No, Prime Minister, a clarification is not to make oneself clear. It is to put oneself in the clear.

-Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes, Prime Minister: The Tangled Web

The High Church Apologetic about Doctrinal Certainty

It is a common rhetorical charge against Protestantism that it is doctrinally chaotic, that it is impossible to know what to believe about the Christian faith in Protestantism since they disagree on how to interpret the Bible. This has often been accompanied by the more attractive alternative that high churches have an infallible interpreter of the Bible which can provide doctrinal clarity. Thus the claim involves a two stage argument: The doctrinal certainty comes from interpretative clarifications, and such clarify is enabled by an infallible interpreter of the Bible.


It is the purpose of this post to interrogate what “infallible interpreter” means and, to that end, propose two ways of fleshing out this claim: (1) Infallible Magisterial Presentism and (2) Practical Exercises of Ecclesiastical Authority. I would then argue that (1) fails because the Magisterium rarely engage the meta-question of which magisterial documents are infallible or belong to the depositum fidei and (2) fails because nowadays, especially without the alliance of civic authorities, ecclesiastical discipline is rarely exercised. In the end we are left with the mystery as to what does it really mean to be a member of a high church denomination.

For the purpose of this discussion I shall be using mostly Roman Catholic examples but the same point can be very easily adapted to denominations like Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. As we say in mathematics, “without loss of generality”, etc.

How Exactly Do High Church Denominations Provide “Infallible Interpretations”? Two Problems

From the outset it is not clear what exactly “infallible interpretations” means. It is not as if the Magisterium provides a set of infallible exegesis or commentary on the Biblical text. Even if the Pope is infallible on matters of faith and morals when he speaks ex cathedra, the Chair of St Peter does not make him an expert in Greek linguistics or Semitic languages.

Unfortunately it isn't a Professorial Chair
Unfortunately it isn’t a Professorial Chair

It is clear therefore that the Magisterium is not an infallible exegete. And the most astonishing fact of the matter is that the Magisterium does not actually provide any authoritative interpretations of any text at all (with perhaps the sole exception of the “Rock” passages as referring to the Bishop of Rome).  The Pope and the Magisterium can make mistakes in Greek semantics or Hebrew grammar. Nor does the Magisterium claim to become experts in Augustinian theology or infallible interpreters of Summa Theologica by virtue of their divinely ordained teaching office. They could still read the sermons of St Bernard of Clarivaux or John Duns Scotus’s Ordinatio wrongly.

What the Magisterium does is to command or mandate certain beliefs or actions, what they do not do is to provide infallible commentaries or exegesis. It is obvious then that when Roman Catholics speaks of “interpreters” of the faith, the word “interpreter” is used metaphorically. They do not actually interpret any text at all. What they do claim is the ability to communicate the “Deposit of Faith” or the mind/will of God infallibly. What they do not claim is to be infallible textual experts. If they do any form of “interpretation” of the “Deposit of Faith”, it has to be indirectly by issuing ecclesiastical decrees telling people what to believe and do. Perhaps the only thing the Magisterium can claim to read infallibly are ecclesiastical documents or church law, but this is a far cry from claiming to be an infallible interpreter of the Bible and besides, the Magisterium does not in fact produce infallible legal commentaries on canon law.

If however the immediate acts of infallibility by the Church are decrees and not exegesis then two problems would arise at once.

(1) Prima Facie Conflict of Decrees

It is clear that there does exist a prima facie conflict between many ecclesiastical documents such as between that of Dignitatis Humanae declaring religious liberty and Unam Sanctam decreeing universal submission of the civil authorities to papal throne on the pain of damnation. Many other such examples of prima facie conflicts between past decrees and present practice or teachings can be raised, e.g. usury as a sin, the endorsement of slavery, etc.


There has been many creative attempts at reconciling the many decrees and councils and very complex theories and explanations have been formed in aid of that, especially via Cardinal Newman’s development of doctrine theory. The enterprise may or may not succeed, but the very existemce of the enterprise already contradicts one of the key apologetic point of having an infallible interpreter, that is, that the issuing of these decrees bring more clarity as opposed to confusion about the faith. What these complex reconciling does is, in the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, to put the Roman Catholic Church in the clear of contradictions, but what it does not do is to make things clear. If anything it makes things even more confusing since now on top of these primary ecclesiastical decrees we need to read and understand very complex theories to make sense of them. Once the fact of “development” or “change” is admitted, reconciliatory theories are necessary and complexity sets in. (As to the problems of admitting doctrinal development itself I have already articulated at some length here.)

Therefore, if we are not to become entangled in Newman’s complex historical webs, we need an alternative way of handling seemingly contradictory decrees in a simple manner. To that end we shall explore Cardinal Henry Edward Manning’s solution of Infallible Magisterial Presentism. But before we do so we need to spell out the second difficulty of infallibility by decree rather than exegesis.

(2) The Gap between Decrees and Concrete Acts

Recall that the Magisterium does not “interpret” the faith by providing infallible exegesis but by issuing decrees and instructions. However, as with any decree of sufficient generality or abstraction, it falls upon concrete persons in particular situations to decide how to implement the law or command. In short, the decrees themselves need interpretation and concrete enforcement in actual situations to be effective. Otherwise it would simply become a dead letter collecting dust at the Vatican with no actual on the ground effects or implications.

This gap between concrete effect and general decree was exposed in a very dramatic way during the Jansenist controversy in the 17th century.

The Jansenists were this post-Reformation semi-Calvinistic Roman Catholic group who were, at one point of time, quite widespread throughout France, Belgium and Holland. It was based on the writings of a Roman Catholic Dutch bishop Cornelius Jansenius who left behind a set of writings named “Augustinus” expounding a system of grace and salvation supposedly based on St Augustine’s teachings.

Cornelius Jansenius
Cornelius Jansenius

However the teachings seemed to have a distinctly Calvinistic bent and the Roman authorities thought so. Five propositions were extracted out of the work and condemned in the bull Cum Occasione by Pope Innocent X.

Now one would think that the matter would be settled there and then. After all, Rome has spoken, the matter is settled right? Not so. The wily and clever Jansenists adopted the following device to maintain their Jansenism. They argued that the five propositions condemned by the Pope cannot in fact be found in the work “Augustinus” and is fact an erroneous interpretation of that work! Thus, while they accepted the condemnation of the five propositions, as a matter of church doctrinal teaching, they refused to give up or renounce the book which they claim does not teach those five propositions. They justified this move by arguing that the Church was indeed authoritative when it taught on matters of doctrine and when the church pronounces its judgement on such matters, the Roman faithful has no choice but to accept it. But, whether or not a doctrine can in fact be found in a certain work or book is a matter of human fact, not a matter of doctrine. Thus, while they would respectfully keep an external silence, out of reverence for the Pope, they refused an interior assent to give up the “Augustinus”.

As we have already noted, the Magisterium is only infallible when it comes to faith and morals. They can issue decrees concerning theological facts or matters of piety. What they do not have is the power to read human texts infallibly. If the Roman Catholic Church has no way of practically enforcing Cum Occasione, then the decree would effectively become a useless and dead letter. Therefore to overcome this difficulty and to ensure that the “infallible interpreter” by infallible decrees is not to remain a dead letter, practical exercises of ecclesiastical authority would be necessary for the faithful to know what the decrees mean in concrete terms. Otherwise, the various “infallible decrees” would simply become vacuous as every Tom, Dick and Harry can individually decide on their own its meaning.

Cardinal Henry Edward Manning’s Infallible Magisterial Presentism

Cardinal Manning is interesting in that he was a contemporary of Newman who actually acknowledged the difficulties which history poses for the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather than attempting to reconcile the difficulties, Cardinal Manning instead rejects history altogether as necessary or foundational to the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. He writes in his Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost:


No Catholic would first take what our objectors call history, fact, antiquity and the like, and from them deduce his faith ; and for this reason, the faith was revealed and taught before history, fact or antiquity existed. These things are but the basis of his faith, nor is the examination of them his method of theological proof. The Church, which teaches him now by its perpetual living voice, taught the same faith before as yet the Church had a history or an antiquity. The rule and basis of faith to those who lived before either the history or antiquity of which we hear so much existed, is the rule and basis of our faith now.

But perhaps it may be asked: If you reject history and antiquity, how can you know what was revealed before, as you say, history and antiquity existed ? ‘I answer : The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum, of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation. I know what are revealed there not by retrospect, but by listening.

(bold and underline mine)

And here’s another quote from him:

It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church? No individual, no number of individuals can go back through eighteen hundred years to reach the doctrines of antiquity… I may say in strict truth that the Church has no antiquity. It rests upon its own supernatural and perpetual consciousness.

(bold and underline mine)

Thus in response to the difficulties of past decrees and history in general, what we have instead is a strident subjection of history and antiquity to the presentist voice of the Church “at this hour”. History and antiquity are not the basis of the Church, the Church is the basis of history. The difficulties of reconciling past decrees are settled by a simple attention to the voice of the Church at the present, which alone provides the “maximum of evidence… as to the fact and contents of the original revelation”. Thus we need not try to figure out how to reconcile Unam Sanctam with Dignitatis Humanae or make sense of the Council of Trent. You need only read the Catechism of the Catholic Church or any decrees “of this hour” and it would be enough. It is parallel to the metaphysical theory called “occasionalism” which says that God continously “re-creates” the entire universe from moment to moment because the universe has no substance of its own and is held in existence by the present action of God. Likewise is the entire Church and all of its past continously “re-created” moment by moment by presentist Magisterial decrees.

While it is important to note that many Roman Catholics would object to such strident Magisterial Presentism, the fact is that even if we do accept Magisterial presentism, it still does not provide the doctrinal certainty touted by the Roman Catholic simply because the Magisterium rarely makes meta-judgements about which documents are infallible or belong to the Deposit of Faith. Even if the Magisterium does issue decrees in the present defining the faith, it does not claim that all of it is infallible or belong to the Deposit of Faith. Therein lies the uncertainty as to which decree or document, and which parts of them, contain infallible teachings or are merely prudential judgements which maybe overturn in future.

William Whitt, an Anglican theologian, has illustrated this difficulty with a recent case which I think would be helpful to quote at length:

…as modern debates about papal authority make clear, the appeal to infallibility does not provide the kind of epistemic certainty that is needed here. There are both maximalist and minimalist interpretations of papal infallibility. Despite Newman’s claim that one is required to believe “whateveran Apostle said,” the official teaching about the magisterium is that the pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra. Popes can and do make moral and theological errors. A doctrine of infallibility is helpful only in those instances when we can be sure the pope or magisterium is not making such an error.

Minimalist defenders of papal infallibility emphasize that there are only a handful of times when the magisterium has spoken infallibly, namely, the definition of papal infallibility itself, and the Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption. Maximalist defenders engage in what has been called“creeping infallibility,” the tendency to presume that any statements of the magisterium must be presumed at face value to be infallible until subsequent statements to the contrary indicate the lack of infallibility. Roman Catholic apologists often take either one stance or the other, depending on whether they are trying to persuade their audience that infallibility is not really a burden (minimalist), or, to the contrary, emphasizing infallibility’s epistemic value in providing certainty (maximalist).

That infallibility proves to be of little epistemic help can be seen in the conflict over artificial contraception that has been raging in the Roman church ever since Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception. Dissidents from the doctrine frequently claim that it has not been defined infallibly. Defenders claim that while it has not been so defined, it nonetheless meets all the criteria of infallibility, and must be accepted as such.

However, until it is so defined, whether one decides that it does or does not meet the criteria means that one must exercise one’s private judgment in determining whether it has been so defined. An interesting case in point is the correspondence between former Catholic University of America Professor Charles Curran and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) during the process through which Curran was eventually deprived of his status of being a Catholic theologian on the grounds of his challenging Humanae Vitae. (The documentation can be found in Curran’s Faithful Dissent, (Sheed & Ward, 1986).) Throughout the correspondence, Curran repeatedly raised a single issue, whether or not it was permissible for faithful Catholics to dissent from non-infallible statements of the magisterium. Repeatedly, Curran insisted that he adhered to the doctrine of infallibility, but that Humanae Vitae was not infallible. He repeatedly asked clarification from his prosecutors as to whether Humanae Vitae was infallible, and said that such a clarification would lead him to submit. Curran’s opponents simply refused to answer his question. Certainly if the maximalists are correct, it would have been easy to do so, since, as maximalists argue, it meets the criteria of infallibility. Instead, Curran was repeatedly asked simply to renounce his teachings because he had disagreed with the magisterium. In the end, Curran had to be left wondering whether he was disciplined because he disagreed with an infallible teaching of the magisterium, or, instead, whether he was disciplined simply because he challenged a statement of the magisterium, which might have been infallible, but might not have been. A doctrine of infallibility which might or might not apply in specific instances provides no more epistemic assurance than what Newman calls “private judgment.” (For an argument along the same lines, see Mark E. Powell, “Canonical Theism and the Challenge of Epistemic Certainty: Papal Infallibility as a Case Study,” Canonical Theism, 195-209.)

Newman’s Incoherence

(Do go read his article in full.)


Thus, the Magisterium rarely makes meta-decrees about its decrees. It rarely declares a certain document infallible although it does sometimes declare something to be authoritative. However declarations of authoritative teaching is itself no help at all. Whereas something being infallible is a sure sign of being part of the deposit of faith, something being authoritative does not entail it being part of the deposit of faith. We therefore do not know if, say, the decree against artificial contraception is part of the Deposit of Faith or not. Judgements of which council or decree or ecclesiastical writing are authoritative, binding, infallible, etc, are largely disputes by Roman Catholic theologians of a theoretical nature, to the point of speculative. Until the Magisterium actually does decide to authoritatively define and decide which documents are infallible or part of the deposit of faith, no one could actually be certain as to what does constitute the Deposit of Faith.

Active Authoritative Enforcement of Ecclesiastical Decrees?

The inability to judge theoretically which ecclesiastical decrees are authoritative would not be much of a practical bother if we could predict, with a reasonable amount of certainty, what the Magisterium would do if you say or do something. The theoretical question would then be resolved practically by simply seeing how the ecclesiastical authorities act when it comes to infringement of certain documents to see if it is binding or not. If indeed the meaning of the decrees cannot be settled theoretically, then it could be settled practically by predictable and frequent enforcements.


However today we have no such practical enforcement by Roman Catholic authorities as even the example above illustrates. It is not unusual for priests and even bishops and cardinals to go against what seems to be part of the deposit of faith and retain not only their access to the Eucharist but even their ecclesiastical offices as well. According to an account of Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian who taught at Notre Dame University, he was reported to have attended Roman Catholic masses to receive communion and when once a priest refused to give it to him, he simply joined another queue. Many Roman Catholic parishes nowadays simply do not enforce eucharistic boundaries anymore, letting any baptised Christian to commune, a popular Australian Roman Catholic priest and television personality has openly given general absolutions to everyone. And then we have the infamous Hans Küng, the denier of papal infallibility, who has yet to be deposed of his priesthood, never mind excommunicated.

If Roman Catholic clerics are allowed to run wild, never mind Roman Catholic laity who are practically free to do or believe whatever they want. It is not even unusual for very public figures, (do not forget that it was a Roman Catholic supreme court justice which made gay marriage in the US possible) or politicians, or even entire swaths of Roman Catholics, to reject core Roman Catholic teachings like abortion or gay marriage and yet be able to receive communion.

The Infinite Regress of Interpreters

All these considerations do not “disprove” Roman Catholicism, if such a thing is even possible. What it does demonstrate is that its apologetic rhetoric of being able to provide “certainty” on the faith is highly problematic. It has no real criteria, practical or theoretical, for identifying what exactly belongs to the Deposit of Faith. What we do have are many particular decrees and ecclesiastical documents, how they are applicable today or related to the deposit of faith is a lot less certain, and we have no real way of determining on way or another, either at a theoretical or practical level, which ones are binding or not.

This is why every apologetic attempt is necessarily accompanied by a reconstruction of the faith. No apologist would simply end one’s defence of the church with a simple “visit your nearest Roman Catholic parish” for they do not know what they would find there. The Roman Catholic apologist necessarily feels the burden of reconstructing the entirety of the Roman Catholic Church on his or her own. The “certainty” of the Roman Catholic faith is a function of one’s ability to grasp a very complex and cumbersome narrative from which they can interpret the often disparate to the point of contradictory elements of their church. The irony is that the locus of certainty or confidence is not the Church itself, the locus of certainty is on this highly idealised narrative of the Church. What is supposed to provide a “clear” and “certain” interpretation of the faith becomes rapidly lost into very complex and often difficult to understand theories and narratives of ecclesiastical realities. What happens in reality is a plurality within the Roman Catholic Church as “chaotic” as that of Protestant denominations.

We could have grasped this point a lot sooner if we had noted a simple entailment from the “necessary interpreter” logic. All documents, whether biblical, ecclesiastical or patristic, would need interpreting. The sceptical strategy of denying our ability to interpret the bible in favour of infallible interpreters would simply lead to an infinite regress of interpreters, e.g. now we need to be able to interpret the meaning of those infallible interpretative documents, etc. This insight is not a new one by the way. The Protestant apologists during the Reformation were already confronted by Roman Catholic apologists employing pyrrhonistic sceptic arguments against the Protestant claim to be able to understand the Bible with their reason. They argued that we could not be certain about whether a book was a part of a bible, what a sentence means in the bible, etc, etc, and we would therefore need the Pope to save us from total epistemic nihilism. The Protestants instantly counter-attacked by arguing that we have no way of knowing what tradition is, how to read church documents or the Fathers or even who the Pope was. (One Protestant polemicist argued that in the Roman Catholic Church only one person could be sure of the faith, the Pope himself.)

[Addendum: This issue has been brought into sharp focus with the recent controversies within the Roman Church as to the proper reading of Amoris Laetitia and whether or not it sanctions communion for the divorce and remarried. A Roman Catholic has helpfully outlined four “interpretations” of that document here. For my critical analysis of the Synod of the Family and its ecclesiastical implications for the Roman Church, see here.)

In the end, it is largely a mystery as to what constitutes a Roman Catholic. I once proposed three definitions:

(1) Your name is on some parish registry or roll or you have some baptismal/confirmation certificate or something (the “administrative/bureaucratic” membership)

(2) Take communion at a parish on a weekly basis (the “living church” membership, because your membership is renewed “live” by literal communion with the Church)

(3) You believe everything or assent to a certain set of ecclesiastical documents (the “credal/confessional” membership)

However, each definition is problematic, especially in the light of our arguments. In the end, to echo the Protestant apologist, maybe only the Pope knows what it means to be a Roman Catholic.

Conclusion: Certainty a Matter of Trust than Clarity

William Whitt, whom we have quoted earlier on, in the very same essay has already placed his finger on the problem with the high church apologetic strategy of claiming to provide certainty. They have accepted Cartesian assumptions about the need for subjective certainty which prioritises epistemology over reality. The certainty of the Roman Catholic apologist is primarily an epistemic one, to do with knowledge or answering the question of how can we know?

Old Testament Prophets witness of Christ

However the certainty of the Christian faith is not a Cartesian one about possessing epistemic certainty or clarity. It is the certainty of faith which involves, not grasping an infallible epistemic device which can mechanically generate propositions, but grasping a person in trust. Jesus Christ alone is the proper object of confidence, certainty and faith. The certainty of the Christian faith is not an evidentialist one to do with subjective clarity, it is a certainty to do with trust in a person unto whom we can commit our welfare, our lives and our future. Our epistemic tools are merely means to communicating the reality of Christ, not absolutely the objects of confidence in themselves. The criteria by which we evaluate our epistemic devices is whether it is reliable, that is, whether it is a reliable channel to the person, rather than whether it provides certainty in some subjective evidentialist sense. Jesus Christ alone, the living Word and true God, commands our hearts and our minds, and who has promised to guide us and to be with us. He is grasped by the whole person by faith alone. Certainty has more to do with trust than with clarity.

This is the half-truth of neo-orthodoxy which I think is very sadly neglected by Evangelicals in general in their reaction against Karl Barth. The Scriptures are infallible in that they do not fail to communicate Christ to its hearers and readers. They are fundamentally witnesses to a reality, not infallible machines which mechanically generates propositions by a deductive computation. We can trust the Scriptures because they are reliable witnesses of Christ and provide sound testimony of him. Through our reason and historical studies we can attain practical, but not absolute, certainty that they are reliable and do track unto the realities of which they speak. But ultimately absolute and existential certainty remains an act of faith, not a product of a mechanical epistemic deduction, grasping the person of which the text speaks through faith alone.

As such for those whose hearts has already grasped the Lord of Heaven and of Earth, whose certainty is grounded upon trust in a living God who has promised to act for our salvation, what need we for the epistemic certainty peddled by high church apologists? Why indeed should we trade our inheritance of faith alone which provides us with an infinitely more secure ground in trust upon a divine person sent by the Father for the mess of pottage of epistemic “certainty” provided by a creaking ecclesiastical machinery which coughs and splutters ambiguously whenever it opens its mouth?

As far as I can see, the answer has to be, none whatsoever.

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