An infallible church?

I’ve been reading for a few years now in the “Catholic” Protestant orbit (perhaps best represented by theologians like the earlier George Lindbeck, Carl Braaten, Robert Jenson, and organisations like the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology), and a common assumption among those in this group is a kind of ecclesial infallibility. That is, basically, the assumption that the church is infallibly guided to remain correct in its teachings (on a carefully qualified field of issues).

For a while I unconsciously held to something like this view, but a number of issues have led me to become more self-consciously Protestant about this issue.

Firstly, Anthony Lane’s excellent paper “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey” (pdf) surveying views on this issue awoke me from my confusion: I had bought into the thesis that the Reformers held to what he calls the “coincidence” view, when in fact they held to what he called the “ancillary” view of the relation of tradition to scripture. As Lane excellently summarizes:

There are two important differences between this view and the classical coincidence view of Irenaeus and Tertullian. These patristic writers were concerned to show the identity of ecclesiastical with apostolic teaching while the Reformers sought to do the opposite. Furthermore they accepted the inherited faith because it was apostolic tradition whereas the Reformers accepted the (traditional) creeds only because they believed them to be scriptural. This is a significant difference. While the Reformers did not despise tradition they only accepted it if it was scriptural, Scripture remaining the final arbiter. Unlike the coincidence view the sola scriptura did not involve the unqualified acceptance of any tradition or of the teaching of any church and Scripture remained, formally as well as materially, the ultimate criterion and norms.

Secondly, I came to realize more clearly that the proof-texts offered for the doctrine of ecclesial infallibility do not work. i.e. John 14:26 is not a promise to the entire church for all time, but to the disciples who had already been with Jesus. Matt. 16:18 does not necessitate continuous doctrinal faithfulness on the part of the majority of professing Christians, and neither does 1 Tim 3:15 (that is, both could be true even in the face of the apostasy of the majority of professing Christians).

Thirdly, I came to see there are serious historical problems with the doctrine. The existence of “Robber Councils” implies that one cannot say that any council that claims to be ecumenical is automatically infallible, nor that the majority of bishops are automatically infallible. (Ultimately the answer to this objection is “but they were always overturned”; this however is useless for any individual Christian wanting to know the truth, because they don’t know what the future holds for any current consensus). Even Newman’s argument that the majority of laypeople remained faithful in the Arian crisis (where, for a time, the majority of clergy were Arian) fails historically. (See Michael Slusser’s paper,”Does Newman’s “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” Rest upon a Mistake?” Horizons, 20 no 2 Fall 1993, p 234-240, including the support from the eminent church historian RPC Hanson, who said Newman’s argument was a “romantic suggestion”.)

In the end, when it comes to the creedal orthodoxy of the Church (which, if it is to speak anywhere, is the only place the catholic church could possibly speak, the papacy aside), Calvin’s tactic seems to be the most faithful to reality:

What, then, you will say, is there no authority in the definitions of councils? Yes, indeed; for I do not contend that all councils are to be condemned, and all their acts rescinded, or, as it is said, made one complete erasure. But you are bringing them all (it will be said) under subordination, and so leaving every one at liberty to receive or reject the decrees of councils as he pleases. By no means; but whenever the decree of a council is produced, the first thing I would wish to be done is, to examine at what time it was held, on what occasion, with what intention, and who were present at it; next I would bring the subject discussed to the standard of Scripture. And this I would do in such a way, that the decision of the council should have its weight, and be regarded in the light of a prior judgement, yet not so as to prevent the application of the test which I have mentioned.

Councils should be respected as a subordinate authority. But this means, precisely, that individual Christians ought to respect them enough to know them, to understand them in their historical context, and to evaluate them on the basis of Scripture. In the end, I can’t see any other way to treat them.