The author is associate professor of theology at Harding University Graduate School of Religion (Church of Christ affiliation), Memphis, Tennessee. The book is a revision of Powell’s doctoral dissertation at Southern Methodist University.
Papal Infallibility has been critiqued by Protestants and Catholics alike, though typically the focus has been on biblical and historical issues. Powell’s critique is on epistemological grounds. As a criterion of truth, he believes papal infallibility rests on an inadequate epistemology. Powell cites four conceptional errors in the doctrine. First, the doctrine’s purpose is wrongly conceived of as being epistemological when in fact its purpose is soteriological, that is, the ecclesial authority of the pope is for the purpose of building up the church. Second, papal infallibility is wedded to methodism in epistemology, that is, the belief that one must begin with the proper method for attaining knowledge before one can make particular knowledge claims. Powell argues that an infallible method for securing doctrine is neither necessary nor possible. Third, papal infallibility canonizes a particular epistemology, the foundationalism assumed by the participants at Vatican I when the dogma was promulgated. Foundationalism has since been criticized and abandoned by many today. Fourth, papal infallibility confuses epistemic certainty with effective exercise of teaching and organizational authority. Clearly, the Catholic Church exercised effective authority prior to the promulgation of papal infallibility in 1870.
The heart of Powell’s book is a study of four prominent Catholic theologians whose work permits a chronological and theological spectrum of views on papal infallibility. Two of the theologians, William Edward Cardinal Manning and John Henry Cardinal Newman lived during the time when papal infallibility was first defined. Avery Cardinal Dulles and Hans Kung represent theologians whose writings provide contemporary reflections on papal infallibility. Cardinal Manning, according to Powell, held to a “maximal infallibility,” while Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Dulles held to a more “moderate infallibility.” Kung’s position is described as “minimal infallibility.” In reviewing each of these four, Powell revisits the four conceptional errors noted above.
This book is interesting for a couple of reasons, but probably not for the ones intended by Powell. The Catholic Church is aware that papal infallibility is a stumbling block to ecumenical relationships, and while it is true that Pope John Paul II stated his openness to "find a way of exercising the primacy which . . . is nonetheless open to a new situation" (Ut Unum Sint, 95), papal infallibility is in no danger of disappearing based on epistemological arguments.
The book may be more important for Protestants. After the Reformation, Protestants faced a vacuum of authority that was filled by scripture. But the question of the grounds for scriptural authority vexed Protestantism and still does. With no ecclesial body to define the nature and extent of biblical inspiration, doctrines of biblical inerrancy emerged, and such doctrines have played a major role in Protestant evangelical conflicts, particularly in the last few decades. Powell’s arguments concerning papal infallibility, as he himself acknowledges, equally apply to biblical inerrancy. The Christian faith does not stand or fall based on an inerrant scripture.
The question of ecclesiastical authority is also of great concern to the worldwide Anglican Communion, which is struggling to protect the autonomy of the national churches while maintaining their identity as Anglicans. Mark Chapman, in his recent book The Anglican Covenant, points out that in the Middle Ages, attempts to embrace conciliarism proved ineffective, requiring a more centralized model of ecclesiastical authority. While the solution to this dilemma for Anglicans is still uncertain, it may be that a model of primacy through some of the traditional instruments of unity (such as the Archbishop of Canterbury), coupled with models of conciliarity may be a way forward. Powell’s arguments for a more pastoral rather than epistemological authority structure might have merit for Anglicans.
Powell should be commended for tackling a tough subject, and Catholics, in the spirit of John Paul II’s invitation for Catholics and Protestants alike to dialogue with him on this subject, should be appreciative.