Friday, February 22, 2008

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter at Antioch

Chris Tessone, a priest of the jurisdiction of which I'm a part, has an excellent post about today's feast, and the issues of church polity it raises. I would just add one thought, about infallibility.

The essence of idolatry is to attribute to a creature attributes that properly belong to God. Only God is infinite -- we as humans are by definition finite in every respect. God is omniscient -- we are not. God is omnipresent -- we are not. God is eternal -- we are not, and only know eternal life through God's gift.

Infallibility belongs in this category. No human being, regardless of the office he or she holds, can ever make any statement that is infallible. Nor can any book or institution claim infallibility or inerrancy. The belief that was promulgated by the Roman Catholic denomination at its first Vatican council, that the bishop of Rome is infallible when speaking ex cathedra, is an attempt to claim for a human being something that properly belongs only to God. Similarly, the teaching of the Southern Baptist Convention and others that the Bible cannot contain error is an attempt to claim for a book something that properly belongs only to God.

The Scriptures are a great gift to us, and through them we come to know God's self-revelation through Jesus Christ, fully God (and therefore genuinely infallible) and fully human, and our great redemption through Christ's death and resurrection. We believe that bishops and other church leaders are given grace to lead the church. But to attribute infallibility to either the Bible or church leaders is to distort their roles and put them in the place of the God to whom both are meant to point.

6 comments:

Alexis TanĨibok said...

oooooo. . . . now I'd never before put this idea in the context of biblical fundamentalism before. Thanks for that.

Paul Goings said...

The essence of idolatry is to attribute to a creature attributes that properly belong to God. ... Infallibility belongs in this category. No human being, regardless of the office he or she holds, can ever make any statement that is infallible.

In my opinion, this is an innovative way of disagreeing with the doctrine of infallibility. Philosophically, if we want to assert that not only does the Bishop of Rome not possess this charism, even in the very limited way in which it is properly understood, but that such a charism is intrinsically impossible, it would appear that we would next have to admit that all human truth (that is, truth as human beings understand it) is necessarily provisional.

So, to take to highly controversial examples, one can then assert that the persecution (and slaughter) of Jews is, in fact, pleasing to God, and that same-sex congress is profoundly repugnant to him. Another person could assert the contrary, but, absent any reliable revelation--which must of necessity be mediated by human beings--it is largely impossible to demonstrate that one position is true and that the other is not. Further, we cannot even suggest as evidence for one position or the other what we know to be "true" of the nature of God and humanity, for these statements would be themselves provisional and unsupportable.

Thus, unless there exists some infallible source of revelation which is accessible to human beings, it would appear that there is little or no possibility of having some coherent system of doctrine and morality. Human beings, as they so often seem to, would govern their actions solely by whim and personal desire, subject to the vicissitudes of a universe that is no more subject to concepts of right and wrong than some other phenomenon like Brownian motion.

That said, even if an infallible source of revelation is admitted, it need not be the Bishop of Rome. But that is another discussion entirely.

Tim Cravens said...

I actually do believe that there is an infallible source of revelation -- the person of Jesus Christ. Our knowledge of His life and teachings (and, indeed, all of our knowledge about God) is incomplete and fallible, and that is part of the finitude of human existence. We hold the principles we believe to be true on faith, and the attempt of human beings to convert that faith into easily proven theorems to assuage our anxiety over that finitude does not make the foundation of our beliefs any less fallible. Paul's examples of the murder of the Jewish people and homosexuality actually demonstrate my point, since Christians have in the not-so-distant past disagreed about the former and still actively disagree about the latter -- if the Bible or church tradition were infallible (and easily interpreted), then there would be no controversy within the Christian community. As St. Paul says in I Corinthians, "we see through a glass darkly", and we believe and hope that one day through Christ we will know more fully.

Paul Goings said...

I think your philosophical reasoning which you present is based upon and incomplete reading of what Tim stated and not nearly so easily confined to a specific argument, as interestingly clever as it was.

Father,

I share your concern that I have misunderstood Dr Cravens' argument, and I will address his response to me in another post.

My reading of your two posts is that you would subscribe to a "conciliar infallibility," which permits the Holy Spirit to infallibly enlighten the Christian people through the gathered community in some way. From these basic infallibly revealed principles, we can then employ human reason to develop what I would refer to as dogmatic and moral theology. Have I represented your position correctly?

Tim Cravens said...

I think one key distinction is between "infallible" and "authoritative" -- I reject any possibility of infallibility for any creature -- but I accept that there are sources of revelation that are authoritative -- Scripture being the highest, as interpreted by tradition, reason, and experience in that order.

My position is that apart from God, there is no infallibility. There are dogmas and other doctrines that we take by faith -- perhaps even "acting as if" they were infallible -- but my argument is that those dogmas in and of themselves are not infallible. The Scriptures aren't infallible, the church is not infallible, and no individual or office is infallible -- no matter how carefully circumscribed. God alone is infallible.

My take on the "indefectibiliity of the church" is that God will be unfailingly faithful to the church -- being the universal church, and not any one denomination or other part. Basically, what I am arguing is that the church needs to exercise a great deal of humility. We can express our beliefs, we can use Scripture, as interpreted by tradition, reason, and experience as the basis of our faith, we can even argue quite powerfully for our positions -- but at the end of the day, we need to recognize our own sinfulness and fallibility, and it seems to me that setting up the Bible, the pope, or some other institution as infallible reduces the possibility of such humility.

Paul Goings said...

Basically, what I am arguing is that the church needs to exercise a great deal of humility.

I don't so much disagree, but my experience is that the various manifestations of the Church all seem to want every other manifestation to exercise such humility, but also seem to assert that they, and their own beliefs, are exempt.