We don’t need no magisterium: A reply to Christianity Today‘s Mark GalliNov 19th, 2011 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Mark Galli is the senior managing editor of Christianity Today. Two days ago he published an article titled “The Confidence of the Evangelical: Why the Spirit, not the magisterium, will lead us into all truth.” Galli notes that a number of well-known Evangelicals have become Catholic, and acknowledges the attraction of the Catholic magisterium for the definitive resolution of doctrinal or interpretive debates among those who call themselves Evangelical, but writes to explain why he resists the pull to become Catholic.
His reasoning begins with a notion of the early Church as “Massive confusion.” He writes, “The Holy Spirit set the pattern for what church would be like at the day of Pentecost. And it looked like this: Massive confusion.” For Galli, the New Covenant introduced “radical leveling” such that there was no magisterium, and widespread doctrinal disagreements, often taking decades to resolve. No decisions by Apostles or councils were authoritative. The Apostles tried to use their authority to settle disputes, but the best they could do was appeal to Scripture just as any other Christian could. Doctrinal disagreements were eventually resolved by Christians who “lived and argued together at the prodding of the Holy Spirit,” without any magisterium. Galli concludes, writing, “We don’t need a magisterium. We already have a Lord, who told us that not even the gates of Hades (whose landlord loves to sows confusion in the church!) will prevail against the church. In short, we don’t need premature closure as much as we need persevering confidence that the Spirit will lead us into all the truth we need, when we need it.”
Did the Early Church have a Magisterium?
Of course having a magisterium is useful, but the utility of having a magisterium is no reason to become Catholic. Ultimately, one should become Catholic only if the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, and thus only if the authority of the Catholic magisterium is a divinely established authority, having been established by the incarnate Christ before His Ascension. If the Catholic magisterium was not established by Christ, then the Catholic magisterium is not even useful, because it has no authority at all, and thus cannot authoritatively adjudicate any question whatsoever. But if the Catholic magisterium was established by Christ, then the due response is not determining whether having this magisterium is useful, but submitting to it, as an expression of our submission to Christ who governs His Church through it.
So the right starting question is whether Christ established a magisterium (i.e. a teaching and governing authority) in His Church. For Galli, the day of Pentecost is the paradigm, and he sees there only chaos and confusion. But that conclusion may itself be premature. Between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, the only event Scripture records is the filling of Judas’ office, under the leadership of St. Peter. That would have been superfluous and misguided if in a few days there would be a radical leveling that eliminated any magisterium. In fact, nothing about Pentecost is disordered. Those persons who did not understand the other languages the Apostles were speaking were possibly bewildered by the fact that simple men from Galilee were able to speak foreign languages. The event itself, however, was not “massive confusion” but well-ordered for the very purpose that persons of all different languages could hear and believe the one message the Apostles were preaching, not a multiplicity of contrary teachings. The purpose of the birth of the Church at Pentecost was precisely to ‘unconfuse’ the separation and confusion God had sent on prideful man at the Tower of Babel.1 If the Church were to be “massive confusion,” that would not be any different from the post-Babel situation; disorder and confusion cannot possibly rectify disorder and confusion.
And there is evidence in Scripture not only of order, but of a magisterium. About seventeen years after Pentecost, when a dispute arose in the universal Church, we see in Acts 15 that it was settled in an orderly way at the Jerusalem Council attended by Apostles and elders. And in his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul writes clearly, “for God is not a God of confusion [ἀκαταστασίας — disorder] but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” (1 Cor. 14:33) A few verses later he writes: “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly [τάξιν] manner.” (1 Cor 14:40) To see only confusion on the day of Pentecost and in the early Church is to miss the clear evidence that Christ gave authority to His Apostles, and that they authorized others to succeed them in governing and teaching the particular Churches so that all things would be done in an orderly manner, and that there was an established means by which the unity and peace of the Church would be preserved.2
Confidence in the Holy Spirit Requires not Co-opting the Holy Spirit
According to Galli, even though there was no visible order or structure in the early Church, nevertheless the Spirit always continued to lead the Church into all truth, not only in that first generation of Christians but even down to the Evangelicalism of the present day. He writes:
But even after they [i.e. the Apostles] spoke or wrote, the church had to go through a period of discernment to determine what the Holy Spirit was, in fact, teaching the church. … The full sweep of church history suggests that the Holy Spirit has, in fact, led us into all truth through no other way than men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile wrestling with one another about whatever issue is at hand until, in the Spirit’s good time, a consensus emerges. … We mustn’t forget that for a couple of hundred years, most Christians were not Trinitarians in the way we understand the Trinity today, but the Holy Spirit slowly led the church into a fully Trinitarian faith.
Galli’s notion of the Spirit continually and faithfully leading the Church into all truth is something that Catholics also deeply affirm.3 But there is a fundamental incompatibility in Galli’s position, because the notion that the Holy Spirit continually “guides the Church into all truth” justifies the “confidence” of which Galli speaks only if the Church has visible, institutional unity. The claim that “the Church” had to determine something is an objective claim only if “the Church” has a visible unity as a single institution. Otherwise, the claim reduces to “those with whom I agree reached the conclusion with which I agree.” By denying the existence of a magisterium, Galli is left to pick out “the Church” by way of agreement with his own interpretation of Scripture. And there is no basis for confidence that the Holy Spirit is uniquely leading that group of persons into all truth, because any group of heretics could make the very same claim.
For example, the reason the Arians could not credibly claim that the Church had to go through a period of discernment to determine that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, teaching the Church that Arianism is true, that after the Nicene Council the Church continued only with those in the Arian tradition and that those persons who followed the decision of the Council were the heretics who were thereby separated from the Church, is precisely that the visible Church made this decision at that Council by way of the magisterium of bishops in communion with the episcopal successor of the Apostle Peter.
Similarly, the monophysites could not credibly claim to be the continuation of the Church by the leading of the Holy Spirit precisely because the magisterium of the Church decided against monophysitism at the Council of Chalcedon ratified by Pope Leo. And the same is true of each of the heresies the Church faced in her early centuries. A magisterial decision made it possible for the claim that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church to be an objective claim, rather than a relativistic claim made by one of multiple parties, each attempting to co-opt the ‘guidance’ of the Holy Spirit to support their own particular interpretation of Scripture.
For claims about the Holy Spirit leading “the Church” to determine something to be objective claims, rather than merely self-serving attempts to co-opt the Holy Spirit to support the emergence of one’s own interpretations and theology, the Church must be visible and visibly one. Yet the Church can have a visible unity as a single institution only by way of a hierarchical unity, i.e. only if there is a magisterium, for the reasons Tom Brown and I explained in “Christ Founded a Visible Church.”
Confidence and the Consensus Criterion
Galli claims that “a consensus emerges,” but he does not include the “among whom” qualifier. A consensus did not emerge among the conjunction of those following the decision of the Council of Nicea and those following Arius. The magisterial decision against the Arians forced the Arians out of the visible Church, and thus did not allow Arianism to be even a “branch within” the Church.4 A consensus did not emerge between Catholics and Marcionites; rather, the magisterial decision by the Church of Rome forced the Marcionites out of the visible Church, and again did not allow Marcionism to be a “branch within” the Church. And so on, with all the heresies throughout Church history.
In order for the “a consensus emerges” criterion to be meaningful as a basis for confidence that this consensus is the result of the Holy Spirit’s guiding, this consensus must be distinguishable in principle from the sort of consensus that heretics can attain among themselves. But without a magisterium, the only kind of consensus possible is a consensus of precisely that sort, i.e. a consensus among those who agree with oneself and one’s own interpretation. Without a magisterium, any heretical group could claim to be the Church, and could claim that its own heretical beliefs are the result of what the Holy Spirit gradually taught the Church, and could claim that consensus was reached among those who agree with their particular heresy. When heretical groups make such claims, each claiming to be the Church uniquely led into all truth by the Spirit, while each group holds beliefs incompatible with beliefs held by the other groups, this shows that in claiming to have been led to their ‘truth’ by the Holy Spirit they are merely co-opting the Holy Spirit to support their own interpretation and the historical process by which their own set of beliefs and interpretations arose. For Galli to have a basis for confidence in the Spirit’s guidance of the group of persons who agree with his own interpretation of Scripture, he cannot be in the same epistemic situation as those heretical groups, groups which he himself would claim to be heretical. And yet that is exactly the epistemic situation he is in, defining “the Church” by way of agreement with his own interpretation of Scripture.
Church history shows that heretical groups naturally treat the divine providence by which they were divinely permitted to fall into heresy as though it were instead the Holy Spirit supernaturally and uniquely leading their particular group into the truth that none of the other sects holds. Any heretical group could claim like Galli that “the full sweep of church history suggests that the Holy Spirit has, in fact, led us into all truth.” Any group of persons can be an “us” and claim to be “the Church.” But without a magisterium instituted by Christ, every claim to be “the Church” reduces to a claim about a group of persons who shares one’s own theological opinion. Without a divinely established magisterium, the confidence one can have that one’s own theological opinion is what the Holy Spirit has led “the Church” to determine cannot be qualitatively greater than that of every heretical group throughout Church history who thought the same about themselves and their theological opinion.
Without a magisterium, therefore, there is no basis for confidence that the set of persons picked out by their agreement with one’s own theological opinion is the Church being led into all truth by the Holy Spirit, and that one’s own theological opinion is that to which the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church for the past two thousand years. Without a magisterium, confidence in the Spirit guiding “the Church” is actually confidence in one’s own interpretation of Scripture, by which what counts as “the Church” is determined. So for any claim about “the Church coming to determine what the Holy Spirit is saying,” what has always made it possible for such claims to be objective and not a mere retrospective co-opting of the Spirit to give divine sanction to one’s own interpretation, has been the existence of a divinely established magisterium by which that determination was authoritatively made definitive in the visible Church.
Depending on the Magisterium while Denying its Existence
Thus in appealing to what the Church came to determine by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Galli is implicitly depending on the Catholic magisterium of the first millennium. In that sense Galli is implicitly borrowing from the Catholic Church in order to ground the determinations he claims were made by the leading of the Holy Spirit through the early centuries of the Church.5 For Galli, however, “there was no magisterium in the early church, but only Christians who lived and argued together at the prodding of the Holy Spirit.”
But as I have just shown, his claim that the Holy Spirit guided “the Church” to make determinations requires that there was a magisterium, because otherwise “Church” would be reduced to “those persons throughout time who generally agree with my own interpretation of Scripture.” In that case Galli’s claim that the Holy Spirit teaches and prods the Church would be a co-opting of the Holy Spirit in support of the process by which those who generally agree with Galli came to the set of beliefs and interpretations he himself affirms. By denying that there was a magisterium in the first millennium, Galli undermines his claim that anything has been determined or settled. Everything remains up in the air, an open question yet to be settled. And thereby he undermines the very story he tells about the Spirit guiding the Church into all truth. There can be no objective development of doctrine without a magisterium, because without a magisterium not only can nothing be definitively determined, but even the identity of the Church cannot be objectively determined; there can only be those who share one’s own interpretation, and all the other groups who do not.
Every heretical group in Church history could claim that it does not need a magisterium because it has the Spirit, and this fact undermines the objectivity of Galli’s claim, as I have shown above. But no less problematic for Galli’s position is that to hold that things have been determined in any definitive sense over the course of Church history, there has to have been a magisterium. Otherwise, what has happened is not in any sense a ‘determination,’ but merely a choice by Galli to place himself in one among hundreds of different theological traditions that emerged through various schisms and doctrinal disputes, each claiming to have been guided by the Holy Spirit to the ‘truth’ of their own unique position. In order to appeal to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and this not ultimately reduce to a burning in one’s own personal bosom, “the Church” must be picked out by something other than its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture; it must be a visible body with a unified magisterium established by Christ. And if that is the case, then the proper response is to find that teaching and governing authority Christ established in His Church, and follow Christ by following it.
What would a Rejection of a Divinely Established Magisterium Look Like?
Galli claims that he does not need a magisterium, because he already has the Spirit:
We don’t need a magisterium. We already have a Lord, who told us that not even the gates of Hades (whose landlord loves to sows confusion in the church!) will prevail against the church.
The notion that “we don’t need a magisterium; we have the Spirit” is not a new one. The Montantists held something quite similar toward the end of the second century. Presbyterian minister Rick Philips replied similarly to Michael Liccione a few years ago.6 But there is a principled epistemic difference between submitting in the “obedience of faith” to the Church that Christ Himself founded when He was on the earth, not because it conforms to one’s own interpretation of Scripture but because Christ founded it, and forming or joining a novel community of persons because their doctrines generally match one’s own interpretation of Scripture. When we work our way through Church history and we examine the plethora of heretical sects that arose and decayed over the past two thousand years, we find that these heretical sects all have something in common; they were each formed on the basis of a particular novel interpretation of Scripture, and other persons not infrequently joined them on the basis of their agreement with that interpretation, rather than submitting to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded. Following the Church that is already there and has always been there in continuity from the Apostles, is an act of faith in Christ who founded it. But forming a new sect on the assumption that the Church that has always been there in continuity from the Apostles is wrong, has always been an act of pride and rebellion against ecclesial authority.
As Christians we know both that Satan wants to make us think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and that he wants to destroy Christ’s Church. Pride is the chief of the seven deadly sins, and this was the sin by which Satan fell. So we know that one of his chief goals in attacking Christ’s Church is to entice Christians to rebel against Christ, by rebelling against the teaching and governing authority Christ established in His Church. We also know that he is an angel of light, and that he tempts men by making evil seem good. So how can he persuade men to rebel against Christ, while making them think that they are serving Christ? What would it look like, if Satan were successfully to persuade Christians to rebel against Christ’s Church? He would do this through pride portrayed as zeal for Christ and His gospel, convincing men to think that they can interpret Scripture better than can the magisterium Christ established in His Church. It would in effect reduce to an ecclesial version of Pink Floyd’s ‘we don’t need no education.’
That is not the virtue of faith, but the vice of pride coated in the veneer of love for Christ and His gospel. Such persons take interpretive authority to themselves, rather than submitting in humility to the ecclesial authority Christ established, in succession from the Apostles. This is the way Satan causes schisms and heresies, through a pride in which a person takes to himself an ecclesial and interpretive authority not given to him by the magisterium Christ established. Faith is not expressed through ‘submitting’ to “the Church” as picked out by its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.7 That is neither submission nor faith. That is distrusting Christ, by distrusting the Church He founded, and distrusting His governance of His Church through the persons He chooses and authorizes to teach and govern His Church.
Faith, by contrast, “believes and professes all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” Because faith does not presume eccleisal deism, faith submits to the Church that has always been there, even before the sixteenth century and all the way back to the Apostles, in the humility that is the very opposite of the pride that takes to oneself an ecclesial and interpretive authority that has not been given to oneself by those already having that authority. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas explained about the relation between faith and the Church, namely, that faith in Christ is faith through the Church Christ founded.8 It should be of no small concern that one’s position is indistinguishable in principle from a case of rebellion against divinely established authority. In order to justify separation from the already existing magisterium, one must have a principled basis for distinguishing rightful dissent from rebellion. And “following my own interpretation of Scripture” is no such principled basis, because it is common to all the heretical and schismatic sects and their founders.
We need a magisterium in order to have an ecclesial faith, rather than a me-and-my-Bible [along with whoever happens to agree with my interpretation] faith, and because otherwise Christ would not have established a magisterium in His Church, and enjoined us to “submit” to them and “obey” them as persons who keep watch over our souls (Heb 13:17). Christ chose and authorized Apostles not in order to force the early Church to choose between following the Apostles and following the Holy Spirit, but so that the early Christians could follow the Spirit by following the Apostles. Similarly, Christ’s promise concerning His Spirit leading men into all truth is not a promise that the Spirit will guide private interpretation or private bosom-burning into all truth. It provides no ground for certainty “that I am being guided into all truth” for those persons separated from the magisterium and following their own interpretation of Scripture along with others who share that interpretation. Christ’s promise that the Spirit will guide “you” into all truth has been understood in the visible Church as a promise that the Spirit will lead the Church through the magisterium He established. That is precisely how we can have confidence to know that we are being led by the Holy Spirit, and not co-opting the Spirit to sanction our own private interpretation or subjective bosom-burning.
- See “Pentecost, Babel, and the Ecumenical Imperative.” [↩]
- See “Sola Scriptura, a Dialogue Between Michael Horton and Bryan Cross, section IX, Apostolic Succession. [↩]
- See “Ecclesial Deism.” [↩]
- See “Branches or Schisms?.” [↩]
- Of course this borrowing is arbitrary, since Galli is taking some things determined by the Catholic Church, and rejecting others. But nevertheless, by taking magisterial decisions as determinations produced by the Spirit, Galli is implicitly relying on the Catholic magisterium. [↩]
- My reply to Philips is titled “Play church.” [↩]
- See “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” [↩]
- See “St. Thomas Aquinas on the Relation of Faith to the Church.” [↩]