The Essence of Rabbinic Wisdom: A Transcending Synthesis of Sola Scriptura and the Magisterium

JHMAuthority is at the core of the ecumenical age. We can discuss topical issues of theology: baptism, Holy Communion, redemption, etc., in an effort to identify points of continuity, but in the final analysis the question of authority with respect to the establishment of doctrine always comes back to the issue of authority in the life of the faithful. For it is the issue of authority which determines what an individual and a community is expected to believe about their faith.

To say “the Church teaches” rather than “the Bible says” is the crux of divergence between Protestants and Catholics. To identify someone as Roman Catholic is clear enough, namely, they accept the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in matters of faith and practice. To identify someone as Protestant is simply to indicate the source of authority to be the teachings of the Bible as understood by the individual.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, that authority is embodied in what is called the magisterium, and all official doctrines and teachings of the Church are held therein. Within the Protestant tradition (granted its breadth and depth), religious authority is embodied in the individual’s personal right to read and interpret the Bible according to his or her own understanding. This, as we know, is called sola scriptura. All discussion regarding theological topics are subsidiary to the issue of authority, namely, is it the Church or the individual who determines what must be believed? That line separates Catholics from Protestants in a way that no other teaching of the Christian faith does, and clearly, this cannot be denied.

However, the rabbinic tradition of Talmud and disputation has an ancient and distinguished legacy which in its own way has merged the primacy of scripture and the primacy of tradition into a matrix of authority. I would like to suggest here that rabbinic wisdom is the convergence of the teachings of the Talmud within the context of traditional authority of legal interpretation as explicated and expounded by a gathering of rabbis. Neither a magisterial hierarchy nor a privately interpreted understanding of the sacred texts, rabbinic wisdom rather synthesizes the collective wisdom of a conclave of rabbis interpreting Jewish law for both the individual and the entire community of faith.


Magisterium is the Catholic principle of the Church’s authority to interpret the Bible for the faithful according to the traditions of the Church.

Sola Scriptura is the Protestant principle of a personal relation with God experienced through the individual reading and interpretation of the Bible.

Rabbinic Wisdom is the convergence of the teachings of Judaism within the traditional authority of the Talmud explicated and expounded by the rabbis in collegial discussion and disputation.



Dr. John H. Morgan is Karl Mannheim Professor of the History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences.  His areas of interest include 19th & 20th century philosophy, theology and culture, sociology of religion, religion & the social sciences, and clinical pastoral psychotherapy. Dr. Morgan serves as a thesis supervisor, project consultantE-Tutorial faculty and on-site tutorial faculty, as well as moderates GTF Institutes.

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