A Reply to Anglican George Salmon's Infallibility of the Church

The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged "Salmon"
by B.C. (Basil Christopher) Butler (1902-1986), Abbot of Downside (1946-1966)

Downside Abbey - Basilica of St. Gregory the Great - Somerset, Englandcomments by P (below)
Preface (below)

I. Introductory (below)
II. The Infallibility of the Church
III. The Alleged Argument in a Circle
IV. On Deference to Authority
V. The Catholic Position on Infallibility
VI. The Vatican Council (Vatican I)
VII. St. Peter's Primacy
VIII. The Church and See of Rome in Antiquity
IX. Empire and Papacy
X. The Sixth Century and Beyond
XI. The Body and the Spirit of the Church

Endnotes follow each of the chapters (if required).

In the recent generally fair work by Evangelical apologists Norm Geisler/Ralph MacKenzie Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker Books, 1995), which is sometimes very challenging and contains some complex arguments against the Catholic faith (from an Evangelical "baptistic" perspective), the following blunder is made in the authors' chapter on "Infallibility" (chapter 11), at the beginning of their section "A Response to the Arguments for Infallibility" :

"Protestants accept the infallibility of Scripture but deny that any human being or institution is the infallible interpreter of Scripture. The classic refutation of papal infallibility was written by George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church (1914). It has never really been answered by the Catholic church." (page 206, emphasis mine)

The authors give a date of 1914 for the Anglican divine George Salmon's "celebrated" attack on the Catholic faith, the Papacy and papal infallibility -- however, the book was originally published the previous century, 1888. And in fact, a Catholic answer was made in a series of articles in a periodical called the Irish Ecclesiastical Record (1901-2, see March/May 1901 issues reply to Salmon, about 50+ pages!). In the middle of the 20th century, an "abridged edition" of Salmon was published, and a Catholic reply was made to that as well. The following is adapted from the book The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged "Salmon" (Sheed and Ward, 1954) written by the head abbot of Downside Abbey (which in the past has been a stalwart defense of the Papacy) in England, B.C. Butler.

Infallibility of the Church: A Course of Lectures by George Salmon (original edition, 1888)The full version of Salmon's Infallibility was re-printed by Baker Books in 1959 (and I have heard has been re-issued in 1997 by another publisher) which also states the book "has never been answered." Since this still seems to be a "popular book" especially among anti-Catholic Evangelicals or Fundamentalists (James White recommends it as well and steals much of Salmon's arguments, even though White himself is a Reformed Baptist), I present to you one devastating answer from a learned Catholic monk to put to rest the false claim that the book has not been answered.

An exhaustive refutation of the many anti-Catholic charges and objections (both from the Bible and history) found in Salmon (even a paragraph's worth of these) could require more than "a thousand pages in reply" (as B.C. Butler notes), so I reproduce here his "modest" reply of 230 pages The Church and Infallibility -- which shows (among other errors and misunderstandings) :

And more -- the preface and chapters 1 through 11 follow.

NOTE: for those interested in the original full version of George Salmon's book The Infallibility of the Church (original, 1888) it has been digitized (PDF format) by Google Books. Here is another PDF of the full version of Salmon's Infallibility (2nd edition, 1890)



Two contrasting attitudes towards the Catholic Church have been expressed in recent publications by religious writers not of her communion. There is, on the one hand, a sincere desire to understand her position and her claims, a real appreciation of the Church's witness to the supernatural and to revealed truth, and a sense that, on the question of doctrinal authority, if not as an example of Christian unity, she has a "contribution" of value to offer in this distracted and enquiring age. On the other hand the old polemical note is still struck and can still be confident of a hearing; so much so, that there was published in 1952 an abridged edition of the late Dr. Salmon's celebrated controversial work, The Infallibility of the Church. The welcome that was given in certain quarters to this publication is not the only available evidence that Salmon's work has had a lasting influence.

It seems that Infallibility is still recommended by their clergy to non-Catholics who have begun to wonder whether perhaps the Catholic claims are true, and it appears that the allegation is made that the book has never been answered. In fact it was answered over fifty years ago in a series of articles in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record (1901-2), and these articles are being republished in the same periodical at the present time. But Irish Catholic reviews have no wide circulation in England outside Catholic circles, and although few points occur in Salmon's attack to which an answer cannot be found in John Henry Cardinal Newman, John Chapman, Ronald Knox, or other well-known Catholic writers, it happens that, so far as I am aware, there has been no single book undertaking to deal with Salmon specifically.

The following pages are offered as a reply to the abridged edition of Infallibility; for those parts of the book which the Abridgement omits, reference may still be made to the articles in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, and especially for a critique of Salmon on the Rule of Faith in the Fathers, a subject on which he is very misleading. I hope that what I have written may be of some use to those who have read Salmon's witty, self-confident book, and also to others who may wish to clear their minds for an examination of the Catholic claims.

But I am anxious that the following pages should not be taken as "the best that Catholics can do" in the way of defending and recommending the Catholic faith. In the first place, having decided, somewhat reluctantly, to write a book in answer to the Abridgement, I thought it desirable to proceed to publication with little delay, and in consequence I have not given to this refutation the time that would be required for a comprehensive work of apologetics. Secondly, it will be realised that a complete and exhaustive answer to Infallibility would need to be a much longer treatise than this. It is easy to pack into half a dozen pages enough clever charges against the Catholic Church to require a thousand pages in reply. In this kind of warfare the aggressor always has an enormous advantage. Thus if I were to lay it down, in one brief sentence, that the Elizabethan Settlement represented no more than a cynical political expedient, it would be easier to feel that this is an unjust simplification than briefly to disprove it. Thirdly, my attempt to reply to Salmon is not "the best that Catholics can do" in presenting the Catholic claims, because the things that need to be said in answer to his attacks are by no means the strongest things that can be said on the Church's behalf. I am not trying primarily to state the case for the Church, but to answer one man's criticism.

Two Positive Considerations

As I have tried to indicate in the following pages, the strength of the Catholic claim among Christians lies, to my mind, in two considerations:

(1) that this claim makes sense of the credal phrase "the holy Catholic Church" by giving the word "Church" a tangible meaning, the meaning in fact which it held in antiquity;

(2) that the Catholic Church is the central, full and typical historical result, outcome, representative, of the impact on history of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the need to answer Salmon had led me to give a disproportionate amount of space to subordinate matters, so as perhaps to obscure these two positive considerations.

A Note About Sources: Newman, Harnack, Jalland

A word may be desirable with reference to the frequent quotations I have made from modern authors, especially John Henry Cardinal Newman and Adolf Harnack. Salmon's references to Newman are so misleading that it seemed desirable to refute them by even lengthy citations of Newman's own words; and besides, Newman is a master of English prose and a man who thought deeply on many of the issues raised by Salmon's book. Harnack, on the other hand, was perhaps the greatest of the 20th century "Liberal Protestant" scholars. It seemed to me that I could answer many of Salmon's contentions more effectively by contrasting them with the historical judgments of that very great non-Catholic scholar, than by simply stating my own views or those of other Catholics. It is true that Harnack had his own bias: he maintained that mature Catholicism was the creation of the local Roman Church, although a kind of proto-Catholicism could be traced back to apostolic times. He was therefore inclined to see the (manifest or hidden) hand of "Rome" everywhere in early Church history, and may have been too readily disposed to give a Romanizing interpretation to various pieces of evidence. But so far as I know, no one has accused Harnack of critical dishonesty, and his bias is perhaps not more likely to give a distorted picture than Salmon's.

Similar considerations may justify my frequent use of other authorities, and especially of Dr. Trevor Jalland's important work, The Church and the Papacy (published in 1944), the most recent full-length study of this problem from an English hand. It should be observed that I have usually chosen for quotation from this distinguished Anglican scholar passages which seem to me to tell against Salmon, and the result will have been to obscure the balance of Dr. Jalland's book. I need hardly say that he would not endorse the general conclusions which I draw from the historical evidence as a whole.

I wish to explain that in referring to Dr. Salmon without a prefix I intend no disrespect to him. My regular practice has been to reserve prefixes for those who are not yet dead. I am aware, on reading over some of these pages, of a certain vivacity of style, but I hope that, on the whole, I have eschewed the discourtesy and acerbity that so often disfigure controversial writing. Where I have failed to do so, it may be some extenuation of my fault that these pages are an attempt to answer an attack upon my Mother, the Church, by right the Mother of all men, "of whose fruitfulness" (to quote St. Cyprian) "we are born, with whose milk we are nourished, by whose Spirit we are made alive."

My thanks are due to Dom Cyprian Stockford for the help I have received from him in writing this book.

B. C. Butler

Chapter I : Introductory

There has recently appeared an abridged edition [1] of The Infallibility of the Church, by the late Dr. George Salmon, Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. The first edition of this work was published in 1889. It contains lectures "delivered in the ordinary course of instruction to my class in the Divinity School of the Dublin University," and "the majority of the lectures in this volume were written about the year 1870." This celebrated attack upon the Catholic Church is therefore, in great part, some eighty years old [now over 120 years old], and the standpoint it adopts is less popular now than it was in the mid-Victorian age. According to Salmon,

"it is owned on all hands that the New Testament is a trustworthy source of information as to the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles." [2]

He maintains that this source is one which any intelligent man can use (in the vernacular) as a mine of doctrinal information; and the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity, and indeed the general structure of Reformed Christianity, can thus be clearly and surely deduced by private judgment, and made the basis of an individual's religion. On the other hand, there is, he holds, no truthworthy source of obligatory belief except the Bible, and there is no contemporary religious authority that has the right to demand unquestioning assent to its own doctrinal decisions as such. The issue for Salmon lies between a Biblical Protestantism [3] that has not yet (so far at least as regards the New Testament) passed through the fire of extreme radical criticism, and the Catholic Church.

Lead Kindly Light

The option before a thinking man today is a different one. It is, in a nutshell: Christianity (in whatever form Christianity proves capable of securing our adhesion) or unbelief. What exercises the mind of the typical non-Catholic today is the problem: Is there any discoverable true answer to the question, what human life is for? Newman -- and it is some measure of the superiority of that great student and thinker over the less profound intelligence of his Dublin critic [4] -- had realised, half a century before Salmon published these lectures, that this basic problem was the one which really merited and required attention. His prophetic vision has been verified by the event, and his great books of apologetic are less "dated" than is Salmon's book.

In the endeavour to answer this supreme question, the available data have to be examined without prejudice, in complete detachment, so far as detachment can be attained, from inherited conventional opinions. The enquirer needs to adopt, if he can, the sort of attitude which would come naturally to an intelligent visitor from Mars, viewing the whole human scene and passing judgment upon it. Yet along with this detachment must go a profound sense of humble responsibility, and a willingness to follow such light as is granted to him, at whatever personal cost and to whatever is the ordained goal. "Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on" (quoting Cardinal Newman).

Reformed Religion vs. Catholic Church

For such an enquirer the Reformed Religion (so to describe the general position, as against the Catholic Church, of the bodies deriving directly or indirectly from the religious upheavals of the 16th century) has an immense difficulty to overcome, a formidable praejudicium to circumvent. Like the Catholic Church, it holds that Jesus of Nazareth was the Revealer of divine and final truth to mankind, the Founder of true Christianity. But the Reformed Religion came into existence nearly fifteen hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it originated as a protest against the religion of the Catholic Church. All that is positive in it it shares with the Catholic Church; where it differs, it does so by denial. It presents itself to the enquirer as biologically mutilated, just as Eastern Orthodoxy presents itself as an arrested growth; whereas the Catholic Church is plainly the central normative outcome of the impact of Jesus on world-history. As Newman says, in reply to Protestant controversialists and their contention that the religion of the Catholic Church is a corruption of the original revelation:

"Let them consider, that if they can criticise history, the facts of history certainly can retort upon them. It might, I grant, be clearer on this great subject than it is. This is no great concession. History is not a creed or a catechism, it gives lessons rather than rules; still no one can mistake its general teaching in this matter, whether he accept it or stumble at it. Bold outlines and broad masses of colour rise out of the records of the past. They may be dim, they may be incomplete; but they are definite. And this one thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this." [5]

It is in fact so difficult to believe in Luther as the first Christian to understand the Gospel message [6], that for the detached observer Salmon's attack on Catholicism will amount to the same thing as an attack on Christianity. He did not mean it to be so; he supposed that Protestantism was the alternative. But for the modern detached enquirer, it can be said with confidence, the Reformed Religion, in its peculiar combination of accepted fragments of Catholic teaching with denial of the rest, is no longer a "live option." Judaism has a stronger claim on his acceptance than Protestantism.

Salmon attacks the Church's infallibility in general, and the infallibility of the Pope in particular. Broadly speaking, his attack on the former proceeds a priori; there can be, he would have his readers believe, no such thing as an infallible authority in matters of belief. His attack on Papal infallibility is on the whole a posteriori: this dogma can be shown not to have been an original constituent of the Christian revelation, and it is disproved by the fact that Popes have contradicted one another.

I shall take the two attacks in Salmon's order. But before I do so, there are two matters, of general relevance to the argument, which I would wish to emphasize.

First, then, I would point out that if the Church is not infallible, then the Church cannot claim our allegiance. This is so because the Church insists, and has ever insisted, upon the acceptance of her infallibility as a sine qua non of Christian allegiance. For many minds, infallibility may present difficulties of which they would be glad to be relieved. But a man may reasonably ask whether these difficulties are insuperable, when he considers that the assent to the Church's claim of infallibility is the price he has to pay for her membership.

On the Development of Doctrine

Secondly, the whole discussion must necessarily be dominated by the idea of development. It is a fact which every enquirer can see for himself, and which no believer can deny, that Christianity has developed. Ritual and ceremonial developments are obvious and are not, in themselves, important. There has been devotional development. There has also been theological development. And -- most important for our present argument -- there has been dogmatic and, I add, doctrinal development. A clear illustration of dogmatic development is the articulation of Christian belief about the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity in the great conciliar decisions from A.D. 325 to A.D. 680. The result of such development is that many statements by the Fathers of the first three centuries would be condemned as heretical if made by medieval or modern writers. Similarly, it can be said that the doctrine of the sacramental minister has developed since the days of St. Cyprian, who denied the reality of Baptism conferred by schismatics and heretics.

The question arises whether the fact of such developments is compatible with the Christian claim that there was a complete revelation of saving truth made to the Apostles. In other words, has Christianity preserved its identity, or are these so-called developments, or some of them, really additions to the alleged original revelation, so that modern Christianity is not really the same thing as the "message" given, it is said, by God to mankind in Jesus Christ? [7] This is a question which every enquirer has, in the long run, to answer for himself. But there can surely be no valid a priori objection to the hypothesis of genuine doctrinal development. Development seems to be almost universal in the world of biology, as also in that of human affairs. And if Christianity is a living thing it is only to be expected that it too will develop. A butterfly is a developed caterpillar. An adult man is a developed infant. In both these cases the development strikes the imagination very forcibly. Thus the definition of homo sapiens is "a rational animal"; and a child four days old is a specimen of homo sapiens. But the rationality of the child is latent or potential rather than actual and visible. As the babe grows into childhood, boyhood and adolescence, the struggle of rationality to assert itself takes varying forms and suffers diverse vicissitudes. A long time elapses before rationality can be said to take habitual effective control. Yet the individual in question is, in external self-manifestation, most true to his own nature not at the beginning but at the end of the process.

The same may be true of Christianity, with special reference to the papal primacy and infallibility which Salmon denounces as corruptions of the original deposit of faith. There is no absurdity and no sophistry in maintaining that Christianity is by definition "papal," just as man is by definition rational, even if the operation and recognition of the papal prerogatives in the fourth century were as hard to discern as the rationality of the human baby, or the wings of a caterpillar.

When, however, Salmon asks [8] why should development not take place in the case of Protestant doctrine too, the answer is of course that there is no a priori reason against it, although in fact Protestant doctrine tends not to exhibit this phenomenon of vitality. But development outside the body of continuing Christian experience, development which has at its origin a violent break with the Catholic past which alone can form a biological link with Christian origins, has as such no claim upon our acceptance.

The great modern champion of the idea of development was of course John Henry Cardinal Newman, who describes the view on which he writes, as follows:

"...That the increased expansion of the Christian Creed and Ritual, and the variations which have attended the process in the case of individual writers and Churches, are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and heart, and has had any wise or extended dominion: that, form the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfect of great ideas; and that the highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation." [9]

And again from Newman:

"It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become broad, and deep, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains for a time perhaps quiescent: it tries, as it were, its limbs and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory: points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and fall around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." [10]

It is with such thoughts and expectations that we ought to turn to the study of Christian history; and my chief complaint against Salmon in the part of his book devoted to the history of papalism is that he supposes that if Catholicism is true the Papacy ought to have been functioning, and its authority to have been recognized, almost as unmistakably in antiquity as now. But he is pushing at an open door. The action and the theory of the modern Papacy are the outcome of an age-long growth, and we must seek in the pages of history less for a proof of the papal claims than for the evidence that they have shared in, and been central to, the general development of that society which is our only historical link with the origins of Christianity. Again I would quote Newman:

"For myself, I would simply confess that no doctrine of the Church can be rigorously proved by historical evidence: but at the same time that no doctrine can be simply disproved by it. Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, towards a proof of the Catholic doctrines; often nearly the whole way: sometimes it goes only so far as to point in their direction; sometimes there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained -- in all cases, there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church. He who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of History, is scarcely a Catholic." [11]

The Cardinal Error of Protestants

It may even be said that the cardinal error of Protestantism was to identify development with corruption. There was a school of Anglican divines who took as their criterion of doctrine not the living voice of the contemporary Church but (for some reason not easily apparent) the first four or five centuries of Christian history. Other Protestants, more logical and more radical, made the Bible their sole criterion; and this is, formally, at least, the Anglican position as stated in the Thirty-Nine Articles. But liberal Protestantism has had to go further still, and Harnack, when faced by the argument of Batiffol's Primitive Catholicism that the germ of Catholicism was present in the Christianity of the Apostles, fell back on the last line of strictly Protestant defense -- that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Apostles and their Master.

The truth is, that development is visible in that brief section of the Christian story of which the New Testament books are a fragmentary record, and in the last resort the choice is between accepting the principle of development and rejecting the Christian claim to possess a divine revelation.


ENDNOTES for Chapter I: Introductory

[1] Edited by Mr. H.F. Woodhouse, and published by John Murray. [2] Salmon, 7 (References to "S" are in each case to the abridged edition, 1952). [3] I do not mean this title in an offensive sense. Salmon himself regards his lectures as preaching "Protestantism" (2nd ed, 7). [4] But Salmon knew that skepticism had increased even in his own day (2nd ed, 5). [5] Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1927), 7. [6] The situation for Protestantism would be slightly easier if Luther had been a man of outstanding personal holiness. But the architects of Protestantism, like Mahomet, do not strike me as having this "note" of heroic sanctity. They compare unfavourably with the great saints of the Counter-Reformation: Ignatius, Teresa, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Charles Borromeo and the rest. [7] cf. Salmon (8), arguing that the definition of papal infallibility in 1870 disposes finally of the claim that the Church "has never changed her doctrine." [8] S, 14 (Mr. Woodhouse's note). [9] Essay on Development, 29f. [10] ibid, 40. [11] "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk" in Difficulties of Anglicans (1896), ii, 312.

Back to B.C. Butler's Reply to Salmon's Infallibility go to nextgo to next

Chapter 1 -- Chapter 2 -- Chapter 3 -- Chapter 4 -- Chapter 5 -- Chapter 6 -- Chapter 7 -- Chapter 8 -- Chapter 9 -- Chapter 10 -- Chapter 11

See also March/May 1901 issues of Irish Ecclesiastical Record replying to Salmon, about 50+ pages! (PDF)

Studies on the Early Papacy by Dom John Chapman
The Primitive Church and the See of Peter by Luke Rivington

Also The First Eight General Councils and Papal Infallibility (pdf) by Dom John Chapman

Edited by P

Back to Apologetics Articles

Back to Home Page

About | Apologetics | Philosophy | Spirituality | Books | Audio | Links