I recently participated in an online discussion on the Pints with Aquinas YouTube show with my friend, Suan Sonna. We addressed the question: Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?
Although I am sympathetic to and appreciative of Roman Catholicism in various ways, in my studies I have come to conclusions that lead me away from the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, there are very many people (at least in the online circles I frequent) who feel the pull in the direction of the Church of Rome. There are a few different reasons for that. One of the most prominent is certainly the attraction of the idea or prospect of an infallible teaching office in the Church, which can declare irreformable statements about what is and is not to be believed or done.
I think that there is no such infallible teaching office in the Church. In my recent discussion with Suan, I offered three reasons for thinking so. Because I think people may be interested in reading it, I have decided to post my opening statement for all to read.
My conviction is that Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. I will present three arguments in favor of this opinion.
First, I will argue that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and in principle revisable. This is because it is obtained by means of a fallible process of interpretation. Therefore, nothing in our experience justifies us in claiming to possess infallible knowledge of some theological subject matter.
Second, I will show there is no compelling biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium in the Church. The Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings. Because they are free and fallible, even the loftiest promises God makes about them may nevertheless not come true or at least not stay true for long. For the same reason, also, every social and ecclesial arrangement is in principle contingent and tentative.
Third, I will clarify how there is no theological necessity in the notion of an infallible magisterium of the Church. Some Roman Catholic apologists, theologians, and churchmen argue that if God were to make a saving revelation in history, He would need to establish a reliable and even infallible organ of transmission to preserve it in purity for all generations. But this argument is not only logically invalid; it also presupposes two quintessentially Catholic ideas about salvation and Christian faith that can be rejected.
Let’s go over these arguments in order.
The fallibility of theological knowledge
My first point is that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and revisable in principle. This is all that our experience allows us to say. Careful attention to the hermeneutic nature of the process of reasoning will help us to see how this is true.
Whenever we reason or discourse, we are reasoning or discoursing about something or other. But it is possible to take ourselves to be reasoning about one thing, when in fact all we’ve done is to follow a trail of ideas in a certain direction. This is because, in order for us to engage in reasoning, we first have to target some object available to our consciousness and to endow it with some kind of meaning or content. We pick something and interpret it as being an X. On the basis of that foundational hermeneutical decision, we then begin to reason as our concepts and understanding allow us. But however compelling or persuasive our reasoning may seem to us, it does not prove anything at all about the thing we had in mind unless it really is an X, such as we supposed. If it is not in fact an X, then we have not gained any knowledge about it.
Thus, suppose Suan reasons like this: The cat has just eaten, so it must not be hungry. In order for him to do this, he first had to target some object in the world of his experience and interpret it as a cat. Furthermore, he had to interpret what this thing has done as eating. These interpretive decisions are then paired with his prior understanding of what eating is and how it relates to hunger, which understanding he takes for granted. Thus, on the basis of a number of implicit decisions about how to interpret things, Suan is able to engage in a simple form of reasoning: This thing here, which I take to be a cat, has just done something I take to be eating, so that, in light of how I understand the relation between eating and hunger, it must not be hungry anymore.
But this process of reasoning does not confer knowledge of the object in the world unless the hermeneutical or interpretive decisions on which it is founded are actually adequate to their object. Thus, Suan can only know his reasoning is actually correct if he tries to validate these hermeneutical decisions by turning to the thing itself and confirming them in an experience. But it is also obvious that Suan’s experiences are always going to underdetermine his confidence in his hermeneutical decisions. It may be that the thing is not a cat but only looks like one; or that it only appears to have eaten when in fact it did something else; or that eating and hunger are not in fact always related in the way Suan supposed; or it may be that the thing is no longer available and Suan is stuck with just his memories of how things looked to him to have happened; and so on. Suan’s experiences are never going to provide an infallible confirmation of any of the assumptions of his reasoning. Thus, he will never be certain about the propriety of his reasoning. At best, he will have only a tentative and revisable knowledge, not an infallible one.
The fallibility of Suan’s reasoning is grounded in the fact that his reasoning is based on certain hermeneutical choices about how to interpret things. We have to make choices about how to interpret things because they are not perfectly clear by themselves. But where one choice is possible, so also is another one. Such is the nature of human freedom. And we cannot be sure ahead of time – nor even after the fact – that we have chosen correctly.
The same thing happens in reasoning about theological things. We choose to interpret certain realities in a certain way. For example, we choose to interpret the biblical text as saying X. Our experiences underdetermine those choices, and so it is always possible that we are wrong. Indeed, nothing in our experience guarantees that we have interpreted things the right way, since there are going to be people comparable to us in various ways who nevertheless interpret things differently. For this reason, our experience does not permit us to say anything other than that our theological knowledge, if we have any at all, is fallible and – so far as we can tell – subject to revision.
Now, someone will say: The Roman Catholic Church does not teach that its infallibly taught statements are known with absolute certainty, but only that they are true. That is what Christ promised in the Scriptures. This objection itself admits that the Roman Catholic Church’s idea about the infallibility of the magisterium is not an experientially grounded doctrine. Rather, it is the logical outcome of a certain interpretation of the biblical text. In other words, it is the place the Church has reached as a result of following a certain train of thought. Therefore, it will be necessary to show that this train of thought, this preferred interpretation of the biblical text, is not the only one possible. This brings me to my second argument.
The contingency of divine promises
Many times, Roman Catholic apologists and theologians will argue for the infallibility of the Church’s magisterium on the basis of the promises that God or Christ make in the Scriptures. For example, there is the promise that Christ makes to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will found my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).
The problem with an argument like this is that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings relative to God. This means that even the loftiest promises that God makes to a person or group of persons need not come true, or at least not in the way they would have expected, if they do not freely cooperate with Him.
For example, Joshua tells the Hebrews, just as they are preparing to enter into the promised land, that the living God “without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (Josh 3:10). But the Gibeonites, who are described variously as Hivites and Amorites, are not driven out because of a deception (Josh 9). Neither did they drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites (Josh 13:13).
Similarly, God tells the prophet Ezekiel: “Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die” (Ezek 33:13). God can tell you: You shall surely live. And yet if you sin, you will die, despite the unconditional nature of God’s earlier words. Once more, the fulfillment of a divine promise is contingent and not infallible whenever it involves the free cooperation of human beings.
In the same way, God tells the prophet Isaiah that He will take the robe, sash, authority, and key of the house of David from Shebna and give it to Eliakim (Isa 22:15-25). But what Eliakim inherits is what Shebna earlier possessed. It was taken from the one and given to the other because the former had sinned. Thus, its possession is contingent and fallible, not certain. If it could be taken from one of them because of sin, it could also be taken from the other, even though God makes such lofty promises about Eliakim. Eliakim is described as “a peg fastened in a secure place” (v. 23). And yet Shebna also was a “peg fastened in a secure place,” and nevertheless He was about to be cut down and fall (v. 25). Thus, the promises God makes are contingent and tentative, insofar as their fulfillment depends on the free cooperation of the human being.
So also in the case of the promise in Matthew 16. Suppose we grant – though we don’t have to – that Peter was given a position of headship over the college of the apostles. It does not follow that he or one of his successors could not have erred in such a way as to disqualify himself or the very position he occupies. Neither does it follow that such an arrangement is permanent. Human beings are free, possessing a measure of independence from God. This means that things can go wrong, and the promises that God makes to them can go unfulfilled.
And yet God is flexible. He does not let the mistakes of some people ruin His providential purposes. To the contrary, He is free to make use of whatever means He has available at any point in time. Thus, He leads Israel first by Moses, but Moses does not make it into the promised land. Then He leads by Joshua, then by the judges, then by the kings, and then, when the kings become corrupt, by the prophets, and so on. The fact that God establishes an arrangement does not entail that it will remain forever. And God is free to make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to accomplish His purposes.
The perspicuity of the Gospel
This leads me to my third and final argument. I’ve suggested that our very experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and subject to revision. Moreover, the biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium is fatally undermined by the fact that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore essential fallibility of human beings and their arrangements. But sometimes Roman Catholic apologists and theologians give something like an a priori argument for an infallible magisterium. They say that if God were to reveal some saving truth, then He would make provisions for its reliable transmission over time. And in order to prevent its corruption as history marches on, it’s to be expected that He would establish an infallible teacher or body of teachers who can interpret it in such a way that the truth is not lost.
The first point to make about this argument is that it is logically invalid. God certainly would make provisions to ensure the reliable transmission of the saving truth from generation to generation. But it doesn’t follow that He needs to make use of any one particular means for doing so. His own infallibility as the preserver of the truth over time need not translate into the permanent infallibility of any particular medium He works through. He led the people of Israel at times through Moses, at times through the judges, at times through the kings, at times through the prophets. No one office is infallible. God alone is infallible, and He makes use of whomever He wills. So also, in the history of the Church, God can make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to preserve the saving truth for His people.
There is something else to note about the a priori argument for the magisterium. First, it would appear to assume that the saving truth that God reveals must necessarily be something obscure and easy to lose track of. That must be why the risk of error is apparently so great. Second, it assumes that salvation is fundamentally or at least in part a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulas. But both of these assumptions must be called into question and can even be rejected.
In the first place, God can have made provision for the reliable transmission of the saving truth throughout the generations precisely by making this saving truth something clear enough for the average person to understand and appreciate. In other words, God can have made provisions for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something perspicuous and easily accessible.
Consider the example of water. Everyone knows that water is good, that it hydrates, that it is healthful, that it benefits human life in various ways. There is no need for there to be an infallible water-master in order for the human tradition of appreciating water to be reliably transmitted throughout the generations. Indeed, it would be ridiculous for anyone to claim that he is an infallible guide on water. Our knowledge of water is the same as our knowledge of anything else outside ourselves: fallible and revisable. But it is still true that the most important things about water – for example, that it is necessary for us and that it improves our lives in various ways – are so clear and obvious that we have no need of an infallible teacher in the matter.
In the same way, the saving truth that God has revealed is perspicuous like this. What is this truth? It is the truth that fellowship with the one true creator God in the Holy Spirit has been made possible for all people through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, on the basis of His mediatorial work. This is the truth that saves us, and it is easy enough for anyone to appreciate it. This is the message that Irenaeus says can be “clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all” in the Scriptures, prophets, and gospels (Against Heresies II, 27, 2). This is the message that Origen says was delivered by the apostles “with utmost clarity to all believers” (On First Principles Preface, 3). This is the message that all the Christian churches everywhere plainly and obviously teach, according to both Church Fathers. Thus, it is not only possible but also traditional to say that God has made provision for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something that is clear enough on its own. This undermines the necessity of an infallible magisterium.
Someone will object: But what about all the heresies that have afflicted the Church throughout the ages? The truth can easily be mixed with damnable error. As I mentioned before, this line of argument presupposes that salvation is at least in part if not fundamentally a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulae. Moreover, it clearly is looking at Church history through the lens of contemporary Roman Catholic dogma. This argument for the necessity of an infallible magisterium seems sooner to express a fundamentally Roman Catholic conception of salvation and its conditions. And it is open to us to reject both the one and the other.
Salvation is not first and foremost a matter of believing certain well-defined doctrinal statements. It is friendship with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 John 1:3). In other words, it is about a relation between persons and not necessarily an appreciation of some theoretical truth. It is obviously possible to enjoy friendship without the theoretical aspect. I can enjoy a conversation with my friend JT even if I do not have a well-defined opinion about JT’s ontological constitution from the point of view of philosophical anthropology. I might be a substance dualist, or a physicalist, or a hylemorphist, or have no opinion whatsoever about what he is. That does not stop me from joking or debating with him. In the same way, a person can enjoy fellowship with God and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit even if he is unsure how to understand God from the perspective of the christological and triadological controversies of Church history, indeed even if he has never thought about those problems at all.
This personal friendship or communion between God and the human being is realized by the preaching of the Gospel. It is the preaching of the Gospel that produces faith in people, and faith is what makes it possible to enjoy this friendship or communion. Furthermore, the preaching of the Gospel can accomplish this effect even if it is not theologically sophisticated or even particularly precise. Someone might say: But if heresy is preached, then it does not produce saving faith. But this assumes that saving faith is assent to certain well-defined doctrinal statements rather than an orientation toward God through Jesus Christ. It is enough to be told about Jesus Christ as the way of access to friendship with God on the basis of His life and death. When that happens, people turn toward Christ in faith and hope and love. They cling to Him and praise God through Him in the Holy Spirit, even apart from a very theoretical understanding of the finer details. There is thus no need for an infallible magisterium in any of this.
These, then, are my arguments. Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. Our experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and subject to revision. The Bible itself everywhere recognizes the essential freedom and essential fallibility of human beings. And yet God saves us by revealing something which we do not need to be infallible in order to enjoy. He invites us to friendship with Him and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. And we can enjoy this friendship even if we are mistaken about various things or even if we do not attend to various problems and nuances of speculative theology at all.