himself was uniquely qualified for the task. With a committee of advisers he set himself to the large work, reserving for his own pen the final correction of all readings. In 1590 he published his Sixtine edition with the announcement: ‘By the fullness of apostolic power, we decree and declare that this edition, approved by the authority delivered to us by the Lord, is to be received and held as true, lawful, authentic, and unquestioned, in all public and private discussion, reading, preaching, and explanations.’ Unfortunately, and to the embarrassment of the scholars whose judgement he had often and arbitrarily overruled, the edition that was to be ultimate was quickly seen to be full of errors; and when the unhappy man soon afterward died, these scholars made it plain to his successor that the edition would not do. The Vulgate was accordingly gone over once again, and a few years later a new version was issued by Clement VIII. Since Clement's version differed from that of Sixtus in more than two thousand places,some explanation was necessary, and a preface was prepared by Cardinal Bellarmine, who sought to save the face of Sixtus by laying the ‘imperfections’ to the printer. But the fact was beyond concealment that Pope Sixtus had erred, not in words only but in interpretation, and many times over. What, then, was the status of the doctine that Scripture, officially interpreted, was inerrant? Both these editions had been backed by the explicit authority of the head of the church. If Sixtus was right in his way of construing Scripture, Clement must have been wrong; if Clement was right, Sixtus was wrong. One need not attempt the ungrateful business of deciding between them, for whichever was in the wrong, and one of them must have been, the official doctrine was no longer tenable.

To modern Biblical scholars, eager to reach the fact behind the words and above all the towering, mist-enshrouded figure behind the New Testament, the dangers of being misled are not, of course, confined to interpolations in the text. There is a question in many cases whether the books themselves, either of the Old Testament or of the New, have been written by the authors whose names have been traditionally attached to them. It is certain, indeed, that Moses did not write the Pentateuch; there are too many recorded facts in it that belong to the period after his death. Scholars have found in it the work of at least four main authors, none of whom can be safely identified with Moses, since all alike record post-Mosaic events. Yet the church has never rescinded its official teaching that Moses was the author. Not only does the decree of an ecumenical council refer explicitly to the five books as those of Moses; the twentieth-century Biblical Commission appointed by the Pope also supported the view. It conceded that Moses may have used secretaries to whom he dictated thoughts rather than words, but insisted that he was the ‘principal and inspired author’ of the Pentateuch and that it was ‘conceived by him under the influence of Divine inspiration’. Catholic scholars became so restive under such direction that in a letter of 1948 to Cardinal Suhard of Paris the Commission wrote that it would not oppose ‘further and truly scientific examination of these problems’. The New Catholic Encyclopedia of 1967 reports that current conclusions on these matters ‘show few differences from those of respected non-Catholic scholars’, adding the reassurance that ‘most of the differences would not be on the confessional level’. What these ‘confessional’ differences are it does not say.

As for the New Testament, there is perhaps no better attested result of scholarly work upon it than that the gospels of Matthew and Luke have drawn largely for their material on two prior sources, one of them the gospel of Mark, and the other a book that in its original form has disappeared. Mark, therefore, must have preceded Matthew. The Commission, conscious that such criticism violated tradition, rejected both this theory of dependence and the implied sequence of authors. It held that the synoptic gospels were all written by the apostles whose names they bear, and in the familiar order. As for the Gospel of John, in spite of the controversies that have raged over it for a century, the Commission held that the apostle John was certainly its author and that the events and speeches it recorded, however different in content and tone from those of the synoptic gospels, were nevertheless all true. There is happily little doubt that the life and teaching of Jesus can at least in broad outline be discerned by the comparative study of the gospels, though we may never know with certainty who wrote them, or what degree of credence to attach to their occasionally conflicting accounts. The Catholic can ride through these difficulties on a ‘high priori road’. Once the church has officially spoken on a problem of this kind, no historical scholarship on the other side has any standing. As Cardinal Manning wrote:

‘The appeal from the living voice of the Church to any tribunal whatsoever, human history included, is an act of private judgment and a treason, because that living voice is supreme; and to appeal from that supreme voice is also a heresy, because that voice, by divine assistance, is infallible.’

The suggestion, then, that errors in an inerrant text may be removed by showing certain books or passages to be unauthentic is not adequate to its end. The church has cut off its own recourse to such an explanation by pronouncements which limit beforehand the results that it can accept. Indeed, drawn in two directions at once, it has manoeuvred itself into an untenable position. If it continues to maintain that all the books of the Old and New Testament, ‘with all their parts,’ are inerrant, it has on its hands a mass of inconsistencies both sides of which it is committed to accept. If it seeks to explain the inconsistencies away by admitting into the text unauthoritative books or passages, it has given up its main thesis, namely that the whole text is inspired, and inspired equally. The policy it has actually followed is one of unhappy compromise. It has presented itself to the world as at once the guardian of a body of revealed, consistent, and unchanging truth and also the patron of disinterested scholarship. The compromise will not bear examination. The inconsistencies can be removed only by an exegesis so violent as to throw the whole canon into uncertainty. And having committed itself before modern scholarship began to the acceptance of the entire Bible, Rome can grant its inquirers only a freedom so cramped and hedged that many of its ablest scholars have withdrawn or been excommunicated.

The confinement of inerrancy to faith and morals

(4) Sometimes a fourth method is proposed for dealing with apparent errors. It is suggested that the inerrancy of Scripture is limited in the same way as the church's infallibility, that it does not extend to the geology of Genesis or the precarious history of Chronicles, but invests only those statements that pronounce on faith or morals. There are many persons who would accept unperturbed an exposure of inconsistencies in reports about the height of pillars or in genealogical tables; they would say that they do not read the Bible for information on secular matters, but to gain instruction in the spiritual life. The book is not a textbook of science or history; it is primarily a revelation of the divine mind and will, and secondarily a treasury of suggestions on how to live. So long as its guidance on these vital matters is unimpeached, one may cavil about its science or history to one's heart's content.

Now, however appealing this view may be, it is not open to Catholics. The three great councils of modern times, one at Trent and two at Rome, all insisted on the acceptance of the Biblical books in toto, ‘with all their parts’. Pope after modern Pope has taken the same line, even more urgently and explicitly. When Leo XIII said, ‘it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred,’ he did not say ‘erred in faith or morals’; he said ‘erred’ without qualification. Benedict XV, in Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), affirmed as ‘common to all the sacred writers, that they in writing followed the Spirit of God, so that God is to be considered the principal cause of the whole sense and of all the judgments of Scripture’. Pius X in Lamentabili Sane Exitu (1907) condemned as false the statement that ‘since in the deposit of faith only revealed truths are contained, under no respect does it appertain to the Church to pass judgement concerning the assertions of human sciences’. These popes were writing as heads of the church and specifying what the faithful were to believe, and they were trying to write unambiguously. Catholics who hesitate before the vast mass of statements which the church compels them to take as errorless have often attempted to wrest themselves free, but it is difficult to see any valid line of escape. They may say that even if such pronouncements, since formally made on matters of faith, should be accepted as inerrant, it is only the pronouncements themselves that are inerrant, not the books that they pronounce inerrant. But this is incoherent. If the statement that the books are inerrant is itself infallibly true, then the books are inerrant; to admit that they were not would be to impugn as false the statement that has just been offered as true and infallibly true. Troubled Catholics may hold, again, that the Papal pronouncements, though they concern matters of faith and appear in official decrees, are not infallible in the full and technical sense. Indeed this might be argued about any decree ever issued; the Papacy is not accustomed to adding footnotes to its decrees saying ‘here infallibility begins’ and ‘here it ceases’. But I do not suppose there is a bishop in the Catholic world who would not take such encyclicals as those just cited as binding on all the faithful. And in the light of them, the Catholic is not at liberty to believe that Biblical inerrancy extends to faith and morals only.

Suppose, however, that he made out a case to his own satisfaction that it was so confined; would he be intellectually in the clear? He need then no longer feel that his faith was threatened if he uncovered misstatements about ancient pillars or half-legendary kings. But he would still be mistaken if he thought that, having contracted the compass of inerrancy, he would be left with consistency within the narrower pale. For the plain fact is, unpalatable as it may be to both Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant, that the Scripture does not present, and does not claim to present, a body of consistent teaching even in faith and morals. We do no service to the Bible by making claims for it that it would not make for itself. Enough can be said about the great book to make this sort of defence needless. There are many notes, indeed, of thanks and praise that we can sound in all sincerity about the Bible. It has been a great storehouse of materials on which men have drawn through the centuries to express their aspiration, worship, prayer, and self-admonition. It is replete with beauty. It is a mirror of the interior life of a religiously gifted people. Its tales and allegories, its psalms, its parables, its meditations on good and evil, the profound seriousness with which it takes the moral life, the set of priceless biographies in which it has sketched the most influential single life that has yet been lived—these things and many more give it a unique position among the books of the world. One thing it is not. It is not a magazine of veritates delapsae, of equally errorless truths dropped down on us from heaven.

Take a single important example which will serve for the fields of both faith and morals, the character attributed to Deity. On this matter liberal scholars would agree that we have in the Bible the record of a long, slow advance, both religious and moral, from something like primitive savagery to the Sermon on the Mount, an advance which gives colour to Feuerbach's thesis that man has created and re-created God in his own evolving image. If one takes the discrepant ideas of God in the Old and New Testaments as reflecting the changes in man's own conception of goodness, his evolving theologies fall into place along the line of ascent. But if one ‘accepts and venerates’, with the Roman church, ‘all the books of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both, with equal piety and reverence,’ one is committed to chaos. The point is too important to be dealt with in an evasive way. The fact cannot be blinked that at the lower end of the Biblical scale is a God who is described as doing things that would strain the standards of a Nazi prison camp. He orders Saul, in attacking Amalek, to ‘slay both man and woman, child and suckling’;he kills thousands in a pestilence; he commands in the case of a wrongdoer that ‘thou shalt not pity him, but shalt require life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth’; he approves slavery; he takes as a ‘man after God's own heart’ a king whom it is impossible to acquit of lying, adultery, treachery, and murder. At the other end of the scale, in the New Testament, he is represented as a being of infinite tenderness who is concerned over the fall of a sparrow, who asks that we forgive seventy times seven, who disapproves not only of violence and adultery but of the harbouring of anger and lust in the secret places of the heart. ‘Look upon this picture and upon this,’ and then recall the official injunction to accept all parts of the Biblical record as errorless and equally to be venerated. Is it an injunction that can be obeyed?

The inconsistency of the position may be brought out in another way. If there is any part of the Bible to which the Catholic would be inclined to attach pre-eminent authority, it would be the recorded words of Jesus himself. But it is clear that Jesus himself did not accept the view of the Old Testament writings which the church regards as mandatory. Their prescriptions were repeatedly cited to him as a challenge, and repeatedly he set them aside when he conceived that they stood in the way of his gospel of love and forgiveness. ‘Ye have heard it said by them of old time, but I say unto you…’. If the church takes such sayings with their obvious meaning, it faces a curious alternative. It may recognise that the attitude of its founder conflicts with its own, and in deference to his authority abandon its doctrine that all parts of Scripture are to be revered and accepted equally. Or, taking as its base its own account of what is essential to Christianity, it may conclude that the founder of Christianity was not himself a Christian. This line has sometimes been taken, but it is plainly not open to a Catholic. Indeed the church, at whatever cost of consistency, has flatly rejected both horns.


Suppose, however, that a consistent body of Scriptural teaching were at last achieved. Suppose that by identifying some passages as quotations merely, others as metaphorical, others as interpolations, by contracting the scope of revelation to faith and morals, and by using adroitly the extensive armoury of Catholic apologetics, we could put together the pieces of the vast picture puzzle, collected from many places and many centuries, into some sort of unified whole; what then? Looking at this effort in the large, we could see that we should still be committed to a strange and improbable hypothesis. For our hypothesis would then be that a Deity who desired to communicate the truth to his creatures, and who possessed all the means of doing so, chose to bury that truth beneath such layers of obscurity, ambiguity, and apparent contradiction as to baffle nearly everybody. One cannot refute that theory, because it will absorb every new difficulty placed in its way as just another obstacle planted there by Deity for reasons that are in the end beyond us. It is like the scientific theory held by Edmund Gosse's father, who was a geologist of some repute, though a fundamentalist in religion and an opponent of evolution. When there came to light in deep-lying strata fossils that must have been deposited there before the date when on his reckoning the world was created, he explained them by suggesting that they had been placed there by the Creator to puzzle us, deceive us if deceivable, and so test our faith. Such a theory cannot be disproved, for it is consistent with any evidence that might be adduced against it, but for that very reason also it carries no conviction. Furthermore, a theology of this kind seems really self-defeating. For if God were what it implies that he is, if he were the kind of being who, able to vouchsafe a saving revelation to all mankind, reserved it for a small minority even of those then living, a being who, by granting it at a late stage of life on earth, cut off from it the earlier millions who might have been illumined by it, and even then chose to hide much of it under deceptive veils from those anxious to understand it, he must have a character different from that which in human beings we call good. A theology that offers itself as rational should not drive us into irrationality on the cardinal point of God's goodness.

My comment: Efforts to make the Bible look error-free are manipulative for the layperson is not likely to see through them.  Also, experts see those who "reconcile" the errors as driven by wishful thinking more than faith.  As the Bible story is more concerned with nasty stuff and brutal commands than inspiring us this wishful thinking is morally reprehensible.