A Return To The “Infinite Regress” Objection

Nov 12th, 2017 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Several months ago an elder from my old Presbyterian church (P.C.A.) and I had an email exchange that hovered around the competing paradigms of authority between Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism. The Catholic paradigm is one in which the Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. According to Reformed Protestantism, in contrast, Scripture is both sufficient and clear, and is thus the authority of the individual Christian to interpret Scripture. The debate ultimately focused on a topic that we have addressed in various forms before on Called To Communion, especially in “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority” by Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch.  My friend in particular communicated an objection that Cross and Judisch address in that article: the “infinite regress” objection.

The “infinite regress” objection is the following dilemma: either the individual needs the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture, or he does not. If that individual requires an interpretive authority, he will need the guidance of a further interpretive authority to interpret the original authority. He will then need the guidance of another interpretive authority when interpreting the second interpretive authority. Thus the infinite regress. On the other hand, if the individual does not require the guidance of an interpretive authority when interpreting Scripture, no Catholic authority structure is required — the Catholic Magisterial interpretive authority is superfluous. This dilemma, the objector claims, proves that the Catholic is epistemologically acting like any Protestant who must on his own interpret the meaning of a given text. Catholics, though claiming to have a different authoritative paradigm than that of the Protestant paradigm (vis-a-vis an authoritative Magisterial authority), are actually in the same paradigmatic position as Protestants. Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch have addressed this objection here, upon which I will build the substance of the reply I largely presented to my friend.

The “infinite regress” dilemma ignores the qualitative ontological distinction between persons and books, falsely assuming that if a book needs an authoritative interpreter in order to function as an ecclesial authority, so must a living person. Cross and Judisch explain:

A book contains a monologue with respect to the reader. An author can often anticipate the thoughts and questions that might arise in the mind of the reader. But a book cannot hear the reader’s questions here and now, and answer them. A living person, however, can do so. A living person can engage in genuine dialogue with the reader, whereas a book cannot.

As Chesterton observes, while one can place a living person in the dock, one cannot put a book in the dock. A person in this respect can do what a book cannot: he can correct misunderstandings and answer comprehensive interpretive questions. The very nature of a book offers a limited intrinsic potency for interpretive self-clarification. A person, in contrast, by his very nature has an unlimited intrinsic potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification. Cross and Judisch add:

This unlimited potency with respect to interpretive self-clarification ensures that the hermeneutical spiral may reach its end. A book cannot speak more about itself than it does at the moment at which it is completed. A person, by contrast, remains perpetually capable of clarifying further any of his previous speech-acts.

My friend responded to this defense by providing a number of further objections against the Catholic position and Cross and Judisch’s defense of the Catholic paradigm vis-a-vis the “infinite regress” objection. Since my friend’s particular arguments are ones Called to Communion has not previously addressed, I suggested that my friend allow me to articulate his arguments here, and then address them. He graciously agreed. The following is a summary of his objections to the Church’s teaching on magisterial authority, and my response to his objections.

Objection One: The Magisterium Can’t Be Sufficiently Clear All the Time

In response to Cross and Judisch’s point about the comparison between books and persons, my friend first argues that “even the most competent interpreter is not sufficiently clear all the time.” This substance of this objection is that even when an individual (or group of individuals) asks a question of an authority like the Magisterium, the Magisterium’s answer will not necessarily be so clear as to address all questions raised by that individual or group.

I grant this objection — it would be incredibly difficult for any authority, in any circumstance, to understand perfectly all the presumptions, questions, and conclusions that a person has made regarding a given topic. Even if that authority seeks to perform its due diligence in understanding as completely as possible a given question, it is very possible that the question, or some part of the question, will not be addressed to the satisfaction of the questioner. However, this objection does not falsify the response to the infinite regress objection, because Cross and Judisch’s response does not claim that a magisterial response will necessarily address all questions raised by an individual or group.

Moreover, this objection presumes that if Jesus were to establish a visible Church with a living Magisterial authority, that authority must always provide pronouncements of such a quality that they would address adequately all questions raised by individuals. Notice that this presumption requires that the Church meet an a priori conception of what the Church would be like. However, the nature of the Church cannot be determined by the individual conceptions or whims of individuals, no matter how well-meaning. The Church is something given by Christ, rather than defined by individual members of it. Underlying this objection is a rationalist presumption that relies on human reason as the standard by which to determine how the Church should be structured. This is especially problematic for a tradition like that of the Reformed faith, according to which reason is fallen.

Objection Two: The Magisterium Can’t Address All Questions Raised

My friend further claims that, “interpreters can make pronouncements that address all the questions they know require answering, but many readers will have questions they’re unaware of.” What my friend claims here — vis-a-vis the function that the Magisterium serves in the Catholic Church — is that a living person (which is effectively how the Magisterium operates), will address only those questions of which the living person is aware exist. So a living person will fail to address all the questions that other persons have. Furthermore, my friend adds, “while a dialogue with a person is indeed possible, in a practical sense, only a small number of people have the opportunity to participate in such dialog.” My friend here claims that only a small minority of individuals will ever have the opportunity to ask a question of the Magisterium and receive an answer.

I also grant this objection. Yes, it is true, the Magisterium will not be aware of all possible questions that can be raised. It is also true that very few people will ever have the opportunity to pose a question to the Magisterium and receive an authoritative answer. This is however fully compatible with Cross and Judisch’s response to the infinite regress objection, because their argument does not propose that every single question ever asked about Catholic doctrine will be directly answered. Indeed, just because every question will not be answered does not mean or entail that Christ did not or could not have established His Church this way.

This is because, as already observed above, we do not get to establish the Church according to our a priori conception of what it would be like if we were establishing it. Christ is divine, while we are merely human. We should receive the Church as He established it, not as we wish it would be. If the criteria we apply in evaluating different Christian theological or ecclesial paradigms is one of who-has-more-accessibility, then we have already succumbed to what Bryan Cross has elsewhere called ecclesial consumerism. This is a paradigm in which an individual defines the Church (among all the competing candidates) according to the criteria of whichever one gives him the most “x” he wants. In this particular case, “x” would include accessibility. Yet this subjective criteria cannot be the means by which we discover or define the Church He established. There would be nearly as many criteria as there are persons. Rather, we rightly receive the Church as Christ established it; we do not rightly choose it based on what features or qualities we would most like to see in the Church. This objection too presupposes rationalism, by once again setting human reason as the standard by which one decides how the Church is to be structured properly.

Objection Three: The Magisterium Is Incapable of Expressing Itself Clearly

My friend further claims that, “church authorities and readers of their pronouncements can have profoundly divergent worldviews and interpreting frameworks that foil the most sincere attempts at communication.” What my friend claims here is that Church authorities and readers of their pronouncements have worldviews and interpreting frameworks so different from one another that it presents an obstacle for well-meaning Christians to comprehend Catholic teaching fully or properly. This distance between authority and those under authority may exist either linguistically, culturally, historically, or all three. For example, consider the difficulties a twenty-first century English-speaking American will encounter trying to understand the arguments and literary nuances of a fourth century Latin-speaking north African bishop.

To a certain degree, this is indeed accurate. Different worldviews can make communication difficult. But this is a limitation with communication per se, and is thus not a uniquely Catholic problem. Moreover, my friend’s objection again begs the question in two ways. First, it presupposes that the difficulty in communication from one generation or culture to another prevents, for example, a twentieth-century church council from understanding and aligning itself with the proclamations of a fourth-century council. This is not a safe presupposition, since all attempts to read historical documents, including a document such as Holy Scripture, require an attempt at transcending cultural, linguistic, or historically-conditioned differences. If this presupposition were indeed accurate, it would present not simply a problem for the magisterium, but for any person’s reading of history, including that of the biblical record. Second, it presupposes that the Magisterium is incapable of expressing itself clearly in such a way that people of “divergent worldviews and interpreting frameworks” will be able to communicate clearly or understand one another. Both of those claims presume exactly what is in question — namely, the impossibility of the Magisterium’s capacity for clarity and consistency. Furthermore, such an impossibility is not demonstrated by any particular case of ambiguity in a Magisterial text.

I recently returned from spending three years in Southeast Asia. While there, I participated in Catholic liturgies in a number of different cultures: Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian. Despite the significant linguistic and cultural differences between these people groups, I experienced the same essential liturgy, and met Catholics who believed the same doctrines as me. This experience helped me see that having a living Magisterium allows for a dialectic that over time clarifies communication and improves mutual understanding. This is how the Gospel can spread to the whole world, namely, in breaking through divergent worldviews and interpretive frameworks. The Great Commission presupposes the possibility of breaking through every such communication barrier. Indeed, we have seen the fruits of this dialectic, given the ability of the Catholic Church through the centuries to communicate the Gospel, Church doctrine, and Church liturgy, to hundreds, if not thousands, of unique languages and cultures.

Objection Four: Most Church Authorities Are Dead and Gone

Finally, my friend claims, “perhaps most importantly, many of the important authorities are deceased, and the Church can only make use of their pronouncements as contents of a book.” Here, the thinking is this: many magisterial authorities (members of former Church councils, the Church Fathers, all but the current pope and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) are deceased. If the Church can only read and interpret these pronouncements as contents of a book, the Church is in the same interpretive framework as that of the Protestant paradigm. This, my friend believes, results in the Catholic Church being in the same position as the Protestant — the “infinite regress” objection discussed above.

However, this criticism presumes that the Holy Spirit cannot be at work in the living Magisterium through Apostolic Succession, a reality the Catholic Church teaches to be precisely the case.  It presumes that the death of various authorities (Church fathers, attendees of ecumenical councils, etc.) prevents the Church from maintaining a credible, consistent witness. This, however, begs the question, by presuming the falsehood of the Catholic conceptions of authority transmitted from one generation to another, and of a living Tradition that is both written and unwritten. If such a living Tradition does indeed exist, it would indeed create continuity between the deceased and living. Moreover, just as Christ’s death did not limit the Apostles only to interpreting Scripture, so the death of the Apostles and their episcopal successors does not limit the present Magisterium only to interpreting what is written. The Apostles interpreted Jesus, who was not physically present to answer questions regarding faith and practice.

Conclusion

My friend ends his series of objections by claiming that the “infinite regress” criticism still applies. He further proposes that what is required to apply the doctrine of sola scriptura properly is the right interpretive method, one that maintains “intellectual honesty and a submission to God’s authority.”

I have addressed my friend’s further objections regarding the “infinite regress” criticism above. As for my friend’s claim about the proper “interpretive method” — this begs the question, by again presupposing the Protestant paradigm. If Christ established His Church such that Scripture was to be understood and interpreted in light of Tradition and by the guidance of the Magisterium, then what my friend claims is the “proper” method simply begs the question. It presupposes the very point in question, by already answering a prior question in the order of inquiry. This question, namely, is how are we to determine what is the proper interpretive method in relation to Scripture.

In this post I have responded to my friend’s further objections to the Catholic interpretive paradigm — vis-a-vis the “infinite regress” argument. I have argued that many of these objections beg the question, by presuming the Protestant interpretive paradigm, without proving its veracity. Some of the objections also de facto presume the invalidity of Catholic magisterial authority without proving this presumption. The Catholic paradigm is based on the authority of Scripture and Tradition, communicated through the Magisterium. The Protestant paradigm, by contrast, as we at Called to Communion have argued, reduces to the interpretive opinions of the individual, who, though he may apply wisdom and humility, still retains ultimate interpretive authority because of the maxim we have often articulated: “when I submit (so long as I agree), the one to whom I submit is me.”

2 comments
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  1. Thanks for this, Casey!

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. It seems evident, and perhaps might be admitted as such by all parties, that there is a greater potential for clarity, at least in principle, when there is a “living voice” who can address particular questions, issue statements of clarification, etc. The Protestant response to this, when put this way, would probably be that while this may be true, it doesn’t prove that a “living voice” is necessary in order to have sufficient clarity. The Scriptures might be written with such clarity in what they affirm that only the correct interpretations are plausible, so that there is really no need of any further authoritative interpreter. And, on the other hand, in fact it might be the case, theoretically, that the “living voice” is so hard to follow that it doesn’t help or even makes things worse. So the general truth that that there is greater potential for clarity in a “living voice” might give way to a practical realization in reality that the written word is sufficiently clear (or the “living voice” is sufficiently confusing, or both) so that, in fact, the “living voice” is not necessary or even important.

    So perhaps we cannot say absolutely that a “living voice” is always superior in clarity to a written book; it depends on the specific characteristics of the particular written book and the particular “living voice” under discussion. As a Catholic, I would from this point want to go on to show that Scripture, in fact, while so clear on some things as to admit no reasonable doubt or confusion, yet on other things of necessary importance to be known lacks sufficient clarity to function without some additional interpretative authority or principle, and that the “living voice” of the Catholic Magisterium is in fact useful in providing greater clarity.

    2. Something that might be added to your argument is that under the Catholic paradigm, it is possible to say of some particular doctrinal issue, “I don’t know the answer to this because the Church has not clarified the answer yet,” whereas in the Sola Scriptura paradigm it seems to follow that we have to know now all the doctrine we are going to know because Scripture is complete. For a specific example, take the six days of creation. As a Catholic, I can say that I don’t know for sure right now whether or not the six days of Genesis 1 are literal days, because Scripture doesn’t provide enough information by itself to determine this and the Church has not pronounced authoritatively on that topic. I can say, therefore, that, currently, I may not be in a position to have a positive, conclusive answer to that question. Perhaps I will in the future, if the Church clarifies this point further. But the Protestant has to say that Scripture is complete, and that there is no authoritative voice we might be wating for in the future to pronounce upon the interpretation of Genesis 1, and so, since God has given Scripture to us now to be understood and believed and not only to our future descendants, it must be possible for us now to understand the correct interpretation of Genesis 1, and so, if I happen to think the literal six day view is the best objective reading of the text, I have to conclude that this in fact must be the right reading.

    My point is that in the Protestant view, there cannot be a “we don’t know yet” answer to a question of the interpretation of Scripture, whereas there can be for the Catholic. For a Protestant, therefore, a lack of clarity in Scripture on a topic that it addresses is a serious problem, whereas, for a Catholic, if the Magisterium hasn’t given us a clear answer to something, we can simply wait for that situation to change without having to have a clear answer in the present. So if a Protestant is objecting that the Magisterium hasn’t answered all the questions, the Catholic can answer that this is not a problem from the Catholic point of view. Unlike the Protestant, we don’t have to come to conclusive determinations based on obscure inferences of less-than-clear texts. We can affirm conclusively what has been clearly communicated, and remain agnostic (or hold un-enforced pious opinions) on things that have not been sufficiently clarified.

    What do you think?

    God þē mid sīe,

    Mark

  2. Hi Mark (#1),

    Thanks for the comment. I think you are very perceptive to see the link between the “infinite regress” objection and perspicuity, which is something I hadn’t considered. Shame on me, really, because perspicuity is an issue near-and-dear to my heart — I have an article on perspicuity for CTC that remains in draft, and has for more than 3 years. It’s probably 50 pages in a Word doc. I’ll get to it someday! I agree with what you’ve written about how the Magisterium gives Catholicism a flexibility that Protestantism with its emphasis on sola scriptura and perspicuity lacks. in Christ, casey

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