top of page

Sola Scriptura IV: The Universal Interpreter

“A man’s soul is as full of voices as a forest [...] fancies, follies, memories, madness, mysterious fears, and more mysterious hopes. All settlement and sane government of life consists in coming to the conclusion that some of those voices have authority and others not” (G.K. Chesterton, “The Language of Eternity,” The Illustrated London News, July 2, 1910

Like a man’s mind described by Chesterton, the collection of Christians across the world is also full of many varying voices, many of which contradict one another (as we touched upon in The Authority and Unity Problem). For this very reason, the faithful and sincere Christian ought to discern with all seriousness and vigor which voices do indeed have God-given authority and which in fact do not. One should ask and wonder who truly does have the authority, as prescribed by Scripture, to interpret and lead the Body of Christ the Church into understanding so that we may be one, as Scripture asks of us. A Christian should pursue and seek out who is to keep us from being swayed to and fro with every wind of doctrine. And one should wonder if the Christian life truly is to be an island where each individual believer is to figure and define every detail for themselves without adhering to any authoritative guidance. As we have established in this series up to this point, there can only be and must be only one true way to interpret Scripture, and we have established that those under Sola Scriptura cannot fulfill these needs of the Faithful. So, what is left is to the look to the opposing claim, being that the Church has the authority to lead the Body of Christ throughout the world.


Our series on Sola Scriptura has been culminating to this very point: trust in the legitimacy of the authority of Rome. We established in The Case for Peter how Christ set St. Peter aside with a specific office which bestowed on him the function of being the rock, steward, server, and shepherd of the Churc. This office is what we refer to as "the papacy". Before coming to understand the type of authority held by the papacy and an argument in favor of it can be made, we must first understand what this office's authority is not. To those who aren't Catholic, and perhaps even to most Catholics, the term "infallible" may seem to be in line with being anything from "all-knowing" to even being "sinless" and free from criticism. This can be due to a lot of misunderstanding by Catholics themselves who go on to share these misconceptions unknowingly.

Rather than infallibility being a divine impudence that makes the pope perfect, sinless, and thus free from personal error (St. Peter is clear evidence that popes are not expected by the Church to be personally perfect), it is something that the Holy Spirit prevents the Church as a whole from doing—in particular, formally binding Christians to hold to and live by a doctrinal heresy. It's a protection of and an assurance to the Faithful insofar that they know as long as they are in strict unison with Rome they will not be led to believe a damnable and erroneous teaching, rather than it being an ability of the pope to make any rules he'd like. The 19th century church council of Vatican I defined it as such:

"Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our Saviour, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the sacred Council, We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that:
When the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable."

It is not that the Church knows all things, but that by the will of God His Church will always be preserved from heresy and error since its doctrinal binding declarations will already have been in unison with Heaven prior to formal enunciation (Matt 16:19), which enables Christ's Bride to carry on the Apostles’ teachings purely. Christ promised to protect His Bride from the gates of hell (16:18), so are we not to believe Him?

So, rather than asking "where is infallibility in the bible", we should be wondering where Scripture gives us the impression that Christ's established Church could possibly teach error. For whoever hears the Church hears Christ (Luke 10:16), and Christ cannot teach error. And if He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18), and then He bestows this authority (16:19, 18:18, 28:19-20, Luke 9:1, John 21:15-19) why would divine protection not come with this bestowment? Are there passages within Scripture which would lead us to believe that Christ would not be with His Church and also leave it unguided?

We should all be able to agree that the writers of the Gospel accounts and the epistles within the canon of Scripture were guided and guarded by the Holy Spirit which made their written words inerrant. These personally fallible men were thus protected with infallibility by the Holy Spirit for the sake of Scripture which was for the sake of the Faithful. Therefore, we know this sort of protection exists as apart of the guidance of the Holy Spirit which walks along with the Church to guide it into all Truth (John 16:13). And that's exactly what infallibility is, the Holy Spirit guiding the Church down the path of Truth. The Holy Spirit won't allow for the strides of doctrine to fall outside of the straight and narrow path, for if it does then that means that Hell will have prevailed, and Christ already promised against that possibility.

Some may argue that infallibility was not defined until Vatican I in 1870 and so therefore it's not something that was relevant or present within the Early Church and is just a recent development. Though at first glance I can understand why a person would say that, the fact that a certain teaching isn't defined extraordinarily by the magisterium, it does not follow that the ordinary magisterium, the universal traditional teaching of bishops which has been passed on through Church history, hasn't adhered to this belief. It also does not mean that the ratified teaching wasn't true leading up to its defining.

With the initial argument, if one were to follow that line of thinking, that would mean that Christ did not have two natures (human and divine) until it was defined in 325 A.D. at the council of Nicaea. And the same could be said of the Trinity, which is neither mentioned in Scripture explicitly nor defined until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Definitions by the Church are not an invention of something new, but a deeper clarification of teachings already present in some form or another within Scripture and Tradition. For instance, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, had this to say of the Church:

“Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter from where apostolic faith is derived and where no errors can come” (Epistulae 59 (55), 14, [A.D. 256]).

That sounds an awful lot like the idea of infallibility, and that is in the 3rd century of the Church. And even before St. Cyprian there was St. Irenaeus of Lyons who said:

“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (Against Heresies 3:3:2 [A.D. 189]).

And if you would wish to go even sooner than 189, St. Ignatius, direct disciple of St. John, and Bishop of Antioch (who succeeded after Peter in that region once Peter continued his ministry westward), while on his way to his martyrdom wrote seven letters. In his letter to the Romans, dated between 104-110 A.D. (only a decade after Revelation was written by St. John), he addresses the Church of Rome in a manner unlike any other church receives from him:

"Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the country of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, walking in the law of Christ and bearing the Father’s name; which church I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father: to those who are united, both according to the flesh and spirit, to every one of His commandments; who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, I wish an abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God." -The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans

St. Ignatius sets Rome apart from the other churches he writes to while on his way to his death. But his acknowledgment of Rome's role within the universal Church doesn't stop with his initial greeting. He carries on to say:

You never grudged any one; you were the instructors of others. And my desire is that those lessons shall hold good which as teachers you enjoin. (Ch. 3)


Remember in your prayers the church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love will also regard it. (Ch. 9)


As to those who have gone before me from Syria to Rome for the glory of God, I believe that you have received instructions; to whom make known that I am near. For they are all worthy, both of God and of you. And it is becoming that you should refresh them in all things. (Ch. 10)

These three saints in particular, though separated by great elapses of time, together believe the Church led by Rome to be the inerrant, unifying, doctrinal teacher of all the Faithful, even though infallibility wasn't absolutely defined until many centuries after their deaths. An even more bold claim comes from St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, a profound lover of both tradition and scripture, who in 397 A.D. had this reflection on the Church despite his evident faithfulness to Holy Scripture throughout all of his writings:

"I would not believe in the Gospels were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church"

-(Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 5:6)


We know that Scripture speaks of the Church as being the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). That term “bulwark” is a word we don't commonly come into contact with. The Greek term for it that St. Paul used was hedraioma, which means: a foundation. This term's definition sparks a reminder to Matthew 16 where Peter was named the rock upon which Christ's church was to be built, the foundation if you will. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which is a collection of in-depth Protestant articles on theological terms, explains in its piece on the term Paul uses (hedraioma) in this manner:

“A Church is established which protects and defends the truth against the confusion of myths. It gives the faith and thinking of individuals a sure ground in confession [of the faith]. No longer God alone, but also the Church of God, now guarantees the permanence of the aletheia [truth]. The steadfastness of faith has now become loyalty to the Church and the confession” (vol. II, p. 364).

For being a Protestant work, this comes across as being quite a Catholic sounding explanation of that term, giving more credence to the Catholic understanding of the role of the Church.

This foundational structure of the Roman Catholic Church – having an authoritative teaching office comprised of bishops who are the successors of the apostles – follows the likeness of the hierarchical structure of ancient Israel. And we see that Jesus establishes His Church in this fashion, using traditional Jewish language in the process, such as "binding and loosing" and referring to "keys of the kingdom". In the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, Christ uses a term in reference to the Scribes and Pharisees which is not found within the Old Testament, but rather only in oral Tradition:

“The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” - Matthew 23:2-3

Even though Our Lord strongly accuses the Scribes and Pharisees of hypocrisy for not adhering to their own teachings, he still insists that the they hold a position of legitimate authority, which he describes as them sitting “on Moses’ seat". In his book, The New Century Bible Commentary: Gospel of Matthew, David Hill covers this passage and says that Moses’ seat was “not simply a metaphor. There was an actual stone seat in front of the synagogue where the authoritative teacher sat.” (pg. 310). One's own search for any reference to this aforementioned seat of Moses in the Old Testament would be in vain. It was, however, a common understanding in ancient Israel that there was indeed an authoritative office charged with interpretation, and with "binding and loosening", which was passed on by Moses to successors.

The first verse of the Mishna Tractate, which is a written collection of Jewish oral traditions, indicates the Jews understood God’s revelation, as received by Moses, as having been passed down from Moses in an uninterrupted succession by the laying on of hands bestowing his authority starting with Joshua and then those after him (Deut 34:9, Num 27:18-21), along with the elders, the prophets, and the great Sanhedrin (Acts 15:21). The scribes and Pharisees therefore participated in this authoritative line, and thus, because of this position that they held, their teaching deserved to be respected. Jesus, therefore, draws from oral Tradition to uphold the legitimacy of this teaching office in Israel in spite of their personal errors and hypocrisies. The Catholic Church, in upholding the legitimacy of both Scripture and Tradition, follows this example set by Jesus himself.

This verse in St. Matthew's Gospel about Moses’ chair alludes to why we say that the successor of St. Peter, when he gives an authoritative and binding teaching for the whole Church, is described as teaching ex cathedra meaning “from the chair” (as we saw in the Vatican I declaration). This term cathedra is where we also derive the word "cathedral", indicating where the bishop of the diocese presides. A chair, in liturgical context, indicates where one can look to for authority. Where there is a chair, there is authority. But ultimately it is the chair in Rome that we look to. It is how we can know if our interpretations and understandings of Scripture are bound in and united to Heaven, since any declaration by the Church is already a preordained Truth meant to be declared to the Faithful.

In short, what is bound on earth was already bound and was true in Heaven prior. The binding on earth shows the connection between the Church and God. The Church is led to come to realizations of doctrine over time through guidance of the Spirit. And this here is the notable and fundamental difference between the "magisterium" of the Old Covenant and our teachers under the New Covenant. The successors of the apostles, and especially Peter’s successor, have the Holy Spirit to actively guide them into all truth, as we have stated many times before.

There are also those outside of the Church who try to claim that the Church Fathers and historians fail to mention Peter or the papal lineage after him, and they will then use this as their ground from which to claim that the papacy was non existent in the early Church and was therefore an invention of the Roman Empire/Church union, more or less, once Christianity became legal in the 4th century. This is far from true, for we have accounts from varying areas within the early centuries of the Church. For instance, amidst his response to the Donatists, who's beliefs led them into schism, St. Optatus, Bishop of Miletus, said:

“You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head—that is why he is also called Cephas [‘Rock’]—of all the apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all” - The Schism of the Donatists 2:2 [A.D. 367].

There, also, is not a lack of evidence and record of the lineage after Pope Peter, as some would like to claim. The Church, as mentioned previously, carries on their offices as Israel did. To prove one's rightful position among the leadership in the early Church, you had to show and trace your unbroken lineage leading back to the apostles. It was crucial in the continuance of the Church.

“[T]his is the way in which the apostolic churches transmit their lists: like the church of the Smyrneans, which records that Polycarp was placed there by John, like the church of the Romans, where Clement was ordained by Peter” -Tertullian Demurrer Against the Heretics 32:2 [A.D. 200].

We also have Eusebius, an Eastern bishop, far removed from Rome by distance, who wrote on the early papal lineage:

“Paul testifies that Crescens was sent to Gaul [2 Tim. 4:10], but Linus, whom he mentions in the Second Epistle to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21] as his companion at Rome, was Peter’s successor in the episcopate of the church there, as has already been shown. Clement also, who was appointed third bishop of the church at Rome, was, as Paul testifies, his co-laborer and fellow-soldier [Phil. 4:3]” - Eusebius of Caesarea Church History 3:4:9–10 [A.D. 312]).

Here Eusebius mentions at least two of Peter's first known successors, but an even more impressive testimony comes again from St. Irenaeus, who, in the second century, offers an account of the lineage of the bishopric of Rome leading from St. Peter up until the pope of his own day. In this particular passage he too mentions Pope Clement:

"The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles" (Against Heresies 3:3:3 [A.D. 189]).

This mentioning of Pope Clement and his letter to the Corinthians, which has been dated anywhere between 70A.D. until 96A.D., is a fantastic piece of evidence in support of the Catholic view. Reason being, during the time that this letter was written, St. John the Apostle was still alive, but the Corinthians don't reach out to St. John when they encounter a issue within their church. St. John was indeed closer in proximity and was known as one of the three pillars of the church, along with Peter and James (Galatians 2:9). The Corinthians chose to reach out to Rome in spite of this, and it is St. Clement who responds:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe [...]
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. [...] Let us, therefore, flee from the warning threats pronounced by Wisdom on the disobedient, and yield submission to His all-holy and glorious name, that we may stay our trust upon the most hallowed name of His majesty. Receive our counsel, and you shall be without repentance. [...] If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger; but we shall be innocent of this sin [...] Right is it, therefore, to approach examples so good and so many, and submit the neck and fulfil the part of obedience, in order that, undisturbed by vain sedition, we may attain unto the goal set before us in truth wholly free from blame. Joy and gladness will you afford us, if you become obedient to the