Sunday, November 06, 2005

God, the Infallible Bible, and Doctrinal Error of Churches: Round Two (vs. Edwin Tait)

See the first round of discussion: On Whether God Could, Would, or Should Protect His Church From Doctrinal Error. Edwin's words will be in green. I now respond to Edwin's counter-response. Edwin's older words will be blue; mine in purple.


I wasn't sure how to respond to your post, because you appeared offended by my interpretations of what you are doing, but I don't know how to see it any differently.

There is a huge difference between being emotionally, or personally "offended" and "intellectually offended by [what one regards as] lousy arguments." The latter is almost always the case with myself in Internet reactions, when my opponent thinks he perceives that I am "offended" or "hurt" or suchlike; not the former. I wish folks would understand this distinction and also my passionate way of arguing things. I think you know me well enough by now, from all our interactions to know the difference. But I suppose you were trying to be "sensitive," which is a good thing, in and of itself.

When I describe the only presuppositions that (as I see it) would make your arguments meaningful, you say that that's a caricature of what you are saying.

Again, you have confused two things: your critique of my argument (flowing from your own premises: the very thing that I was trying to examine), and what my argument actually was. I contended that the way you presented what I was arguing was a caricature. I gave the reasons why. Basically, you exaggerated to the extreme, which is a very common form of caricature. If you read my response to thoughtspot, I think you'll get a much better idea of what I was trying to argue, and my method in doing so. It's often misunderstood, so join the crowd. People are very unused to both analogical argument and the Socratic method. The former is often viewed as irrelevant to the topic at hand, and the latter as an arrogant annoyance. Wouldn't you know, then, that these are two of my favorite ways of rational argument. Just my luck . . .

But since you clearly want to carry on the discussion, here goes.

Of course. I'm far more frustrated by the seeming difficulty of sustaining a worthwhile, enjoyable discussion on the Internet, than by supposed hurts and offenses that people think they see me expressing. Do you think I haven't developed a thick skin after 340 debates? :-) I just want to discuss important issues like this one.

Speaking for myself, I think it's highly presumptuous to make assumptions about why God would do this, that, or the other.

I don't; not when it is a function of His omnipotence, if it is indicated in Scripture as harmonious with what we in fact see Him doing, and when it involves something of high importance to the well-being of souls.

First of all, what I was doing was not merely "making assumptions," but rather, engaging in reasonable, pious speculation, based on what we do know about God from revelation. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that, and without this kind of thought, much of theology proper for those unfamiliar with that term: the theology of God Himself) would be impossible.

I'm not sure what it means for something to be "a function of God's omnipotence." Surely everything not self-contradictory or incompatible with God's nature is a function of God's omnipotence!

In this instance: my proposition that it is altogether reasonable and plausible to suppose that God might protect His Church from doctrinal error, based on the analogy of infallible Scripture. Analogical reasoning moves from a proposition that the opponent accepts (and indeed, in this case, that virtually all serious Christians accept) and compares it to one that he doesn't agree with, forcing him to explain why one thing is accepted, while the other is supposedly "presumptuous" and so forth.

I do not think that preserving the Church from all error is compatible with God's observed actions either in Scripture or in history, no.

Alright; a clear statement. Now let's see why you think this, and if your position can withstand scrutiny. Of course, I assume that you know that when a Catholic speaks of "the infallible Church," he understands it (strictly speaking) as referring to those doctrines and morals which are defined dogmatically; not absolutely everything, and certainly not including the conduct of all Church members throughout history (heaven forbid!).

It is compatible with what we would presume God would do, but not with what it appears He has actually done.

Fair enough. I want to know why you think this way; especially, again, given your high view of Scripture. Why is the Church a fundamentally different entity than the Scripture, in terms of the allowing of error to creep in to a much greater degree, as you seem to believe?

And of course preservation from error would promote the well-being of souls. Preserving all Christians--or at least the leaders of the Church--from gross and scandalous sins would also do so.

That's right. But we know from Scripture and history that God does not - indeed, cannot, given human free will - prevent all moral error in individuals. That is not under dispute. Any sane person would agree. On the other hand, there is such a thing as belief in an infallible Bible, which God did indeed preserve, even though sinful men (cowards, adulterers, and murderers like David and Paul) were involved in the process. The analogy under present consideration (at least as far as I am arguing it) is the following:

1. A doctrinally-infallible or at least nearly-error-free Bible (commonly accepted premise).

2. A doctrinally-infallible Church (proposal based on the analogy of #1).

It is not:

A. A doctrinally-infallible or at least nearly-error-free Bible (commonly accepted premise).

B. The presence of sinners in the Church (however defined) which [supposedly] disproves an infallible Church, itself based on the analogy of an infallible Scripture.

This is mixing apples and oranges. Another way of putting it is to state that Protestants don't seem to think that the presence of human sin and scandal mitigates against an infallible Bible put together by quite sinful, fallible men, so why is it argued or automatically assumed that sinners mitigate against a doctrinally-infallible Church? I don't see that the latter follows logically at all, nor why there is a seeming double standard in how the "sin argument" is applied.

But we know God hasn't done that. Again, I think we should let God decide what is for the well-being of souls instead of trying to figure that out for Him.

I don't see how the method of my reasoning is at all improper. I am simply asking questions about premises: particularly distinctive Protestant ones in relation to distinctively Catholic ones, and why Protestants accept theirs, and why they reject differing non-Protestant premises. It is also basing one thing on the analogy of another (one which is uncontroversial). But you have not yet dealt with that proposal: the heart of my argument. You're the one who has been vigorously defending Protestant principles and premises lately, so obviously I thought you would be willing and able to do so here. You like a good challenge as much as I do, right?

I don't regard it as a species of epistemology at all; rather, it is an exercise in consistency of logic combined with data from revelation that Protestants and Catholics hold in common.

And again, I don't know how to argue with this. It seems clear to me that any argument about how we know the truth is an argument about epistemology.

Not if you are working from a definition of "epistemology" (as I am) which regards it as a species of philosophy. Since not all knowledge is philosophical, there are many ways to arrive at truth which are not philosophical or epistemological. Revelation is one of these. The encounter of the first apostles with the risen Jesus is another. All I was looking for was simple answers to simple questions (about ultimately complex issues). You're making this discussion far more complicated than it has to be. But I reckon that is part of the fun of it, too.

You are uncomfortable with a process of being led into all truth that involves slips and falls and loops and bends.

I am? That is news to me, and more of the caricature of what I believe, and my method (and possibly, by extension, that of Catholics in general), that I alluded to earlier. Possibly (I don't say, for sure) this might get into areas where Catholics are frowned upon as simplistic and overly-idealistic, etc. This is a rather common motif in the Protestant polemic.

I'm sorry if this is a caricature, but I don't know how else to describe what I see throughout your online arguments.

I see, so now we are generalizing beyond the present discussion to "throughout" my "online arguments." So this is becoming a more sweeping critique that I was trying to avoid because it is far too broad of a subject to grapple with. But hey, if you insist on making such a grand critique of my "apologetic method" or whatever you want to call it, that's fine with me, as long as we separate that into another dialogue, and not get off the track of what this was supposed to be about (ecclesiology, per your original post).

In the strict sense I don't see how we are anywhere near anything that could be called a problem of "consistency of logic." Certainly you haven't pointed out a contradiction in what I'm saying, and I have not even tried to point out a contradiction in yours.

Analogical reasoning of the sort that I am using does not involve contradictions per se, but rather, attempted critiques regarding propositions that one should or could also reasonably accept, given what they have already accepted. Or, conversely, it points to the lack of legitimate reasons to reject a proposition which seems to follow analogically from presently-held propositions. You have yet to respond "anywhere near" directly to my central critique. Since it is a simple matter to do so, rather than dance around it on hot potatoes, so to speak, I suspect that you are uncomfortable doing so, because you probably know full well what I am driving at, and you simply don't like the conclusion, so you must dance around it and obfuscate, rather than answer directly.

I'm sorry if this is a caricature or "presumptuous," but I don't know how else to describe what I see throughout your present arguments. I hold out hope that a more direct reply to my questions appears below, since I am answering as I read, per my usual custom.

So I think we do come back to a difference in epistemology. You rely much more closely on what you think are syllogistic, logical arguments. I fail to see the cogency of most of these arguments,

That's fine, but (for the third time now) you're not explaining to me why that is. You are simply asserting and changing the subject, and making sweeping critiques that have no content to them. This doesn't get us anywhere. Certainly you don't think that mere assertion, or (specifically) assertion of undisputed historical realities (that Christians of all stripes are fallible sinners, etc.) , allows anyone to settle disputed issues? If you are that far removed from "philosophical" discourse, or if you misunderstand my methodology to such an extent that we cannot even communicate, then why bother doing this at all?

Why would you, then, bother to write a post referencing my name if you are this cynical about my reasoning abilities and/or methods? Where does the twain meet? My original argument sought to establish a common premise (the acceptance of the Bible as inspired, infallible revelation). That is not a "difference in epistemology'; it is common ground, from which we can begin exploring areas of difference. I should think that would be a positive, uniting thing.

and I think that a much looser method is the only one that properly applies to questions as vast as those we're discussing here (I'm thinking of what William Abraham calls "soft rationalism," to which I've referred previously on this blog).

On what basis do you come to this conclusion? If you want to direct me to an earlier post which deals with this, that would be fine.

Anyway, if we grant that He allows error, how much error, then, do you think He allows?

The error that I see around me as a matter of fact, minus the errors I think I see that aren't, plus the errors I'm committing right now without knowing it!

Good answer! There's certainly enough to go around! :-)

In other words, God permits the error that actually exist.

Ah, but who determines doctrinal error in the first place? You? Me? Thus, the question of orthodoxy and how it is determined is inevitable and crucial. I don't see any way to avoid it.

I think what you are asking is how much error could God theoretically allow without the gates of hell prevailing against the Church.

That's a fair description, though not exhaustive.

And I think that's probably a presumptuous question.

I thoroughly disagree. You have made up your mind that there are certain errors in the Catholic Church which have caused you to pause in your previous slow approach towards possible acceptance of it's claims. You are doing "comparative ecclesiology." Your recent posts (the last six months or so) bear this out. I don't see that my probing questions are of a different classification altogether from what you're doing. If my (I think, quite relevant and proper) questions are "presumptuous", then your speculations are at least equally so.

The only answer I can give is to say that if we were to come to believe in a different Jesus, then that would clearly violate Christ's promise.

So you think that God only protects (in fact) orthodox Christology?

And I would also say that generally speaking even fairly moderate errors never engulf the whole Church. Any Protestant argument that assumes that some vital truth was totally lost for centuries does in fact constitute unbelief in Christ's promise. But it is pretty clear that Christians can get an awful lot wrong on an awfully large scale for an awfully long time.
Yes it is. But that doesn't prove that there is no Church or belief-system that God could have possibly protected from doctrinal and moral error. Existence of error, even error very widespread and continuous in one way or another, doesn't prove that error is absolutely universal. One of the big problems here is that we cannot solve this dispute by recourse to mere philosophy or history. It requires faith: both in terms of a belief that God could and would protect His Church (whatever we deem that to be) from error, per the scriptural promises, and also in the notion that there is such a thing as orthodoxy, which can be authoritatively determined and adhered to. Both things are matters of faith, at bottom, not philosophy or legal-historical reasoning.

I contend that this was the approach of the apostles and the fathers. One can't know what doctrines are in error and which are true without some standard. If the standard becomes "myself," then that is weighed down by a host of rather obvious difficulties, as I think you'd agree (judging from what I've read of your critiques of Protestantism). If it is, rather, some Church or tradition, then one has to argue on other grounds as to why that Church or tradition is chosen over against others. You give reasons as to why you do not think that the Catholic Church should be considered to be the one true Church in the fullest "Catholic" sense, and for why you remain (though a bit tentatively, so it seems) a Protestant. I give reasons for why I think it is in the "fullest" and unique possession of Christian tradition. Yet mine are "presumptuous." Why?

Is it always "presumptuous" to dare to have a belief in an authoritative Church and to not be so fashionably uncertain that we garner respect from many for being "nuanced" and "sophisticated" and so on, because we haven't figured out the answer to the question, and come to believe that no answer can possibly be obtained? If not, then please provide a "non-presumptuous" example of a defense of Catholic ecclesiology (thanks beforehand). Is such skepticism and agnosticism on ecclesiology the default position of Protestantism? I have argued in the past that it comes down to a lack of faith on Protestant's part. You simply don't believe that our distinctive claims are possible or at all reasonable or plausible.

Getting to the reasons for why you think this way is what is fascinating and instructive. In my case, such an examination (which I undertook for a very busy year) led to my conversion. Perhaps, then, such eventualities in some cases provide a bit of a disincentive to undertake such a study of comparative ecclesiology. :-)

I can't be more specific than this, because from my perspective that would be to bind God down to my expectations.

It's remarkable to me how this seems to be the result of probing questions of your position: quickly it becomes a scenario of not being able to proceed, lest it is "binding God" and presumptuous. I find this very curious and a bit counter to the spirit of intellectual inquiry (for lack of a better description at the moment). Yet you wrote a very lengthy post on ecclesiology which I plan on responding to next. Presumably it contains a great deal of thought (as your posts always do) which is "non-presumptuous." I look forward to seeing what you argue there.

You give a nod to the Holy Spirit's guidance below, so you think it goes a certain distance and then we are on our own?

We are never on our own. But it seems clear that God prefers to allow us an astonishing degree of freedom--far more than most of us would do if we were God! And often that means freedom to mess up. God prevents us from falling into error when such an error would completely distort the nature of the Christian Faith. I don't think any of us are in a position to make very specific statements about just how that works.

You already did above. You claimed (or strongly implied, at least) that Christology would be an example of something that God protected. Yet I don't see that the Bible (particularly how St. Paul seems to approach dogma and tradition) gives us any indication that so much of the content of the Christian religion would be subjected to error, with a resulting inability of the common man (not historians and apologists like you and I) to determine what is true and what isn't. I think what we have, rather, is a post facto bolstering of the inherent skeptical, counter-traditional elements within Protestantism. Denominationalism has so greatly increased the necessary existence of error (every denominational contradiction proves that), that it has to now be justified, and rationales must be given for it, in order for any Protestant to maintain his adherence to the overall belief-system. This is a very fundamental issue.

That wasn't the view at the Council of Jerusalem (nor St. Paul's). Everything was quite certain then, and "seemed good to the Hoy Spirit and us."

I see no reason to discount the idea that the apostolic age saw clearer and less ambiguous guidance from the Spirit than later ages, precisely so that the rest of us would have a fixed standard to appeal to.

If you place that "standard" in the Bible that they passed down to us, that same Bible discusses Church and tradition and apostolic succession and dogma, so that there is no way to avoid coming round to the same issue: what is it that God intended to be the case vis-a-vis Church authority, the binding nature of Church and tradition and various doctrines (as summarized, e.g., in the Nicene Creed), and how individuals determine where Christian truth (in all particulars) lies?

But as a matter of fact the rest of the New Testament shows that even the Council of Jerusalem's decision wasn't as clear and final as you're implying. Paul does not seem to have taught his gentile converts that they could not eat food offered to idols in any circumstances--his discussion of the issue in 1 Corinthians lacks any reference to the Council of Jerusalem which had occurred just a few years previously. If you read Acts 15 in the light of 1 Cor. 8, it appears clear that Paul would think that the elders at Jerusalem were "weak," or at best were making provision for the "weak" but making such a course binding on all Gentile Christians in all circumstances, which Paul is clearly not doing. (I'm sure you can reconcile the two by saying that the Council was condemning such eating where it implied participation in idol worship, but that isn't what the text in Acts most naturally implies given the association with the eating of strangled animals.)

Interesting and worthy reply. I'll have to pass for the time being on that because that would take us far from the initial discussion and divert energies to a lengthy study of what was going on there.

But that is before the days that denominations and division had to be rationalized as somehow remotely sanctioned by Holy Scripture.

I don't think divisions are sanctioned by Scripture.

Good; yet your ultimately skeptical epistemology (like initial Protestant ecclesiology) makes denominations inevitable, so you inadvertently promote that which you agree is contrary to the New Testament.

Denominations are such diverse phenomena and so completely outside the paradigm of the NT writers (as are "sui juris churches," the Catholic equivalent) that I wouldn't know how to address such a question. I read the NT in the light of the early Fathers and therefore believe that "one bishop, one church" is at the very least an ideal for which we should strive. But the existence of sui juris churches within Catholicism violates this no less than the existence of Protestant denominations does. (I'm not claiming that Catholic sui juris churches are exact equivalents--how close an equivalent depends on which relationships among which denominations we're talking about. In other words, sui juris churches are not the proper parallel for the relationship between ECUSA and the SBC, but they might parallel the relationship between ECUSA and ELCA or between the ACA and the REC).

So all this amounts to your rejection of the notion that one institutional Church exists which can be clearly identified and adhered to. The result of that skepticism is the adoption of the classically Protestant (non-biblical, non-patristic) notions of either an invisible church or (if there is any distinction) a "church" that is made up of a patchwork quilt of the sum totals of the arrivals at truth of individual groups on individual questions, all (ultimately) arbitrarily determined by individuals who are profoundly influenced by the particular group they happen to be involved in (usually by a non-rational choice: family background, ethnicity, national identity, etc.).

However, the idea that we have in some manner declined from the days of the apostles is an old one in Christianity. It's certainly not patently absurd, however much we might want to nuance it by rejecting an idealization of the apostolic era.

I think our task is to conform ourselves to both Scripture and the early apostolic ideals in practice that seem far more in conformity to Scripture than present-day Protestantism.

Nice attempt at absurdly exaggerating my argument and trying to create a straw man.

This is the part I didn't know how to respond to, because I don't think it's a straw man at all. I'll try to show why, giving you that "logical consistency" you're looking for!

I was specifically referring to your statement: "Epistemology has taken on such a dominant role in modern (i.e., postmedieval) thought that it's easy for us to assume that uncertainty about doctrine is the worst of all evils. But I think that's a very hard position to defend."

I don't believe this at all; therefore, it is a caricature of my position. Case closed. It's very simple. I think I'm the world's greatest authority on my own beliefs, and can speak for them with a high degree of assurance. So it is rather silly for you to deny that you have caricatured my belief after I have plainly informed you that you have in fact done so. If you had told me that about one of your beliefs, I would ask clarification and correct the mistake on the spot if needs be, rather than keep fighting on, insisting that I know your belief-system and method better than you do yourself.

In your view God cannot allow even the smallest error in defined dogma,

"Cannot" is not the proper word. God was under no necessity to do this. Catholics argue that He does not allow it, and we believe this in faith, with the backing of reasoned examination of the actual doctrines. including biblical arguments for same (which is my apologetic specialty).

but God can and clearly has allowed the Church (as a visible, earthly institution--i.e., Popes and bishops and priests and others outwardly identified with the Church) to commit horrible moral evils.

As explained above, it cannot be otherwise, if one grants that God allows us free will and freedom of contrary choice (to His will); therefore these things are inevitable. He can't control human beings like puppets, but it is easy to conceive how He could protect doctrine, because He has already done so in the Bible. And we see plenty of examples of sinners in the Bible, but we don't see there this widespread Protestant assumption of an invisible church or de facto doctrinal relativism, or ecclesiological anarchy.

I originally tried to pick examples, but I'll avoid that because we could argue about the applicability of the examples. But I'm happy to give you examples if you want them!

Examples don't affect the fact that this is a disanalogy and a non sequitur.

If God allows (A) horrendous moral evils but not (B) doctrinal errors even on relatively minor points ("relatively" compared to the Trinity or the Incarnation), it therefore follows that

1. B is a greater evil than A, or

2. God allows greater evils but does not allow lesser ones.

God allows (but doesn't will) all sorts of evil; this isn't being disputed (I've always thought that the Problem of Evil was the most serious, substantive objection to Christianity). Doctrines have no "free will" to dissent; they are simply true descriptions of metaphysical theological realities. The conclusions above don't work because you have insufficiently considered the differing premises involved. God chose to allow free will; therefore, the evil from sinful behavior as a result of that "decree" of God is absolutely unavoidable, even by an omnipotent God, because it follows necessarily (i.e., post-Fall, and given the resulting original sin and concupiscence) from something He allowed to happen. It doesn't follow, however, that the sins of man are less great than doctrinal errors. It is an invalid comparison from the get-go.

If B is a greater evil than A, it follows either that

3. There is a third thing greater than either doctrinal error or hideous moral evil, or

4. Doctrinal error is the greatest of all evils.

The conclusion doesn't follow because of the flawed premise, as explained. You still haven't explained where a doctrinally-pure Bible enters into this, because that is the fact that we agree on, and the basis of my analogy, which cuts through all the invalid speculation, such as yours above, which purports to be a reductio of mine, but which is, in fact, not one, because it is far too simplistic.

The only way you can escape this argument is to adhere to proposition 2.

God allows all kinds of evils, since most result from rebellious man. He cannot prevent that on any "grand scale" because He has allowed free human will. The one thing flows from the other. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise to make a man perfect. He says "Be ye perfect like your heavenly father," but note, that is a command, not a promise, and we have to respond (with the aid of His grace). But He has made many promises about His Word and doctrine, and truth. If one believes those, then one must believe in some sort of content of how that applies to concrete reality. They mean something. You know how I apply them; I am challenging you to provide us with a better application than the Catholic one.

That would mean that your belief that God allows A but not B is totally unrelated to the relative gravity of A and B.


In which case you need to show that there is some other a priori reason why God cannot be supposed to allow B,

It is not a matter of a priori reasoning (which is much more on your side), but of the fact of the Bible, preserved from error, even though written and compiled and canonized by fallible, sinful men. The proposal of the infallible Church flows from that as a direct analogy, and also (I would maintain) from several indications in that same infallible Bible. So it is simultaneously a biblical and analogical argument, but it doesn't involve a priori assumptions about what God would or wouldn't do (hence is not "presumptuous," as you claim), because it is based on something He both promised and did (the Bible).

or else you need to provide actual evidence that God has not allowed B

That becomes the excruciating, case-by-case basis, built upon prior presuppositions about orthodoxy, that is extremely difficult to do. But I try to do it over time, as I defend Catholic doctrines from the Bible, reason, and history. I just did that with regard to the perpetual virginity of Mary. But that's the historical argument. There is still the biblical argument (He promised it; therefore He did it, and it remains to be determined which church is this protected one), and the related analogical argument.

or has promised that He would not (and such a promise cannot be a general promise such as "the gates of hell will not prevail," or we are back to proposition 1!).
Well, like I said, one has to interpret the verses we have briefly discussed in some fashion.

First, while Christians have historically had a "high" view of Scripture, many Christians have also admitted that Scripture is not the sort of book they would inspire if they were God (particularly with regard to style). This makes me very grateful that they (Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Erasmus, etc.) are not God and God is!

This may simply be a roundabout way of saying that God always surprises us, and that truth comes as a strange thing at first - not the way "we" would have supposed.

As, I should add, were these pious theologians (grateful for not being God, I mean). The point is that we have to learn from the actual text of Scripture what a divinely inspired text looks like. If we start with preconceptions about what a DIT ought to be, we will probably not arrive at Scripture.

I agree.

I'm enough of a "liberal" to think that modern historical method has further shaken up our conception of what an inspired text must be. I don't see this as a radical break with the Tradition (I hasten to add that I reject the more radical conclusions of much historical criticism, which in fact goes far beyond normal good historical method and embraces an almost pathological skepticism), but simply as a further development of what Christians have always confessed: God's revelation is surprising. It challenges our preconceptions rather than confirming them. It uses instruments that by our standards are rough and imperfect, precisely to show us how warped our standards are. So I don't think your Biblical analogy works in your favor even if we grant its validity.

No particular response at the moment, so I won't try to make one.

But in the second place, I think the early Christians would be rather shocked by your question: "Why should doctrine or creeds be any different?" Please note that I'm not arguing that "the Fathers believed in sola scriptura" (whatever sola scriptura is). I know that they believed Tradition was authoritative, and at times they could speak as if there were no real distinction between extra-Scriptural Tradition and Scripture (Chrysostom says in commenting on 2 Thess. 2:15: "It is tradition; seek no further"). But there is a pretty strong consensus among the fourth-century Fathers (Athanasius and Augustine being the two principal examples that come to mind) that Scripture was on a completely different level than any kind of creed or council or non-Scriptural tradition. Not that these other things were not authoritative, but that they were subsidiary to divine revelation in Scripture. At the very least, this is a strong tradition among the Fathers, even if it's not unanimous (I don't think Chrysostom's quote actually disagrees with this, but I don't want to argue the point here).

Since we're talking about authority and how to determine the true tradition, I don't think these fathers would disagree with how I have argued it. But I think they would disagree with plenty of your semi-"liberal" (your self-descriptive term, not mine!) skepticism about the existence of a binding, authoritative Church.

So first of all I don't think Scripture is free from ambiguity and conflict and even, if seen from a certain perspective (though not that of God's purpose in inspiring it), imperfection.

This would then allow you to explain away the relevant verses, then, wouldn't it? A "loophole" big enough for a truck to drive through . . . My analogy presupposes a very high view of Scripture held by both parties. If you don't hold to that, then it would be ineffective, and I could see how you wouldn't be moved or troubled by it at all. I assumed we wouldn't have to argue about the Bible, but perhaps (sadly) I assumed too much.

And furthermore I completely reject the claim that non-Scriptural teachings should be expected to have the same kind of perfection Scripture does.

So do I (in a certain sense), so we needn't argue over that. But if infallibility itself can be shown to be a biblical teaching (as I believe it can be), then this is a moot point, since we would be arguing about one teaching of Scripture.

That is why the Church recognized Scripture as Scripture--to say that certain books are Scripture is to recognize in them a unique kind and degree of divine inspiration.


I don't see this as epistemology; rather it is a matter of trust in God and acceptance of what seems fairly obvious (at least to me) in Scripture;

And that's exactly what we'd like to see in Scripture. It certainly doesn't seem obvious to us.

what I see in the Bible seems perfectly harmonious with an authoritative Church, preserved from error.

No doubt it is. The question I'm interested in is whether the Biblical revelation is compatible with a Church that slips and falls and messes up and is divided along the way to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb at which all disunity and all impurity will be swallowed up for ever.

It is compatible with the moral shortcomings of its members because it has always been that way (the Galatians, the Corinthians, the seven churches of Revelation, etc.). We know that. As for "divided," that is a question which has to be judged within a framework of whether one holds to an institutional Church or not. If there is one proper Church, set up by Jesus and the apostles, and historically continuous, then it seems clear to me (even if sub-infallible) that one is bound to belong to it. And those groups which have separated themselves due to dissent on various issues, cannot be logically considered a part of this Church, in an institutional way. They are connected, however, insofar as they share many beliefs of the Church from which they broke away, and by baptism, etc.

It seems to me that it is--that indeed it's more compatible with such a picture than with your ecclesiology. But that latter point is not what I'm concerned to argue. At face value, the reality that confronts me appears to be that of an imperfect and divided Church.

But if your analysis is flawed at the presuppositional level, then that would change everything. This is what I am trying to show. To you it seems so. Surely, however, you don't claim that nothing could possibly persuade you otherwise, right?

To believe that this is not the case I need strong evidence, not simply evidence showing that the Biblical revelation is also compatible with an authoritative Church preserved from error and disunity.

I would appeal to the cumulative evidence that both Catholic apologetics and historical inquiry has brought to bear on these issues.

Who said it was easy? So do you believe this or not? If you do, then what is the immediate a priori objection to the Catholic conception?

I don't have an a priori objection. I have an a posteriori objection, based on the reality that confronts me.

But that "reality" is filtered through a lens conditioned by your premises, which are not unquestionable.

I would need a very strong a priori argument to overcome the evidence of my senses and convince me to accept what seems like some rather convoluted pieces of special pleading (i.e., the Catholic explanations for how Christians can be divided without the Church being divided, or how "members of the Church" can be sinful but the Church be perfectly holy, etc.).

A long process indeed! Hopefully, I've made a start here. How far we go with this depends on how important and worth pursuing you think the question is. Given your negative appraisal of my own apologetics in certain remarks above, I don't expect that you and I will get very far. That's fine. I never expected everyone to like either the style or content of my own apologetics. It would be rather foolish and arrogant for anyone to think that. But I would suggest that if you are truly seeking an answer from Catholics that gives you pause, that you look for it among apologists and other Catholic spiritual and theological writers, not among anyone you can find to dispute with on discussion boards, as you have been doing for years. Forget my feeble lay arguments if you want, and go seek a possible resolution to whatever difficulties you see in this area from the great Catholic writers.

For my part, if you keep writing interesting, thought-provoking papers, I will probably respond to them, whether or not you want to pursue the discussion further, with myself or anyone else, because I love that method of working through the issues, and I think it provides great food for thought for those on both sides of any given dispute.

It seems to me that most converts become Catholic because they are convinced by such an a priori argument, and this argument is epistemological in nature insofar as it concerns the question of how we can be certain of truth in a world full of conflicting claims to authority. That is what I mean when I engage in these "caricatures."

My conversion story is online in three versions. If you want to critique mine in particular, you are most welcome to.

One comment on the "infinite infallible regress" argument. If used as you describe, it is indeed silly. But in my experience it's usually used as a response to the Catholic claim that if you don't have infallible authority you are prey to "private judgment." In that context the argument is a perfectly legitimate reductio ad absurdum.

In other words, of course it's silly. That's the point. It shows how silly it is to think that the only solid basis for a religious belief is infallible authority.

Negatory. The argument fails, however it is presented, as I've shown many times (initially with Eric Svendsen back in 1996; later notably with Tim Enloe (I'd have to look hard to find it; in our many dozens of exchanges). In a nutshell, it reduces the Christian faith to philosophy and leaves no place for faith (strange, coming from a Protestant; hence I could be forgiven if I regard this "reply" as a desperate counter-reply). Secondly, it makes a mockery of patristic method and how the fathers regarded authority. I don't mind if Protestants wish to mock Catholics in such a foolish way, as long as they consistently apply their skeptical disdain to the fathers, from whom they claim to be legatees in some unique fashion. But of course this is rarely done because the pretense has to be kept up that Protestantism is a "reform" of primal, patristic, pristine Christian teaching.

This was how Cardinal Newman profoundly affected me. He blew this "Protestant myth of origins" out of the water and that was the end of my Protestant existence, because I valued history and legitimate Christian tradition too much (even as a Protestant) to so easily discount it when confronted with massive amounts of it that conformed far more to a Catholic than to a Protestant model.

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