The clever Eastern Orthodox MG, at the blog Well of Questions, has presented a interesting argument for church infallibility (which can be found here). The goal of this post is to respond to the defeaters to the Protestant position and to show that the Protestant is still rationally entitled to hold to Sola Scriptura.
"Most Protestants don’t want to say awful things about the Church. They don’t want to say that the Church became apostate for over a thousand years. They don’t want to say that the Church is just a mere human institution. There is something special about it. The beliefs of its members aren’t just normally-arrived-at human beliefs. There is divine guidance of some kind."Response: The problem is that a Protestant need not have a problem with saying that the church had a misconception or ignorance of some of the essential biblical doctrines handed down by the prophets and the apostles. The only thing that they ought to categorically deny is that everybody in the Catholic and Eastern church before the Reformation was going straight to hell. Thus, as Calvin and many of the Reformers thought there were always believers in the false external institution of the Catholic and Eastern church, as well as unbelievers. I would say that everything has divine guidance because I am a determinist, but I would not say the church is to be the true external church as prescribed by the New Testament because it contradicts the New Testament.
"But in order to not cross the line over to a Catholic ecclesiology,  a Protestant must deny the infallibility of the Church. An essential doctrine of Protestantism is Sola Scriptura. This view can be defined as the position about authority and Christian teaching that holds that there are no divine authorities about Christian teaching distinct from the content of the Old and New Testaments. This rules out (a) oral or written tradition distinct from the Scriptures as a source of infallible divine authority and (b) decisions by the Church as a source of infallible divine authority."Response: Protestants reject that the church today is a source for continuing or new infallible *in being* divine revelation. This is what Protestants mean by church authority. Also we reject the fact that the church can make certain pronouncements true today. Rather, the Protestant view of the church is that the church recognizes certain things that God has already made true either through scripture or right reason (these are the two ways we know what things he has made true). This is what Protestants mean by church authority. I would also take issue with MG's view on Sola Scriptura. I would hold to Sola Scriptura as an epistemological principle and not as a ontological one per se. There could be other traditions from Paul and Peter that we do not know about or we lack rational support for. If MG were to give me an infallible divine revealed tradition from a first century prophet or apostle in a church father and it was self-attesting and lacked historical defeaters then I would take that as divine revelation. However, I have never seen an eastern or western theologian do that with the church fathers so I am warranted in believing that the contents of scripture are inspired alone. Of course it possible that I missed some other divine revelation, but I don't think this is likely. I believe that what we have in scripture is sufficient for faith and practice, but I don't think it's all of the revealed truths of God. Thus, principle (a) could be true, but I am going to need self-attesting grounds for it and a historical tracing to one of the first century prophets and apostles. And lastly, principle (b) was true but because of verses in 1 Corinthians 13 and Ephs 2:20 I think that that type of authority has ceased.
"How does a Protestant deny the infallibility of the Church but still hold onto the idea that being in the Church tends to make you have the correct beliefs about the content of Christian teaching? The most plausible way to say this is that the Church’s judgments and the collective beliefs of all Christians are reliable but not infallible. To distinguish these two concepts, consider the statement “you should believe this (proposition) because we tend to be right”. The appeal being made is not to some kind of authority inherent in the group that is making the statement that garuntees the correctness of the group’s judgment. Rather, the appeal is to probability. It is an appeal to the duty that rational beings have to pursue reliable methods of belief-forming. This group is claiming to be accurate or reliable. Contrast this appeal with the command “you should believe this (proposition) because we say you should.” Here, the appeal is to the inherent authority of the group as a source of normativity. The duty to believe comes from the authority of the group, not the fact that a rational agent should adopt reliable methods for truth-seeking. This group is claiming to be authoritative."Response: Obviously, since I reject this need from the outset, this argument wouldn't be entirely effective on me. But let's just take a Protestant who wants to hold to the church having beliefs that are most likely true. Now this Protestant could have a principle that says that they should trust the church for doctrine (since it is mostly true) unless they have a biblical/philosophical defeater for that particular church doctrine. So the church would have in this view an "innocent until proven guilty" epistemic status. Now my personal view of tradition in theology is this: with all things being equal with reason/philosophy and scripture (biblical and systematic theology), if one had to choose between two interpretations in the Bible (one interpretation being untraditional and the other being traditional) one should choose the traditional reading. This is my view of tradition. But I happen to think that if there were any philosophical or biblical reason that would put this tradition into question then of course it would seem that those two things (philosophy/theology or reason and the Bible) would have a trump card over tradition (they have a higher epistemic priority). On all these scores these altered views I have given of church tradition and scripture escape the arguments that MG will give in his next quotes.
"A person, group, or method, can be reliable without being authoritative. So it is possible for something to be reliable but not infallible. Perhaps a Protestant could maintain that the Church is like this: it tends to get stuff right, but just isn’t authoritative. We should accept what it says, because it tends to get stuff right. It is not mere coincidence that makes the Church tend to get things right; it is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But we are not obligated by divine authority to do or think as the Church says, because the judgment of its members is no more authoritative than anyone else’s judgment."Response: I would tend to agree with this quote, mostly. However, there is one thing I would like to add: the reason why the church (Catholic and EO) tends to get things right is because they do ascribe some authority to the Bible and there are people in these corrupt external churches that are true believers. So perhaps that might be the way in which the Holy Spirit helps these institutions: by believers and the Holy Scripture.
"A major problem with this view is that if the Church has believed itself to be infallible, and it tends to get its beliefs right, then it is probable that it got its belief about its infallibility right. The ancient view of the Church held by Christians for over a millennium was that the Church had teaching authority, the power to forgive sins, the power to excommunicate, etc. This was held universally by Christians for the majority of Christian history. It was very important to everything they did and believed. The nature of the Church is the kind of thing we would expect a reliable Church to get right. If Christians were wrong about something of such overwhelming, earth-shattering importance for over a thousand years, then claiming that the Church is reliable in the face of this huge error is implausible at best."Response: The principles I laid out earlier avoid this conclusion well. If one thought that the earliest prophets and apostles reject this view of church authority (according to the Bible) then they would have a good reason for not accepting it (a defeater for it). Furthermore, if one thinks that there are philosophical reasons to doubt church authority then this would be another defeater for it. Thus, either one of these would be a sufficient defeater. And the doctrine of church authority loses its innocent until proven guilty epistemic status. I happen to think both are true, that there are both philosophical (my ockham's razor argument) and theological defeaters (1 Cor. 13 and Eph. 2:20) for church authority. I think these reasonable modified Protestant views of Eastern and Western views of church authority escape MG's argument. But I would grant it true that if someone held to the Protestant position earlier described then this argument would be effective. But I don't know any Protestant that is fully clothed and in his right mind who would accept such a vulnerable view of the church without any qualification.
"Consequently, if one accepts the reliability of the Church, then one should accept the infallibility of the Church. If you think the Church tended to get things right–especially the important things–then you should probably think that it probably got its self-understanding as an infallible, divinely-authoritative institution right. If you are committed to the fallibility of the Church, then it seems one should give up claims to its reliability as well. A more consistent Protestant position that denies that the Church’s belief-forming processes tend to be reliable would be preferable to a claim that implies that there is a high probability that the Church is infallible."
Response: I think that if someone accepts my qualified views of church reliability then they do not fall prey to MG's brilliant argument. However, I agree that this post is a great argument against a weak and ignorant Protestant position, but I think the more thought out version(s) escape it easily. Thus this argument is an argument against one view of Protestantism that is ignorant for making too much of an unqualified statement, but it is hardly a good argument against Protestantism as a whole. I will conclude by saying that one can thankfully reject church authority and be perfectly reasonable in holding to Protestantism.