Yesterday I listened to a two hour debate between Catholic author and apologist Devin Rose, and Nathaniel Taylor a graduate of Biola University, Westminster Theological Seminary, and a current philosophy student at Talbot School of Theology. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to their debate; hopefully Devin and Nate will excuse me for weighing in with a couple of my own thoughts 🙂
During the debate, I found myself really struck by one of the main arguments that Nate made – namely that individual fallibility renders us all, whether Protestant or Catholic, equally uncertain about matters of faith.
A Fallible Collection of Infallible Books
During the debate Devin had quoted R.C. Sproul who has said that, “Roman Catholics view the canon as an infallible collection of infallible books. Protestants view it as a fallible collection of infallible books. Rome believes the church was infallible when it determined which books belong in the New Testament. Protestants believe the church acted rightly and accurately in this process, but not infallibly.”1
Incidentally, it may come as a surprise to many Protestants that R.C. Sproul asserts that the best they can claim is a, “fallible collection of infallible books”! I’ve dealt with this very issue at length in a post that you can read here: Sola Scriptura ~ Logically Flawed
I found Nate’s response to be interesting though. Rather than dispute this point, he merely pointed out that in the same way that he as a Protestant must trust in a fallible church to provide him with the cannon of Scripture, so too must Catholics rely on their own fallible intellects in order to determine which church is the true church in the first place. In other words, how is one position any better than the other? Both are ultimately dependent on fallible human beings with limited human intellects. This was a point that Nate returned to again and again during the vast majority of the debate, but I found it to be a deeply flawed position. Allow me to explain why.
Does Certainty Exist?
Fundamentally, this question revolves around whether finite and fallible human beings can know anything with any degree of certainty.
But, if we are not very careful we can slide into a sort of infinite regress. The question then becomes not just whether we can know with any degree of certainty whether the canon of the bible is true, or whether the Catholic Church is true, but rather, “Can fallible and finite human being know with any degree of certainty even whether or not God exists?”
It seems odd in a debate between two Christians to have one debater defaulting to a fundamentally agnostic position – namely whether or not we can we trust in our limited and fallible human intellects in order to arrive at a knowledge of anything at all. Nevertheless, that is where Nate chose to spend most of his time. And at a certain level, it’s not that surprising. The agnostic position has become increasingly common in a society dominated by a philosophy of post-modernism and relativism as applied existentially. In a culture that questions our very ability to accurately perceive reality itself (do we even really exist?) – how can we know anything with any sort of certainty at all?
And perhaps that’s not really Nate’s position. Perhaps he was merely trying to point out that we are both limited by our fallibility. Perhaps he does believe that we can have an infallible certainty on certain issues. Perhaps.
Here’s the thing. I would agree that we have intellectual limits as humans. Some of us more than others 🙂 I often find myself frustrated by my own intellectual limitations when reading and re-reading the great philosophers and theologians of earlier times. And, while I would agree that we can’t have have certainty about everything, I would vehemently disagree with a proposition that says that we can’t have certainty about anything. At one point in the debate Nate really hammered away at Devin asking, “Can you tell me that you can infallibly know that the Catholic Church is the true Church?!” The tone of his question made it clear that any answer in the affirmative would be the height of hubris on Devin’s part.
Divine Revelation Changes the Equation
I wrote a post called Thoughts on Absolute Truth and Certainty in a Post-Modern Relativistic World, where I pointed out the following:
Within Christian circles there are some who assert that man as a finite being cannot comprehend the infinite. And there is a certain element of truth to this. Werner Heisenberg said that, “It will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth.” and, it is for this reason that I think that it is necessary to add something to the equation at this point. As Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, we would presumably agree on the following two points:
1. An infinite God chose to reveal Himself to finite man.
2. He did this by means of both General Revelation (i.e. creation, the natural order, the human soul, the human conscience – knowledge of moral absolutes, etc.) and Special or Particular Revelation (i.e. the Prophets, Incarnation, Scripture, His Church, etc.).
This presumes at least two truths:
A. God wishes to be known.
B. God can be known.
Therefore, as finite beings we can know “truth” because the Truth has chosen to reveal Himself to us.
We can presume that man was created with intelligence and reason to facilitate the reception of Divine revelation. We can further presume that Divine revelation makes it possible for men to know truth, because God wishes both to make Himself known, and to be known.
There are also logical inconsistencies with Nate’s position. Presumably we would both agree that Scripture is inspired – i.e. that God used fallible human beings in order to infallibly transmit His own divine words in such a way that the Scriptures are free from error in spite of being transmitted through very human, very fallible, means.
But where is the logic in asserting that God was not actively involved in the process of preventing error in the selection of the canon of Scripture? Why would God communicate His message without error but be unconcerned with whether or not we receive the “full” message? Or be unconcerned with whether or not there are “additions” to the message?
As Christians we would both agree that God rendered the divine authors incapable of error when He inspired them to write the holy Scriptures. Catholic Christians simply take the next logical step in believing that God rendered His Church incapable of error when compiling these writings into a cannon. Is that really such a leap of faith for Mr. Taylor?!
But the Protestant position is just this:
There may be books missing from the bible because the Church did not infallibly define the cannon of Scripture. There may be books which were mistakenly added to the bible because the Church did not infallibly define the cannon of Scripture. Nonetheless, according to sola scriptura, the bible alone is the sole rule and guide for all matters of faith and morals in the life of the Christian.
The Protestant position is that God was so concerned that His message was infallibly transmitted that He worked through means of divine inspiration in order to render the writings of fallible men as inerrant. But He was so unconcerned with the transmission of this inerrant message that He provided no means of certainty whatsoever for whether or not the bible we hold in our hands today contains all of the word of God or just bits and pieces of it, or even portions that aren’t inspired at all.
Can you see the logical problems with this position?
And here I would like to return to Nate’s question. If he asked me whether or not I could infallibly know that the Catholic Church is the true church – my answer would be yes.
I can know this with infallible certainty in the same way that I can know with infallible certainty that two plus two equals four. In studying science and mathematics and using the intellect that God has given me I can come to a certain and trustworthy knowledge about the world around me. In studying scripture, history, and the early Church fathers, I can come to a certain and trustworthy knowledge about the Church which Christ founded.
The fact that two plus two equals four isn’t really up for debate within the world of mathematics in the same way that there is no essential disagreement as to the historical reality that Christ founded the Catholic Church on and through His apostles. The Catholic Church can trace her bishops all the way back to the apostles – all the way back to Christ Himself.
For the first thousand years of Church history, Nate’s question, “Which church is the true church?” would have been nonsensical and anachronistic. Which church?! If you were a Christian during the first millennia after Christ then you were Catholic. There was only one Christian Church. It is only in the light of over forty thousand Protestant denominations some 2,000 years later, that Nate’s question even makes any sense at all.
And it’s not really a difficult one. We all know the answer when asked who founded a particular church. The Lutheran Church? Martin Luther. The Reformed Church? John Calvin. The Church of England? King Henry VIII. The Methodist Church? John and Charles Wesley. The Mormon Church? Joseph Smith. Calvary Chapel? Chuck Smith.
But when we ask who founded the Catholic Church, the only possible answer is Jesus Christ on and through His apostles. There is no real disagreement on this point by historians either religious or secular. I am as certain of this fact as I am that two plus two equals four.
The Gift of Infalliblity
But beyond this human certainty, I can come to an infallible certainty because of the revelation which God has given us which transcends human fallibility. In the same way that He inspired the fallible human authors of the Scriptures so that they might record His words without error; so too he rendered His Church infallible that she might without error compile the cannon of Scripture and teach from those same Scriptures without error.
It is through these great gifts – divine revelation, inspiration, and infallibility – that I can move beyond my own human fallibility and trust in the infallibility that Christ has promised to His Church. Unlike Protestant scholars and theologians, I don’t have to trust in my own intellectual ability in order to get it right. I don’t have to be infallible in my personal interpretation. I have only to trust in the Church that Christ founded and gave His authority to. I have only to believe that in the same way that He gave us His Word without error, He has also preserved His Word without error.
As a Catholic, I believe that the bible is an infallible collection of infallible books, and furthermore, I believe that when the Church teaches dogmatically on matters of faith or morals she is infallible as well. That is a statement that no Protestant can make. The best a Protestant can claim is a fallible collection of infallible books which must then be fallibly interpreted by each individual personally.
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Source: R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, 58 ↩