Church Authority: Argument 1

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From Reliability to Infallibility

Most Protestants don’t want to say awful things about the Church.  They don’t want to say that the Church became apostate for over a thousand years.  They don’t want to say that the Church is just a mere human institution.  There is something special about it.  The beliefs of its members aren’t just normally-arrived-at human beliefs.  There is divine guidance of some kind.

But in order to not cross the line over to a Catholic ecclesiology, [1] a Protestant must deny the infallibility of the Church.  An essential doctrine of Protestantism is Sola Scriptura.  This view can be defined as the position about authority and Christian teaching that holds that there are no divine authorities about Christian teaching distinct from the content of the Old and New Testaments.  This rules out (a) oral or written tradition distinct from the Scriptures as a source of infallible divine authority and (b) decisions by the Church as a source of infallible divine authority.

How does a Protestant deny the infallibility of the Church but still hold onto the idea that being in the Church tends to make you have the correct beliefs about the content of Christian teaching? The most plausible way to say this is that the Church’s judgments and the collective beliefs of all Christians are reliable but not infallible.  To distinguish these two concepts, consider the statement “you should believe this (proposition) because we tend to be right”.  The appeal being made is not to some kind of authority inherent in the group that is making the statement that garuntees the correctness of the group’s judgment.  Rather, the appeal is to probability.  It is an appeal to the duty that rational beings have to pursue reliable methods of belief-forming.  This group is claiming to be accurate or reliable.  Contrast this appeal with the command “you should believe this (proposition) because we say you should.”  Here, the appeal is to the inherent authority of the group as a source of normativity.  The duty to believe comes from the authority of the group, not the fact that a rational agent should adopt reliable methods for truth-seeking.  This group is claiming to be authoritative.

A person, group, or method, can be reliable without being authoritative.  So it is possible for something to be reliable but not infallible.  Perhaps a Protestant could maintain that the Church is like this: it tends to get stuff right, but just isn’t authoritative.  We should accept what it says, because it tends to get stuff right.  It is not mere coincidence that makes the Church tend to get things right; it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  But we are not obligated by divine authority to do or think as the Church says, because the judgment of its members is no more authoritative than anyone else’s judgment.

A major problem with this view is that if the Church has believed itself to be infallible, and it tends to get its beliefs right, then it is probable that it got its belief about its infallibility right.  The ancient view of the Church held by Christians for over a milennium was that the Church had teaching authority, the power to forgive sins, the power to excommunicate, etc.  This was held universally by Christians for the majority of Christian history.  It was very important to everything they did and believed.  The nature of the Church is the kind of thing we would expect a reliable Church to get right.  If Christians were wrong about something of such overwhelming, earth-shattering importance for over a thousand years, then claiming that the Church is reliable in the face of this huge error is implausible at best.

Consequently, if one accepts the reliability of the Church, then one should accept the infallibility of the Church.  If you think the Church tended to get things right–especially the important things–then you should probably think that it probably got its self-understanding as an infallible, divinely-authoritative institution right.  If you are committed to the fallibility of the Church, then it seems one should give up claims to its reliability as well.  A more consistent Protestant position that denies that the Church’s belief-forming processes tend to be reliable would be preferable to a claim that implies that there is a high probability that the Church is infallible.

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[1] Catholic here does not mean Roman Catholic–it means “of the whole”, ie. universal.  Saying a view is Catholic amounts to saying that it is the view held by Christians in the early days of the Church.

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34 Responses to “Church Authority: Argument 1”

  1. David C Says:

    “A major problem with this view is that if the Church has believed itself to be infallible, and it tends to get its beliefs right, then it is probable that it got its belief about its infallibility right.”

    Great argument!

    Why do you think it is so hard for a Protestant to recognize this?

  2. Jordan Parro Says:

    MG you said,

    “How does a Protestant deny the infallibility of the Church but still hold onto the idea that being in the Church tends to make you have the correct beliefs about the content of Christian teaching? The most plausible way to say this is that the Church’s judgments and the collective beliefs of all Christians are reliable but not infallible.”

    I don’t think protestants (both evangelicals and more classical protestants) make this argument at all for at least two reasons. 1) Evangelicals tend not to see The Church as an institution. For better or for worse Evangelicals see the church as the (invisible) collective communion of believers. If there were only one believer left on earth he would be the church and his views wouldn’t necessarily be authoritative at all. Nor would they be likely to be correct unless he had some way of judging the correctness of his beliefs. 2) Sola Scriptura is held to by both Evangelicals and classical protestants as you mentioned. When “the Church” holds a belief that is likely to be correct or authoritative it is not because the church is likely to be correct or authoritative it is because Scripture is likely to be correct and authoritative. So our last believer standing’s correct and authoritative beliefs need to be judged for accuracy. “and who does the judging?” a Protestant asks, “Why, Scripture of course.”

    Even more traditional Calvinists and Lutherans (whose ecclesiology is more like the High Church’s than it is like Evangelical’s) recognize the authority of the Church ultimately being based on the authority of Holy Scripture.

    It’s not that I don’t think your critique was a good one. it’s actually rather sharp but it may have torn down a straw man. help me out here. have i misunderstood you?

  3. MG Says:

    Jordan–

    You wrote:

    “I don’t think protestants (both evangelicals and more classical protestants) make this argument at all for at least two reasons. 1) Evangelicals tend not to see The Church as an institution. For better or for worse Evangelicals see the church as the (invisible) collective communion of believers. If there were only one believer left on earth he would be the church and his views wouldn’t necessarily be authoritative at all. Nor would they be likely to be correct unless he had some way of judging the correctness of his beliefs.”

    Quick clarification: what I was setting forward is not an argument that Protestants make, but a position that they hold to. I assume you took the statement “the Church’s judgments and the collective beliefs of all Christians are reliable but not infallible” to be a position and not an argument, and that (perhaps) you used the label “argument” in a broader sense than usual?

    Lets say that the only thing we know about a group is that “they are part of the Church”. They don’t have to be an institution, just any group of people. Some Protestants I know would want to say that in virtue of this singular fact, we should consider the beliefs held by that group to be likely to be true. Sure, the correctness of their beliefs would be judged by Scripture. But prior to applying this standard of judgment, there is a kind of presumption that the group will be correct in what it says (perhaps that its biblical interpretations will be likely to be correct) on the particular Protestant view I am considering here.

    You wrote:

    “2) Sola Scriptura is held to by both Evangelicals and classical protestants as you mentioned. When “the Church” holds a belief that is likely to be correct or authoritative it is not because the church is likely to be correct or authoritative it is because Scripture is likely to be correct and authoritative. So our last believer standing’s correct and authoritative beliefs need to be judged for accuracy. “and who does the judging?” a Protestant asks, “Why, Scripture of course.”

    While it is true that a Protestant of the kind I am talking about would say “a belief of the Church is likely to be correct or authoritative because Scripture is likely to be correct or authoritative” there is an additional assumption that many Protestants hold. They assume that “the Church is likely to correctly interpret Scripture”; consequently, the Church is likely to be correct in what it believes; and when it accurately interprets the Bible, and a person uses their private judgment and comes to agreement with the Church about what the Bible says, they are obligated to agree with the Church (because they are obligated to agree with the Bible). This would be correct even if the Church is not viewed as a visible institution; even if there are just several individuals who tend to be accurate in their interpretations, this obligation would exist.

    That crucial assumption–that the Church is likely to correctly interpret Scripture–is what would connect the traditional Protestant belief in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible to the widespread belief in the reliability of the Church.

    “Even more traditional Calvinists and Lutherans (whose ecclesiology is more like the High Church’s than it is like Evangelical’s) recognize the authority of the Church ultimately being based on the authority of Holy Scripture.”

    This is true; but again, I would appeal to the above.

    “It’s not that I don’t think your critique was a good one. it’s actually rather sharp but it may have torn down a straw man. help me out here. have i misunderstood you?”

    I understand the concern that this may be a straw man. But in the next post that I just made about ecclesial reliability, I have given some arguments for (a) why I think many Protestants at least implicitly accept the reliability of the Church (b) why we should consider the beliefs of the Church in the first few centuries (at least) reliable in reporting apostolic teaching (c) why some dismissals of this idea seem inadequate. Tell me what you think.

  4. David Says:

    MG,

    I have to say, I don’t feel the force of this argument at all. I assume I’m simply misunderstanding some part of what you’re saying, but it has been my experience that if Protestants believe in the reliability of the “church”, what they mean is that they believe in the reliability of their own denomination, not just any large group of Christians at any point in history. And if a Reformed person, for example, believes in the reliability of most Reformed churches, it is because he first believes that Reformed theology best captures Scriptural truth. In other words, particular belief in certain doctrines precedes general belief in church reliability. Does that make sense? In other words, I simply know of no Protestant who would believe, either explicitly or implicitly, that “the church” is reliable, in any sense that could include RC or EO dogmas that said Protestant would reject.

  5. David Says:

    MG,

    “But in the next post that I just made about ecclesial reliability, I have given some arguments…”

    Does this mean that you have written a second post, but haven’t put it up on the blog yet?

  6. Perry Robinson Says:

    Strictly speaking, Scripture is not a judge. Scripture is a rule or a canon used by a judge. If it weren’t so, Sola Scriptura wouldn’t entail the right of private judgment. This is in fact what canon means. A canon is a rule esablished by a bishop or group of bishops historically speaking.

    The appeal to scripture likewise doesn’t seem to help since the canon of scripture, at least functionally speaking is a function of the judge. So to answer the question, who does the judging with the reply of “Scripture” simply ignores the fact that the canon of Scripture is the product of a judge. So we are right back to the original argument Michael gave. Just put the argument in terms of reliable judgments concerning the canon and the problem will become obvious. One cannot test the judgment of the person concerning the canon by an appeal to Scripture. And so testing doctrines by Scripture is still problematic for the same reason.

  7. Jordan P Says:

    Perry,

    1) I think your problem with my reply is largely semantic. 2) I was not defending the view that I believe many Protestants hold (a view that you seem vehemently against). I was simply raising the concern that perhaps MG was attacking a straw man. 3) The function of the canon of Scripture was not the topic of this post though it is a related topic of importance which has been/will be discussed elsewhere. Thank you though for your energetic response. I look forward to your future commentary.

  8. Jordan P Says:

    MG,

    you wrote
    “. . . (perhaps) you used the label “argument” in a broader sense than usual?”

    -you are correct. when i said “I don’t think protestants (both evangelicals and more classical protestants) make this argument” I meant that I do not believe they defend the position that you presume they hold to. My critique is much more in line with David’s when he said “I simply know of no Protestant who would believe, either explicitly or implicitly, that “the church” is reliable, in any sense that could include RC or EO dogmas that said Protestant would reject.”

    while further clarifying your point you wrote,
    “But prior to applying this [scriptural] standard of judgment, there is a kind of presumption that the group will be correct in what it says (perhaps that its biblical interpretations will be likely to be correct) on the particular Protestant view I am considering here.”

    – I believe my (and David’s) intended critique still holds here, i.e. I don’t believe the presumption you mentioned exists in the most Protestant paradigms. I think we would be hard pressed to substantiate that all or even most Protestants generally hold “the Church’s” view to be correct or reliable unless it is (for better or worse) exposited and clearly defended from Scripture.

    what I believe to be your response to the above is,
    “They assume that “the Church is likely to correctly interpret Scripture”; consequently, the Church is likely to be correct in what it believes; and when it accurately interprets the Bible, and a person uses their private judgment and comes to agreement with the Church about what the Bible says, they are obligated to agree with the Church (because they are obligated to agree with the Bible). This would be correct even if the Church is not viewed as a visible institution; even if there are just several individuals who tend to be accurate in their interpretations, this obligation would exist.”

    My understanding of Protestant hermeneutics is that Protestants are primarily concerned with letting Scripture interpret itself e.g. 1) interpreting the OT in light of the NT 2) understanding the grammatical and cultural context of the text et. al. so that interpretation is not based on the ecumenical opinions of councils or even simply wide spread agreement in a particular part of the church. this is significant because if the visible institution (with its infallibility dogma) interprets such-and-such scripture to mean X then the laity must bow and comply. but if the church is simply the communion of its fallible members, the majority can believe and endorse X even if X in wrong without destroying the faith (which i think we would both agree is not firstly in the Church but in the redemption found in Christ).

    to summarize, My thought (which is perhaps more precisely articulated by David) is that I don’t know that the position that you’ve critiqued is held by many Protestants.

    i’ll be on the look out for your next post 🙂

  9. Perry Robinson Says:

    Jordan,

    My response wasn’t energetic and I didn’t put any vehemence into it. It was simply direct and addressed points. That is it. Nothing personal. Just the ideas.

    1. I can’t see how the difference is semantic if you meant scripture judges and I denied that scripture is a judge. If the issue is over judgment, then the Protestant push to scripture as a judge seems like an obvious mistake.

    2. And I was addressing the point of whether MG’s argument was attacking a straw man.

    3. While the canon was not the primary point of the post, the question of judgment was, which entails the canon. I used it to show the inadequacy or more strongly the incoherence of the Protestant position, since that position extends judgment to the canon itself a la a fallible collection of infallible books.

  10. Jordan Parro Says:

    Perry,

    I understood you to be pleasantly involved in prompt and clean cut responses. “energetic” was not patronizing or condescending. It was complimentary. I apologize if my use of that word offended you.

    1) I believe it is semantic because the issue is not over judgment. your position against the protestant position is fine, but because the answer to the question ‘who does the judging?’ is not the point of interest i can not see how your well-explained and concise historical definition of ‘canon’ fits into the dialogue. The point of interest is whether or not MG has successfully identified and critiqued the Protestant position, not how defensible that position is. I simply offered what i think to be the common Protestant position (in contrast to MG’s). If you think this is not what their position is then we, more or less, agree. If you do think this is what it is, then perhaps your explanation of it would be helpful.

    2) i’m sorry but i’ve missed the force of your argument for this discussion. you seemed to only be addressing whether or not the Protestant position (as I briefly explained it, not as MG explained it) is defensible.

    3) Judgment doesn’t really seem to be the issue of this post. MG attempted to show, what he believes to be the Protestant position on reliability of the Church, to be incoherent with itself and more coherent with high church dogmas (i.e. what he believes to be orthodox (small “o”. i only specify because i am not always careful about my capitalizations while online 🙂 ) ecclesiology).

    does this make sense? i hope we are understanding one another.

  11. Perry Robinson Says:

    Jordan,

    I didn’t tak eyou to be patronizing. I wanted to guard agains being read as a meanie.

    The issue is reliability isn’t it? Is that germane to judgment or no? Do Protestants take the judgments of the visible church to be reliable or no?

  12. Jordan P Says:

    Perry,

    I understand. unfortunately those precautions are necessary in open forums such as this 🙂

    “The issue is reliability isn’t it? Is that germane to judgment or no? ”

    reliability is germane to judgment, but for this post I think we need to clarify how germane judgment is to reliability. It’s not that the relationship between these two ideas isn’t an issue. I’m just not sure it’s THE issue. THE issue, as far as my posts are concerned, have to do with whether or not MG got the Protestant position correct. like I said in my first post “It’s not that I don’t think [MG’s] critique was a good one. it’s actually rather sharp but it may have torn down a straw man.” So whether or not the Protestant position is right, wrong, heretical, schismatic, holy, defensible, implausible or the best answer out there seems like a topic other than the one i raised.

    “Do Protestants take the judgments of the visible church to be reliable or no?”

    depends on the kind of Protestant and the definition of “visible church”. Ultimately, for a Protestant, issues boil down to whether or not they are scriptural supported explicitly or implicitly. Most members of the Assemblies of God hold that Baptists are part of the Church but do not hold the Presbyterian interpretation of key scriptures to be reliable. And the same can be said of almost any two distinct denominations.

    this is why i think that MG statement “How does a Protestant deny the infallibility of the Church but still hold onto the idea that being in the Church tends to make you have the correct beliefs about the content of Christian teaching? The most plausible way to say this is that the Church’s judgments and the collective beliefs of all Christians are reliable but not infallible. ” to be an incorrect assessment of the Protestant position.

    are we on the same page?

  13. Jordan Parro Says:

    typos:
    1) “scriptural” should read “scripturally”
    2) I said “Baptist” and i meant to remain consistent and say “Presbyterian” twice
    3) there may be others ha ha

  14. Perry Robinson Says:

    Jordan,

    Let me focus then on whether MG has gotten the PP correct.

    1. If we confine ourselves to the invisible church and there is only one member of that left on earth what would be the status of that persons views on the gospel? Wouldn’t they have to be correct, lest Matt 16:18ff be false? In any case why does MG’s gloss entail the church as an institution? why can’t it just be a society of people? The invisible church will still be a society of people.

    As for the visible church, how would MG’s gloss fail to map on to that as well?

    2. Certainly the belief at least is held because the church’s judgment is likely to be correct. Why else would people assent to it unless they thought the church’s reasons were good ones? Your comments seem to confuse the matter that the judgment consists of or concerns with the formality of it.

    Again, scripture doesn’t do the judging on anyone’s theory since scripture is a rule applied by a judge.

    Do these comments seem to be more on target?

  15. Jordan Parro Says:

    Perry,

    “1. If we confine ourselves to the invisible church and there is only one member of that left on earth what would be the status of that persons views on the gospel? Wouldn’t they have to be correct, lest Matt 16:18ff be false?”

    For protestants there are not any a priori theological necessities that require the church to have fully correct beliefs. surely Matt 16:18 stands but that doesn’t mean that our last man standing is going to understand the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, or any other doctrine that might enhance our understanding of the gospel (especially if all he had to go off of was Matt 16:18 or John 3:16 or any other verse one may think encompasses the message of the gospel)

    imagine there were exactly two believers of the church left on earth and one was an Calvinist and one was an Evangelical. then who would be right? for protestants, neither of them have to be right. And surely the one thinks the other to be unreliable. But, for Protestants, both are part of the Church. AND 1 Timothy 3:15 stands as well because both our Calvinist friend and our Evangelical friend hold fast to the truth of Matt 16:18. (please keep in mind i’m still not the defender of PP. I’m only trying to answer your question coherently from their paradigm which you and I are both free to disagree with.)

    you wrote,
    “In any case why does MG’s gloss entail the church as an institution? why can’t it just be a society of people? The invisible church will still be a society of people.”

    I hope I didn’t come across as making a universal statement on this issue. the answer is simply that you’re not as likely to believe the church to be reliable in the way that MG claims if you don’t believe the church is an institution (with it’s own dogmas separate from scripture’s). rather, like David said, protestants don’t believe that “just any large group of Christians at any point in history” are reliable. if you do believe in the church as an institution you’re more likely to hold it to be a reliable institution. but a reliable society of people is far less rational to believe in unless, as in the case with PP, you believe that this society of people has some sort of divine guidance e.g. the scriptures. and even then that doesn’t make them correct interpreters especially in cases where there exist disagreements among the group(s). I hope that answered (1) ha ha!

    you wrote,
    “Certainly the belief at least is held because the church’s judgment is likely to be correct. Why else would people assent to it unless they thought the church’s reasons were good ones?”

    Protestants don’t typically assent to beliefs that the church has simply by virtue that the church has them. they agree because they’ve read the scriptures for themselves and draw the same or similar conclusions. concomitantly, many (if not most) protestants are open to the notion that most christians are wrong. take calvinism for example. Calvinists are a global minority of Christians that (arguably) believe that non-Calvinists are in the church (Matt 16:18 again). It’s not that the church has “good reasons” it’s that individuals have good reasons. For better or for worse, one of the major ideas of the reformation and the work of Luther was that individuals can interpret the scriptures for themselves. so when a bunch of individuals got together and started planting t.u.l.i.p.’s calling themselves the church it is because that’s what they believed the scriptures espoused, it wasn’t their merits that made those beliefs reliable it was Scripture’s.

    you wrote,
    “Your comments seem to confuse the matter that the judgment consists of or concerns with the formality of it.”

    honestly, i’m not sure what you mean by this.

    I think we are (or maybe just I am) tracking better 🙂

  16. Perry Robinson Says:

    So the “last Christian” could have a false gospel? What would need to be added to that situation to falsify Matt 16:18? I am not arguing over theidea that most Christians can be wrong, but asking whether you think all of them can be.

    (So Protestants read the scriptures for themselves and then form doctrine? So the vast majority of Christians prior to the reformation must not have been Protestants.)

    Private judgment is more than just individuals interpreting a text, it is that they can give a normative interpretation. And when the individuals interpret it for themselves that isn’t the church doing interpretation?

    Also, what do you make of Jesus statements in Matt 18:17? Is the judgment there individuals judging or the church or are they one and the same thing?

    The last point turns on a distinction between form and matter. Scripture is materially sufficient but that doesn’t imply that it is formally sufficient.

  17. Jordan Parro Says:

    No, the last Christian can not have a “false gospel”.

    I said,
    ” surely Matt 16:18 stands but that doesn’t mean that our last man standing is going to understand the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, or any other doctrine that might enhance our understanding of the gospel (especially if all he had to go off of was Matt 16:18 or John 3:16 or any other verse one may think encompasses the message of the gospel)”

    the last Christian could understand that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God (the doctrine that the church is founded on) without understanding (or understanding well) what Protestants might think of as peripheral doctrines e.g. the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection et. al.

    I’m not sure where the idea that “all [Christians] can be” wrong about the gospel entered the discussion.

    you said,
    “(So Protestants read the scriptures for themselves and then form doctrine? So the vast majority of Christians prior to the reformation must not have been Protestants.)”

    maybe not in the sense that they are today. though i know of no Christian at all who would boast that the early and post-nicene churches didn’t know the scriptures (or even what would become scripture). Remember, the epistles that comprise the new testament were copied and circulated. the people knew and understood the scriptures (which all fundamentally point toward the gospel) through methods such as oral tradition, public readings et. al. And a Protestant would probably argue that the early church’s doctrine’s were primarily exposited from Scripture.

    you said,
    “Private judgment is more than just individuals interpreting a text, it is that they can give a normative interpretation. And when the individuals interpret it for themselves that isn’t the church doing interpretation?”

    it is but it’s hardly as dogmatic as RC/EO is. Remember, not everything in the Scriptures are up for debate. can’t make arguments for doctrines that Jesus didn’t die, or that he didn’t rise again, or that we have the Holy Spirit etc. There are key fundamental tenants of the Christian Faith that all Christians hold to. As for the others, Protestants are fine prefacing many of their teachings with “i/we believe” or “it seems to me/us”. this is why there are different denominations

    you said,
    “Also, what do you make of Jesus statements in Matt 18:17? Is the judgment there individuals judging or the church or are they one and the same thing?”

    what I make of it isn’t relevant. as for the answer to your question, i don’t know. Ask a Protestant.

    you said,
    “The last point turns on a distinction between form and matter. Scripture is materially sufficient but that doesn’t imply that it is formally sufficient.”

    perhaps, but Protestants have already settled their ideas about this.

  18. Jordan Parro Says:

    to further respond to,
    “Is the judgment there individuals judging or the church or are they one and the same thing?”

    I imagine that Protestants are banking that the Church/the individuals can be reliably moral. but “reliably moral” isn’t the same as “reliable for doctrinal interpretations”. however, i still stand by my ignorance in the matter 🙂

  19. Perry Robinson Says:

    I want to focus on two points.

    First, can the whole church fall away or not? If not, then in our hypothetical situation, the last christian is infallible with respect to the gospel, is he not?

    Second, why aren’t all doctrines up for debate? If the canon is always in principle open, then ANY doctrine can be up for debate. If not, then why not?

  20. Jordan Parro Says:

    Are we still talking about whether MG tore down a straw man or not? it’s fine if we’re not. Just a point of clarification.

    1) a) terms like “whole church” “fall away” “Infallible” and “gospel” aren’t discrete ideas with well defined locations (esp. not in Protestantism). There are plenty of opinions to go around even within RC/EO. so the answer will be as vague as the terms. If by “the whole church” we mean “all of its individual members” and by “fall away” we mean “deny an essential tenant of the faith” (“essential tenant” is also vague. whose essential tenants? RC’s, EO’s, Protestant’s, Mormon’s, Jehova’s Witness’s?), then no, the whole church cannot fall away (if only because we know that it WON’T fall away thanks to Matt 16:18 again). epistemic possibility (the next reasonable question) here is a philosophical issue not theological one.
    b) is our last man standing infallible with respect to the gospel? depends on how necessary you think beliefs like the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, et al. to be vis-à-vis “the gospel”. if believing in the filioque somehow makes you a schismatic innovation on the faith then we’ll run into issues. If you believe that using leavened bread for the eucharist deviates from the true sacrament set forth by Christ, there will be issues again. If you (like Protestants) don’t care about those things and leave individuals free to believe in these (for them) less firm doctrines in whatever way seems efficacious then there won’t be issues and our last man is infallible enough. he’s free to believe the right things about the divinity of Christ and the wrong things about the priesthood.

    2) you wrote,
    “[W]hy aren’t all doctrines up for debate? If the canon is always in principle open, then ANY doctrine can be up for debate. If not, then why not?”

    two reasons:
    (i) Because some things are explicate and require no interpretation.
    (ii) The closed cannon is the way the Protestants deal with heresies like Mormonism and Jehova’s Wittness. If the cannon is open there’s no ground for P’s to defend against M’s and JW’s in a meaningful way. If the Mormon prophet says Jesus is the literal offspring of God (just like the rest of us, boys and girls) P’s need a way to falsify that. open canons aren’t good for that.

  21. Διονυσιος Says:

    “(i) Because some things are explicate and require no interpretation.”

    Sorry, but this is never true. Interpretation is necessary for understanding, and understanding is never found without interpretation (cf. Heidegger).

  22. Jordan Parro Says:

    While I might argue at some other time that German linguistic philosophy has very little bearing on Scripture interpretation I must point out that Zakk, you misunderstood. I’m simply a expositing position not arguing for it. you and i are both free to disagree with any or all of the conversation that Perry and I have had. your series “narrative in context” outlines your point of view well, I think.

  23. Διονυσιος Says:

    I’m not sure what I misunderstood. Even if you are only explicating the position but not arguing for it, I think it is fair for me to point out problems with the position. That is the point of MG’s post, and, I would assume, it is the point of your conversation with Perry.

    So, again, I think it is perfectly fair for me to point out a disadvantage to the position you are explicating, since it is the point of this post to critique the Protestant position.

  24. Jordan Parro Says:

    the disadvantageousness of the position i’m expositing is probably best left to another blog. the topic of my conversation with Perry is about how I think MG may have gotten the PP wrong. so if you agree that what i’m expositing is a more correct representation of the PP (even if you still disagree) then we agree over all. If you think that my explication of the PP is not correct (regardless of agreement or disagreement) then perhaps there’s more to say. 🙂

    i understand your critique, but am unsure how helpful it is given the topic (or perhaps meta-topic)

  25. Διονυσιος Says:

    If that’s what you want to think, that’s fine.

    I still view this post as a critique of a Protestant position, making my comment very much on topic.

    Anyway, I’m not really interested in participating in the conversation as I’ve been taking less and less interest in blogging and/or public theological discourse of late. Good luck to you.

  26. MG Says:

    Jordan–

    You wrote:

    “I think MG may have gotten the PP wrong”

    Pardon the intrusion, but as far as I can tell (though admittedly my search wasn’t very careful) I have not claimed that the framework that I suggested is *the* Protestant position:

    1. I claimed that most Protestants don’t want to say awful things about the Church (regardless of how we construe its structure or lack thereof) like that

    a. it can apostatize as a whole or

    b. that it isn’t divinely-guided.

    2. Then I claimed that the best way to capture this intuition without adhering to Catholic ecclesiology was to say the Church is reliable.

    I don’t think I’ve said that this *is* the Protestant view, or even that it is a majority position. But the question of whether or not it is a charicature is probably still up in the air. Perhaps it could be a charicature in that it doesn’t represent the beliefs of Protestants at all, or such a small minority that it is largely irrelevent. Or maybe it could be a charicature in the sense that there is a much more effective way of characterizing the integrity of the Church’s belief-forming processes.

  27. MG Says:

    David C–

    you wrote:

    “Great argument!”

    Thanks, but dont’ thank me too soon–if Jordan and Dave are right, the argument is irrelevant.

    “Why do you think it is so hard for a Protestant to recognize this?”

    There’s a number of possible explanations:

    1. Selectively choosing what to consider part of tradition based on prior principles or preferences is a feature of some Protestant theologians. See for instance the way memorialists about the Eucharist try to appeal to tradition. This could be an example of that same thing in action.

    2. The evidence for ecclesial infallibility may not be very strong from the first 1500 years of the Church. But I’d love to see someone try to argue that one 🙂

    3. As Dave and Jordan have suggested, maybe Protestants don’t see the Church as reliable.

    4. Maybe the connection between reliability and infallibility is just not very obvious because many of us haven’t been taught to look for it, or because we don’t strive for maximal consistency with our own beliefs.

    5. Technically you can hold to reliability and deny infallibility. You would just have to say that this was one of those rare times that the Church got its doctrines systemmatically wrong. But at that point, of course, I would like to hear an explanation for why we should think this about the Church, so the position doesn’t become ad hoc. And I think you would need some overwhelming arguments in favor of the fallibility of the Church to make this tense position tenable. Without some strong support, those kinds of suggestions don’t work. Also, its questionable whether the Church could be *systemmatically wrong for over a thousand years* about something that it considered so central and important. Maybe some doctrines that weren’t taught and integrated rigorously or held by virtually everyone could be things the Church got wrong. But could everyone have been wrong about such a big thing for so long if the Church is reliable overall? That’s a stretch.

    6. Or perhaps my argument doesn’t work.

    I don’t really know what the explanation is.

  28. Perry Robinson Says:

    Jordan

    However you wish to fill in those terms is fine by me. For my purposes I am limiting the question to the scenario I denoted above.

    Would the last Christian having a false gospel amount to apostasy? If not, what would we need to add? Second, What is the difference if any between the last Christian having a false gospel and the gates of hades prevailing?

    I agree that there is a difference between modalities in epistemology and metaphysics. Nonetheless, if it is impossible, then it is impossible nonetheless.

    I am not concerned with what I think is necessary to believe. I just want to know on your schema would he be so, with whatever belief conditions need to obtain ex hypothesi. In any case, I denoted “the gospel.” If you think “the gospel” doesn’t include all of those other things, then fine. Would he be infallible or fallible with respect to the gospel?

    2. Reading signs requires some level of interpretation. And even if it did not, what is the inference from a direct relation to a correct relation? There isn’t one.

    Protestants tried to revise the canon again in the 19th century with respect to 3rd John. 2nd. Practical unrevisability doesn’t entail a denial of in principle revisability. If the collection is fallible, then the collection can be adjusted either in relation in to the truth or away from it. The worry about the LDS and the JW’s is irrelevant. If the canonization is fallible, then the canon can be revised. Further, Protestants revised the canon at the Reformation. Was it open prior to that? That seems grossly implausible. Catholics could then use the same argument concerning a closed canon against Protestantism. Consequently your argument seems to undercut the Protestant position.

  29. Brett Stroud Says:

    Wow, nice little discussion we have going here =)

    I’ve done my best to follow the conversation, but for now I’ve decided I’d like to ask a somewhat unrelated question (i.e. a question about the original post rather than in line with the current conversation).

    Since the argument rests on the belief of the early church in its own infallibility, I would like to ask how the position of the Church is ascertained. If the Church is the mystical body of Christ and is made up of multiple members (and those multiple members have, presumably, at least a few differing beliefs), then which member or group of members is said to hold the position of the Church?

    P.S. This is not a leading question. I am attempting to more clearly understand the Eastern Orthodox position. Don’t be shocked if you reply and my only response is “thanks.”

  30. Jordan Parro Says:

    Zakk (I kind of want to call you Dion but I understand if you would prefer i didn’t :),

    sorry to lose your input in the discussion. you have a good blog of your own so i suspect i’ll meet you there again.

    MG,

    i guess we’ll see as the discussion unfurls 🙂 thanks for responding!

  31. Jordan Parro Says:

    Perry,

    the last christian would not a have a false gospel. if he were from the high church it means he would have a whole mess of correct beliefs and he would be infallible. If he were not then he would only need a few. no apostasy in sight.

    the “gates” of hell are a defensive structure. the connotation is that they will not prevail against a Christian offensive. So an internal Church conflict would not constitute the “gates of hell” prevailing. This might seem like nit-picking. i don’t think it is. but in case it is, to answer the broader question, since there’s no apostasy of the whole church, hell hasn’t prevailed.

    if some protestants wanted to revise the canon they would be wrong. i think almost all christians can stand in agreement about this. we can’t fault protestantism for the behaviors of certain sects just like we can’t fault Catholicism or Orthodoxy for either of their bloody histories, corrupt priests, or political leveraging.

    the “revision” of the canon during the reformation is an opinion. protestants don’t think they changed scripture. in fact, if they wanted to pull out historical support for their canon see St. Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter.

    I don’t think the pragmatic use of the closed canon undercuts the PP. their use was pretty much the Church’s use in the 5th century i.e. dealing with heresy. otherwise why don’t we just use the Marcian canon? And Catholics do pretty much use the same/similar arguments. all three branches of Christianity are at an impasse. I wish it was as simple as “they (which ever branch you want them to be) just don’t understand. if they did, they’d agree with us (fill in the us-blank)”. We’ve all heard each other’s respective claims and have made/are making our choices. but this is all a different discussion. 🙂

  32. Jordan Parro Says:

    Perry,

    I am going to respectfully withdraw. don’t worry it’s not a “i’m angry and blah blah blah” withdrawal. I think that I’ve made my critique on this post sufficiently clear, and MG has clarified his position as well.

    feel free to have the last word. I’m sure we’ll meet again. It’s a small blogosphere after all 😀

  33. Perry Robinson Says:

    Jordan,

    So why wouldn’t the last Christian be infallible with respect to the gospel? What would one need to add for that to be so?

    Protestants changed the formal canon. It wasn’t an opinion. Again this confuses form and matter.

    The 5th century use depended on Episcopacy and Apostolic Succession so the views can’t be co-extensive in the way you suggest.

    Branches?

  34. David Says:

    I’m sure you’ve already seen this, but just in case you haven’t:

    http://bywhoseauthority.blogspot.com/2008/08/protestant-response-to-michael-gatens.html

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