Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.11: The Infallibility of the Church

Eleventh Question: Is the church infallible or can it err about faith? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.

We reach now what is in many ways the main event in Turretin’s ecclesiology. Given that his is an “elenctic” theology—a theology aimed at refuting an opponent; we would not be far wrong to call it a “polemic” theology—it is critical that he deal with this issue because “the question concerning the infallibility of the church is the most agitated of all which lie between us and the Romanists about the church and of so great importance that the papacy seems to rest upon it as its principal fulcrum” (18.11.1). In other words, if Turretin can win this argument, quite a few other dominoes will fall.

Turretin begins, as usual, by clarifying the issue. This is not about the invisible church, but about the visible; it is also not about the mas of believers, but about pastors; and it is also not about individual pastors, but the church’s pastoral office as a whole when gathered in council. What about the papacy? Turretin spends two pages demonstrating that various “Romanist” authorities can’t agree one where the infallibility rests, and adducing proof that many significant personages (e.g., Peter d’Ailly and Nicholas of Cusa, to name two who folks might still recognize) and councils who ruled that this infallibility does not rest with the pope. The payoff, of course: “Thus the Romanists among themselves are split into various parties about this infallibility of the church” (18.11.5)—doesn’t really sound like an infallible bunch, does it?

Here’s a quick run-down of the arguments Turretin adduces in support of his position:

  1. Imperfection of Regeneration—that is, salvation is never perfect in this life, so error persists in Christians and the church. This is the most systematically compelling argument that Turretin offers here.
  2. Promises—the promises of perseverance given to the church are conditional; no worries, God supplies the condition in the elect.
  3. Romanist inconsistency—they admit that there are unbelievers also mixed into the church; ergo…
  4. Individual fallibility—particular Christians can err and a group cannot be less prone to error than an individual; also, bigger groups aren’t more reliable than smaller because wherever two or three are gathered, etc.
  5. Scripture’s silence—you’d think Scripture would tell us about the infallibility thing if it were true.
  6. Experience—look at all these times that the church has erred! Under the OT, under the NT, various councils, etc.
  7. Predictions—look at all these biblical texts that predict the church’s apostasy! Hard to square that with infallibility. *whistles innocently*
  8. Examination of doctrine—this is perhaps the most compelling biblical argument that Turretin makes in this section. It packs a punch even if it is rather brief. He draws on 1 Jn 4.1, 1 Thess 5.21, and elsewhere to demonstrate that the biblical text expects Christians to compare all the teaching that they hear to what is handed down to them in Scripture. The payoff: “why should this examination and judgment be enjoined upon believers so earnestly, if infallibility had been given to the church?” (18.11.18)
  9. Uncertainty—the Romanists can’t even agree about this amongst themselves.

After providing these arguments, Turretin again descends into a discussion of councils and popes with the purpose of demonstrating that they have erred and fallen into heresy. But, Turretin assures us, we need not fear the shipwreck of our faith because the church is fallible: “the church is free from a fall, but the church errs” (18.11.26). In other words, the Holy Spirit maintains the church in its faith, but that does not mean the church never makes mistakes, is never more or less faithful, etc. The distinction between the visible and invisible church reappears to perform good service here: “It is one thing for Christ to be always present with the invisible church of the elect, to preserve it from fundamental error and from a total and final fall; another to be present with the visible church (and in particular with the representative) to provide infallibility to it in all its decrees. Christ promises the former, but not the latter” (18.11.27).

The reason Turretin thinks that believers need not worry about the church’s fallibility is because they possess an infallible guide and standard in Scripture. This was implied already in his 8th argument discussed above. “Although infallibility is not given by God to the church, it cannot on this account be said that God was wanting in things necessary to her, because it is not necessary to have a supreme and infallible tribunal among men upon whose decrees and response our faith should be suspended, since it is sufficient for her to have an infallible rule of faith and practice in the Scriptures, which as long as she observes, she will not wander from the right track” (18.11.32).

Turretin continues on to discuss the relationship between individual and corporate judgment when it comes to the interpretation of said Scripture, but this post has gone on for long enough. I leave you, then, with some excellent assorted tidbits from this section:

  • “Laws consist not in the words, but in the sense” (18.11.14).
  • “God so administers all the things he created as to permit them also to exercise their own motions” (18.11.24).
  • Idolatry is “spiritual adultery” (18.11.25).
  • “Faith is not perfected in us in a moment, but is carried forward little by little and by degrees exerts itself” (18.11.36).


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Wyatt said…
So elentic or polemical is okay because it's apologetics within the Church? How's that different than the bad apologetics?
According to Barth, "bad" apologetics tries to demonstrate or ground Christian faith according to generally accessible intellectual investigations: reason, history, science, etc. That's not what Turretin's up to (although he can do some of it from time to time) - he's just interested in defeating Bellarmine.

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