Biblical Evidence for Papal and Church Infallibility

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


How can one man be infallible?
We know that all men make mistakes, so this is an unreasonable doctrine


Initial reply 

With God all things are possible. If He chooses to protect a man from error, He can do so, and in fact, we often see this in Scripture.

Extensive reply 

Infallibility, according to the Catholic Church, means that the pope (or an ecumenical council in agreement with a pope) cannot err in a teaching on faith and morals that is intended as binding on all Catholics. It isn't the equivalent of "inspiration," and it doesn't mean that the author is morally or otherwise perfect, more intelligent than others, etc. It's a supernatural gift granted by God's grace alone, for His purposes, in order to uphold and make known (with certainty, in faith) spiritual and theological truth.

Since infallibility is inferior to, and a less extraordinary gift than inspiration, we should not be more surprised at it than we are at inspiration, or think it is less likely to occur, or implausible. God worked through the writers of the Bible (inspiration means, literally, "God-breathed"), and this made it possible for the Bible to be without error. Some of the biblical writers, like David, Paul, Matthew, and Peter, had been great sinners at one time or other in their lives. Yet they were used by God to write inspired Scripture. Even in Old Testament times, some were granted this gift of special protection from error; for example, the Levites, who were teachers, among other things:

Malachi 2:6-8: "True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts."

Prophets routinely purported to proclaim the very "word of the LORD." This is a much greater claim than infallibility under limited conditions. Papal infallibility is primarily a preventive, or "negative" guarantee, not positive inspiration. It is easy to argue, then, that infallibility is a far less noteworthy gift than the "revelation on the spot" that we observe in the prophets:

1 Samuel 15:10: "The word of the LORD came to Samuel:"

2 Samuel 23:2: "The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue." [King David]

1 Chronicles 17:3: "But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan,"

Isaiah 38:4: "Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah:"

Jeremiah 26:15: ". . . the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears."

Ezekiel 33:1: "The word of the LORD came to me:" ["word of the LORD" appears 60 times in the Book of Ezekiel]

Haggai 1:13: "Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD's message, 'I am with you, says the LORD.'"


But that was in the Old Testament. Prophets had to have a special word from God to proclaim their message, because they didn't know the future. That doesn't prove that any such gift exists today. Even if the apostles had this gift, it was only for the time when the gospel was first proclaimed (they also performed relatively more miracles).

Reply to Objection 

To the contrary: the prophets received their inspiration by the Holy Spirit (2 Chron. 24:20; Neh. 9:30; Zech. 7:12). The Holy Spirit is now given to all Christians (Jn. 15:26; 1 Cor. 3:16), so it is perfectly possible and plausible that an even greater measure of the Holy Spirit would be given to leaders of the Church who have the responsibility to teach, since James wrote: "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness" (Jas. 3:1). The disciples were reassured by Jesus: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (Jn. 16:13; cf. 8:32), so surely it makes sense that shepherds of the Christian flock would be given an extra measure of protection in order to better fulfill their duties.

John Henry Newman

If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England, an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution, and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of the Revelation.

(An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845, Part I, Ch. 2, Sec. 3)

* * * * *

Perhaps the clearest biblical proof of the infallible authority of the Church is the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-30), and its authoritative pronouncement, binding on all Christians:

Acts 15:29-30: "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity."

In the next chapter, we learn that Paul, Timothy, and Silas traveled around "through the cities" and "delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem" (Acts 16:4). This is binding Church authority - with the sanction of the Holy Spirit Himself -, and an explicit biblical proof of the gift of infallibility that the Catholic Church claims for itself when it assembles in a council.

* * * * *

I commented on the above passages (Acts 15:29-30 and 16:4) in my book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passsages That Confound Protestants(pp. 7-11):

These passages offer a proof that the early Church held to a notion of the infallibility of Church councils, and to a belief that they were especially guided by the Holy Spirit (precisely as in Catholic Church doctrine concerning ecumenical councils). Accordingly, Paul takes the message of the conciliar decree with him on his evangelistic journeys and preaches it to the people. The Church had real authority; it was binding and infallible.

This is a far cry from the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura - which presumes that councils and popes can err, and thus need to be corrected by Scripture.

[ . . . ]

A Protestant might reply that since this Council of Jerusalem referred to in Acts consisted of apostles, and since an apostle proclaimed the decree, both possessed a binding authority that was later lost (as Protestants accept apostolic authority as much as Catholics do). Furthermore, the incidents were recorded in inspired, infallible Scripture. They could argue that none of this is true of later Catholic councils; therefore, the attempted analogy is null and void.

But this is a bit simplistic, since Scripture is our model for everything, including Church government, and all parties appeal to it for their own views. If Scripture teaches that a council of the Church is authoritative and binding, it is implausible and unreasonable to assert that no future council can be so simply because it is not conducted by apostles.

Scripture is our model for doctrine and practice (nearly all Christians agree on this). The Bible does not exist in an historical vacuum, but has import for the day-to-day life of the Church and Christians for all time. St. Paul told us to imitate him (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:9). And he went around proclaiming decrees of the Church. No one was at liberty to disobey these decrees on the grounds of conscience, or to declare by "private judgment" that they were in error (per Luther).

It would be foolish to argue that the way the Apostles conducted the governance of the Church has no relation whatsoever to how later Christians engage in the same task. It would seem rather obvious that Holy Scripture assumes that the model of holy people (patriarchs, prophets, and apostles alike) is to be followed by Christians. This is the point behind entire chapters, such as, notably, Hebrews 11.

When the biblical model agrees with their theology, Protestants are all too enthusiastic to press their case by using scriptural examples. Thebinding authority of the Church was present here, and there is no indication whatever that anyone was ever allowed to dissent from it. That is the fundamental question. Catholics wholeheartedly agree that no new Christian doctrines were handed down after the Apostles. Christian doctrine was present in full from the beginning; it has only organically developed since.

John Calvin has a field day running down the Catholic Church in his commentary for Acts 15:28 [i.e., from Calvin's Commentaries]. It is clear that he is uncomfortable with this verse and must somehow explain it in Protestant terms. But he is not at all unanswerable. The fact remains that the decree was made, and it was binding. It will not do (in an attempt to undercut ecclesial authority) to proclaim that this particular instance was isolated. For such a judgment rests on Calvin's own completely arbitrary authority, which he claims but cannot prove. Calvin merely states his position, rather than arguing it, in the following passage:

[I]n vain do they go about out of the same to prove that the Church had power given to decree anything contrary to the word of God. The Pope hath made such laws as seemed best to him, contrary to the word of God, whereby he meant to govern the Church.

This strikes me as somewhat desperate argumentation. First, Catholics have never argued that the Pope has any power to make decrees contrary to the Bible (making Calvin's slanderous charge a straw man). Calvin goes on to use vivid language, intended to resonate with already strong emotions and ignorance of Catholic theology. It is an old lawyer's tactic: when one has no case, attempt to caricature the opponent, obfuscate, and appeal to emotions rather than reason.

Far more sensible and objective are the comments on Acts 15:28 and 16:4 from the Presbyterian scholar, Albert Barnes, in his famous Barne's Notes commentary:

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost. This is a strong and undoubted claim to inspiration. It was with special reference to the organization of the church that the Holy Spirit had been promised to them by the Lord Jesus, Matthew 18:18-20; John 14:26.

In this instance it was the decision of the council in a case submitted to it; and implied an obligation on the Christians to submit to that decision.

Barnes actually acknowledges that the passage has some implication for ecclesiology in general. It is remarkable, on the other hand, that Calvin seems concerned about the possibility of a group of Christians - in this case, a council - being led by the Holy Spirit to achieve a true doctrinal decree, whereas he has no problem with the idea that individuals can achieve such certainty:

[O]f the promises which they are wont to allege, many were given not less to private believers than to the whole Church [cites Matthew 28:20, John 14:16-17] . . . We are not to give permission to the adversaries of Christ to defend a bad cause, by wresting Scripture from its proper meaning.

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, 8, 11)

But it will be objected, that whatever is attributed in part to any of the saints, belongs in complete fulness to the Church. Although there is some semblance of truth in this, I deny that it is true.

(Institutes, IV, 8, 12)

Calvin believes that Scripture is self-authenticating. I appeal, then, to the reader to judge the above passages. Do they seem to support the notion of an infallible Church council (apart from the question of whether the Catholic Church, headed by the Pope, is that Church)? Do Calvin’s arguments succeed? For Catholics, the import of Acts 15:28 is clear and undeniable.