"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Scott Clark on the need for a sacramental magisterium

Scott Clark, a Presbyterian who teaches at Westminster Seminary in California, writes here:

"All heretics quote Scripture. The question in this controversy is not the normativity of the Bible but who gets to interpret it."

He is quite right; that is the question. What he means by "who gets to interpret it" is: Whose interpretation is authoritative?

His reason for thinking that the interpretation [made by the denominations] that he cites is authoritative is that those denominations agree with his own interpretation. But then, that is no different from FV advocates starting their own denomination and appealing to its interpretative authority. So Clark is treading on very thin ice, ice so thin that he has to leave the problem as a question. If he goes any deeper, he will expose the fact that the ecclesial authorities to which he appeals are merely "doctrinally grounded authorities", and not "sacramentally grounded authorities" (see here). There is no principled difference between the ecclesial authority to which he appeals, and the ecclesial authority of a denomination his interlocutors could set up overnight. That is because anyone can set up a doctrinally-grounded authority. Just put out a shingle.

Apart from sacramentally-grounded authority one person's interpretation is no more authoritative than anyone else's. Apart from sacramentally-grounded authority, the answer to the question: "Whose interpretation is authoritative?" is "Everyone's", which is equivalent to "No one's." Those who reject sacramentally-grounded authority should never appeal to magisterial authority to oppose a position, because those holding the opposing position can simply install an alternate magisterial authority, and then the two sides are 'even'. It is better to call non-sacramentally-grounded ecclesial authority for what it actually is: individualism, and not pretend to have a magisterium. In short, it is better for someone in Clark's position [who rejects sacramentally-grounded authority] not to say what he says in the quotation above, for what he says in the quotation above is the theological equivalent of cutting off the branch on which he himself sits.


contrarian 78 said...

The issue of Federal Vision, as well as the "full preterism" issue, has opened my eyes to the way that Presbyterians often want to use the methodology of Roman Catholics.

I won't say that this is necessary, at least not yet. But if it is, other historical considerations would seem to place Rome as the natural home for all Christians.

jmw said...

Who held the sacramental magisterial authority in the day of Jesus? Who held it in the days of King Manasseh of Judah? It seems to me that the entire witness of the OT is that the very structures appointed by God can be corrupted to the point of near total apostasy.

Principium Unitatis said...


Thanks for your comments. When Christ was on earth, He Himself held the sacramental magisterial authority, for all authority had been given to Him by the Father (cf. Matt 28:18, and John 17:2).

Manasseh did not have the authority and anointing that the Apostles had. The Church is not merely the continuation of the old covenant. It is something new. Christ set up a Church, built on Peter, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. (Matt 16:18)

Throughout the two-thousand year history of the Church, various sects have claimed that the Church had become so corrupted that it was no longer the Church, and that the true Church continued with them. So claimed the Montanists, the Novatians, and the Donatists. Other schismatics (e.g. Albigensians) made the same sort of claim. Often they called themselves Carthari (or "Puritans") to contrast themselves from the Catholic Church, which they considered impure and corrupt.

Here then are some questions to consider: (1) If in actuality you are presently in schism from the Church Christ founded, how would your experience be any different than it is right now? (2) How are you not making the same error made by the Donatists? (3) If on account of corruption you have turned away from the Church Christ founded, then to whom have you turned, and what authority do they have to speak for Christ and His Church? (4) If they do not have the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, then how do you know that you are rightly interpreting OT passages as teaching that the hierarchical structures of the Church can be corrupted to the point of total apostasy?

Thanks again for your comments.

- Bryan

Tom B. said...


Your comment was particularly inciteful and challenging to me - worthy of it's own post by other standards.

Were you PCA before you converted?

Peace in Christ,