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At the 1st Vatican Council on 18th July 1870, the Roman Catholic Church passed one of its most absurd doctrines, that of Papal Infallibility. The decree passed at that council stated that ‘when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, 1) in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, 2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, 3) 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’a.
Although this was the first time that the infallibility of the Pope had been officially declared by the Vatican, the idea that the Pope and indeed the Roman Catholic Church could not err had long been a part of Roman Catholic church history. In 1075 Pope Gregory VII stated that ‘the Roman Church has never erred and will never err to all eternity, according to the testimony of the holy scriptures’b. Even though the doctrine of Papal Infallibility only teaches that the Pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra, it still teaches that a mere man can infallibly define a doctrine, without rebuke from any other man. More importantly, it means that no-one can bring the teaching of that person or church to the bar of scripture to challenge whether they are true or not.
Where does the church get its authority? The view of evangelical Protestantism down through the ages has always been that the church gets its authority from the Word of God. The Roman Catholic Church however turns this truth on its head and makes the church the ultimate authority. As the scriptures have been committed to the church (so Rome teaches) therefore the church is the sole authority for determining and interpreting what the scriptures actually teach. The Roman Catholic Catechism states that ‘The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone’c. Vatican II taught that ‘Bishops, therefore, have been made true and authentic teachers of the faith, pontiffs, and pastors through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to them’d. The Roman Catholic view that only the church has the authority to teach and interpret the Word of God is justified by an erroneous interpretation of several passages of scripture, one of those being 2nd Peter 1:20; ‘knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation’. Rome teaches that this verse means that no individual can interpret the Word of God for themselves, but must look to the church for guidance. Whatever the church decrees must then be accepted without question. Such a view still holds millions in darkness around the world today, with personal interpretation and understanding of the Word of God being discouraged. Roman Catholics are instead told to seek the guidance of their bishop or priest in all spiritual matters. As the representatives of the Church they alone are able to interpret scripture, yet even they can only do so in line with the official teaching of the church. The teaching of the church cannot be questioned. The true meaning of 2nd Peter 1:20 is only rightly understood when the verse following is also considered; ‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’. When scripture was written down, it was not the private and personal opinions of men which were recorded; for they are not of any ‘private interpretation’, but the inspired words given to those men as they were led by the Holy Spirit. 2nd Peter 1:20 does not in any way support the Roman Catholic doctrine that the church alone has the authority to interpret scripture.
The teaching of Papal Infallibility is but the natural result of Roman Catholic claim of having sole authority to interpret scripture. It is little wonder then that the period before the Reformation was known as the dark ages, where the people were ignorant of the scriptures and the threat of Rome’s anathema hung over any who would question their authority. All teachers and all doctrine must be measured against the Word of God and those who put themselves beyond such scrutiny should be rejected. Since the Reformation delivered us from the freedom of a church and from men who could not be questioned, why then do so many Christians today turn back to a new class of infallible, unquestionable teachers in the Charismatic Movement?
2. The Charismatics who cannot be questioned
The infallible unquestionable nature of the Charismatic Movement is different from that of the Church of Rome, yet in a great sense it is very much the same. It is this unquestionableness which caused John MacArthur to describe the Charismatic Movement as spiritual AIDS ‘because it makes it a sin to question their theology'e. How can you question someone who claims to have received a personal revelation directly from God? If you believe that they have received that message from God then you are not merely questioning them, but you are also questioning God. They cannot be brought to the Bible because they have had the experience and their experience cannot be questioned. How can the church be preserved from error if its teachers cannot be examined in the light of scripture, but must be assumed to be essentially infallible? Benny Hinn launched one of the most blistering attacks on any who would question or oppose him in 1992 when he was reported in Christianity Today as saying ‘Now I'm pointing my finger with the mighty power of God on me ... You hear this. There are men and women in Southern California attacking me. I will tell you under the anointing now, you'll reap it in your children. You'll never win ... And you children will suffer. You're attacking me on the radio every night; you'll pay, and your children will. Hear this from the lips of God's servant. You are in danger. Repent, or God Almighty will move his hand’f. There can be no clearer example of a preacher who refuses to be questioned or have his teachings examined by scripture. Yet whilst Hinn is one of the most extreme examples of Charismatics who cannot be questioned, he is by no means the only one. We have previously mentioned the children’s colouring material handed out by Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church, instructing them to be united under the vision of ‘Pastor Steve’g. They are not to question his authority but must follow the vision which he has been given; it is this 'vision' which they are taught will bring unity, not the Word of God. The question is, can his vision not be scrutinised by Scripture? It would appear that it cannot. The leadership of the charismatic Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia has also been described as not being open to any form of questioning; ‘Authority is a big deal at Hillsong. You don't mess with Brian or his wife, Bobbie’h. The inability of Charismatic leaders and churches to be questioned by their followers and to be tested by scripture, due to their having received a 'special revelation', a personal message direct from God, means that there is a very real danger of multitudes being deceived by their false message.Every charismatic who claims that God has spoken to them outside the Word of God, whether they be a high profile teacher or not, puts themselves above the authority of scripture, and whether they realise it or not, claim a form of infallibility.
3. Only one infallible source of teaching
In the word of God we have ‘a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed’ and all teachers and teaching must be examined in the light of scripture. No church is to be regarded as infallible, as the Church of Rome would have us believe. Neither should any Charismatic teacher be regarded as unquestionable simply because he claims to have had a vision from the Lord. Those preachers who refuse to have their teachings brought to the word of God should be immediately rejected as untrustworthy. Once we begin to accept the visions and views of Charistmatic teachers without question then the door is opened to the acceptance of all manner of error. If their views cannot be compared with scripture then how can we determine between truth and error, other than to simply take their word for it? Our doctrine is not to be determined by our experience, but all experiences must be judged by scripture. If this is not the case then the Word of God is made subjective to individual experience and can mean whatever we wish it to mean.
Everything that we believe must be based on scripture; any doctrine or view which we have that cannot be supported by the Word of God, is not Christianity, it is the invention of man. All preachers and teachers, no matter how good they may be, can and will err. None of them are infallible, to be accepted without question. Only the Word of God can be looked at in this manner. To accept anyone without comparing their teaching to the Word of God, is not the mark of biblical Christianity, but is the mark of a cult. Let us ‘search the scriptures’, comparing all things with the Word of God. We reject the claim of the Church of Rome that it cannot err, so also should we reject any charismatic who refuses to have their authority questioned and refuses to be brought to the Word of God.
a 1st Vatican Council, Session 4 18 July 1870 Chapter 4 On the Infallible teaching of the Roman Pontiff
b ‘Dictatus Papae’ Pope Gregory VII, March 1075
c ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church Part 1 Section 1 Chapter 2 Article 2 Paragraph 85’
d ‘2nd Vatican Council – Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church Christus Dominus, Pope Paul VI, October 28 1965’
e ‘John MacArthur Questions and Answers Part 50 June 10 2001’
f Christianity Today, October 5 1992
h ‘Hillsong – the church with no answers, Sydney Morning Herald, August 4 2007’