In my earlier post, I utilized three biblical texts to establish the foundation for the infallibility of the Church, Matthew 18:18-20, John 16:13, and 1 Timothy 3:15. (A fourth, Ephesians 4:16 was not meant so much to establish infallibility so much as to establish the Church’s sufficiency, given Her in Christ, for Her own maturity apart from, or at least not dependent exclusively upon, the Scriptures.) I did not, due to the parameters of the discussion, include extracanonical evidence (from the apostolic fathers and later Church writings) precisely because these would have been called into question. However, if it is true, as it is clear from Scripture that it is, that the Church has infallibility based on who She is, the Body of Christ, united inseparably to Him, then one may simply take the infallibility as fact and go on to support it with other texts.
The only passage which speaks of Scripture in similar lights is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be proficient, having been thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Of course, the “Scripture” here spoken of is the Old Testament, but I have no quibble with those who want to apply this promise to the New Testament as well. Certainly Christians have, from the moment the New Testament writings individually were complete, viewed the canonical writings as on par with the Old Testament and equally inspired.
Now, the only ones who have a problem with the dual infallibility of the Scriptures and of the Church are those who have a reason to deny to the Church the infalliblity rightly and clearly given Her, to which Scripture testifies, those who must oppose (for whatever reason) the authority of the visible Church. (It is, after all, always easier to invoke the authority of the invisible Church by simply ascribing one’s own position to Her.)
Now this denial of the visible Church’s authority rests on a plurality of grounds, whether that be for the sake of the individual believer’s autonomous conscience, a suspicion of any and all earthly power (even and especially if wielded in and for the Church), a reaction to the abuses of the Western Church (i. e., the Roman Catholic Church), or to abuses of specific hierarchs (not themselves acting in the name of the Church, such as the recent scandals among certain hierarchs in the Church in Greece), or any other of a number of related reasons. But the result of all these denials to the Church the infallibility due Her is the replacement of the infallibility of the Church with the (practical) infallibility of the interpreter. The vacuum will not be denied. It will be filled with something or someone.
One may be as careful as one wants to avoid taking such a practically necessary step. But in the end, whenever there are two competing and contradictory interpretations of the infallible Scriptures, the issue will have to be settled on some authority. If that authority is not the charism of the Church, it will be the charism of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer. But what evidence could there be that the Holy Spirit has, indeed, spoken through this individual? Either such interpretations will be consonant with the historical understanding of the Church, or they will be innovations in whole or in part, which innovations are predicated upon the individual interpreter’s rationale. If they are consonant with the Church, then we have merely given a soft assent to the infallibility of the Church. If they are only one believer’s interpretation, or perhaps the interpretation of a group, we still have the phenomenon of an assertion of infalliblity to a particular interpretation wrought by a believer or segment of believers in contradistinction to the entirety of the Church as a whole.
This still, ultimately, begs the question as to how, if the Scriptures are infallible but not the Church, such infallibility passes to the interpretation. Answers such as its being consonant with the truth of the Scriptures only begs the question. Why should I trust such an interpretation when I, or the historical Church, reads the text differently?
Take, for example, the disagreement over the aforementioned texts as to the infallibility of the Church. That these texts do not apply to the Church and are not promises of infallibility cannot be resolved by those who appeal to the infallibility of Scripture over against the infallibility of the Church. For if I invoke the leading of the Holy Spirit on my interpretation, and if mine is fully consonant with the historical Church’s understanding of these texts, all I have in support of my thesis is numerical superiority; i. e., more Christians have believed what I’ve believed than have believed the opposite. But appeal to the majority is hardly a good argument. Otherwise, if my interpretation is not consonant with the historical Church’s understanding, I must somehow invoke an authority which undergirds my minority position–which may simply be the unsubstantiated assertion that the Church was wrong.
So, in the end, it simply comes down to one interpreter asserting his interpretation on their grounds, and another doing so on her grounds. But we are left with no resolution of the matter.
But of course, it is precisely the view that only the Scriptures are infallible that has led to the tens of thousands of schisms in the body of Christ: for if there is no mechanism for determining the mind of Christ in the Scriptures save individual interpretation, one only has the resort to allegiance of like minds.
Thankfully, those of us who affirm the infalliblity of the Church do not have to do so in opposition to the infalliblity of the Scriptures: we can have our cake and eat it, too. For we know that the mind of Christ is revealed in both the Church and the Scriptures, and both deserve our trust on matters of faith and practice. This has been manifested for us through the centuries. It is manifestly demonstrable that the Church has had a single mind on matters of dogma from the beginning. Schisms and heresies are not, to the contrary, demonstrations of uncertainty or double-mindedness. Rather, as has historically been demonstrated time and again, the Church has reiterated the single revelation given to Her in and by the Christ in the face of such heresies and schisms. We now have two millennia of such evidence, and it seems to me that ignorance (willful or no) of such history is the seedbed for denying to the Church the infallibility that rightly is Hers, and such ignorance is also the seedbed for schism and heresy.
[Edited for typos, grammar and clarity at 8:20 pm CDT.]