Church Authority & Certainty (The “Infallibility Regress”)

Church Authority & Certainty (The “Infallibility Regress”) May 13, 2017


Church in Malta [PublicDomainPictures.Net / CC0 license]


(July 2000; some revisions on 12-8-11)


Fundamental Epistemological Reasons for Accepting Catholic Principles of Authority

When faith is brought in, we can have a “certainty” in the biblical or spiritual sense. But as for “absolute certainty,” I have made the same argument about Protestants (Calvinist and eternal security Baptist-types) and their notion of absolute assurance of salvation. I have argued that one cannot know that with certainty, as they don’t know the future absolutely. I don’t see any philosophical difference here — there is an equivalency.

The way in which Calvinists hold to absolute assurance is precisely how we hold to the “absolute assurance” of the infallibility of the Church, as the Guardian of Tradition and the Faith. Calvinists say that their salvation and the certainty of it is grounded in the promises of God and election (and Scripture, of course).

We say that the Church’s infallibility is also grounded in God’s promises: in the Person of the Holy Spirit: the Paraclete and Spirit of Truth, Who guides His people (corporately, the Church) into all truth (not to mention the papacy and all the Petrine data). And we, too, find this in the many explicit biblical indications of such an authoritative, visible, hierarchical Church. What’s the epistemological difference? I see none. There is a huge theological difference, but not a methodological, philosophical one.

In a practical sense, here is the flaw in Protestant “absolute assurance” (an argument I made for years, as an Arminian Protestant): when someone seems to be a good little Calvinist, knows all the buzz phrases and evangelical/Reformed lingo, etc., and goes to Church and leads a moral life according to Reformed teaching, then he is one of the “elect,” and no one really doubts this in the everyday, practical sense.

Now say for the sake of argument that he “falls away” in the sense that he no longer fits these criteria? He starts falling into sin (say adultery or blatant unbelief in Jesus). Then the Calvinist — “prisoners” of their system — simply say (with the marvelous benefit of hindsight) that he never was one of them; one of the elect. We don’t have to play that game, because we believe one can truly be in God’s graces and then truly fall away, and possibly return to a state of grace (we call it repentance and confession).

No Calvinist knows with this “absolute certainty” who is saved or in the elect. They claim that they do, but they cannot, for the simple reason that they don’t know the future and the eschatological destiny of each soul (they are not omniscient; nor do they possess foreknowledge). Otherwise, they would know that “brother X” was gonna be sleeping with a prostitute or another man’s wife in the future, and hence was never in the elect (because Scripture says “fornicators will not inherit the kingdom,” etc.).

The Catholic accepts the infallibility of His Church in the same fashion that most Protestants accept the “certainty” of their supposedly already accomplished salvation. Here is epistemological parallelism and equivalency. No one can know with certainty his own eternal destiny; we can only know at the moment if we are in the good graces of God, by a thorough examination of conscience. Catholics call that a “moral assurance” of salvation, and we assert that this is the biblical, apostolic, and patristic belief.

No one expect the Catholic apologists who have never been Protestant to understand every variation of Protestantism. It would take a lifetime to master all those, and who wants to anyway? Even converts like myself don’t have first-hand experience of all the different brands. We are forced to generalize by the nature of the case, and then Protestants always have the convenient out of saying “but that’s not us.” There is a lot of truth in such replies, of course, but in a sense it’s a bit like the standard campus Marxist reply that every corruption and Communist atrocity and despot does not represent “true” Marxism — the result being that such a utopian Marxism never existed and cannot be pointed out in the real world.

The “Infallibility Regress” Argument of Protestant Apologists, Concerning Catholic Reliance Upon Church Authority

The Catholic rule of faith is not simply a reliance upon the Church in blind faith; it is, rather, the combination of Church authority, patristic consensus, and the biblical material: Church, Tradition, and Bible: the “three-legged stool.” We say that this was the methodology of the Fathers themselves, in their appeal to apostolic succession or Tradition (see, e.g., Irenaeus). It is essentially an historical, typically Jewish argument, not a philosophical one (philosophy deriving from the Greeks).

The whole point is that there is an identifiable apostolic deposit which is passed down, and Catholics accept that, as clarified by their Church. We don’t reinvent Christianity in each generation; we accept what has been given to us, just as the Apostles and Fathers before us did. This is not a philosophical matter; it is one of faith and legal-historical grounds of ascertainable fact. It makes at least as much sense as Protestant “certainty” on any number of issues.

Everyone accepts the Scripture; that is not at issue. The alleged “self-attesting” nature of it is a real issue I have dealt with at great length. The “secondary testimony” here is that of the “mere creatures” Luther and Calvin. If Scripture speaks of an infallible and indefectible Church, then that notion is relying on the Word of the LORD. We rely on the apostolic Tradition passed down, verified and developed by the Fathers, Councils, great Doctors, and popes, and ultimately in the materially-sufficient Holy Scriptures.

Protestants rely on the fallible, late-arriving distinctives of Luther and Calvin, and in effect grant them apostolic authority. They can flat-out invent doctrines and claim they are both historical and biblical. No pope could even dream of doing that. They wouldn’t dare do it (on a few occasions when they came remotely close to that a mass uproar occurred). They are strictly dependent upon received precedent. Not so for Luther and Calvin, the Super-Popes. That’s why I say Protestantism is fundamentally man-centered at its very roots.

Believing Christians and Jews have always possessed “certainty” (I recommend Newman’s Grammar of Assent in this regard). It is a rational faith, backed up by eyewitness testimony and historical evidences, and the history of doctrine. It is not mere hyper-rationalistic, Enlightenment-inspired philosophy, as so much of Protestant apologetics appears to be. Not to mention theological liberalism: another wonderful benefit bequeathed to my Church by my Protestant brethren, causing the ruin of many souls. No one is saying (or should say) that there is an absolute certainty in a strict philosophical sense (I can play the game of philosophy quite well if I need to — I took a lot of it in college). But there is certainty in the sense of faith.

It’s like any acceptance of authority: it won’t work if we are blinded by a closed mind and a prideful, self-centered will (compounded by the level of individual ignorance or prior misinformation). That is true of any teaching system, including Catholicism. But that doesn’t, of course, disprove the Catholic system. It is not private judgment per se which leads one to accept Catholicism; it is precisely the opposite: it is yielding up one’s private judgment in the act of recognizing the Church for what it is: the spiritual authority ordained by God. One can do this reasonably by applying historical criteria, just as Christians have always done.

When I say “private judgment” I am talking about Christian authority and ecclesiology; not philosophical epistemology. I refer (per my many dialogues on this subject) to the Protestant formal system of sola Scriptura which places the individual in the position as the supreme and final arbiter of his own theology and destiny. This is a formal system of Christian authority, over against the Catholic three-legged stool of “Church, Tradition, and Scripture” – all harmonious and not contradictory or competing.

So the Protestant — by the exercise of this self-granted prerogative — can stand there and judge all three legs of the stool (as Luther at Worms did), making his own conscience supreme (the corollary of private judgment). This we reject as unbiblical and against the entire previous history of the Church. And all Protestants do this — by definition. Some variants may be more subtle, nuanced, and fine-tuned, and much less ahistorical, but all the versions boil down to a rejection of the apostolic authority of the Catholic Church.

Ultimately Protestants reserve the right to interpret Scripture against the Fathers, if their views do not correspond to the theological system you espouse (e.g., a rejection of the Real Presence in the Eucharist and baptismal regeneration: both virtually unanimous views of the Fathers). In the end, Protestantism becomes a man-centered system (Calvin, Luther, Fox et al), rather than an apostolic, patristic, traditional-centered system, where the individual yields his judgment to the historic Christian consensus of the ages: the apostolic Tradition faithfully passed down and protected from error by the Holy Spirit.

Why would Protestants assume that God cannot protect His Church from error just as He protected His written revelation from error? On what basis do they assume that? After all (I make an analogical argument, of plausibility), the gift of infallibility is far lesser in order than the gift of inspiration, by which fallible, sinful men accurately and infallibly recorded the word of God in Sacred Scripture, without error. Both gifts are supernatural and divinely granted.

It seems to me that if God could and would do one thing, then He would certainly do the other, so as to maintain a unified truth and a consistent witness to the world. I think most people would agree that it was not God’s plan to bring about the chaos and relativism in Protestantism today (Calvinists are always lambasting non-Calvinist Protestants as much-inferior and as outside the true “Reformation” heritage). Error (which must be present when views contradict) does not come from the Spirit of God, but from below.

I have always maintained that the Christian notion of truth and authority is historically-based, as opposed to philosophically-based. And it requires faith. Catholic authority is not an airtight philosophical proposition. But Protestantism is not, either, and contains within itself far more problematic elements. The double standard, therefore, resides in the Protestant contra-Catholic polemic. I say that our view is biblical, consistent, apostolic, and patristic, and therefore far preferable to the Protestant Johnny-come-lately system of sola Scriptura.

Apostolic and patristic Christianity was much more analogous to Old Testament Judaism, than to, say, Greek philosophy, with its abstract “epistemology” (and I say this as a Socratic myself; one who loves philosophy). Authority flowed always from commonly acknowledged miraculous historical events and historical criteria: a sort of “Christian mythology” (i.e., a corporately-preserved story of origins) but what C. S. Lewis would describe as “true mythology.”

Our claim is that the Church is infallible, and that the individual yields up his private judgment to the authority of the Church, based on apostolic succession. We have faith that God will guide His Church. It is a reasonable faith, which can be backed up by many sorts of reasonable evidences (primarily historical), though it ultimately transcends them all, as all matters of faith do.

We believe Scripture is materially sufficient, but not formally sufficient without the Church as a Guide. We believe that Scripture and Tradition are “twin fonts of the same divine wellspring,” as Vatican II states.

He performed miracles, and many people observed these. He rose from the dead, and proved the reality of that by appearing to more than 500 people, eating fish, showing that He possessed flesh and bones, etc. This is all historical, and a matter of eyewitness testimony (so one might say it is a historical-legal approach to theological truth). Likewise with the Church. There was one, recognized deposit of faith, passed on from our Lord Jesus to the disciples and Apostles, which Paul repeatedly refers to.

Jesus established a Church, with Peter as the head (Matthew 16:13-20). This Church has definite and discernible characteristics, described in the Bible. There were Apostles, and their successors were and are bishops. There were popes as well, and they exercised authority over the Church Universal.

Now, how was this Church identifiable in the early days and in the patristic period? Again, it was the historical criteria of authenticity. The Fathers always appealed to apostolic succession (a demonstrable historical lineage of orthodoxy) and Scripture, not Scripture Alone. The heretics were the ones who adopted Scripture Alone as their principle, because they knew that they couldn’t produce the historical lineage (hence an early manifestation of the unChristian and unbiblical a-historicism which has been a dominant flaw of Protestantism ever since its inception). Protestants thus adopted the heretical principle of formal authority, whereas Catholics have consistently adopted apostolic succession as the criteria of Christian truth and legitimate, divinely ordained authority. The Catholic Church traces itself back to the beginning in an unbroken line, centered in the Roman See and the papacy.

So when someone like me (a very low-church evangelical) becomes convinced of Catholicism, it is not merely another Protestant exercise of private judgment and de facto alleged self-infallibility. It is,to the contrary, the yielding up of private judgment and the acknowledgement of something far greater than oneself: an entity which is “out there;” which has always been there since Christ established it, preserving (only by God’s enabling grace and will) apostolic Christian truth in its fullness and undiluted splendor. So one accepts it based on the historical criteria, just as one would accept the historicity of the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth, or the authority of the Bible — itself grounded in historically-verifiable elements (e.g., fulfilled prophecy, the continuance of the Jews, the astounding transformation of the early Christians, etc.). It is on the basis of history (and, of course, faith as well), as opposed to some alleged prideful, illusory, self-infallibility. Popes and Ecumenical Councils are just as bound to the received deposit of faith, as I am.

To learn further about how my own particular spiritual odyssey progressed (for anyone who might be curious), see my paper: “How Newman Convinced Me of the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church.” Newman himself accepted the Catholic Church based on undeniable historical realities, and thus was able to reject the man-made Anglican edifice of the Via Media. Likewise, I came to see (after also studying the so-called “Reformation”) that evangelical Protestantism could not in any way, shape, or form fit the bill of the fullness of apostolic Christianity either. Only Catholicism could do that.

And I wanted apostolic, biblical Christianity: the Christianity which Jesus taught the disciples; not man-made variants, each containing maybe a few noble emphases left over from historical, apostolic Christianity, but always in the final analysis grossly-deficient (though also quite beneficial and good insofar as they do contain many valid Christian truths).

Orthodoxy also possesses apostolic succession. I decided between the two options precisely on the same grounds: Orthodoxy had departed from a few universally held beliefs of early Christian Tradition (namely, the prohibition of divorce and contraception). So history was determinative. This is how it has always been in the Christian faith until Luther brought in the radically subjectivistic notion of faith and authority, thus leading to the present doctrinal relativism, ecclesiological anarchy, and moral chaos of Protestantism.

All of these issues are complex in and of themselves, but that is the Catholic answer: we appeal to the patristic and apostolic (Pauline) methods of determining theological and apostolic truth. The Bible is central in all this as well (absolutely!); it is just not exclusive of Church authority. How can it be? Its very parameters were authoritatively declared by this self-same Church. Before then, various Fathers disagreed somewhat on the canon. Again, it is not a matter solely of sin. Authority was truly needed to settle that issue, just as it is needed to settle theological issues. Scripture Alone will not suffice.

Besides, Scripture itself points to the teaching authority of the Church, anyway, so it is a false dichotomy from the get-go, to pit the Church against the Bible, as if there is some inherent contradiction or “competition” between them. The Apostles and Fathers saw no such dichotomy. I imitate Paul, just as he imitated Christ (as he commanded me to do). I reject the Johnny-come-lately novel notions of Luther, because they can’t be traced back to the Apostles in an unbroken line — thus are corruptions insofar as they differ from Catholic dogma.

Bible, Sola Scriptura, and Canonicity Issues

We don’t view Scripture in isolation from Church and Tradition, which it itself constantly refers to. This is the biblical outlook. “Bible Alone” (in the sense above) is not taught in Scripture. Canonicity is an historical process, thus supporting the premise that historical and human (and ecclesiological) factors are necessarily involved in the dispute over authority. It is too simple to merely proclaim “Scripture, Scripture,” and to downplay the Church when that very Church was necessary in order to authoritatively proclaim the parameters and content of Holy Scripture.

Some Protestants believe in Holy Scripture without necessary “evidentialist” proofs, while they frown upon Catholics who do the same with regard to the Catholic Church: often lacking the “proofs” which they demand for them to have, while giving themselves a pass. After all, the Church is as divinely willed as the Bible. We may disagree on its location and nature, but we are talking about philosophical premises here, which most people implicitly hold, without conscious reflection.

Faith is always required; of course. But that faith is rational and not irrational. It goes beyond mere rationality and philosophy (it is not epistemologically airtight — very few things are in any field of study), but it is not contrary to right reason. I have held this belief for 20 years now. Again, I think this eventually backfires on Protestants, because the Catholic, too, believes in his notion of what the Church is, and which claimant is the Church. The same Augustine also stated that he would not believe the Gospel but for the Catholic Church, which proclaimed it. He never marginalizes the Church, as Protestants end up doing every time.

The Catholic Church merely proclaimed what was already inherently the Word of God; inspired Revelation. Vatican I and II state this. The Church was, however, still absolutely necessary in a practical sense, and — this being the case — it is reasonable to assume that it possesses authority to proclaim on other issues as well, and to command obligatory obedience of its followers.

The authority lies in the proclamation of the biblical canon. Protestants think it has that supreme authority concerning the actual extent of Scripture, while denying its prerogative to proclaim on any individual doctrine of Scripture. I find that remarkably arbitrary and implausible.

In this scenario, God allows one exception to sola Scriptura: the Church proclaiming what the Scripture is (but also a few other things, such as the Two Natures of Christ). Then it fades into the background and is able to be judged by each individual Christian with the Bible and the Holy Spirit. I find this utterly ludicrous. Why — on these premises — should a Christian not reject Chalcedonian Christology or Nicaean trinitarianism (as many heretics have in fact done)? More exceptions have to be allowed because the Church “got it right” in those instances. We merely say that the Church always “got it right” in Ecumenical Councils, because it was protected by the Holy Spirit from error, not because God decided to protect it now and then. These things are consistent with our formal principles, but are frequent anomalies and exceptions in Protestantism. The more exceptions to a “rule,” the weaker and less worthy of belief such a “rule” is.

The early Protestants didn’t believe that God could protect His Church from error, yet they had no trouble believing that individuals can be so protected, and persist in this belief as a formal principle, despite 10,000 internal contradictions and endless schism and moral compromise in the Protestantism which is the offspring of this false first premise. Very weird, from where I sit . . . Once I saw that Catholic distinctives could be established from Scripture (now the theme of my website and upcoming book), and understood development of doctrine, I immediately abandoned this thoroughly incoherent position.

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