Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Church, Authority, And Infallibility (Part 1): Introduction

(This will be a six-part series.)

Dave Armstrong made a lot of claims about ecclesiology in his articles responding to me earlier this year. Much of what I would say in response to those claims has already been said in my 2008 article Dave was responding to and in my articles replying to Dave earlier this year. My comments on the papacy are relevant to whether the early Christians were defining the church as Dave does, I've mentioned the lack of references to church infallibility in the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources, etc. One of my last articles in the series on apostolic succession quoted several patristic sources. Some of their comments are relevant to church infallibility as well, for example, not just apostolic succession. And some of the issues relevant to church authority and infallibility have been addressed in other articles at this blog. We've discussed Acts 15, 1 Timothy 3:15, etc. Steve Hays has addressed some of the issues in his e-book on sola scriptura. What I want to do in this series of posts is make some general observations, then discuss a few illustrations, two patristic and one medieval.

When considering issues about the church and its authority and infallibility, keep the following in mind:

- The conclusion that God should give us an infallible church needs to be demonstrated, not just assumed on the basis of personal preference or allegedly unacceptable consequences of not having an infallible church, for example. How many modern advocates of church infallibility would have governed the world as God did prior to early church history, sometimes working through patriarchs or judges, other times working through prophets or small remnants, commanding Israel to be divided into two kingdoms, allowing the religious leaders at the time of the Messiah to be so wrong about the Messianic prophecies and how they responded to the Messiah, etc.? Philosophical presuppositions play a major role in modern arguments about church infallibility, and unjustified assumptions are often made about what God supposedly should do. If He didn't govern the world as you think He should in earlier history, why think He's following your standards now?

- The concept of an infallible church can be defined in many ways. An argument for Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy in particular as the infallible church, for example, would require argumentation that leads to the specific organization in question. As I noted in my 2008 article that originated my exchange with Dave Armstrong, if Protestants are going to be asked to defend a specific canon of scripture, then those who argue for an infallible church should be expected to defend something comparably specific. What we've gotten from Dave instead, as I've documented, is a vague appeal to apple seeds or mustard seeds to justify the oak tree of Roman Catholicism. The same sort of reasoning by which he derives prayers to the dead from Revelation 5:8 or his Catholic notion of apostolic succession from Papias is what leads him to his conclusions about church infallibility.

- If church infallibility is going to be defined as church perpetuity, meaning that the church won't cease to exist, then many Protestants can be said to believe in the infallibility of the church in that sense. There are characteristics that an entity must have in order to be the church. Saying that there will always be an entity with those characteristics isn't the same as saying that the church is sure to be correct on every issue or that it has Divine guidance in the specific manner claimed by a group like Roman Catholicism. Biblical and patristic passages on the perpetuity of the church are often cited in support of church infallibility, but such a concept of infallibility can be so broad as to include many Protestant views of the church. As I documented in my series on apostolic succession earlier this year, men like Irenaeus and Tertullian believed that a core set of doctrines defined Christian orthodoxy, doctrines such as monotheism and the resurrection. They didn't include concepts like the veneration of images and the assumption of Mary. If somebody believes that there will always be a church that maintains such core doctrines, and that the church is infallible in the sense that it will always maintain those doctrines (otherwise it wouldn't be the church), then such a concept of church infallibility isn't equivalent to what a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox wants us to accept.

- We have to allow for the possibility that an early source, such as a church father, was mistaken or even inconsistent in his reasoning on the subject. For example, the patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly noted that Augustine had a concept of a visible church and a concept of an invisible church, and Kelly concluded that Augustine was inconsistent in defining the two and never fully reconciled the two concepts (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Continuum, 2003], pp. 416-417).

As I noted earlier with regard to Irenaeus, it's understandable why he would have thought highly of the Roman church and other churches in his day. The churches had been largely faithful to apostolic teaching to that point in time, and they had been especially faithful on the core doctrines Irenaeus was emphasizing in his disputes with the Gnostics and other heretics. But, as I documented, people writing shortly after Irenaeus (Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.) began noting some significant problems with some of the churches Irenaeus had referred to, including the Roman church in particular, even on matters they considered foundational to Christianity. If somebody is anticipating the church's future status partly or entirely on the basis of its past status, but we know from later church history that its status significantly changed over time, then we have to take that later history into account. If somebody like Irenaeus hasn't experienced the Arian lapse, the rise of the veneration of images, or some other widespread contradiction of his theology that would occur in future generations, then his judgment might be distorted by what he had experienced. Maybe his judgment wasn't distorted, and maybe he was allowing for the possibility of such widespread errors in the future (or would accept those later beliefs as corrections of his own beliefs), but we have to consider the possibility that he made a misjudgment based on his own experience. We can't just assume, without evidence, that every church father who commented on a subject related to church authority or infallibility agreed on the subject and was passing down what had always been believed. We have to allow for the possibility of diversity of belief and the possibility that other factors influenced what these sources believed, as historians do when considering the history of other ideas as well. Just as we today can reach some false conclusions based on personal experience, the popular ideas of the culture of our age, or some other factor, so could the church fathers and other people who lived in earlier times.

- We know that different patristic sources defined the church in significantly different ways, as I've documented in some of my earlier responses to Dave. The papacy, a foundational ecclesiological issue that separates Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and other groups to this day, is an example. Robert Lee Williams writes:

"Irenaeus, in attacking Gnostic claims to spiritual, but not episcopal, authority, assumed the orthodoxy of bishops in Rome (Haer. 3.3.3). In the Refutation (9.12.15), however, the author [often thought to be Hippolytus] was confronted with [the Roman bishop] Callistus's claim to episcopal authority without doctrinal orthodoxy. Appraising this situation, he declares that Callistus only 'supposed' that he had episcopal authority. In fact, he was 'an imposter and knave' with his 'strange opinions.' The decade preceding the writing of the Chronicle [of Julius Africanus] found presbyter-bishops in significant debate over acceptable beliefs for both 'faith' and 'life.'" (Bishop Lists [Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005], p. 175)

As J.N.D. Kelly notes (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Continuum, 2003], p. 412), Augustine's dispute with the Donatists over their appeal to Cyprian represents three different ecclesiologies. Not only did Augustine and the Donatists define the church differently, but so did Cyprian. He partially agreed and partially disagreed with both sides of the dispute, which is why both Augustine and the Donatists appealed to him.

- Church infallibility is considered an issue of major importance to Protestants because groups like Catholicism and Orthodoxy are so different than Protestantism. If a Protestant were to accept the infallibility claims of Catholicism, for example, then he would have to make many changes in faith and practice. But what if we were to conclude that there's an infallible church like the church referred to by Irenaeus and Tertullian, for instance? What if the church is to always be correct on core doctrines like monotheism and the resurrection, but can err on other matters? The fact that so much is at stake in the dispute between Protestants and Catholics doesn't prove that every concept of church infallibility would have such significant implications for a Protestant.

- What's said of the church, or a church, is often said of other entities in other places in scripture or elsewhere in the church fathers. The fact that the church has a role like upholding the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) doesn't imply that it's infallible in that role, much less that it's infallible in the specific manner claimed by a group such as Catholicism or Orthodoxy. The Israelites had a role as God's witnesses (Isaiah 43:10), every believer has a role as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14), the state has a role as a minister of God (Romans 13:4), etc., yet we don't conclude that they're infallible in those roles in a way similar to how the Roman Catholic Church claims to be infallible.

Not only do Catholics and other advocates of church infallibility not apply their reasoning consistently to these other entities, but they aren't even consistent in applying their reasoning to the church. In scripture and elsewhere, believers are often referred to as members of the body of Christ, yet a group like Catholicism will define church infallibility in such a way that it involves the actions of a particular church leader or group of church leaders acting without the approval, even without the knowledge, of believers in general. Why should references to the church in scripture and other sources be thought to be referring to the hierarchy of a particular denomination, but not to believers in general or even church leaders in general?

Often, a passage like Matthew 28:20 will be cited in support of church infallibility, as if the concept is implied by Jesus' promise to be with His disciples. But no such interpretation is applied to God's promise to be with Israel (Isaiah 43:1-7) or His promise to be with all believers (Hebrews 13:5). How do we get from Jesus' promise to be with His original disciples to the conclusion that Roman Catholic clergymen are infallible under the specific circumstances in which they claim to be infallible? When Catholics cite the keys of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, do they apply the same sort of reasoning to other Biblical passages about keys (Isaiah 22:22, Matthew 23:13, Luke 11:52, Revelation 9:1, etc.)? The same Catholic who sees so much significance in Peter's "strengthening the brethren" in Luke 22:32 doesn't see as much significance in other passages in which other people "strengthen the brethren" (Acts 14:22, 15:32, Romans 16:25). When God promised that Israel would never be destroyed (Jeremiah 30:11, 31:35-37), was that promise kept by means of an organization like Roman Catholicism? What if God's promise that His name would be in Jerusalem forever (2 Chronicles 33:4) had been said of Rome? What would Catholics make of such a promise? Ask yourself whether Catholics are being consistent in their interpretations.

- If an advocate of church infallibility is going to claim that his group is infallible and has existed throughout church history, then we ought to ask whether early sources like the church fathers interpreted scripture the same way that modern advocate of church infallibility does. For example, as the Eastern Orthodox patristic scholar John McGuckin notes regarding one of the most commonly cited passages on church authority:

"It is often said that the meeting of the apostles (Acts 15) to discuss whether circumcision was required of Gentile converts was the primary model of the church's practice of leaders' meetings for debate and resolution of problems, but the example of the 'Council of Jerusalem' is not alluded to in patristic writing until the fifth century. It is more likely that the Hellenistic world (organized as a chain of cities in dependence on the emperor) provided a ready example of the necessity of provincial leaders to establish common policies by meetings of town councils and occasions when delegates could represent the town to the provincial governor concerning regular fiscal and political affairs." (The Westminster Handbook To Patristic Theology [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], p. 77)

Similarly, if a church father says that the words applied to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19 can be applied to all Christians (Origen, Commentary On Matthew, 12:10-11) or that passages like Titus 1:5-7 equate presbyters and bishops before the later rise of the monepiskopos, for example, then modern arguments about the church have to be weighed in light of such interpretations. It's not enough to cite what a source said in one place, in support or apparent support of a high church ecclesiology, while ignoring qualifications he added elsewhere. A church father who speaks highly of Peter, bishops, councils, or the church in general at one point may add significant qualifications at another point. Those qualifications may contradict the interpretation an advocate of high church ecclesiology wants to read into the first passage.


  1. Uh... Look! Over there! Henry VIII had six wives!

    Ergo, the Catholic Church is infallible.

  2. Tom, you have pretty effectively described the method of argumentation that some Catholics base their lives upon.