The Authority of the Church and Human Sinfulness II

In my previous post I addressed the criticism that the Church cannot be infallible because the Christians who are the Church are themselves fallible. I showed how this criticism committed the fallacy of composition (that the whole has the same essential characteristic or characteristics as its parts). I also addressed how this criticism was both inconsistent (e.g., that the individual Christian, being fallible, then has no authority to promote or assert his own fallible interpretations of Scripture) and incoherent (e.g., that somehow fallible Christians could in someway be judged by other fallible Christians to have attained a level of holiness or maturity such that they could promote their Scriptural interpretations). And I finally noted that some of the concrete evidences on which is based the claim that the Church is fallible (such as the Crusades and the Inquisition) are drawn from historical realities that are far too complex (including the actual nature of the Roman Catholic Church’s pronouncements on the Crusades and Inquisition, whether acts of individuals could be attributed to the group and the addressing of the question as to whether any Christian group whose members commit sinful acts is, in fact, the Church). As intuitive as the criticism that the Church cannot be infallible if its members are fallible might seem, clearly it is illogical, inconsistently held, incoherent, and far far too simplistic of historical realities.

2. The Standard of Proof and the Strength of the Argument

But disproving a criticism is not the same as proving one’s own thesis. If the Church is to be proven infallible, it will have to be on the terms of its argument and not on the basis of the elimination of criticisms, important as is the latter. But if fallible Christians lack the authority to pronounce on the fallibility of the Church, how could fallible Christians make any substantive claims as to the Church’s infallibility? Clearly we would have to have a source recognized as infallible, other than the Church, which could substantiate the claims that the Church is likewise infallible. The Scriptures are that infallible source, and they do lay out the foundation for the claim that the Church is infallible.

Setting the Standard of Proof

First, let us acknowledge that the infallibility of the Scriptures is not itself something that is claimed by the Scriptures. We have the text from 2 Timothy 3:16 which claims that every Scripture is God “out-breathed” (or inspired), but no specific claims that Scripture is infallible. Nonetheless, we take the Scriptures to be infallible precisely because of texts such as 2 Timothy 3:16 which claim the inspiration of God for every Scripture. (I will not here detail the argument that 2 Timothy 3:16 applies specifically to the Old Testament and only by extension to the New Testament.)

I point this out because critics of the infallibility of the Church do take the Scriptures to be inspired. They propose then a burden that Scripture directly and explicitly claim infallibility for the Church. And yet the infallibility for the Scriptures that they uphold is not itself directly and explicitly claimed for the Scriptures. So, if the infallibility of the Church can be evidenced on the same level and standard of proof that the infallibility of the Scriptures is evidenced, then we can confidently claim infallibility for both the Scriptures and the Church.

This evidence is easily had.

The Argument for the Infallibility of the Church

Let us first note the unity that Christ himself claims for the Church and the Holy Trinity.

“And I do not make request for these only, but also for those who shall believe on Me through their word; in order that all may be one, even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us, that the world might believe that Thou didst send me forth. And the glory which Thou has given Me I have given them, in order that they may be one, even as We are one: I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected into one, and that the world may know that Thou didst send Me forth, and didst love them even as Thou dist love Me. Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold the glory, that which is Mine, which Thou gavest Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:20-24)

Let us note the different sorts of unity that obtain, according to Christ: that between the Father and the Son (and we may extrapolate, among the Holy Trinity), that between Christ and his Church (all “those who shall believe in Me through [the Apostles’] word”), and that between the Apostles and those who shall believe in Christ through the apostolic message. In other words, there is the unity of the Holy Trinity, the unity of Christ and his Church, and the unity of his Church itself. And all such unity is predicated upon that between the Father and the Son.

Let us go on to note further implications of this unity.

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, Who is over all, and through all, and in you all. But to each of us was given grace according to the measure of the gift of the Christ. Wherefore, He saith, “Having ascended on high, He led captivity captive,” and “gave gifts to men.” Now that He ascended, what it is except that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? The One Who descended is the same also Who ascended above all of the heavens, in order that He might fill all things. And He gave some to be apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, to the work of ministering, to the building up of the body of the Christ, until we all might come to the unity of the faith, and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ; in order that we may no longer be infants, tossed to and fro by waves, and carried about with every wind of teaching, by the sleight of men, in craftiness toward the systematizing of error; but speaking the truth in love, we might grow up into Him in all things who is the head– the Christ; from Whom all the body, being joined and knit together by what every juncture supplieth, according to the energy of every single part in measure, maketh for itself the increase of the body, to the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:4-16)

Note once again that the one Body is not divided and is in unity with the Head, or Christ. Note that the charismatic grace given each member results in an increase and growth in the Body into the Head, such that the Church attains the “measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ” which entails no longer being tossed to and fro on the winds of doctrine. If one is not subject to being tossed to and fro on the winds of doctrine, then one is not subject to error and one is infallible.

“And He put in subjection all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him Who filleth all things in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).

The Ephesians reference is explicit. His body is “the fullness of Him Who filleth all things in all.” This is important, for of that fullness of the Godhead is surely the quality of infallibility. And if the fullness of the Godhead indwells (by grace) the Church, the Church (by grace) shares or participates in that infallibility.

“And He is the head of the body, the Church, Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might come to hold first place. For all the fullness was pleased to dwell in Him . . . . For I wish you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh, that their hearts might be comforted, having been knit together in love and unto all wealth of the full assurance of understanding, to a full knowledge of the mystery of God the Father, and of the Christ, in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. . . . For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the divinity bodily, and ye are made full in Him, Who is the head of all principality and authority . . .” (Colossians 1:18-19a; 2:1-3, 9-10; emphasis added).

Note that the fullness of God, which we experience in Christ, is found in the Church. In the Colossians reference above, the “ye” indicates the second person plural in the Greek. Paul is speaking of the Church at Colossae as being made full in Him (Christ), in Whom Himself the fullness of the divinity dwelt bodily.

Note also that these have already been knit together “unto all the wealth of the full assurance of understanding, to a full knowledge of the mystery of God the Father and of the Christ.” And note that this fullness of Christ which indwells the Church is also the locus of “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

And since Christ’s full divinity fills His Body, the Church, it is the case that God dwells in the Church, the Body is His dwelling place.

“So then ye are no longer strangers and sojourners but fellow citizens of the saints and of the household of God, who were built up on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom every building, being joined together, increaseth to a holy temple in the Lord, in Whom ye also are being built up together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

The foundation of this house is the apostles and prophets. On this foundation, God is building his home in which he dwells. God’s home is the Church. God’s life and immortality is imparted in Christ to the Church, since He dwells there. And since the Church has the fullness of God, since the Church is essentially one in and with God (though is not herself God), since the Church is God’s home, it is not surprising that the Church has God’s wisdom and declares it:

“. . . in order that the much-variegated wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and to the authorities in the heavenlies through the Church, according to the purpose of the ages which He made in Christ Jesus our Lord . . .” (Ephesians 3:10-11; emphasis added).

If the Church were fallible, God could not reliably declare His “much-variegated wisdom” through it. In fact, in a claim that is nowhere in the Scriptures made of those Scriptures, the divinely inspired written revelation of God declares a relationship between God’s house (the Church, the Body of Christ) and the truth:

“. . . the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, pillar and stay of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

It is the Church that is the pillar and stay of the Truth. The same Church that wrote and preserved the Holy Scriptures and infallibly declares their meaning.

So, we have seen that God’s fullness indwells the Church in Christ. That the Church is no longer tossed to and fro on the winds of doctrine. That the Church has and declares God’s “much-variegated wisdom,” because she has the fullness of Christ in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. That the Church has attained to the full knowledge of the mystery of God the Father and of the Christ. That the Church is the pillar and stay of the Truth. These are the explicit statements of Scripture about the Church. The only reliable conclusion, the only reasonable implication is that the Church must share, in Christ, the quality of infallibility.

The Only Other Alternative: The “Infallible” Interpreter

Critics of the infallibility of the Church necessarily must commit a logical fallacy in asserting their claim: that the fallible characteristic of the individual members of the Church necessarily inheres as an essential quality of the whole of the Church. We have seen that this cannot be the case. Yet, it is also the case, that individual fallible Christians want to abrogate to themselves an authority they deny to the Church: the authority to gainsay that with which they disagree and to declare that their interpretations of Scripture and their pronouncements about Christian belief are authoritative. I ask: Whence the foundation for such an authority? How does a fallible interpreter infallibly interpret the Scriptures? And if there are innumerable contradictions between fallible interpreters, how are other fallible interpreters to discern and to determine which is the true interpretation and which the false? There is one and only one standard in such a case: that which seems right in their own eyes. And on such a basis have resulted the tens of thousands of schisms among Christians to this day. And let it be noted that there is no Scriptural warrant, absolutely none, for an individual Christian to abrogate to themselves such an authority.

On the other hand, Scripture is clear where such an authority does lie: the Body of Christ.

Now, it will likely be argued that mine is just one more interpretation among innumerable others. Don’t I violate the very standard I set by offering my interpretation? My answer, as hubristic as it may seem is an unequivocal “No.” I think a reasonable and as unbiased as possible a reader in examining the texts I have set forth for the argument will conclude that the “interpretive activity” in relation to these texts has been minimal. I have, I maintain, done next to no interpretive work. I have set forth the various Scriptures, noted their explicit prima facie readings, and drawn that evidence together to what I think is a fairly inescapable conclusion. It is a simple tactic I have chosen. To deny my argument, critics will have to deny the explicit prima facie readings of the texts. And their own criticisms will be the worse for it. It is far less convincing and persuasive to say “This may be what the text says, but it is not what it means.”

I submit that what the text says is in fact what it means. And that it means the Church is infallible. The burden of proof otherwise is now on the critics of the Church’s infallibility.

3 thoughts on “The Authority of the Church and Human Sinfulness II

  1. Clifton:

    The logic has always seemed fairly straightforward, as you point out. Why is the Church the pillar and ground (or ‘stay’) of Truth? Because she is in union with Christ – the Body or the Bride [one flesh], this Jesus who is the Truth; and she is thus indwelt as a matter of course by the Spirit who guides her in all Truth.

    And this is why she has authority to declare what is right teaching, what is the canon of scriptures, etc.

    I think, however, it’s important in looking at infallibility of the Church to include the historical nature of the Church in its fullness. I believe we are too easily tempted to see the Church as simply the assembly of the ‘now’ and not to see that one of the reasons she is infallible is that there are, in fact, sanctified persons within the Church – the Theotokos, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Saints – those who have achieved their crown of righteousness. They are not separated from the Church. Thus, those who argue that the Church is just a bunch of sinful people are, bluntly, wrong.

    When we start treating the Church as only that which is ‘now’ and that which is in the world, then there is a great danger, in my opinion, of a group calling itself the Church and issuing new interpretation or new ‘revelation’ without resort to the collective witness of the Church through the ages, thus (possibly) separating itself from the ekklesia by departing from the Apostolic and Catholic faith.

    – For what it’s worth, just some thoughts.

  2. Eric:

    Very, very good points. I affirm what you say. This is one of the limitations to the manner in which I present these arguments. But such limitations are necessitated by the audience to whom they’re directed. I post them on my blog because they might prove useful to others.

  3. Another brilliant post by Clifton D. Healy. 😛

    I like it when you talk about the Church, because as I think about it more, it makes a lot of sense. I also think coming from a Protestant background has made you a strong apologist for the faith, because you point out how Scripture fully supports the claims of the Holy Orthodox Church. Good job! (And if you must know, this is why I don’t enter the discussion much over at the message boards we frequent… as long as you are there, the folks over at Gracecentered can count on well-reasoned and well-laid out arguments. I’m pretty much a cheerleader.)

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