Inspiration of Scripture in the Catholic Tradition

This is part of a series of posts on the fundamental doctrine of Scripture within the Catholic Church.



The fundamental conviction of the Church, relying on the faith of the Apostles, is that the Scriptures, in all their parts, are “inspired” or “breathed” by God, in such a way that God can truly be said to be their author.

2 Tim. 3:16 – All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

Dei Filius 7 – These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church.

Dei Verbum 11 – For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.

The word “inspiration” is, in fact, derived from the Latin inspiratus (“breathed into”), the word with which St. Jerome translated the Greek theopneustos (“God breathed”) in 2 Timothy 3:16.
Inspiration is, then, an affirmation of Divine authorship of Scripture: “For the Sacred Scriptures contain the word of God, and—since they are inspired—really are the word of God” (Dei Verbum §24) This view of inspiration needs to be distinguished from at least three other inadequate views that have achieved popularity in modern times.

Among liberal Protestants and secular scholars of religion, the concept of inspiration, if it is employed at all, is reduced to an affirmation that the Bible, at least in parts, is inspiring, the product of human genius which enriches the lives of others, in a way similar to how one may remark of an exceptional piece of art: “That’s inspired!” This, however, may be said without affirming any supernatural participation of God.

Among other theologians, sometimes characterized as “neo-orthodox,” it has been held that the Bible is not revelation itself, but a witness to revelation. God is understood as revealing himself not through propositions but through actions, and the Scriptures record and describe the self-revelatory deeds of God in history. Such a view does not endorse God as author of Scripture, and cannot describe Scripture as “the Word of God” in a direct sense.

Other neo-orthodox theologians, among whom we may mention Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, the act of revelation or inspiration did not take place in the composition of the Scriptures themselves; however, the reading or especially the proclamation of Scripture may become the occasion for revelation to occur, which is always a direct, immediate encounter between God and the individual believer.  So the Bible is not the Word of God, but becomes an occasion for the Word of God to be experienced.  The congregation is encouraged to “listen for the Word of God,” not “listen to the Word of God.”

Both neo-orthodox views of revelation has obviously been influenced by existentialist philosophy, and ultimately reject the notion that God’s revelation of himself can be communicated with propositions. Instead, revelation is understood as experiential and non-verbal.

Neither of these “neo-orthodox” conceptions of the Scripture are able to affirm inspiration in the sense intended by the Church, in which the Bible is neither merely a witness to, nor an occasion for, the Word of God, but it truly is the Word of God.