The Magisterium and the Protestant Reformation, Part 2

More responses to the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article, Teaching Authority and Living Magisterium.

Definition of "magisterium" from yesterday’s post:

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.

A good portion of that article is an attack on the Protestant’s rejection of the Roman Catholic magisterium. Some of it is good; some bad. It’s the arguments against the Protestant position of Sola Scriptura that I think we need to pay attention to and consider. History establishes that returning to Roman Catholicism is worse than the present situation, but can we not improve on the present situation?

In a similar way they show that they cannot dispense with a teaching authority, a Divinely authorized living magistracy for the solution of controversies arising among themselves and of which the Bible itself was often the occasion. Indeed experience proved that each man found in the Bible his own ideas … The exercise of free inquiry with regard to Biblical texts led to endless disputes, to doctrinal anarchy, and eventually to the denial of all dogma.

We can’t deny that each man interpreting the Bible, the Protestant "magisterium," for himself has led to endless disputes and to doctrinal anarchy.

Protestants have denied all dogma, however. They have simply extended the right to dictate dogma to thousands of competing denominations.

Hence the necessity of a competent authority to solve controversies and interpret the Bible.

The Protestants have either given this authority to their denominations, to some chosen teacher, or to themselves.

The question is, what’s the alternative? As we saw in yesterday’s post, and is amply explained by John Calvin in his letter to Cardinal Sadolet, Protestants found it impossible to leave that authority in the hands of the unspeakably corrupt 16th century Roman Catholic Church. Anything was better than that, including "endless disputes" and "doctrinal anarchy."

[The Roman Catholic] position was amply justified when the Protestants began compromising themselves with the civil power, rejecting the doctrinal authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium only to fall under that of princes.

Wow. If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black. This doesn’t even have much to do with today’s post, but it was so hypocritical as to be shocking. I don’t even know how to respond! I had to include it while I was quoting.

Moreover it was enough to look at the Bible, to read it without prejudice to see that the economy of the Christian preaching was above all one of oral teaching. Christ preached, He did not write. In His preaching He appealed to the Bible, but He was not satisfied with the mere reading of it, He explained and interpreted it, He made use of it in His teaching, but He did not substitute it for His teaching. There is the example of the mysterious traveller who explained to the disciples of Emmaus what had reference to Him in the Scriptures to convince them that Christ had to suffer and thus enter into His glory.

This is all true, but what they’re forgetting here is that the Roman Catholic Church hasn’t preserved any of the apostles’ oral teaching! Or if they have, it’s so mixed up in the midst of invented nonsense that it can’t be found. Things like bowing to statues, Mary being the queen of heaven (see yesterday’s post for the dogmatic pronouncement of the RCC that this is so), the worship of the bread of the Lord’s Supper rather than the true oral teaching of the real presence, and the creation of an ecclesiastical organization with powers so far beyond any thing apostolic that they can rightly be described as bizarre, superstitious, and despotic.

Having stated that I don’t believe the RCC has any oral apostolic teaching to pass on to us, the question remains as to whether we need it and where we would find it if we did.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has rightly pointed out the confusion and disputes in Protestant Churches. This blog is often devoted to pointing out how badly Protestant Churches are misinterpreting Scripture; so badly, in fact, that most can be accused of not believing it at all, preferring their tradition even when Scripture clearly refutes it.

I think we have to do something, and finding the oral teaching of the apostles to the churches they formed seems like an excellent solution if that oral teaching can be found.

Many people agree with me, which is why there is such a revival of reading the early Christian writings among Protestants today.

The problem is, listening to those writings and to their teachings would rip apart the entire fabric of Protestant Christianity (just as it would rip apart the entire fabric of Roman Catholic Christianity).

To me, the primary problematic issue is that the oral teaching of the apostles highlights the clearly Biblical teaching that the church is supposed to consist of committed Christians who know each other intimately. Such a church can cleanse itself of leaven, as commanded in 1 Cor. 5, by putting out not only the adulterers and immoral, but even the greedy.

The problem is, if we did that, we’d lose at least half our Protestant members and probably more like 80 to 90% of them, thus depriving most pastors and church staff of a job.

If course if the 10% to 20% left, became part of one another’s lives, and formed Biblical churches, then the pastors and church staff could keep their jobs by either evangelizing or tickling the ears of the 80 to 90% that are left.

That sounds shocking, but at this point millions of people agree with me. George Barna, in his book Revolution, argues that up to 20 million Christians have left organized churches to seek the very sort of fellowship I’m talking about.

The bad news is that even most of those don’t really want God intervening in their personal lives, and working out unity by the power of the Holy Spirit is an undertaking that requires immense self-denial that most people are not willing to give. (Think of it like marriage. It sounds great when you’re courting, but give it some time, and those that are not willing to make significant sacrifices will fail.)

Enough for today. More tomorrow.

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10 Responses to The Magisterium and the Protestant Reformation, Part 2

  1. “The question of a living oral tradition seems a bit more apparent in the eastern and oriental (Non-Chalcedonian) churches than in the RCC”

    Hey Bob, in what way do you see this?

  2. Bob Duggan says:

    Hey Shammah,

    I’m really enjoying this topic. You are really pushing some buttons here. That’s a good thing.
    I’m enjoying the dialogue with Restless Pilgrim too, as I am from the “Catholic” side of the dialogue, though much more east toward “Orthodoxy”.
    I just wanted to note how similar your ecclesiology sounds
    like eastern Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology. The question of a living oral tradition seems a bit more apparent in the eastern and oriental (Non-Chalcedonian) churches than in the RCC, but I am not convinced as you that it is entirely non-existent in the West. Oh well, keep up the good work. Ever think of an en-masse migration to the authority and tradition of the Orthodox? Did you ever hear about Peter Gilquist and his community’s journey? – Peace, Bob

    • Shammah says:

      Hi Bob. Your question’s helpful. Yes, I have heard of Peter Gilquist. I read a book a couple decades ago by him explaining why the joined the Orthodox Church. In the end, though, they did exactly what I preach against. They joined a hierarchical organization that is unscriptural and non-historical.

      I do not think that the Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches have preserved the tradition of the apostles. In fact, I’m often explaining on my blog the primary, number one place they’ve changed it (in the practical expression of the church). Personally, I think it’s inarguable that they’ve changed apostolic tradition drastically and that modern Catholic writings sound nothing like second century catholic writings. People only argue that the tradition of modern Catholic churches is apostolic and scriptural because they’re already part of those organizations. Or, as in Peter Gilquist’s case, they have assigned to the organization the right to change apostolic tradition.

      When David Bercot joined the Anglican Church, he not only acknowledged the right of a church with apostolic succession to change the tradition of the apostles, but he even changed his book, _Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up_, so that it no longer argued against that right. Of course, he limited that right to a church that he could at least somewhat agree with. He never considered joining the Roman Catholic Church because they were so far off. He looked at the Russian Orthodox Church, but he couldn’t go that far, either. So he decided on the “half-Protestant” (my word) Anglican Church.

  3. Thanks for the clarification – I think we’re pretty much on the same page for most of this. The subjects of community and discipleship are close to my own heart as well. A few questions though:

    1. What counts as being “slavishly committed to some unique interpretation clung to by [a] denomination”? The Trinity? The humanity of Christ? The divinity of Christ? Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist? Basically, what is the dividing line and who decides where it is?

    2. I’m still rather fuzzy as to where the notion of authority fits in with what you’ve just said. You ask the question “What’s the alternative [to the Catholic Magesterium]?” but I’m not sure what your answer is. You agree that Sola Scriptura has resulted in chaos and confusion. Is your solution an appeal to the Early Church Fathers?

  4. Wow. We are seriously miscommunicating.

    I thought I did give you a straight answer, especially when you end by saying, “I’d like to know if you acknowledge that there is at least *some* good fruit.”

    Yes, charity work is good fruit. Mother Teresa and St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan friars, are among two people I respect the most on earth. So’s Gandhi, for that matter, whom I would consider more of a Christian than most Christians … sigh, me included, though I’m trying. I think Gandhi believed in Christ, just not in Christianity. (I got that from reading his autobiography.)

    And, no, I didn’t say anything about small congregations having something to do with authority. I said local, and local can be village, town, city, any size.

    Maybe the problem is that you think I have a problem with Catholic and Protestant churches. That’s not true. I have a *goal*, and I am indeed trying to overthrow what’s in the way of that goal.

    Basically, one of the greatest things in the way of that goal is the children of God being in fellowship with the sweet or average or charming or typical children of the devil.

    It’s one thing to love and be kind to the children of the devil. That’s ministry, and the hope is that we will help them to be born again and become children of God (Eph. 2:1-6). But it’s another thing to *fellowship* with children of the devil and to let them be part of the church.

    That sounds so harsh, but the Bible talks about it over and over. The real Christian life–for those that aren’t superstars–requires daily encouragement/exhortation/comfort/pleading from brothers and sisters (Heb. 3:13).

    We’ve made so much optional. 1 Cor. 5 is optional (to us), or it’s reserved only for egregious sinners. And we almost have to make such passages optional because we don’t teach people to devote themselves to walking in the Spirit and fulfilling God’s will for their lives. We certainly don’t acquaint them with Jesus’ more frightening demands, such as in Luke 14:26-33 or Matthew 10:34-39. As a result, many of them are purely nominal, living pretty much as they would live if they weren’t Christians–some good, some average, some terrible–and attending services and giving some money being the only sign that they’re Christians.

    I’m not blaming them. I’m blaming the fact that we aren’t showing them something different because **obviously** it must be okay to just live a normal, unspiritual life and be a Christians because *most* Christians are doing so.

    That’s not the church; not by Biblical standards.

    Let the church be large, but let it be large with Christians, or at least with those that it’s difficult to tell if they’re Christians or not. Let’s not uproot the tares, but, yes, let’s uproot the weeds. It’s commanded to do so!

    But like so many other commands, they’re just disregarded because we’re used to doing the same ol’ same ol’.

    Changing subjects, most Protestant churches who claim to believe the Bible led by the Holy Spirit are really just resolving doctrinal disputes as part of their “sick obsession” with such disputes. They can’t give them up.

    On the other hand, individually, you can find some Protestants–and some Roman Catholics, too–who know that they are supposed to love, serve, pray, delight in the Lord God, and experience the great joy that comes from walking with God spiritually and in every effort to be obedient followers of the Scriptures.

    I only have problems being in unity with such Christians if they are slavishly committed to some unique interpretation clung to by their denomination.

    What I’m seeking is that those Christians would come into fellowship with one another, and yes, I am saying that God fulfill 1 John 2:26 for such Christians and that he has done so over and over.

  5. I appreciate the sentiment that you’re trying to communicate, but I still can’t quite pin down exactly what you’re saying…

    You appear to be suggesting that, by virtue of their size, small congregations somehow have authority. Is this correct?

    If so, why is this any different from the claims of any other Protestant denomination? When the community grows larger will it lose this authority? In this model is there scope for correction by another congregation (a la 1 Clement)? Do you see any reason for the Ecumenical Church Councils?

    If this model of authority is so much more authentic why do we not see more unity between existing small, non-denominational communities?

    You speak very passionately about “the Anointing will lead them reliably into the truth”. How is this any different from any Protestant community that says the Holy Spirit interprets the Bible for them, yet the same Holy Spirit apparently says something completely different to the congregation next door?

    I would also appreciate a direct answer to my question about the Sisters of Charity and the Franciscan Friars. Would their work among the poorest of the poor count as “good fruit”? Yes or no? You may think that the Church teaches heresy and that most of the people in it are hypocrites etc, but I’d like to know if you acknowledge that there is at least *some* good fruit.

  6. Jesus did says not to dig up tares until the harvest. Paul said to cleanse the leaven from the church, which means putting out wicked people.

    I’ve repeatedly heard that tares actually look like wheat. I’m not talking about breaking fellowship over minor matters. I’m talking about breaking fellowship with the people Paul said to break fellowship with, ones that don’t look like “the wheat,” and with people who are obviously not even trying to be Christians on a daily basis.

    Whether it’s true or not that tares look like wheat in real life, to use one of Jesus’ parables to justify ignoring 1 Corinthians 5–as do almost all Roman Catholic and Protestant congregations–is obviously a wrong use of Scripture.

    In the end, though, this blog is not directed at people who are wondering which large organization to support with their money for charity. Jimmy Carter has a good one, saving millions of lives and feeding many in Ethiopia. The Bill Gates Foundation does great work. So does the Red Cross. I have no idea how large the Roman Catholic charity network is, but I’m sure it’s large since they have something like 2 billion members, most of whom haven’t a clue what the Gospel of Jesus or of the apostles is.

    (As a side note, I have friends in Memphis who may well wind up partaking of a large grant of money from the RCC for medical work among the needy in the inner city. My friends are Protestant. Both the givers of the money and the recipients are doing good, but all can find themselves suffering through life without the grace of fellowship–of real church life–because attending services is not being in the church. The church is a family.)

    This blog is directed at people who would like to experience the power of God delivering them from the corruptions and lusts of this world. It is for those that want to experience the church as it is described in the New Testament. It is for those that want to be in the *family* of God, not just “attend” an organization that says good things about God and Jesus.

    Submitting to the authority of the pope will do nothing to help you on that path, and attending a Roman Catholic congregation will not help you experience any of those things.

    There are Roman Catholic organizations and individuals trying to walk in a scriptural expression of the church, just as there are Protestant organizations and individuals trying to do so.

    My point is that the organization has nothing to do with experiencing the church that we read about in the Bible. In fact, if you do want to experience church life, you’re almost certainly have to do so outside the organization, Catholic or Protestant, even if you do so with people who remain members of the organization.

    As for doctrinal unity, many new groups come together around some strong person who wants to be followed. Such groups, small or large, won’t be led by the Holy Spirit into anything because they don’t want to be. They’ve already got a leader.

    The promise of Scripture, whether it’s been your personal experience or not, is that when the church–the saints who can actually have fellowship with one another and speak the truth to one another–come together to follow Christ, the Anointing will lead them reliably into the truth.

    Or maybe you just don’t believe 1 Jn. 2:27 or Eph. 4:11-16.

    I not only believe it, but it has been my personal experience that where there is freedom to follow Christ the Holy Spirit leads in one direction and I’ve been able to enter fully into fellowship with them no matter where in the world they were.

    There are differences between our personal experiences because we judge differently. I’m not looking for people who think they’ve been led into a proper understanding of the Eucharist. I’m looking for people who have been led into an obedience that makes them, almost across the board, excellent examples of the life of Christ wherever they go. They’re noted in their workplaces and among their neighbors as loving, giving, slow to anger, and having an unusual wisdom in matters of life.

    I’ve seen that repeatedly, and those who have it have a unity wherever they find each other. They cure loneliness, resolve marital conflicts, and they have answers for those who come to them in need.

  7. “Other authorities have failed us. They have not produced the fruit Jesus spoke of.”

    I would disagree. Large denominations produce some great fruit. You won’t find it in every member, but we know that wheat and weeds are going to be side-by-side until the harvest.

    I know you’re not a fan of Catholicism, but you can’t deny that the Catholic Church feeds and clothes more people than any other institution on the planet. The Sisters of Charity? Franciscan Friars of the Renewal? Doesn’t this have to count as some kind of fruit, at least?

    “he will rarely resolve doctrinal disputes unless they have practical application or have some sort of important application to unity”

    What would you regard as “practical”? For example, which of the Early Church Councils would qualify here?

    “So, yes, I’m saying that intimate fellowships–of disciples following Christ, committed to being the church–will be led into proper interpretations of Scripture by following Christ.”

    My personal experience doesn’t really support this idea. Also, if this were true, shouldn’t we expect to see more unity among small non-denomination churches? Yet even here one finds wild disagreement over essential aspects of salvation.

    It also raises the question as to how these small communities relate to one another. Would there be scope for correction by another congregation (a la 1 Clement)?

    But really I don’t see how what you’re suggesting solves the authority issue at all. Rather than a denomination claiming authority, it’s just a smaller group claiming it by virtue of the fact that they’re small.

  8. Well, if that intimate fellowship is the church, then the Scriptures tell us that “The Anointing will teach you all things, and it is true, and not a lie” (1 Jn. 2:27).

    Other authorities have failed us. They have not produced the fruit Jesus spoke of. The promise of the Scriptures, however, is that disciples together, joined in Jesus’ name, will be led into what is true. They will speak the truth in love to one another, and they will be delivered from deceivers and from being tossed around on the waves of doctrine (Eph. 4:11-16).

    Eph. 4:11-16 and 1 Jn. 2:27 settle the question of what church it is that is the pillar and authority of the truth (the “magisterium”). It’s the local church, as long as they are following Christ rather than just standing on tradition.

    Rev. 2-3 is another great section showing us this. Jesus took responsibility for each of these local churches, speaking to them individually through John the elder.

    So, yes, I’m saying that intimate fellowships–of disciples following Christ, committed to being the church–will be led into proper interpretations of Scripture by following Christ. The Holy Spirit resolves questions about what to do, which is the purpose of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16-17); he will rarely resolve doctrinal disputes unless they have practical application or have some sort of important application to unity.

  9. I’m not quite clear what you are suggesting here. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you’ve written (gotta love irony!).

    “The Protestants have either given this authority to their denominations, to some chosen teacher, or to themselves”

    How does having an intimate fellowship solve the problem you pose? Won’t that just result in an intimate fellowship deciding that they have authority to correctly interpret Scripture?

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