On Perspicuity and the Inclusion of Commentaries

Jul 23rd, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Are our commentaries leading us to God, or to our own notion of His truth?

Are our commentaries leading us to God, or our own notion of His truth?

In his recent blog post entitled Commentary not Included, Tom Brown has brought up an essential element in the debate over sola scriptura. He highlights an article in the July 2009 issue of Tabletalk by Dr. Derek Thomas, where Dr. Thomas writes in opposition to solo scriptura. He points out that sola scriptura, as understood by Reformed thinkers, does not rule out the use of commentaries to gain insight on the Word of God. In fact, given the nature of human fallibility, it is almost a rule that one should suspect one who holds no interest in knowing about what has been said about the Scriptures in the past by other minds.

I would like to follow up on Tom’s observations with some more considerations on this issue of what it means to get guidance from another, and what that implies about sola scriptura.

First, there is this comparison of a good Christian today to the Ethiopian eunuch who rightly sought illumination of the Scriptures that had troubled him. In Acts 8, we read of this man puzzling over Isaiah, and in his humility of heart, he replies to the question of whether he understands what he has before him by saying, ”How can I, unless someone guides me?” How different this is from so many Christians today, who advocate the me and Jesus mentality that is perpetuated by a disrespect for continuity and covenant, wittingly or unwittingly. But even granting that we need advice, we need to consider this passage in Acts to ourselves with more scrutiny. It would certainly be easy if we were all Ethiopian eunuchs who came across someone like Deacon Philip, who had been closely associated with the Apostles. But then again, if we are to imagine ourselves in such a position as the Ethiopian, to fully apply this scenario to the 21st century we would need to admit that there are scores of men willing to take us aside and put us under their tutelage. They might not all be named Philip (though doubtless there will be at least 3 with such a name), but they all claim the ability to shed light on the inspired Sacred Scriptures.

I suppose one can be content by saying that the solution to this quandary of whom to follow is obvious, as which teachers are accurate in their expounding of Sacred Scripture can be easily found by being like the proverbial Bereans, who “searched the Scriptures to see whether these things were so”. Of course, our view of the correct answer to this question of who is faithful to the Scriptures will vary greatly based on who seems inspired to us. However, if we have fallen short of perfection in our exegesis or philosophical presuppositions, we might unknowingly call one person a good guide when they were actually speaking to our sinful desires. St. Paul even had words of warning about this issue to Timothy, when he wrote:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 2 Timothy 4:3

In advocating commentaries, we all must be cautious and say that some commentaries will be shedding light on the Word of God, whereas others will fulfill Paul’s words that so tragically speak of so many false teachers. Many times commentators are valuable to us in some regards, but not in others. Thus, the Presbyterian reading a Reformed Baptist will be thankful for certain soteriological statements, but when that Reformed Baptist comments on the sacrament of Baptism, the Presbyterian will see a sin of deviating from the Scriptures. But how can we discern who is committing such a sin, and who is sharing the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is promised to guide us into all truth? (John 16:13) If the Anabaptist view of Baptism is true, the one sinning in our example is actually the Presbyterian. And thus the debates rage on, leading to situations where Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists have worked together to create ministries such as “Together for the Gospel,” but in actuality there have been conflicts such as these, where in 2007 Reformed Baptists wanted to refuse full communion to the Presbyterians due to their “invalid” baptisms. This was done, in the midst of a movement called Together for the Gospel. This says nothing of those who have actually held their fellow Protestant (and Catholic) brethren in disdain.

So with such a world of confusion, how can we say that the Holy Spirit is leading His people into all truth?

The answer to this question given by most Reformed writers is to say that the perspicuity of Scripture points to the light, and guides us into all truth, in accord with the witness born by the Holy Spirit. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states: “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” (WCF I.V)

But this notion of the perspicuity of Scripture, even if granted to be true for argument’s sake, says nothing of the perspicuity of my mind as an individual. I may be fully immune from committing formal and informal fallacies, but if history is a good predictor of the past, I will fall short as so many others have. So even if I am holding a completely accurate map of the world which I view to be perspicuous, if I read it wrong, I am going to get lost. The map sent one message to my mind about Greenland being west of Iceland, but my memory of a bad geography lesson might lead me to overlook that message from the map. Or maybe I just really want to go East instead of West, and so I go the wrong way, thinking I am heading towards Greenland. Of course, this sort of confusion is used to explain these circumstances of well meaning Christians disagreeing, but for some reason most people are not willing to consider that they are the ones who have got it wrong.

Fundamentally therefore, this argument that a perspicuous “lamp unto our feet” is our source of clarity boils down to a “bosom burning” experience, where each one is choosing which theologians (or, as is more often the case, which portions of a given theologian’s writings) are demonstrating clarity based on one’s own perspective.

Let’s go back to the original story from the book of Acts. As Tom Brown closed his post, he wrote:

“But the better lesson from Acts 8 is that we need someone to teach us (‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’), and that someone is the likes of Deacon Philip, not a teacher of my own choosing.”

There is a principled distinction between the approach of the Protestant who follows a teacher of their choosing and the adherent of the Apostolic Churches, Catholic and Orthodox. Both are volitional choices, but in one case, the Apostolic believer is adhering to a succession of the Apostles that is not only physically continuous throughout history, but whose precepts have remained unchanged throughout the centuries.

To do otherwise is to be surrounded by a multitude of voices, all claiming truth. If there is no Tradition to identify and cling to, each person may be on the brink of pressing forward with doctrines such as Soli Deo Gloria or the Federal Vision. Each one will say “stop here, go no further” at different points in the progress of learning, and as time passes, we will all be separated further as our theology develops to different extents and down different corners. To say that this is not the case is to deny the reality of the schisms and difference opinions. We were warned to not fall into this trap by St. Paul when he wrote:

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” 1 Corinthians 1:10

The Catholic does not deny the perspicuity of Scripture because he is a spoil sport. Nor does he deny this notion because he does not enjoy reading Scripture. Seeing the reality of our fragmented world and believing that there is a principle of unity that comes through communion with the Apostles and their successors, and encountering the multitudes of ways to interpret Scripture, he chooses the realistic path that calls for something else to be the pillar of truth, and that something is the Church (1 Timothy 3:15).

Oh Holy Spirit, open our eyes to your Body which is undivided even amidst the attempts of humans and fallen angels to rend Her asunder.

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  1. Dear Jonathan,

    With regard to: “But how can we discern who is committing such a sin, and who is sharing the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is promised to guide us into all truth?”, it made me wonder what the meaning of John 16:13 is in a non-bosom-burning exegetical landscape. I’m not sure if you would have an idea. But if John 16:13 has some meaning, and one denies bosom-burning to discover truth, then I wonder: who is the referent (the “you”) of “I will lead you into all truth”?

    Peace in Christ,

  2. (1) Your assumption throughout this post is that Protestants are looking for doctrinal infallibility, and this is simply not so. “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (WCF 1.7). This is a very modest claim. In looking for someone to follow we are not looking for someone who will be infallible (and this is why we don’t simply unquestioningly follow some one teacher), we are only looking for someone who will be able to aid us in our understanding. The possibility, or even the likelihood, of error in this process is generally affirmed by Protestants.

    (2) You worry about what may happen “if there is no Tradition to identify and cling to” but, indeed, there are a multitude of traditions that one could identify and cling to, and the process of identifying Tradition is surely fraught with error. What criteria can we use, and how can we know if we have rightly applied them? You mention two criteria – two different aspects, you seem to think, of Apostolic Succession: continuity of doctrine and continuity of organization. I would argue that the Eastern Church has strong continuity of organization but insufficient continuity of doctrine, and the Church of Rome does not have sufficient continuity in either respect. (But we have to determine what counts as ‘sufficient’ – here I mean, at least, not in contradiction with previously well established doctrinal or organizational conclusions.) Whatever your views of history, you have to acknowledge that a central point of disagreement between Roman Catholics and Protestants is whether Rome’s doctrines are continuous with those of the Apostles, so here you simply beg the question. Protestants generally urge believers to seek out those teachers whose doctrine is that of the apostles, as recorded in the Scriptures.

    (3) Relatedly, for confessional Protestants, there IS a Tradition, and there IS church authority. Even Baptists urge believers to interpret Scripture in a community of faith and not go off on their own. Confessional Protestants go further in urging believers to interpret Scripture in community or conversation with the Tradition of all ages and under the authority of the Church. They just have a different conception of Tradition and of the Church than you do.

    In sum, if your target is a Reformed theologian like Dr. Thomas, then this post attacks a strawman. What good Protestant theologians actually believe is that a sincere believer aided by the Holy Spirit who approaches the Scripture with humility in the context of a living community of faith and the Christian Tradition will be able to find great confidence about those truths necessary to salvation and to grow, however slowly and fallibly, closer to the truth on more doubtful matters. This fallibility is inherent to our situation as human beings and is in no way mitigated by your Catholic position since you have fallibly determined that organizational and doctrinal continuity with the Apostles is a guide to doctrinal reliability, and you have fallibly determined that the Church of Rome exhibits such continuity. Finally, you fallibly interpret the Roman Church’s doctrinal proclamations. Adding the infallibility of the Church generally or the Pope specifically will not get you into a significantly better epistemic state than the agreed upon doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture.

  3. Kenny,
    Thanks for your comment.
    You wrote:
    “The possibility, or even the likelihood, of error in this process is generally affirmed by Protestants.”

    But surely the scope of where errors are inevitable and the natural part of God’s providence in Church history is limited in the Protestant mind, such that an error may pertain to historical details alone (e.g., was Noah’s flood global or local?), and it has not destroyed the Gospel message. On the other hand to have failed in one’s understanding of “what is the duty which God requireth of man?” is a more serious matter.

    Going back to the portion of the WCF which you quote, there is indeed an assumption these sorts of questions about “essentials” can be answered infallibly by the Scriptures, and yet there are myriads of answers to this questions, even within Protestant communities.

    And thus we see that this “modest” claim is more broad than you asserted.

    Surely you would not deny that the Reformed view assumes that the Scriptures are a sure guide in and of themselves to salvation? Or do you?

    Regarding the varieties of Tradition and whether they are authoritative, and whether I have construed a strawman, that there is tradition on all sides is not my point by any stretch of the imagination. The question is, which tradition should be followed?

    Regarding the continuity of the Eastern Churches, we as Catholics embrace the goodness of Orthodox believers to the point where we would give them full communion if they were willing to receive it. But going beyond that, what hath Constantinople and Geneva in common?


    I think an investigation into what the “sensus fidelium” entails and how that is distinct from bosom burning would be a worthy step towards answering your questions.

  4. Kenny,
    As a postscript, your final paragraph which embraces and ascribes fallibility to all human activity is misleading. If I claim that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, I have not fallibly stated something. I have humanly stated it, to be sure, and this is by standing on the shoulders of the giants of councils such as Nicea and Chalcedon. But to throw fallibility into all of human activity is to call all truth into question.

    Truth is not a mere noumenal realm that we blindly reach out and attempt to grasp–it is true irrespective of the mistakes that we as humans make. It is also true that when we do not make a mistake, we are beholding the truth, and not a fractured image thereof. To impose fallibility into all human activity is to walk towards skepticism, fideism, or some combination of the two.


  5. Kenny,

    This fallibility is inherent to our situation as human beings and is in no way mitigated by your Catholic position since you have fallibly determined that organizational and doctrinal continuity with the Apostles is a guide to doctrinal reliability, and you have fallibly determined that the Church of Rome exhibits such continuity. Finally, you fallibly interpret the Roman Church’s doctrinal proclamations. Adding the infallibility of the Church generally or the Pope specifically will not get you into a significantly better epistemic state than the agreed upon doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture.

    It is important to distinguish between the susceptibility of an agent to err, and the possible falsehood of any proposition held or stated by that agent. The fact that we are susceptible to err does not entail that we cannot know with certainty that any of our beliefs are true. Nor does it entail that every proposition believed or stated might be false. When we state a true proposition, the fact that we could instead have stated a different, and false, proposition, does not mean that we cannot be certain that the proposition is true. The fallibility of the agent should not be confused with the fallibility of the proposition stated or believed by the agent. The fallibility of the agent does not entail skepticism about knowledge or about truth. It does not prevent us from knowing the truth, and knowing it with certainty; fallibility does not entail fallibilism.

    Not only that, but our fallibility does not prevent us from having more certainty about x than y. And that is because we can perceive the truth of some things to a greater degree than we do other things. When we are epistemically limited to testimony, the more credible the witness the greater reason we have for believing the testimony to be true. And when the witness is God, we can be absolutely certain that His testimony is true and without error, because God cannot lie or err. So in what cases is God testifying? Jesus authorized His Apostles to speak for Him, saying, “He who listens to you, listens to Me, and he who rejects you, rejects Me.” We know, with certainty, by the testimony of the Church (those whom Christ authorized to speak for Him), that God spoke in the writing of Scripture. These words are God-breathed, and so we know with absolute certainty that they are protected from error. Likewise, from the very same Church that is authorized to speak for Christ, we know that the Church is protected from error by the Holy Spirit under certain conditions, such as when she defines dogmas. Just as we gain epistemic certainty about the truth of the content of Scripture from knowing that Scripture is protected from error, so likewise we gain epistemic certainty about the truth of the dogmas of the Church from knowing that the Church is protected from error when she defines dogmas. All of that is fully compatible with our being fallible agents.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. Not to mention that we can’t have infallible certainty of the Scriptures themselves without infallible certainty of the Church who told us which books were Scripture and which weren’t.

  7. For those who would say it is a straw man to characterize the Reformed view as being ultimately based upon a bosom burning experience, this quote from Calvin’s Institutes is is sure to rile some feathers.
    This quote is taken from the Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.7
    “Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments; but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured . . . in holding it, [that] we hold unassailable truth; not like miserable men, whose minds are enslaved by superstition, but because we feel a divine energy living and breathing in it.”


  8. Nice quote Jonathan. We are frequently accused of straw men arguments by the Reformed but these accusations are repeatedly shown to be false (as with Ralph on the Ecclesial Deism article). What happens is this: Reformed Christians know that the Reformed position has certain strengths, especially when compared to the lesser developed Protestant traditions. But when the weakness of the Reformed position is exposed, those who hold to its ideology aren’t about to let go of it and they say “that’s a weakness therefore it can’t be what we believe” and start handing out straw men accusations.

    But what you will see is that they hold much firmer to their ideology than to their ideologues; they will disown Calvin much sooner than Calvinism. So while you show that Calvin affirmed with his own lips and understood that his position is reducible to bosom burning, now that the method of bosom burning has been shown for its weakness, those who hold the Calvinist position will say “well I don’t agree with Calvin here” instead of dropping a weak position and moving to something stronger.

  9. Thank you everyone for your insightful comments. Let me respond to the last point first, since it has some bearing on the general direction of discussion. I don’t purport to be a Calvinist or even really ‘Reformed’ in the narrow sense of that term. I believe that there are weaknesses in the positions taken by Calvin himself, and by the WCF, etc. I’m not convinced that the witness of the Holy Spirit, as understood by Calvin and his followers, is reducible to ‘bosom burning,’ but I don’t think that is essential to this discussion. Obviously not just anything that makes a position look bad is a strawman. The reason that I think the original post represents the strawman fallacy is that it criticizes the Reformed position for not being able to establish something it isn’t trying to establish, and then treats this as some sort of contradiction. I’m going to stick to this point: most of the better Protestant theologians, including the authors of the WCF, do not hold that our theological beliefs are ever infallible. I also claim that the Catholic position that we CAN have infallible theological knowledge is implausible at best and inconsistent at worst.

    Now, let’s go back to the beginning. We need to distinguish three different concepts. Bryan’s comment seems to have a pretty good grip on this distinction, but some of the other discussion we’ve had seems to confuse it:

    * A speech-act is infallible just in case it was not possible that it should express a falsehood.
    * A speech-act is inerrant just in case it does not actually express any falsehood.
    * A proposition is necessary just in case it could not have been false.

    If you or I state that the Word is of one substance with the Father (to leave aside the question of whether the Incarnation was necessary in any strong sense) we fallibly, yet inerrantly state a necessary truth. That is, I might have said something false, but the thing I in fact said is absolutely and necessarily true.

    Now, please correct me if I’m wrong, but when the Church of Rome proclaims its own infallibility, I understand it to mean infallibility in the sense in which I have defined it: the position is that there is no possibility of error in the church’s dogmatic definitions. Is that right?

    Now, for precisely the reasons Bryan points out (and I agree with most of Bryan’s comment, though I suspect we have very different ideas of what sort of thing the Church is), fallibilism is not skepticism. Most philosophers today, Christian or not, regard Cartesian foundationalism as a pipe dream. There just isn’t a ground-floor level of infallible belief broad enough to form a foundation to build our other beliefs on. How will you (Jonathan) explain this certainty you claim to have? Do you really mean it in the strong sense that provided you follow such and such procedure (e.g. listening to the church, whatever that amounts to) you cannot be in error? But surely you do not have certain knowledge that you followed the procedure correctly! Then again, perhaps you know without knowing that you know; there’s nothing incoherent about that. How exactly is the epistemology supposed to work here?

    As for the Protestant position, as you point out, the WCF clearly affirms that the Scripture is a sure guide to truths necessary for salvation. However, the Scripture must be read with the illumination of the Holy Spirit (WCF 1.6: “we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word”), and the Reformed traditionally have a more communal understanding of this sort of thing than you will find in pop-Evangelicalism (though of course it is less communal than Rome’s understanding). What the WCF insists is that when the Scripture is read under the right circumstances – i.e. with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which, while it may include ‘bosom burning’ is not confined to it – even an uneducated person can discern the truths necessary for salvation. This means that the WCF is committed to the claim that whenever two people disagree about a matter in Scripture, either (1) at most one of them is guided by the Holy Spirit, or (2) the matter in dispute is not necessary to salvation. Given that Protestants take only a very small number of doctrines to be necessary to salvation, this does not seem very problematic to me.

    Now, the WCF does talk about an “infallible assurance” of salvation (ch. 18), but this assurance is not said to depend solely on our interpretation of Scripture. Rather, it is said to be “founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, [and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are children of God” (18.2). I think this might very well be mistaken, unless “infallible” is taken hyperbolically, which I don’t think is what was intended. However, because these other evidences are adduced, it doesn’t undermine my more general claims about the WCF position on Scripture.

  10. Kenny,

    I agree with you. A fallible agent can produce a correct statement and it is important to distinguish between the two concepts. We (on both sides) often toss around the word “infallible” in a sloppy manner for the sake of convenience. Sometimes it is necessary to be clearer about that.

    The reason that I think the original post represents the strawman fallacy is that it criticizes the Reformed position for not being able to establish something it isn’t trying to establish, and then treats this as some sort of contradiction.

    Sometimes Catholicism demands more of Reformed theology than Reformed theology demands of itself. Sproul, for example, is content with understanding the canon as a “fallible collection of infallible books.” But he is wrong to be content there. We may point out his error without being guilty of a straw man though.

    If I point out where he is wrong, I am not attempting to prove that he doesn’t believe in a fallible collection of infallible books, but that it is inconsistent with Christianity in general. More to the point, if I point out that he holds a contradictory belief elsewhere because it assumes a fallible canon, I am not guilty of a straw man fallacy even though he, in fact, believes in a fallible canon. He may not hold the infallibility of the canon, and he is free to be wrong about that, but the contradiction I am pointing out is not his internal inconsistency (even if so I would just be guilty of bad reasoning not a straw man fallacy) but of his contradiction with Christianity in general which he assents to.

    So if I say I don’t believe in the Trinity and then later I say something like “the Holy Spirit is not a person”, someone could point out “hey you’re wrong” and show me why without being guilty of a straw man argument. It would be false for me to use the line of defense, “that’s a straw man argument because I don’t believe in the Trinity.” One error does not justify another.

    Now, please correct me if I’m wrong, but when the Church of Rome proclaims its own infallibility, I understand it to mean infallibility in the sense in which I have defined it: the position is that there is no possibility of error in the church’s dogmatic definitions. Is that right?

    1. It is an unneeded and potentially misleading qualifier to say the “Church of Rome.” We say the Church as Church (Body of Christ) is infallible. Yes we believe that she subsists in the Catholic Church whose principle of unity is the bishop of Rome but it is a Protestant construct to call her the “Church of Rome.” Two of the contributors on Called to Communion, for example, are not Roman Catholic. One is Ukrainian Catholic and the other Romanian Catholic (Eastern rites – Eastern Churches).

    But yes you are correct, the Church, when operating as Church, defines something on faith and morals as binding for all Christians to be held, we believe that God will not allow her to get it wrong. I.e. she is infallible in that respect. God will not allow the Church to become an instrument of destruction for the Word. Rather, she is entrusted with protecting and faithfully delivering the Word to her children. We will have a more detailed discussion of this in the future.

  11. Tim,

    (1) You would be guilty of the strawman fallacy if you said “Sproul holds that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books, but he also holds that the collection is infallible, contradicting himself.” This isn’t really Sproul’s view. The argument you consider either needs to show that somewhere in Sproul’s view there is an implicit assumption that the collection is infallible or to cast itself as an external critique. If the latter, then it might provide a reason for others who share some of your assumptions not to embrace Sproul’s view, but it wouldn’t provide a reason for Sproul to change his mind, since he doesn’t share your assumptions. I read the post as giving the sort of strawman argument I described above (showing Protestantism to be self-contradictory only by pinning on the Protestants a view they don’t actually accept), but perhaps that is not what Jonathan had in mind. If it was intended to show how Protestants are implicitly committed to something that contradicts their explicit views, I’m not sure how it is supposed to do that. If it was intended as an external critique, then who is the intended audience?

    (2) What title would you prefer? To refer to this institution as the “Catholic Church” begs the question, and you (Tim) have personally used this to your advantage in our previous discussions (e.g. using the fact that the Fathers use the word ‘catholic’ to claim that they support your church’s claims). The “Church of Rome” is the most neutral description I can think of, but I agree that its misleading when it comes to eastern rite Christians in communion with Rome, etc. Nevertheless, the Vatican holds that those not in full communion with Rome are in some sense not “The Church” (though those who have valid sacraments and apostolic succession also are “The Church” in some other sense – I’m not clear on exactly what the view is) and in this sense the institution in question is “Roman” – we are talking about those churches who share full communion with the Pope of Rome. At any rate, I will use the abbreviation RCC if you like. There is a need for a neutral terminology which does not beg any of the questions at issue.

  12. Kenny,

    1. I took Jonathan’s article, and generally speaking most of what we’ve written here, as external critique of its general inconsistency with what Christianity must necessarily be for reasons a, b, and c. Sproul or any Reformed Christian may not hold a, b, and c to be true, but we’re not claiming that they hold those to be true; only that they are true and therefore their belief x is false. I see where you’re coming from here and I agree with you. I’m less concerned with your straw man accusation than many of the others we’ve had.

    2. I don’t object to the term “Church of Rome” if it’s used as shorthand for the Catholic Church. But if we understand it as something essentially Roman then I do object because that is not what we mean by “Catholic Church”. It is only accidentally Roman in any sense. The Romanian Catholic Church, is not Roman or Western in any way and has never been, yet the universal Church certainly subsists in that Church.

    That said I can appreciate your request to use non question-begging language and again I agree with you. I just want to make the caveat that even we, as the RCC, Roman Church, Papists, whatever, do not limit “the Church” to Roman rite- Latin Churches. That is but one of many Churches (22??) that are in full communion with the See of St. Peter. When we speak of the infallibility of the Church, let’s just say “Church” and not “Roman Church.”

    And yes you are correct 1. all Christians are initiated into the Church (the one infallible Church) through baptism although in varying levels of imperfect communion and 2. the Eastern Churches are properly called “Church” according to Rome even though we are not in full communion.

  13. So, if this is the intent of the article, then I will drop the ‘strawman’ claim. My principle objection has still not been answered, however. There is, I agree, a problem of error. Many Christians believe many different, inconsistent things, and, therefore, many of them must be wrong. I have not seen here any reason to suppose that the doctrine Jonathan is defending is more successful than the WCF doctrine at dealing with this problem. Christians who interpret the Bible for themselves interpret it differently. Christians who submit to Church authority select different authorities to submit to. Christians who respect Tradition choose between different conflicting concrete traditions. Whether we choose an interpretation, an authority, a body of tradition, or some combination of the three as the source of our theological beliefs (and I think everyone should take all three seriously), it is WE who choose (you chose to join the RCC and listen to its doctrinal pronouncements) and we choose fallibly. We can only do our best and pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit works in many ways to guide the Church into truth, and that includes Scripture, tradition, testimony, circumstances, reason, and, yes, ‘bosom burning’ – that is, religious experience generally. What I don’t understand is how giving primacy to Tradition and Church authority and investing the authority of the Church in the Pope of Rome is supposed to get you into any better position than this.

  14. Kenny, well take the current example. Let’s say we’re not sure what Jonathan really meant (since it appears that we’re not). It could be taken in a few ways. But there is an aid to our unity of belief in this regard and to our certainty of belief. We can get an idea of what Jonathan means by studying the original post and debating it but Jonathan is alive and he can tell us what he meant. So I’m sure you agree that Jonathan being alive affords us greater certainty on his intention.

    Jonathan is fallible and his post not inerrant but suppose we had an inerrant source. An infallible guide to that source is better than the source alone. We can know this through historical observation (the lack of doctrinal and sacramental unity between those who accept on the Bible as infallible) but also through reason.

    We can say A + B is not better than A only if A is necessarily non-improvable. But you haven’t made that argument. The argument you made is that A + B is not better than A because of C, but this follows only if C causes B to be a non-improving agent on A, but does not cause A to be a non-improving agent on not-A. Put another way, if A is better than not A given C, and C means that A+B is not greater than A, then C must mean that B, in particular, does not improve A. So how could our fallibility (C) mean that an inerrant Scripture (A) + infallible magisterium (B) is not better than A only when A is not better than not A?

    I don’t see how this would be any less fitting to a fallible source (like the example above with Jonathan) than to an infallible one.

    Given C (we are fallible), how can we say that A (Jonathan’s post) + B (Jonathan’s living, infallible guidance as to what he meant – (practically infallible – let’s assume for the minute that we can trust Jonathan)) is not better than A alone for us to have an idea of what he meant? The only way I can see to say that is to say that A is not better than not A which reduces to skepticism.

  15. Oops, forgot to finish this line of thought and it’s not quite accurate:

    then C must mean that B, in particular, does not improve A.

    it should be:

    then C must cause B, in particular, to be a non-improving agent on A.

    But I have not heard an argument that an infallible magisterium, in itself, and specifically because of our fallibility, does not improve our certainty regarding the meaning of Scripture.

  16. I’ll buy that. If true, the claims about ‘infallible magisterium’ increase our level of rational confidence in Biblical interpretation on those issues where we can find such an infallible statement, identify it with some confidence, and interpret it more easily than we can interpret Scripture.

    But consider my actual position now (drop the WCF for a minute). I believe with near-certainty that the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon are pretty much entirely correct in their interpretations of Scripture. What I mean is that in principle I believe that the councils had the possibility of error and may have in fact erred. However, this likelihood that they actually erred is so small that in practice I believe these councils pretty much unquestioningly.

    Now, suppose that you persuade me that there is a living infallible magisterium out there somewhere, and continuous throughout history. This would have at least SOME effect on my beliefs. Certainly, for instance, I would come to regard the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as infallible, since there was no credible competing magisterium at that time. However, this wouldn’t change much in practice, because I already believe the Creed. Starting with Ephesus, there are dissenting churches which survive to this day. Now, I’m pretty sure that the Assyrian Church of the East, which dissented, is probably not the one. However, my primary reason for thinking that is that I think Ephesus got it right, so this wouldn’t increase my confidence in the Council of Ephesus hardly at all. The same goes for Chalcedon. By the time we get to really controversial topics that were resolved much later in history, the kinds of topics you routinely appeal to the magisterium for, there are so many competing claims (not just RCC, EOC, and various Protestants, but Armenians, Copts, Assyrians, etc.) that I am far more confident of my ability to interpret Scripture, especially given all the aids available to me, than of my ability to correctly identify the magisterium. Perhaps, then, the best I will be able to do is to select the magisterium that matches my own interpretation most nearly.

  17. Kenny –

    This is a great discussion. I agree that the proposition that B improves A does not, in any way, entail that B is actually true. A magic wand of perfect understanding + Scriptures is better than the Scriptures only, but…

    On conciliar infallibility, I can see how belief in the infallibility of Nicaea would not add much to our belief that Nicaea is correct if we are already statistically certain that it is correct (and I don’t discount that as real certainty). Every day there is a statistical chance that I’ll be attacked by a mob of rabid beavers and chewed to death but I live my life in relative peace of mind because of my near infallible certainty that it won’t happen. So if God divinely revealed to me that that will never happen to me, I can’t imagine myself sleeping much better at night than I already do. Forgive the extreme examples, that’s just how I roll.

    Here’s my contention: it might not matter much to you whether or not Nicaea is 100% infallible or not, but it mattered to Arius. That is, because you have lived in a Christendom that has universally accepted Nicaea for so long, it seems evident to you that it is correct. But it was not evident to Arius and many others at the time. I think it is reasonable to say that it might be the very same way with Trent or Vatican I. It hasn’t been that long since either, and Arianism certainly lingered on longer than those have lingered, to date, who disagree with Trent. Do you think the same sort of thing could be happening?

    Also, it is necessary to have a principle of authority, (whether fallible or infallible) if we are to remain consistent. But the principle of submitting to whichever magisterium most closely resembles my my own interpretation is not really a submission to any magisterium. It is a submission of the various magisteriums to the test of one’s own interpretation. So it is not real authority and offers no principled way for us to be certain of the truth of Christianity.

  18. I like your rabid beaver example :) That’s exactly the sort of thing I was getting at.

    You are right that, with respect to Nicaea, I am advantaged by my place in history. Hindsight is 20/20 in doctrinal disputes, as in other matters. It is entirely possible that one day (before the Second Coming) the dust will settle with respect to the matters on which we disagree, and future Christians will think the answer is obvious. However, I don’t see how this fact can help us decide between competing claims today. I join you in praying that one day (before the Second Coming) the Church will again manifest visible unity. Perhaps one day that will happen. If it does, what will it look like? I don’t know. Such a Church might well recognize the primacy of Rome in some sense; it is indisputable that the ancient Church did. However, I would be surprised in the extreme if it recognized the kind of primacy Rome presently claims for itself, which, as far as I can tell from my historical investigations, goes far beyond what was claimed in the early Church. Still, I agree with you that this may all be clearer to Christians looking back from the distant future. That won’t help us figure out what to believe today.

    I also agree that if I follow the magisterium that most nearly approximates what I already believe, then I am not really submitting to an authority at all. I intended that as a sort of reductio: I don’t see any rational way of getting from the position of an impartial observer to the position of recognizing Rome’s claims. Now, it’s pretty hard to get, by reason, from the position of an impartial observer to embracing Christianity (I would argue that it is possible in principle, but the sinful nature makes it impossible in practice), so this is not a debilitating objection. It does, however, make the job of the RCC apologist an extremely difficult one. This, to me, is a reason not to believe in an infallible magisterium, at least not of the sort the RCC believes in.

    A point where I disagree is that I think it is impossible for there to be authority with regard to belief. There is authority for actions and authoritativeness for belief. The difference is that someone has authority over me in case he has a moral right to command me. A person or document is authoritative if it is extremely likely to be right (in particular, I would regard a person or document as authoritative if I was much more likely to get things right by just believing what he/she/it tells me than by trying to figure it out for myself).

    Now, the Church possesses both authority and authoritativeness. In particular, Church leaders have broad authority, given by God, to regulate practice for the sake of unity and edification, and the Church is the most authoritative interpreter of Scripture to the world, because it is enabled by the Holy Spirit. Where the testimony of the Church is united on a matter of doctrine, it is authoritative in an extremely high degree: I am far more likely to get doctrine right by listening to the united testimony of the Church than by trying to figure it out myself. I too am enabled by the Holy Spirit, but we are talking here about the united natural and spiritual gifts of the great believers through the ages, and I should trust them.

    The writings of individual theologians are also to some degree authoritative, in that they are generally much more capable in these matters than I am, but I still have to figure out which ones to listen to, and that will involve, among other things, evaluating their arguments. There’s just no getting around the necessity of performing my own evaluation.

    The reason the distinction between authority and authoritativeness is important is that the Church’s authority comes from Christ’s authorization or commissioning, whereas its authoritativeness comes from His enabling. It’s not the case that I should believe the Church because of its authority; that would be something like the fallacy of appeal to force (“if you don’t believe X you’ll go to jail”). Rather, I should believe the Church because of its authoritativeness, i.e. because it gets things right.

    On your last sentence: if our certainty with respect to the truth of Christianity is based on the magisterium, then it only goes as far as our confidence in (1) the doctrine of an infallible magisterium, and (2) our identification of that magisterium. I can’t imagine how I could ever come to be more certain of either of those things than I already am of the truth of Christianity. Why should I not then settle for the near-certainty I already have? How can I hope for more?

  19. Kenny,

    I’m not sure I follow why you say we shouldn’t follow the Church because of her authority when that comes from Christ. The reason we should follow Christ isn’t reducible to His power. The end to which we are ordered is to be raised, by grace, into the life of Christ, and we belong to Him. So that whatever He commands, we know with the confidence of faith to be perfectly ordered towards our own perfect end. We do not trust His will over ours merely because He can punish us, but because to disobey His will is, de facto, its own punishment. Creation is so ordered that we can only be happy by doing God’s will. So that if we were to know, by divine revelation, what God’s will is, we should do that out of love of self, not out of coercion. So if Christ established an infallible magisterium, its authority would be coextensive, I think, with its trustworthiness or authoritativeness. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding you?

    I think there is enough evidence to show that the Catholic Church in communion with the See of St. Peter is the organic continuity of the magisterium that Christ founded but not so much that it forces everyone with a brain to join it. Likewise, there is enough evidence for Christianity in general, but not so much that its unavoidable. Faith is required in both. If believing in Christianity was something akin to discovering that 2+2 = 4, there wouldn’t be faith involved. So with the Church.

    But you’re absolutely right about the necessity for your personal evaluation, and if your personal evaluation doesn’t lead you to the RCC, then it would be a lie and a violation of your conscience to submit to her. I’m just saying – don’t forget that faith must work alongside the personal evaluation.

  20. Jonathan says – “Surely you would not deny that the Reformed view assumes that the Scriptures are a sure guide in and of themselves to salvation? Or do you?”

    That’s generally the Protestant viewpoint, reformed or not reformed. All that one must believe to be a Christian is found in the Scripture. Is this even up for debate? I understand that Catholics believe that some church tradition can be inspired, and I understand that Reformed Protestants believe that certain Bible teachers are needed in order to understand Scripture better. But can’t BOTH SIDES agree that Scripture is sufficient to lead to anything necessary for salvation?

  21. Persiflage, thanks for dropping by. The short answer is no, we cannot agree to that. Many Protestants deny the clear Biblical teaching that baptism is required for salvation. So already, on the most fundamental aspect of the salvation process, we disagree.

  22. Tim – I think we are mostly in agreement here. I’m just making what I think is an important conceptual distinction. You say, “The reason we should follow Christ isn’t reducible to His power.” What I’m saying is that it isn’t reducible to his authority either. His authority is his right to command (which may or may not be related to his power, depending on your moral theory). What I’m saying is that, even in believing Christ, it is not because of his divine authority that we should believe him, but rather because of his omniscience and trustworthiness.

    Here’s an example of a difference between the two: if I have authority over my (hypothetical) children, I can delegate that authority to someone else, and my children ought to obey my delegate just as much as they would obey me (subject to the pre-existing limits of my authority, whatever limits I impose in the act of delegation, etc.). If, on the other hand, I write the authoritative work on the philosophy of George Berkeley, so that my opinion on the subject becomes authoritative, I can’t by arbitrary fiat delegate that authoritativeness to someone else. I can impart my authoritativeness to another person only by teaching that person. If my word is authoritative on some subject, and I use that authoritativeness to try to get people to listen to someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject, I don’t increase that person’s authoritativeness; rather, I lessen my own.

    The reason this distinction matters here is not necessarily because of any difference in the extent of the church’s authority vs. authoritativeness (honestly, I’m not totally sure how to mark off the extent of either). Rather, it has to do with a difference in the cause of the Church’s authority vs. authoritativeness. The Church has authority because Christ delegates authority to the Church in certain matters; the Church is authoritative because Christ reveals truth to the Church and through the Church to the world.

    One practical difference this does make is that church leaders can legislate certain matters of practice – that is, it is sometimes appropriate for them to make things up when it comes to practice, because these leaders have authority; they can tell us what to do (within certain bounds). In certain cases (when they act within the bounds of their authority), the fact that something is commanded by church leadership makes it right, and we ought to do things which are right. However, there is no case in which a doctrinal proclamation by church leaders makes the doctrine true, and we ought to believe things that are true.

    At any rate, the essential point for the present discussion is the necessity of personal evaluation. Because of this necessity, I am not at all convinced that the RCC’s doctrine of an infallible magisterium can ultimately do anything to improve our rational confidence in the doctrines of the Church.

  23. Kenny,

    Ok I see the distinction you are making. The way Christ’s authority is delegated to the Church is a mystery because Christ has authority in an entirely unique way (earthly authority is a divine metaphor ) and because of God’s simplicity, His authority is not accidental to His self. The authority of an earthly king is accidental and we can see how this can be delegated, but when one’s authority is essential, it is mysterious to understand how that can be delegated especially when, again because of His simplicity, neither is His authoritativeness accidental (as if God could have one without the other – both are essential to His nature and are not accidental attributes). We cannot conceive of this authority being delegated except by positing a body that has been raised to partake in the divine essence : i.e. the mystical Body of Christ (Church). This is the one and only way we can accept that the Church, commissioned by Christ, actually mediates His authority; it is because of her divine essence.

    It is also for this reason that we can believe that in mediating His authority, she is divinely commissioned to carry out the particular task of faithfully delivering God’s Word to mankind in such a way that were she to dogmatically bind all men to believe an error, she would fail which is impossible. This is the reason we say she is infallible. But, this is hardly an adequate proof. We will have a lengthy discussion of that crucial topic in the next few months here. I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.

    Because of this necessity, I am not at all convinced that the RCC’s doctrine of an infallible magisterium can ultimately do anything to improve our rational confidence in the doctrines of the Church.

    This seems to bring us back to where we started. If this argument proves anything, I think it proves too much. If the necessity of our personal evaluation causes a supposed Infallible Magisterium to be of no epistemological aid, how does it not do the same for an inerrant Scripture?

  24. I am not claiming that having good reason to believe in an infallible magisterium could not possibly improve our epistemic position – I earlier acknowledge that it could, in principle. What I am claiming is that the criteria the RCC offers for identifying the infallible magisterium are such that if I come to believe in the infallible magisterium on the basis of evaluating various institutions against these criteria then that belief will not improve my epistemic position.

    Here’s a simplified argument. Suppose you said that I should identify the infallible magisterium by looking for the institution whose teaching was continuous with that of the apostles. This would presuppose that I already knew what the apostles taught. My confidence that I had correctly identified the magisterium would be only as great as my initial confidence, before I identified it, in my knowledge of the apostles’ teaching, and so, no matter what the magisterium taught, it wouldn’t increase my confidence in my understanding of apostolic teaching – after all, if my understanding of the apostolic teaching is wrong, then the ‘magisterium’ I’m listening to is probably not the infallible one.

    Now, in fact, the RCC position is a little stronger than this for two reasons. First, doctrinal continuity is not the only criterion (there is the criterion of historical/organizational continuity, for instance). Second, there may be some doctrines which turn out not to be relevant to my identification of the magisterium. For instance, suppose I have great confidence that the apostles taught the Chalcedonian Christology and the doctrine of purgatory. As far as I know, every church that believes these two things accepts Rome’s claims of primacy. So this would be enough to identify the magisterium, and Rome’s teachings on other matters about which I had previously been in doubt might improve my rational confidence with regard to those matters.

    So my denial that “an infallible magisterium can ultimately do anything to improve our rational confidence” is a bit hyperbolic. Let me state my position a little more carefully. I claim that (1) the infallible magisterium cannot solve the problem of “a multitude of voices, all claiming truth,” because the problem with so many voices is determining which voice to listen to and we still have to identify the magisterium; and (2) were I to accept the doctrine of an infallible magisterium and attempt, as best I can, to identify it on the basis of the criteria offered in this post (doctrinal and organizational continuity), this would be unlikely to improve my rational confidence in the fundamental truths of Christianity, due to the role those fundamental truths would play in my attempted identification.

  25. Hi Tim,

    Many Protestants deny the clear Biblical teaching that baptism is required for salvation. So already, on the most fundamental aspect of the salvation process, we disagree.

    Your position, and that of other Catholics I know, seems to be that the Bible cannot be perspicuous since so many Protestants disagree over its meaning in certain key areas. If I’m understanding you rightly, then what do you make of the fact that plenty of Catholics disagree over what Vatican II teaches? I’ve heard men like Scott Hahn say that some Catholic priests teach that “Catholic Dogma X” is no longer binding since Vatican II repealed or reformulated it.

    So if disagreement over a document necessarily demonstrates the document’s lack of perspecuity, then what good is a Magisterium if it can’t produce teachings any clearer than Scripture? And if your answer is, “A Magisterium is better because it’s living and you can ask it questions and get from it answers,” my next question will be, “But what if people still fail to understand? Loads of people misunderstood Jesus and Paul when they were alive and on earth, too.”

  26. Kenny,

    How is the same not true for Scripture since there are many books claiming to be, or could potentially be, Scripture? (And I realize that you might say that the Scriptures are for the most part standing alone – but I’d say the same for the Catholic Church. Only Eastern Orthodoxy has a competing magisterium that seems plausible to me).


    A thing is perspicuous in relation to its particular message but not to the implications or even logical conclusions of that message. Further, we do not deny all perspicuity of the Scripture. e.g. It is the perspicuous message of the Bible that God is the Creator of all that exists. But that still leaves a lot to be debated concerning Creation. It is perspicuous that salvation is by grace alone but that still leaves a lot to be debated.

    On Vatican II, the general complaint against it is not that it was perspicuous and people misunderstood it but that it was too vague and open for misinterpretation. So that’s not really a good example because its an anomaly in the history of the Catholic magisterial voice. Was Nicaea perspicuous? Mostly.. It needed some help from Constantinople, but as you said, a living magisterium is always there to add clarification as needed. In the same way, the living magisterium is, even today, continuing to clarify and expound on the documents of Vatican II. Another issue with the Vatican II misunderstandings is the modern prevalence of relativistic philosophy and skepticism which makes even the most perspicuous message open to as many interpretations as interpreters. The Protestants, on the other hand, have disagreed with each other from the very outset on some of the basics of salvation and of the Christian life. Compare the Eucharistic theology of Zwingli, Calvin, and Luther.

    People disagreeing on a thing does not prove its lack of intrinsic perspicuity, but it does constitute evidence against such perspicuity.

    The second part of our problem with the perspicuity claim is its implication that the Scriptures are perspicuous on what is required for salvation. But this presupposes that the Salvation process is reducible to much less than what Christianity has always taught it to encompass. How can the salvation process not include the very life of corporate worship within the Church? Yet the Scriptures are far from perspicuous there. Yes, the Eucharistic celebration is mentioned, but that’s about as far as it goes. A reminder: I am not making an argument that such a thing exists, but that an living infallible magisterium would add clarity to the message of salvation.

    I remember on a plane to Japan talking to a retired PCA pastor who told me that he didn’t think you could call Billy Graham’s soteriology the “true gospel.” So it would seem that only a tiny fraction of Christianity has ever even discovered the “perspicuous” message of salvation. This is what I’m talking about when I talk about the divisions and disagreements testifying against the perspicuous message of the Bible. If the message of Scripture is perspicuous at all, then it must perspicuously point to catholic truth. Otherwise, we cannot admit of perspicuity.

    So I agree with you that it’s not a sound argument to say that if people disagree then a thing can’t be perspicuous. I only pointed out the fact of wide disagreement there to show that if there is so much disagreement on a simple thing, then we can expect much more on the complex things. It is strong evidence against but not an absolute refutation of the Protestant doctrine of Perspicuity.

  27. Tim –

    It seems to me, as you say, that the Bible has no serious competitors. For instance, it is validated by historically well-attested miracles. However, I DO think that the same kind of problems plague the disputed books, especially the dueterocanon and Revelation, and this injects a degree of uncertainty. However, enough of the canon (especially the gospels and the OT protocanon) is well-established in this way to give us confidence in the basic truths of Christianity. Other books, like 1 Peter, have strong historical claim to have been written by direct historical associates of Jesus, and Peter validates Paul, and so forth. (But what to do about Jude, who seems to validate 1 Enoch and the Assumption of Moses?) Ultimately, however, it is the testimony of the Church, confirmed by personal religious experience, that leads me to accept the full canon. (I take the question of the deuterocanon quite seriously, but that’s another debate.) Every group that makes a credible claim to be the Church (or part of the Church) taught about in the Gospels agrees on the basic outlines of the canon – the disputes are ‘around the edges,’ as it were.

    Personally, I think that, if apostolic succession is accepted, so that organizational continuity becomes a factor, then the EOC has the strongest claim, followed by the RCC, but, as I mentioned before, there are a number of groups that I know fairly little about – the Copts, Armenians, Assyrians, etc. – whose claims cannot be completely dismissed. Even the Anglican Communion may be a contender.

  28. As a Protestant, I’d hardly say that the disputes are “around the edges.” The deuterocannon clearly authorizes making offerings for the dead. This disrupts the entire Protestant project. If the deuterocannon is allowed, then Protestantism cannot stand.

  29. Kenny,

    I’ve been thinking for a while on how best to respond and I’m not sure I have come up with it yet. I would like to take issue with the claim that the bible has no serious competition, but I’m afraid that will spin us off into a discussion about canonicity.

    Here’s the underlying principle that I hold to in this regard: certainty cannot rest on uncertainty. We cannot say “I’m sure because I suppose so” (to quote Newman). And I think you’re saying the same thing, i.e. that the certainty of the infallible magisterium, if it exists, would rest on the uncertainty of one’s investigation.

    Historical criticism and modern scholarship would add the same sort of doubt to the Scriptures that one might have of the Catholic magisterium. So consider that I gathered a group of historians and brought them to you and said, “Look, they unanimously agree that the Catholic magisterium is true and is the only rational choice for the Christian to submit to. So now do you believe?” You respond – “Hold on just a minute, all of these historians are Catholic!” So it seems that the testimony of those who presuppose the truth of the item under investigation wouldn’t be enough to make a convincing case right?

    If you agree with that, then it seems only fair that in the question of the canonicity and validity of the Scriptures, we shouldn’t only rely on those who presuppose its truth…. namely, Christians. So if we were to take the consensus of secular scholars on the Bible or even a “fair” mix of secular and Christian scholars, say- the Jesus Seminar, then suddenly we have far less confidence in the Scriptures. Modern scholars would discount much of what you and I hold to be biblical and true.

    But is our certainty of the scriptures restrained by this wild uncertainty of the skeptics? It is not, and I think we both agree there. Our certainty on the Scriptures is not reducible to the uncertainty of skepticism because of faith. The magisterium is not much different.

    It is for this reason that I think if such an infallible magisterium existed, it would be a powerful aid in knowing the truth of Christianity.

  30. Tim – This brings us back to the beginning again; namely, Protestants generally (and I specifically) don’t claim certainty. Those Protestants who do generally seem to have the view that our beliefs are formed by inherently uncertain means, but rendered certain because after we come to believe them the personal witness of the Holy Spirit confirms their truth. (This seems to be the WCF position on assurance of salvation.)

    This has been a very interesting discussion, but I’m afraid that it will have to end here for now, as I am going to be out of town and away from computers for the next week. I’m sure we will have the opportunity to take up this or related topics again at a later date.

  31. Kenny,

    You stated: “Let me state my position a little more carefully. I claim that (1) the infallible magisterium cannot solve the problem of “a multitude of voices, all claiming truth,” because the problem with so many voices is determining which voice to listen to and we still have to identify the magisterium; and (2) were I to accept the doctrine of an infallible magisterium and attempt, as best I can, to identify it on the basis of the criteria offered in this post (doctrinal and organizational continuity), this would be unlikely to improve my rational confidence in the fundamental truths of Christianity, due to the role those fundamental truths would play in my attempted identification.”

    Not being a philosopher, I can’t really participate in your interesting discussion with Tim on it own terms. But I wanted to mention that when I believed in the infallibility of the Catholic Church in Communion with the Bishop of Rome, I was forced to concede that the sacrament of confession was a real sacrament — and that I had committed mortal sins which needed to be confessed. This completely changed my life (for the better, I assure you). I see what happened to me as taking the following pathway:

    (1) Accumulating lots of evidence that the Catholic Church in Communion with the Bishop of Rome was the most likely to be the true Church of Christ.

    (2) Making an act of faith that that Church was the true Church of Christ.

    (3) Discovering that this implied I would have to accept certain things as true that I had never really wanted to accept.

    (4) Taking a deep breath.

    (5) Living as if those things in step (3) really were true.

    (6) Becoming really really happy; seeing connections between concepts that I had never noticed before; realizing ex post that the truth of (3) was clear all along; feeling really grateful to God that he allowed me to make the act of faith in step (2).

    I don’t know if this real-world example helps you at all, but I thought I would mention it. In particular, I feel that (3) is more likely to occur with a living magisterium than with confessional reformed ecclesiology.

    Also, regarding your statement about the EOC having more clear organizational continuity — you should read Dom John Chapman’s work on the development of the five patriarchates. I think a good case can be made that the primacy of Rome is clearer in Christian history than the various levels of hierarchy ascribed to by the EOC. There are, sadly, many intricate tales that have been woven by EOC and Anglicans about the supposed avarice for power in the history of the papacy during its first 700 years — and about supposed resistance to this power by universally acclaimed orthodox fathers such as Augustine. I would be happy to talk with you more about the details if you are interested.


    K. Doran

  32. (Last comment, I’m leaving on vacation!)

    K – I do have respect for stories like yours, as this is, to my mind, what the story of a mostly rational individual coming to Christianity would typically look like (depending on the details of what you take an “act of faith” to be). As such, I can’t write off this sort of direction. But (1) and (6) are both very important to the rationality of the process. You have to first accept the hypothesis as likely, and then attain firm confidence (but, I think, probably not certainty) as a result of its being confirmed both by religious experience and by its ability to make sense of your life. I certainly cannot rule out the possibility that some people may very rationally believe in the infallible magisterium on these grounds, and, depending on the strength of the confirmation, those people may have rational confidence on theological/interpretive matters where I am in doubt. Of course, the same can be true for Protestants who either have had specific doctrines confirmed in this way, or have simply studied the Bible in more depth than I have.

  33. Hi Kenny,

    Thanks for writing back. You stated: “Of course, the same can be true for Protestants who either have had specific doctrines confirmed in this way, or have simply studied the Bible in more depth than I have.”

    To be more specific, where I think this differed for me as compared to what Protestants tried to offer me is the following:

    living magisterium: I think this served to unify a whole group of doctrines as one whole better than scripture and its protestant interpreters could. The fact is, I kept finding protestants who were saying that scripture definitively allowed for certain things that Catholics would call sin. Furthermore, all the protestant groups disagreed with each other on what I would call behaviors that are necessary for avoiding Hell (though they may not be “necessary for salvation” in the faith sense). Some of these disagreements seemed to be related to changing societal standards intersecting with static scripture. What I began to realize is that a living magisterium is necessary in order to respond to a changing cultural vocabulary — the absence of this is a confusion that I felt sure God would never speak to me through.

    Infallible magisterium: Furthermore, I kept finding protestant groups that today said something was OK but that 50 or 100 years ago definitively called that thing a sin. How could I make an act of _Faith_ in an interpretation offered by such a group? And if I just said: well, choosing behaviors that aren’t sinful isn’t an important part of being a Chrisitan, then I would just be begging the question.

    So I made my act of faith in the Catholic Church’s pathway to God. This hasn’t answered all my questions, because much of the Church’s teaching has only been in the area of the fallible magisterium, and has changed over time and may change again in the future. But I have found many teachings on moral issues that seem to be part of the infallible magisterium according to a reasonable definition of the phrase. And these teachings have helped me overcome the confusion that in my earlier days I knew could not be the voice of God.


    K. Doran

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