Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Can the Magisterium Define “Azazel” Infallibly? Revelation, Reason, and Authority

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

-2 Peter 3:14-16

…many necessary truths are not expressed in Sacred Scripture, even if they are virtually contained there, as conclusions in principles; in [circa] the investigation of which the labor of the doctors and expositors was useful.


The Theological Issues Raised by Divine Revelation

In my previous post I sketched out a framework whereby the question of divine revelation maybe analysed. I argued that analysing the structure of divine revelation must begin with the known object, that is, God and his actions, rather than the knowing subject. Therefore an analysis of how divine revelation is communicated to us is properly a theological, not epistemological, question. The communication of divine revelation is to be understood first and foremost in terms of what God is doing rather than in terms of our subjective epistemic situation. As such, Cartesian doubts or epistemological questions of foundations simply do not arise. If there is a foundation, to use classical terms, it would be in the order of being rather than knowing, and thus we must begin with the source of all being, God.

So say that the question of divine revelation is a theological question and not epistemological ones is not to say that there are no issues that need resolving. In particular we note that St Peter in the verses quoted at the start raises two of them:

(1) “Some things”  in the Scriptures “are hard to understand” and,

(2) The “ignorant and unstable twist”, not only to difficult matters, but other parts of Scripture as well to their destruction.

It is important from the outset to note that St Peter do think that not all passages or matters in the Scriptures are hard to understand. He does make a distinction between those which “are hard to understand” and those which are not. As such, this precludes from the outset any sort of general philosophical or sceptical concerns about how the Scriptures are ambiguous or how texts inevitably leads to conflicts of interpretations. The clarity in which a doctrine is taught in the Scriptures is a function of its objective subject matter, not a derivation from some general sceptical considerations about our ability to know things.

To continue, St Peter therefore posits two problems with interpretation of Scripture. One I shall call the epistemic problem. It is difficult to know or understand what certain passages or words mean in the writings of St Paul and by extension, other parts of Scripture. The second is what I would call the volition problem. People do not only twist the Scriptures out of ignorance, they, the “unstable”, also pervert the Scriptures out of sheer wilfulness. So not only do we need to solve the epistemic problem of how we may discover the Scripture’s meaning in places where it is hard to understand, we also need to solve the volition problem of people who wilfully twist the meaning of the Scriptures.

I have in my previous post also gestured towards the role which reason would play in solving the epistemic problem, whether it is deciding which books are part of the Biblical canon, the theological implications of the apostolic and prophetic witness, or the content of natural revelation. It is the intent of this post to discuss how exactly does reason and authority help us resolve the two problems given above. To do that however we will need to distinguish between two kinds of “authority”.

Theoretical versus Practical Authority

Discussions about whether the Bible is our “only” authority is misleading as there are many different types of authorities in the world. There is civil authority, parental authority, expert authority, moral authority, apostolic authority, or legal authority, etc. When someone says: “He’s an authority on pre-imperial Chinese history.” the person is obviously not using the word “authority” in the same sense as someone who says: “The Prime Minister has the authority to issue this decree.” Even if the qualifier of “divine” is added to the word “authority” the issue is still not simplified for civil authorities are divinely ordained and as such also possessed of divine authority as any other high church or apostolic claims to divine authority.

Rather than enter into a complicated and nuanced discussion on all the different types of authorities, it would be useful to engage in a hand waving simplification and simply reduce them to two kinds, namely, theoretical and practical authority. This distinction is well known and rather entrenched in philosophy and it would be useful to cite a paragraph from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on this point.

It is important here to note the distinction between theoretical and practical authority. A theoretical authority in some area of intellectual inquiry is one that is an expert in that area. Theoretical authorities operate primarily by giving advice to the layman, which advice the layman is free to take or not. The judgments of theoretical authorities give people reasons for belief while the judgments of political authorities are normally thought to give people reasons for action. Theoretical authorities do not normally impose duties on others, although they might give advice on what a person’s duty is.

-Tom Christiano: Authority

To develop this distinction, a theoretical authority is someone who is more reliable in his judgement of propositions within his field of expertise for various social epistemological reasons, such as amount of epistemic labour invested in understanding that field, his intellectual powers, certification by trusted academic institutions or other theoretical authorities, etc. The most common and basic example is that we generally trust a medical doctor for medical advice because of his medical training and education. As such the judgements of a theoretical authority gives some weight, although not absolute, to determining a proposition as true or false. (For an extended discussion on the social epistemological problems of weighing between different theoretical authorities, I would recommend Alvin Goldman’s Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?)

A practical authority on the other hand passes judgements on actions in a bid to induce a certain outcome in behaviour in the person upon whom judgement is passed. This judgement could work by mere moral suasion, in the very act of pronouncing the judgement the authority hopes that by itself would be sufficient to bring about the desired behavourial outcome. However frequently such judgements are accompanied by coercive orders, whether of excommunication or being deprived of certain goods or privileges.

One these distinctions are clear it is not self-evident or clear as what “infallible authority” actually means in the Roman Church, despite it being a common apologetic point. To this question we now turn.

Can the Magisterium Infallibly Define “Azazel”?

While as a short hand in discussions on Roman Catholic apologetics it is useful to say that the Magisterium has the power, or authority, to “infallibly interpret the Bible”, the fact of the matter is that Magisterium almost never actually interpret the Bible.

The Magisterium simply does not produce, or even claim to be able to produce, infallible commentaries or exegesis of the Bible. The reason is pretty obvious, the Magisterium only claims to be able to teach infallibly what pertains to faith and morals. They do not possess infallible insights into the history of Second Temple Judaism, neither do they possess infallible knowledge of Hebrew linguistics or Greek semiotics. These are what they call “human facts” which pertains to the realm of reason of which the Magisterium possess no special competence. Thus, a more careful examination of the doctrine or dogma of infallibility reveals that in fact the Magisterium has very little ability to interpret or exegete anything since those abilities are bound to the “human” or empirical realm beyond their competence. All they claim to be able to do is to communicate certain theological truths or propositions, that is all. What they can’t do is to tell us what a certain Greek phrase or word means in the epistles of St Paul or clarify uncertain Hebrew words in the Old Testament, they cannot, as it were, infallibly define what Azazel in Leviticus 16:10 means. What that word means is a matter of Hebrew linguistics and history, which the Magisterium does not claim any special competence.

This implies that the validity of a certain Magisterial teaching pretty much floats free of the world of history and “human facts” and even the very writings of the Church Fathers and Doctors. So for example if popes appeal to the Donation of Constantine as grounds for Papal Supremacy, the fact that the Donation of Constantine was later revealed to be a forgery is irrelevant, the Pope does not possess any special competence in historical facts, all that is relevant and important is the theological propositions communicated. The Magisterium can consult the writings of the Fathers, tradition and the Sacred Doctors, but the effect is purely subjective, it will influence the way they teach, but the teachings themselves are technically logically independent of the content of those writings. The Magisterium after all does not possess special competence in Latin, they can read Athanasius or Aquinas or Scotus wrongly. However if they do read the great Fathers and Doctors wrongly and from such false readings infer their theological propositions, the theological propositions themselves would still remain valid because it is true by virtue of who is saying it in what capacity, not by virtue of the internal logic or arguments by which it was derived. The paradoxical effect of this is that the Magisterium is simply not a theoretical authority at all.

Owen Chadwick in his book From Bossuet to Newman discusses a 17th century controversy in the Roman Church as to whether a particular man being the pope was an infallible truth, or merely a morally certain one as the Jesuits argued. The Jesuit’s case was that it seems pretty obvious that whether a particular man was the pope was dependent upon empirical facts like whether that man has been validly baptised or did not use simony to acquire his office, etc. And obviously the infallible Magisterium has no special competence in such empirical historical facts. This argument caused an uproar in the Roman Church but revealed a great difficulty to those who objected to the Jesuit’s position. Infallibility pertained to the original apostolic deposit of faith, whether a particular man who lived centuries later was elected with without simony could hardly be said to belong to that deposit of faith. Could the Roman Magisterium define a proposition from natural reason into infallibility? Some of the objectors to the Jesuit’s proposition was forced into this absurd conclusion by maintaining that the weakness of natural reason could simply be overcome by a Magisterial fiat. However the moment this was suggested they themelves realised the difficulty of their position. If the Magisterium could simply settle historical and empirical controversies by a fiat, what use are historical inquiries? The Magisterium doesn’t need to do exegesis, it doesn’t even need to consult the ancient Church or the Fathers, he can just determine any historical or empirical facts by a fiat. (For an extended discussion from Chadwick see here.) The absurdity of this conclusion lead the majority of Roman theologians to reject this and maintain the distinction between matters of faith and morals and other “human facts” of history. The original difficulty however has not been resolved, we still seem to have this gap between “faith and morals” and human facts, where do they intersect and meet? How can the Magisterium be said to “interpret” the Bible if they cannot infallibly inform us as to what “Azazel” means?

Once however the gulf between matters of “faith and morals” and human facts becomes evident, it leads to several major problems at once. One was exploited by the Jansenists, a “heretical” Roman Catholic sect, who were being suppressed by the official Roman Catholic Church. Pope Innocent X issued the bull Cum Occasione where he extracted five theological propositions from their key textbook, the Augustinus, and condemned them. One would have thought that was the end of the matter however the wily Jansenists immediately gave this cunning reply. They argued that the five propositions condemned by the Pope cannot in fact be found in the work Augustinus and was an erroneous interpretation of that work! Thus, while they accepted the condemnation of the five propositions, as a matter of church doctrinal teaching, they refused to give up or renounce the book which they claim does not teach those five propositions. They justified this move by arguing that the Church was indeed authoritative when it taught on matters of doctrine and when the church pronounces its judgement on such matters, the Roman faithful has no choice but to accept it. But, whether or not a doctrine can in fact be found in a certain work or book is a matter of human fact, not a matter of doctrine. Thus, while they would respectfully keep an external silence, out of reverence for the Pope, they refused an interior assent to give up the Augustinus.

As we have already noted, the Magisterium is only infallible when it comes to faith and morals. They can issue decrees concerning theological facts or matters of piety. What they do not have is the power to read human texts infallibly. They can get the theology of Shakespeare’s play wrong, they can be mistaken about the theology of Paradise Lost. The Petrine office does not turn the Pope into an infallible expert of English, or French/Dutch as the Jansenist were, literature. The pope was however hardly amused and his spokesmen derided this reply by arguing that if the pope or Magisterium lacks the competence to identify a particular theological proposition in a certain text how can they possibly exercise their teaching office? They would be reduced to merely issuing theological propositions which entails nothing in the “human” or historical plane.

While the argument makes sense, it contains a principle which can very easily spin out of control. Though it is a common point of Roman Catholic apologetics to allege that an infallible Magisterium is necessary to authoritatively settle disputes about faith and morals, the principle implied here is that anything whatsoever which even peripherally touches on matters of faith and morals, and especially if it prevents decisive settlement of a theological dispute, falls under the competence of the Magisterium. Thus not only does the Pope possess infallible insights into theological truth claims, he also now needs to possess infallible insights into the minds or intentions of the authors of Augustinus that he might properly identify the theological proposition contained within their text and be able to condemn it. Needless to say, to expand the scope of infallibility from communicating the deposit of faith to mind reading would be highly problematic. Where does their infallible competence end? Blaise Pascal, a famous Jansenist, discusses the scope of church infallibility in the case of what happens if the Church declares that the body of a saint was located in a certain tomb but if with your own eyes you can’t actually find the saint there. It seems here that though whether a saint being located in a certain tomb would have great theological import, it is pretty obvious that the location of the saint is an empirical, not doctrinal, fact. Thus just as the Magisterium do not possess clairvoyance about the location of the body of a saint, likewise they cannot possibly possess mind reading powers as to the intentions of the authors of a certain text.

Or perhaps Magisterial mind reading powers may not be as absurd as it sounds. One needs only recall an episode in the books of Acts where Ananias and Sapphira conspired to keep part of their money away from St Peter, however St Peter miraculously knew what was in their hearts and their intention to lie and they both were struck dead. Why indeed should the successors of St Peter themselves not possess such infallible mind-reading powers? Who is to say where does the line between ‘faith and morals’ and other matters lie? Why should it not extend to all matters which might merely involve faith and morals?

The answer is of course is that there is no reason because the distinction between “faith and morals” and other matters seems to be a pure concoction. One is reminded of what Sir Humphrey Appleby once said about how a “clarification is not to make oneself clear but to put oneself in the clear.” The Roman Magisterium may “clarify” the faith, but their clarifications are not in aid of making things clear but in putting themselves in the clear. The device of “faith and morals” is merely an attempt to avoid the embarassing task of needing to account for their making mistaken judgements in the course of the life of their Magisterium.

The Need for Theoretical Authorities

While not committed to Magisterial authorities, Protestants do assert the need for theoretical authorities. We do need experts in Greek and Hebrew linguistics to discern the meaning of the Scriptures. The knowledge, research and labours of doctors and scholars are necessary to uncover the historical and cultural background of the Biblical authors. It would be scholarly and archaeological research, not magisterial fiats, which would inform us of Second Temple Judaism or Ancient Near East history.  Discerning the theological implications of the Biblical teachings also require those who have dedicated their resources and time into intensive studies of the Scriptures. As Duns Scotus puts it at the start, it is the labours of doctors and expositors, not magisterial authorities, which are necessary for drawing out the necessarily truths contained implicitly in the Scriptures.

As has been insisted many times by numerous doctors of the Church, the truth of natural reason and apostolic/prophetic revelation are one and there cannot be any real conflict between them. God did not drop the Bible out of heaven directly but spoke through concrete particular actors within this empirical historical world. Reason is not opposed to salvic revelation but its complement, even a necessary aid to it. Though the conclusions of our natural reason are not infallible, yet they provide us with sufficient material for judging theological propositions with moral certainty. In these bracing words from the Calvinist International:

We must begin, as Old Princeton did, with the proper role of reason.  Far from being a latent threat to vibrant faith, reason is the common light of all mankind, given to us in our creation as imago dei.  Though not autonomous, reason is still authoritative, leading us away from confusion and incoherence.  As such, it is itself a necessary precondition to all dialectic, even the logical and consistent reading of the Holy Scriptures.  It is reason illumined by faith, ultimately, that convinces our consciences to accept a belief as certain.  No external mechanism, no Pope, no presbytery, no liturgico-narrative faith community prancing in chasubles, can ever take its God-ordained place.  Abandoning one’s personal reason in a move to allow someone else’s reason to work vicariously on your behalf is a moral failure and a grave sin.  The answer to such a vice is the virtue of courage.  Evangelical reason only speaks to brave men.

While reason is the necessary tool for reading the Holy Scriptures, it is still, nevertheless, the Scriptures which are the only infallible spiritual authority.  This is true because of their nature: they are breathed out by God.  And as God’s Word, there can be no standard above them to which they must answer.  Rather, our job is to listen to the Word.  As such, the human element is wholly responsive, seeking to clearly identify the content of that Word and then accurately apply it where appropriate.  This is why the historico-grammatical method of hermeneutics must remain as the pillar of our exegesis.  Only it can reasonably demonstrate the intended meaning of the Scriptures, and it can do so objectively and perspicuously.  It may take varying amounts of work, even technical training in places, but it does not demand that any violence to be done to the human will, nor does it require that nature be supplanted by purportedly supernatural and thus unfalsifiable ecclesio-political apparatuses.


The fact that the Scriptures alone is the supreme infallible authority does not negate the use, even the necessity, of fallible authorities in deriving and arriving at theological conclusions. Each have their own place which place is not to be structured according to some epistemic foundationalist system but according to the divine acts of revelation in both nature and salvation.

There is however the entirely legitimate question as to how to deal with conflicting theological authorities.  Theoretical authorities do after all disagree on whether the classical accounts of justification or the New Perspective on Paul are correct. I would not be sketching out a full account here, however referring back to the point made earlier, St Peter did argue that some parts of the Bible are clear and some parts are not. We can maintain that those parts which are clear contain sufficient content for saving faith, one does not need to know all of the Bible to be a Christian. As John Locke has pointed out, people were becoming Christians long before the New Testament was complete. For an extended discussion on Locke’s take on the contents which makes a Christian see here, for navigating theological disagreements, see here.

Infallible Practical Authority?

We turn now to the other issue raised by St Peter, the volitional problem of wicked and unstable men who wilfully distort the Scriptures in aid of some nefarious end. It is assumed of course that there is no epistemic problems here, and that we are dealing with cases where the Scriptures are clear and the theological conclusions demonstrated with moral certainty. Yet what are we to do with those who remains unmoved by arguments and persuasion?

The prima facie solution here is obvious. We need practical authorities to pronounce against those who maintain errors in the face of correction and be threatened with sanctions to both induce repentance as well as to deter others who would be tempted to fall into the same error.

As such, the response to wilful errors is exercises of practical authority. Do we however need infallible practical authority? On this point however Roman apologists are somehow ambiguous. To be sure the Roman Church has an impressive canonical machinery for exercising practical authority, but if we recall our earlier discussion as to the limits and scope of infallibility, the Roman Church’s canonical machinery, no matter how august is simply not infallible. They have never pretended that their sentences of excommunication is infallible. The Roman Church has excommunicated people in error before and then restored them and even elevated them as saints. This reason is simply, just as whether or not a pope has been validly baptised is an empirical historical question, likewise whether a particular person is guilty of a particular sin or crime is also an empirical historical question, a question which the Magisterium possesses no special competence. As such no exercise of practical authority by the Roman Magisterium can be deemed to be infallible, not even by themselves.

So as far as volitional errors are concerned, we need practical, not infallible authority with the power of judging, rebuking and sanctioning notorious and wilful members to conform to God’s will. These are undertaken, not to discover what is the correct theological claims, but for the spiritual health of the visible church as a whole, its public morals, it confessional orthodoxy, and for the avoidance of scandal to consciences. Practical authorities exist therefore for practical ends, but the Church, being simul iustus et peccator, will always be imperfect in its execise of practical authority nor will its task of sanctification ever be perfect here. We need again look no further than the Roman Church to see that many notorious and open sinners and deniers of Roman Catholic tenets are still allowed to take communion and that excommunications of tha laity are etremely rare affairs. Here again, possessing an impressive canonical machinery does not seem to afford the Roman Church any special advantage as far as exercises of practical authority is concerned.

Conclusion: Reason and Authority

In the heat of apologetic battles it is frequently the case that certain vague and general concepts would be exaggerated to score a certain apologetic point, or more importantly, to more sharply distinguish one’s position from one’s foe. However it is clear that such simplifications, whether it is in the concept of authority or the proper role of reason within the broader theological scheme, has been unhelpfully buried under apologetic polemics. As such it remains important for Protestants to continue to maintain the importance of both reason and authority in discerning theological truth and judging wicked actions, and I trust and hope that these series of post may have contributed in some small way towards emphasising that importance.


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This entry was posted on March 26, 2017 by in Uncategorized.


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