Some time ago an Anglican priest who reads this blog said that he disagreed with Catholicism because he could not go along with papal infallibility. He said an infallible authority other than the Bible simply wasn’t necessary. I thought it warranted a post on its own, but the more I thought about it, the more it seems that it warrants a series of posts on authority in the church. I hope those who are out there who read this blog might join in and comment and pick me up where my ‘thinking out loud’ goes wrong.
Apart from anything else, this comment illustrates just how far most Anglicans are from being Catholic even if they continue to profess how much they are ‘Catholic Anglicans’ or ‘Catholics in the Anglican Church.’ At the fundamental level most of them are Protestant Bible Christians. Do not get me wrong, this is not to knock good Protestant Bible Christians, nor is it an attempt to knock Anglicans. It is simply a statement that clarifies a position.
The fact of the matter is, that there are really only two positions to take regarding authority in the church: 1. That you believe in an infallible authority or 2. that you do not. In the first case you believe in revealed religion. In the second, you believe in relative religion.
It is easy to think that those who believe in an infallible authority are all Catholics who believe in the Pope. However, it is not so easy as that. While Catholics do believe in an infallible authority structure, what we believe about that is not quite so easy as, “If the Pope says it that settles it.” I will come to an explanation of the Catholic teaching on papal infallibility eventually, but first let’s observe that there are other ways of believing in an infallible authority.
When I was a fundamentalist most of the good Christians I knew believed in an infallible church authority. It was their pastor. Now they did not hold ‘pastoral infallibility’ as a point of doctrine, but they behaved as if they believed it. Infallibility is simply the belief that what a teacher teaches is without error in matters of faith and morals. In other words, it is trustworthy and true. Most of my fundamentalist friends and family go to their church week in and week out with the basic, underlying assumption that their pastor teaches them the truth in matters of faith and morals. In that respect, they believe he is infallible. They know he is an imperfect man, but they believe that an imperfect man might teach the perfect truth perfectly.
They know that he does not know everything and that he is not the final authority on all things, but in that respect again, they are like the Catholics, who also admit these things about their pastor (the universal one that is) Furthermore, most church goers admit this of their system of theology, their mode of worship and their style of church governance. In other words, they assume at the basic level, that their way of doing things is not only right, but it is God-given.
When you think about it, it is obvious that anybody who wants to belong to a church has to work on this assumption, otherwise their church wouldn’t ‘work’ for them. How can you belong to a church when all the time you are doubting that it’s underlying authority structure is unreliable? To belong to a church you have to make the assumption that the whole substructure is true and trustworthy. So there are all sorts of ways of believing in an infallible church authority even if people are not aware of it.
There are also many ways of not believing in an infallible church authority and following relative religion. It is easy to say that the only people who follow a relativist creed are the flaming liberals who think anything goes and ‘if it feels good do it.’ However, just as infallibility can be held unknowingly, so can relativity. The conservative Evangelical is just as relativist in his underlying philosophy as the most radical liberal, it’s just that he doesn’t think he is because he professes to trust in ‘Biblical authority’.
However, every Evangelical and every Evangelical denomination interprets the Bible differently. Furthermore, while they profess to hold to the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ most of them are guilty of moral and doctrinal drift as much as the liberal denominations, even though that drift has not been as far and as fast.
The typical Protestant, therefore is in a real bind. His belief in Biblical authority has led him to both reject an infallible authority other than the Bible, (while actually in practice he treats his pastor or his denomination as infallible) and to reject relativism (while in practice his faith is relativistic because he has no infallible authority) Totally confused yet?
To put it simply, the non-Catholic Christian (without a recognized infallible authority) can only be relativistic, but in order for his world not to drift and melt away totally, he has to behave as if his personal opinion or the opinion of his pastor or the decisions of his denomination are, in fact, infallible. If he gas honestly thought these things through and says, “Well, it is true and we have no infallible authority, and this means our decisions are in constant flux and are at best provisional.” Then he is really admitting to his relativist position.
Finally, there does seem to be another way. The typical Anglican will say, “Our authority is the Bible and Church tradition, and the first seven (or however many they choose) councils of the church and Vincent of Lerins’ statement, “That which has been believed by all everywhere.” In other words, a kind of “Mere Christianity” the problem with this, of course, is that it too, slips and slides away, for who is going to decide just what constitutes this ‘Mere Christianity’ or Vincent of Lerins’ catechism or which parts of the first councils to receive or which parts of the belief of the church in those early centuries to embrace or reject? Those who hold this more ‘traditionalist’ view cannot agree among themselves just what this ‘Mere Christianity’ consists of, and therefore they too slip back into the same relativist position.
Given the assumption that the relativist position is untenable for any Christian who believes in a revealed religion (“What! Shall we have a revealed religion in which the essentials of the faith remain concealed?”) I will go on in future posts to outline just what we might be looking for if we were to decide that we did, indeed, need an infallible authority in the church. In other words, what might a God given infallible authority look like?