The authority of teachers: synodal reflection

In the Early Church, the charism of teaching was acknowledged as a specific function distinct from the ordained ministry

Yes, I have researched your family tree, Father. Well, here it is!

"Yes, I have researched your family tree, Father. Well, here it is!" (Illustration: Tom Adcock)

Updated: March 06, 2023 03:26 AM

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses. So practice and observe everything they tell you.”  (Matthew 23:1-3)

When I studied theology at a major seminary in London in the late 1950’s, one of our professors was a Dutch priest, Daan Duivesteijn. We called him ‘Duivy’. He was a fierce defender of ‘the faith’.

One day Duivy railed against evolutionists. “They find a jawbone of an ape”, he said mockingly, “then construct a whole imaginary body around it and claimed it was a pre-human!” He then quoted Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis (1950) which allowed discussion on evolution, but then declared: “The Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God ... Some theologians rashly transgress the liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.”

We knew Duivy was wrong. I myself had picked up many outstanding works on evolution that reported extensively on the scientific research that underpinned evolution.  A study by Ralph von Koenigswald on hominids and apes convinced me that a common ancestor was undeniable. Von Koenigswald proved that of 1,065 anatomical features, human beings share 396 with chimpanzees, 385 with gorillas and 354 with orangutans.

As Duivy was talking, a picture was passed down the lecture hall from one row of students to the next. It showed a chimpanzee, under which someone had scribbled: “Looks just like Duivy, doesn’t it?”

Almost a hundred years after Darwin’s The Origin of Species the official Church was still not really listening to what scholars were saying ...

The scribes

In Jesus’ day, the scribes were teachers who studied and explained the Old Testament Law. Their origin can be traced back to the 4th century B.C. when, after exile, a number of Jews returned to Jerusalem. They realized that they needed to observe the law more diligently. One of them called Ezra took the initiative. He established a school of students. And when the time was ripe he started his public teaching sessions: “Ezra stood upon a pulpit of wood [surrounded by disciples] … He read out the book of the Law of Moses … He [and his disciples] made the people understand the law … They proclaimed the book of the law distinctly, made sense of it, caused the people to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8,4-8).

Jesus often argued with the scribes.

  • when they questioned his power: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21-28);
  • when they asked him for a sign (Matthew 12:38-42);
  • when they accused Jesus of driving out demons ‘by Beelzebul, the prince of demons’ (Mark 3:22-30). 

Jesus strongly criticized the scribes of his time: for their hypocrisy, for their putting heavy burdens on people’s shoulders they were not willing to carry themselves, for taking seats of honor at banquets and in synagogues (Matthew 23:1-7).

He even said: “Don’t call yourself ‘Rabbi’, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one father who is in heaven. Nor call yourselves instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” Then Jesus explains why they should avoid such titles — namely: “those who exalt themselves will be humbled” (Matthew 23:8-12). But did Jesus thereby deny the function of the scribe or the authority of the teacher? He did not.

Jesus clearly taught: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit upon Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” (Matthew 23:2-3). 

Archaeologists have found synagogues in Palestine which featured a stone chair carved from a single stone of basalt that faced Jerusalem. This, apparently, was the ‘seat of Moses’. Rabbis made authoritative pronouncements from the Hebrew scriptures while sitting in this chair. Those who sat upon the seat of Moses clearly inherited Moses’ authority. Jesus admits that authority. He urges people to accept what they teach. Remember: scribes were not priests.

In the Early Church, the charism of teaching was acknowledged as a specific function distinct from the ordained ministry. Paul lists ‘first of all apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration’ (1 Corinthians 12:27-28).


  • Ordination to the priesthood or the episcopacy does not impart theological knowledge, in spite of bishops presumptuously claiming the title of ‘Doctor of Divinity’. This also applies to popes. They should therefore listen to the advice offered by scholars who have studied sacred scripture and other sources of doctrine in depth.
  • Though guided by the Spirit in their own way, priests or bishops do not enjoy the specific insights acquired by biologists, psychologists, sociologists and other academics. These too are guided by the Spirit.
  • Is it not true that recent popes, such as Paul VI, John-Paul II and Benedict XIV, have unleashed a reign of terror against Catholic scholars? Publicly condemning some, demanding an ‘oath of loyalty’ to papal teaching before allowing scholars admission to teaching posts in seminaries, colleges and universities.
  • Recent teachings by popes on the use of artificial contraception in family planning, on the ordination of women, on same-sex unions and-so-on, are strongly contradicted by Catholic scholars. Should church leaders not rather carefully listen to them? 

Published by arrangement with the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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