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A Response to an "Argument for Infallibility"

 


by James White

The following argument was presented by a Roman Catholic apologist by the name of Phil Porvaznik by means of the Internet. We provide a brief response and rebuttal that we hope will be useful to all. Mr. Porvaznik's words are in Times Roman font, our response in Arial:

1) There was a person who lived in the first century named Jesus of Nazareth.

Yes, there was.

2) According to the record we have of him, this person Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.

The "record we have of Him" is the Bible, primarily. Hence, Mr. Porvaznik's argument begins with the assumption that we can know what Scripture is, and that prior to his establishment of any argument for the existence of an infallible Church. He will later argue that one cannot have the Scriptures without the Church, yet, his own argument for an infallible Church rests upon the existence and accuracy of the Scriptures themselves. It does no good to say, "Well, I am only assuming the existence of a record of his existence, and not anything about the accuracy or nature of that record." Such won't help his argument, since if the record is fallible, flawed, incomplete, or whatever, his argument rests upon fallible premises. You can't derive an infallible result from an argument based upon fallible premises.

3) Also according to the record we have, this person proved his claim by fulfilling hundreds of prophecies made hundreds of years in advance concerning his life, by performing all these miracles including healing the sick and raising the dead, and finally by predicting and accomplishing his own Resurrection from the dead.

All of this again assumes the accuracy, and in fact, supernatural character, of Scripture itself. Note the use of terms like "prophecies" and "miracles." In every instance, this argument assumes, at its start, that the Bible is what the Bible claims to be: a divine record, God-breathed, and revelatory. That Mr. Porvaznik will eventually subjugate that infallible and supernatural record to the authority of the Roman Church is a telling thing indeed.

4) If this person was indeed who he said he was -- the Son of God -- then the promises he made must be true. One of the more important promises was that he would found and build His Church (Matt 16:18-19; 18:17-18; 28:18-20; Luke 10:16; John 14:16-17; 16:13; 20:21-23) meaning a body of believers in Him whom he would give His own teaching authority through leaders called "apostles" (Matt 10:2ff) and whose successors were early on called "bishops" (see the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch c. 107 AD).

NOTE: The Bible texts are only listed to support the claims and promises of this divine person Jesus concerning His Church. I am treating the Bible as only a reliable historical record of his words at this point in the argument.

Here the argument really begins to fold in upon itself and become quite convoluted. It is very true that if Jesus was the Son of God, then it follows that His promises are true and will be fulfilled. It is also very true that Jesus promised He would build His Church and would be with her throughout all ages. But Mr. Porvaznik assumes the end of his argument when he begins to tell us what kind of church this is to be. Yes, the Church is a body of believers, as he says. But then he says that Jesus promised to "give His own teaching authority through leaders called "apostles." There is truth in the statement, i.e., that the Apostles functioned as leaders in the early Church, and that through the Apostles the Church was guided and grew. But note that this authority becomes something that exists separately from the Apostles, and becomes something that is the object of being "passed down." Mr. Porvaznik says the Apostles "successors" were called "bishops." Of course, no biblical passage is cited here--we are only given Ignatius' view. Why? Because the Bible does not describe bishops as "successors" of the Apostles. What is more, the authority of the bishop is based upon the content of his teaching, not upon his position! That is why Paul speaks so often of the elder/bishop (one office in the NT) being "sound in doctrine" (1 Timothy 4:6, 6:3, Titus 1:9, 2:1, 7, 10). It is not a teaching authority that is being passed on, but sound doctrine itself. Indeed, this is plainly seen in the words of Paul to Timothy that are so often cited by Roman Catholic apologists, 2 Timothy 2:2:

The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Note that Paul is not concerned about some position but about the content of the message. "Apostolic succession," if such a term is to have meaning, must be a succession of truth not of position. [We note in passing that this passage in no way provides support for the oft-repeated claim that "oral tradition" is a valid form of revelation, or that this passage is exhorting Timothy to pass on such extra-scriptural traditions. As Tertullian rightly noted (De Praescriptione XXV), such was not Paul's intention. Instead, Paul here makes explicit reference to his public teaching, which surely is to be found plainly recorded for us in Scripture.]

Next, Mr. Porvaznik says that he is only using the Bible as a "reliable historical record" at this point. Such sounds very good, but it makes no sense upon reflection. How does a mere historical record tell us of divine prophecies and accomplished miracles? Why treat the Bible as anything other than what it claims itself to be? And do we ever find the Lord Jesus using the Scriptures the way Mr. Porvaznik does? Indeed, we must ask an even more serious question: does the Lord Jesus ever create arguments with the sole design of subjugating the Scriptures to a human authority, such as the Church of Rome?

5) This Church (the early believers and their leaders) would have the authority to speak in this divine person's name particularly concerning the faith and moral teachings of His Church. As the divine Founder said -- "he who hears you, hears Me" (Lk 10:16; Mt 10:40); and "all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me. Therefore go...and [teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you...." (Mt 28:18-20); His leaders would be guided by the "Spirit of truth" to the end of time (Jn 14:16-17,26; 16:13); Jesus would be with them to ensure faithfulness to His teaching (Mt 28:20); and as one of His first converts stated -- the Church would be "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15 NIV) for His Church is built on a solid Rock, Peter (Mt 16:18f) and all the apostles (Eph 2:20; Rev 21:14) and their successors as history demonstrates (epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus).

Here we have the full argument presented in all its glory: yet, we can see, plainly, that the conclusions do not follow from the premises. The Church is indeed given authority: but it is a derivative authority, one based upon fidelity to the truth, not upon any inherent characteristic of the Church. The very "historical record" Mr. Porvaznik is claiming to use records instance after instance where error crept into the Church. Acts, Galatians, Romans, the Pastoral Epistles, Hebrews---all stand as irrefutable testimony to the fact that the Church suffered from false prophets and false teachers from her very inception, and that indeed, such was predicted by the Apostles themselves! Paul warned the Ephesians elders that this would take place (Acts 20:28-31). Note his words:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.

We note a few things from this passage. First, Paul exhorts the elders (plural) to shepherd the flock of God. No Peter, no monarchical episcopate. Indeed, the one-bishop concept did not evolve in Rome itself until the 140s. Second, Paul specifically predicts that "savage wolves" will enter into the Church. Third, even men from among the elders will arise, speaking perverse things, and will draw away disciples after them. False teaching would be an enemy the Church would have to struggle with throughout her history.

Now, the question we must ask is, to what does Paul entrust the Church in light of the grave dangers facing her? When we read the next verses in Acts 20, do we find Paul speaking of Peter, the Papacy, Rome, or the infallibility of the Church? No, instead we read:

And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

God and His Word. For Paul, that was enough. For Roman Catholic apologists, it isn't. Nowhere do we find Rome, Popes, Councils, or Inquisitors. We find God, and His grace. That is the hope of the true Christian Church, and no other.

6) To accomplish what Jesus promised, His Church must be infallible when teaching officially on faith and morals otherwise the gates of hell would indeed prevail; His Church would NOT be guided by the Spirit of truth; Jesus would have abandoned His own Church; and His Church would be the pillar and foundation of error.

As we can see, none of this statement follows from what has come before. Nowhere does Mr. Porvaznik provide us with the foundation for such assertions. Why must the Church be infallible to speak with authority? Is Mr. Porvaznik infallible? Can he speak with authority on what Rome teaches? Mr. Porvaznik's position sounds much like that presented by one Vinney Lewis, a Feeneyite Roman Catholic who asserts that unless you claim personal infallibility, you can't speak with authority on anything (see our catalog for details). Yet such is obviously untrue. One does not have to be infallible to have authority. The authority of the proclamation of the Christian Church comes from the message that is preached, not from the nature of the messenger.

Next, the gates of Hades cannot prevail against the Church because of the faithfulness of Christ, not because of some alleged charism of infallibility. The foundation upon which she is built is the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As long as the Church confesses this truth, the gates of Hades are powerless against her. She does not have to be infallible in her every action to be faithful to such a confession.

Finally, the Church is indeed the pillar and foundation of the truth, as Paul said. However, a pillar and a foundation support something else. Pillars rest on foundations; foundations and pillars together support structures. The Church supports and upholds the truth. That does not make the Church the truth itself. Such thinking involves hopeless confusion of categories.

7) This Church did speak infallibly (near the end of the 4th century and in subsequent "Councils") concerning this collection of OT and NT documents -- His Church ultimately decided the canon saying what books are truly the Word of God and have explained precisely what that means in Councils and papal encyclicals such as those by Popes Leo XIII and Benedict XV and Pius XII and now the Catechism.

This is a tremendous leap that involves the complete misrepresentation of the early Church, and even of Roman doctrine! Mr. Porvaznik surely knows that the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, to which he refers, were not "ecumenical" councils, and as such, are not granted the "charism of infallibility" that is reserved, even in Roman theology, for councils of the entire Church. If Mr. Porvaznik would like to claim these councils are infallible, what, then, does he do with Seleucia or Ariminum? Indeed, even the New Catholic Encyclopedia admits that the first dogmatically binding and infallible pronouncement on the canon that matches the current Roman edition is found in the Council of Trent! But beyond such questions, the idea that the Christian people did not know what was, and what was not, Christian Scripture until Rome spoke, is simply beyond reason. Such a claim comes only from modern Rome: it does not come from reading the patristic sources. How did Athanasius know the Scriptures in his 39th Festal letter, which precedes the Councils of Hippo and Carthage? Let Mr. Porvaznik show us how Irenaeus or Ignatius or Polycarp or Tertullian were indebted to Rome for their knowledge of the canon.

We should not miss the import of the words provided to us here. Rome intends to subjugate Scripture to her own authority. Roman apologists, even while denying it, prove by their every effort the truth of the following statement: Protestants believe in sola scriptura, and Roman Catholics believe in sola ecclesia. Rome is the final authority for Mr. Porvaznik and other apologists. Rome defines the extent of Scripture (canon), and the content of Scripture (interpretation); she likewise defines the extent of "tradition," and the content of tradition. Hence, Rome herself, claiming infallibility, becomes the ultimate and unquestionable authority, uncorrectable by any outside rule of faith. Sola ecclesia.

To establish sola ecclesia one must attack sola scriptura. To convince someone of the necessity of the Church's sufficiency, one must deny the Scripture's sufficiency. And that is where the battle rages.

8) The Catholic Church of 400 AD is the same Roman Catholic Church of 1997 AD because of historical continuity and identity. No other Church fits the description. Therefore, the Roman Catholic Church is infallible when teaching officially on faith and morals.

Mr. Porvaznik knows better. He knows this "historical continuity" is a myth. He knows the early Christians did not believe in Papal infallibility, the Bodily Assumption of Mary, and a whole host of other doctrines that define modern Romanism. The Church of AD 400 would barely be able to recognize the Roman Church of 1997. This has been proven over and over again in debates that Mr. Porvaznik owns and has listened to (see our catalog for examples).

In addition, this divine person Jesus put his general stamp of approval on what is known as the Old Testament, "law and prophets and writings" (e.g. Mt 4:1ff; 5:17-18; 22:29-32; Lk 24:25-27, 44ff; Jn 10:35) and we take the word of His infallible Church for the OT and NT canons.

I have asked Mr. Porvaznik this question before, and will ask it again: how did the believing Jew who lived 50 years before Christ know what Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were Scripture? So far, no consistent, meaningful response has been given to this question. Whatever answer is given ends up contradicting the Roman viewpoint. Note some of the possibilities:

1) The believing Jew didn't know what was, and what was not Scripture. This answer has been given to me by a number of Roman Catholics. It then follows, of course, that the Lord Jesus was wrong in holding men accountable to those very Scriptures (Matthew 22:29-33). The fact that the Jews did know and were accountable is indisputable.

2) The believing Jew knew because of an infallible Magisterium. Again, this has been offered as a response, but it doesn't work. First, if this is so, when did the Jewish Magisterium become fallible? Second, the Jewish Magisterium did not accept the Apocryphal books as Scripture---so why does Rome? Third, where does the New Testament ever acknowledge the existence of this infallible source? [For more on this, see our response to David Palm on tradition].

3) The believing Jew could only know by supernatural revelation. Same objections apply here as in #1.

We ask all who read these words to take the time to read the 119th Psalm, and then ask yourself a question: how could the Psalmist utter these words at least 1000 years before any man sat upon a throne in Rome and claimed to be the Vicar of Christ on earth?

In short, a Christian TODAY cannot know Scripture is inspired unless the Catholic Church tells him so. There is no other way to prove the Bible is inspired and therefore inerrant and completely trustworthy. To attack the Catholic Church (and her beliefs) is to automatically sabotage the authority and infallibility of the Bible.

The final and fateful step is then made: the Bible is inspired only because Rome tells you it is. The act of subjugating Scripture to the authority of Rome is complete. And yet, as we have seen, the arguments leading up to this amazing and anti-biblical conclusion do not hold up to scrutiny. They are flawed at every step. Yet, sadly, many continue to fall for this deception, rather than trusting in the God-breathed Scriptures.


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