The Magisterium in the early Church

St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest writing of the New Testament, predating the gospels by decades and the canon of the New Testament by centuries. 1 It is thus interesting to encounter, as we do in Sunday’s second reading:

[I] give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

1 Thes 2:13; cf. id., verse 4 (“God has approved us [i.e. the apostles and their successors, the bishops] to be entrusted with the gospel, and this is how we preach, seeking to please not human beings but God who tests our hearts”); 2 Thes 2:15 (“Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle”); 1 Tim 3:15 (“the church of the living God [is] the pillar and ground of the truth”); 2 Tim 1:13 (“Follow the pattern of the sound[a] words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus”); 1 John 1:5 (“This is the message we [apostles] have heard from Him and proclaim to you”) .

This is, to some extent, a challenge for Protestantism. Can we say that 1st Thessalonians or the other passages just cited supply biblical authority for Sacred Tradition? Yes and no. On some level, of course, they are instances where we glimpse the Magisterium in scripture, and the status of these letters as scripture stamps divine authority on them, which makes them prescriptive insofar as their divine author is concerned. At the same time, however, it would seem anachronistic to forget the situation of their human author. Paul is describing an existing state of affairs. In the oldest scripture of the new testament, the teaching office of the Church is met as a fait accompli! And when you think about it, that’s no surprise; even without these textual references, it would be obvious that the Magisterium precedes and predates scripture; after all, how could it be otherwise? The need to authoritatively transmit the gospel preceded the writing of the new testament canon by decades and the canonization of various writings as scripture by centuries. The transmission of the gospel could not be accomplished by means other than the authoritative preaching of the Church; as John MacArthur writes in Twelve Ordinary Men, at the time of the ascension, “the future of the Church and the long-term success of the Gospel depended entirely on the faithfulness of [a] handful of disciples.”

What we are really seeing here is the reason why it is unreasonable to expect an explicit textual prescription of the Magisterium in scripture: New Testament Scripture was written at a time when the Magisterium was, perforce, coextensive with Christian teaching. There was simply no other means of transmitting teaching other than the oral preaching of the Church, and her authentic witnesses, the apostles and their successors the bishops (cf. Acts 1:8 and 15:24), concepts that we today designate by labels such as “Magisterium” and “Sacred Tradition.” So pervasive was that presupposition that we merely glimpse explicit references to it. But when we glimpse it, as we do in this reading, it is unmistakable.

Notes:

  1. E.g. John Fenton, Daily Bible Commentary: Galatians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians 102 (2007); Robert Picirilli et al, Randall House Bible Commentary, 1 Thessalonians through Philemon 3 (1990).

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