On the Necessity of a Magisterium

I was asked a question recently by a good friend about the content of what Muslims really believe. In other words, he asked me what true Islam was.

This is actually a more difficult problem than it first appears. Mohamed gave the world the Koran, which he said was the word-for-word dictation of God through the angel Gabriel to Mohamed. For that reason, Muslims believe it is perfect. And because it is perfect nothing else is necessary. When Mohamed died, he said that there would come another prophet. Almost immediately, Islam fractured into 2 factions: Shia and Sunni.

Why did the fracturing occur?

I would suggest that it was because there was no Magisterium.

In Catholicism, “Magisterium” is the teaching authority of the Church. Christ said to the Apostles, “Whoever hears you, hears me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me.” (Lk 10:16) And particularly to Peter, he says, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, whatever you declare loosed on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:19) This authority was given to the Apostles (and in a special way Peter). And this authority was later passed on to their successors: the bishops (and in a special way, the pope).

This is not just a nice parting gift Jesus gave us before He flew away home. In a religion like Christianity, a Magisterium is essential. Why?

This gets at the core the core problem of fundamentalism. Let us look at the denominations of our Protestant brothers and sisters, particularly those who hold to Martin Luther’s motto: Sola Scriptura, which means that the Bible alone has authority. Luther rejected the authority of not only a Magisterium, but also of Sacred Tradition.
For Luther, since the Bible is the Word of God, nothing else is necessary. But as we can see in Protestantism, this always leads to dissent and division.

This is not an insult, merely a logical necessity.

The reason is that you cannot have a text alone be an authority.

Words need interpretation.

This is particularly true as words change in meaning over time. Language is a fluid thing, not a static thing. Words may mean one thing in one culture or era that may mean something completely different in another. Take the word “gay,” and all that it means today compared to when the Flintstones told us “we’ll have a gay old time.” Or even today, across the pond in England, words in the same language have different meanings. Over there if someone asks for a rubber, they are asking for an eraser. Not knowing this difference can lead to an awfully awkward situation.

But even outside of that difficulty, every text is read by a reader. And that reader will filter that information through the lens of their own experience to come to a meaning. Often this is not a problem and can actually lead to some wonderful debates and discussions. But when it comes to a matter of fundamental truth, this is incredibly problematic. Truth is not a subjective matter. Obi-Wan Kenobi was wrong when he told Luke Skywalker that “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Truth is an objective thing. And to ideas that contradict each other cannot both be true at the same time.

Let us give an example: Jesus took bread at the Last Supper and said, “This is My body.” What did He mean?
If you as a Presbyterian, they will say that Christ’s presence is in the bread in a special way, but it is not transformed into Christ Himself. Catholics will say that the Eucharist substantially changes into Christ Himself. Baptists will say the Eucharist is purely symbolic.

All of these ideas cannot be true at the same time. Maybe they are all wrong, but they cannot all be correct. So how can we tell what a text means?

The easiest way is to go to the author. JK Rowling has said that the proper pronunciation of Voldermort, the villain of here book series is “Voldemor” (the “t” is silent). Since she is the author, I take the answer to be true.

The Author of the Bible is God. He is the final interpreter. Knowing that words need interpretation, He gave us a Sacred Tradition and also a living Magisterium. Christ knew that as the Church grew, new questions would be asked. If truth is one, there would have to be right and wrong answers for many of these questions. So our Lord gave us access to “the Author” through the authority of the Magisterium.

I remember a story from Walter Hooper, who was CS Lewis’ biographer. At the time, Hooper was an Anglican and there was a great deal of controversy regarding whether women should be ordained in his denomination. On a trip to the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II, several Catholics asked Hooper why the Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest spiritual authority in the Anglican Church), didn’t simple tell his flock what the truth was. Hooper had a difficult time explaining to the Catholics that Anglicans do not have a Magisterium like Catholics do. Their leaders do not speak with Apostolic authority. This is one of the reasons Hooper eventually converted to Catholicism.

To be sure there have been controversies of doctrine and heretical conflicts in the Catholic Church. But when these crises come about, the Church convenes councils not to invent a new truth but to understand the truth that has already been given. And this action needs clarification and interpretation by our Magisterium. In Protestantism (particularly of the Sola Scriptura type), when there is a conflict, the highest authority you have is the Bible. But as we pointed out already, this will always necessitate interpretation. Without an authority to interpret correctly (or at the very least rule out bad interpretations), then the highest interpretive authority is the individual reader. And without that higher authority to which you can appeal, you are left with an impasse. This is why there is so much division in Protestantism. If you disagree with something in your Church, you break away and start a new one.

Judaism does not have a Magisterium, but they also are not interested in gaining converts. There is no strong appeal in that religion to bring all men into their faith by appealing to revealed truth. Instead, they are much more comfortable with ambiguity.

Islam is a bit different. Unlike Judaism, but like Christianity, Muslims are looking to convert all men to their faith. Christians and Muslims both appeal to the truth revealed by God. But Muslims do not have a higher authority to which they can appeal. Yes, there are several scholarly interpretations of the Koran, and I have read many authors quote that book to explain the teachings of the religion. But without a Magisterium, Muslims are left with the same problem that many Christian Protestants face: how do you know if your interpretation is correct? And here we are not talking about something trivial like the pronunciation of a name of some nose-less bad guy from a children’s book series. Instead we are talking about the fundamental truths about God and man and salvation.

Jesus was wisest of all teachers. And in His wisdom He knew that we would always need His continual guidance and teaching. That is why He gave us this Magisterium.

Without it, we are orphaned to our own limited and fallible interpretations.

Copyright 2015, W. L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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