Fallacy of Hierarchical Continuum?

Aug 4th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Are Catholics, who insist on an apostolic hierarchical continuum, guilty of the continuum fallacy? For those unfamiliar with the term, allow me to illustrate.

The continuum fallacy exists when a person denies one of two concepts existing at polar ends of a spectrum because, on account of the continuity or successive stages between them, there is apparently no definite moment when the one thing becomes the other. For example, someone may deny adulthood because there is no precise moment at which a child goes from being a child to being an adult. Therefore, according to this person, there are only children and aged children and the distinction between adults and children is false.

The magisterial Protestant sees the Church as initially having an authoritative magisterium, but by the time of the Reformation, having a corrupted magisterium which had lost its authority. Catholics demand that either Protestants point to a definite moment wherein the magisterium lost its authority, or that they submit to the authority which, logically, still exists.

That is, the Catholic says that what is not lost is retained, and if we cannot demonstrate its loss, then we cannot demonstrate its non-retention. But is this analogous to the continuum fallacy and therefore false?

If we say that an authoritative magisterium that cannot be shown to have lost its authority at any definite point must therefore still be authoritative, is this not the same as saying that a human who cannot be shown, at any definite point, to have lost his childhood is still a child? I have some ideas on how to answer it, but I’d like to hear other Catholics chime in first.

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  1. Good question, Tim, and if I may hazard some thoughts,

    It seems to me that the analogy breaks down too quickly for it to be useful, since a child “organically” and becomes an adult “at some point”, a subjective determination certainly which differs for each person depending upon their maturity, etc.

    But the Church that Christ established and gave His own authority to does not “organically” grow to lose that authority–that notion doesn’t make any sense.

    Rather, since Christ gave His Church authority and–just as He sustains all creation in existence by ongoing acts of His power and will–He continues to give Her authority, and for the Church to lose that authority means that Christ must revoke it intentionally, presumably in response to some heinously heretical action done by “the Church” (or her members/leaders).

    Hence, there really would have to be some definite, horrible action (e.g. the Church taught something false as true on an important matter) that could be pointed to as the one causing Christ to revoke His Church’s authority (and perhaps to simultaneously give it to another Christian body, making that body the Church.) Otherwise we have to assume that Christ, just as He continues to sustain creation and keep it in existence, is doing the same thing for His Church and the authority He gave her.

    I submit all these thoughts as “just my thoughts”, and if any are contrary to the Church’s teachings then feel free to call that out.

  2. Typo: “since a child GROWS “organically”…”

  3. Devin,

    (Playing devil’s advocate here) – I don’t see any clear distinction in what you’re saying and in the continuum fallacy. It seems like you’re getting hung up on the word “grow” as if, because one does not ‘grow’ to lose something, the fallacy cannot apply. But that’s not the fallacy, only an example of it.

    The link in the article gives a couple more example. The sand heap example might be helpful since its not organically related. But the (false) concept is that if a definite transition from thing A to thing B cannot be demonstrated then either A or B does not exist. The Catholics say, presupposing A’s existence, you cannot show a point at which A (authoritative magisterium) becomes B (non-authoritative magisterium) therefore B doesn’t exist. This seems to be identical with the continuum fallacy.

    Further, how does God’s perpetual sustenance of the magisterium prove that Catholics are not guilty of the continuum fallacy since God also perpetually sustains a child throughout his entire life? A child is a child because God created him to be one, it is God’s sustenance which continually gives that child life and existence as a child. The childhood could be lost and replaced with adulthood, but someone would have to show the precise instance at which God allowed that to happen.

  4. Hi CTC Guys,
    I wanted to say first, that I think your website/blog is phenonemal. I have a link on my simple blog to you all. I refer all that wish to dialogue (aka debate death match) to here to get answers to their questions. Most especially, the Reformed faith dialogue since you all, like Dr. Hahn, have ample experience with that confession and soteriology.
    Also, your CTC podcast as well as Taylor Marshall’s podcast on St.Paul is fantastic, and I recommend that to all of the people in my RCIA class.
    All that being said, you guys are way, way over my head in philosophical discussions, so I will refrain from embarrassing myself too much. But in keeping with the original blog post question, I had this thought on the continuing authority of the Church.
    The letter to Romans from St. Paul (Chapter 11:29) clearly states that the gifts and the callings of GOD are irrevocable (without regret; not to be repented of). Obviously, GOD does not need to repent of anything. As you know, St. Paul was speaking of Israel whose hearts had been hardened. But, they were not going to be cast aside for the sake of GOD’S COVENANT with the Fathers.
    If Christ established a Church that the gates of hell would not prevail against, and if St. Peter was given the gift of the keys and the calling to have the authority to bind and loosen, would it be repented of and taken away by GOD?
    No doubt, in times of corrupt practices, the Church has been disciplined, but we know that The Father only disciplines those that HE loves.
    The Church is HIS body, as well as HIS bride. As St. Paul also said in comparing husbands and wives to Christ and HIS Church, ” for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church”.
    This is not what you guys are looking for, I realize. It was just my simplistic way of understanding that the RCC is still the Church Christ gave HIS earthly authority to.
    In the U.S. looking at all of the “split peas” from the Reformation, the Lutherans coming to an understanding with the RCC, the millions of Baptists with a myriad of viewpoints…and then, back at Rome, it made sense.
    The Catholic Church has had it’s disagreements, scandals, etc., but it’s still standing in the same place where St. Peter was martryed for Our Lord and HIS Church.
    What authority is there anywhere else? If I am put out of a Reformed Presbyterian Church for adultery with an elder or the pastor – I need only drive a ways before I will find a nice non-denominational church who will assure me and my adulterous partner that God’s grace covers us.
    We could probably have a nice June wedding there. There is no definitive authority to tell us that we are living in mortal sin and therefore, we will not be married there, etc.
    If the sacrament of the Eucharist is crackers and grape juice once a quarter, what difference does it make if they withhold them from me. I can go to the nearest Lifeway or Christian bookstore and buy my own.
    Feel free to not publish this comment since it’s not what you were looking for. But, it was my own simplistic way of understanding the truth of the once for all faith and authority handed down to the saints and the Church.
    Peace of Christ be with you,
    p.s. I didn’t run off with a Reformed elder ;-) It was simply hypothetical :)

  5. Teri, I’m glad to hear that you didn’t run off with a Reformed elder, those guys can be really hard to reason with. (JOKE!)

    Thanks for the link and we’re glad to hear that the site is useful. In addition to being a place for debate death matches, we did hope it would become a useful resource for Catholics. We’re still working on the library section. Eventually it should be pretty awesome.

    On your reply, I think you’re right, but for the time being, in my devil’s advocate role, I’m still looking for something more direct.

  6. Tim,

    Great question. According to the link in your post, “The [continuum] fallacy appears to demonstrate that two states or conditions cannot be considered distinct (or do not exist at all) because between them there exists a continuum of states.”

    Thus, using the example of a sand heap slowly being leveled one infinitesimal particle at a time to a flat surface, a continuum argument would state that the sand heap and the flat surface are both the same. The continuum arguer would measure the height of the sand heap at time = 0, and then ascertain that at each subsequent observation period, the sand heap differed from its previous condition by at most one particle. He would then conclude, falsely, that this implied that the sand heap has always been a sand heap. In reality, of course, the sand heap could have been reduced by one particle each time until the sand was a level surface. The continuum arguer would never know this, and would reach an incorrect conclusion.

    The Catholic argument is not the continuum argument. The Catholic argument might be called “the continuity” argument. In this argument, the height of the sand heap is not only measured at time = 0, but also at each subsequent observations. It thus differs from the continuum argument in that more is measured at the observations following time = 0: the height itself is measured each time, rather than just the fact that there is at most one particle of sand difference between observations.

    To drop the example, and return to the actual Catholic setting, the Catholic argument consists of pointing out that the organization, sacraments, rule of faith, scriptures, and holiness of the Catholic Church when Saint Ignatius used the term in 107 AD were the same — at least in fundamentals — when Saint Irenaeus battled heresies on behalf of the apostolic successors in 180 AD. They were the same for Pope Victor and for Origin and for Tertullian, in spite of obvious tensions. They were the same for Cyprian (in spite of his temper) and they were the same for Athanasius. They were the same for Ambrose and Augustine and Jerome. And they are the same today. At every point in time, we Catholics can argue that the Church that called itself Catholic was in organic continuity — even in its authoritative magisterium — with the Catholic Church of today. We measure the height of the hill at each point in time and find that it is positive.

    Of course, we are also right to ask Andrew and others for a definitive point in time at which the Magisterium was authoritative, and a later point in time where that Magisterium was not authoritative. We are also right to ask him to push the former date as far forward in time as he is willing, and the latter date as far backwards in time as he is willing. This allows us to see if the way he is measuring the height of the sand hill is self-contradictory or sensible.


    K. Doran

  7. yes, the continuum fallacy IS a fallacy. However, taking your child example: taking lots of measurements, over time, one gets a consistent trend or something like the sort of probabilistic distributions which are common in quantum mechanics. The Catholic argument should, i think, rather be that the protestant ecclesiastical argument would have to demonstrate such a consistent trend, which was never really argued. Furthermore, having more extensive historical resources now, the Catholic can well argue that that such a consistent, long term trend from authority to apostacy can not be made and the unreasonableness of such a claim becomes clearer with each passing century.

  8. Maybe I’m missing the point, but it seems to me to be simpler than you make it out to be.

    “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the Gate of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

    To say that the Authority of the Church does not continue, *IMPLY* hat the “Gates of Hell” prevailed? or I am I simplistic?

  9. Good stuff fellas. A fallacy of continuum between A and B can exist only when both A and B actually exist. There can be no fallacy when either the distinction between A and B is false or when B is false. The Protestant objection presupposes that B (a magisterium without authority) actually exists.

    Then it would seem that any supposed continuum fallacy is only demonstrable as an actual fallacy when the existence of the two things (e.g. not a heap of sand and a heap of sand) is incontestable.

    To borrow from K. Doran, there exists a definite principle of magisterial authority which can be repeatedly shown. If we remove that principle from this age, we must, to be consistent, remove it from the earlier age (which would irrefutably leave us in heresy). For example, if councils do not have to be ratified by the pope to be authoritative, then the Robber Council is authoritative.

    If we tried to use the child – adult analogy, it doesn’t work the same way for this reason: there is no objective rule to say what constitutes a “child” except “someone younger than an adult.” It seems then, that in order for the Catholic argument not to be found guilty of the continuum fallacy, there must actually be a definite rule for authority. But if there is in fact a definite rule, the Protestant would need to show the exact point at which that rule was broken – and to demand such would not be a continuum fallacy. Suppose that the rule for children was that as long as they never grew past 4 feet tall, they would always be a child. Then we could always test and find if someone was a child or not by determining their height (forget about midgets for now). Suppose God promised one particular child that he would always remain a child and never grow to adulthood. We could always test to determine whether or not the promise was true by simple measurement. The Catholic claim is similar. The Protestants erroneously reject the height test because they see that the child is still under four feet. They said “He meant four feet in spirit” and so anyone who is four feet in spirit is a child at heart.

    That the Catholic magisterium persists with “chronic vigor”, to quote Newman, demonstrates, as Thomas points out, the ever-increasing indefensibility of the Protestant claim. They do not realize their predicament in part because they do not realize the nature of corruption. I.e. that it does not continue on and grow stronger; it dies out by necessity if it continues along its path. That is the definition of corruption! But the Catholic Church is not dying out; she is growing stronger and her doctrines are shining brighter. The continuity of her dogma is consistently shown to be impeccable.

  10. I’m in the bad habbit of not finishing thoughts.

    there is no objective rule to say what constitutes a “child” except “someone younger than an adult.”

    Which is not actually objective since the definition of “child” also depends on the definition of “adult”..i.e “someone older than a child.”

  11. Is that really an argument that Catholics make? We have an authoritative magisterium because you can’t point to a moment in time when we lost it?

  12. Mike, Catholics do not argue that the cause of the authoritative magisterium is the Protestant’s lack of ability to demonstrate its loss of authority, but assuming that Protestants are right and that the magisterium has actually lost its authority at some point, the Catholic demand that Protestants be able to demonstrate it seems, at first glance, to be similar to someone demanding that you show the exact moment when a child became an adult.

  13. Tom,

    Protestants would say that whatever “gates of hell will not prevail” means, it doesn’t mean that the Church will never teach error. They do not believe that the Church is infallible.

  14. I would say that since the New Covenant was enacted on better promises with the coming of the very Son of God in human flesh (Hebrews) that a Protestant who tries to hold to a “high view of the early Church” (which is often the argument made by the Lutheran and Reformed, an argument I too often used, contra so-called low church evangelicals) must demonstrate when and where the Church went wrong. Why? Because of the fact that the New Covenant is enacted on better promises! Justifying the Reformation based off the division of the Old Covenant people of God (which has often been used) is not legitimate for the simple fact that the New Covenant is enacted on the better promises. If the Reformers were right, then we should expect, as St. Francis DeSales made clear, miracles to accompany their message (is that not how God worked in the past, e.g. Moses, the early Church), since they could not prove their authority by valid succession within the established structure of the Church.

    If a Protestant does not accept this charge then they must, by definition, hold to ecclesial deism.

  15. (1) Wikipedia’s philosophy articles are typically bad. For better treatments of this subject matter, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on vagueness and the Sorites paradox. Neither of these mention a “fallacy of the continuum” because this is not one of the standard logical fallacies discussed by philosophers. In fact, many philosophers have, since the paradox was first proposed in antiquity, thought that Sorites showed that there was no such thing as a heap! Some contemporary philosophical literature suggests that this has consequences for macrophysical objects. The main philosophers denying some or all macrophysical objects as a result of this reasoning are Peter Unger (who actually wrote a paper entitled “I Do Not Exist,” but later changed his views), Peter van Inwagen, and Trenton Merricks.

    (2) Do these ‘magisterial Protestants’ actually exist? I’ve never heard of Protestants actually believing in this kind of ‘magisterium’ before, though I vaguely recall that I personally may have admitted it for the sake of argument, and you may have responded in the way suggested here.

  16. 1.
    Neither of these mention a “fallacy of the continuum” because this is not one of the standard logical fallacies discussed by philosophers.

    But it is a fallacy.

    In fact, many philosophers have, since the paradox was first proposed in antiquity, thought that Sorites showed that there was no such thing as a heap!

    Only a philosopher doesn’t believe in such things as heaps and adults. This is when philosophy becomes not only unhelpful, but even harmful.

    2. Yes .. depending on the day of the week and the topic.

    Sorry I’m pretty jetlagged and can’t offer a much better response than this right now.

  17. “Magisterial Protestants” and the “magisterial Reformation” refer to those reformers and reformation movements which sought (and obtained) legal sanction for the local reformation church. (That is a rough and ready statement of the case; more nuance would doubtlessly be appropriate.) Ergo, magisterial, for “magister,” a person in authority, in this case, the local government. The church of England, the Lutheran church of northern Germany and the Zwinglian and Calvinist churches of Switzerland and Geneva are prime examples of the magisterial Reformation. Henry VIII, et al, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were all, in this sense, magisterial Protestants.

    I first encountered the “continuum fallacy” under the much earthier (and far better) rubric of “the fallacy of the beard.”

  18. Hey, Kenny.

    I always like it when you show up. You say “Some contemporary philosophical literature suggests that this [Sorites stuff] has consequences for macrophysical objects.” You’re right that Unger’s changed his views (he’s good at that), but I take it that Merrick’s and PVI’s views are not reliant on sorites paradoxes exactly. Are they? Been a while, but as I recall the thrust of Merrick’s case centrally involves Kimean no-overdetermination/causal exclusion style reasoning, whereas PVI’s reasoning is dependent upon the insolubility of the special constitution problem.

    This is obviously tangential, and again, I haven’t looked at this material for a long time; I just thought that their delineations of what’s ens per se and what’s unum per accidens were largely independent of sorites arguments. Help jog my memory!


  19. (In reverse order.)

    Neal – Merricks appeals to Sorites throughout Objects and Persons (check the index), but his main discussion is section 2.2, pp. 32-37. Merricks also has several other arguments, but a lot of them relate to vagueness. (He never explains why the physical objects he does believe in – those that experience consciousness – aren’t vague; it seems that we certainly have vague boundaries!) Van Inwagen cannot, of course, rely too heavily on Sorites to prove his point because he actually believes in vague objects. According to van Inwagen, there are some objects, including you and I, that really exist, but there is no definite

    Andrew – But these Protestants don’t believe the premises of Tim’s argument, do they?

    Tim – I should speak more carefully. Many (I think probably most) philosophers since the time Sorites was first proposed have thought that it showed that there is no one thing in the world that is a heap. Rather, what we call a heap is in fact many things, arranged in a certain way. As a result, we can say that it is determinately true that all of the individual objects exist, but it is a vague matter whether they are arranged in a heap. This is much less problematic than saying that it is a vague matter whether something exists – most philosophers (not van Inwagen; see above) think that vague existence is nonsense. This of course doesn’t negate the fact that in plain English we say things like ‘there is a heap of sand over there’ and this sometimes expresses a truth; rather, the claim is that the truth that is expressed is not ‘there is a certain entity over there, namely, a heap of sand’ but rather ‘there are many grains of sand, arranged in a heap, over there.’

    Similarly ‘adult’ is what is called a ‘phase sortal.’ A sortal is a term that specifies what sort of thing an object is; a phase sortal is a sortal that applies at some points in an object’s history and not at others. The vagueness of the term adult does not imply that there is vague existence (or vague identity). Rather, all the objects involved determinately exist, but there are some objects such that it is a vague matter whether they are adults. This is why I was recommending the SEP article on vagueness.

    Now, it would be a fallacy to claim that because no one ever passes from determinately being a non-adult to determinately being an adult without passing through the region of vagueness, nothing is an adult. This, I take it, is the line of thought you have in mind? The same may apply to a sect or church being schismatic or heretical. For instance, probably there were some times in history at which it was a vague matter whether Rome and Constantinople were in communion with one another. (I am aware that today these things are very rigorously defined in canon law, but these rigorous definitions were developed as needed throughout history, so they were not rigorously defined at the time that the issues first arose.) This fact doesn’t negate the fact that there were times when they were determinately in communion with one another, and times when they were determinately not.

    So, yes, there is a reasoning mistake here. One of the reasons it is not one of the standard fallacies is that vagueness presents so many difficult problems, and which inferences are legitimate depends on one’s theory of vagueness. One could adopt a theory of vagueness such that the inference was legitimate, but this would have a lot of extremely counter-intuitive consequences.

  20. Kenny,

    I think that Protestants might be able to accept the key premise of Tim’s argument, namely, that the (hypothetical) loss of authority in the Catholic Church does not require an identifiable, specific moment at which that authority was lost.

    In light of recent discussion: I wonder if Tim’s point is affected by the distinctions you delineate between kinds of vagueness, e.g., a heap and a phase sortal?

    If the authority of the Church is of the essence of the Church, then it seems that the Church cannot lose her authority without ceasing to exist. In that case, the heap sort of vagueness, and any arguments about loss of authority presupposing such, would only be useful to those Protestants who thinks that the Church exists after the manner of a heap.

    For those who think that the Church after the manner of a body, the “phase sortal” type of vagueness might apply to the Church in some ways, but not with respect to her authority (granted the premise that her authority is of her essence).

    Keeping with body language, is it reasonable to construe death as a phase sortal? In this case, the Protestant claim about loss of authority would be that the Church died, although we cannot, and need not, specify the time of death.

    But I don’t think that many Protestants will claim that the Church died. Hence, they might say that authority is not of the essence of the Church, such that the Church lost her authority and the Reformers legitimately rebelled against her. But I don’t think that many would take that line either.

    Rather, Protestants generally claim that the existence and authority, i.e., the life, of the Church is continued, in an organic way, in one of the Protestant churches, or else in the entire collection of the Protestant churches, or else in some specific set of Protestant churches.

    (To include the Roman and Eastern churches, particularly the Roman, in the set of churches that constitutes the Church is a difficult thing to do if one wants to posit the necessity of the Reformation.)

    I wonder, though, whether this way of thinking about the Church, as a collection of autonomous churches, is not reducible to construing the existence of the Church after the manner of a heap.

    So the most reasonable line for Protestants to take (at least, those who want to maintain the essential authority and unity of the Church) is that the life of the Apostolic Church is continued in some one Protestant church or denomination, and that the Roman church, all other Protestant denominations, the Orthodox church, in fact, all churches not part of their Protestant denomination, are dead.

    In some way, the one true Protestant Church x (say, the Church of England or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or First Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC) has existed all along, from the time of the apostles, and it is not, perhaps, necessary to declare the time of death of the other churches in order to reasonably maintain that they have in fact died.

    The best way to avoid Tim’s argument, and all of the premises and problems associated with it, is to deny the visibility of the Church.

  21. Andrew – It seems to me that most Protestants (including historically- and theologically-grounded confessional Protestants) want to deny that it was ever the case that the sort of thing the RCC claims to be had the sort of authority the RCC claims to have. According to most Protestants, the Church has always been the sort of thing it is now, and has always had the very same claim to authority. The only difference is that there was a time when the true Church was coextensive with a single visible institution, and this is, unfortunately, no longer the case.

    I don’t think there are very many, if any, Protestants who think that the RCC is right about the nature and authority of the undivided Church of antiquity but that the situation changed some time later (whether at a determinate moment or over a period of time). Many Protestants will say that there was a time when the whole Church exhibited visible unity under the headship of Rome, but that is a very different claim. Most Protestants will also say that there was a time when Rome was a chief defender of orthodoxy, but over time lapsed into error. This isn’t the sort of claim needed to make Tim’s argument go either.

    The sort of unity exhibited by institutions or organizations, and so of particular visible churches (sects, denominations, etc.), is neither precisely the body sort nor the heap sort, but has similarities with both. (I am talking here from a naturalistic perspective; the spiritual nature of the Church makes the situation of churches special.) An institution, unlike (according to most philosophers) a body, is not a substance. In that respect it is like a heap, which isn’t a substance either. However, an institution is like a body in that its identity has more to do with its organization and operation than with its parts. Because institutions are not substances (i.e. they don’t really exist; they are just arrangements of their human members), it is not particularly problematic for them to have vague identity or existence. As such, if we consider the historical churches as if they were simply human institutions, we might conclude that, although they are determinately non-identical with one another, they are each vaguely identical with the undivided Church. I don’t know how much this helps the question at issue.

  22. Dear Kenny,

    You said:

    “Andrew – It seems to me that most Protestants (including historically- and theologically-grounded confessional Protestants) want to deny that it was ever the case that the sort of thing the RCC claims to be had the sort of authority the RCC claims to have. According to most Protestants, the Church has always been the sort of thing it is now, and has always had the very same claim to authority. The only difference is that there was a time when the true Church was coextensive with a single visible institution, and this is, unfortunately, no longer the case.”

    One thing that would help me understand the protestant case better would be to know whether what you meant to say is that “Protestants. . . want to deny that it was _originally_ the case that the sort of the thing the RCC claims to be _publicly claimed_ the sort of _authority_ that the RCC today claims to have.”

    By my reading of the historical evidence, it seems that there is too much evidence that the Church of the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth centuries believed it was capable of making eternally binding doctrinal decisions — too much evidence, in particular, for someone to claim that that this Church didn’t believe that making such eternally binding doctrinal decisions was part of its divine commission.

    If what you meant to say is that protestants deny that this was originally the case, based on, for example, the limited evidence from the first fifty years after the apostles died, then this sounds more like the protestant argument that I have heard. In other words, the visible Church long claimed the right to do things that the Protestants claim that the invisible true Church cannot do — even during centuries in which the only place you were likely to find the invisible church (based on other grounds) was in the visible church that called itself Catholic.

    I haven’t noticed any educated protestants denying this unfortunate fact. I have always assumed that by focusing on the early years they were implicitly admitting that the evidence for the existence of true Christians (i.e. Christians who know that visible Churches don’t have authority to do “Catholic-style” stuff) in the years between 450 AD and 1000 AD is rather limited.



  23. Kenny,

    One more question: do you disagree that Catholics are making what I called in comment #6 above a “continuity” argument? And if we are, do you believe that the technique of argument (not perhaps our measurement tools) is the right one for verifying our claims?

    Many thanks,


  24. KD –

    (1) I don’t mean to make any claim about what authority Church leaders claimed for themselves or for the visible institution; that has varied by time and place, but it has certainly been common throughout Church history for leaders to claim more authority than most Protestants will be comfortable with. What I am saying is that, whatever the leaders may have claimed, most Protestants believe that none of them ever actually had that kind of authority. The question of whether they had the authority is distinct from the question of whether they claimed to have it.

    (2) I agree that the argument Catholic apologists should be making (and I suspect many of them are making) is something like your continuity argument. However, the continuity argument is more difficult to support than the (fallacious) continuum argument. The fallacious argument simply says “it was like this then, and you can’t point to any time when it stopped being like this, so it must be like this now.” This stumbles by ignoring the possibility of vagueness. Nevertheless, I think that even in the case of the continuity argument, Protestants don’t accept your theological premises, let alone your historical ones. So if the argument is targeted against Protestants then it is question-begging. In sum, my evaluation of the argument is that it can provide rational support for the Catholic position for a person who already holds the Catholic position, but Protestants shouldn’t be convinced by it. This is because, to use the heap of sand analogy, your argument shows that it is the same (genuine) heap of sand by showing that a heap of sand is continuously present in the same place, and at all times large enough to be, determinately or at least vaguely, a heap. However, the Protestant actually denies that there was ever a heap there.

  25. Kenny,

    You said:

    “Nevertheless, I think that even in the case of the continuity argument, Protestants don’t accept your theological premises, let alone your historical ones. So if the argument is targeted against Protestants then it is question-begging.”

    In terms of the historical argument, protestants do admit that the visible church asserted a higher level of doctrinal authority than they were comfortable with from at least the early fifth century onward, right? It is the earlier period where they stake their hopes and steadfastly hold their ground as to a visible church that did not assert a higher level of authority than they approved of, right?

    I ask this, because I’ve always had the impression that Protestants felt strongly that they needed to have an early visible church that agreed with their interpretation of the relative _levels_ of scriptural and ecclesiastical authorities. If they didn’t have this, then everyone would ask: how could the aspotle’s own hearers have gotten things so wrong?! I should note that in whatever areas protestants and Catholics reach historical disagreements, neither side wants to simply beg the question historically — I think both sides (and me in my posts) have attempted to bring evidence to the fore and to analyze it without question begging.

    As for the theological premise, my question is: do protestants look to the historical record of the early church to see whether the fundamental invisibility of the true Church appears to have been divinely sanctioned? Or do they restrict themselves to looking in scripture to see whether the true Church is invisible? On what basis does this theological viewpoint carry more weight than the lack of any substantial historical records of Christians who agreed with them as to the fundamental invisibility of the Church? I mean this as a serious question, not as a criticism. I’ve been very confused in my search for records of invisible-church believers anywhere in Church history — especially as the years pass. Most of all I’ve been confused about why this lack of a record isn’t deemed to be a problem for protestants who assert that a true Christian ought to know that the Church is truly invisible, and that Christ’s promises were made to the invisible Church, not to the visible one.

    Many thanks,


  26. KD – I’m trying to stick to what I think Protestants (at least, as I said theologically- and historically-grounded confessional Protestants) agree on. If we get too far into this, I can only speak for myself, and I am not an expert on this history. That said, I want to make three points that I think are important here:

    (1) People often claim authority they don’t have.

    (2) That said, Protestants (unlike, say, Mormons) do not believe that the visible church was rapidly corrupted around the time of the apostles’ death. So, yes, it is true that Protestants generally believe that the leaders of the visible, institutional church in the early post-apostolic age were mostly right in their doctrine and practice and only slowly drifted from the teaching of the apostles. However, since Protestants don’t accept the doctrine of an infallible magisterium, they don’t (necessarily) believe that there was ever a time when the visible church got EVERYTHING right. Furthermore, the historical manifestation of the invisible Church is not dependent on getting everything right. Protestants do generally claim that the message of salvation has been believed and preached by true Christians from the time of the apostles to the present, but the proper boundaries of Church authority are, according to Protestants, no part of the message of salvation.

    (3) Protestants don’t actually claim that “the true Church is invisible” per se. For instance, the Westminster confession 25.1-2 refers to both the invisible and the visible Church (both with capital ‘C’) as “catholic or universal.” According to the WCF, there is a true visible Church, and it “consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, and of their children” and even goes on to say that “out of [the visible Church] there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). However, it is not clear to me whether the Westminster divines intend the visible Church and invisible Church to be one and the same, nor is it clear whether the visible Church is a set of institutions, or merely a set of people. 25.4 says “This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible” and goes on to imply that different “particular churches” have different degrees of membership in the visible Church. (I say it implies this; what it explicitly says is that “particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure;” it is possible, I suppose, that they did not intend purity to be a standard for membership in the universal Church.)

    In short, the WCF position is somewhat confusing, but directly implies that the true Church is visible, though in varying degrees at various times. Furthermore, 25.5 says that it is always visible in some degree.

    Now, it seems that the question you are most concerned with here is, is Protestant ecclesiology innovative and, if so, are Protestants troubled by this? Many Protestants care very little for tradition. I personally think this is a mistake, and I personally would be inclined to take seriously any evidence regarding how the Church has historically been conceived. However I, as a Protestant, will differ from the RCC in my approach to this in two ways: (1) I look to the Scripture first, and to the tradition as an aid to its interpretation, and (2) I don’t take the proclamations of Popes or Roman councils as any more authoritative than the opinions of other theologians with similar levels of knowledge, skill, and holiness of life. (Holiness of life is, I take it, evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church into all truth.) Related to (2), although I do believe in doctrinal development, I am suspicious of it; I certainly don’t regard something as a ‘development’ rather than an objectionable ‘innovation’ simply because it has been accepted by Rome. As such, I am most interested in the earliest and most widely attested traditions. If some doctrine is nearly universally explicitly attested from the earliest Christian writers, I am inclined to give very great deference to it, and would require extremely strong evidence from Scripture to reject it.

  27. Kenny,

    Thanks so much for this. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of where the disagreements are real disagreements, and not just mutual confusions — your posts are helping me find this.

    One thing stuck out at me: “but the proper boundaries of Church authority are, according to Protestants, no part of the message of salvation.”

    I wonder how this can be the case, sense if the proper boundary of Church authority extends beyond definitive doctrinal pronouncements, then our interpretation and application of the message of salvation may be modified by taking into account these pronouncements.

    My first follow-up question is: why, specifically, aren’t you concerned that it is so hard to find anyone denying the ability of the church to make binding doctrinal statements in the years I mentioned above? Corollary: why aren’t you concerned with the fairly strong Catholic arguments that the historical early Church also seemed to make binding doctrinal statements. Second question:A nd why aren’t you concerned that it is so hard to find anyone who believes stereotypically protestant views on the necessary conditions for salvation even in the early Church and continuing beyond for the next millenium?

    There are obvious reasons to be concerned. Why the lack of concern among protestants? Does it all come down to the claim that the invisible church is all that matters? Because if protestants, like you, value holiness of life, I can cite a LOT of very holy people who believed Catholic doctrines of salvation and ecclesiology and who were much much closer temporally and culturally and linguistically and geographically to the apostles than we are!



  28. Tim,

    That is, the Catholic says that what is not lost is retained, and if we cannot demonstrate its loss, then we cannot demonstrate its non-retention.


    But is this analogous to the continuum fallacy and therefore false?


    If we say that an authoritative magisterium that cannot be shown to have lost its authority at any definite point must therefore still be authoritative, is this not the same as saying that a human who cannot be shown, at any definite point, to have lost his childhood is still a child?

    There are two distinct questions: (1) Can the authority of the magisterium be shown to have been lost at some definite point?, and (2) Can the authority of the magisterium be shown to be lost? The important question is the second question. That is because if the answer to (2) is yes, then we should no longer be Catholic, regardless of the answer to (1). But if the answer to (2) is no, then the answer to (1) is no, and we should all be Catholic. So while (1) would be relevant to Church historians as historians if the answer to (2) were yes, Catholics seeking to resolve the Protestant-Catholic schism need not require a Protestant to answer (1). They need only ask the Protestant to substantiate his affirmative answer to (2).

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  29. KD – First, lets clear up a confusion. We need to distinguish between the what the message of salvation is, and how we know what it is. The degree and nature of the Church’s authority and authoritativeness (as I’ve previously commented on this blog, I take these to be too different things) has an effect on how we go about coming to know the message of salvation. Clearly Protestants believe that people generally come to know this message because it is proclaimed by the Church – that, on the Protestant view, is first and foremost what the Church is here on earth for. But Protestants will take a different view than the RCC on how exactly we should take the Church’s proclamation, and why we should believe it, and what degree of confidence we should have in it. This all becomes very complicated, but my point is that it has to do with how individuals come to know the message of salvation, not with the content of that message. Someone could be wrong about how individuals come to know the message, but right about its content. The Protestant confessions affirm (and I personally believe) that the Church has always preached this message, though sometimes more and sometimes less loudly and clearly. Lesser degrees of clarity could include actual doctrinal confusions, as indeed the WCF says: “The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error” (25.5). So, for instance, I recently finished reading St. Chrysostom’s homilies on John. Never does Chrysostom articulate anything like the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide. However, he does exhort his congregation to trust in Christ and perform good works. He implies that these things ought always to go together (as indeed Protestants also believe they should), and that the one who does both of them is saved. But he never mentions doing good works before trusting in Christ – he consistently assumes that trust in Christ comes first. This, to my mind, is a sufficient level of clarity regarding the message of salvation. I don’t say that Chrysostom gets other things wrong; I don’t lightly disagree with such a venerable saint. Rather, I say that he doesn’t have Reformation-era debates – or even the Pelagian controversy – on his mind because these weren’t major issues in that time and place, so he doesn’t clearly articulate a position on this subject, at least in the works I have personally read.

    Now, this last point is important to my response to the rest. I do believe that the Church can make authoritative (though not infallible) doctrinal statements; I just don’t believe that the Church is the same sort of thing you do. Further, I believe that particular church leaders have broad (though not absolutely unlimited) authority to regulate practice for the sake of unity and edification. Thus most conservative Presbyterians will, I think, see the WCF as principally regulating practice: it regulates what is to be taught in the churches. You might call that a ‘binding doctrinal statement,’ but it doesn’t require infallibility (or even correctness) to be binding.

    I think there are two basic problems in your most recent comment. First, you seem to assume that I am further away from the RCC position than I am. I do believe in Church (and church) authority and authoritativeness. (Perhaps you already suspect this, and that’s why you use the phrase ‘stereotypically Protestant.’) Second, I’m not a patristics scholar, but I can’t recall seeing many statements from the first few centuries of the Church which are precise enough to determine whether the writer holds a position like mine, a position like the RCC, or some other position on Church authority. More often, the writer affirms Church authority, but doesn’t explicitly define what the Church is or what the extent of its authority is. I think I remember seeing some statements that would tend to support the RCC position in Ignatius of Antioch. However, there are also statements in Augustine that seem to affirm that only the Scriptures are “completely free form error”, which implies that e.g. Church council documents or Papal encyclicals are not “completely free from error.” Augustine, in a letter to Jerome, also says that Jerome holds this view. The Catholic prooftexts cited by Tim on his own blog usually seem ambiguous to me, but I confess that I haven’t always had time to examine their context.

    That said, I am examining questions like this diligently, and I have been reading a lot of the Fathers (mostly Augustine, Chrysostom, and Athanasius) over the last few years. This has led me in a more traditional/confessional direction, but I started from pop-Evangelicalism which is something of a caricature of traditional Protestant views. So far, when comparing e.g. the WCF and RCC doctrine with what I have read of the Fathers, I have most often found that, because the RCC-Protestant differences are not matters of concern for the Fathers, it is usually difficult to tell what their position is on these issues, or whether they’ve even thought about the question. In those cases where they do say something very clear they usually disagree with one another.

    If you have evidence to introduce from the great theologians of the early Church, I will gladly consider it and take time to examine it in its context.

    That said, my own views on ecclesiology are somewhat ill-defined at the moment (for what I am confident of see here). For my soteriology, see here and here. I would be happy to continue this discussion with you, and would be truly grateful for Patristic citations that shed light on these issues.

  30. Hey Tim,

    Good article (It’s great to be able to read a good article in a couple minutes). I think this “magisterial Protestant” you speak of has become hard to find. As I’ve been having debates with guys at RTS (this is true of Professors as well), many of them do not believe the Catholic magisterium ever was infallible. As I understand it, this is why R.C. Sproull wants to have a fallible list of infallible books. To use your analogy of the continuum fallacy and the child, I think its safe to say that there never was a child for many conservative reformed folk.

    Honestly, when I’ve argued for the continued authority of the Catholic Church (to seminary students) they seem confused because they don’t believe that the Church ever had such an authority to begin with. I think this is a huge problem in Catholic apologetics. Although the Catholic Church is the superabundant fullfillment of everything good tasted in Protestantism, it appears, when we make this argument, that we’re talking about a completely different religion. My experience has been like finding gold and then telling people about it, only to discover they don’t believe such a thing as gold exists.

    Two questions; would you agree that the “new calvinist” referred to in Time and on C2C are not really magisterial Protestants in their ecclesiology? If so, what is the starting point (or a good starting point) in discussing the necessity of the Catholic Church?

    Peace in Christ, Jeremy Tate

  31. Kenny,

    Computer just shut down and I lost a longer response to your comment #22. Gist was that my point in #20 does not turn on any particular conception of church authority, only that the churches before the reformation had legitimate authority, and that those churches either lost that authority or the reformers rebelled against legitimate church authority.

  32. Hi Kenny,

    I’ll do this in Parts

    Part I:

    You said:

    “However, there are also statements in Augustine that seem to affirm that only the Scriptures are “completely free form error”, which implies that e.g. Church council documents or Papal encyclicals are not “completely free from error.” Augustine, in a letter to Jerome, also says that Jerome holds this view.”

    You’re right that Augustine can easily be misinterpreted in this way — he sometimes wrote purple prose. However, he quite explicit in several passages in a manner which rules out the interpretation that you just offered. For instance, regarding the Donatists, I believe:

    “24. What if the holy and true Church of Christ were to convince and overcome you, even if we held no documents in support of our cause, or only such as were false, while you had possession of some genuine proofs of delivery of the sacred books? What would then remain for you, except that, if you would, you should show your love of peace, or otherwise should hold your tongues? For whatever, in that case, you might bring forward in evidence, I should be able to say with the greatest ease and the most perfect truth, that then you are bound to prove as much to the full and catholic unity of the Church already spread abroad and established throughout so many nations, to the end that you should remain within, and that those whom you convict should be expelled. And if you have endeavored to do this,certainly you have not been able to make good your proof; and being vanquished or enraged, you have separated yourselves, with all the heinous guilt of sacrilege, from the guiltless men who could not condemn on insufficient proof. But if you have not even endeavored to do this, then with most accursed and unnatural blindness you have cut yourselves off from the wheat of Christ, which grows throughout His whole fields, that is, throughout the whole world, until the end, because you have taken offense at a few tares in Africa.”

    Here Augustine imagines a scenario precisely equivalent to the Protestant claim that the Catholic Church of the reformation era had no clear scriptural proof of Catholic assertions (and only documents that were “interpolations” to support their cause) — while Protestants had scripture on their side! He then explains that they have a duty to try convince the Church. . . and if they fail to convince, then they have a duty to remain within — else they commit the sin of sacrilege.



  33. Part II:

    Likewise, to the Manicheans:

    “Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason? It is therefore fairer and safer by far for me, having in one instance put faith in the Catholics, not to go over to you, till, instead of bidding me believe, you make me understand something in the clearest and most open manner. To convince me, then, you must put aside the gospel. If you keep to the gospel, I will keep to those who commanded me to believe the gospel; and, in obedience to them, I will not believe you at all. But if haply you should succeed in finding in the gospel an incontrovertible testimony to the apostleship of Manichæus, you will weaken my regard for the authority of the Catholics who bid me not to believe you; and the effect of that will be, that I shall no longer be able to believe the gospel either, for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me. Wherefore, if no clear proof of the apostleship of Manichæus is found in the gospel, I will believe the Catholics rather than you. But if you read thence some passage clearly in favor of Manichæus, I will believe neither them nor you: not them, for they lied to me about you; nor you, for you quote to me that Scripture which I had believed on the authority of those liars.”

    Here, Augustine uses much clearer language than even his clearest arguments about scripture’s authority. He explains that there exists a certain type of Catholic teaching which is so authoritative ( in this case, the Catholic condemnation of some of the Manichean claims) that if the gospels themselves were used to definitively disprove this Catholic claim. . . he would actually stop believing in the gospels themselves! He could believe in both the gospels and the Church, and he could believe in neither — he wouldn’t believe in one without the other.



  34. Part III:

    Finally, we have Augustine’s actions. I must make clear that Catholics do not simply look at a person’s claims to authority in order to determine what authority various institutions and offices had in the early Church. We look at:

    (1) A person’s claims to authority,
    (2) the response of people who came under the thumb of that authority, and
    (3) the response of third parties

    We also do this in an overlapping manner, as, for instance, with Augustine, where we look at:

    (1) Augustine’s claims to authority,
    (2) the response of people who came under Augustine’s thumb,
    (3) the response of third parties to this exercise of Augustine’s authority,
    (4) the Pope’s claims to authority in his interactions with Augustine
    (5) Augustine’s responses to these claims
    (6) the response of third parties to these interactions between Augustine and the Pope

    The evidence is too voluminous to go through here except by way of summary. Suffice it to say for now, that, for example, Augustine considered Rome to be a sufficient final arbiter in the Pelagian controversy, of greater authority than himself; that he fully accepted (and even celebrated) the Pope’s commanding and domineering actions in that controversy; and that he expected everyone he knew to obey unconditionally.

    As far as Jerome is concerned — his ultramontane views are well-known. Let me share some of them:

    “I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ. The wide space of sea and land that lies between us cannot deter me from searching for “the pearl of great price.” Matthew 13:46 “Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” Matthew 24:28 Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed grain is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats. Matthew 13:22-23 In the West the Sun of righteousness Malachi 4:2 is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer, who fell from heaven, Luke 10:18 has once more set his throne above the stars. Isaiah 14:12 “You are the light of the world,” Matthew 5:14 “you are the salt of the earth,” Matthew 5:13 you are “vessels of gold and of silver.” Here are vessels of wood or of earth, 2 Timothy 2:20 which wait for the rod of iron, Revelation 2:27 and eternal fire.

    2. Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! Matthew 16:18 This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. Exodus 12:22 This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. Genesis 7:23 But since by reason of my sins I have betaken myself to this desert which lies between Syria and the uncivilized waste, I cannot, owing to the great distance between us, always ask of your sanctity the holy thing of the Lord. Consequently I here follow the Egyptian confessors who share your faith, and anchor my frail craft under the shadow of their great argosies. I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; Matthew 12:30 he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist.”



  35. Kenny,

    Finally, (and now I have taken up way too much space), I would say that Athanasius and his contemporaries also felt that the Church was capable of making condemnations of heresies that were binding forever. Please, if you are willing and interested, do a search on this blog for those of my comments where I recommend writings by Dom John Chapman (many of which are free on such sites as google books — I have links to them in my various comments). Allow me to recommend one more such work below, “The first eight general councils and papal infallibility”:


    You often have to click the link twice to get it to work.

    One more question, and then I will stop and think for a while about how I can help you: what historical evidence would be sufficient to suggest that your theological beliefs about the incapability of the Church to make binding (for all time, and thus infallible in some sense) doctrinal decisions is incorrect? If you could determine that such holy (and early) men as Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome, etc did not agree with you, would that start to make you reconsider? I don’t mean to ask you to capitulate immediately. . . I just want to know whether you believe historical evidence (and the evidence of holy men and women) is capable of changing your mind, or whether you will never consider anything other than scripture and reason applied to scripture in order to figure out what the Church is capable of?



  36. Andrew – Sorry I misread you. If you read some of my later comments, with the quotations from the WCF, you will see that, at least according to Protestants, the ‘visibility’ of the Church does not require institutional unity or continuity. Of course, a united and continuous visible Church would be a more perfect manifestation of the invisible Church than is the disunited one we have, but God allows many things to be imperfect in this present world. According to the standard Protestant line, a particular church possesses authority only insofar as it is part of the visible Church, and it is part of the visible Church insofar as it is submitted to Christ and engaged in the mission of the Church, namely, the preaching of the true Gospel. So, yes, on the view of the Reformers (which, admittedly, may be harsher to Rome than is justified), Rome was a legitimate ‘particular church’, a part of the visible Church, say, immediately after the Great Schism. However, the Reformers claimed, by the 16th century Rome had strayed so far from the preaching of the true Gospel as to have lost legitimacy, and this is clearly evidenced by the fact that when Luther stood up to preach the true Gospel he was convicted of heresy. The reason I say this may be too harsh is that in our own day I consider the relationship between Rome and what I would consider to be the true Gospel to be rather more complicated. For instance, I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that accusations of Pelagianism against official RCC doctrine are baseless.

    KD – I will need more time to digest all of this text. Perhaps I will write later today. My first reaction is that I don’t think you understand my position. It seems to me (after a quick skim) that these texts show that the Church can make ‘binding’ doctrinal determinations only if one takes ‘binding’ in a sense I can accept. Anyway, give me some time to read over them more closely and think about a response.

  37. Hi Kenny,

    While you’re thinking this over, I would just emphasize that Augustine thinks the Catholic Church is capable of making a decision that is so binding that if anyone found evidence in the Gospels to disprove that assertion, Augustine would then believe the Catholic Church had lied to him, which would then cause him to disbelieve the gospels (post #34 above). Protestants don’t believe this about any visible Church structure, because they always cross their fingers behind their backs when they subscribe to any creeds or confessions, admitting the possibility implicitly or explicitly of a future contradiction based on scripture.

    Furthermore, I believe there is good evidence about what exactly it was that Augustine took to be the Catholic Church that was visibly making such claims. I think the evidence suggests that this Catholic Church had to include, by necessity, the Church of Rome.



  38. Kenny,

    Yes, that is the way Protestant ecclesiology needs to go, towards a weak version of the visible Church, in order to (1) claim that the Church never died and (2) justify their repudiation of every visible church that existed at the time of the reformation.

  39. KD – I will follow your lead and post in parts. In the first part, let me describe what I (personally, not speaking for other Protestants) believe and where I think you and I disagree, and then we can use this to focus our discussion of the Tradition of the Church, and the particular texts quoted above.

    I believe that the Church is the only divinely authorized and enabled interpreter of the revelation of God to man. From the God’s authorization proceeds the Church’s authority, or right to command, and from God’s enabling proceeds the Church’s authoritativeness, or the reasonableness of believing the Church. With respect to doctrine, since the Church is the only authorized interpreter of the revelation, I ought not to publicly set myself up as an alternative interpreter for others to follow (such, indeed, is the essence of heresy) or to follow another interpreter. Since the Church is the only divinely enabled interpreter, I ought at the very least to show extremely great deference to the Church’s interpretation even in my private belief.

    Having made what I think is a fairly strong statement on the status of the Church, let me list some relevant points where I disagree with (my understanding of) RCC doctrine:

    (1) I deny that any particular document or proclamation outside the canon of Scripture is absolutely infallible. What I mean by this is that in no other case did God miraculously intervene in such a way as to ensure that error was impossible. This is not to say that all other documents contain actual errors. For instance, I believe with great confidence that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is free from actual error. My claim is just that it was possible for these councils to affirm something false, although they in fact affirmed only truth.

    (2) I deny that the bishop of Rome has unlimited authorization to speak for the Church. Any Christian can, of course, attempt to speak for the Church simply by knowing what the Church has to say on that subject. We human beings speak for those we know well in this way all the time. We say things like “I believe I speak for all of us…” etc. Furthermore, all Church leaders have a special authorization to speak for the Church, just as an ambassador is authorized to speak for a political entity. Generally, we should believe that an ambassador accurately represents the will of the entity he represents. However, in some cases evidence may pile up to show that this is not really the case, that the ambassador has exceeded his authority, lied, or is simply ignorant of the actual political situation at home. Furthermore, an ambassador may be disciplined or recalled. In general, therefore, we ought to believe that Church leaders speak for the Church, but we cannot take this assumption absolutely uncritically. These considerations apply equally to all Church leaders, including the bishop of Rome.

    (3) I deny that the post-Schism Roman councils speak for the Church.

    (4) I deny that the Church is authoritative when not interpreting God’s revelation. Although it doesn’t cite Scripture references, the Council of Nicaea, for instance, was engaged in interpreting God’s revelation in the Scriptures. This is made abundantly clear by Athanasius’ “Defense of the Decrees of Nicaea.” The same is true in most other cases, including many cases where this is not apparent on the surface. However, if the Church should attempt to make a proclamation which is not an interpretation of God’s revelation but rather, e.g., a discovery of human reason, it exceeds its competence.

    It is my understanding that I am in disagreement with RCC doctrine on all four of these points.

    Let me also answer your question from #36 before proceeding to our historical discussions. I think it is much more likely that my interpretation of Scripture is mistaken than that all of the great theologians of the early Church agree in being mistaken. As such, on most questions of revealed theology if you were able to show that, for instance, Athanasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Chrysostom all agree against me, I would probably capitulate pretty much instantly. On questions that are really central to my understanding of Christianity you will understand that I would not change my views quickly. However, I would go so far as to say that on any question of revealed theology such an agreement against me would greatly shake my confidence. Of course, the four names I list are only by way of example. What is important is that there is general agreement among Christians who exhibit both great intellectual ability and great holiness of life, and that this agreement spans a variety of times and places.

    I hope that’s enough by way of preliminaries that we can begin to evaluate the actual texts in light of it. Unfortunately, I won’t have time to begin that project right away, as I have work to do this afternoon. Hopefully this evening I will get to it.

  40. So sorry for interrupting – totally not in keeping with the dialogue/debate, but I needed to let you guys at CTC know I gave you props at my website.
    I’m in hope of getting the group that thinks Catholic Conversion stories are pure experience and/or emotional in contrast to sound theological understanding to have a go here.
    I think you guys are just the right match for the task.

    I copied and pasted your bios from your site, but you can check them just to make sure if I need to do any editing.

    Peace of Christ be with you all!

  41. Kenny,

    Thanks so much! I appreciate your forthrightness. I am heading out of town for a few days, and, as usual, behind in all of my duties. But I will come back when I get a chance, and I will be praying for you. In parting, for now, I would also recommend emailing the guys on this site personally. They can give you a lot of good feedback, if you have not already asked them for it.

    One thing that I think will be great will be to follow up on your statement that you would believe a consensus of holy and wise people from different times and places on the nature of the Church. We Catholics believe that God made certain promises to the Church, and established that Church with a certain nature. I am confident that when you look at the list of holy and intelligent people from the first millennium of Christianity who disagreed with the protestant conception of God’s promises to His Church, and what nature God gave to His Church, it will be a great breakthrough for you, and a celebration for all of us! I don’t think you will find much to shock your central understanding of Christianity. I just think you will want to be Catholic, which for you might not mean as much of a change as simply an unfolding of what’s already implicitly there.



  42. Kenny,

    If there were no visible catholic [i.e. universal] Church, but only denominations, congregations, individual believers and their children, how would you know? What exactly would be different? If nothing, then why doesn’t the principle of parsimony eliminate it, and simply leave the invisible Church [plus denominations, congregations, individual believers and their children]?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  43. KD,

    Hopefully we will have the opportunity to continue this another time. I am a regular reader here and at Army of Martyrs, and occasionally discuss things like this on my own blog, though I am more focused on philosophy (which is my profession) than on dogmatic theology. For now, I will just make a few brief points.

    (1) It seems to me that it is easy to interpret Augustine’s teaching on the authority of Scripture and his teaching on the authority of the Church in such a way that we read both straightforwardly and they are not inconsistent with one another. One way to do this is to say that Augustine holds a stronger view of Church authority than mine, but a weaker view than the modern RCC position. For instance, perhaps Augustine’s view is that the proclamations of the Church have the possibility of error whereas the Scriptures do not, but the Church’s authoritativeness is such that no reasoning of my own and no alternative authority should ever convince me to believe other than what the Church teaches. For comparison: suppose the National Academy of Sciences releases a statement on some purely scientific matter (without normative or theological content), and there is literally universal agreement among its members. (Suppose this happens today; if it happened in the future and the National Academy had been corrupted or its prestige decreased then the case would be different.) Now, the National Academy has the possibility of error. Yet it is so far beyond me or any other individual or organization in its trustworthiness on these matters that it is difficult to imagine any type of evidence that would lead me to be reasonable in disregarding the National Academy’s statement. (Other than, of course, evidence that the National Academy is not so authoritative as I thought.) If Augustine sees the authoritativeness of the Church in this light, then he can hold both sets of statements in a perfectly straightforward fashion.

    (2) Actually, the line of thought in the second Augustine quote is more or less what got me started taking Tradition more seriously. I agree with the general line of argument, though Augustine is stating it in a stronger form than I would want to. Whether he is being hyperbolic or literal is hard to say without more context, but it does look to me like he intends it to be that strong.

    (3) Let us distinguish the authority of the Church from the ability of the Bishop of Rome personally to wield that authority in its entirety. Strong views of the authority of the Church are common throughout early Christianity. However, based on my own reading it seems that: (a) Latin Christians generally affirm it in a stronger form than Greek Christians; (b) for Greek Christians the authority of the Church is far less bound up with the authority of the Roman See than for Latin Christians (I acknowledge that some very early Latin Christians – including Irenaeus, if memory serves – have strong views on Rome’s authority); (c) views on Church authority/authoritativeness, and particularly Roman authority/authoritativeness, have steadily grown in the West over the course of history, and this was a major factor – perhaps the major factor – in the Schism. If I am right about these three things, you may still be able to show that early Christians consistently hold a view stronger than mine, and this might lead me to change my view, but you won’t be able to show that they consistently hold the RCC view.


    Surely your belief in the Church is not primarily empirical?!

    That said, it is certainly true that the Protestant view is deflationary as compared to the RCC view. It’s not clear that the visible catholic Church is something over and above the denominations, congregations, and individuals. For myself, I would say that what I mean in confessing that there is a visible catholic Church is that although these denominations, congregations, and individuals unfortunately do not appear to be united, they nevertheless do have a deep unity in virtue of the fact that they all, together, amount to the concrete manifestation of the invisible Church in history. I do acknowledge that I have a theological problem related to this to which I do not yet have a satisfactory solution: I am not sure that I (or Protestants in general) can mean two different things in confessing to believe in “the holy catholic Church” and “the communion of saints.” I need to read more about what Protestant theologians have to say about the meaning of the latter term such that it is something different than the invisible catholic Church.

  44. Kenny,

    One last thing and then I really have to go for now. If Augustine wanted to figure out whether the Church had corrupted itself sufficiently to make its highest level of teaching authority irretrievably false, what method would he use to find this out?

    He would use the scriptures, correct? But Augustine has indicated above that he won’t accept scriptural testimony against the highest teaching authority of the church. So what would he use to determine that the Church was corrupt? Would he look at the sins of Church leaders? What about the sins of the Church at large?

    Kenny, other than the two passages above, I have only found one other reference to scripture in Augustine’s writings that explicitly compares scripture’s authority to that of church teaching. Most references to scripture just use individual clauses such as “superior to all things.” Kenny, those are the references which are ambiguous. Do not kid yourself into thinking that the famous quote above isn’t much less unambiguous. He explains each step of logic clearly. You have half admitted this already. Isn’t the easiest harmonization of Augustine’s opinions one where the short ambiguous passages are taken to mean a superiority in terms of inspiration (which is a superiority which Catholics confess!)?

    You think it may have made sense to attach such authority to Church teaching in Augustine’s time, but not during the Reformation (your national academy of sciences example). But what principled reason do you have for the distinction over time? If it’s correspondence with scripture, you already know that Augustine has gone through a great deal of trouble to explicitly rule out that excuse. So if you want Augustine on your side, it will have to be another reason. What reason is it?

    In closing, you should check out the Chapman link above to the councils and papal infallibility. These were pre-schism councils — the role of Rome in the East may seem very different to you after reading this.



  45. Hi Kenny,

    I was comparing the famous quote above with the little statements of three or four words that Augustine uses to describe scripture, when I said “Do not kid yourself into thinking that the famous quote above isn’t much less unambiguous.” Also, what I said in that sentence sounded like a warning or rebuke but is just an exhortation.



  46. KD – I didn’t say Augustine’s view was compatible with mine. I explicitly said that it appears, from the passages cited, that Augustine holds a stronger view of Church authority than I do. This is for precisely the reasons you say. It seems likely that, on Augustine’s view, there could never be evidence such that I would reasonably believe the Scriptures over and against “the Church’s highest teaching authority” (whatever that is) and this is precisely what I said. However, that is compatible with saying that the Church is nevertheless fallible, and if we say that, then all of Augustine’s statements mesh. So my claim is that, most likely, Augustine doesn’t agree with me, and doesn’t agree with you/the modern RCC either.

    To be perfectly clear, I think Augustine got this one wrong. In some ways, his view may be closer to the RCC view than to my view. He does after all have a very strong picture of Church authority. However, denying that the Church is actually out and out infallible is the only way I can see to make all of his statements consistent with one another.

    I don’t think Augustine got everything right all the time. Neither does the Catholic Encyclopedia (see last paragraph of that section). I do take his views seriously, and that’s why I think we should try to look at all of the texts and figure out what his views actually are, rather than just using quotations polemically when it suits us. I do claim that this is just as unambiguous as the discussion of Church authority above:

    I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error … As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason.

    This is not a little throw-away clause. Given that Augustine says both these things, either (1) he simply contradicts himself, or (2) his view is neither the Protestant one nor the modern RCC one. Doesn’t the latter option seem more likely to you?

    On the early councils – I’ve read a moderate amount on that and found the EOC arguments much more compelling than the RCC ones. (Before you criticize me for appealing to the EOC: the EOC, like Augustine, agrees neither with me nor with you about the place of Rome. I’m not trying to claim they are on my side.) Perhaps I will have a chance to read more in the future, but as long as I am not convinced of this strong view of the authority of the institutional Church in the first place, trying to figure out the details of how and by whom that authority would be wielded if it existed doesn’t seem very pressing to me. Focusing on these other questions about the extent of Church authority and the relationship of the Church to particular visible institutions seems more promising.

  47. Dear Kenny,

    I’m glad you brought that passage up. I think we can classify Augustine’s statements about scripture’s authority into three categories:

    (1) Statements that directly compare scripture with church authority, and then delineate in logical steps the decisions that Augustine would take if they seemed to be in contrast to each other.

    (2) Statements that speak at length about scriptures authority, sometimes comparing it with various levels of church authority, but never going through logical steps of how he would deal with apparent contradictions between the highest level of church authority and scripture.

    (3) Shorter clauses that use powerful adjectives to describe scripture’s authority.

    The passage you mentioned has an important next two lines:

    “I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error. Far be such arrogance from that humble piety and just estimate of yourself which I know you to have, . . .”

    It seems that here Augustine is referring to books or letters written by Bishops in the same style as Paul’s exhortations. He is saying that they are not inspired, like Paul’s canonical letters were. He doesn’t go through a careful delineation of what levels of church authority would be contradicted by scripture. So this is in category (2) above.

    I think a more powerful example of category (2) above, and one that I obliquely referred to in my previous comments, is this famous passage:

    “But who can fail to be aware that the sacred canon of Scripture, both of the Old and New Testament, is confined within its own limits, and that it stands so absolutely in a superior position to all later letters of the bishops, that about it we can hold no manner of doubt or disputation whether what is confessedly contained in it is right and true; but that all the letters of bishops which have been written, or are being written, since the closing of the canon, are liable to be refuted if there be anything contained in them which strays from the truth, either by the discourse of some one who happens to be wiser in the matter than themselves, or by the weightier authority and more learned experience of other bishops, by the authority of Councils; and further, that the Councils themselves, which are held in the several districts and provinces, must yield, beyond all possibility of doubt, to the authority of plenary Councils which are formed for the whole Christian world; and that even of the plenary Councils, the earlier are often corrected by those which follow them, when, by some actual experiment, things are brought to light which were before concealed, and that is known which previously lay hid, and this without any whirlwind of sacrilegious pride, without any puffing of the neck through arrogance, without any strife of envious hatred, simply with holy humility, catholic peace, and Christian charity?”

    What is interesting is that I believed that Augustine had simply contradicted himself when I first read these passages. But if you look closely at the passage directly above, then you will notice that all that one has to do to make his words consistent with the Catholic position is to say that the word “all” in the fourth clause was an exaggeration. Catholics also think that scripture is superior in authority to plenary councils (which can contradict themselves), which are themselves superior to. . .etc. etc. We just think there are a handful of levels of church authority that would result in cunondrums such as Augustine identifies in his quote in post #34 above were such levels of Church authority to seemingly contradict scripture.

    Now, you seem to agree with me that Augustine wasn’t quite sure of what the highest level of Church authority was. The Church was still figuring out the formula for irreformable papal decrees, as well as the formula for what made a council ecumenical. But the simplest harmonization of Augustine’s various statements is to assume the least amount of exaggeration possible. It seems that the two “catholic” passages in category (1) above would require emendation of the logic in order to make them agree with the protestant position. The one or two protestant passages in category (2) would require merely the assumption of an exaggeration of a couple words.

    This is why I currently believe that Augustine’s writings suggest that he had quite a Catholic sense of authority in the Church — although it was a Catholic sense that was attuned to the time he lived in, in which the various levels of authority were still being worked out.

    Of course, there is good evidence from his actions as well.

    Now no one will believe anything I say, because I’ve promised that I need to depart for my trip and yet here I am still writing. argh. . .conversation too interesting. . .must make plane flight. But I am physically gone tomorrow so you will be free of me for a while, in spite of my lack of discipline! Also, I apologize if I was at all rude to you. . .thanks for being so kind to me!



  48. KD –

    This has indeed be very interesting. I will make this brief since you are gone and may or may not read/reply to this when you return. Something you hint at in your last comment that I think you should take more seriously is that neither the modern RCC position, nor the Protestant position has been formulated in Augustine’s time. (I take it we agree in believing in some doctrinal development.) As such, it is kind of silly to ask the question “does Augustine hold the RCC or Protestant view?” since he almost certainly holds neither. It does seem to me that Augustine combines a view of Church authority more like the RCC one with a view of Scripture more like the Protestant one. It is also true that the RCC view of Church authority and the Protestant view of Scripture are incompatible with one another. However, if we acknowledge that Augustine does not hold exactly to either view, then perhaps it is possible to describe a view he could consistently hold that does not require emendations or exaggerations. The quote you just brought up seems all the more to support my account of Augustine’s view. To state this account more briefly and precisely, I hypothesize that Augustine believes that (1) only the Scriptures are truly, literally, infallible (inspired in such a way as to have no possibility of error), but (2) any proclamation which has the full authority of the Church behind it (e.g. an ecumenical council) is as good as infallible for practical purposes. This will, in practice, look very much like the RCC position, although it allows (as Augustine explicitly says in the passage you quote) that it is possible (though unlikely) that a later authoritative statement could correct an earlier one. It also allows for the scenario that Augustine seems to envision in the passage you quoted in #33 (though I admit that this looks a bit rhetorical) where someone tries, on the basis of Scriptural arguments, to convince the Church to change its position. Augustine doesn’t seem to condemn the person for trying; rather, the person is condemned for still refusing to submit even after it is clear that his arguments have been rejected.

  49. Hi Kenny,

    A bit of context on the passage I quoted in #48: Augustine was trying to convince the Donatists to accept a Papal decree that disagreed with some statements of Cyprian. The Donatists clung to Cyprian instead of the Pope. Augustine coined a popular ditty amounting to the fact (as I remember it) that the Church was built on the Rock of Peter and you could tell if you were in the right by enumerating the Popes since the early days and seeing if you were in communion with them (he referenced this in his retractions, and did not repudiate the doctrine behind it). The Donatists didn’t care that they weren’t in communion with Rome — they wouldn’t accept the Pope’s decree. So Augustine turned to scripture, and emphasized that scripture is superior to Cyprian’s statements. He said plenary councils could contradict each other — he did not say that ecumenical councils could, or that papal decrees of the highest level could, or that that which was believed in the Church as a whole could contradict itself over time (the three levels of Catholic irreformable teaching).

    It is a little odd for Protestants to use this passage to defend the authority of scripture over the authority of (for instance) the Pope, when Augustine was using this passage to try to force the Donatists to accept a binding papal decree — a decree which binded people on an issue which, to be honest, I have no evidence that scripture is particularly salient on!

    Do you start to see some of the reasons why I am so confident that Augustine was a papist, in fourth century garb?



    p.s good point about post #33 — I hadn’t thought of that, but I agree with your statement that it is rhetorical, and I also am starting to think that he wasn’t even necessarily talking about the most binding type of Church authority in #33. . .which makes his insistence that people must agree with the Church anyway a little bit too stern for even my Church-loving Catholic tastes! He was a real hard-ass, wasn’t he?

  50. Okay so in all fairness, I did not read all of the posts. I read about the first quarter (there are a lot, and quite frankly I have a ten page paper to write by the end of the day). I think I understand the basic arguement here from a Catholic perspective. I understand the Catholic claim to church authority, the Petrine Doctrine and Apostolic Succession. (Matthew 16:18)


    When Christ came, what kind of kingdom did he establish? The Pharisees were expecting a physical kingdom. Christ established a spiritual kingdom- Protestants believe in Matthew 16:18 – believe it or not. However we link this to verses like Romans 11:4-5 So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. The idea that the number of God’s elect become part of the church. The authority to build the church was given to Peter, but no where does it say that Peter was given this sole authority in a successional line.

    I believe that the teachings of the apostles cannot contradict the church fathers, and there seems to be some contradiction. In fact there is much contradiction between the early church fathers and the later church fathers. Why do you think John Calvin used the works of many church fathers to prove his belief that the Bible teaches predestination?!

    Furthermore, the Church itself wasn’t ever meant to be a political corporation- which it became when it aligned itself with the city of seven hills – Rome. Though Constantine had good intentions, he did exactly the opposite of what Christ commanded in 1 John 2:15- Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. Constantine aligned the church with the world. Later Pepin the short created the Franko-Papal alliance in which the Church began to take on political power in Europe. This is my reference point of when the Church, stopped being the Church and began to be a political entity. Many popes following this took on mistresses, had children out of wedlock and used power to their advantage (and that is historical). Furthermore, before the council of Nicea, the Bishop (also translated overseer) of each city (Rome, Corinth, Hippo… etc) had equal power with the others. The Bishop of Rome was no more powerful than the Bishop of Corinth during this time. The Eastern Schism?- The Church decided that it would not allow priests to marry as a response to ongoing corruption, Simony and Nicolaism- But failed to read what 1 Timothy 4:3 says regarding this.

    1 Timothy 4:3They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.

    During the period of lent, what do Catholics abstain from on Fridays? Meat.

    I believe the gates of hell have not prevailed God’s remnant aka the church. But there came a point, I believe when those in power lost their way. You cannot take one verse from the Bible and create a doctrine to suit a definition. What is the main theme of redemptive history? God establishes a covenant, an outward and imperfect covenant community (First Israel (guess what Israel was schismatic too… the Northern and Southern Kingdoms) then a the schismatic and corrupt group of Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthdox, Coptics,… yes Catholics are schismatic too- with eastern and western rites), as well as establishing an inward spiritual covenant … those who are truly his- from every nation. The gates of hell will not prevail the hearts of those God calls, this group of people is the church.

  51. Jordan,

    We wouldn’t expect you to read everything before commenting. We do ask that you following the Posting Guidelines, however. We welcome your participation in the conversations here in keeping with those guidelines.

    Your comment (#50) doesn’t appear to be related to the subject of this post, but rather seems to be a brief description of your personal objections to the Catholic Church and its teaching. Please try to keep your comments relevant to the current post/discussion. Thanks!



  52. Jordan,

    Given that, as Fred writes above, you have many different objections to Catholic Church authority and teachings, it might be of interest to you to look through the index of articles and podcasts here at Called to Communion. You can find answers to most, if not all, of the objections that you raised in your comment by reading through the articles in the index. Here is the link: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/index/

    In particular, the articles under the headings of “The Church” and “Sacred Scripture” might be helpful to you.

    For your specific objections, three places to start are the following articles:



    Blessings in Christ,

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