Bp. Butler’s Refutation of Anti-Catholic George Salmon, Pt. 1

Bp. Butler’s Refutation of Anti-Catholic George Salmon, Pt. 1 March 22, 2023

Doctrinal Development; St. Cardinal Newman’s Views on Papal Infallibility & the Immaculate Conception; St. Irenaeus & Tradition

The book, The Infallibility of the Church (1888) by Anglican anti-Catholic polemicist George Salmon (1819-1904), may be one of the most extensive and detailed — as well as influential — critiques of the Catholic Church ever written. But, as usual with these sorts of works, it’s abominably argued and relentlessly ignorant and/or dishonest, as the critiques listed below amply demonstrate and document.
The most influential and effective anti-Catholic Protestant polemicist today, “Dr” [???] James White, cites Salmon several times in his written materials, and regards his magnum opus as an “excellent” work. In a letter dated 2 November 1959, C. S. Lewis recommended the book to a reader, Michael Edwards, who was “vexed” about papal infallibility (see: The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950 – 1963, edited by Walter Hooper, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, p. 1133, footnote 24). Russell P. Spittler, professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote that “From an evangelical standpoint,” the book “has been standard since first published in 1888” (Cults and Isms, Baker Book House, 1973, 117). Well-known Baptist apologist Edward James Carnell called it the “best answer to Roman Catholicism” in a 1959 book. I think we can safely say that it is widely admired among theological (as well as “emotional”) opponents of the Catholic Church.
Prominent Protestant apologist Norman Geisler and his co-author Ralph MacKenzie triumphantly but falsely claim, in a major critique of Catholicism, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995, 206-207, 459), that Salmon’s book has “never really been answered by the Catholic Church,” and call it the “classic refutation of papal infallibility,” which also offers “a penetrating critique of Newman’s theory.”
Salmon’s tome, however, has been roundly refuted at least twice: first, by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Murphy in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record (March / May / July / September / November 1901 and January / March 1902): a response (see the original sources) — which I’ve now transcribed almost in its totality: adding up to more than 73,000 words, or approximately 257 pages (last two installments abridged a bit); secondly, by Bishop Basil Christopher Butler (1902-1986) in his book, The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged ‘Salmon’ (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1954, 230 pages). See all of these replies — and any further ones that I make — listed under “George Salmon” on my Anti-Catholicism web page.
See also my thorough refutation of Salmon’s false and scurrilous accusation of St. Cardinal Newman, regarding papal infallibility: John Henry Newman’s Alleged Disbelief  in Papal Infallibility Prior to 1870, and Supposed Intellectual Dishonesty Afterwards [8-11-11]
Bishop Butler’s book is partially available (8 chapters of 11) in old Internet Archive files (see chapters one / two / three / four / five / six / seven) and another web page with Chapter Ten. Most of these files will eventually be inaccessible, so I have decided to select highlights of all of these chapters, and also from chapters eight, nine, and eleven, from my own hardcover copy of the book.  The words below are all from Bishop Butler, edited and abridged by myself. I will indicate which chapter excerpts are from, but not page numbers. Subtitles are not his own. George Salmon’s words will be in blue; St. Cardinal Newman’s words in green.
See other installments of this series:
Chapter One: Introductory
On the Development of Doctrine

[T]he whole discussion must necessarily be dominated by the idea of development. It is a fact which every enquirer can see for himself, and which no believer can deny, that Christianity has developed. Ritual and ceremonial developments are obvious and are not, in themselves, important. There has been devotional development. There has also been theological development. And — most important for our present argument — there has been dogmatic and, I add, doctrinal development. A clear illustration of dogmatic development is the articulation of Christian belief about the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity in the great conciliar decisions from A.D. 325 to A.D. 680. The result of such development is that many statements by the Fathers of the first three centuries would be condemned as heretical if made by medieval or modern writers. Similarly, it can be said that the doctrine of the sacramental minister has developed since the days of St. Cyprian, who denied the reality of Baptism conferred by schismatics and heretics.

The question arises whether the fact of such developments is compatible with the Christian claim that there was a complete revelation of saving truth made to the Apostles. In other words, has Christianity preserved its identity, or are these so-called developments, or some of them, really additions to the alleged original revelation, so that modern Christianity is not really the same thing as the “message” given, it is said, by God to mankind in Jesus Christ? This is a question which every enquirer has, in the long run, to answer for himself. But there can surely be no valid a priori objection to the hypothesis of genuine doctrinal development. Development seems to be almost universal in the world of biology, as also in that of human affairs. And if Christianity is a living thing it is only to be expected that it too will develop. A butterfly is a developed caterpillar. An adult man is a developed infant. In both these cases the development strikes the imagination very forcibly. Thus the definition of homo sapiens is “a rational animal”; and a child four days old is a specimen of homo sapiens. But the rationality of the child is latent or potential rather than actual and visible. As the babe grows into childhood, boyhood and adolescence, the struggle of rationality to assert itself takes varying forms and suffers diverse vicissitudes. A long time elapses before rationality can be said to take habitual effective control. Yet the individual in question is, in external self-manifestation, most true to his own nature not at the beginning but at the end of the process.

The same may be true of Christianity, with special reference to the papal primacy and infallibility which Salmon denounces as corruptions of the original deposit of faith. There is no absurdity and no sophistry in maintaining that Christianity is by definition “papal,” just as man is by definition rational, even if the operation and recognition of the papal prerogatives in the fourth century were as hard to discern as the rationality of the human baby, or the wings of a caterpillar.

When, however, Salmon asks why should development not take place in the case of Protestant doctrine too, the answer is of course that there is no a priori reason against it, although in fact Protestant doctrine tends not to exhibit this phenomenon of vitality. But development outside the body of continuing Christian experience, development which has at its origin a violent break with the Catholic past which alone can form a biological link with Christian origins, has as such no claim upon our acceptance.

The great modern champion of the idea of development was of course John Henry Cardinal Newman, who describes the view on which he writes, as follows:

That the increased expansion of the Christian Creed and Ritual, and the variations which have attended the process in the case of individual writers and Churches, are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and heart, and has had any wise or extended dominion: that, form the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfect of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation. [Essay on Development, 29f.]

And again from Newman:

It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become broad, and deep, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains for a time perhaps quiescent: it tries, as it were, its limbs and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory: points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. [Ibid., 40]

It is with such thoughts and expectations that we ought to turn to the study of Christian history; and my chief complaint against Salmon in the part of his book devoted to the history of papalism is that he supposes that if Catholicism is true the Papacy ought to have been functioning, and its authority to have been recognized, almost as unmistakably in antiquity as now. But he is pushing at an open door. The action and the theory of the modern Papacy are the outcome of an age-long growth, and we must seek in the pages of history less for a proof of the papal claims than for the evidence that they have shared in, and been central to, the general development of that society which is our only historical link with the origins of Christianity. Again I would quote Newman:

For myself, I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence: but at the same time that no doctrine can be simply disproved by it. Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way: sometimes it goes only so far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained — in all cases, there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church. He who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic. [Letter to the Duke of Norfolk in Difficulties of Anglicans (1896), ii, 312.]

The Cardinal Error of Protestants

It may even be said that the cardinal error of Protestantism was to identify development with corruption. There was a school of Anglican divines who took as their criterion of doctrine not the living voice of the contemporary Church but (for some reason not easily apparent) the first four or five centuries of Christian history. Other Protestants, more logical and more radical, made the Bible their sole criterion; and this is, formally, at least, the Anglican position as stated in the Thirty-Nine Articles. But liberal Protestantism has had to go further still, and Harnack, when faced by the argument of Batiffol’s Primitive Catholicism that the germ of Catholicism was present in the Christianity of the Apostles, fell back on the last line of strictly Protestant defense — that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Apostles and their Master.

The truth is, that development is visible in that brief section of the Christian story of which the New Testament books are a fragmentary record, and in the last resort the choice is between accepting the principle of development and rejecting the Christian claim to possess a divine revelation.

Chapter Two: The Infallibility of the Church
The issues of the Protestant controversy with the Roman Catholic Church (says Salmon) “mainly turn on one great question,” that, namely, of the infallibility of the Church. If the Roman Catholic Church is infallible, then obviously it is too late to appeal against it either to Scripture or to history.

Before I comment on this statement of what Salmon conceived to be the main issue between Protestants and Catholics, I think it desirable to scrutinise some of the other statements in the first chapter of the Abridgement. Thus, as an example of Salmon’s controversial tone, it may be observed that after stating that in the Tracts for the Times Newman and his co-adjutors, being then Protestants, had published “excellent refutations of the Roman doctrine on purgatory and on some other points” he goes on to say that, on joining the Church, these men “bound themselves to believe and teach as true things which they had themselves proved to be false.” The word “proved” here may or may not be meant to suggest that these converts were insincere in their profession of doctrines against which they had formerly argued. It certainly leaves an unpleasant flavour on the tongue, and it would have been easy to substitute “rejected as false” for “proved to be false.” A writer who can either cleverly or negligently arouse such suspicions by the casual use of a single word needs to be watched carefully when he comes to make broad historical statements.

Again, it is inaccurate to say that the writers of the Tracts “allowed themselves to be persuaded” that Christ must have provided some infallible guide to truth, and then

accepted the Church of Rome as that guide, with scarcely an attempt to make a careful scrutiny of the grounds of her pretensions, and merely because, if she were not that guide, they knew not where else to find it.

This is doubly inaccurate. Newman has himself told us how his case against the Catholic Church in his Protestant days had been that while the Church could claim “universality” in contrast to the provincialism of the Anglican Church, the Anglicans could appeal to “antiquity” against the corruption of Rome. The crisis came for him when he realised, not the need of an infallible guide, but that antiquity itself gave its witness for Roman Catholicism against Anglicanism. And as for the suggestion that submission to the Church was made with “scarcely an attempt to make a careful scrutiny of the grounds of her pretensions,” Salmon can hardly have been ignorant that Newman’s conversion took about six years and bore fruit in the great Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a work which is a landmark in Christian thought and in itself a profound examination of the credibility of the Catholic claim.

Nor is it in the least reasonable to suggest that Newman “may have thought” that submission meant no more than belief “that everything the Church of Rome then taught was infallibly true” but not everything that she might subsequently teach. The whole Essay is concerned to show that dogmatic and doctrinal developments need not be inconsistent with fidelity to “the faith once delivered” (Jude 3) and we may assume that it had occurred to Newman that what had been characteristic of the Church for fifteen hundred years — namely, that her dogmas were constantly increasing in number and complexity — would probably continue to characterise her in the future.

Misrepresenting Cardinal Newman on Papal Infallibility

But it would seem that Salmon found it peculiarly difficult to be fair to Newman. In this same chapter he refers to the ferment in the Roman Catholic Church created by the expectation that a Council (that known to history as the [First] Vatican Council) was to be called to define the personal infallibility of the Pope, “so making it unnecessary that any future Council should be held”: [Salmon says]

Those who passed for the men of highest learning in that communion, and who had been wont to be most relied on, when learned Protestants were to be combatted, opposed with all their might the contemplated definition, as an entire innovation on the traditional teaching of the Church, and as absolutely contradicted by the facts of history. These views were shared by Dr. Newman . . . The Pope’s personal infallibility . . . was a doctrine so directly in the teeth of history, that Newman made no secret of his persuasion that the authoritative adoption of it would be attended with ruinous consequences to his Church . . . He wrote in passionate alarm to an English Roman Catholic Bishop [Ullathorne]: Why, he said, should an aggressive insolent faction be allowed ‘to make the heart of the just sad, whom the Lord hath not made sorrowful.

It will be observed that Salmon here states categorically that Newman, as a Catholic, before 1870, shared the view that the doctrine of the Pope’s personal infallibility was “absolutely contradicted by the facts of history,” and the unwary reader will naturally suppose that his opposition to the “aggressive insolent faction” was due to his belief that the doctrine was false.

For the facts we may turn to The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman by Wilfrid Ward. Ward, in discussing the period leading up to the Vatican Council, writes of a “determined group of neo-Ultramontanes” with a policy tending to “extreme centralization.” “It was not Ultramontanism in its time-honored sense but an ecclesiastico-political movement practically abrogating the normal constitution of Church and State alike.” A leader of this group, Veuillot, the editor of L’Univers, had written concerning the Pope: “We must….unswervingly follow his inspired directions,” although what the Church claims for the Pope is not inspiration, but merely Providential assistance. W. G. Ward in England had gone so far as to affirm that “in a figurative sense Pius IX may be said never to have ceased from one continuous ex cathedra pronouncement.” [Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, ii, 211f.]

Now Newman held that such men were trying to commit Catholic theologians to an entirely new view, ascribing infallibility to a Pope’s public utterances which were not definitions of faith or morals. “He could not forget such Popes as Liberius and Honorius. The action of these Pontiffs could, no doubt, in his opinion, be defended as consistent with Papal Infallibility,” but only by careful distinctions which Veuillot and W.G. Ward repudiated. Such men comprised the “aggressive insolent faction” which Newman protested against in his private letter to Ullathorne. And it is not surprising that he feared their influence and held that a definition of papal infallibility promoted by such men would be inopportune. But this is not to say that before 1870 he disbelieved the doctrine in the moderate form in which it was eventually defined, still less that he held it to be an “entire innovation on the traditional teaching, absolutely contradicted by the facts of history.” Newman’s position in 1867 is clearly stated in a letter to Pusey in that year:

A man will find it a religious duty to believe it, or may safely disbelieve it, in proportion as he thinks it probable or improbable that the Church might or will define it, or does hold it, and that it is the doctrine of the Apostles. For myself…I think that the Church may define it (i.e. it possibly may turn out to belong to the original depositum), but that she will not ever define it; and again I do not see that she can be said to hold it. She never can simply act upon it (being undefined, as it is), and I believe never has — moreover, on the other hand, I think there is a good deal of evidence, on the very surface of history and the Fathers, in its favour. On the whole then I hold it: but I should account it no sin if, on the grounds of reason, I doubted it. [Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, ii, 221]

A letter earlier in the same year to Henry Wilberforce expresses Newman’s mind as follows:

For myself, I have never taken any great interest in the question of the limits and seat of infallibility. I was converted simply because the Church was to last to the end, and that no communion answered to the Church of the first ages but the Roman Communion, both in substantial likeness and in actual descent. And as to faith, my great principle was: ‘securus judicat orbis terrarum.’ So I say now — and in all these questions of detail I say to myself, I believe whatever the Church teaches as the voice of God — and this or that particular inclusively, if she teaches this — it is this fides implicita which is our comfort in these irritating times. And I cannot go beyond this — I see arguments here, arguments there — I incline one way today another tomorrow — on the whole I more than incline in one direction — but I do not dogmatise . . . I have only an opinion at best (not faith) that the Pope is infallible. [Ibid., 234]

In the following year (1868) we find him writing to a Mr. Renouf, who had published a pamphlet on the case of Pope Honorius, as follows: “I hold the Pope’s Infallibility, not as a dogma, but as a theological opinion; that is, not as a certainty, but as a probability.”

When the Vatican Council actually came to define the Pope’s infallibility, the exaggerations of the neo-Ultramontanes were “definitely rejected.” [Ibid., 307] And on seeing the test of the definition Newman was able to write to a friend: “I saw the new definition yesterday and am pleased at its moderation — that is, if the doctrine in question is to be defined at all.” And on August 8th he wrote to Mrs. Froude:

As I have ever believed as much as the definition says, I have a difficulty in putting myself into the position of mind of those who have not . . . I very much doubt if at this moment — before the end of the Council, I could get myself publicly to say it was de fide, whatever came of it — though I believe the doctrine itself. [Ibid., 308]

It thus appears that there were, before the Council’s definition, two opinions about papal infallibility, a moderate one and an extreme one. Newman on the whole held the moderate one while strongly opposing the extreme view, whose more violent upholders he stigmatised as an aggressive insolent faction. The Vatican Council itself came down on the side of the moderate opinion, and Newman’s only remaining hesitations were a temporary one as to whether the moment had come when this opinion was in fact de fide, and a more lasting one as to the exact scope of the definition — “what we may grant, what we must maintain.” [Letter of April, 1872 (ibid., 312)] By December 1874 he had cleared his mind on the latter point, as can be seen from his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.”

It is thus that Salmon has gravely misrepresented Newman’s whole attitude to the papal infallibility question. He has given his readers the impression that the dogma as actually defined was something that Newman had regarded as in absolute contradiction with the facts of history and he has represented an opposition to the dogma’s opportuneness as an opposition to its content. It may be said, in Salmon’s defense, that the Life, from which I have been quoting, was not published when his own book appeared. But the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk had appeared before the end of 1875, and Salmon’s first edition was dated 1888. I append a few extracts from the former (it had been alleged that it was understood at one time that Newman “was on the point of uniting with Dr. Dollinger and his party” who refused to submit to the Vatican definition, “and that it required the earnest persuasion of ‘several bishops’ to prevent him from taking that step”): Newman responded —

. . . an unmitigated and most ridiculous untruth in every word of it . . . But the explanation of such reports about me is easy. They arise from forgetfulness . . . that there are two sides of ecclesiastical acts, that right ends are often prosecuted by unworthy means, and that in consequence those who, like myself, oppose a line of action, are not necessarily opposed to the issue for which it has been adopted . . . On July 24, 1870, I wrote as follows: ‘I saw the new Definition yesterday, and am pleased at its moderation . . . The terms are vague and comprehensive; and, personally, I have no difficulty in admitting it . . .’ Also I wrote as follows to a friend: (July 27, 1870) ‘. . . for myself, ever since I was a Catholic, I have held the Pope’s infallibility as a matter of theological opinion; at least, I see nothing in the Definition which necessarily contradicts Scripture, Tradition, or History . . . ‘ [Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 299-304]

Misrepresenting Cardinal Newman on the Immaculate Conception

It may seem that I have spent too long on a very small detail. But so much of Salmon’s book is taken up with what I may call “creating an atmosphere” against Catholicism and loyal Catholics that it may be worthwhile to draw attention to a remark in that same chapter of the book about Newman’s attitude to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception:

He was too well acquainted with Church history not to know that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was a complete novelty, unknown by early times . . . But when the Pope formally promulgated that doctrine as part of the essential faith of the Church, he had submitted in silence.

The doctrine was defined in 1854. In the Essay on Development (1845) Newman had pointed out that the condemnation of Arianism had left vacant “in the realms of light” a place for Mary to fill:

Thus there was ‘a wonder in heaven’: a throne was seen, far above all other created powers, mediatorial, intercessory; a title archetypal; a crown bright as the morning star; a glory issuing from the Eternal Throne; robes pure as the heavens; and a sceptre over all; and who was the predestined heir of that Majesty? . . . The vision is found in the Apocalypse, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The votaries of Mary do not exceed the true faith, unless the blasphemers of her Son [the Arians] come up to it. The Church of Rome is not idolatrous, unless Arianism is orthodoxy.

And he quotes St. Augustine’s saying that all have sinned “except the Holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, for the honour of the Lord, I wish no question to be raised at all, when we are treating of sins.” [Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 143-6]

The passage quoted here from the Essay on Development was written before Newman became a Catholic. In 1846, the year following his reception into the Church, we find him writing from Rome about the doubtful reception accorded by two Roman professors to his views on development, and he adds: “By the bye it is an encouraging fact, connected with the theory of development, that . . . Perrone is writing a book to show that the Immaculate Conception may be made an article of faith.” [Life, i, 161.]

Three years later (the Dedication is dated In Fest S. Caroli, November 4, 1849), he published his Discourses to Mixed Congregations, from which I quote the following:

Consider, that, since Adam fell, none of his seed but has been conceived in sin; none, save one. One exception there has been — who is that one? Not our Lord Jesus, for he was not conceived of man, but of the Holy Ghost; not our Lord, but I mean His Virgin Mother, who, though conceived and born of human parents, as others, yet was rescued by anticipation from the common condition of mankind, and never was partaker in fact of Adam’s transgression . . . ‘Thou art all fair, O Mary, and the stain original is not in thee.'” [Discourses to Mixed Congregations (1892), 49]

As grace was infused into Adam from the first moment of his creation….so was grace given from the first in still ampler measure to Mary, and she never incurred, in fact, Adam’s deprivation….I am not proving these doctrines to you, my brethren: the evidence of them lies in the declaration of the Church. [Ibid, 354-6.]

Salmon may not have been guilty of knowing and disregarding the Discourses, but if he had not read the Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Newman’s conversion and autobiography) he had no right to describe Newman’s states of mind at all. I therefore quote the following from that famous work, first published in 1864, ten years after the Definition of the Immaculate Conception:

Let me take the doctrine which Protestants consider our greatest difficulty, that of the Immaculate Conception. Here I entreat the reader to recollect my main drift, which is this. I have no difficulty in receiving the doctrine; and that because it so intimately harmonises with that circle of recognised dogmatic truths, into which it has recently been received….it is a simple fact to say, that Catholics have not come to believe it because it is defined, but that it was defined because they believed it….I never heard of one Catholic having difficulties in receiving the doctrine, whose faith on other grounds was not already suspicious. Of course, there were grave and good men, who were made anxious by the doubt whether it could be formally proved to be Apostolical either by Scripture or Tradition, and who accordingly, though believing it themselves, did not see how it could be defined by authority and imposed upon all Catholics as a matter of faith; but this is another matter. The point in question is, whether the doctrine is a burden. I believe it to be none. [Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1902), 254f.]

Newman does not state whether he had shared the anxiety of the “grave and good men” to whom he refers, but his letter of 1846 from Rome, quoted above, shows that his own theory of development must have made it easier for him than for some others to admit that the doctrine is a genuine development of the faith “once delivered.” For a theological defense of the doctrine “as an immediate inference from the primitive doctrine that Mary is the second Eve” I may refer to the Letter to Pusey (1865) in Difficulties of Anglicans (ii, p. 31-50; cf. 128-52).

Now I do not profess to know what Salmon meant to convey by saying that Newman had “submitted in silence” to the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. But I think I know the sort of impression that that phrase will have left, and might have been expected by its author to leave, on many minds; and I think I have shown that that impression is entirely false to the tone and contents of a number of passages in Newman’s writings, nearly all of which had been long available to Salmon’s inspection when he first published his book. I conclude that Salmon is a very unsafe guide for those who have not the opportunity and the inclination to check both his definite assertions and the impression conveyed by his use of language.

Infallibility: The Last Refuge?

We may now revert to the chapter entitled “The Question of Infallibility.” Salmon there speaks of opponents of the proposed definition (of papal infallibility) who, however, submitted to it once it had been imposed. Some of these, he says, thus surrendered “their most deep-rooted beliefs” solely in deference to external authority. It will be desirable, later on, to consider how much of the opposition in question had been due to an opinion that the proposed definition was inopportune, how much to a doubt whether its matter, though perhaps true, was definable as part of the faith, and how much to real “disbelief” in the matter of the definition. Assuming that there were some, who had hitherto “denied the truth of the new dogma” who now accepted it, it must be pointed out that for a Catholic a “belief” based on his own theological opinions unsupported by the verdict of the Church stands on a different, and a lower, footing compared with that of an article of faith. The former kind of belief is not, for a Catholic, among his “most deep-rooted beliefs” — it is less deep-rooted than his belief, or rather his certainty, that the Church’s voice is the voice of God. It was therefore proper and honourable for such men to “submit” to an external authority whose claim upon them coincided with the deepest intimations of their own conscience.

Salmon presents the doctrine of the Church’s infallibility as the “last refuge of a beaten army” — an earlier refuge had been the appeal to Tradition. When the early Protestants appealed against the Church to Scripture

the Roman Catholic advocates ceased to insist that the doctrines of the Church could be deduced from Scripture; but the theory of early heretics, refuted by Irenaeus, was revived, namely, that the Bible does not contain the whole of God’s revelation, and that a body of traditional doctrine existed in the Church equally deserving of veneration.

On this rather characteristic sentence I comment as follows:

(1) Salmon here suggests that the appeal to Tradition as a source of doctrine parallel to Scripture was a Counter-Reformation invention. But the second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, seven hundred and fifty years before the Council of Trent, had anathematised “anyone who rejects ecclesiastical tradition written or unwritten.” [Denzinger-Bannwart (15th ed), No. 308.]

St. Irenaeus on Sacred Tradition

(2) It is perhaps hardly necessary to point out that the (alleged) heretical apostolic traditions which Irenaeus rejected were rejected by him upon the precise ground that if the Apostles had had any traditions to consign to posterity they would have entrusted them not to a line of hidden teachers ending up in the heresiarchs but to the legitimate succession of public teachers in the Catholic Church (quoting St. Irenaeus) :

When [the heretics] are faced with objections derived from the Scriptures, they set about to attack the Scriptures as not being correct or authoritative, as saying different things, and as only conveying truth to those who know the tradition, which was not handed down in writing but viva voce….But when we appeal to that tradition which comes from the Apostles and is preserved in the Churches by the succession of the elders, they oppose tradition, saying that they are wiser not only than the elders but than the apostles and have discovered the pure truth.

Irenaeus then points to the preservation of the true tradition and apostolic succession of bishops in the local Churches:

All who are willing to see the truth can perceive in every [or all the] Church the tradition of the Apostles manifested in all the world; we can enumerate those appointed by the Apostles bishops in the Churches, and those who succeeded to them, who never taught or knew anything like the ravings of the heretics. Had the Apostles known hidden mysteries, which they taught the perfect separately and secretly from others, they would have handed them on especially to those to whom they were entrusting the Churches. [Adv Haer III, ii, 3.]

For a modern presentation of Irenaeus’ views about Scripture and Tradition we may turn to The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus (1948) by a non-Catholic writer, Mr. John Lawson, a former student of Wesley House, Cambridge [quotations omitted for brevity’s sake]. If Mr. Lawson’s interpretation of Irenaeus is correct, it would seem that in this matter of the authority of “unwritten” Tradition the second-century Bishop of Lyons stands with the Second Council of Nicaea, the Council of Trent, and Cardinal Newman (in the passage quoted below); and with Cardinal Manning in his condemnation of an appeal away from the voice of the contemporary Church; and that it is quite illegitimate to suggest that he stood with the “Bible-only” school of thought against Sacred Tradition.

[Dave: for related reading, see my articles:

Irenaeus (d. c. 200) vs. Sola Scriptura [8-1-03]

Chrysostom & Irenaeus: Sola Scripturists? (vs. David T. King) [4-20-07]

Lutheran Chemnitz Wrong Re Fathers & Sola Scriptura (mostly dealing with St. Irenaeus and Tertullian) [8-29-07]

Did I Take St. Irenaeus Out of Context (Rule of Faith)? [11-29-17] ]


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Photo credit: book cover of Butler’s The Church and Infallibility, from its Amazon page.


Summary: Bishop B. C. Butler critiqued the anti-infallibility arguments & rampant misrepresentations & quotes out of context, of anti-Catholic George Salmon, in 1954.

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