Steve Hays and I have been involved in an e-mail discussion with another person about some arguments against sola scriptura and for an infallible church. The discussion has primarily been about the claim that one of the arguments for the Protestant New Testament canon could also be used to support church infallibility. Supposedly, just as the patristic support for the canon suggests the apostolicity of that canon, so also the patristic support for church infallibility suggests the apostolicity of that concept.
What's below is most of the text of two e-mails I wrote on these issues, one yesterday and the other today. I divided my responses into twenty sections. The first fourteen are from yesterday's e-mail, and the last six are from an e-mail written today, after I read an article by A.N.S. Lane that this person recommended.
1. Though you asked about external evidence and referred to what the church fathers believed about the church, we also have internal evidence and other forms of external evidence for the canon. Even if the canon and church infallibility had comparable external evidence from the fathers, or church infallibility had better evidence in that category, we would have to take the other categories of evidence into account as well.
2. If some fathers refer to a form of church infallibility or contradict sola scriptura in some other way, it doesn't follow that all such beliefs should be categorized together in the manner you've suggested. If church father A claims that church Y is infallible, whereas church father B claims that church Z is infallible, then there is no single church that those two fathers are pointing to as infallible. If five alternatives to sola scriptura are offered by the patristic Christians, but none of the five have support comparable to the support we see for the Protestant canon, then what does it prove to compare the support for five different alternatives combined to the support for our canon? As you said in your first letter, the testimony for an infallible church could be ambiguous, such as by not allowing us to discern which church is infallible.
3. My position is that we do see a variety of rules of faith among the patristic Christians. Sola scriptura is sometimes advocated, and it's sometimes contradicted. However, the alternatives to sola scriptura that are offered are different from and contradictory to one another.
4. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy aren't the only candidates for church infallibility in this context. Why couldn't the infallible church include some or all Catholic and Orthodox churches, but also include others, such as Protestant churches? Or, if it's to be argued that each church must have a succession of bishops going back to the apostles (a conclusion that must be argued, not just assumed), why not include Oriental Orthodox and Anglicans as well, for example, not just Catholicism and Orthodoxy? Why couldn't the infallible church be something other than Catholicism or Orthodoxy or something that goes beyond those two groups?
5. If we were to conclude that there's an infallible church, a third option (something other than Catholicism or Orthodoxy) would not only be possible, but would also be more likely. The earliest sources, like Irenaeus, don't define the church as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. The doctrines the earliest sources describe as held by the apostolic churches are ones that are held by Protestants as well (monotheism, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc.), and they argue for some doctrines that contradict what Catholicism and Orthodoxy believe. We know that the churches of Irenaeus' day disagreed on some issues (eschatology, the celebration of Easter, etc.). Irenaeus and other sources tell us so. Whatever rhetoric Irenaeus may use to the contrary at times, hyperbolically or carelessly or with a more limited context in mind perhaps, he didn't believe that every church agreed on every issue. If we were to look for an infallible church with the beliefs Irenaeus outlines when discussing the beliefs held in common by the churches (monotheism, the resurrection, etc.), we wouldn't limit ourselves to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It's commonly assumed that Catholicism and Orthodoxy would be our only options if we were to conclude that there's an infallible church. Not only is that assumption not true, but it's also not true that Catholicism or Orthodoxy would even be the best option among others. If we're going to use people like Irenaeus as our standard, then we need to look for an infallible church that's much broader than merely Catholicism or Orthodoxy or the two combined.
6. I've read everything Irenaeus wrote, and I'm not familiar with any affirmation of church infallibility in his writings. Steve is correct in differentiating between infallibility and inerrancy, and other distinctions could be made. Irenaeus does refer to the current reliability of the apostolic churches. But he gives reasons for their reliability that could change with the passing of time. The historical proximity of the bishops of his day to the time of the apostles isn't applicable to the bishops of our day. The fact that the churches of Rome and Ephesus had been faithful to apostolic teaching until the time of Irenaeus doesn't prove that they would be faithful fifty, five hundred, or five thousand years later as well. Since Irenaeus cites the Roman church as the primary example of a reliable apostolic church in his day, would Eastern Orthodox maintain that the church of Rome should be our primary standard today? How often do you see Roman Catholics appealing to the churches of Ephesus and Smyrna in the manner Irenaeus does? How many Catholic and Orthodox bishops have met the moral and doctrinal requirements that Irenaeus says bishops must meet? When Irenaeus says that all apostolic teaching is known to every church and is available to the public, are we to conclude that concepts like praying to the deceased, the veneration of images, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the papacy were accepted by all of the churches and known to the public? Catholics and Orthodox can cite some agreements they have with Irenaeus' view of the church, but they also disagree with him on some points and would add qualifications to Irenaeus' comments that Irenaeus himself doesn't include.
7. You refer to Irenaeus' view of "the current church". How would you get from the reliability of the church of Irenaeus' day to the conclusion that the church will be infallible throughout church history?
8. Prior to Irenaeus' comments, Papias' search for apostolic tradition leads him to consulting eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles, without any reference to an infallible source of such information in the church. Justin Martyr and Trypho discuss some of the New Testament documents, and Justin discusses the church to some extent (what happens during baptism, the eucharist, etc.), but church infallibility has no role in his argumentation or that of his Jewish and Gentile opponents. Though they often criticize the New Testament documents as sources of Christian authority, I'm not familiar with any reference to church infallibility among the earliest enemies of Christianity. Men like Trypho and Celsus comment on the Biblical documents, but they say nothing of a Pope, infallible councils, or church infallibility in general. Hegesippus' comments on the corruption of the church (Eusebius, Church History, 3:32, 4:22) wouldn't lead one to conclude that he held a view of church infallibility like what's advocated by Catholics and Orthodox today. Even long after the time of Irenaeus, we find sources like Augustine making comments about church authority that are inconsistent with a Catholic or Orthodox view (On Baptism, Against The Donatists, 2:2-4). It's not as if all high views of church authority or all forms of belief in an infallible church are equivalent to a Catholic or Orthodox view on the subject. I see no reason to assume that the views of somebody like Irenaeus were equivalent to those of Catholics or Orthodox, I don't see any reason to think that his views would naturally develop into a Catholic view or an Orthodox view, and I see no reason to assume that men like Papias and Augustine agreed with Irenaeus' view. Some elements of Irenaeus' view were popular among patristic Christians, but I see no reason to conclude that his view of church reliability (which isn't the same as infallibility) was as widespread as acceptance of the Protestant canon.
9. We have many lines of evidence for the widespread acceptance of the books of the Protestant canon, such as Eusebius' comments about the degree of acceptance of the books among the churches. Where's the comparable evidence for the degree of acceptance of belief in an infallible church? In my experience, advocates of an infallible church tend to group together a variety of patristic affirmations about different subjects (church reliability, the evidential value of apostolic succession, etc.), act as if all such comments are equivalent to belief in the infallibility of a single church that we today can identify, and assign belief in that church's infallibility to the patristic Christians in general. In contrast to the dubious steps in that form of argumentation, we have many detailed accounts of the widespread acceptance of the 27 books that Protestants accept in their canon. When patristic sources refer to the gospel of Matthew or the second epistle of Peter, we have detailed knowledge of what they're referring to. When Eusebius, Jerome, or some other source comments on how widely accepted such a document is, we're being given a relatively specific assessment of the acceptance of a specific document. A reference to the church isn't as specific. Irenaeus, Cyprian, and John Chrysostom may all refer to the church, but have three different definitions in mind. However, if all three refer to the gospel of Matthew, we can be confident that they're referring to the same document and that we possess it today. Any argument for widespread belief in church infallibility would have to involve more than just vague references to "the church", "apostolic succession", the evidential value of agreeing with what Christians have historically believed, etc. In other words, in my experience, Protestants are citing highly specific and convincing evidence for a highly specific conclusion, whereas advocates of church infallibility are being much more vague in their argumentation and conclusions. The gap between the patristic data and a specific system of church infallibility like Catholicism or Orthodoxy is large. The patristic evidence is too vague to lead us to the specific systems of infallibility that are popularly advocated today.
10. We're not living in the context of somebody like Papias or Irenaeus, much as we aren't living in the context of the Old Testament patriarchs or a contemporary of Moses or Jeremiah. The churches at the time of Papias or at the time of Irenaeus had some advantages that we don't have today. The evidential value of consulting a bishop of Rome in the second century doesn't lead us to the conclusion that there's just as much evidential value, or any, in consulting a Pope today. I've said before that if I were in the position of somebody like Papias, I wouldn't adhere to sola scriptura. But we aren't in his position. We're in a much different position. If sola scriptura had been widely or universally rejected early on, it wouldn't follow that it couldn't be appropriate later, under different circumstances.
11. The ecumenical councils are the most popularly accepted examples of an exercise of alleged church infallibility. Yet, there have been many disagreements, and continue to be many, regarding which councils are ecumenical and which portions of the ecumenical councils are to be accepted. Councils like Nicaea and First Constantinople helped in sorting through some controversial issues, and those councils were eventually widely accepted, but they were also widely rejected for a while. While heretics and the many branches of what we call orthodoxy widely agreed about scripture, there was no comparable agreement about a system of church infallibility. The Arians would reject anti-Arian councils, and the anti-Arians would reject Arian councils, but neither side would reject the gospel of Matthew or Paul's epistle to the Romans when such a document was cited against that side's position. It seems that Christians, heretics, and those who didn't even profess to be Christians accepted the foundational role of scripture in Christianity while widespread disputes over church authority went on for centuries and continue to this day. A Celsus, an Arius, or an Athanasius will be more concerned with scripture than with any other authority when discussing Christianity. That doesn't rule out the existence of some other infallible authority, but it does say something about the level of evidence for one type of authority as compared to another.
12. Patristic scholars, as well as other scholars, often refer to inconsistencies between church fathers and within the writings of a single father. A given church father might have held multiple views of what the Christian rule of faith ought to be. Such inconsistency is understandable when we consider the sort of transitional phases of history an individual might live through. Somebody might live part of his life during the apostolic era and part of his life after that era ends. A Christian might see the Council of Nicaea widely rejected at one point in his life, then see it widely accepted later. Etc. People often change their mind on an issue over time, upon further reflection. Augustine, for example, repeatedly acknowledges his own inconsistencies on some issues. Not only should we not assume that there was one rule of faith held by every father, but we also shouldn't assume that each father held to only one rule of faith throughout his life.
13. We have precedent for trusting a canonical consensus: Jesus and the apostles' apparent acceptance of the Jewish consensus on the Old Testament canon. That precedent doesn't rule out extra-Biblical authorities in the New Testament era, but it does add weight to the New Testament canonical consensus, weight that doesn't exist for an alleged consensus on church infallibility.
14. We already have good reason to accept the Biblical documents. If we continue to have doubts about our rejection of church infallibility, we can continue to think about that issue while continuing to follow scripture at the same time. We shouldn't think of these things in an all-or-nothing manner. Life goes on. It's not as though we have to suspend our more confident conclusions because of some other conclusions we aren't so confident about. There's good reason why Protestants, Orthodox, Catholics, and others agree about the New Testament canon, yet continue to widely disagree about other issues of authority, like church infallibility.
15. The article by A.N.S. Lane that you referenced addresses some of the issues I've discussed, but doesn't address others. He doesn't demonstrate that the view of authority that he attributes to Irenaeus and Tertullian (and others) was as widely accepted as the Protestant New Testament canon. He doesn't discuss my point about the necessity of limiting Irenaeus' comments to only some teachings, not all teachings. (The churches of Irenaeus' day agreed about many things, but not everything.) He repeatedly, in the two notes you cited (notes 29 and 30), refers to Irenaeus' comments in Against Heresies 4:26:2, but he doesn't discuss Irenaeus' comments in the sections that follow (4:26:3-5), where he says that Christians are to separate from bishops who don't meet moral and doctrinal standards. He doesn't discuss the ambiguous nature of Irenaeus' view of the reliability of the church. If some bishops can depart from the apostolic faith and are to be avoided, then the location of the church led by the Spirit can change from time to time. Even if there's to always be a church led by the Spirit, one that's always correct on the core teachings Irenaeus mentions, the location of that church can keep changing, and it isn't assured of always being correct in all of its beliefs. As I said earlier, there's a large gap between the sort of data we find in a source like Irenaeus and the systems of infallibility that are commonly advocated today by groups like Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
16. I wasn't able to find one of the passages Lane cites in note 29. He cites Against Heresies 1:1:6. The editions of Against Heresies that I've consulted have only three sections in chapter 1 of book 1. There is no section 6. In other passages he cites, it's unclear to me just what portion of the citation he has in mind or just what he thinks it proves. For example, he may be referring to the phrase "the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us" in Against Heresies 3:5:1, but it's unclear to me what "permanent among us" means. Does Irenaeus mean that there will always be people who will believe the doctrines he discusses? Does he mean that the apostolic tradition, considered in itself, will always be available? The sort of ambiguities I've discussed above remain. I don't fault A.N.S. Lane for outlining the history of Christian beliefs on issues of authority without addressing every detail that could be addressed and without agreeing with every source he cites or claiming to understand what every source meant in detail. But anybody who would cite a source like Lane's article to justify belief in some sort of infallible church, not just to address the history of Christian beliefs about authority, would have to go into much more detail than Lane does.
17. Lane says that he's discussing Irenaeus and Tertullian for "The first clear attitude to emerge on the relation between Scripture, tradition and the church" (p. 39). But earlier sources don't have to be as clear in order to have some relevance. The points I've made about sources like Papias, Justin Martyr, Hegesippus, and Celsus have to be taken into account, even though such sources don't discuss these issues in the sort of depth we find in a source like Irenaeus or Tertullian.
18. Lane's assessment of Papias is misleading in some ways. Though I disagree with Richard Bauckham on some points regarding Papias, his recent assessment in Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006) is far more detailed, documented, and accurate than Lane's.
19. Lane frequently confirms my assessment of the variety of views of authority that existed among the fathers, as well as my comments about how a single source is sometimes inconsistent with himself. See, for example, pp. 39-42 and notes 29, 41, and 49.
20. Lane alludes to another point I've made in note 29, when he comments that "But it must be remembered that Tertullian became a Montanist" and makes reference to how "the fathers could sit very loose to tradition when it suited them". In other words, as I noted in my e-mail yesterday, commitment to scripture in the patristic era was more deeply rooted and consistent than commitment to various concepts of the church and extra-Biblical tradition, as is the case in our day.