Inspiration and Infallibility

Jul 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

These thoughts are prompted by some comments made over at Green Baggins, which is hands down the best blog name that I have ever seen. The topic is also related to the ongoing discussion under Neal Judisch’s post, Calvin on ‘Self-Authentication.’ The question at hand is whether or not the Catholic Church’s claim to infallibility is significantly distinct from a claim to inspiration. If not, then it seems that the Church effectively equates the authority of infallibly taught (though putatively non-inspired) ecclesial dogmas with the authority of Sacred Scripture (which is inspired as well as infallible).

It is not necessarily easy to see the difference between divine inspiration and ecclesial infallibility. Each of these involves a mysterious, pedagogical activity of the Holy Spirit, working in and through fallible men so that we might know the truth about God and salvation. There are, however, significant differences between inspiration and infallibility. Here is my very fallible attempt to explain what those differences are:

1. All inspired teaching is infallible, but not all infallible teaching is inspired.

2. Divine inspiration is an act of God whereby a human being is so moved by the Holy Spirit that the words which he utters or writes are (in a mystery) the very words of God. The work of God, in this case, pertains directly to the words spoken or written by inspiration.

3. Ecclesial infallibility is a gift of God, such that, when the whole Church expresses her mind, in an ordinary or extraordinary way, on matters of faith and morals, she is protected from error by the Holy Spirit. The Church’s infallible teachings are not the very words of God.

4. In the case of inspiration, the Spirit is directing someone to speak or write something, i.e., God’s word. In the case of ecclesial infallibility, the Spirit is preventing someone from saying or writing something, i.e., error.

5. A text or utterance given by inspiration is a divine revelation. As such, its content need not be either explicitly or implicitly contained in the deposit of faith (also called the “treasury of revelation”) received up to that time. A text or utterance promulgated infallibly, though not by inspiration, merely explicates the deposit of faith, and must be at least implicitly contained therein.

6. God’s word is radiant and delectable, a light unto the path, food for the soul. The Church’s non-inspired teachings, even those which have been taught infallibly, are mere eye drops, to wash away the confusion that would be foisted upon the faithful by those who misapprehend the word of God.

7. The basic distinction is between divine revelation and the unerring exposition of this revelation. The latter involves the subjective apprehension, by the Church, of the objective revelation of God. This ecclesial apprehension, and subsequent exposition, of the word of God does not belong merely to the natural order, because the Church has the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), together with the mandate to express that mind (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Holy Spirit of truth (John 14:26), whereby she is constituted and maintained as “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

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  1. Andrew:

    Two points need emphasis here. First, the doctrine of the Magisterium’s infallibility (DMI) does not mean that anything the Magisterium says is divinely inspired. The Church has never taught that the Holy Spirit is the primary author of Magisterial documents, as he is of the Bible. DMI means that when teaching something definitively, with its full authority binding the Church, the Magisterium is protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching a falsehood. What is so taught might be defective in various other ways: it could be incomplete, inopportune, or capable of better formulation. But its being infallibly taught means that we can be sure it is true. It is also and thus “irreformable,” which means that all subsequent formulations must be logically compatible with what it says.

    Second, in Dei Verbum §10, Vatican II said:

    the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

    It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

    Unlike Scripture, to which “inspiration” applies, the Magisterium is not a fontis of divine revelation. It is only the “authentic interpreter” thereof. Given DMI, it follows that what’s “infallible” are the Magisterium’s definitive interpretations of revelation. As I’ve implied, that is only a negative constraint; but it is essential to the transmission of divine revelation, of which Scripture and Tradition are the two primary means.

    Best,
    Mike

  2. The Church has never taught that the Holy Spirit is the primary author of Magisterial documents, as he is of the Bible.

    Mike, this observation is helpful. I had thought of trying to capture the difference between the two activities of the Spirit in terms of active (inspiration) and preventive (infallibility).

  3. Dear Michael,

    Thanks for the excellent and helpful comment. I wonder if you could help me with one part.

    You said: “What is so taught [that is, DMI] might be defective in various other ways: it could be incomplete, inopportune, or capable of better formulation.” By these characteristics, do you mean to make distinctions between DMI and Sacred Scripture? I had never thought of the question until now, but is it right to say that our infallible Scripture is capable of no better formulation? As one who waxes Catholic and wanes Reformed, I’ve often been frustrated that Scripture wasn’t just a teensey bit clearer on the more Catholic-distinctive teachings.

    Looking forward to a response if you have the opportunity.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  4. Tom:

    Is it right to say that our infallible Scripture is capable of no better formulation?

    I think that it is indeed right to say that. The law of the Lord is perfect. Every word of Scripture pertains to Jesus Christ, the Word. If we struggle to perceive the fullness of the revelation of Christ Jesus in the inspired, written word, the fault lies with us.

    As individuals, our tendency is to fall away from the perfection of the inspired word into confusion and / or error. This is why we must read Sacred Scripture within the sacred community of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, which has the mind of Christ, and knows the things of Christ intuitively, the way the spirit of a man knows the things of a man.

    This is why the Church, in her infallible formulations of Christian doctrine, is not completely dependent upon discursive reasoning from the letter of Sacred Scripture. She has privileged access to the subject of Sacred Scripture. As a word of testimony, I can say that reading the Bible with the Church is the most wonderful experience in the world, with the exception of receiving absolution and a good Communion.

    I hope that Michael and others will also address your question.

  5. Tom:

    Scripture and the Magisterium are quite different. Scripture and Tradition together transmit to us the full material content of the deposit of faith, whereas the Magisterium is only the “authentic” interpreter thereof. Thus the Magisterium is not on the same level as Scripture or Tradition, but serves them by securing their proper interpretation by the faithful.

    As to your question: “[I]s it right to say that our infallible Scripture is capable of no better formulation?”, I’d answer by invoking a distinction. Scripture is “perfect” inasmuch as, given that the Holy Spirit is its primary author, it conveys all and only the truth that the Holy Spirit wills to convey by means of it. But Scripture is not perfect in the sense that it makes everything perfectly clear by itself. It can be properly understood and interpreted only together with Tradition and the Magisterium. That’s why Vatican II said that none of the three can stand without the others.

    Best,
    Mike

  6. Tom wrote: “Is it right to say that our infallible Scripture is capable of no better formulation? As one who waxes Catholic and wanes Reformed, I’ve often been frustrated that Scripture wasn’t just a teensey bit clearer on the more Catholic-distinctive teachings.”

    In some sense, the Scriptures would have been “better” formulated as a catechism which spelled out explicitly each and every important doctrine. For instance, Baptism does X, Y, and Z but does not do A, B, and C. Instead we get passages like “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” which earnest Christians can interpret differently.

    Wouldn’t it have been a “better” formulation–not just for Catholic-distinctive teachings but for every teaching–to have things made explicit? For instance, Jesus says, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) which played right into the hands of people like Arius in the 4th century; why didn’t Jesus follow-up by saying: “But the Father and I are one in being with each other, consubstantial, and by the way, so is the Holy Spirit, who is also God, and who proceeds from both the Father and I”?

    Obviously I do not claim that the Holy Spirit could have done a “better” job of inspiring Scripture–as Michael said above, He did what He did and accomplished what He wanted to through it. But to me, it demonstrates the need for “something else”, a complement to the Scriptures if you will, by which we could know what is true and what is false. You know that, as a Catholic, I believe these “complements” are the full apostolic Tradition with the Magisterium faithfully interpreting them.

  7. Devin – Good point. We take revelation as it comes.

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