In the first installment of this series on the Traditional Theology of the Magisterium, we began by defining some of our key terms. With that preliminary step out of the way, we can begin our theological investigation properly speaking by turning to the sources of divine revelation—Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. For now, we will begin with the evidence of Scripture.
The core of the Catholic doctrine of the magisterium can be summarized in the claim that Jesus Christ instituted the magisterium of the Church, and that this magisterium is
and (c) infallible.
So my goal here will be to prove this thesis from the texts of the Bible in order to show that the Catholic doctrine of the magisterium is firmly grounded in Sacred Scripture. In doing so, I follow the approach outlined by Joachim Salaverri in his Tractatus de Ecclesia from the Sacrae Theologiae Summa, the last great manual of dogmatic theology to be published before Vatican II.
The argument unfolds in six steps, each of which can be supported by ample citations from Scripture. These steps are:
- That part of the mission of Jesus Christ was to teach with authority;
- That Christ entrusted to the Apostles the continuance of his own mission (which includes teaching with authority);
- That the Apostles therefore received the mission to teach with authority;
- That this authoritative teaching mission of the Apostles is perpetual;
- That this perpetual authoritative teaching mission is also infallible;
- That the existence of an authoritative Magisterium can be confirmed through the words and actions of the Apostles in the early Church.
Jesus Taught with Authority
As a first step, then, we want to show that part of the mission of Jesus Christ was to teach with authority. Where do we see that in the Gospels? The theme of Christ the Teacher is especially clear in John’s Gospel: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Nicodemus recognizes Christ as a teacher: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). Christ himself in many places confirms his role as a teacher, one who brings light and truth: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12); “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13); “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Even more striking is the frequent emphasis on the fact that Christ’s teaching does not come merely from himself, but is an essential part of the mission he has received from his Father: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 7:16); “He who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him” (John 8:26); “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me” (John 12:49–50); “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10); “I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
Christ’s mission as a teacher of divine truth is equally clear in the other Gospels. The word “Teacher” is used as a title for Christ nine times in the Gospel of Matthew, twelve in Mark, and thirteen in Luke (compared with six in John). In Matthew, we read that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28–29; cf. Mark 1:22).
Christ Entrusted to the Apostles the Continuance of His Own Mission
The second step of our argument requires seeing that Christ entrusted the Apostles with the continuation of the same mission he had received from his Father, a mission which necessarily includes teaching “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
This identity between the mission of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Apostles is expressed in many passages of the Gospels: “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt 10:40); “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
At the Last Supper, Christ prays for his Apostles, saying: “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth. I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word” (John 17:18–20). After his Resurrection, Christ commissions his Apostles, saying: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21).
The Apostles Received the Mission to Teach Authoritatively
That the apostles were commissioned to teach with the authority of Jesus Christ is logically necessitated by the previous two steps of the argument. If Christ himself came to teach with authority as one sent by the Father, and if he commissioned his apostles to carry on this same identical mission, then it necessarily follows that the apostles received from Christ the authority to teach in his name.
The same point can also be confirmed and verified on the basis of additional texts. First, there are the texts in which Christ gives first to Peter (Matt 16:19) and then to all of the apostles (Matt 18:18) the authority to bind and loose, which was Rabbinic terminology for declaring something to be indisputably permitted or forbidden, and it would have applied both to law and doctrine.
Even more clearly, however, there is the famous text of the great commission. Just before his Ascension, “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’” (Matt 28:18–20). The mission to teach is equally expressed in the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel: “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation….’ And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (Mark 16:15, 20).
The Authoritative Teaching Mission of the Apostles Is Perpetual
That the Apostles’ mission to teach authoritatively was intended by Christ as a permanent institution rather than a temporary arrangement is also clear from the same text of the great commission, which concludes with Christ saying, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:20). Christ could hardly promise to be with them always, to the close of the αἰῶνος, the eon, the end of the world, if their mission was to cease at the end of their own lives.
The same note is struck in John’s Gospel with Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit: “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:16–17). A promise of perpetual guidance and assistance in the execution of their mission implies a perpetuation of their mission in their successors until the end of the world.
This Perpetual Teaching Mission Is Infallible
The infallibility of the Apostles in their perpetual mission of teaching authoritatively can be proved from Scripture in two ways: first, from the promised guidance of the Spirit of Truth. Insofar as they are guided by the Spirit of Truth, they cannot fall into falsehood: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26); “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me” (John 15:26); “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).
The infallibility of the magisterium instituted by Christ in the Apostles can also be shown from the absolutely unconditional obligation of assent that is demanded by it as a condition for salvation. Since it would be monstrously unjust if God were to demand unconditional assent to a teaching authority that could be in error, it follows that a divinely instituted teaching authority that requires unconditional assent must be infallible. And Christ himself made our acceptance of the teaching of the Apostles absolutely obligatory for salvation: “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned’” (Mark 16:15–16); “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomor’rah than for that town…. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt 10:14–15, 40); “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
The Witness of the Apostles
Finally, even if the words of Christ in the Gospels were not clear enough to establish an authoritative, perpetual, and infallible magisterium, the words and deeds of the Apostles in the rest of the New Testament show their belief that Christ had entrusted them with such an authority.
In the first place, they claim to speak in God’s name with his divine authority. At the Council of Jerusalem, the Apostle James summed up their decision by saying, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things…” (Acts 15:28). St. Paul says to the Romans that he “will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed” (Rom 15:18). To the Corinthians he again attributes his words to Christ speaking in and through him: “I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me” (2 Cor 13:2–3). Most decisively of all, St. Paul refers to the Church herself as the pillar and bulwark of truth, saying to Timothy, “If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
Moreover, it is telling that the Apostles chose successors to carry on their mission of teaching. There would have been no need to do this if they had not understood their teaching to be authoritative or if they had not understood Christ’s promise of assistance in the execution of this mission to be perpetual. Yet St. Paul says to Timothy, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1–2).
To sum up, the clear and abundant evidence of Scripture shows (1) that part of the mission of Jesus Christ was to teach with authority; (2) that Christ entrusted to the Apostles the continuance of his own mission, which includes teaching with authority; (3) that the Apostles, therefore, received the mission to teach authoritatively, which follows logically from the first two steps and can also be seen especially in the texts of the great commission; (4) that this authoritative teaching mission of the Apostles will exist perpetually; (5) that this perpetual authoritative teaching mission is also infallible; and (6) that the existence of this authoritative magisterium can be confirmed through the words of the Apostles in the early Church.
 Joachim Salaverri, S.J., Treatise on the Church of Christ, thesis 12, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa, trans. Kenneth Baker, S.J. (Keep the Faith, 2015).
 Biblical citations are all from the Revised Standard Version.
Dr. John Joy teaches Theology at St. Ambrose Academy in Madison, Wisconsin. In his spare time he also serves as President of the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies and Managing Editor for the Aquinas Institute. His primary academic interests are in the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, dogmatic theology, and especially questions of infallibility and the magisterium of the Church. He is the author of On the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium from Joseph Kleutgen to the Second Vatican Council (Muenster: Aschendorff, 2017) as well as various articles published in Nova et Vetera, Seminary Journal, New Blackfriars, and Antiphon.