Infallibility and Epistemology by Tim Troutman
By Tim A. Troutman
Consider the following argument. Protestants have an inerrant source for the faith, the Scriptures. But it does not make one more confident of the true interpretation of the faith to add another layer of infallibility (the Church or magisterium) because the individual receiving instruction in the faith is fallible. Whatever is received, regardless of whether its inerrant or whether it came from an infallible source, must be interpreted by a fallible human and therefore becomes fallible. Because of this, Catholics have no greater assurance than Protestants that they have correctly received the faith. Just because Catholics have an ‘infallible Church’ does not make them more confident of the truth because both Catholics and Protestants are fallible. If we’ve seen this argument once, we’ve seen it at least a hundred times. In this post, I’ll show why it’s false.
One problem with this argument is that it turns the question of infallibility into a question solely of individual epistemology. The question of whether the Church is infallible or not has a profound impact on our individual epistemology, but when we say that the Church is infallible, we’re not directly saying anything about individual epistemology. We’re making a statement about the reality of things. Suppose Joe and I are going to send Ted to the store to buy some eggs, but Ted doesn’t know how to get there and he’s not very good with directions. Joe gives Ted a map. I tell Ted, “In addition to the map, when you get to the first street, ask the baker to help you read the map. He never makes mistakes with directions.” Joe says, “The baker does make mistakes with directions because Ted can interpret directions wrong whether from a map or from a person.” Notice that Joe has denied my statement of the baker’s infallibility not based on anything related to the baker but on Ted’s ability to interpret the baker’s directions. The is the same error as someone denying the claim of Church infallibility based on individual fallibility. My statement about the baker can be true regardless of whether or not Ted is skillful at interpreting directions. It’s a separate question. Likewise, the question of Church infallibility is distinct from the question of whether or not it helps us achieve greater certainty.
Alternatively Joe could say, “The baker might be infallible but he won’t help Ted any more than the map because Ted is bad with directions.” Come on Joe! If Ted is bad with directions, I say we should give him all the help he can get! But it seems obvious that an infallible baker would help Ted find his way. Now is there something about Ted that makes it impossible to improve on his certainty any more than giving him a map? Let’s get back to the question of Scripture and Church and look at the argument carefully.
Here’s the argument. Scripture + Church is not better than Scripture alone because of man’s fallibility. So man’s fallibility is said to be the cause of Scripture + Church not being better than Scripture as regards certainty. Now God could have placed us in various states of infallible authority. Consider the basic three as follows. 1. No infallible authority. 2. Scripture only. 3. Scripture + Church. Now Protestants agree that 2 is an improvement on 1, but 3 is not an improvement on 2.1 But if man’s fallibility caused 3 not to improve on 2, then it would also cause 2 not to improve on 1. This is because, objectively speaking, 3 is better than 2 just as (and in the same way that) 2 is better than 1. A living authority that lacks the possibility of error and is capable of addressing any new question (along with the inerrant document) is better than only an inerrant document addressing a limited number of questions and unable to clarify itself. But if this fact is nullified by man’s failure to receive it infallibly because of something inherent in man himself (fallibility), then it can only be because the infallibility of any source is necessarily reduced to fallible interpretation by man. So objectively speaking, the Scripture alone (2) is better than no infallible authority (1), but in regard to man, 2 is not better than 1 because such infallibility (or inerrancy) is reduced to fallible interpretation in man. Sure, 2 might be better than 1 practically; Scripture is true and therefore sets us on the right path. But according to this argument it is not better than 1 in regard to certainty because man is a fallible interpreter. And yes, 3 might be better than 2 on some practical level, but not in regard to certainty. All infallible sources are reduced to fallible interpretations by man so nothing is really better than anything else as far as certainty goes. The moment we say that 3 is not better than 2, we simultaneously say 2 is not better than 1. And the moment we say that 2 is better than 1, we say that 3 is better than 2 (or would be if it was true). The Protestant argument fails because we all know and agree that 2 is better than 1. Therefore 3 is also better than 2.
Consider a practical example in the following situations. 1. Scripture alone. 2. Scripture plus personal and direct guidance from Jesus Christ whenever any question arises. (Let’s say you had His cell phone number.) Now is 2 any better than 1? According to the argument above, it’s not any better whatsoever as regards certainty of the true meaning of Scripture. It might be neat to chat with Jesus, but the solo scripturist in 1 has just as clear of an idea of the true faith as the person in 2 according to the argument we’re addressing. But we know that Jesus could not make a mistake in interpreting the Scriptures. So only a total skeptic could say that His living authority would not help us decide the correct interpretation of various Scripture passages. It is precisely this same living infallible authority that Catholics claim is at work through the Church.
Now the arguments above don’t prove that the Church is infallible. But they do show that the “you’re not any more certain than us” argument is fallacious. It does not refute the doctrine of Church infallibility because it does not address it. And it does not prove that an infallible Church does not aid us in certainty for the reasons given above. I also recommend Dr. Liccione’s post on the same subject from some different angles: Bad Arguments Against the Magisterium, II
When Protestants (or Catholics) make a claim about Scripture’s inerrancy, they are not making a claim about their individual certainty, but about the trustworthiness of the source. Likewise, when we Catholics claim that the Church is infallible, we are not making a claim about our individual certainty. We’re primarily making a claim about the Church herself.
At least according to the argument we’re currently addressing. Many Protestants are fully aware that 3 would definitely be an improvement on 2 but do not believe it is true for other reasons. [↩]