Dialogue on the Logic of Catholic Infallible Authority

Dialogue on the Logic of Catholic Infallible Authority April 17, 2018

Eric Svendsen is a prominent anti-Catholic polemicist. This discussion took place on Bishop “Dr.” [???] James White’s sola Scriptura discussion list, on 1 and 4 June 1996. Eric’s words will be in green; my older cited words in blue.


I believe in inerrancy (always have).

Is this your idea of an answer?

Yes, Eric. Sorry if the honesty of it disappoints you. But your charge was that no one had answered it at all, as I recall. That is a different proposition than critiquing the strength of an answer, is it not?

. . . backpeddling?

How is it that? Are you going to deny that there has been a ferocious debate among evangelicals on this very topic, with the strict Reformed on one side and the more Baptist-types and others on the opposite side? Where’ve you been all thru the 80s? I’m just calling a spade a spade, and admitting the limitations of my knowledge.

:) Seriously, Dave, you once labeled Raymond Brown as a liberal for holding to a limited inerrancy, and now you want to include him in the fold?

I haven’t studied his case, or whatever one might call it. All I’ve said was that anyone who flat-out denies a dogma of the Catholic faith is not a Catholic in essence, though they may remain one formally, until excommunication, as James White has correctly and cogently pointed out.

I can see you are finally beginning to come to terms with the force of our arguments. Your attempt to minimize the ramifications, however (viz., “what that means exactly, of course, is the topic of much discussion”), will not work.

Ah, you wish it were so! I’m afraid not. I’m still pummeling away as I lay prostrate and bleeding on the mat. :-) My qualification is simply honesty, no more, no less. What is manifestly dishonest is the Protestant pretense that evangelicals are in monolithic agreement on biblical inerrancy. Man, why did Harold Lindsell write The Battle for the Bible and The Bible in the Balance fifteen or so years ago if that were the case? Your case is only as strong as its hearers are ignorant. Not very compelling. Besides, who can deny that it is Protestantism which produced the destructive “higher criticism” which is behind practically all dilution of the high regard for Scripture? That this runaway biblical skepticism has now sadly infected our ranks as well is somehow an argument against our system? Try again! At best you can only say that the Catholic Church has failed in surveying its own ranks for liberal Protestant-influenced heretics (and I would readily agree, by the way). But they haven’t changed the “books.” Praise God!

So, are you now willing to concede that in order to have unity of belief in Rome you need an infallible interpreter of your infallible interpreter?

No, not at all, for one simple reason: Christianity is not a philosophy, but a religion, and faith must be exercised somewhere along the line, as I’ve already stated. Our faith in this instance is in God, that He will preserve His Church from error, in the sense in which infallibility has been defined, once for all (in 1870 at Vatican I). This is an extension of the “incarnational principle”: God became Man; thus the Body of Christ now present on earth is preserved from heresy, compromise with immorality in its ethical precepts,” etc. If you want to give me an example of an infallible pronouncement which you don’t understand, I’ll be glad to take that up with you. In any event, whatever you can “come up with” pales in comparison to Protestant chaos and relativism and moral compromise. Whoever can’t see this obvious state of affairs is the one who is plagued by “fideistic loyalty,” not me, or any orthodox, informed Catholic.

Catholics agree with all of these save for sola fide and sola Scriptura, so this list does not really accentuate our differences.

The difference is, we derive it from Scripture (as did the fathers who originally hammered it out, I might add) whereas you believe it simply because Rome tells you to.

Nonsense. Notwithstanding uneducated Catholics, we are just as biblically centered as you, historically-speaking. The difference is that for us, the Bible occupies a position of centrality (as in the Catholic Fathers, yes), but not exclusivity. Protestants must make dichotomies – one of their fundamental flaws (see Louis Bouyer’s brilliant book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism). We aren’t subject to such limitations of logic and common sense. Yes, we believe “Rome,” but we also believe that God preserves our Church from corrupting the “deposit of faith” entrusted to us, and that therefore our Church is not contrary to the Bible (rightly understood) in any way, shape, matter, or form.

Protestantism, on the other hand, suffers from a host of self-defeating propositions or realities such as sola Scriptura, the canon of the NT, its late arrival, its a-historicism, and its sinful divisions and sectarianism. But you neglect to see that we have so much agreement. How could that be if our system is so corrupt, “unbiblical,” and in the eyes of many of you here and elsewhere, not even “Christian” at all! Quite puzzling . . .

All we have done is shown your own inconsistencies, and that you are throwing stones from a glass house. We readily admit that we do not have doctrinal agreement in many areas, but you have not come to grips with that problem in your own system. 

It is no problem. Liberalism assuredly is, as it is in your system, but we have clear ways of defining who is in accord with our teachings, whereas you don’t. You institutionalize your errors and “sanctify” them. But we will not allow for evil to be called good (e.g., contraception, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, infanticide, euthanasia, “physician” – assisted suicide, relativism, et al), as you do. If nothing else, at least you guys ought to respect us for that, and start wondering (if you’re anti-Catholic) how in the world we could do better than you at facing off against sin in today’s age, if we’re not even “Christian.” Such a view is absolutely preposterous.

Therefore, it is not incumbent upon us to show doctrinal unity (we don’t equate doctrinal unity with biblical unity);

Again, how could a chaotic “system” do otherwise? Who’s engaging in “special pleading”?

that is your baby–you’re the ones who have insisted that biblical legitimacy = no disagreement of belief.

And lest you forget – Jesus and Paul, too.

All we are asking you to do is drop it as a “proof” of Rome’s legitimacy.

Over my dead body. You’d love for us to drop it so you can stop squirming, but since the point is a valid, biblical one, I must respectfully disagree, and persist.

Keep banging–it’ll come to you after a while :).

What? A headache, insanity, or Protestantism?

Your “thorn in the flesh,”

Dave A.

As I have already noted, most (all?) of those who hold to sola scriptura are within the pale of orthodoxy, while almost all those who subscribe to Scripture plus some other authority are outside the pale of orthodoxy–and even those who remain within invariably hold to doctrines that lie in direct contradiction to the Scriptures.

“Orthodoxy” according to whom? I don’t know what this means (well, it’s “correct doctrine,” but who determines that?). The Arians thought they were “orthodox,” while the Catholics were “heretical.” The Nestorians, Monophysites, Monothelites, Sabellians, etc. ad infinitum thought likewise, so this is not merely a clever, rhetorical question, but a deadly serious one. I’ll believe it when I see it, thank you. Instead of Mere Christianity, you oughtta write Mere Orthodoxy. It will serve a useful purpose among your minions.

The Catholic side will surely cry foul. Dave has already done so. He sees Catholicism as an exception to all other non-sola scriptura groups because he can trace Catholicism back to NT times. But that is just the question, isn’t it? Besides, Dave is starting with the assumption that the legitimate principle to follow is Scripture plus Catholic tradition (or history);

It’s scarcely even an assumption; it is absolutely necessary because Scripture is part of apostolic Tradition itself, as it teaches, and because of the factor of the canon, which also necessarily involves Tradition and conciliar Catholic authority. So the unsupported assumptions here are all on your side, in my opinion. Not only unsubstantiated, but self-defeating, which is all the more troublesome for your position. The assumption we all share is that Scripture is God’s Revealed Word. From that starting-point (in this group, that is) we try to determine the proper place of both Tradition and ecclesiastical authority.

whereas the J.W.s, 7th Days, and Mormons would argue that all Catholic history proves is the great apostasy. They would start with the assumption that the church fell away after the apostolic age, so that history cannot serve as the criterion to correct belief.

Are you gonna trust a guy who sold “miracle wheat” [Charles Taze Russell; founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses] or a guy who spent his time plagiarizing the KJV and fornicating with multiple women [Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism]? Who cares what these men believe about the Catholic Church (or anything else, for that matter)? And when I examined Luther’s life, that’s why I was confirmed in my opinion that Protestantism might not be all that it was cracked up to be, either (though infinitely superior to these buffoons above, I hasten to add). You guys subscribe to the Nicene Creed; they don’t.

Dave will appeal to Matt 28:20, “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”; and Matt 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” But the J.W.s, 7th Days and Mormons will reply that Dave A. is simply misinterpreting those passages (sound familiar?) and that he cannot possibly understand them without their infallible interpreter. Then what will Dave do?

I’ll continue to make rational, biblical arguments, just as I’m forced to do with you Protestants! You act like such replies will render me speechless and stupefied! :-)

Protestant sects and cults invariably result from one man or woman, who, of course, is infallible (and more often than not, an autocrat):

SDA: Ellen White
JW’s: Charles Taze Russell
Mormons: Joseph Smith
Christian Science: Mary Baker Eddy
The Way Int.: Victor Paul Wierwille
Worldwide Church of God: Herbert W. Armstrong (no relation!) 

You forgot one, Dave. Roman Catholicism: the pope.

Eric, are you serious? I already responded to this beforehand. The short, pithy answer at this point is: which one? That expresses the fallacy of this “answer” quite well. Besides, the popes are not infallible in everything they say, as these heresiarchs were (or close), nor are they autocrats. Patience, patience . . .

Heresies have traditionally relied on sola Scriptura, but seen though the lens of one man.

For instance . . . the pope (Infallibilis Deus [Immaculate Conception],

Wrong. If anything, you’d have to say that the fully developed doctrine of the Immaculate Conception stemmed from Duns Scotus, not Pius IX 500 or so years later! But the kernel of it goes all the way back, to the notion of Mary as the New Eve and sinless. The sinlessness is the essence, not the philosophical and theological fine points.

the Assumption)?

The feast of the Assumption can be traced back even earlier than that of the Immaculate Conception, as early as the 7th century, so you’re talking about at least 1200 years to the definition in 1950, yet you fancy that Pius XII “invented” this doctrine! Even Luther believed in it, although he opposed the notion that it should be binding (he did believe in the Immaculate Conception).

You cant have it both ways, Dave. How then do you view Protestants?

As a skeletal, a-historical version of Christianity.

Are we united under one man as a monolithic belief system (e.g., the Protestant heresy),

Only in the sense of common origin from Luther, and common antipathy to Catholicism.

or are we divided?

No! (shocked expression, mouth open). Your apologists say you are united (as you do here again). Who could be so dense as to affirm that Protestants are “divided”? Only Catholics are . . . :-)

How is it that all of us subscribe to orthodox belief? If it is true that sola scriptura does not work, then tell us how it is that we all (as denominations) separately came to believe in the same Trinity, deity of Christ, person of the Holy Spirit, one church, eternal bliss of the save, eternal punishment of the lost, second coming of Christ, sola scriptura, sola fide, priesthood of all believers, etc.–as opposed to ALL non-sola scriptura belief systems, all of which are markedly different? If sola scriptura produces chaos, and if the Scriptures are not perspicuous, then explain all this commonality of belief! How is it that all OUR popes came up with the same thing, and in many cases contrary to Rome’s teachings?

Excepting the last three items, because all of these are clear from Scripture (surprise!!!!!!!!!!). As stated in my perspicuity paper, I fully agree that many (if not most) doctrines are clear from Scripture. That is not my point in all my argumentation on this topic, to no avail (sigh). My point is: by claiming that Scripture is the final authority, then, practically speaking, true doctrines ought to be able to be ascertained without recourse to ecclesiastical authority. But in fact this is not the case. Therefore, some churchly authority is necessary because of the division that has indeed occurred (and yes, man’s pride and sin definitely play into that). This is all the more necessary, biblically speaking, because disobedience to spiritual authorities, hostile division, and doctrinal relativism are all so severely condemned in Scripture.

As for the last three points, the first and third flow of necessity from the rejection of Tradition and the apostolic, visible Church. Since all you guys reject that, ergo, sola Scriptura and priesthood of all believers (except Anglicans, who try to be “Protestant” yet maintain almost all our beliefs except the papacy — only the English would have such audacity and chutzpah). Sola fide is held in common because it was the other pillar of the “Reformation,” and is the only alternative to the sacramental system and infused justification.

In the Protestant dichotomous mindset, works had to be set against faith, so as to be distinct from Catholicism, where grace-produced works were so central (as in Jesus and Paul). Even so, John Wesley, e.g., and the Anglican Newman and his fellow Tractarians, rejected sola fide — at least in its initial meaning as dreamt-up by Luther. I maintain that dichotomous thought is of the essence of Protestantism, and the source of the great majority of its errors.

It goes without saying that Catholicism is entirely different than this. No one man predominates.

Is that a fact? Perhaps you are familiar with Vatican I’s decree of papal infallibility?: Such definitions [of the Roman Pontiff] of themselves–and not by virtue of the consent of the church–are irreformable. How does the pope not predominate?

Yes, the pope’s authority (in the final analysis) is distinct from the Councils – this was defined so as to avoid the error of conciliarism, which is a root problem of the Orthodox, who have no non-arbitrary way of determining the legitimacy of an Ecumenical Council. But there is no comparison anyway. These infallible decisions, few as they are, deal with only one doctrine. I’m talking about the interpretation of one man entirely dominating a denomination. You simply can’t assert that about any one pope. It can’t be done, period. No way, no how. But Calvin dominates the Reformed and the Presbyterians, Luther the Lutherans, Menno Simons the Mennonites, John the Baptist the Baptists, John Doe the 1st Storefront Church in Podunk, Idaho, etc. :-)

Our popes make infallible decrees (in the strictest sense) only every 100 years or so, whereas Luther claimed that ALL his teaching was “from God.” He regarded his self-proclaimed authority as tantamount to a prophet: i.e., unquestionable. So where do you guys get off accusing US of “authoritarianism”?

Are you saying that Catholic infallibility is limited to the pope’s decrees? Are not the councils infallible as well? Is not tradition infallible?

Now you’re making my whole point for me. Think about it (…pause…). First you argue that the pope as “one man” predominates. Now, you’re catching on as to the true nature of Catholic authority: pope and Councils, pope and Tradition, pope and the sensus fidelium, as analogous to Peter and the other disciples, Peter and other bishops or Apostles (such as James and Paul), and Peter and the Jerusalem Council, etc.

Besides, none of us views Luther as infallible, so your point is moot. I could care less what Luther thought of himself, he never was a pope.

Your opinion on Luther is irrelevant to my argument, since it is an analogy between Protestantism and the non-trinitarian heresies. Luther had more power in his sphere than any pope ever dreamt of, and this is the whole point. You keep switching the terms of the debate, whenever you’re trapped by the incoherence of your own position. It’s difficult for me to accept that you can’t recognize that when shown.

You seem to view Luther as somehow the genesis of apostolic succession of Protestants;

All Protestants stem from his dissent. Nearly all Protestants accept the departures from Catholicism which he originated (sola Scripturasola fide, tossing the “Apocrypha,” communion of saints, seven sacraments, etc., etc.). To deny the connection is (as I’ve always thought) intellectual suicide.

and you seem to think that if you can impugn his character that Protestantism somehow collapses.

Not at all. But it ought to give one pause to have such a Founder (it certainly did me). And I delight in bursting the bubble of the Protestant mythology of Luther, because we are constantly “tormented” by lies about the Inquisition, Crusades, “killing Protestants” (1 million, according to Dave Hunt), etc. I call it the “reverse Inquisition” argument: not all Protestants were saintly figures and Catholics sinister money-grabbers and pagans (as the anti-Catholic stereotype would have it).

But that kind of argument works only against alleged infallible systems.

No, it also works (to some degree) against systems which claim to be inherently superior to ours.

If Luther claimed to be infallible (a ridiculous claim, of course), so what?

It shows how self-deluded he was. :-)


(originally 6-4-96)

Photo credit: Photograph of a cathedral in France [Max Pixel / CC0 Public Domain]


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