The Spirit and the Church

I’ve been reading Roman Catholic and charismatic writings lately, and it has gotten me to thinking about how the Spirit relates to the Church.

Often Roman Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) theologians will appeal to Christ’s promise that the Spirit will guide the church into all truth as an argument for its infallibility. Now, for those who do not agree with ecclesial infallibility, something has to be done with this promise.

Sometimes this promise will be restricted to the apostles, and I think there is some validity to that (in the Gospel of John the promise is obviously given to those who were “with him from the beginning”). But, on the other hand, some kind of promise of God’s leading/teaching is given to all believers (cf. John 6, where Jesus says, following the OT “New Covenant” texts, that “all will be taught by God”, or 1 John 2:27, where it clearly says that the Spirit teaches every individual directly to the point where “they don’t need anyone to teach them” in some sense). Does this mean ecclesial infallibility is correct after all?

I think Calvin actually had a good reply about this: the Spirit’s leading is something that happens over time, and thus may admit in fluctuations at times. In other words, it can be true that the Spirit is leading the Chruch in some sense without it necessarily entailing that everything the Church does is lead by the Spirit. In addition, I would add that the RC/EO reading of this promise assumes a kind of determinism those theologies would often not want to support: it seems assumed that because the Spirit is leading the Church, whatever the Church says must be a direct reproduction of what the Spirit said.

At this point I think the wisest among the charismatics can be very helpful. Most charismatic theologians I have read have noted that NT prophecy is fallible, and in several ways: a person can mishear what the Spirit says to them, a person can properly hear what the Spirit says but misinterpret it, a person can simply be mistaken in claiming the Spirit spoke to them, a person can hear the Spirit and lie about what the Spirit says, and/or a person can hear nothing at all and claim the Spirit spoke to them. If all of these things are true, then a simple appeal to the Church’s being led by the Spirit would be insufficient to know when and what the Spirit has said directly to the Church (i.e., apart from the Scriptures). One would have to apply all the tests given in Scripture for NT prophets (not OT prophets, which, at least I’m convinced, are of a different order) to any putative claim of revelation given to the Church as a whole. At the same time, there is no reason a priori to assume the Spirit could not possibly be leading the Church as a whole to affirm something, e.g., the contents of the Canon or the Creeds, or some moral teaching.

This is all pretty tenative for me, but I think it makes sense.

Any thoughts?