The Infallibility Of The Church. Chapter 7: The Church’s Office of Teaching
21 min read
21 min read
On the last day I sufficiently showed that the foundation for their system, which Roman Catholics assume as self-evident, namely, that God has appointed someone on earth able to give infallible guidance to religious truth, admits of no proof, and is destitute of all probability. But when we say that God has not provided us with infallible guidance, we are very far from saying that He has provided for us no guidance at all. I do not think a Protestant can render a greater service to the cause of Romanism than by depreciating the value of the guidance towards the attainment of religious truth given us by the Church which Christ has founded. ‘Hoc Ithacus velit.’ This is the alternative they want to bring us to – either an infallible Church, whose teaching is to be subject to no criticism and no correction, or else no Church teaching at all, each individual taking the Bible, and getting from it, by his own arbitrary interpretation, any system of doctrine he can. Reducing us to this alternative, they have no difficulty in showing that the latter method inevitably leads to a variety of discordant error and they conclude we are forced to fall back on the other.
But in what subject in the world is it dreamed that we have got to choose between having infallible teachers, or else having no teacher at all? God has made the world so that we cannot do without teachers. We come into the world as ignorant as we are helpless not only dependent on the care of others for food and warmth, without which neglected infancy must perish, but dependent on the instruction of others for our most elementary knowledge. The most original discoverer that ever lived owed the great bulk of his knowledge to the teaching of others, and the amount of knowledge which he has added to the common stock bears an infinitesimally small proportion to that which he inherited. To think of being independent of the teaching of others, is as idle as to think of being independent of the atmosphere which surrounds us. Roman Catholic advocates can show, with perfect truth, that anyone who imagines he is drawing his system of doctrine all by himself from the Bible alone, really does nothing of the kind. Of course, if a man reads the Bible in a translation, he cannot imagine that he is independent of help from others. In any case, the selection of books that make the volume was made for him by others the reverence that he pays to its contents is due to instruction which he received in his boyhood ; and, besides, it is undeniable that it is natural to us all to read the Bible in the light of the previous instruction we received in our youth. How else is it that the members of so many different sects each find in the Bible the doctrines they have been trained to expect to find there?
Human teaching, then, we cannot possibly do without in any subject whatever but are our teachers infallible? I grant that, by children and ignorant persons, it is necessary that they should practically be regarded so. It is said that, when Dr. Busby showed Charles II. over Westminster School, he kept on his own hat, though the king was bareheaded, and explained to the monarch afterwards that he should lose all authority over his boys if they once found out that there was anyone in the kingdom greater than himself. Certain it is that boys will not respect a teacher if they find out that he is capable of making mistakes. And this frame of mind is the best for the pupil’s progress. When our knowledge is scanty, it is more important that we should be receptive than critical or rather, if we attempt to be critical, we cannot be properly receptive. In the earliest stages, then, of instruction, a student makes most progress if he gets a teacher in whom he can put faith, and accepts from him with docility all the information he is able to impart to him. But you know that the teacher’s infallibility is not real it is only relative and temporary and an advanced student, instead of respecting a man more, respects him less if he pretends that he is incapable of sometimes making a slip. It is a maxim with chess-players, if you meet a player who says he has never been beaten, to offer to give him the odds of the rook. And what is intended plainly is, that the delusion of invincibility can never grow up in the mind of anyone except one who has never met a strong antagonist. Just in the same way, the delusion of infallibility can never grow up except in the mind of one who only mixes with inferiors, and does not allow his opinions to be tested by independent criticism. And we may say the same of Churches as of individuals. An infallible Church does not mean a Church which makes no mistakes, but only one which will neither acknowledge its mistakes nor correct them.
With respect to the teaching of secular knowledge, Universities have a function in some sort corresponding to that which the Church has been divinely appointed to fulfil in the communication of religious knowledge. If I said that University teaching of the mathematical and physical sciences was not infallible, you would not suspect me of being so ungrateful as to wish to disparage that teaching to which I owe all my own knowledge of these subjects. You would not suppose that I wished our students to receive with hesitation and suspicion the lessons of their instructors. You would not suppose that I was myself in the least sceptical as to the substantial truth of what is taught in these lessons. And yet I could not help owning that University teaching may possibly include errors, and must be willing to admit correction. Why, I could name one point of astronomical science in which it has altered within my own experience. When I was taught the planetary theory, I was given a demonstration, which I accepted as conclusive, that the changes in the orbits of the planets caused by their mutual action were all of a periodic character, and could not overthrow the stability of the system. At present the contrary opinion prevails, and it is held that the solar system is not constituted for eternal duration. In any case, no one can imagine that University teaching was infallible in those pre-Reformation days, when what was taught was the Ptolemaic system of astronomy. And yet it would be equally false to say that University teaching was even then of small value for I suppose the great reformer, Newton, could have made none of his discoveries if it had not been for the knowledge his University had taught him.
Now, we have no right to assume as self-evident that the laws which govern the communication of religious knowledge must be utterly unlike those which regulate our acquirement of every other kind of knowledge. In every other department of knowledge we must assert the necessity of human teaching we must own that one who will not condescend to learn must be content to be ignorant we must hold that the learner must receive the teaching he gets with deference and submission and yet we do not imagine that the teachers are infallible, and we maintain that the learner ought ultimately to arrive at a point when he is no longer dependent on the mere testimony of his instructors, but becomes competent to pass an independent judgment on the truth of the statements made to him.
Improvements are made in metaphysics, political economy, and other sciences, not by persons who have thought out the whole subject for themselves, without help from others, but by those who, having been well instructed in what has been done already, then, by their own thought and study, correct the mistakes of their predecessors — even of the very teachers from whom they have themselves learned. In fact, the whole progress of the human race depends on the two things — human teaching, and teaching which will submit to correction. If there was no teaching there would be no progress, for each generation would start where its predecessor did, and there would be no reason why one should be more successful than another and obviously there would be no progress if one generation was not permitted to improve on another. What actually happens is, that the new generation, rapidly learning from its predecessors, starts where they ended and is enabled to advance further and to start the next generation on still more favourable terms.
There need be no difficulty now in coming to an agreement, that the divinely-appointed methods for man’s acquirement of secular and of religious knowledge are not so very dissimilar. On the one hand, the finality and perfection of Church teaching — which was the doctrine of the older school of Roman Catholic advocates — is quite abandoned in the modern theory of development which has now become fashionable. That theory acknowledges that the teaching of the Church may be imperfect and incomplete and though it is too polite to call it erroneous, the practical line of distinction between error and imperfection is a fine one and difficult to draw, as I could easily show by examples, if it were not that they would lead me too far from my subject. On the other hand we, for our part, are quite ready to admit that God did not intend us, in religious matters any more than in any other, to dispense with the instruction of others. We do not imagine that God meant each man to learn his religion from the Bible without getting help from anybody else. We freely confess that we need not only the Bible, but human instruction in it. And this need, we hold, was foreseen and provided for by the founder of our religion. He formed His followers into a community, each member of which was to be benefited by the good offices of the rest, and who, in particular, were to build up one another in their most holy Faith. More than this, He appointed a special order of men whose special duty it is to teach and to impress on the minds of the people the great doctrines of the Faith. In the institution of His Church, Christ has provided for the instruction of those who, either from youth or lack of time or of knowledge, might be unable or unlikely to study His Word for themselves.
Let me just remind you of the stock topics of declamation of Roman Catholics on the theme that Christ intended us to learn His religion, not from the Bible but from the Church. The first Christians, they tell us, did not learn their religion from books. There were flourishing Churches before any Book of the New Testament was written. The first Christians were taught by the living voice of apostles and evangelists and preachers. Since their time thousands upon thousands of good men have gone to heaven in ignorance of the Bible for, before printing was discovered, books were scarce and the power of reading them uncommon. Even in our own time the illiterate are numerous yet who will venture to deny that many, ignorant of the knowledge of this world, may be possessed of the knowledge that maketh wise unto salvation? All these have learned their religion from the Church, not the Bible. When those who can read take up the Bible, they find it is not a book adapted for teaching our religion to those who do not know it already. The writers of the New Testament were all addressing men who had been previously instructed orally and an acquaintance with the doctrines of the Gospel on the part of the reader is therefore assumed. The Bible itself contains no systematic statement of doctrine, no examples of the catechetical instruction given to the early converts. Of many most important doctrines you do not find the proof on the very surface of the Bible you have to study the Scripture attentively to find it out ; and it may well be doubted whether, in some cases, you would have ever found it if the Church had not pointed it out to you.
All this (to which much more of the same kind might be added) would be very difficult to answer, if we imagined it was any part of Christ’s scheme to make us independent of the good offices of our fellow-men in learning our religion but it goes idly by us who cheerfully acknowledge that Christ foresaw our need of human instruction, and provided for it, not only by the ordinary dispensations of His Providence, but by the institution of His Church, whose special duty it is to preserve His truth and proclaim it to the world. I need scarcely say how well this duty has been performed how fully the Church provided, in her formularies and by the labour of her ministers, for the instruction of those who might be either unwilling or unable to obtain it otherwise. The illiterate may, through her, learn those truths which make wise unto salvation the careless may have them forced on their attention even the most learned have, by her means, their study of God’s Word aided to a greater degree than they are, perhaps, themselves aware of. Ever since the Church was founded, the work she has done iu upholding the truth has been such, that the words ‘pillar and ground of the truth’ are not too strong to express the services she has rendered. She has preserved the Scriptures, and borne witness to their authority she has, by her public reading, forced her members to become acquainted with them she has embodied some of their most important doctrines in creeds which she has taught to her members. Even in the times when her teaching was mixed with most error she preserved the means of its correction. There was no new revelation of Divine truth made at the Reformation it was by means of the Bible, which the Church had never ceased to honour, and through the instrumentality of regular clergy of the Church, and by reviving the memory of lessons taught by some of its most eminent teachers in former days, that the Reformation was brought about.
Nor do I hesitate to acknowledge the services rendered by the Church in the interpretation of Scripture. We need not hesitate to grant, in the case of the Bible, what we should grant in the case of any profane author. Were the object of our study an ordinary classical writer, an interpreter who, devoid of all sobriety of judgment, should scorn to study the opinions of the wise and learned men who had preceded him would be likely to arrive at conclusions more startling for their novelty than valuable for their correctness. Again, if the subject of our study were the opinions of a heathen philosopher, we should not refuse to consider the question, what was supposed to be his doctrine by the school which he founded? not that we should suppose their tradition to be more trustworthy authority as to the doctrines of their master than his own written statements. We might think it more likely than not, that a succession of ingenious men would add something of their own to what had been originally committed to them ; and yet we should not think it right to refuse to listen to the tradition of the school as to the doctrine of its founder — to listen with attention, though not with blind acquiescence. But, when every concession to the authority of the Church and to the services she has rendered has been made, we come very far short of teaching her infallibility. A town clock is of excellent use in publicly making known with authority the correct time — making it known to many who, perhaps, at no time, and certainly not at all times, would find it convenient or even possible to verify its correctness for themselves. And yet it is clear, that one who maintained the great desirability of having such a clock, and believed it to be of great use to the neighbourhood, would not be in the least inconsistent if he also maintained that it was possible for the clock to go astray, and if, on that account, he inculcated the necessity of frequently comparing it with, and regulating it by, the dial which receives its light from heaven. And if we desired to remove an error which had accumulated during a long season of neglect, it would be very unfair to represent us as wishing to silence the clock, or else as wishing to allow every townsman to get up and push the hands back or forward as he pleased.
In sum, then, I maintain that it is the office of the Church to teach but that it is her duty to do so, not by making assertion merely, but by offering proofs and, again, that while it is the duty of the individual Christian to receive with deference the teaching of the Church, it is his duty also not listlessly to acquiesce in her statements but to satisfy himself of the validity of her proofs.
I said, in a former Lecture, that the true analogy to the relation between a Christian teacher and his pupils is not that between a physician and his patients, but rather that between a physician and the class of students whom he is teaching medical science. A simple test will show that this was the view practically taken by the early Fathers. We never hear the captain of a ship going among the passengers and imploring them to study the charts, and not take his word that they are in the right course, but convince themselves of their true position. A physician does not exhort his patients to study their own case out of medical books on the contrary, he would be sorry to see them perplexing themselves with a study which could do them no good, but, on the contrary, might stand in the way of their obediently following his directions. But exhortation to study, of this kind, you will hear from a medical lecturer to the students whom he is teaching the profession. He will frankly tell them the reasons for the course of treatment which he advises he will not ask them to receive anything merely on his authority; he will give them references to the best authors who have written on the same subject. He talks in this way to his class — never to the patients on whom he practises so, in like manner, it would be the duty of the rulers of an infallible Church to exhort the people to receive their doctrines without question but not to exhort them to examine the grounds on which the doctrine was established.
If, in fact, the Church be infallible, it is impossible to understand why the Bible was given. It cannot be of much use in making men wise unto salvation, for that the Church is supposed to do already. But it may be used by the ignorant and unstable to pervert it to their own destruction. If a Christian, reading the Bible for himself, puts upon it the interpretation which the Church puts upon it, he is still no better off than if he had never looked at it, and had contented himself with the same lessons as taught by the Church but if he puts upon it a different interpretation from that of the Church (and if the Church be infallible, her interpretation is right and every other wrong), then he is deeply injured by having been allowed to examine for himself. Thus, if the Church be infallible, Bible reading is all risk and no gain. And so, in modern times the Church of Rome has always discouraged the reading of the Scriptures by her people and if her theory be right, she has done so consistently and wisely. And therefore I say it is a proof that this theory was not held in ancient times, when we find that the early Fathers had no such scruples, but incessantly urged on their congregations the duty of searching the Scriptures for themselves.
I will take one Father as an example St. Chrysostom and there is no unfairness in my choosing him, for I do so only on account of his eloquence and vigour. You will find the same sentiments, though perhaps less forcibly expressed, in every early Father. My quotations from him will serve a double purpose both to prove the point on which I am immediately engaged — that at that time Christian teachers, instead of asking their people to receive their statements on the authority of an infallible Church, urged them to consult for themselves the sources of proof and also to prepare the way for the next point in the controversy, namely, that the sources of proof used were exclusively the Holy Scriptures.
Now, on the first inspection of Chrysostom’s works, you see that they were composed for people who had the Bible in their hands. The great bulk of his works consists of reports of his sermons and, as a general rule, these sermons are not of the kind of which we have so many excellent examples at the present day expositions of doctrine, or exhortations to holy living, with a Scripture text prefixed as a motto but they are systematic expositions of Scripture itself. The preacher takes a book of the Bible and goes regularly through it, lecturing on it, verse by verse. Preaching of this kind would evidently have no interest except for men who had the Bible in their hands, and wished for a guide to enable them to understand it better. We have expositions of this kind in the works of several of the most eminent Fathers, both Greek, and Latin. But indeed, in the case of the Latin Fathers, we require no elaborate proof that the Church then, so far from desiring to check the study of the Scriptures, placed them in the hands of the people, and encouraged them to read them. The existence of the Latin translation, dating from an early part of the second century, is evidence enough of this fact. For whose benefit can we suppose that that translation was made? The knowledge of Greek was then the accomplishment of every educated Roman. It would have been far harder then to find a Roman gentleman who did not understand Greek than it would be now to find an English gentleman who does not know either Latin or French. The Bible was translated into Latin, because the Latin Church, in those days, wished that not merely the wealthy, and the highly educated, but that all her members should have access to the oracles of truth, and be able to consult them for themselves.
And now I proceed to my proof that the early Church did not merely permit her people to verify her teaching by the Scriptures — did not merely make the Bible accessible to them — but urged its use on them as a duty which it was inexcusable to neglect. One excuse, it may readily occur to you, the people of that day had which Christians have not now. Before printing was invented you would think that manuscripts must have been scarce and expensive, and the study of the Bible scarce practicable for ordinary Christians. But when you hear how Chrysostom deals with that excuse, you will find that, in this case, as in most others, demand produced supply, and that, in the ages when the Bible was valued, copies of it could be obtained without unreasonable sacrifice, and that it was only when the Scriptures ceased to be studied that manuscripts became scarce, and therefore costly.
Speaking of excuses for not reading the Bible, Chrysostom says (NB: In the following extract I combine what Chrysostom says in two places where he goes over nearly the same ground, viz., in St. John. Hom. 10, vol. 8. p. 63, and De Lazar. Concio 3, vol. i. p. 736. ): ‘ There is another excuse employed by persons of this indolent frame of mind, which is utterly devoid of reason, namely, that they have not a Bible. Now, as far as the wealthy are concerned, it would be ridiculous to spend words on such a pretext. But, as I believe many of our poorer brethren are in the habit of using it, I should be glad to ask them this question, Have they not everyone got complete and perfect the tools of their respective trades? Though hunger pinch them, though poverty afflict them, they will prefer to endure all hardships rather than part with any of the implements of their trade, and live by the sale of them. Many have chosen rather to borrow for the support of their families than give up the smallest of the tools of their trade. And very naturally for they know that, if these be gone, their whole means of livelihood are lost. Now, just as the implements of their trade are the hammer or anvil or pincers, exactly so the implements of our profession are the books of the Apostles and prophets and all the Scriptures composed by Divine inspiration, and very full of profit. As with their implements they fashion whatever vessels they take in hands, so we with ours labour at our own souls, and correct what is injured, and repair what is worn out. Is it not a shame, then, if, when the tools of this world’s trades are concerned, you make no excuse of poverty, but take care that no impediment shall interfere with your retaining them, here, where such unspeakable benefits are to be reaped, you whine about your want of leisure and your poverty?
‘ But, at any rate,’ he proceeds, ‘ the very poorest of you, if he attends to the continual reading of the Scriptures that takes place here, need not be ignorant of anything that the Scriptures contain. You will say this is impossible. If it is, I will tell you why it is impossible. It is because many of you do not attend to the reading that takes place here; you come here for form’s sake, and then straightway go home ; and some who remain are not much the better than those who go away, being present with us only in the body, not in the spirit.’
But there is another reason which Roman Catholics give now for keeping back the Scriptures from common use, namely, that they are too difficult for the unlearned to understand. You shall hear how St. Chrysostom dealt with that excuse when his people tendered it as a reason why they did not read the Bible.
‘It is impossible for you to be alike ignorant of all for it was for this reason that the grace of the Spirit appointed that publicans and fishermen, tentmakers and shepherds and goatherds, and unlearned and ignorant men, should compose these books, that none of the unlearned might be able to have recourse to this excuse; that the words then spoken might be intelligible to all that even the mechanic, and the servant, and the widow-woman, and the most unlearned of all mankind might receive profit and improvement from what they should hear. For it was not for vainglory, like the heathen, but for the salvation of the hearers, that these authors were counted worthy of the grace of the Spirit to compose these writings. For the heathen philosophers, not seeking the common welfare, but their own glory, if ever they did say anything useful, concealed it, as it were, in a dark mist. But the Apostles and prophets did quite the reverse; for what proceeded from them they set before all men plain and clear, as being the common teachers of the world, that each individual might be able, even of himself, to learn the sense of what they said from the mere reading.
‘And who is there that does not understand plainly the whole of the Gospels? Who that hears ” Blessed are the meek,” “Blessed are the merciful,” “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and so forth, needs a teacher in order to comprehend any of those sayings? And as for the accounts of miracles and wonderful works and historical facts, are they not plain and intelligible, to any common person? This is but pretext and excuse and a cloak for laziness.
‘ You do not understand the contents and how will you ever be able to understand them if you do not study them? Take the book in your hands read the entire history and, when you have secured a knowledge of what is simple, come to the obscure and hard parts over and over again. And if you cannot by constant reading make out what is said, go to some person wiser than yourself go to a teacher, communicate with him about the thing spoken of; show a strong interest in the matter; and if God see you displaying so much anxiety, He will not despise your watchfulness and earnestness ; but if no man teach you what you seek for, He Himself will surely reveal it.
‘ Remember the eunuch of the Queen of the Ethiopians, who, though a barbarian by birth, and pressed by innumerable cares, and surrounded on all sides by things to occupy his attention, aye, and unable, moreover, to understand what he was reading, was reading, nevertheless, as he sat in his chariot. And if he showed such diligence on the road, consider what he must have done when staying at home. If he could not endure to let the time of his journey pass without reading, how much more would he attend to it when sitting in his house? If, when he understood nothing of what he was reading, he still could not give up reading, much less would he after he had learned. For, in proof that he did not understand what he was reading, hear what Philip saith unto him: ” Understandest thou what thou readest ?” And he, upon hearing this, did not blush nor feel ashamed, but confessed his ignorance, and says “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” Since, then, when he had not a guide, he was occupied even so in reading, he therefore speedily met with one to take him by the hand. God saw his earnestness, accepted his diligence, and straightway sent him a teacher.
‘But there is no Philip here now. Aye, but the Spirit that influenced Philip is here. Let us not trifle, beloved, with our salvation. All these things were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Great is the security against sin which the reading of the Scriptures furnishes. Great is the precipice and deep the gulf that opens before ignorance of the Scriptures. It is downright abandonment of salvation to be ignorant of the Divine laws. It is this that has caused heresies it is this that has led to profligate living : it is this that has turned things upside down for it is impossible for anyone to come off without profit who constantly enjoys such reading with intelligence.’
I dare say that will strike you as good Protestant preaching, and you will be curious to hear what Roman Catholic advocates have to say in reply. Well, what they answer is, that Chrysostom only recommends what they call the ascetic use of the Scriptures, or, as we should say, their use for practical edification and instruction of life. I readily grant that this was the object Chrysostom appears to have had primarily in view in most of the sermons I have quoted, and I will, into the bargain, throw in the concession that Chrysostom would have been very sorry if his hearers had put any heretical meaning on what they read. But all this is beside the question we are considering, namely, Was the ancient Church afraid of their laity reading the Bible, or did they not, on the contrary, recommend and urge them to read it? Suppose the question was whether calomel ought to be prescribed in a certain disease, and that a doctor who thought its use highly dangerous was pressed with the example of some great authority who had always prescribed it. Suppose, after denying this for some time, he had prescription after prescription shown to him, in which calomel had been employed, what would you think of the answer, ‘ Oh, he only prescribed calomel for its purgative properties; he did not intend the drug to operate in any other way’? Surely, it is common sense that, if you administer a drug, you cannot prevent it from exercising all its properties. If you let people read the Bible, you cannot prevent them from reflecting on what they read. Suppose, for an example, a Roman Catholic reads the Bible; how can you be sure that he will not take notice himself, or have it pointed out to him, that, whereas Pius IX. could not write a single Encyclical in which the name of the Virgin Mary did not occupy a prominent place, we have in the Bible twenty-one Apostolic letters, and her name does not occur in one of them? The Church of Rome has very good reason to discourage Bible reading by their people for some of them are very likely to be struck by the fact that the system of the New Testament is very unlike that of modern Romanism. The ancient Church had no such fear. They never desired to teach anything that was not in the Bible and so they were not afraid of the people discovering contradictions between the Bible and their teaching.
Now, I do not want any quotations I may read to you to mislead you into thinking that the Fathers of the fourth century were English Protestants of the nineteenth. I suppose there is not one of them to whose opinions on all points we should like to pledge ourselves. But such quotations as I have read show that they thoroughly agree with us on fundamental principles. Where they differ from us they differ as men do who, starting from the same principles, work them out in some respects differently. In such a case there is hope of agreement, if each revise carefully the process of deduction from the principles held in common. But our conclusions differ from those of the Church of Rome, because we start from different principles, and pursue a different method. The difference will be the subject of the next Lecture.
(NB: I did not trouble myself to give formal proof of the discouragement of Bible reading by the modern Church of Rome, because I considered that, as I have said above, if her theory be true, her practice is quite right. But as her advocates are now often apt to be ashamed of this practice, I copy the conditions under which, according to the fourth Rule of the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Works, the exceptional favour of being allowed to read the Bible may be granted: – ‘ Since it is manifest by experience that if the Holy Bible in the vulgar tongue be suffered to be read everywhere without distinction, more evil than good arises, let the judgment or the bishop or inquisitor be abided by in this respect so that, after consulting with the parish priest or the confessor, they may grant permission to read translations of the Scriptures made by Catholic writers, to those whom they understand to be able to receive no harm, but an increase of faith and piety from such reading which faculty let them have in writing. But whosoever shall presume to read these Bibles, or have them in possession without such faculty, shall not be capable of receiving absolution of their sins, unless they have first given up the Bibles to the ordinary.’ – See Littledale’s Plain Reasons, p. 90. But it is needless to produce documentary evidence to anyone who knows the small circulation of the Scriptures in Roman Catholic countries and, even in this country, the small knowledge of the Bible, possessed by Roman Catholics in other respects well educated.)