The Argument for an Infallible Body


by James Henley Thornwell

IN resuming now the analysis of your argument, it may be well to repeat that the ultimate conclusion which you propose to reach is the infallibility of Rome as a witness for the truth. This point you endeavour to establish by showing, in the first place, that there must be some “body of individuals to whom, in their collective capacity,” God has graciously vouchsafed the precious prerogative which you claim for your pastors. According to you, the whole question of the truth of Christianity turns upon the existence of an infallible tribunal on earth, from which men may receive unerring decisions in matters of faith, and without which the overwhelming majority of the race must be abandoned to hopeless and complete infidelity. If there were, indeed, no escape from the dilemma to which you have attempted to reduce us, the means of salvation would be hardly less fatal than the dangers from which they are appointed to rescue us. But it may yet be found, sir, that a merciful God has dealt more gently with His children than to commit their fate to the teachings of a body “whose garments are dyed in blood,” whose whole career on earth, like the progress of Joel’s locusts, has been marked by ruin, and which, if its future blessings are to be collected from its past achievements, can give us nothing but wormwood and gall, a stone for bread and a serpent for a fish. The friends of liberty and man, if reduced to the deplorable alternative of reaching the sacred Scriptures only on condition of submitting to a bondage more grievous than that from which the groaning Israelites were delivered by a strong hand and an outstretched arm, would, in all probability, prefer the frozen air of infidelity to the deadly miasma of Rome. But I am persuaded that no such dilemma, so fatal in either horn, exists in reality; and that there is a plan by which we may be rescued at once from the gloomy horrors of skepticism and the despotic cruelty of Rome. To you, sir, it is utterly inconceivable that the infinite God, whose judgments are unsearchable and His ways past finding out, should have been able to devise, in the exhaustless resources of His wisdom, any plan of authenticating the record of His own will but that which you have prescribed. You undertake to prove that there must be a body of individuals authorized to make an unerring decision upon the doctrines of religion as well as the truth and inspiration of the Scriptures, from the absolute impossibility that any other scheme could be efficient or successful. What is this but to limit the Holy One of Israel? You would do well to remember that the purposes of God are not adjusted by the measures of human prudence or of human sagacity. As the heavens are high above the earth, so His thoughts are high above our thoughts, and His ways above our ways. In His hands broken pitchers and empty lamps are capable of achieving as signal execution as armed legions or chariots of fire. To judge, therefore, of the schemes of the Eternal by our own conceptions of expediency or fitness—to bring the plans of Him who is wonderful in counsel, and whose government is vast beyond the possibility of mortal conception, to the fluctuating standard of the wisdom of this world is to be guilty of presumption, equalled by nothing but the transcendent folly of the effort. A sound philosophy as well as a proper reverence for God would surely dictate that His appointments must always be efficacious and successful, simply because they are His appointments. We are not at liberty upon matters of this sort to indulge in vain speculations a priori, and pronounce of any measures that they cannot be adopted because they seem ill-suited to their ends. It is true wisdom to believe that He who originally established the connection of means and ends can accomplish His purposes by the feeblest agents, the most unpromising arrangements, or by no subsidiary instruments at all. Plausible objections avail nothing against Divine institutions. Whatever does not contradict the essential perfections of the Deity, nor involve a departure from that eternal law of right which finds its standard in the nature of God, is embraced in that boundless range of possibilities which infinite power can accomplish by a single act of the will. Any argument, therefore, which bases its conclusion upon the gratuitous assumption that the wisdom of God and the conceptions of man shall be found to harmonize is built upon the sand. To you, sir, the theory of private judgment may be encumbered with difficulties so insurmountably great as to transcend your ideas of the power of God: you can perceive no wisdom in a plan on which priests are not tyrants and the people are not slaves. But your objections are hardly less formidable than those of Jews and Greeks to the early preaching of the cross. Still, sir, Christ crucified was the power of God and the wisdom of God. In your attempt to fathom the counsels of Jehovah by arbitrary speculation, and to settle with certainty the appointments of His grace, may we not detect the degrading effects of a superstition which tolerates those who acknowledge a god in a feeble mortal and find objects of worship in departed men? Certain it is that your reasoning involves the tremendous conclusion that the great, the everlasting Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth, is altogether such an one as we ourselves. Do you not tell us, in effect, that God could not have given satisfactory evidence of the truth and inspiration of His own Word without establishing a visible tribunal protected from error by His special grace? And that He is thus limited in His resources, thus necessarily tied up to the one only plan which the pastors of Rome have found so prodigiously profitable to them, according to your reasoning, must be received as an infallible truth, just as absolutely certain as an axiom in geometry. The argument by which you reach this stupendous conclusion has been wonderfully laboured, but when weighed in the balances of logical propriety, it is found as wonderfully wanting. I shall now proceed in all candour and fidelity to expose the “nakedness of the land.”

With a self-sufficiency of understanding which never betrayed itself in such illustrious men as Bacon, Newton, Locke or Boyle, you undertake to enumerate all the possible expedients by which God could ascertain His creatures of the inspiration of His Word. These you reduce to four, and as the first three, according to you, are neither “practicable nor efficient,” the fourth remains as a necessary truth. In the species of argument1 which you have thought proper to adopt, the validity of the reasoning depends on two circumstances: 1st. All the possible suppositions which can be conceived to be true must be actually made; and, 2dly, Every one must be legitimately shown to be false but the one which is embraced in the conclusion. If all the others have been refuted, that must be true, provided, from the nature of the subject, some one must necessarily be admitted. In the present case it is freely conceded that there is some way of settling the Canon of Scripture, and hence your argument proceeds upon a legitimate assumption.2

1. Now, sir, the first question which arises upon a critical review of your argument is, Do your four schemes completely exhaust the subject? Are these the only conceivable plans by which the inspiration of the Scriptures could be satisfactorily established? If not, if there indeed be other methods which you have not noticed, other schemes which you have suppressed or overlooked, some one of these may be the truth, and your infallible conclusion consequently false. In Paley’s celebrated argument for the benevolence of God, if he had simply stated that the Deity must either intend our happiness or misery, and had omitted entirely all notice of the third supposition, that He might be indifferent to both, the conclusion, however true in itself, would not have been logically just. Without pretending that I am capable of specifying all the methods by which God might authenticate His own revelation, I can at least conceive of one, in addition to those enumerated by you, which might have been adopted, which may therefore possibly be true, and which, until you have shown it to be false, must hold your triumphant conclusion in abeyance. It is possible that God Himself, by his eternal Spirit, may condescend to be the teacher of men, and enlighten their understandings to perceive in the Scriptures themselves infallible marks of their Divine original. That you should so entirely have overlooked this hypothesis—which must be overthrown before your argument can stand—is a little singular, since it is distinctly stated in the very chapter of the Westminster Confession to which you have alluded.3

“The heavens,” we are told, “declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.” “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead.” If the material workmanship of God bears such clear and decisive traces of its Divine and eternal Author as to leave the Atheist and idolater without excuse, who shall say that the Word, which He has exalted above every other manifestation of His Name, may not proclaim with greater power and a deeper emphasis that it is indeed the law of His mouth? Who shall say that the composition of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures may not be distinguished by a majesty, grandeur and supernatural elevation which are suited to impress the reader with an irresistible conviction that these venerable documents are the true and faithful sayings of God? Is there any absurdity in asserting with a distinguished writer that “the words of God, now legible in the Scriptures, are as much beyond the words of men as the mighty works which Christ did were above their works, and His prophecies beyond their knowledge”? Jehovah has left the outward universe to speak for itself. Sun, moon and stars in their appointed orbits proclaim an eternal Creator, and require no body of men, “of individuals in their collective capacity,” to interpret their voice, or to teach the world that “the hand which made them is Divine.” Why may not the Scriptures, brighter and more glorious than the sun, be left in the same way, as they run their appointed course, to testify to all that their source “was the bosom of God, and their voice the harmony of the world”? Is not the character of God as clearly portrayed in them as in the mute memorials of His power which exist around us and above us? Why should an infallible body be required to make known the Divine original of the Bible when it is not necessary to establish the creation of the heavens and the earth? It is then a possible supposition that the Word of God may be its own witness, that the sacred pages may themselves contain infallible evidence of their heavenly origin which shall leave those without excuse who reject or disregard them. They may contain the decisive proofs of their own inspiration, and by their own light make good their pretensions to canonical authority.

The fact that multitudes who hold the Bible in their hand do not perceive these infallible tokens of its supernatural origin is no objection, upon your own principles, to the existence of such irrefragable evidence. The reality of the evidence is one thing, the power of perceiving it quite another. It is no objection to the brilliancy of the sun that it fails to illuminate the blind. Such is the deplorable darkness of the human understanding in regard to the things that pertain to God, and such the fearful alienation of men from the perfection of His character, that though the light shines conspicuously among them they are yet unable to comprehend its rays. Hence, to the production of faith, in order that the evidence, the infallible evidence which actually exists, may accomplish its appropriate effects, the “Eternal Spirit who sends forth His cherubim and seraphim to touch the lips of whom He pleases” must be graciously vouchsafed to illuminate the darkened mind, and remove the impediments of spiritual vision. The infallible evidence is in the Scriptures; the power of perceiving it is the gift of God. Your own writers, sir, acknowledge, and you among the number, that the infallible evidence which your Church professes to present cannot produce faith without God’s grace, so that evidence may be infallible and yet not effectual, through the folly and perverseness of men. Bellarmine declares that “the arguments which render the articles of our faith credible are not such as to produce an undoubted faith, unless the mind be Divinely assisted.”4 And you have told us that the teaching of your pastors meets with a firmer and readier assent among minds that have been touched by the Spirit of God.5 Now, sir, if your infallible evidence can yet be ineffectual through the blindness and wickedness of men, you cannot say that the Scriptures are not infallible witnesses of their own authority because all who possess them do not receive their testimony. In either case the illumination of God’s Spirit is the means by which faith is really produced. According to you, it inclines the understanding to receive the teaching of the pastors of your Church; according to the doctrine of the Westminster divines, it enlightens the mind to perceive the impressions of Jehovah’s character and Jehovah’s hand in the sacred oracles themselves overthrow it you must be prepared to prove—what, I think, you will find an irksome undertaking—that the Scriptures do not bear any signs or marks characteristic of their Author, and that God’s grace will not be vouchsafed to the humble inquirer to enable him to perceive, according to the prayer of the Psalmist, “wondrous things out of His law.” Unless you can disprove this fifth hypothesis, and show it to be— what you have asserted of three that you have named— neither “practicable nor efficient,” your triumphant argument vanishes into air; it violates the very first law of that species of complex syllogism to which it may be easily reduced. You have beaten your drum, and flourished your trumpets, and shouted victory when you had not been even in reach of the enemy’s camp. If a man, sir, reasoning upon the seasons of the year, should undertake to prove that it must be winter because it was neither spring ndr autumn, his argument would be precisely like yours for an infallible tribunal of faith. His hearers might well ask why it might not be summer; and your readers may well ask why this fifth supposition, which you have so strangely suppressed when it must have been under your eyes, may not be, after all your elaborate discussion, the true method of God. In this ancient doctrine of the Church of God there may be an escape from your fatal dilemma, and men may find a sure and infallible passage to heaven without making a journey to Rome to be guided in the way. Upon your principles of reasoning dilemmas are easily made, but very fortunately they are just as easily avoided. Their horns, weak and powerless as a Papal bull’s, cannot gore the stubborn and refractory. He who should infer that a sick man must be scorching with fever because he is not aching in all his bones with a shivering ague, would, in this pitiful foolery, present a forcible example of the sort of sophism in which you have boasted as triumphant argument.

2. Your reasoning is not only radically defective in consequence of an imperfect enumeration of particulars, but fatally unsuccessful in establishing the impossibility of those which you have actually undertaken to refute. The minor premiss is as lame as the major, and your argument at best can yield us nothing but a “lame and impotent conclusion.” Your fourth method derives its claims to our confidence and regard from the pretended fact that all other schemes are neither “practicable nor efficient.” Unless, therefore, this can be made clearly to appear, your reasoning must fall to the ground. Have you proved it? So far from it, the objections which you have adduced against your first three methods apply just as powerfully to the fourth, and prove, if they prove anything, that neither one of the methods specified by you can possibly be the truth. The arguments, for instance, which you have employed to overthrow the Protestant theory of private judgment, as implying the responsibility of men for their opinions, and a consequent exemption from all human authority, may be employed with equal success to demolish the pretensions of an infallible tribunal, or to show that such a body can neither be “practicable nor efficient.”

Why then is private judgment inadmissible? Why is it that each man is not at liberty to examine for himself, and form his own opinions upon those solemn subjects in which his own individual happiness is so deeply concerned? Because, according to you, unless a man could speak with the tongues of men and angels, unless he comprehended all mysteries and all knowledge, unless, in other words, his mind was a living encyclopedia of science, he must be incapable of estimating properly the historical and internal evidences of the Divine original of the Scriptures. Like the Jewish Cabalists, you have rendered the judgments of the people utterly worthless to them in that matter which, of all others, is most important to their happiness. Maimonides7 goes a little beyond you. He not only makes Logic, Mathematics and Natural Philosophy indispensable to our progress in Divine knowledge, but absolutely necessary in order to settle the foundation of religion in the being and attributes of God; and according to him, those who are unfurnished with these scientific accomplishments must either settle down into dreary Atheism, or make up their deficiencies by submitting implicitly to cabalistical instruction! You, I presume, would grant that a man could be assured of the existence of the Deity without an intimate acquaintance with Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldee, and divers modern tongues, or without being master of Mathematics, Chemistry, Geology, Natural History and Physics. These things, on your scheme, are only necessary to settle the inspiration of the Scriptures.

Let us grant, for a moment, that all this immense apparatus of learning is necessary to settle a plain, simple, historical fact; what becomes of the skill and competency of your infallible body? If it is to decide according to the evidence, and all these boundless attainments are absolutely requisite in order to a just appreciation of the evidence, every individual member of your unerring corps must be deeply versed in all human lore, as well as blessed with an “almost supernatural accuracy of judgment,” before the body can be qualified, according to your statements, to make an infallible decision. Suppose, sir, Europe and America were ransacked, how many individuals could be found, each of whom should possess the varied and extensive attainments which you make indispensable in settling a plain question of fact connected with the events of an earlier age? How many of the pastors of the Church of Rome would be entitled to a seat in a General Council composed only of those who could abide your test of competency to decide on matters of faith? Certain it is that there was not a single individual in the whole Council of Trent who possessed even a tithe of the learning without which, in your view, an accurate decision is hopeless. As we have already seen, those holy Fathers seemed to be fully persuaded that:

     Hebrew roots were only found
       To flourish best in barren ground.”

Their skill in Samaritan, Coptic, Arabic and Syric versions may be readily conjectured from their profound acquaintance with the original text. If they were deeply versed in the mysteries of Chemistry and Geology, they must have been endowed with an extraordinary prolepsis which has no parallel in the recorded history of man. How, then, could these venerable men decide with “absolute certainty” when all the evidence in the case was high above, out of their reach? You tell us, sir, that they made their decision “after patient examination and a thorough investigation of all the evidence they could find on the subject.” But yet, upon your own showing, the historical and internal proofs of inspiration were inaccessible not only to the prelates themselves, but to the whole rabble of divines who assisted them in their deliberations. How does it happen, then, that their decision is entitled to be received with absolute certainty? But perhaps you will say that the Fathers possessed some other evidence—that they themselves were supernaturally inspired, or irresistibly guided by God’s grace to make an unerring decision? To say nothing of the fact that your argument, in order to be conclusive, requires you to show that the same supernatural assistance cannot be vouchsafed to individuals as well as to a body, I would simply ask, How could the Fathers know that they were inspired? You have made all human knowledge a necessary means of judging of inspiration. A man must be able “to refute all the objections brought from these different sources against the intrinsic truth, and, consequently, internal evidence of the Divine inspiration, of the Scriptures.” If, then, a man cannot be satisfied of the inspiration of the Scriptures until he is able to perceive the intrinsic truth of their teachings—that is, until he can show that scientific objections are really groundless—how can he be satisfied of his own inspiration until he can, in like manner, determine that the propositions suggested to him are not contradictory to any truth received or taught in the wide circle of human science? And how, I beseech you, can the people be assured that any body of men has been supernaturally guided, until they are able to refute all the objections from all the departments of human knowledge to the decrees of the body? Will you say that inspiration, once settled, answers all objections? Very true. But how is the inspiration to be settled? You say that an individual cannot judge of inspiration until he is able to refute all objections and to defend the truths that profess to be inspired. No more, I apprehend, can a body of individuals. But a body of individuals may be inspired to judge of the inspiration of others. But how are they to determine their own inspiration? They must still be able to refute all possible objections, and perceive the intrinsic truth of what they are taught, themselves, or their own inspiration is uncertain; and the people need it just as much to judge of the inspiration of a council as of the inspiration of the Scriptures. So that your circle of science becomes necessary sooner or later for a body of men, if it be necessary for a private individual.

You perceive, then, that your argument against the rights of the people may be turned with a desolating edge against yourself. Like an unnatural mother, it devours its own conclusion. If, sir, the infallibility of a body depends upon the illumination of God’s Spirit, it will be hard to show why God can supernaturally enlighten every man in a special assembly, and yet be unable to enlighten private individuals in their separate capacity. How the mere fact of human congregation, under any circumstances, can confer additional power upon God’s Holy Spirit you have nowhere explained, and I think that you will hardly undertake the task.

Upon your own showing, then, your triumphant argument is a beggarly sophism. Your objections to private judgment prove too much, and therefore prove nothing. Whatever is simply necessary to establish inspiration applies as much to the inspiration of Trent as to the inspiration of David, Isaiah and Paul. As I am now exclusively engaged in the examination of your argument, I shall not turn aside from my purpose to indicate the manner in which a plain, unlettered man can become morally certain, from the historical and collateral evidences of inspiration, that the authors of the Bible wrote as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Your long, involved and intricate account of the learning and attainments required for this end could easily be shown, and has been triumphantly shown, to be a mere phantom of the brain. You are fond, sir, of raising imaginary difficulties in the way of the humble inquirer after the truth, in order that you may find a ready market for the wares of Rome. But in this instance your own feet have been caught in the pit which your hands have dug. When you condescend to inform me how the Fathers of Trent could decide with infallible certainty upon the inspiration of the Scriptures, without the learning which is necessary, in your view, to understand the evidence, if they themselves were uninspired; or how, if inspired, they could, without this learning, either be certain themselves of the fact or establish it with infallible certainty to the mass of the people, who, without your learning, must judge of the inspiration of the holy Council,— when consistently with your principles you resolve these difficulties, one of the objections to your argument will cease. Until then it must continue to be a striking example of that sort of paralogism by which the same premises prove and disprove at the same time.

3. But, sir, the chapter of your misfortunes is not yet closed. Your favourite, triumphant, oft-repeated argument not only labours under the two serious and fatal defects which have already been illustrated, but, what is just as bad, even upon the supposition that it is logically sound, it fails to answer your purpose. It does not yield you what your cause requires—an infallible conclusion. At its best estate it is a broken reed, which can only pierce the bosom of him that leans on it. You infer that a certain plan must be the true one because all others are false. It is evident that it must be absolutely certain that the others are false, before it can be absolutely certain that the one insisted on is true. The degree of certainty which attaches to any hypothesis drawn from the destruction of all other suppositions is just the degree of certainty with which the others have been removed. The measure of their falsehood is the measure of its truth. If there be any probability in them, that probability amounts to a positive argument against the conclusion erected on their ruins.

Now, sir, upon the gratuitous assumption that your argument is legitimate and regular, your conclusion cannot be infallible unless it is absolutely certain that the three methods of determining the inspiration of the Scriptures which you have pronounced to be neither “practicable nor efficient” are grossly and palpably absurd. They must be unquestionably false or your conclusion cannot be unquestionably true. If there be the least degree of probability in favour of any one of these schemes, that probability, however slight, is fatal to the infallible certainty required by your cause. Your conclusion, in such a case, can only result from a comparison of opposing probabilities; it can only have a preponderance of evidence, and therefore can only be probable at best.

I venture to assert, upon the approved principles of Papal casuistry, that two, most certainly, of your condemned suppositions are just as likely to be true, or can at least be as harmlessly adopted, as that which you have taken into favour. We are told by your doctors that a probable opinion may be safely followed, and their standard of probability is the approbation of a doctor or the example of the good—“Sufficit opinio alicujus gravis doctoris, aut bonorum exemplum.”

Try your third supposition by this standard, and does it not become exceedingly probable? Why have you passed it over with so vague, superficial and unsatisfactory a notice? Were you afraid that there was death in the pot? You surely, sir, cannot be ignorant that scores of your leading divines have boldly maintained the infallibility of the Pope—a single individual whom they have regarded as divinely commissioned to instruct the faithful. The Council of Florence decided that the Pope was primate of the Universal Church; that he is the true Lieutenant of Christ—the father and teacher of all Christians; and that unto him full power is committed to feed, direct and govern the Catholic Church under Christ. He, then, it would seem, is the very individual to whom that Council would refer us for satisfactory information concerning the Canon of Scripture and every other point of faith. The prelates of the Lateran Council under Leo X. offered the most fulsome and disgusting flatteries to that skeptical Pontiff; calling him King of kings and Monarch of the earth, and ascribing to him all power, above all powers of heaven and earth. The Legates of Trent would not permit the question of the Pope’s authority to be discussed, because the Pontiff himself, while he was yet ignorant of the temper of the Fathers, was secretly afraid that they might follow the examples of Constance and Basil. Pighius, Gretser, Bellarmine and Gregory of Valentia have ascribed infallibility to the head of your Church in the most explicit and unmeasured terms.8 It is generally understood, too, that this doctrine is maintained by the whole body of the Jesuits. To my mind, wicked and blasphemous as it is, this is a less exceptionable doctrine than that which you have defended. A single individual can be more easily reached, more prompt in his decisions, and is always ready to answer the calls of the faithful. To collect a Council is a slow and tedious process, and the infallibility slumbers while the Council is dissolved.

The infallibility of a single individual, which is your third hypothesis, is probable upon the well-known principles of your most distinguished casuists. You ought to have shown, therefore, that this opinion is palpably absurd. Write a book upon this subject and send it to Rome, and it may possibly lead to your promotion in the Church. However, let Gregory XVI. be first gathered to his fathers, as he might not brook so flat a contradiction to his own published opinions.9 I am inclined to think that, to the majority of Papal minds, there is so much probability in this third opinion that if your letter had been written by a Jesuit at Rome it would in fact have been made the infallible conclusion. Certain it is that you have not offered a single argument against it. You play off upon Esdras and the Jewish Sanhedrim, and sundry questions which “more veteran scholars than you” have found it hard to decide, and then conclude with inimitable self-complacency that the “third method cannot be admitted.”10 Sir, when you write again let me beseech you to write in syllogisms. If you have disproved the infallibility of the Pope, I cannot find your premises; and yet, unless you have done it, your triumphant conclusion is a mere petitio principii. Your own doctors will rise up against you if you undertake this task; you are self-condemned if you do not.

Then again, your first hypothesis—the theory of private judgment—must have some little probability in its favour, or such mighty minds as those of Newton, Bacon, Locke and Chillingworth would not have adopted it with so much cordiality, nor would such multitudes of the race have sealed their regard for it at the stake, the gibbet and the wheel. A principle confessedly the keystone that supports the arch of religious liberty, which emancipates the human mind from ghostly tyranny and calls upon the nations to behold their God, which lies at the foundation of the glorious fabric of American freedom and distinguishes the Constitutions of all our States, is not to be dismissed without examination as grossly false or palpably absurd. The conditions which you have prescribed for its exercise are not only arbitrary and capable of being turned to capital advantage against you, but, as I shall show when I come to the examination of your second argument, they have been virtually withdrawn by yourself. You have actually admitted, sir, all that the friends of private judgment deem to be important in the case. According to your own statement, the ignorant and unlearned may be assured, upon sufficient grounds, of the genuineness and authenticity of the books of the New Testament. This foundation being laid, inspiration will naturally follow. So that, notwithstanding all your objections, private judgment remains unaffected in the strength and glory of its intrinsic probabiIity.

How, then, upon a just estimate of its merits, stands your boasted argument? Why, there are only four suppositions that can be made in the case. The first and third of these are so extremely probable that millions of the human race have believed them to be true. Therefore the fourth must be infallibly certain! Weighed in the balances of logical propriety, the infallible certainty of your conclusion turns out to be like Berkeley’s “vanishing ghosts of departed quantities.”


  1. The argument of “A. P. F.” is a destructive disjunctive conditional. It may most conveniently he expressed in two consecutive syllogisms:
    A man must either judge for himself concerning the inspiration of the Scriptures, or rely on the authority of others. He cannot judge for himself, therefore he must rely on the authority of others. This is the first step.
       If he must rely on authority, it must either be the authority of uninspired individuals, of a single inspired individual, or of an inspired body of individuals. It cannot be the first two, therefore it must be the last. Now, according to the books, this species of syllogism must contain in the major all the suppositions which can be conceived to be true; then, the minor must remove or destroy all but one. That one, from the necessity of the case, becomes established in the conclusion. The argument in question violates both rules, and therefore, upon every view of the subject, must be a fallacy.
  2. “We cannot be called on to believe any proposition not sustained by adequate proof. When Almighty God deigned to inspire the words contained in the Holy Scriptures, He intended they should be held and believed to be inspired. Therefore there does exist some adequate proof of their inspiration.”—Letter I.
  3. “Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and Divine authority thereof (Holy Scriptures) is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, hearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”— Westminster Confession, chap. i. v.
  4. “Argumenta enim quæ articulos fidei nostræ credibiles faciunt non talia sunt ut fidem omnino indubitatam reddant, nisi mens divinitus adjuvetur.” De Grat. et Lib. Arb., Lib. vi., cap. iii.
  5. “We should ever bear in mind, too, that if this be the method adopted by Almighty God, if in reality, as the hypothesis requires, He speaks to that individual through this teacher, His Divine grace will influence the mind of the novice to yield a more ready and firm assent than the tendency of our nature and the unaided motives of human authority would produce.” Letter I.
  6. As a specimen of what have been the sentiments of distinguished writers, I give a few extracts, selected from the midst of many others equally striking, which may he found arranged in Owen’s admirable Discourse on the Reason of Faith. Works, vol. iii., p. 359, seq. The following passage from Clemens Alexandrinus is remarkable as asserting at once the sufficiency of Scripture and the right of private judgment in opposition to all human authority:
       Ouv ga;r a;pw'" anpofainomevnoi" avnqrwvpoi" prosevcoimen o\i" kaiv avntapofavinesqai ejp j i[sh" e[xestin. Eiv d jouj;k ajrce'i movnon aJplw'" ejipe'in to; dovxan, ajlla; pistwvsasqai dei' to lecqe;n ouj th;n ejx ajnqrwvpwn ajnamevnoumen marturivan, ajlla; th' tou' Kurivou fwnh' pistouvmeqa to; zhtovumenon.  ]H pa;swn ajpodevixewn ejce;gguotevra ma'llon de; h' movnh ajpovdeixi" o\usa tugcavnei.  [Outw" ou'n kai; hjmei'" apj ajutw'n peri; ajutwn tw'v grafwn televw" ajpodeiknuvnte" eJk pivstew" peiqovmeqa apodeiktikw'". Strom., Lib. vii., cap. xvi. “For we would not attend or give credit simply to the definitions of men, seeing we have a right also to define in con tradiction unto them. And as it is not sufficient merely to say or assert what appears to be the truth, but also to beget a belief of what is spoken, we expect not the testimony of men, but confirm that which is inquired about with the voice of the Lord, which is more full and firm than any demonstration; yea, which rather is the only demonstration. Thus we, taking our demonstration of the Scripture out of the Scripture, are assured by faith as by demonstration.”
       Basil on Psalm cxv. says: Pivsti", oJucj hJ geometrika'i" ajva;gkai", ajll j hJ ta'i" tou' pveuvmato" ejergeviai" ejkginomevnh. “Faith is not the effect of geometrical demonstrations, but of the efficacy of the Spirit.”
       Nemes. de Horn., cap. ii.: ‘H tw'v qe;iwn logiw'n didaskaliva to; pisto;n ajf j eJauth'" e}cousa dia; to; qeovpneuston ei'vai.. “The teaching of Divine oracles has its credibility from itself, because of their Divine inspiration.
       The words of Austin (Conf. Lib. ii., cap. iii.) are too well known to require to be cited.
       The second Council of Orange, in the beginning of the sixth century, in its fifth and seventh canons, is explicit to my purpose. Fleury, b. Xxxii. 12: Si quis sicut augmentum ita etiam initium fidei, ipsumque credulitatis affectum, . . . . non per gratiæ donum, id est, per inspirationem Spiritus Sancti, corrigentem voluntatem nostram ab infidelitate ad fidem, ab impietate ad pietatern, sed naturaliter nobis inesse dicit, apostolicis dogmatibus adversarius approbatur. Si quis per nature vigorem bonum aliquid quod ad salutem pertinet vitæ æteræ cogitare ut expedit, aut eligere, sive salutari, id eat, evangelicæ pralicationi consentire posse confirmat absque illuminatione et inspiratione Spiritus Sancti, qui dat omnibus suavitatem in consentiendo et credendo veritati, hæretico fallitur spiritu: “If any one say that the beginning or increase of faith and the very affection of belief is in us, not by the gift of grace—that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit correcting our will from infidelity to faith, from impiety to piety—but by nature, he is an enemy to the doctrine of the Apostles. If any man affirm that he can by the vigour of nature think anything good which pertains to salvation as he ought, or choose to consent to saving—that is, to evangelical—preaching without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all the sweet relish in consenting to and believing the truth, he is deceived by an heretical spirit”    
       Arnobius advers. Gentes, Lib. iii., c. i., says: “Neque enim stare sine assertoribus non potest religio Christiana? Ant eo esse comprobatur vera, si adstipulatores habuerit plurimos, et auctoritatem ab hominibus sumpserit? Suis illa contenta est viribus et veritatis propriæ fundaminibus nititur nec spolietur sua vi, etiam si nullum habeat vindicem, immo si linguæ omnes contra faciant contraque nitantur et ad fidem illius abrogandam consensionis unitæ animositate conspirent.” “Shall it be said that the Christian religion cannot maintain itself without the aid of men to vindicate its troth? Or shall its truth be said to depend on the warranty and authority of man? No, Christianity is sufficient for itself, in its own inherent strength, and stands firm upon the basis of its own inherent truth; it could lose none of its power, though it had not a single advocate. Nay, it would maintain its ground, though all the tongues of men were to contradict and resist it, and to combine with rage and fury to effect its destruction.”

    The great Athanasius (Orat. Cont. Gent., c. i.) says:
       A j uta krei" men gar eisin ai dgiai kai qeopneustai grafai pro" thn th" alhqeia" apaggelian. “The Christian faith carries within itself the discovery of its own authority, and the Holy Scriptures which God has inspired are all- sufficient in themselves for the evidence of their own truth.” There is a beautiful passage to the same purport in Baptista Mantuanus de Patient. Lib. iii., cap. ii. It concludes as follows: “Cur ergo non omnes credunt evangelio? Quod non omnes trahuntur a Deo. Sed longa opus est disputatione? Firmiter sacris Scripturis ideo credimus quod divinam inspirationem intus accepimus.” “Why, then, do not all believe the Gospel? Because all are not drawn of God. But what need of any long disputation? We, therefore, firmly believe the Scriptures because we have received a Divine inspiration.” Those who wish to find a large collection of Patristic passages bearing on this point will meet with ample satisfaction in chap. ix. of Good’s Rule of Faith. The whole subject is ably discussed in Calvin’s Institutes, Owen on the Reason of Faith and his kindred treatise, and Halyburton’s inimitable essay on the Nature of Faith. Some valuable hints may also be found in Lancaster’s Bampton Lectures, Jackson on the Creed, and Chalmers’ Evidences. I cannot forbear, however, to advert to the two beautiful illustrations of the power of the Scrip- tures to authenticate themselves, which Justin Martyr and Francis Junius have given us in their accounts of their own conversion.
  7. More Nebochim, pars i., c. 34.
  8. Gregory of Valentia carried the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope so far as to maintain that his decisions were unerring, whether made with care and attention or not. His words are:
  9. “Sire Pontifex, in definiendo studium adhibeat, sive non adhibeat; modo tamen controversiam definiat, infallibiiter certe definiet, atque adeo re ipsa utitur authoritate sibi a Christo concessa.”—Analys. Fid., Qu. 6.

    Augustinus Triumphus observes: “Novum symbolum condere solum ad Papam spectat, quia est caput fidei Christianæ, cujus auctoritate omnia quæ ad fidem spectant firmantur et roborantur.”—Qu. 59, Art. 1.

    This same writer, treating of ecclesiastical power, observes again:
    “Error est non credere Pontificem Romanum universalis Ecclesiæ pastorem, Petri successorem, et Christi Vicarium, supra temporalia et spiritualia universalem non habere primatum, in quem, quandoque multi labuntur, dictæ potestatis ignorantiæ, quæ cum sit infinita so quad magnus eat dominus et niagna virtus ejus at magnitudinis ejus non eat finis, omnis creatus intellectus in ejus perscrutatione inveniturdeflcere.”—Prœf P., John xxii.

    But the climax of absurdity and blasphemy is fairly reached in the following passage from Bellarmine, De Born. Pont., Lib. iv., cap. V.: “Si autem Papa erraret præcipiendo vitia, vel prohibendo virtutes, teneretur Ecelesia credere vitia ease bona et virtutes malas, nisi vellet contra conscientiam peccare.”

    Scores of passages to the like effect may be collected from the writings of the Popes themselves.

  10. I have before me the French translation of a book written by the present Pontiff when he was Cardinal Maur Cappellari, entitled the Triumph of the Holy See and of the Church, in which the dogma of the Pope’s infallibility is fully and curiously discussed. His Holiness repudiates with horror the Gallican doctrine of the superiority of Councils, and stoutly maintains that the Government of the Church is an absolute monarchy, of which the Pontiff is the infallible head. it is a little singular that A. P. F. should dismiss with contempt, as unworthy of discussion, the precise opinions which his master at Rome holds to be essential to the stability of the faith; and whether the real doctrine of the Papacy is more likely to be gathered from an obscure priest or from the supreme Father of the faithful, I leave it to the reader to determine. As a specimen of the Pope’s book I give two extracts at random, as they may be found in the French version of Abbè Jammes:
  11. “Le Pape, ainsi qu’il a été prouvé, eat un vrai monarque; done ii doit être pourvu des moyens necessaires I’exercice de son autorité monarchique. Mais le moyen le plus necessaire à cette fin sera celui qui ôtera tout prétexte à sea sujets de refuser de se soumettre à sea decisions et à ses lois, et son infaillibilité seule pout avoir cetta efficacité. Donc le Pape est infaillible.”—Prelim. Dis., vol. i., p. 174, 82.

    “Quoique, après tout ce qui été dit jusqu’ à present, il ne dût pas être necessaire de rien ajouter d’avantage, je chercherai encore à les tirer de leurs erreurs par des argumens plus pressans. Parmi toutes lea sociétés, celle-là seule est infafflible, qui constitue la veritable Eglise; c’est de foi: mais il n’y a pas de veritable Eglise sans Pierre; nous l’avons demontré: donc l’infaillibilité appartient exclusivement à la societe qui est unie a Pierre et ft ses successeurs. Or cette union avec Pierre ou avec le Pape ne serait pas une note suffisante pour distinguer entre plusieurs sociétés celle qui serait infaillible, si cette union ne contribuait en quelque maniere par son concours à faire jouir cette société du privilége de l'infaillibilité donc elle doit réellemant y contribuer et y concourir. Mais l’Eglise doit avoir, dana sea definitions, une infaillibilité perpetuelle et durable jusqu’ a la fin des siècles; donc le même perpetuité, la même durée jusqu’ à la fin des siècles doit être assurée au concours de cetta union de l’Eglise avec le Pape, laquelle est attachée a l’infailliblité de l’Eglise elle-même. D’ou il s’ensuit que, dans le cas d’un point quelconque a définir, il sera aussi vrai de dire, avant même qu’il ait lieu, que ce concours positif et explicite ne manquera pas, qu’il est vrai de dire que l’Eglise est infaillible dans la décision qu'elle portera, et qu’elle ne tombera pas dans l'erreur. Mais, s' il est certain que, toutes les fois qu’il s’agira de definir un point de foi, on pourra compter sur le concours de l’union de l'Egilse avec le Papa, il doit être également certain que Dieu ne permettra jamais que le Papa ne donna pas son assentimant à des véri tés de foi, puisque, sans cet assantiment, il ne saurait, y avoir de vèritable définition de l’Eglise. Donc; si ce concours doit être continuel et perpetual, Dieu devra continuellement et perpetuellement incliner le Papa à donner son assentiment aux varités de fois; et il ne permettra jamais que la Pape, comme tel, s’eloigne de la vraie croyance. En effet, s’il n’en etait pas ainsi, et qua Dieu pût permettre que la Papa, en cette qualité abandonnât la varité, il pourrait arriver que, par sa primauté dans l'Eglise, et par la droit qu’il a, pour le maintien de l’unité comme dit saint Thomas, da propcsar le point de foi, il entrainât l’Eglise avac lui dans l’erreur. Donc Dieu a dû accorder au Pape, comma tel, le privilége d’une infaillibilité indépandante de l'Eglise, indépendante de cette societé, a l’infaillibilité de laquelle il contribue et concourt par la moyen de l’union de celle-ci avac lui. Les novateurs ne puevent rejeter cette conséquence sans nier la nécessité du concours du Pape; et s’ils la nient, ils se rangent parmi les schismatiques et les protestans, qui se font une Eglise separée du Pape.”—Vol. i., c. ii., pp. 206-208.

  12. NOTE BY EDITOR.—It is understood that Bishop Lynch, since the late Council of the Vatican, is no longer unable to admit “the third method.”


James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862), served as a pastor on three occasions and twice as a professor in the College of South Carolina before he was called to the presidency of the College in 1851. From 1855 until his death at the age of 49 he held the chair of theology in the Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. During his relatively short lifetime he was widely recognized as a great preacher, a brilliant theologian, and an effective and influential churchman. This particular article was taken from The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell Vol. 3. "Theological & Controversial", (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986) pp. 439-460.

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