Monday, August 29, 2011

Why the Pope has to be Infallible, Part 2

In my last post,  I tried to show that there were two basic positions about who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture, either (A) the Church or (B) the individual Christian, and if (A) is true, then the Church has to be infallible; otherwise one returns to the default position (B).

I think many are willing to grant that the Church is infallible.  I would have accepted that proposition in theory even as a Protestant.  However, I would have held it in a form something like this:

(C) The Church is infallible, but the voice of the Church is not to be identified with any of her ministers, bodies or representatives.

It follows from a position like this that no Pope, Bishop, theologian, council, synod, etc. can be identified as speaking for the Church.

While (C) may seem like an attractive, even commonsensical position to hold, ultimately it means that one can never know what the Church actually teaches, because you can’t know for sure who speaks for the Church.  Thus, the infallibility of the Church is gutted of all practical consequence, because one has no certain epistemological access to that infallibility.  One returns, then, to the default position (B): everyone is on their own.

So if the infallibility of the Church is to mean anything practical at all, we need to affirm not (C).  Not (C) would be something like the following:

Not (C): The Church is infallible, and the voice of the Church can at least sometimes be identified with at least one of her ministers, bodies, representatives.

Then the question becomes, Who are the ministers, bodies, representatives, etc. with whom the voice of the Church may be identified?

Each Christian?  Clearly not, individuals vary too much in spiritual insight, sound doctrine, etc.

Each local Pastor?  Clearly not, same reasons.

Each Bishop?  No, even bishops have become heretical.

Each Archbishop?  No, same reason.

Each local council?  No, even local councils have erred.

An Ecumenical (Church-wide) Council? 

Here the buck stops.  What can be higher than a universal council of the Church?  If the Church is not infallible even at this level, than it is not infallible at all, and we are back to (B), every believer for himself.

So, we arrive here at a position that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox both hold: ecumenical councils are infallible.

It is actually a minimal position.  In a sense, it is the smallest identification of the voice of the Church that still allows the Church’s voice to be objectively identified, not simply a theoretical construct.

It is a position that requires faith, but a faith that is necessary to avoid the theological relativism and subjectivism of (B), every believer for himself.

Is it enough?  I will try to address that question in my next post.


Keen Reader said...

As a Protestant I have not the slightest difficulty with infallible Ecumenical Councils. It's an infallible pope I ahve difficulty with. Seems to be that you should be addressing the subject of the title of your post.

John Bergsma said...

So as a Protestant you accept the Books of Maccabees as canonical, as defined by the Ecumenical Council of Florence 1441?

Keen Reader said...

No, obviously nothing after the East-West split can be considered an Ecumenical Council in the true sense.

Unknown said...

I am in the process of converting to Catholicism (through RCIA), after being Evangelical for over 30 years. I can accept the logic presented here and the previous article about the Church being the infallible interpreter of scripture. I can also accept Papal infallibility. However, is the line of reasoning presented in this article (although I agree with it) actually moving the problem of "infallibility" just further along the chain? What I mean is, even when accepting the infallibility of the Church, ecumenical councils, and Pope, I find that I, as an "individual Christian", still have to understand what the Church/council/Pope is saying. Sometimes this is more difficult than understanding what scripture was saying in the first place!

In other words, what's the difference in the "individual Christian" interpreting scripture's statements, and the "individual Christian" interpreting the Church's statements? Is not the individual Christian left with the same problem, even if it may be reduced somewhat?

Keen Reader said...

"However, is the line of reasoning presented in this article (although I agree with it) actually moving the problem of "infallibility" just further along the chain?"

That's how it seems to me.

"What I mean is, even when accepting the infallibility of the Church, ecumenical councils, and Pope, I find that I, as an "individual Christian", still have to understand what the Church/council/Pope is saying. Sometimes this is more difficult than understanding what scripture was saying in the first place!"


Emil Anton said...

I was surprised to find two articles in response to me (indirectly though), good job, John, appreciate it!

Content-wise, unfortunately nothing new, no progress, not convinced. I will post an answer in a blog post that I will then link here.

John Bergsma said...

@Dr. Evangelicus: The Council of Florence poses an interesting case, because it had representation from East and West, and the Eastern fathers affirmed the council's decisions. The Catholic Church recognizes it as an Ecumenical Council. It established the reunion of East and West. However, the council was rejected by the Eastern laity, who did not want to be reunited with the rest of the Church. That raises an interesting ecclesiological problem: can the laity do that? Reject an ecumenical council?

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for the comments, and reading the blog, everyone. I'm not done with the posts on this topic. I don't have much time to blog--that's why I've been doing little bits at a time. What I've done so far is necessary prolegomena, at least in my own mind. I hope to address some of the issues that have been raised in one or more further posts.

BlueWhiteLion said...

Random thoughts from a non-Catholic who holds to the authoritativeness of scripture:

--the Holy Spirit illumines and guides into all truth
--He can give us all understanding and insight and wisdom.
--he can do this through various ways: scripture (at least the OT and NT . . .not yet sure about Apocrypha), other Christians, experiences, visions.
--scripture acknowledges the apostolic foundation of the church and her teaching.
--scripture acknowledges the role of teachers (and others, thinking of Eph 4, e.g.), which leads me to believe some are "better" at it, gifted to teach and interpret.
--Peter is prime example of a teacher, preacher, and apostle. However, even he deviated, at times: Matthew 16 (rock AND a stumbling block . . . ) and post resurrection, allowed his actions to besmirch the good news of grace.
--that makes me wary of naming ANYONE as infallible.
--at the same time, I want/need an anchor. So I turn to the text as my anchor, and weigh any teaching against it.
--that raises issues of hermeneutics and epistemology, far above my pay grade. However some things seem clear (ie, Jesus is Lord and resurrected. By faith through grace we are saved. Other things are less clear: the mechanics of "saved by grace through faith", or about the nature of Original Sin (Augustine vs. Iranaeus . . . depending on what Iranaeus you may read . . .).
--I like what the Catholic church says is a great structure for keeping the deposit of truth--ie, the Magisterium, the Pope, etc.
--I don't like/agree with some of their decisions (immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, etc., which in part seems to go contrary to scripture, or at least make a dogma out of something that is not clear, or perhaps seems to be contradicted in scripture (Jesus having no brothers, only cousins)
--the claims of the Easter Church that Catholic theology seems to "add", is both at once a fair critique, and yet overblown at times. But the East DOES seem to "stick to their guns" and not deviate as much . . .
--I notice what seems like occasional powerplays (partly what led to the East/West split, which makes me not sure about giving carte-blanche to ANY church teacher/council, as they may be acting in a manner inconistent with Scripture, a la Peter, above.
--Soo, who do I trust? God. I ask for wisdom, and try to determine and hold onto "clear" theology, and have a bit more room to think about "ancillary theology". I am open to "praying to saints" for their intercession, but I am not a "true believer in it . . . it is still fuzzy for me, and has danger zones. I am open to Mary's assumption, but again, not a true believer. I am open to a more sacramental view of the Eucharist (i come from a more zwinglian branch--memorial only, alhtough I have moved away from that), but I think it too much to draw lines on transubstantiation or consubstantiation and the like--I think those have been made central, when they should not be. It is not that clear in scripture.
--that last example gives me pause, however. It seems (sacramental understanding) go wayyy back, and makes me wonder about my own heritages general jettisoning of church tradition past the apostolic times. However, accepting or allowing much more weight to early church fathers does not mean to uncritically accept what they say.
--I think the two examples john gives (Church vs. individual) IS too limiting. He sees "the Church" through the eyes of the RC structure. Perhaps the HS speaks truth through teachers and leaders on different levels. I know he expresses the need to KNOW all things . . . to know for sure that a given interpretation/dogma is HS given. I'd like to, too. HOwever, I wonder what limits must be set (back to my earlier musing about "clear theology" vs. ancillary.

I'd sure like some feedback, if someone can wade through the randomness of it all.

BlueWhiteLion said...

dang. guess my comments are too late for interaction . . .

John Bergsma said...

No, I commented, but for some reason it didn't "take."

But check out my subsequent posts on this issue, which are relevant.

Thanks for reading the blog.

John Bergsma said...

@BlueWhiteLion: In my comment that didn't "take", I said I agreed with a lot of your perceptions of the issues, although obviously I end up resolving those issues in a Catholic way.

Again, check my post 2a and then at midnight tonight my post 3 on this issue will go up, and post 4 is already on the works. They will keep addressing the things you are bringing up.