Papal infallibility: capstone of the Roman church system

This dogma of convenience imposed upon the church in the nineteenth century is the capstone to the theological structure built up by the church of Rome from the days of Constantine. The doctrine is the logical outcome of centralising in a bishopric rights and privileges which in earlier times had been shared by all. With this ‘new’ ruling, officially appointed “Priests” took the place of the priesthood of all believers and Nicolaitan doctrine grew in the church of the living God.

Much of the impetus for this separation into clergy and laity is found in the great controversy between Gnostics (the knowing ones) and Montanists. (who also claimed special powers)

The traditional Roman church closed ranks in a typical, and given the circumstances, an understandable response. “Man’s way of doing things” imposed dogma to regularize and define the operation and function of spiritual gifts and giftings. No longer severally as He,(The Holy Spirit) wills but as the clergy wills. Which is not the same thing at all.

The charisms, which in the church of the book of Acts were given as the Holy Spirit saw fit, and often to people the church found most surprising, fell into disfavor. Scripturally the blessings and gifts of the Holy Spirit may be sought by any who serve the Lord. In the theological struggle of the day these teachings were set aside in favour of a theory of official endowment. Gifts (so called) were given, by the laying on of hands, to any person the” clergy” thought appropriate for the task. Empty hands on empty heads is not an inappropriate comment to make in regard to the majority of such acts. Ceremonial acts can never replace the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Tragically, these officially endowed “gifts” supplanted the charisms of the Holy Spirit and giftings became, as it were, the possession of the clergy, especially the bishops. The so called bishops were elevated (by man?) to such status, as to be seen as the only divinely appointed guardians of the faith. In essence the conclave of bishops became the church, i.e. they were her determinants in action. Cyprian c.258CE gave full expression to this in his teachings. In ‘Letters’ he states,”The church is based on the unity of the bishops, ‘whence you should know that the bishop is in the church and the church in the bishop and if one is not with the bishop he is not in the church.’

Caught up in the theory of ‘official’ endowment of gifts the church followed the way of organisational union, and the biblical pattern of local autonomous churches was set aside. For the clergy of that day the church grew to mean an organisation headed up by one man.

The ambitious clergy failed to realize, (as do the Arians fail in their teaching) that the idea of compound unity is an underlying principle of creation. This plurality applies in the Godhead and in the rule or headship of the churches also.

At all levels the church is, and will always be, a compound unity, represented by the pattern of a body; … It is the body of Christ with only one head, Christ Jesus our Lord.

The sudden upsurge of the church under Constantine brought in large numbers of converts from secular Rome. These converts had lived their lives in the pyramid structure of the Imperial Roman State. A seeking for the security of structure dominated the church in its struggle for control of its destiny within the empire. The pattern was ready to hand. What better than the Roman political organization.

It is not surprising that as early as the third century practical Christian life developed a clergy who were members of a distinct close-knit hierarchy, upon whom the laity were religiously dependant. This structure inevitably led to a struggle for power. Who would head up the worldly organisation which well meaning men had allowed to grow? Being men who had lived under the ideas of Rome the question was in effect, “Who will be the emperor?” For these people the concept of an earthly head was as necessary as the idea of one organisational union.

The historic ancestry of the church reached back into the Jewish faith and cried out for a High Priest expressed in human and visible form. The social background of the lay community and its behavioural mores cried out for an Imperator Rex after the Roman fashion. The lack of manifested charismatic gifts given and anointed by the Holy Spirit, cried out for some kind of spiritual certainty in matters of important doctrine.

These forces moved within the society and its people. Pressure grew for the old ways, wherein the security of Roman peace was each citizen’s birthright. In-fighting began in the church as man tried to build a structure to satisfy the conflicting needs. Out of all this ferment in the realm of church organisation and government began the great error which continues to this day to make impossible the unity of the church. It echoes the cry of Israel in the days of Saul, “Give us a king to rule over us” and takes from the Lord of the church the headship He alone must and does have. The organisation became the primary call on man’s endeavours and in accepting this the clergy set aside the organism, the reality of the body of Christ.

In the struggle for ruler-ship the Roman west eventually won. Strong and sometimes ruthless leaders took the authority and laid claim to custody of apostolic tradition and hence guardianship of the Christian faith. How this was done makes interesting reading but is outside our present discussion.

These leading figures created dogma to support their takeover and justify the central ruler-ship of Rome. Leo 1. for example emphasised the primacy of Peter among the original twelve apostles, both in leadership of the faith and government of the church. As a logical extension of this he taught that all that Peter possessed in these areas had been passed on to Peter’s successors as they acted in the primacy role of leader.

Under this doctrine the search for leadership of the church was considered answered; it was of course to be the bishop of Rome. No one seemed to consider the possibility that a single earthly leader may not be necessary at all.

A hierarchy after the pattern of imperial Rome was established as the structure for church rule and this was to be headed up by the emperor/bishop of Rome.

This earthly ruler became known as the Pope and styled himself the father of the church.

The likeness to the emperors of the Roman empire under the Caesars is apparent even to this present day. The reality of this concept is very thinly disguised and has often broken forth blatantly. Statements by popes that they are above the judgement of men when exercising their prophetic and apostolic office show the divine right of kings as alive and well within this system of theology. Expediency, satisfaction of ethnic needs, money and the need for control over the church have had their influence in the royal decrees which came forth from Rome as church law, under the Papal stamp of approval. Then as added weight to the papal power came the “ex Cathedra” edicts of supposed infallibility.

To prophesy is one thing but to pronounce that the words of a man are God inspired to the extent that they are equated in authority with the Word of God as given by the twelve founding fathers quite another. Equally questionable is the concept that the bishops of the church when deciding a question do not err in the teaching of the faith. Quoting from one Roman source,” the bishops always recall Christ’s teaching and teach it correctly”

This doctrine seems to suggest that the bishop or bishops are at times able to know perfection or become automatons? Here we are not concerned with the recalling of Christ’s teachings, John14:26 promises this to every believer. not just the apostles) The problem is the rashness of assuming that imperfect man can teach perfectly i.e. be free from bias, not to mention error or downright lies. Scripture teaches that ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Being a bishop or a priest does not isolate us from error of every kind. To assume that when one, five hundred or a thousand such imperfect men are gathered and acting as a body some special grace allows them to teach perfectly is shaky theology at best. In a multitude of counsellors there is wisdom, but error is still able to be present.

The concept that is of concern is not that the Holy Spirit may indeed inspire men of God from time to time and use them as vehicles for His truth, but the dogma that teaches that this is ever thus. God the Father did not over rule the son. Jesus had the will to set aside the Father’s will. The great lesson is that He, out of His great love chose to obey and fulfil the will of the Father. For truth to emerge so must we, but none of us can be so prideful as to suppose that we are in a state of grace equal to the Son of God. How can any of us claim to be free of some measure of self seeking. This weakness of the vessel is the problem of papal infallibility.

To be infallible is either to be perfect at the time of the ex-cathedra ruling ,which no man can claim, or be perfectly inspired, which no man can be sure about. Papal apostasy is not impossible.

We should note that prophesy in the New Testament teaching is to be judged (evaluated) by other believers as Paul taught in Corinthians. He gave the test in Gal.1:8-9 and this whole body of Christ’s teaching is still available to us in the form of the New Testament Scriptures. Paul gives no indication that they would be added to in later years.

The argument used concerning the church mission and failure is seen by some Roman theologians to support the infallibility argument. The Holy Spirit does indeed watch over and move to bring to fulfillment the mystical body of Christ. Jesus said, “I will build my church ” but this does not permit extension of the argument of inerrancy to each or any individual member.

A multiplicity of sects have argued this way and claimed for their leader, founder, guru or prophet the infallible mantle. All have used the argument of some ‘special’ relationship with God by which they possessed the quality of inerrancy. Time and history has seen the result of their claims. Some have left great religious movements which still exist, others have all but faded into memory. Consider how most, if not all, have added to, or fought against the Christian Scriptures. The dogma of the Roman church is not free from these two sins.

The principles set forth in the Word of God still remain to bring these sectarian teachings to question. One such is, that out of the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every truth be established. This is why Jesus always gave to more than one the great truths of God. For example Rome claims that only Peter received the power to bind and loose and hence sole authority over the church as visible head. However this power was given also to the other apostles. Mt18:18. To restrict this impartation to a particular person, a particular group e.g the priesthood cannot be inferred from Scripture. Jesus did not say He gave these blessings only to the apostles or only to Peter. This argument also applies to the pope. Truth from one man lacks the checks and balances of two or three witnesses. For bishops to agree to the pope’s decree is invalid in this context since they are not permitted to disagree.

The argument of the keys of the kingdom is also a favourite in support of the papacy ruling the church. Because Peter was given the keys he was to have authority over the church. He was to have power to admit people or shut them out. This is true in a sense but this is not an authority over the church but authority in the church. Such authority is given to all who have the eldership mantle.

(Mat 28:18 NRSV) And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
(John 20:23 NRSV) If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
(Acts 1:8 NRSV) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It is in this sense of eldership that the authority may be understood in Peter’s apostleship.

Much is made also by the Roman church of the episode described in Luke 22:31_32 to support Peter’s authority over the church. First note that Jesus uses Simon, Simon as a mode of address; (perhaps a chiding tone?) for He knew the weaknesses of this disciple. His words are more in the form of an encouragement to Simon to move into his Peter role (the strong stone) and to remind him that he was called to serve the church who were his brethren. (n.b. all the church not just the eleven)

There were at this time many who believed in Jesus and His message. This service to the brethren we should note is the task of all ministry callings and in no way unique to Peter or for that matter unique to the apostle ministry. Such service is an obligation on all elders of the church.

(Acts 20:28 NRSV) Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.

This same “eldership” teaching is seen in the instruction to Simon:

(John 21:15-17 NRSV) When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” [16] A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” [17] He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Remember that Peter had denied the Lord and the context we are discussing is clearly associated with his desertion. We have no way of knowing the tone of voice Jesus used, but the words in the Greek for love are interesting and may provide insights into the exchange between the two. On reflection, we are left to wonder if Peter really understood what was being asked of him in the first two questions. Jesus asks, “Do you love (agapao =value, esteem and serve) me? Peter in both cases replies, “You know I love (phileo =feel kindly, have brotherly love for) you. This is not precisely what he was asked.

Did Jesus change His last question to accommodate Peter’s lack of understanding? We do not know, but the context is not favourable to this interchange being the commissioning of the leader of the New Testament church. A patient teacher going over the basics yet again, seems more appropriate.

Clearly there exists no promise of infallibility or any mention of the successors to the apostles ‘inheriting’ some form of special promises anywhere in Scripture. Some special interpretations have been made of a few extracts but they like the one discussed above, are very much “special pleading’.

Promises are given to the church in many areas of ministry but none of them guarantee its teaching office freedom from error. Rather that in spite of error the truth of the gospel will be kept in the church. (even when its individual teachers err) Anything other than this position separates the Holy Spirit from the Word and suggests that the Holy Spirit only speaks through the clergy’s understanding of truth. Such infallibility in teaching assumes an authority that cannot be subject to criticism and reform by the Word of God. The Holy Spirit, as the one who leads each of us into the truth becomes as it were, the exclusive “property’ of an exclusive class i.e. the clergy.

This is another form of the Nicolaitane doctrine of Rev. 2:15.

(Rev 2:15 NRSV) So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

The individual believer must have a measure by which he can evaluate teaching. We cannot be as Adam ,who said “The woman you put here with me, she gave me the fruit and I did eat”.

Are we to say, “the Pope/clergy you (i.e. God) put over me told me, so I believed” Adam was condemned because he failed to heed the Word of God. So also we will be called to account for failure to give place to the Word. The Holy Scriptures, anointed to our understanding by the Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell in the willing and committed saint, has precedence and authority over all the history and traditions of the church and the teachings of mortal men.

1 John 2:27 NRSV) As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.

This provokes a very difficult and contentious point since it follows, that if each may, and should, read the Word of God it would seem clear that each must understand. To understand needs more than recitation, it requires interpretation and revelation. Interpretation by each individual believer, not by some organised group which insists that all must believe according to the group’s particular way. To teach another about the ways of the Lord is needful and called upon us all at varying degrees of sophistication. But in the end, each person must interpret the message within their individual life and have the liberty to challenge any and all men, concerning interpretation of the gospel. This is the true liberty, which can set the person free. The walk of faith depends on each saint being led by and filled with the Holy Spirit. It makes clear Paul’s teaching ,”I am convinced my brothers that you are complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another .” He realised that every person has something to contribute and can bring some revelation of the truth. If you subscribe to “Sola Scriptura” this revealing would come from Scripture alone being illuminated or if the Roman belief, then directly by the Holy Spirit as in the infallibility argument. Whatever the source, there is in this freedom a strong argument against a special priest class reserving to themselves the privilege of interpretation, even if such is dignified by the phrase “what the church officially teaches”

Mankind is far from agreeing as to the true fullness of the message of Christ, nor is it valid to suggest that there exists some authorities who, because they agree, have this truth. Truth does not perish because man neglects to keep it safe or alternatively grow clear because men build a church and claim to be “the only authority” in teaching and preserving such truth.

The body of Christ will be built by its head in His way in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is likely to be as complex as our own bodies when in the fullness of time we all understand, and see revealed its full beauty. For any group large or small to claim they and they alone are the genuine, only, real body of Christ on earth is dangerously close to presumption. From early times mankind has trotted out the same hoary arguments to support their claims to this kind of privilege. From the Jews to the Mormons we hear claims of “we had the truth first”, “our prophets spoke to God”, ;”our leader is the chosen one”, “our way is the right way”, “we are the biggest”, “we are the richest”, “we understand”, “we have the secret”, “Look how many we are”and so on, and on and on.

Come let us reason together is lost in the dogma and tradition within groups and between groups and man’s greed, lust for power and privilege works its destruction on us all.

Some digression is needed at this stage to consider the idea of the “canon” of Scripture as the basis of the teaching ministry. There is a wide divergence as to what does constitute this canon and similar indecision as to its authority.

Some argue as in fundamentalism that “Scripture” is the bible alone and that these writings are the inerrant ,unchangeable, complete and final word of God.

Beginning at this quite rigidly held definition we can discover a broad range of interpretative attitudes. The social gospel is perhaps the end of the range. This viewpoint suggests that the Scriptures contain the advice of God to His people and enormous latitude is given as to how each person should apply this advice or add to it.

Just where the individual places his confidence in terms of the great spectrum of Christian ideas may well depend on more complex factors than simple faith. Oft times it springs from where they began their search for God and at what point they had an encounter with Jesus. He is surely the one ,who through the person of the Holy Spirit leads the individual into all the truth. The preservation of this truth given by the Son of God to us all was committed we read, not to a people, but to the Holy Spirit. He (the Holy Spirit) causes the called out ones, (the church, the new Israel) to grow in the knowledge of God. Our problem does appear to be how this truth will be revealed to each person.

Our resources for this discovery of truth are found in written and oral communications and one might add the experiences of the spiritual being. If this be so we might expect to be guided by the Holy Spirit into the truth expressed by these sources. It would be reasonable to expect that the same measures of genuineness, credibility, canonicity, infallibility and authority should be applied to each source of truth. Failure of doctrine to measure up to like standards would make it suspect. One part should also be subject to another. E.g., oral communication would be questionable if it contradicted that which is written and vice-versa. If that which is experienced finds no confirmation in that which orally taught which is correct? If two men ordained of God disagree who is to be heeded? If an accepted canon of written teaching is ignored by an oral tradition which source is to be noted?

The company of people who have over the years since the coming of the Messiah professed to be followers of the way have offered a number of solutions to this dilemma. There are those who lean towards the written as in the fundamentalist teaching. Some who incline to the oral tradition as in the Roman church and quite a few who seek through mysticism and experiential experiences to make contact more directly with the transcendental. In the final revealing of all truth perhaps a balance of all three will be shown as being the answer.

Could there be a similarity here to the great mystery of the triune nature involved in the Godhead? The answer to this also, eludes the fullness of our understanding We are all searchers after the truth rather than having possession of the right way or egotistically claiming to be the only true church.

But this is not the end of the difficulty with the infallibility question. By definition infallibility is taken to mean the setting forth of unchanging and unchangeable truth. If this is so a clarity is required in regard to which of the three sources of truth can be received as infallible. A fair degree of consensus between communions (including the Roman church) has established the bible as being infallible truth.

The Roman church adds two further dimensions to this position. The Roman communion asserts that the bishops have the capacity to teach without error (infallible?) and that when speaking “excathedra” the pope speaks infallibly. It follows from such dogma that the bible is not complete, since the teachings are being added to by every “ex cathedra” statement and in essence become Scripture. It would also follow that the material that every bishop teaches, and what every bishop has taught from the very beginning, is and was never in error. (in the exposition of faith or morals) Is there a need to judge/evaluate these prophetic utterances?

It is true that the biblical Scriptures do not say that the canon contains the whole or the principal Word of God for this generation. This seeming omission may well argue for inclusion of the two Roman propositions regarding the teaching priesthood. Perhaps there is more revelation which is needed as time moves on. But one important factor has been bypassed.

The canon of biblical writings has been passed through the rigours of much testing before acceptance. We need not enlarge on this well documented process. The point to be made is that at any time during this testing, a writing or teaching could have been rejected.

The history of the book of Hebrews well illustrates this process. In the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and through a multitude of councillors there came forth a reliable collection of Scriptures for the guidance of the church.

To restate an earlier comment. It is reasonable to expect that the same measures of genuineness .credibility, canonicity, infallibility and authority used in determining the canon, be applied to all that the bishop teach and to papal ex cathedra doctrine.

In particular any “new” teaching must not be contrary to that which is already existent and be open to testing and scrutiny of the church and existing Scripture. It may be argued that the conclave of bishops do talk over many of the subjects which later become “ex cathedra” statements. But this is not the point! It is the statement itself and the particular teaching of individual bishops which must be examined in depth and over time. This would then follow the way in which the early church brought certainty to the canon of Scripture.

Anything less presumes that one man, one single fallible man can write and teach canonical Scripture without error. That he will never be apostate ,that his teaching will never need changing, that he has absolute authority over all the canon since his sayings never need to be judged by the church. The church did not accord this kind of privilege to the early saints, why now?

When considering the canon of Scripture as an authority it is reasonable to assume that an existing Scripture having been accepted would have primacy over any subsequent “new” teachings. The earlier dogma would limit the extent to which later teachers could make extensions to the faith. To teach a new matter would require that its content is permitted by the earlier authority. Any other approach would mean first changing the earlier writings. i.e. questioning their canonicity and infallibility, either literally or by ignoring the examples given. This has been done in the case of celibacy of the Roman priesthood. ( Some of the apostles were married and elders of the church are warned to have only one wife.)

While some of the teachings of the bishops and some statements of the pope could in time prove to be in accord with the will of God for His people, this does not make such utterance an exclusive right given only to this select group. Scripture teaches that all may prophesy. Further that all utterances must be evaluated first by existing Scripture and then by the church in her ongoing ministry. Teachings are quite simply subject to the Word of God.

This subjection is fundamental. In the beginning the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This living Word brought forth the church. The Word is predominantly first. The early church recognised the Word and obeyed Him. The Holy Spirit in like manner helps the church recognise the true Word within the canon and the church is to obey this Word as the prime authority. Another aspect which requires thought is need.

One argument for the “sola scriptura” reasoning is that the bible as received at this stage is enough. There is much I feel sure in the infinity of God’s wisdom and knowledge which we as creatures have no need of for our salvation and service. Even if God permits we would need great wisdom to add to Scripture only that which is needed and necessary. Some (all?) of the results of “excathedra” teachings are very shaky when examined under this criteria of necessity. Similarly general teachings from the Roman bishopric has many points which time has called to question. Today’s Roman Catholic canon law is a maze of legalism and doctrinal confusion which rivals the Talmud in its complexity. An examination of divorce under these laws will soon demonstrate this assertion.

Of course all this discussion falls if confronted with the “I’ll be guided by the Holy Spirit only” approach to the Christian way. If we argue that we or some among us are so privileged as to be the select ones, who have as it were exclusive guidance to pick and choose, change and add. reveal or conceal in regard to the doctrine of Christ, then of course, no words can reach such infinite egotism.

Such an attitude would indeed be a rebirth of that shown which brought forth the Lord’s accusation, “You make the Word of God of no effect because of your tradition” The checks and balances of multiple rulership in and over the church guards against such excesses.

As mentioned earlier the idea of a visible head to the visible universal church is supportive to the infallibility doctrine. From similar theories came the divine right of kings. Mankind has changed little since the days of the tower of Babel. The cry then was let us make us a city and have us a name. Church groups still seek this kind of organised union. But we are not called to be trade unions or business conglomerates. Jesus prayed that we might be in unity in the same way as He is with the Father. This is not concerned with the fold but with the flock. Not the denomination or the nation but the spiritual union of each person with the Eternal.

We are not sons and daughters of the living God because we are members of an organisation, much as denominational thinking would like us to believe it. We are heirs because we are united in Christ. Similarly we are not united in Christ because we subscribe to the teachings and practices of any leader or group of men ,be they Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of God , Presbyterian, Roman Catholic or any of the multiplicity of undoubtedly sincere seekers after truth. There is only one unity in Christ, gained we read by being baptised not by man, but by one Spirit into one body. For any group to suggest that they have an exclusive experience of this salvation to the exclusion of others is sacramentalism of the most dangerous kind. It raises again the attitudes and activities which so powerfully motivated the Jews in the early days. Circumcision, food laws, temple worship ,a special priesthood, fleshly sacrifices, eternal flames, sacred clothing, incense burning, special washings, liturgies of various kinds spring to mind as examples.

This kind of thinking leaves fertile ground for the concept that the faithful must do something “special” before God’s grace is available. Performance Christianity becomes the imperative.

This “ex opere Operato” teaching clothes superstition and complicated ritual with the semblance of righteousness and the sinner is left unchanged. By grace (unmerited favour) are we saved through faith, it is the gift of God, not by doing things, in case we are tempted to boast that we helped in some way. Mankind dislikes letting go and letting God.

The drive to have a great organisation is no different to the lessons of 1 Samuel 8. Israel turned aside from multiple leadership and cried out for a king over them. They wanted to be like other (earthly) nations. We notice that Jesus was tempted in a similar way. He firmly rejected the idea of being visible head over Israel.

The great apostle Peter speaking in 1 Pet 2 clarifies this by saying, “as you come to Him (Jesus) the living stone you also as living stones are being built … to be a holy priesthood. “Peter affirms that Christ is the cornerstone of the church around which the whole structure will grow. Paul confirms this in 1 Cor 3:10-11. and points to Jesus as the foundation which his apostolic ministry had laid down.

These examples show the nature of the apostle ministry. They lay the foundation not in Peter or his supposed successors but on Jesus Christ. This same Jesus has been appointed head over all the church, the rock upon which all is built. He is the only foundation the apostles were authorised to lay down. Eph. 1:22, Eph 2:20.

The important points to note are that the church is not, and was not to be built on Peter or his heirs, nor can fundamental teachings be limited to one man’s supposed infallibility.

In closing, a quote from Hans Kung:

the attribution of infallibility to the college of bishops based on the traditional unhistorical theory of the bishop’s direct and exclusive apostolic succession stands exegetically, historically and theologically on feet of clay.