July 12, 2020

iMonk Classic: Letters to a Friend (parts 2-3)


Note from CM: Letters to a Friend was a series of posts Michael Spencer wrote in July 2007, responding to some comments from a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates. Today we look at parts two and three of this series.

• • •

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”


Dear Friend,

One word that stood out to me in your talk was the word “infallible.” I found myself in considerable disagreement with what it appears you meant when you assigned this word to persons like myself and others who promote theology. Perhaps you can clarify and we will be in more agreement.

I understand the term “infallible” to mean “unable to be wrong.” If something or someone is infallible, it is not possible for error to originate with them.

A person may claim to be right, but the claim of infallibility is something quite separate. I’m not surprised when anyone claims they are right. Your own words indicate you believe, on the basis of logic, that you are right. But you would not make a claim to infallibility.

Infallibility is considerably different from saying that someone believes they are right and not wrong. I believe I am right in saying I am 50 years old, but I do not claim to be infallible. I could be wrong. Error in knowing my age could originate with me. Many circumstances could cause me to be in error, but I am reasonably sure of this fact and would defend that conclusion.

The word “infallible” commonly occurs in two contexts among Christians. First, the Roman Catholic church claims that when the pope is functioning as the head of the church in an official teaching capacity, he is infallible. This produces a chain of tradition from the church that is infallible tradition.

This is a real advantage to the RCC. They use it, for example, to say only an infallible church could canonize scripture. I would disagree strongly, but the advantage of that approach is obvious. The problems are also obvious.

This is not saying the pope or the church cannot be wrong or do anything wrong. Some Catholic teachings, and many claims and practices, are not promoted infallibly. “Infallibility” is applied to very specific situations.

For example, in Galatians, Peter is confronted by Paul for his hypocrisy. This does not bother Roman Catholics in regard to Peter’s infallibility as the first pope, because all popes are sinners and make mistakes. Only in an official teaching capacity can he claim to be infallible. Bad people can be infallible popes in the RCC.

This does mean that the Roman Catholic church makes a kind of claim to infallibility that is different from the way other churches use the term. Since I disagree with it, I will gladly point out that when the RCC argues its case for doctrine, it does claim infallibility on a human level.

The second common use of “infallible” is among most Protestant evangelicals, who apply it to the Bible and the Bible only. They believe the Bible is inspired, infallible, authoritative and inerrant. (Not all evangelicals use all of these words or use them all in the same way, but that is another discussion.)

This means that no pastor, no church leader, no teacher and no denomination are infallible. The Bible only is infallible. The infallible Bible produces authoritative tradition through the infallible Holy Spirit and very fallible people.

Does that mean that, if the Bible is used to make a case, then infallibility is transfered to what is said or believed? The answer is “no.” While we believe the Bible is infallible, my version of what the Bible teaches about baptism is not infallible in the same way. My version of this doctrine may be in error, may be revised and may be improved. While I am reasonably certain I understand the Bible on this topic and I would have no problem saying I am convinced my view is right, I would never claim anything like infallibility.

I’m sure that the energy of many Christian debates seems to indicate that someone believes they cannot be wrong. I certainly know Christians who believe they, their pastor, their doctrine and their “team” are infallible, but if pressed they would admit that the only thing that actually can have the characteristic of infallibility is the Bible.

You were particularly bothered that I said I was certain enough of some doctrines that I would rather die than renounce them. This isn’t a claim to infallibility. It is a claim that I am convinced, as much as I can judge the subject, that I am correct. Being convinced doesn’t mean I am closed to the possibility of correction or change.

For example, I would die for certain aspects of my country, but I do not claim that America or myself are beyond error or absolutely right in an “infallible” sense. In a fallible, comparative sense, that response of loyalty is the right one.

I ask my children to obey me, but I would not claim infallibility in any aspect of parenting. Infallibility isn’t necessary to believe something is right enough to take a strong, sacrificial stand.

I have to disagree with you that contentious Christians are claiming infallibility. They may lack the humility and graciousness that should accompany any discussion. They may defend their position in a way that says they believe they cannot be wrong or less than perfectly right. They may demonstrate extreme stubbornness. But unless they are departing from their own Protestantism, all they can do is claim to be presenting the infallible claims of scripture fallibly.

Your answer to what you perceive as the dilemma of everyone claiming to be infallibility is to say that “God is beyond theology.” I’ll comment on that very postmodern assertion in another post.

So let me summarize where we are so far: I am not convinced that the kind of division or claims of infallibility you are reacting against actually exist. You may be “standing” in a place where these divisions seem to fill your screen, so to speak. I would suggest you take a more measured and less emotional look at the issue of Christian unity and doctrinal division. While there is much to lament, there is also much to celebrate, particularly among Christians who work, witness and minister together.



iStock_000014882479Small-634x252ON “GOD ABOVE THEOLOGY”

Dear Friend,

Probably the most provocative comment in your talk was the statement that “God is above theology.” If I remember correctly, you said this several times and it was obviously very crucial to your statement. I’d like to respond to this statement, because I believe it is the heart of the issue.

If God is not above theology, a number of things must change in your position.

For example, if God reveals or gives theology to human beings in a way they can understand, then we should not be surprised that there is a certain amount of contention and division among Christians. The Bible itself shows us conflict and division occurring among the churches and leaders in the New Testament over the issues of circumcision and inclusion of the Gentiles. Serious divisions are the reasons for some entire letters, such as the First Corinthian letter and the “Letters to the Seven Churches” in Revelation.

Theology has many definitions. I’ll assume that you are using theology in the sense of “human thoughts about God,” and that God has said “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” therefore our thoughts about God are not identical to God’s thoughts and ways.

No Christian that I am aware of believes there is complete identification between our thoughts and God’s mind. Every serious theologian wrestles with the issue of how we can say anything true about God since he is, as you say, “above” us and “other than us” in every way. The entire idea of divine revelation starts with the incomprehensibility of God.

To say that God is “above our theology” seems to indicate some despair on your part about theology, and this despair is your response to the arguments and disagreements you have observed. It is a position that would make some churches very attractive because they either reject all theology in favor or experience or they refuse to participate in most theological debates out of a certainty they have the truth.

Some despair about theology may result in the decision that all churches are equally “in the dark” in regard to truth, and therefore any church is equal to any other church, since doctrine is meaningless and practice/experience is all that matters. I would be cautious about taking these basically postmodern, relativistic positions that arise from a strong emotional reaction. The absence of conflict is hardly the proof that God is being honored rightly.

The important question here seems obvious: Is our theology completely our own creation, or does God reveal “theology” to us so that we can have “true truth” about him and respond accordingly?

The answer to that question seems simple, and I am sure that you appreciate it, even if you say God is “beyond” theology. God has revealed himself in creation, in Jesus and in scripture. I would say it more like this: God is revealed in general revelation, in Christ, in the scripture, through reason and in experience. All of these things are judged and regulated by scripture. I believe that there are several ways that God has given us theology and that he expects us to pay attention to what he has revealed.

For example, we have been studying Genesis 1-11 recently. You will recall that I said I have often asked students to do an assignment where they write down 50 things we can know about God from these early chapters of Genesis. This assignment typically yields statements like this:

“God exists.”
“God is creator.”
“God is creative.”
“God made human beings in his image.”
“God gave commands to Adam.”
“God is merciful and patient.”
“God punishes sin.”
“God chooses to remain involved in a rebellious world.”

All of these are theological statements, and I would have a hard time seeing that God is “beyond theology” when he has inspired these chapters with the obvious purpose of teaching these truths in language and example that anyone can understand. It actually seems that God is speaking, as Calvin said, “baby talk” so we can understand.

In John 1, John says that no one knew the Father until the Son made him known. The role of the Son in revealing what the Father is like, what the Father is doing, and so on is a major theme of the Gospel of John. This doesn’t seem to comport well with the idea that God is remaining above theology. It appears that the incarnation makes theology possible.

The inspiration of scripture rests upon the belief that God has expressed in human language what he wants us to know about Christ and salvation. If God is above our theology, then we should abandon any belief in the divine side of inspiration.

These various examples, however, are probably not what you intended by this statement. I believe you are looking at particular theological debates, such as the Lord’s Supper debate, and asserting that God is above this debate. Your statement that God’s view of the Lord’s Supper may differ from all of our views is the heart of what you mean. If this is true, then I must ask why God has revealed enough to start the theological discussion, but then made the solution inaccessible to anyone?

The problem is that all Christians are working with the same material: the incarnation, the salvation story and the Biblical text. These are revelatory. God has “come down” to us in ways that create faith, but that also create theology…and some conflict in interpretation.

So while I can agree that God is far “above” our confident efforts to say all there is to say, I do not believe God is above theology. I would agree with you that theology should be far more cautious and humble than many traditions attempt to make it. That is why I appreciate the minimal confessionalism of my own tradition and have some confusion at the attraction someone would feel for traditions that require complete confessional agreement with volumes and volumes of church teaching.

The Nicene Creed summarizes the theology that ought to bind the church together. A thousand page tome on the inner working of the Lord’s Supper is another attitude entirely. But that God does give us revelation in a way that causes theology to think some of God’s thoughts after him is undeniable.




  1. Faulty O-Ring says

    Evangelical theology, at its most basic level, holds those who believe in Jesus (in a certain way) to be “saved.” Is this statement / view considered to be infallible, being based on the Bible, or only the Bible itself? If the former, then many other, often contradictory things might be discovered in the Bible, and Spencer’s correspondent (his “friend”) turns out to be right after all. If the latter, then the Bible is a kind of black box, from which nothing can be confidently deduced.

    In any case, there is no reason to believe either the pope, or the Bible, or the Nicene Creed (which Spencer introduces later) to be infallible, so whatever a denomination might say is just opinion.

    • I believe what Michael was getting at was that as a person he couldn’t claim infallibility. That is not the same thing as saying he could never be right or never be confident in what he believed. I’m not infallible, I know I get things wrong, but I can say with confidence that the calendar in my office says that it is July 23. If infallibility is what is required in order to ever say anything that is true then no one can say with confidence that anything is true, and everything is just an opinion that can be disregarded, including your own.

      • Good comment, Jon.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Exactly. This is turning every statement into a Boolean condition; reality does not work that way, and people do not communicate that way.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          It does if you’re a C++ guru who not only speaks but THINKS in C++ code statements.

          • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

            bool condition = true;

            if (condition)
            Console.WriteLine(“I am right; you are going to hell.”);
            Console.WriteLine(“You are apostate, so I don’t have to listen to you.”);

    • Danielle says

      The trouble with evangelical assumptions is that they are very much based in Enlightenment rationality. The thought is that the text contains a meaning. If I line up enough facts, and I apply the powers of the rational mind to deducing things from this evidence, then I will know what the text says. Therefore, only the text (most would add, “the original text,” which we don’t in fact have) is infallable, but the the human mind can obtain real knowledge. The flaw in this approach, of course, is that not everyone arrives at the same conclusions. It is always necessary to try to distinguish between people who read texts in crazy ways (to the learned and the clergy, ‘those not trained in how to interpret them’) and those who read them in approved ways. But even then, the approved, educated, apparently sane group doesn’t agree.

      I don’t think what one gets is “just opinion,” as though nothing meaningful can ever be said about a text. If that is the case, let’s burn the Bible and Dante together, and vow to stop writing any new books. But it does mean that denominations (for Protestants) or diversity within traditions (for groups for organize themselves into things other than denominations) is to be expected, and it would be helpful for people to admit that there is no “the Bible says it, that settles it” level of utter certainty. There’s always a community doing the reading and living ‘out of’ what they think they see. Some self-awareness of is healthful. And, frankly, dry propositions, however certain, are pretty useless if they are not interpreted and lived (made subjective). So when the rubber meats the road, one is always in that grey area of the individual’s perceptions and the community’s shared life.

      • David Cornwell says

        Danielle, very well said. Enlightenment rationality has a grip on all our arguments, whether we be fundamentalists attempting to prove every jot and tittle, or liberals trying to disprove them. It’s the same “rationality” reaching different conclusions.Thus wherever we look we have a house divided. We even reduce the Holy Spirit to the realm of the reasonable. Good “luck” with that.

        • Faulty O-Ring says

          If we are going to give up on rationality (Enlightenment or otherwise), then why pick Evangelical Protestantism over Wicca?

          • Good point. That’s why I really like Joshua 24:15…

            “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

            You go ahead and pick Wicca. I’m not.

          • David Cornwell says

            Not sure who would give up on “rationality.” But it should be relegated back to a proper role. Rationality in balance with tradition, experience, and scripture (primary).

            The thing is, one can be rational and choose liberalism, fundamentalism, or anything betwixt and between. And we have mostly relegated it all to personal choice, with my choice being as good as your choice. My pastor says “….” The Pope says “….” We raise our children with the understanding and the hope that they will make choices, even about religion, and that those choices will be rational ones. But I am not sure this is what we should be doing, because our method of teaching removes mystery from our religion. And it fails to inform them about how this little group of original believers who in the face of persecution and Roman power survived and thrived. Bishop Spong is a rational man, but I do not want him teaching my grandchildren.

            I believe there is a consistent body of teaching that has been handed down from the beginning of the Church that can be trusted and depended on. Perhaps it starts with a way they worshipped and prayed together as a body of believers who were certain Jesus was raised from the dead. And how they lived out their shared lives in the communities in which they lived. In time the letters and writings that were being read during their services were accepted as the canon of the Church. Thus the Bible.

            In the most basic form their teachings and practices involved baptism, Eucharist, prayer, and the Bible. One’s understanding of these elements inform almost everything we believe and teach. Most Christians have include these in one way or another. These are the core practices, thus embody our basic belief.

            None of these can be explained in a totally rational way. How can we rationally explain the truths that are expressed in baptism? Or the Eucharist? I am certain Christian prayer will not fit into the box of reason. To explain, or even to tell about, some experiences we have had in prayer might land us in the psychiatrist’s office. Thus we pray many times alone, in the dark place, the closet, in despair. But to explain what happens in those times and places would be to empty the power from prayer, to take it away from God, and to give us the control we really do not need.

            We as the gathered Body can pray as Jesus taught us to pray, and even pray the same words again and again. But to explain what it means for God’s Kingdom to come on earth is pretty much beyond us.

            So much for a rambling reply that probably will not stand up to reasoned argument!

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > If we are going to give up on rationality (Enlightenment or otherwise)

            Your adding the “or otherwise” moves-the-mileposts. The originator specifically said Enlightenment Rationality. Rejecting the Enlightenment and its connotations is not to reject rationality [in all its forms]. It was the Enlightenment that was ultimately – at least in several schools – about rejecting perspectives, specifically all except [what it deemed to be] the “rational”.

          • Danielle says

            I didn’t say, nor would I suggest, that one ‘give up’ on rationality. You seem to have a dichotomy set up: one is either a positivist, believing that one can know the objective truth of things with certainty, or one can believe nothing at all. I reject that dichotomy.

            As to why Christianity over Wicca, if you are asking for a certain proof, I do not have one for you. I’m a skeptic, ultimately: I tired of the proofs long ago. And if I were feeling clever, or if we were in a college classroom, I’d grin and say, “So why Wicca and not Christianity?” and then make you try to answer. I, too, am Socrates. I enjoy a good game. And truth be known, I’d enjoy your response for the precise reason that it would take a different form than mine.

            If you want a direct (if inadequate) answer, it is because based on what I perceive and know, within my own context and limitations, Christianity rings true to me and calls out to something inside me. I act on the belief it is true, not the knowledge that it is. I cannot furnish you a proof. I can tell stories. I can explain that I am in a certain time and place – which made it more likely I’d be exposed to Christianity, and less likely I’d be exposed to, say, Sufism. I can explain that I picked up a book of Bible stories at one point, and for some reason I snapped to attention and felt like I should do something in response. I can tell you that over time Christianity became an aspect of who and what I am. I can say that I have all kinds of doubts and reasons for shrugging and walking away from religion, and also that I think Buddhism has many fine qualities. But I am still here, and this is still my story. But I can’t prove to you that God is there. I can only tell you that I live in a context and that “God” has gotten into the context.

            This is an answer, but probably not the one you want. Perhaps its not the one I should give. But that is probably the straightest way I know how to shoot.

          • Rick Ro. says

            I like that response, Danielle!

          • “None of these can be explained in a totally rational way. How can we rationally explain the truths that are expressed in baptism? Or the Eucharist?”

            Actually, if you ask a Baptist, any fundamentalist, and most evangelicals, you will be told that baptism is just a ritual you do to show others you have faith, that cup of wine (probably grape juice) and wafer are just symbols that remind you of Christ, so you can think good thoughts about Christ. So, many of the same people who want to turn Genesis into a science book have rationalized away baptism and the Eucharist.

      • “…sola Scriptura is always set in the context of communio sanctorum, the communion of the saints. The question thus becomes not if we will embrace the confessional tradition, but which tradition will we embrace, or better yet, which tradition will embrace us….…as Evangelicals we need to admit more readily the role of the Church in “deciding” what was canonical….the facts are simple: what we read as canonical is read as authoritative because its inherent authority is inspired and its recognition is ecclesial.”- Scot McKnight

      • Robert F says

        ” It is always necessary to try to distinguish between people who read texts in crazy ways (to the learned and the clergy, ‘those not trained in how to interpret them’) and those who read them in approved ways. But even then, the approved, educated, apparently sane group doesn’t agree.”

        Problem with this is that someone, say a George Fox, comes along and starts reading the texts in unapproved (unlearned and unclerical) ways, and it turns out that he actually has a point, he actually has valid insights into the texts that others either haven’t seen or are unwilling to articulate, for whatever reason. Sometimes in every field of human knowledge it is the intelligent and sensitive non-experts who see what us right under the expert’s noses, though they fail to see it, because their tradition of interpretation has taught them not to see or countenance anything outside the authorized narrative.

        • Danielle says

          Very true.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          The crazy-readers can generally be distinguished from the insightful-readers pretty easily – one listens to the tenor of the conversation. The insightful-reader goes to the orthodox-reader and has a dialog as he/she desires understanding, the crazy-reader dismisses the orthodox reader out-of-hand as he/she actually has little interest in insights other than his/her own.

          • Robert F says

            By this criteria I’m not sure if George Fox would be considered crazy or not…

    • It is reasonable to believe that, even if the Pope, the Bible, and the Creed are not infallible, God himself still is. Then the question becomes: through what does God speak to us?

      • God’s Word is infallible.

        He speaks that Word to us in preaching, the sacraments, and in the Bible.

        ALL “earthen vessels”. (I thought I read somewhere that is how God works)

        The finite contains the infinite. Right?

        • Exactly. But we always have to keep in view these two things: The Word is, first and foremost, Jesus. Jesus comes to us through the Scriptures and Sacraments as the written and visible Word, respectively. Secondly, the Scriptures, if we are to consider them infallible, are infallible by virtue of their author, and not by virtue of their content. We trust that since God spoke these words then we can count on them, rather than inversely concluding they are perfectly accurate by rigorous scientific and historical scrutiny.

          • ” Jesus comes to us through the Scriptures and Sacraments as the written and visible Word, respectively.”

            Okay, Miguel, you lost me here: is the Bible invisible?

          • Yep. Jesus. Jesus in preaching and teaching. And Jesus in the Bible.

            A real man of flesh and blood

            A finite preacher (a real sinner)

            An finite book (it did not float down from Heaven with a bow tied around it)…

            ALL carrying God’s infinite will…His faith creating gospel…His promises.

  2. Robert F says

    When I read the Bible, I have never had the sense that I was encountering an infallible book. It’s impossible for me to force myself to believe in biblical infallibility; I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. If I were ever to meet the Pope, I likewise could not believe that I was meeting a man who had the charism of infallibility, however narrowly the criteria for it were defined, nor have I ever met a church that I could believe was infallible in its doctrinal pronouncements. I live with uncertainty, and that’s just the way it is

    • Danielle says

      +1. THIS.

      Someone out there feels they can be utterly certain. Perhaps someone is. I’m skeptical in virtually all cases, but I’ll allow the possibility. So maybe I’m just flawed, maybe I’m reprobate, or maybe I’m just not among the 10 people who climbed the right mountain and saw the right things.

      But from where I stand, there’s a great deal I would vest with authority or deference, and more still I’d say is important or meaningful. I possibly believe in some concept of infallibility in revelation or tradition–the devil is always in the definitions, so I really have to know what people mean by it first, and likewise I can define it in ways that make me comfortable, just long enough to sign a statement someone was shoved before my nose [maybe – I changed careers partly to avoid this problem]. But I dislike the arc of the argument that uses the word too zealously. The quest at the juncture is to retreat from the uncertainty and the fears and the questions that attend it. So far as I can tell, they are inescapable. I used to see this as a serious crisis and source of anxiety. I still do, some of the time. So goodness knows I’ve tried to get out. I’ve been sick before, trying. I can’t.

      Anymore, I play with the idea quite a bit that uncertainty is actually a good thing, or can be. Honestly, I might be insufferable without the affliction. I used to want to be a zealot so badly, so I could hit stuff with my truth-bat. I think I interpreted this as a kind of generosity, but the will to power there is obvious to anyone without the bat. And there has always seemed to me to be something strikingly moving, tragic but also good, about the fact that people are so limited. We could have everyone thinking precisely the same things based on some Objective Truth, but then all the cool stuff you find inside people’s individual minds and inside of different communities would disappear. I think I became a historian just for that fact – wanting to try to know the stories. Anyway, that used to feel like a cool sidepoint, but once I retreated out of “Infallible source: infallible thoughts” quest, and waded out into Incarnation and sacraments being the really important ideas, it feels more and more central. Subjective worlds are only insignificant or problematic if God can’t get inside such worlds, and incarnation and sacramental realities do just this. And the subjective seems futile, given the fact that the creators just die and everything they make gets lost in time … unless there’s such a thing as resurrection and re-creating what is lost.

      I’ve no idea where I am going with all that – I’m at a conference and I typed that too hurriedly to be sure it makes any sense. But that’s the mental tract I’ve wandered onto. Still waiting to see where it takes me, if anywhere.

      I’ve no idea where I am going with all that – I’m at a conference and I typed that too hurriedly to be sure it makes any sense. But that’s the mental tract I’ve wandered onto. Still waiting to see where it takes me, if anywhere.

  3. melissatheragamuffin says

    So, if the church can’t infallibly canonize scripture what does that mean for the Bible? Does that open the door to cherry picking or adding stuff in? Maybe I think the writings of CS Lewis should be added to the canon?

    • Faulty O-Ring says

      Or the Pauline epistles subtracted.

      • Wayne Essel says

        Then there wouldn’t be much left….

        • Christiane says

          ‘not much left’ ? . . . perhaps only in the view of fundamentalist denominations that decry ‘red-letter’ Christianity and do not view the sacred Scriptures through the lens of Jesus Christ as other mainline Christians do . .

      • MelissatheRagamuffin says

        Isn’t there already a group/movement that calls themselves “Red Letter Christians” meaning they only accept Jesus’ words? I’ve noticed that most of those folks seem to think Jesus said exactly two things: Love your neighbor as yourself and Judge Not. Then, he immediately went back to heaven and said absolutely nothinng else.

    • “…we are all floating the same river, just different boats. Catholics have a fallible belief about an infallible authority; Protestants have a fallible belief about an infallible authority. Both authorities must be substantiated by the evidence and both authorities must be interpreted by fallible people. This is the question that I have: In the end, what is the difference? Do we have a fallible collection of infallible books? Yes, I believe we do. When all is said and done, all of our beliefs are fallible and therefore subject to error. I am comfortable with this. But remember, the possibility of error does not necessitate the probability of error.”- Michael Patton

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > But remember, the possibility of error does not necessitate the probability of error


        We live our lives day to day and make enormous and insignificant decisions under vast looming clouds of uncertainty. And it doesn’t seem to bother most people very much. Uncertainty does not preclude Confidence; I have Confidence in many many things, and that is enough, and it is enough for the person pulling onto the interstate on-ramp [that the traffic will all be going the right way], to the developer investing millions of borrowed dollars in a project [the analysis of demand was correct], and to the soldier leaping from an airplane [both that the parachute will open correctly and that his commander made his choices with valid intelligence]. It seems most of the angst about infallibility/perfection/absolute-truth is conjured by those who need angst for some reason.

        • Well said. Yes, we may not have 100% certainty, but we can have confidence.

          • Robert F says

            There’s confidence, and there’s confidence. With regard to Christian faith, do we have enough confidence in it to give up our lives for it if necessary, as the early Christians did? I suspect that most of us don’t have that kind of confidence in it, a confidence that the very reasonable (though brutal [not to worry: they were pre-Enlightenment reasonable]) Romans considered fanatical in their Christian victims. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many, or even most, of us Christian moderns would agree with the Romans that the early Christians were fanatical.

    • Robert F says

      “So, if the church can’t infallibly canonize scripture what does that mean for the Bible? Does that open the door to cherry picking or adding stuff in? Maybe I think the writings of CS Lewis should be added to the canon?”

      I would add the Bhagavad Gita, the church down the street likes Desiderata, etc., etc.,but one thing would be for sure: Good bye, ecumenicism!

  4. On Mike’s second point, let me just comment that there is an entire stream of theology called apophatic theology that speaks about God using negations to speak about what he is not. or to speak in assertions only about the things around God, The presumption is that God is so unknowable that our theology needs to be phrased carefully so as not to accidentally say something of God that is either untrue or utterly insufficient.

    There is an example of this type of phrasing in the Chalcedonian assertion about the natures of Jesus. He is one person in two natures, “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” The two nature are defined by what they are not. You can also find it in John 1:18, “No one has seen or can see God,” in 1 Tim 6:16, “He lives in unapproachable light,” in Romans 11:33-36 where it comments that his ways are unsearchable and unfathomable.

    One extreme of this was some of the Church Fathers saying that we could not even say that God exists because he is beyond existence. He creates existence, therefore we cannot say that he exists. We can only say what he said about himself, God is. He is the great “I am,” he simply is.

    This tradition is why the Eastern Orthodox have been resistant to defining too much the Mysteries, which is what we call the sacraments. Thus, the problem we have with the Roman Catholic theology of transubstantiation is not that it is necessarily false, but rather that it defines the undefinable. It is his body. It is his blood. But, to rely on a particular philosophical formulation to define the change is to try to place limits on God using a human philosophical construct.

    • Attempting to defining the indefinable. That is an excellent summary of the challenge of theology. Your description of the apophatic approach is one that I’m coming to appreciate more and more — especially as I have been attempting to teach the doctrine of trinity.

      I have good friends who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. I affectionately refer to them in my own mind as “the answer’ people. They have develop a strongly systematic view of things so that they may provide answers to virtually any question. If it cannot be explained then it cannot be accepted.

      I appreciate what you say about EO and the mysteries as well. I am a baptist pastor, yet I personally hold a fairly loose view regarding the form of baptism. I am surrounded by those who take a memorial view of communion and yet I tend to see a more real presence thing going on. Who knows? What I do know is that Jesus promises to meet us in the water and the bread and the wine. How he does it, I don’t know. I can’t explain it, but I accept it.

      I can’t really explain how my TV creates all those pretty pictures either — but I know where the on button is. If that is true of a humble electronic device, how much more true of the mysteries of the ineffable God?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > so that they may provide answers to virtually any question

        Well, at least at the problem domain being discussed is constrained and the questions not too specific.

        This became my chief discomfort with Evangelical Theology – very systematic, answers flow out the bottom end,…. just not to any of the questions I had or needed in day-to-day life to answer. Trying to answer those questions and my boat ended up in the weeds.

        > Attempting to defining the indefinable … If that is true of a humble electronic device,
        > how much more true of the mysteries of the ineffable God?

        The opening to the tail of the comment makes a point – “indefinable” is not something we can really assert as TRUE about God, etc… it is asserted as a limitation of us.

    • Faulty O-Ring says

      Listening to Orthodox go on like that is a bit like listening to Rastas.

    • Thanks for this interesting reminder and perspective.

    • Robert F says

      “One extreme of this was some of the Church Fathers saying that we could not even say that God exists because he is beyond existence. He creates existence, therefore we cannot say that he exists. We can only say what he said about himself, God is. ”

      “God is” and “God exists” are identical assertions.

      Apophatic theology may phrase its language in negations, but those negations necessarily involve affirmations of some kind, otherwise they are as meaningless as gibberish. That which is inexpressible cannot be expressed at all, and so cannot be known at all, and cannot be described or affirmed, even by way of negation. If no affirmations could truthfully be made about God, even though they were made by way of double negatives, then we could neither know nor be able say anything about God, whether phrased in negations or affirmations. The Creeds themselves would be untrue, as would the Biblical narratives, including Jesus’ parables, which are constantly telling us what God and his Kingdom are like.

      • True. I look at the apophatic approach this way — it’s an attempt to narrow the field of affirmation so that the affirmations are more comprehensible and concrete.

    • Robert F says

      Remember, Fr. Ernesto, that Hindus also affirm that God is unknowable. If the Christian God is not identical with the Hindu God, then their ineffability must be different kinds of ineffability, and would require different kinds of descriptions, which in turn lead us right back to the Biblical narrative, especially the parables of Jesus wherein he so often told us what God and his Kingdom are like. Analogical affirmations, which can be narratives, are central to the whole enterprise, which simply falls apart without them.

      • I think the key concept here is revelation. That which is naturally unknowable becomes approachable — that is at least partially knowable — through revelation. Revelation bridges the gap in our own capacity for understanding and makes the unknowable knowable — or at least conceivable and approachable.

        Of course, Jesus is the pinnacle of revelation, who not only makes God knowable in an objective sense (as a fact) but also as a person (as one with whom we may have a relationship).


  5. I have long preferred the term “authoritative” to the term “infallible.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Because with “infallible” there isn’t much of a stretch to “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”

    • I have always insisted that where the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures are fully believe, taught, and confessed, the concepts of inerrancy and infallibility are both redundant and unnecessary.

      • Those two words mean the same thing?

        Inerrant and infallible?

        • No. Infallible is a much stronger term. It is nothing short of ironic that inerrancy receives so much press. Inerrancy means free from err. Infallible means incapable of err. I have an inerrant phonebook. But it could, in theory, be printed with an err.

          But if the Bible is inspired by God and the sole rule and norm for doctrine and practice in the church, then the Chicago Statement is completely superfluous.

  6. William Martin says

    I often wonder if we had been privy to the thoughts in Jesus’ mind what it is we might learn. Or if these would be the volumes of books that couldn’t contain it. Then I often wonder at the idea that in a 26 letter alphabet if there would even be expressions that could unfold it. I read the Bible as testimony to what God has done with man. I see in each of the men that change was constantly occurring. I realize that if they were changing then they haven’t arrived yet. I often wonder when the changes stop and I have come to a concrete way of standing that God can’t move in me. The only concrete place I have to stand is on Jesus. The most powerful sermons I have ever heard were testimony. The people standing there weren’t telling me how I should think only what happened with them and God. In such things they were encouraging me to look at Him assuring me He would do the same things with me as I need him to. Making absolutely sure as they were doing this that it probably would not be like it was with them. The ones that did this said it is as personal as we are individually. I don’t enter theological debates because I believe I’m right it would certainly be the opposite. The only one I see as infallible is Jesus. So as I looked to Him via the Spirit He is working with me on how I can comprehend what He is trying to express to me and yes it does include scripture. In fact the biggest part of Him expressing to me is through scripture as He is always showing me passages. I don’t go around saying look I got this right listen to me. I have come to realize there are depths to Him and He layers these teachings as I am able to accept them and or receive them. Sometimes the things he is showing me I cannot put into words. Sometimes He is pointing out a way I feel and then He is saying I am like that but greater than you could imagine. It is then I get a taste and at the same time realize I am not there yet. I see the testimony of the Bible as true inasmuch as it could be to those that were writing it. Which in the differences only prove that. The testimony always pointing to look to the one who can. Even in the instructions of the letters it would only encourage me to grow in God. So if I am growing I can only share where I am at now. This is how I find most preaching as a testimony to where a person is at which is subject to change. I would be very hard pressed to expect that it is different for any man including the original Apostles. I wouldn’t see friend being so far off in those statements regardless as to how we might feel about that. I would only add to it saying God is in it as well as above it after all He created it via man. If I were to say to you I had heard His voice and it was the most lovely thing I had ever heard. In that for twenty minutes all I could think about was hearing it again because of the joy that enter me through it. Then the interpretation came correcting me about my tongue and the ways I was using it saying the same tongue that blesses me curses me. I could never put into language the sounds that I had heard nor could I ever relay what was relayed to me through His language. All I know is He elevated me to a new way of being. That is how He loves me. Not just me everyone. His correction being the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. I gain an understanding of such love through these types of things. I often thought of being bad just to hear Him again although He would never indulge me on this. It gives a whole new meaning to things like Job when God spoke to Job. I would only ever want to encourage those to read and then listen. It’s so cool.

  7. While I know that this is not addressing the point of the post directly, the comment that God is above theology could also be taken in light of 1Corinthians 13. We are reminded that no matter how well we sort all of this out and how correct our camp is in nailing down the truths about God, if we are not in love and through love and by love, we are just clanging gongs. Any doctrine defended, often subconsciously to satisfy ones egoic sense of rightness, is below God and hollow, bringing about no lasting good and creating nothing. Love is who God is. That may not solve rational disagreements but if it doesn’t fully inform them, they are futile anyway. Minds persuaded and spirits turned away. Sometimes it’s best to be still because with many words transgression is increased. Paul suggests the “higher way”. It’s not snappy and it’s not witty but it brings true substance to everything.

  8. Slightly off topic, but for a bit of levity…

    All this talk about infallibility made me think of the old SCTV skit, The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes, with the line, “But I am not…INFALLIBLE!” Good spoof.


  9. Randy Thompson says

    Sometimes something as simple as a dictionary can be very helpful in dealing with theological matters. According to dictionary.com, “infallible” has to do with being “absolutely trustworthy,” or “unfailing in effectiveness or operation.” Maybe the dictionary makes more sense than the theologians.

    If “infallible” is a matter of of being trustworthy or unfailingly effective, than, at least in the case of the Bible, I think one can make the case that it is trustworthy and effective in what it sets out to do, which is to tell us the story of God’s activities, which reaches its climax in the cross of Christ. How can a story be “infallible” in the theological sense being discussed here? Doesn’t it make more sense to inquire whether the account is “trustworthy” or “effective”? And isn’t effectiveness a matter of making the story one’s own, so that one’s own story becomes a current in the Great Story, so that by believing “in the light” we become “children o light” (John 12:36)?

    I recently did an audio course on the history of Christian theology. (It’s put out by the Great Courses company, and is excellent.) What struck me about theology was how different it was from the Bible’s story. The Biblical story is specific and concrete. To enter the world of theology is like being thrown into a deep well full of abstractions concepts and theories and drowning in them. This water-oriented analogy is helpful in thinking about theology, I think. We breath oxygen to live, and we need to drink water regularly too. Too much water, though, ends up drowning us.

    Good theology, it seems to me, makes the story clearer, the glory o God brighter, and the love of Christ deeper and more saving. It also leaves you with thought-provoking paradoxes that oddly make sense and explain who God is and how God works (e.g., God is completely sovereign and human beings have free will or that Christ is fully human and fully divine.)

    Bottomline: The Word did not become an abstract concept. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

    • Robert F says

      “If ‘infallible’ is a matter of of being trustworthy or unfailingly effective, than, at least in the case of the Bible, I think one can make the case that it is trustworthy and effective in what it sets out to do, which is to tell us the story of God’s activities, which reaches its climax in the cross of Christ. ”

      Hans Kung called it “indefectibility,” though he was referring to the Church, not just the Bible.

  10. Off topic – now this is something. It’s ok to sneak into and disrupt church services in the name of Pro-Life.


  11. For now we see in a mirror dimly. (1 Cor. 13:12) Naturally we make claims about — and live by — what we do and do not see. If we are wise, we will continue to pray for better sight. And if we are foolish, we will look for — and claim that we see — only what justifies ourselves.

  12. Christiane says

    the reassurance of a man like Pope Francis who had previously lived in humility and service to the poor in Argentina does help the idea that a huge part of ‘authority’ in the Church is the directive to serve and care for others . . . the title most beloved by many Popes has been ‘the servant of the servants of God’

    the idea of ‘infallibility’ in Catholicism is heavily collegial when it is examined closely . . . even the early Church was collegial in its councils, gathering bishops together from all parts of the known Christian world to meet and pray and speak with one voice for the Church. . . ‘perfectly’? probably not, but the human effort to do this in those days was phenomenal, as was the growth of the early Church under horrendous persecution by the Roman emperors . . . and yet it grew, and expanded . . . perfect? probably not, because of its ‘human’ factors . . . but I think something else was working for the early Church . . . a role given to the Holy Spirit . . . a guidance, a discernment, a direction forward, all the time focused on Our Lord . . . if that word ‘infallible’ can be believed, then it must have something to do with the role of the Holy Spirit working in union with the collegiality of the leaders of the Church . . . perfectly? maybe not the human end, no . . . but the Church grew and expanded . . . what is sacred? that which comes through fragile humanity from the grace of the Holy Spirit’s gifts . . . is the Church blessed with His care ? Did Our Lord provide for us, knowing our weaknesses and pitiable condition, in a way that would keep the Church from falling completely? Catholics think He did. However it’s worded, without the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the collegiality of the Church’s leaders and the voice of the Pope ‘ex cathedra’ would be meaningless to the Church.

    am I writing about ‘doctrine’ . . . gosh no, just some thoughts written before a second cup of morning coffee and likely filled with more error than not

    but the Holy Spirit and what is ‘sacred’ that bonds the Church as the Body of Christ IS something I count on to keep all Christians pointed towards Our Lord and it is in Him that we absolutely find our unity and our peace

    on the other hand,
    I cannot find any comfort in the words of a fundamentalist who shores up abuse of others with words like ‘the Bible clearly says’ . . . for me that is not evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of that fundamentalist, but evidence of his own pride, hubris, and arrogance displayed in self-righteous judgementalism