The Great Uncertainty – Problems with Individual Fallibility

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.

Logical Inconsistencies 

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?

Infallible Certainty

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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  1. Source: R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, 58 

  7 comments for “The Great Uncertainty – Problems with Individual Fallibility

  1. May 29, 2015 at 11:27 AM

    After reading this very carefully, I have one question for you, Adam: How did you get the title font so gargantuanly huge?

    And b) you say ” If you were a Christian during the first millennia after Christ then you were Catholic.” I know what you mean by this. There was only one Church for about 1000 years. We say it’s the Catholic Church. Our brothers in the East say it’s the Orthodox. Each can make a case that the other was the one that left. I am not sure sometimes what to call it, but it was the only Church, even as there were regional differences. I think the Great Schism of 1054 bothers me more than the Reformation. I long for the Great Union of East and West.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      May 30, 2015 at 12:01 AM

      Brian –
      a) Not exactly sure – I copied it from a previous post of mine that I had written some time ago. Looks like I had coded it at 130% text size somehow 🙂
      b) I totally agree with you on longing and praying for the reunification of East and West!

  2. Fernando
    May 29, 2015 at 10:27 PM

    I think Nathan’s question is very much similar to the “tu quoque” argument. This argument states that in choosing to believe in the Catholic Church, one still goes thru a process of making a personal determination similar to the way Protestants decide to choose to believe an interpretation of the Bible. Bryan Cross, also a convert to Catholicism, wrote an excellent refutation of this argument in the blog, Called to Communion. I would suggest that you also read it.

    • Adam N. Crawford
      May 30, 2015 at 12:23 AM

      Ahhhh…tu quoque…the, “You too!” argument, which is very similar to the, “I am rubber you are glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you” school of philosophy 😉

      I think I found the article you referenced – here’s the link for those who are interested: The Tu Quoque

      It’s a great article by Bryan. “Whereas a Protestant confession cannot bind the conscience except per accidens, (i.e. unless one is already bound in conscience by the interpretation contained in that confession), a divinely authorized magisterium binds the conscience per se, that is, by the divine authority it has within itself.”

      The article uses arguments that are similar to some of the ones which I made, but goes into much greater detail – and uses bigger words! 🙂 I highly recommend it! And pretty much anything else on the Called to Communion website! Thanks for the recommendation Fernando!

  3. June 7, 2015 at 9:55 AM

    I enjoyed the post. Being one who has come to Christianity late in life, I share few assumptions with my brothers and sisters when it comes to God and His relationship with men and women. As such I have a couple of questions and comments in regards to your argument, which flows away from your central thesis and into other low lying areas of theology.

    It appears there is an assumption in your post that the bible is the primary source for God’s Word. Where does this come from, and why would one believe that His Word is preferably revealed in the writings of men and women, and not in God’s own creation? If one were to accept that God’s creation is a source for His Word, then would it not follow that it is the primary source; as it existed for some time before man was able to communicate verbally and ultimately put ink to paper. God surely was not denying man His Word prior to the emergence of the linguistic capabilities within man.

    You penned the phrase, “fallible human beings with limited human intellect”. Do you agree that this is true? If so, why do we use our intellect to discern God’s will if it is limited and fallible?

    In reference to the issue of man as a finite being, I would argue against the choice of the word and meaning of “chose”, when discussing God revealing Himself to man. “Chose” implies time, and God works outside of time. He doesn’t choose anything.

    As to the presumptions asserted from your two points on the finite man:

    I do not believe that God “wish(es)” anything. You might think I am merely exercising semantics, but this is a critical evaluation of God’s intent for man. As God noted when Moses asked His name: “I am”. This sounds more like an absolute condition than a processional strategy.

    As to the “God can be known” presumption, I would agree, but I will disagree if the contention is that the intellect is the being that can know God. Bets are on that a limited and fallible entity of any kind can know God.

    The conclusion drawn afterwards – that man can know truth – may be factual, but I do not see the epistemological evidence within the two points made regarding finite man and the two presumptions that followed.

    I would also venture a little further and say that there is no necessary relationship between man’s intelligence and reasoning capacity, and being able to receive God’s revelation(s). And as to the issue of certainty I would suggest that the intellect and capacity to reason can have certainty of only things of this world that it can fully possess, and that at best is only spatial and temporal; hardly the realm of God or the kingdom of heaven.

    I suggest that there is another aspect of man that is better suited for the mission as somewhat outlined in your post. It is that part of you that preceded the phenomenon that stands before you when looking in the mirror.

    My intellect is short of answers when it comes to God, and so I humbly offer these concerns of mine up for examination.

    God Bless – Reese

    • Adam N. Crawford
      June 7, 2015 at 8:18 PM

      Reese – thanks for the thoughtful reply and questions! I’ll try and tackle them briefly 😉

      “Being one who has come to Christianity late in life, I share few assumptions with my brothers and sisters when it comes to God and His relationship with men and women.”

      To begin with, please keep in mind that this post was written as a response to a debate between two Christians, one a Catholic and the other a Protestant. Because of that there were assumed points of commonality that then carried over into this post.

      With that in mind…

      1. “It appears there is an assumption in your post that the bible is the primary source for God’s Word. Where does this come from, and why would one believe that His Word is preferably revealed in the writings of men and women, and not in God’s own creation? If one were to accept that God’s creation is a source for His Word, then would it not follow that it is the primary source; as it existed for some time before man was able to communicate verbally and ultimately put ink to paper. God surely was not denying man His Word prior to the emergence of the linguistic capabilities within man.”

      I actually don’t believe that the Scriptures are the “primary source for God’s Word”, or even the primary source of His self revelation. If speaking to an atheist or agnostic, and lacking common starting ground, then the necessary philosophical arguments for the existence of God and for proofs of His revelation of Himself to humanity would have to be made 🙂 As you alluded to, cosmology, creation, and what theologians would refer to as “general” revelation would be excellent starting points for this discussion. St. Paul refers to your point when he writes, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20)

      2. “You penned the phrase, “fallible human beings with limited human intellect”. Do you agree that this is true? If so, why do we use our intellect to discern God’s will if it is limited and fallible?”

      Yes, I believe that human beings are both finite (limited) and fallible. Saying that human beings make mistakes and are limited in their knowledge is to simply acknowledge that we cannot know everything. It is not to say that we cannot know anything.

      3. “I would argue against the choice of the word and meaning of “chose”, when discussing God revealing Himself to man. ‘Chose’ implies time, and God works outside of time. He doesn’t choose anything.”

      From a metaphysical perspective you and I would agree that God is absolute reality, pure causality, absolute truth, utterly simple, and doesn’t “choose” per se. However, from a practical standpoint when speaking or writing of the great I AM it is hard to do so without using human anthropomorphism’s – the Scriptures themselves are chock full of such anthropomorphisms; you will have to forgive me mine 😉

      4. “I do not believe that God ‘wish(es)’ anything. You might think I am merely exercising semantics, but this is a critical evaluation of God’s intent for man. As God noted when Moses asked His name: ‘I am’. This sounds more like an absolute condition than a processional strategy.”

      With regards to God “wishing” – again refer to point three. I agree that this is merely an anthropomorphism that we use, not an accurate description of ultimate reality. Much like when the bible speaks of God “remembering”, “repenting”, or “changing” His mind.

      However, we should also remember that God is not only transcendent (i.e. completely separate and wholly other – especially re: time, space, and matter) but that He is also wholly imminent – i.e. omnipresent in all of creation – “All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16b-17) It should therefore also be noted that humanity has experienced God’s divine revelation in a progressive or “processional” way even though God Himself is not bound by time. God’s divine revelation of Himself to us began with creation itself and culminated in the Word made incarnate, Jesus Christ.

      5. “As to the “God can be known” presumption, I would agree, but I will disagree if the contention is that the intellect is the being that can know God. Bets are on that a limited and fallible entity of any kind can know God.”

      This gets at one of the points I attempted to make in the post itself. Let me add a couple of presuppositions, hopefully without taking a ton of space to completely flesh them out since we’re still in the comments section 😉

      Belief in a Creator (i.e. God), is typically an acknowledgement of divine design. The universe appears to be highly, perhaps even unbelievably complex at both the micro and macro level; ergo, God didn’t just vomit the universe into being.

      Creation implies design, design implies purpose. And here’s the part I hit on in the post: “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.” I think this line of reasoning improves the odds on the bet. This may not fully satisfy your question in this short space, but hopefully it at least helps to clarify my train of thought.

      *I know that this quote includes the “wishes” anthropomorphism, but feel free to change it to, “because God has made Himself known to us through various means of divine revelation.” 🙂

      6. “I would also venture a little further and say that there is no necessary relationship between man’s intelligence and reasoning capacity, and being able to receive God’s revelation(s). And as to the issue of certainty I would suggest that the intellect and capacity to reason can have certainty of only things of this world that it can fully possess, and that at best is only spatial and temporal; hardly the realm of God or the kingdom of heaven.”

      Reese, I think I liked this one the best! And I would agree to a point. If we recognize that God reveals Himself in many different ways, then of course God is not limited by individual intelligence or personal capacity for reason. Certain types of divine revelation may require reasoning while others may not.

      However, I would fundamentally disagree with the assertion that we are only able to have certainty when it comes to the things of this world i.e. the temporal and spatial. If all we had to go on was our own limited, finite, fallible intellect then perhaps. But that isn’t the case. We also have a God who revealed Himself in many and various ways both private and public, both general and particular, progressively throughout human history, culminating in the incarnate second person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

      Divine revelation adds something to the equation and changes both the odds and the answer. We can know with certainty, because the One outside of time, space, and matter has entered into time and space and clothed Himself in matter, in order to reveal the Father and bring the kingdom of heaven to those of us here on earth!

I want to hear your thoughts! Go ahead and keep the conversation going, but please keep it at least PG and respectful.

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