November 20, 2017

Letters to a Friend 2: Infallibility

volunteerpx_2.jpgLetters to a Friend is a series of posts responding to some recent comments of a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates.

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”

Dear Friend,

One word that stood out to me in your talk was the word “infallible.” I found myself in considerable disagreement with what it appears you meant when you assigned this word to persons like myself and others who promote theology. Perhaps you can clarify and we will be in more agreement.

I understand the term “infallible” to mean “unable to be wrong.” If something or someone is infallible, it is not possible for error to originate with them.

A person may claim to be right, but the claim of infallibility is something quite separate. I’m not surprised when anyone claims they are right. Your own words indicate you believe, on the basis of logic, that you are right. But you would not make a claim to infallibility.

Infallibility is considerably different from saying that someone believes they are right and not wrong. I believe I am right in saying I am 50 years old, but I do not claim to be infallible. I could be wrong. Error in knowing my age could originate with me. Many circumstances could cause me to be in error, but I am reasonably sure of this fact and would defend that conclusion.

The word “infallible” commonly occurs in two contexts among Christians. First, the Roman Catholic church claims that when the pope is functioning as the head of the church in an official teaching capacity, he is infallible. This produces a chain of tradition from the church that is infallible tradition.

This is a real advantage to the RCC. They use it, for example, to say only an infallible church could canonize scripture. I would disagree strongly, but the advantage of that approach is obvious. The problems are also obvious.

This is not saying the pope or the church cannot be wrong or do anything wrong. Some Catholic teachings, and many claims and practices, are not promoted infallibly. “Infallibility” is applied to very specific situations.

For example, in Galatians, Peter is confronted by Paul for his hypocrisy. This does not bother Roman Catholics in regard to Peter’s infallibility as the first pope, because all popes are sinners and make mistakes. Only in an official teaching capacity can he claim to be infallible. Bad people can be infallible popes in the RCC.

This does mean that the Roman Catholic church makes a kind of claim to infallibility that is different from the way other churches use the term. Since I disagree with it, I will gladly point out that when the RCC argues its case for doctrine, it does claim infallibility on a human level.

The second common use of “infallible” is among most Protestant evangelicals, who apply it to the Bible and the Bible only. They believe the Bible is inspired, infallible, authoritative and inerrant. (Not all evangelicals use all of these words or use them all in the same way, but that is another discussion.)

This means that no pastor, no church leader, no teacher and no denomination are infallible. The Bible only is infallible. The infallible Bible produces authoritative tradition through the infallible Holy Spirit and very fallible people.

Does that mean that, if the Bible is used to make a case, then infallibility is transfered to what is said or believed? The answer is “no.” While we believe the Bible is infallible, my version of what the Bible teaches about baptism is not infallible in the same way. My version of this doctrine may be in error, may be revised and may be improved. While I am reasonably certain I understand the Bible on this topic and I would have no problem saying I am convinced my view is right, I would never claim anything like infallibility.

I’m sure that the energy of many Christian debates seems to indicate that someone believes they cannot be wrong. I certainly know Christians who believe they, their pastor, their doctrine and their “team” are infallible, but if pressed they would admit that the only thing that actually can have the characteristic of infallibility is the Bible.

You were particularly bothered that I said I was certain enough of some doctrines that I would rather die than renounce them. This isn’t a claim to infallibility. It is a claim that I am convinced, as much as I can judge the subject, that I am correct. Being convinced doesn’t mean I am closed to the possibility of correction or change.

For example, I would die for certain aspects of my country, but I do not claim that America or myself are beyond error or absolutely right in an “infallible” sense. In a fallible, comparative sense, that response of loyalty is the right one.

I ask my children to obey me, but I would not claim infallibility in any aspect of parenting. Infallibility isn’t necessary to believe something is right enough to take a strong, sacrificial stand.

I have to disagree with you that contentious Christians are claiming infallibility. They may lack the humility and graciousness that should accompany any discussion. They may defend their position in a way that says they believe they cannot be wrong or less than perfectly right. They may demonstrate extreme stubbornness. But unless they are departing from their own Protestantism, all they can do is claim to be presenting the infallible claims of scripture fallibly.

Your answer to what you perceive as the dilemma of everyone claiming to be infallibility is to say that “God is beyond theology.” I’ll comment on that very postmodern assertion in another post.

So let me summarize where we are so far: I am not convinced that the kind of division or claims of infallibility you are reacting against actually exist. You may be “standing” in a place where these divisions seem to fill your screen, so to speak. I would suggest you take a more measured and less emotional look at the issue of Christian unity and doctrinal division. While there is much to lament, there is also much to celebrate, particularly among Christians who work, witness and minister together.

Peace,

Michael

Comments

  1. Michael, is it also accurate to say, in your fallible opinion, that the infallible “Bible” is not the version(s) we have today in English, for example, but the original document? Or would you say that infallibility applies also to every copy and translation of scripture?

  2. If you search this site on the topic of inerrancy or the Bible, you’ll see that my claim to fame is that I don’t like or use the term inerrant to describe the Bible.

    I believe the Bible is infallible in its function as God’s revelation. I do not believe it is infallible in other ways or that it needs to be. It is authoritative and true because it says what God wants it to say, but it is not infallible in the same way God is, or infallible beyond what it was intended to do.

    Certainly our contemporary Bibles are fallible translations.

    I agree with the statement on scripture in WCF 1, and I think Karl Barth had the best theological views on scripture. Scripture’s authority is the God who inspired it and the Christ revealed in it.

  3. michael

    i think you make a great pt in your comment about the infallibility and barth. i agree with you.

    as far as your post in general, i think you excellently deal with a sticky issue. there are so many people who say there is no Truth because we are all errant. we are errant, but there is Truth. we do not always fully understand the Truth, but we seek it. it is important therefore that as you said, we remain humble and gracious. only then can we speak of Truth and errancy in the same sentence.

    peter

  4. Michael, thank you for giving me a way to think about Biblical infallibility that acknowledges human interpretive error. That really sets my mind at ease. But once we concede that we are fallible interpreters, what good does it do us that the Bible is infallible? How can we access that quality? i.e. what does it add to say “If the Bible teaches X, it does so infallibly” when we’ve admitted that we can’t be certain the Bible DOES teach X?

    This problem reminds me of Kant’s distinction btw the noumenal realm of pure truth, which we can never reach, and the phenomenal realm of human understanding, which is the truth as seen “through a glass darkly” (interpreted thru our mental categories and limitations). If we can never break thru that glass ceiling, as it were, why bother positing a noumenal realm at all? Hence postmodern skepticism. “Truth” as an ideal withers away because it has been (mis)defined as something completely separate from the world of pluralistic, uncertain interpretation that we inescapably inhabit.