The Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Foundation for Both

There has been a thought floating through my mind that I want to throw out there. Unfortunately, like so many of these topics, there needs to be a “setting of the stage” so please be patient.

—Setting the Stage: Scripture and Magisterium—

CatholicAuthoritySo far as I understand the issues, the Roman Catholics hold to a three-legged stool of authority (a trinity of sorts); Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. To the Catholic, these three work in harmony together to form the doctrines of the Church. Because of the nature of apologetic discussions, Catholic apologists may often stress one leg over another depending on the conversation and the need to make a point. For example, when discussing “where we got the Bible” they may stress the need for a Magisterium. The Bible itself does not tell us what books should even be in the Bible, therefore a Magisterium is needed to decide which books are in the Bible.

From this it is tempting to make the inference that the books in the Bible are “made” inspired because the “Church said so.” But this is not RCC doctrine. Vatican I states,

These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church.

The Scriptures are not inspired by God because the Church said so. The Church said so because the Scriptures are inspired by God.

So why the need for a Magisterium? Because it is the instrument God uses to let the rest of us know. Without it, how would I personally know what is God-inspired Scripture? I didn’t figure it out myself, nor would I trust myself with such a task. Someone gave me a Bible, told me it was inspired by God, and I believe it. So I already accept some sort of authority on this issue.

So there is a harmony between Scripture and the Magisterium, not an antagonism. The Magisterium is the channel through which the Holy Spirit announces what is already inspired Scripture. An analogy from Stephen Ray is helpful (links to a Word document).

If an archeologist is an authoritative Egyptologist and “discovers” a total of ten Egyptian burial sites, he then, as the authority who made the discovery, “determines” that there are in fact ten sights, and that they are authentic. Discovery and determination are friends, not enemies.

 Now that the stage is set, we can move on to my simple pondering.

—Protestant-Catholic Dialogue—

On what makes the Scriptures inspired, Protestants agree with Catholics. They agree that the Scriptures are inspired because God said so, not the Church.

First point: Can this be proven? Can those specific books of the Old and New Testaments be “proven” to be “God breathed”? I do not believe so. It is a matter of faith. We can study and show them to be historically reliable or show them to be philosophically smart and dependable, but these are not the same as God breathed. I believe C.S. Lewis is smart and dependable as well, but not inspired Scripture. The reality is we accept on faith that the Bible is inspired by God.

Next point: This simple faith that Protestants put in Scripture is the exact same sort of faith Catholics put into the Magisterium as well as Scripture. Protestants often demand proof that the Magisterium is infallible. They ask, “How does the RCC determine its own authority? If the church is to be infallible, then it must have an infallible foundation for its infallible authority.” Well, the Catholic would reply that it does. It has the same foundation for infallibility that the Protestants themselves claim for the Scriptures. Can this be “proven”? No more than the belief that Scripture itself is infallible and yet we all willingly accept that.


It doesn’t seem like Scripture itself can hold up to the standard of proof for infallibility that Protestants require for the Magisterium. The foundation for both is claimed to be God Himself. Whichever direction one chooses, toward or away from Rome, it is a matter of faith. We all start with a presupposition that cannot be proven and determine all else from that basis. One cannot demand proof from one without holding the other to the same standard.

For myself, I cannot escape the fact that the Bible presupposes a Magisterium of some sort. Like Scott Hahn said,

The Bible presupposes the Church. The New Testament was not a user’s manual for a Church still in shrinkwrap. The Church preceded the Scriptures….Not only do the individual books presume the existence of the Church, but so does the collection as a whole. Some authority had to determine which books would be included in the New Testament and which would not; for the book of the Scriptures came with no inspired table of contents. (Reasons to Believe)

(Final Note: I skimmed over—and ended with—comments on the creation and determination of the canon but this post is not about that so please don’t sidetrack the comments in a different direction. The skim was meant to be a “framing” for a different topic. The creation of canon is a debate done a hundred times a day all over the internet and if you wish to debate that topic please go find one of those blog debates. The main point of this post is simple; believing the authority of the Scriptures come from God is the same type of belief that the authority of the Magisterium comes from God. It’s a matter of faith either way and one cannot demand proof from one without holding the other to the same standard.)


Disclaimer – This blog post is just that: a blog post with my personal thoughts. I am not a Catholic apologist or theologian. What I say here is not official doctrine of the Catholic Church. I am still learning and am susceptible to error. Don’t take anything here as Gospel. Don’t be stupid. Do your own research and learn for yourself what the Church teaches.

Catholics: if my understanding of Catholic doctrine needs adjustment, please point out my error.


Short thoughts from Cardinal Ratzinger on modern Christian thought

RatzingerReportI’m currently reading, and am almost done with, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. On August 15, 1984, journalist Vittorio Messori interviewed Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI). This book is a compilation of that interview and discusses a lot of interesting things. Many of the topics go over my head, probably because I’m not Catholic and therefore not “in tune” with their way of thinking on certain issues (such as the seriousness Ratzinger has about liturgy).

One of the things I found interesting, and relevant to my situation, are Ratzinger’s thoughts on sola scriptura and ecclesiology.

Below is a transcript from the book. Anything in “quotes” is Ratzinger, whereas the rest is Messori. I hope my spelling and punctuation is correct. Keep in mind as well that there is a context to the conversation. I think what I have posted is enough context to get the point, but if you get confused it might be worth checking out the book yourself.


But why should Protestantism—which is undergoing a crisis no less than the Catholic Church—attract theologians and believers who, up to the Council, had remained faithful to the Roman Church?

“It is not easy to say. The following consideration suggests itself to me: Protestantism arose at the beginning of modern times, and thus it is much more closely related to the inner energies which produced the modern age than Catholicism is. It has acquired the form it has today largely in the confrontation with the great philosophical currents of the nineteenth century. It is wide open to modern thought, and, as well as constituting a threat to it, that constitutes both its opportunity and its danger. So it is that those Catholic theologians, particularly, for whom their inherited theology no longer means anything, imagine that here they will find a path already blazed for the fusing of faith and modern thought.”

What principles are involved here?

“Then as now the sola scriptura principles plays a key role. What today’s average Christian deduces from this principle is that faith comes from one’s individual perception, from intellectual application along with the contributions of experts, and a view such as this strikes him as more modern and more obvious than the Catholic position. Let us go deeper. Once this view has been adopted, the Catholic concept of the Church is automatically no longer tenable; a model of the Church must be sought elsewhere within the wide spectrum of the phenomenon of ‘Protestantism’.”

Ecclesiology then, as almost always, comes into the picture.

“Yes. For the modern man on the street, the most obvious concept of the Church is what technically one would call Congregationalist or Free Church. It implies that the Church is a changeable form depending upon how men organize what pertains to faith. Consequently one has to adapt as far as possible to the demands of the present moment. We have already mentioned this several times, but it is worthwhile returning to it: today many people can hardly understand any more that behind a human reality stands the mysterious divine reality. And as we know, this is the Catholic understanding of the Church, and it is far harder to accept than the one we have just outlined, which is not simply the Protestant understanding but one that has developed within the phenomenon of ‘Protestantism’.”

C.S. Lewis on Purgatory

I have enjoyed the works of C.S. Lewis for a long time.  Though often too deep for quick reading, he still often spoke to the inner depths of my self and made difficult subjects more easily understood.  So it is no wonder that the concept of Purgatory was easier to accept when I discovered he not only believed in it, but also gave a short explanation.


cslewisOf course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him?


….The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has reclaimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” — “Even so, sir.”

I assume the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. “No nonsense about merit.” The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, chapter xx

Catholicism and “slavery of the mind” from Catholics

These quotes remind of something an older Catholic told me. He had flitted around several denominations searching.  We were eating donuts after Mass and I was asking him about his conversion.  Among other things, he told me he was finally in the realm of absolutes and not opinion.  There was a definite Church with definite teaching.

Chesterton Cathooic Church wiseI have chosen the subject of the slavery of the mind because I believe many worthy people imagine I am myself a slave. The nature of my supposed slavery I need not name and do not propose specially to discuss. It is shared by every sane man when he looks up a train in Bradshaw.* That is, it consists in thinking a certain authority reliable; which is entirely reasonable. Indeed it would be rather difficult to travel in every train to find out where it went. It would be still more difficult to go to the destination in order to discover whether it was safe to begin the journey. Suppose a wild scare arose that Bradshaw was a conspiracy to produce railway accidents, a man might still believe the Guide to be a Guide and the scare to be only a scare; but he would know of the existence of the scare.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Thing

*(Bradshaw was a railway guide.)


Turn now to the Catholic Church. Here is a Society whose function it is to preserve and apply the teaching of Christ; to analyze it and to state it in forms or systems which every generation can receive. For this purpose, then, she draws up not merely a Creed—which is the systematic statement of the Christian Revelation—but disciplinary rules and regulations that will make this Creed and the life that is conformable to it more easy of realization, and all this she does with the express object of enabling the individual soul to respond to her spiritual environment and to rise to the full exercise of her powers and rights. As the scientist and the statesman take, respectively, the great laws of nature and society and reduce them to rules and codes, yet without adding or taking away from these facts, that are true whether they are popularly recognized or not—and all with the purpose not of diminishing but of increasing the general liberty—so the Church, divinely safeguarded too in the process, takes the Revelation of Christ and by her dogma and her discipline popularizes it, so to speak, and makes it at once comprehensible and effective.

What, then, is this foolish cry about the slavery of dogma? How can Truth make men anything except more free? Unless a man is prepared to say that the scientist enslaves his intellect by telling him facts, he dare not say that the Church fetters his intellect by defining dogma….

But the Catholic system has the appearance of enslaving men? Why yes; for the only way of aiming at and using effectively the truth that makes us free is by bringing into captivity every understanding to the obedience of Christ.

–Robert Hugh Benson, Paradoxes of Christianity