Dear Catholic Friends,

I hope I still have some of you who visit my blog. It has been a while since I have been so active, but my prayers are that we can continue the conversations we have had over the last 25 years with mutual respect. (Here is a good example).

I’ve recently, once again, been engaged in discussions with some Catholic apologists, and there’s a recurring argument presented to me that I wanted to discuss with you. It’s the contention that as a Protestant, I don’t possess an “official” canon of Scripture. The implication being, without an authoritative body like the Magisterium to define it, my reliance on the 66-book canon is essentially based on tradition and not an infallible decree. Hence, as the argument goes, without the infallible authority of the magisterial church, I am left with “a fallible canon of infallible books.” The argument continues to expresse desire for me to “come home” where I can have an infallible canon of infallible books, as the church has defined them for us.

I get this, and I have always thought it was a very clever and effective argument, especially for evangelicals who believe so deeply in the authority of Scripture.

However, as I have expressed many times, I am perfectly comfortable with the current situation, and do except the fact that I do not have a dogmatized or infallible canon. It doesn’t mean I don’t think our 66 book cannon is warranted; it just means that I do not have the level of certitude that you are inviting me to share.

This got me reflecting, and I realized that the Catholic Church, in its long history, doesn’t have a centralized, official list of infallible “ex cathedra” papal statements either. I understand and recognize the broadly accepted belief in the two Marian dogmas:

I understand and recognize the broadly accepted belief in the two Marian dogmas:

1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854): Pope Pius IX declared that Mary was conceived without original sin.
2. The Assumption of Mary (1950): Pope Pius XII defined that Mary, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.

Much like my reliance on the recognized canon of Scripture, Catholics rely on the tradition and historical acknowledgment of these papal pronouncements. Yet, this list is not infallible. And due to this, the door is open for Catholics to discuss other options, including the option that the pope has never spoken infallibly by this extraordinary means. Here are some illustrations.

1. Fr. Francis J. Sullivan, SJ
• Work: “Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church”
• Point: Sullivan explores the nature of the Magisterium’s teaching authority and suggests that, apart from the two Marian dogmas, it’s challenging to find other clear instances of “ex cathedra” pronouncements. However, he discusses the possibility of other cases.
2. Ludwig Ott
• Work: “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”
• Point: Ott identifies the Immaculate Conception and Assumption as “ex cathedra” teachings. He also examines other teachings of the Church with varying degrees of theological certainty but doesn’t necessarily categorize additional teachings as “ex cathedra.” But how does he know for sure?
3. Pope Boniface VIII
• Document: “Unam Sanctam” (1302)
• Point: This papal bull asserted the necessity of being subject to the Roman Pontiff for salvation. I have found this to be the most debated of the options. Is it infallible? How do you know with certainty?

My point here is not to trap you. It seems to me that both of us, to an extent, trust in a tradition that hasn’t been formally codified in the way some apologists might suggest.

It leads me to a deeper reflection: Both our faith in Scripture, as a Protestant, and your faith in the Church, as a Catholic, require us to engage our intellect, reason, and discernment. We both trust in something larger than ourselves, but our faith journeys, while rooted in divine belief, are also influenced by our fallible human understanding.

Doesn’t this put us on similar grounds? While the sources of our authority might differ – Scripture for me and the Magisterium interpreting Scripture for you – both of us navigate our faith with a blend of divine trust and human discernment. My canon and interpretation of the Bible might be wrong. And your canon and interpretation of the Church may be wrong. Would you agree that our beliefs, while anchored in God, are still experienced through our fallible human lens? We all start with subjectivity.

I’m genuinely interested in furthering the discussion on this and hope we can discuss it with mutual respect and openness as we always have.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    34 replies to "An Open Letter to Catholic Apologists: On the Fairness of Mutual Fallibility"

      • C Michael Patton

        I know that. That is why I limited it to ex cathedra statements. I realize the pope (and the bishops) can mis a free throw. In fact, I think that is perfectly reasonable considering the way we believe the Apostles were protected.

        • Bibliophile

          Miss a free throw? Sorry, I’m not familiar with that terminology, brother, or why that matters even…

        • C Michael Patton

          “Missing a free throw” is short hand for saying the Catholic Church, including a Pope, can get it wrong in matters of lesser importance. I got that from Catholics. I thought it was clever and have been using it for a while. Maybe it is out of vogue. 😞

        • Bibliophile

          Also, I think the whole notion of “only the apostles were protected (presumably you mean from any possibility of error)” is a bit contrived: why should we think that, when we even have biblical evidence that the apostles themselves appointed others to assume their office? Not to mention the promise of Christ that his Church would be protected: how is that even possible without apostolic succession, which protestants deny?

    • Eric Quek

      Your open letter is a thoughtful approach to a long-standing theological discussion that spans centuries. By juxtaposing Protestant reliance on the recognized canon of Scripture with the Catholic tradition of “ex cathedra” statements, you have shed light on the shared challenges of both faith traditions: trying to discern divine truths among layers of tradition, interpretation, and historical acknowledgement.
      The Protestant journey, anchored in scripture and underpinned by tradition formed over centuries, mirrors the Catholics path that places trust in the Magisterium’s edits. Though separate in their paths, both trajectories ultimately seek the same goal: the quest for divine understanding, consistently perceived and frequently constrained by human perspective. For those desiring to delve even deeper into this subject, it would be particularly beneficial to explore his works on Bibliology & Hermeneutics course #2 of the Theology Program.. It offers a comprehensive exploration that will enrich one’s understanding.

      Now, turning to Bibliophile’s response:
      While your intent to clarify the distinction between infallibility and subjective interpretation is acknowledged, it seems you’ve honed in on just one facet of Michael’s comprehensive exploration. In doing so, there’s a risk of sidelining the broader philosophical and theological contours that Michael is navigating. It is essential in such profound discussion to consider the entire spectrum of thought presented rather than anchoring to a singular contention. Michael’s exploration goes beyond mere doctrinal specifics: it’s about the universal human journey of faith, an understanding of which demand more than a tunnel-vision approach to the matter. I urge you to engage with the breadth of the narrative he presents, and perhaps consider immersing in his works on Bibliology & Hermeneutics to appreciate the depth and layers of his perspectives.

    • Bibliophile

      Eric Quek. It isn’t “just one facet” of (what you call) “Michael’s comprehensive exploration”: the fact of the matter is that the entire blog misses the point because he doesn’t understand how infallibility works – hence, he compares infallibility with subjective interpretations, which is a completely wrongheaded approach.

      • C Michael Patton

        Here’s a corrected version of your text:

        I wasn’t comparing infallibility to subjective interpretation. I was comparing both of our canons to subjective interpretation: yours of the popes’ ex cathedra statements, and mine of the list of books that belong in the Bible.

        However, more broadly, this can be readily applied. I have a subjective interpretation of the Bible, while you have a subjective interpretation of the magisterial authority of the church. So, when you read the catechism, it’s much like when I read the Bible. Both of us must rely on our personal interpretations. You might approach the local bishop to ask for his interpretation, but there are two issues. Firstly, bishops speak with authority but not with infallibility, except within the two established means of infallible authority. So we’re essentially in the same boat. Secondly, you still have to interpret what the bishop says. I’ve been married to my wife for 27 years, and I still misunderstand her daily, as she does with me.

        Thus, both of us are left striving to find warrant for our beliefs, and our interpretations are based on the criteria we establish.

        In essence, we all begin with our own subjectivity and must ultimately trust it. Your belief and interpretation of the church isn’t infallible, just as my belief and interpretation of the Bible isn’t either.

        However, this isn’t precisely the topic I wanted to address in this blog. My focus is on a specific illustration that counters another illustration often used by Roman Catholic Church apologists. I frequently face criticism because I have a “fallible canon” of infallible books. You, on the other hand, possess the infallible statements of the church, but your canon of those statements is fallible. I’m not questioning your justification in believing which ex cathedra statements are true; I’m simply highlighting that neither of us fully depends on infallibility.

        • Bibliophile

          Thank you for the clarification. But, I think, as far as Catholic faith goes, my point still stands: you need to distinguish between subjective interpretations of infallible definitions, from the objective authority of the teaching office to make infallible definitions on matters of faith and morals. I’m sure, as an evangelical, you distinguish between the objective authority of the Bible and interpretations of the same, right?

        • Bibliophile

          “I have a subjective interpretation of the Bible, while you have a subjective interpretation of the magisterial authority of the church. So, when you read the catechism, it’s much like when I read the Bible. Both of us must rely on our personal interpretations.”

          This makes it clear that you don’t understand what infallibility involves: to reiterate, there is a crucial distinction to be made between infallible authority to define matters of faith and morals, and the individual interpretation of those definitions: they are not the same thing. You are missing the point entirely.

        • C Michael Patton

          I don’t think I am being clear. I am responding to a particular argument in Catholic apologetics that says Protestants have a fallible canon of infallible books.

          You believe that the Church gives you a greater degree of assurance that the canon is correct, right?

        • Bibliophile

          It isn’t a matter of subjective certitude with respect to interpretation of the canon; but of having an independent authority capable of defining what is the canon in the first place. This is the crucial point of the argument that you are missing.

        • C Michael Patton

          Yes. So I ask again, where is the canon of ex cathedra statements? That is the primary illustration that this blog is talking about.

        • Bibliophile

          Are you trying to imply that infallibility is nullified if there is not (what you keep referring to as) a “canon of ex cathedra statements”? Because if you are, then you are still missing the point, since you would be failing to properly distinguish between infallible definitions and interpretations of the same…

        • C Michael Patton

          I would just ask you to answer and not read my mind. 😀

          However, mind is not that hard to read. And I don’t think my point is complicated. The inconsistency is this: you believe that you have to have an infallible cannon in order to legitimize infallible books. I understand where you’re coming from. I just disagree. However, the inconsistency is that you have Papel infallible statements . These are called ex cathedra statements you believe that these carry ultimate authority. I get that. They are in fallible. However, you don’t have an infallible list of ex cathedra statements. The pope has never come out, ex cathedra and said these are the ex cathedra statements. There has not been a magisterial counsel that has come together, and given a list of the ex cathedra statements. Therefore, while you believe in Papel infallibility, according to your own philosophy, this is rendered inert.

          That philosophy that you have to have an infallible list to legitimize the canon is something I don’t share for the very same reason that you do not believe you have to have an “infallible canon” of ex cathedra statements. Unless you want to provide one?

          Make sense?

        • Bibliophile

          No, it is not at all making any sense.

          As a Catholic, I don’t believe there needs to be an “infallible canon to legitimize infallible books” – but I do believe there must be an independent *infallible authority* to define what is the canon. It just isn’t possible otherwise.

          And why should there even be an “infallible list of ex cathedra statements” anyway? What does that even mean? How can there be an ex cathedra definition about how many ex cathedra definitions have been defined ex cathedra? I’m sorry, but you are just not making any sense at all here… And what difference – if any – would it make as far as infallibility – whether ecclesial or papal – is concerned, if such a list existed?

          Again, all I see here is confusion caused by your failure to recognise the proper distinction between infallible definitions and subjective interpretations of those definitions.

        • C Michael Patton

          I may be confused, my friend. But try to listen to my confusion and work out what the problem is.

          I have many Catholic friends who are apologists. They’ve been trying to convert me for 25 years. I have a deep appreciation for the Catholic church, especially because of these individuals. I also have a deeper fellowship with some of them than I do with my Evangelical Calvinist buddies. They attempt to convert me by stating that there needs to be an infallible authority in the church, not just an authority. I have authorities; I just only have one infallible authority. Within the Catholic Church, there is a three-legged stool: the Bible, tradition, and the magisterial authority that interprets both. It’s easy enough to see how the 21 councils of the magisterial authority meet through extraordinary means and discuss doctrine. It’s also easy to know which councils are official. Well, not that easy, but much easier. But there’s also extraordinary means where the Pope speaks ex cathedra. He doesn’t have to have a council to do so. This is called from the Chair of Saint Peter. He rarely uses this, but has it available in order to bring unity to the church. I know all the councils, I’ve read the catechism, I know the difference in the authority of each. I know the difference in the authority of the bishops and the Pope and when the bishops come together. I’m very interested in the extraordinary means when the church speaks infallibly, not just opinion or doctrine. I’m talking about dogma. The Pope has the ability to do this by himself. My question to them and on this blog is how many times has the Pope spoken infallibly? I get many different opinions, most of them just pointing to two Marian dogmas.

          It is fine if it’s just the two Marian dogmas, but I asked them how do you know it’s just the two Marian dogmas. Everybody thinks of this a little differently. I’ve had people say there have been no ex cathedra statements. I’ve had people say there are two. I’ve had people say there are five. With all this confusion, all I ask is which ex cathedra statements are dogma. When they could not agree, I said, where is the infallible list – the infallible canon? They said there is not one. We don’t need it.

          I said that would be like me saying we don’t need an infallible canon of the Scriptures, even though some Protestants disagree about which ones belong in the Bible. Most agree on the 27, but there are a few here and there, who don’t.

          That’s the best I can do. All of them have recognized the dilemma. It

    • Bibliophile

      And apparently you have the same misconception about infallibility, when you imply that ex cathedra definitions are “trying to discern divine truths among layers of tradition, interpretation, and historical acknowledgement.” Maybe that is what Protestants are trying to do. It certainly is not what Catholics mean by infallibility.

    • Bibliophile

      I’ll ask a question at this juncture: why do you insist on making the argument about a fallible list of infallible books a matter of subjective certitude, rather than objective authority? The point of the argument is not to show that Catholics have more subjective certitude about the canon once it has been defined; but to demonstrate that protestants have no legitimate, objective certifying authority to define the canon in the first place. And that’s a very big problem for protestants.

      To reiterate: emphasis on authority, not certitude.

      • C Michael Patton

        i’m not gonna get into the broader issues. What I’m tempted to ask is why do you trust that authority? But I would only do that to demonstrate that you trusted because it is the authority of God and therefore infallible. So we would be right back to the same place.

        As long as there is recognition that there is not an infallible list of ex cathedra statements, then I think my point has been made. If it has not with you, then it’s probably a failure in my communication. No harm, no foul.

    • Bibliophile

      “When they could not agree, I said, where is the infallible list – the infallible canon? They said there is not one. We don’t need it.”

      Yes, and they would be correct to say so. Why would we need a formal definition of how many formal definitions have been formally defined?

      “I said that would be like me saying we don’t need an infallible canon of the Scriptures, even though some Protestants disagree about which ones belong in the Bible. Most agree on the 27, but there are a few here and there, who don’t.”

      You’re misconceiving the issue. It isn’t just that you need an infallible canon; what you need – and this is more to the point – is an *infallible authority* to provide one in the first place. So it doesn’t matter whether everyone is agreed; what matters is that you have no authority to decide at all.

      • C Michael Patton

        If you don’t see the circular reasoning in your argument, I don’t know what to say.

        Either way, it’s all good. Thanks for the discussion. I do appreciate you and am glad you are here discussing with me. But we have exhausted this.

    • Bibliophile

      Please explain: why do you think it is so important for there to be an infallible list of ex cathedra statements? What would it achieve, as far as infallible authority is concerned? And to preempt your response about you not needing an infallible list of books – again, the issue is not certitude, but authority: the point is not merely whether you need the list, but that even if you did realise you need it, you would have no authority to define it in the first place.

    • Bibliophile

      Okay. And so why do you not accept the same answer when Catholics say they don’t need it?

      • C Michael Patton

        It’s okay, my friend. Seriously. This was made for others who would make the argument I said in the OP. Your good!

    • Bibliophile

      No, please, go ahead, humour me: why would you not accept the same answer from a Catholic?

      • C Michael Patton

        I do! Again, that is the point. Seriously. It is my fault for bad communication. We don’t need to waste our time as I can’t communicate this to you. I’ve tried. We will get another chance soon. I’m writing an ultimate guide to Catholicism. It may help put a few more bricks down in the road.

    • Eric Quek

      MAKING SENSE by critiquing the dialogue and dynamics between Michael & Bibliophile.
      Michael initiated with an “Open letter” , with the intent to bridge the theological and interpretational gaps that exist between Protestant and Catholic understandings. Michael’s approach is one of inquiry and an attempt to foster unity through understanding. He addresses the distinctions and nuances, ensuring that his message is rooted in seeking clarity.
      However, the responses from Bibliophile, rather than contributing to this constructive endeavor, seem to divert from Michael’s primary intent. There are several areas of concern in Bibliophiles approach:
      1. Dismissiveness: At several junctures, Bibliophile, appears dismissive of Michael’s points. Phrases such as “the entire blog misses the point” and “you don’t understand how infallibility works” serve less constructive criticism and more as rebuff.
      2.Superior Tone: There’s an undercurrent of superiority in Bibliophile’s responses. When pointing out differences, there’s an implicit suggestion that Michael’s understanding is not only different but inferior. This is evident in statements like “This makes it clear that you don’t understand what infallibility involves.”
      3.Confrontational approach: Instead of taking Michael’s open letter as a starting point for a meaningful dialogue, Bibliophile frequently opts for a more confrontational route. Queries like “Are you trying to imply…?” seem more accusatory than genuinely inquisitive.
      4. Narrow focus: While Michael’s letter addresses a broader spectrum of issues, trying to find common ground and mutual understanding, Bibliophile appears fixated on specifics, particularly the nuances of infallibility and ex cathedra, to the detriment of the larger conversation. This “missing the forest for the trees” approach restricts the dialogue’s potential depth.
      5. Lack of reciprocity: Michael, in his responses, demonstrates a willingness to understand and clarify. He frequently acknowledges Bibliophile’s concerns and attempts to explain his stance further. However, Bibliophile rarely returns this gesture, sticking rigidly to his perspective without much room for compromise or mutual understanding.
      Dynamics between Michael and Bibliophile:
      A. Contextual understanding: One of the critical things Bibliophile seems to overlook is the context of Michael’s open letter. Michael isn’t just addressing Bibliophile or Catholics in isolation; he is reaching out to a broader audience that might have the same questions or misconceptions. His letter, therefore, is layered with broader strokes of understanding, rather than pin-pointed theological nuances. Bibliophile’s insistence on one aspect (infallibility) neglects this broader context.
      B. The Art of Asking: There’s a profound difference difference between asking to understand and asking to contradict. Michael’s questions and clarification are rooted in the former–a genuine quest for understanding. On the other hand, Bibliophile’s questions often come across as rhetorical or leading, steering the conversation towards a pre-determined conclusion rather than opening it up for exploration.
      3. Flexibility vs. Rigidity: Dialogue becomes meaningful when there’s flexibility in thought processes. Michael showcases this by constantly iterating, rephrasing, and trying t find a mutual ground. This flexibility is a sign of intellectual openness. Bibliophile’s approach, in contrast, appears rigid. Rather than expanding on Michael’s points or offering insights, he often shuts them down.
      4. Emotional quotient: A crucial and often overlooked, aspect of dialogues is the emotional undercurrent. Michael’s tone is consistently one of humility and curiosity. He is transparent about his perspective while also being receptive to Bibliophile’s. In contrast, Bibliophile’s responses carry an undertone of impatience and frustration.
      5. Depth vs. Defense: Michael’s open letter and subsequent responses aim at depth–exploring layers of understanding, seeking nuances, and trying to find intersections of agreement. Bibliophile’s responses, on the other hand, seem more defensive, aiming to protect a particular stance rather than delve into its intricacies. While defense has its place, especially in theological discussion, it should come t the cost of depth.
      True Maturity in any discourse, especially theological, is not just the depth of one’s knowledge but also the breadth of one’s willingness to listen, understand and grow. Productive dialogue thrives on mutual respect and ability to navigate disagreements with grace. It’s not merely about asserting one’s perspective but about understanding another’s .
      In this dialogue, while Michael exhibits a balance of knowledge and humility, Bibliophile, despite having valid points, might benefit from taking a step ack, embracing a more open-minded approach, and perhaps considering the broader implications and opportunities that such a conversations offer. The ESSENCE is NOT just defending a position but also in fostering understanding and unity.

    • Bibliophile

      So, Michael, essentially all you are saying is that since Catholics don’t need to have an “infallible list of ex cathedra definitions”, then you as a protestant don’t need to have a fallible list of infallible books?

      Not only is that a pointlessly unconvincing and evasive argument – like saying, “I don’t need apples because I have oranges” – but it leaves unresolved the problem of the protestant lack of authority in the matter of defining a canon.

    • Bibliophile

      Sorry, typo above: all you are saying is that since Catholics don’t need to have an “infallible list of ex cathedra definitions”, then you as a protestant don’t need to have an infallible list of infallible books?

    • Bibliophile

      Erik Quek. Since Michael seems to have bowed out for now, perhaps you can try and explain the rationale behind this line of argument.
      In what way is the protestant problem of (lacking any legitimate infallible) canon and defining authority resolved, by fabricating the contrived notion of an “infallible list of ex cathedra statements”? It isn’t difficult to imagine such a response coming from a juvenile adolescent: “Well, you don’t have this list that I just randomly made up either! So there!” A response – more accurately, a desperate evasion – like that hardly warrants any serious consideration at all.
      So, please explain in what way this evasive non-answer is supposed to put Catholics and protestants on an equal plane?

    • Eric Quek

      Thank you for extending the invitation to engage in this theological discourse.
      Having keenly observed the exchange between you and Michael, I was compelled to reflect on the dynamics of the conversation. From my perspective, Michael’s approach appeared rooted in an earnest attempt to bridge theological gaps and promote unity. His emphasis on genuine inquiry and mutual understanding is commendable.
      However, based on my prior observations in the “Making sense by critiquing the dialogue and dynamics between Michael & Bibliophile”. I noted certain elements in the dialogue that seemed more defensive than exploratory. While it’s crucial to stand by one’s convictions, the essence of dialogue is also to be receptive, ensuring an environment where both parties can openly share without feeling pre-judged.
      Ephesians 4:2 encourages us to approach discussions with “humility, gentleness, and patience,” bearing with one another in love. Given the current tone of our potential dialogue, I’m concerned that our exchange might not align with this guiding principle. For a dialogue to be fruitful, both parties should feel that their perspectives are being heard and considered without prejudgment.
      With this in mind, I believe it might be best to refrain from engaging further on this topic at this time. I hope that in the future, we can find common ground and approach such discussions with mutual respect and understanding

    • Bibliophile

      Well, Erik, to be frank, all pretentious rambling about humility aside, I think the real reason you won’t engage is because the simple fact of the matter is that you do not have any response.
      And so it remains true, that while Catholics do not have an “infallible list of ex cathedra statements” – because they do not need one! So it is a silly demand to ask for such a list anyway – that does not at all affect the Catholic claim to authority; but the protestant admission that they do not have an infallible list of infallible books does very much undermine protestant claims to authority. So, in that respect, this blog post was an exercise in futility and a sheer waste of time.

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