How do we know the Church and the scriptures are infallible?

I was recently grilling a Protestant on his blog regarding the basis of the doctrine of sola scriptura (see the post titled “Sola Scriptura and Tradition” on the blog Theo-Drama). He responded by drawing a comparison between sola scriptura and the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Church.

To him sola scriptura means that “scripture is the only source of authority that is both infallible and unchangeable (emphasis in original). A nice, clear definition.

My question to him was whether we can know infallibly that the scriptures are infallible; or in other words, do we have it from an infallible source? Since sola scriptura means that the scriptures are the only infallible source, then obviously the infallible source for sola scriptura can only be the scriptures themselves. But isn’t it circular to argue that we believe the scriptures are infallible because they say they’re infallible?

Even granting that that can be a valid argument for sola scriptura, there is also the question of whether any scripture passage can be said to teach the infallibility of the Bible – that is, the 66 books of the Protestant Bible in particular. I grant that verses may be found which refer to “the scriptures” as God’s word, and God’s word is, of course, infallible. But none which state which books are, in fact, scripture.

So in the end it seems clear, on the premise that no other infallible source exists, that sola scriptura does not come from an infallible source.

Note that that is my only conclusion thus far:  That we have no infallible source which defines the only infallible source. I’m not arguing that we have no way of knowing what the canon consists of. Perhaps it can be figured out in other ways. But by the terms of sola scriptura, those ways can’t be infallible.

He counter-argued that in terms of circularity, the Catholic is in the same position as the Protestant, since both believe a source to be infallible, based solely on the word of that source itself. By this he means that the Catholic believes in the infalliblity of the Church, based on the word of the Church. He stopped short of admitting outright that the Protestant is reasoning circularly, but implied that if the Protestant’s reasoning is circular, then so is the Catholic’s.

But even granting the premise that the Catholic believes in the infallibility of the Church based solely on the Church’s own word, the Catholic is not, in fact, in the same position as the Protestant. The difference is that the Church, in naming itself infallible, identifies that which is infallible. The Church leaves no doubt what the infallible Church consists of. Whereas the Protestant Bible leaves the contents of the scriptures to be assumed or guessed at, or arrived at by human reasoning, or what have you.

But in any event, I do not concede that the Catholic reasons circularly. The reasoning process is not: I assume the Church to be infallible; the Church, being an infallible source, states that it is infallible; therefore I know infallibly that the Church is infallible. Rather, it’s something along these lines:

The Gospels are reliable historical documents. Based on the accounts they contain, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus is God: He claimed to be God, and backed up his claim with miracles. The Gospels portray Jesus founding a Church. He promised to remain with that Church until the end of time, and to send the Holy Spirit to lead it into all truth. He gave the Church authority to teach and to act in his name. The Church has existed continuously from that time until our own. If that Church has authority to teach in Jesus’ name, and his promise that the Holy Spirit would guide it into all truth, then whatever that Church teaches in his name must be infallible. It’s impossible that Jesus would authorize it to teach in his name if it could teach error; otherwise he would be authorizing the teaching of falsehood, which is impossible.

It is based on this same authority that the Church declares which books constitute the scriptures and are therefore infallible. Thus, we are informed of the infallibility of the scriptures, and of their contents, by a source which is itself infallible.

Now obviously, none of us as individuals is infallible, therefore it’s theoretically possible that Jesus is not God, or even that there is no God. In other words, we could be wrong about those things. We could be deluded or simply misinterpreting the Gospels. Nevertheless it’s a reasonable inference from the available evidence that the Gospels are true; and from there it’s a reasonable inference that the Church is the one founded by Christ and is therefore infallible. From that point it’s a matter of listening to the Church, whom we trust based on our faith in Christ.

I see no similar direct chain of reasoning from the truth of the Gospels as historical documents, to the exclusive infallibility of the 66 books contained in the Protestant canon, when the Church is omitted from the chain.

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18 thoughts on “How do we know the Church and the scriptures are infallible?

  1. you realize that you need my permission to post one of my links to your websites? Considering the post was less then flattering, why should I consider it?

    Besides this, the Bible does say it’s inspired of God and infallible. U rejected two of my arguments. 2 Tim 3:16, God breathed. 2 Peter 2:19. I could give u plenty more

    Also, if my reasoning is circular, it’s is also just as circular. The Catholic Church says its infallible, therefore u believe it. I simply cannot understand how that’s not circular?

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  2. I didn’t post one of your links, I linked to one of your posts. : )

    Frankly I never thought about whether permission was needed to link to someone’s blog post, since you’re the first person who has ever objected. In my experience, most people like being linked. I did it, first, to let you know that I was posting about you, and second, to let people see your side of the story for themselves instead of accepting my representation of what was said.

    In fact the whole point of the post was to give you a chance to grill me on the Catholic doctrine of infallibility, since I had grilled you on sola scriptura. I picked on you, so now you get to pick on me if you want to. (You may recall that you asked me to “lay my cards on the table” as to my position on Catholic infallibility.)

    However since you don’t like it, the link is gone. I will replace it with the name of the post and of your blog, and people can google it for themselves if they want to. (That’s allowed, isn’t it?)

    As to the rest, I already addressed those points in my post so I’ll leave it at that.

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    • U may post the link. In what way does 2 Timothy 3:16 not claim infallibility? I’m frankly puzzled as to how u don’t see that

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  3. As I said in my post, “verses may be found which refer to ‘the scriptures’ as God’s word, and God’s word is, of course, infallible.” 2 Tim. 3:16 would fall into that category. But as I also said, this leaves you guessing as to what exactly is referred to by the word “scripture”.

    Let me put it this way. Your position is basically this:

    A. All scripture is inspired and therefore infallible.
    B. The 66 books of the Protestant Bible are scripture.
    Therefore the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are infallible.

    We agree on premise A. One of the points I’m making in this post is that you have no infallible source for premise B.

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  4. Only problem I see now, is whether any historical documents possibly be reliable enough to trust with changing my entire life? It seems at best to alter the odds for Pascal’s wager. And do they present sufficient evidence for the extraordinary claim that Jesus is God? Even if I were an eye-witness to many of his miracles, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to doubt this claim.
    It seems to me, that faith cannot be dependent on, or following from, reason, because my reason is incapable of true certainty. Faith, or perhaps the source of faith, must be infallible.The way Pope Francis puts it is: “A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives.” [Lumen Fidei n. 4]
    I suppose this may produce even greater difficulty for protestantism, as it doesn’t take any part of the scriptures as its starting point. I suppose if the scriptures were God’s sole -or even just main- way to give us faith, even by their historicity, it would be fair to say they’re too important to not be infallible; but if God is more direct, more personal (and so more sure), in the foundation of our faith, then any authority for the scriptures comes later.
    I think the bigger problem for protestantism, is that in making their own canon, they abandoned the unchangeable nature of canons. The books of the Bible they left became subject to doubt, because the canon, and so the Bible were subject to man, and now many Christians feel free to dismiss much of the Bible, and have a wishy-washy relationship with what they keep. Sola scriptura seems to naturally degenerate to just sola.

    Thank you very much for this post, and God bless you

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    • Ignatius:

      I agree, this chain of reasoning is not certain beyond a reasonable doubt. On its own, it would be an insufficient basis upon which to change one’s entire life. In short, it wouldn’t be faith, which can only come about by grace. I use it merely to show that the Catholic account of infallibility does not rely on circular reasoning.

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  5. Then you’re not arguing against sola scriptura. Your argument is about the canon. That’s entirely different.

    If I understand, ur argument is: the bible doesn’t say which which books belong. Ok. That is an argument against Protestantism. But that is not the substance of sola scriptura.

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    • Lucas:

      My argument concerns how we know the scriptures are infallible (hence the title of the post). However, this does touch on sola scriptura since sola scriptura entails the lack of any authority which can identify the scriptures infallibly.

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      • Actually, no. Sola scriptura means that it is the only infallible source of authority, not the only authority. I accept that the church, by the power of the Spirit, gathered the canon of scriptures (whether it was the books contained in your Bible or mine is really not the point). I also accept the church as an authority. Just not infallible. She makes mistakes, in other words, and must go back to the source: Ad fontes

        What your saying is that the church itself is an infallible source of authority IN ADDITION to the scriptures, and the reason you can know that is because the church says so. OK, that is no better than me saying that the scriptures are the infallible source because I believe they say so.

        How can you know for sure that the catholic church is an infallible authority? Not because the church says so, that is “circular reasoning”. You believe it based on an evidential faith claim. that is no better or worse than my claim that the bible is the only infallible source of authority. Do you understand my point?

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  6. Is the argument here about whether the Protestant Bible is the only infallible source? I take it that Catholics would agree that the Bible is inspired by God and therefore is infallible, but that there are other infallible sources such as the church. I would be grateful if you would clarify. I am a fairly new Catholic. To be honest, it is quite disorientating and challenging when the church’s daily mass reading starts going through books I can’t find in my Bible, and which I have never come across before. Okay, I knew they existed, accepted the Catholic church’s authority on this, but it is still quite difficult in practice. The canon is something I need to read up about. Can anyone recommend a link???

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  7. Canach:

    From my point of view, the argument is about how we know the scriptures are infallible; specifically, whether we know infallibly that each book of the Bible is scripture and therefore infallible. Do we have that from an infallible source, or a fallible one? Given sola scriptura, it would seem that the source of the canon must be a fallible source, since the scriptures themselves are the only infallible source, and they don’t enumerate the canon.

    Yes, Catholics agree that the scriptures are inspired and therefore infallible, and we know this through being taught it by the Church. In this way we know not only that the scriptures are infallible, but also which books are in fact scripture.

    If the readings at Mass are not in your Bible, then you need to get a Catholic Bible! : ) This is a good one:
    http://www.amazon.com/Ignatius-Bible-RSV-2nd-Catholic/dp/1586177702/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1433521915&sr=1-2&keywords=revised+standard+version+catholic+edition

    Here are a couple of links concerning the canon:

    http://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/canon-of-the-holy-scriptures

    http://www.catholic.com/tracts/scripture-and-tradition

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  8. Thanks for that. I think I will look at the tracts. I tried the encyclopeadia article and it was a bit long and involved for someone who’s not gone into this subject before. As for my Bible, well, I’m kind of fond of it and I’ve got used to it. I read the Bible in French and I guess it must be a Protestant version as it is missing the complete set of books. It would be hard to change my habits, and so I will try to follow the daily mass reading on the internet.

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  9. Lucas:

    You write, “Actually no. Sola scriptura means that it is the only infallible source of authority, not the only authority.”

    You misconstrued my statement. I didn’t say that sola scripture means that it’s the only authority. I said that sola scriptura *entails* that it’s the only authority that can identify the scriptures *infallibly*. By naming scripture the only infallible authority, you have precluded the possibility of any other authority identifying the scriptures infallibly. Is this not so?

    You write, “How can you know for sure that the catholic church is an infallible authority? Not because the church says so, that is ‘circular reasoning’. You believe it based on an evidential faith claim. that is no better or worse than my claim that the bible is the only infallible source of authority.”

    I identify the Church as infallible based on the evidence noted above, mainly the Gospels taken as historical documents which portray Jesus founding a Church and making certain promises in its regard. Whereas the Gospels never portray Jesus promising to compile the New Testament scriptures, let alone identifying which books it will contain or who will write them.

    So, I have an infallible source, Jesus, identifying the Church as infallible; and I have an infallible source, the Church, identifying the scriptures as infallible. Granted that I don’t have an infallible source identifying Jesus as infallible — but then neither do you. We both believe in him based on what he said and did, and the experience of him in our lives. But taking faith in Jesus as our starting point, from there I have a direct chain of reasoning, via the Church, to the identity and infallibility of the scriptures. Whereas there is no direct chain of reasoning from Jesus’ teachings as we have them in the Gospels to the infallibility of, say, the Epistle of St. James.

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    • This is probably one of the most overstated lines I’ve read from you: “Jesus, identifying the Church as infallible; and I have an infallible source, the Church, identifying the scriptures as infallible”. Please tell me exactly where the church is identified as “infallible” by Christ?

      At the end of the day, I cannot help but understand the RCC as a tradition among others, with an interpretive system through which they view the Bible and its place of authority. I’m not sure how it could be otherwise.

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  10. Lucas:

    You write, “Please tell me exactly where the church is identified as ‘infallible’ by Christ?”

    I was saying in shorthand what I had explained before, in the tenth paragraph of the original post, the one that begins, “The Gospels are reliable historical documents ….”

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    • Yes, I understand that. I’m just saying that if your logic is going to flow, you need a verse (just as you asked of me about infallibility of Bible) that says explicitly that the church was created to be infallible. You stated a logical argument, but not a verse. This places you in the same boat as I was on my own blog (from your point of view), that unless you the Bible expressly says its infallible (which I believe it does), it cannot be proven. I stated a logical argument from 2 Timothy 3:16, which you rejected. You see where I’m going?

      I guess what I’m doing is trying to help you see that we are in the exact same boat here. Christianity is a faith claim (based on reliable evidence obviously) when it comes to the inspiration of the scriptures. You trust in the infallibility of the church is the same

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  11. I never said that “unless the Bible expressly says its infallible … it cannot be proven.” When I said you needed a verse, my question, specifically, was where the Bible states that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible were infallible. This followed upon your stating that you believed in the infallibility of the Bible based on the Bible’s self-attestation. Therefore I was asking where the Bible makes this attestation. My point was that even granting that the Bible’s self-attestation would be a valid argument (i.e. not circular), the Bible nevertheless never identifies itself.

    Be that as it may, an easier way of clarifying the issue has occurred to me.

    Between us, we have proposed three candidates for an infallible source: Jesus, the Church, and the scriptures. Of those three sources, it can be argued that Jesus and the Church affirm each other, and that the scriptures affirm Jesus. But it’s a fact that neither Jesus nor the scriptures affirm the scriptures themselves, in the sense of affirming their content, i.e. the canon. The only possibly infallible source which affirms the scriptures is the Church. Therefore, there are two possibilities: (1) The Church is infallible and therefore we know the content of the scriptures infallibly; or (2) the Church is not infallible and therefore we do not know the content of the scriptures infallibly.

    So you see, regardless of whether I can prove the infallibility of the Church in a manner leaving no room for doubt, nevertheless it’s *possible* that the Church is infallible; plausible arguments can be made based on statements by Jesus in the Gospels. Whereas it’s not possible for there to be any infallible source for the canon other than the Church.

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