Babies in Church (part IX): Divine revelation and infallible human opinion [!?]

14 Jan
Matthias Flacius and the Survival of Luther's Reform by Oliver K. Olson, edition sold in Germany

Matthias Flacius and the Survival of Luther’s Reform by Oliver K. Olson, edition sold in Germany

Here are the preceding posts in this series: I, Can adults be saved? ;  II, Word or the Church? ; III, The unattractive body, IV, Miraculous, ordinary, conversational experience ; V, The arrogance of the infant (a) ; VI, The arrogance of the infant (b) ; VII, The “Church-speak” that we need ; VIII, Judge your mother, o child (the tragic necessity of the Reformation)

Warning: long and heady post here….

A man named Mark Patison said, I believe accurately, that “the German Reformation is imperfectly described when it is considered an appeal to scripture vs tradition.  It was rather an appeal to history” (Isaac Casaubon, 1559-1614.  2nd ed.  Oxford: Carendon Press, 1892, from the book pictured on the left, which I will be saying more about in a future post)

A conversation at a Roman Catholic blog has shown me how little importance these things have for at least some Roman Catholics (perhaps this is a reaction vs. Hans Kung, who said “Christianity is the activation of memory”!).  One prominent online Catholic apologist, Michael Liccione, says that the question of which church can really discern Divine revelation is philosophical, not historical (post #321)

Earlier in the comments, in post  #221, a man named John Thayer Jensen wrote:  “… people often seem to me to make the mistake of deciding, first, what things are true – which implies some external canon – and then looking around for the body that teaches that.”

Michael Liccione, responded to that in post # 222 saying, “And that is the very essence of Protestantism.  One assumes that the deposit of faith is knowable independently of ecclesial authority, and that one knows its content.  Then one chooses a church whose teaching conforms with that.”

In which case, Lutherans are not Protestant by this definition.  We like to quote Luther saying thank God, a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”  True enough!  The key content of this faith is simply the Gospel pure and simple (as in John 3:16) – and by this all who believe will be saved.  And yet, in our Christian lives, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God – from the whole counsel of God.  But just what is that Word of God that has been divinely revealed to us and all people – that was provided for us to “safeguard the truth” (Luke)?  The Scriptures!  And this is ultimately how are able to identify fallible human opinions, discerning when the Body of Christ is actually teaching as His Body (and we always must keep talking about who decides what claims about Divine revelation are now out of bounds and how we determine that).  

And yet, we dare not say that we would surely know what Scripture was apart from the fact that there were certain books of the Bible that our spiritual fathers (i.e. the undivided early Church – those in fellowship with the Apostles and one another) unanimously accepted as being the infallible, Divine revelation of God.  We received the deposit of faith from ecclesial authorities, who received it from ecclesial authorities – our spiritual ancestors in the Church.  In short, because there is “a dynamic interaction between the verbally transmitted Word, and the Word committed to writing” (Paul Strawn), whatever did not conform to the Rule of faith was not Scripture (miracles and prophecy alone could not establish the authenticity of the prophet: the people needed to recognize the *voice*).  Lutherans often forget that Luther himself was hesitant to give the book of James, II Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation full canonical status.  After all, there were congregations early on who had never recognized these books as being Divine revelation!

Mike also says some interesting things about how we can discern what the true visible church is:

“The question at issue is whether there’s a principle necessary for discerning which human interpretations are only that, and which are also authentic conveyances of Divine revelation. My argument has been that the Catholic interpretive paradigm (IP) contains something that qualifies as such a principle, and that yours does not….(#276) [In short], “Which IP[, or interpretive principle,] best facilitates distinguishing, in a principled rather than an ad hoc way, between Divine revelation and human theological opinions–regardless of the actual content of either?” (#321)

In addition, he thinks that all Protestants (he includes Lutherans here), by virtue of their divisions, show they cannot make a tenable claim to knowing Divine revelation and that his principle shows that infallibility in the Church is necessary.  In which case, I point out that we have never denied the concept of infallibility for the Church today.  Here is what I said about that:

“…while a person may indeed speak infallibly as God enables them to utter His oracles, there are no prophets or apostles we can find in the Bible who ever said ‘you should listen to me because I am infallible’ or said ‘I have the infallible charism – that can never be lost in certain circumstances  – for infallibly interpreting the words all we believers recognize as God’s very words to us” [Divine revelation].

I also note that this need not be synonymous with Divine revelation per se, which is given to the whole Church by God for teaching all persons and is public knowledge.  The Holy Scriptures were given to “safeguard” (see Luke 2) the Apostolic deposit, “putting in writing” that which Jesus and the Holy Spirit taught the Apostles for the benefit of all persons.

There are other things we should notice about Mike Liccione’s “interpretive paradigm” (I.P.) however. 

First of all, we simply note that Mike’s I.P. assumes a particular view of infallibility up front – i.e. there is theological “content” in it.  It has a view of infallibility that has been formed in persons during the course of history – whether by God or not (note of course that even if it “doesn’t require us to look at history at all” it itself is formed by considering history).  In other words, I would say that it is imperative for “separated brethren” (Rome’s current description of other Christians) compelled to explore Rome’s claims (which may seem compelling on the face of it), first be mature and knowledgeable in the practice of their own faith.  All should be aware that one may not be able to “walk in a Roman Catholic’s shoes” via this I.P. in a “neutral” way, whereby one can be sure of being unaffected. 

Second, we note that if this I.P. is wrong*, it will be particularly harmful to the Church because of the all-encompassing claims that it entails – convinced that only one person in particular (who at times in history has wielded great worldly power as well) may always speak infallibly under certain discernible circumstances, i.e. convinced that God means for us to possess this kind of certainty in this kind of way, persons may be unable to accept that God’s rightly appointed leaders may err as they in fact did throughout the Old and New Testaments.  On the contrary, Acts 17 indicates that leadership that follows in the Apostolic train should be eager to have its claims verified by previously recognized (i.e. the past, i.e. history) Divine revelation – specifically the Apostolic deposit.  While doctrine “develops”, should not all claims at least be clearly implicit in these writings, since they were given to safeguard the truth?  Also consider this: just because one concludes that Mike’s I.P. is the best option because it is the most useful and powerful at giving certainty regarding God’s will for us since Jesus’ ascension (in other words, the I.P. itself is a good reason for a Christian to believe that [Roman] Catholicism is true), one might just as easily conclude that it is the “best” option because it is the most powerful for concentrating unifying political force in one person!  Also note this post about some of the more practical problems with this I.P.

The “Lutheran I.P.”, as explained above, grounded in particular circumstances of the past, can already get us to infallible Divine revelation found in Holy Scriptures (see above).  As to continuing to rightly and infallibly discern the will of God, we claim that we can only determine which I.P is best or preferable by actually taking the time and effort to look at the past with others who will point out things to us we may have missed.  This is where the rubber hits the road.  Mike’s I.P. really ends up bypassing the Lutheran contention that this is primarily about persons, their purposes, real history and real trust – and not primarily about principals, processes, and methods.   This involves the knowledge – not just the opinion – that that can be attained through historical study.  The Lutheran view here involves a deep reverence for evidences from the past outside of ourselves, particularly, but not limited to the Scriptures that past believers universally embraced (also, we can also do this in part by dealing with the living histories of persons formed by bodies revering these Scriptures in the present).

It is also important to note that there is in our view no more Divine revelation per se.   Human theological opinion can accurately reflect Divine revelation – and speak it appropriately in the moment where it is demanded – without itself being Divine revelation.  In other words, it is true knowledge – perhaps even authoritative public knowledge in line with God’s very words  – even if it is not, strictly speaking, Divine revelation.

Other things to make explicit here that are related to this discussion:

  • Whatever we Lutherans might want “Sola Scriptura” to mean it does not mean that anything not taught explicitly in Scripture cannot be essential doctrine (infant baptism is clearly implicit).
  • To give just one example, the teachings of the early Church Fathers are necessary, for making an irrefutable case (persons may still deny this) for infant baptism (update: this connects with the Lutheran viewpoint that, by default, authorities – particularly church authorities – are to be obeyed – see first paragraph here)
  • While the Scriptures are clear enough so that a genuinely curious atheist could discern their main message (on a careful reading), he could not, for example, produce by himself the theological content of the Lutheran Book of Concord – determining what is essential and non-essential doctrine cannot be done satisfactorily without the true Rule of faith (Acts 8 – teachers to guide).
  • One component of the true Rule of faith is that it always tests the Spirits by checking those Scriptures that have been accepted by God’s people and that safeguard the truth (see, for example, Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11 and I Corinthians 4:6).
  • Aspects of the Rule of faith are often tacit, meaning it can become further refined (more specific) through the interactions with heresies which are tested vs. the Apostolic deposit.
  • All manner of traditions can be followed in the visible church that are not in Scripture so long as they do not contradict or detract from the core Apostolic teaching.
  • Adiaphora (“indifferent things”) are part and parcel of the church.  Given uncoerced deliberation among Christian bodies, there may be things deemed necessary or simply helpful for preserving unity in the Church (where we, as in any good marriage, willingly give up certain things we would otherwise be free to do without sin) but not for salvation per se (although a loss of unity in the Church may eventually lead to a loss of salvation, as love for one’s Christian brothers – inevitably due to a lack of love for God! – grows cold… and this because of a lack of faith).

When it comes to the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Lutherans never left.  I do not insist that LC-MS to be infallible – only that perhaps it, and those in fellowship with it, alone can contain and deal with persons who may speak infallibly.  I make the claim that there is always a remnant (within larger institutional bodies claiming and trying to show in their own way some measure of devotion to Yahweh [OT] and Christ [NT] and those things He commanded) and those who speak infallible words – which are truly saving words – among them…. even if they refuse, on the basis of the true emphases of the Scriptures, to focus on the issue of the infallibility of any person or body.  “Catholicity” does not in any sense mean big and outwardly conspicuous, but universal, in that there are *at the very least* faithful believers and groups of believers spread throughout the world who agree with one another in the doctrines that brings life and salvation, even if it means they are hidden in caves, deserts and prisons.”  (John Gerhard).

* – Mike objected here, saying that an interpretive paradigm could only be “useful” or not – i.e. does it help us accomplish our purposes?  I said that since in my view it made God’s purposes/desires for us subservient to our own purposes/desires, it was in fact false, wrong, bad.


Posted by on January 14, 2013 in Uncategorized


9 responses to “Babies in Church (part IX): Divine revelation and infallible human opinion [!?]

  1. Cane Caldo

    January 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    I needed to read this today. Thanks!

    I don’t know why, but your blog is one of a handful that does not send me an email when you post. I’ve been following it for a long time. Going through my WordPress Reader needs to become more frequent.

    • infanttheology

      January 15, 2013 at 9:07 pm


      I’m so glad to hear that this was helpful to you. I do recall reading a comment of yours a while back that indicated that you were open to hearing more about Rome’s claims. Just make sure you try to seek out the absolute best representatives of the Reformation tradition before you make such a jump!

      Discouraging to hear that you don’t get emails sent to you… not sure what I can do about that!


  2. Cane Caldo

    January 15, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    “I do recall reading a comment of yours a while back that indicated that you were open to hearing more about Rome’s claims.”

    That’s exactly how I got back to your blog: I was investigating Rome. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say I’ve been reading a Lot, and Sodom it is baffling.*

    The process frustrates me, because it seems to me that every time I investigate some bit of Roman doctrine or dogma that seems unseemly to me, it turns out that it came about in unseemly ways!

    I am very nearly convinced that the RCC purposefully puts stumbling blocks in the road for the explicit reason of humbling everyone before it’s earthly power. Stress on “earthly”. This frustrates me because I am convicted and convinced of the catholic Church–of mere Christianity. Even if I am to ultimately not move my lodgings, it saddens me to know it’s out there, and not only exists, but is ongoing. Worse: The leadership will lie to cover it up, and force the rest to repeat it.

    I am not so chauvinist to be unconcerned what the rest of the body is doing. No doubt they feel the same of me, and for good reasons.

    *Theological puns: Such a scourge cannot be endured.

  3. infanttheology

    January 15, 2013 at 10:06 pm


    Both of us are concerned about the rightful place of authority – and the dreadful lack of it in our world. That’s why this piece: …starts as it does….

    I could endure a lot with Rome, but I am convinced that historically they have anathematized the certainty of salvation God means for the believer to have (Rom. 5:1) – taking us away from the simple proclamation of the Gospel that brings with it forgiveness, life and salvation.


  4. David Parkhurst

    January 16, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I believe that you present a caricature of the CTC community, and Michael Liccione in particular, when you claim that they do not find the claims of history all that important in debate with other Christians. A quick perusal of the CTC blog should disabuse you of that notion; there are a multitude of articles devoted to the theological import of the history of the Church.

    I have been reading Dr. Liccione in the the blogosphere for about 7 years now, and not only have I found him clear, concise, and irenic in his approach, I have also observed him arguing capably in terms of history, dogmatics, hermeneutics, etc. even though his area is philosophy. The “Interpretive Paradigm” argument (which he originally termed the “Hermeneutical Circle” argument) came about precisely as a potentially constructive way forward beyond the quagmire of the historical debate, especially after numerous impasses with Orthodox interlocutors. It arose because the same interpretive lens we bring to Scripture we also bring to history. It did not come about because he or his fellow apologist find history “unimportant.”

    I have read a smattering of your writing here and on CTC and have generally found you balanced and irenic, especially in comparison to most of the Calvinist eApologists who seem to froth at the mouth while they type. I found this post to be a little unfair and I hope that this is a rare occurrence.

    FWIW, I’m not a Catholic.

    – dp

    • infanttheology

      January 16, 2013 at 3:47 pm


      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Yes, I do try very hard to take Paul’s words about “gentleness and respect” seriously. I am sorry to hear that you do not feel like this latest post does that.

      I appreciate your viewpoint. No, I have followed Dr. Liccione also for some 6-7 years – I recall having some debates with him on the Pontifications blog when that was in its heyday.

      “The “Interpretive Paradigm” argument (which he originally termed the “Hermeneutical Circle” argument) came about precisely as a potentially constructive way forward beyond the quagmire of the historical debate, especially after numerous impasses with Orthodox interlocutors.”

      Interesting. Do you have more info on this? It seems to me that Mike’s idea makes it possible for him and EO to seriously discuss who among them is church (and then they’d need to get into history, I suppose) but no one else.

      “It arose because the same interpretive lens we bring to Scripture we also bring to history. It did not come about because he or his fellow apologist find history ‘unimportant.'”

      Dave, the fact of the matter is that Mike has now set the terms of the discussion such that IPs like mine are simply not worth considering. That is totally unlike my debates with Dave Armstrong, for example. I do believe that most persons who know history really don’t know it half as well as they think they do. I say this because of my personal affiliation with many church historians. I do not think most people have really read Chemnitz’s Examen, for example, or considered that he may actually have possessed and read the complete works most all of the church fathers that were available in his day. My own pastor’s research in Germany on Chemnitz would suggest that he did. Likewise the book about Flacius pictured here. Why do we not know more about this incredibly significant figure in Reformation history (even many Lutheran historians seem ignorant)? Further, how can RC theologians conceivably think that their church teaches what Andrew Preslar says it does about assurance of salvation? All of these questions are utterly historical questions (i.e. the history of dogma), and I believe that persons who are interested in the issues – and don’t have dogs in the theo fight (they study it for different reasons) – can often (not always) come to very firm conclusions about these matters based on the kinds of historical research that good historians are capable of doing…


  5. infanttheology

    January 16, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    Also, I struggle to see how this would fit in with an EO IP:

    To my knowledge, the EO believe that everything contained in the first 7 ecumenical (even if only labeled this retrospectively, kind of like the 1870 infallibility decision) councils (or is it 9) were infallible, correct?


  6. infanttheology

    January 16, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Another thought. What do we do about this?:

    I guess I’d have to say that I see the EO and Lutherans having much more in common (at least potentially) than the EO and the RCC….


  7. infanttheology

    January 22, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Here is what I wanted to say to Mike Liccione on the post thread mentioned above (but could not, as Bryan closed the thread), and what I did eventually email to him (did not get a reply yet):


    Could I get this last one in? I do believe it is very much related to the topic at hand, and I’d like a chance to answer Mike’s complaints about me publicly (one defense and one confession!):

    Mike ,

    Again, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for the ongoing dialogue and I hope you’ll allow me a few more words.

    ML: “Nathan (#587):

    Leaving aside your rhetorical questions and snarky asides, what you’ve done is reject what I consider to be the “terms of discussion,” and advocate substituting what you take to be better terms of discussion.”

    N: Actually, I see my role as helping us to be honest about our terms of discussion. The way I see it, we both have worldviews we want to defend – even as we listen – so how do we do that constructively and honestly and dealing with all the issues that are important?

    ML: “But of course, the reasons you give for doing so are not the sort I would find cogent. They fall largely into two categories: (a) Presenting your church’s claims in ways that I believe the evidence doesn’t justify…”

    N: Well, that is just what I’d like to talk about – just like you did here! Talk about evidence (evidently historical evidence). Maybe there are things you have not considered that you might come to know about through talking with me? In any case, I respect your decision to not engage on such grounds in this case. I am curious – would you, as a matter of principle, be opposed to engaging on such grounds in all cases (i.e. talking with persons who are either not RC or EO?)?

    ML: “…and (b) cherry-picking patristic evidence and interpreting it according to your own IP.”

    N: Yes, I understand that you think I am doing this. Flacius, Chemnitz and Gerhard were accused of doing the same thing (although I have good reason to believe that Chemnitz carefully read in full everything that he quoted from the early church, and was fair in representing them). I would like to know about alternative evidences from the past that you or others (you could refer me to good books) talk about that might upset the apple cart of my I.P. (the best refutation of Chemnitz’s Examen perhaps?) It seems to me that this is often how God worked in the Bible – pointing to historical details and significant past events.

    ML: “For reasons I’ve already explained, both moves are profoundly question-begging. They do not move the discussion in a fruitful direction.”

    N: I must confess I am at a loss as to why this is the case. I had a very constructive dialogue with Dave Armstrong, who, it seems to me, believes very similarly as you, but still believes that history is a significant part of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.

    ML: “All the same, I’d be encouraged to continue our discussion if I had evidence that you care enough about considering my position to describe it fairly rather than distort it. At this point, I don’t believe that you do.

    Consider two examples. The first is that your comment speaks as though I find the Mormon IP the only alternative to the CIP worth considering. But in #487, I had explicitly said that the Eastern-Orthodox IP is at least one another such alternative, and in #554 you yourself quoted me to that effect. This is not the first time your memory has seemed to be rather selective. Here I would add, to what I had said, that I consider the EO-IP the alternative to the CIP that is most worth taking seriously. Certainly I find it far more plausible than the Mormon IP. By characterizing my position as if that were not the case, you distort that position.”

    N: Mike – I said that “the Mormons seemingly get more serious consideration than the Lutherans!”, not the EO. Perhaps I should have said that based on your reasoning, it seems that either this would be the case (Mormons are more worth considering than Lutherans since they have a similar IP), or that perhaps, you would consider them equally unworthy of serious consideration (in either case, I never for a minute implied that you “find the Mormon IP the only alternative to the CIP worth considering”). Would I be right to say that the second option would be your position?

    ML: “The second example is this statement, which you clearly intend as a characterization of my position:

    ‘It is also wrong to presume up front that there is more “Divine revelation”, or Apostolic deposit after the canon is closed.’

    That is in no sense my position…. I have often affirmed instead that legit DD only makes more formally explicit and precise what was always materially present in the deposit of faith. But it’s just more convenient for you to ignore all that and distort my position.”

    N: Mike, guilty as charged – and I apologize. While I did project our view on to you, I did not intentionally attempt to distort your position. I have really tried to be careful and thoughtful here. No, of course we believe that “Divine revelation” and “Apostolic deposit” are one in the same. Therefore, a principled I.P., from our view (I realize in the course of our discussion) would have to be one that enables a person to distinguish between that which is in harmony with Divine revelation (which we know is Divine revelation due to the reasons mentioned above) and that which is not. Of course we would say that the things you say are “materially present” are very hard to see.


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