Thomas Aquinas defined true faith in terms of one’s willful adherence to a religious authority. Because supernatural truths of faith are not directly discoverable by the senses or reason, God must reveal them somehow. Because supernatural truths of faith must be revealed, questions concerning them cannot be resolved by other means (e.g., logic, science, philosophy, history, etc.). God’s revelation, in whatever form it takes, becomes the religious authority for believers. Christians typically insist that this authority must be infallible – after all, if we cannot really be sure what God has revealed, how could we submit ourselves wholly to it? Eternal salvation itself may be at stake.
Most Christians also think God has provided such infallible guidance in the Bible, the councils of the Church, or some authoritative spokesmen. Disagreements over the locus of this infallible authority sparked two major divisions within Christendom: the East/West Schism and the Protestant Reformation. If infallibility is found only in the councils, one runs into the problem of determining which ones count as universally binding. If infallibility is guaranteed to the Bible alone, one runs into the historical problem that we are reliant on the Church for the very contents of the Bible. Behind both the Church’s councils and scripture, then, we find the Church making decisions that affect each. Therefore, potential for error in the Church’s determinations would transfer to the councils it called and the Bible it wrote and defined. But if the Church is infallible, one must still ask which of the contrary Christian traditions retains it.
The difficulties associated with these questions have moved some to suggest that perhaps Christianity simply does not require an infallible guide. If Christianity does not have an infallible, authoritative ground, it might seem that chaos would be inescapable. This theoretical problem, in itself, does not prove that Christianity actually has such an infallible ground, though – or even that it must have one. It may only indicate what might be preferred.
Below are my thoughts on why Christianity both needs and has an infallible, authoritative guide.
The Requirement of Infallibility
It is clear that legitimate authority can exist without it being infallible. Indeed, we regularly entrust ourselves to fallible authorities (police, doctors, parents, bosses, etc.). In the Old Testament, the Jewish leaders possessed legitimate religious authority as recognized by Jesus himself (Mt. 23:2-3), yet they were certainly fallible. Indeed, all religions have some internally-legitimate authority, and most of these are in error (logic dictates that their contrary teachings cannot all be true). The argument is not, however, simply that “The Church is a religious authority, therefore it is infallible.”
When Jesus founded the Church on his apostles (cf. Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14), he made some rather startling assertions. Jesus instructed the apostles to teach people all that he had taught them in order to make disciples (Mt. 28:19–20). Jesus also told the apostles they had the authority to judge sin (Mt. 18:18), then said that whoever listened to them was listening to him, and whoever rejected them was rejecting him (Lk. 10:16). These were no mere country preachers! The institution of the Church began with a transfer of divine authority to found a Church with the purpose of teaching doctrine and determining sin and salvation.
It’s hard to imagine Jesus giving this kind of authority to the apostles who served as the foundation of the Church and then saying, “Of course, there’s no guarantee that you won’t mess it all up – but no worries.” What good is divine, eternal, and immutable truth, if its teacher can be in error? Would God entrust his Church with teachings connected to mankind’s ultimate purpose (the reward of heaven or penalty of damnation) without some means of guaranteeing it did not teach falsehood? Given this role, infallibility seems a necessity.
Now, it was admitted above that Israel was under the religious authority of fallible leaders, and this might seem like a counterexample given Judaism’s close association with Christianity. But God did not just drop the Old Testament into the laps of the Israelites and leave them to try to figure out Judaism. Rather, he provided them with inspired and infallible prophets who spoke for him and who, later, even add to biblical revelation when needed. However, such things are not available to the Church because Jesus was the final revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-2), and the New Testament was the final inspired revelation of God’s word. (These two points are fairly uncontested among the majority of Christians, so I will not argue for them here). So Israel does not function as a counterexample, rather it may point to the need for ongoing infallible guidance.
The Promise of Infallibility
An indirect proof of the Church’s infallibility is found at its very creation. The Church built on the apostles was tasked with the communication of Jesus’ gospel, teachings, and forgiveness of sins (Mt. 16-18 cf. Mt. 28:18-20). It therefore could not fulfill its role if it fell into religious error – to do so would be to fail as the Church. Jesus, however, promised that his Church would not fail (Mt. 16:18). If failure to accomplish its role as religious authority would constitute a failure of the Church, and the Church cannot fail, then the Church cannot teach religious error. Therefore, if the Church ever taught heresy, it would not be the Church! Since this would entail a contradiction, then the Church must be protected from teaching religious error (which is merely the negative way of expressing infallibility).
Further, we know from the Bible that Jesus did not give such a weighty role to the apostles without a means of accomplishing it. Rather, he promised the apostles the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth (Jn. 16:13), their teachings (both written and verbal) were to be obeyed (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). Thus, both the Church’s role, promises, and descriptions do not seem to leave room for religious error. That this is the Church’s self-understanding is demonstrated by the Church’s actions. The first time a major doctrinal decision had to be made, the apostles talked it out and made their own judgment. In fact, they concluded that what they thought was what the Holy Spirit thought (Acts 15). If the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead the apostles into all truth did not confer upon them some supernatural guidance, it is difficult to imagine how such a lofty claim could be made.
Finally, this protection does not end with the apostles themselves. The Church’s role did not change with the death of the apostles, and so the means necessary to accomplish its purpose can be expected to continue as well. In the Great Commission, Jesus told the apostles that he would be with them until the end (Mt. 28:18-20). The Church they founded was to become the “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and this did not cease in the first century of its existence. This implies that the apostle’s roles and promised means would not cease with their deaths, but would continue somehow. We know that the apostles apostles, in fulfilling this Great Commission, did not simply start churches and leave them to their own. Rather, they ordained leaders to guide these groups as authoritative overseers (e.g., Titus, 2 Tim.). This provided for the continuation of the Church’s identity, as well as continuing the Church’s functions and means. History bears this out as well – for such was the Church’s self understanding from the earliest times, as reflected in the writings of the apostolic fathers (some overlapping the lives of the apostles).
The Practice of Infallibility
Just how the Church’s infallibility works is not as historically clear as its biblical promise, however. As implied above, it will not do to put this promise on the Bible alone, for the Bible is itself dependent on the teaching of the Church. Neither can infallible authority be charged to the Holy Spirit working in individual believers – for this is nowhere promised in the Bible, the widespread doctrinal disunity among individual Christians does not seem to support such an idea. Further, whichever infallible guidance is claimed by any Christian, it would seem even more legitimately claimed by the Church itself.
We know from the formation of the Church that authoritative councils were called to deal with doctrinal disputes (e.g., Acts 15). Councils continued to be the means by which the Church formally declared orthodox doctrine, and even the canon of scripture. If infallible decisions were not being made at these councils, it is difficult to imagine how else they were. Some conclude from this that the Church is only infallible when it meets in ecumenical councils. However, this does not resolve all the issues.
First, there is the question of distinguishing between local and universal (“ecumenical”) councils. Who decides which councils are only locally binding, versus those that require universal assent? (The declaration of the contents of the Bible at various local councils is a good example of this problem – none were ever declared ecumenical councils, yet they are often cited as authoritative with regard to the canon.) Second, the apostolic Eastern Orthodox churches limit infallibility to the ecumencial councils, but Eastern Orthodoxy’s difficulty in determining a universally binding council at least calls council-only infallibility into question. Further, while united concerning the topics of their acknowledged ecumenical councils, issues of continued factionalism in other areas illustrate the theoretical problems inherent in non-singular, ultimate authorities. Third, if majority representation is used as the criterion, it may become impossible to even hold such a council today.
There is also the very real potential problem of majority error. Apostolic succession by itself is no guarantee of infallibility. The defection of Jesus’ followers in John 16 is a sober reminder that even disciples can go wrong. Peter made several sinful blunders in his time, and the treachery of the apostle Judas Iscariot is well known. Further, there has been a small collection of heresy-affirming Bishops (even Patriarchs), and Deacons throughout the Church’s history. But there must be some standard by which to judge potentially heretical Church leaders besides other potentially heretical Church leaders. Some sort of majority agreement over time is often suggested, but the theoretical problem remains. Fallibility is transitive – if every individual Bishop is fallible, collecting them together does not fix the problem. What if the majority of heretical arian Bishops had managed to sway the vote at Nicea, or if there had been more Nestorian leaders at Chalcedon? Adding “over time” to the equation suffers from the same problems.
The Office of Infallibility
A single, infallible, apostolic office appears necessary to overcome the above issues. Because an office is only temporarily connected to a particular person, it can go on after any individual passed away. It would also allow for the personal failings of any particular leader in that role. The Church’s identity would also continue to be objectively verifiable because no matter what Church leaders taught, or what lay members thought, there would always be a known standard against which they could be tested. Without such a public, immovable standard, relativism and private judgment would take the day.
The office of the Bishop of Rome seems the best historical fit for this role. Support for this idea begins with biblical promises made to Peter (the first Bishop of Rome) specifically. When Jesus founded his unfailing Church, he called Peter the rock upon which it would be built (Mt. 16:18) and gave him the keys of the Kingdom (see Isa. 22 for what this meant). As predicted by Jesus, Peter failed miserably in his actions during Jesus’ trial, yet in this very passage, Jesus also set Peter apart by specifically praying for Peter’s success (Lk. 22:31-32). Jesus also commands Peter to strengthen his brethren, and puts him in charge of his followers (Jn. 21:15-19). So we see in Peter an obviously fallible individual who is nevertheless divinely protected from doctrinal error: he went on to preach the first Christian sermon (Acts 2), silenced the conflicting voices at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7-12), and wrote two infallible letters (1-2 Peter).
Moving forward in history, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome emerges over time. There are examples where the Bishop of Rome settled disputes in areas outside of Rome’s jurisdiction (another example). Among the great Patriarchates of Christendom, only the Roman office has never declared heresy. The great Christian apologist Irenaeus used Rome’s successors to argue against the gnostic heresy. Cyprian of Carthage (A.D. 250), Chrysostom, and Jerome, argued using Roman apostolic succession as well. Thus, it seems that the Bishop of Rome held a privileged place from early times, even though papal infallibility was not dogmatically defined until the first Vatican council.
That such singular oversight is necessary for the Christian faith is also evident from the great 16th Century test case of its denial. Protestantism’s sola scriptura principle has resulted in the dissolution of religious authority, agreement, and unity. Besides the difficulty of trusting an infallible book while rejecting its allegedly fallible source, there are also theoretical problems raised by linguistics and hermeneutics, as well as the objective fact of doctrinal disintegration where such oversight is absent, shows the viability of such an ideal to be questionable.
Finally, the Bible has to be authoritatively interpreted to function as a religious authority. Anyone can say they are in agreement with the Bible so long as their interpretation of the Bible is what they have in mind. The problem is that agreement implies at least two parties, and a book cannot be asked for its consent to one particular interpretation of its words.
“And if one should ask one of the heretics, . . . ‘What ground have you, for saying, that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church?’ He has the answer ready: ‘For it is written,’ and forthwith he produces a thousand testimonies, a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the Prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy. . . . Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance . . . hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. . . . an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old.” (St. Vincent of Lerins, “Commonitory,” 25 – A.D. 434)
The above theoretical, theological, and biblical, considerations point to the divine institution of a Church that God safeguards from authoritatively pronouncing religious error. Given its role as communicator of God’s revelation unto salvation, and promises and examples of divine guidance, protection from failure seems necessary to guarantee the Church’s very existence. Although this infallibility can and has been exercised through various means, there seems to remain a need for a single, infallible, apostolic office behind it all to provide an objective standard when necessary. Specific predictions and promises made to Peter, as well as the subsequent history of his successors, point to the office of the Bishop of Rome as the best fit for the “last line” of infallible doctrinal defense. Thus can the Church’s infallibility be grounded both in theory and practice.