29 May 2022

How Protestants, Orthodox, Magisterialists, and Traditionalists Differ on the Three Pillars of Christianity

Dr Kwasniewski discusses how protestants, Orthodox, and hyperpapalists all depart from the Catholic Faith in its fullness.

From One Peter Five

By Peter Kwasniewski, PhD

Historically and theologically, there are three “pillars” of Catholicism: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. All are necessary; all are mutually implicated; and none of them is absolute, in the sense that it can be taken as greater in every respect than the others. Each is first but in a different way. There is an almost Trinitarian perichoresis or circumincessio among them.

Protestants exalt Scripture to the extent of denying or minimizing the other two. As a result, even Scripture is eventually corrupted in them.

Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, exalt Tradition, to the extent of denying a universal Magisterium and teaching authority in the Church, and even to the extent of denying some premises of Sacred Scripture (e.g., the teaching on marriage and divorce). But what does their devotion to Tradition mean, if some of their most respected theologians can accept universalism, contraception, and homosexual “marriage” (as apparently Kallistos Ware does)? A disordered devotion to “Tradition” can result, ironically, in its cancellation.

But the third group is the most interesting: I shall call them Reductive Catholics (although one could also say Magisterial Catholics or Hyperpapalist Catholics, etc.). These exalt Magisterium—and, practically speaking, the papal office—above Scripture and Tradition, so that it becomes the sole principle by which we know truth. It becomes, in a sense, all truth, so that it would never be possible to challenge assertions of the Magisterium (e.g., Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 or the death penalty change to the Catechism) on the basis of Scripture and Tradition. As with the behavior of the other two groups, so with this one too: the exaggerated exaltation of the Magisterium ends up canceling out the Magisterium of preceding popes and councils. It turns into the “Magisterium of the moment,” much as Protestant preachers effectively privatize the Bible, or the Orthodox selectively appropriate Tradition, with no guidance about what is or is not fungible in Tradition.

The Roman Catholic, at least ideally, is one who holds all three pillars as foundational. Each illuminates the other, and none can stand without the other. Each of them is what it is only in and through the others. This means there may be times of confusion and disputation when it seems that claims based on one conflict with claims based on another. This is part of the “engine” of doctrinal development, but it is also a “check and balance” to ensure that none of the three becomes hypertrophic. For it is certainly unhealthy, and leads to distortions of doctrine and Church life, if the other two are allowed to atrophy.

Now someone might say: “But isn’t the Magisterium the final court of appeal, the one that tells us what Scripture and Tradition mean or contain?” Yes, that’s true; but with some important caveats. Scripture is the inerrant and inspired Word of God. The Magisterium is not this, so it is inferior to it and at the service of it (as Dei Verbum itself states: see n. 10). The universal ordinary Magisterium and the extraordinary Magisterium are infallible guides to and declarers of truth.

The problem arises in areas in which the Magisterium could be in error, and the problem is when people say something like: “I don’t care what Scripture says about ABC; Pope Francis says XYZ, and that’s what we have to follow.” Or “It sure seems like Scripture says ABC, but Francis says it means XYZ, so that’s what it must mean.” Or: “It doesn’t matter if the Church has uninterruptedly believed or done ABC; Francis has issued a motu proprio that says we should believe or do the opposite, and that’s the end of the matter.” Roma locuta, causa finita cannot mean “Rome has spoken; the Bible and the witness of the Church is irrelevant.”

As I said before, each has a certain primacy with respect to the others. That is why no one should ever give up lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture) in favor of a “lectio ecclesiastica” where the sole reading material would be papal documents. Nor should anyone ever given up a traditional lex orandi in favor of a newly constructed one, based on the latest model of the lex credendi according to a Vatican chief. This is why the documents of the Magisterium themselves have been careful—certainly in past times—to cite thoroughly from Scripture and other traditional sources in order to show that the official teaching derives from the witnesses on which the Faith is based. And it explains why Christianity will always corrupt if there is only Scripture and Tradition, without a final authority that can resolve either difficult questions or questions that may not be difficult in themselves but have become difficult due to bad intellectual habits or disordered concupiscence (e.g., the ban on contraception). Without a teaching authority, a Magisterium, the voices of Scripture and Tradition can be garbled or suffocated.

Let us examine next how, if any one of the three “pillars” is taken as an absolute, it becomes hollow, contentless.

Absolutisms: Temptations and Realities

Some forms of Protestantism hold to the principle sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.” If this principle were applied rigorously, the result would be the loss of Scripture itself—and not only because of the commonly adduced fact that the very content of the canon is known only by Tradition. The situation is actually worse: absent any tradition, any acceptance of the previous generation’s work, each generation would be required to start the long journey of understanding all over again, and no generation would get further than one generation’s walk down the path. Even that one generation’s energies would be wasted, dissipated in many directions, because no one among them would have authority to cut off fruitless lines of inquiry.

Of course, the reality is that communities that say they hold to Scripture exclusively always develop some form of tradition over time (though they would doubtless avoid calling it by that Catholic-sounding name) together with at least a de facto substitute for a magisterium. Only extremists within the Protestant world actually try to live out sola Scriptura in all its purity. Such congregations generally number about as many believers as can be persuaded to sit inside a single building listening to a single self-appointed pastor. We could call this not the “on-the-ground reality” of Protestantism but its besetting temptation.

Conversely, some tendencies within Eastern Orthodoxy could be called sola Traditione, “Tradition alone.” If tradition is taken as an absolute, so that the handing-down of antiquity takes precedence over every other consideration, then it no longer matters what is being handed down. In this mindset, revival means returning to past ages—not a return to Jesus Christ as a present reality, but a return to the received icons of Christ, to the received texts of His words, to the received teachings on His nature, all as past realities. Tradition taken as an absolute becomes a complacency with things as they are, a practice of “churchliness” rather than Christian discipleship (the term “churchliness” is from Orthodox scholar Fr. Alexander Schmemann). To look at any one of the received treasures for a moment as living and active—Scripture, for example—would be to wake up and acknowledge another source besides tradition. Taken as an absolute, tradition contradicts itself, denying access to the very riches it claims to provide.

Of course, once again, many Orthodox Christians, although in principle denying any universal living Magisterium, nonetheless do turn to Scripture and to the ancient magisterial texts with attention to what God has to say now. Only in Orthodoxy’s worst tendencies do we see a sola Traditione mindset at work. Again, we could call this not Orthodoxy as practiced on the ground, but Orthodoxy’s besetting temptation. It tends to be the default position in apologetics or polemics.

The third absolutism, solo Magisterio, has been the strange reserve of Roman Catholicism—strange because it is inherently less plausible than the other two. When the Magisterium’s authority is taken as an absolute, it trumps not only all Scripture and all Tradition but also all previous acts of the Magisterium. Only what the current papal monarch says carries weight. Those living under such a mindset have to embrace today’s papal statements wholeheartedly, but they have to drop them just as thoroughly if the next Pope says something different or new. Anything else would deny the current Pope’s absolute authority. Consequently, on this view there is no content definitive of Catholicism.

Of course, as we have seen among the Protestants and the Orthodox with their besetting temptations, most Roman Catholics who practice their faith do not in fact think that the Magisterium has absolute power over Scripture and Tradition; but there are extremist groups within the Church who think that way, as can be seen from perusing some of the hyperpapalist apologetics. Perhaps this, then, is the besetting temptation of Roman Catholicism.

The Benefit of all Three Pillars Held Together

“A threefold cord is not easily broken” (Eccles 4:12).

While many Protestants reject in principle any authority but Scripture, and Orthodox Christians reject in principle any living universal Magisterium, Roman Catholics in principle accept all three. While it may be unclear sometimes how to reconcile what comes from different sources, holding all three together is the key to holding any one of them. How so?

Only with Tradition and the Magisterium can we accept and take in the whole of Scripture rather than wandering away into private, idiosyncratic interpretations that may even remove parts of Scripture deemed unwanted (Marcionism being an extreme example). Only with Scripture and the Magisterium can we accept and take in the whole of Tradition rather than wandering into idiosyncratic, ethno-nationalistic embodiments of Tradition (as in Orthodoxy). And—crucially—only with Scripture and Tradition can we accept and take in all that the Magisterium has said, both yesterday and today, rather than yielding to a “Magisterium of the moment” dependent only on the personality and preferences of the reigning Roman pontiff. Each of the three “pillars” is built into the nature of the others.

To shift metaphors, these three elements are like three parts of an organic body that requires all three to function. When one or two of the elements is shorn away, the body that remains tries to grow back what it has lost. The new parts are stunted and unsightly, but they serve in a clumsy way to substitute for what is missing.

For example, when Protestants are polemicizing, they talk as if Scripture alone is their guide; but if you watch closely how they think, speak, and live among themselves, it’s obvious that they look not only to Scripture but also to the traditions of whatever denomination or group they belong to; and it’s no less evident that they have some kind of authority who can decide what is and is not acceptable within the community (even Protestants have their hierarchies and excommunications).

Similarly, when the Eastern Orthodox polemicize, they talk as if the Consensus of the Fathers reflected in an unchanging Divine Liturgy determines all that they believe and do; but if you watch how they think, speak, and live among themselves, the reality is much more complex, and certainly involves an interplay of all three elements, even if the magisterial one suffers from hypoplasia.

In like manner, when Catholics are polemicizing, they can talk as if the Magisterium alone is their guide; but if you watch how they think, speak, and live among themselves, they draw from Scripture and from Tradition in ways that do not (or need not) look to the Magisterium.[1]

We see here two important facts. First, polemics tend to make each of these groups fall into its besetting temptation in an exaggerated way. Second, whenever one of the three elements is downplayed or denied, sooner or later something like it is developed to substitute for it.

Most basically, we can know that “Magisteriumitis” is a sickness because the Magisterium receives the matter on which it speaks—it does not generate the matter about which it speaks (or if it did, that would be a sign of a pseudo-magisterium). It is, rather, a court of appeals that hands down judgments, which requires that there be something prior about which a judgment can be made. Catholics, after all, are talking about the Faith using what has been handed down in writing and orally and using their power of reason, and the Magisterium intervenes when necessary to offer correction or clarification. It presupposes something on which to work.

Fideism Under Three Disguises

Each of these extremes turns out to be a form of fideism.

The Protestant fideist believes something “just because the Word of God says it,” without realizing that we cannot understand this Word without the operation of our reason, the witness of Tradition, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit working in the hierarchy of the Church.

The Orthodox fideist believes something “because we have always said or done it this way,” without realizing that this judgment presupposes a prior and more authoritative source for what is always to be said and done. After all, there are some things that were said or done for a time, or in a certain area, that have either ceased to be said and done or were never said and done by everyone.

The Catholic fideist believes something “because the Magisterium says so,” without recognizing that the Magisterium is a servant of that which is prior and more authoritative to it, namely, the written and unwritten Word of God, and the sum total of ecclesiastical tradition that embodies and expresses this Word.

All forms of fideism have a grain of truth—that is why they can gain traction—but also lead to manifest distortions and, in their extreme form, to an irrational and arbitrary construct that has lost any bearings outside of itself.

Now, someone might object that the Traditionalist movement within the Catholic Church is a “sola Traditio” group because (according to the objector) it denies the authority of the Pope to do things the traditionalists happen to dislike.

But there is a different and better way to think about the origin of this moniker “traditionalist.” As many theologians maintain, the root meaning of Tradition is the sum total of that which God has handed down to us in divine revelation. The portion of it that was written down is called Scripture, and the rest is called unwritten or oral Tradition. Within this handed-down content is the power to interpret revelation, or the teaching authority of the Church, the Magisterium. That is, Scripture and the Magisterium are precontained in Tradition. The traditionalist, therefore, is the one who emphasizes the unbreakable unity of the three pillars in their fundamental source, and who therefore rejects any hypertrophic exaltation of Scripture (as per the Protestant temptation), Tradition in a reductive sense (as per the Orthodox temptation), or Magisterium (as per the temptation of “conservative” Catholics).

For example, Pope Francis’s absurd teaching that capital punishment is “per se contrary to the Gospel,” “inadmissible” and “immoral,” and “abases human dignity,” stands against the triple witness of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, and therefore cannot be accepted by a Catholic. If such a “development” were possible, no reversal in Catholic teaching would be impossible, because any change whatsoever could be justified by the same kind of evolutionary dialectic invoked for the death penalty change.[2]

In this sense, then, the Catholic traditionalist of today is simply a Catholic who is free from the mental disease of Magisteriumitis and who strives, in his faith, his life, his thought, to hold together the three pillars of original Tradition, namely, written Tradition, unwritten Tradition, and the guardianship of Tradition.


[1] I have heard a hyperpapalist Catholic say that Catholics should not read Scripture on their own because all that they need to know is what is taught by the official documents of the Church or by the Bible in the liturgy, and that it is dangerous—even Protestant—to read the Bible unless the Magisterium has stated what a given passage means. This view is, however, so strange and extreme that it cannot be taken as representative.

[2] See “What Good is a Changing Catechism? Revisiting the Purpose and Limits of a Book,” in The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism: Rethinking the Papacy in a Time of Ecclesial Disintegration (Waterloo, ON: Arouca Press, 2022), vol. 2, ch. 40, pp. 137–55; cf. Thomas Heinrich Stark, “German Idealism and Cardinal Kasper’s Theological Project,” Catholic World Report, June 9, 2015.

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