Thursday, June 25, 2009

Is Church Infallibility Logically Required?

Having written this post, I'm not sure I agree with my own argument. I'm going to go ahead and post it, but I think the issue of logical necessity of Church infallibility is a much closer call than I had initially assumed it to be. Initially, I thought it unneccesary but helpful; upon re-examination, it may, in fact, be neccesary. Anyways, I invite you to read this over and let me know what you think, because I'm still sort of stewing it over in my brain:

I like Peter Kreeft. A lot. A whole lot. But one of his arguments in Fundamentals of the Faith on sola Scriptura is, in my opinion, bad. Here's the argument:

Third, sola scriptura violates the principle of causality: that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. The Church (the apostles) wrote Scripture, and the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, decided on the canon, the list of books to be declared scriptural and infallible. If Scripture is infallible, then its cause, the Church, must also be infallible.

Now I happen to agree with him that sola Scriptura is incorrect, and I also think that the role of the Magisterium and Tradition in setting the canon is a really good proof of the need for a living infallible Church in a post-apostolic age. Having an infallible Church ensures that we have an "infallible collection of infallible books," instead of what R.C. Sproul calls the Protestant Bible: a "fallible collection of infallible books."

But the argument from causality here is totally wrong, in my opinion. I think if we're going to present a comprehensive, Biblical, logical case why sola Scriptura is untenable, we need to prune the bad arguments, so they don't get in the way. This is on bad argument, in my opinion. First and foremost, the Apostles, the agents of Scripture-writing, were fallible, even after Pentecost: Galatians 2:11 stands for nothing if not that. So it's not logically required (even if it helps) for the writers or compilers of Scripture to be infallible or inspired. And an either/or situation would work fine: an inerrant compiler of Scripture would be able to choose the inspired works from the uninspired; likewise, it wouldn't take inspiration for a layperson or a church to realize that an inspired author's works are inspired. Additionally, a fallible and uninspired person could assemble an inerrant list (which is what Sproul claims that Protestants have done): logically, it's unlikely (and how would you know they're inspired?), but it's possible, which is what Kreeft seems to deny.

I'm sure Kreeft would respond to this, perhaps arguing something like:

  • The Apostles were infallible when acting in their official capacity. After all, if one of the Apostles happened to be wrong on some doctrinal issue, it would destroy the Church: could you imagine how bad it would be if, say, James started teaching something different from Peter? The flock would be dispersed instantly. Obviously, not everything they wrote was infallible: they could forget the eggs on the grocery list, etc. But everything within the scope of their Apostleship was: why should speaking be any different? Personal falliblity, official infallibility.
  • If their written preaching is infallible, why not their spoken word? Particularly when many of the Scriptures were dictated: see Romans 16:22 for a hello from Tertius (Paul's scribe). Additionally, Acts is a history: if the things said by the Apostles weren't inspired, then they're still not inspired written down (quotes in Scripture aren't automatically inspired by virtue of being in Scripture: Psalm 14:1, for example, quotes an uninspired fool).
  • Alternatively, if the Apostles could be wrong on issues of faith and morals, the only way to know what is and what is not inspired is to have an infallible Church. Otherwise, it defeats the point of infalliblity and divine inspiration. If some statements are inspired, some are not, and no one can tell the difference, it's like playing Balderdash with Scripture: the right answer is in there, but there are a lot of convincing wrong answers.
  • This latter view also has Scriptural support: Acts 15:6-7 describes the Apostles and presbyters in a big debate over whether or not circumcision is required for salvation. It seems to me unlikely that all Twelve were (initially) on the same side of the debate, because if they were all unified, I imagine most presbyters would have faithfully submitted (although maybe not: Acts 11:2 involves Peter getting in trouble for eating with the Gentiles, probably the reason for his cowardice in Galatians 2:11). It'd take sort of a hardheaded presbyter to stand up to all Twelve of them. So assuming that they were in initial disagreement, they ended with infallible and divinely inspired agreement. This seems to suggest individual Apostolic fallibility and corporate Church infallibility. By this standard, the Scriptures aren't known to be inspired just because they were written by the Apostles, but because they were confirmed by the Church (first, through Tradition; later, through the Magisterium).

Either of these views, or some combination thereof, may be true. For example, privately held beliefs of popes can still be wrong - perhaps the same was true of privately held beliefs of Apostles, and it took the Holy Spirit-inspired Council to sort it out, even while He assured that these errant views never tainted their public teaching? That would harmonize the two views.

But they don't have to be true. The Holy Spirit was able to inspire Baalam's donkey to speak infallibly (Numbers 22:28). The rest of the time, it was still a total... donkey. So while I happen to think the Church is infallible, it doesn't have to be. The real reason that this argument from causality is wrong is because we believe the Scriptures are "God-breathed," so the infallible cause leading to the inspired effect is the Holy Spirit, not the Church or the Apostles. The Apostles did err, members of the Church err, popes err, etc. The reason that papal and Church infallibility exists, and the reason the Apostolic writings were inspired and infallible (on issues of faith and morals), is because they're the instruments the Holy Spirit deigns to use. Certainly, if the Holy Spirit used random agents and in an inconsistent way, it would be harder to determine inspired or infallible statements from non-inspired or non-infallible. But those are reasons why Church infalliblity is a good idea, not why it's logically necessary.

All that said, Peter Kreeft is a brilliant thinker, and I strongly encourage you to check him out. The article I'm quoting from here is from 1988, so it's possible that I'm either misunderstanding what he's saying or that he's moved on since then. Otherwise, it's just like a good pitcher throwing an occasional wild pitch.


  1. I agree that Kreeft moves a little quickly here. But his major premise (an effect cannot be greater than its cause) is sound. And its a problem for Protestants

    (1) If a doctrine is infallible, then the body that pronounced the doctrine must have possessed the ability to act infallibly as it pronounced the doctrine.
    (2) The Church pronounced doctrines such as the canon and the nature of Christ that are infallible.
    (3) The ability to act infallibly is supernatural
    (4) Therefore, the church possessed a supernatural ability (namely, the guidance of the Holy Spirit) as it pronounced the doctrines doctrines such as the canon and the nature of Christ.

    Therefore, you can't simultaneously think that the doctrines of the canon or Christ's nature are infallible and also this central Protestant dogma: "All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both."

  2. Robert,

    My view is that, for casuality purposes, the Cause of both the individual Scriptures and the compilation of those Scripture into a set canon is the Holy Spirit. This makes sense with the basic principle that "an effect cannot be greater than its cause," since no one thinks Scripture is greater than the Holy Spirit. Under this view, the Apostles and the Church are agents of the Cause, just as Balaam's donkey was in Numbers.

    The reason I balk at Kreeft’s line of reasoning is that it sounds like he’s arguing that the effect, Scripture, can be no greater than the human agents – the Apostles, and later bishops of the Church. But the whole notion of inspiration is precisely that otherwise-errant men (or institutions, or donkeys) can be used by the Holy Spirit to do perfect things.

    Likewise, the bread and wine before consecration aren’t the cause of the Effect, the Eucharist; nor is the priest the cause of the Effect. Otherwise, we’d have to acknowledge bread, wine, or priests as coequal with Christ, right? I feel like I have to be misunderstanding something in this argument.

    As for your own argument, I’m not positive I follow the reasoning of #1. I imagine that the response is something like:
    (1) A doctrine is true before its definition.
    (2) Doctrines have been defined by bodies incapable of acting infallibly. For example, the Westminster Confession defined the Trinity (it obviously wasn’t the first, but I don’t know if that matters). Both Catholics and the PCA would certain consider the doctrine being defined to be infallible, even though neither considers the institution doing the defining to be infallible.

    In other words, it seems to me that the fallible Westminster pronounced a doctrine that was infallible. Right? Wrong?

  3. I think part of the confusion here is an ambiguity in "an effect cannot be greater than its cause". A better statement of this principle is (the central Thomist principle that) "one cannot give that which one does not have". But one can "have" things in different ways. A being could possess an ability to speak infallibility "naturally" (as the Holy Spirit does) or it could possess it "unnaturally" (that is, it could be endowed with this ability by something outside itself, like Balaam's ass).

    PCA Confession Protestants (which I reference b/c that's my background, but also b/c I think its pretty representative of conservative Protestants as a whole) believe that the Church (qua Church as opposed to the individual authors of the NT) never possessed infallibility either naturally or unnaturally as I have defined those terms. And yet PCA Confession Protestants agree that some interpretations are inspired (e.g. the doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ's nature, both of which are enunciated in the PCA’s confession), while others (e.g. unitarianism and Arianism) are heretical. On what basis is this distinction made?

    Biblical interpretation? This won't work. The Bible admits of many interpretations, none of which is self-authenticating. Who is to say that the contrary interpretation of such doctrines is heretical? The Bible cannot resolve such debates because the Bible’s ambiguity is the source of the controversy. To say that all contrary interpretations are “unreasonable” is only to beg the question.

    The only unambiguous evidence of the truth of these doctrines is that the Church pronounced that them as such. Thus it seems that in order to confidently say that these doctrines are true, PCA Confession Protestants must also say that they were infallibly pronounced. This is a difficult distinction (i.e. between truth and infallible pronouncement), so here's an analogy: Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide believes that the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus is true (that it actually happened), but he does not believe that Paul's pronouncement of it in 1 Corinthians was infallible. The problem for PCA Confession Protestants is that (unlike the resurrection) there is not enough independent evidence of the truth of doctrines like the Trinity, Christ's dual nature, or the non-canonicity of the Gospel of Peter to think of them as dogma rather than mere speculative opinion. Speculative opinion is ok for thinks like the Shroud of Turin, but, as Mathison says, it destroys Christianity when it expands to doctrines as central as the Trinity, etc.

    So, PCA Confession Protestants must believe that certain doctrines were infallibly pronounced (or else treat them, not as doctrine, but as mere speculative opinion and destroy Christianity). But, since "one cannot give that which one does not have":

    (1) If a doctrine is infallible, then the body that pronounced the doctrine must have possessed the ability to act infallibly as it pronounced the doctrine.

    And, as I have argued above:

    (2) The PCA Confession treats doctrines such as the Trinity and Christ's nature as infallible (not just true)

    (3) Therefore, doctrines such as the Trinity and Christ's nature must have been pronounced by a body that possessed the ability to act infallibly

    (4) But the PCA says that no body that ever pronounced these doctrines possessed the ability to act infallibly.

    (5) Therefore, the PCA confession suffers from a logical contradiction that can only be resolved by Church infallibility.

    PS--I hope this is not too confusing. I fear I've worked too fast for what is a rather complicated point.

  4. A tangent:

    Ironically, this is the same style of argument that the great PCA pastor Tim Keller uses with great effect to expose the contradiction faced by moral reletavists.

    Keller argues that moral relativists like Anthropologist Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (and, closer to my heart, Yale Law Professor Arthur Leff) have noted that their major premise of moral relativism entails the conclusion that they must not export western moral values (against honor killing, female circumcision, etc.) upon cultures that do not recognize western values. But they know that this conclusion is wrong. They know that honor killing and female circumcision is wrong and should be stopped whether these cultures agree or not. In response, they just throw up their hands and just deal with the cognitive dissonance. But Keller argues that if a major premise leads invariably to a conclusion you know is wrong, then you should revisit the major premise.

    Similarly, PCA Protestants know that the doctrines of the Trinity and so forth are not mere speculative opinons, but divinely revealed infallible truth. But their major premise that the Catholic Church has never been endowed with infallibility leads them to the conclusion that these are mere speculative opinions. So, if they are to be consistent, they should revisit their major premise. Maybe the Catholic Church has been endowed with infallibly.

  5. Robert,

    Now that you've added the distinction between "true" and "infallibly dogmatic," and why it's important for doctrines like the Trinity to be both, I agree. And if that's what Kreeft is saying, then I agree with him, too (but wish he'd worded it in a more dumbed-down way for the likes of me). Do you mind if I repost this as a standalone post?

  6. Great. I don't mind at all. And feel free to edit, re-write, not cite, etc. my material to the extent it makes the post better, though posting it wholesale is also fine with me, too.