John Bergsma and Papal Infallibilty, part 3

In his third post, Dr. Bergsma argues that conciliar infallibility is not enough “to preserve the unity of the Church, and to transmit the faith with certitude to the common believer” – one needs Papal infallibility, too.

Immediately I must again ask: how come the unity of the Church was preserved before 1870, was the faith never transmitted with certitude in the first millennium of Christianity? The Catholic response is of course that the truth of papal infallibility was there all the time, even though it was defined only in 1870.

Well, the evidence, then. Not for the primacy of Rome or Peter, but for the fact that Christians believed all throughout history that the Bishop of Rome can define new dogmas by himself and make them binding upon all the faithful. That he has the charism of infallibility, not just truth. And if they didn’t believe it, how does the Roman Church in 1870 have the right to demand such belief?

Bergsma’s argument

Dr. Bergsma argues that Papal Infallibility is needed because the “councils themselves sometimes need clarification”. How about the Papal stamentents, then? Are they clearer than the Councils? (Clearer than the Rule of Faith?) Why was there a need to inquire whether JP2 infallibly denied women orders? Who clarified that? The CDF, whose documents are authoritative, but not super-infallible.

There we go. It is an endless chain when you start with the “you need an infallible interpreter” argument. You need an interpreter of that interpreter, too, but you end up with a fallible interpreter of an infallible interpreter at the end. So why couldn’t you just be content with your fallible understanding of the infallible Gospel/Apostolic Faith?

What is infallible, anyway?

A second problem I see with Bergsma’s main argument is that papal confirmations of ecumenical councils do not qualify for infallible statements, anyway. According to Pastor aeternus, the Pope can infallibly define as revealed by God and binding on all a matter of faith or morals. There are no such definitions from Popes after each council.

This is connected with the problem of recognizing infallible statements. There is no infallible list of them, some think there’s only one (the Assumption), some think two (the Immaculate Conception), some say seven (even there only two are linked with ecumenical councils). Jesuit Garth Hallett has thus argued “the dogma seems to have no practical use and to have succumbed to the sense that it is irrelevant”.

The Living Voice

Finally, Dr. Bergsma argues that Papal Infallibility is needed (in addition to the infallibility of Scripture and Ecumenical Councils) because the Pope is always a living voice that can interpret and explain itself. Again, how many times has this happened infallibly? Why is infallibility needed for this?

The Pope can be a living voice and an authoritative teacher of truth without the dogma of infallibility. In fact, Bergsma confuses freedom from error with infallibility several times in his article. For instance, “God has to transmit to us the saving truth free from error (that is, infallibly)”. Freedom from error means there is no factual mistake, infallibility means there can never be any mistake.

God can easily transmit the saving truth to us free from error, in the Gospel, the Scriptures, the Tradition, the preaching and teaching of the Pope. And he does. But this does not have to mean the Popes and Councils can never err in their dogmatic statements. In fact, as I mentioned before, all of Vatican II and post-conciliar Catholic theology by and large assume they have.

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7 Comments on “John Bergsma and Papal Infallibilty, part 3”

  1. mack brislawn Says:

    A lot of good points here. So, with our fallible understanding, it seems as if we will never know the truth. Because that the Gospels and Apostolic Faith are infallible is just an assumption we make. They may well have errors in them, as modernist scholars assert.
    So if papal infallibility does us no good, neither do Gospel and Apostolic Faith do us any good, whatever the gospels and apostolic faith are. Since, how do we infallibly even know what they are?

    I guess each of us will need a direct revelation from the Holy Spirit.

    • Emil Anton Says:

      Being fallible doesn’t mean we can never know the truth, it only means it’s always possible to be in error. In the end I guess we will see at the end who knew the truth and to what extent. The Gospels and the Apostolic Faith are not just assumptions we make, they are objective historical realities, recorded by the Apostles and their disciples. There is a lot of good historical (and empirical or experiential, I might add) evidence for their truth.

  2. mack brislawn Says:

    Gee, if it is possible to be in error, then we have no way of knowing whether we are in error or not. Yes, possibly we know the truth, but since we’re fallible it also means possibly we are in error. We can never know.
    We have to trust the apostles and disciples in their testimony, which really translates to trusting the church when it selected these testimonies as being true and historical. But if the church isn’t infallible, then we can’t be sure the testimony of the apostles isn’t infallible too.
    It seems that we have to take as a starting point the infalliblity of the church. Which means the infallibility of ecumenical councils. But if we can’t trust them…
    It seems the only way is direct individual illumination by the Holy Spirit. Which short circuits church, scripture, missionaries and so on.

    • Emil Anton Says:

      So there is no possibility you are in error? Wonder why none of the early Christians ever felt they needed to start with the infallibility of the Church. Yet they firmly believed they knew the Truth, for the Truth carries the name of Christ. He came into the world and was knowable long before any so-called infallible dogmatizations.

      From now on I will spend no more time on comments like this one. If we are going to discuss a theological issue we’d better go to the sources of the faith in a responsible manner. Anachronistic and naive comments will be deleted.

  3. mack brislawn Says:

    Actually, I’m not defending the infallibility of the pope as I’m not really a fan of the doctrine myself.

    Now, my being in error, of course I can be in error. However, since I am fallible, I have no way of knowing when I am in error or not! If I really know the truth or not. That’s the difficulty I see developing.

    The early Christians started with the infallibility of the apostles. That was a given, so naturally they didn’t need to discuss the infallibility of the church. They and the apostles were the church.
    The apostles indeed are the sources of the faith. But the apostles are long gone; we today do not have the apostles to listen to, only the church. However, if the church is fallible, then we can’t be sure we are getting the apostolic faith without error.
    That’s the problem as I see it.

  4. Emil Anton Says:

    Would you like to provide evidence that the early Christians started with the infallibility of the apostles? Have you read the Christians of the first 2 centuries? I have read all their writings and they don’t. Nobody uses that terminology in the NT or afterwards. They simply believed the Gospel preached by the Apostles, because they had good reason to, they saw sings and wonders or the moral change effected in others or longed for the promises of the Gospel. No infallibility needed. And again, what evidence is there that early Christians reasoned that way about the infallibility of the successors of the apostles? Why hasn’t the Church been handing on a set of infallibilities all throughout the centuries, if it’s that essential? And the Church itself admits most of her teaching is non-infallible, so the problem of not being sure about the apostolic faith without error remains anyway. And when you go into the so-called infallible dogmas you get a bunch of explanations about the development of dogma, not the simple apostolic faith which is recored for us in the NT and the early fathers.

  5. mack brislawn Says:

    Would I provide evidence that the early Christians started with the infallibility of the apostles? That’s easy, because you did it for me. You gave a list of good reasons why they believed the apostles. Of course, the early Chrisitans didn’t call their belief in the apostles infaillibility–they would have thought along the lines of trustworthiness, believability, credibility, can I put my faith in what this person is telling me? Those who answered yes became Christians, those who answered no we presume did not become Christians. So the terminology as such is not important, but the idea behind it is.
    Did the early Christians believe the apostles were sent by God? I am inclined to think that they did. Why would they? Because Jesus had revealed the Gospel to Paul personally; Paul raised people from the dead; Peter received visions from God; and the people believed Peter could work miraculous healings.
    So, the early Christians accepted the idea that God was behind what the apostles taught. And since God is infallible, that means the apostles were also infallible, using the terminology of today. That is all that infallible means, that God is behind the utterance and therefore can be accepted as true and error free.
    Again, the specific terminology is not important so whether the early Christians and early fathers used ‘infallible’ isn’t to the point.
    Did the early Christians believe that the successors of the apostles were handing on their teachings accurately? I don’t know–maybe you can answer that.
    Why hasn’t the church been handing on a set of infallibilities? Well, of course, it has. These infallibilities are called the Gospel, NT, Tradition, Apostolic teaching. We have no access to these infallibilities except through the infallibility of the church.
    What is the simple apostolic faith? The answer to that is not simple. Controversy as to what the apostolic faith was has been going on for centuries.


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