Desperately Seeking Certainty, or the Obedience of Faith?

Dec 31st, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Catholics claim that when Jesus Christ established his Church, he permanently endowed her with a Magisterium that can teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals. Protestants deny this claim, appealing instead to the sole infallible authority of Sacred Scripture. Catholics respond to the principle of sola scriptura in various ways, including the claim that apart from the authority of the Catholic Church we could not know exactly which writings are sacred, such that appeals to “Scripture” would ever be tendentious. In addition, if every interpretation of Sacred Scripture were fallible, there would be several important instances in which we could not know with certainty which, if any, of the mutually exclusive doctrinal claims that have historically divided Christians are true. This includes matters pertaining to salvation. [1]

Protestants retort: (1) Since the Church has contradicted Sacred Scripture on many points, we have sufficient reason not to think that her testimony is supernatural, at least, not in the sense of enjoying some special divine protection from error. (2) Furthermore, the Catholic’s dependence upon what he takes to be the true Church is based upon fallible opinion every bit as much as the Protestant’s dependence upon  what he takes to be the word of God. The [Catholic] Church definitely gives you a leg up once you get in, but selecting the true Church is no more certain a thing than picking out the right scrolls and rightly interpreting them. (3) In addition, the search for doctrinal certainty is childish. Mature persons understand, accept, and live with the fact that the world is full of uncertainty. The right response is to do the best you can, by means of your own wits, instead of seeking refuge in the perpetual parentage of an infallible Mother Church from the real world of intellectual survival of the fittest. Catholics have foisted a quasi-Cartesian quest for certainty onto Christian theology, and thus have demanded what no one has any right to expect.

Fortunately for Catholics, each of these retorts is problematic in its own right.

The first reponse begs the question by claiming that the Church has contradicted Scripture, and also begs the question by purporting to identify Sacred Scripture, the New Testament in particular, without believing the testimony of the Church. Otherwise, this response manifests a deep inconsistency by believing the Church in this one case (the New Testament canon) while disbelieving her in other critical cases (definitions of doctrine and the extent of the Old Testament canon). In any event, the “contradicts Scripture” claim has also to be addressed on a case by case basis. This takes time and patience. In the meantime, there are other, more basic differences that have to be addressed so that we can more profitably search the Scriptures together. For one thing, Catholics and Protestants have significantly different ideas about biblical hermeneutics, including the role of Tradition and the question of to whom (if anyone) it is specially given to authentically identify and interpret divine revelation.

The second response is the tu quoque: Catholics must rely upon private judgment, i.e., natural knowledge and personal opinion, in order to identify the authentic interpreter of divine revelation; i.e., the Church. We are, therefore, being inconsistent when we accuse Protestants of loading private judgment with more freight than it can carry. A lot has been written, here and elsewhere, in response to this rebuttal. For example: Ray Stamper wrote a comment on this site that tracks with my own way of thinking about the tu quoque, from the angle of how the object assented to impacts the kind(s) of assent rationally available to the subject:

The charism of infallibility which the Catholic Magisterium claims to possess (Divine protection form error under specific conditions) is a charism that either exists, or not, independent of one’s subjective assessment/belief/etc. While this does not address the epistemic concern directly, it involves the postulation of a Divinely guided episcopate which, IF its claims are true, could provide just the sort of decipher mechanism needed to make the crucial distinction between Divine revelation and human opinion discussed above. The Protestant paradigm, as Michael Liccione has already noted, does not propose even the possibility of a mechanism which might achieve that all-important distinction, since its mechanism of choice just is “private judgment”. Thus, there is an IN-equality between the two positions in that the Protestant paradigm could not resolve the overarching problem of distinguishing orthodoxy from heterodoxy EVEN IF its claims are true; whereas the Catholic mechanism, if its claims are true, can.

Another regular commentor, Mike Liccione, has indicated that this aspect of the question of ecclesial infallibility, i.e., the relation of the teaching Magisterium to the assent of faith, is critical to his remaining Catholic, rather than converting to some form of Protestantism:

I can’t speak for the others, but I would answer your question by posing the converse of an argument I’ve long made for Catholicism. My argument has been that, without a living magisterium protected from error under certain conditions, there is no principled way to distinguish the doctrinal content of divine revelation from human opinions about how to interpret the “sources” available to us. The Christian religion would thus reduce to a matter of opinion. I would become a Protestant if I came to believe that the distinction I’ve made could not be made in a principled way, and thus that Christianity is all just a matter of opinion.

This brings us to the third objection, listed above. The Catholic’s epistemological case for ecclesial infallibility is not necessarily nor primarily about longing for generic certainty in an uncertain world. Rather, it has fundamentally to do with the desire to know God, in what he has revealed, and involves a distinctly biblical-theological assessment of what is the proper response to divine self-disclosure; namely, faith. [2] For many converts to the Catholic Church, ecclesial infallibility came to be understood as indispensable to the faith that we perhaps already had while not in full communion with the Church. [3] Accepting infallibility was not so much a matter of longing for certainty as of explicitly acknowledging the role that the Catholic Church already played in our lives, particularly in her capacity of authentically interpreting Sacred Scripture. We already believed (some) Catholic doctrine, and thus enjoyed the certainty of faith in some sense, although as Protestants we lacked the resources to justify this faith, and did not, insofar as we had faith at all, perceive the implications of denying other Catholic doctrines, including the doctrine of ecclesial infallibility. [4]

The case for ecclesial infallibility is thus, in part, based upon the search for justification for the obedience of faith, where what one believes is formally expressed as doctrine, i.e., a summary expression of the content of the word of God as interpreted by the Church. Catholics find a reason for dogmatic faith in the Catholic Church’s claim of infallibility. The epistemological argument for ecclesial infallibility can thus be expressed as a reductio ad aburdum: If everyone were in principle liable to error in every definition of the meaning of divine revelation on any given matter, then our conscious, intellectual response to the word of God, granted that this response necessarily involves interpretation of that word, would ever be provisional. The canon of Scripture and every single doctrine derived from the interpretation of Scripture would always, in this life, be subject to revision. In which case, if one were to be consistent with this fact, the acceptance of any doctrinal proposition about the identity and meaning of divine revelation as a whole would not be a genuine act of faith, but merely a provisional opinion or else an exercise in unwarranted credulity.

In making this point, the Catholic is not advocating fideism or circularity so long as he acknowledges that there are philosophical and historical companions to the epistemological argument for ecclesial infallibility which do not depend upon or presuppose that argument. These include the preambles of faith, e.g., that God exists, who created and sustains the world, as demonstrated by reason; that Christ is who he claimed to be, as demonstrated by miracles reported by credible witnesses; that among these witnesses are the men to whom he specifically gave authority to teach in his name, and that these men appointed others to carry on with the mission that had been given to them by Christ, entrusting them with the “traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and so on, to the present day, as demonstrated by the historical succession of bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. In this tangible way, the Church exists in unbroken continuity with her Lord, the same Jesus who was crucified for our sake under Pontius Pilate, arose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. The Gospel is not typically infused directly into the mind of the individual apart from any external mediation. Rather, the Church is the context in which the Christian revelation is given, passed down, identified, interpreted, taught, believed, and lived.

There is also a theological companion to the epistemological argument for ecclesial infallibility; namely, the understanding, based upon divine revelation, that the visible Church is a supernatural society, a body not reducible to the sum of its parts, being mystically and uniquely united to Christ, who is its Head. The “embodiedness” of the Church that Christ founded, the Church that comes from Christ and is irrevocably united to him, makes for a specific kind of objectivity in the task of identifying her: trace the history of the visible Church back to the visible foundation of the Church (Matthew 16:16-18). What one finds there, in the beginning, is what the Catholic finds here, in the present, and throughout the intervening centuries: a unified, visible authority, with power from on high to bind and loose, to open and shut.

Obviously, in investigating these philosophical, historical, and biblical-theological arguments, one has to engage in all sorts of private judgments, and we all make mistakes along the way. The epistemological argument for Catholicism acknowledges this, but it remains valid for the the reason that the person who concludes that the Catholic Church is what she says she is has a principled basis for believing (having faith in) the doctrine that she teaches. Catholic doctrine is not, on its own terms, merely human opinion about the meaning of the Bible, while Protestant doctrine, by the nature of the case, can be nothing more.

It is perhaps easy to mistake the following combination of good things for the gift and life of faith: intellectual satisfaction that comes from diligent study of the (written) sources along with scholarly monographs and commentaries on the same; aesthetic appreciation of, and emotional response to, these ancient documents; doctrinal convictions based upon personal study, along with the natural instinct to share and defend one’s convictions. But it would be wrong to mistake those things for faith, because they could be purely natural goods obtained by our own efforts, whereas salvation by grace through faith is a supernatural gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). [5] As was made clear by the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church does not suppose that the good life of Protestant ecclesial communities can be accounted for by natural goodness alone. However, the supernatural element in these communities, which includes the gift of faith, needs to be accounted for in a principled way, neither begging the question nor selectively appealing to authority. If no Protestant community can give such an account of itself, and specifically of its own doctrine, then it is understandable why some thoughtful Protestants would become Catholic, pursuant to the obedience of faith.


[1] This argument does not entail that all fallible interpretations are equally plausible, nor does it entail that a fallible process cannot yield conclusions of which we are justifiably certain. Rather, the claim that fallible interpretations of Sacred Scripture cannot yield results that are certain is a with-respect-to-the-object claim, the object in this case being Sacred Scripture, which is (empirically) a collection of diverse writings composed by many different persons, writing in different languages, genres, and cultural / historical settings, over a period of time longer than one thousand years, the latest of these writings being composed, relative to today, almost two thousand years ago. A Christian doctrine is supposed to be a succinct statement, not of the meaning of one or two texts considered in isolation, but of the meaning of the whole set of sacred writings considered synthetically, relative to a particular theological point or question. Generally speaking, the probability that an interpretation is correct decreases with the amount, complexity, and diversity of the material being interpreted, along with the distance, cultural and temporal, of the reader from the original author.

[2] In Catholic theology, faith is a species of intellectual assent that is distinct from other kinds of assent, e.g., natural knowledge and opinion. Faith is a supernatural virtue, a gift of divine grace, whereby the intellect is fully convinced of things unseen, on the basis of divine authority. Natural knowledge, on the other hand, lays hold of things that are seen, sensibly and by the light of human reason. Opinion denotes a kind of assent that inclines to the truth of a proposition in a manner that falls short of actually “laying hold” of the truth; i.e., opinion is not knowledge, either natural or supernatural.

[3] The positive reasons in support of the claim that it is possible to have a genuine, if relatively inchoate, faith in Christ, apart from directly and consciously depending upon the authority of the Catholic Church, include the motives of credibility, which provide us with sufficient reason to believe that: (a) God exists and has uniquely vindicated Jesus, in his person and claims, such that one is justified in implicitly accepting whatever Jesus said, even if we are not certain of exactly what he said or what is the precise doctrinal content of his sayings, individually or taken together as a coherent body of teaching; (b) the New Testament is a basically reliable account of Jesus’s words and deeds.

[4] I want to thank Jason Kettinger for his helpful comments to me on this subject, which we discussed in a personal conversation.

[5] Of course, Catholics insist that grace builds upon nature, so coming to believe and living by faith will involve these sorts of activities (particularly for pastors, theologians, and apologists), without being reducible to them.

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  1. It was Ronald Knox’s book The Belief of Catholics that brought me into the Church. He says, regarding the tu quoque:

    Let me then, to avoid further ambiguity, give a list of certain leading doctrines which no Catholic, upon a moments reflection, could accept on the authority of the Church and on that ground alone.

    (i.) The existence of God.

    (ii.) The fact that he has made a revelation to the world in Jesus Christ.

    (iii.) The Life (in its broad outlines), the Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    (iv.) The fact that our Lord founded a Church.

    (v.) The fact that he bequeathed to that Church his own teaching office, with the guarantee (naturally) that it should not err in teaching.

    (vi.) The consequent intellectual duty of believing what the Church believes.

    I do not say that these considerations are present to the mind of every Catholic, however ignorant, however stupid. I do say that these are the considerations which any Catholic teacher would put before him, if and in so far as he showed any curiosity about the matter. I would add that a glance at the Penny Catechism will disabuse any unbiased mind of the idea that the Church, even in dealing with simple folk, conceals from them the intellectual basis of their religion.

    This freed me. I had been a Van Tillian, presuppositionalist, Calvinist, and had been taught that I was not allowed to seek evidences either for the existence of God or for the reality of revelation. It was a terrible prison to be in.


  2. A PS on my own comment above – it seems to me that Protestants must follow more or less the same sequence as in Knox’s list above, except that at step (iv) they substitute something like “our Lord caused an inspired Bible to be written, which (v) is necessarily inerrant, and which they have, consequently, the duty (vi) of believing.

    This is possible, of course, only because at the time Protestantism arose the Bible had been so much a taken-for-granted thing that men failed to reflect on the fact that it is both chronologically and logically dependent on the Church’s own infallibility.


  3. As far as certainty goes, it’s important to point out that since the time of Moses, there has always been a Magisterium (i.e. the Levities). No-one could consider himself to be a Jew that was not in communion with this Magisterium. You might not believe all the Bible books (e.g. the Sadducees), you might not believe that the High Priest is legitimate (the Essenes), and the Magisterium might be filled with corrupt figures (i.e. most of the Old Testament and the Gospels), but if you were in communion with the Levitical Magisterium, you were a Jew and if you weren’t, you were not (e.g. you’d be a Samaritan or Edomite or ….). The Church was visible back then, and to break communion with the Levitical Magisterium was to depart from the faith, not matter how messed up the Church was (and it was more often than not).

    That much is certain. It is also certain that the early Church had a Magisterium of Bishops which is first mentioned in Acts and the Pauline Epistles. The Church was still visible back then, and to break communion with the Bishop Magisterium was to depart from the faith and to join one of the non-Christian sects (e.g. Nazarenes, Gnostics, etc). So nothing changed.

    The Church Christ established was essentially the same as the Old Isreal, and like the Old Isreal, there is never a reason to depart from the Magisterium, even when it is corrupt, since by leaving you’re leaving the Covenant.

    If the Church is corrupt, we are not called to leave it, we are called to reform it. So a true Reformation is a Reformation modelled after St. Francis and not Martin Luther (who could have been Saint Martin Luther if he stayed in the Church).

    Now this argument doesn’t distinguish between the Bishop Magisterium of the Orthodox, Orientals, Catholics, SSPX, Donatists, Novatianists, etc. But it does draw a line between Apolistic Christians and Non-Apolistic Christians (most Protestant). With Apolistic Christianity with valid succession, there is certainty that you are part of the Church of Christ (though perhaps in an imperfect union). Non-Apolistic Christians might be virtuous and close to the truth (like the Centurion in the Gospels or Job were outside the Jewish Covenant), but they are outside the Covenant (thought we have hope that God provides some provision for this faithful souls as he did with the Old Covenant).

  4. John,

    That is the argument I heard too, but from the Protestant perspective, I mean one who actually knows history and understands your argument, there is no issue. They would point to the High Priestly prophecy, John 11:49-52, and state that fallible institutions can create unfallible works when it’s important to God’s purpose and argue that the Bible is important to God’s purpose. Of course any student of history would know that Bibles were not in wide distribution for 1500 years due to cost and technology, but it’s possible to argue that Bibles were transmitted via other media (oral tradition, stained glass windows, etc) but it was imperfect so souls were at risk and a reformation was needed. There are 100s of rationalizations, often based in part in facts Catholics would agree with, but interpreted or editorialized towards Protestantism.

    That’s why I don’t think it’s a problem of Authority. Humans have a way of making ourselves (or things of our choosing) authorities. It happened in the Garden of Eden and it happens today. The question really is one of Obedience. For fun, google “Obedience to Authority” and read a few articles in random locations in the search list. In the end, even if someone is an authority, we want to find excuses not to be obedient or make ourselves the authority upon which the real authority must be obedient to.

    Thats why rather than argued, based on the Authority of the Bible, that Obedience to the Magisterium established by God (whether it be Levitical or Apolistic Bishop) is at the heart of the Faith and not merely an addon. Once this is accepted, everything else follows.

  5. For all my Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters who are deeply interested in the epistemological underpinnings of the “Authority Question”, which Tim has nicely addressed here, please consider reading (if you have not already) the following essay by John Henry Newman regarding “Faith and Private Judgement”. It is only a few pages in length; yet I know of no better, easy to read, treatment of the issue which so clearly expresses what Catholics understand by the term “Faith”. Even those who object to Newman’s position will at least gain a handle on the fundamental difference which informs the Catholic versus Protestant notion of “Faith” or the “assent of Faith”. Her is the link:

    Pax et Bonum,


  6. Ray – I think you mean Andrew not Tim.

  7. Yep – folied by the header on my Blackberry again!

    Thanks for the article Andrew.

    Pax Christi,


  8. […] the New Israel of the New Covenant, through which His divine grace would flow into us and His divine revelation would be given, passed on, believed, and lived. History shows that the church would go on to […]

  9. […] the New Israel of the New Covenant, through which His divine grace would flow into us and His divine revelation would be given, passed on, believed, and lived. History shows that the church would go on to […]

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