Rule 3. We may not ascribe statements or assertions to a biblical author which lie outside his intended scope.
Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Denz. 2294 (3829-3830).
We explain this rule at the hand of the following famous examples:
Diplomats usually possess an uncanny mastery over speech. In fact, they owe their very name to this quality of careful, if not ambiguous, expression! Have you ever reflected on the infinite variety of affirmation that is at your disposal? Discussing the United Kingdom’s acceptance or rejection of the European currency, British politicians may make remarks as the following:
It should be noted how such statements contain much more than simple affirmations or negations. They express a whole range of assertion: from absolute certainty down to probability or opinion.
What happens if such statements are inspired? Could God inspire a probable statement, a doubtful remark or a mere opinion ? The answer is: yes. And: God affirms no more nor less than what is affirmed by the human authors. In other words: if the human author asserts a doubtful statement, God’s inspiration will not change the nature of the assertion. It will remain an inspired, yet doubtful remark! It is Saint Paul who provides us with a classical proof. Speaking with great indignation he says to the Corinthians:
We can follow Paul’s thought. With some vehemence he states that he baptized no one except Crispus and Gaius (statement A). It then comes to his mind that he also baptized Stephanas’ family (statement B). He ends up expressing his mind as in doubt: “I do not know whether I baptized anyone else” (statement C). It is a really human way of speaking. All three statements have to be read together, since the second and third correct the first one. Moreover, the sum total of the three statements remains a doubt. Does the fact of the text’s inspiration change this human aspect ! Does it make a dogma of each of these statements? Does it turn the doubt into a certainly? Of course it doesn’t! Paul’s basic affirmation that it does not matter how many people he baptized, because the important thing is that they were all baptized in Jesus’s name: this basic affirmation with all nuances is what he actually asserted by the Holy Spirit!
The author of Kohelet wrestles with a real problem: What is the purpose of life ? What gain has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun ? (Koh. 2,22). It is a theme repeated over and over again by the author. Life stands before him as one great question mark: “Who knows what is good for a man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow?” (Koh. 6/12). He even raises questions about life after death: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other, They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Koh. 3/19-21). The author does not succeed in finding a complete answer to his question. He affirms faith in God who will punish the wicked and reward the good (Koh 8/12; 12/1; etc), but his problem as to the ultimate purpose of this hard life of man remains!
What to make of this inspired book ? The answer is simple. God inspired a philosopher, a thinker, not to make statements but to raise questions. It was his task to make his contemporaries think, to make them realize that indeed suffering and death are -humanly speaking-insoluble riddles. It was only the revelation and redemption brought by Jesus Christ that would provide God’s solution to these problems. Here again inspiration followed the nature of the book inspired: the author meant to put his finger on a problem without providing a full solution. God inspired him to do precisely that much and nothing more.
In Gen. 1,1 – 2,4a we read about the creation of the world. The author presents us with a very schematic picture of six days. In the course of these six days God is narrated to have created all things according to the scientific picture of the universe entertained at that time: a flat earth with the dome of the sky as roof and the sun and the moon as lamps ! What did the inspired author want to affirm ? Was he teaching science ? Did he mean us to take the six-day scheme literally ? An analysis of the text makes clear that he only wanted to instruct us in the truths of faith, that God created everything, that he made all things beautiful, that he crowned human beings as kings and queens of the universe, that he wants people to worship him every seventh day. This the author wanted to affirm, and this it is, too, that God wants us to know and believe! Astronomy, science or biology were outside his scope.
Take the so-called contradictions in scripture! They certainly do exist, but not between assertions or affirmations affecting the teaching. Contradictions will be found to adhere to the accidental trappings under which the affirmation lies hidden. Gen. 1,20-28 (in the first creation story) recounts human creation as the last crowning feature of God’s creative work. Gen. 2,7 (in the second creation story) makes God begin with human beings. The contradiction concerns the image used, not the fundamental affirmation intended in both passages. that human beings rank highest among all creatures made by God
In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus states: “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho …” (Lk. 10/30).
Jesus says: “The Son of Man has no stone to lay his head on” (Matthew 8,19).
Jesus stated: “ Do not call yourself ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers and sisters. Call no man ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23,8-9).
“I tell you, do not take any oaths . . . . Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” (Matthew 5,33-37.
“Do not offer resistance to violence. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other too” (Matthew 5,38-41).
Let us proceed further by studying another text. Jesus, we are told, prayed for a whole night. Then he called certain people to himself, ‘those whom he wanted’. They were the twelve apostles, chosen to help him announce the Kingdom of God.
These were twelve men. There was not a single woman among them! On other occasions, the Congregation for Doctrine argues, Jesus showed great sensitivity to women. ‘More than once he broke with social custom in their regard. But not here. He refused to take even one woman into the apostolic team. It proves that Jesus did not want women to become leaders in his Church! By deliberately not selecting even one woman, he excluded women from priestly ordination for all time to come’.
The argument fails because it goes beyond the intended scope of Jesus’ action.
The truth is that Jesus chose twelve free, Jewish men because in the social conditions of his time that was the most practical thing for him to do. Jesus had only a limited scope: to begin the recruitment of future leaders. In no way did he intend to decide for future generations that certain categories of people should be excluded from leadership. That was clearly outside the scope of his action at that moment.
The same applies to what the New Testament says in the socalled household code passages. They suggest how people in different conditions of life should behave. Here is one typical extract:
Colossians 3,18 – 4,1; see also Ephesians 5,22 – 6,9; 1 Peter 2,18 – 3,7; 1 Timothy 6,1-2.
The scope of such passages is, obviously, to encourage Christian households to live together in harmony. Christian leaders probably copied the practice of having such lists of instructions from the Jews, who used to instruct proselytes in similar ways. The specific form the suggestions take derive partly from a new Christian perspective and partly from the standard expectations of society at the time. The intention is to guide Christian families within the specific situation of the time.
And that is also their limitation. For the catechists who taught these household codes did not address such fundamental questions as the basic equality of men and women, or the inalienable right of every slave to be a free person. That was simply outside their scope. Such basic matters are touched upon elsewhere, when Paul asserts that there is no distinction between men and women, free person or slave, Greek or Jew (Galatians 3,28; Colossians 3,11; Romans 10,12). Here the purpose is simply immediate, practical advice.
It is, therefore, entirely mistaken to claim that these household texts give inspired backing to slavery or to the subjection of women to men. But this is precisely how they have been used by theologians in the past, and how they are still being used by some fundamentalist Christians today. The mistake lies in imputing an intention to the inspired authors which they did not have.
Costly mistakes have been made by people who read Scripture superficially; who believe it is the sound of the words and not the intention of the speaker that matters; or who infer an intention into a text that was outside the scope of the biblical author.
The rule of the intended scope is closely related to the other rules:
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