Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17)
My Protestant friends and I have an ongoing debate regarding church authority. A main issue concerns is the Catholic need for an infallible authority (the Magisterium). Now, we both accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, and as the inerrant Word of God, we agree that the Bible is authoritative. However, we disagree on its ultimate role within the church. This, in turn, returns us back to our disagreement on the role of the church itself.
For this article, I want to simplify, if possible, the core issue at hand (at least for me, anyway). The issue? Due to the susceptibility of the Bible to misinterpretation and manipulation, how can we know who to trust?
So, for the sake of simplicity, I argue the Church needs an infallible Magisterium for one reason: the tendency to err among Christians requires a final authoritative action from an infallible Church. To paraphrase President Harry S. Truman, the interpretive “buck” must stop somewhere and that somewhere is the Catholic Church.
One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)
…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:21)
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 all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
First, a point of agreement. Both Protestants (for the most part) and Catholics believe in one God, one Lord Jesus Christ, one Holy Spirit, one faith (the Gospel), and one baptism. Jesus also built one Church, not two, three, or three-thousand—one. Initially made up of the Apostles and their followers, this Church spread throughout the world. Due to the great distances, and to preserve the message of Christ, members of the Church wrote letters (epistles), accounts of Jesus’ life (the Gospels), and the history of the early Church (Acts). In turn, these writings were copied and shared among the Church in different locations.
The Tendency to Err
Almost immediately, the young Church had to address error. A group known as Judaizers, Jewish Christians who taught that Gentile converts to Christianity become Jews first (through circumcision) and follow the Mosaic Law, caused conflict even among St. Peter and St. Paul. Eventually, the Council of Jerusalem settled the matter and sent a letter of explanation to the whole Church. Thus, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, instituted an authoritative paradigm to address significant errors that pose significant threats to the unity of Christ’s one Church.
A History of Err
Moreover, the tendency to err did not cease with the Judaizers and the Council of Jerusalem. As the Church matured and its theology grew more complex, errors also emerged to divide Christ’s one Church. Examples:
Docetism (1st century), Montanism, Ebionites (Adoptionism), Valentinianism, Sabellianism, Marcionism, Patripassianism (2nd century), Novatianism (3rd century), Arianism, Donatism, Monophysitism, Apollinarism (4th century), Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Eutychianism, (5th century), Iconoclasm, and Monothelitism (7th century).
Many of the errors (heresies) above required ecumenical councils as a means of correction. These councils, like the Council of Jerusalem, settled specific theological matters and issued explanations to the whole Church.
The Argument Redux
Jesus established one Church.
This Church wrote the books of the New Testament and disseminated them among Christian communities.
Almost immediately, errors (misinterpretation and manipulation) started to appear within and without the Church.
To correct errors and maintain unity, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, instituted an authoritative paradigm.
Errors continue; therefore, the Church continues to use this paradigm to correct errors (heresies) and maintain unity.
The Paradigm Confirmed by St. Vincent of Lerins (431 AD)
This paradigm, first summarized by St. Vincent of Lerins in the fourth chapter of his Commontorium, states:
Here, it may be, someone will ask, since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men.
Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.
St. Vincent understood that appeals to Scripture fall short because such appeals produce as many “opinions as there are men.” In the Church, opinion must give way to correction. For the sake of unity and clarity, the “buck” must stop somewhere.
“I need a Church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.”
Writer, philosopher, Christian apologist, and Catholic convert GK Chesterton once declared:
I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I already know I’m wrong; I need a Church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.
Furthermore, were St. Vincent alive in the 16th century, his paradigm would stay the same, save for the names.
Luther expounds in one way, Calvin in another, Zwingli in another, Arminius, Muntzer and Cranmer in another, Knox, Melanchthon and Karlstadt in another, Tyndale, Bunderlin and Denck in another, and latterly Manz in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.
As with St. Vincent’s original list, the individuals above also had access to the Bible. And like the individuals on the original list, they refused correction from the Church and thus removed themselves from the one Church established by Christ.
In conclusion, due to the susceptibility of the Bible to misinterpretation and manipulation, we must rely on the Church’s paradigm for correction. Furthermore, we see this confirmed within the pages of Bible itself. In John 16:13, Jesus promised the Spirit of truth:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
St. Paul confirm this gift from Christ to the Church when he referred to the Church as “a pillar and buttress of the truth” in 1 Timothy 3:15. Finally, we see this in the paradigm established by the Apostles in Acts 15 with the Council of Jerusalem and summarized by St. Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century. Therefore, the theological “buck” stops with the Church.
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