Christian TraditionsRoman Catholic

Assurance and Development, Part III

In my last essay, I argued that intellectual stability is dependent on unity, both according to the demands of logic and the declarations of Saint Paul. Furthermore, I concluded that mere unity is not enough; we must have unity to something, else we paper over our divides to create a hollow accord. Unity to a pre-existent set of ideas or an institution is necessary for intellectual stability. I have yet to establish which of these options must be pursued.

In either case, it is imperative that our minds find and accept a reason to remain in harmony. We can only do so if we believe that the institution or set of ideas is infallible; if we seriously accept that either might err, then we cannot uphold unity. We will rebel when we find it convenient, and “it is not law” will be our refrain. Only through a positive acceptance of infallibility will we agree even when we do not understand.

My Protestant and Orthodox friends would follow me this far. Unity requires belief in something higher than our own individualistic determinations; all of historic Christianity accepts that this something must be impervious to objection. However, only Catholicism follows this rule to its logical conclusion by accepting the theory of doctrinal development through the Church. Several facts must be laid out before we can realize this.

First, the cause of our unity is not, and cannot be, a mere set of ideas. As I mentioned at the beginning of my argument, the first cause of intellectual instability is cognisance of the whole set of possible objections to Christianity. As with any set of objections to a belief system, it has infinite length. In order to properly address every question, the set of ideas either have to be infinite, or else must have obvious implications that answer each possible objection.

No one, to my understanding, endorses the former view. Humanity has access to no such infinite set, and could not use it if we did. We would be overwhelmed by information, and would read beyond what we could understand. We would search for contradictions and in our ignorance manufacture many, and the minds of many would be poisoned rather than cured. But rather than dwell on proving this point, I will move to a belief that some at least implicitly hold.

There is not set of ideas that has infinite and obvious implications. Obvious implications, while not stated, must be worded in such a way that the conclusion is inescapable. The limitations of language prevent a single statement, or even a group of many statements, from approaching an infinite number of obvious implications. Furthermore, the Scriptures do not present such a set. Indeed, experience seems to indicate the opposite: the Scriptures often raise more questions than they answer. The Bible does not obviously imply the answer to every possible legitimate objection.

In addition, any set of ideas that was committed to a human language, such as the Holy Writ, would immediately become subject to the verbal weathering inherent to our speech. As Derrida has noted, words themselves are not stable; fixed texts have changing meanings, and moreover, their meanings change person to person. We could not commit the answer to all objections to a text.

While it seems rational to desire a top-down set of ideas that dictate our beliefs, humanity’s intellectual needs dictate an alternative path. We need a Guide, not a comprehensive list. As our understanding grows, ideas mature and accrue new meaning. During this process, it can be difficult to determine which developments are legitimate and which are corruptive. A trustworthy adjudicator must exist that can walk with us as we examine our beliefs. In order for this adjudicator to be trustworthy in a manner that will satisfy our doubts, we cannot reasonably question what she has judged, or whether she is correct in her judgement. In other words, we need the development of doctrine through an infallible mediator.

In my next essay, I will examine how this deductive conclusion is supported by the evidence of Scripture and Church history. Until then!


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Christian McGuire

Christian McGuire

Christian was raised in an evangelical, Calvinist family with a deep love for Christ. However, his conversations with members of other Christian traditions gradually led him to question some of his preconceptions. After six years of research into Scripture, Church History, miracles, and philosophy, he was confirmed into the Catholic Church. His favorite Christian thinkers include G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, and Saint Augustine, his confirmation saint.