Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Interlude): Clarifying Certain Terms

The Articles so far:


While I was hoping to go on to the Book of Acts and the Epistles, due to certain accusations against the Church which demonstrated a lack of understanding of what Catholics actually believe, I thought I should take the time to write this to clarify what certain concepts mean.

Infallibility and Impeccability

Having had to deal with and delete certain comments from an individual who has accused me of denying historical and Scriptural claims (I haven’t. Merely objected to the propagandistic distortion of them), I thought I should begin this article with a rejection of a certain attack against the Church. While I’d prefer to deal with it in Article IV (looking at what the Church claims about herself) it seems I need to deal with it now, and that is in relation to the claim of people who were in authority in the Catholic Church and did wrong.

The difference is between Infallibility and Impeccability. Infallibility means to be unable to err. Impeccability means to be unable to sin. Catholics do not believe the Pope is impeccable. The Pope, being a human being, is a sinner just like the rest of us. Therefore to point to certain sinful acts which the Popes may have carried out have no bearing on what they teach.

Infallibility needs to be broken down further to recognize that we do not believe everything the Pope says and does is unable to err. Infallibility deals specifically with the formal declarations on matters pertaining to salvation. We don’t believe that the Pope is some sort of prophet or that his writings are on par with Scripture. We simply believe that when it comes to formally teaching on matters of salvation in a binding fashion, God protects the Pope from teaching error.

In other words, we do not believe that the Pope has this ability because he is a “better” person than us. We believe that God protects Him from error when He teaches for the good of the Church.

Doctrine and Discipline

Also we need to distinguish between doctrine and discipline. Doctrine is the teaching of the Church, which one must believe if one is to be considered a believer at all. Disciplines are calls to obedience on issues which we are bound to obey but can be changed for the good of the faithful. Belief in the Trinity and the belief Jesus is God are doctrines. They have not been contradicted (though some who misunderstand what was being said think there is contradiction).

Celibacy in the Western Church is a discipline. Jesus said that those who could keep this life should do so. The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church recognize that a married man can validly become a priest. The reverse is not true. Neither the Catholics nor the Orthodox believe that a Priest may marry without being dispensed from their vows and are usually required to stop using their priestly functions. However, at this time, the Latin rite chooses only to call to the priesthood those who can keep to the life of celibacy. The Church can make an exception, and has done so. Fr. Ray Ryland and Fr. Dwight Longenecker are examples of men who converted to the Catholic Church as married men and were permitted to be ordained.

Other examples of Disciplines are things like receiving the Eucharist on the tongue or in the hand, or receiving the Body alone or the Body and the Blood.

Depending on the needs of the faithful, the Church can bind or loosen the discipline. They cannot however loosen a doctrine. You’ll never see a Pope permit fornication.

The “Bodycount” Argument

Some people like to point to the bloody centuries of Christendom and argue that the Church ordered the execution of people they didn’t like. Therefore the Church can’t be infallible.

This is a non sequitur argument and is also a Straw man argument. The Straw man is to say that the Church ordered executions and did so arbitrarily. This overlooks the fact that during the time that the Papal States were an independent government, there were people living there who were under the civil laws. A person who was a murderer could be executed for example under the civil laws of the Papal States, just as they could in other places.

Heresy was a civil crime, on par with treason. The Inquisition was intended to investigate charges of heresy. The most common verdict was “Not Guilty” actually. When a person was guilty of heresy and refused to either leave or cease teaching heresy, they were guilty of a civil crime which the state punished.

This gets muddled in nations where the head of the state interfered with the Church. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, was a matter of excessive government control, and Torquemada was censured by Rome for his actions and warned to be merciful. We see this in Elizabethan England and in the divided Holy Roman Empire as well. When the ruler made himself the head of the Church, the acts against that ruler as head of the Church was at times seen as acts of treason. This is why the Catholic Church has always resisted the attempts at state control (called Caesaro-Papism).

So here is the reason the “Bodycount” argument doesn’t work. When the Pope was head of a state, his infallibility was not extended to his temporal rule of a nation. We wouldn’t consider Pope St. Pius V to be any more infallible in governing the Papal States than we would consider President Obama to be infallible in governing America today.

However, when a Pope decreed something that was binding on those who were in communion with the Catholic Church, it was believed that this decision was binding and was to be obeyed.

Context is Key

What one must remember when looking at Church history is that the times were different then. Capital Punishment has varied in some areas. Until the latter half of the 20th century, Rape was a capital crime in the American South for example. Different forms of punishment were used in the past which seem barbaric today. The Guillotine is barbaric today, but was used in France until it was abolished in 1981 (the last execution using it was in 1977). Burning at the Stake and the like are indeed horrible things, and it is right to feel horror at its use.

However we must remember it was not invented by the Church. It was a pagan invention, which was kept around as the barbarians (mostly the Germanic nations) were Christianized, and only gradually rejected (it lasted until the 18th century in Europe, and was not outlawed in England until 1790). It was used as Capital Punishment in both Catholic and Protestant nations.

Conclusion: So what’s the Point of It All?

So why do I bring this up? Mainly to stress that while Europe has indeed had a bloody past, this bloody past was not something which the Church made an infallible teaching about, and thus to make use of such claims is to misapply the belief of infallibility. Likewise when the Church makes a change in discipline, the change does not mean “from wrong to right,” but rather takes a discipline and looks at it in each age to see if the keeping of it benefits the faithful or whether it becomes viewed as a mere rule which brings no spiritual benefit.

For the Next Time

Assuming no more clarifications need to be made, the next article will be IId: On Peter in Acts and the Epistles.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Part IIc): Other Gospel Passages Involving Peter

As I make constant references to past articles in this series, here are the links for your convenience.

  • Part I can be found here
  • Part IIa can be found here
  • Part IIb can be found here


Now that we have discussed Matthew 16, there are other considerations from Scripture to look at about Peter.  Some of them show Peter has an important role.  Others we will look at because it they are commonly used by non-Catholics to challenge the belief in Peter being given headship over the Church established by Christ.

As this article is lengthy in itself, it will merely focus on the Gospel passages, especially those which seem to be misinterpreted or misrepresented when it comes to rejecting the Catholic belief.  Article IId will move on to Acts and the Epistles, where, once Christ has ascended, we see how the Church carries on His teachings through Peter.

The reader is reminded that the parts of article II are not independent, but is essentially a large article broken into parts (otherwise, it would be over 10,000 words in length)

Preliminary Remarks

Some readers may notice I am focusing more on authority rather than on infallibility in this article.  This is because infallibility is necessarily linked to authority which will be bound or loosed in Heaven.  If an error is bound or loosed in Heaven, it indicates that God's authority is behind this error.

Keep in mind that the Early Christians saw the Scriptures of the New Testament as authoritative because of the source (the Apostles, or in the case of Mark and Luke, because they were written by those who knew the Apostles).  Paul, Peter, James, Jude, John, Matthew… their writings were accepted as people who had encountered Christ personally and who taught with authority.  Mark was traditionally held to be written by one who knew Peter personally.  Luke was traditionally held to be one who knew Paul personally.

We recognize that these New Testament writings are inspired and inerrant.  However, we forget the fact that they were held to be important because of who was writing them.

So we have a link: The Apostles were believed to be teaching authentically what was handed to them by Jesus, and when they made decisions (the appointment of Matthias and the Council of Jerusalem), nobody questioned their right to do so.

If God Cannot Err, He Cannot Contradict Himself

At any rate, because of the fact that what Peter binds and looses will be bound and loosed in Heaven, we ought to add a ninth syllogism to consider.

Syllogism #9

  1. [God] is [inerrant] (All [A] is [B])
  2. No [contradictory claims] are [inerrant] (No [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore no [contradictory claims] are from [God] (Therefore no [C] is [A])

Those who disagree with the Catholic understanding of infallibility often argue that since "it doesn't exist, there is no problem," but since we have Jesus' promise directed to Peter, we do have a problem.  Either God protects Peter and his successors from error when teaching or we do have the possibility of God binding and protecting error.  Since we do acknowledge that the Church was protected from error in the case of the canon of Scripture (See article I, syllogism #4), we can see it is not unreasonable for Catholics to believe God protects the Church in other areas in terms of things essential for salvation.

Part I: Do Certain Gospel Verses in Scripture Deny the Primacy of Peter?

(Please note that this article pertains to the Gospels alone.  Passages in Acts (Such as Acts 15) and the Epistles (such as Galatians 2) will come in Article IId.  I haven't overlooked these.  This separation is done to keep these articles from going on too long.)

Did Jesus Revoke His Promise?

So let's look at the allegation that certain passages revoke the promise made to Peter (and a promise was made, to Peter specifically in the second person) in Matthew 16.  I have come across some groups who claim that even if Jesus did make a promise to Peter, Peter's later actions in Scripture show that he lost the rights to this promise.

However, if we accept Syllogism #9, we can't accept this interpretation.  If Jesus, being God (See article IIb Syllogism #8) is inerrant, then for Him to revoke a promise He made would be to contradict Himself.  Was He wrong in making the promise?  Or wrong in revoking it?  Catholics don't believe Christ did revoke His promise to Peter, but those who do claim this need to recognize that a God who does not err does not make promises He is unwilling to keep.

Therefore we need to keep syllogism #9 in mind when looking at the argument against infallibility from Matthew 16:20-23, which reads:

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

22 Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

23 He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Some have argued that this was a revocation of the promise made to Peter by Jesus (which indicates a promise was indeed made).  However, there are some problems with this.  The first is Syllogism #9 above.  If Jesus made a promise to bind and loose in Heaven what Peter bound and loosed on Earth, then the revocation of this would be a contradiction of this promise.

This is because either Jesus would have erred in making this promise to begin with, or He would have erred in revoking it.  Now, since we accept Jesus is God (See syllogism 8 in Article IIb) and that God cannot err (Syllogism 1 in Article I) it stands to reason that Jesus would not have made the poor judgment of making a promise to Peter and then needing to revoke it.

The second reason is even simpler.  The rebuke makes no mention of a revocation of the promise Christ made.  To claim there was a revocation is simply the insertion of a meaning into the text (eisegesis).  Therefore, these verses cannot be used as evidence to a claim that Christ did so.  The verses simply don't say what people who argue a revocation want them to say.

It seems more probable that the rebuke was over Peter's failure to understand the mission of the Messiah.  The human thinking was of a political messiah who was to right the wrongs in Israel.  God's thinking was of the salvation of the world from their sins.  What sounded horrible to Peter (the crucifixion) was perfectly understandable when one knew God's plan of salvation.

The only way one could try to use this passage against Peter would be if they wanted to claim Peter was making an official Church teaching (which I don't believe is the case).  However, unlike other verses where Peter does make decrees (such as in Acts), in this case, Peter spoke privately with Jesus ("took him aside").  So it seems, again, that this passage does not indicate what certain people claim about it.

Did Peter's Denial Mean The Revocation of Christ's Promise?

That Peter denied Jesus is attested to in all of the Scriptures (see Matt 26:34, Mark 14:30, Luke 22:34, John 13:38).  Peter promised to stay with Jesus even if it meant risking his life.  Jesus foretold that Peter would deny Him.  It turned out that Peter did exactly what Jesus had foretold.

The problem is, to claim that these verses mean Peter lost his right to the promise Peter made is eisegesis, putting a meaning into Scripture which is not present.  Indeed, we see in Luke 22:31-32, that Jesus had something to say to Peter:

31 “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you [second person plural] like wheat,

32 but I have prayed that your own faith [second person singular] may not fail; and once you [second person singular] have turned back, you [second person singular] must strengthen your [second person singular] brothers.”

Now, remembering Syllogism #9, it follows that either Jesus contradicts Himself (if the promise to Peter is revoked when Peter denies Jesus) or else Jesus, knowing all the disciples would falter, and that when Peter turned back (the Greek indicates turning from doing wrong, repenting), he was to strengthen (establish, make firm) his brothers.

In other words, Peter has an assignment which anticipates his denial.  To strengthen his brethren once he has turned back.

When we get to John 21, we can see that despite Peter's denial, we have a scene with Jesus and Peter which is touching:

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

16 He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (Jesus) said to him, “Feed my sheep.

18 Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

19 He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter is again given the mission to tend Jesus' lambs and sheep.  Given that we are the sheep of His flock, Peter's mission is one of looking after the flock.  It seems to be a necessary element of this commission that Peter must have authority over this flock.  Otherwise, how could Peter tend the sheep?

So it seems that Peter's personal sins did not take away from the task which God had called him to do.

What About The "Dispute over Authority" Verses?

Others point to the dispute among the Apostles as to who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  They argue that this means that the Apostles were not aware of the primacy of Peter  However, this is to miss the point of these readings.  This was not about authority over the Church on Earth, but over privileges when Christ came into power.  Like Peter in Matthew 16:21-23, they couldn't fully grasp the idea that Christ's kingdom was not a political kingdom on Earth.

The dispute among the Apostles seems to have been set off by James and John and their mother, who asked for a special favor in Matthew 20:

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached him with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.

21 He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”

22 Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.”

23 He replied, “My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left (, this) is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers.

25 But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt.

26 But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;

27 whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.

28 Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (See also, Mark 10:35-44)

What we have here is not a denial of authority in the Church, but an insistence on what this authority is for.  James and John wanted special privileges when Jesus came in His glory.  Jesus made clear that the one who would lead would do so as service to the whole, and not as a  position of privilege.  The Catholic Church recognizes this, in one of the titles of the Pope, which is Servant of the Servants of God.  We see the Pope as having a ministry which looks out for the good of the Church in the role of the shepherd, and not as some sort of monarch living off of his subjects.  The fact that some have not lived up to this does not take away from the intent Christ has called those who would shepherd to observe.

Part II:The Relationship of Jesus and Peter in Scripture

The next section is to look at the relation of Christ to Peter in the Gospel accounts.  We have Matthew 16 which gives us the promise, but how did the actions in Scripture show this?  Some may not be too impressed by this section.  However, as I mentioned in Article IIb, we are looking at the Scriptures as data.  How was Peter involved in the ministry of Christ?  Do we see any prominence in Peter's actions among the twelve?

These are all things which make sense when one accepts the claim that Peter was made the head of the Church, but seem somewhat random if one rejects this.

First in the Lists

First we need to notice the prominence of Peter in all the lists of the Apostles.  While in all the lists, ten of them are given in various sequences, Peter is always placed first and Judas is always placed last.  Judas being placed last is pretty obvious.  As the betrayer of Christ, he would not be seen as equal to the others.  Yet Peter is always first.  Not James (which would seem likely if it was James who was head of the Church as some seek to argue).  Nor is it John, the Beloved Disciple.  James and John are considered important of course and play important roles in the Gospels… but are usually mentioned with Peter, with Peter mentioned first.

So the person who would deny the primacy of Peter would need to explain this curious fact, as to why all four Gospels mention Peter first.

Peter the Spokesman

We also need to recognize that when it came to the actions of the Apostles, it was mostly Peter who spoke for the Apostles (See Matt 15:15, 16:23, 18:21, 19:27, Luke 12:41, John 6:68 for example).  Now 18th century Protestant commentator Matthew Henry wrote:

Peter’s temper led him to be forward in speaking upon all such occasions, and sometimes he spoke well, sometimes amiss; in all companies there are found some warm, bold men, to whom a precedency of speech falls of course; Peter was such a one: yet we find other of the apostles sometimes speaking as the mouth of the rest; as John (Mk. 9:38), Thomas, Philip, and Jude, Jn. 14:5, 8, 22.

However, this isn't really the case.  It's inserting meaning which assumes the denial of the primacy of Peter and seeks to justify this assumption.  First, the invocation of Peter's personality is something Henry is putting into Scripture (eisegesis).  Second, the other cases indicate they were speaking for themselves, whereas Peter asks questions like "Do you intend this parable for us…?"

Peter the Second In Command

I always found this section striking from Matthew 17:

24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?”

25 “Yes,” he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?”

26 When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt.

27 But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you.”

First of all, the collectors went to Peter, which seems to indicate that there was some purpose to approaching him, instead of Jesus, and instead of one of the others among the twelve.  Second, that Jesus had a miracle pay the tax not just for Jesus, but for Peter too.  However, not for the other eleven.  There seems to be the demonstration of a link between Jesus and Peter not necessarily present with the other eleven.

Now some have claimed it was because it was Peter's house that he was approached.  However, we need to consider something here.  All males 20 and older were obligated to pay the Temple Tax when enrolled in the census, as we see in Exodus 30:

11 The LORD also said to Moses,

12 “When you take a census of the Israelites who are to be registered, each one, as he is enrolled, shall give the LORD a forfeit for his life, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered.

13 Everyone who enters the registered group must pay a half-shekel, according to the standard of the sanctuary shekel, twenty gerahs to the shekel. This payment of a half-shekel is a contribution to the LORD.

14 Everyone of twenty years or more who enters the registered group must give this contribution to the LORD.

15 The rich need not give more, nor shall the poor give less, than a half-shekel in this contribution to the LORD to pay the forfeit for their lives.

16 When you receive this forfeit money from the Israelites, you shall donate it to the service of the meeting tent, that there it may be the Israelites’ reminder before the LORD, of the forfeit paid for their lives.”

So, all the twelve were obligated to pay, and about a month before Passover, there were moneychangers throughout Israel according to some sources who would exchange the foreign coins for the shekel (the tax seems to have been paid at the Temple, but since the shekel was not used for ordinary [civil] transactions (see Matt. 22:19), it appears it was a special coin for religious purposes and transactions [See John 2:15]). 

Jews who were residents and visitors both could make use of the service, so mere residency seems not to apply.  Yet the question was only asked about Jesus, and Jesus provided the coin needed to pay for Him and Peter. Remember, Peter's brother Andrew (Luke 6:14) and his partners in fishing James and John (Luke 5:10) also lived in the area (and thus would fit under the residence question), and some have alleged that it was James, not Peter, who was head of the Church in light of Acts 15.  Yet they did not go to James, a fellow Apostle and partner of Peter in the fishing enterprise.

So, the questions are: If one denies a special role for Peter, then why did the collectors go to Peter with the question?  Why did Jesus include Peter with Himself when it comes to paying the tax but not the other apostles?

Jesus' Visiting Peter after the Resurrection

Another interesting fact was shown in Luke 24:

33 So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them

34 who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!”

35 Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

While we do not have an account of what Jesus said to Peter, I find it notable that Peter was one of the first (since we do not know whether Jesus appeared to Peter before, after or at the same time He was present with the two disciples) to see the risen Lord.

Taken by itself, perhaps one could shrug it off and say "Who knows what God was thinking?"  However, God does not act randomly, even if we may not be able to comprehend the mind of God.  When we consider what Jesus has said to Peter in Luke 22:31-32, it seems this is not merely a throwaway incident.

It is not enough to argue a possible alternate interpretation.  One could argue a possible alternate explanation with space aliens.  The issue is, on what basis is this alternate explanation held?


Each individual piece, taken in isolation could be given an alternate explanation.  However, when taken as a whole, it becomes much more like obstinacy to deny that Peter had a role given to him by Christ to tend His sheep, and strengthen his brethren.

In the next article (IId), I intend to look at the role of Peter in Acts and in the Epistles.  Jesus has ascended to Heaven.  How does Peter act then?

Hopefully, after IId, I will be done with Peter and Scripture, and ready to move on to what Christ had to say about His Church itself in Article III.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Part IIb): On Peter and Matthew 16

Preliminary Disclaimer

The article I am presenting here is not intended to be the definitive Church teaching on the subject of infallibility, but rather is my own take on the topic in hopes of offering some perspective on why the Church teaches what it does.

PART I: Introduction and Preliminary Concerns

  • Article ”Part I” is found here.
  • Article “Part IIa” is found here

In the first article, I dealt with some syllogisms about certain assumptions Christians hold and how they point to a need to know what is authentically taught and what is in error when it comes to truths necessary to salvation.  I pointed out that we had not yet reached the point of saying we had proven the claims of the Catholic Church but we had an instance where a decree of the Church was considered infallible.

In Article IIa, I spoke about some historical fallacies we need to be aware of: not asking a Have you stopped beating your wife yet? kind of question about Peter and the Papacy but rather asking what the facts were about Peter’s role in the Church.

Now in Article IIb, I would like to look at the Bible… but with a caveat to keep in mind.

Caveat: The Bible as Data vs. Arguing in A Circle

The caveat here is that I don't intend to use the sacred character of Scripture as an appeal to authority.  I have been on record as opposing the circular argument some people use which runs as follows:

  1. The Bible is inerrant because God says so.
  2. God is inerrant because the Bible says so.

A person who rejects either premise will not be willing to accept this reasoning.  Also because I reject this as an illogical way to express the authority of the Bible, it would be hypocritical of me to use this fallacy when it favors me.

Therefore, I want to make clear I am using the Bible, for the purpose of this article, as an account which all orthodox Christians accept as telling us what Jesus said, without invoking the authority of Scripture as a trump card.  Thus we will be looking at the Bible to see what Christ taught on certain subjects and look at what necessarily follows from His statements.

Remember I am simply intending to look at it in the sense of, “If Jesus said this, what is the significance of it?” What I am not going to do is to get into debates over what Jesus meant (commonly invoked in disputes over interpretation). Now of course we do need to understand the historical context of expressions and the like. However, if one person believes Jesus intended to found a Church and another denies this, the disputes generally turn out to be “argument by proxy” over beliefs and not texts.

So in terms of studying Matthew 16:17-19, we need to be aware of understanding what Jesus said before looking at the beliefs about this passage.

What is "Data"

For the purpose of this article, data is defined in the philosophical sense:

things known or assumed as facts, making the basis of reasoning.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

If we understand Christianity to be centered on the person of Jesus Christ, then what He says when He teaches or gives example is considered to be things known as a baseline from which we must seek to understand.  To say "Christ got it wrong in this section of the Bible" is to take a position incompatible with Christian belief.

In this case, using the Bible as data is not to diminish the text for the Christian.  Rather I want to consult Scripture in the sense of looking at what Jesus said and not bringing in arguments of “you are obligated to believe this.” Eventually we may reach this point… but not yet.

Interpretations need to be established as having basis

I would like to remind the reader that there is a problem with appealing to the personal interpretation, which I made reference to in Part I of this series, and that is we have established that since individuals can err, so can personal interpretations of Scripture (See syllogism #6 of Part I in this series).  Thus when it comes to an appeal to personal interpretation, we need to see how such Scripture was seen in the past, and not merely how an individual reads it today.

With these preliminaries out of the way, we can now move on to the data of Scripture.

PART II: Considering the Data of Scripture in terms of Peter and Matthew 16

There is a lot to consider about Peter’s role in Scripture. This particular article (IIb) will look at Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16. In future articles we will look at the rest of the Scriptures on Peter.

Singular and Plural

In the English language, we tend to use “you” to refer to both one person addressed or to a group of people addressed. In other languages, including Greek (the language of the New Testament), there is a form for “you” when speaking to one person (the singular form) and a form for “you” for speaking to many people (the plural form). Unfortunately, many do not make this distinction in the English translations of the Bible, and people uncritically interpret Scripture without considering this difference. Since Matthew 16 does make use of both forms, we need to be aware of this fact. If we try to make an argument based on the ambiguities of “you” in English, it will fall short if it is not supported by the Greek of the Gospels.

Peter’s Role among those called by Christ

Peter was not the sole Apostle, and He was not the only Apostle to speak to Christ about things. (Some objections to Catholic beliefs seem to be based on the assumption that we do believe this). However, he is shown to have a prominent role in the Gospels. While sometimes he is maligned for “not getting it” he was a man of great faith (remember the other eleven apostles never even got out of the boat).

In considering Scripture, we need to avoid the Argument from Silence fallacy which claims that because nothing is said on a topic it “proves” the validity/invalidity of the claim. Silence merely means nothing was said one way or another. What we are doing here is to study the words of Scripture, and what logically follows from what Christ said.

Certain People follow Jesus with different motives and Interests

In studying the relationship of Christ and Peter, first I would like to do a brief breakdown of the different relationships of people interested in Jesus and following Him. I am excluding those who were hostile to Him in this case.

The Crowds

First, we have the crowds who followed Jesus.  The word for the crowds is ὄχλος (ochlos), which has the sense of the undisciplined masses or mobs.  They were following out of curiosity or need out of their own volition. These were the people who wanted to hear about a political messiah who would overthrow the Romans and bring in a reign of prosperity for all. We could say they followed Jesus with an expectation. They were excited by miracles, but did not understand what He taught. They were fickle. Some of those who were calling out Hosannas on Palm Sunday were yelling “Crucify him!” on Good Friday.

The Disciples

Jesus had certain people follow Him as His disciples.  The Greek word used in Scripture is μᾰθητής (mathētēs), which generally has the meaning of students/pupils of a teacher.  In Greek, this had often been used for students of a philosopher or a doctor.  While Christians believe that Jesus was more than a mere teacher, the fact is that the disciples followed Him in a different relationship than that of the crowd. They believed he was teaching truth, and they sought to learn from Him. This group could contain outcasts like tax collectors, and was not limited to men of certain education or social classes. Women too could be disciples of Jesus. This would have been a great change from the society which considered only men could be disciples.

Some of them did separate themselves from Him, such as John Chapter 6.

The Apostles

It is noted that there were two circles of Jesus disciples: The Twelve and the Disciples.  The Twelve are often called the Apostles (ἀπόστολος), which means messenger, envoy or ambassador and has a literal sense of one who is sent forth. They were the ones who were closest to Jesus. They were the ones who stayed when the others left Him in John 6. They were present with Jesus at the Last Supper. Jesus chose the Twelve to be with him, and to them He gave the teachings of the Kingdom of God.

Peter Among the Twelve

This is where non Catholics will begin to disagree with me, and that is Peter's special calling among the twelve.  The most commonly cited one is Matthew 16 of course, and this will be the thrust of this article.  However it is not the only passage of authority (certain people who claim Catholics solely base their views on Matt 16:18-19 are incorrect).  Throughout the Gospels we see that Peter is always given a prominent place.  He is always there for the special events in Christ's life.  Jesus' miraculous arranging of the paying of the temple tax shows that Peter's association is close to Christ.

It is to Peter alone that Jesus addresses these promises (though in Matthew 18:18, Jesus seems to grant some of them to the Apostles collectively).  In the Greek, Jesus addresses Peter with the singular "you" in these cases.  Most significant is the promise to build the Church on Peter and to give him the keys of the kingdom.

A Look at the Promise to Peter

13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The sequence is rather interesting.  While the others could tell Jesus who others said He was supposed to be, it was Peter who had revealed to Him the true answer of who Jesus actually is.  Jesus tells Peter he is blessed because God the Father has revealed it to him.

Now we do need to look at the Greek for what Jesus says next in verse 18:

18 Κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω, ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾍδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

Let's break this up into sections.

"I to You (second person singular) say that you (second person singular)…" 

In other words, he is not speaking to the apostles in general.

"…are Peter/Rock (petros) and (supported) on this (this same) the Rock (petra)…" 

What is interesting is the meaning of ταύτῃ (tautē feminine dative demonstrative singular pronoun) is the "this" can also hold a meaning of "the same" and as a pronoun with two objects, tautē, usually refers to the object mentioned before, not the one that comes after.  It only refers to what comes after when there are not two objects. 

Essentially, the Gospel of Matthew makes use of Petros to refer to Peter and petra second simply because that is proper Greek in trying to translate an Aramaic concept.  Because Jesus was referring to Peter, and Peter was male, the Greek requires the masculine form Petros.

Also, since Peter's statement of faith is not even present in this sentence it cannot refer to this.

"I will build/found/establish of me the assembly duly summoned" 

Some have tried to make use of an argument that ecclesia doesn't mean Church.  The problem is, this word is used in the LXX for the assembly of Israel and in the New Testament for the Church in places like 1 Cor. 11:22 and Romans 16:5.

It should be noted at this point that the form ekklēsian used here is singular.  Church, not churches. It is also only found twice in the New Testament, and both times used in the sense of the body established by Christ.

"…and gates/prison of Hades (it is used in the context of "Hell" as well as death) not will prevail/overcome against it.”

So we have a three layered statement:

  1. Christ renames Simon "Peter" which is Cephas in Aramaic and translates as Rock in English.  (Cephas can be used for both Petros and Petra)
  2. Jesus promises that on this rock (which in Greek grammatically refers to Peter) He will build His Church
  3. The gates of Hell/death will not prevail against His Church.

Now with the contested verse 18 out of the way, let us move on to the next verse

Verse 19 gives evidence that it is Peter, and not his profession, is the rock, when we see Christ says to Peter singularly, He will give Peter the keys to the Kingdom, which is to be understood as the authority to rule.  To Peter singularly, Jesus gives the power to bind and to loose and that which he binds and looses on Earth will be held bound (this can mean both to be chained and to be bound together like a husband and wife) or loosed (to set free, be released) in Heaven.

Now remembering that this began because Jesus said Peter was personally blessed because God the Father had revealed this to Peter, we can see how personal a promise this is.

The Significance of This Promise

Now, what I find fascinating is that this promise in Matthew 16:19 of binding and loosing is addressed to Peter singularly, not to the Apostles in the plural form of “you.” Peter is being given the role of the steward to the King (Christ). To recognize this role, we should look at another Biblical passage where someone is given keys. This is Isaiah 22. The prophecy against Shebna, that God will take him down from his position and give it to Eliakim:

20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah;

21 I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.

22 I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.

23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family;

24 On him shall hang all the glory of his family: descendants and offspring, all the little dishes, from bowls to jugs.

The keys, given to the steward meant he was given authority over the royal palace. That’s an interesting parallel in regards to Peter being given the keys to the entire Kingdom, which Jesus equates with His Church. Like a steward, Peter’s role exists until Christ returns at the Second Coming.

A Diversion: Peter, Rock and Promise

In light of Article IIa, I think we need a slight detour here.  There are some who claim that the "rock" was referring to Peter's confession of faith.  In doing so, they attempt to draw out the difference between petra and petros.  Because there is a distinction in Greek between the two words (though it is not as great as some claim, the two could be and often were used interchangeably), some try to say this means the rock was not Peter. This claim is usually accompanied by an a priori assumption that Peter could not be the Rock, therefore it must have a different meaning. If, for example, you read Matthew Henry’s commentary on these verses (I cited it in IIa), you will see his entire commentary on this passage is based on the denial of the Catholic claim and seeking an alternative meaning.

Historian David Hackett Fischer calls this the fallacy of fictional questions where one tries to find an alternate explanation. This fallacy turns a “what if” question into an “it is” assumption. However, a “what if” cannot become a “it is” without evidence for the claim.

There are a few problems here which we need to be aware of and I list here.

  1. Jesus and the Apostles spoke Aramaic, not Greek.  So when we see the writings of the Gospels we need to remember that Jesus was not speaking Greek… or English.
  2. In Aramaic, there is no gender difference between words.  It would be kêpa (sometimes written Cephas [except for Galatians, Paul almost always uses Cephas for Peter]) in both cases (You are kêpa’ and on this kêpa’…).  Only in Greek is there a gender difference in words.  So the Greek difference in words would be a red herring distracting from the issue
  3. Petros, Petra and Cephas/Kêpa were not names at this time, so for Jesus to name Simon "Peter" was significant.
  4. When God changes a name (Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel etc.), it is done only when a significant promise is made. To Abraham and to Jacob, it concerned the promise of a nation. To Peter it concerned the promise of a the Kingdom.

When we recognize these facts, the argument that says the rock was not Peter fails to prove its point.

Adding A Syllogism

Now, at this time I am not going to say “See! This proves Peter was infallible.” We will eventually get to this point, but at this time we merely need to consider the ramifications of Jesus’ promise.

We’ve pointed out in the first article that God does not err. Now, if Jesus said that what Peter (and remember Jesus was talking to Peter in the singular form) bound on Earth would be bound in Heaven and what Peter loosed on Earth would be loosed in Heaven, this is to say that Peter binds and looses with authority given him by God. Now if Peter could err in such a decision, then it follows that God would be binding and loosing error, which would be incompatible with God’s perfection. So let’s add an Eighth Syllogism:

Syllogism #8

    1. Being [inerrant] is an attribute of [God] ([A] is part of [B])
    2. [God] is [Jesus] (All [B] is [C])
    3. Therefore Being [inerrant] is an attribute of [Jesus] (Therefore [A] is part of [C])

(If God is Jesus then logically, all characteristics of God are characteristics of Jesus)

So if Jesus, as inerrant God, has made this promise to bind and loose in Heaven what Peter binds and looses on Earth, then He must either bind and loose error; or else He must at least protect Peter from declaring error bound or loosed when it pertains to matters of salvation.

We haven’t yet fully demonstrated a claim of infallibility. However, if we recognize that Jesus was inerrant and made this promise, we need to recognize that with these promises need to be backed up by something.

To Be Continued (Or, “DON’T Hit the Reply Button Yet…”)

We have not finished the discussion of Peter yet (Hence the IIb in the title). Matthew 16:17-19 is not the extent of the Catholic understanding of infallibility. However, because it is the lengthiest one in terms of potential misconceptions we did need to look into the significance of the promise Jesus made to Peter.

Nor have we merely equated the Church with Peter. We also need to look at the promises and commands Jesus made in relation to the Church itself.

Some readers may object that I have ignored the rebuke of Jesus which comes after this promise. This is not the case. Rather I will deal with this in a future article (the brief answer would be, Jesus seems to be rebuking Peter’s misunderstanding of the mission of the Messiah, and not withdrawing anything).

At this time, we need to consider syllogisms 1-8, recognizing that God cannot err, but personal interpretation can because human beings are fallible. Yet Jesus makes a promise to Peter which only makes sense if God will protect Peter from error.

Article IIc will continue looking at what Christ and the New Testament has said on Peter. Depending on length, discussion of the Church itself will be a part of IIc or else a Part IId may be necessary.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Part IIa): Preliminaries on Peter

Preliminaries to Looking at Peter

Before moving on to the examination of Scripture, I would like to discuss some elements of historical fallacies. To study an issue, one needs to remember that a question must be framed properly. If it is framed wrong, then a person may find evidence to appeal to their claim, but that doesn’t mean the framed question is accurate to begin with.

For example, asking the question “Was Peter the first Pope?” is the wrong way of framing the question. If one believes it, one looks for evidence to show the answer in the affirmative. If one does not believe it, one looks for evidence to disprove it.  Each side grows frustrated with the other side and assumes they are acting from ignorance or obstinacy.

A better question would be, “What was the role of Peter in the early Church?” This is a question which can be answered by the data of scripture and of history of the earliest Christians. We can look at it and see whether Peter played a significant role, a minor role, or something in between.  We can see whether the Patristic writings speak of Peter as insignificant or important for example.

Another thing to be aware of is the issue of irrelevant evidence. Take for example, the Biblical commentary of Matthew Henry (1662-1714), who wrote on Matthew 16:18-19:

(1.) Peter’s answer to this question, v. 16. To the former question concerning the opinion others had of Christ, several of the disciples answered, according as they had heard people talk; but to this Peter answers in the name of all the rest, they all consenting to it, and concurring in it. Peter’s temper led him to be forward in speaking upon all such occasions, and sometimes he spoke well, sometimes amiss; in all companies there are found some warm, bold men, to whom a precedency of speech falls of course; Peter was such a one: yet we find other of the apostles sometimes speaking as the mouth of the rest; as John (Mk. 9:38), Thomas, Philip, and Jude, Jn. 14:5, 8, 22. So that this is far from being a proof of such primacy and superiority of Peter above the rest of the apostles, as the church of Rome ascribes to him. They will needs advance him to be a judge, when the utmost they can make of him, is, that he was but foreman of the jury, to speak for the rest, and that only pro hâc vice—for this once; not the perpetual dictator or speaker of the house, only chairman upon this occasion.

Peter’s answer is short, but it is full, and true, and to the purpose; Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Here is a confession of the Christian faith, addressed to Christ, and so made an act of devotion. Here is a confession of the true God as the living God, in opposition to dumb and dead idols, and of Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent, whom to know is life eternal. This is the conclusion of the whole matter. (Matthew Henry's commentary on the whole Bible)

Now, that other apostles had a role in speaking on some issues is not denied. The question is whether or not his examples are relevant for this section of Scripture prove Peter was not the head of the Apostles. Henry’s examples do not answer the question, “What was the role of Peter?” Rather these examples seek to give a negative answer to the question “Was Peter Pope?” in the sense of the papacy at the time Henry knew it.

Third, we need to be aware of biased language. If I speak of “Idiot Protestants” and “Insightful Catholics” this could be considered a clue that my investigations in the matter were not entirely free of bias. (To put it mildly!) Now of course, I am a Catholic because I believe the Catholic teaching to be true. I know there are those outside the Catholic Church because they do not believe it to be true, and in such a dispute it is searching for the truth which matters, not the exchange of insults or ad hominems. However, we do need to be aware of “charged” language which does seek to take the reader to a conclusion based on the choice of words. Mentioning Peter’s temper and terms like “perpetual dictator” are terms calculated to create a negative view of primacy for Peter, and thus be predisposed to reject it.

In order to reduce the risk of bias (and let’s face it, Christians do have a vested interest in the truth about the primacy of Peter, and the result we believe is true is not agreed on by all Christians), we need to be aware of these issues, and seek to recognize how we are to keep them from hindering our search for the truth, and not assume that what we believe ought to be apparent to all.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Part I): Preliminary Logic and Syllogisms


The disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants often come down to a dispute on the claim that the Church teaches authoritatively in a binding manner which can be free of error. This article deals with logic and syllogisms which express these things.

I do not claim these syllogisms are the only ones. Rather this is my own take on the topic.

I start with logic, rather than Scripture, not because I think Logic is greater than Scripture, but because before we look at Scripture we need to be aware of certain assumptions which people hold uncritically and see if it is reasonable to hold them.

This will be multi-post, but the posts will not necessarily come one after the other

Preliminary Notes

  1. This article is not meant to address all issues of infallibility. Nor is it intended to prove it to the non-Christian audience. Rather it presumes the reader accepts the existence of God (for a reader who does not accept the existence of the Triune God is therefore not a Christian). It intends to look at the Christian dispute over whether or not God can grant His Church the ability to teach without error in certain circumstances.
  2. Obviously if one does not believe in God, it follows he or she won’t believe God can make His Church infallible either, so it's a moot point for the unbeliever to begin with.
  3. These are my own thoughts on the subject, and not the official teaching of the Church on infallibility.  So if you find some point of disagreement, don't go announcing how you "disproved the Church teaching."

Non Christians are of course welcome to read this, but please spare me the “you didn’t prove God exists!” comments. Christians don’t need to prove God exists before discussing theological issues among themselves any more than physicists have to prove the existence of matter before starting work on a scientific project… it’s an essential premise. (No recognition of the existence of God as a precondition, no discussion of Christianity. No recognition of the existence of Matter as a premise, no discussion of Physics)


There are some terms which need to be defined.  These definitions come from the OED (no, I didn't alphabetize them.  Windows Live Writer can be a pain in this way):

  • Infallible: incapable of making mistakes or being wrong.
  • Fallible: capable of making mistakes or being wrong.
  • Inerrant: incapable of being wrong.
  • Personal: of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person.
  • Inspired: fill with the urge or ability to do or feel something
  • Interpret: explain the meaning of (words, actions, etc.)
  • Error: a mistake, the state of being wrong in conduct or judgment.
  • Literal: taking words in their usual or most basic sense; not figurative
  • Symbol: a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.
  • Plain: easy to perceive or understand; clear
  • Sense: a way in which an expression or situation can be interpreted; a meaning.
  • Contradictory: Logic (of two propositions) so related that one and only one must be true.
  • Contrary: Logic (of two propositions) so related that one or neither but not both must be true.
  • Syllogism: a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn from two given or assumed propositions (premises); a common or middle term is present in the two premises but not in the conclusion
  • Essential: central to the nature of something; fundamental
  • Arbiter: a person who settles a dispute.

Now these terms can have deeper meanings in the theological sense, but these at least give a basic understanding of the terms

The first set of syllogisms:

Because we Believe God protected the writers of the books of Scripture from error, we must recognize that God protected the Church from decreeing error when it proclaimed what was contained in Scripture.

This set of syllogisms (#1-4) assumes that Christians believe in the authority of Scripture (again, the denial of this makes one a heretic at the very least). Because Christians believe God is all powerful and He made scripture inerrant, these are elements of common ground we share even if we disagree on other issues. So let’s use this as a starting point.

Syllogism #1

  1. For [something to be unable to err], it must be [all knowing and all powerful] (All [A] is [B])
  2. [God] is [all knowing and all powerful] (All[C] is [B])
  3. Therefore [God] is [unable to err] (Therefore All [C] is [A])

A Christian which denies this is seriously deficient in their faith.

If God is not all knowing, there can be things He does not know and thus can err. If God is not all powerful, there can be things He cannot access and thus He can again err (also known as inerrancy).  Now we accept that God is all powerful and all knowing and is this inerrant.  How does humanity fit into this?  Let us move on to the second syllogism.

Syllogism #2

  1. [Inerrancy] requires being [all knowing and all powerful] (All [A] is [B])
  2. [Man] is not [all knowing and all powerful.] (No [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore [man] is not [inerrant]. (Therefore no [C] is [A])

This is important to remember here. No man can claim to be free of error on his own, because man is not free from error. So a person who claims to be unable to err must either get his ability from a greater [all knowing and all powerful] being or else be lying or deceived.

Syllogism #3

  1. Christians believe that the [Bible] was [inerrant] (All [B] is [A])
  2. The [Bible] is something [written by man] (Some [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore Christians believe something [written by man] can be [inerrant] (Therefore Some [C] is [A])

However, since we already went through the fact that man is not inerrant, it follows that for something created by a man to be inerrant, the ability to be inerrant has to come from a being which is inerrant (which Christians call God), and is not independent of God.

With this done, we need to take a brief look at the history of the canon of Scripture.

Logic and History

We need to start with the Christian recognition that the Bible neither contains books that were not inspired, nor excludes books that were inspired. So if we are to say the Bible is complete and inerrant, it means that nothing within the Bible is present wrongly and nothing is excluded wrongly from the Bible.

However, there were disputes in the past. Not over everything of course. The Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, 1 John and 1 Peter were all generally recognized by faithful Christians. However, some thought that Hebrews, James, 2+3 John, Jude and Revelation were inspired and some rejected this. The decision was made by the Church in the 4th century was considered to have settled the matter.

Now, remember that if the Bible is to be considered inerrant as a whole and in its parts, the decision had to have been protected from error. Otherwise we could not know the Bible was inerrant as a whole and in its parts.

Since the list of books approved for the Bible was composed in the late 4th century AD, and recalling that it takes a being that is [all knowing and all powerful] to make something inerrant, we can’t say that God was only involved in making something inerrant at the time of composition of Scripture.

Remember if the list of Scripture is not inerrant, we cannot know whether or not the books in the Bible belong there. If we can’t know if the books within the Bible belong there, we can’t know it is unable to err. Therefore if we believe the Bible is inerrant, we must accept that the list of books in Scripture is inerrant.

So that brings us to syllogism #4 which will continue to advance the issue.

Syllogism #4

  1. The Church [decreed] [the list of scripture] (A is part of B)
  2. 2. This [list of scripture] is [inerrant] (B is part of C)
  3. 3. Therefore the Church [decreed] something [inerrant] (Therefore A is part of C)

We then must recognize that the Church was free of error at least once, and that the cause of infallibility is God then we need to recognize that God can will the Church to be free of error in certain types of teachings.

Now of course, we haven’t yet reached the concept of establishing the Church is infallible as she claims, but we have demonstrated with logic that the Church can be protected from error by God when it teaches something essential for salvation (in this case declaring what makes up the Bible).

Those who wish to claim the Church was only inerrant here and not elsewhere need to establish their point just as Catholics need to establish that the Church was kept free of error more than once.

The Second set of Syllogisms: On the need for a single arbiter of Scripture

Some argue that “Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture” and appeal to the “plain sense of scripture.” The problem is that some appeals to these issues lead to contradictory readings of Scripture.

In theological terms this expression is used traditionally to refer to the “literal” or supposedly “plain” sense of Scripture, which holds that the biblical texts need not be studied and interpreted, but rather simply applied and followed. So theoretically, if you and I both read a passage, we should get a meaning which is similar

(Let me remind the reader, that when things are contradictory, only one of them can be true: “It is either white or not white”. When things are contrary, they can’t both be true but both can be wrong: “It is either black or white” is wrong if it is orange)

Since the personal interpretation of Scripture often contradicts or is contrary, we can make the following syllogisms:

Syllogism #5

  1. [Plain sense] of Scripture is something which is [apparent to all]
  2. Some [Readings] of Scripture are not [apparent to all]
  3. Therefore Some [readings] are not [plain sense] of Scripture

So here is the problem. When two people interpret Scripture in a way which is contrary or contradictory, they can’t both be right (and if the reading is “contrary” both could be wrong). So who is authoritative to determine who is right and wrong when it comes to the reading of Scripture?

This isn’t merely a sense of Catholic vs. Protestant or Protestant vs. Protestant. We have had in history things like Trinitarian vs. Arian, Trinitarian vs. Nestorian, Trinitarian vs. Modalist, and so on. In all of these cases, the heresies appealed to Scripture in order to claim that the Church was in error when teaching in favor of the Triune God.

So we can see that there is a problem with the personal reading of Scripture: the person who reads Scripture with an error in what he or she believes about God can, as a result, read Scripture wrongly if their interpretation is wrong.

So let’s look at Syllogism #6:

Syllogism #6

  1. Every [Personal Interpretation] is [Individual] (All A is B)
  2. All [Individuals] [can err](All B is C)
  3. Therefore [Personal interpretation] [can err](Therefore all A is C)

[Edited to fix a fallacy of the undistributed middle which slipped by me]

Since we believe God is truth, and truth does not contradict truth, it follows that whatever God inspires will not contradict other things He inspires. Thus as Christians we reject Islam as contradicting what was revealed about Jesus. We don’t believe that the Old Testament contradicts the New Testament however.

“The Holy Spirit inspired this interpretation” is the common explanation for the individual who believes in "the Bible alone." Now we know that, in many cases, both sides in a dispute can claim that their personal interpretation is inspired, and both may even believe it, but they hold contrary positions and it is possible both are wrong, and we know both can’t be right.

This then is the problem with the claim that personal interpretation is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Things which are contradictory cannot be true in the same sense at the same time. Yet we have several differences based on the personal interpretation of Scripture. Such differences can be based on:

  • Understanding of differing languages
  • Understanding of historical context
  • Understanding of genre
  • Understanding of ways of expression

Others exist. However, the personal interpretation of a “KJV only” person who reads literalistically will be different from a person who is aware of these differences. (It often happens that the “inspired” personal reading is actually the fallible personal understanding of the individual, who thinks that because it makes sense, it must be inspired without concern for context)

Since contrary and contradictory interpretations of Scripture cannot both be true, it seems to follow that we need some sort of authority which is protected from error when teaching about that which pertains to salvation and can determine which interpretations are false and which are right.

So let’s add a seventh syllogism to our list:

Syllogism #7

  1. Things [Inspired by the Holy Spirit] are not [contradictory] (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some [Personal Interpretation] is [contradictory] (Some [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore some [Personal Interpretation] is not [Inspired by the Holy Spirit] (Therefore some [C] is not [A])

(You can also use the same syllogism with "contrary" since it is possible for both options to be wrong, while Christians believe that the Holy Spirit does not err)

So we know some personal interpretation may be right, but do not know which ones are.  This, by itself, means we are in the same situation as having an inerrant Bible and not knowing what books belong within the Bible: If we can’t know which books go in it, how can we know if it is inerrant. Likewise, if we can’t know whose personal interpretation is inspired, how can we know whether an interpretation is true or not?

In other words, if you have an inerrant Bible and an interpreter who can err, the Biblical Interpretation can err. This would strip the Bible of being authoritative to us. We can use an analogy of a person starving, and the food being on the other side of a fence which we cannot reach through or climb over to benefit from the food. Likewise, if we can’t have a definitive source on who decides which is true and which is not, we can’t ever know if an interpretation is true or not, and we cannot benefit from the truth.


So from these two sets of syllogisms, we can see certain things emerge:

  • We have an example of the Church being protected from error in one instance of defining a truth necessary for salvation.
  • Since personal interpretations and appeals to a plain sense are contradictory or be contrary, we cannot appeal to these in a general sense to being inerrant.
  • In order to know whether an interpretation of the Bible is true or not, we need an authority which can make an inerrant decision as to whether an interpretation is correct or not.

We need to keep these things in mind when we approach the next few articles: On Scripture, History and what the Church claims about herself.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Morality Immaterial to Law? Thoughts on Legal Positivism


Generally there are two approaches to law and the authority it holds:

1.   Law supposes the existence of that which is just and morally right, and depends on this to bind.

2.   Law is based on the power of the state to decree, and those who are subject are bound to obey.

With recent debates on abortion, on the nomination of Kagan to the Supreme Court and other issues of Law, I've noticed that there has been a number of comments (whether knowingly or not) which reflect the position known as Legal Positivism.  Certain laws are considered as being obligatory to obey whether or not one would argue that they are just or not.

What is Legal Positivism?

This position, attributed to John Austin (1790-1859), was described as:

“The existence of law is one thing; its merit and demerit another. Whether it be or be not is one enquiry; whether it be or be not conformable to an assumed standard, is a different enquiry.”

In other words, whether a law is or is not a law is entirely a separate question from whether a law is good or bad.  The only source of law is "positive law" which is simply "man made laws" and denies the concept of Natural Law.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes the premises of this system as:

According to Bentham and Austin, law is a phenomenon of large societies with a sovereign: a determinate person or group who have supreme and absolute de facto power -- they are obeyed by all or most others but do not themselves similarly obey anyone else. The laws in that society are a subset of the sovereign's commands: general orders that apply to classes of actions and people and that are backed up by threat of force or “sanction.”

It is a dangerous belief.  If you separate law from the legitimacy of said law, you can, in effect, justify anything: Sharia, Nuremburg Racial Laws, Slavery and so on.  Obedience to the law becomes required, because government is the authority which determines what we can and cannot do, and opposing a law on the grounds it is unjust becomes irrelevant.  "Abortion is to be permitted because it is legal" is one of these types of allegations.  Because the Supreme Court decreed that abortion is a right, it is considered immaterial whether or not it should be a law.

Of course we don’t have to invoke the Nazis.  We can look at what we do in America.  For how many years did the government refuse to change laws on lynching or slavery or segregation?

Stare decisis: What’s mine is mine.  What’s yours is up for grabs

We already have the legal concept of Stare decisis (Lat. "to stand by that which is decided." The principle that precedent decisions are to be followed by the courts).  The problem is the assumption is based on the assumption that the prior interpretation of the law by the court is valid.  See Planned Parenthood v. Casey as an example of this.  It assumes Roe v. Wade was a valid decision, and therefore must be followed. 

Such reasoning begs the question that Roe v. Wade was right (which is very much disputed in America).  Before arguing that because it was decreed a right we cannot challenge it (which is often the appeal of the supporters of abortion rights), we should remember the Dred Scott ruling and Plessy vs. Ferguson were also assumed right and later overturned.  Essentially it showed that merely because something was accepted as a law, does not make it binding on these grounds, and that the courts can make mistakes.

However, under Legal Positivism, If it wasn't a valid or wise decision, then it is too bad.  It's a law and must be obeyed.

What Legal Positivism Ignores (and Martin Luther King Jr. was aware of)

The problem is, when one traces the origin of the law, the question arises: Why was it enacted to begin with?  If an unjust law was enacted in the beginning, why are we bound to follow it?

Legal Positivism is then a sense of begging the question.  The concept is: we must obey a law because it is a law.  The so-called Nuremberg Defense ("I was just following orders") assumes legal positivism.  [This is sometimes called the defense of Superior Orders].

Any change of laws becomes binding under this theory so long as the law is followed in the enactment of these laws.  Thus we see a problem.  If the justness or unjustness of a law is irrelevant to the following of the law, then we cannot sanction people like Martin Luther King Jr. when he organized against laws he felt unjust.  Nor can we approve of his defense, given in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he stated:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

Instead, "Bull" O'Connor using his police dogs and fire hoses to break up demonstrations was merely undertaking an exercise in upholding the law.

(Hopefully, you’re instead asking yourself what gave the state the right to pass this law to begin with).

The Double Standard

Most people don't consistently advocate Legal Positivism of course.  Only when they run afoul of the law does it matter.  When one believes a law is unjust they generally want to overturn it, claiming it is an immoral and unjust law.  However, under Legal Positivism, one has no legal basis for doing so.  The best one can do is to say "if you don't like it, vote to change the law."  If the law comes from a source from where there is no appeal (the US Supreme Court decisions or from a totalitarian decree), or if the state has disenfranchised you from the right to vote, there is nothing you can do to change said law.

The practical effect of Legal positivism in America is a double standard.  When a party is in power, they point to a law and say "It must be followed because it is a law."  When out of power, they say "This law is unjust and must be changed."  What is ignored is what gives a law its power.  If it is the state, then it follows that rights and restrictions come from the state because of the assumption that law must be obeyed because it is law.  However, if the rights of the human person do not come from the state, then they cannot be removed by a decree of the state.

Thus we have the abortion debate in a nutshell.  Those who believe in abortion rights tend to argue from the position of legal positivism, while those who oppose abortion rights tend to argue that the rights of the human person come from outside the state, and the state has no authority to remove human rights from any human persons.

Conclusion: When Law and Justice Stand In Opposition

Any opposition to a law which says “This is wrong” is a judgment on moral grounds.  Such opposition assumes there is a higher standard to which law must conform if it is to be considered binding.  Generally, we believe that a law must be just (morally right and fair to all) to be obeyed. 

This means we have to practice what we preach.  If one claims that they have to accept abortion as a right because the state has decreed it to be a right, it is a package deal meaning there is no way to refuse anything else the state wishes to decree.  On the other hand, if we want to invoke a higher standard for judging the law, we must remain consistent and recognize such a standard always holds us accountable for our behavior.

In both cases, it falls to the proponent to show that their view of the law is justified.  Unfortunately, all too often we see people deny (without logical proof) that there are moral absolutes outside of us and then conclude the contrary view is true: that there is no moral standards by which the law is judged.

Not believing [A] does not disprove [A].  Nor does it make [B] automatically true.