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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Infallibility & The Canon

Certainly Romanists should agree that God is at least capable of bringing to pass his eternal plan and purpose without making his volitional creatures infallible. Judas and the Satan serve as prime examples of fallible beings that always did as God has decreed. However, their actions were not morally right but rather terribly wrong; so not to confuse matters we won’t use them as examples of fallible creatures that always did as God determined. How about when Johnny is ordained from the foundation of the world to get 100% on his fifth grade math final, does he do so infallibly? No, but he does so impeccably.

What is it to be infallible after all? For the Romanist it has to do with immunity to error. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines infallibility as 'Inability to err in teaching revealed truth'. With respect to Johnny, if it was impossible for him to err on his test, then would he have earned 100% infallibly? Now in one sense, given that God decreed that Johnny would earn 100% on his test, there is a sense in which it was impossible for him to err. Notwithstanding, such a description is misleading because it makes infallibility a vacuous term; for even Judas and the Satan would be infallible on such terms. (Certainly they have done some things formally right.) Although Johnny’s choices are never metaphysically free, there are certainly “possible worlds” where Johnny fails to earn 100% given the same state of affairs in which he earns 100%. At the moment of choice, God brings to pass a distraction for instance, causing Johnny to shade in the wrong oval on the exam. All this to say, although Johnny is naturally capable of error (i.e. fallible by nature), God brought to pass according to his predetermination Johnny’s perfect score. So to call Johnny infallible would be a misnomer. (Now of course Charles Hodge was wrong when he said that Jesus could have sinned. Not only had God decreed that the Second Person of the Trinity would not sin – more the point, a divine person cannot sin in any possible world. Johnny could err and still be Johnny - so error is compatible with Johnny’s person. Jesus could not have sinned and remained God; so there is no possible world in which he sins. The impossibility goes beyond a matter of decree. It’s an ontological consideration.)

Now then, is there a possible world in which the church does not receive the canon aright? Well, let me rephrase that question. Is there a possible world in which Jesus promises that the church receives the canon and she does not receive it? I would say ABSOLUTELY NOT. Does that make the Romanist position correct? After all, isn’t it true that because Johnny errs in possible worlds, Johnny must be fallible even when God decrees that he act impeccably correct? Yet because Jesus errs in no world, he therefore cannot err and is, therefore, infallible. So what about the church? If there is no world in which she errs on the reception of the canon given the promise to receive the canon, mustn’t the church have been infallible when she received the canon? NO – and here is why. Up until now we’ve only been talking about possible worlds in which one errs or does not err given the same state of affairs. So, when Johnny is merely decreed to get 100% on his test without an accompanying divine promise, there are possible worlds in which he doesn’t earn the grade he ends up getting in this world, corroborating that he is fallible. Yet once a promise is made from God, it is impossible for what the promise contemplates not to come to pass in any possible world wherein the state of affairs includes the divine promise. In a word, there are no possible worlds in which Johnny is promised a grade of 100% by God and does not receive it, lest it is possible for God’s promise not to come to pass. I hope we can see more clearly that infallibility is not a necessary condition for the impossibility of acting incorrectly. If Johnny were promised 100% by God, Johnny does not become infallible in order to earn the mark, but rather fallible-Johnny is preserved from error according to the promise. Given the promise there is no world in which Johnny fails to earn 100%, even in those worlds in which he simply guesses the answers. Maybe a less hypothetical example might be of use. There is a promise from God that all true believers will be glorified. That means there is no possible world in which a justified soul perishes, given the golden chain of redemption. Does that make justified sinners infallible in their perseverance in faith? No – but it certainly demonstrates God’s preservation of his adopted sons in Christ. (Obviously, no sinner is perfect in sanctification and that is not the inference that should be drawn here, or used against this short polemic. The point is that the justified will believe the truth until the end, which can be for one of two reasons - their infallibility or God's infallible preserving of them. Again, to act correctly is not a sufficient condition for infallibility - i.e. infallibility is not necessary for correctness.)

In summary, to say that all men are infallible because they always act according to what God determines would make “infallibility” a vacuous term. Nobody is doing that. A subset of that consideration is that when morally responsible agents get the correct answer, they are not behaving infallibly lest we all have seasons of infallibility. When a divine promise is made, which must come to fruition being a divine promise, infallibility is not a necessary condition for the result to obtain lest sinners justified by grace become infallible in their perseverance.

Proof for the reception of the canon:

Jesus promised to build his church. (Matt. 16:18) Jesus also told his apostles that those who received them received Him. (Matt. 10:40) The implication is that the building project of the Lord was to be founded upon the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20) Consequently, the words of the apostles and Christ had to be received without error because Jesus promised to build his church upon them, which is now a matter of history given the passing of the apostles. Therefore, the canon is closed, lest the church has no foundation. The apostolic tradition was both oral and written (II Thess. 2:15) but only the written apostolic tradition has been providentially preserved. Accordingly, Scripture alone is what the church is built upon, which must have been God’s intention since Scripture alone is all he left us in keeping with Christ Jesus’ promise to build his church.

This simple argument has recently been met by Romanists from "Called to Communion" with resistance for two primary reasons. The claim is that the apostolic office in view in Ephesians 2:20 includes both the perpetual seat of the papacy and the oral tradition of the church. Let’s assume then that the unwritten tradition still exists even though it has never been produced. Jesus promised to build his church and we’ll say that he promised to build it upon both Scripture and unwritten tradition. (I of course would say that if Jesus promised to build his church on the unwritten tradition then he failed since there is no preserved unwritten tradition that the church has been built upon; yet for argument sake let’s assume the tradition is intact.) Whether we have the unwritten tradition or not has zero impact on the argument from “intent and providence” for the reception of the written tradition. Any preservation of the unwritten tradition does not undermine the reception of the written tradition. Now in a last ditch desperation Romanists will resort to saying that the texts in view are not just speaking about the teachings of Christ and his apostles (even oral traditions) as being the foundation of the church, but rather the texts mean that we are to receive for the foundation of the church the teachings of their alleged successors (the popes) both written and oral. In passing I’ll note that to have to receive the teaching of a pope 2,000 years after the teachings of the apostles and Christ would clearly deny the import of “foundation of the church.” But aside from the obvious, even if we grant the point, the reception of the written tradition through divine intent and providence is not affected by the Gnostic “exegesis” of Ephesians 2:20 regarding popes because a papal apostolic succession and the reception of the canon are not mutually exclusive premises. To “refute”” the Protestant position on the canon in a non-arbitrary, non-ad hoc fashion the Roman apologist will have to deny that Jesus had any intent whatsoever for the church to be at least partially built upon his written words and the written words of the apostles. To introduce Gnostic dogmas regarding unwritten traditions and the succession of bishops is simply to throw up Red Herrings in a sophist manner.

In sum, the Roman apologist needs to avoid the divine intent at all cost; for as soon as he acknowledges Christ Jesus’ intent to build His church “at least in part” on Scripture, he is then constrained to show why God’s intent could not have come to pass without an infallible magisterium (according to the same divine providence by which the rest of the eternal decree comes to pass). Since Romanists cannot possibly succeed in showing that God could not bring to pass the reception of the canon without an infallible magisterium, they are left no other choice (short of becoming Protestant on this matter) than to bring into question the divine intent. The Romanist does this through arguing by false-disjunction, introducing non-mutually exclusive premises to the promise of building the church “at least in part” on the canon; these Red Herring premises are intended to (a) establish a need for an apostolic oral tradition, and (b) establish a succession of infallible bishops. Yet neither a nor b undermine the divine intent to bring to pass the reception of the canon for the establishment of the NT church. Yet even allowing for those unjustified premises, the Romanist still cannot with any valid argumentation undermine the divine intent, which presuppose the necessity of bringing to pass the reception of the canon. They with the Satan can only say, “Has God said?”

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