A family friend asked me to comment on an article entitled “The Accidental Catholic”, which was recently posted on the Called to Communion blog (run by converts to Roman Catholicism from Reformed churches). Below are my comments (edited and slightly expanded).
The author’s basic argument can be summarized simply as follows:
- If Sola Scriptura were correct and the Protestant churches were led by the Holy Spirit, there wouldn’t be many doctrinal disagreements between Protestant churches.
- But there are many doctrinal disagreements between Protestant churches.
- Therefore, it can’t be the case that Sola Scriptura is correct and the Protestant churches are led by the Holy Spirit.
The most serious problem with the argument is that there’s no good reason to accept the first premise. Here are some reasons why, along with some other related comments:
1. By the same line of reasoning one would have to argue that Christian leaders who are led by the Holy Spirit would rarely fall into error or sin. But clearly that’s a bad inference. Even Catholics would have to grant that many church leaders (including popes!) have fallen into error and sin, despite their claim that the RCC was led by the Holy Spirit.
2. The argument fails to distinguish between disagreements over central doctrines (the Trinity, the Incarnation, salvation by grace alone through Christ alone, the inspiration of the Bible, the necessity of baptism, the return of Christ, etc.) and disagreements over secondary doctrines (the subjects and mode of baptism, church government, spiritual gifts, the nature of the millennium, etc.). When you consider central doctrines alone, there’s substantial unity among Protestant churches (and here I mean those that are genuinely Protestant, i.e., that take seriously the claim that the Bible alone is the infallible and authoritative Word of God).
In other words, the terms are rigged by the Catholic so as to make Protestant churches look worse than they really are. Not all doctrines are created equal. (Note that it would be question-begging for the Catholic to define in advance, from a Catholic perspective, which doctrines are central and which are not.)
3. In any case, it should be obvious that doctrinal unity is no guarantee of doctrinal truth. If it were, the Mormons must have the truth too! Indeed, one could just pick any single denomination at random (the PCA, say) and argue that its internal doctrinal unity is evidence that that denomination has the truth. But clearly that wouldn’t be a good argument.
4. This leads to a further point. The author’s argument begs the question by assuming that the RCC is special and that Catholicism is the ‘default’ or ‘fallback’ option. From a Protestant perspective, however, the RCC is (at best) just one more denomination alongside all others. If you’re concerned about rigid doctrinal uniformity, why pick the RCC rather than any other ecclesiastical institution?
5. At this point the Catholic will often try to make some historical appeal to vindicate the RCC as the church body organically connected with the early church and to vilify the Protestants as schismatics. The problem with that argument is that it begs the question (again) against the Reformers (not to mention the Eastern Orthodox!) by assuming that the RCC really is in doctrinal continuity with the apostolic church. The argument of the Reformers, of course, was that the RCC had deviated from the apostolic doctrine (represented primarily by the NT) and therefore needed to be reformed — or, failing that, to be rejected.
6. Furthermore, the idea that there is doctrinal unity within the RCC is largely a myth. Eric Svendsen documents this point very well in his book Evangelical Answers. Even today there are heated debates among Catholic theologians on all manner of topics, including: (1) how to understand the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2; (2) whether or not a Christian can accept the theory of evolution; (3) how to understand the doctrines of providence and predestination; (4) the freedom of the will; (5) whether or not the Bible is inerrant; (6) how Mary should be venerated; (7) whether Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces or only some; (8) whether or not Mary should be viewed as Co-Redemptrix; (9) whether or not Vatican II should be accepted as an infallible council; (10) how to view those outside the RCC (including whether they can be saved); (11) whether church tradition can add to the teachings of Scripture; (12) which church councils should be deemed infallible; (13) which Greek manuscripts for the NT should be accepted; (14) the morality of capital punishment. There are even Catholics who debate whether the current pope is a legitimate pope!
7. Moreover, if the RCC can’t speak clearly (or in some cases at all) on such important matters as the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine of predestination, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the fate of the unevangelized, that’s hardly an improvement over Protestantism. Apparently the RCC doesn’t even have an unambiguous official position on such matters, never mind “offer[ing] certainty about the Faith” (to quote the article).
8. It’s assumed too quickly that diversity is antithetical to truth. But open debate can be one of the best ways to discern and establish the truth, whereas a top-down imposed uniformity can easily lead to institutionalized error (which then becomes very hard to root out). All this to say, having different denominations may well be seen as a healthy thing in the long run if one values truth over uniformity.
9. The article makes much hay out of the claim that “the HS obviously does not lead people to contradictory positions”. Well, by that reasoning the RCC isn’t led by the Holy Spirit either because, as Luther famously pointed out, popes and councils have contradicted themselves! This point can be readily documented and is impossible to reasonably deny. Of course, Catholics have their explanations as to how these popes and councils could err; but in offering such explanations they have to abandon arguments like the one above, simply because Protestants can offer the same sorts of explanations for their own doctrinal disagreements. In short, the RCC has to engage in special pleading to excuse its own errors and theological diversity.
10. Add to this the point that some of the official teachings of the RCC contradict the clear teaching of the Bible (e.g., Paul’s teaching on justification in Rom. 4 and Gal. 2) which they also take to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Catholic may respond that the teaching of the Bible actually isn’t clear on these matters, hence the need for the Magisterium to interpret the Bible for the rest of us. But of course, that just begs the question in favor of the whole Catholic system. And apparently it doesn’t prevent Catholic lay apologists from regularly appealing directly to the Bible in order to defend Catholic doctrines! (It seems that Scripture is perspicuous whenever they need it to be.)
11. The article also misrepresents the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The difference between the Protestant and the Catholic isn’t that the former relies on his own judgment/reason while the latter relies on the teaching of the Magisterium. For the Catholic also (unavoidably!) relies on his own judgment/reason in interpreting the teachings of the Magisterium. (And that’s precisely why Catholics disagree over exactly what the RCC teaches on some points.) No, the real issue concerns where one locates one’s final authority: Protestants hold to the final authority of Scripture (alone) whereas Catholics hold to the final authority of the Magisterium (which stands, at least in practice, over Scripture). It’s simply mistaken to suggest that Protestants treat their reason as the final authority. Catholics use their reasoning and interpretive faculties to discern the teaching of the Magisterium (as their final authority) no less than Protestants use their reasoning and interpretive faculties to discern the teaching of the Bible (as their final authority). It’s well known that the Reformers emphasized the ministerial (as opposed to the magisterial) role of reason.
12. Unavoidably, then, both Protestants and Catholics use their reasoning faculties to interpret their final authority, even though both would grant (I hope) that their reasoning must be subservient to that final authority. Likewise, both the Protestant and the Catholic must hold to some kind of doctrine of perspicuity (clarity) with respect to their final authority (i.e., the final authority can be adequately interpreted using normal principles of interpretation without reliance on some functionally higher interpreting authority).
13. I have sometimes heard it argued that Catholics have a decisive advantage over Protestants on these last two points, because Protestants only have the Bible while Catholics also have the “Living Magisterium”. Since the RCC always has living authoritative teachers, so the argument goes, those teachers are always available to issue clarifications or elaborations whenever necessary (e.g., to resolve doctrinal confusions or to settled doctrinal disputes). However, I see at least three problems with this argument:
(i) The Bible describes itself as “living and active” (Heb. 4:12; cf. 1 Pet. 1:23). It is not a dead book, for the same Holy Spirit who originally inspired its human authors speaks through it today to those who are indwelt by the Spirit and have ears to hear their Master’s voice. The Spirit of God has no need of a “Living Magisterium” to bring the Word of God to life.
(ii) The Catholic ‘solution’ offers no real advantage, for in practice all the deliverances of the Magisterium are issued in writing to the laity (for obvious reasons). So they’re subject to all the ‘limitations’ of Scripture in that regard. While they may have an oral source, they’re functionally equivalent to biblical texts. (Actually, many biblical texts also have an oral source.) It won’t do to point out that the Magisterium can always issue additional teachings (for clarification, supplementation, etc.) because every addition is necessarily subject to the same limitations; none will ever close the basic interpretive ‘gap’ between the teaching authority and the individual Christian. (If anything, they only complicate matters by adding further layers of interpretation.) To use an analogy: if you think the bucket has a hole in it, you shouldn’t imagine the solution is just to pour more water into it.
(iii) The argument relies on the dubious theological assumption that the Holy Spirit was either unable or unwilling to inspire a sufficiently perspicuous written revelation (i.e., the Bible) in the first place. But if the Holy Spirit can speak with sufficient clarity through the Magisterium interpreting the (unclear) Bible, as the Catholic must hold, why couldn’t the Holy Spirit speak with sufficient clarity through the Bible directly? No good theological reason can be given; but without such a reason, the argument loses any force. Ultimately this leads to a lower view of biblical inspiration than the Bible itself teaches (Ps. 119:105, 130; 2 Tim. 3:14-17).