The Magisterium (Teaching Office)-the Apostolic Authority to Settle Christian Disputes over Interpretation Passed on in theLiving Body of Christ the Church in Order to Preserve Orthodoxy

Go to the Beginning of this Book Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura? (The Bible Alone or the Bible First?) – What Scripture Alone Testifies Concerning the Church as the Body of Christ Expressing Himself in Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium: The Biblical Basis for the Early Church’s Formal Repudiation of Heretics, Which Is the Biblical Basis for Refuting Modern Doctrinally Liberal Christianity Which Likewise Rejects or Doubts Traditional Christian Faith and Morality

The Magisterium (Teaching Office) -the Apostolic Authority to Settle Christian Disputes over Interpretation Passed on in the Living Body of Christ the Church in Order to Preserve the Original (often originally less explicit) Sense of the Apostolic, Orthodox Interpretation of the Scriptures through All the Changes and Developments of History. Officially Clarifying Interdependent Scripture and Tradition (and Part of How the Tradition is Passed on Ever-more Precisely), the Magisterium is the Only Reason There is a Standard Christology of Jesus as Fully God and Fully Man at All (This Formula is Not from the Bible Alone), and that There is a Fixed 27-book Canon of the New Testament at All . The Magisterium of Ordained Overseers at the Early Councils, Including the Patriarchs and the Chief Overseer the Pope, Following the Holy-Spirit-Guided Acts 15 Council Example, Gradually Settled a Series of Early Major Christian Disputes About Just How the Bible MUST be Interpreted in Order to Correctly Describe their Relationship with Jesus the Living Word as Passed on in the Church Since Apostolic Times (325-451 AD), and These Overseers Fixed the Canon of the New Testament Between 367-405 AD.

In addition to Sacred Tradition, the Bible as lived in Christian history, the second norm of faith in support of Sacred Scripture which the Catholic Church Communion of Orthodox Christian Sister Churches of East and West (collectively known as the Catholic Church) acknowledges is the Magisterium. This is the teaching office (magister means teacher) of the Church held by the Apostles, and passed down to their successors, the overseers/bishops/eparchs (including the Patriarchs and the Chief Overseer and Head Pastor, the Pope) who led the Church after the Apostles, down to this day. The original Greek of the New Testament uses the term episkopos [ἐπιìςκοπος] for the leaders ordained by the Apostles to lead the Church after them. Episkopos is literally translated into modern English as overseer, traditionally translated by the older English word bishop which has the same meaning, and often rendered as eparch, retaining more of the original Greek word, by the Eastern Churches (Eastern Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches no longer in the Catholic Communion) of the English-speaking world, who sometimes even still use Biblical Greek in their worship liturgies.

The term Patriarch (derived from “Father”) referred in the Early Church to the overseer/bishop/eparchs of the different major cultural centers of the Roman Empire which had each developed different customs and expressions of Christian worship and theological emphasis in accordance with their different cultural norms (forming a distinct “Sister Church”or “Rite”) but still shared the same Christian faith, united against the early heretics. Those Christian overseers (including the Patriarchs and Popes) who held this orthodox, traditional, Apostolic Christian faith defended it together against many early Christian heretics in the Ecumenical (worldwide) Councils of the Universal (Greek katholikos, or Catholic) Christian Church. Ecumenical Councils are the highest expression of the Church’s Apostolic Magisterium or teaching office for interpreting the interdependent Biblical and Traditional Apostolic Deposit of Christian Faith as it pertains to all the challenges of history, which is an important function of the Church as the Body of Christ and “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

The Magisterium Was Necessary In the Early Church to Precisely Define the Common Essentials of Christian Orthodoxy against the Many Early Heretical Interpretations of the Bible Alone

Many heresies came up within the Early Church due to ever-more-sophisticated eras bringing to mind ever-more-sophisticated questions of the Biblical text and different Christians came up with different answers in their attempts to articulate their Christian faith more precisely. Some of these answers were consistent with the (less clearly articulated) previous understanding of Christians living their personal, life-empowering relationship with Jesus as part of the Living Sacred Tradition (handing-on) of the faith within the Living Body of Christ the Church, and some were not (heresies). When enough Christians disagreed vehemently enough about some new definition that had come up touching on major elements of Christian faith and practice (and on the living relationship with Jesus passed on within the Church Family), an Ecumenical Council of the overseers who succeeded the Apostles (patterned after the Biblical Acts 15 Council of Apostles at Jerusalem called to settle a similar level of dispute), was called to settle the issue. The issue at hand was usually settled not only by condemning the new, more precise but heretical theological theories that did not preserve the main (though less explicit) sense of the Christian faith as previously lived within the Christian Community, but also by positively articulating more precisely just what element or principle of the Deposit of Christian Faith handed down from the Apostles within the Living Church had been violated by the new, heretical doctrine (orthodox Christians often knew immediately that something was wrong with a heretical doctrine, but could not immediately say precisely what was wrong, hence the controversies within the Church until just what Christians had always at least implicitly believed was defined precisely enough to exclude the heretical interpretation).

The Ecumenical Councils officially defined and declared, against the many Christian heretics (who often had very thorough and sophisticated alternate interpretations of the Bible), that in order to preserve the deeper (but less clearly articulated) original sense of the Apostolic Deposit of Christian Faith in the Bible and the Apostolic Sacred Tradition, in order to preserve how the Living Body of Christ the Church had at least implicitly lived and understood the Bible up to that time, the Bible must now be clearly and explicitly interpreted to mean:

  • that Jesus is God, one in being with the Father (1st Ecumenical Council, 325 AD, against the Arian heretics);
  • that Jesus has two natures, human and Divine and that the Holy Spirit is also Divine, completing the doctrine of the Trinity (2nd Ecumenical Council, 381 AD, against the Apollinarian and other heretics);
  • that Jesus Christ is one person with both a human and a Divine nature, not two separate persons (3rd Ecumenical Council, 431 AD, against the Nestorian heretics who taught the human Jesus was essentially “possessed” by the separate person of the Divine Christ); and
  • that in fact Jesus in His two natures is fully Divine and fully human (4th Ecumenical Council, 451 AD, against the Monophysite heretics).

None of these above clear and explicit formulas of faith (each more precise than the last) are in the Bible Alone (interestingly, the full Canon of the New Testament itself was not fixed until after the first two of these Councils). All of these doctrines were declared dogmas or fundamental, non-negotiable doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and anyone who still disagreed were labeled heretics, because the Living Body of Christ the Churchspeaking through its Magisterium of overseers in Apostolic succession had recognized that each of these dogmas, each of these particular interpretations of the Bible, articulated something which may have previously been more implicit but were in fact absolutely essential to the Christian faith as passed on (Latin: traditio) within the Apostolic Community, something which the disputed new formulas had violated which is why they were declared heretical. In this way the Magisterium is part of the Apostolic Living Sacred Tradition (passing-on) of the faith of the Living Body of Christ, because as Christians prayerfully reflect upon and live the Bible, eventually coming to disagreements and disputes with each other over it which eventually get settled by the Magisterium, the Apostolic Deposit of Faith continues to be passed on but ever more precisely, the Bride of Christ the Church grows in the knowledge of Christ Jesus her Beloved Spouse as she dances with Him through history.

The Composition of the Magisterium of Ordained Overseers (Local Bishops or Eparchs; Metropolitan Archbishops; Patriarchs of Entire Eastern and Western Sister Churches; and Popes advised by Cardinals)

The Magisterium is composed of the ordained overseers who succeeded the Apostles as the leaders of the Church, and these overseers exercise their offices of oversight at at least one of three levels, which I will generally describe as: local city bishop; Patriarch of an entire culture as renewed in Jesus; and Pope of the entire (Universal or Catholic) Christian Communion. The Cardinals who advise and elect the Popes are not ordained but appointed to this special role, though most of them are usually bishops, and the Patriarchs are typically also appointed Cardinals. The three levels of ordained oversight are described in more detail below:

Most overseers (usually called bishops or eparchs) exercise local overseership in a city and its surrounding territory. A major city’s overseer might be called a Metropolitan Archbishop, usually referred to as simply “Archbishops” in the West and simply “Metropolitans” in the East.

The Patriarchs exercise not only local overseership of a city but also oversee their entire Rite or distinct cultural expression of Christianity (settling disputes and setting worship guidelines to protect their jurisdiction from heresies and so on). The first Patriarchs were the overseers of the vast cities which were the major centers of their whole particular ancient culture as renewed in Jesus, which became the first Patriarchates (Church Provinces), the Particular or “Sister” Churches or Rites which together made up the one Universal (Catholic) Christian Communion. These cities were Antioch, where “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26), center of the Syrian culture; Alexandria, center of the Egyptian culture; Rome, center of the Roman culture; and Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople), center of the Greek culture. Jerusalem, center of the Jewish culture as renewed in Jesus, home of the Jews who were the first Christians, was later named a Patriarchate as well, in honor of the original, culturally Jewish Church there which brought the Gospel to all of the others (in fulfillment of God’s calling of Israel), even though by that time the Jews had long since been scattered abroad by the pagan Romans and so the Patriarch of Jerusalem oversaw a mostly Gentile Sister Church. These five cities were known as the “Pentarchy” of ancient Patriarchates, but some of their missionary “Daughter Churches,” newer cultures renewed in Jesus by their missionary activity, eventually became Patriarchates as well, new Sister Churches of equal dignity, their overseers also called Patriarchs.

The Pope in Rome holds three distinct offices of overseership. He is the local overseer or bishop of the city of Rome; he is the Patriarch of the Roman Rite or Sister Church within the Catholic (Universal) Christian Communion, overseeing all Roman Rite Catholic Christians (the majority of the things the Pope does, he does in this office); and he is the Universal Overseer or Chief Bishop and Head Pastor of the entire Universal (Catholic) Communion of Orthodox Christian Sister Churches of East and West.

The Pope – the Head of the Magisterial College of Christian Overseers/Bishops Who Succeeded the Apostles, and Integral to the Historical Process of the Living Body of Christ the Church Clearly Defining and Declaring the Fundamentals of its Saving Faith

The three distinct offices of papal overseership are symbolized by “the papal tiara” traditionally worn by popes and appearing on the Vatican Flag, which is a bishop’s mitre (hat) with three crowns. I digress slightly to note this headgear was designed when civil leaders also typically wore crowns that denoted their offices. Popes rarely wear this anymore because in our modern era crowns are considered pretentious, but I suggest the papal tiara be updated to display three “bands” of office and then worn regularly, since it is such an important symbol of the Catholic Church’s structure since the Undivided First Christian Millennium, as the truly Universal or Catholic Communion of Orthodox Christian Sister Churches of East and West, not to be confused with its Roman Sister Church only, which has only been the largest since the Eastern Sister Churches were ravaged by Islam. The Antiochene and Alexandrian Patriarchates were mostly (but not totally) destroyed by militant Islam in the First Millennium, and the Byzantine Patriarchate, shortly after the 1439 17th Ecumenical Council which joyfully confirmed the full Catholic Unity of East and West after some previous “language barrier” misunderstandings between them (never a complete break in Communion), was sadly conquered by Islam in 1453 and then forced by its Muslim conquerors in 1472 to break all ties with the free Roman Rite Church and the Pope, who had previously called for Crusades to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination and to protect the Christian Byzantine Empire from being overrun by Muslims centuries earlier (for more details, see The Papacy’s Long and Wide Acceptance in the East Before the 2nd Millennium Schism of the Largest Portions of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches from the Catholic (Universal) Christian Communion of Orthodox Eastern and Western Catholic Sister Churches Collectively known as the Catholic Church).

In his Magisterial office as the Roman Patriarch, the Pope is the “first among equals” of the ancient Patriarchs, as even the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs no longer within the Catholic Communion of East and West (since the Muslim conquests) freely acknowledge him. Like the term Patriarch, the term Pope is also derived from “Father,” and both terms were used of the Patriarchs who exercised overseership over a whole cultural form of Christianity for centuries before the term Pope was eventually reserved for the Chief Overseer, the Successor of Peter the Chief Apostle, who resides in Rome where Peter died.

In his fatherly role in the Church the Pope has always been very involved in the preservation of the Apostolic Christian Faith against heresies, having a particularly important role in the Ecumenical Councils which are the premier expression of the Living Body of Christ the Church speaking through its ordained Magisterium. The above-named Early Ecumenical Councils forever established the fundamental Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the entire Christian Church, and the Popes were instrumental in their universal acceptance by orthodox Christians. The 1st Ecumenical Council, at Nicea in 325 AD, defined (against the Arian heretics who denied the Divinity of Jesus with a very thorough and sophisticated but not traditional interpretation of the Bible), that the Bible must be interpreted to mean that Jesus is God, “one in being with the Father.” Pope Saint Sylvester was represented at the Council by two trusted legates, and he later personally approved the Council’s definition. Pope Saint Damasus made what had been a more local 381 AD Eastern Council of Eastern overseers only (no Western bishops present) into the Second Ecumenical (worldwide) Council, by declaring in his 382 AD Decree of Damasus that the Canons of the Eastern Council were accurate descriptions of the Apostolic faith and were to be regarded as dogma by the entire Christian Church of West and East even though no Western overseers had actually participated in the Council. The Council had proclaimed against Eastern heretics the true humanity as well as Divinity of Jesus, and defined the full Divinity of the Holy Spirit, so Damasus’ Decree of universal Christian acceptance of the Council’s findings completed the doctrine of the Trinity as a non-negotiable dogma of the Christian faith. Later Pope Celestine deputized Patriarch Saint Cyril, Head of the Alexandrian Catholic Patriarchate, to preside over the 3rd Ecumenical Council of 431 AD which dogmatically defined the orthodox position, against the Nestorian heresy, that Jesus more specifically was one person with a human and a Divine nature, not two persons (a merely human Jesus possessed of the separate Divine Christ), as in the Nestorian interpretation of the Bible. Afterwards the Monophysite (“one nature”) heretical interpretation of the Bible became popular in the Church, agreeing that Jesus was initially one person with a human and Divine nature, but arguing that Jesus’ finite human nature was immediately absorbed into His infinite Divine nature, leaving Jesus with one nature only, the Divine, no longer truly human at all. The proponents of this heretical interpretation of the Bible were so determined that when a 4th Ecumenical Council was called to settle the controversy in 449 AD, they stacked the Council with Monophysites, bullied the orthodox representatives, and refused to allow Pope Saint Leo the Great’s famous Decree of Leo to be read. This 449 Council then declared the Monophysite heresy to be the true form of Christianity! Pope Saint Leo the Great declared the 449 Council null and void, a “robber” council, called another Council to replace it, held in 451 AD at Chalcedon, and directed it to adopt his Decree of Leo which (drawing from the theology of both the Antiochian and Alexandrian Schools) brilliantly articulated and explained the previously more implicit orthodox faith of the Christian Church, clarifying just why Monophysite Christianity was heretical, because it violated the fundamental Christian truth (in the Bible but not explicitly) which Leo had at last clearly articulated and explained: that Jesus Christ is one person in two natures, Divine and human, that exist in Jesus Christ without confusion or change (versus the Monophysite heresy), without division or separation (versus the Nestorian heresy), such that Jesus is consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father with respect to His Divinity, and consubstantial with us with respect to his humanity. In other words, Jesus Christ was not just one person who was both Divine and human, as the 3rd Ecumenical Council had dogmatically proclaimed against the Nestorian heretics within the Church, but Jesus Christ was and remained FULLY DIVINE and FULLY HUMAN, which is the standard mature expression of orthodox, Apostolic Christianity to this day.

The vital role in the Living Body of Christ the Church played by the Magisterium of ordained overseers with its head the Pope can also be seen in the fact that the Church’s Magisterium had acted to define and defend its Traditional living faith in the first two Ecumenical Councils before the full Canon of the New Testament Bible had even been settled among Christians– and it was then settled by the Magisterium, confirmed by the Pope!The Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, Saint Athanasius, the greatest defender of the Divinity of Jesus against the Arian heretics, was the first member of the Magisterium to put together the 27-Book Canon (list of Sacred Books) of the New Testament as we know it today (though in different order), in 367 AD, for use in his Alexandrian Patriarchate. This was not a collegiate action of the whole Magisterium for the whole Church, however, so two local (not Ecumenical) Councils of Christian overseers in Athanasius’ general area of North Africa were held in 393 and 397 AD, which approved of Patriarch Saint Athanasius’ list of inspired New Testament books, arranging them in the order we know today, but noted that this list still needed confirmation from “the Church across the sea” in Rome. Pope Innocent I in Rome gave this confirmation for the entire Christian Church in 405 AD, putting an end to all previous disputes about the New Testament Canon among the Early Christians, until modern “doctrinally liberal” Protestantism reopened the question of Canon, wanting to add the heretical Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and other works (for more details on the formation of the Old and New Testament Canons, see the below section The Canon of Scripture Itself Cannot Be Drawn from Scripture Alone, but Is a Product of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium).

An Ecumenical Council, as those above solemnly clarifying a disputed point of the Church’s constant (if sometimes previously more implicit) faith contained in interdependent Scripture and Tradition by defining a dogma, remains the highest and fullest expression of the Church’s Magisterium. However, when a Council is not in session the Pope, as Head of the College of ordained overseers in succession from the Apostles charged with guarding the Apostolic Deposit of Christian faith through all eras of history, is capable on his own of being the “mouthpiece” of the Holy-Spirit-guided Magisterium (teaching office), though the Pope on his own is only capable of proclaiming a solemn dogma in a very rigid and restricted set of circumstances, including that it must be regarding a matter of faith or morals which can be shown to have been at least implicitly part of the Church’s faith since the beginning (for more information, see The Papacy’s Solid Foundation in the Bible).  This exercise of the papacy has only extremely rarely been used in Christian history.

Final Considerations of Just What the Magisterium Is and Does In Support of Sacred Scripture

The Catholic Church understands that the same Holy Spirit who divinely inspired the Apostles as they laid down the Deposit of Faith in Sacred (New Testament) Scripture and Sacred Tradition also divinely assists the apostolic successors (collectively) in guarding the purity of the Deposit of Faith as officially taught by the Church against all dogmatic and moral error. The Holy Spirit assists the apostolic successors in accurately interpreting and applying both Scripture and Tradition in the face of new situations bringing new questions to the Christian community, and in the face of new challenges of heretics who answer the new questions without proper consideration of the previous living faith Tradition of the Church, through all ages of history.

It is worth noting that formal heretics only existed in the Early Church because of the Catholic Magisterium: formal heretics by definition were those Christians on the losing side of disputes, Christians who insisted on believing their unorthodox interpretations of the Bible even after the disputed question at hand (e.g. whether or not Jesus was Divine, whether Jesus was fully God and fully man or not) was settled by the interpretational declarations of the Church’s Holy-Spirit guided Magisterium in the Early Ecumenical Councils of overseer/bishop/eparchs as they prayerfully applied Scripture and Tradition to the new disputed question at hand, confident that the Holy Spirit had guided them into all the truth as per Jesus promise (John 16:13). An increasing number of Protestant Christians (among those who refer to themselves as liberal Protestant Christians as opposed to those conservative Protestant Christians who conserve the traditional interpretations of the Bible at least with respect to fundamental points), are deliberately looking at the writings of the early heretics as a valid source of insights for understanding their Protestant Christian faith in the Bible Alone, since these early Christians were only heretics by the Catholic Magisterium’s declaration, and as Protestants who protested against the Catholic Magisterium, they do not consider the early condemnations of the Biblical interpretations of the heretics valid. Indeed, such Protestant Christians see traditional Christian orthodoxy as proclaimed and enforced by the early Catholic Magisterium which declared dissenters heretics as merely the tyranny of the majority view under the Catholic hierarchy, the Catholic authority they as Protestants consider invalid unjustly stifling other, valid minority early views of Christianity. Of course, there is no good reason for such liberal Protestant Christians to feel certain about the correctness of the particular minority early Christian interpretation they like, among the conflicting interpretations of many early Christian minority groups which eventually died out after they were declared heretical, none of which were the faith of the majority of early Christians, who heroically overcame tremendous persecution and transformed the pagan Roman Empire with the supernaturally empowering love of Jesus. And in fact, extreme liberal Protestant Christianity, open to the testimony of early minority Christian groups branded heretical by the early Catholic Magisterium, merely mirrors the early heretics in their failure to agree amongst themselves as to the content of the Christian faith – having no Magisterium of the Living Body of Christ the Church to guide them.

Saint Ignatius (Overseer/Bishop of Antioch) and Saint Polycarp (Overseer\Bishop of Smyrna) were beloved early Christian martyrs, friends with each other and both trained by the Apostle John, who first referred to the Christian faithful John had left in their care as the Catholic (Universal) Church. All the early heretics called themselves Christians, so Catholic became the name in the Early Church that identified the orthodox, Apostolic community founded by Jesus from all the heretical sects sectioned off of this one early Catholic Church. It is beyond the scope of this present essay to detail the overwhelming evidence from the documents of the Early Christian Church that all of the great early Christian heroes and martyrs who preserved the purity of the Christian faith against the early Christian heretics and even died for it in the Roman persecutions, right from those who were directly trained and ordained by the Apostles themselves like Pope Saint Clement, the above-mentioned Bishop Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Bishop Saint Polycarp (who trained Bishop Saint Irenaeus, the Church’s first systematic theologian [1] , and even the later Bishop Saint Augustine who Protestants read (albeit selectively) were convinced that as overseers/bishops that they held a Magisterial (teaching) office of authority passed on to them by the Apostles specifically for the purpose they used it: to authoritatively guard the Apostolic Deposit of Christian Faith against heretical interpretations of Scripture, against interpretations not true to the Living Faith as passed on within the Living Body of Christ, the Church through history. This essay will detail some of the testimony in Scripture which justifies their conviction.


© 2003, 2006, 2011 Peter William John Baptiste, SFO

Go To Next Section Closer Than We Think: Catholic Prima Scriptura in Relation to Protestant Sola Scriptura: The Bible First though Not Alone

Go to the Beginning of this Book Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura? (The Bible Alone or the Bible First?) – What Scripture Alone Testifies Concerning the Church as the Body of Christ Expressing Himself in Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium: The Biblical Basis for the Early Church’s Formal Repudiation of Heretics, Which Is the Biblical Basis for Refuting Modern Doctrinally Liberal Christianity Which Likewise Rejects or Doubts Traditional Christian Faith and Morality



[1] Saint Irenaeus was an overseer/bishop in line from the Apostle John through the overseer/bishop Saint Polycarp.  Saint Irenaeus finally put an end to the Gnostic heresy the Apostle John himself wrote against in his Scriptural letters, with his extremely thorough work, Against Heresies, which refers to both the Apostolic Succession of overseer/bishops (including the primacy of Rome) and the Tradition of the Church, as well as closely examining the Scriptures (whose Canon [list of Inspired books] had not yet been fixed) in countering the heresy.

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