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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 4. The Office of the Church as Teacher.

1. Romanists define the Church to be the company of men professing the same faith, united in the communion of the same sacraments, subject to lawful pastors, and specially to the Pope. By the first clause they exclude from the Church all infidels and heretics; by the second, all the unbaptized; by the third, all who are not subject to bishops having canonical succession; and by the fourth, all who do not acknowledge the Bishop of Rome to be the head of the Church on earth. It is this external, visible society thus constituted, that God has made an authoritative and infallible teacher.

2. The Church is qualified for this office: first, by the communication of all the revelations of God, written and unwritten; and secondly, by the constant presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit preserving it from all error in its instructions. On this point the “Roman Catechism,”6666Part I. cap. x. quest. 1a. says: “Quemadmodum hæc una Ecclesia errare non potest in fidei ac morum disciplina tradenda, cum a Spiritu Sancto gubernetur; ita ceteras omnes, quæ sibi ecclesiæ nomen arrogant, ut quæ Diaboli spiritu ducantur, in doctrinæ et morum perniciosissimis erroribus versari necesse est.” And Bellarmin,6767De Ecclesia Maitante, c. 14.Nostra sententia est Ecclesiam absolute non posse errare nec in rebus absolute necessariis nec in aliis, quæ credenda vel facienda nobis proponit, sive habeantur expresse in Scripturis, sive non.

3. The Church, according to these statements, is infallible only as to matters of faith and morals. Its infallibility does not extend over the domains of history, philosophy, or science. Some theologians would even limit the infallibility of the Church, to essential doctrines. But the Church of Rome does not make the distinction, recognised by all Protestants, between essential and non-essential doctrines. With Romanists, that is essential, or necessary, which the Church pronounces to be a part of the revelation of God. Bellarmin — than whom there is no greater authority among Romish theologians — says that the Church can err “nec in rebus absolute necessariis nec in aliis,” i.e., neither in things in their own nature necessary, nor in those which become necessary when determined and enjoined. It has been disputed among Romanists, whether the Church is infallible in matters of fact as well as in matters of doctrine. By facts, in this discussion, are not meant facts of history or science, but facts involved in doctrinal decisions. When the Pope condemned certain propositions taken from the works of Jansenius, his disciples had to admit that those propositions were erroneous; but they denied that they were contained, in the sense condemned, in the writings of their master. To this the Jesuits replied, that the infallibility of the Church extended in such cases as much to the fact as to the doctrine. This the Jansenists denied.

The Organs of the Church’s Infallibility.

4. As to the organs of the Church in its infallible teaching, there are two theories, the Episcopal and Papal, or, as they are designated from their principal advocates, the Gallican and the Transmontane. According to the former, the bishops, in their collective capacity, as the official successors of the Apostles, are infallible as teachers. Individual bishops may err, the body or college of bishops cannot err. Whatever the bishops of any age of the Church unite in teaching, is, for that age, the rule of faith. This concurrence of judgment need not amount to entire unanimity. The greater part, the common judgment of the episcopate, is all that is required. To their decision all dissentients are bound to submit. This general judgment may be pronounced in a council, representing the whole Church, or in any other way in which agreement may be satisfactorily indicated. Acquiescence in the decisions of even a provincial council, or of the Pope, or the several bishops, each in his own diocese, teaching the same doctrine, is sufficient proof of consent.

The Transmontane Theory.

According to the Papal, or Transmontane theory, the Pope is the organ through which the infallible judgment of the Church is pronounced. He is the vicar of Christ. He is not subject to a general council. He is not required to consult other bishops before he gives his decision. This infallibility is not personal, but official. As a man the Pope may be immoral, heretical, or infidel; as Pope, when speaking ex cathedra, he is the organ of the Holy Ghost. The High-Priest among the Jews might be erroneous in faith, or immoral in conduct, but when consulting God in his official capacity, he was the mere organ of divine communication. Such, in few words, is the doctrine of Romanists concerning the Rule of Faith.

In the recent Ecumenical Council, held in the Vatican, after a protracted struggle, the Transmontane doctrine was sanctioned. It is, therefore, now obligatory on all Romanists to believe that the Pope, when speaking ex cathedra, is infallible.


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