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Why a Magisterium?


The magisterium of the Catholic Church is the church's authority or office to give authentic interpretation of the Word of God.

The Catholic Church gives equal weight to Scripture and Tradition and Tradition is defined as the handing down of Jesus’ teachings from one generation to the next. We will see that this definition, taken alone, is correct and biblical. If it was that straight cut and simple Catholics would probably be Protestants.

The magisterium comprises the pope and his bishops, and it is they who are responsible for that faithful transmission of Jesus’ teaching, and they who are charged with interpreting what has been handed down. Scripture and Tradition are considered one, single sacred deposit, and this magisterium is not independent of this deposit.

A major error in the cults is faith in an organisation. Every cult has its magisterium, Jehovah’s Witnesses with their governing body, Mormons with their apostles and prophets. It is helpful to remember that the church is organised, but not an organisation. It is organic, made of living stones (1 Peter 2:4-6).

Once we realise this we understand that every generation will get it wrong somewhere and need to get back to that deposit of truth they inherited, the Scripture. This is as true for churches as it is true of individuals. That is why Reform minded people subscribe to the saying Ecclesia semper reformanda est ‘the church must always be reformed,’ or, ‘reformed and always reforming.’

The Catholic Church seems to have recognised this in its amain second Vatican council document, lumen gentium, ‘While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled knew nothing of sin, but came to expiate only the sins of the people, the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal.’

Unfortunately, Vatican II is all but abandoned, attacked on all sides by a strong anti-reform movement in the church. It has met its own ‘counter-reformation’ and under successive popes has become, along with its ‘reform’ agenda, the victim of neglect and attack. The weight and strength of inertia is considerable.

We have said the definition of Scripture and tradition given above is correct, taken alone. How is it correct to say Scripture is the teachings of Jesus and Tradition is the handing down of Jesus’ teachings from one generation to the next? What does the Bible say, what do the early church fathers have to say about the passing on of Jesus’ teachings, of gospel truth?

Maintaining the Traditions (Apologetics)

There is a strong antipathy in Protestant/Evangelical circles towards the word ‘tradition.’ The Roman Church, rather like the Pharisees, have given the word a bad name. Peter puts it succinctly when he writes against, your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers.’ (1 Pet.1:17-19) Rome has had an unfortunate habit of giving their ‘traditions’ equal weight with Scripture itself.

Tradition’ however is found in the Bible, something any good Roman Catholic apologist will point out. Paul, writing to Corinth, uses the word, Now I commend you for remembering me in everything and for maintaining the traditions, just as I passed them on to you.’ (1 Cor.11:2) That’s awkward, you might think, but what is Paul writing about?

The word here is paradosis and simply means surrendering, giving up, the passing on of something. In this case, what is passed on is instruction, precepts, teaching. Tradition doesn’t mean the content of what is passed on, but simply the act of passing it on, the definition we agreed on above. This brings us to a good question...what has Paul passed on?

...And Your Children’s Children

As far back as Moses we find ‘tradition’ is important. In his final sermon to Israel Moses urged them:

Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children's children… (Deut.4:9)

As Moses preaches he reminds Israel of their sinfulness and God’s faithfulness, of the dangers of idolatry, of the commandments by which they were to live, and of their duty to pass on these ‘traditions.’ They were to be so integral to God’s people they were to define everything about them:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise.’

Paul writes something similar to the church in Thessalonica:

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. (1 Thess.4:1-2)

In this instance the word is parangelia and carries the meaning ‘instruction’ or ‘command.’ So we have something that was to be ‘received,’ paralamban┼Ź, to be taken possession of, by the saints in Thessalonica, which was ‘from us,’ in other words passed on, paradosis, and it was instruction that was received.

So Jesus

It may surprise you to know this describes what Jesus did:

So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”’( John 8:28)

For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.” (John 12:39-40)

The earliest church followed the same pattern, And...devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ (Acts 2:42)

As we have seen, the early church continued in this pattern of being devoted to the traditions, the established truth:

Now I commend you for remembering me in everything and for maintaining the traditions, just as I passed them on to you.’ (1 Cor.11:2)

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.’ (1 Thess.4:1-2)

So too Church Leaders

We are familiar with Paul’s instruction to Timothy:

From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.’ (2 Tim.3:15-17)

As time went by it became even more important to know and follow established truth, as Jude reminds us:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.’ (Jude 3)

Indeed, Paul considered the church to be in a battle for truth and wrote to Timothy, ‘Fight the good fight of the faith.’ (1 Tim.6:12)

Warning of Antichrists, Peter cautions believers, ‘Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.’ (1 John 2:24)

Finally, Paul writes to Timothy:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach to others also.’ (2 Tim.2:1,2)

When we consider the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church added to the tradition of Scripture, and challenged by the Reformers we must ask, who was faithful to the traditions passed down through the apostles?

Was it Rome, with its adoration of Mary, her Immaculate Conception and perpetual virginity, celibate priesthood, purgatory, faith, penance, and works salvation, multiple sacraments, indulgences, earthly power and papal infallibility, etc?

Was it those through the ages who have always insisted on a regular returning to the traditions of Scripture and a conforming to what the Bible has always taught? Reformed and always reforming?

For Holy Scripture sets a rule to our teaching. Be it not therefore for me to teach you any other things, save to expound to you the words of the Teacher.’ On Christian Doctrine, Augustine

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