Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Infallible Pronouncements Based On Possible fallible Proofs: The Folly Of Rome's Claim For Certainty

I began a CARM discussion based on my previous blog entry. In that entry, I pointed out that the certainty Roman Catholics have is not in the text of Scripture, but in the doctrines infallibly declared by the Roman Catholic Church. My understanding is that the Roman Catholic Church says that a doctrine can be defined, but the scriptural proofs used to support it utilized by the Church’s theologians might not actually support it. In other words, one can have certainty for a doctrine, but not have certainty in the scriptural proof texts for that doctrine. The infallibleness is in the decree, not in the reasoning to that decree.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states,

“…the validity of the Divine guarantee is independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result. It is the definitive result itself, and it alone, that is guaranteed to be infallible, not the preliminary stages by which it is reached.”

Also note this statement from Roman Catholic theologian, Johann Mohler:

Catholic theologians teach with general concurrence, and quite in the spirit of the Church, that even a Scriptural proof in favour of a decree held to be infallible, is not itself infallible, but only the dogma as defined.” [Source: Johann Adam Mohler, Symbolism: Exposition of the doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants as evidenced by their Symbolic Writings, trans James Burton Robertson (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1997), p.296. I cited this quote from David T. King, Holy Scripture: The Ground And Pillar Of Our Faith Volume 1 (WA: Christian Resources Inc, 2001), 224].

Most of the Catholic responses in the CARM thread were rabbit trails. Only one response so far, has attempted to delve into this issue. A response from “STJ” said:

I would like to comment on your opener from an oblique angle. Every criticism that you might wish to raise against an infallibly defined doctrine or the idea of infallibility faces difficulty for your position. Every on fire protestant that I know claims to speak infallibly although they deny it. When one claims with certainty the doctrines of "sola scriptura" and "sola fide" they are operating as if these are infallibly defined. The scriptural planks underlying these two non-Catholic doctrines are subject to the same criticisms that you level against the Catholic Church in how she arrives at an infallible doctrine. There exists substantial dispute as to whether or not scripture supports these two vital planks of Protestantism.

Protestants agree with Catholics and for the most part rightly proclaim the Trinity. They do this as if the Trinity is infallibly defined and are rightly horrified at JW's and Mormons for denying it. If this doctrine has no doubt or question about it and if denying it is truly heretical then it must have been infallibly defined. If not it was simply arrived at by consensus. Consensus is not how such doctrines are defined and scripture does not make such things perfectly clear. JW's, Mormons, and others that use the Christian scriptures are proof that doctrines are not arrived at by consensus. Moreover, the pluralistic views of Protestants are also evidence that doctrinal protections and definitions are not achieved by consensus.”

I find these comments an exercise in evasiveness. What is the defense of a dogmatic infallible conclusion substantiated by possible fallible logic? I’ve been reading and hearing for years about the “certainty” that Roman Catholics have, yet when scrutinized, it really boils down to nothing more than a façade. One should be willing to take a very close look at one’s beliefs before diverting the discussion another way. In other words, before evaluating my beliefs, defend yours.

How is it possible to have certain conclusions with uncertain facts substantiating the conclusion? Why do you accept this? Did you use your own private judgment to determine that conclusions can be infallible while the proofs don't need to be? Or do you have an infallible ability to determine this? How is it you are able to use your fallible judgment and determine that Rome is true, while I’m in error for placing my fallible judgment in the words of Scripture?

The fallible/infallible game goes on and on in discussions like this. Ultimately, Catholics have to admit they use fallible judgment all the time, and do so especially when they place their faith in the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, you can't on any reasonable ground criticize protestants by using a paradigm of fallible/infallible, when Catholics, unless they claim to be Pope and have the gift of infallibility, also use their own private judgment in determining truth.

What divides us is this: Catholics have decided to trust in Jesus according to Rome, I have decided to trust in Jesus according to the Bible. Recall, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus continually challenged the Jews to reexamine their beliefs and traditions by examining the Scriptures. He says often, “Have you not read…” Recall John's words about his Gospel: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." Are John's words so confusing that they can't be understood? Do I need an infallible pronouncement on this verse to explain it to me?


mark_5 said...

well said.

EA said...

Excellent post and I quite agree.

The irony of this explanation from the Catholic Encyclopedia and Mr. Mohler is that neither of those sources are 'protected' by the charism of infallibility. So we are left with the prospect of having to take the word of fallible spokesmen as the guarantors that this is true. The Magesterium, to my knowledge, has never promulgated this as an Infallible teaching. Further, Vatican II has gone so far as to instruct that even those teachings which do not 'enjoy' the protection of infallibility, are to be assented to:

“This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention…” (Lumen Gentium 25).

One must wonder what differentiates an infallible from fallible declaration other than the phrase ex cathedra? And if all teachings are to be assented to regardless of the validity of the reasoning used to reach a conclusion, why offer any supporting argument at all?

Churchmouse said...

Hi Jim,

Recently, I was in a discussion similar to yours, where the crux of the Catholic argument was to criticize the "hundreds of thousands" Protestant denominations who "determine their own truths through their own 'infallibility'."
I've always thought that to be an evasive argument, considering it implies that Rome has "that" truth and we are without excuse for not seeing this. Yet, when you question a Catholic about how they know if they are correct in accepting Rome's position as "truth", they refuse to acknowledge that they are no different then non-Catholics. They too can be accused of accepting Rome through their own infallibility. The truth is we are all fallible beings and they fair no better in arguing polemics, when they too can be held to the same standards. I used that very same verse (John 20:31) to point out the purpose for John's writings and how it implies that we can find Christ and eternal life within the contents of John's Gospel alone. How much more can we find it within the bindings of the New Testament. It's a very simple concept to understand. Yet, we are looked upon like we have frogs coming out of our ears.


James Swan said...

Here was a great response from a CARM poster named "Joey Henry:-

" think we have to refocus on what James is actually pointing out in his OP. James is not involving the epistomological basis of all things. He is rather pointing out how epistomological systems employed by Rome can be investigated by fallible humans without being illogical.

James is pointing out that when the Roman Magisterium actually pronounces a dogma, the supporting evidences for the truthfulness of the dogma might not exist in Scripture, yet the dogma can still be accepted as infallible because Rome is infallible. It is the dogma itself that is infallible because Rome is infallible.

Here is the circularity of the epistomological system. Rome defines a dogma and anathemizes anyone who disagrees with her. When an inquirer will ask what are the evidences for truthfulness of a dogma, Rome will provide evidences or not. When an inquirer finds the evidences contrary or even not supporting Rome's conclusion, Rome will refer you to her infallibility and inquirer's fallibility. In other words, you can not examine the truthfulness of a certain dogma without first accepting that it is infallible. Rome gives the dogma and Rome is the evidence of the dogma.

The protestant do not have this kind of epistomological system. When a protestant inquires of the truthfulness of a certain doctrine, no church organization is going to tell him that it is correct because they said so or because they are infallible. One has to labor to show from Scripture the evidences for and against the doctrine. The inquirer is actually admonished to test the doctrine and scrutinize the evidence and if found wanting should not accept it. The assemblies holding to a particular doctrine can actually be subjected into heavy biblical criticism knowing full well that they are not infallible and is subject to the continuing reformational power of Scripture. In the end, the inquirer who believes in, for example, the diety of Christ believes it because he is convinced and have examined Scripture not because he is forced to accept his church organization could never go wrong."


Apolonio said...


You said, "The protestant do not have this kind of epistomological system." Which Protestant are you talking about? Alston? Frame? Are all circularity vicious in your account? What about the doctrine that "The Scriptures are the Word of God"?

As for Rome being circular, I already responded to this. Let me re-post it again.

First, suppose that she is circular. Does this make her belief vicious and therefore not justified? No. Epistemic circularity may not be vicious (see Bill Alston's old view (I don't know whether he changed this)). Second, it may be that Sally is reading Matthew 16:18 and forms the belief the Rome is true. And suppose that her cognitive faculties functions in such a way that when it is in an environment where she is reading Matthew 16, she forms the belief that the papacy is true (the Holy Spirit moved her to believe this). So that reading is the ground which she acquired the belief that Rome is true. It may very well be a properly basic belief, that is, a non-inferential belief that is justified. So if it's basic, then she does not need to produce a belief [ed. evidence]. This may work if your epistemology is externalist and foundationalist (Alvin Plantinga). Third, suppose Sally is an atheist who is considering Christianity. She comes in to the Christian system or world view (to speak in a neo-Wittgenstein way) and sees that when she looks at it from the historical point of view, she looks at the New Testament (which she does not yet believe it is inspired), the first century documents and even gnostic texts, and the Church Fathers, she concludes that they all point to Rome. That is, when she reads history, she sees that if there is one Church, that Church is the Catholic Church. This may very well be accepted if one is a coherentist. So from a coherentist point of view, there is no circularity.

James Swan said...


You said, "The protestant do not have this kind of epistomological system."

Actually, this was not my comment.

Apolonio said...

I apologize. Would you agree with the arguments presented?

Anonymous said...

Hi Apolonio,

I am JoeyHenry. Thanks for your response.

Again, in my perspective James do not attack the epistomology of all things.

The main point, in my opinion, is that when a person accepts the infallibility of Rome in defining a dogma, he or she is left with a circular reasoning for accepting the truthfulness of what she says.

We do not begin with the question on whether or not Rome is infallible. Rather, the person is already convinced with that premise. Now the issue revolves on how he/she will reason to himself as well as to others in presenting a logical flow for accepting that a certain dogma is true or not.

And I as an observer can see that in finality, no relevant evidence is necessary or can be investigated in this kind of epistomological system espoused by an RC. The person will believe the dogma because Rome said so (even if the evidence is wanting or even contrary to his/her investigation). There is a de facto conclusion that "That the person inquiring is always wrong and Rome is always right".

This might not be representative of the whole argument but I think this two rules summarizes the epistomology of a person who already accepts Magisterial infallibility (whether he be a Mormon, JW, or an RC):

1. The Magisterium is always right.
2. If the Magisterium is wrong, refer to rule number 1

The protestant do not have this kind of luxury of assumed infallibility over the leadership of local assemblies. The protestant view is that even the leadership can be subjected to heavy biblical criticism and the leadership do not shy away from the demands of solid biblical evidence. That is why, a doctrine espoused by local assembly is accepted by its members not because the leadership of such local assembly claimed infallibility but because the inquirer have took the responsibility to study the Scripture and scrutinize the doctrines and subject their conscience to Scriptural evidence presented and investigated.

I hope this clarifies what I want to refocus on the discussion. I will leave to the reader which course of road he/she will take on this matter.

James Swan said...

Thanks Joey.


Apolonio said...


Let me respond to some points. You said,

"The main point, in my opinion, is that when a person accepts the infallibility of Rome in defining a dogma, he or she is left with a circular reasoning for accepting the truthfulness of what she says."

First, this assumes that circular reasoning is always vicious. Can you show that this is vicious? Second, take the example of Sally the atheist I have given above. She accepts the infallibility of Rome and when Rome defines a dogma, she accepts it. I don't see the circularity here. If a person is already in the "Roman" doxastic practice, does this make her unjustified or irrational for her beliefs (see Alston on doxastic practice).

Now let me reply to your "rules." (1) is a worded inaccurately so I will restate it as:

(1) When the Magisterium defines a certain doctrine, she is infallible and therefore cannot err.

Now, if (1) is true, then the antecedent "if the Magisterium is wrong when she defined..." is necessarily wrong. This does not mean, however, that your statement that "no relevant evidence is necessary or can be investigated in this kind of epistomological system espoused by an RC" is true. Suppose the Magisterium defined:

(2) God raised Jesus from the dead.

If (1) is true and the Catholic believes (2) because of (1) it does not follow that there cannot be evidence investigated to support (2). If (1) is true, then (2) must be true. Why should a person be critical of (2) if she beliefs in (1)? Billy cannot use (2) to refute (1) if (1) is true. So the issue is (1). Now, as I have already shown, (1) need not be circular and if it is circular it may not be vicious.

You said,

"The protestant view is that even the leadership can be subjected to heavy biblical criticism and the leadership do not shy away from the demands of solid biblical evidence."

Well, even the Christians in the first century did not subject the apostles to "heavy biblical criticism." And if that office of the apostles is passed on to another (therefore pope and bishop), then it shows that we cannot subject the magisterium when she defines a dogma.

Here is an analogous case. You believe in inerrancy. Suppose you hold

(3) The Bible is inerrant in historical matters.

Billy then says, "There was no flood" or "There was no cana miracle." He argues that there is no evidence and John had great reason to make it up. Do I then have to conclude that you follow the rule:

(4) If the Bible is wrong, then refer to (3)?

Of course not. We are all subjected to truth right? So does that mean that we have to be "critical" of the Bible as the Jesus Seminar is? Of course not. I don't see why the Christian is not justified by rejecting some critical tools of modern biblical scholarship. Does that mean that there is circularity here? No. You may very well believe (3) because of a particular reason.

JoeyHenry said...

Hi Apolonio,

This might be my last response since I don't have the luxury of time.

I appreciate your response.

First of all, I want you to know that I respect your choice for following Rome. If you are comfortable with that choice and if you are comfortable in finding the certainty of your beliefs by believing Rome is infallible then that is fine. We will all face the consequences of our choices and we are responsible for it.

Secondly, as I often repeated, we are not talking about the epistomology of all things. We are instead looking at the epistomology of a person who is convinced of Magisterial Infallibility (MI). How will he reason to himself and to others why he believes the truthfulness of a certain dogma?

The ultimate reason is that "The Magisterium said so". The evidences offerred by the Magisterium is irrelevant in this kind of epistomology. The Magisterium defines the dogma and the Magisterium defines the evidence of that dogma. The only recourse is to have a kind of circular reasoning (in my own opinion, this kind of circular reasoning is illogical because it removes the relevance of evidences to arrive at a conclusion).

From the perspective of the inquirer, I have observe that the 2 rules I have presented is often times used:

1. The Magisterium is always right.
2. If the Magisterium is wrong, refer to rule no. 1.

For example, an RC want to find out that the truthfulness of the Bodily Assumption of Mary. The inquirer will of course receive some evidences offered by Rome. But if these evidences is wanting, or does not convince the inquirer upon his investigation... he will still accept its truthfulness not on the basis of his acceptance of the evidence offerred but on the basis that Rome is infallible. His conscience is not bound by the evidence investigated but by his presupposition that Rome is infallible and he is not.

For a person whose epistomology is bound by the principle of Sola Scriptura, a doctrine presented must be evidenced by solid biblical proof. We are bound to accept a doctrine not because we believe that the one offering the doctrine is infallible but because we have investigated and are convinced that the biblical evidence is strong. For us, the biblical evidence is relevant and can be investigated. The main difference in our epistomology is that the giver of the doctrine (perhaps the leadership of a local assembly) is not the final arbiter of truth. Such leadership should be responsible to offer a solid biblical evidence of the doctrines presented. The inquirer is actually invited to investigate the evidence and is encourage to make his conscience bound by the strength of biblical evidence not on the assumed role/power of the leadership.

Now it is up to the reader to choose which road he would take. But at least, at this point, the ones who chose the road of Magisterial Infallibility (MI) can not make a boastful claim that they are more sure of the truthfulness of what they believe as against those who do not follow that road. Roman Catholics can not claim that their way knowing what is true or not is more secure than that of the protestant. Simply because, those who follow the road of MI begins with a fallible personal choice to believe that the "Magisterium is Infallible". How do you infallibly know that the Magisterium is infallible in the first place?

I do think that the main purpose of this blog is to show that if you are a person who is encouraged to join Rome or the Mormons or the JWs because if you join there, you will have an awesome certainty of what you believe because they claim to be infallible, think again! In my own perspective, once you go through that road, you will be trapped in a cycle that, for me, gives you a sense of security but a false security.

God bless on your choices Apolonio. I know you are zealous on your faith as I am. Thank you for presenting your points. I pray that even in our differences, we will put in mind the centrality of the reason why we engage in this type of discussion. That is -- to honor and have allegiance not to our reputation or churches but to Jesus Christ alone.



Apolonio said...


Let me reply briefly.

First, for a Catholic, the Magisterium defines the dogma but the magisterium may not define the evidence. This does not take away the infallibility of a dogma. God can allow the magisterium to err on the evidence but be infallible on her definition. For example,

(1) All men are bad
(2) Men are cool
(3) The Magisterium defines "All men are mortal."

Catholics believe that the definition cannot err. So the definition by that example is true and cannot err although the reasoning may be wrong; the reasoning is invalid. Of course a Catholic has the presupposition that what the Magisterium defines is true. The evidences may be wanting in this case, but since if it is true that what the Magisterium defines is true, then he should not withhold (3). This is not circular because he may have another reason for the belief that what the Magisterium defines is true. So if we apply that case to the Assumption. there is no reason for a Catholic, if he is convinced and justified about the nature of the magisterium, to withhold the dogma because the evidence is "wanting."

As for the epistemology of Protestants, that seems to be too much of an evidentialist point of view which is dangerous. We Catholics try to be a bit more humble, that sometimes we cannot offer proof but because Christ commands us to obey His Church, we obey. Why do we reject in vitro? Sometimes, we just have to obey. We don't fully rely on our reasoning because we know that we can err and that can lead to pride. Even the devil is intelligent and can use reason. But he did not obey and did not serve. For us Catholics, even when things get tough, even when our lives don't make sense because of our struggles or sufferings, we simply know that there is a reason and if we have faith and trust in God, there will be joy in the end.

May all of us open our hearts to Christ no matter what risk, what sacrifices, we have to make.