Sunday, July 24, 2011

An Infallible Church?

What is your pillar and foundation for truth as a Christian?

This is a great question to ask the next time someone suggests that Christians should go by the Bible alone, and the answer, most likely, will be that the "Bible" is our pillar and foundation. However, the Bible itself says that the "Church" is the pillar and foundation for truth - 1 Tim. 3:15.

In this series, which focuses on a "Catholic" Bible study by author Bart Larson (scroll down for the last few essays), we have examined the premise of whether or not Christians are meant to go by the Bible alone. So far, these conclusions have been reached:

Scripture never explicitly says or even implies we are to go by the Bible alone.

Going by the Bible alone is a construct of the reformers, who came over one-and-a-half thousand years after Christ.
Early Christians didn't go by the Bible alone.

Scripture, in fact, tells us to go by the Bible AND the oral traditions of Christ and the apostles.

Even though Bart's study does not make the case for going by the Bible alone, it moves very quickly into the area of infallibility, trying to demonstrate, through various verses of Scripture, that there is no infallible Church. In this essay, we will first look at the verses he provides and then look at many he does not, which show that Christ indeed instituted an infallible Church.

First, a definition. Infallibility does not mean sinless. Many think that Catholics believe that the popes and bishops are incapable of sin, but this has never been the teaching, and history shows it isn't the case. Bart knows this - I've explained it to him several times, but he still uses his study to disprove infallibility based on the sinful nature of Peter, which is a dishonest tactic. Second, infallibility does not mean that the Pope is right in everything he writes or says. For instance, what the Pope writes in his personal journal or says in a Sunday homily is not protected by infallibility. Nor would he be infallible if he predicted the winner of the World Series or tried to identify the location of Jimmy Hoffa. Finally, infallibility does not mean that the Pope receives new revelation or that he is on God's special e-mail list. Many accuse Catholics of "adding" to revelation. However, when the Pope makes an infallible declaration, he is slave to the original deposit in Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Infallibility, simply put, is the teaching that God will not let any mere man destroy his Church with heresy. It is a limitation upon the leaders of the Church, not a special power. When the Pope (or the bishops in unity with one another and the pope) officially proclaims a doctrine related to faith or morality, and when he intends for this teaching to be binding upon all the Christian faithful, he is protected from error. As you can see, infallibility has a pretty limited reach. It is about the teaching, not about the man. We'll examine the Scriptural, historical, and logical proofs for infallibility in a bit. Before then, let's look at the verses Bart's study uses to disprove it. This section begins with the heading: Did Jesus and the apostles teach that there would be an infallible church, along with infallible Christians?

• Matthew 7:15-20 - This verse warns that there will be false prophets. The Catholic Church agrees. However, the truth that there do exist false prophets doesn't specify who those prophets are. And it certainly doesn't demonstrate that there cannot be an infallible Church which is protected, by God, from the rot of false prophesy.

• Acts 20:29-31 - Similar to the last verse, this verse warns that there will be grievous wolves sneaking among the flock, but fails to disprove an actual infallible Church.

• Romans 16:18 - This verse warns us to avoid those who cause division, but never specifies who they are. Bart would have more difficulty with this verse than Catholics, as he would have to explain the division caused by so many interpretations from a Bible only approach.

• Galatians 2:11-21 - With these verses, Bart includes the note: "Note the moral issues and who was involved." While infallibility has nothing to do with "moral issues", which Bart knows, he still tries to disprove it. He wants Catholics to tie infallibility to moral issues, but we have never claimed that any man is without sin except Christ. In this verse, Peter refuses to eat with Gentiles. He does not, however, teach this is okay. Does this destroy Peter's ability to act infallibly? Bart should hope not, or else the two epistles authored by Peter are fallible, which means Scripture contains error. So this leads to another question for Bart: How can Peter not be infallible in official teachings, yet still write infallibly?

• I Timothy 4:1-3 - More verses which warn against false prophets - see notes above.

• II Peter 2:1 - Another verse which warns against false prophets - see notes above.

• Revelation, chapters 2 and 3 - Bart includes this note: "Were all of the 7 churches infallible?" This passage has nothing to do with infallibility for a couple reasons. 1) The Catholic Church does not teach that individual churches are infallible. My local pastor can, by all means, be in error. Even local bishops can be in error. 2) These verses are talking about the local churches falling into sin and needing to repent. It is referring to moral conduct, not "official teachings".

• (For additional verses read: II Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 4:14; Titus 1:10,11; I John 4:1 and II John 1:7-9.) Bart throws these last few verses in, but they simply refer, again, to those who are false prophets and those who teach false doctrine. Catholics can agree, pointing out that these deceivers are those who stray from the official teachings of the infallible Church.

So, at this point, Bart has failed to disprove infallibility. To be fair, though, he has the herculean task of proving a negative. After all, he would be hard-pressed to find a verse that says, "There is no infallible Church." The burden of proof is upon us, as Catholics, to find the proof that such a Church exists. We'll examine this through Scripture, history, and logic.


Even though Bart claims that his study is fair and presents the strongest verses he is aware of to support Catholic teachings, he actually includes no such verses for infallibility. This isn't because he isn't aware of them, as he has referred to Matthew 16:16-19 in private e-mails, so this raises the question of why he doesn't share this passage and others with his readers.

Before reading the passage in Matthew 16, one should note that the original readers of this passage would have been very familiar with the Old Testament and would have recognized that Christ was creating an amazing parallel with Isaiah 22:22, which tell us that the Davidic king would appoint a prime minister, who had the authority to act on behalf of the king. To signify this appointment, the king would lay the "key of the house of David ... upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open."

In Matthew 16:18, Christ (who is the fulfillment of the Davidic king) gives Peter the keys to the kingdom and tells him that what he binds on earth is bound in Heaven and what he loosens on earth is loosed in Heaven.

This parallel couldn't be accidental (God doesn't do anything accidentally), and it shows us some important things:

• If Christ is the new "Davidic king", Peter is in the role of the "prime minister" who can act with his authority.
• Just as the key of the house of David was a transferable gift, the role of Peter can be transferred to others.

What makes this passage even more striking is that Jesus goes a step further and gives Peter a new name. Whenever God gives someone a new name, it is of great significance (e.g. Saul - Paul; Abram - Abraham). At that point, Peter's actual name was Simon, and Jesus renamed him Kepha, which is Aramaic for Rock. He then says that "upon this rock" he would build his Church. In other words, "Simon, you are rock and upon this rock I will build my Church." Of course, God is the rock of our salvation (Psalm 94:22), but Christ desired that, when he ascended into Heaven, we would have a visible leader through whom the Holy Spirit would act to keep the Church in check.

Christ spoke Aramaic, and there is evidence that Matthew might have originally been written in Aramaic or Hebrew (Hierapoles wrote, around 100-140 AD, that Matthew wrote in the Hebrew language), yet some still try to appeal to the Greek text to claim that Christ was referring to Peter as a small stone "Petros", and to the foundation of the Church as a rock "Petra". However, this doesn't reflect the original Aramaic, and it shows an ignorance of Greek grammar, which relied on word endings to show gender. Petra (rock) is a feminine noun, and since Simon was male, Kepha had to be translated as "Petros", which is simply the masculine form of the noun. Petros and Petra once upon a time referred to different types of rock, but this in a different type of Greek (Attick Greek). By the time of the New Testament, which was written in Koine Greek, they were synonyms. The two types of Greek are as different as Shakespeare's English is to ours.

Simply put, though Christ is the cornerstone of our Church, he established Peter as the foundation for the earthly institution. While Bart's study fails to present any verses to support this, there are more than can be covered in this essay. Catholic Answers does a good job of summarizing the primacy of Peter in the tract, "Peter and the Papacy":

There is ample evidence in the New Testament that Peter was first in authority among the apostles. Whenever they were named, Peter headed the list (Matt. 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13); sometimes the apostles were referred to as "Peter and those who were with him" (Luke 9:32). Peter was the one who generally spoke for the apostles (Matt. 18:21, Mark 8:29, Luke 12:41, John 6:68-69), and he figured in many of the most dramatic scenes (Matt. 14:28-32, Matt. 17:24-27, Mark 10:23-28). On Pentecost it was Peter who first preached to the crowds (Acts 2:14-40), and he worked the first healing in the Church age (Acts 3:6-7). It is Peter's faith that will strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:32) and Peter is given Christ's flock to shepherd (John 21:17). An angel was sent to announce the resurrection to Peter (Mark 16:7), and the risen Christ first appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34). He headed the meeting that elected Matthias to replace Judas (Acts 1:13-26), and he received the first converts (Acts 2:41). He inflicted the first punishment (Acts 5:1-11), and excommunicated the first heretic (Acts 8:18-23). He led the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and announced the first dogmatic decision (Acts 15:7-11). It was to Peter that the revelation came that Gentiles were to be baptized and accepted as Christians (Acts 10:46-48).

In addition to this, the early Church is full of writings recognizing the primacy of Peter and their successors. Catholic interpretation of Scripture is consistent with those in the first centuries. The interpretation that Bart's study leads one to believe (by leaving out key verses), is not. Here are a couple examples of such writings:

Clement of Alexandria wrote: "[T]he blessed Peter, the chosen, the preeminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with himself the Savior paid the tribute [Matt. 17:27], quickly gasped and understood their meaning. And what does he say? 'Behold, we have left all and have followed you' [Matt. 19:27; Mark 10:28]" (Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved? 21:3-5 [A.D. 200]).

Cyprian of Carthage wrote: "The Lord says to Peter: 'I say to you,' he says, 'that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.' . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?" (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).
However, even if Peter is the leader of the apostles, and therefore, the Church, does this mean that the Church is infallible? We should both hope this is so and conclude this is so based on the following point:

• Scripture tells us that it is the Church, not the Bible alone, which is our "pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). How can a Church be the pillar and foundation of truth if capable of error?

• While Christ is our "shepherd" (Ez 34:15, Jn 10:16, 1 Pet 2:25), he transfers this title to Peter, as well, by telling him to feed his sheep in John 21:15-17. This doesn't replace Christ as the good shepherd, but emphasizes Peter's earthly role while Christ is in Heaven.

• In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus prays that, while the faith of others will fail, Peters would not, so that he could strengthen them. This further illustrates Jesus' desire that, after his ascension, we would have a visible and present leader to be our anchor to truth.

• In Luke 10:16, Christ gives the amazing declaration that whoever listens to the leaders of his Church listens to him, and whoever rejects them rejects him. How could this be if the leaders of the Church teach error? This would mean Christ teaches error. Likewise, how could this be if, as is the case in Protestantism today, several "true" Churches teach contradictory doctrine? Does this mean that Christ contradicts himself?

• During the first couple hundred years in the Church, that nature of Christ's divinity and the nature of the Trinity were debated until officially defined by the Catholic Church. These teachings were vague enough in Scripture that our limited minds struggled with them. Thus, if the Church is not infallible in defining them, doesn't this mean we might be wrong in our interpretation of Christ's divinity and the nature of the Trinity?

• During the first couple hundred years, the table of contents for the Bible were debated. Christians were in disagreement as to which books were inspired and which were not. The Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, officially defined the list of inspired books. If the Church could not act infallibly in this, then can we be sure that we have the correct list of books in the Bible? Many Protestant scholars realize this and have started referring to the Bible as a "fallible collection of infallible books." The implications of this statement are striking, as it is an admission that error could exist in our collection of 27 New Testament books (not to mention the Old Testament). If we lack that security, how can we be confident of anything the New Testament tells us if we have no firm confidence in the collection of books that exists there?

This last point recalls our question in the last essay, which Bart has not yet answered, which is how we know the book of Hebrews is inspired if we have no infallible Church? Actually, we could ask that of most books in the New Testament. Many point to 2 Tim. 3:16, which tells us that all Scripture is inspired, but there are two problems here:

1) Even if all Scripture is inspired (which it is), we can only know which books are Scripture in the first place after a source of authority tells us. If we remove the infallible Church, we have removed that source of authority. It is easy to say a book is inspired after we know it is Scripture (thanks to the Catholic Church), but put yourself in the mindset of a first century Christian, who is debating whether Hebrews should be included in the New Testament to begin with and it isn't so easy.

2) There is a problem when we rely on the text inside of a source to verify the inspiration of that same source. Scripture claims inspiration for itself. So do the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the writings of many cult leaders. I could even include this line in my essay: everything Spencer types is inspired by God. It would be circular logic to conclude my essay is inspired because I typed it, and because that line is in my essay, it must be true, and if it is true, my essay is inspired ... This logic is similar to a man trying to lift himself into the air.

Now that the subject of authority has been explored, the next essay will look at the teachings on salvation in Bart's essay, and specifically the question: Do you have eternal assurance of salvation?


annie119 said...
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annie119 said...

May I gently suggest the $1000 challenge needs to reframed as it is based on what seems to be a faulty understanding of sola scriptura.

For one thing, according to scholar Robert Letham, "there's no evidence of such a slogan in the entire 16th c. It is probable that it did not put in appearance until the 18th c. at the earliest. When it was coined it was held to affirm that the Bible is the highest court of appeal in all matters of religious controversy, which is what the Reformers and
their successors actually held. The slogan itself, still less the reality to which it was intended to point, never meant that the Bible was the only source for theology." (Through Western Eyes, p. 197).

In reality, the early Reformers never rejected the apostolic tradition, nor did they pit Scripture against Tradition as some have said. Rather, they believed the Church in their day was practicing an erroneous form of extra-biblical tradition that distorted and at times, even contradicted apostolic writings. Their purpose was not to lead a rebellion against Rome or found a new, independent movement but to
challenge the Church to reform herself by referring back to the view of Scripture and tradition held by the early Church and described by the Fathers. For the Reformers, sola Scriptura was never a matter of
Scripture OR tradition but of recovering the right relationship between Scripture AND tradition.

The fact that they never called for Christians to rely on Scripture alone is evidenced by their reliance on Augustine and the other fathers when formulating their theologies. The early Reformers weren't saying we should disregard tradition or that scripture was all we needed; they were trying to address the abuses in the Church of their day. It was
some of the radical reformers who decided to totally ditch tradition and to say that "all we need is the Bible."

I am a Protestant and I totally agree with you re: the problem of all the different interpretations--it is one of the things I find distressing about this branch of the church. And I agree that many Protestants don't read their Bibles any more than Catholics do. But if I
can say this kindly, in spite of the authority of the Pope and the teaching magisterium, the Catholic church has gotten it wrong on many, many occasions throughout history as well. And that, from a Protestant point of view, some of the teachings exceed scripture (I think some Protestant teachings do too).

As far as the unwritten oral tradition is concerned, one of the questions I've been wrestling with is how the two major branches of the Church--Catholic and Eastern Orthodox--who both claim to be the one true church in the apostolic succession and who each claim that tradition is an equal source of Christian faith ended up with such very different
"authoritative" dogmas and practices. As Father Congar said in a conversation with EO divines "We have become different men. we have the same God but before him we are different men, unable to agree as to the nature of our relationship with him." Could it be because their "unwritten teachings" differ and there's no way to resolve it now since in in both, tradition holds the same degree of authority as scripture?

Instead of pointing fingers at one another, is there any way that all of us can own our own weaknesses . . .embrace the idea that maybe we have something to learn from one another . . . and then start reading
scripture TOGETHER. As crazy as it may sound, scriptures say that we are to be of one mind, and because it says so, I have to believe it's possible. Just dreaming. . .

Apologetics From Scratch: said...

Hi Annie,

A few things:

One, I think you meant for this comment to go in the column about sola-Scriptura, not infallible Church. Unfortunately, there is no way I can fix that.

Two, you may feel the definition of "sola-Scriptura" I am discussing is faulty, and it may not be yours or that of the reformers (or Robert Letham), but it is that of Bart Larson, whose study I am critiquing. It is also that of several other Protestant lay and clergy, which points to the problem with identifying how authority works in the Protestant off-shoot.

Three, in matters of infallibility, the Catholic Church has not gotten it wrong once in her two-thousand year history. If you care to point out an occurance, I'd be happy to discuss it in my column.

Four, when you say the Catholic Church (and some Protestants) get it wrong, by what authority do you make that call?

Five, regarding the claim by both Catholics and Orthodox to be the true Church, this is only problematic if one cannot trumpt the other in proving that claim. This is not the case, and while the comment box is too small to explore that, I'd be happy to in future columns, once done with this series.

Six (and finally), you are right that Scripture calls for us to be one, but this will never happen, even reading Scripture together, until we figure out the pillar and foundation of what truth is when we disagree. Fortunately, Scripture has defined this for us in 1 Tim. 3:15. So, the good news is, you don't have to keep on dreaming!

Thanks for your thoughts!

Apologetics From Scratch: said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Apologetics From Scratch: said...

Annie has written back challenging on two points:

1) That the reformers never used the phrase Bible alone and creates a distinction between the original Reformers and the "radical Reformers". However, the following from the Geneva confession shows this is not the case: "First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as a rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other things which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord" (Sec. I). However, even if I were to grant her challenge to the common understanding that sola-Scriptura was a foundational platform, it is still a widely held belief today, and the foundation of works, such as Bart's essay.

2) Annie also wishes to know whether the "pillar and foundation" of truth, which is the Church of the living God, refers (in my opinion) to the teaching magisterium or to "the members of the Church who make up God's household". The context of my essay makes clear that my understanding is the former because 1 Tim. 3:15 should be taken in the greater context of Scripture and the early Church writings. In addition, it is impossible for the collective members of the Church who make up God's household to be the pillar and foundation because, as can be seen in any yellow pages, no consistent source of truth can be found. If, for instance, I am struggling with the passages on baptism, where do I find the pillar and foundation among the members of the Church? At the local Church of Christ? At the Baptist Church? These would both disagree. Do I do a poll or survey of both of these groups?

At this point, I ask Annie to refer her questions specifically to me at so that we can dialogue further on these excellent questions. Perhaps she consents to our exchange being published in the newsletter for others to learn from.

annie119 said...

As much as I would enjoy the dialogue, I need to decline the invitation re: the web site/newsletter. I am in the middle of a writing project so I don't have time to engage much at the moment. I had mainly just wanted to make the observation that the Reformers position re: sola scriptura is often misunderstood by both Protestants and Catholics. . . and that our conversations with one another might be more productive if we clarified this.

A couple of comments and then I'll bow out. In reading both sides of the historical debate, it seems to me that Catholics and Protestants often talk past one another. As you have ably pointed out, it is not wise to argue against what the least informed members of a particular denomination believe. Just as the Catholic position is often misrepresented, so too is original Reformers' position. I know that I didn't understand it until I did further research. If we don't take the time to first understand one another's beliefs (or even our own as you pointed out), we end up building strawmen and arguing against them. . . which is intellectually exhausting and gets us no where.

I realize you are arguing against Bart's position, but as I pointed out in the comment you deleted, you also mischaracterized the original Reformers' views.
In reading through the excerpt of the Geneva Confession above, the the language seems to be confirm the position I described earlier--the Reformers were looking to Scripture alone as the highest court of appeal in all matters of religious controversy. . . they came to this position because, in the opinion of many at that time, some teachings in the church exceeded scripture. What they were saying is that controversies arise, scripture must be the rule of faith. Their practices and theological approaches indicate they respected tradition and acknowledge the corporate church had a role in interpreting scripture.

Keith Mathison's book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura does a pretty good job of distinguishing between the original Reformers and the Radical Reformers points of view.

I wonder if explaining the Reformers true position would help Catholics and Protestant gets on the same page more quickly . . .