Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Infallible Knowledge Argument


A common argument used amongst the less thoughtful Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists these days is what I call the “Infallibility Argument” or the “Infallible Knowledge Argument”. The argument is usually stated that, in order to know such things as the inspiration, canonicity, or interpretation of Scripture, we must have an infallible authority to give us the answers to these things. Otherwise, we can never know these things with certainty. Therefore, we must bow the knee before “Mother Church” instead of relying on our human fallibility and Scripture alone for these answers. As I mentioned earlier, I called those who utilized this argument “less-than-thoughtful” and for good reason:



  1. Reduction to an Infinite Regress: If we have to have an infallible authority in order to know anything with certainty (such as the inspiration, canonicity, and interpretation of Scripture), then we have pressed the problem one step backwards since one would also need a second infallible authority to authenticate the first infallible authority. Of course, that would take the problem another step backward to a third infallible authority necessary to authenticate the second, and on and on it goes into infinite regress of necessary infallible authorities. The problem with such an argument is that it assumes epistemic infallibilism (see the point on epistemic infallibilism below).

At this point, some Roman Catholic apologists have appealed to historical evidence in order to give credence to the belief that the Church of Rome possesses infallible authority. Of course, once that is done, the Protestant is also allowed to determine the canonicity and interpretation of Scripture on the basis of historical evidence without any appeal to an infallible authority. I covered this same point in more detail here.1



  1. The Specificity of the Conclusion is Limited by the Uniqueness of the Claim: For this kind of argument to work, there can be only one group claiming infallible authority that the Christian can go to for answers. However, the Roman Catholic Magesterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are not the only groups claiming infallible authority. There are also cult organizations such as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the Mormon Prophet, and others claiming infallibility.



  1. Popes of the Past Have Not Seen It This Way: Popes, such as Leo XIII, have seen the issue the other way around:


“But since the divine and infallible magisterium of the Church rests also on the authority of Holy Scripture, the first thing to be done is to vindicate the trustworthiness of the sacred records at least as human documents, from which can be clearly proved, as from primitive and authentic testimony, the Divinity and the mission of Christ our Lord, the institution of a hierarchical Church and the primacy of Peter and his successors.”2



  1. The Hebrews Knew the OT Canon Without an Infallible Authority: When he chastised the Pharisees and Sadducees for not knowing the Scriptures (e.g. Matthew 15:3-9, 22:29-32, John 5:39-47, etc.), Jesus implicitly assumed that these groups should have known what was and was not canonical as well as the meaning of those Scriptures even though they didn’t have an infallible authority to decide these matters.



  1. Early Church Knew the NT Canon Without an Infallible Authority: According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the first time the extent of the canon was infallibly established within the Roman Catholic Church was at the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century. The Eastern Church has had no such infallible conciliar decree marking out the extent of the canon, and the debate continues to this day within that Church’s own ranks. It is, thus, apparent that the Church got along just fine without an infallible canon list for fifteen hundred years in the West and two thousand years and counting in the East.



  1. Assumes Epistemic Infallibilism: The problem with the argument lies within its implicit assumption that the only way to have any knowledge at all is to have infallible knowledge. This is the same assumption made in Post-Modernism/Linguistic Analysis/Deconstructionism/etc. The problem, of course, is that it is impossible for a human being to possess infallible knowledge of anything due to his finitude. However, this only prevents man from having 100% certainty. When we pick up a newspaper everyday and read a sentence or paragraph that someone wrote, we most certainly understand the meaning of the writer even though we may not be able to discern every last detail or every word’s full connotation that the writer intended. Though we have less than 100% certainty, we still have certainty nonetheless, and we could not live our lives on anything else. In the same way, the Protestant can use fallible means to determine the meaning of Scripture and the extent of the canon with certainty.

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2 Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13provi.htm

7 comments:

Carrie said...

Good work!

orthodox said...

"The Eastern Church has had no such infallible conciliar decree marking out the extent of the canon, and the debate continues to this day within that Church’s own ranks. It is, thus, apparent that the Church got along just fine without an infallible canon list for fifteen hundred years in the West and two thousand years and counting in the East."

Indeed, the church got on without an infallible list. This is because it was not sola scriptura. A sola scriptura church immediately needs to have a full and complete collection of scriptura to formulate its doctrine, or it risks getting proven wrong when the set of scripture is updated.

"The problem with the argument lies within its implicit assumption that the only way to have any knowledge at all is to have infallible knowledge."

No it doesn't. Seeking explicit revelation where otherwise there would be uncertainty or guesswork is a worthy excercise and a Christian position. If you reject seeking sources of revelation because its a fallacy that "the only way to have knowledge is to have it infallibly", then by that argument you could discard scripture.

kmerian said...

So, the Protestant can never be completely certain of his or her beliefs? By your arguments here, everything a Protestant believes should be followed by "but I could be wrong"?

How is that comforting? Never knowing for certain that anything you believe is true?

Jugulum said...

kmerian,

Someone might respond to your question by saying something like, "The problem with the argument lies within its implicit assumption that the only way to have any knowledge at all is to have infallible knowledge."

A particularly clever person might anticipate your question and provide that answer before the question is asked.

Jugulum said...

P.S. And for myself, I might respond by asking, "By what means did you, kmerian, acquire infallible knowledge of what the Church teaches on any subject?"

MG said...

SS--

Do you believe that there is a distinction between authority and accuracy?

James said...

Actually, according the classical foundationalist René Descartes, we do have a piece of infallible knowledge, that is 'I think therefore I am'. Also, it is possible that beyond that we have no knowledge. Taking your example of an article in a newspaper, if it contains false information (don't believe everything you read in the papers remember:)) then it is not knowledge. So at the end of the day possibly the only piece of knowledge we can be certain of is that each of us who thinks exists.