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The infallibility of the Church is the belief that the Holy Spirit preserves the Christian Church from errors that would contradict its essential doctrines. It is related to, but not the same as, indefectibility, that is, "she remains and will remain the Institution of Salvation, founded by Christ, until the end of the world."[1] The doctrine of infallibility is premised on the authority Jesus granted to the apostles to "bind and loose" (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23) and in particular the promises to Peter (Matthew 16:16–20; Luke 22:32) in regard to papal infallibility.

Infallibility of the ecumenical councils

The Roman Catholic Church[2][3][4] and the Eastern Orthodox Church[5] hold this doctrine.

However, the Eastern Orthodox churches accept only the Seven Ecumenical Councils from Nicaea I to Nicaea II as genuinely ecumenical, while Roman Catholics accept twenty-one. Only a very few Protestants believe in the infallibility of ecumenical councils, and these usually restrict infallibility to the Christological statements of the first seven councils. Lutheran Christians recognize the first four councils,[6] whereas most High Church Anglicans accept all seven as persuasive but not infallible.[7]

A popular view among Eastern Orthodox Christians, especially Greek Orthodox and churches that fall within the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is that an ecumenical council is itself infallible when pronouncing on a specific matter such as Christology, whereas others hold that a council can be considered of full ecumenical authority only once its declarations have been embraced by the faithful, an opinion more common among the Slavic Churches, such as the Russian Orthodox.[citation needed]

Catholic Church

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Catholicism teaches that Jesus Christ, "the Word made Flesh" (John 1:14), is the source of divine revelation and, as the Truth, he is infallible.[8] The Second Vatican Council states, "For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through His whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth." (Dei verbum, 4). The content of Christ's divine revelation is called the deposit of faith, and is contained in both Sacred Scripture and sacred tradition, not as two sources but as a single source.[9]

A document signed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Bertone speaks of

... the more recent teaching regarding the doctrine that priestly ordination is reserved only to men. The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. As the prior example illustrates, this does not foreclose the possibility that, in the future, the consciousness of the Church might progress to the point where this teaching could be defined as a doctrine to be believed as divinely revealed.[10]

Of the ordinary magisterium, the Second Vatican Council said: "Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent."[11]


Main article: Papal infallibility

The doctrine of papal infallibility states that when the pope teaches ex cathedra his teachings are infallible and irreformable. Such infallible papal decrees must be made by the pope, in his role as leader of the whole Church, and they must be definitive decisions on matters of faith and morals which are binding on the whole Church. An infallible decree by a pope is often referred to as an ex cathedra statement. This type of infallibility falls under the authority of the sacred magisterium.

The doctrine of papal infallibility was formally defined at the First Vatican Council[12] in 1870, although belief in this doctrine long predated this council and was premised on the promises of Jesus to Peter (Mat 16:16-20; Luke 22:32).[13]

Ordinary and universal magisterium

The ordinary and universal magisterium is considered infallible when it proposes a doctrine that the Pope and the bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of St. Peter universally hold as definitive.[14]

Eastern Orthodox Church

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Lutheranism holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. –Augsburg Confession[15]

Lutheran theology teaches that the Church is indefectible, as with Catholic doctrine.[16] The Lutheran Churches hold that the "maintenance of this indefectibility as the sovereign work of God."[16]


The Church of England claimed this type of authority over the people of England, but the idea is no longer popular within the church, owing to a lack of commonly-accepted traditions and to disputes as to some peripheral doctrines. However, Anglicanism holds to a unique ecclesiology: in the Anglican view, churches in the historic episcopate (such as the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Scandinavian Lutheran, Moravian, Old Catholic, Persian, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches) that maintained apostolic succession, belief, and practice are all branches of the Universal Church.[17] Anglicans believe there will always be a section of the Christian Church, although possibly not the Anglican Church itself, which will not fall into major heresy.[18]

Tradition and scripture

Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe that divine revelation (the one "Word of God") is contained both in the words of God in sacred scripture and in the deeds of God in sacred tradition. Everything asserted as true by either scripture or tradition is true and infallible.

This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.

— Second Vatican Council, Dei verbum, n. 2

Methodists and Anglicans teach the doctrine of prima scriptura, which suggests that Scripture is the primary source for Christian doctrine, but that "tradition, experience, and reason" can nurture the Christian religion as long as they are in harmony with the Bible.[19][20]

Yves Congar, who thought Catholics could acknowledge a substantial element of truth in the Lutheran and Reformed doctrine sola scriptura, wrote that "we can admit sola scriptura in the sense of a material sufficiency of canonical Scripture. This means that Scripture contains, in one way or another, all truths necessary for salvation." This has led to the tenable position of the "two modes" theory.[21]

In his book, James F. Keenan reports studies by some academics. A study by Bernard Hoose states that claims to a continuous teaching by the Church on matters of sexuality, life and death, and crime and punishment are "simply not true." After examining seven medieval texts about homosexuality, Mark Jordan argues that, "far from being consistent, any attempt to make a connection among the texts proved impossible." He calls the tradition's teaching of the Church "incoherent". Karl-Wilhelm Merks considers that tradition itself is "not the truth guarantor of any particular teaching." Keenan, however, says that studies of "manualists" such as John T. Noonan Jr. has demonstrated that, "despite claims to the contrary, manualists were co-operators in the necessary historical development of the moral tradition." Noonan, according to Keenan, has provided a new way of viewing at "areas where the Church not only changed, but shamefully did not."[22]

Christian fundamentalism

Evangelical Fundamentalist churches believe that the primary method of Bible study is literal interpretation, and that the interpretation of these verses is infallible and therefore cannot be discussed.[23][24]

Consequences for ecumenism

The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the various Protestant denominations are divided by their different views on infallibility. The ecumenical movement, which hopes to reunify all of Christianity, has found that the Catholic Church's Papacy is one of the most divisive of issues for Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, while Catholics view the Papacy as necessary source of the Church's unity and an indispensable ministry bestowed by Christ on the Church. Papal infallibility has often been misunderstood by many Protestant denominations and among some within Eastern Orthodoxy as well.[25]

See also


  1. ^ "Dogmas of the Catholic Faith". Archived from the original on 2015-02-16. Retrieved 2014-11-23.
  2. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: General Councils". Retrieved 2023-01-01.
  3. ^ Washburn, Christian D. (2010). "St. Robert Bellarmine on the Infallibility of General Councils of the Church". Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum. 42 (1): 171–192. doi:10.30965/25890433-04201011. ISSN 0003-5157.
  4. ^ "Philip Schaff: NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils - Christian Classics Ethereal Library". Retrieved 2023-01-01.
  5. ^ "Confession of Dositheus, Synod of Jerusalem (1672)". Christian Resource Institute. Retrieved 2024-06-14. "Moreover, when any man speaks from himself he is liable to err, and to deceive, and be deceived; but the Catholic Church, as never having spoken, or speaking from herself, but from the Spirit of God — who being her teacher, she is ever unfailingly rich — it is impossible for her to in any wise err, or to at all deceive, or be deceived; but like the Divine Scriptures, is infallible, and has perpetual authority." (Decree 2)
  6. ^ See, e.g. Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission, Seventh Meeting, The Ecumenical Councils, Common Statement, 1993, available at ("We agree on the doctrine of God, the Holy Trinity, as formulated by the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople and on the doctrine of the person of Christ as formulated by the first four Ecumenical Councils.").
  7. ^ See The Conciliar Anglican, Ask An Anglican: The Ecumenical Councils, Aug. 3, 2011, available at Archived 2013-04-14 at the Wayback Machine ("While it is possible for a Council to err, it is so manifestly unlikely in the event of a truly Ecumenical Council that the conclusions of such a Council should be treated as final.").
  8. ^ CCC 889
  9. ^ "Dei Verbum – Forty Years Later – His Eminence Card. William Joseph Levada, 10 October 2005". Retrieved 2017-04-30.
  11. ^ Lumen Gentium, 25
  12. ^ Belmonte, Charles (2006). Belmonte, Charles (ed.). Faith Seeking Understanding (PDF). Vol. I (2nd ed.). Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, Philippines: Studium Theologiae Foundation, Inc. p. 428. ISBN 971-91060-4-2. Retrieved April 13, 2023.
  13. ^ Vatican I, Dei Filius ch. 3 ¶ 1 and Pastor Aeternus ch. 4 ¶ 5. Vatican II, Lumen gentium § 25 ¶ 3. 1983 Code of Canon Law 749 § 1.
  14. ^ Moline, Enrique (2006). Belmonte, Charles (ed.). Faith Seeking Understanding (PDF). Vol. I (2nd ed.). Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, Philippines: Studium Theologiae Foundation, Inc. p. 99. ISBN 971-91060-4-2. Retrieved April 13, 2023.
  15. ^ Augsburg Confession, Article 7, Of the Church
  16. ^ a b "Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church Common Statement". Theological Studies. 40 (1): 113–166. 1 March 1979. doi:10.1177/004056397904000105. S2CID 220519207. For while Lutherans share with Catholics the conviction that the Church of Christ is indefectible, they regard the maintenance of this indefectibility as the sovereign work of God.
  17. ^ Kinsman, Frederick Joseph (1924). Americanism and Catholicism. Longman. p. 203. The one most talked about is the "Branch Theory," which assumes that the basis of unity is a valid priesthood. Given the priesthood, it is held that valid Sacraments unite in spite of schisms. Those who hold it assume that the Church is composed of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, eastern heretics possessing undisputed Orders, and Old Catholics, Anglicans, Swedish Lutherans, Moravians, and any others who might be able to demonstrate that they had perpetuated a valid hierarchy. This is chiefly identified with High Church Anglicans and represents the survival of a seventeenth century contention against Puritans, that Anglicans were not to be classed with Continental Protestants.
  18. ^ Mt 16:18
  19. ^ "Methodist Beliefs: In what ways are Lutherans different from United Methodists?". Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. 2014. Archived from the original on 22 May 2014. Retrieved 22 May 2014. The United Methodists see Scripture as the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine. They emphasize the importance of tradition, experience, and reason for Christian doctrine. Lutherans teach that the Bible is the sole source for Christian doctrine. The truths of Scripture do not need to be authenticated by tradition, human experience, or reason. Scripture is self authenticating and is true in and of itself.
  20. ^ Humphrey, Edith M. (15 April 2013). Scripture and Tradition. Baker Books. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-4412-4048-4. historically Anglicans have adopted what could be called a prima Scriptura position.
  21. ^ "Library : The Complex Relationship between Scripture and Tradition". Retrieved 2017-04-30.
  22. ^ James F. Keenan (17 January 2010). A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences. A&C Black. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-0-8264-2929-2.
  23. ^ James Barr, Bible and Interpretation: Volume I: Interpretation and Theology, OUP Oxford, UK, 2013, p. 454, 458
  24. ^ W. Glenn Jonas Jr., The Baptist River: Essays on Many Tributaries of a Diverse Tradition, Mercer University Press, USA, 2008, p. 125: "Independents assert that the Bible is a unified document containing consistent propositional truths. They accept the supernatural elements of the Bible, affirm that it is infallible in every area of reality, and contend that it is to be interpreted literally in the vast majority of cases. Ultimately, they hold not merely to the inerrancy of Scripture, but to the infallibility of their interpretation of Scripture. The doctrine of premillennialism serves as a case in point. Early on in the movement, Independents embraced premillennialism as the only acceptable eschatological view. The BBU made the doctrine a test of fellowship. When Norris formed his Premillennial Missionary Baptist Fellowship (1933), he made premillennialism a requirement for membership. He held this doctrine to be the only acceptable biblical position, charging conventionism with being postmillennial in orientation."
  25. ^ "What is the Church?". Archived from the original on 1998-12-06. Retrieved 2010-12-03.

Further reading