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Understanding Papal Infallibility

David Palm March 16, 2010 No Comments

“How can Catholics believe that a mere man can never be wrong?”

“You mean to tell me that the same guys who authorized the Inquisition and kept mistresses are God’s infallible oracles to the world?”

“The Church is collegial and the highest authority in the Church is an ecumenical council.  Papal infallibility is just a late fabrication to solidify the tyranny of the pope over the Church.”

“Papal infallibility—are you kidding?  Just look at Pope Honorius; he was condemned as a heretic by the sixth Ecumenical Council.  And how about Pope Liberius?  He signed an Arian creed.”

You may have heard some or all of these objections to the Catholic teaching on Papal Infallibility.  This dogma tends to be one of the most criticized and yet least understood facets of the Catholic faith.  And yet, I am convinced that the doctrine is more easily grasped—indeed, can be seen as logically necessary—when seen in its proper context.

We should note at the outset that infallibility per se should present no problem to non-Catholic Christians.  All Christians who seek to remain faithful to the earliest historical expressions of the Christian faith—such as the Nicene and Athanasian creeds—believe in the principle of infallibility.  All believe that God uses fallible and sinful men to communicate His truth infallibly.  Evangelical Protestants staunchly defend the notion that God used fallible men to speak His truth in the written Word.  So the all-too-common jibes about the impossibility of mere men speaking infallibly or objections that sinful popes cannot possibly be the bearers of God’s infallible truth show a lack of reflection and fairness.  Evangelicals routinely acknowledge that men guilty of terrible sins—murder, adultery, hypocrisy, and betrayal of the Lord—were nonetheless capable of conveying infallible truth.  Thus many objections to papal infallibility are clearly based on a doctrinal double standard.

There are several necessary building blocks that need to be in place before papal infallibility can be seen as logical and even necessary.  Without this prior preparation it is difficult to understand where papal infallibility fits in God’s grand scheme for His Church. Here they are:

† The Church is visible.

† The visible Church has a “prime


† The Church is infallible.

† The holder of the highest office in the Church, the “prime minister,” by necessity shares the infallibility of the Church in the exercise of that office.

The Church is Visible

By a visible Church we mean one that has a distinctive, defined, and unchanging structure.  A visible Church also has a continuity through time; that is, it can be located throughout all of Christian history.  Historically, the marks of the visible Church have been four: the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  The Eastern Orthodox agree with Catholics that the Church is visible.  But the vast majority of Protestants subscribe instead, in varying degrees, to the “invisible church” theory.  For them, the Church consists of all believers in Christ and has no necessary visible, historical manifestation.1 

Many non-Catholic Christians divide themselves into more or less autonomous local congregations or denominational groups and announce that in so doing they are simply patterning themselves after the New Testament Church.  And yet, strangely, we find no such Church in the pages of the New Testament.  The Church of the New Testament most definitely had a visible hierarchy.  There are no independent local congregations in the New Testament.  The apostles, who served as the prototypical bishops for the Church, had binding “jurisdiction” over multiple congregations (e.g. St. Paul); it appears that their successors bore the same kind of authority (Titus 1:5).  The hierarchy of the New Testament Church could meet in solemn council and promulgate doctrinal decisions that were binding on the whole Church (Acts 15:1-29); one could not “dissent” from the ruling of the Jerusalem Council and still remain in the Church.  And there is no evidence that an individual congregation could decide that they didn’t agree with others on doctrinal issues.  Rather, the apostles exercised their authority to insist on uniformity in doctrine (e.g. Phil 2:1-2), morals (e.g. 1 Cor 7:17), worship (e.g. 1 Cor 7:18ff.), and church government (e.g. Titus 1:5).

A Protestant Christian might object that this system only held good during the time of the apostles, after which the Scriptures alone would guide leadership in local congregations or larger denominational affiliations.  But again, there is no such command or instruction from the apostles giving the Bible this role for the future Church. Rather, the apostles pass their authority on to men to guard the deposit of faith. The Pastoral Epistles record at least in outline the kind of authority to be wielded by the apostolic successors.  Titus and Timothy have all the functions of a modern Catholic bishop: St. Paul orders them to ordain (Titus 1:5), to guard the deposit of faith against heresy (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14), to discipline (2 Tim 2:14, 24-26; 4:12), and to teach authoritatively (1 Tim 4:11; 6:2, 20; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:1-2).  There is never any hint that congregations should simply “consult the Book” if they run into trouble.

This biblical witness is confirmed by the witness of those who immediately followed the apostles.  St. Clement of Rome wrote in A.D. 96 that, “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry” (1 Clem 44:1-2).2   And St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 106) speaks of “bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], [who] are so by the will of Jesus Christ” (Ad Eph 3).  “Do ye, beloved, be careful to be subject to the bishop, and the presbyters and the deacons” (Ad Eph 5).  Thus, by the first years of the second century this three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyter/priest, and deacon was the norm in the entire Church.

So the majority of standard evangelical Protestant interpretations have to contend with a massive discontinuity between what they believe the apostles taught concerning Church government and the reality of the Church as it appears in the immediate post-apostolic era—and continually on until the time of Martin Luther.  The Catholic argues much more solidly that the biblical and continuous post-apostolic witnesses combine to form a solid confirmation that a visible and continuous hierarchy of apostolic successor-bishops is indeed the model intended by the Lord for his Church.

The Church has a Prime Minister:

We have seen that the Church established by Jesus Christ has an essential visible component and continuity throughout history.  We see too in Scripture that the appointed leaders of the Church met in council to decide doctrinal issues and from their decree there was no dissent.  The Eastern Orthodox point to this action by the New Testament Church and argue that the Church is, by nature, exclusively collegial.  Thus the official voice of the Church is sounded through the shepherds of the Church, the bishops, meeting in ecumenical council.  But Scripture shows another aspect of the Church’s visible nature.

The kingdom that Jesus Christ came to set up was a continuation of the monarchy that God had established in Israel.  Our Lord is the son of David and he comes to sit eternally on David’s throne.  In the kingdom of Israel, as in all kingdoms, there are lesser nobles who assist the king.  One of these, the steward or “one who is over the house”—in modern parlance the prime minister—held a special place of prominence in the hierarchy; the man holding that place was second only to the king in authority.  In ancient Israel this office was represented by keys of the kingdom:

On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him.  I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.  I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.  I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house (Isa 22:20-23).

In the context, a steward by the name of Shebna is being deposed  by God and another, Eliakim son of Hilkiah, is being put into his place.  We notice that this appointment to the office of steward includes being given a key of the kingdom.

In establishing the kingdom of heaven the Lord also reestablishes this office of steward or prime minister and he gives this office to St. Peter, as signified by the promise of the keys of the kingdom:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matt 16:18-19).

There is no real doubt, even among evangelical Protestant scholars, that the Lord had Isa 22 in mind when he spoke these words to St. Peter.  There can be no real doubt either that His words indicate a transfer of special authority.  As Protestant scholar F. F. Bruce says,

And what about the “keys of the kingdom”?  The keys of a royal or noble establishment were entrusted to the chief steward or major domo; he carried them on his shoulder in earlier times, and there they served as a badge of the authority entrusted to him. . . . So in the new community which Jesus was to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward.”3 

This special office devolved on St. Peter is confirmed by other passages such as John 21:15ff., Luke 22:31-32, and even Acts 15:1-29 in which it is Peter who pronounces the doctrinal decision at the Jerusalem Council, silencing the discussion, after which St. James adds some strictly pastoral provisions.

Nor can this newly reestablished office in the Church reasonably be limited exclusively to St. Peter.  Succession of this office, while not explicit in Scripture, becomes altogether reasonable given that (1) the office was a successive one in the Old Testament economy, (2) the promise of the Lord to “build my Church” did not pertain only to the New Testament Church, so there is a future thrust right in the text—this text then appears more as a prophecy than as an exclusive promise to Peter, (3) if the Kingdom would last till the end of time, and the King would certainly be enthroned until the end of time, then there is no good reason to suppose that the newly established office of prime minister would cease after the death of Peter, (4) the Lord in parables speaks of stewards who are placed “over the house” until His Parousia (see e.g. Matt 24:45ff.), (5) the papacy represents the logical “historical embodiment of Christ’s promise” to Peter, (6) the covenant people of God have always had this kind of earthly, patriarchal headship and there is no good reason to suppose that will end in the New Covenant, (7) if the leadership of the New Testament Church was constituted this way then there is no good reason to suppose that the Church’s fundamental structure would change radically when the apostles died, (8) the early Church had a lively understanding of the direct succession of its leadership from the apostles in general, (9) in the aggregate the Church, in its belief and practice, early and continuously, ascribed to the bishops of Rome as the successors of Peter the same sort of overseeing authority that was indeed promised in the New Testament itself, (10) the need for such an office certainly did not cease in the first century with the death of Peter.

Thus the Church is visible in her hierarchy and historical succession and a necessary part of that ongoing succession is a successor from St. Peter who functions as the steward or prime minister of the King, Jesus Christ.  This is the real biblical pattern of Church government and there is only one contender for the position of historical successor to the infant Church, namely the Catholic Church.

The Church is Infallible:

From the idea of a visible Church, established by our Lord Jesus Christ to remain until He comes again, it is but a short step—backed by many indications in Scripture and Tradition—that this Church is infallible.  Eastern Orthodox agree with Evangelicals on the infallibility of the Scriptures and with us extend infallibility also to the Church.  Ironically, the Protestant propensity to limit infallibility to the Scriptures alone cannot be supported from Scripture.  Rather, the Scriptures themselves indicate that the universal Church can never be led into error.

It is well to notice the contrary position before looking at the biblical and traditional evidence for an infallible Church.  Protestants have historically argued that the visible Church, the hierarchy that exists in continuity throughout history, not only can err but has erred in numerous and grievous ways, to the detriment of literally millions of souls.

But the Scriptures have something quite different to say about the Church and the possibility of falling wholesale into error.  For example, St. Paul calls the Church the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).  If this verse said that the Bible is the pillar and foundation of the truth it would be the classic proof text for Evangelicals to prove the inerrancy (and sole sufficiency) of Scripture.  They would certainly argue that it is impossible for something that God’s Word calls the very pillar and foundation of the truth to teach fundamental doctrinal or moral error to God’s people.  And I agree—this line of reasoning should receive its due force as applied to the Church.

Elsewhere the Lord promises that the Spirit of Truth would abide with the Church “forever” and would lead her into all truth (John 14:16-18; 15:26; 16:13).  It is the qualification that the Spirit of Truth will abide “forever” that obviates application of these promises only to the apostles.  The Lord also says that the coming of the Holy Spirit means that Christians will no longer be orphans.  But if the promise of the Spirit of Truth pertains exclusively to the apostles this would mean that our Lord had left us orphans.  For these reasons it seems better to see His words as a promise to the Church at large, as represented by the “college” of the apostles, a promise that the Church will never be led into error but will instead be illuminated by the Spirit of Truth “forever.”

The Lord also promised that the “gates of hell” will not prevail against the Church (Matt 16:19).  This occurs immediately in the context of St. Peter’s investiture with the office of prime minister in the kingdom of God.  Again, it seems difficult to reconcile the notion that the visible Church can officially err in a fundamental doctrinal or moral area with the promise of the Lord that the forces of evil will never prevail against His Church.

And His solemn decree that “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20) guarantees his abiding presence with the Church in her mission of evangelism and discipleship.  Other Scripture references in which God declares that “I will be with you” indicate that this is a solemn promise of divine guidance and deliverance; the results of the promise will infallibly take place (cf. Gen 26:24; 28:15; Isa 41:10; Jer 1:8; 15:20; 42:11; Acts 18:10; et al.).  This promise in the Great Commission is different in that it is the only time that the divine presence is promised to abide always or perpetually with God’s people.  Again, it is helpful to contrast this with the notion, espoused by so many non-Catholic Christians, that the Church had become so corrupt over time that she had literally ceased to preach the true Gospel, to the detriment of millions of souls.  It cannot be reconciled, I think, with such a solemn promise of the Lord’s abiding presence in her great mission of evangelism.

The Pope Shares the Infallibility of the Church:

When we combine the previous points we reach what I think is a logically necessary conclusion.  If there is a visible Church established by our Lord, whose official action is guarded by God from error, and the Lord established in this Church an office of “prime minister” then the official exercise of that office would necessarily be protected from error, lest God’s people be led astray in a matter pertaining to their salvation.

Here is how the Catholic Church officially defined papal infallibility at Vatican I:

When the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in the blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

Notice that the boundaries of papal infallibility are carefully delineated.  And on reflection the limitations make perfect sense.  Infallibility does not adhere to the man, else he would be infallible in everything he says.  Nor does infallibility adhere to the office, for the same reason.  Rather, the gift of infallibility must adhere to the exercise of the office.  Note, for example, that a king may write letters to his various officials discussing possible legislation and even give public statements concerning his intentions, but it is only his official promulgations that actually become the law of the land.  Similarly, the pope may carry on private correspondence, speak or write as a private teacher, or even make certain public pronouncements without invoking the authority of his office.  No one, for example, looks to a book like Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II as an infallible dogmatic pronouncement.  It is a product of the pope in his capacity as a private Catholic theologian, not as the Vicar of Christ.  And infallibility is not impeccability.  It does not render the successor of Peter sinless.  As I have pointed out above, God used fallible and sinful men to give us infallible Scripture, and He is certainly able to do the same with his prime minister on earth.  But when the pope does speak on a matter pertaining to salvation in his official capacity as the “one who is over the house”, the prime minister of the King of Kings, then he is guarded by the Holy Spirit from leading God’s people into error.

Only after having laid out this foundational case for the doctrine of papal infallibility is it reasonable to move on to address the objections quoted at the beginning of this article. And once one understands the reasons why the Catholic believes the exercise of the office of the papacy to be divinely protected from error, the objections are easily discounted. The fact is that papal infallibility flows from a proper understanding of salvation history, is eminently defendable from Scripture, is expressed in the ongoing Tradition of the Church, and represents a tremendous gift that God has given to his people.


 1 Protestants frequently profess to subscribe to the ancient creeds, in which the Church is portrayed as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”  And yet it is easy to show that the Protestant theory of the Church invests that phrase with a meaning far removed from that intended by its authors, the bishops of the Catholic Church meeting in council at Nicea.  This is an historical fact beyond all reasonable question.  The necessary importation of such a foreign notion as an “invisible church” into the words of the Nicene Creed is strange indeed coming from those who so jealously uphold adherence to the original intention of the authors of sacred Scripture.

 2 It has sometimes been argued that for St. Clement the offices of bishop and presbyter are identical.  This is unlikely, however, since in one passage he draws a parallel between the three-fold hierarchy of the Old Covenant—high priest, priest, Levite—and the three-fold hierarchy in the Church—which would correspond to bishop, presyter/priest, and deacon (see 1 Clem 40).

 3 F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 143-44.

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