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Reformation Day +1

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The work of reformation doesn't merely happen once a year. Much like D-Day + 1, there are mopping-up operations that must go on and sometimes rise to the level of a battle more than skirmish.


The November-December issue of Modern Reformation is hot off the press, hitting mailboxes in the next few days. Inside you'll find a fascinating exchange between Mike Horton and a former Protestant-turned-Roman Catholic named Bryan Cross. You will not want to miss a word of their debate over what is called the formal principle of the Reformation: sola scriptura.


The reformation of our churches is desperately needed today. We need to recover Scripture in order to recover the gospel of Jesus Christ.





Below is a portion of the discussion between Mike and Bryan. The complete text is available in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of MR or on-line for current subscribers.

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If you are a subscriber and wish to read the entire discussion click here.



Michael Horton:

I'm assuming that we agree on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The Reformation debate was never over the nature of Scripture (aside from the question of the Apocrypha) but rather its relation to tradition: the sufficiency of Scripture as the norm of Christian faith and practice. The Reformers affirmed the ministerial role of the church's teaching office (and tradition), especially the ecumenical creeds. However, it was because these creeds summarize the teaching of Scripture (magisterial authority), not because of the authority of the church. Could you lead off by offering a Roman Catholic response to this distinction between the ministerial and magisterial authority of the church in relation to Scripture?


Bryan Cross:

We do agree on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, which is important common ground to keep in view when discussing our disagreements. To answer your question, let me back up a bit. In Catholic doctrine, Christ gave teaching authority to the apostles. That is why he could say to them, "The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me; and he who rejects me rejects the One who sent me" (Luke 10:16). The apostles handed down that teaching authority to their successors, and they to their successors, down to the Catholic bishops of the present day. This living teaching authority of the church is the servant of Scripture, teaching only what has been handed on to her, explicating Scripture faithfully by the guidance of the Holy Spirit and guarding Scripture from misinterpretation.


In that respect, we agree that the church has a ministerial role, serving both the Word of God and the flock of Christ. But from the Catholic point of view, the reason the creeds have authority is not because they summarize the teaching of Scripture. Many systematic theology books also summarize the teaching of Scripture, and yet they are not thereby something that all Christians should affirm, as are the ancient creeds. The creeds have a higher authority than do systematic theology texts. The reason for that is precisely because the creeds were taught by the church's living teaching authority, and that is how we know that they rightly summarize Scripture. It is to this living teaching authority that St. Augustine refers when he says, "For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." Scripture and the church's living teaching authority are never to be separated, nor do they ever compete against each other. They work together and only together—one as source and the other as steward. In order to interpret and understand Scripture rightly, we should do so in the church in humble obedience to her living teaching authority that was given to her by Christ. And in order for the church to follow Christ, she must believe and obey the Scripture that was divinely entrusted to her.


So from a Catholic point of view, the deficiency in the Reformers' distinction between the authority of Scripture and the ministerial role of the church is that it left out the teaching authority of the successors of the apostles. If that authority is set aside, then the practical result is first that the church is thought to be serving Scripture only when she is conforming to one's own interpretation of Scripture and that of those who share one's interpretation of Scripture. And second, when living magisterial authority is left out, the "church" comes to be defined as those who sufficiently agree with one's own interpretation of Scripture regarding what are the marks of the church. So from a Catholic point of view, those who lose sight of the church's divinely established living teaching authority lose sight of the church, and this leads to the fragmentation of denominationalism, even where the authority of Scripture is affirmed. There cannot be living ministerial authority without living magisterial authority, because without living magisterial authority the basis for ministerial authority is reduced to sufficient agreement with one's own interpretation of Scripture.


Michael Horton:

You raise other important issues (for example, Augustine's comment, which the Reformers interpreted—rightly, I believe—as his way of saying that it was through the church and its teaching authority that he came to faith, not on the basis of that authority itself). How-ever, I'd like to focus on the magisterial-ministerial distinction. Ultimately, it rests on a distinction between the extraordinary office of the apostles and the ordinary office of ministers. So I'd appreciate your take on the following response.


Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for elevating the tradition of the elders alongside Scripture: "So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God" (Matt. 15:6; Mark 7:8). And yet Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to "stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter" (2 Thess. 2:15; cf. 2 Thess. 3:6). Paul commends the Corinthians "because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you" (1 Cor. 11:2). Jesus and Paul are talking about two different types of tradition: one is the inspired speech of prophets and apostles, which forms the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20), and the other is the interpretation of this speech. Jews and Protestants hold that the Old Testament canon closed with Malachi, so "the traditions of the elders" was non-inspired teaching. With the apostles, however, we have further revelation from God. Yet that apostolic office, too, came to an end and the result was our New Testament canon.


Paul said that he had "laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it" (1 Cor. 3:10). That is the order: apostolic foundation followed by the ordinary ministry of the church on that basis. "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (v. 11, emphasis added). There is the foundation-laying period and then the building phase. Paul implies that he was the last apostle (1 Cor. 15:7-8), and instructs Timothy to receive and pass on what he has heard from him. In fact, Paul warns the Corinthians "not to go beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6), even while he and the other apostles were still living. "The faith once and for all delivered to the saints" is something the post-apostolic ministers are called to "contend for," not to add to (Jude 3). So the extraordinary ministry of the apostles (mediating divine revelation) is qualitatively distinct from the ordinary ministry of pastors and teachers (interpreting divine revelation). The post-prophetic "teaching of the elders" in Jesus' day was not divinely inspired, nor is the post-apostolic teaching of the church. It would seem that this distinction is denied by the Roman Catholic Church, which insists upon an ongoing apostolic office, with Scripture and Tradition as two forms of the one Word of God. How would you respond to this argument?


Bryan Cross:

I agree that when Jesus criticized the Pharisees for putting the traditions of men above the word of God, he was talking about a different type of tradition than St. Paul was talking about in the passages you cited. But I don't see any justification from Scripture (or elsewhere) for assuming that the traditions St. Paul commends are only those that are divinely inspired or only those that are written. He specifically exhorts the believers to "hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us" (2 Thess. 2:15). We need not assume that every time St. Paul taught he was divinely inspired.


The reason for that is that in Catholic theology, as in Protestant theology, "inspiration" is a technical term meaning that God is the principal author of the inspired words, not just their editor or providential cause. We agree that all of Scripture is divinely inspired. But in Catholic theology, inspiration is to be distinguished from another category—speech or writing that is not inspired, yet is protected from error by the Holy Spirit. Over the course of their lives after Pentecost, the apostles taught many things not written down in Scripture, and these teachings are part of the single deposit of faith because they came originally either from Christ or from the Holy Spirit speaking through the apostles. These unwritten teachings and practices informed the belief and practice of the early church long before the canon was collected. While we don't assume that this unwritten tradition of the apostles was divinely inspired, we do believe it was protected from error by the Holy Spirit and is part of the authoritative deposit of faith. St. Paul says that his oral preaching is the Word of God when he writes, "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13).


From a Catholic point of view, the notion that whatever is not divinely inspired is a mere tradition of men is a false dilemma. The unwritten tradition is neither divinely inspired nor a mere tradition of men, and yet it is authoritative because it came from Christ or from his Spirit through those men whom Christ authorized and equipped to teach and lead his church.


Regarding Ephesians 2:20, St. Paul there says that the household of God is built on the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone. The church then is built on authorized persons, having a divine Person as its cornerstone. We can see that also in Revelation 21:14, where the twelve apostles are shown to be the twelve foundation stones of the church. But eight of the twelve apostles never wrote anything that was canonized. So Revelation 21:14 cannot be referring to their writings.


We are discussing here the nature and relation of three things: the written tradition (i.e., Scripture), the unwritten tradition, and the Magisterium (i.e., the church's living teaching authority). From the Catholic point of view, each of the three is authoritative in its own way, yet they function rightly only in concert, as Dei Verbum notes. "It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls" (DV, 10).


With regard to the apostolic office, the Catholic Church makes a distinction. To be an apostle, one had to have seen the Lord. This gave the apostles the unique authority that comes from being an eyewitness of the incarnate Christ. But being an eyewitness was not sufficient to be an apostle. One also had to be sent by Christ. This conferred a different kind of authority from the authority of an eyewitness. The two kinds of authority do not compete; they are fully compatible and were both present in the first apostles. This second kind of authority we call "Holy Orders." Eyewitness authority could only endure for seventy years or so after the resurrection of Christ, and in that sense the apostolic office came to an end and with it the possibility of further revelation. But, Holy Orders is not limited to eyewitnesses, because the authorization of commission and stewardship could be handed down by the apostles, and it endures to this day by a continuous succession from the apostles. These successors of the apostles are not apostles in the eyewitness sense but possess the apostolic authority the apostles themselves received from Christ through Holy Orders—that is, the divine authorization to teach and govern the church in Christ's name as his representatives, binding and loosing with his authority.


So while I agree with you that the successors of the apostles are not themselves apostles in that same sense, it does not follow that the successors of the apostles do not have magisterial authority to provide the authoritative interpretation of the deposit of faith. In other words, the end of the apostolic office in the eyewitness sense of apostle does not entail the termination of the authority of commission, by which the successors of the apostles preserve and authoritatively interpret the deposit of faith entrusted to them by the apostles.




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