Thursday, April 26, 2007

Papal Infallibility – Say What?

Since I began studying Galatians, I really wanted to look into how Catholicism can claim the doctrine of papal infallibility. This may seem like a tangent well out of left field (and it might be), but I arrived at this question and desire to look into it based on the confrontation between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2 where Peter (Cephas) has been swept away into endorsing the works righteousness heresy of the Judaizers. So, in an attempt to find out just how this situation relates, my investigation into this issue began with finding out how Roman Catholicism defines infallibility.

Infallibility - In general, exemption or immunity from liability to error or failure; in particular in theological usage, the supernatural prerogative by which the Church of Christ is, by a special Divine assistance, preserved from liability to error in her definitive dogmatic teaching regarding matters of faith and morals. 1

If I may be so bold as to summarize the above definition, it would be to say that if the Roman Catholic Church says that something is doctrinally true or that something is doctrinally heretical that it then is just that. Roman Catholics would say that the statements from the pontiff or from the councils are only expressing what has always been the case instead of making up new dogma, and so that is why they would say that it “is” true instead of saying that it “becomes” true.

This whole issue of the ability of being infallible in “teaching regarding matters of faith and morals” always troubled me, but no more poignantly than since I have been studying Galatians. One of the major themes of the beginning of the book concerns Paul’s assertion and defense of his apostolic office.

In his writings, Paul ardently defends the gospel and the cross of Christ, and that is the primary force for all that he writes. However, it is important to note that Paul also strongly defends and articulates two things about himself in an effort to ultimately bolster his defense of and illuminate the ministry and gospel of Christ. The first thing that he makes plain is the reality that he was a wretched sinner before being born again, even though he was a righteous Pharisee. The second thing that he spends a great deal of time on is his defense of his own apostleship.
“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (1 Timothy 1:15)

“For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:9)

What seems to be one of Paul’s crowning defenses of his apostleship can be found in Galatians 2:11-21. The context surrounding this confrontation can be seen in Galatians 2:1-10 and Acts 15 where Paul, Titus, and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem in order to address the necessity (or non-necessity) of circumcision for the gentile believers. The conclusion of the council in Jerusalem was to say that men are justified by faith and not by circumcision or any other work of the law.

The confrontation in the second part of the second chapter of Galatians occurs when Peter must have gone to Antioch (where Paul and Barnabas were) and he was sucked into the false teaching of the Judaizers who taught that one must keep the laws in order to be saved. In other words, Peter was being sucked into the very heresy that was denounced in Jerusalem in the recent past. What makes matters worse is that Peter is going against his own articulated faith statement as he articulated at the council. Acts 15 records Peter’s own confession that salvation comes by faith, and not by works of the law (Acts 15:7-11). Because of the nature and scope of both the heresy and those who were caught up in it, Paul is not gentle about describing how he chastised and corrected Peter for making this error at Antioch.
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:11-13)

So here we have it; the section from Galatians that made me want to deal with this issue. When I began teaching through this book I was in an ongoing discussion or debate with a Roman Catholic blogger on a variety of issues, one of which was the primacy of Peter and the spiritual “lineage” of the Pope. So now, almost six months later, I actually am getting around to investigating this issue a bit more.

If Peter was the first pope, and therefore infallible in all things pertaining to faith and morals, wouldn’t the second chapter of Galatians be a resounding contradiction of that claim? Or, if the Roman Church claims this truth, wouldn’t this passage be an utter refutation of that doctrine? This is what I thought, but I wanted to understand this doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church first before making using it in any discussion.

Trying to boil down what can be an infallible proclamation of doctrine from Rome has proven to be a bit difficult. However, I believe that Rome holds that nothing is necessarily infallible, although it might be, if the doctrine “has been embodied in a decree of an ecumenical council, or in the ex cathedra teaching of the pope, or, at least, in some definite formula such as the Athanasian Creed.” 2

This seems like a reasonable and plain way to understand the doctrine of infallibility as applied to things other than the Bible, but then there is the problem of history. The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies four instances where it may seem to the, non-Catholic observer, that some infallible declarations of past popes “taught heresy and condemned as heretical what has afterwards turned out to be true.” 3 And if it is found out later that something was unduly influencing the pope when he made an ex cathedra declaration, it can and will be reversed.

One famous example of such an instance relates to Pope Liberius. It was this pope who anathematized Athanasius of the afore mentioned Athanasian creed, which is referred to as a “definite formula” containing infallible truth. Rome disputes that this anathemization eve occurred, but even if it were true and it did happen, a stout defense of the Papacy is present. The defense is that, in this case, “the pope so acted under pressure of a very cruel coercion, which at once deprives his action of any claim to be considered ex cathedra, and that he himself, as soon as he had recovered his liberty, made amends for the moral weakness he had been guilty of.” 4

Not only is any ex cathedra statement made by the Pope subject to be thrown out by later councils or popes for the above reasons, but the qualification or identification of what truly is infallible seems to be covered in a haze of subjectivity as well. In order to point this out, here is an example given by the Catholic Encyclopedia when summarizing what teaching is infallible.
“…not everything in a conciliar or papal pronouncement, in which some doctrine is defined, is to be treated as definitive and infallible. For example, in the lengthy Bull of Pius IX defining the Immaculate Conception the strictly definitive and infallible portion is comprised in a sentence or two; and the same is true in many cases in regard to conciliar decisions. The merely argumentative and justificatory statements embodied in definitive judgments, however true and authoritative they may be, are not covered by the guarantee of infallibility which attaches to the strictly definitive sentences -- unless, indeed, their infallibility has been previously or subsequently established by an independent decision.” 5

Who determines which “sentence or two” contain the infallible teachings of Roman Catholicism? The Pope? A Council? Who? As we’ve seen already, we cannot necessarily trust the Pope’s determination and word, because how can we know for sure that he is not “under pressure of a very cruel coercion” that no one may know about. The same could be said about a church council, because how could we know that those voting as a majority are not being coerced into affirming something that is not true? It seems to me that any given declaration of a pope, council, or other “arm” of Roman Catholicism capable of issuing some infallible statement relating to faith and morals could be overruled by later generations who may disagree with the statement and who are able to find sufficient cultural, social, political, economical, or other grounds to validate an objection on the basis that “a very cruel coercion” which deprives that declaration of any “claim to be considered ex cathedra” may have occurred.

That seems to be why, in my opinion, the doctrine of papal infallibility has been setup the way that it is. Satan must be able to adapt his strategy, his appearance, and his doctrine as taught by deceived men and women to match the present time. He can deceive entire generations of people by teaching that something is infallibly true, but when culture and the temperament of the masses change, he can then change and erase that from the books by this cleverly worded theological apparatus.

Even though the passage in Galatians that prompted me to investigate the Roman doctrine of infallibility turns out not to be related in any way, it was still a profitable study for me to see just how porous and subjective this Roman doctrine truly is. 6


2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 I say that it is not related because I can’t find any reference to this situation in Catholic material as being a time when Peter was infallible. I have heard some objections by some Roman Catholics that the Cephas in Galatians is not Peter the apostle. However, that objection is utterly absurd for many reasons, not least of which is that Paul refers to him as Cephas and doesn’t say “not the Cephas of the twelve, but a different and heretical Cephas….”


St. Michael the Archangel said...


You spend so much of you time trying to undermine the church that you miss the entire point and what you were first talking about.. Secondly.. instead of finishing your argument with a conclusion that would further prove your point.. you instead finish it with your own doggon opinion... you are a sinner.. why should anyone believe you or your works? What makes what your saying right? Compared to the Pope.. who has a council of sound minds that review all that he is about the say and enter into dogma... (if he so chooses), that is ample amount of people from different backgrounds that get to screen what he wants to put out in the moral background.. but you and the countless thousands of other (free landers) post and print a bunch of stuff that has not been critiqued, or ran by a counsel.. so why is yours correct? How is your thinking on this sound in Dogma.. you totally twist what St. Paul is saying... what did God say to Paul when he was converted? "Saul why do you persecute me"... I ask you the same thing EJ, why are you persecuting God? IF Saul was indeed killing the CHristians and (including St. Peters disciples and followers) ... Why did God say that? I know this is starting to break off into another subject.. but I know for a fact that you do not understand the infallibility.. and for your info, the pope is only infallible when speaking from the chair of St. Peter.

Pax Christi,


PS: What did you think about the big Protestand DR. Who quit as the President of a Christian seminary and became a Catholic this past month? Kind of shocking to see such a famous minister and theologian step down and rejoin the church... and he did it b/c he read the church fathers and saw that the apostles were Catholic, and the fathers were too!!!!

EJ said...

Michael - so good to hear from you again.

My whole point in writing this article was that of finding out what the catholic doctrine of infallibility looks like and to see how that matched up with the passage in Galatians.

My conclusion was to say that they had nothing to do with one another (based on RCC doctrine).

Also, my overall conclusion was that the doctrine itself lends any infallible statement to be rewritten or redefined or removed depending on what the RCC thinks later on.

I have never claimed to be infallible, nor have any of the protestant bible teachers that I would follow (because anyone claiming infallibility is claiming something that is only applicable to God and His Holy Word).

May God grant you grace in regeneration.

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