The Magisterium and the Protestant Reformation

I had never heard of the "magisterium"until I read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. He uses it to refer to the authorities of the church in his trilogy, which was written specifically as an attack on Christianity. (As usual, it utterly fails as an attack on the real Gospel of Jesus Christ because even all atheist authors unconsciously acknowledge a divine guiding hand behind all the events in their novels.)

The magisterium is the self-assigned and self-acknowledged "teaching authority" of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a reference to whatever authority gets to decide what is true teaching. For Protestants, then, the magisterium is the Bible, though it’s not a very successful teaching authority because Protestants feel free to interpret it any way they want, even if the interpretations are ridiculous and embarrassing. For Roman Catholics, taken to its logical conclusion, the magisterium is the pope or a dogmatic council.

Protestants don’t use the word "magisterium," which is why many of you will never have heard it. So for the definition, I went to the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article entitled Tradition and Living Magisterium. Their page prompted me to add a section to my history page on apostolic tradition.

It also prompted me to write this post.

This post is a refutation of things they say on their page, but the purpose is to teach some history that Christians need to be familiar with. I don’t mind refuting the grandiose and false claims of the Roman Catholic Church, but that is not the purpose of this post.

The Protestant Reformation: Over Doctrine or Over Church Authority?

The encyclopedia writes:

Luther’s attacks on the Church were at first directed only against doctrinal details, but the very authority of the Church was involved in the dispute, and this soon became evident to both sides.

This is an overly simplistic interpretation of what happened which hides the intrigue involved in the authority of the church becoming "evident" to Martin Luther.

Initially Martin Luther’s protest was only against the financial rape of the citizens of Germany by a huckster named John Tetzel. Luther was horrified that Tetzel was representing the church that he loved and of which he was a part. He was certain that the pope would be as horrified as he was.

So Luther posted 95 theses on the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg. These were an invitation to public debate and discussion about Tetzel’s activities.

What John Tetzel was doing was selling indulgences. These are "supererogatory merits" of Jesus and the saints that the pope and the Roman Catholic Church have stewardship of. In other words, Jesus and many of the saints did more good works than they needed, so their leftover works are in the custody of the pope to bestow on others who might need them to limit their time in Purgatory, the temporary place of suffering that the RCC says atones for sins that are not worthy of hell.

Yes, it’s ridiculous to the point of embarassment, but I’m not making it up.

Tetzel was selling these indulgences in order to collect money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel was good at it. By threatening the superstitious peasants with the flames of purgatory and insisting that their departed mothers and grandmothers were burning there, they would collect the peasants’ last pennies to supplement the riches of Rome.

Luther, rightly horrified, and almost certainly with the permission of his superiors at the monastery, tried to put a stop to it by calling for a public discussion.

As I said, he was certain that the pope agreed with him. Thesis 50 states:

Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.

Thesis 51 states:

Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

Thesis 53 states:

They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.

Every one of the 95 theses deals with the selling of indulgences, just as these three do. And Martin Luther, who may not have known that the pope would be on his side, certainly expected that a righteous pope would agree with him. He had no idea that "the very authority of the Church was involved in the dispute."

The pope at the time, however, was not concerned with the poor, and he certainly would not have given to the German peasants while St. Peter’s Basilica went to ashes. He was furious that the preaching of one German monk was stopping the sales of a phone deliverance from Purgatory.

So he sent a brilliant debater, Johannes Eck, to put an end to Luther’s arguments in front of a council of church leaders and German lords.

Eck was brilliant, and he knew that arguing positively for the extortion of the poor was not going to go over well in a Germany that had been prepped by Luther’s preaching. Instead, he turned the debate around. He did some research, found the councils that lent authority to indulgences and the sale of indulgences, and accused Luther of rebelling against the authority of the church.

Eck skillfully brought the debate to a turning point. Either Luther would acknowledge that indulgences could be sold without restraint in Germany, no matter how much the poor were scalped, or he was denying the authority of the councils and the pope.

Luther not only took the bait, but he swallowed the hook, line, sinker, pole, Johannes Eck, and the entire Roman Catholic Church. He turned himself completely around, gave up his support of the pope and of the Roman Catholic Church, and pronounced them to be doers of evil.

This is the real way that it "became evident" to Luther that the authority of the church was on the line. It was forced upon him by Johannes Eck and a council of ecclesiastical leaders. Support the extortion of the poor or deny the authority of the church. Those are your only choices.

I’ve used a thousand words already. Let’s address the other issues I want to address from the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the magisterium tomorrow.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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