The Heresy of Limited Biblical Inerrancy

The Magisterium has repeatedly infallibly taught that the Bible is infallible in all that it asserts as true on any subject, whether faith, morals, salvation, history, or science. Now it is clear that some of the Bible’s assertions are by way of appearances, such as that the sun rises in the east, and that other assertions are figurative, not literal, such as the forbidden fruit and talking serpent of Adam and Eve. But this does not imply that any falsehood is stated on any subject.

Below are seven quotes from the Magisterium on the infallibility of Sacred Scripture. Pope Leo XIII calls this teaching “the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent….” A teaching so described must be infallible.

And yet very many Catholics, including teachers of the faith, feel free to contradict this infallible teaching, as if it were obvious that the Bible contains error. This is a very common heresy today. And no one seems to care that they themselves, or their teachers, or their peers, are asserting this grave error. In my discussions on heresy in my blog, this is the most remarkable thing, that the faithful do not care if an idea is heretical. And that is the main reason, at any time in the Church, that heresies rise up and harm souls.

The first Ecumenical Council (Nicaea) in 325 condemned the heretical teachings of Arius. But the controversy continued, and many subsequent local Council of Bishops continued to promote the error and to give authority to its adherents. It took a second Ecumenical Council (the first at Constantinople) in 381, about 56 years later, to crush this heresy and depose from authority its principle proponents. How remarkable! An Ecumenical Council condemned an idea as heresy, and yet it continued to be promoted, even by local Councils of Bishops, until a second Ecumenical Council condemned the heresy again.

Seven Words on the Inerrancy of Sacred Scripture

Whoever contradicts, denies, rejects, or obstinately doubts the total inerrancy of Sacred Scripture commits the grave sin of heresy. The rejection of Biblical inerrancy is one of the most common heresies among Catholics today. We have even reached the point where this heresy of denying total inerrancy is being taught by many persons as if the heresy were actually a doctrine of the Church.

1. Pope St. Clement I: “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit. Observe that nothing of an unjust or counterfeit character is written in them.” (Letter to the Corinthians, chap. 45).

2. Pope Leo XIII: “But it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred…. For 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 Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is 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. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican.” (Providentissimus Deus, n. 20).

3. Pope St. Pius X condemned the idea that “Divine inspiration does not extend to all of Sacred Scriptures so that it renders its parts, each and every one, free from every error.” (Lamentabili Sane, ‘Syllabus of Errors,’ n. 11).

4. Pope Benedict XV: “St. Jerome’s teaching on this point serves to confirm and illustrate what our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, declared to be the ancient and traditional belief of the Church touching the absolute immunity of Scripture from error: So far is it from being the case that error can be compatible with inspiration, that, on the contrary, it not only of its very nature precludes the presence of error, but as necessarily excludes it and forbids it as God, the Supreme Truth, necessarily cannot be the Author of error…. But although these words of our predecessor leave no room for doubt or dispute, it grieves us to find that not only men outside, but even children of the Catholic Church — nay, what is a peculiar sorrow to us, even clerics and professors of sacred learning — who in their own conceit either openly repudiate or at least attack in secret the Church’s teaching on this point…. Divine inspiration extends to every part of the Bible without the slightest exception, and that no error can occur in the inspired text….” (Spiritus Paraclitus, n. 16, 18, 21).

5. Pope Pius XII: “they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters.” (Humani Generis, n. 22).

6. Pope Pius XII: “The sacred Council of Trent ordained by solemn decree that ‘the entire books with all their parts, as they have been wont to be read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the old vulgate Latin edition, are to be held sacred and canonical.’ In our own time the Vatican Council, with the object of condemning false doctrines regarding inspiration, declared that these same books were to be regarded by the Church as sacred and canonical ‘not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author, and as such were handed down to the Church herself.’ When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the ‘entire books with all their parts’ as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as ‘obiter dicta’ and — as they contended — in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus, published on November 18 in the year 1893, justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the Divine Books by most wise precepts and rules.” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, n. 1).

7. Second Vatican Council: “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit….” (Dei Verbum, n. 11).

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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9 Responses to The Heresy of Limited Biblical Inerrancy

  1. doctormaniax says:

    I think that many scholars tend to point out that “to assert” is a very ambiguous term. I have seen people saying that not everything in the Bible is “asserted”. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council states that ““everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit….”. That may imply (to somebody, but not to me) that not everything that is written in the Bible is necessarily “asserted”, limiting inspiration to some major concepts, and accepting consequently that some details (such as the historicity of some characters and books, or the inerrancy of every single line such as genealogies etc.) fall outside this category. The fact that there are some books which proved to be unreliable on matters of history and geography in the currently received forms (such as Judith or Tobit) is shown as a proof, and I can honestly see their point. Had the authors of Dei Verbum implied that everything in the Bible is inerrant, they would have written a different formula.

    Also, the transition from the Latin Vulgate (as translated by st. Jerome) to the Nova Vulgata (currently approved by the Holy Spirit), as well as the existence of different versions such as the Septuagint or the Peshitta in use by the Eastern Churches and relying on different versions, show that the inspiration and absolute inerrancy should be explicitly reaffirmed only for the original texts, and at the same time the inerrancy in matters of faith and moral in the approved editions should be stated clearly. I suggest a possible alternative (additions in uppercase):


    • Ron Conte says:

      Your position is heretical. Inspiration extends to all the parts of Scripture on every subject. Also the spiritual level of meaning is built upon the literal/figurative level. But truth cannot be built on falsehood. If it seems as if the Bible errs on history or geography, I will believe the Bible. Historians and scientists often revise their theories.

    • doctormaniax says:

      Let me explain further my point, so that you don’t accuse me of heresy. In an answer of yours from the post “Where did Cain get his wife”, you wrote: “I don’t believe that Adam lived for over 900 years; that assertion is figurative, as are many other elements in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.”
      What I mean with my statement is that the 930 years of Adam might be figurative rather than literally true, and that this might be applied to some other details. That’s what I meant with my first point: although a symbolic/allegorical meaning is always based on the literal sense, that doesn’t mean that every single statement in the Bible is necessarily to be taken as literally as to say that Adam and Eve ate a literal fruit, or that the ages of the patriarchs are also meant literally. If you say that my position is heretical, than you are also heretical for making these statements.

      Also, it is well known that some books have very different recensions that contradict each other. For example, the Book of Judith as contained in the Latin Vulgate is quite different from the Greek recensions the Nova Vulgata is based upon, especially on issues related to the geographical and historical background. They can’t be both the same inspired book, as we don’t have the original text and the two variations openly contradict each other. The same is true for Tobit, whose Greek recensions start with two different kings (Shalmanesar in one version, Enemesar/Sargon in another), and give different geographical descriptions of Tobit’s travel. In order to account for this apparent errors and contradictions, we must re-affirm that only the original texts are infallible and inerrant in every respect, and that the approved edition is inerrant in matters of faith and morals – the apparent errors must be the result of bad copyists and translators over the past 2,000 years. This is also the position of Augustine of Hippo: “”On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand. …”

    • Ron Conte says:

      The errors you cite are only apparent error. You should have enough faith to believe the text over the criticisms of those with little faith. This assertion: “we must re-affirm that only the original texts are infallible and inerrant in every respect, and that the approved edition is inerrant in matters of faith and morals – the apparent errors must be the result of bad copyists and translators over the past 2,000 years.” is heresy. God guards Sacred Scripture so that no truths are lost. Placing the only inerrant text in the unreachable past destroys the authority of Scripture. Saying that the extant texts approved by the Church are only inerrant in faith and morals conflicts with the teaching of the Church here:
      Also, Augustine did not say what you are saying. He did not place the inerrant text solely in the past.

    • doctormaniax says:

      In all honesty, I can’t see my heresy. I never said that the present version of the Bible is errant. But it is evident that the Latin Vulgate is completely different from the Nova Vulgata, using completely different sources. One of the two is probably not as perfect as the other. You also expressed these concerns back in 2010, even accusing the current edition of the Vulgate (the so-called “Nova Vulgata”) of being omitting or altering inspired parts of Scripture, and even saying that is “protestantized”, as in this article of yours: In doing this, you were harming the Church, accusing it of introducing errors. You were also saying that we should reject the Nova Vulgata, approved by the Holy See, when Liturgiam authenticam (approved by John Paul II in 2001) clearly says that every translation of the Bible for official approval should be based on the Nova Vulgata as per LA 37. So, which is inerrant? Jerome’s version or the post-Vatican-2 version? They can’t be both inerrant as they openly contradict each other and LA states we should use the Nova Vulgata for books such as Judith and Tobit, whose Clementine Vulgate version was completely different from the current “official” version.

      Also, you didn’t explain how I cannot deny that the text can be interpreted non-literally when contrary to reason or science, when you do the same every time you interpret Genesis 1-11, denying a creation of six days or saying that Adam and Eve didn’t eat a literal fruit, or again by saying that the flood didn’t cover the entire Earth, or that the patriarchs didn’t live hundreds of years. In a few articles such as and, where you state that the inerrancy is not at the level of the literal sense, but on a figurative sense. I quote the exact sentences for a better understanding.

      “Adam did not live to be 930 years old. That number, in the first book of the Bible, is figurative — just like the number 144,000 mentioned in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. And the lineages in first part of Genesis are also somewhat figurative. Each person named might not have been the immediate descendant of his stated ancestor… Numbers are sometimes used in the Bible in a figurative manner. For example, when David fought against Goliath, his size and the size of his weapons are implausibly large. These are figurative expressions, not literal values. And when we examine the Flood of Noah, it is impossible and contrary to reason and science, if the story is entirely literal. But if the story of the Flood is a literal historical event, described in highly figurative language, it makes perfect sense.” Which is exactly what I’m saying. The Bible isn’t inerrant in its literal sense, in these cases. It is inerrant in a figurative sense. If you say this – and don’t consider you an heretic – than you can’t condemn me without condemning yourself. Please help me understand your point, as much as I’m trying to explain mine.

    • Ron Conte says:

      A lot of what you say above is fine. But you can’t (and I don’t) condemn an entire version of the Bible based on valid criticisms of translation and editing decisions. Those decisions are not inerrant, but the Bible remains inerrant. Even a poor translation retains the inerrancy of Scripture, especially since we have other version to compare and the guidance of Tradition and Magisterium to interpret.

      These assertions by you are incompatible with the dogma of biblical inerrancy:
      “The fact that there are some books which proved to be unreliable on matters of history and geography”
      “the inspiration and absolute inerrancy should be explicitly reaffirmed only for the original texts”
      “the inerrancy in matters of faith and moral in the approved editions should be stated clearly.”
      You claim that there are errors on some subjects. You permit total inerrancy only for the original texts which are not extant. And you limit inerrancy to faith and morals for the extant editions.

    • doctormaniax says:

      First of all, thanks for clarifying. Secondarily, I don’t condemn “an entire version” declaring it an heretic version. In fact, heresy would be only possible if the Scriptures were altered so much as to portray false doctrines that deny any dogma of the Church, as for the Watchtower Society version of Jehova’s witnesses, which was deliberately manipulated to deny that Jesus was the Son of God and God himself, equal to the Father, or the personality and deity of the Holy Spirit. As I said, I confirm that any Catholic edition of the Bible approved by the Holy See, in its Latin original (so, both the “Clementine Vulgate” and the “Nova Vulgata”) are inerrant in matters of faith and morals. Still, I suppose that we might both agree that a translation error on, say, the ages of the patriarchs, would not constitute a heresy, just a badly translated passage. What strikes me the most is when two versions of the Bible state different things, generally in the details.

      For example, the Church Fathers only quoted from the Septuagint, or a Latin translation of the same, until Jerome based his translation of the Holy Scriptures on the Masoretic text, changing many secondary details such as the ages of the patriarchs. In a few instances, these changes affect the interpretation of a text from a historical point of view. Just to name a few examples: both the Septuagint and its Eastern translations such as the Peshitta had longer ages for the patriarchs and included the days of Israel in Canaan to the 430 years count. Another example: In the book of Tobit, the different recensions don’t agree on the number of days separating Sennacherib’s death from Tobit’s escape after being accused of burying the dead. They’re just details, as I said, but they’re not due to the translators, they’re due to the different recensions chosen by the translators, and we know that they can’t be all correct, one of them must be in error, probably because a copyist must’ve made a mistake hundreds of years ago. That doesn’t mean that the Bible is not inerrant, but that the Magisterium must rely on the work of the Catholic scholars to improve the translations by comparison with different versions, as it happened when the Nova Vulgata was chosen. Also, as we say in Italy, “tradurre vuol dire tradire” (translating means betraying). Word plays and secondary meanings can’t be properly translated even between contemporary languages, let alone between Classic Hebrew or Greek and Latin!

      This is what bothers me. I don’t believe that the meaning of the original texts is lost. I just suppose that the right version and interpretation of the Bible aren’t necessarily present in a single recension, but they are scattered through the different recensions. Sometimes the Nova Vulgata is right, sometimes the Clementine Vulgate is better. And coming to the original texts, we’ve got the Masoretic text, 3 different variations of the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Qumran scrolls… The latter ones are a very important discovery showing how complex the issue is, as the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of Qumran agree 80% with the Septuagint against the Masoretic chosen by Jerome, most of the times with no true change to the meaning, but in a few circumstances with serious differences that prove how the Masoretic text itself has been manipulated to hide Jesus’ messiahship. It is important that the Church continue to study these discrepancies by comparison between the different recensions and the original texts, otherwise we’d get lost in a repetitive defense of texts that might one day be proven imprecise.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Heresy: “I confirm that any Catholic edition of the Bible … are inerrant in matters of faith and morals”. The Magisterium condemns this idea of limited inerrancy.
      Pope Pius XII: “they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters.” (Humani Generis, n. 22).
      No further posts by you on this subject will be accepted.

  2. Mark P. says:

    If anyone wants to see how rampant this error runs, go no further than the Catholic Answers forums. Admittedly, at times Genesis can be a difficult Book to separate the historical and literal from the figurative. Many people take the position that most of the Old Testament is filled with stories and myths trying to (what they call) “state theological truths.” In other words, they claim that Old Testament events did not actually happen, but are instead filled with “true myths” (whatever that means). Most will, however, claim that the New Testament events did occur. But then, one must make the awkward assertion that the New Covenant fulfilled and perfected, in reality, mere mythical stories from the Old Testament. What? Examples like: no flood ever occurred, but the flood stories are fulfilled by the reality of baptism. Or: the Passover and Exodus did not really happen, but the stories still prefigure the actual reality of our Lord’s Passion, the Eucharist, and connection of Israel to the Church. Any time St. Peter or St. Paul use the word “myth” in their epistles, they use it in the sense that myths are false stories. Yet many today have been convinced that God acted in history only in the sense that He supplied the Bible as an encouraging set of stories, not as actual examples of Him acting in history for the purpose of man’s salvation.

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