A gentleman operating the YouTube channel Practicing Theology (henceforth PT) recently reached out to me for help with a key issue he is facing. He recently sent Dr. Gavin Ortlund a Patron question regarding the certainty Protestants can have in key doctrines in light of our denial of conciliar infallibility. His question in full reads:
It would seem necessary to predicate infallibility to the teachings of Nicaea in order to establish them as ecclesial boundary markers. How do we as Protestant[s] maintain these teachings as ecclesial boundary markers without predicating infallibility to them as it would seem infallibility would be necessary in order to use these teachings in that way.
PT reposted his question and Dr. Ortlund's answer in his video on the issue, wherein he gives his concerns in full that he wanted me to answer. In sum, he agrees with the vast majority of what Dr. Ortlund said, although he believes that he didn't word the question right and so didn't get the kind of answer he was seeking. The rest of PT's video involved re-stating his question and concerns with more precision. You can watch the video linked above yourself, and I recommend you do so before fully reading this article, as I will be replying to specific points within the video.
In sum, his concern is as follows: for something to be supremely authoritative/epistemically infallible, it must have an infallible grounding. Hence Romanists & Easterners are epistemically solid, as they ascribe infallibility to these beliefs (esp. the Trinity): granting their structure, the degree of authority and epistemic certainty matches. The problem with Protestantism is thus as follows; does our structure allow us to ascribe the same level authority to those beliefs?
He expands on this with a scenario: Someone comes into a church and asks "What must I not deny in order to be saved?" Then a Protestant responds "The Trinity." The visitor responds "How do you know the Trinity is the right way to understand God?" And the Protestant answers that we deduce it from the teaching of scripture. And yes, there are contrary interpretations, "but," the Protestant says, "I don't agree with their conclusions." The visitor then replies "Is it possible that your interpretation could be wrong?" Protestant must respond "Yes." The person again asks "Okay, is there any other reason that I should not deny the Trinity?" The Protestant may respond, "Most Christians affirmed it, including in authoritative councils." The visitor could then reply that those councils could be wrong. In the end, eternal consequences are being predicated on fallible foundations, and it seems wrong to establish something as a supreme ecclesial boundary marker which is but a fallible conclusion.
With all this said, PT only sees three options for himself moving forward: 1 - Find some way to deny the axiom that a degree of authority must correlate with degree of justification. 2 - Abandon the notion of ecclesial boundary markers and relegate core historic truths to merely strong suggestions. 3 - Abandon Sola Scriptura.
With his concerns stated, I will now give my replies. I will also propose a 4th option that nullifies the above difficulties.
I - Cutting the Safety Net
I first wish to address his 3rd potential path forward; the abandonment of Sola Scriptura. My friend A Goy for Jesus (with whom I have collaborated often on both of our YouTube channels) introduced me to a brilliant term to describe the phenomena of people fleeing to Rome or the East in order to satisfy their uncertainty; the Epistemic Safety Net Syndrome. They worry without end about the alleged uncertainty given Sola Scriptura, the colossal diversity of opinions among Protestants, and in response they flee to an authority for the mere hope that it can provide certainty. And yet, they fail to ask the most important question; is this authority legitimate?
One can flee to anything that calms their stirring emotions, and yet that alone doesn't render them true authorities. So I strongly submit to PT that he consider option 3 a non-starter, as Rome and the East's magisterial claims are completely unsupported by the authority of Christ and the Apostles, and the certainty they claim they can give would not change that at all, let alone actually give you such certainty.
II - False Equality of Interpretations
There is also an issue in PT's hypothetical. The visitor asks "Is it possible that your interpretation could be wrong?", and the Protestant answers "Yes." In response to this, the visitor says "Okay, is there any other reason that I should not deny the Trinity?"
This must be looked at closely. The visitor - and the hypothetical as a whole - takes the fallibility of the Protestant's interpretation as a total nullification of its power to compel belief in the Trinity. In other words, since this man's act of interpretation could have erred - a pure hypothetical at this point, not actually demonstrated - it has equal weight to any other interpretation, and thus does not compel belief in the Trinity.
This is based on false premises commonly espoused by Romanist and Eastern apologists who wish to make up for their own systems' poor historical/biblical attestation by trying to throw all interpretive acts in the same lump, that because any individual could be wrong, no one's interpretation therefore has anymore power than another's. This is false, as the day to day living of such apologists even shows. We live our lives with the unquestioned assumption that we can understand texts or speech - despite the possibility of error - and that we can reliably determine true interpretations from false ones, and therefore establish certain interpretations as true and others as false, thus compelling assent to certain interpretations. Sure enough, we do this very frequently in our lives, even without thinking about it. Their mere engaging in conversation shows that they do not consistently practice what they preach, as they interpret the statements of their opponents and act as if they can reliably determine what they said, and likewise expect others to correctly interpret their own statements.
To point out the mere possibility of error is a meaningless exercise that demonstrates nothing with respect to a concrete claim. Keith Windschuttle - citing David Stove - makes this point well in The Killing of History:
Necessary truths are void of empirical meaning. So when any sceptic claims that a flame found tomorrow might not be hot like those of the past, or that the next baby born might not have circulating blood, he has no genuine reason for this doubt, only an empty necessary truth. Stove comments:
If I have, as Popper says I should not have, a positive degree of belief in some scientific theory, what can Popper urge against me? Why, nothing at all, in the end, except this: that despite all the actual or possible empirical evidence in its favour, the theory might be false. But this is nothing but a harmless necessary truth; and to take it as a reason for not believing in scientific theories is simply a frivolous species of irrationality.
So, when the visitor asked "Is it possible that your interpretation could be wrong?", the Protestant should have said the following:
"Are my rational faculties liable to error? Sure, it is possible that I could be wrong. But unless you can actually provide good reason to believe that I am wrong here, this is nothing more than an empty necessary truth. I can demonstrate to you through universally assumed laws of interpretation that the scriptures teach the deity and consubstantiality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and likewise how other models of God fail. So yes, my faculties could be wrong in theory. But in practice, in this instance, I am demonstrably right."
Now, to make things clear, I know PT isn't affirming the hyper-scepticism of many anti-Protestant apologists. There was, however, one particular and significant assumption of their destructive worldview that slipped into PT's thinking in this scenario, from my observation. But even then, PT's ultimate point regards his axiom of the equality of absolute binding authority and infallible foundations for a doctrine, which I will now address.
III - Grounding vs Knowledge
This is my primary response to PT's concerns, as it cuts to the heart of the question. The unstated assumption in his video is that the fallibility of rational faculties equates to a fallibility of foundations for doctrine. I submit this to be another instance of an extremely common conflation of ontology (what actually is) and epistemology (what/how we know). To get to the point, our belief regarding what scripture teaches may be fallible (i.e. wrongly interpreting a word or passage), but the actual grounding for a true doctrine will still be infallible. That is, granting the fact that the Trinity is taught in scripture, its grounding is thus certain and infallible. Now, the obvious next question is whether the scriptures do in fact teach the Trinity; and indeed, this does involve the use of our faculties for interpretation, which can err. But as explained in the previous part, this doesn't give a blanket equality to all interpretations; texts do give specific messages, which are discernible through the text itself, as communicating a message is the very point of a text.
More severely, however, is that the possibility of digging into deeper questions that expose less-than-infallible foundations is indeed ubiquitous. Say the Romanist does have an infallible assurance of the Trinity due to an infallible council's proclamation of such. Fair enough; and yet, as written just above, though we can grant that an infallible source teaches X and thus that X has an infallible foundation, we can ask deeper questions that address the premises of such a statement. One could be whether Nicaea is being interpreted rightly; after all, we interpret it with the same fallible faculties as we do in scripture. But the more pertinent question is, how do we know Nicaea I has a divine authority and protection in such interpretation? Inevitably, Romanist and Eastern apologists will point to any number of evidences; various patristic statements, biblical prooftexts, the "motives of credibility," miracles, and so forth. And yet, every single one of these evidences, both in their interpretation, and in the establishment of them as historically true, are predicated for everyone on our own rational apprehension of the evidence. And just as the hypothetical visitor said to the Protestant in PT's scenario, our interpretation of such data could be wrong. Therefore, to consistently apply PT's standards here, Rome and the East are predicating eternal consequences on fallible conclusions (in the sense of a cascading fallibility, that an allegedly infallible authority making infallible conclusions is premised in one's mind on fallible investigation, thus rendering the "infallible" decisions of the authority fallible with respect to certainty).
IV - The Fourth Way
My solution to all this - one which can even be shared by Romanists and Easterners, yet only by admitting that they do not occupy a higher epistemic position than Protestants - is to distinguish between knowledge and actual grounding. Yes, our knowledge of all things is fallible, in that we could, in theory be wrong. This does not render us hopelessly uncertain of things, as we can and do regularly detect when we err on issues and so correct ourselves. It's likewise meaningless to say that someone "could" be wrong on a given issue without concretely demonstrating such, especially when that person has provided solid reasoning and evidence for their conclusion that has not or cannot be refuted. Regardless, all human reasoning on everything is fallible.
What can be infallible, however, is the grounding of such beliefs. Let's say we demonstrate from the scriptures that they teach the Trinity, and that all alternate models fail. Yes, it's a fallible process, yet we presume on its reliability everyday when we read things and engage in conversation, and thus can truly come to know things through interpretation. So, granting we can demonstrate the Trinity from scripture (which I assume PT believes we can), we thus establish the scriptures as our foundation for the Trinity. And given that the scriptures are an infallible source of doctrine, we therefore establish an infallible foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. So, this fourth way both accepts PT's axiom of the necessary equality of infallible foundations and conscience-binding authority whilst also affirming the axiom of Sola Scriptura.
In short, if the scriptures really do teach the Trinity - regardless of what anyone says or believes - we thus have an infallible foundation for the doctrine, even if the process by which we arrived at that conclusion is fallible, which is a ubiquitous truth for anyone under any paradigm.
I hope my answer was full and satisfying enough for my friend at Practicing Theology, and likewise for many others under the various Protestant confessions who are struggling with this question. We must make it a priority to diffuse feelings of worry and uncertainty in the absence of extra layers of infallibility. The world is the way it is regardless of how we think it ought to be or what we most desire of it. The Christian must stay away from wish fulfilment, and instead should stand resolute in the face of major issues and seek to solve them in light of our faith. We likewise need to start taking the battle back to Rome and the East and make it clear that no matter how many holes they claim to poke in Protestant distinctives, that will not save their own systems from demonstrably historical failure.