The Ascension of the Lord

Authority and infallibility


Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

A conundrum solved

Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.’ (Mat. 28:18-20*)

Today at Mass we celebrated the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord.  As the hour of His Passion approached, then in the days following His resurrection, and just before the ascension, our Lord made bold promises.  They became for me strong medicine.  Formerly, in my evangelical tradition, and later in Reformed Theology circles, we maintained the infallibility and authority of Scripture.  That is good.  However, outside the four corners of the Bible, there was neither infallibility nor authority.  There I realized an impossible conundrum, to be solved only by the Catholic Church.

Imagine a dozen faithful Protestants around a table.  In the center stands the written Word of God.  All agree on the infallibility and authority of the Bible.  Then, sadly, all strike off in a dozen different directions.  That was the best we could do.  We’re all like the Ethiopian eunuch who met the Apostle: “’Do you understand what you are reading?’ Phillip asked.  ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’” (Acts 8:30b-31a).

What does fallible man do with infallible revelation?

The nature of infallible revelation begs for an authoritative, infallible interpreter.  For Christianity “is a revelation which comes to us as a revelation, as a whole, objectively, and with a profession of infallibility; and the only question to be determined relates to the matter of the revelation.” John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Notre Dame Series in the Great Books) (1994) [Kindle iOS version], Retrieved from at 79 / 1391-92.  Christianity is an objective religion “with credentials”, as Cardinal Newman argues.  (80 / 1396).  As it began, so it continues.  As Protestants, we took miracles as fact.  We took inspiration of Scripture as fact.  We professed as fact so much that is pure inspiration and revelation.  For example, our Lord, the only begotten and eternal Son of the Father, is born of a Virgin in the fullness of time.  He dies on a Roman cross and is raised from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures.

This same Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, declared that the Spirit of truth would teach the Apostles all things; would remind them of everything He said; and would guide them into all the truth (John 14:26; 16:13).  Born into the Protestant experiment in the second-half of the twentieth century, it seemed perfectly natural, almost imperceptible, that we lived in a perpetual world of subjectivity and guesswork when it came to the faith.  Is it even possible to distinguish between one’s belief in the Bible and one’s subjective agreement with a certain interpretation of the Bible?  It seemed so far removed from the authority and infallibility conferred upon the Apostles and vouchsafed by the holy Spirit.

As Pope Benedict XVI reflected:  Cardinal “Newman had become a convert as a man of conscience; it was his conscience that led him out of the old ties and securities into the world of Catholicism, which was difficult and strange for him. But this way of conscience is everything except a way of self-sufficient subjectivity: it is a way of obedience to objective truth.”  Presentation By His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the Occasion of the First Centenary of the Death of Card. John Henry Newman, Rome, 28 April 1990.

Until the end of the age

How do we logically argue “against a standing guardianship of revelation without arguing also against its original bestowal”? (85 / 1461).  Revelation breaks the order of nature.  That is what revelation is. What is the substance of the revelation, and does it come with any guaranty of preservation?  Any promise of perpetuity?  In the case of Christian revelation, the answer is an unblushing Yes.  The One to Whom all authority in heaven and on earth is granted sends out His Apostles with guarantees of truth and unending perpetuity.  How else will the newly baptized receive the truth?  How else will the new disciples – until the end of the age – observe all the Lord commanded?  As Cardinal Newman argued, “the circumstance that a work has begun makes it more probable than not that it will proceed. We have no reason to suppose that there is so great a distinction of dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians, as that they had a living infallible guidance, and we have not.” (85 / 1468).

Without the authority and infallibility of the Church, I must judge, by private interpretation, between a hundred competing claims.  Or a thousand?  Rome and Luther.  Luther and Calvin.  Luther and Zwingli.  Calvin and Zwingli.  These are merely a few choices that demand my judgment.  Intellectual honesty sends the judge much deeper and wider into history.  And by what authority do I begin holding court in 1517?  The Church on trial in 1517 is the very Church who handed to me the Scriptures and a host of hard-fought doctrines I took for granted.  No; common sense cries out for an infallible guide to accompany revelation (86 / 1492).  Our own experience, itself part of 500 years of evidence, proves the same thing:  abstract declarations of truth, albeit found in Scripture, lead a hundred well-meaning seekers in a hundred directions.  Rather, Sacred Scripture teaches that the holy Spirit brings light, not darkness; order, not chaos; truth, not error.  God is not the author of disorder or confusion; He is the God of peace.  (1 Cor. 14:33).

No self-interpretive Scriptures

We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints us, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given.” (87 / 1492).    No, the Bible-alone is not written as a self-interpretive guide.  The Scriptures require an infallible interpreter.  Scriptures will be interpreted.  The only question is, By whom and by what authority?

The Catholic Church claims the divine gift of infallibility on all matters concerning faith and morals. Apart from the Catholic Church, there stands the individual or a hundred Protestant traditions (to put it mildly), all resting on admitted fallibility.  That puts the serious believer on the horns of a dilemma.  After one’s private interpretation (or acquiescence to someone else’s fallible interpretation), the only way to preserve truth in the face of someone else’s contradictory interpretation is to divide.  “[T]wo or three will agree to-day to part company to-morrow”.  (90 / 1525).  That is the sad genesis of so many new congregations.  Multiplication by division.  Sola Scriptura inevitably means John 16’s truth trumps John 17’s unity.  That impossible conundrum is the only way, apart from an infallible Guide.

The safe road home

If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder.”  (90 / 1533).  The development of doctrine under the infallible authority of what Scripture calls “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) is the safe road home.  It is safe because it is the Church, the pillar and foundation of the truth.  As a Catholic, I have the double-benefit of a high-view of Scripture plus a high-view of the Sovereignty of God.  Scripture tells me about The Way, The Truth and The Life, known through the Church.  God Himself guarantees the deposit of faith preserved in the Church until the end of the age.  The believer is afforded the opportunity to humbly submit to God-ordained authority.  The converse, myself as final arbiter of truth, seems the most dangerous road of all.  For more reading on the authority and infallibility found in the Catholic Church, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, particularly at paragraphs 889-891.

Truth, goodness and beauty

I believe God draws us into the one, holy and apostolic church by truth, goodness or beauty; probably some combination of the three.  Primarily for me it was truth.  When I saw the reality of the claims of the Catholic Church, my conscience would not allow me to stay away.  As Pope Benedict put it, I am learning “this way of conscience is everything except a way of self-sufficient subjectivity: it is a way of obedience to objective truth.”  Once inside the Church through doors of truth, more and more I see goodness and beauty.





*New American Bible Revised Edition

Author: Danny Collier

Catholic. Husband. Father. Lawyer.

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