As we saw in Chapter 8, Jesus taught the Church to read the Old Testament with the assurance that Scripture had a literal sense, but also more than literal senses. These other “senses of Scripture” are the
- allegorical (which points to him, as the manna in the wilderness points to Jesus the Bread of Life);
- moral (which teaches us to imitate him). So, for instance, the temple in Jerusalem becomes an image of the body—the temple of the Holy Spirit—which we are not to defile with sins such as lust or gluttony;
- and the anagogical. This sense refers to our destiny in Christ. So, for instance, the city of Jerusalem becomes an image of the Communion of Saints in glory on the Last Day as the seer tells us, “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).
The reason Jesus taught this is summed up in this line of the Creed. The faith of the Church has always been that the Scriptures are not mere human documents but are “the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). As Paul sums it up: “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
For the authors of the New Testament, “the prophets” refers not only to people like the prophet Isaiah or the prophet Jeremiah, but to every author and editor involved in the composition of the Old Testament, known and unknown. Every single book of the Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit. And as the Church leaves the apostolic period, the same faith in inspiration is accorded to the words of the apostles to whom Jesus said, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). So the apostles, sent by Jesus the Word incarnate, believed—and taught the Church to believe—that the word they preached and wrote should be received “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
This insistence that the Holy Spirit is speaking “through the prophets”—that is, through the inspired Scriptures—has a number of fascinating implications.
The first is that God himself is the Primary Author of Scripture. In other words, if you want to hear God, you do not require an altered state of consciousness, or the performance of seven Herculean feats, or a pilgrimage to Tibet. You just need to listen to the Bible in union with the Church that gave it to us, because the same Holy Spirit who is the soul of the Church is also the God who speaks to us through the inspired writers.
The second thing to note is that this does not mean God “dictated” the Scriptures to the inspired writers. On the contrary, just as the Word made flesh is fully divine and fully human, so the word made book is fully divine and human. The Spirit frees; he does not enslave or dominate. And so the Church insists that “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”
The third and most important thing to note is that, as the Catechism tells us (paragraph 102): “Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely.” The same Spirit who spoke the Word into the womb of Mary so that he became flesh, spoke the Word through the words of the inspired authors. All they say testifies to him.
Because the Holy Spirit is the true Author of Scripture, it therefore follows that “the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”
It is vital to understand here what “inerrancy” means, because millions of people misunderstand the idea and read the Bible with a flat-footed literalism the writers themselves never intended. Yes, to be sure, some parts of Scripture are giving you plain facts. So when Matthew tells you, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King” (Matthew 2:1), he means just that and what he says is true. But when Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11) or “I am the true vine” (John 15:1), the inerrancy of Scripture is not in ruins when we discover that there was not literally a man with a prodigal son and his resentful older brother, nor that Jesus is not literally a grape plant. We understand that people can have a clear meaning which they express with figures of speech or stories.
That is a tiny taste of the complex way language works—and scriptural language is vastly more complex. So it is vital to understand that to get at the full meaning of Scripture we have to understand (1) what the biblical author is trying to assert, (2) the way he is trying to assert it, and (3) what is incidental to the assertion.
This means that we must understand, as best we can, both what the human authors are trying to assert and what the Holy Spirit, speaking through the human authors, is saying. For, of course, it is the peculiar glory of a prophet that, supreme among human beings, they themselves do not fully comprehend what they are talking about (cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21) precisely because the Spirit truly spoke through them, readying both them and the world for a revelation which neither they, nor the world, could have anticipated. When it did come, even those who ate and drank with the Revelation and met him on the Emmaus Road after his Death and Resurrection still did not understand, any more than the prophets, what the words of the prophets had ultimately meant. The Revelation himself, crucified and risen, had to open their eyes, in the breaking of the bread so that they—and we—could finally drink of the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10).
 Dei Verbum 11, November 18, 1965. Available on-line at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html as of October 4, 2019.