Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why the Pope has to be Infallible, Part 1

In response to my post from last Sunday’s readings, Emil Anton has made some interesting interventions in the comments raising issues about papal infallibility.  So I though it might be pertinent to walk through the steps that lead to papal infallibility—at least, the ones I find convincing.

Let’s start with the question: who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture?  I start with this point, because (surprisingly) Catholic and non-Catholic expressions of Christianity are largely agreed that the interpretation of Scripture is the essence of Christian doctrine.  For example, Benedict XVI has stated that the dogmas of the Church are, in essence, nothing other than the authoritative interpretation of Scripture.  I paraphrase, but this is close to how he phrased the point.

So our concern is: How do we establish Christian doctrine?  Since Christian doctrine is, at least primarily, the true and authoritative interpretation of Scripture, that leads to the question above: who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture?

There are two possible answers: (A) The Church or (B) every individual Christian.  The Catholic Church opts for (A): the Church is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture.  All Protestants end up with (B): every individual Christian is his own final arbiter of Scripture.  However, they tend not to arrive there immediately.  Shown a stark choice between (A) and (B), many Protestants would choose (A), recognizing that (B) is absurd, a form of religious relativism, subjectivism, and solipsism.  Furthermore, certain passages of Scripture, like 2 Peter 1:20, seem to assert directly that option (B) is incorrect: “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”

Upon further reflection, however, we can see that the choice between (A) and (B) is inextricably bound up with another question, which in a way is just a rephrasing of our original question: Is the Church infallible?

If the Church is infallible (at least in matters of faith and morals), than the Church can be and must be the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture.  If the Church is not infallible, then the question arises, who can judge when the Church has made an error?  And since, if even the Church of Christ is not infallible, no other human body can claim infallibility either, the responsibility of judging the Church’s errors quickly degenerates to the default position: every individual believer must decide for themselves whether the Church has erred.  In other words, this amounts to the same thing as (B).

Therefore, if the Church is to serve as the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture, the Church must also have been gifted by God with the charism of infallibility in doctrine.

Many have seen the infallibility of the Church at least implicitly indicated in various passages of Scripture:

Matt 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.  19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matt. 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

John 16:13  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

In my view, the infallibility of the Pope develops out of the simpler and more basic doctrine of the infallibility of the Church.  I will show how in my next post.


Bob MacDonald said...

"There are two possible answers: (A) The Church or (B) every individual Christian"

Really? What about the Spirit?

It's been a long time since I read Kung's Infallible? but I suspect he has other notes than the current administration.

I doubt that the Protestant can hold to the individual as arbiter - for no scripture is of any private interpretation (1 Peter somewhere)

Keen Reader said...

The Holy Spirit through either a) the Church or b) every individual Christian. The choice remains.

Keen Reader said...

My problem is not with papal infallibility, it's with the things that have been declared infallibly.

Matthew Kennel said...

@Bob: Of course the Holy Spirit is the final arbiter of Scripture, but the Holy Spirit isn't an abstract entity; he is a living person whose presence pervades both the Christian individual and the Church as a whole (as in St. Paul's Temple theology of 1 Corinthians). To say that the Holy Spirit is the final arbiter of Scripture is still to leave us with the question, how do we know what he is saying? Which, in the end, still leaves us with the dilemma, is the Holy Spirit speaking through a) the Church, or b) the individual believer. Although, Dr. B, I think you are missing one other option, which was historically followed by Mennonites and other such Anabaptists, the idea that the Spirit speaks the proper interpretation of Scripture through the local congregation.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for reminding me of Incarnation present. You are of course correct. Then it depends on what the teaching is concerning the Church. When he says, the Spirit will lead you into all truth, does he refer to a single worldwide organization or does he refer to 2 or 3 gathered to his name where he is therefore present. So it is that you also bring up the local congregation.

It is of course clear from Scripture (Deut 6:4) that he desires us to be One as he is One. (Also John 17). This is not, however, necessarily a unity with a single human authority. Recognizing nonetheless that authority is a severe burden for anyone, but how also it can be lost in the traps of power, I can have respect for a Pastor, but not necessarily subscribe to any principle of infallibility. As an Anglican I can be happy with my three legged table.

Bruce Killian said...

Bob and Matthew,
Are you sure you have thought through your position. When the two or three can't get agreement they are to take it to the church. When Paul and Barnabus could not get agreement (and they were leasders at Antioch) They went to Peter and the apostles, then in Jerusalem. And we have the first coulcil in Jerusalem and a very important decision. It is not two or three or the local church. We do not need to be circumcised and keep the Law.
Grace and peace,

Bob MacDonald said...

Bruce, the '2 or 3 gathered' that I am thinking about is not to do with dispute resolution but with the presence with them. (There I am in their midst.)

B. Rohm said...

Permit me to look like a simpleton, but I think the issue of interpretation brings us to a more fundamental issue (Also, I think it's strange to use the very thing -- interpretations of scripture verses-- as arguments for who should interpret those verses! It seems to assume the very thing that needs to be demonstrated).

The more fundamental issue that this issue of interpretation presupposes is, "Who compiled Scripture as we know it today?" Indeed, the very authority that codified the canon had to have first read the books that now constitute our canon, and therefore interpreted them in order to THEN canonize them into the Bible's table of contents. So, the logic would seem to follow that if we submit to the Catholic Church's canon of scripture (even if it's just the New Testament, since even books of the New Testament were being contested before they were codified in 382 A.D.), we would necessarily have to submit to her interpretation; the Church's infallible choosing to include such books in the canon presupposes her ability to infallibly interpret them first to make sure they do not espouse error. Thus, if we are a Christian, submitting to the books that are canonized, at least in the New Testament common to all Christians, then why are we also not equally submitting to the same authority that interpreted those books, safeguarded by the Holy Spirit, which brought about their acceptance into what we call the Bible?

If Holy Mother Church, for example, interpreted Matthew 19 as Jesus obviating his divinity when he said to the Rich Young Man, "Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is God..." I don't think Matthew would have been preserved by the Holy Spirit through Pope Damasus to make the cut. But it's precisely because the Church did not interpret such things like Matthew 19 (and other passages amid all the other books of the Bible) to mean Jesus jettisoning his divinity that Matthew was included.

So, in closing -- and to belabor the point -- the argument looks something like this: (1) the right to canonize the books of the Bible seems to assume within that right the authority to properly interpret it; (2) it is a massive historical piece of datum that the Catholic Church determined the canon of scripture to which all Christians submit (for the sake of argument, we can just say the New Testament here if not the entire O.T. too); Conclusion: Therefore it follows that we should be submitting to the Catholic Church's interpretation of Scripture if we are going to submit to her canon.

B. Rohm

Bob MacDonald said...

My normal work is in the TNK, particularly the psalms. This is the vineyard where my Lord has assigned me and normally I stay there, hardly ever sticking up my head in the disputes that are all around us, (not our custom as Paul would say).

But I looked over into my shelves for Kung's book and did not find it - must have loaned it to someone. In his big book on Christianity, however, I did find this statement on the Pope and the Church: p 515. The text seems to imply that infallibility is exercised if the Pope speaks ex cathedra in his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians... concerning a doctrine of faith and morals ... such definitions are of themselves unalterable and are not based on the assent of the Church.

Without agreeing or disagreeing with this statement, I am curious as to what it seems to mean with respect to the working of the Spirit in the Church - and I might add also 'in the congregation' that is written of in the Psalter. I see the Church in the context and continuity of the elect from the beginning. Of particular importance is the praise of the individual in psalm 22.23 (22 English) and the praise of the חֲסִידִים, (xasidim) the covenant people who are known in the mercy as noted in psalm 149.1

Paul Rodden said...

I'm no expert, but I wouldn't read Kung as a reliable guide on anything Catholic as it's just his own reflections.

But, when the tables are turned, I often face this issue when the Catechism is questioned as being reliable, so I ask the person I'm speaking to if they've heard of Study Bibles, Lexicons, Commentaries, Topical Bibles, or the like.

If they say yes, I tell them, 'Well, our Catechism is like a combination of those, except rather than being the reflections of a single man's mind on what he thinks about the Bible, it's the unchanging revelation of Christ on Sacred Scripture, promised and guaranteed to the Church by Him in the Gospels.'

I don't know how accurate that is, but it seems to help them begin to have a paradigm shift in their thinking as they realise how much, by relying on Commentaries, etc., whether Strong, Henry, or Torrey, et al, they're simply reading the Bible through the lenses of men - and that's exactly what they accuse us of doing.

The problem is, more of the people I engage with now, reject 'the words of men' in those study aids even, and merely interpret for themselves from their favourite translation, claiming the Holy Spirit will guide them infallibly to the correct meaning. But, if I take what they say seriously, it seems the Holy Spirit, is the cause of every split and disagreement, and the group which 'wins', is simply the one that's been open to the Spirit, or prayed about it, the most. Of course both sides think they've 'won', and the Holy Spirit's on their side, and accuse their opponent's of 'grieving the Spirit'.

Maybe it's different in the States, but that's how it is over here, in England, anyway...

Matthew Kennel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Kennel said...

I am a Catholic. I don't want to be misinterpreted as advocating an Anabaptist position, I'm merely bringing it up so that Dr. Bergsma can deal with it. Our thinking, to be true to reality, has to take into account arguments from all sides (especially since those arguments, even when wrong, often contain a precious insight).

Also, when it says, "Take it to the Church." you have to realize that, the Pope is not "the Church," the Bishops are not "the Church." Remember what St. Augustine said: "I am a bishop for you; I am a Christian with you." The pope and bishops in union with him are, rather, the authentic, the authoritative interpreters of Scripture and Tradition. But tradition is not co-terminous with the Pope/Bishops. As the Catechism reminds us, "All the faithful share in understanding and handing on revealed truth. They have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and guides them into all truth." (CCC 91) This understanding, of course, is always in union with the legitimate pastors. As the next paragraph reminds us: "The whole body of the faithful. . . cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of faith (sensus fidei) on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals." This sensus fidei is part of what is being interpreted authentically by the Pope and the Bishops in union with him.

Charles P. said...

@Bob The "2 or 3 gathered" is in the context of a teaching about church discipline and disputes.

Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says:

15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Matthew 18:15-18 KJV (From

Bob MacDonald said...

In context, I suppose so - at least it's nearby. But this is 'two or three', not one person speaking ex cathedra. These words in Matthew do of course pack a lot into themselves. It is part of my task in the psalms to uncover a doctrine of the assembly. Perhaps I will live long enough for it to emerge for me.