Papal infallibility became an official doctrine of the Catholic Church at the First Vatican Council in 1870. It states that when the pope speaks ex cathedra, he is “is preserved from even the possibility of error.”
Modern Protestants have their own version of infallibility. It is the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. The evangelical variety— verbal, plenary inspiration—was championed by theologians like B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge around the same time as papal infallibility was being affirmed by the Catholics.
Only one ex cathedra teaching has been issued since 1870 (the Assumption of Mary) but Evangelicals rely daily on an inerrant Bible; one without error in the original manuscripts. While Christians have always held that scripture was inspired (literally, “God breathed”), inerrancy was put forth when the Bible came under attack by evolutionary science and higher criticism in what became the modernist-fundamentalist debates of the early twentieth century. (This is also the context in which the “young earth” interpretation of Genesis became a litmus test for true believers.)
Behind these doctrines is the desire for an authority that is protected from human error when it comes to divine revelation. But are we promised infallibility, inerrancy or certainty in this world?
Without the firm ground of inerrancy, won’t we wind up on the slippery slope of human interpretation? Truth be told, that’s where we’ve always been, with theologians and preachers telling us what is inerrant truth while differing from their peers on the details.
Absolute certainty in this world is an illusion but here is something we do know:
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.”