Photo credit: Western Theological Seminary on Flickr
Once upon a time, in a college classroom, a professor asked me what I believed about some arcane theological subject. At a total loss, I responded: “I don’t know. What did Aquinas think?”
The professor burst into scornful laughter. I was too stung to reply, and I turned red in silent anger. I’d been corrected and criticized by professors before; never had I been on the receiving end of their contempt.
I wasn’t embarrassed by my answer, though. I still think it’s reasonable. Who was I — a 20-year-old American who hadn’t learned Greek, Latin, or Hebrew; who was not overly familiar with even the English-language Bible; who had never read the full works of any notable religious thinker — to opine on matters theological? Isn’t it more logical for such a person to admit her ignorance and inquire what the Angelic Doctor believed? I was not equipped to answer my professor’s question; I admitted it and tried to turn to a more knowledgeable source.
(A parenthetical note: Asking what Aquinas had believed was my shorthand for asking what the Church taught. But it would’ve been awkward to bring up the Church: the whole class knew that I was Catholic, and thus should already know what the Church taught, and knew also that the professor had converted to, and later rejected, Catholicism.)
The professor apparently believed that rather than turning to Aquinas or other theologians, we must all formulate our own religious convictions.
I think that’s ridiculous. Would a loving God seriously expect all his fallible, sinful, ignorant servants to figure out for themselves what Christ taught? Can you just pick up a Bible and independently glean from it all that God intends you to know?
Blessed John Henry Newman thought not. On the inherent difficulty of reading and understanding the Bible, he wrote this:
It is easy to imagine a Code of Laws inspired, or a formal prophecy, or a Hymn, or a Creed, or a collection of proverbs. Such works may be short, precise, and homogeneous; but inspiration on the one hand, and on the other a document, multiform and copious in its contents, as the Bible is, are at first sight incompatible ideas, and destructive of each other. How are we practically to combine the indubitable fact of a divine superintendence with the indubitable fact of a collection of such various writings? …
Surely, then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so systematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation? … The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility.
In a different and more famous work, as he surveyed the wretched state of the world and the tendency of human reason toward skepticism, he came to this conclusion:
Supposing then it to be the Will of the Creator to interfere in human affairs, and to make provisions for retaining in the world a knowledge of Himself, so definite and distinct as to be proof against the energy of human scepticism, in such a case,—I am far from saying that there was no other way,—but there is nothing to surprise the mind, if He should think fit to introduce a power into the world, invested with the prerogative of infallibility in religious matters. Such a provision would be a direct, immediate, active, and prompt means of withstanding the difficulty; it would be an instrument suited to the need; and, when I find that this is the very claim of the Catholic Church, not only do I feel no difficulty in admitting the idea, but there is a fitness in it, which recommends it to my mind. And thus I am brought to speak of the Church’s infallibility, as a provision, adapted by the mercy of the Creator, to preserve religion in the world, and to restrain that freedom of thought, which of course in itself is one of the greatest of our natural gifts, and to rescue it from its own suicidal excesses.
I have nothing to add. Praise God for the gift of an infallible Church.