How to do theology with the Church Fathers as a Protestant?

Another common point of contention between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians is that of the role of the Church Fathers for Christian theology.

Many people are of the opinion that taking the Church Fathers “seriously” means abandoning Protestantism for either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. In my personal opinion, this is a myth most often put forth by people who have not read very much serious Protestant theology for themselves. In the first place, the Protestant Reformers were constantly citing from the Church Fathers in support of their positions. Moreover, the most important contemporary Protestant theologians were well-versed in the Church Fathers and the history of Christian theology more generally, such as Karl Barth, TF Torrance, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Now these figures may agree or disagree with the Church Fathers to various extents, but my point is only that it is a myth that Protestants either do not or cannot take the Church Fathers and the history of Christian theology seriously.

What I want to do in this brief post is to share some of my own thoughts in response to the question: How to do theology with the Church Fathers as a Protestant? By way of answering this inquiry, I would like to propose four theses.

Thesis 1: Theology is an ongoing conversation in search of the truth.

Christian theology has always been a dynamic ongoing conversation. The earliest Christians did not agree with each other about how to understand the significance of Christ and of the revelation and salvation that He brought. Some of them thought that the Gentiles who believed in Christ still had to obey the Law of Moses and to be circumcised, while others (notably, the apostles) did not. Some of the earliest Christians thought that Christ did not have a true human nature, while others (e.g., the apostle John) insisted that He did. Some of the earliest Christians thought that it was permissible to eat meat from animals sacrificed to idols (e.g., the Nicolaitans from Rev 2:14; and Paul seems to think that, considered in itself, it is a matter of indifference in 1 Cor 10), while others disagreed. So also, Christians disagreed among themselves in later generations of the Church as well. They disagreed about any number of issues: the precise sense in which Christ is the Son of God; whether and how the Holy Spirit is God; how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related; how the two natures of Christ relate to each other; how free will and divine providence are related to each other; whether all human beings will eventually be saved or not; whether it is permissible to use images in worship and to venerate icons; whether the baptism administered by heretical groups is valid; whether there can be forgiveness for grave sins committed after baptism; whether a person should be baptized as an adult or whether it is permissible to baptize children; whether sacraments administered by an immoral priest are still valid; and so on. This means that, from the very beginning, there has never been unanimous consensus on any theological issue in the Church.

Now, the Church has outlived all of the Church Fathers. They died and went on their way to the Lord. Each one has presumably received the appropriate recompense for his or her work, but in the meantime the Church continues on Earth. Time did not stop in the eighth century! The conversation of Christian theology also continues. Many of the issues debated in the early days are still debated even now. Doing theology with the Church Fathers means knowing their contributions to these ongoing conversations and appreciating the perspective they were trying to put forth for others. Joining an ongoing conversation responsibly means knowing what was said before one joined in. But it does not mean simply accepting whatever the previous contributors said, as if the fact that they had said it settled the matter. New things are being said, and even the arguments of the Church Fathers themselves are not unanimously convincing to later participants in the conversation. For example, hardly anyone would endorse precisely each argument given by the Church Fathers for the doctrine of the Incarnation, or for the Trinity, or for any other particular theological issue. One can think that they were right about a thesis without endorsing the arguments they put forth for the thesis. But when you do that, you take for granted that the conversation continues beyond their contribution, going forward into the future.

For a Protestant like me, theology is an ongoing conversation that will never be complete until the Day of the Lord. It proceeds on the basis of the revelation of Christ, and seeks to deepen its appreciation of this revelation as time goes on. But only on the last day will faith give way to sight (cf. 1 Cor 13). The conversation of theology thus does not have a “stopping point” sometime in the past, as though all that needed to be said was said.

Thesis 2: In an ongoing conversation, it is possible both to agree and to disagree.

A genuine conversation means that at least two persons are permitted to express their opinions about what is being discussed. Now, many people treat theology as if it were not a conversation for all Christians. They talk about the Church Fathers as if they were university lecturers introducing freshmen students to a complex subject for the first time: they speak and are listened to; they are not themselves taught or questioned or corrected. They may appeal to the fact that Church Fathers are nearly all of them churchmen in some way or other: bishops and priests, etc. They might even appeal to a biblical text like 2 Pet 1:20, which says: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” But this is a grossly inappropriate way to think about these things.

In the first place, the Church Fathers themselves did not have this attitude about what they wrote. At the end of a discussion about the person of Jesus in his On First Principles, Origen says this:

The above, meanwhile, are the thoughts which have occurred to us, when treating of subjects of such difficulty as the incarnation and deity of Christ. If there be any one, indeed, who can discover something better, and who can establish his assertions by clearer proofs from holy Scriptures, let his opinion be received in preference to mine.

Origen, On First Principles II, 6, 7

And Augustine:

For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine.

Augustine, Letter 148 to Fortunatianus IV, 15

And for good measure, consider this line from Cyril of Jerusalem:

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 4, 17

Thus, at least these Church Fathers themselves did not think themselves unquestionable authorities who must only be listened to and never questioned. They did not treat each other that way, neither did they expect that others would treat them in that way. The only resource they thought unquestionable was Scripture itself.

In the second place, this attitude is contrary to Scripture. According to the Apostle Paul, what qualifies a person to participate in the discussion about the meaning of revelation is the reception of the Holy Spirit, not the authority or position that a person occupies within the Church. He says: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny… But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 10:14-16). If a person has the Holy Spirit, they are invited to participate in the discussion of the Church about the revelation of Christ.

This does not mean that everyone is just as capable a contributor as anyone else, since some persons have a special gifting in this respect. Indeed, in Scripture, the precondition for being established in the position of bishop or presbyter or deacon is precisely that one has a “firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching” (Tit 1:9) and is “an apt teacher” (1 Tim 3:2). Thus, in the scriptural perspective, a person should not be listened to just because he is a bishop in the Church. Rather, he should be a bishop in the Church only if he should be listened to — which of course does not always happen. But in any case, it is the possession of the Holy Spirit that gives a person the right to participate in the discussion, not simply the position he holds in the Church.

For the Protestant like me, the Church Fathers are worth listening to in some matter if what they say is true, but if what they say is false, then they are not worth listening to in that respect. Of course, their reputation as “Fathers” does mean that they ought to be taken seriously. But even the Church Fathers themselves would never prioritize the truth over what they say, nor did they think that the truth is inaccessible apart from their testimony. And one is free to agree with them on some things but not on others. That is what it means to participate in a genuine conversation: having the freedom to form your own opinion about a thing in dialog with another.

Thesis 3: Disagreements have to be settled by turning to the thing being discussed.

In any honest conversation, we are concerned with the truth. We want to come to know things as they are. Now, all of our statements are taken as true or false depending on how they measure up to the standard of truth or falsity, which is the thing itself being discussed. If I say that a cat is white and another person says that the cat is black, then we have to measure our statements against the thing being discussed — the cat itself. The same thing is true in theology. In Christian theology, we are concerned principally with the person and teaching of Christ, such as this was passed down to the Church by His apostles and disciples in Scripture. Thus, what we say about God, or about Christ, or about the Church, or about faith or justification or anything else ultimately must refer back to the Bible and be measured against the Bible.

The Church Fathers knew this. Whatever topic they might have been discussing, they took the time to interpret Scripture and to show how their opinions agreed with or flowed out of the teachings of Christ and the apostles. This does not mean they were always right, of course. Some Church Fathers were judged to be mistaken about this or that thing, even though they were very prominent and highly esteemed in their time and afterwards. (Origen is a great example of this.) But in any case, it should be obvious that if they themselves are trying to interpret Scripture, then their statements must be judged according to what it is they are trying to describe, namely Scripture.

Now, sometimes it happens that disputes about things are hard to settle. It could be because the thing being discussed is not directly accessible to the people debating about it, or it could be because the people discussing it seemingly cannot agree about how to describe it. In situations like this, people lose their patience and choose sides not according to the truth but rather according to the authority or reputation of the person participating the discussion. But this is a mistake. Statements are not true because of who makes them. They are only true to the extent that they are adequate to their objects. There is nothing wrong with taking a position in such a situation. But you are not closer to the truth simply because you take the side of a prominent party. That is a way of preserving a tradition, but it is not necessarily a way of reaching the truth.

For the same reason, in a dispute about the meaning of Scripture or about some doctrine, it is not enough to say that Church Fathers X, Y, and Z understand it in some way. They also are interpreters of Scripture just like we are. They also are fellow students in the school of Christ: “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matt 23:10). They can be wrong, just as we might be wrong. Their opinions should be taken seriously, especially if they offer arguments for their opinions. But a thing is not true just because some Church Father or even a number of them say the same thing. Once more, that is a way of preserving a tradition, but it is not necessarily a way of reaching the truth.

There are a couple more points to make in this matter.

First, the people we call Church Fathers were not the only participants in the historical conversations about Christian theology. So-called “heretics” also participated in the conversation. They are called “heretics” because they did not agree with what later was accepted as the “right” understanding of things. Whether they were rightly called heretics, however, is not a matter that can be settled merely by appealing to the people who disagreed with them. Of course, Arius is a heretic for Athanasius, just as Athanasius is a heretic for Arius; of course, Pelagius is a heretic for Augustine, just as Augustine is a heretic for Pelagius. Once more, what matters is not who says this or that, but rather what is true. And the truth can only be settled by returning to the thing itself under discussion, which in each case was the revelation of Christ as passed down by the apostles in the New Testament. What makes Athanasius orthodox and Arius a heretic is not whether the one or the other gets everyone or even most people to agree with him, but whether the one or the other agrees with Christ.

Second, for the same reason, it is never true to say that there was “unanimous agreement” in the early Church. Even if the Church Fathers all agreed on some issue, – which is not obviously the case, – it would still be true that other persons, so-called “heretics,” disagreed with them, so that there was not universal consensus or agreement. And it should go without saying that just because a person was condemned for a heretical opinion on some issue, it does not follow that they were wrong about everything. People can be right about some things and wrong about others. But in any case, unanimous agreement would not prove anything. At some point in history, there was unanimous agreement by all the relevant authorities that the sun revolved around the earth. They were still wrong about that. Indeed, even the notion of “Church Father” is itself relative. The only reason Copernicus or Einstein are authorities for scientists in a way that Aristotle or Ptolemy are not is that contemporary scientists are educated into an Einsteinian understanding of physics. So also, the only reason that people commonly refer to Athanasius, Augustine, and Basil as Church Fathers rather than Arius, Pelagius, or Eunomius is because they are part of a Church tradition that accepts the teachings of the former while rejecting the teachings of the latter. But it is one thing to belong to a tradition, and it is another thing to have the truth. And for a Protestant such as myself, it is more important to have the truth than to belong to some particular theological tradition, since the truth is what it is independently of all traditions.

Third, it is also possible that some of the Church Fathers did not say what later interpreters think they said. For example, people simply take for granted that the Church Fathers affirmed the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist from the very beginning. In fact, the interpretation of their writings is more complicated than that. One could also read William Whitaker’s A Disputation on Holy Scripture: Against the Papists, especially Bellarmine and Stapleton to see how an early Protestant writer attempted to show that the Church Fathers did not have the conception of the Scripture-Tradition relation that contemporary Roman Catholics were attributing to them. Once more, the dispute must be settled by appeal to what is being disputed. From the fact that Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox claim some Church Father for themselves, it does not follow that the Church Father in question would actually recognize himself in their understanding of him.

Thesis 4: Disagreements about ideas are compatible with agreement in focus.

Let’s consider once more the way things are in science. Aristotle and Ptolemy propose a certain scientific understanding of the world. This conception of things is rejected by Newton, Copernicus, and Darwin. Then Newton’s conception of things is rejected by Einstein, while contemporary evolutionary biology goes beyond Darwin in a few ways. The conversation in science is ongoing, and scientists disagree with each other on all manner of things. But despite their disagreements, they are all in contact with one and the same world. They are fascinated by and share a love for one and the same universe. Their disagreements about ideas are nevertheless compatible with an agreement in shared focus.

I think the same thing is true in Christian theology. Christians may disagree with each other about any number of things. But they are still talking about one and the same Christ. More importantly, they all love one and the same Christ. They have all committed themselves to Him, a fact that is not compromised by their disagreements about ideas. And even more importantly, Christ died for them all. He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). He invites all people to friendship with God through Him in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 1:9). Christian theology is the collaborative effort to understand better this God and this Christ and this Holy Spirit who call all people to fellowship with them. The “background” against which the historical conversation of Christian theology takes place is the embrace of God in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

This does not mean that everyone in Christian theology shared this focus. If a person said that Christ did not have flesh and did not really die, it seems obvious that he or she is not agreeing with Christ’s own apostles, contrary to the concern of the “apostolic Church”. If a person said that Christ did not really rise from the dead, then it would make no sense to entrust themselves to Christ in the way that apostolic faith calls for. A dead person cannot save you! Thus, not every theological opinion is “fair game.” But neither can we naïvely assume that everything the Church Fathers said is true, that every opinion they rejected was worth rejecting, or that every opinion they affirmed was worth affirming, and so on. To repeat a motif that has come up before in this post, it seems to me far more important that theology be true than that it be traditional. This doesn’t mean that tradition and truth exclude each other, but neither is something true simply because it is traditional, nor is something traditional simply because it is true.

Summary

Briefly stated, according to my conception of theology as a Protestant, it is more important for theology to be true than for it to be traditional. This does not mean that truth and tradition exclude each other, but neither are they inseparably connected. And just as contemporary science can respect the opinions and contributions of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Newton without limiting itself to what they said, so also Protestant theology can respect the opinions and contributions of the Church Fathers without necessarily limiting itself to what they said or agreeing with them in everything.

What is the Lord’s Supper?

Lately I have been doing research on the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. It is a common point of contention between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. In the following YouTube videos, I try to present my own perspective on things, which I call “liturgical Zwinglianism.”

On my view, the Lord’s Supper is a ritual reenactment of Christ’s death on our behalf following the pattern of His preenactment of that death during the Last Supper. At the same time, it is the ritual appropriation of that death in faith by the consumption of the bread and wine, which symbolically represent His body and blood.

This view can make good sense of Scripture without raising the problematic questions and qualifications of the so-called Real Presence view. Moreover, it is compatible with the earliest sources in Church history. Indeed, it is arguably more consistent with these early sources than the Real Presence view.

If you would like to hear more about this, check out these videos I have uploaded to my YouTube channel:

What is the Eucharist? Arguments for Liturgical Zwinglianism and against Real (Corporeal) Presence.” In this video, I address the question of the Eucharist. I present and defend my own view, which I call “liturgical Zwinglianism,” as well as give arguments against the Real (Corporeal) Presence view.

5 Proofs of the Real Presence? A Friendly Response to Dr. Jordan Cooper.” In this video, I offer a friendly response to Dr. Jordan Cooper’s five proofs for the doctrine of the Real Presence. I argue instead for my own view, which I call “liturgical Zwinglianism.” According to my view, the Eucharist is a liturgical reenactment of Christ’s death and a ritual appropriation of that death through a communal meal. I argue that this view makes sense of Scripture and is compatible with the earliest testimonies of the Church Fathers.

How to understand John 6? Interpreting the ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse.” One of the most hotly disputed biblical passages in the debates about the Eucharist is the “bread of life” discourse at John 6. In this video, I provide an interpretation of Christ’s words which accords with my “liturgical Zwinglian” conception of the Eucharist. In a sentence, John 6 is not really about the Eucharist, although the Eucharist is about John 6.

How is Christ present in the Eucharist? Dr. Steven Nemes and Fr. James.” In this video, I have a friendly conversation with Fr. James, an Anglican priest, on the question of how Christ is present in the Eucharist.

How to be and think like a Protestant

Photo by Nikko Tan from Pexels.

Introduction

In the internet circles I frequent, one hears more and more about people converting to Roman Catholicism (or to Eastern Orthodoxy or to another comparable communion) out of some Protestant tradition or other. Indeed, there are very apologetic many resources available on the internet for those interested in (say) the Roman Catholic Church. There are websites like Catholic Answers, blogs like Called to Communion, and YouTube pages like Pints with Aquinas. But I do not think that there are very many resources from Protestant perspectives comparable in influence or popularity. 

(One possible exception is Cameron Bertuzzi’s Capturing Christianity channel, but it is not dedicated specifically to Protestant theology or apologetics. On the other hand, Dr. Gavin Ortlund’s Truth Unites channel is promising, although not yet as big. Dr. Jordan Cooper’s Just and Sinner channel is a bit bigger, but still without the reach of Pints with Aquinas.)

I am not so sure that the case for converting to Catholicism (or to any of the other ecclesial communions mentioned earlier) is objectively as strong as many people take it to be. But it is true that many Protestants find it convincing. I think that is because Protestants tend to think in a fundamentally Roman Catholic way, even if they do not always believe the same things Catholics do. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the various forms of Protestantism arose from within the Roman Catholic intellectual paradigm and developed certain aspects of it. But there will always be a temptation to “come home to Rome,” so to speak, unless Protestants learn not to think like Roman Catholics anymore. One could consider this a part of continuing the project of reforming the ecclesia semper reformanda.

Continue reading “How to be and think like a Protestant”

Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?

Photo by Marcelo Chagas from Pexels.

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.