Is there a good Biblical case for Church infallibility? Some Orthodox friends of mine have attempted to do this by using Acts 15. They like to point out v.28 "For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:" They are quick to say the setup here strongly resembles the seven ecumenical councils and the infallible pronouncement came about through the Church. They use the leader James to further support the Church's authority in order to counter any mention of the apostles. I take issue with this for several reasons: apostolic presence, James' appeal to authority, key differences between the account in Acts and the ecumenical councils, and simple hermeneutics.
Both Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians place infallible authority in the apostles. Tension arises between the two views over how this authority is expressed. The Orthodox say apostolic authority lies in the Church itself (see section on apostolic succession) and Protestants limit this kind of authority to the written Word.
That said, the Acts 15 example should have little impact on Protestants who believe apostolic presence is the key ingredient in this situation. Protestants believe there was an infallible pronouncement, but part company when the presence of the Church is offered as the reason for the pronouncement. A different Biblical example needs to be offered in order to show that an infallible pronouncement can occur via the Church councils apart from the bodily presence of the apostles. Unfortunately for Orthodoxy, no such passage exists.
It has been put forward that one should not think the bodily presence of the apostles was necessary since the Jerusalem Church leader James was present and is not an apostle. First, James' position as a church leader does not detract from the apostolic presence. Second, if what was mentioned is not satisfactory, all one needs to do is look at what James appeals to in order to make his decision.
James appeals to 1) apostolic authority and 2) written tradition. In v.14 James goes back to what Simon Peter said and then in v.15 appeals to the words of the prophets before saying in v.19 "Therefore it is my judgment that..." This successfully counters the attempt to use James' leadership to deflect from apostolic presence as the necessary ingredient.
The Jerusalem church was founded by the apostles, and even though the church had room to make it's own decisions, the real authority was in the apostles, not James. Mark Saucy, a professor at Talbot seminary who has 13 years experience with the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine comments, "James is not even mentioned in Acts 15:4 nor in the final resolution recorded in 15:22 or 16:4. James prestige also was likely a result of his reputed piety in the church, which church history also attests.”
As far as a comparison between the seven ecumenical councils and the decision in Jerusalem is concerned, there are some key differences that are generally not mentioned by those making this comparison. First, authority was not located in the Jerusalem council itself, and second, unlike the ecumenical councils, only two churches are represented in Acts 15.
Authority was not located in the Jerusalem council. Neither James or the church in Jerusalem called the council, nor did they bring Antioch into account. Antioch initiated the meeting because the people from the Jerusalem church were stirring up trouble. The church in Jerusalem responded by telling them what to abstain from food sacrificed to idols...ect, encouragement and assurance that they did not send those people who disturbed them.
Unlike the seven Ecumenical councils, only two churches were represented in Acts 15. Even though adequate church representation can be questioned for the ecumenical councils, this was the intent. We see no such aim in this supposed "early ecumenical council." Instead, it is confined to two churches and does not represent the whole Church body. That is, unless the apostles are the key representative ingredient.
When reading the Scriptures and trying to understand the meaning of a passage or what is normative, one must always consider the genre in which the book is written. It would be unwise to read the Proverbs in the same way as Romans. Why? Because each belongs to a different genre and should be interpreted differently. While, using good hermeneutics will not guarantee that we will understand everything we read, it can help us to avoid some major interpretative mistakes.
Since the 1960's , people have more increasingly believed that they not only create the meaning of a text, but also create the text itself (Russel 2006syllabus p8). This is a huge problem in our culture and one that many Eastern Orthodox Christians are quick to point out. They also see our Protestant denominations as chaotic since there are many interpretations.
Each individual looks through his cultural lenses and arrives at his own interpretation. Eastern Orthodoxy is not immune to this either. They too are very much a product of their time. Those after the time of the apostles had their own lenses and influences when dealing with various heresies. This however, will have to make up another post.
One should read all of Acts with the whole in mind. When reading narratives, it is good to read the whole thing in one sitting several times and look for patterns and themes. The entire book should be combed in order to determine whether "specific events form a consistent pattern throughout or if the positive models Luke presents vary from one situation to another. The former will suggest that Luke was emphasizing a normative, consistent principle; the latter, that applications may change from one time and place to the next" (Into to Bib Interp; Klein, Blomberg, Hubbard, p424).
There is no explicit statement in Acts telling us that the Church is infallible. If there were, a different kind of discussion would be appropriate. Instead, it is charged that Church infallibility is implicit within the text. If the idea of Church infallibility is normative and can be found implicitly in the text, then the following criteria should be met:
1) The behavior or emphasis must be repeatedly emphasized within the broader narrative of Acts.
2) The recurring patterns of behavior must also closely align with Luke’s main purpose to be considered normative (Russell p64).
Clearly, Church infallibility does not pass the criteria for being normative. The only way this could be taken as normative would be if Church infallibility were already considered true and the Church interpreted the passage in it's favor. This may bless the hearts of those who already accept Church infallibility, but it should not have the same persuasive power on Protestants.