Ecclesiological Certainty (?) & the “Infallibility Regress”

Ecclesiological Certainty (?) & the “Infallibility Regress” August 23, 2018

The so-called “infallibility regress” argument breaks down insofar its tacit assumption that no one can determine (not with finality or “authority”) what the Church is. It is essentially a proposal of radical skepticism or rationalism at the expense (to a degree) of supernatural faith and revelation: it amounts (when closely scrutinized) to a belief that God doesn’t have the power to grant one the faith and grace of finding the apostolic Christian Church, so that he can in turn discover true doctrine and theology and hence be better able to follow Jesus.

To the extent that Protestantism denies this possibility altogether, and leaves the task of discovering true Christian doctrine, Tradition, and Church squarely and ultimately on the shoulders of the individual, I think it must be opposed as both nonsensical and unbiblical as well.

This is not merely a philosophical proposition. The Bible clearly (I think) teaches about both an authoritative Church and a Tradition. The fathers assumed this, and that was their ultimate appeal against the heretics, who invariably relied on their private judgment in the “non-ecclesiastical” sense that Newman wrote about, and sola Scriptura. For the Fathers, what had “always been believed” was the determinant of orthodoxy. God had the power to preserve apostolic doctrine inviolate and to protect the true church from error.

It requires faith to believe this, and that is what a Catholic does: we have faith that this Church can exist and that it can be identified and located. We don’t say this rests on our own individual choice. It is already there; like “stumbling upon” the Pacific Ocean or Mt. Everest. We don’t determine whether the thing exists or not. And we must believe it is what it claims to be by faith, absolutely. Why should that surprise anyone except a person who thinks that Christianity is determined purely by arbitrary choice and rationalism without faith?

That is no longer simply philosophy or subjective preference, as if Christianity were reduced to Philosophy 0101 (where someone might prefer Kierkegaaard to Kant) or the selection of a flavor of ice cream. If we are to be biblical, the Bible refers often to a “passed-down tradition.” It is Out There. It exists. Newman would say that one can find this and submit themselves to it, by God’s grace (not human reason, though it is not inconsistent with the latter, nor with any biblical teaching).

We make the choice to be Catholic, but we don’t say that the choice was mere reasoning. It was led by God’s grace and necessary aid, just as salvation must be so originated. No one denies that Christians choose whether or not to follow God and become a disciple of Jesus. But that very choice was made possible only by God’s grace; otherwise it couldn’t have occurred at all, given the Fall (and the contrary view is the heresy of Pelagianism). Likewise, this is what we believe about the choice of the Catholic Church as the one founded by Christ, which we believe can be traced back to apostolic times in unbroken historical succession. This does not entirely exclude other Christians from the fold; not at all — but that’s another discussion and I can’t get into that at the moment.

Apart from this faith aspect, the Catholic (especially apologists such as myself) claims that our view of ecclesiology and theology is backed up by both history and the Bible, as well as reason. I would argue (among many other things) the fact that the Bible teaches one true Church, as evidenced by the early Protestant internal divisions. In the early days, they still believed that each school was the one, and the true Church in some sense. There was a visible structure (e.g., Calvin’s Geneva, or the Lutheran princes, who took over from the bishops). They believed in one church and one truth, however they may have defined it.

Today’s Protestants, however, are much less concerned with that and oftentimes become literally ecclesiological relativists, where Church affiliation comes down to worship styles, a good choir, a pastor who gives “meaty” or heart –stirring sermons, enough pretty girls to meet, etc.). I exaggerate to make a point. This is how many people choose where to go to church: not by a long study and comparison of competing doctrines or reading apologetics. I know many Protestants detest this as I do, but it still exists and is a problem. And it comes from the extreme application of this “private judgment” business, that Newman wrote about.
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Christianity is not simply philosophy or a Baskin-Robbins situation: “what flavor of the 47 ice creams should I pick?” It has a history, and whatever side one comes down on cannot exclude the historical criteria because they are intrinsic to Christianity and the biblical worldview, and always have been. This is simply what Christianity is. To be a-historical is as unbiblical as it is essentially foreign to a Christian outlook. Failing that, one can try to construct alternate ecclesiologies, as Luther and Calvin did. I think they fail as alternates of the Catholic Church, to the extent that they are alternates (i.e., where we disagree doctrinally). Why I think that would require huge discussions, where many points are dealt with in turn. It is a cumulative argument, involving a “wheel” of many spokes.
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We arrive at truth by many different means. Belief in God is that way: it is experiential, moral, imaginative, philosophical (if someone is of that bent of mind), allegorical, etc. I became a committed evangelical Christian back in 1977 largely because of what is called the “moral argument,” which is not rationality per se but an internal sense of what is right and wrong, and that Christianity embodied those values.

God even used movies and music to bring me to Him back when I was a thoroughly secular pagan in the 70s (somewhat like C.S. Lewis, who came to Christianity through the route of mythology, Wagnerian music, and the like). Selection of a church should be a matter of faith and prayer and all the usual reasoning involved, just as conversion to Jesus Himself is, since the Church, if it exists, is a supernatural entity, even though fallible and sinful men and women are in it.

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Since individual salvation or regeneration or conversion or being “born again” or committing oneself to Jesus Christ as His disciple (whatever one chooses to call it) itself is of the same nature, I don’t see that this reduces to relativism and “helplessness.” Somehow we come to believe in God. I think He can be seen in the works of creation, as Romans 1 teaches. But it requires faith and revelation to believe in the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation or Jesus’ Resurrection. Those things are revealed; they aren’t part of natural law, like God’s existence or innate realizations that murder or lying are wrong and evil.

Likewise, in choosing a church or denomination. All you can do is pray, study the issues, read all the sides you care to read, talk to people, look at the history of the various groups, study early Church history, study the Bible through and through and choose what you think is the closest to the biblical Church, as revealed in the Bible (and — if you value Church history and a visible Church as a continuation of the Incarnation, so to speak — what has existed in fact for 2000 years). It still takes God’s grace, just as conversion does.

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The Catholic Church and apostolic Tradition are already entities “out there” which are not mere private interpretations. This tradition has been passed down and preserved and people are capable of finding it. St. Paul assumes this throughout his letters and the Fathers did also. Catholics believe as they do: that God has given us a revealed truth (which includes ecclesiology and a Church) and that he can enable individuals to discover it through grace and faith, so that they can get on with their lives and serve Him and their fellow men, rather than spending their lives on a perpetual agnostic-type quest for something that either doesn’t exist or very imperfectly only, or that one can never know enough to accept on the basis of reason. We make things so complicated that God always intended to be quite simple.
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It’s not necessary to infallibly interpret; only to know and believe by faith, based on many cumulative, converging evidences, that there is an infallible authority. One simply accepts that. It’s not a game of philosophy, but of religious faith, grounded in reason and the Bible, and historical precedent.
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The teachings are authoritative, if they come down to us from papal encyclicals, ecumenical councils, or the Catechism. All the fine-tuning and hair-splitting distinctions are for scholars and theologians and apologists to have fun arguing about; that’s what they get paid to do. But that has little relevance for Joe Q. Catholic. Catholics need not have doubts or confusion about what the Church teaches.
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It’s highly ironic, too, for any Protestant to act as if Catholicism is a huge mass of confused uncertainty, when it is not at all, and their own systems really are that. It’s a nice diversionary tactic to rationalize one’s own severe and insuperable difficulties, but it won’t fly: not when there is an apologist like myself who can see through this and refute it.
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Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, written in 1992, states:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion. May it serve the renewal to which the Holy Spirit ceaselessly calls the Church of God, the Body of Christ, on her pilgrimage to the undiminished light of the Kingdom!

The approval and publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church represent a service which the Successor of Peter wishes to offer to the Holy Catholic Church, to all the particular Churches in peace and communion with the Apostolic See: the service, that is, of supporting and confirming the faith of all the Lord Jesus’ disciples (cf. Lk 22:32 as well as of strengthening the bonds of unity in the same apostolic faith. Therefore, I ask all the Church’s Pastors and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life. This catechism is given to them that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Eph 3:8). It is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians, showing carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pt 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.

That’s more than sufficient to show anyone what the Church teaches. The pope said so. This is how our authority structure works.

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The “infallibility regress” argument fails. The gist of it is that Christianity is not philosophy. One cannot achieve airtight, mathematical certainty in matters of faith. The Catholic authority structure is quite sufficient enough for us, as it was for the apostles and fathers.

And what is the particular brand of Protestantism that is superior to our system? It’s easy to take swipes at the Big Red Barn of Catholicism. But the question is: what is the better alternative? Then when we see how Protestants try to resolve authority problems, it gets truly self-defeating and absurd. That’s not true of Catholicism. It’s not philosophically airtight, but very few things are, so big wow. That’s a big yawner. But (I contend) all forms of Protestant ecclesiology break down and become self-defeating, the more they are scrutinized.

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I maintain that the Protestant position is ultimately self-defeating and unworkable, I’ve argued this many times in many different ways. Note the following:

1) Catholics believe x about authority.

2) Protestants believe y about authority.

3) x and y are not consistent with each other at all points.

4) x and y, in fact, contradict each other in various ways.

5) Therefore, the one holding x must necessarily believe that y is unreasonable at those points in which it contradicts x.

6) And likewise, the one holding y must necessarily believe that x is unreasonable at those points in which it contradicts y.

7) Thus, assuming x is true, y is unreasonable where it contradicts x.

8 ) And, assuming y is true, x is unreasonable where it contradicts y.

I go further than this, to make other points:

1) Protestants massively contradict each other.

2) Contradictions entail at least one position being false, untrue, erroneous, or both positions being so. But they can’t both be true.

3) Therefore, where this occurs in Protestantism, someone is promulgating falsehood.

4) Falsehood is not of or from God.

5) Therefore, systems that freely allow (indeed, literally encourage) contradictions and thus falsehood to flourish are not furthering the cause of truth in religion or the biblical worldview that there is one solitary Christian truth and tradition.

Protestant principles of authority are not only unreasonable because they contradict ours, but because they contradict the Bible, and themselves, at various points, and become viciously self-defeating.

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We have a very high degree of certitude of faith, based on Scripture first and foremost and also the development of our ecclesiology. Sola Scriptura is self-defeating by its very nature. Protestants have no way to resolve their internal disagreements because they have a flawed ecclesiology and authority structure. That’s why they are forced to adopt a position of theological relativism (on many so-called “secondary issues” — utilizing the unbiblical notion of primary vs. secondary doctrines). They’re forced into it by their history and present diversity.
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It doesn’t mean there aren’t many wonderful and true things in Protestantism. There certainly are, and I note them and rejoice in that all the time, because I’m as ecumenical as I am apologetical, but on this they are dead wrong, and we see the fruit of their error all around us.
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I think a lack of faith is really the bottom line with Protestants who reject Catholic claims. They don’t have enough faith to believe that God could and does protect a Church, which is a human institution, and Christian apostolic doctrine. They have the faith to believe in the higher, more involved gift of the inspiration of human sinners (Scripture) but not the lesser and far more limited gift of infallibility of human sinners (a pope and ecumenical councils and apostolic succession and sacred Tradition). Even that makes no sense. They have great faith in one instance that requires more faith and none (and outright skepticism) where less faith is required.
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We aren’t making the individual the final arbiter of true doctrine, as Protestants do. To posit and believe by faith in an infallible Church makes perfect sense, because Christians already believe in an inspired Scripture, and that Scripture has much indication of an infallible Church. That is self-consistent. But to fall back on a mere non-infallible individual believer, who supposedly will figure all this stuff out, or else have to operate in a sort of limbo or agnostic or uncertain state in their Christian life, is not only absurd and perfectly implausible in the abstract, but chaotic in actual practice, as history has amply shown.

The fact remains that there is no chaos with regard to Catholic doctrine, for those willing to accept what the Church has clearly proclaimed; whereas there is plenty within Protestantism. The “infallibility regress” game can be and will be played, but it falls flat every time, when properly scrutinized (which is very laborious and time-consuming, as this reply proves. Disproving error is always a lot harder than assertion of error).

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(abridged from two papers, dated 5-22-03 and 10-7-08)

Photo credit: Rilsonav (1-28-16) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]

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