Authority and the Magisterium

I just read a wonderful piece by Bryan Cross that Kristen shared from Called to Communion (a blog I have never read before, but which I think will now become a favorite), addressing the necessity of the Church’s Magisterium and its authority through all the ages of Christian history. It very much underscores everything I believe and why I’m so drawn to the Church, and aligns with some other trains of thought I’ve been following lately.

As I addressed a few weeks ago, one of my primary reasons for being drawn to the Catholic Church is the profound frustration, uncertainty, and confusion I’ve experienced all my life in trying to discern the correct doctrine of Christianity, the correct interpretation of Scripture, among so many competing views. The authority of the Catholic Magisterium alone has the power to definitively settle such doctrinal disputes, to dictate correct doctrine. Now, anybody can claim to have authority, but in order for that authority to have any force, it must be based on something. I am pursuing the Catholic Church not just because she claims to have authority, but because her authority was established by Christ himself.

Coming from a Pentecostal background, I have written about the disorder and confusion inherent in that tradition. The author of this piece, Bryan Cross, was also raised Pentecostal. He rejects the claim, by Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, that early Christianity, from the day of Pentecost, was marked by “massive confusion.” I was particularly compelled by his assertion of the inherent order of Pentecost and the ministry of the Holy Spirit: to eliminate disorder and confusion, not to foster it.

Cross demonstrates convincingly the necessity of the Church’s Magisterium, and the fallacy of rejecting its authority while affirming the orthodoxy that it established. Without the authority of the Magisterium, we orthodox Christians today — including evangelical Protestants under that umbrella — would have no standing at all to insist that our Christological views are any more correct than those of the Arians or Monophysites or any of the other ancient heresies that have fallen by the wayside, having been rejected by the Church — or for that matter, than those of modern Christological heresies such as those of the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Without an established, ultimate authority, to claim the definitive guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is only the relativistic claim that a few people agree with each other, against everyone else — and there is enough of that in the world already.

5 thoughts on “Authority and the Magisterium

  1. Why you would find it surprising that if there isn’t an authority no one can speak authoritatively? It is a good article and Bryan is someone who thinks deeply about the issues of the reformation, but ultimately I think he tends to beg the question.

    Christian orthodoxy in as much as it exists rests on:

    a) Something not being an issue in a particular place and time.
    b) Or if is is an issue, generally quite a bit of historical ignorance to assert that “all Christians everywhere have always believed X” when quite often groups that believed Y existed and not uncommonly doctrine X was often quite controversial when it was being agreed upon.

    The magisterial reformation, the construction of alternate state churches, Catholicism with the king as Pope failed everywhere but England. Moreover, governments don’t even make the sorts of absolutist claims about themselves that are consistent with the magisterial reformation. Government today are much more powerful and competent but they fully stepped away from the philosophy of monarchy.

    What Bryan does is point out that there are are advantages in philosophy of monarchy rather than the more democratic philosophy of the radical reformation. There are good arguments for monarchy over democracy. The problem for this chain of reasoning is there are better arguments for democracy over monarchy. And if you want to think of God/Jesus as king, constitution monarchy is a form of democracy.

    The churches of the radical reformation are far more consistent with the philosophy we have today about the nature of truth and government. We simply do not have epistemology that allows for private self evident truth. Which means that an orthodoxy cannot be defined in terms of non-public apostolic teachings that also claim to be self evident and thus not on par with any sort of other “secret” revelations. So of course Bryan is right, that Luther and Calvin did not fully understand the broader movement of which they were a part. That doesn’t prove they were wrong.

    • Have you taken these arguments up with him? Because I think he might be in a better position to answer you than I am.

      Christian orthodoxy in as much as it exists rests on:
      a) Something not being an issue in a particular place and time.
      b) Or if is is an issue, generally quite a bit of historical ignorance to assert that “all Christians everywhere have always believed X” when quite often groups that believed Y existed and not uncommonly doctrine X was often quite controversial when it was being agreed upon.

      I’m not sure I follow you or agree with you. Certainly, one can only talk about orthodoxy and hererodoxy in the context of something to agree or disagree about. If it’s not an issue, there’s nothing to discuss. If it is an issue, then the proponents of various views make their arguments, scriptural, historical, logical, theological, to support their position. Those who are “ignorant” are usually the sides whose arguments aren’t supported very well. The Catholic Magisterium has never dictated that “all Christians everywhere have always believed” any given doctrine. Certainly, its own history of condemning heresies stands contrary to that. Certainly, if that doctrine wasn’t “quite controversial” in the first place, it wouldn’t have had to be agreed upon — it wouldn’t even have had to be discussed. But, through the writings of the Church Fathers and popes, through councils, the Magisterium did agree, and today all Christians enjoy the fruits of that agreement — for example, in the canon of Scripture, the doctrines of the full divinity and full humanity of Christ and the Trinity.

      The magisterial reformation, the construction of alternate state churches, Catholicism with the king as Pope failed everywhere but England. Moreover, governments don’t even make the sorts of absolutist claims about themselves that are consistent with the magisterial reformation. Government today are much more powerful and competent but they fully stepped away from the philosophy of monarchy.

      What Bryan does is point out that there are are advantages in philosophy of monarchy rather than the more democratic philosophy of the radical reformation. There are good arguments for monarchy over democracy. The problem for this chain of reasoning is there are better arguments for democracy over monarchy. And if you want to think of God/Jesus as king, constitution monarchy is a form of democracy.

      I’m not really sure what you’re talking about, and I’m not sure why you’re talking about secular governments or monarchy or democracy. The Church is not a secular government. The Magisterium is not a monarchy. There is a single ruler at the top of the hierarchy in the pope, but the decisions of councils are reached through the participation of all the bishops in communion with the pope, and all the weight of tradition of learned men of the past — what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”

      Yes, as you say, constitutional monarchy is a form of democracy. Whether you’re talking about God or the pope as a monarch, the Church operates by constitutions and involves the participation of many in her decision-making. So if you want to define it in such terms, the Church is a constitutional monarchy.

      The churches of the radical reformation are far more consistent with the philosophy we have today about the nature of truth and government. We simply do not have epistemology that allows for private self evident truth. Which means that an orthodoxy cannot be defined in terms of non-public apostolic teachings that also claim to be self evident and thus not on par with any sort of other “secret” revelations. So of course Bryan is right, that Luther and Calvin did not fully understand the broader movement of which they were a part. That doesn’t prove they were wrong.

      The philosophy “we” have today? Who is we, and what philosophy are you talking about? What do you mean by “private, self-evident truth”? Protestants, reading Scripture on their own, in private, and coming to truths supported by nothing but their individual interpretation, seem to be the only source of that. I am not sure I would define extrabiblical traditions of the Church as “secret” revelations. All of the traditions the Church teaches are supported by Scripture, though not sola scriptura. They’re also supported by the writings of many learned men who followed the Apostles and their teachings over the centuries. And that’s a lot firmer of a foundation than private, individual interpretation of Scripture.

      • Hi Peregrinus. I’ve taken up similar arguments with Bryan but his arguments are designed for Reformed Protestants, essentially presuppositional apologetics. You have just forked a bit from where he would have gone which is why I’m taking it with different people.

        A constitutional monarchy is almost always a parliamentary system where the monarch has symbolic functions. The prime minister is the political head of state. The Catholic church would be an absolutely monarchy, where the monarch is effectively head of state from both a ceremonial and political sense. The powers of the pope are rather unlimited. The duties / responsibilities are to do what you are describing but his power goes beyond that. Most absolute monarchs choose to consult with others and rely on tradition, that doesn’t make the system a non absolute monarchy. The Church system (as do most systems) does not have the sorts of extensive checks and balances of say the American system which is designed to prevent abuses.

        A constitutional monarchy would be something like a system where Bishops and Cardinals stood for election by the actual member of the Catholic church and ruling authority came from these elected members. There is nothing remotely democratic about the church today.

        Which bring us to private self evident truths:

        a) A believes doctrine G because of argument X
        b) B believes doctrine H because of argument Y.

        The magisterium rules B is correct via. argument. D,E and F believe the magisterium is wrong because they continue to believe Y. You used Arianism, that’s a good example there are still plenty of Arians around and they do in fact have strong arguments that many find convincing.

        The argument for the magisterium is not that they have perfect arguments but that they have perfect discernment. That is that even when their arguments are viewed by an individual as inferior the conclusions are still correct.

  2. You are losing me in your symbolic logic, I think. Can you put this in terms of examples?

    I still don’t understand what you’re arguing regarding secular governments. Are you arguing that the Church should function as a democracy? Are you saying that bishops should stand for election? Or are you arguing, as I reckon, that “we don’t need no Magisterium,” as Bryan’s article put it — because a democratic model is more accommodating to diversity of viewpoints? My assertion that the Church is a “constitutional monarchy” is unimportant, and only arose from your insistence to compare it to a secular government. It’s not a secular government, and it can’t operate as a secular government. I still don’t understand your comparison.

    I believe the Magisterium has authority because I believe the Catholic Church is the one founded by Christ and the Apostles. I believe Christ delegated His teaching authority, the authority to “bind and loose,” to His Apostles, and they passed it down to their successors. So yes, I believe the Magisterium, through those bishops as apostolic successors and as guided by the Holy Spirit, has perfect discernment. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would “guide the Apostles in all truth.” That guidance doesn’t preclude them from basing their decisions on proper interpretation of Scripture and tradition; in fact, it depends on it. They are not casting lots; they are thoughtfully and prayerfully discerning between two or more bodies of evidence.

    The Magisterium is made up of individuals: not just any individuals, but individuals who have been vetted and approved as worthy of their offices, capable of exercising the discernment with which they are charged. Certainly there have been “unworthy” bishops — but the “democratic” aspect of putting a bunch of bishops in a room together — not just the bishops alive at the time of any given council, but those of the past whose opinions have been deemed wise — ensures that, especially with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this body will come to correct decisions. Some other individual, or even large bodies of other individuals, can view the Magisterium’s evidence or their conclusions as “inferior” — but such an argument is academic at best, since it places one’s word and one’s own subjective interpretation against another, and denies that either has final authority. Religious truths are ultimately unprovable by any empirical means, without that final authority to discern between arguments. Without that final authority, any individual would be free to arrive at his own subjective interpretation — and certainly has, since that authority has been denied.

    Now this, like any other argument, becomes academic unless one accepts a final authority. One can’t prove the authority of the Magisterium by asserting the authority of the Magisterium. I accept the authority of the Magisterium because I believe that the Catholic Church is the one established by Christ, to which he delegated his authority. I accept this based on historical evidence, scriptural evidence, personal discernment, a lifetime of feeling guided in that direction — but ultimately it comes down to faith. I can’t prove that empirically.

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