Reformed Tiber Swimmers

Here’s yet another converts tale. A Reformed person swimming the Tiber has made a fallible decision to submit to a self-proclaimed infallible authority. He set out four possible authority options to submit to now that he’s decided to leave his Reformed church. The one that appealed to him is the following:

Submit to a form of Christianity that does not subscribe to Sola Scriptura and which has a interpretive authority which can plausibly claim to be led by the Holy Spirit, so as to remove myself as the authority.

The submission to that authority still rests on private judgment, the very thing scorned throughout this conversion story (read it for yourself). Other infallible authorities make claims that their authority rests on plausibility. Who decides which infallible authority is plausible? Why it’s none other than our potential convert. Rather than removing himself as the authority, he makes himself his own authority in choosing the correct infallible interpreter. He continues:

This makes the most sense. Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology takes into account the fact that people will disagree about the content of Divine revelation. Not that disagreement implies errancy or fallibility, but without a magisterium that is supernaturally protected from error, there is no way for me to be sure I am getting the interpretation that is the right one.

It may make sense in theory, but in practice our convert is still left with a Bible to interpret. Neither of these alleged authorities has done a good job in infallibly interpreting the content of divine revelation. A while back I mentioned how Roman Catholic apologist Tim Staples stated “There is a lot of freedom with regard to the interpretation of Scripture.” Tim affirmed that even the verses infallibly defined by the Roman Catholic Church “are left open to other interpretations as long as you don’t deny that which has been infallibly interpreted.” How many verses has Rome defined? Some say only a small handful of verses have an infallible interpretation, others deny the Church has defined the literal sense of any single passage. Roman Catholics aren’t even united on a basic issue like the inerrancy of Scripture.

The problem for Roman Catholics is compounded even more, because the church also says that a doctrine can be defined, but the scriptural proofs used to support it utilized by the church’s theologians might not actually support it. In other words, one can have certainty for a doctrine, but not have certainty in the scriptural proof texts for that doctrine. The infallibility is in the decree, not in the reasoning to that decree. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, ”the validity of the Divine guarantee is independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result. It is the definitive result itself, and it alone, that is guaranteed to be infallible, not the preliminary stages by which it is reached.” Note the words of Roman Catholic theologian, Johann Mohler: “Catholic theologians teach with general concurrence, and quite in the spirit of the Church, that even a Scriptural proof in favour of a decree held to be infallible, is not itself infallible, but only the dogma as defined.” [Source: Johann Adam Mohler, Symbolism: Exposition of the doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants as evidenced by their Symbolic Writings, trans James Burton Robertson (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1997), p.296].

As to a “a magisterium that is supernaturally protected from error” our Tiber swimmer needs to answer fundamental questions. Isn’t this simply a presuppositional claim? On what basis does one determine a church is infallible? It is merely assumed. All sola ecclesia groups assume their authority. In regards to Romanism, when asked how the Roman Catholic Church can establish her authority, notice it’s most often proved by the testimony of the Scriptures. That is, they will rarely admit to simply assuming it. Rather they quote a handful of Biblical proof-texts. This is a circular argument. Roman Catholics prove the authority of the Scriptures by the Church, and the authority of the Church by the Scriptures.

In regard to being sure he’s got the right interpretation once he joins Romanism, once again he ignores the simple fact that it’s his decision to trust in Romanism. He’ll never be able to escape himself and his own fallible decisions. His certainty will always be a fallible certainty because he’s fallible. He continues:

If I am able to toss out the 7th ecumenical council (as nearly all Protestants do) because it doesn’t match my interpretation, where will the tossing out stop? If church councils themselves are to be judged by a 21st century layman, theologically untrained, and unordained Christian like me, what is the point then of church councils other than to provide some really good advise from some really great men from the history of our faith? If they were not being guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit in these councils, with the expectation that all believers should submit to their decisions, then what use are they other than to help me form my own interpretation to submit to? The ecclesiologies that claim to have living, breathing successors of the apostles which are Divinely gifted with the ability to define doctrine in certain situations are the only ecclesiologies that make sense.

I have nothing against the church meeting in council, but this type of argument assumes more than some of the early councils did. Did they think they were infallible? This is pure anachronism. The Fathers did not profess to be the standard of truth, either in or out of council.

This paradigm also suffers from ignoring the church of the Old Testament. God’s people were able to discern God’s voice and work, this without an infallible magisterium. They knew which books were Scripture (Romans 3:2) without the aid of any infallible authoritative conciliar declaration. Christ and the apostles held the Jews responsible for knowing and properly interpreting the Scriptures. Never once is it recorded in Scripture that the Jews complained that they didn’t have an infallible magisterium. It was assumed by the New Testament writers that God’s truth was clear.

As conversion stories go, this one was a typical example of someone who bought the claims of Roman Catholicism without applying the same scrutiny to Romanism. It’s one thing to tear down sola scriptura, it’s quite another to apply the same scrutiny to Romanism. If one is going to argue against the sole infallible authority of Scripture, they should at least work just as hard to apply the same standards of scrutiny to their new infallible authority. Let’s try to point this Reformed Tiber swimmer back to the right shore. I’m fairly confident he’ll be reading this, so he can begin with this Primer On Roman Catholic Epistemology. He can follow this up with a positive defense of sola scriptura.