Petrie’s Postulates

on the Infallibility of the Church

These postulates should be read in the light of the reflection Perfectible: Infallible in the End, and the Critique on Lumen Gentium elsewhere on this website.

  1. Infallibility pertains to perfection
  2. Indeed, it is a sort of perfection, for it is perfect knowledge or wisdom which cannot err. Without perfection there must always be inadequacy, or perfection in that field has been achieved and no further progress is possible.

    It might be claimed that the Holy Spirit, in his sovereignty, can protect his fallible people from error and I would concur that he could, should he judge it best to do so, but to claim such action is to go beyond all Scriptural or soteriological precedent. For it must surely also be within the capability of the sovereign God to protect Adam and Eve from the Fall, and to protect his redeemed from sinning, but he does not do so. Despite the statement in I Corithians 10.13, which might imply otherwise, other Scriptures (eg Rom 7.14-25, I Jn 1.8), and our own experience, testify to the struggle and failure we all know.

    Romans 8.20 hints at the reason for this. Our God is glorified by the progress made in his creation toward our future hope. The process of perfection is the means of God’s glory and that is why it is unacceptable to claim aspects of it have already arrived (cf II Tim 2.18). To lessen our need for perfection is to lessen the glory of God.

  3. The Church will be complete at the Eschaton
  4. The perfect Church is the complete catholic and eternal Church which is represented in the world today but will only be fully revealed at the Eschaton. It consists of Christ, its head, his angels, and the Church in every age which includes every Christian who will ever live.

  5. Knowledge will be complete at the Eschaton
  6. The eschatological Church will know all things (cf I Cor 13.12, I Jn 3.2). From the perspective of eternity, in perfect fellowship with its omniscient Lord, and consisting of the entire body of the fully informed faithful, it will be in a position to understand and appreciate fully every aspect of every truth. Moreover, it will reside in the perfection of the age which is to come, when the former things will have passed away.

  7. The Church’s infallibility is located in the Church of the Eschaton
  8. From the foregoing it is clear the eschatological Church has the quality of infallibility. It is also the only Church which can entirely fulfil the Vincentian Canon, Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ad omnibus. It is the only complete and total Church in time and eternity of which all particular churches – even the ‘universal’ Church of any particular age – are partial representations.

  9. The Church of the present age is partial and its knowledge is partial
  10. The contemporary Church is the expression of Christ’s one true Church in this present age. It contributes itself from this age to that one true Church. However, in itself, it is not that Church in its fullness, but only the contemporary expression of it. It lacks the members of other ages, especially the future, and its viewpoint is limited by time. It can make judgements to the best of its knowledge at any given time, but because its knowledge is limited, those judgements are always subject to revision as both knowledge and members increase. (cf I Cor 13.9, I Jn 3.2)

  11. Past attempts to formulate doctrine concerning infallibility have suffered from this partial state
  12. A failure to recognise the full impact of the eschatological dimension has tended to locate our expectations of infallibility in the temporal Church, despite the obvious experiential difficulties. This has led to two contrary errors: either to deny that the Church is infallible at all, or to define exceptional circumstances in which infallibility can supposedly be achieved despite the natural limitations of those involved in the process.

    The latter response is a natural consequence of a developing understanding attempting to recognise a position which is not yet clear. It is an intermediate stage in the formation of a truer doctrine which is still in the process of being understood.

Ken Petrie

1st Draft
9th March 2005.
Your Comments welcome.

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