Magisterium -- Authoritative but Not Infallible

If you’re anything like me, you would have been very disappointed with Dr. Steven Nemes in his debate with Suan Sonna on Pints with Aquinas concerning Rome’s “infallible magisterium.” He failed to substantively engage with any of Sonna’s arguments, falling back on that old post-modern line, “We don’t know.” In this article, I’m going to attempt to engage more deeply with some of Sonna’s arguments and hopefully give some much needed balance to the claims that he has made.

Here’s my thesis: Jesus established an authoritative, successional, and institutional magisterium, but not an infallible one.

Sonna has already made a good case for an authoritative, successional, and institutional magisterium. However, he fails to prove that such a magisterium would be infallible.

It’s important to note that I don’t actually dispute any of Sonna’s evidence. He’s done a very good job of surveying the scholarship and Jewish literature. I simply think he’s over-interpreted it. So I won’t necessarily be providing new evidence; I will mostly be offering my own interpretation of that evidence.

In the debate, Sonna offered five arguments in defense of magisterial infallibility: 1. Matthew 16:19 implies that God’s institutions will not err. 2. The apostles, as the new Sanhedrin, had the same backing of heaven that the old Sanhedrin had. 3. Jesus does not totally reject Rabbinic authority. 4. It appears uncharacteristic of God to command obedience to an errant authority. 5. Jesus breathed on the Apostles; thus, since 2 Timothy 3:16 proves biblical infallibility, John 20:22 must prove apostolic infallibility.

In reality, I think we’re really looking at two main arguments. The first four arguments are simply variations on a theme; the fifth argument stands alone. So I’m going to tackle the fifth argument before broadening my scope to the first four.

Jesus’ Breath and Infallibility

Sonna’s argument is as follows: > Protestants often use 2 Timothy 3:16 as proof that the scriptures are infallible because they are God breathed. If that’s the case, then Jesus breathes on the apostles in John 20:22. If the inference of inerrancy holds in the one case, then why not the other? If it holds, then God can make men infallible.

I would offer two responses.

First, inspiration is something intrinsic to the Scriptures. God did not breathe on the Scriptures–he breathed out the Scriptures through the human authors. The word θεόπνευστος in 2 Timothy 3:16 “refers very generally to all wisdom as coming from God, then more specifically to dreams given by God as distinct from natural dreams…”1 In other words, Sonna would have to be suggesting that the oral tradition passed down by the apostles bears the same mark of inspiration that the Scriptures do, as coming directly from God. This goes beyond what even his own Church documents would suggest. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeatedly describes Scripture as in inspired but never describes Sacred Tradition as inspired.2

But thus far, I’ve assumed that Sonna’s interpretation of John 20:22-23 is correct. On the contrary, he seems to have totally missed the point of the text. Catholic commentator Francis Martin takes the view that this passage is John’s allusion to Pentecost, and this passage parallels Acts 2:1-4 and Genesis 2:7.3 This is Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to all who believe; thus, the promise of heaven’s backing in forgiveness must apply to the church as a priestly community, not the Apostles as individuals or as a Sanhedrin-like institution. But if Sonna is correct and John 20:22-23 is a promise of magisterial infallibility, then every baptized Christian could claim infallibility, an idea I’m certain Sonna would deny.

Infallibility and the Sanhedrin Typology

Rather than arguing line by line through Sonna’s other four arguments, I think we can lay this all to rest by answering a simple question:

Does God’s recognition and support of an authority imply its infallibility?

My answer is no. In fact, God explicitly commands obedience and submission to fallible authorities many times over.

Romans 13 is the prime example. Paul says, > Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Here we have an explicit command to obey a fallible authority. Of course, Paul would never suggest that the civil government is fallible, but he leaves no room for dissension even in their false decisions. As always, there are exceptions, but historically, those exceptions have been very limited. To some degree, we are even bound to follow unjust laws. Thomas Aquinas says, > Wherefore such laws [i.e. unjust laws] do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right…4

And concerning the letter of the law, he says, > Nevertheless it must be noted, that if the observance of the law according to the letter does not involve any sudden risk needing instant remedy, it is not competent for everyone to expound what is useful and what is not useful to the state: those alone can do this who are in authority, and who, on account of such like cases, have the power to dispense from the laws.5

So even in the case of what we perceive as bad judgments, we are ordinarily obligated to follow those judgments.

From a non-Roman perspective, Anglican divine Richard Hooker says, > Equity, reason, the law of nature, God, and man all favor maintaining the status quo until a definitive decision is made against it, so it is only just to demand willing obedience of you, and it would be perverse of you to deny it.6

For a Jewish example, Sonna points to the fact that Jesus commands obedience to the Rabbinic authorities, but it’s a logical jump to claim infallibility for those authorities. The fact that Jesus requires obedience to the established religious authorities does not imply that those authorities cannot be mistaken in their “definitive” judgments.

So in what sense do earthly authorities have the backing of heaven? They are backed by heaven in the sense that their authority derives from heaven. Thus, we are ordinarily obligated to submit to their judgments as long as they do not lead us into grievous sin. I would argue, in fact, that if the authorities compel us to violate our conscience in some minor way, the greater sin would be open revolt against that authority.

But what about Protestants?

I hope this question is in your mind. If we are called to submit to authorities even in their false judgments, isn’t Protestantism a project fraught with sin? I would answer, yes and no.

There is a brand of Protestantism that desires to downplay authority. Recently, this group has been very vocal in their opposition to certain government mandates, and Protestants have had to have serious debates about the extent of our submission to the government. This first group goes beyond the historic Christian position in saying we are freed from obligation to unjust laws in every circumstance. To that end, they’ll freely cause all sorts of controversy.

I reject this approach. It is not morally tenable to claim that the Pope or any other institution had authority at one time but forfeited that authority because of their infidelity to truth. So what are our other options?

In the West, I think the Anglican tradition offers the best response.7 > The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.8

The argument is not that the Pope has somehow lost his authority by his infidelity; rather, the Church of England claimed that the Pope never had absolute jurisdiction over the England. From the Anglican perspective, “Protestantism” isn’t a rejection of a God-ordained authority; it’s an assertion that a supreme authority over the Church catholic was never ordained by God at all. There are many historical arguments for this, but the general point is that consistent Protestantism will dispute the totalizing claims of Rome rather than her precise doctrinal formulations as the primary grounds for separation.


In short, I think Suan Sonna has done very good work in studying the Jewish background to early church polity, and he makes a compelling case for some kind of authoritative, successional, and institutional magisterium, but he has failed to demonstrate that magisterium’s infallibility.

The exact nature of that magisterium is outside of the scope of this article, but if infallibility is not part of the God-ordained structure, then the Roman claims fall short. I have demonstrated as much.

I hope Suan might engage with me some on this because I think a fruitful discussion can be had. I do however encourage Protestants to think deeply about this. Sonna has brought to our attention some important questions that need to be answered, and our stock answers from five-hundred years ago just won’t cut it. We need real engagements with today’s best apologists.

  1. Schweizer, Eduard. θεόπνευστος, TDNT.↩︎

  2. CCC 50-141↩︎

  3. Martin, Francis. The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture). Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. Accessed August 24, 2021.↩︎

  4. ST↩︎

  5. ST↩︎

  6. Hooker, Richard. The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity In Modern English, Vol. 1. Edited by Dr. Bradford Littlejohn. Lincoln, Neb.: The Davenant Press, 2019, p. 28.↩︎

  7. The argument from the East is going to be very similar, but I want to keep focused on the Western church for the purposes of this discussion.↩︎

  8. Article 37, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion↩︎