The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this about the Magisterium:
CCC85 The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
The word “Magisterium” is from the Latin word magister, which means “teacher” in ecclesiastical Latin. It is similar to many words whose concept strongly appear in the Bible while the word itself does not, like Trinity, Incarnation, Hypostatic Union for example. In general Protestants either reject this type of authority exists, or believe it existed only with the original apostles. Catholics of course believe Scripture teaches the concept of apostolic succession, which will be covered in a future post. And we most certainly believe within the early Church, the apostles compose the original Magisterium of the Church.
In my last post I reviewed that Christ professed at the Last Supper all that is his, has been declared to the apostles (John 16:14-15). This would include his authority. The purpose of this was so we may be one (John 17:22-23). As St. Paul teaches us, there is “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6) And the one Spirit is promised by Christ to come to lead his apostles into all truth (John 16:13), and there is only one faith – one version of truth.
R.C. Sproul was a well-known 20th century Presbyterian teacher and author. He penned this view of the limits of teaching authority as seen by Protestantism:
“For the classic Protestant, though the individual believer has the right to the private interpretation of Scripture, he is capable of misinterpreting the Bible. But while he has the ability to misinterpret Scripture, he does not have the right to do it. That is, with the right of private interpretation comes the responsibility of making an accurate interpretation. We never have the right to distort the teaching of Scripture. Both sides agree that the individual is fallible when seeking to understand Scripture, but historic Protestantism limits the scope of infallibility to the Scriptures themselves. Church tradition and church creeds can err. Individual interpreters of Scripture can err. It is the Scriptures alone that are without error.” — R. C. Sproul
Catholics would very much agree individual interpretations of Scripture can be prone to error. We would question his perspective that individuals have the right to private interpretation regarding universal truths. What happened to the promise Christ gave to the apostles (the original Magisterium of the Church) that he would send his Holy Spirit as a guarantee and to lead them into all Truth? St. Paul speaks of this promise from Christ to his apostles in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 – “But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” Were the first generation of Christians the only ones who were supposed to have the confidence what they were being taught was without error? We don’t think so. We believe if God saw fit to pen infallible Scripture for the benefit of our salvation, he would also see fit to give His Church His authority to infallibly interpret those Scriptures so we could have confidence that we, like the first generation of Christians have a certainty of what the one faith St. Paul writes about really is.
There are multiple verses often cited to try to prove the Biblical view is there is no need for believers to have any teacher except the Holy Spirit guiding us individually with the Scriptures. In this post I’d like to review the most common objections to the Catholic view that a specific group of men (the Magisterium) have been given the authority to authentically teach the faith, the uncompromised Truth, without error. The examples cited are from two anti-Catholic works: “The Gospel According to Rome” by James McCarthy, and “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” by Ron Rhodes.
Here are two examples. Rhodes writes “Scripture alone is our spiritual guide and the Holy Spirit alone is our teacher. In keeping with the doctrine of the priesthood of believers, each believer himself can study the Scriptures and come to a conviction, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, as to what the text means.” McCarthy writes “The Magisterium is not a moral necessity. Christ promises his disciples ‘I will not leave you orphans….The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.’”
The Scripture cited by both to support their position is John 14, verses 18 and 26. But what is the context of this passage? It is the Last Supper. And while John’s Gospel doesn’t specifically identify Jesus is celebrating the Last Supper with the apostles rather than all disciples, the synoptic Gospels do (Matthew 26:20, Mark 14:17, Luke 22:14). These verses are speaking of the authority that Christ gives to his apostles, not all believers. It is the “guarantee” that St. Paul has claimed for the apostles (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).
One of the ironies for me when I read their viewpoint is the truly paradoxical position they have created for themselves. I am certain if you asked them they would agree with R.C. Sproul that no individual or group can have an infallible interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Once you deny that possibility for the Magisterium, you have to deny it for all. Otherwise, you would simply have created your own Magisterium, that you profess does not exist. So while these authors would take the promise Christ made to the apostles that the Holy Spirit would guarantee the Truth through them and instead misappropriate this promise to mean all believers, they make the claim that no individual believer or group of believers can speak an infallible truth. So what happened to the guarantee?
I would like to be clear that the Holy Spirit is indeed to be our teacher on a personal level. He dwells within us and is our advocate and our guide. But the truths that the Holy Spirit reveals to us individually are personal truths. When discerning God’s will for our lives, He will truly guide us.
But while there are personal truths the Holy Spirit does reveal to us individually, there are also universal truths. I’ve used this example before, but among those who profess a doctrine of sola-Scriptura, there is about an even split of those who believe an individual once saved can lose their salvation and those who do not. So what is the truth of that very important question, and how do we know? Universal truths, in order to be known, must be communicated to a universal reality that has received the guarantee of the Holy Spirit. Jesus established a universal institution (His Church) so that universal truths could be received by all believers, across all time.
Another example promoting there is no need for a Magisterium – McCarthy writes “The Holy Spirit’s primary instrument in teaching the church is the Word of God. The Bible is the ‘sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:17). As believers read and study the Scriptures, the Spirit illumines their minds, giving them understanding and speaking to them as individuals”. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Hebrews 4:12)
Each of the three Scriptures cited trying to support this view are very problematic. Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12 both refer to the “word of God,” and as thoroughly discussed here, this is not equivalent to “Scripture alone” but encompasses the entirety of the logos – primarily Christ of course, but also the oral word spoken by the apostles, the church, as well as Sacred Scripture. These passages are simply not teaching individual believers are to turn to Scripture as their only source of truth and rely on their personal interpretation to know that truth, because the “Word of God,” is not equivalent to “Scripture alone.”
The passage from 1 Corinthians 2:10-16 is from St. Paul and says this: ”God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
The problem with McCarthy citing this passage to support his view is he’s taken the position that the “we” and “us” St. Paul speaks of is all believers rather than the apostles. But if that is the case, how can this line make sense – “We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.” If the “we” is all believers, what other believers (those who possess the Spirit) are they imparting the truth to? This passage clearly identifies a select group of “we” (the apostles who received Christ’s authority) who have received revelation to pass on spiritual truths to other believers — all of those who “possess the Spirit.”
McCarthy also states “Neither did God entrust the Christian faith to the Pope and bishops. Rather he delivered it ‘to the saints.’ The task of defending the faith was likewise not assigned to the bishops but to every believer (Jude 3).” In Jude 3, the apostle does write “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” Absolutely, the faith was delivered to all the saints. But how was that faith delivered to them? It was by the preaching of the apostles, who were entrusted by Christ with this task. If you continue to read Jude’s short letter, he warns them against false teachers who reject authority (Jude 8). And he says they perish in Korah’s rebellion (Jude 11) which is a reference to an Old Testament rebellion against the ministerial priesthood.
Rhodes writes “Contrary to the idea that we must submit our understanding of God’s Word to an organization (the Magisterium), individual believers are exhorted and instructed by Scripture to test things for themselves.” He cites two Scripture verses to support his view. The first is 1 Thessalonians 5:21 where St. Paul instructs them “but test everything; hold fast what is good.” But in context, this verse isn’t referring to teaching and understanding the Gospel, but rather to testing prophecy. St. Paul has already reminded him it is the apostles who have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel – “For our appeal does not spring from error or uncleanness, nor is it made with guile; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts.” (1 Thessalonians 2:3-4) This is another passage where some would try to make “our” and “we” about all believers. It’s important to recognize that while Paul pens many epistles in the New Testament, they are rarely sent only from him. We see in the first verse of 1 Thessalonians the “we” he is referring to is Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. As you read through the epistle it is clear the “we” are the apostles and the ”you” are the Thessalonian believers.
Rhodes also cites 1 John 4:1 in his claim, where the apostle John writes “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” He sees this as another instance where believers are instructed to rely on their own insight, and not any teaching authority. But is that what John is saying? In context, no, because in verse 6 he tells them how to “test the spirits” to determine if it’s a false prophet or not, and it’s by listening to the apostles. He writes “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” McCarthy also cites this passage and says “John taught the early Christians to be suspicious of anyone who claimed to speak for God.” In fact, what John taught the early Christians was to be suspicious of anyone who claimed to speak for God except the apostles, those Scripture identifies as being entrusted by Christ to teach. Others he referred to as false teachers.
McCarthy also quotes 1 John 2:26-27 where the apostle says “I write this to you about those who would deceive you; but the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him.” His conclusion is “With the Holy Spirit as its teacher and the inspired Scriptures as its texts, the church of Jesus Christ has no need for the Roman Magisterium. The Holy Spirit, by whom every believer is anointed, is the only authoritative teacher that is needed.” If this is correct, why has John just said for them to know the spirit of truth and error is to listen to the apostles? And how were the believers for the first 1500 years supposed to put this in practice without the availability of Scripture? And one can ask, if it is true that no believer has any need for any one to teach them, why is McCarthy penning a book at all with the purpose of teaching?
Certainly if “you have no need that anyone should teach you” was the only instruction in Sacred Scripture about teaching the faith it could be seen as meaning no authentic teachers of the faith are required. But that is far from the case. My next post will look at what the Bible says about these teachers, why they are needed, and how they’ve been endowed with the authority of Christ and entrusted to faithfully preach the Gospel.