Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Infallibility, canon & private judgment

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3 minutes to read Why appealing to infallible tradition gets you nowhere at all.

Traditionalists like Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are prone to say that Protestants can’t bootstrap the infallibility of Scripture, because they are forced to fall back on their fallible private judgment in not only interpreting, but even knowing the contents of, the Bible.

This claim is sort of their coup d’├ętat; if it fails they really have nothing. So it’s odd that they remain steadfastly oblivious to how the same issues consistently beset their “solution”:

  • Until Trent, Rome had not pronounced on the contents of the canon. Thus, in the West, the church had no infallible list of infallible books until the mid-16th century. Individual Christians were forced to use their private judgment to decide which books were Scripture and which weren’t.
  • Moreover, different traditions within the church held different canons. So appealing to tradition is self-defeating here; the individual must first exercise his private judgment in discerning which tradition is infallible.
  • Even more of a problem: Trent wasn’t an infallible council (or at least, so I’m told—since Rome hasn’t seen fit to infallibly disclose a list of its infallible pronouncements, individuals must exercise their private judgment in discerning whether any given pronouncement is infallible or not). This means Catholics are actually in precisely the same boat as Protestants: they have a fallible list of infallible books.
  • Even if Trent were infallible, or some infallible pronouncement on the canon comes out in future, Vatican II gave up the doctrine of plenary inspiration. This commits Catholics to, at best, an infallible canon of fallible books.
  • This exposes a more fundamental weakness in the Traditionalist position: an individual’s acceptance of Rome (or any other Traditionalist church) as the infallible church set up by Jesus rests entirely on his private judgment of the scriptural and historical evidence. At best, he has a fallible belief in an infallible church.
  • Moreover, Traditionalists get their “proof” for their church from the Bible. They claim infallibility for their church because Jesus infallibly revealed that in Scripture. But how can they authenticate their church from Scripture when Scripture has to be authenticated by their church? The vicious circularity is so obvious that Traditionalists’ continued blindness to it seems rather willful.
  • On the issue of the canon in particular, Traditionalists are caught on the horns of a dilemma: if the New Testament Church requires an infallible list of infallible books, then the Old Testament Church surely did also. The Jews knew what was Scripture and what wasn’t. But which Jewish institution made this infallible pronouncement? The Pharisees which plotted against Jesus? The Sanhedrin who condemned him to death? Surely not heretics like the Sadducees or Samaritans. If any of the available bodies could pronounce infallibly on the OT canon while rejecting the Messiah, that scuttles the Traditionalist claim that infallibly pronouncing on the canon is something done by the true church. But the alternative is no better for them, since if there was no infallible pronouncement on the OT canon, why should there be one for the NT canon?

In short, the Traditionalist view doesn’t merely push the problem back a step; it actually exacerbates it.


Andrew Duncanson

Interesting, I thought that all the Roman Catholic ecumenical councils were “officially” infallible – is Trent unique in that regard? How else could Vatican I promulgate Papal Infallibility if the council itself wasn’t infallible?


Could one sees Papal Infallibility as a means to legitimized the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to have the theological powers vested by God? And therefore the one and only true authority on earth to dispense God’s will. A rather circular argument for that matter.