Some Biblical Bases for Church Infallibility

In the following, I am not attempting to establish Papal Infallibility, but the Infallibility of the Church as a whole. Some of the evidences are connected with Peter, but how that relates to the Papacy is a discussion for later.

Matthew 16

13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

I don’t cite this passage because of the connection with St. Peter, but because of Christ’s teaching regarding the Church. This passage contains several promises.

1. Christ’s Church will be built on a rock.

Whether Peter is the rock or not, Christ promises that his Church will be built on a solid foundation. But if the Church can be bound to a falsehood, then it would seem the foundation isn’t that solid after all.

2. The gates of Hell will not overcome the Church.

If the Church’s teaching office binds the Church to a falsehood, then the gates of Hell would overcome the Church. But Christ promised that this would not come to pass. Ergo, the Church’s teaching office cannot bind the Church to a falsehood.

3. Peter is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Popularly, this is passage has led to the picture of Peter as Heaven’s gatekeeper, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s actually meant here. Nor is it like the purely honorary “key to the city” that is sometimes awarded by modern municipalities.

The imagery is almost certainly drawn from Isaiah 22. There, Eliakim is given the key of the House of David to indicate his status as Master of the Palace. As Isaiah says, “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.” In other words, Eliakim speaks with the king’s own authority in managing the king’s household.

This parallel indicates that Peter was also given the ability to “open” and “shut” that no one can gainsay. If no one can counter this authority, then it is absolutely binding. If it is absolutely binding, then it seems that the Church could be bound to a falsehood. Unless of course Christ somehow protected the Church from that possibility.

What do you know? Points 1 and 2 sound like a promise of protection. 🙂

4. Peter is given the authority to “bind and loose.”

The imagery of binding-loosing is part of the first century Jewish tradition that appears in rabbinic literature. It includes two important aspects: authoritative teaching, and the power of the ban (or excommunication). We are mostly interested in authoritative teaching at the moment.

Of special note is the strong connection between binding on earth and binding in heaven. In fact, the latter phrase can also be translated as “will have been bound in heaven.” In either case, though, the implication seems to be that whatever is authoritatively taught on earth corresponds to the authoritative teaching of heaven.

Matthew 18

15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Here Christ speaks of the ability of the Church to teach authoritatively, including the penalty of excommunication. It also seems that Christ here grants to the other disciples the power of binding and loosing. The connection of binding on earth and being bound in heaven is maintained as in the previous example.

1 Timothy 3

14Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

Here Paul speaks of the Church as the pillar and foundation of the truth. The implication seems to be that the Church is the sure guide to the truth.

If, though, the Church was bound to a falsehood, then how could it be the pillar and foundation of the truth?

Conclusion

In isolation, these evidences/arguments may not be conclusive. But together, I think they constitute a compelling case for the Infallibility of the Church. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem of the canon apart from an infallible Church.

Thoughts?

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About Joshua Michael

Writer. Catholic. Fan of John Henry Newman and the Inklings.
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7 Responses to Some Biblical Bases for Church Infallibility

  1. John Bowers says:

    I’ve seen one protestant response to point 2 that I would like to know your counter for.

    It is as follows. Catholics argue that the statement that the Gates of Hell will not overcome the Church means that the Church is protected from error, they are assuming that the Gates of Hell are an offensive weapon, and if the Church has any error than the minions of Hell will be able to win in their attack against the Church. This assumption doesn’t make sense, however, because gates are defensive, not offensive, and the Gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church does not mean that the Church is protected from the onslaught of the devil, but means that devil will not be able to withstand the preaching of the Gospel by the Church.

    (Not that I buy this argument, I am actually on the same page as you with this post, but I was just wondering about it.)

    • Whether the Gates of Hell are offensive or defensive doesn’t seem to make a difference in the broader sense of the passage. In either case there is a battle between the Church (representing freedom and truth) and Hell (representing slavery and error). If during the course of the battle, Hell succeeded in binding the Church to a falsehood, then Hell would prevail, regardless of who was attacking/defending.

      Nonetheless, reading the Gates of Hell as offensive seems more natural to me given the way it is phrased in English. I suppose the Greek could be different, though.

  2. John Bowers says:

    Also, I had read that passage from 1 Timothy 3 as well. (I just finished Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn.) I’m curious what the Greek says because the ESV translated it “a pillar and foundation of the truth,” not “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Unfortunately, I’m not Greek Scholar. It is definitely a compelling argument if the article ought to be “the.”

    • From a little bit of research, it appears that the Greek doesn’t have either “a” or “the”. Rendering the verse a little more literally it would be…

      if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is church of the living God, pillar and foundation of truth.

      Rendered that way, I think that the normal Catholic reading makes the most sense.

      Notice the lack of articles for “the church” as well. The ESV renders “church” as “the church” but “pillar and foundation” as “a pillar and foundation.” They may have a good reason for the inconsistency, but the vast majority of translations are consistent and render both with “the.”

      I don’t actually read Greek, so take this with a grain of salt. 🙂

      But even if it was “a pillar and foundation,” I think reading it in conjunction with the other verses above would still make a pretty strong argument.

  3. John Bowers says:

    Forgot to subscribe. Ignore this post.

  4. Pingback: Is Peter the Rock? | The Body Theologic

  5. Pingback: Sola Scriptura: Part 1 | The Body Theologic

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