If Magisterial Confessions are Fallible…

Jun 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Jason Stellman, at his provocative blog De Regnis Duobus (Concerning the Two Kingdoms) recently composed a fascinating reflection on Protestant confessionalism entitled “The Complexities of Confessionalism”.

Stellman writes:

The options, as I see them, are as follows: confessional denominations like the PCA [Presbyterian Church in America] ]can either (1) broaden our theological parameters to make room for someone who can make a case that his theology is biblically plausible, or (2) we can insist that our ministers at times must avoid speaking the Bible’s language for fear of muddying the systematic waters.

And I must say, I’m not completely thrilled about either of those choices (but then, who ever said being confessional would be easy?).

I find this fascinating. Would it be accurate say that there is a built-in tension in magisterial Protestant traditions since the magisterial documents (WCF, Belgic Conf, 39 Articles, etc.) are considered fallible interpretations of the infallible Scriptures?


It’s almost like multiplying a positive number times a negative number – you always get a negative product. No matter how big your positive number, the negative number always yields a negative product. If you have a fallible document interpreting an infallible document, the produce will always be fallible. Hence, the built-in tension of magisterial Protestantism.

With Catholicism you get an infallible interpretation of an infallible document. It’s like multiplying a positive number by positive number. The answer is always positive. As Hannibal from the A-Team says: “I love it when a plan comes together!

Flannery O’Conner once remarked at a dinner party concerning the Holy Eucharist:

“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

Perhaps we might say the same about any magisterial tradition without the claim of infallibility:

“Well, if confessionalism relies on a fallible magisterium, to hell with it.”

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  1. Taylor,

    “Well, if confessionalism relies on a fallible magisterium, to hell with it.”

    This is precisely why the “fallible magisterium” position essentially reduces to (and necessarily over time collapses into the explicit practice of) “private judgment.” If the “fallible magisterium” could be wrong about everything, then in the context of a non-sacramental notion of ordination, everything they say can be second-guessed, in which case nothing they say has authority. And then there is no reason why we must submit to their interpretation of Scripture. Who are they? This is why the demon said, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” (Acts 19:15) The demon is speaking about authority (and the lack thereof), not about his depth of social knowledge. When we consider the various heresies throughout the history of the Church, we can see that any one of them could say, “Follow me because my interpretation is right.” But only the Church could say, “Follow us because we have the authority by sacramental succession from the Apostles to say definitively which interpretations are right and which are not.”

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. everything they say can be second-guessed, in which case nothing they say has authority.

    To ward off the objections that are doubtlessly coming:

    Objection: Something can still have authority without being infallible. My boss, for example, has authority over me though not infallible.

    Reply: 1. Your boss has authority which is binding insofar as you allow him. You grant him authority over you in exchange for a salary. A believer, in no way, grants the Church authority. Her authority is from Christ.

    2. You have a consumerist ecclesiology and this allows you to falsely pretend to have Church authority. You select a “church” closest to your liking. This is not submission to real authority.

    Unless you can make a case why your particular church has objective inherent rights to an authority that cannot be questioned by you as individual, you do not believe in real Church authority – only a counterfeit.

    The authority of the Church is much more like a king than of a business. Jesus founded a kingdom not a corporation.

  3. Hey Taylor,

    Great point about multiplying a negative number. Your article made me think of some ordination exams I’ve sat through where aspiring pastors “take exceptions” to various points of doctrine. Although the Reformed tradition denies that private judgment is the ultimate authority, you see, as pastors “take exception” that private judgment is the ultimate rule of faith.

    I like the length of your article too, very readable, Peace in Christ, Jeremy

  4. Bryan and Taylor,

    If I may be permitted, what of this: confessional truth-claims approximate truth, and do not need to be infallible to do so. And something that approaches truth has a worth, even if not yet at perfect truth. The Catholic finds great benefit in studying Aristotle because of his work which approaches the fullness of truth. So not “to hell with them,” but “to bat for them.” I mean, what of a confessional Reformed world where believers strive to climb the heights of truth, to constantly refine the confessions and root out error, and perfect what is already true to greater precision and clarity?

    Of course, this involves a negative critique of the constitutional format of the confession, specifically of the inherent tendency away from revision or modification of a confession.

    Peace in Christ,

  5. Tom,

    If I may be permitted, what of this: confessional truth-claims approximate truth, and do not need to be infallible to do so. And something that approaches truth has a worth, even if not yet at perfect truth.

    Note, too, that a confession can approximate the truth to the limiting degree — namely, by being perfectly accurate/correct — without its being the case that the confession is infallibly produced. A confession like that would have a great deal of worth if truth is the measure of it. So I think you’re right that we shouldn’t say to hell with ’em if they can’t claim to have been infallibly produced, even if this leaves the main epistemological worries underlying Taylor’s post unaddressed.


  6. If you guys thought THAT was interesting, check out what I found out a month or so ago, you will likely be stunned:

  7. I used to go to one website: http://www.nicenetruth.com. Then I went to two when I began visiting Called to Communion. Because of you, Nick, now I’m at 3. thanks!

  8. Taylor,

    I noticed that you wrote: With Catholicism you get an infallible interpretation of an infallible document. It’s like multiplying a positive number by positive number. The answer is always positive.

    Aren’t you presupposing the fact that your Catholic interpretations are “infallible?” If your presupposition is not correct, then your answer is worse than a “fallible” interpretation. It is an interpretation that is unquestioned and followed blindly by millions of men and women who put their faith in the Catholic Chruch’s claims to authority instead of (yes, I mean “instead of”) the authority of the plenory Scripture.

    In Him,

  9. Tim,

    Interresting post. Have you thought of other forms of “legitimate” and “fallible” authority which Scripture itself teaches, such as the authority of a man over his wife? If a man’s wife does not “allow” her husband to have authority over her, would we not say that she is simply in sin? Would you also say that every husband is required to have “infallible” suthority over his wife? Certainly not!

    Infallible authority doesn not mean that it is not “real and binding” authority, as I beilieve Scripture plainly teaches.

    The fact that Rome claims to have authority to interpret Scripture “infallibly” seems to be quite lacking in humility…

    I’m still waiting to hear how Rome has been granted an “infallible” card which she can play whenever she so chooses. To me, this seems a bit … overreaching (to be polite).

    In Him,

  10. Hi, Keith.

    I don’t want to preempt Tim’s response to you, but you really strike a chord with me when you worry about the lack of humility in “Rome’s” claim to be able to infallibly interpret Scripture. This always sounded crazy to me, too.

    But let me ask you to consider a parallel charge. How would you respond if an Arminian were to tell you that you are just being full of pride and altogether lacking in humility when you affirm that you will persevere in sanctification, will not lose your justification, and will finally be saved? How would you respond to this? Wouldn’t you say, “Hold on, I do believe that I will persevere and be saved, but my confidence in this is not grounded in anything special about me. To the contrary, it is God who began this good work in me, and it is God who has promised to see it to completion; yes, I must — and I will work out my salvation in fear and trembling, and I will do so successfully; but it is only because it is God who has promised to work in me, and the God who promised me this does not lie.”

    Wouldn’t you say something like that? Wouldn’t you accuse the Arminian of getting things bassackwards, by accusing you of pride because you believe in your own perseverance, when really your belief in your own perseverance is grounded, not in your own abilities and strength, but in the trustworthiness of God?

    If you’re with me so far, try to transfer that line of thought over into the case before us. We Catholics do not hold that the Church is “infallible” or “indefectible” because of the natural strength, power, wisdom, or goodness of the men who make up the Magisterium (or the people who make up the Catholic Church at large). Rather, when we say that the Church will not defect, will not be driven into apostasy, into soul-destroying error — when we say all this, we say this because we believe that God Himself has promised to remain with the Church and to preserve her, even til the end of the ages. All the talk about “infallibility” and “indefectibility” etc. derives precisely from our faith in God and in His promises, and not in the superior native powers of individuals making up the Church — in precisely the same way that your assurance in your own election, perseverance, and final salvation, is grounded in God’s power and faithfulness, and not in anything about you personally.

    It isn’t that big of a leap, really. You may disagree with the position we hold concerning the Church, and you may disagree with our identification of “the Church” with “the Catholic Church.” But what you cannot do, I think, is accuse us of a lack of humility when we affirm by faith God’s trustworthy promises to remain with the Body of Christ, if you are at the same time unwilling to let the Arminian tell you that your Calvinist outlook betrays a lack of humility. The Arminian’s just wrong when he accuses you of pride. And you are just wrong, in precisely the same way, I think, when you accuse the Catholic Church of pride. You are, I think, in exactly the same way, misunderstanding the theological rationale behind the affirmations we make.



    (By the way, I finally responded to you on the Self-Authentication thread, but I don’t know if you saw it or not. No obligation to respond, just wanted you to know it’s there.)

  11. Keith,

    Touche’ – the husband and wife analogy is a good point. It is true that fallible authority exists which we need to obey. Even bad authority: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters.”

    But my point isn’t that authority needs to be infallible to be real (universally). My point is that the objection raised above: ” Something can still have authority without being infallible” is not applicable to the Church for the reasons I stated.

    My argument does not prove that the Church actually has infallible authority. I only argue that it is not a conclusive argument against it to say that there are known forms of fallible authority against which we could only sinfully rebel.

    Your point certainly demonstrates that it is possible to have fallible authority which we ought to obey; but I conceded this already by raising the objection myself. If it wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be a good objection. But the objection fails, again for the reasons I stated, because it only points out that the premise is not universally true.

    1. The Church is infallible and therefore has real authority. To reject her infallibility is to reject her real authority.
    Objection – she is not infallible because men may be subject to fallible authority.

    Compare with:

    2. The Church is one and therefore there is no other Church but the Catholic Church.
    Objection – Mircrosoft is one, but there are other software companies.

    Do you see how the objections both point out a failure in the premise as a universal truth? The objections (both of them) fail on the account of the particular nature of the Church. The second objection is true of Microsoft, but not true of the Church. Likewise for the first.

    You may judge which software company is best – you may not judge which Church is best. Likewise, a wife may decide that her husband is in error but a Christian may not decide that the Church is in error.

    Whether the Church is truly infallible – we have yet to discuss (we will). We have demonstrated that she is one and that she is a visible hierarchical continuum. The issue of Church infallibility is an important one and one that will require much prayerful dialogue. We should be on the same page about these other issues first though. There’s no reason to talk about the infallible Church if we don’t believe that she’s one. Likewise, we cannot talk about her being infallible if we say she is essentially invisible.

  12. This fallacy of this entire argument is easily demonstrated by the fact that Israel had a fallible magisterium in the Levitical priesthood. If God Himself established a fallible magisterium in the Levitical priesthood, it follows that is utter nonesense to make infallibility into a logical necessity.

  13. Frank,

    It seems to me that there is a sense in which the OT magisterium (teaching authority) was infallible; i.e., it included the ministry of prophets such as Moses through whom was given public, divine revelation.

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