Papal infallibility not known in the early church?

At 31 minutes of this debate between Jimmy Akin and James white, James white says that papal infallibility was missing for 9/10 of church history. Where does he get this and how can we address this claim? Are there any documents from early church history that display papal infallibility?

In Matthew 16:19 Jesus gives this authority over his Church to Peter: “Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Doctrine is generally defined when in dispute. Just because infallibility wasn’t defined until Vatican I doesn’t make it untrue. This special and very limited charism of the Petrine Office is demonstrated in scripture when our Lord told Peter that he knew He was the Son of God because the Father told him. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would not prevail. Thus, He would not allow the Pope to issue an infallible statement unless it was His will revealed to the Pope, the same way he used Peter to issue the first infallible statement of the Christian faith. When the infallibility of Mary’s Immaculate Conception was defined, two years later our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette and said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Thousands have been healed at the cite of this apparition. In my opinion, this was God’s way of showing that infallibility is a true doctrine.

There was a quote by an early church father that said something like: the church in Rome, founded by Paul and by Peter, and because of it’s superior origin, all churches must agree. The exact father and document escape me at the moment.

Says who? Lot’s of stuff known that was not written down. You doubting Tomas, blessed are those that believe without seeing.

He’s probably referring to the precise wording and articulation of infallibility from Vatican I in 1870. Of course, even from the Old Testament, the roots of this teaching exist as Biblical types. There is other data from the NT and as others have posted, similar sentiments made in the early Church. A delay on precise wording on a doctrine is nothing unique to papal infallibility. It would also apply to the doctrine of the Trinity, hypostatic union, or even the very canon of Scripture to which White subscribes as valid. So the accusation is specious at best.

St Irenaeus, Against Heresies

There’s no need to be rude, we all have doubts at one time or another. What impresses me about the Church is that she always has a patient, understanding response that she will gladly share with you when you come seeking in earnest.

Peter exercised the gift of infallibility in Acts of the Apostles 10-11.


Thanks. I was thinking either him or Justin Martyr.

Whereas “the Gospel according to James White” was missing for 99.5% of Church history.

James White relies on “Sola Scriptura” which wasn’t invented until the 1500s. Yet the Church taught a great deal of doctrine before then, most of which Martin Luther accepted, and James White accepts today.

The unreliability of Sola Scriptura is shown by the extreme divergence of churches that teach it, with direct doctrinal contradictions on matters they identify as important. The weakness of Sola Scriptura is also shown by the canon of the New Testament (developed about 3 centuries after the papacy). In his books James White has said there is no need for a Magisterium to account for the canon, because God inspired the canon. The problem is that Mormons, Muslims, Gnostics, and many other groups past and present say the same thing, with different canons.

In the ancient church there were multiple church councils, with multiple different canons, with multiple disagreeing scholars. The canon we (and James White) use today is the NT canon chosen by bishops in union with the pope. It may not have represented the majority of Christians or scholars at that time. It suggests that papal infallibility was a factor - that councils and scholars “in union with the pope” are more reliable than those who are not.

That’s a good point. If Sola Scriptura was a reliable doctrine, all the sects that teach it would agree on matters of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit