Once a second-order doctrine is recognized by the Church as infallibly constitutive of the Christian faith, must it be considered irreformable under all conditions and circumstances? Historically, as George Lindbeck notes, this question “is not traditional, and therefore there are no clear answers given in the tradition” (“The Infallibility Debate,” in The Infallibility Debate, p. 130). The Orthodox teach that the dogmas promulgated by the seven great ecumenical councils express irreformable divine truths and are binding upon all Christians. Roman Catholics agree, but expand the list of infallible doctrines to include those defined by their 2nd millennium synods and papal ex cathedra decrees. Protestants, on the other hand, insist that the creeds and doctrines of the post-biblical Church must always be open to revision, correction, even rejection on the basis of the plain teaching of the Scriptures. No one, however, has entertained the possibility of reversible infallibility; yet given “our much greater awareness of historical change and cultural and intellectual pluralism,” the question, says Lindbeck, can no longer be avoided (p. 130). Doctrinal formulations do not fall from heaven. Each is conditioned by its location in history and can only be properly understood within its cultural and philosophical context. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, for example, presupposes the centuries of theological and philosophical reflection that preceded it. It could not have been composed by first century Christians—the homoousion would not have made orthodox sense to them. But it did make sense to fourth and fifth century Christians and was rightly incorporated into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church. From that point on the confession of the substantial identity of the Father, Son, and Spirit was acknowledged as an elementary truth of the catholic faith and touchstone for subsequent theological formulations.
It is difficult, probably impossible, for Orthodox and Catholic Christians to envision the dogmas of Nicaea and Chalcedon ever becoming dispensable, no matter what changes the future might bring. Once clearly discerned as expressing the inner structure of faith, they must continue to operate with full regulative force. We may speak of them as second-order doctrines, yet they have, as it were, the ontological and syntactical force of divine revelation. As Lindbeck writes: “It can thus be argued that the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulations were among the few, and perhaps the only, possible outcomes of the process of adjusting Christian discourse to the world of late classical antiquity in a manner conformable to regulative principles that were already at work in the earliest strata of the tradition” (The Nature of Doctrine, p. 95). Even if the terminology of “substance” and “nature” were to disappear from our way of thinking about reality (a possibility I personally cannot conceive), the truth they instantiate must always obtain, in every culture in every time. The Church will and must attribute the divine attributes of God the Father to Jesus Christ his eternal Son; and she will and must attribute to this same Jesus those properties and acts that belong to divinity and humanity. “These early dogmas,” states Lindbeck,
are a development analogous to the technical formulations of the basic syntax of a natural language. They are a movement to a higher viewpoint, to a second-level of technical language about the primary language, and as long as the primary language remains the same language, as long as Christian speech remains recognizably Christian, these rules state the way to speak the language in order to avoid what within it is nonsense. Contrary, then, to the Protestant interpretation which I mentioned earlier, they are irrevocably binding. (“Infallibility,” p. 136)
The dogmatic rules of Nicaea and Chalcedon clearly and definitively articulate the depth grammar of catholic belief. We cannot unknow what we now know.
But perhaps there are some doctrinal formulations that are so dependent upon specific philosophical, theological, and cultural perspectives that they become unhelpful when those perspectives cease to shape Christian apprehension of reality. Lindbeck cites the example of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. During the eucharistic controversies that arose in the Latin Church of the Middle Ages, scholastic theologians appealed to the then-dominant Aristotelian categories of substance and accident by which to distinguish the catholic understanding of the eucharistic transformation from heretical formulations: the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, while leaving the accidents intact. Eastern Christianity temporarily adopted the Latin terminology, though without committing itself to its Aristotelian precision (see, e.g., “The Confession of Dositheus“). Since Vatican II many Catholic theologians have sought to explicate the eucharistic mystery in terms other than the substance-accident distinction. One might therefore wonder whether the traditional formulation has been superseded:
The doctrine of transubstantiation may be taken as an example … of a doctrine which was once assumed to be fully dogmatic and which now even fairly conservative theologians suggest is perhaps ony temporarily guaranteed by the Catholic language system. Expressed in our terminology, they say, in effect, that this doctrine was required by the central affirmations, and perhaps also the basic syntax, of the faith in answer to questions or problems which arose about Christ’s eucharistic presence in a particular social, cultural, liturgical and intellectual setting. It was an unnecessary doctrine in the first centuries, and the situation of the Eastern Orthodox, happily for them, was such that they never needed it. But given the way Western eucharistic piety developed with its excessive concentration on the elements, and given an Aristotelian intellectual framework, it became a necessary and in this sense infallible rule of speech. It excluded certain ways of speaking which had become vehicles of heretical affirmations even though at other periods they had been used in an orthodox sense (e.g., by St. Augustine). Now, however, with the recovery of the communal dimension of the eucharist and with the development of more adequate ways of conceptualizing the eucharistic presence of Christ, transubstantiation is losing this quality of necessity. It is no longer essential to the full integrity of the faith, nor is it guaranteed by the totality of Christian thought and behavior as this needs to be worked out in our situation. In short, it is possible for at least some genuinely infallible doctrines to lose their infallibility. (pp. 130-131)
To Lindbeck’s historical remarks, I might also add that transubstantiation ultimately triumphed over competing explanations because it firmly secured eucharistic adoration against the objection of idolatry. In any case, the critical point for Lindbeck is that a doctrine once seen as necessary to the presentation of the catholic faith has now become less than necessary. In this sense it has lost its infallibility. This does not mean that the doctrine is false, only that more adequate statements for the eucharistic mystery have been found. That a dogma should prove to be only temporarily infallible cannot, of course, be known in advance. It happens when it happens, if it happens.
Catholics may take issue with Lindbeck’s choice of examples, but it should be noted that recent Catholic presentations of dogmatic infallibility approximate his proposal, though under the rubric of doctrinal re-formulation. Avery Cardinal Dulles, for example, proposes what he calls a “situationist theory of dogma” or “moderate infallibilism”:
The truth of the gospel is the saving truth of God, made personally present to us in Jesus Christ. The mystery to which the Christian stands committed is something that cannot be fully specified in explicit propositional language … In my view, historical situationism does not preclude an acceptance of infallibility, provided that the latter be moderately understood. Infallibility does not demand that a given formulation of the truth be always and everywhere imposed, but only that it be not directly contradicted. It means that when the Church, through its highest teaching organs, defines a truth pertaining to revelation, divine providence, working through a multiplicity of channels, will preserve the Church from error. But it may well be necessary, as the generations pass, to reinterpret the defined dogma in accordance with the presuppositions, thought categories, concerns, and vocabulary of a later age. (“Doctrinal Renewal,” The Resilient Church, pp. 52-54; also see “Moderate Infallibilism,” A Church to Believe In, esp. 142-146)
There may come a time, both Dulles and Lindbeck agree, when conditions have so drastically changed that a long-accepted doctrinal formulation simply fails to communicate the faith of the Church.
Can we think of other possible candidates for reversible infallibility? Of Latin doctrines, Lindbeck cites the immortality of the soul, dogmatized by the Fifth Lateran Council (1513): “It could be argued that this belief is necessary to the integrity of Christian faith only when believers think in terms of a classical mind-body dualism, but not when their anthropology is Hebraic or modern” (Doctrine, p. 86). More controversially, he also mentions the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854 (pp. 96-98). The Immaculate Conception presupposes a scholastic understanding of original sin as privation of grace, an understanding not shared in the East. For this reason the Orthodox have had a difficult time affirming it, not because they wish to attribute sin and spiritual death to the Theotokos (God forbid!), but because they do not affirm the dogma’s underpinnings. The question then becomes whether the Latin teaching on original sin enjoys irreversible status in the Catholic Church. If it does not, then the Immaculate Conception might become a temporary infallible dogma, should Catholics ever move toward an Eastern understanding of humanity’s fall.