You have probably heard the phrase “sola scriptura,” which is used by many Protestant religions to describe their authority as coming from Scripture alone. Martin Luther originally defined the doctrine of using Scripture as the sole source of theological authority in the midst of frustrations with things happening within the Church’s hierarchy during the Protestant Reformation. To this day, the source of authority remains one of the defining differences between the Catholic faith and many other Christian denominations. Today, we’ll take a look at the Catholic Church’s three sources of authority – Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium – and why we hold all three to be equal sources in the passing on of the Faith.
Catholics absolutely believe in and respect the authority of Sacred Scripture. We believe that, from cover to cover, it is the inspired Word of God. Humans communicate with language and God therefore communicates with us in language. Everything contained in Scripture is known to be true, beautiful, and good. “For this reason, the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body” (CCC #103). The Old and New Testaments are unified and dependent on one another for revealing who God is and how He has worked throughout human history. The Catechism quotes an ancient Christian saying attributed to St. Augustine to describe the unity of the two: “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (CCC #129). It’s likely that you have heard someone say something along the lines of, “Catholics don’t read/study the Bible.” These days there are many, many Catholic-based Scripture studies and we host some excellent ones here at our very own parish. However, even Catholics who never pick up a Bible are still getting a healthy dose of Scripture if they are attending Sunday Mass every week. In our Mass, there are always two readings taken straight from Scripture – one from the Old and one from the New. Between those is a Psalm and following the second reading, there is always an excerpt from one of the Gospels. In addition, many of the prayers prayed during Mass are taken directly from Scripture. The readings are chosen by the teaching authority of the Church, allowing for two things to take place. One, every Catholic in the world is reading and hearing the same Scripture on the same day which unites us all under God’s Word. Secondly, if we continue to attend Mass, we will hear nearly the entire Bible read aloud, and we can continue hearing it in its entirety throughout our lives. So, what is the problem with using the Word of God as our only source of authority if it is so revered? The problem is us. Man is so fallible, that when left to his own devices, he will eventually lose sight of, or even destroy, the intended message contained within Scripture. You’ve seen it before, where someone misuses or twists a scripture passage, or you’ve seen things taken out of context while other pieces are deliberately left out or ignored because it does not fit within the argument. Knowing how fallible we are, God built in two other forms of authority into His Church in order to safeguard His Word.
Our second source of authority is Tradition. Tradition is how we describe the way in which things have been understood throughout the history of Christianity, starting with the Apostles, and being handed down to today. The Apostles were closest to Christ and had very intimate knowledge of Him and His teachings. Not every single detail was recorded in Scripture, though. As they spread throughout the world, teaching and preaching, a new generation of Christians formed and took on the same understanding and practices that were handed down to them. We get our interpretation and understanding of what is contained in Scripture from those Christians who came before us, going all the way to the beginning with Jesus and His apostles. We also consider the early Church Fathers when we are looking to Tradition. Christians in the very earliest centuries did not have to suffer the distortions that arose over long periods of time, and thankfully, they’ve left us an abundance of writings to relay their understanding of faith to us. We can always turn to the early Church Fathers whenever we have a question about how or why things are done. Another point highly worthy of note regarding the relationship between Scripture and Tradition is that Tradition actually preceded Scripture. The Gospels and the epistles did not magically appear the second Jesus was resurrected. It took years for things to be written down and compiled, and the official canon of the Bible was not established until 382 AD at the Council of Rome. Therefore, the Apostles did not have New Testament Scripture from which to quote, interpret, and preach. They had their memories and their experiences to use as reference. Thus, in order to begin the work of the Church, namely to evangelize and convert others, it was necessary that they start from the authority of Tradition. So, if Christianity began with the handing down of Tradition before Scripture, how can others now say that “sola scriptura” is the only way?
Our final source of authority is the Magisterium, which is the teaching authority of the Church as an institution created by Jesus Christ and protected by the Holy Spirit. We see the Magisterium utilized for the very first time in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 15, as we read about the Council of Jerusalem. There was a disagreement among believers on whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised upon their conversion. Jesus had not given explicit instruction on the matter, nor was there Scripture beyond the Old Testament to direct them, so some understood it to be done one way, while others understood it another way. The Apostles, who we understand to be the first bishops, got together to discuss the issue. After debating different points of view and reviewing the Scripture they had, they came to an agreement and drafted a decree on official Church teaching. Shortly before this council was the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church, protecting her work of salvation which, no doubt, included these first efforts of the Magisterium. The Apostles then distributed the decree to all of the other factions of the Christian Church. We still see this practiced today, as we have throughout all of Church history. As issues and questions have come up in the Church regarding what we should do, how we should practice, what we should believe, and what Jesus intended – our bishops, cardinals, and popes have gathered under the protection of the Holy Spirit to discuss and debate God’s will for His Church under the guidance of Sacred Scripture. Then decrees are drafted and then promulgated by the Pope, enabling believers to know the official teaching on the issue. This is how the doctrine and dogmas have been developed and revealed to us over the years. Believing that the Magisterium (the teaching authority and not simply the men themselves) is protected by the Holy Spirit, believers are called to give their assent to the Church teaching, whether we fully understand it or not, because it has been determined to be true and God’s will.
Think of our three sources of authority as a three-legged stool. No single source is more important than any other and they all work together in a cohesive and unitive way. We should not cling to our pope more than our Scripture, nor do we ignore the beautiful smells and bells of liturgy that have been handed on to us in order to study Scripture day and night. Our Faith is dependent on all three, equally and simultaneously, which have been given to us as a gift of insurance from God, protecting the truth from our faulty human natures forever.
To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.