John Bergsma on Papal Infallibility, part 1

On the Sacred Page blog, John Bergsma wrote a three part series of articles on Papal infallibility in response to some remarks I made in the comments section of his earlier post on the papacy as such. In this post I would like to critique Bergsma’s presentation, as it is representative of many Catholic presentations of the dogma.

In the comments I had lamented the fact that papal infallibility (as well as other late dogmas) is almost always considered apart from the saving power of the Gospel, as if the Gospel did not save (see Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 15:2) or even exist. Unfortunately, Dr. Bergsma did precisely the same in his articles, although he had recognized my comment.

Where do we start?

I think the biggest problem with Bergsma’s presentation is its erroneous starting point. He starts from the question: “Who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture?” I used to look at it this way too, until I started going to the true sources of the faith, the inspired Apostles and their disciples who handed on the apostolic Tradition.

Bergsma’s starting point might be appealing to a naive Fundamentalist who thinks the Bible fell down from Heaven as a timeless collection of truths that we now need to sit down and correctly understand. A Catholic (equally naive and Fundamentalist) can say hey, God came down from Heaven to establish a Church to interpret the Bible for you.

The Gospel and the Rule

But this is not how it went at all. As Dr. Bergsma well knows, Christianity started with the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. From Pentecost on, the Apostles were preaching the salvific Gospel. They were not giving out Bibles and issuing infallible interpretations.

Of course, people soon started to mix truth with error and the Apostles and their followers needed to react. But here’s the deal: the answer was much more simple than an infallible Magisterium or Pope, it was the rule of faith, the faith received from the Apostles.

For Irenaeus, the rule of faith served as the key to faithful Bible interpretation. Irenaeus said there were many puzzles to be solved in the Bible, and each Bishop could try to interpret them according to the wisdom given him (i.e. he did not know of any infallible instance for easy answers). But what was clear was the Apostolic Faith. To this faith no one dares to add anything.

Fallible infallibility

Dr. Bergsma argues there are only two possible final arbiters: The Church or every individual Christian. He opts for the Church, later explaining this to mean Ecumenical Councils and the Pope. But these are not the only options, nor is this the answer of the early Church. The infallible arbiter is the Rule, whose content is by and large identical with the Apostles’ Creed.

This Rule is faithfully proclaimed in the Church, but each individual can understand it and even judge presbyters and bishops who deviate from it. The Church’s job is to hand on the Faith, not to add to it. The Apostolic Rule does not contain any mention of any infallible Magisterium or Pope. Such an addition is by definition fallible, since there is no previous infallibility to guarantee its truth.

Scripture and Tradition

If Jesus gave the Councils and Popes dogmatic infallibility, it would be a different story. Bergsma does what Catholics often do: cite Mt 16 and 18 as well as John 16, but forgetting the question they otherwise ask their Protestant friends: is this how the early Christians understood it? Is there an interpretive tradition supporting this reading?

There is no such thing, nor do the texts in context say anything about dogmatic conciliar or papal definitions. They talk about the fact that the Church is the place of communion with God, the forgiveness of sins, and that the Holy Spirit will always dwell with the followers of Jesus.

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9 Comments on “John Bergsma on Papal Infallibility, part 1”

  1. Nick Says:

    I think there is a ‘middle approach’ here. It’s wrong to approach the Christian Faith as a matter of “who interprets Scripture?” but it’s equally wrong to approach the Christian Faith as a Rule handed on without reference to Apostolic Succession doing the handing-on.

    I think the best source here is the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, for we see how the Church first lived and how it had to ‘morph’ to accommodate new issues. In Acts 6, we see the Apostles couldn’t keep up with the ‘bread and butter’ tasks in the Church, so they instituted the office of Deacon. When the Judaizer heresy spread at the introduction of the Gentiles, Acts 15 says the Church met to decide that matter, and this is a very valid “template” for Church infallibility and such.

    The fact is, it’s simply impossible to derive correct Ecclesiology from the Apostles’ Creed, just as it’s impossible to derive various other aspects of the Faith (e.g. Liturgy). So “Creed Alone” Christianity is just as truncated and problematic as “Scripture Alone”. Any Christian view that fails to see the Church as a “top down” hierarchy guiding the flock is bound to collapse into “Nondenominational Protestantism” void of any dogmas.

    So here is my question to you: is Christianity synonymous with simply accepting the Apostles Creed, and however one wants to interpret it?

    • Emil Anton Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Nick!

      I certainly agree that Irenaeus emphasizes the Bishops and Apostolic Succession a great deal. It is indeed the way the Faith was passed on, and still is. Irenaeus certainly doesn’t advocate “creed alone” -Christianity, the Church communion is very important, and I don’t want to claim otherwise at all. But the important point is that for Irenaeus (as for the Church today) Bishops and priests can err and the faithful are not to follow them if they lead sinful lives or teach differently from the Church’s faith. Of course, there had been no Councils in Irenaeus’ time so it’s anachronistic to make him say anything about their infallibility. But the point is conciliar infallibility is a late (8th or 9th century) theological development and as such originally a fallible opinion. So, while based on Irenaeus I find it hard to blame a non-Catholic Christian (who does not wish to be in communion with a communion that has added all kinds of dogmas to the Rule of Faith, dogmas that were not considered revealed by God in the early Church), I also believe universal ecclesial communion is paramount. For me at the moment the most Irenaean position to take is to stay in the Church but be critical of the additions to the Faith. Not that Irenaeus is an absolute Rule, either, I’m not advocating solo Ireneo, but in this central matter his voice is important, and goes well together with the spirit of V2, which quotes him a lot.

      I find it beautiful that in the liturgy the Church still celebrates and proclaims this apostolic faith, as when someone is baptized, the Creed is read (or basic questions relating to it asked) and then the priests exclaims: “This is the Faith of the Church, our Faith!” This faith, no questions asked about papal infallibility or its new Marian definitions. And so be it. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

      • Nick Says:

        “solo Irenaeo” – LOL

        I’m still not sure how you understood my question about Christianity being synonymous with the Apostles’ Creed and one’s personal interpretation of it. What is the Rule of Faith that tells one what Ecclesiology and Liturgy are supposed to look like? If there isn’t such a Rule, then you’re forced to admit (as many Protestants do) that Ecclesiology and Liturgy are “non-essentials” and thus can be whatever the believer wants.

        In other words, how ‘strict’ is the term “Rule” being used. If your worry is of people “adding all kinds of dogmas to the Rule of Faith,” then it seems your view of Christianity has collapsed into the confines of the Apostles’ Creed and no further. It seems arbitrary to limit oneself to Papal Infallibility and Marian Dogmas when there is a whole host of “teachings” that can hardly be derived from the Apostles’ Creed.

        And, further, if we are not going by “solo Irenaeo,” then that necessarily forces us to take into consideration the teachings of multiple fathers when forming our view on what Christianity is supposed to look like.

      • Emil Anton Says:

        Nick, my point is not sola regula fidei, either. It was to show that for the early Church there was a way to solve the problem of scripture interpretation other than appealing to an infallible magisterium. Of course there are many teachings outside of the Rule, in Irenaeus, as well. Communion with the Church is needed of course, but infallibility doesn’t follow and isn’t needed and in fact is not to be found if you look at liturgy or ecclesiology: patristic liturgy and ecclesiology are different from the Tridentine, and the Tridentine is different from the V2. And Irenaeus is just a representative (he’s most systematic and deals with interpretation of Christianity), you won’t find any late Catholic infallible dogmas or the Church’s right to proclaim such in Clement, Ignatius, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilos, Tertullian, any of the post-apostolic fathers. Yes, the problem of dogma goes for all conciliar and papal dogmas. Which I think V2 has happily recognized by deciding not to condemn anyone any more. Basically this amounts to nullifying all previous dogmatic definitions. Their core content is still believed, but more as theology than as obligatory and binding for all universally. Btw, I’m reading Bernard Sesboue’s No Salvation Outside the Church – a great study, the best one on the topic by far I’ve come across. Can’t wait to finish the book.

  2. Nick Says:

    Did Irenaeus deal with heresies, problems, etc, by exclusive appeal to the Apostles’ Creed? If so, what’s the point of Bishops?

  3. Nick Says:

    Hello Emil,

    If the approach isn’t sola-refula-fidei (e.g. creed alone), then your claim that there was the problem of “adding all kinds of dogmas to the Rule of Faith” doesn’t make sense. I’m not so much concerned about the term “infallibility” as I am about the true ecclesial authority of Bishops, founded upon Apostolic Succession. The various controversies and heresies throughout Church history show a static and narrow guide is insufficient; thus, one’s only sure recourse is to those with valid Apostolic Sucession.

    When you say “patristic liturgy and ecclesiology are different from the Tridentine, and the Tridentine is different from the V2,” it is unclear what you mean. If you’re saying the early Christians didn’t wear the cassock or Cardinal’s cap, then sure. But if you’re saying there is no Apostolic Sucession link, then you’re saying two different Churches in ‘essence’, not ‘accidents’. Same for the liturgy, if the early Church wasn’t centered around the Mass as a Sacrifice and Priesthood, then again it’s a different Church as the Tridentine.

    The next issue that I’m trying to get to the bottom of is how you can hold to the notion of ‘dogma’ in Christianity without the proper authority to define/clarify/etc? When you say:
    “I think V2 has happily recognized by deciding not to condemn anyone any more. Basically this amounts to nullifying all previous dogmatic definitions,”
    this implies you’re ultimately leaning towards a dogmaless Christianity, but I don’t see how that’s anything more than Modernism – particularly the notion that dogmas ‘evolve’ to fit the times and rely on “Immanence” in which truth starts ultimately within the individual, and whatever ‘doctrines’ emerge are due to a complex psychological need that gets expressed via religion.

    I would argue the path that goes down is ultimately the opposite of what St Ireneaus wanted to lead people. The Rule of Faith goes from a statement of core principles, which the Deposit of Faith expands upon, to a set of propositions which the early Christians invented to express themself but ultimately doesn’t mean anything. This is why there’s a massive apostasy today in Catholic “higher learning,” because they’ve embraced Modernist-Liberal principles and ended up with a Christianity without the Cross or Christ.

    • Emil Anton Says:

      I’m fine with the ecclesial authority of bishops in apostolic succession. But since these bishops have now made practically void the so-called infallible decisions of their predecessors, authority stays, but infallibility goes.

      I’m not talking about the Cardinal’s cap, nor am I saying there is no apostolic succession link. There is an apostolic succession link, but the differences between those holding that succession now, in Tridentine times, and in patristic times, are far greater than a cassock. To mention only the example you gave: there are several early fathers who deny the Church offers any propitiatory sacrifices, and it took the Church a couple of centuries to start calling its ministers priests. Reading the fathers of the 2nd century, it seems clear to me the Church was not centered around a Tridentine understanding of Mass and Priesthood, although the Eucharist was definitely celebrated as an important mystery and presbyters were called to an important ministry. In this sense again I think Vatican II comes closer to an early Christian view than Trent, putting the Mass and the Priesthood in the context of the People of God.

      Modernism isn’t all that bad, Vatican II embraced much of the Modernism that earlier Popes condemned, seeing that it contains many good and true elements that had been overlooked by the Church. Dogmas do develop, it seems undeniable, read any history of dogma, such as Pelikan’s or Sesboué’s, and so they are relativized, but this doesn’t mean Truth starts with the individual, Truth comes from Christ.

      I would be interested in knowing when the concept “depositum fidei” was invented and how it was understood to differ from the regula fidei.

  4. Nick Says:

    Hi Emil,

    I have two things I’d like to comment on:

    You said: “since these bishops have now made practically void the so-called infallible decisions of their predecessors”

    Where has this happened? This seems like the “Spirit of Vatican II” where everything of the past was dumped, but I don’t see that as official anywhere. Even the current Catechism doesn’t talk like that.

    Also: “Modernism isn’t all that bad, Vatican II embraced much of the Modernism that earlier Popes condemned”

    Again, where is this the case? Modernism, by the Church’s own definition, is at its root agnostic and denies the supernatural (esp the Resurrection and inspiration of Scripture). Just because various Catholics are running around proclaiming error (esp in Universities and Seminaries), doesn’t mean old things were overturned.

    • Emil Anton Says:

      It’s actually amazing how long I just thought the “spirit of V2” was a liberal phrase used as a pretext for all kinds of novelties and abuses. Only now I’ve come to understand that indeed there is a “spirit of V2” which goes further than the explicit teaching, and the logic is as follows:

      1) Non-Catholic Christians, as all know, do not hold late Catholic dogmas such as Purgatory, Indulgences, the two Marian dogmas and Papal Infallibility, as divinely revealed.
      2) Vatican II does not condemn these non-Catholic Christians but rather affirms the Spirit uses these communities as a means of his salvific work (UR)
      1+2= 3) The late Catholic dogmas are no longer dogmas in the sense they were once proclaimed, i.e., anyone dissenting is a foreigner to the faith and outside of God’s salvific grace.

      Isn’t Gaudium et Spes all about a new approach to modernity? Ecumenism, freedom of conscience&religion, historical-critical methods, democracy, the list goes on, but the point is that the Church made a U-turn on many issues that arose from the outside world or that it formerly condemned. It is not “sentire cum ecclesia” to be all anti-modern in 2011.

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