Conflicting Magisteria

Catholic and Protestant apologists love to waste each other’s time fighting over equal and opposite distortions. One of my favorite examples is the endless debate over the “clarity” of Scripture relative to the authority of the Church. Typically the Catholic apologist claims that Scripture is “unclear” and needs the infallible Church to interpret it for individuals, while, equally typically, the Protestant claims that only impious people deny that Scripture is so “clear” that you don’t need anything but its “plain” text to find out the Truth.

So much heat is generated in these endless debates, but so little light. To me, the issue in all of this is not whether God speaks clearly, but rather who can clearly hear him, and how. In terms of the apologetics battles, there’s not a qualitative difference between (1) a statement of the Roman Catholic Magisterium that the Church is the proper interpreter of the Scriptures and without her mediation one easily misunderstands the Scriptures, and (2) a statement of an individual Protestant “magisterium of one” that he is the proper interpreter of the Scriptures and if anything else intervenes it will quite likely only distort the Scriptures.

These claims are flipsides of each other, and both are equally and oppositely false. The false claim of Rome is being immoderately magnified by unstable Catholic apologists, and in turn, is being immoderately responded to by unstable Protestant apologists who construct an equal and opposite false claim. The Scriptures are not so unclear that we need an infallible Church to interpret them, but neither are they so clear that anyone who doesn’t make use of the ordinary means (WCF (I.7) can competently give their “plain” meaning.

Magisterial Protestantism, with its balanced doctrine of magisterial authority (the infallible Scripture) and ministerial authority (the fallible Church speaking authoritatively in Christ’s Name), as taught by WCF 1 connected with WCF 31, cuts through both Catholic and Protestant apologetic extremisms. It makes one much more effective in one’s witness, and on top of that, brings much more personal peace in religion than any of these ultimately useless flamewars over exaggerated polemical positions ever will.

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