A Catechism on the Teaching Magisterium
Understanding the Teaching Magisterium of the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in America is made up of folks from all sorts of Christian paradigms. For those such as myself, a convert from Evangelical Protestantism, many of the terms in Catholicism were a bit foreign, to say the least. So, in this series teachings, I will attempt to un-muddy the waters, if I can, shedding light on lingo, concepts and theology unique to our historic practice of faith.
The Concept of a Teaching Magisterium is one of those foreign concepts that is especially difficult for folks from Protestant churches to grasp the very need, considering their inculcation in the “Solas” of Martin Luther, especially those relying on “Sola Scriptura,” or the bible alone. At a minimum, in this letter, I’ll attempt to explain why we find our approach to biblical interpretation so value.
In one of my recent articles I explained that rather than being a building or an institution, the CHURCH is actually the People of God, the Body of Christ — those of us who have experienced a faith-conversion to Jesus Christ. I also presented the Church as a metaphorical “three-legged stool” with each of the three legs being important support structures for the Body of Christ. The Catholic faith stands on a “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Magisterium — members of the of the body of Christ, Bishops installed and commissioned to faithfully pass along authentic teachings from Scripture base upon Sacred Tradition. In this writing I will be discussing the Teaching Magisterium, what it is, and why it is important in supporting the life of the Church.
Apostolic Tradition, Succession, and the Teaching Magisterium Focus on Right Teaching The Protestant theological construct of “Sola Scriptura” teaches that the bible alone is sufficient to for anyone to understand, and that nothing further is needed to understand “biblical truth.” Catholics believe and practice a bit differently. I often refer to our position on holy word of God as “Prima Scriptura.” Catholic Christians have always maintained that the compilation of books that has come to be known as the “Bible” is our primary source for doctrine, or official teachings of the Church. But, what did the Church of God use prior to those seventy-three books (Protestants deleted seven) being officially recognized? Once the bible was officially compiled, did hundreds of years of oral tradition suddenly become invalidated?
The Bible itself, actually denies that it has sufficiency as the sole, or complete rule of faith. The Apostle Paul instructs us that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition that is handed down by word of mouth (2 Tim. 2:2). He instructs us to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
Oral teachings were accepted by Christians, just as they accepted the written teaching that came to them later. Jesus told his disciples: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). The Church, in the persons of the apostles, was given the authority to teach by Christ; the Church would be his representative. He commissioned them, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
In essence, the teaching Magisterium is the core of the institutional church — the bishops who are charged with protecting the deposit of faith from the encroachment of error. This practice of defending the faith from error actually began much earlier than simply as a response to Martin Luther, and the Protestant reformation. We find in the book of Acts an example of the apostles and other Christian leaders meeting Jerusalem discussing whether or not Gentile Christians needed to follow Jewish laws.
The Early Church used the Apostolic council in Jerusalem as a model. When controversial issues arose in the early Church, the bishops would gather in “councils” and discuss the issues at hand. These men discussed how the issues at hand compared to both scripture and the traditional understandings that had been passed on from the Apostolic Fathers. The Church progressed in this manner, refuting Heresy and developing doctrinal positions to support our understanding of Christian orthodoxy for the better part of the first thousand years after Christ.
Yes, during the first century, the early church looked to the apostles gathered in Jerusalem for guidance. Later, bishops in larger metropolitan areas began to have control over bishops in surrounding areas. Even later, by the 6th century larger, Apostolic Sees or Patriarchies were formed, overseeing regional areas. Much of this was done for expediency sake, mimicking a Roman form of governance.
However, much of this organizational structure became instrumental in combating doctrinal error. I’ll be citing a partial list of errors below, which confronted the early church.
The First Council of Nicaea in 325, in whose sixth canon the title “metropolitan” appears for the first time, sanctioned the existing grouping of sees by provinces of the Roman empire, but also recognized that three sees, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome, already had authority over wider areas. In speaking of Antioch, it also spoke generically about “other provinces.”
While the Council did not specify the extent of the authority of Rome or Antioch, it clearly indicated the area, even outside its own province of Egypt, over which Alexandria had authority, by referring to “the ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places.”
A benefit of this Episcopal evolution was an enhanced regional collegiality and accountability — assuring consistency of doctrine and catechesis. When things reached a point where doctrinal issues could not be resolved locally, appeals were made to gather across a particular region, and even to gather bishops from around the known world into ecumenical councils — councils of the whole Church.
It is important to note that during the time of Christ and his Apostles, when they spoke of scripture, they were all referring to the Jewish bible. More specifically, they were all most familiar with the “Septuagint” version which was in popular usage in that era.
Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants, who place their confidence in Martin Luther’s theory of sola scriptura (Latin: “Scripture alone”), will usually argue for their position by citing a couple of key verses. The first is this: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The other is this: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be equipped, prepared for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). According to these Protestants, these verses demonstrate the reality of sola scriptura (the “Bible only” theory).
Not so, we Catholics reply. Firstly, the passage from John refers to the things written in that book (read it with John 20:30, the verse immediately before it to see the context of the statement in question). If this selection proves anything, it would not prove the theory of sola scriptura but that the Gospel of John is sufficient.
Second, the verse from John’s Gospel tells us only that the Bible was composed so we can be helped to believe Jesus is the Messiah. It does not say the Bible is all we need for salvation, much less that the Bible is all we need for theology; nor does it say the Bible is even necessary to believe in Christ. After all, the earliest Christians had no New Testament to which they could appeal; they learned from oral, rather than written, instruction. Until relatively recent times, the Bible was inaccessible to most people, either because they could not read or because the printing press had not been invented. All these people learned from oral instruction, passed down, generation to generation, by the Church.
Much the same can be said about 2 Timothy 3:16-17. To say that all inspired writing “has its uses” is one thing; to say that only inspired writing need be followed is something else. Besides, there is a telling argument against claims of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. John Henry Newman explained it in an 1884 essay entitled “Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation.”
Newman’s Argument He wrote: “It is quite evident that this passage furnishes no argument whatever that the sacred Scripture, without Tradition, is the sole rule of faith; for, although sacred Scripture is profitable for these four ends, still it is not said to be sufficient. The Apostle [Paul] requires the aid of Tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Moreover, the Apostle here refers to the scriptures, which Timothy was taught in his infancy.
“Now, a good part of the New Testament was not written in his boyhood: Some of the Catholic epistles were not written even when Paul wrote this, and none of the books of the New Testament were then placed on the canon of the Scripture books. He refers, then, to the scriptures of the Old Testament, and, if the argument from this passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith.”
Furthermore, Protestants typically read 2 Timothy 3:16-17 out of context. When read in the context of the surrounding passages, one discovers that Paul’s reference to Scripture is only part of his exhortation that Timothy takes as his guide Tradition and Scripture. The two verses immediately before it state: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14–15).
Paul tells Timothy to continue in what he has learned for two reasons: first, because he knows from whom he has learned it—Paul himself—and second, because he has been educated in the scriptures. The first of these is a direct appeal to apostolic tradition; the oral teaching which the apostle Paul had given Timothy. So Protestants must take 2 Timothy 3:16-17 out of context to arrive at the theory of sola scriptura. But when the passage is read in context, it becomes clear that it is teaching the importance of apostolic tradition!
The Bible actually denies that it is formally sufficient as the complete rule of faith. Paul says that much Christian teaching is to be found in the tradition, which is handed down by word of mouth (2 Tim. 2:2). He instructs us to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
This oral teaching was accepted by Christians, just as they accepted the written teaching that came to them later. Jesus told his disciples: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16).
The Church, in the persons of the apostles, was given the authority to teach by Christ; the Church would be his representative. He commissioned them, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
And how was this to be done? By preaching, by oral instruction: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Church would always be the living teacher. It is a mistake to limit “Christ’s word” to the written word only or to suggest that all his teachings were reduced to writing. The Bible nowhere supports either notion.
Further, it is clear that the oral teaching of Christ would last until the end of time. “’But the word of the Lord abides for ever.’ That word is the good news which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:25). Note that the word has been “preached”—that is, communicated orally. This would endure. It would not be supplanted by a written record like the Bible (supplemented, yes, but not supplanted), and would continue to have its own authority.
This is made clear when the apostle Paul tells Timothy: “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Here we see the first few links in the chain of apostolic tradition that has been passed down intact from the apostles to our own day. Paul instructed Timothy to pass on the oral teachings (traditions) that he had received from the apostle. He was to give these to men who would be able to teach others, thus perpetuating the chain. Paul gave this instruction not long before his death (2 Tim. 4:6–8), as a reminder to Timothy of how he should conduct his ministry.
What is Tradition?
In this discussion it is important to keep in mind what the Catholic Church means by tradition. The term does not refer to legends or mythological accounts, nor does it encompass transitory customs or practices which may change, as circumstances warrant, such as styles of priestly dress, particular forms of devotion to saints, or even liturgical rubrics. Sacred or apostolic tradition consists of the teachings that the apostles passed on orally through their preaching. These teachings largely (perhaps entirely) overlap with those contained in Scripture, but the mode of their transmission is different.
They have been handed down and entrusted to the Church. It is necessary that Christians believe in and follow this tradition as well as the Bible (Luke 10:16). The truth of the faith has been given primarily to the leaders of the Church (Eph. 3:5), who, with Christ, form the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20). The Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit, who protects this teaching from corruption (John 14:25-26, 16:13).
Handing on the faith
Paul illustrated what tradition is: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. . . . Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (1 Cor. 15:3,11). The apostle praised those who followed Tradition: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2).
The first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) long before there was a New Testament. From the very beginning, the fullness of Christian teaching was found in the Church as the living embodiment of Christ, not in a book. The teaching Church, with its oral, apostolic tradition, was authoritative. Paul himself gives a quotation from Jesus that was handed down orally to him: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
This saying is not recorded in the Gospels and must have been passed on to Paul. Indeed, even the Gospels themselves are oral tradition, which has been written down (Luke 1:1–4). What’s more, Paul does not quote Jesus only. He also quotes from early Christian hymns, as in Ephesians 5:14. These and other things have been given to Christians “through the Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:2).
Fundamentalists say Jesus condemned tradition. They note that Jesus said, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3). Paul warned, “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). But these verses merely condemn erroneous human traditions, not truths which were handed down orally and entrusted to the Church by the apostles. These latter truths are part of what is known as apostolic tradition, which is to be distinguished from human traditions or customs.
“Teachings of Men” Aren’t Catholics just simply following the “teachings or commandments of men”? Consider Matthew 15:6–9, which Fundamentalists and Evangelicals often use to defend their position: “So by these traditions of yours you have made God’s laws ineffectual. You hypocrites, it was a true prophecy that Isaiah made of you, when he said, ‘This people does me honor with its lips, but its heart is far from me. Their worship is in vain, for the doctrines they teach are the commandments of men.’” Look closely at what Jesus said.
He was not condemning all traditions. He condemned only those that made God’s word void. In this case, it was a matter of the Pharisees feigning the dedication of their goods to the Temple so they could avoid using them to support their aged parents. By doing this, they dodged the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12).
Elsewhere, Jesus instructed his followers to abide by traditions that are not contrary to God’s commandments. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2–3).
What Fundamentalists and Evangelicals often do, unfortunately, is see the word “tradition” in Matthew 15:3 or Colossians 2:8 or elsewhere and conclude that anything termed a “tradition” is to be rejected. They forget that the term is used in a different sense, as in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15, to describe what should be believed. Jesus did not condemn all traditions; he condemned only erroneous traditions, whether doctrines or practices, that undermined Christian truths. The rest, as the apostles taught, were to be obeyed.
Paul commanded the Thessalonians to adhere to all the traditions he had given them, whether oral or written.
Additionally it is common for Protestants to proclaim that Catholics discourage people to read the bible, or that only clergy are authorized to interpret scripture. While I certainly understand how some may come to that conclusion. What we actually teach echoes 2 Peter 1:20, where we insist that the Holy Word of God is NOT up for individual interpretation. It is in this context that Catholics are instructed in a right understanding of church doctrine prior to the sacrament of confirmation. This is also why only ordained clergy are permitted to present homilies or sermons during our liturgies.
Back to the Magisterium Our task today continues, much as it did in the first centuries. We must become steadfast in determining what constitutes authentic tradition. Authentic Catholic Tradition has placed this responsibility on the shoulders of the Teaching Magisterium. Within the Catholic Church in America, our Teaching Magisterium is led by our Presiding Bishop and the council of bishops under His jurisdiction. Additionally, we invite other jurisdictions with which we have trusted inter communion agreements to join in our conciliar discussions.
How can we know which traditions are apostolic and which are merely human? The answer is the same as how we know which scriptures are apostolic and which are merely human—by listening to the Magisterium or teaching authority of Christ’s Historic Church — relying on the giants of our faith who have gone before. Without the Catholic Church’s teaching authority, we would not know with certainty which purported books of Scripture are authentic. If the Church revealed to us the canon of Scripture, it can also reveal to us the “canon of Tradition” by establishing which traditions have been passed down from the apostles. After all, Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18) and the New Testament itself declares the Church to be “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
No. Scripture alone is not formally sufficient for the understanding of Christian doctrine as our Protestant brethren insist. If it were there would be no divisions, there would be no such thing as heresy. Our modern Teaching Magisterium is not about creating doctrine, but preserving the faith that has been handed down to us from antiquity.
The Catholic Church in America is dedicated to remaining faithful to teachings of the ancient, undivided church. In that understanding, we rely on apostolic traditions, and the interpretation of such from the accepted teachings of the Fathers and First Seven Ecumenical Councils.
Below is a partial list of ancient heresies, of which the historic church combatted:
• Adoptionism — The belief Jesus is not eternally God but became God sometime after His birth
• Antinomianism — The belief that Christians are not bound by God’s law and are free to sin as they please
• Apollinarianism — The belief that Jesus never assumed a human nature)
• Arianism — The belief that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not persons of the Godhead but instead later creations of God the Father
• Deism — The belief that God does not intervene in or interact with the world
• Docetism — The belief that Jesus did not have a human body but instead was fully spirit)
• Dualism — The Belief that all Spiritual things are good and all physical things are evil
• Hyper-Nestorianism — The belief that Jesus consisted of two different persons, a human person and a divine person
• Kenosis — The belief that Jesus ceased to be divine while on Earth
• Limited Theism — The belief that God’s powers are or can be limited and He is not All-Powerful
• Macedonianism — The belief that God the Holy Spirit is not a member of the Godhead but merely a creation of God
• Manichaeism — The belief that good and evil are both equally powerful in ability and/or authority
• Marcionism — The belief that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are separate gods and that the Old Testament God is evil
• Modalism — The belief that the members of the Trinity are not three distinct persons but three different aspects of the same person
• Monophysitism — The belief that Jesus only has one nature
• Montanism — The belief that the Bible is either insufficient or incomplete, and that new revelation from God is being regularly given
• Monothelitism — The belief that Jesus has two natures but only has one will
• Nestorianism — The belief that Jesus did have two wills and natures but that they did not unite into one Hypostasis
• Pantheism — The belief that God is everything and everything is God
• Patripassionism — The belief that God the Father suffered and died on the cross
• Pelagianism — The belief that human nature is untainted by the Fall of Man and is not corrupted with Original Sin
• Polytheism — The belief that there are many gods
• Subordinationism — The belief that the Son and the Holy Spirit are lesser in being and nature than the Father
• Tritheism — The belief that the Godhead is actually three separate gods
• Universalism — The belief that everyone will go to Heaven
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