Perfectible: Infallible in the End

Recognising the Eschatological dimension of a divisive doctrine


Thanks are due to Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Wolfhart Pannenberg D. D. (mult.) F.B.A. Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology at the Protestant Theology Faculty, University of Munich, for his encouraging remarks and helpful comments. In the light of these, paragraphs 33, 38 and 41 have all been revised from the previous edition.

  1. It begins with two promises made by Jesus: the gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church (Matt 16.18) and the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, would lead us into all truth (Jn 16.13). The Spirit duly arrived at Pentecost, around two months after the promise was given, and in the 1500 years that followed Christians, particularly those in the West, came to believe all truth had been delivered at the same time (c.f. Jd 3). In the controversies of the early centuries, Councils had been summoned to settle contentious questions and to define Christian faith, and these had proved reliable at ending the dissenting claims and establishing the majority faith as what was to be believed. The faith of the whole Church, especially when as many of the bishops as possible were assembled together, seemed to be a reliable guide to the truth. Gradually the theory emerged that the Church had the truth, and to access it all that was needed was to assemble the Church. Certainly, it could be observed that dissenting views usually died out within a couple of generations once the whole of the rest of the Church turned its back on them.
  2. So when, in the early 16th century, some theologians, most notably Martin Luther, began to question various beliefs and practices which the Church had come to accept, many must have assumed the same medicine would work again. After all, it was impossible for the Church to err. This time, however, there was a difference. The Reformers not only had significant political backing, they also began to question the very principle of an inerrant Church. They were, after all, suggesting the Church had gone wrong. The result of expelling them was not a return to the normality which had lasted for over a thousand years. It was what we know today; not one Church, but the churches, at least as they are expressed before the world.
  3. The Reformers protested against their exclusion, which was not, after all, what they sought, and became known as Protestants. Subsequent generations of Protestants saw things differently, however, and saw separation as an act of holiness, with the result that the Protestant communities split and divided readily into almost uncountable factions. Political forces resisted that fragmentation initially, and the 150 years following the Reformation were marred by wars and threats of war, but eventually the pluralisation of society was accepted, tolerance began to emerge as the great civil virtue, and religion, which before had meant a person’s dutiful service to God and society, came to be a hobby for those who were interested in that sort of thing. Hence, the fragmentation of the Church led to the marginalising of the Gospel; the converse of our Lord’s prayer that his followers’ unity would be a sign for the world to believe (Jn 17.21).
  4. Ecclesiologically, following from our Lord’s prayer, there has never been room for a multiplicity of rival churches, and the response of the Christian was to regard the communion to which he or she belonged as the only true representation of the indivisible Church, all others being impostors. However, the increasing individualism and mobility of the last century or so, the experience of missionaries pioneering the Gospel alongside colleagues from other denominations, Evangelical revivals and Charismatic renewals, have all combined to increase Christians’ awareness of each others’ faith, and the realisation that all are serving the same God, taking the same basic message into his world, and living in faith for the one Christ. Regarding other churches and their adherents as false has ceased to be a viable viewpoint for most Christians in the West.
  5. The Roman Catholic Church, during this period, has undergone a parallel course. Purged of those who had doubts about its authority and inerrancy, it became increasingly self-confident and sure of its identity as the one true Church, and even held three General Councils on its own. The last of these, however, shows the same mutual recognition which other Christians have discovered:
  6. “It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.” (Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio 3)
  7. Vatican II also highlighted the pilgrim nature of the Church:
  8. “The Church... will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven” (Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium 48)
  9. The schism which occurred at the Reformation largely had its roots in the belief by the Church of the day that it could not err, against the Reformers’ assertion that it had. Today, this same issue continues to divide Catholic and Protestant Ecclesiology. It is time, therefore, to look at the matter again and see whether it may be possible to harmonise the two positions.
  10. The Promise

  11. Let us examine Christ’s promises a little more carefully. In particular, is it true that he promised his Church protection from error in essential matters through the Holy Spirit and that protection would be continuous throughout its history? The two verses frequently cited to illustrate this claim are Matthew 16.18 and John 16.13 (e.g. ARCIC II Agreed Statement The Gift of Authority [Authority in the Church III]).
  12. Matthew 16.18, taken on its own is rather cryptic, and capable of a great deal of speculative interpretation. It reads:
  13. “...and I say to you that you are Petros (a rock), and on this bedrock (petra) I will build my Church and (the) gates of Hell will not win against it,”
  14. There appear here to be two distinct intentions. One is based on the wordplay connected with the foundation of Christ’s Church. What precisely is its relation to Peter? The other is the prophecy of victory over Hell, or rather, if there is any difference, that Hell will not be victorious over us. Why “the gates” of Hell, in particular? Are we to gain access or egress, or is it the gate as the ancient seat of justice that is alluded to here? Is it that the judge of Hell will not be able to condemn us or the merchant will not be able to cheat us? How is a building to engage with the gates of another anyway? It is an obscure metaphor, to say the least, but it does appear to be a promise that Hell will not defeat or thwart the Church. How, though, does this promise of ultimate success become one of continuing protection from error, and where does St Peter fit in?
  15. The prophecy is about the Church, but it is addressed to St Peter, and he is linked with its basis by the wordplay on his name. We must remember, however, that this was no mere opportunistic pun; it was Jesus who gave Simon that name, and this is the only indication in the Scriptures of why he might have done so. So there is some link between the coining of the name, the foundation of the Church, its strength to win in the end, and St Peter’s rôle within it. It is the precise nature of this link which is unclear. Is the change of gender from Petros to petra, with its accompanying change of emphasis from the particular to the general, significant, or is it just a necessary adaptation to follow the changing subject matter? Is he to be the foundation of the Church and of its victory and, if so, how is this to relate to his own journey and future?
  16. At this point, it would seem reasonable to bring in what some readers may have found obvious. The verse does not stand alone. The opening words, “and I” (kago) show that it is not even a complete sentence. The context is Jesus’ question, “Who do people say I am... who do you say I am?” (v13,15) and especially, after Peter’s recognition and confession of faith, Jesus’ acknowledgement of the Divine revelation the Apostle had received. Is it because Peter was open to God’s Spirit in some way that Jesus connected him in this sentence with the founding of the Church? If so, it raises a further possibility; it could be Peter’s faith which is to be the foundation, or faith such as he had just received, or the kind of faithful person he had just shown himself to be. Furthermore, he is about to be promised the keys of the Kingdom – the power to bind and loose, a personal gift the full import of which is not defined.
  17. It would seem, then, that St Peter, in some way which is not entirely clear, was to play a special part in the Church which was to come, and that, possibly connected with the insight he had just received, this rôle was to be foundational. What is less obvious is how that would guarantee the Church against error, unless the power to bind and loose can actually extend to changing falsehood into truth.
  18. Certainly, St Peter, in himself, was no guarantee against error. On the contrary, he is the only apostle recorded in Scripture as having fallen into it and used his position to lead others astray (Gal 2.11ff)! That is certainly a distinction, but not one in which to place confidence. Moreover, St Paul, writing in the same Holy Scripture, considered this particular failure so serious he pronounced anathema against those who promoted it amongst the faithful (Gal 1.8) and confirmed it by repetition (Gal 1.9), so it was no small matter. Presumably, St Peter was saved from the anathema by receiving St Paul’s correction.
  19. So the evidence from these passages is that St Peter was to have a special rôle in the Church, a rôle which might even be related to the basis on which it would be built, but there is no suggestion that such a ministry could safeguard the Church against error. Rather, we see that the Church was saved from being dragged into error only by the intervention of another.
  20. What then, of the other verse which is frequently cited to demonstrate the Church’s immunity from error, John 16.13?
  21. “...but when he comes, the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you in (or into) all truth, for he does not speak from himself, but what he hears he will speak and the coming things he will announce to you.”
  22. A variant reading casts doubt on whether we are promised guidance “in” or “into” all truth. If we are to understand “in” it could be argued that the guidance will always remain within the truth and therefore we are protected from straying outside it. However, such an interpretation depends upon infallible reception of the guidance, which can only be guaranteed if the guidance takes a compulsory form. Can the Greek word όδηγεω bear such a meaning?
  23. The context also deserves a brief mention here. It is the last supper and Judas has already left to arrange the final details of Jesus’ betrayal. Jesus is giving his disciples a final lesson containing much advice about his mission, their part in it,and the world’s response. He has already promised to send them the Holy Spirit (Jn 15.26) and advised them the purpose of his discourse is that they should not fall (16.1). Now, after all this, there is still much more to tell, but they “are not able to bear it now, but when he comes, the Spirit of Truth...” (16.12b-13a) they are to be reassured that Jesus’ teaching will be continued and ultimately finished by the Holy Spirit. For like Jesus, the Spirit will not teach of his own accord, but will repeat what he is given (16.13, c.f. 7.16).
  24. However, the apostles sometimes failed to understand Jesus’ teaching (e.g. Mark 9.32, Luke 9.45, John 11.13) and what is here to suggest such misunderstandings cannot continue to occur? For, unless όδηγεω is intended to indicate a forced response incompatible with the free will which undergirds the whole story of God and his people from Eden onwards, there can be no guarantee the guidance will be understood and followed. What is clear is that our ability to understand or accept teaching limits what can be taught to us (Jn 16.12), and that necessitates a process in which we learn according to our developing ability, a journey along the road in which we are to be guided. It is the Holy Spirit rather than us whose infallibility is promised here.
  25. The wholeness of the truth in(to) which we will be guided is not at issue, but our ability to bear it continues to limit our experience. In the meantime, where are we? If not in all truth, are we in a partial truth? That is Scriptural (c.f. I Cor 13.9). In partial error? That is logical; a glass which is half full is also half empty. Half-way to our destination is also half-way from our origin. If we are being guided in(to) all truth, it is logical to assume an element of error, or at least the ignorance which can give way to error, remains. Are we guaranteed that our ignorance will not lead us into temporary errors while the Holy Spirit leads us toward the truth?
  26. If our Lord’s words had been intended to convey a promise that the Church would be preserved from error, would not his apostles, who were contemporaries of his, have understood them that way, and if they had understood that, would they not have taught it, as it would surely have been a great source of comfort for the infant Church to know it enjoyed such protection? If they had taught it, would it not have found its way into their letters? I do not suggest that everything the apostles taught is necessarily recorded for us in this way, but if God’s elect people had been privileged with such an important resource in their very nature, would that not have been something the apostles and the Holy Spirit alike would have wished to place on record? Yet the witness of the apostolic letters is quite different. Beside St Paul’s denunciation of St Peter’s lapse (Gal 2.11ff) we read that “of a part we know and of a part we prophesy, but when the complete comes, the of-a-part will pass away” (I Cor 13.9-10) and “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it is not yet apparent what we shall be, but we know that when he becomes apparent, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I Jn 3.2). There is an appeal to a nascent catholic tradition (I Cor 11.16), but only in regard to how anthropology was to be expressed in the discipline of worship, with respect to the customs of other churches. There is no suggestion even here of an infallible source of truth. For that kind of thing we are directed to the Scriptures (II Tim 3.15-17).
  27. Yet, if the Apostolic age appears to be unaware of divine protection from error active in the Church as it struggles on earth to interpret and proclaim the Gospel, the texts referred to above show an awareness of a perfection to come at the End of time, when the Church, and its knowledge would be complete. While not infallible in the present age, the Church is perfectible, and will be perfect in all respects in the age to come, when all is complete. This completion will include knowledge, and error and failure will have passed away. The perfected Church will be infallible.
  28. The Church

  29. Because the life we have in Christ is eternal, all Christians have become eternal, and therefore the Church within which we live this eternal life must also be eternal. Inasmuch as the Church is eternal, it must contain and consist of every Christian in eternity, together with Christ its Lord and any other being he would choose to admit. The eternal Church is complete and enjoys all the fullness of that completion.
  30. However, since we enter the Church by new birth (c.f. Jn 3.3-8, II Cor 5.17) from the world, and are not immediately taken out of the world (Jn 17.15-18) but remain within it, that the Church may be present to carry out Christ’s mission, so the Church is to be found in the world now. Christians in the world form the expression of the Church in the world at any time, but we are not the whole of the Church, for the greater part of the Church is elsewhere. We are the contemporary minority who represent Christ and his Church in the present age. This knowledge should humble us if we should ever presume to think ourselves a quorum. We can never be that so far as the eternal majority of the Church is concerned. We can represent the Church to our age, and possibly our age to the Church, but we are, within the Church, a tiny minority of its individual members.
  31. Therefore, when the earthly Church gathers in a Council to consider some matter, as it did in an embryonic form even while the apostles still led the temporal body (Acts 15.6-29), it can only consider that matter in the context of its time. We may trust that the Holy Spirit is present also, guiding into all truth as he always does, but we should not presume he would guide us into more truth than our time can bear. For the purpose of a Council is always to address issues which have arisen, and these belong to a time, as does the Council itself. Future generations may look back on the discussions and decisions, and incorporate them into their own understanding of the truth and, in that sense, conciliar decisions remain a resource for the earthly Church from then on, but it would be wrong for a minority of the Church to seek to bind the majority by claiming their decisions must stand in future ages where fuller knowledge or changed circumstances might render them inappropriate. It should be remembered that the purpose of the Council of Jerusalem was to release contemporary Christians from the strictures of the past, and that most of the restrictions it left in place would be overturned before the Apostolic age ended.
  32. Because the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church in(to) all truth, the Church is undergoing a process of perfection, and this will find ultimate expression at the End when all Christians shall be gathered into one and the Church, finally fully assembled, will know all. Until then our knowledge will always be partial and incomplete, and we must live with the tensions that partial knowledge leaves. It would be more pleasant were there a mechanism for establishing final truth now, but that is a luxury which would deny the eternal Church its proper destiny and therefore is not available to us until then.
  33. All Christians have eternal life. Therefore, St Peter has eternal life. It is thus unclear which, if any, of his spiritual functions within the Church, which is also primarily eternal in nature, he would have given up. Clearly, anyone exercising a Petrine ministry could only take over from him those earthly functions he has relinquished. There would need to be good reason to believe, before claiming such gifts had passed to another, that St Peter himself is no longer in a position to exercise them directly. Even then, that would not necessarily mean he had passed them on. It is equally possible that some functions of St Peter’s ministry were particularly associated with the needs of the infant Church, and could simply fall into disuse when the Apostolic age ended. Nor is it obvious why there should be a necessity for a continuing Petrine ministry in the earthly Church, separated from St Peter’s continuing rôle in the eternal Church.
  34. Relevance for Ecumenism

  35. The Roman Catholic Church has inherited from its past an ecclesiology which it sees as an essential belief and which forms the basis of ecclesial authority. This limits the ability of that Church to progress in its understanding of the Christian faith and produced the theological tensions which proved so fatal to Church unity at the time of the Reformation. It was the failure of the Reformers to accept that discipline which resulted in their excommunication and it is the continuing inability of Protestants now to accept this teaching and its consequences which produces a major barrier to mutual acceptance and reunion. Indeed, this is the principle issue, because it is the Roman Catholic understanding of the Church’s inerrancy which limits its ability in ecumenical discussion to reach genuinely new understandings of its faith. Thus, every area of disagreement becomes insoluble because, from the Roman perspective, it is essentially non-negotiable. Protestant hard-liners, who no longer seek reunion of the Church, have told me ecumenism is a waste of time because “Rome will never change”. Whilst I hope they are wrong, they have shown a remarkable perception of the problem.
  36. However, since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has shown a willingness to become involved with dialogue with other Christian groupings. The Council issued a decree on ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio (1964). Following that, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published a Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (1967, 1970 and 1993) and the subject has been addressed in a Papal Encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995). All of these take up “an idea expressed by Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Council” (UUS 18) of a distinction between “the way that church teaching has been formulated” and “the deposit of faith itself” (UR 6, Directory 181, UUS 18). This distinction appears to be an example of another concept introduced at Vatican II; the “‘Hierarchy’ of truths” (UR 11, Directory 61a, 75, 176, 181, UUS 37), although the relationship between these ideas is not entirely simple and might be worthy of some exploration.
  37. The Hierarchy of Truths, as understood in the Study Document The Notion of “Hierarchy of Truths” an Ecumenical Interpretation (WCC-RC Joint Working Group, 6th Report, Appendix B) is not intended to imply that some truths are more true than others or that lesser truths are optional. Rather, it refers to the way different aspects of truth inter-relate. It is about systematic theology, and is particularly useful when comparing doctrinal systems because it provides a means of appreciating the purpose of doctrines within the system as a whole, together with how alternative doctrinal formulations may support the same essential insight into an aspect of Christian faith. This allows not just individual doctrines, but doctrinal systems and subsystems to be evaluated against each other and may show an unexpected similarity or even equivalence in some instances, and real differences in others.
  38. This is not simply the same thing as drawing a distinction between the Deposit of Faith and its expression in doctrinal formulae, since the Hierarchy of Truths is equally applicable within each of these categories, and is primarily intended to illuminate the internal workings of each. However, inasmuch as both the distinction and the Hierarchy are themselves doctrinal formulations, both should be capable of application to themselves, each other, and the relationship between them.
  39. This results in a need to consider how the doctrine of the Church’s infallibility relates to teaching on membership, unity, eschatology, and even to itself, since, if the eschatological dimension is ignored, it is capable of becoming circular and existing with no foundation at all. When we do that we discover that the circularity extends beyond the doctrine itself into the other areas. For the doctrine of contemporary infallibility only has the assent of the whole people of God by excluding dissenters from that whole people. By making itself an essential test of membership, the doctrine can remove its opponents from the caucus which must approve it and persuade waverers to support it against their better judgement, for fear of censure. It can thus become self-perpetuating and self-serving in a manner analogous to Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene or Machiavelli’s Prince. However, it does so at the expense of key Christian truths, notably the unity of all believers and the membership conferred on them by baptism.
  40. That the 2nd Vatican Council found this exclusion problematical is evidenced by the ambiguous attitude toward non-Roman-Catholic Christians found in the documents. For instance, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, we read “ the sacrament of the eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about” (LG 3) and in the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio we read that those “who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect” (UR 3). Yet the imperfection in our communion is deemed sufficient to prevent us expressing it eucharistically, as if we do not participate in the “unity of all believers who form one body in Christ”. Why are we not accepted at the eucharist? Why is our communion deemed to be imperfect? Apparently, “many obstacles, sometimes serious ones” are the reason, but if one examines the dependencies between doctrines, these many obstacles all stand on one foundation; that we do not accept the infallibility of the earthly Church or doctrines which rest on the authority it confers (e.g. doctrine on the Petrine ministry). It is the doctrine of infallibility which separates us. It must do so, for without that separation, the doctrine would not be able to claim universal acceptance and would become logically untenable.
  41. Let us look at what is lost by this position. Our Lord promised us that a prayer made in his name would be honoured (Jn 14.14, 15.16) and then himself prayed for the unity of his followers (Jn 17.20f). Therefore there can be no doubt about our unity. It is a certainty based on the promise of Christ himself, and it is to be a unity which the world can see and believe. That is a sure promise of Christ. To obscure it is to deny the truth of his promise, for it is a truth founded on his promise directly and is therefore very close to the centre of the Foundation of Christian Faith.
  42. Similarly, Christ instructed that believers be baptised (Matt 28.19) and the Holy Spirit witnesses through St Paul that we enter the body of the Church through baptism and that body is one (I Cor 12.13). Therefore, that the baptised believer is incorporated into the unity of the Church is also a truth close to the centre of the Foundation of Faith, though arguably slightly further away, since it depends on an instruction rather than a promise from our Lord. Both, however, are derived directly from Christ’s teaching.
  43. Finally, claiming infallibility now diminishes the glory of the eternal Church’s destiny and hope (c.f. LG 48), where that infallibility truly belongs and is taught in Scripture to belong (I Cor 13.9-10, I Jn 3.2). For there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine just people who need no repentance (Lk 15.7) and the creation was permitted in the will of God to fall for the glory of its salvation (Rom 8.19-21). So likewise St Peter, who may be seen as a type of the Church (c.f. Matt 16.18), fell and was restored both before (Jn 13.38, 21.15-19) and after (Gal 2.11ff) the Spirit came at Pentecost. So we should expect the Church, for the greater glory of God, to go through many trials in this age, including falling into error, in order that the glory of her final perfection shall be all the more radiant. Our eternal hope, together with the characteristics of perfection which belong to it, is what makes the Gospel good news. This hope may not be as close to the centre of the Foundation of Christian Faith as the two points above, but is still fairly close, being a first-generation rather than a derived belief. What is built on it lies somewhat further away.
  44. Where is the doctrine of the Church’s present infallibility in relation to these? On what is it based? The Scriptures which are cited to support it only do so if interpreted as they have been read in the development of this doctrine, a method whose authority depends on that doctrine and would be largely discredited without it. The main authority for this doctrine is that the Church having developed it and being infallible, it must be true. This is a circular argument, based on no foundation at all. Where then does it relate to the Foundation of Christian Faith? Does it relate to it?
  45. Principally, it seems to relate by providing a foundation for the notion of Tradition as Revelation, and thus allowing Tradition to become a normative source for doctrine rather than simply an aid to interpretation, as it is for Protestants. For without belief in the Church’s inerrancy there is no basis for elevating Tradition to such a status. However, in order to provide a sound basis infallibility must, itself, be soundly based in Revelation. Nor can it create new revelation, for it is understood to extend only “as far as the deposit of Revelation extends” (Lumen Gentium 25) and “a new public revelation they (the Roman Pontiff and the bishops) do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith”.
  46. This raises two serious issues which the Roman Catholic Church must address if it is to be taken seriously in Ecumenical dialogue. Firstly, how is the belief in contemporary infalliblity derived and maintained? Even if it had always been a belief of the Church, and that remains to be demonstrated, it would only have its own witness that it were not an error. Something more is needed. Secondly, since the Church cannot add new revelation, how can its Tradition be any more than a contemporary interpretation of the Deposit of Faith? For the Councils and the Creeds were not themselves original, but added later, so they cannot be part of the Deposit of Revelation, but only a later response.
  47. So the only Tradition which could be considered part of the Deposit of Revelation would be the Deposit of Faith itself, which results from God’s self-revelation, and to which Revelation bears witness. Anything later is an interpretative formula for the age in which it was framed. The relationship between the Deposit of Faith itself and what Christians actually believe is similar, if not directly analogous, to the distinction between the objective truth and our subjective reception of it. Is it not in this area that the problem over the Church’s infallibility emerges?
  48. For, if we accept the notion of a “hierarchy” of truths and a distinction between the formulae of doctrine and the Deposit of Faith, must we not also recognise the distance between belief in the temporal Church’s current infalliblity and the Revelation? And whilst it might be easily demonstrated that there is a clear link between Revelation recorded in Scripture (c.f. II Tim 3.16 and II Pet 1.20f) and a belief that the Church, in its final perfection, has the quality of infallibility, and will possess all knowledge fully, is it not equally clear that extending that infallibility to the contemporary Church is moving a long way from the foundation of the Christian Faith into the area of tradition which is itself only a contemporary attempt to interpret the truth to an age which did not yet understand the “hierarchy” of truths? That the latter, and its implication that there is a distinction between what the Church teaches in any age and the deposit of faith which its teaching expounds, is now understood must surely change the way Tradition is to be viewed. For it can no longer be viewed as the infallible Deposit of Faith itself, but as a contemporary attempt to interpret it, which can be fallible. For in interpreting the Tradition of the Church in the past as it has been passed down in teaching, we now have a new understanding which must be taken into account.
  49. What is at stake here is whether the Church’s interpreted Tradition can be regarded as Revelation, given that the processes which lead to its communication and interpretation are recognised as incapable of adding to public Revelation. Is there sufficient witness in and to the Tradition which has reached the current age to regard it as authoratative Revelation? Is it not rather the case that the true revelatory Tradition is now knowable only through the Scriptures and through the riddled mirror of doctrine, but will be revealed in its full clarity only when the whole Church is assembled at the End?
  50. The doctrine of the Church’s temporal infallibility also relates to the Foundation of Christian Faith in a less positive way, for it undermines truths which are more basic than itself. It robs the Church of its witness to the efficacy of our Lord’s prayer for unity, and thereby undermines his teaching on prayer. It is incompatible with our current understanding of Christian unity, for it unchurches those who cannot accept it, and it thus denies the Church the opportunity for genuinely open study of its truths. Finally, it traps the Church in the good ideas of the past and stunts the proper theological exploration of the Deposit of Faith in the present and future.
  51. This doctrine does not have the consent of the whole people of God if that people is understood to include all those who by baptism are incorporated into Christ, even in this age. Nor does it have the consent of those in the future who will accept the logic of what is argued here. Most of all, it lacks the consent of the whole Church: present and eternal, militant and triumphant; the church which, taken as a whole, and only as a whole, is infallible, being now and in the age to come. This is the only Church whose consent really matters, for it is the Church which, on attaining the victory promised by our Lord (Matt 16.18), will have the final say.
  52. Rebuilding the Foundation

  53. What happens if we restore the eschatological dimension to our understanding of the Church’s infallibility?
  54. First of all, we restore the integrity of the doctrines mentioned above, including the Church’s long-term hope. We also restore the integrity of the Church to that expected from soteriological ecclesiology, because the doctrinal structure which insisted on denying fellowship to those who would not accept it has been removed. Differences in understanding will remain, of course, but without an insistence on infallibility they will cease to be matters of discipline, and can be dealt with by debate, with the official (and, where necessary, changeable) view of the Church co-existing with others. The Papacy could be restored without fear to as many who will accept it, because they will have far less to fear from a fallible pope than one who claims to be beyond contradiction. Discipline would give way to a greater comprehensiveness, perhaps akin to the Anglican model, but with a greater sense of leadership, which Anglicanism lacks. There would be a need to strike a new balance between freedom and authority, and doubtless there would be times when this might be difficult, but our Salvation was not won without difficulty, and we should not expect to escape the questions which living in a changing context with a dynamic message will inevitably bring. (See By What Authority? for a more detailed consideration of this area.)
  55. Secondly, we see the damage which can be done to the Church and Christ’s Gospel by a rogue doctrine, and how such a doctrine can emerge and develop a life of its own, threatening the Church’s mission. The experience is valuable and once aware of the danger we can guard against it by continuing to re-evaluate theological positions against first principles, to ensure they really stand up.
  56. Likewise, we see re-inforced the value of the sensus fidelium. Protestants have opposed the idea of an infallible Church precisely because of the problems highlighted above, though not using the same tools to analyse the position, and their common reaction has preserved an alternative viewpoint which has allowed it to be challenged. However, there is no reason why we should not accept the idea once the eschatological dimension is restored to its proper place in the doctrine.
  57. The recognition of a fuller understanding of the doctrine which is here proposed is a small change of perspective, but one which has enormous consequences (see By What Authority? for thoughts on the implications for authority in the Church). That, itself is a salutary warning of how easy it is to distort what we believe and create trouble out of all proportion to the error itself. The Church is on a journey into greater understanding, and one of the things it is still to understand is the true nature of its infallibility. When it reaches that, the path to visible unity will be opened, and we shall all be free to go on to maturity together, led by the Spirit to the greater glory of God the Father and of his Gospel in Jesus Christ.

Ken Petrie

For further Thought and Comment

  1. What flaws, if any, are there in the argument above? Is the case sound or are there weaknesses which need to be addressed?
  2. Is a distinction between the objective (ontological) reality of the truth, and our subjective (epistemological) understanding of it a useful basis for considering our present limitations?
  3. How does that relate to Pope John XXIII’s distinction between the way doctrine is formulated and the deposit of Faith itself?
  4. Is the notion of a hierarchy of truths useful in reducing a need for current certainty and allowing room for debate?
  5. Could you accept an ecclesiology which taught that the Church as a whole is infallible, but that infalliblity will only be revealed when the Church in its entirety is revealed at the End of time?

4th edition
12th August 2006.
3rd Edition

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