Are Tradition and Magisterium Infallible?

On this site, I’ve shown that we can reasonably conclude that the New Testament is infallible without drawing on an infallible tradition or magisterium to prove that it is. Anabaptists and Protestants, then, are in an excellent position—we have excellent support for our belief that Christian doctrine comes from the teachings of the apostles in the New Testament, and from nowhere else.

However, are Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox in a similarly good position? Do they have good reason to believe that their “Tradition” and Magisterium are similarly infallible? In this article, I’ll point out some issues in the cases apologists have made for an infallible Tradition or Magisterium.

Infinite Regress

The standard argument against Sola Scriptura among Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists today goes like this: “Your interpretation of the Bible is fallible, so how does it help that you believe the Bible is infallible? Functionally, you don’t have an infallible guide.”

Or maybe, “How can you know that your New Testament canon has the correct books, since you don’t have an infallible church to give you an infallible list of books?”

The Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologist then says, “We don’t have this problem, since we have an infallible church to tell us the correct interpretation of the Bible, as well as the correct books of the Bible.

Of course, this fails logically, because this is to commit the fallacy of either infinite regress or special pleading. In this video and this video, two Protestant apologists point out the issue with the argument.

Basically, the problem is this: If the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox believes that we need an infallible interpreter to validate the infallibility of Scripture, then who validates the infallibility of that infallible interpreter? We are left needing infinite regress of infallible interpreters, each of whom validates the infallibility of the one following them, but each of whom needs yet another infallible interpreter to validate them.

Or, if we decide to stop at one particular infallible interpreter, and say that we don’t need an infallible interpreter to validate his infallibility, that’s special pleading. Why this infallible interpreter rather than, say, Scripture itself?

I was very gratified to note that at least one Eastern Orthodox apologist recognizes the logical problems with this argument, and has nuanced it. I will discuss his argument below.

Ben Bollinger on Infallibility of Tradition

Recently, an Eastern Orthodox (I believe) apologist, named Ben Bollinger, was hosted by Roman Catholic apologist Suan Sonna in this YouTube video. Bollinger criticized apostolic infallibility, which is the view the early church held to, and which I’ve argued for in my article on the source of Christian doctrine and my larger-scale article on why doctrine comes from Scripture. I’ve updated those articles to address the critiques he gave.

In this article, I’d like to look at the positive argument Bollinger made for his own view, which is that Tradition is infallible.

First, I should note that Bollinger seems to be using the term “Tradition” in ways other than the way the early church defined tradition. The early church called the exact teachings of the apostles “tradition,” while the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox seem to have a lot more ambiguous view of tradition that incorporates the ongoing teachings of the church, even when the church teaches on issues that the apostles did not. However, from here on, I will simply use Tradition according to Bollinger’s view, since the precise definition of tradition is a separate issue.

Bollinger starts out by presenting the basic foundational argument that I present in my article on why doctrine comes from Scripture (paraphrased below):

  1. By looking at the historical truths about Jesus, we can conclude that he rose from the dead in vindication of his claim to be God’s son.
  2. Therefore, Jesus’ words can be trusted.
  3. If Jesus says that anyone besides him can be trusted, we can trust that person.

So Bollinger and I agree on the foundational epistemology of belief. Where we differ is in who Jesus said could be trusted. Ironically, he draws from one of the passages that is central to my argument:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12–15 ESV)

In my previous article, I noted that the people Jesus is talking to in John 16 are the eleven faithful apostles. The early church believed that the apostles were infallible in part because of this passage, as I showed from copious quotations from the early church.

However, Bollinger has a different interpretation. Let’s examine it:

So Jesus taught that it was necessary for him to ascend into heaven, so that, once seated at the right hand of his father, he could send the Holy Spirit to his followers, so they could be guided into all truth. Now clearly, the fulfillment of this passage happened on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on the Church gathered in Jerusalem in Acts chapter 2 verse 4.1Note, in my transcription, I have removed extra words like “uh” and “right.” I believe this is substantially what Bollinger intended to be saying.

And, importantly, after being filled with the Holy Spirit in accordance with Jesus’s promise, the Apostle Peter declared that Joel chapter 2 verses 28-32 was now fulfilled. . . .

And what’s significant about this is the content of Joel’s prophecy. . . . Joel’s prophecy that the Lord would “pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” was based on Moses’s prophetic wish in Numbers chapter 11 verse 29, “that all the Lord’s people are prophets; that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.”

Now since a characteristic of being a prophet under the old Covenant was the ability to infallibly know divine truth—which see Amos chapter 3 verse 7 for a very clear affirmation of that—and since Jesus also tied the reception of the Spirit to being guided into all truth,

In other words, Bollinger is saying that all God’s people in the New Testament are prophets. For him, this fulfills Jesus’ statement about being led into all the truth, so that means that all God’s people, not just the apostles, are led into all the truth.

However, there are several reasons why it must be the apostles, rather than all God’s people, who are led into all the truth. First, the Old Testament’s indications that all God’s people would be prophets doesn’t have to do with doctrine. Prophecy and doctrine are not the same thing. Prophets were not allowed to establish doctrine in either the New Testament or in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament Law was completely established with a public visitation by God and accompanying signs and wonders. Prophets couldn’t add to it later. In the New Testament, God visited Israel publicly in the form of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, revealing Christian doctrine completely. Later prophecies are supposed to be tested, not received as doctrine. No indication is given that prophets can add to the corpus of Christian doctrine.

But, one might object, Jesus foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit in John 16, and the Holy Spirit did fall on all Christians. So if one of Jesus’ prophecies seems to have been about all his followers, might the prophecy about being led into all the truth also be about all his followers?

The surrounding context in John 16 and Acts 2 contradicts this interpretation. The immediate context in John 16 shows that Jesus was speaking mainly to the apostles, while much (but not all) of what he said could also secondarily apply to other Christians:

But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. . . .

“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” . . .

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. . . . So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

In the very next chapter, Jesus prays his famous prayer for the apostles, as well as saying,

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)

The fact that Jesus expanded his prayer to those of us who would believe based on the apostles’ testimony indicates that Jesus’ primary concern was with the apostles. These textual indicators show that the specific promises in John 16 are intended for the apostles. Furthermore, the Christians at Pentecost appear to interpret this promise as applying to the apostles: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The apostles seem to be the ones seen as having teaching authority. We don’t see the congregation as a whole defining Christian doctrine—doctrine is coming directly from the apostles.

However, Bollinger’s argument suffers from an even greater issue. Jesus couldn’t have been speaking about all his followers—we know, as Bollinger does, that not every follower of Jesus knows all of Christian doctrine properly. He even believes that apostles erred, although I show that not to be true. Thus, in order to make his argument work at all, the next part of Bollinger’s argument is crucial:

I think the most straightforward interpretation of our Lord’s Pentecostal promise is that his people corporately are guided by the Holy Spirit into believing and proclaiming the truth.

Now, this doesn’t mean that everyone who received the Spirit will speak the truth at all times, as we know from before that even the apostles erred occasionally. However, it does mean that we now have divine sanction to infallibly trust the teachings of the Spirit-guided Church.

Since Bollinger recognizes that Jesus’ promised infallibility does not reside with each individual Christian, he argues that it resides in the collective voice of the church. So he does that by arguing that “the most straightforward interpretation” is that God’s people collectively are led into all the truth. Does thissave his argument from the objection mentioned above?

Unfortunately, no. The interpretation that Bollinger suggests is “straightforward” commits the fallacy of composition. Just because something is characteristic of all individuals within a group, that doesn’t mean that it is characteristic of the group as a whole. To make that inference is to commit the fallacy of composition. To show why this is the case, let’s lay it out logically:

  1. All God’s people are prophets.
  2. Prophets can infallibly know divine truth.
  3. Therefore, God’s people as a collective can infallibly know divine truth.

Here’s another example of the same fallacy:

  1. All members of the Christian church are humans.
  2. All humans scratch themselves.
  3. Therefore, the Christian church as a collective scratches itself.

As you can see, this inference doesn’t work. Bollinger’s argument assumes that what is true of individual prophets in the Old Testament is true of the collective voice of prophets in the New Testament. This is ironic, since it doesn’t seem that Bollinger believes even the inference that follows much more straightforwardly from his argument.

If all Christians are prophets, and all prophets prophesy infallible truth, then all Christians prophesy infallible truth. Instead Bollinger believes that not all Christians are infallible, and I agree, but that’s because I interpret the Scriptures he presents differently. I don’t see how he can interpret them as he does without concluding that all Christians prophesy infallible truth.

Bollinger continues by citing the Jerusalem council as evidence for this principle of collective infallibility, but I have already addressed that claim in another article on development of doctrine.

The final issue with this argument is that, even if Bollinger could conclude that the church speaks with a prophetic voice, that doesn’t mean that the church is always infallible. Bollinger rightly notes that “this [the infallibility of prophecy] doesn’t mean that everyone who received the Spirit will speak the truth at all times.”

This admission leaves the door wide open for saying the same thing about the church. If being a prophet doesn’t mean that you speak the truth at all times, then even if the church speaks with the voice of prophecy, that doesn’t mean that the church speaks truth at all times.

I conclude that Bollinger’s argument doesn’t establish the infallibility of Tradition.

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    Note, in my transcription, I have removed extra words like “uh” and “right.” I believe this is substantially what Bollinger intended to be saying.

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