Dave Armstrong on Infallibility

Today I have been going through the apologetics articles of Dave Armstrong on the doctrine of infallibility. (You can find them under this link when you scroll down to “Papal Infallibility and Supremacy”) I did not read every line (and so I might have missed something), but I read a lot (and there is a lot!), and I have a lot to comment.

First I need to give Dave credit for his wide-ranging apologetics. He has read and written a lot, and he deals with issues that other apologists don’t. Taking Infallibility as an example, he is aware of the work of Döllinger and Tierney and posts some responses. Unfortunately, however, Armstrong’s arguments aren’t so strong.

(In what follows, I will be referring to Armstrong’s writings in general without giving exact citations and links. I take the responsibility for possible inaccuracies in presenting Armstrong’s views.)

Historical positivism?

In dealing with Döllinger, Armstrong criticizes what he calls “historical positivism”, i.e., reading history without faith. Similarly, when Küng published his book, he was mostly attacked on methodological grounds. It seems the most sophisticated Catholic criticism of non-infallibilists is precisely this: calling their method rationalism, positivism, historicism, or something of the sort.

I find this strategy very telling. In Church history, when there were dogmatic quarrels, it was customary to appeal to the sources of revelation, to Scripture and Tradition. Somehow in this debate the “orthodox” side has practically given up this method and resorted to a wholly new strategy.

It would be just as easy for me to label the “orthodox” position “fideistic”, “anachronistic” or something of that sort. But that is not the way to solve doctrinal questions. It is not a question on our side of approaching history without faith. Nor is it true that non-infallibilists presuppose their position when approaching history.

As far as I know, both Küng and Tierney changed their mind during their study. They both started with faith, they both changed their mind during their study. I myself came to doubt infallibility precisely because I was approaching history with faith and trying to defend the Church’s message. It was my faith in Paul, Irenaeus and Vatican II (that is, in Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium) that forced me to abandon the infallibility of the medieval councils.

The answer, then, to Armstrong’s two main rebuttals to non-infallibilists, is clear. He asks: 1) Why, then, be Catholic? What keeps you from becoming Anglican or Orthodox? 2) What criterion do you propose for determining orthodoxy, if you reject the Church’s dogmatic teachings?

I answer: 1) Because I belong to the Catholic Church which is my home and my family, because I love the Gospel delivered to the fathers of my Church, and because I am committed to the Church in love. If my father suddenly said he was infallible, I would not tell him I’m changing fathers. Rather I’d try to talk sense to him. 2) The Gospel, the Rule of Faith/Apostles’ Creed, communion with the Church (one’s Bishop who is in communion with the Pope).

Scripture and Tradition

I remarked that theologians used to appeal to Scripture and Tradition, but in this case the strategy has changed. Although Armstrong partly follows this new strategy, he also tries to play the old game. His major Scriptural argument for infallibility is Acts 15:28. It is also the passage Theodore Abu Qurra used when he first invented conciliar infallibility in the 9th century.

But the passage does not teach the a priori infallibility of ecumenical councils. All it says is that after the Apostles had agreed on the issue, they believed that the Holy Spirit had spoken. A modern parallel would be Vatican II: to be sure, the Holy Spirit spoke through the Bishops, when they (virtually) unanimously reformed many outdated magisterial teachings (like extra ecclesiam and religious liberty). And yet Vatican II worked without claiming infallibility to back up any of its teachings.

Armstrong rejects Protestant explanations (that this was isolated and unusual and restricted to the apostolic age) of Acts 15:28 as if they were the only arguments against this passage teaching infallibility. But of course it is as simple as this: the passage does not mention infallibility, the a priori immunity from error of ecumenical councils’ dogmatic definitions.

Another point to be made is that the Council in Acts, like Vatican II, made its decisions in favor of the Gospel, removing obstacles from its way (Acts: circumcision and Mosaic Law, V2: extra ecclesiam in favor of the common witness to the salvific Gospel by all Christians and the recognition of non-Catholic Churches). By contrast, many of the so-called infallible definitions from 325 to 1950 have done the opposite: they have added new obligations and conditions allegedly necessary for salvation, making the Gospel void.

Infallibility works only if God guaranteed it, if Christ taught it and if the Apostles passed it on. This is what Vatican I claims. If and since Vatican I is wrong on this and infallibility is a medieval theological opinion that made it to a conciliar teaching, then for the sake of truth it is better to question conciliar infallibility than to abandon faith or reason.

As far as Tradition goes, Armstrong sometimes appeals to the development of doctrine, but sometimes he seems to hint that the Church believed in infallibility from the very start. Specifically, he quotes Pope Leo, Thomas Aquinas and Francis de Sales. The only one of these with a doctrine like that of Vatican I is Francis de Sales, which simply confirms the fact that the doctrine is no older than the Middle Ages.

As for the development of doctrine, Armstrong appeals to Newman. But the problem here is that Pastor Aeternus does not present its doctrine as a development but as something given by Christ and believed from the beginning. The whole Tradition from Irenaeus to Vatican I operates under the idea of doctrinal immutability. If Newman is right, the Tradition is wrong, and the Councils are not infallible.

The meaning and merit of the doctrine

With Newman, Armstrong endorses moderate infallibility and claims that the Council (V1) was actually a defeat for the Ultramontanists – the definition is supposedly very restrictive, a win for the inopportunists (like Newman). My understanding is quite different.

First of all, the Faith Commission that was in charge at Vatican I consisted of infallibilists alone, no inopportunists were allowed to it. Although the inopportunists had been going out of their way to include a phrase about the other Bishops, Tradition, or the larger Church into the definition, the only significant last-minute correction to the text of the definition was the addition of the infamous ex sese -clause, stating that the Popes’ definitions are irreformable of themselves.

Second, it was not Newman but Manning who sat in the Commission of Faith at the Council, and Manning continued to interpret papal infallibility in maximalist terms even after the Council. For him, Pastor Aeternus did not restrict papal infallibility to rare cases. The conditions could well be interpreted much more widely.

Third, in fact the “official” interpretation given by Bishop Gasser favored precisely this maximalistic view. As I quoted in my review of Gasser’s relatio, he says there have been “thousands and thousands” of dogmatic definitions, not 6-12 like some postconciliar theologians have concluded.

And this brings me to the final issue of the merits of the doctrine. In a dialogue with a Protestant, Armstrong defends the very naive position that it is clearly laid out what Catholics must believe. He says that it is irrelevant which definitions are infallible, because Catholics are bound by all magisterial teaching.

Well, first of all, the CDF conceded in 1990 that theologians can disagree with the Magisterium on non-definitive teachings after prayer and study. Many bishops’ conferences reacted similarly after Humanae Vitae. Whereas Armstrong thinks HV is infallible doctrine (whether ex cathedra or not), many doubt this, and not just dissidents but top theologians such as Francis Sullivan.

So even though Armstrong says the intricacies of “what is infallible and what not” don’t make a difference for the ordinary Catholic, it is very clear that this is a utopia. Bishops worldwide disagree on such a concrete life-affecting issue as contraception.

Armstrong also appeals to the Catechism. But Ratzinger has written that the individual doctrines in the CCC receive no other weight than that which they already have, and that the CCC can be criticized. Which takes us back into determining which teachings are definitive and which are not. And there is no definitive list.

Armstrong did well to point out that the Catholic is in a better position that the solascripturist, because the various theological issues have been dealt with at one point or another. We are not ahistorical, we need to take the history of dogma into account. But it is that very history of dogma that shows us how flawed the infallibility doctrine is.

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4 Comments on “Dave Armstrong on Infallibility”

  1. Trebor135 Says:

    Hi Emil–thanks for the thought-provoking questions. I have a few questions:

    - Where did you learn that one theologian by the name of Theodore Abu Qurra came up with the doctrine of conciliar infallibility in the ninth century?

    - What do you mean by the phrase “the a priori infallibility of ecumenical councils”?

    • Emil Anton Says:

      Thanks for the comment!
      - I learned this from Francis Sullivan’s book “Magisterium”
      - I mean the belief (that already precedes the council) that under such and such conditions such and such teachings of such and such a council will not be liable to error. As opposed to an a posteriori acceptance of an already issued conciliar teaching as authoritative.

  2. Trebor135 Says:

    Correction–”thought-provoking post”.

  3. Trebor135 Says:

    Hi again Emil–no problem :)

    - Are you referring to this book from 2002 or an earlier edition? If so, what pages discuss Theodore Abu Qurra’s vital role in coming up with the doctrine of conciliar infallibility?

    - Thanks for the clarification. :) If Luke wished to teach the “a priori infallibility of ecumenical councils” in Acts chapter fifteen, what should the evangelist have written?


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