Protestant Infallible Interpretation, Part 3

Last time, we ended with a question that becomes necessary as a consequence of certain opinions that were held by (for example) Martin Luther: to wit, that the Holy Spirit helps a person to correctly interpret the Bible. The question is this: Given two Protestant scholars of equal training, equal intelligence, equal acumen, equal reputations for godly character, and with equal access to all essential resources, except that one is Presbyterian and one is Baptist, which one of them is correct with regard to the doctrinal and theological issues over which they disagree?

Beyond any argument they cannot both be correct when it comes to their respective understandings of the doctrine of Baptism (to name just one). Which one, then, has the Spirit (assuming Luther is correct), and which one does not?

Or are they both wrong?

Let’s grant of course that not all things about which Christians disagree are truly significant. St. Paul says this in Romans 14, and there really is no good reason to quibble about it. But are the issues about which Protestants disagree truly all matters of indifference? It’s absurd even to suggest this, because it is inconceivable at the very least that God does not care about the truth with regard to the form and meaning of the sacraments. If He gave them to us, then the outward signs matter in terms of what they represent. If He gave them to us, then the outward signs are meant to represent something specific. These things being the case, it is simply and flatly inconceivable that error on our part in regard to the matter and form of the sacraments is a thing of indifference to God.

And now we are arriving at our destination. Because on Protestantism’s own terms, it is simply and flatly impossible to determine who is right and who is wrong about the sacraments. But if Protestantism cannot deliver the goods with respect to the sacraments, then what Protestants say about how we learn truth from God has fundamental problems. In particular, since there are godly men on all sides of Protestant disputes about the sacraments, on Protestantism’s terms it would be special pleading to pretend that this one or that one among them has the Spirit, while the others do not. But this means that what Protestants say about how the Spirit leads the Church into all truth is simply wrong. Without any argument the Holy Spirit does lead the Church into all truth. But the facts of the case indisputably demonstrate that He does not do so in the individualistic way that Protestants suppose.

Sadly, the pioneers of the Reformation unconsciously imbibed too much of the spirit of Renaissance humanism. In their sincere zeal to see the undeniable abuses in the Catholic Church corrected, they went too far, and asserted for themselves the right to decide for themselves what the Bible says – to decide for themselves what the Bible teaches. Man as the measure of all things – but in a baptized version. For they would not throw God out, but rather, they would decide for themselves what it is that God says, and then they would seek to be faithful to that. In the Lord’s good providence, they and their descendants have to a great degree remained faithful to much of the truth of the Gospel of Christ, so that Catholics do not need to be afraid to reckon them as brothers and sisters in Christ. But to the extent that they have arrived at correct answers by means of their chosen hermeneutical tools, we have to recognize the fact that they have done so using an invalid method. Contrary to what they say, it is not for them to decide what God’s truth is. It is not for me to say so. It is not for them to pass judgment upon God’s Church on the basis of their own opinions. Rather than the humanistic approach of deciding for themselves, Protestants must acknowledge that the Church is the guardian of Gospel Truth, and they need to come home to her.

[Adapted, with some minor revisions, from this older post of mine.]

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Posted in Apologetics, Calvinism, Epistemology, Infallibility, Protestantism, Scripture, Solo Scriptura
4 comments on “Protestant Infallible Interpretation, Part 3
  1. metcaffeine says:

    You’ve said a lot about how you think that Scripture SHOULDN’T be interpreted, but I’m not sure I understand how you think it SHOULD be. You say that the church is the guardian of Gospel Truth, but don’t go into detail about what you mean by that. But even just speaking in general terms, I see some problems with that concept.

    1. You say that the church is the guardian of Gospel truth. However, the teachings of the Catholic Church have many times (I’m sure you would agree) strongly deviated from the Gospel message. You admit that the Catholic church was committing “undeniable abuses,” presumably speaking of indulgences and such. How is that possible if the church is the guardian of Gospel truth and is granted understanding of the Bible? In other words, if the church is the infallible interpreter of the Bible, how can it ever be wrong? And wouldn’t every change made to doctrine be a bad thing?

    2. I really don’t see how making the church the guardian of gospel truth fixes anything. The church is still made up of people, so fallible people are still doing the interpretation.

    3. The Bible makes it very clear that we shouldn’t simply unconditionally believe what we’re told. After all, the Bereans are commended for not simply accepting the authority of the apostles, but checking Paul’s message against the word: Acts 17:11: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” If it’s commendable to check the words of Paul himself against the scriptures, then surely it’s also commendable to check to make sure that what the Catholic Church says lines up with the Bible.

    Many other places in the Bible also encourage us to be very careful what we believe. These verses are written about prophets in particular, but make it very clear that we are supposed to carefully examine what we believe to make sure it lines up with Scripture.
    1 Thessalonians 5:21: “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good;”
    1 John 4:1: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
    1 Corinthians 14:29: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.”

    I don’t see how these commands could be directed at the church at large, rather than at individuals. As I said before, the church is made up of individuals. The church cannot examine these things, except in that individuals within the church examine these things. The church has no substance apart from its members.

    Anyway, I agree with a lot of what you say on this blog, from what I’ve read so far (I really just found it). I even agree that many protestants can be far too loose interpreting the Scripture. But I don’t agree that my hermeneutic is wrong. I believe that individuals do have to interpret the Bible, but there are very strict limits on how that’s to be done. There’s a right way, and a wrong way to interpret it. And I believe that there are some issues that the Bible could swing both ways on. For instance, I think that (certain) Old-Earth interpretations of the Bible are as valid as my own Young Earth viewpoint. But there are other issues–salvation issues, like the duality of Christ or God’s trinitarian nature–that there’s only one valid interpretation of.

    The way my church expresses it is this: we have a grammatical, historical, contextual hermeneutic. In other words, the Bible must be interpreted based on what it actually says with its words, not hidden meanings or Bible codes or anything. It must be interpreted based on what it meant to the people it was originally written to. Finally, the immediate context of the passage and the broader context of the whole Bible must be considered in interpretation. The grammar, the historical context, and the literary context are pretty objective standards, which prevent us from interpreting the Bible willy-nilly like some people do.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Met,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I do not promise that my reply will be satisfactory, but hopefully I can clear up one or two things.

    I don’t say much in this series of posts about the Catholic view of Bible interpretation because that is not the subject of the series, and I believe it would detract from the/a broader point of view that I am attempting to communicate, in at least one important way. The critique I offer here is not Catholic per se; the problems I discuss here are problems that I realized while I was still a Protestant. My hope with the series is to help Protestants think a little more deeply about their position and some of its inherent problems, not to make a case for the Catholic position.

    However, having been asked so politely, I feel a duty to give you some sort of brief response as to the Catholic view of things related to this, so here it is, in brief. First, I posit that the Church (however you want to define it at this point; it does not have to be the Catholic Church) must be infallible in some way or other because only on such a condition can we escape the theological relativism/subjectivity that is inherent in Protestantism (which I have tried to show in this series of posts). The question may be asked whether there is support in the Bible for the notion of an infallible (on some grounds or other) Church. I believe that there is. See for example Matthew 16 and 18 along with John 20:23. In these passages Christ is effectively binding Himself to honor certain actions of the Church on earth by the promises He makes. Now, let us ask an obvious question: what happens if the Church does something that is covered by those promises but which is evil? The answer is that Jesus would have put Himself in the position of honoring and guaranteeing an evil. But that is impossible, because God does not do evil. Therefore there must be some sense, some way, some set of conditions, in which God protects the Church (again, however you want to define it at this point) from placing Him in the position of sanctioning evil. In other words, there must be some sense or other in which God protects the Church from error.

    I ask elsewhere the following question: If I affirm position A about doctrine X, and the Church affirms position B about it, who is right? Well, based upon what I have argued above, I hope it is easy to see that it is just impossible that God would protect me from error on some important doctrine but not the Church.

    Given, then, that the Church must be infallible in some sense, which ecclesial communities make such a claim for themselves? Well, we can rule out the Protestants with one stroke, since they deny infallibility to themselves and to their denominations and to their councils. That left me with two options: Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Upon further research, I became sufficiently persuaded that the Catholic Church’s claims were reasonable, and that they do not contradict the Bible, and so I came to believe by faith that the Catholic Church is exactly what it claims to be: the Church that Christ founded.

    More could be said, but hopefully this overview gives you somewhat of an idea as to how my thinking about the matter developed.

    So, in (brief) reply to your points, I offer the following:

    1 and 2. The Church can’t be wrong in what it teaches about matters of faith and morals. That does not mean that every man in it is protected from all forms of error at all times – not even the Pope. Tetzel was wrong to sell indulgences, and the Church has made that clear. Priests, bishops, monks who abused children were dead wrong. There is a difference between infallibility and impeccability. The fact that Jesus chose Judas to be an apostle and that Peter had to be scolded by Paul are two indications that the Church’s leaders will not be free of sin nor free from every form of error, but these facts don’t obviate the Lord’s promise to protect the Church from error in some way: and the Church says that He has done so with respect to the Church’s formal teaching about faith and morals.

    3. On the contrary: Zechariah (Elizabeth’s husband) didn’t believe Gabriel unconditionally, and he was struck mute until his son’s birth/naming as a result. The point is that we are not free to question the veracity of God, nor of the teaching of the Church, because to do so would be a sin against faith. On the Catholic view faith is more than mere trust; it is assent to what God teaches either directly or through the Church.

    Anyways, thanks for reading the blog. I am glad you find at least some things here with which to agree :-)



  3. Big Brother to 4 says:

    Thanks for the detailed reply. I think I see where your coming from. Don’t agree, but I’m stubborn like that. :)

    My church believes that Matthew 16, 18, John 20:23, and other such passages are granting authority specifically to the apostles, and such authority doesn’t exist anymore because there aren’t any more people who knew Jesus in the flesh. In Matthew 16, at least, Jesus is speaking specifically and individual to Peter, rather than to a group of people, so it’s questionable at best to use that verse to say that the church in general has infallibility. At the moment, I can’t point to any particular verses that demonstrate that Jesus was talking only to his apostles. But I also think that you need some really good justification to expand statements made specifically to the apostles to apply to the church at large.

    What counts as formal church teaching? Do papal bulls? What about the bull of the crusades, which granted people indulgences for participating in the senseless killing of Christians? Saying that a certain action will reduce the temporal punishment a person will receive is a clear moral commendation of that action, after all, why in heaven would God reduce someones temporal punishment for sinning? The bull of the crusades thus morally commended the crusades.

    If that doesn’t count as a formal moral teaching–well why not? And what other things don’t count? If you just start picking and choosing which church teachings are infallible based on which ones you agree with, you’re in as bad a place as you were as a protestant.

    To me, the only thing that is infallible are the original manuscripts of the Bible. The church isn’t infallible, I’m not infallible. Only the original manuscripts are infallible, and they mean what their God-inspired authors meant them to mean. For me, interpreting the Bible is about trying to figure out–based on the grammar of the text, the immediate and wider literary context, and the historical context in which the author lived–what the original God-inspired author meant in writing what he wrote.

    Also, read the below link. To me, it really seems to me that claiming that the church is an infallible interpreter of the Word of God adds to Scripture, and this link explains why, and why it’s a problem.

  4. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Big/Met (Big Met?) :-)

    With respect to the fourth crusade, please see here. There are at least a few things that seem to not match up with what you’re saying (like, for example, the fact that the pope explicitly forbade the crusaders from attacking fellow Christians, and excommunicated those who did so anyway).

    With respect to the continued relevance of Mt. 16 & 18 and John 20: Catholics believe in apostolic succession, such that the promises made to the apostles apply by extension to their successors. See this brief article for an overview. Unless there is a visible church in which the authority of the apostles is sustained, it is impossible to distinguish who has been genuinely sent by God to preach from those who pretend to the claim.

    With respect to the CARM article, I believe that this series of posts, along with my article The Accidental Catholic constitute a sufficient response. As to 2 Tim 3, please also see James 1:2-4, where it is steadfastness that is said to make the Christian perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Hence I submit to you that the appeal to 2 Tim 3 for sola scriptura has problems.

    If only the original manuscripts are inerrant, then (since we lack all of them) it is impossible to say that any single teaching of the Bible is guaranteed to be inspired…because it might not have been in the original manuscripts. There is the further difficulty of even knowing what books belong in the Bible unless the Church declares the canon.

    Sorry if this seems brief; you asked some good questions that I did not want to ignore, but I am a bit pressed for time at the moment. :-)

    Peace to you,


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