Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Part I): Preliminary Logic and Syllogisms


The disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants often come down to a dispute on the claim that the Church teaches authoritatively in a binding manner which can be free of error. This article deals with logic and syllogisms which express these things.

I do not claim these syllogisms are the only ones. Rather this is my own take on the topic.

I start with logic, rather than Scripture, not because I think Logic is greater than Scripture, but because before we look at Scripture we need to be aware of certain assumptions which people hold uncritically and see if it is reasonable to hold them.

This will be multi-post, but the posts will not necessarily come one after the other

Preliminary Notes

  1. This article is not meant to address all issues of infallibility. Nor is it intended to prove it to the non-Christian audience. Rather it presumes the reader accepts the existence of God (for a reader who does not accept the existence of the Triune God is therefore not a Christian). It intends to look at the Christian dispute over whether or not God can grant His Church the ability to teach without error in certain circumstances.
  2. Obviously if one does not believe in God, it follows he or she won’t believe God can make His Church infallible either, so it's a moot point for the unbeliever to begin with.
  3. These are my own thoughts on the subject, and not the official teaching of the Church on infallibility.  So if you find some point of disagreement, don't go announcing how you "disproved the Church teaching."

Non Christians are of course welcome to read this, but please spare me the “you didn’t prove God exists!” comments. Christians don’t need to prove God exists before discussing theological issues among themselves any more than physicists have to prove the existence of matter before starting work on a scientific project… it’s an essential premise. (No recognition of the existence of God as a precondition, no discussion of Christianity. No recognition of the existence of Matter as a premise, no discussion of Physics)


There are some terms which need to be defined.  These definitions come from the OED (no, I didn't alphabetize them.  Windows Live Writer can be a pain in this way):

  • Infallible: incapable of making mistakes or being wrong.
  • Fallible: capable of making mistakes or being wrong.
  • Inerrant: incapable of being wrong.
  • Personal: of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person.
  • Inspired: fill with the urge or ability to do or feel something
  • Interpret: explain the meaning of (words, actions, etc.)
  • Error: a mistake, the state of being wrong in conduct or judgment.
  • Literal: taking words in their usual or most basic sense; not figurative
  • Symbol: a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.
  • Plain: easy to perceive or understand; clear
  • Sense: a way in which an expression or situation can be interpreted; a meaning.
  • Contradictory: Logic (of two propositions) so related that one and only one must be true.
  • Contrary: Logic (of two propositions) so related that one or neither but not both must be true.
  • Syllogism: a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn from two given or assumed propositions (premises); a common or middle term is present in the two premises but not in the conclusion
  • Essential: central to the nature of something; fundamental
  • Arbiter: a person who settles a dispute.

Now these terms can have deeper meanings in the theological sense, but these at least give a basic understanding of the terms

The first set of syllogisms:

Because we Believe God protected the writers of the books of Scripture from error, we must recognize that God protected the Church from decreeing error when it proclaimed what was contained in Scripture.

This set of syllogisms (#1-4) assumes that Christians believe in the authority of Scripture (again, the denial of this makes one a heretic at the very least). Because Christians believe God is all powerful and He made scripture inerrant, these are elements of common ground we share even if we disagree on other issues. So let’s use this as a starting point.

Syllogism #1

  1. For [something to be unable to err], it must be [all knowing and all powerful] (All [A] is [B])
  2. [God] is [all knowing and all powerful] (All[C] is [B])
  3. Therefore [God] is [unable to err] (Therefore All [C] is [A])

A Christian which denies this is seriously deficient in their faith.

If God is not all knowing, there can be things He does not know and thus can err. If God is not all powerful, there can be things He cannot access and thus He can again err (also known as inerrancy).  Now we accept that God is all powerful and all knowing and is this inerrant.  How does humanity fit into this?  Let us move on to the second syllogism.

Syllogism #2

  1. [Inerrancy] requires being [all knowing and all powerful] (All [A] is [B])
  2. [Man] is not [all knowing and all powerful.] (No [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore [man] is not [inerrant]. (Therefore no [C] is [A])

This is important to remember here. No man can claim to be free of error on his own, because man is not free from error. So a person who claims to be unable to err must either get his ability from a greater [all knowing and all powerful] being or else be lying or deceived.

Syllogism #3

  1. Christians believe that the [Bible] was [inerrant] (All [B] is [A])
  2. The [Bible] is something [written by man] (Some [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore Christians believe something [written by man] can be [inerrant] (Therefore Some [C] is [A])

However, since we already went through the fact that man is not inerrant, it follows that for something created by a man to be inerrant, the ability to be inerrant has to come from a being which is inerrant (which Christians call God), and is not independent of God.

With this done, we need to take a brief look at the history of the canon of Scripture.

Logic and History

We need to start with the Christian recognition that the Bible neither contains books that were not inspired, nor excludes books that were inspired. So if we are to say the Bible is complete and inerrant, it means that nothing within the Bible is present wrongly and nothing is excluded wrongly from the Bible.

However, there were disputes in the past. Not over everything of course. The Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, 1 John and 1 Peter were all generally recognized by faithful Christians. However, some thought that Hebrews, James, 2+3 John, Jude and Revelation were inspired and some rejected this. The decision was made by the Church in the 4th century was considered to have settled the matter.

Now, remember that if the Bible is to be considered inerrant as a whole and in its parts, the decision had to have been protected from error. Otherwise we could not know the Bible was inerrant as a whole and in its parts.

Since the list of books approved for the Bible was composed in the late 4th century AD, and recalling that it takes a being that is [all knowing and all powerful] to make something inerrant, we can’t say that God was only involved in making something inerrant at the time of composition of Scripture.

Remember if the list of Scripture is not inerrant, we cannot know whether or not the books in the Bible belong there. If we can’t know if the books within the Bible belong there, we can’t know it is unable to err. Therefore if we believe the Bible is inerrant, we must accept that the list of books in Scripture is inerrant.

So that brings us to syllogism #4 which will continue to advance the issue.

Syllogism #4

  1. The Church [decreed] [the list of scripture] (A is part of B)
  2. 2. This [list of scripture] is [inerrant] (B is part of C)
  3. 3. Therefore the Church [decreed] something [inerrant] (Therefore A is part of C)

We then must recognize that the Church was free of error at least once, and that the cause of infallibility is God then we need to recognize that God can will the Church to be free of error in certain types of teachings.

Now of course, we haven’t yet reached the concept of establishing the Church is infallible as she claims, but we have demonstrated with logic that the Church can be protected from error by God when it teaches something essential for salvation (in this case declaring what makes up the Bible).

Those who wish to claim the Church was only inerrant here and not elsewhere need to establish their point just as Catholics need to establish that the Church was kept free of error more than once.

The Second set of Syllogisms: On the need for a single arbiter of Scripture

Some argue that “Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture” and appeal to the “plain sense of scripture.” The problem is that some appeals to these issues lead to contradictory readings of Scripture.

In theological terms this expression is used traditionally to refer to the “literal” or supposedly “plain” sense of Scripture, which holds that the biblical texts need not be studied and interpreted, but rather simply applied and followed. So theoretically, if you and I both read a passage, we should get a meaning which is similar

(Let me remind the reader, that when things are contradictory, only one of them can be true: “It is either white or not white”. When things are contrary, they can’t both be true but both can be wrong: “It is either black or white” is wrong if it is orange)

Since the personal interpretation of Scripture often contradicts or is contrary, we can make the following syllogisms:

Syllogism #5

  1. [Plain sense] of Scripture is something which is [apparent to all]
  2. Some [Readings] of Scripture are not [apparent to all]
  3. Therefore Some [readings] are not [plain sense] of Scripture

So here is the problem. When two people interpret Scripture in a way which is contrary or contradictory, they can’t both be right (and if the reading is “contrary” both could be wrong). So who is authoritative to determine who is right and wrong when it comes to the reading of Scripture?

This isn’t merely a sense of Catholic vs. Protestant or Protestant vs. Protestant. We have had in history things like Trinitarian vs. Arian, Trinitarian vs. Nestorian, Trinitarian vs. Modalist, and so on. In all of these cases, the heresies appealed to Scripture in order to claim that the Church was in error when teaching in favor of the Triune God.

So we can see that there is a problem with the personal reading of Scripture: the person who reads Scripture with an error in what he or she believes about God can, as a result, read Scripture wrongly if their interpretation is wrong.

So let’s look at Syllogism #6:

Syllogism #6

  1. Every [Personal Interpretation] is [Individual] (All A is B)
  2. All [Individuals] [can err](All B is C)
  3. Therefore [Personal interpretation] [can err](Therefore all A is C)

[Edited to fix a fallacy of the undistributed middle which slipped by me]

Since we believe God is truth, and truth does not contradict truth, it follows that whatever God inspires will not contradict other things He inspires. Thus as Christians we reject Islam as contradicting what was revealed about Jesus. We don’t believe that the Old Testament contradicts the New Testament however.

“The Holy Spirit inspired this interpretation” is the common explanation for the individual who believes in "the Bible alone." Now we know that, in many cases, both sides in a dispute can claim that their personal interpretation is inspired, and both may even believe it, but they hold contrary positions and it is possible both are wrong, and we know both can’t be right.

This then is the problem with the claim that personal interpretation is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Things which are contradictory cannot be true in the same sense at the same time. Yet we have several differences based on the personal interpretation of Scripture. Such differences can be based on:

  • Understanding of differing languages
  • Understanding of historical context
  • Understanding of genre
  • Understanding of ways of expression

Others exist. However, the personal interpretation of a “KJV only” person who reads literalistically will be different from a person who is aware of these differences. (It often happens that the “inspired” personal reading is actually the fallible personal understanding of the individual, who thinks that because it makes sense, it must be inspired without concern for context)

Since contrary and contradictory interpretations of Scripture cannot both be true, it seems to follow that we need some sort of authority which is protected from error when teaching about that which pertains to salvation and can determine which interpretations are false and which are right.

So let’s add a seventh syllogism to our list:

Syllogism #7

  1. Things [Inspired by the Holy Spirit] are not [contradictory] (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some [Personal Interpretation] is [contradictory] (Some [C] is [B])
  3. Therefore some [Personal Interpretation] is not [Inspired by the Holy Spirit] (Therefore some [C] is not [A])

(You can also use the same syllogism with "contrary" since it is possible for both options to be wrong, while Christians believe that the Holy Spirit does not err)

So we know some personal interpretation may be right, but do not know which ones are.  This, by itself, means we are in the same situation as having an inerrant Bible and not knowing what books belong within the Bible: If we can’t know which books go in it, how can we know if it is inerrant. Likewise, if we can’t know whose personal interpretation is inspired, how can we know whether an interpretation is true or not?

In other words, if you have an inerrant Bible and an interpreter who can err, the Biblical Interpretation can err. This would strip the Bible of being authoritative to us. We can use an analogy of a person starving, and the food being on the other side of a fence which we cannot reach through or climb over to benefit from the food. Likewise, if we can’t have a definitive source on who decides which is true and which is not, we can’t ever know if an interpretation is true or not, and we cannot benefit from the truth.


So from these two sets of syllogisms, we can see certain things emerge:

  • We have an example of the Church being protected from error in one instance of defining a truth necessary for salvation.
  • Since personal interpretations and appeals to a plain sense are contradictory or be contrary, we cannot appeal to these in a general sense to being inerrant.
  • In order to know whether an interpretation of the Bible is true or not, we need an authority which can make an inerrant decision as to whether an interpretation is correct or not.

We need to keep these things in mind when we approach the next few articles: On Scripture, History and what the Church claims about herself.

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