Certainty, Not

Papal infallibility became an official doctrine of the Catholic Church at the First Vatican Council in 1870. It states that when the pope speaks ex cathedra, he is “is preserved from even the possibility of error.”

Modern Protestants have their own version of infallibility. It is the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. The evangelical variety— verbal, plenary inspiration—was championed by theologians like B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge around the same time as papal infallibility was being affirmed by the Catholics.

Only one ex cathedra teaching has been issued since 1870 (the Assumption of Mary) but Evangelicals rely daily on an inerrant Bible; one without error in the original manuscripts. While Christians have always held that scripture was inspired (literally, “God breathed”), inerrancy was put forth when the Bible came under attack by evolutionary science and higher criticism in what became the modernist-fundamentalist debates of the early twentieth century. (This is also the context in which the “young earth” interpretation of Genesis became a litmus test for true believers.)

Behind these doctrines is the desire for an authority that is protected from human error when it comes to divine revelation. But are we promised infallibility, inerrancy or certainty in this world?

Without the firm ground of inerrancy, won’t we wind up on the slippery slope of human interpretation? Truth be told, that’s where we’ve always been, with theologians and preachers telling us what is inerrant truth while differing from their peers on the details.

Absolute certainty in this world is an illusion but here is something we do know:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.”

3 thoughts on “Certainty, Not

  1. “… verbal, plenary inspiration—was championed by theologians like B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge around the same time as papal infallibility was being affirmed by the Catholics.”

    Mike, could you cite sources for the theory of verbal, plenary inerrancy in protestant ranks developing about the same time as the doctrine of papal infalibility in catholic circles? Is there evidence that prior to that time (late 19th century), more fundamentalist Christians did not believe in inerrancy? I have suspected as much but have no proof.

    1. Mike, Warfield and Hodge’s inerrancy article was published in 1881 and Vatican I, which decreed papal infallibility, was held in 1870. Warfield tried to make the case for inerrancy being the orthodox position; you have to decide if he succeeded. Here is a good place to start:

      “In 1881 Warfield wrote a joint article with A. A. Hodge on the inspiration of the Bible. It drew attention because of its scholarly and forceful defense of the inerrancy of the Bible. In many of his writings, Warfield attempted to demonstrate that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy was simply orthodox Christian teaching, and not merely a concept invented in the nineteenth century. His passion was to refute the liberal element within Presbyterianism and within Christianity at large. Throughout his life, he continued to write books and articles, which are still widely read today.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Breckinridge_Warfield

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