Thursday, July 5, 2012

Of Popes, maps, and the Gospel...

From a Roman Catholic commenter at a web site that promotes the merits of Roman Catholicism as the one and only true church.  He wrote:
Thanks for the conversation. In recap, we were discussing... whether or not the Catholic, because they use their fallible judgment to find an infallible Church, are in the same boat as a Protestant. I said:

A. The Catholic Church is what she says she is [i.e. infallible], or

B. The Catholic Church is fallible, and therefore NOT what she says she is

If A, then I have an epistemic advantage listening to the Catholic Church. If B, then you and I are equals (epistemically) because the Catholic Church is just like a Protestant church: fallible.

So, either way, I’m better off being Catholic — it is epistemically preferable to choose to be Catholic — maybe not morally if she is not what she claims to be — but epistemically, it would. Analogy: If I could hire a tour guide and have a map, or just have a map, it would be epistemically preferable to have the tour guide also, if only as a possibility the tour guide new what the heck they were doing. In other words, all I need you to do is grant “A” is possible to make following the Catholic Church epistemically preferable. Given your inquiry into the Catholic Church, do you find A to be impossible?

Me:  There are a few problems, as I see it, with this line of reasoning. Both camps, Rome and Protestant, agree that Scripture, as given in the original tongues, is the infallible word of God. Rome, though, claims the Pope is the sole infallible interpreter of all doctrine in Scripture and teaching of the Church. In other words, by definition, whatever Rome teaches is correct and without error whether implicitly or explicitly taught in Scripture or not.

Addressing the the line of reasoning in the above scenario, let me change the "I" to "the Church."  Stick with me here...  If the Church accepts the Papal office as the infallible tour guide following the Pope's directions regardless of what the infallible map (Scripture) indicates, and if the Papal tour guide is in fact actually fallible, then the Church is worse off.  Off-hand, there are a couple reasons for this.  First, if there is a contradiction between the fallible tour guide (the Pope) and the infallible map (Scripture), then the Church, relying on this tour guide as the final authority, is destined at some point to go off course.  By definition he will make errors.  Yet there will never be a course correction by repudiating those Papal errors because the fallible guide is regarded as one who is infallible.  Course corrections don't compute.  Even if doctrinal error is taught it won't be caught because the tour guide can't make mistakes!  The infallible map is no longer part of the equation. 

On the other hand, even if the map isn't clear in certain places, the Church, if relying humbly on the infallible map, can move with caution and even readjust its course if necessary.  Through the study of the map, the Church can recheck its navigational calculations and acknowledge when it veers off into a wrong direction.  The map as the Church's ultimate and final authority is its guide.  This approach is summed up in the Reformed Churches' refrain "reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God."  There are no guarantees in either approach. Yet once errors have occurred in the Roman system, there are no course corrections or acknowledgement of error.  Why not?  By definition they don't need adjustments.  Their bedrock tenet of truth holds that their final authority, the tour guide, is infallible.  I suppose there can be certain changes and modifications, but never repudiation of error followed by a subsequent course change. Once an erroneous course is taken, the map is no longer referred to as far as changing course.  If they did do that, it would undermine the ground upon which Rome stands:  the Papal office.  "We're going in the right direction, led by our infallible tour guide!"

Lastly, since Scripture is not a road map, the above analogy is somewhat flawed or at least incomplete.  The Bible is not a manual or map to direct every step the Church takes.  Scripture's purpose is to communicate the Gospel of Christ by which sinful humans are saved.  That glorious good news is presented clearly in the words of Scripture and received by all whom are given eyes to see and ears to hear.  Is everything in Scripture equally clear?  No, but what is necessary for salvation is clear.  Can the Church, as a whole or in its various branches, confuse and obscure that salvation message?  Yes, she can and has.  This was at the heart of the reason why reforms were offered, vis-a-vis Rome, by the likes of Luther and Calvin; reforms which Rome emphatically rejected and still does (She's infallible).  The Reformers called for course adjustments in order remove errors which for centuries clouded the path by which sinful man could be reconciled to a holy God according to God's Word.  They wanted to make known and declare in the Church, clearly once again, the Good News of God's salvation of sinners which comes by His grace alone, as sinners trust alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection.  This is the purpose of the so-called map and it is the calling of the Church. to stand upon this gospel and proclaim.  And the Church, by standing upon the ground of this clear Gospel - that this Man Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God - ensures that the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.

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