Inspiration and the Relationship of Divine and Human Authorship

This is part of a continuing series of posts on the fundamental Catholic doctrines of Scripture.  It picks up from my last post in inspiration, only dealing now with the relationship between human and divine in the composition of Scripture. 


Divine and Human Authorship

The Catholic doctrine of inspiration is commonly understood to entail that God is the primary author of Scripture, and the sacred writer is the secondary author. Phrased differently, it is sometimes said that God is primary cause and the sacred writer the instrumental cause of Scripture.

God’s action as author is not opposed or contrary to the work of the human author. It does not diminish the human author’s freedom, personality, or responsibility for what is written. On the contrary, the activity of the Divine and human authors are cooperative and complementary, such that the Church can affirm, “whatever is asserted by the human author is asserted by the Holy Spirit” (DV 11)

The manner in which inspiration took place can be described as organic, meaning that God guided the human authors in a natural and internal way, such that he “made use of their powers and abilities” to compose “everything and only those things that he wanted,” while they remained true authors. Thus, the style of the biblical authors is distinctively their own: Ezekiel’s priestly training is clearly reflected in his scrupulous recording of dates and his extensive knowledge of liturgical law; his style is distinct from the simple boldness of Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa. Nonetheless, their words are inspired by God, and are in fact the words of God.

This organic view of inspiration is to be contrasted with a mechanical view, in which God overrides the human faculties of the inspired author, or simply dictated, audibly or mentally, the words that were to be written. Although a few portions of Scripture may have been composed in this fashion, the Church does not embrace this view for the Bible as a whole. It is true that a mechanical view of inspiration has been part of popular piety—seen, for example, in icons which portray an angel whispering in the ear of one of the evangelists—and some of the Church fathers and doctors have spoken of Scripture as “dictated by the Holy Spirit.” However, such expressions of the fathers typically were intended hyperbolically, to emphasize the truth that the Scriptures composed by the human author were so fully inspired that the resulting documents may as well have been “dictated” by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, “dictation by the Holy Spirit” is more a patristic affirmation of the complete inspiration of final form of Scripture than a description of the manner in which the Scriptures were composed.

The Extent of Inspiration

If organic describes the manner of inspiration, the term plenary describes its extent. “Plenary” means “full” or “complete”, that is, inspiration extends to all the Scriptures, in all their parts, and not limited to some parts only (DV 11). Plenary inspiration is to be contrasted with partial or limited inspiration, which would describe the views of those who, in ancient as well as modern times, would limit full inspiration only to certain portions of Scripture (such as the protocanonicals, or the New Testament) and reduce other parts (such as the deuterocanonicals, or the Old Testament) to the status of uninspired or only partially inspired. Another form of partial inspiration theory would limit inspiration only to portions of Scripture that pertain to certain topics (such as faith and morals) and withdraw it from those that that pertain to others (such as history).


The Specification of Inspiration

In addition to organic and plenary, inspiration is verbal, meaning that the inspiration of Scripture is specific to the choice of words:

For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, “except sin,”[31] so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error. (Divino Afflante §37)

Therefore, Benedict XV, expounding on the thought of St. Jerome, affirms that “inspiration extends to every phrase – and, indeed, to every single word of Scripture” (Spiritus Paraclitus §19). Verbal inspiration is to be contrasted with conceptual inspiration, the view that God merely communicated concepts to the sacred author, who was at freedom to employ whatever words he wished to communicate those concepts, without the assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such a conceptual view would introduce an unacceptable dichotomy between the divine and human nature of Scripture, and would undermine the Church’s confidence in the written Word, because should could not then trust that the concepts intended by God had been formulated adequately in human language.



Inerrancy, meaning “the quality being without error,” describes the truth of Scripture and follows inescapably from the doctrine of inspiration of Scripture. One of the most definitive statements on inerrancy was given by Pope Leo XIII: 
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 Ghost; 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)

In making this statement, Pope Leo XIII was summarizing and affirming the constant faith of the Church, expressed by the fathers and doctors. On an issue of such significance, it is best to let one of the more prominent of these speak for himself:

If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, “The author of this book is mistaken.” Rather, either the manuscript is faulty or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood it. … But in consequence of the distinctive peculiarity of the sacred writings, we are bound to receive as true whatever the canon shows to have been said by even one prophet or apostle or evangelist. Otherwise not a single page will be left for the guidance of human fallibility, if contempt for the wholesome authority of the canonical books either puts an end to that authority altogether or involves it in hopeless confusion. (St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, 11, 5)

While affirming plenary inspiration as well as full inerrancy, the popes and council fathers are also at pains to insist that care must be taken to distinguish what the human author is truly asserting, which is not always simple to determine. The manner of speech of the sacred authors needs to be understood according to its genre and its literary devices. Morever, the genres and literary devices of antiquity are not always the same as those of our own. Thus, certain hyperbolic expressions found in both Testaments might be considered erroneous if taken literalistically, but are in fact idioms characteristic of the sacred author’s own times and culture. For example:

And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:5)

The human author employs a hyperbolic idiom, and does not mean to assert that every single citizen of Jerusalem was baptized by John, which clearly was not the case (Luke 7:30).

It has become a commonplace to teach that Vatican II, in Dei Verbum, expressly limited the inerrancy of Scripture only to matters that pertain to salvation, which in practice means: faith and morals. This limitation of inerrancy was expressly excluded by Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Pius XII, as anyone may see by reading the encyclicals Providentissimus Deus, Spiritus Paraclitus, and Divino Afflante Spiritu.