A Universal Apology Point Three: ON THE MAGISTERIUM


The third point that convinced me of the truth of the Catholic claims is the paradox of accepting the canon of scripture while rejecting the teaching authority, that is to say, the Magesterium, of the Church. This is asserting an infallible scripture was canonized by a fallible Church; or again that an authorized scripture was authorized by an unauthorized Church.

But if not from the Church, from where would this Magisterial authority come?

Does Christ grant to each several and separate believer the right and authority to define the canon of scripture each man for himself? Do some men have the authority and not others? If so, whence comes this authority? If not through apostolic succession, then from where?

Now, a sensitive modern reader will already notice a whiff a moral atmosphere utterly alien to all modern thought has entered this essay. Why are we discussing authority?

All the authorities of the modern thought teach that authority is radically and innately evil, and is meant only to be rebelled against in the in the name of individualism, or equality, or nihilism or communism, and never to be obeyed or heeded. The paradox of authorities authoritatively declaring all authority to be unauthoritative need not delay us, except to note that it is of a like form to all other modern paradoxes of gibberish.

Rare indeed is the modern reader believes that there is such a thing as a teaching authority, or that statements made by authority of the teacher or pastor have any obligation to be accepted on authority by a student or celebrant under his discipline.  The idea sounds old-fashioned and old-worldly if not positively oriental, as if an eastern sage or guru expects his students to bow and vow lifelong fidelity to his teaching.

Nonetheless, we are not discussing an issue where, like the Michelson-Morley experiment, or the Millikan experiment, each man has an equal chance as any other to see the matter in dispute and be an eyewitness. If you doubt the findings of Aristarchus of Samos concerning the diameter of the Earth you, yourself, without any equipment aside from two yardsticks can confirm it. You can thrust the sticks into two spots at different latitudes, pace off the distance with your own legs, measure the shadows cast at a given date and hour, and using math no more complicated than a first year geometry student knows, derive the correct figure. If you doubt whether Galileo was correct about the existence of the moons of Jupiter, you can spot them yourself on a clear night with a pair of field glasses.

This issue is not like that. Until someone invents Irwin Allen’s Time Tunnel, or Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, no additional eyewitnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are ever going to appear.

You have to rely on the report of Mary Magdalene, out of whom seven devils were cast, who apparently cannot tell the difference between her master and the gardener, or on the disciples walking the road from Emmaus, who also did not recognize Him, or on the testimony of Saul of Tarsus, who not only had a seizure and went blind, he seems to forget whether the other people with him heard the voices in his head or not. These are not very reliable witnesses, and, frankly, the written record in the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles in some of these cases is not written by the witness himself, making it hearsay.

In any case, you, dear reader, were not there. You did not see it. You were not standing next to Thomas, and, when offered the chance, shoved Tom roughly aside and thrust your plastic ruler into the wound in Christ’s abdomen to measure precisely how deeply the spear of Longinus bit.

Outside the Church, there is no visible firsthand evidence available to confirm that Christ was resurrected, nor crucified, nor what He said and did, what He taught and what He commanded His followers to do, nor even, indeed, that He lived at all.

The pagan or Jewish historians who mention the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Tacitus and Josephus, are not giving firsthand accounts, and most likely heard the name only because it was on the lips of the Jewish breakaway sect which was already beginning to call itself Christian, and which already had the unique character of an ecclesiastical body, a Church.

If you hold Christ rose from the dead, the only reason why you think so is that Mary Magdalene, and Peter and Thomas saw Him; and, later, Paul. The only reason you know Mary and Peter and Paul exist at all is the surviving documentary witness of those scriptures which were canonized into the Bible; and the only reason any man has to believe those scriptures are authentic and authoritative is that the Church vouches for them. So if you are a Christian, and you believe Christ rose, you believe the Church in this. Therefore it cannot be maintained by any Christian that the Church never had any authority. The only logical argument is to say she had the authority and lost it.

So there is no one who saw Jesus or even knows He existed, outside the Church. If you want to find out what He said and did, you have to ask the Church. There is no one else to ask, no other source of information.

The difference is, if Galileo says he saw satellites orbiting Jupiter, those satellites are still there, and any supermarket or hardware store can equip you with the telescope you need to prove the point to yourself. You do not have to rely on Galileo’s authority. You don’t have to believe him. You can prove it to yourself for yourself. All you have to believe is your eyes.

But if Boswell says Johnson uttered a witty epigram, or Plato says Socrates asked a witty question, your eyes do you no good, since you cannot put them into the position to observe the event. Either the eyewitness is trusted, or he is not.

In this specific case, we are not dealing with an epigram nor a question, but a command, a gospel, and a great commission. If Christ is real, and He says what the eyewitnesses say He says, then His various parables, examples, and teaching are necessary for our understanding to comprehend, and His various injunctions, exhortations, and commandments are necessary for our wills to obey. If Christ is what His disciples wrote and taught He is, then His word is not just law, but divine law, which means His word is life.

If that is so, it is crucial to understand whether the command to memorialize the Last Supper in the Eucharist is literal or parable, or command to preach to all living creatures; and whether the command to baptize extends to children; and what it meant when Peter was given the keys to heaven, and so on.

In other words, Luther did not read the King James’ Bible. He read the Roman Bible, with the books in it he later removed. Luther did not hear what Jesus said, only what the Romans say Jesus said.

In sum, the Protestant argument suffers from a crucial and fatal defect: You cannot take Christian Bible as the sole authority from which to judge what Christians should and should not believe, and then argue that the Christians have no authority to interpret the Bible, no authority to write the Bible, no authority to say which books are authoritative and which are not. The stark fact is that the Bible has no authority outside the authority the Church, acting on her own authority, grants to the Bible.

The Bible cannot witness to its own truth. The only logical reason to accept the Bible as true is to accept it on the witness of the Church that wrote, compiled and sanctified it. If you think the Church is filled with liars and idolaters and that the Pope is the Antichrist, then you have no grounds to think that any documents produced by the Church are not the documents of liars and idolaters and antichrists.

But suppose it were not so. Suppose Luther had the authority to rewrite and re-edit the Bible. In that case, the Bible cannot be the sole and final authority on matters of Christian doctrine: Luther himself is. But Luther did not heal the sick and raise the dead and do the other mighty works which prophets routinely perform in order to show a divine sanction supports their words. He can simply give no warrant for such a claim of authority.

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