The Purpose of this post is to respond to a second post by Michael Garten at the Eastern Orthodox blog Well of Questions. This second post by Michael gives additional arguments for church infallibility. These are five smaller arguments that Michael has given and I will respond to each of them.
“1) The principle of testimony says that we should believe someone’s testimony about some event unless we have good reason to doubt the reliability of that person’s testimony. The fact of a person’s fallibility should not detract from thinking that they can be a reliable reporter about some event. When an early Christian after the death of the apostles claimed “I believe x because it was delivered to me by the apostles or someone who received their teaching from the apostles” they are a reporter. Their testimony should be considered reliable unless we have reason to believe otherwise.”
Response: I agree with the principles of this argument that we are warranted in thinking that a testimony is reliable until we have a defeater or a reason to doubt it. It’s hard to see that this is an argument for infallibility. The Protestant would need to see the citation from an early Christian witness and evaluate it on a case by case basis. Furthermore, if the Protestant saw an early church witness claim in writing that the church is infallible in the sense that it is a source of continuing revelation or a divinely inspired interpretation of revelation then the Protestant who believes the Bible teaches that divine revelation doesn’t continue after the completion of the canon would have a good reason to doubt this early church witness. Thus, it seems unclear if even the early post-canonical church did teach such infallibility and that we should trust an early witness that contradicts a teaching in the earliest church witness; Holy Scripture (Ephs. 2:20; 1 Cor. 13).
“2) Ancient Greek-speaking Christians’ interpretive skills should probably be taken into account as a reason for favoring the interpretations of early Christians. This isn’t an appeal to the intrinsic authority of Church offices or something; this is just saying “scholars who speak a language or a close derivative thereof, and are not as distantly separated in time, should be given the benefit of the doubt in how they understand a word/idea/sentence/book of that language”. Early Christian scholars who are culturally and linguistically connected to the apostles should be considered very weighty sources of information for how we interpret things. So the early Church’s scholars, at least, should be considered reliable in their biblical interpretations.”
Response: This is a good point, but I don’t see much inferential connection to church infallibility. However, it’s not clear that all people who have a good grasp of Greek should be considered as a beacon of doctrinal truth. Take Origen for example, he knew Greek very well, but we would not consider his interpretations as a part of main stream biblical teaching. Thus, this is all to say that we should look at the Ancient Greek speaking Christian’s remarks on the Greek as weighty and not so much there theology which could or could not be mistaken. Yet, we should take into consideration the theology they support by their linguistical points in the original Greek language. But this of course has nothing to do with church infallibility and it’s hard to see an argument for church infallibility from this standpoint alone (unless Michael supplies additional premises).
“3) The principle of early attestation states that we should tend to trust the testimony about some event the closer in time the testimony is to the event reported. Applying this to the teachings of the Church throughout, for instance, the first 3 centuries yields the conclusion that we should consider the Church of the first 3 centuries reliable in what it specifically taught. It is close to the events where the source (apostles and Christ) taught what it had to say, so its more likely to accurately report the source’s information (apostolic and Christian teaching).”
Response: This is a good point that any reasonable person could agree with. However, this argument and many others in this post fail to take into consideration the fact that many of the early teachings either wholly do not include the central parts of the gospel (they are ignorant of them) or they actually contradict the teaching of scripture. This is what many Protestants have claimed and thus if a claim in the early church father appears that go against the Bible (confuses justification and sanctification and a continuation church infallibility) then we would have good reason then to not accept it as authentic apostolic teaching. In the same way, we wouldn’t consider early corruptions of Gnosticism as authentic apostolic biblical teaching. The Protestant can just say that there were corruptions in the church early on and that there was and always will be in the covenant of grace made up of unbelievers and believers. It seems like then these arguments assume church infallibility to be biblical in the first place, which is something that Michael is far from proving in these arguments.
“4) Lets assume that the Church considers holy tradition to be a deposit of divinely-revealed truths. If this tradition is contained in oral practices (recitation of creeds, bishops teaching catechumens and clergy, etc.) then we have to ask the following question: is there any reason to think these oral practices would be reliable in preserving the content of the tradition? The answer is yes. The amount of care that is spent to preserve information is directly proportional to the importance of preserving the information. If you believe that you have received God’s words directly or intermediately, you will want to go to great lengths to preserve the content of that message. Given that the early Christians seemed to understand their tradition (including stuff not explicitly contained in the New Testament) as from God, there is a significant prior probability that they would not gratuitously warp the content of their tradition.”
Response: Most of these arguments miss similar types of considerations that Protestants consistently take into account. We don’t accept the Gnostic gospel of Thomas do we? Why not? Because it’s unbiblical and I am sure that most reasonable Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants could agree on that (it also doesn't seem to be self-attesting via Holy Spirits reliable belief production). We don’t trust this early testimony because it doesn’t fit in with what the first century prophets and apostles taught and wrote. Obviously if the Gnostic corruption is possible then it is certainly possible that there were some doctrinal corruption in some early thinkers that were a part of the visible church. Secondly, it’s not even clear if the early church taught the church infallibility that you believe in and if they did the Protestants would argue that such statements contradict what earlier New Testament prophets wrote. Most of the argument given in this post by you could be responded in a very similar fashion (as I have done above).
“5) One might construe passages such as “the Church [is] the pillar and ground of truth” (2 Tim 3:15) and “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13) as indicating that there is some kind of divine guidance behind the belief-forming processes of the Church. This divine guidance could be construed in terms of a tendency of the Church to get its beliefs correct, or infallible authority as well. However, there are other possible interpretations of these passages. Whether or not they are more plausible than saying that these passages indicate the reliability (or infallibility) of the Church is another question.”
Response: Protestant happen to think that the church was infallible during this period (even my favorite theologian James White), but that after the prophets and apostles died and when all the completion of canon came this type of divine infallible revelatory function ceased (1 Cor. 13; Ephs. 2:20).
Michael has given some interesting arguments in his post, but the fundamental problem with these arguments is that it assumes the Eastern position and fails to take into account basic Protestant reasons for not accepting church authority.