A Protestant Considers the Catholic Magisterium
NOSE AGAINST THE WINDOWPANE
Ed. Note: This article originally appeared in our September 1989 issue (volume LVI, number 7) and is presented here unabridged. Copyright © 1989.
“The Church of Jesus Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally One.” This bold declaration was made not by a Catholic — in which case it would be unexceptional — but by Thomas Campbell, a minister of the Old-Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church. In 1809 Campbell left his richly titled denomination behind to begin a movement that he thought would unify the broken and dismembered Body of Christ. His legacy is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Protestant denomination of which I am a minister. His legacy is also the Churches of Christ — not to mention the Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ of North America, also known among those of us in the Campbellite tradition as the Independents. So much for Campbell’s contribution to the unity of the Church.
I confess: I envy those of you readers who are Catholics. You seem to have learned one of the great secrets in life, which is how to make a wheel for the long haul, and not feel compelled to reinvent some 28,000 of them, which, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of World Christianity, is how many identifiable Protestant denominations and sects have been established since Martin Luther wasted a good nail posting his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. What you have going for you, among many other things, is your Magisterium — your Church’s teaching authority — and I don’t think that all of you appreciate it as much as you should. So allow me, a Protestant with his nose pressed up against the Catholic windowpane, to tell you about the party you’ve got going on inside. Maybe I’ll make you feel better about being a Catholic, in the same way that Hans Küng, God bless his heart, has tried to make me feel better about being a Protestant.
It was the personal conviction of the well-intentioned Thomas Campbell that the dismembered Body of Christ could be brought together if all human-made and divisive creeds were discarded and the New Testament adopted as the sole authority of the Church. “No creed but Christ” became the rallying cry of the Campbellite movement. The problem, as John Leith notes in Creeds of the Churches, is that
Christianity has always been a “creedal” religion in that it has always been theological…involving men in theological reflection and calling them to declarations of faith. A nontheological Christianity has simply never endured, although such has been attempted…. In the long run, organizational necessities demonstrate the need for creeds, and organizational integrity requires some kind of creedal subscription.
Another failing was that Campbell, like most Protestants, made the Bible, particularly the New Testament, the sole source of Christian authority. Sola scriptura is a fine principle if the Scriptures are simply and certifiably the textus receptus of the Holy Spirit and if the answers therein exhaust all the possible questions. But the New Testament, splendid and inspired though it is, does not answer all questions. It bears remembering that the Church predates the New Testament, and that the New Testament itself is a product of the Church. When the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles at Pentecost, the purpose was to give birth to the Church, not to deliver a manuscript. It was the Church that took on the task of establishing the New Testament canon; the Church that, among all the multiplicity of documents available, separated the inspired wheat from the uninspired chaff; the Church that had the obligation to proclaim that which was true about the Jesus Christ of history and reject or correct that which was not.
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