Ecclesial Infallibility

There was an interesting discussion involving the Young Fogey and bls somewhere recently that focused on the issue of whether a church–the Church–is infallible or not and the consequences that result from it.

As I recall (and I know you’ll correct me if I get it wrong), YF was arguing that if the Church—whether in the person of the Pope or in its councils as with the Eastern churches—is infallible, then all efforts to change its doctrine and/or discipline outside these channels are not only misguided but morally and theologically wrong.

bls was arguing that if the Church—in whatever local instantiation—is not infallible, then its doctrine and discipline can and should be reviewed and changed if necessary.

Needless to say, the 39 Articles and its thoughts on the fallibility of churches and councils were put into play suggesting that a core part of Anglican identity depends on the notion that neither churches nor the Church are infallible.

To my mind, this question and its implications are definitely worth discussing and pursuing. As YF noted, the way we answer this issue has a great deal to do with current theological dispute and how—or if—they can be settled. If the Church is infallible, current attempts to reinterpret, say, traditional teachings on human sexuality are wrong, full stop. If it is not infallible, then not only are such attempts not wrong but are even helpful. If people holding opposing positions talk they will be able to come to an understanding but not an agreement.

My own understanding is, following Vincent’s Commonitory, that doctrine is more or less fixed. Development in doctrine should not be change but rather an unfolding of the implications of what has been thought and taught and practiced from the beginning. Discipline, however, is a different story and is culturally shaped and conditioned. (And where the line is drawn is a debated issue as well—I see women’s ordination as a matter of discipline, not doctrine, though I know that some disagree.)

What follows from that stance is that I believe the Church and its various local instantiations is not infallible. Rather, reading Matthew’s parable of the wheat and the tares—as the Fathers did—pertaining to the current state of Christ’s church, it is not pure but has wheat and tares intermingled. Further, I think it’s clear that some of the tares have made it to the top in various times and places (like, say, the Borgia popes…).

Too, how we answer the question has implications for both our pneumatology and our christology. If it is not fallible, then how do we understand the presence of the Holyu Spirit in the Church and the Church as the Body of Christ? If the Church can err does that mean Jesus can err as well? And that, of course, heads down a road I’d rather not travel…

I’ll add one further thought on the matter which is to say that I think the question of fallibility/infallibility is properly framed at the level of the Church/churches, not at the level of the Scriptures. To proclaim the Scriptures infallible seems to me a an easy out because what is being proclaimed infallible is not really the Scriptures but a certain interpretation thereof.

(Too, if we deemed the Scriptures infallible I would see it requiring us to say that they are infallible in their purpose as well as their content—and thus everyone who reads them will necessarily, infallibly, become Christian. And that’s patently not the case…)

15 thoughts on “Ecclesial Infallibility

  1. Michelle of Heavenfield

    There is plenty of evidence in the Old Testament that Jewish faith and doctrine evolved over time, why shouldn’t Christianity evolve as well? The church is all members of its body, not just those who go to synods or who have leadership positions. So how do you decide what is the decision of ‘the church’?

    (An example of the evolution of Jewish doctrine would be the different points of view or authors in genesis.)

  2. lutherpunk

    I think we tread on dangerous ground when we try to divide to finely what is doctrine and what is discipline (not that you did that here, just saying). For instance, is my ordination as a man who has been remarried (to a remarried woman no less) representative of a change in doctrine or discipline. Seems to me to be a bit of both? Granted, I had to jump through several ecclesial hoops to get remarried and then ordained, but here I sit (so to speak).

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    I tend to identify “doctrine” especially as those things articulated in the Creeds which would include our doctrine of God, understanding of the soul, basic ecclesiology and sacramentology. From that perspective, I’d see the issues you raised as discipline.

    Yes, doctrine changes but the core question it seems to me is if it is elaborations within an original framework or motion beyond the original framework. That is, are we clarifying what has been taught or coming to new understandings that cohere better with the word and spirit of the original teaching or are we coming up with something entirely new. I’m far more comfortable with the first than the second…

  4. Fr Chris

    If the Church is infallible, current attempts to reinterpret, say, traditional teachings on human sexuality are wrong, full stop. If it is not infallible, then not only are such attempts not wrong but are even helpful.

    I don’t think this necessarily follows, for a variety of reasons. The question, as I brought up at fogey’s place, is: where and in what modes can the Church speak infallibly? If every practice of the Church that has survived to this day in the Roman communion and the canonical Orthodox churches is an infallible tradition, you’re right. But if the infallibility of the Church is more limited — that, say, truly ecumenical councils will affirm only what is doctrinally true but certain traditional practices secondary to bedrock doctrine are up for grabs — then I don’t think it’s nonsensical to try to change traditional practices and teaching on sexual issues (or the ordination of women).

  5. bls

    I’m definitely no theologian, but rather than “doctrine,” don’t we want to refer to “kerygma” as “fixed and unchangeable?

    The proclamation is the key thing, isn’t it?

    (I would also like to point out how silly the “infallible” argument looks to people who take a look at the church’s history in re: its historical treatment of Jews and others. The notion that an institution that has committed the sins that the Church has could possibly be “infallible” is, I’m sorry, sadly ridiculous. Not to mention arrogant and blind-to-self in the extreme.

    As I’ve mentioned before, part of the kerygma involves repentance in anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom. Is the Church itself immune? I don’t buy the argument that it’s “people not the institution” at fault; the institution did absolutely nothing to correct the people. It was deep in sin by omission at the very least.

    You shall know them by their fruits – and the fruits of the church have not been good in innumerable cases. It needs, rather than to even consider “infallibility,” to be continually repenting of its own sins and be ever-reforming.)

  6. bls

    (Because, to add to my comment above: if “doctrine” is the key thing and infallible, then the church was fallible anyway before it was worked out via Nicea and etc.

    Either way, it seems to me, the argument fails.)

  7. Christopher

    It seems to me doctrine is concerned with God’s self-revelation and self-communication in Christ and all that flows from that Reality, including our understanding of the Holy Spirit and God as Trinity. Doctrine can develop, but doctrine cannot innovate (hence, what few neocaths don’t recognize is that when Pope Benedict XVI says of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body that it is innovative, that is not a complement in the present Pope’s terminology). Nicaea is a development of what early Christians affirmed, that Jesus is very God as a flesh and blood human being. In that sense, kerygma and doctrine are not separable.

    Lutherans would tend to reframe this as doctrina (which is related to kerygma), meaning that what is heard, what is preached, namely the Gospel, is a proclamation matter and it is in the hearing that we are changed and in that hearing that God is present to us and for us.

    Discipline has to do with applying this Reality of Jesus Christ to the life of the Church and to members thereof. This places, to my mind, Christ and culture in paradox in which a tension of “baptizing” and “pruning” culture is always present. This also means because as Church we are always both in the world and not of it, that as ecclesia militans, we are also in paradox, both under grace and under judgment, discerning God’s work and pruning wherever we have come up short.

    I think part of the problem is a tendency to conflate the Head and the Body too quickly in talking about ecclesiology. We have to tease out the difference between the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, who is unique, and the Church as the Body of Christ, especially “this side of the New Creation”. The Church is not itself a person in hypostatic union with the Logos or perhaps more accurately in this regard, the Holy Spirit. There is a tendency among Anglicans to conflate the two in “incarnational spirutality” and it is positively a dangerous tendency in my opinion that tends to collapse differences and eschatological tensions. Certainly, the ecclesia crucis/ecclesia militans is caught betwixt and between, and hence, we can perhaps talk about the infallibility of Jesus fully God fully human without having to suggest that in matters of discipline the Church is infallible. To say the Church is infallible in discipline contradicts our history and tends to overlook sinful realities in our past and present.

  8. bls

    In that sense, kerygma and doctrine are not separable.

    But doctrine is merely a human understanding of kergyma; it’s a translation from God’s reality into our own – and of course anything human is fallible.

    It could very well be that finite fallible humans have not understood the revelation correctly; that’s the effort. Kerygma is as far as we can go with accuracy – we can only say, “this happened.” And you’re right that even this involves some analysis – but it’s as far as we can go.

    Perhaps we’re actually talking about the same thing, as far as Anglicanism goes….

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    I think Christopher’s definitions of the distinction between doctrine and discipline are helpful here.

    Fr. Chris, I don’t actually think half-measures will work. I see the infallibility question as all or nothing. It doesn’t help to say “the Church is infallible in some of its teachings–we’re just not sure which ones.” It seems to me that the appeal of infallibility is certainty. That is, if a source is infallible, you don’t need to test and weigh its truth, it is simply dependable no matter what and no matter how unlikely it sounds.

    The goal, it seems, is the surrender of self-will.

    I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing–after all, that’s Benedict’s whole point about obedience. It’s about learning the discipline of not being in charge. However, in order to responsibly surrender our authority we must entrust it to a worthy recipient. So, I suppose the question at the end of the day is this: are the local manifestations of the Church worthy custodians of our obedience. After all, the Church Universal is a great thing in the abstract but it is an abstract. Our surrender is never to the abstract because if it is (pace some who have fled to Rome, Kiev or Constantinople) it is just an appeal to our construct of the Church Universal which is nothing more than smuggling our self-will in through the back door.

    It’s complicated…

  10. Fr Chris

    That is a really, really good way of setting up the problem, Derek. I’ll have to think of this some more.

    I will say, though, that some doctrinal decisions of the early church really do seem to be set in stone. Not sure what the best way to talk about that is, but given the weird directions a lot of even ecclesial Protestants or self-identified Catholics have gone, it’s useful to say that, no, Jesus Christ was not just a human and that will never change, Jesus Christ was not just God possessing a human man against his will and that teaching will never change, etc. (Of course, with folks who are flying off into various heresies it might not be terribly useful to point to the councils as final arbiters of doctrinal truth. I can say it has been useful to point to those very counsels in describing to people hurt by fundamentalism that fundamentalism in fact embraces errors the Church has opposed for centuries and centuries, though.)

    So I’m not sure where to go with that, but that’s the impulse that drove me to my comment earlier.

  11. Pingback: Infallible? « A Thinking Reed

  12. Lee

    I think there’s a useful distinction to be drawn between final or set and stone and “infallible” per se. As Fr. Chris says, there are truths that Christians can’t surrender without ceasing to be Christians – part of our core identity. And yet, we still don’t have, it seems to me, the kinds of guarantees to certainty that the word “infallible” seems to imply.

    Also, it might be worth thinking about how “infallible” could even apply to God’s self-revelation. In one sense, God is certainly incapable of falsehood and deception (or so we believe), and yet when we put things into images, statements or propositions, the possibility of error is inevitably introduced. Or, maybe more to the point here, we often aren’t even quite sure what it is we’re saying: much of the time the words act as pointers to the reality of God’s self-revelation more than as precise descriptions.

  13. Marshall Scott

    Thanks, Lee. The more I have read this post and responses, the more I am thinking that the question of fallibility/infallibility is moot: we have no standard by which to determine infallibility. We might discuss it as a faith statement – the Roman Catholic Church believes that under certain circumstances statements ex cathedra are infallible – but we have no certain measure of infallibility. Indeed, we have little enough sense of accuracy in transmission of the faith.

    I think that’s significantly different, Derek, from your later, more relevant question: “are the local manifestations of the Church worthy custodians of our obedience.”

    Of course, in light of the questions even of accuracy, I continue to have my questions about St. Vincent’s “Canon:” it probably wasn’t meaningful when it was written, because it attributed a universality that never existed. Indeed, in our own recent history we wrestle with that. The 1920 Lambeth Conference said essentially that Nestorius was misunderstood, and that we had no significant differences in Christology with the Churches of the East; while in the 1990’s we said in an agreed statement with the Oriental Orthodox churches that we had no significant differences in Christology. Of course, that latter statement still anathematized the ancient Churches of the East.

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