September 4, 2014 Broadcast

Papal Infallibility

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The pope is regarded by Rome as the chief pastor of the whole church, the Vicar of Christ upon the earth. So how did the office of papacy become such an influential office in not only the Church of Rome but the entire world? What are the historical beginnings of the papacy? In this message, Dr. Sproul looks at the historical developments that have contributed to the rise of the papacy and its influence.

From the series: Roman Catholicism

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. blog-post

    Interpreting General and Special Revelation — A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

  2. blog-post

    Misunderstanding Vatican II

  3. article

    The Rise of the Papacy

Interpreting General and Special Revelation — A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

Keith Mathison

We have been discussing Dr. R.C. Sproul's answer to a question about the age of the universe during the Q&A at Ligonier's 2012 National Conference. In our last post, we looked at the Reformed distinction between general and special revelation. In this post, we begin looking at another crucial distinction that is regularly overlooked, namely the distinction between God's infallible revelation and our fallible interpretation of that revelation.

As we saw in the last post, Dr. Sproul's students all affirmed that God's special revelation is infallible, but they were not ready to affirm that God's general revelation is infallible. We have already explained why we must affirm that both kinds of revelation are infallible. Here we need to look more closely at why Dr. Sproul's students were reluctant to affirm the same. In his response, Dr. Sproul says:

But what they were getting at was…they were saying not every scientific theory is compatible with the Word of God. And that's true. But historically, the church's understanding of special revelation of the Bible has been corrected by students of natural revelation with the Copernican revolution.

Dr. Sproul explains that his students were hesitant to affirm the infallibility of general revelation because they rightly believed that not every scientific theory is compatible with the Word of God. This is certainly true, but as we have already seen, this is not the question Dr. Sproul asked. Scientific theories are not the same thing as general revelation. General revelation (like special revelation) refers to an infallible action of God (or to the content revealed through that action). Scientific theories are the fallible interpretations of what Christians know to be God's created works.

There are two issues involved in Dr. Sproul's response that must be addressed. First, since general and special revelation both proceed from God, they cannot ultimately conflict. We will address this issue more fully in a future post. The second issue is one we will look at here, and that is the idea that a misinterpretation of one kind of revelation can be corrected by a right interpretation of the other kind of revelation. Few Christians would disagree with the idea that a right interpretation of Scripture (special revelation) can correct a misinterpretation of general revelation, but is the converse true as well? Can a right interpretation of general revelation correct a misinterpretation of special revelation? Does such an idea conflict with our belief in the inerrancy of Scripture?

Article XII of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

Since Dr. Sproul specifically mentions how certain interpretations of general revelation have helped the church correct misinterpretations of special revelation, it will be helpful to look briefly at Article XII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Dr. Sproul's commentary on it because a misunderstanding of this Article has led to some confusion on this issue. Article XII of the Chicago Statement reads:

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

The denial section of this article is primarily directed toward those who would limit biblical inerrancy to spiritual matters and who would exclude biblical teaching related to matters touching on history or science. For the purposes of our discussion, the correct understanding of the second denial is important. In his commentary on this Article, Dr. Sproul writes,

It is important to note that the second denial, that scientific hypotheses about earth history may not be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on matters such as the creation and the flood, does not carry with it the implication that scientific hypotheses or scientific research are useless to the student of the Bible or that science never has anything to contribute to an understanding of biblical material. It merely denies that the actual teaching of Scripture can be overturned by teachings from external sources.i

The word "actual" in the last sentence is significant. As Dr. Sproul reminds us, scientific discoveries in the late medieval period forced the church to reexamine its interpretation of Scripture regarding geocentricity.

Here the advances of science helped the church to correct an earlier misinterpretation of Scripture. To say that science cannot overturn the teaching of Scripture is not to say that science cannot aid the church in understanding Scripture, or even correct false inferences drawn from Scripture or actual misinterpretations of the Scripture.ii

Dr. Sproul is making the simple point that while science cannot overturn an actual teaching of Scripture, it can sometimes correct a misinterpretation of Scripture. The church, for example, assumed for centuries that the Bible taught geocentricity – the idea that the sun, moon, planets, and stars revolve around a stationary earth. Careful observations of the earth, sun, moon, and stars eventually proved that the sun is at the center of our solar system, that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, and that the moon revolves around the earth. Did such observations prove that the Bible was in error? No. These discoveries of how God had actually created things merely demonstrated that an interpretation of the Bible was in error.

Dr. Sproul is not saying anything new or strange here. Charles Hodge, the giant of nineteenth-century Reformed theology, said much the same:

It is admitted that theologians are not infallible, in the interpretation of Scripture. It may, therefore, happen in the future, as it has in the past, that interpretations of the Bible, long confidently received, must be modified or abandoned, to bring revelation into harmony with what God teaches in his works. This change of view as to the true meaning of the Bible may be a painful trial to the Church, but it does not in the least impair the authority of the Scriptures. They remain infallible; we are merely convicted of having mistaken their meaning.iii

The Reformed churches have long held that synods and councils are fallible. As the Westminster Confession explains: "All synods and councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred…" (XXXI:4). The same is true of individual Christians. We are fallible as well, and we may err and have erred in our individual interpretations of Scripture. Unless a person believes that he or she is an infallible interpreter of Scripture, this is a reality that must be kept in mind.

When we forget the distinction between what God is saying in Scripture and our own fallible interpretations of His Word, we run the risk of subtly replacing God's Word with our word.

We Believe the Bible and You Do Not

As an example, consider the following statement by the great Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper in his Christian Dogmatics: "The difference between the Lutheran Church and the Reformed in the doctrine of Baptism is fully and adequately defined by saying that the former believes God's Word regarding Baptism, the latter not" (vol. 3, p. 269). The problem with this assertion should be obvious (at least to those who are not Lutheran). Pieper considers the difference between the Lutheran church and the Reformed church on this subject to be a result of the Reformed church's refusal to believe the Bible. Historically, the Lutherans have made the same assertion in connection with the words of institution in the Lord's Supper. In his debates with the Lutheran Joachim Westphal, John Calvin was almost driven to distraction by Westphal's repeated claim that Jesus' words "This is my body" allowed of no interpretation. One either believed them or one disbelieved them, according to Westphal.

During my final months at Dallas Theological Seminary, when I was slowly transitioning out of dispensational premillennialism toward Reformed theology, I was repeatedly informed that the only reason I was not a premillennialist was because I didn't believe the Bible (specifically Revelation 20). My friends there could not grasp the fact that my difference with them had to do with a difference of interpretation, not a difference over the authority of God's Word.

Reformed Christians rightly reject the claim that the only reason we do not accept the Lutheran doctrine of baptism or the dispensationalist understanding of the millennium is because we do not believe the Bible. These are disagreements over interpretations of God's Word, not denials of its authority.

In the final words of his commentary on Article XII of the Chicago Statement, Dr. Sproul explains how the distinction between Scripture and interpretations of Scripture applies to biblical passages that have a bearing on scientific issues:

Questions of the extent of the flood or the literary genre of the earlier chapters of Genesis are not answered by this statement. Questions of biblical interpretation that touch on the field of hermeneutics remain for further investigation and discussion. What the Scriptures actually teach about creation and the flood is not spelled out by this article; but it does spell out that whatever the Bible teaches about creation and the flood cannot be negated by secular theories.iv

In short, while scientific theories can help the church correct wrong interpretations of Scripture, they cannot negate what the Scriptures actually teach. Scripture teaches clearly, for example, that Jesus rose from the dead. Any scientific theory that denies the possibility of resurrection from the dead, therefore, is necessarily wrong. Scripture teaches that God is the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is within them. Any scientific theory that claims natural phenomena arose from purely materialistic causes is necessarily wrong.

Dr. Sproul illustrates his point about the fallibility of our interpretations by reminding us of how Luther and Calvin responded to the new astronomical theories of the sixteenth century. In our next post, we will look at this in more detail in order to discover what we might learn from the mistakes of others.


i R.C. Sproul, Scripture Alone (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2005), 152, emphasis mine.
iiIbid., 153.
iiiCharles Hodge, Systematic Theolgy, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982 [1872–73]), 1:59.
ivSproul, Scripture Alone, 154.


See also:

Misunderstanding Vatican II

R.C. Sproul

I think Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and similar efforts to make common cause with Roman Catholics are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of where the Roman Catholic Church is theologically and what it actually teaches. There is no question that the Roman Catholic Church has changed since the sixteenth century. But the changes have not closed the gap between Rome and Protestantism. Indeed, the differences are greater now. For instance, the formally defined proclamation of the infallibility of the pope and all of the Mariology statements have come since the Reformation. Neither has Rome backed down from any of the positions it took in the sixteenth-century debate. In the updated Catechism of the Catholic Church, released in the mid-1990s, the treasury of merit, purgatory, indulgences, justification through the sacraments, and other doctrines were reaffirmed.

I think this misunderstanding has been driven primarily by confusion over the significance of Vatican Council II (1962–65). It was only the second ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church since Trent, the other being Vatican Council I (1869–70). So, these councils are rare events, and the church and the world were surprised when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II.

The statements produced by Vatican I referred to Protestants as schismatics and heretics. In marked contrast, the rhetoric of Vatican II was kind, warm, and appeasing. Protestants were called "separated brethren." John's passion, which he set forth in a pastoral letter, was that the Lord's sheepfold would be one. There should be unity under one shepherd, he said, with all Christians returning to Holy Mother Church under the Roman pontiff. John was seen as kind, avuncular, and warm, so people jumped to the conclusion that Rome had changed its theology. However, many overlooked the fact that John ruled out any debate about justification at Vatican II.

The New Theology?

In the same era as Vatican II, there was a major split within the Roman Catholic Church between the Western and Latin wings of the church. Much of the Western wing adopted what was called the nouvelle théologie, "the new theology," which was much more compatible with historical Protestantism than the classical orthodox Latin Roman theology.

Incidentally, this rupture shows that the contemporary Roman Catholic communion is not as monolithic as it traditionally has been. Some see this rupture as almost as serious as the Reformation. We can find priests and even bishops who sound Protestant in their views. But it is important to remember that when we analyze the Roman Catholic Church, we are not talking about the American church, the Dutch church, the German church, or the Swiss church. We are talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is not the bishop of New York or Los Angeles. He is not the bishop of Berlin, Heidelberg, or Vienna. He is the bishop of Rome. He is the one who, along with church councils, defines the belief system of the Roman Catholic Church.

The new theology made great inroads, particularly in Germany, Holland, and the United States. As a result, Roman Catholic priests in these countries began to sound like Protestants in the things they taught. They said they believed in justification by faith alone. Nevertheless, their beliefs did not reflect the church's official positions.

Protestants Heading to Rome

These changes have led many Protestants to join the Roman Catholic Church. I suspect there are vastly greater numbers leaving Rome for evangelicalism than the other way around, but a number of leading evangelicals have embraced Rome, the most high profile of whom was probably Francis Beckwith, who resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007 when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism.

I think there are several reasons for these conversions. First, those who are going to Rome love the Roman liturgy, seeing it as more transcendent than the informal and contemporary worship practiced in a growing number of evangelical churches. They long for the beauty, the sense of gravity, and the transcendent majesty of classical worship. I think this is the biggest factor pulling evangelicals toward the Roman Catholic Church.

Second, Protestantism seems to be splintered into an infinite number of divisions and troubled by endless disputes and discussions of doctrine, while Rome seems unified and doctrinally settled. This appeals to many who long for unity, peace, and certainty.

In the midst of all this, a 2005 book actually asked, "Is the Reformation Over?" and asserted "Things are not the way they used to be." My response to this idea that the Reformation is over is that the authors did not understand either the Reformation, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, or all three. The Reformation was simply a commitment to biblical truth, and as long as there are departures from biblical truth, we have to be involved in the task of reformation. So, when people say the Reformation is over, that we no longer need to fight the battles the Reformers fought and that we can make peace with Rome, they reveal a serious lack of understanding of the historical and current issues that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The Indisputable Fact

The indisputable fact is that Rome made a number of strong, clear theological affirmations at the Council of Trent. Because Trent was an ecumenical council, it had all the weight of the infallibility of the church behind it. So, there is a sense in which Rome, in order to maintain her triumphant view of the authority of the church and of tradition, cannot repeal the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. As recently as the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the end of the twentieth century, it made clear, unambiguous reaffirmations of Trent's teachings. So, those who argue that these teachings on justification are no longer relevant to the debate between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are simply ignoring what the church itself teaches. Yes, there are some Roman Catholic priests and scholars who dispute some of the teachings of their communion, but as far as the Roman hierarchy is concerned, the Council of Trent stands immutable on its teaching regarding justification. We cannot ignore what Trent said in evaluating where we stand in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and the ongoing relevance of the Reformation.


This excerpt is adapted from R.C. Sproul's Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism.

The Rise of the Papacy

David Wells

There are one billion Roman Catholics worldwide, one billion people who are subject to the Pope’s authority. How, one might ask, did all of this happen? The answer, I believe, is far more complex and untidy than Catholics have argued. First, I will give a brief explanation of what the Catholic position is, and then, second, I will suggest what I think actually took place.

The Catholic Explanation

The traditional Catholic understanding is that Jesus said that it was upon Peter the church was to be built (Matt. 16:18−19; see also John 21:15−17; Luke 22:32). Following this, Peter spent a quarter of a century in Rome as its founder and bishop, and his authority was recognized among the earliest churches; this authority was handed down to his successors. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) re-affirmed this understanding. Apostolic authority has been handed on to the apostles’ successors even as Peter’s supreme apostolic power has been handed on to each of his successors in Rome.

The problem with this explanation, however, is that there is no evidence to sustain it. The best explanation of Matthew 16:18–19 is that the church will be built, not on an ecclesiastical position, but on Peter’s confession regarding Christ’s divinity. Correlative to this understanding is the fact that there is no biblical evidence to support the view that Peter spent a long time in the church in Rome as its leader. The Book of Acts is silent about this; it is not to be found in Peter’s own letters; and Paul makes no mention of it, which is strange if, indeed, Peter was in Rome early on since at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he greets many people by name. And the argument that Peter’s authority was universally recognized among the early churches is contradicted by the facts. It is true that Irenaeus, in the second century, did say that the church was founded by “the blessed apostles,” Peter and Paul, as did Eusebius in the fourth century, and by the fifth century, Jerome did claim that it was founded by Peter whom he calls “the prince of the apostles.” However, on the other side of the equation are some contradictory facts. Ignatius, for example, en route to his martyrdom, wrote letters to the bishops of the dominant churches of the day, but he spoke of Rome’s prominence only in moral, not ecclesiastical, terms. At about the same time early in the second century, the Shepherd of Hermas, a small work written in Rome, spoke only of its “rulers” and “the elders” who presided over it. There was, apparently, no dominant bishop at that time. Not only so, but in the second and third centuries, there were numerous instances of church leaders resisting claims from leaders in Rome to ecclesiastical authority in settling disputes.

It is, in fact, more plausible to think that the emergence of the Roman pontiff to power and prominence happened by natural circumstance rather than divine appointment. This took place in two stages. First, it was the church in Rome that emerged to prominence and only then, as part of its eminence, did its leader begin to stand out. The Catholic church has inverted these facts by suggesting that apostolic power and authority, indeed, Peter’s preeminent power and authority, established the Roman bishop whereas, in fact, the Roman bishopric’s growing ecclesiastical prestige derived, not from Peter, but from the church in Rome.

The Actual Explanation

In the beginning, the church in Rome was just one church among many in the Roman empire but natural events conspired to change this. Jerusalem had been the original “home base” of the faith, but in a.d. 70, the army of Titus destroyed it and that left Christianity without its center. It was not unnatural for people in the empire to begin to look to the church in Rome since this city was its political capital. All roads in that ancient world did, indeed, lead to Rome, and many of them, of course, were traveled by Christian missionaries. It is also the case that the Roman church, in the early centuries, developed a reputation for moral and doctrinal probity and, for these reasons, warranted respect. Its growing eminence, therefore, seems to have come about in part because it was warranted and also, in part, because it was able to bask in some of the reflected splendor of the imperial city.

Heresies had abounded from the start, but in the third-century, churches began to take up a new defensive posture against them. Would it not be the case, Tertullian argued, that churches founded by the apostles would have a secure footing for their claims to authenticity, in contrast to potentially heretical churches? This argument buttressed the growing claims to preeminence of the Roman church. However, it is interesting to note that

in the middle of this century, Cyprian in North Africa argued that the words, “You are Peter …” were not a charter for the papacy but, in fact, applied to all bishops. Furthermore, at the third Council of Carthage in 256, he asserted that the Roman bishop should not attempt to be a “bishop of bishops” and exercise “tyrannical” powers.

Already in the New Testament period, persecution was a reality, but in the centuries that followed, the church suffered intensely because of the animosities and apprehensions of successive emperors. In the fourth century, however, the unimaginable happened. Emperor Constantine, prior to a pivotal battle, saw a vision and turned to Christianity. The church, which had lived a lonely existence on the “outside” up to this time, now enjoyed an unexpected imperial embrace. As a result, from this point on, the distinction between appropriate ecclesiastical demeanor and worldly pretensions to pomp and power were increasingly lost. In the Middle Ages, the distinction disappeared entirely. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory brazenly exploited this by asserting that the “care of the whole church” had been placed in the hands of Peter and his successors in Rome. Yet even at this late date, such a claim did not pass unchallenged. Those in the east, whose center was in Constantinople, resented universal claims like this, and, in fact, this difference of opinion was never settled. In 1054, after a series of disputes, the Great Schism between the eastern and western churches began. Eastern Orthodoxy began to go its own way, separated from Roman jurisdiction, and this remains a breach that has been mostly unhealed.

The pope’s emergence to a position of great power and authority was, then, long in the making. Just how far the popes had traveled away from New Testament ideas about church life was brutally exposed by Erasmus at the time of the Reformation. Pope Julius II had just died when, in 1517, Erasmus penned his Julius Exclusus. He pictured this pope entering heaven where, to his amazement, he was not recognized by Peter! Erasmus’ point was simply that the popes had become rich, pretentious, worldly, and everything but apostolic. However, he should have made his point even more radically. It was not just papal behavior that Peter would not have recognized as his own, but papal pretensions to universal authority as well.

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