Who’s in Charge Here? The Illusions of Church Infallibility
In my experience with those who wrestle with conversion to Roman Catholicism—at least those who have professed faith in the gospel, the driving theological issue is authority. How can I be certain that what I believe is true? The gospel of free grace through the justification of sinners in Christ alone moves to the back seat. Instead of the horse, it becomes the cart. Adjustments are made in their understanding of the gospel after accepting Rome’s arguments against sola scriptura. I address these remarks to friends struggling with that issue.
Reformation Christians can agree with Augustine when he said that he would never have known the truth of God’s Word apart from the catholic church. As the minister of salvation, the church is the context and means through which we come to faith and are kept in the faith to the end. When Philip found an Ethiopian treasury secretary returning from Jerusalem reading Isaiah 53, he inquired, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I,” the official replied, “unless someone guides me?” (Ac 8:30-31). Explaining the passage in the light of its fulfillment in Christ, Philip baptized the man who then “went on his way rejoicing” (v 39).
Philip did not have to be infallible; he only had to communicate with sufficient truth and clarity the infallible Word.
For many, this kind of certainty, based on a text, is not adequate. We have to know—really know—that what we believe is an infallible interpretation of an ultimate authority. The churches of the Reformation confess that even though some passages are more difficult to understand, the basic narratives, doctrines and commands of Scripture—especially the message of Christ as that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation—is so clearly evident that even the unlearned can grasp it.
For the Reformers, sola scriptura did not mean that the church and its official summaries of Scripture (creeds, confessions, catechisms, and decisions in wider assemblies) had no authority. Rather, it meant that their ministerial authority was dependent entirely on the magisterial authority of Scripture. Scripture is the master; the church is the minister.
The following theses summarize some of the issues that people should wrestle with before embracing a Roman Catholic perspective on authority.
- The Reformers did not separate sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) from solo Christo (Christ alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone). As Herman Bavinck said, “Faith in Scripture rises or falls with faith in Christ.” Revealed from heaven, the gospel message itself (Christ as the central content of Scripture) is as much the basis for the Bible’s authority as the fact that it comes from the Father through the inspiration of the Spirit. Jesus Christ, raised on the third day, certified his divine authority. Furthermore, he credited the Old Testament writings as “scripture,” equating the words of the prophets with the very word of God himself and commissioned his apostles to speak authoritatively in his name. Their words are his words; those who receive them also receive the Son and the Father. So Scripture is the authoritative Word of God because it comes from the unerring Father, concerning the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Neither the authority of the Bible nor that of the church can stand apart from the truth of Christ as he is clothed in his gospel.
- Every covenant is contained in a canon (like a constitution). The biblical canon is the norm for the history of God’s saving purposes in Christ under the old and new covenants. The Old Testament canon closed with the end of the prophetic era, so that Jesus could mark a sharp division between Scripture and the traditions of the rabbis (Mk 7:8). The New Testament canon was closed at the end of the apostolic era, so that even during that era the Apostle Paul could warn the Corinthians against the “super-apostles” by urging, “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Co 4:6). While the apostles were living, the churches were to “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Co 11:2), “…either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Th 2:15). There were indeed written and unwritten traditions in the apostolic church, but only those that eventually found their way by the Spirit’s guidance into the New Testament are now for us the apostolic canon. The apostles (extraordinary ministers) laid the foundation and after them workers (ordinary ministers) build on that foundation (1 Co 3:10). The apostles could appeal to their own eye-witness, direct, and immediate vocation given to them by Christ, while they instructed ordinary pastors (like Timothy) to deliver to others what they had received from the apostles. As Calvin noted, Rome and the Anabaptists were ironically similar in that they affirmed a continuing apostolic office. In this way, both in effect made God’s Word subordinate to the supposedly inspired prophets and teachers of today.
- Just as the extraordinary office of prophets and apostles is qualitatively distinct from that of ordinary ministers, the constitution (Scripture) is qualitatively distinct from the Spirit-illumined but non-inspired courts (tradition) that interpret it. Thus, Scripture is magisterial in its authority, while the church’s tradition of interpretation is ministerial.
- To accept these theses is to embrace sola scriptura, as the Reformation understood it.
- This is precisely the view that we find in the church fathers. First, it is clear enough from their descriptions (e.g., the account in Eusebius) that the fathers did not create the canon but received and acknowledged it. (Even Peter acknowledged Paul’s writings as “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:16, even though Paul clearly says in Galatians that he did not receive his gospel from or seek first the approval of any of the apostles, since he received it directly from Christ.) The criteria they followed indicates this: To be recognized as “Scripture,” a purported book had to be well-attested as coming from the apostolic circle. Those texts that already had the widest and earliest acceptance in public worship were easily recognized by the time Athanasius drew up the first list of all 27 NT books in 367. Before this even, many of these books were being quoted as normative scripture by Clement of Rome, Origin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others. Of his list, Athanasius said that “holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us” (NPNF2, 4:23). Also in the 4th century Basil of Caesarea instructed, “Believe those things which are written; the things which are not written, seek not…It is a manifest defection from the faith, a proof of arrogance, either to reject anything of what is written, or to introduce anything that is not” (“On the Holy Spirit,” NPNF2, 8:41). Second, although the fathers also acknowledge tradition as a ministerially authoritative interpreter, they consistently yield ultimate obedience to Scripture. For example, Augustine explains that the Nicene Creed is binding because it summarizes the clear teaching of Scripture (On the Nicene Creed: A Sermon to the Catechumens, 1).
- Roman Catholic scholars acknowledge that the early Christian community in Rome was not unified under a single head. (Paul, for example, reminded Timothy of the gift he was given when the presbytery laid its hands on him in his ordination: 1 Tim 4:14). In fact, in the Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue the Vatican acknowledged that “the New Testament texts offer no sufficient basis for papal primacy” and that they contain “no explicit record of a transmission of Peter’s leadership” (“Authority in the Church” II, ARCIC, para 2, 6). So one has to accept papal authority exclusively on the basis of subsequent (post-apostolic) claims of the Roman bishop, without scriptural warrant. There is no historical succession from Peter to the bishops of Rome. First, as Jerome observed in the 4th-century, “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders,” and Jerome goes so far as to suggest that the introduction of bishops as a separate order above the presbyters was “more from custom than from the truth of an arrangement by the Lord” (cited in the Second Helvetic Confession, Ch 18). Interestingly, even the current pope acknowledges that presbyter and episcipos were used interchangeably in the New Testament and in the earliest churches (Called to Communion, 122-123).
- Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word [‘universal’]….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest” (Gregory I, Letters; tr. NPNF 2 ser.XII. i. 75-76; ii. 170, 171, 179, 166, 169, 222, 225).
- Nevertheless, building on the claims of Roman bishops Leo I and Galsius in the 5th century, later bishops of Rome did claim precisely this “proud address.” Declaring themselves Christ’s replacement on earth, they claimed sovereignty (“plenitude of power”) over the world “to govern the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.” At the Council of Reims (1049) the Latin Church claimed for the pope the title “pontifex universalis“—precisely the title identified by Gregory as identifying one who “in his self-exaltation [is] Antichrist’s precursor….” Is Pope Gregory the Great correct, or are his successors?
- Papal pretensions contributed to the Great Schism in 1054, when the churches of the East formally excommunicated the Church of Rome, and the pope reacted in kind.
- The Avignon Papacy (1309-76) relocated the throne to France and was followed by the Western Schism (1378-1417), with three rival popes excommunicating each other and their sees. No less than the current Pope wrote, before his enthronement, “For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form–the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 196).
- Medieval debates erupted over whether Scripture, popes or councils had the final say. Great theologians like Duns Scotus and Pierre D’Ailly favored sola scriptura. Papalists argued that councils had often erred and contradicted themselves, so you have to have a single voice to arbitrate the infallible truth. Conciliarists had no trouble pointing out historical examples of popes contradicting each other, leading various schisms, and not even troubling to keep their unbelief and reckless immorality private. Only at the Council of Trent was the papalist party officially affirmed in this dispute.
- Papal claims were only strengthened in reaction to the Reformation, all the way to the promulgation of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. At that Council, Pope Pius IX could even respond to modern challenges to his authority by declaring, “I am tradition.”
- Though inspired by God, Scripture cannot be sufficient. It is a dark, obscure, and mysterious book (rendered more so by Rome’s allegorizing exegesis). An infallible canon needs an infallible interpreter. This has been Rome’s argument. The insufficiency of Scripture rests on its lack of clarity. True it is that the Bible is a collection of texts spread across many centuries, brimming with a variety of histories, poetry, doctrines, apocalyptic, and laws. However, wherever it has been translated in the vernacular and disseminated widely, barely literate people have been able to understand its central message. Contrast this with the libraries full of decreetals and encyclicals, councilor decisions and counter-decisions, bulls and promulgations. Any student of church history recognizes that in this case the teacher is often far more obscure than the text. It’s no wonder that Rome defines faith as fides implicita: taking the church’s word for it. For Rome, faith is not trust in Jesus Christ according to the gospel, but yielding assent and obedience unreservedly simply to everything the church teaches as necessary to salvation. There are many hazards associated with embracing an infallible text without an infallible interpreter. However, the alternative is not greater certainty and clarity about the subject matter, but a sacrifice of the intellect and an abandonment of one’s personal responsibility for one’s commitments to the decisions and acts of others.
- Those of us who remain Reformed must examine the Scriptures and the relevant arguments before concluding that Rome’s claims are not justified and its teaching is at variance with crucial biblical doctrines. A Protestant friend in the midst of being swayed by Rome’s arguments exclaims, “That’s exactly why I can’t be a Protestant anymore. Without an infallible magisterium everyone believes whatever he chooses.” At this point, it’s important to distinguish between a radical individualism (believing whatever one chooses) and a personal commitment in view of one’s ultimate authority. My friend may be under the illusion that his or her decision is different from that, but it’s not. In the very act of making the decision to transfer ultimate authority from Scripture to the magisterium, he or she is weighing various biblical passages and theological arguments. The goal (shifting the burden of responsibility from oneself to the church) is contradicted by the method. At this point, one cannot simply surrender to a Reformed church or a Roman church; they must make a decision after careful personal study. We’re both in the same shoes.
- Most crucially, Rome’s ambitious claims are tested by its faithfulness to the gospel. If an apostle could pronounce his anathema on anyone—including himself or an angel from heaven—who taught a gospel different from the one he brought to them (Gal 1:8-9), then surely any minister or church body after the apostles is under that threat. First, Paul was not assuming that the true church is beyond the possibility of error. Second, he placed himself under the authority of that Word. Just read the condemnations from the Council of Trent below. Do they square with the clear and obvious teaching of Scripture? If they do not, then the choice to be made is between the infallible writings of the apostles and those after the apostles and since who claim to be the church’s infallible teachers.
As I have pointed out in previous posts, the frustration with the state of contemporary Protestantism is understandable. I feel it every day. Yet those who imagine that they will escape the struggle between the “already” and the “not yet,” the certainty of a promise and the certainty of possession, the infallibility of God’s Word and the fallibility of its appointed teachers, are bound to be disappointed wherever they land. As Calvin counseled on the matter, Scripture alone is sufficient; “better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.”