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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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The quality of not being able to be deceived or mistaken. The infallibility of the church of Rome has been one of the great controversies between the Protestants and Papists. By this infallibility it is understood, that she cannot at any time cease to be orthodox in her doctrine, or fall into any pernicious errors; but that she is constituted, by divine authority, the judge of all controversies of religion, and that all Christians are obliged to acquiesce in her decisions. This is the chain which keeps its members fast bound to its communion; the charm which retains them within its magic circle; the opiate which lays asleep all their doubts and difficulties: it is likewise the magnet which attracts the desultory and unstable in other persuasions within the sphere of popery, the foundation of its whole superstructure, the cement of all its parts, and its fence and fortress against all inroads and attacks.

Under the idea of this infallibility, the church of Rome claims,

1. To determine what books are and what are not canonical, and to oblige all Christians to receive or reject them accordingly.

2. To communicate authority to the Scripture; or, in other words, that the Scripture (quoad nos, ) as to us, receives its authority from her.

3. To assign and fix the sense of Scripture, which all Christians are submissively to receive.

4. To decree as necessary to salvation whatever she judges so, although not contained in Scripture.

5. To decide all controversies respecting matters of faith. These are the claims to which the church of Rome pretends, but which we shall not here attempt to refute, because any man with the Bible in his hand, and a little common sense, will easily see that they are all founded upon ignorance, superstition, and error. It is not a little remarkable, however, that the Roman Catholics themselves are much divided as to the seat of this infallibility, and which, indeed, may be considered as a satisfactory proof that no such privilege exists in the church. For is it consistent with reason to think that God would have imparted so extraordinary a gift to prevent errors and dissensions in the church, and yet have left an additional cause or error and dissension, viz, the uncertainty of the place of its abode? No, surely

Some place this infallibility in the pope or bishop of Rome; some in a general council; others in neither pope nor council separately, but in both conjointly; whilst others are said to place it in the church diffusive, or in all churches throughout the world. But that it could not be deposited in the pope is evident, for many popes have been heretics, and on that account censured and deposed, and therefore could not have been infallible. That it could not be placed in a general council is as evident; for general councils have actually erred. Neither could it be placed in the pope and council conjointly; for two fallibles could not make on infallible any more than two ciphers could make an integer. To say that it is lodged in the church universal or diffusive, is equally as erroneous; for this would be useless and insignificant, because it could never be exercised. The whole church could not meet to make decrees, or to choose representatives, or to deliver their sentiments on any question started; and, less than all would not be the whole church, and so could not claim that privilege.

The most general opinion, however, it is said, is that of its being seated in a pope and general council. The advocates for this opinion consider the pope as the vicar of Christ, head of the church, and centre of unity; and therefore conclude that his concurrence with and approbation of the decrees of a general council are necessary, and sufficient to afford it an indispensable sanction and plenary authority. A general council they regard as the church representative, and suppose that nothing can be wanting to ascertain the truth of any controversial point, when the pretended head of the church and its members, assembled in their supposed representatives, mutually concur and coincide in judicial definitions and decrees, but that infallibility attends their coalition and conjunction in all their determinations. Every impartial person, who considers this subject with the least degree of attention, must clearly perceive that neither any individual nor body of Christians have any ground from reason or Scripture for pretending to infallibility. It is evidently the attribute of the Supreme Being alone, which we have all the foundation imaginable to conclude he has not communicated to any mortal, or associations of mortals. The human being who challenges infallibility seems to imitate the pride and presumption of Lucifer, when he said,

I will ascend, and will be like the Most High. A claim to it was unheard of in the primitive and purest ages of the church; but became, after that period, the arrogant pretension of papal ambition. History plainly informs us, that the bishops of Rome, on the declension of the western Roman empire, began to put in their claim of being the supreme and infallible heads of the Christian church; which they at length established by their deep policy and unremitting efforts; by the concurrence of fortunate circumstances; by the advantages which they reaped from the necessities of some princes, and the superstition of others; and by the general and excessive credulity of the people. However, when they had grossly abused this absurd pretension, and committed various acts of injustice, tyranny, and cruelty; when the blind veneration for the papal dignity had been greatly diminished by the long and scandalous schism occasioned by contending popes; when these had been for a considerable time roaming about Europe, fawning on princes, squeezing their adherents, and cursing their rivals; and when the councils of Constance and Basil had challenged and exercised the right of deposing and electing the bishops of Rome, then their pretensions to infallibility were called in question, and the world discovered that councils were a jurisdiction superior to that of the towering pontiffs.

Then it was that this infallibility was transferred by many divines from popes to general authority of a council above that of a pope spread vastly, especially under the profligate pontificate of Alexander VI. and the martial one of Julius II. The popes were thought by numbers to be too unworthy possessors of so rich a jewel; at the same time it appeared to be of too great a value, and of too extensive consequence, to be parted with entirely. It was, therefore, by the major part of the Roman church, deposited with, or made the property of general councils, either solely or conjointly with the pope.

See Smith's Errors of the Church of Rome detected; and a list of writers under article POPERY.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Infallibility'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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