Unsound Sticks, or, Arguments Catholics Shouldn't Use
by Ben Douglass, David Palm, and Nick E. May 1, Anno Domini MMIX
The following is a list of arguments against Protestantism which, in our judgment, Catholics should not use, either because they are not true, or because, while they might be true, it is impossible to prove that they are, for a plausible alternative explanation of the data exists. This is certainly not a complete list: it is merely one missive fired for intellectual rigor. Neither is it an infallible list: it is possible that one or more of these arguments might be saved.
1. Alleging that there are 33,000 Protestant denominations. This tally comes from the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia, and it includes all denominations and paradenominations which self-identify as Christian, including Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Old Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Gnostics, Bogomils, etc. And even so, the number is too high. The World Christian Encyclopedia artificially inflates the number of Catholic "denominations" by counting Eastern Churches in communion with Rome as separate denominations. It likewise inflates the number of Eastern Orthodox "denominations" by counting Churches in communion with each other as distinct.
This reference lists 8,973 denominations under the heading "Protestant," and 22,146 more under the heading "Independent." Some, but not all, of the "independent" denominations may justly be described as Protestant. Still, these numbers may be inflated similarly to the numbers for Catholics and Orthodox. Suffice it to say that there are thousands of Protestant denominations.
Moreover, even if we could arrive at an accurate tally for Protestant denominations (20,000?), we still could not blame the whole of that number on Sola Scriptura. Some of these churches share substantial unity in faith, even if they are juridically independent (perhaps due to geography). And much of the disunity of faith within Protestantism, at least in the developed world, stems from efforts to subordinate the authority of Scripture (e.g., to various sexual perversions). In reality, if every Protestant denomination were serious and consistent in affirming and applying the rule of Sola Scriptura, the spectrum of Protestant belief would be significantly narrower. It bears emphasizing: the only thing for which we can directly blame Sola Scriptura is the extent to which it fails to provide unity in true faith and morals to those who sincerely adhere to it, e.g., "orthodox" Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Campbellites, etc.
My Response: I disagree.
I disagree because I personally believe, based on my experiences, that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Protestant denominations, and the main reason for this is sola scriptura. Now, I admit that my “experiences” constitute anecdotal evidence, but I have found nothing to dissuade me from the notion that my anecdotal evidence is not indicative of a much more widespread phenomenon. And, for clarity’s sake, I define a Protestant denomination as a religious unit of one or more persons that has: 1) A particular set of beliefs on matters of faith and morals, which may or may not be unique to that group; and 2) Has its own structure of authority that ultimately answers to no human being outside of the denomination.
In the last 15 years or so, I have talked to hundreds and hundreds of Protestants, either on the radio, via email, on the phone, or in person. I have heard from the mouths of at least 2-3 dozen or so of those folks that while they may attend a church in a particular denomination, let’s say a Baptist church for example, they are not, however, members of that denomination. They have all said something close to this: “I only go to that church because that pastor comes the closest to what I believe.” The first time I heard that about 15 years ago it blew me away. But I have heard it time and time again since.
In other words, these folks are their own little denomination within a denomination. They have their own set of beliefs and they are their own authority for what is, in essence, their own private denomination. They are the Pope, the pastor, and the chief theologian of their own personal denomination. Now, out of the several hundred Protestants I’ve talked to, the number who have said something along these lines accounts for about, let’s say, 2-3% of the total. I think the true percentage who are in this situation is much higher than that, however, because I have actually not even addressed this particular point with the vast majority of the Protestants I have talked to. So, there may be many more of the Protestants I’ve talked to who are in this same situation, but the topic simply never came up in our discussions. Plus, I have talked to any number of Protestants who have flat out stated that they do not need any church, all they need is a Bible. So, again, I believe the percentage of Protestants who belong to their own private denomination is rather high. But, let’s use the 2-3% figure just to be conservative.
So, estimating that 2-3% of Protestants, just in this country, are members of their own private denominations - they answer to no human authority in matters of faith and morals outside of themselves, and they have a particular set of beliefs they call their own - then we’re looking at the number of denominations as being in the millions. I have said many times that if God leaves us on this earth long enough there will eventually be one Protestant denomination for every Protestant or, at the least, one Protestant denomination for every Protestant family. And what is the main reason for this phenomenon? Sola Scriptura. Folks interpreting the Bible on their own to arrive at their own particular set of beliefs and subject only to their own authority.
Plus, I disagree that you cannot blame Sola Scriptura for the disunity of faith within Protestantism that results from the “efforts to subordinate the authority of Scripture.” The essence of Sola Scriptura, whether its adherents realize it or not, is not the authority of Scripture, but rather the authority of each individual’s interpretation of Scripture. Big difference. The authority of Scripture, and the authority given by Christ to the Church He founded, are actually usurped by sola scriptura adherents, again, whether they realize it or not. And this indirect, or inadvertent, usurpation of authority by the individual, which allows him to “authoritatively” pronounce right from wrong, true doctrine from false, all based on his own private authority, inevitably leads to individuals believing they have the authority to directly and knowingly usurp the authority of Scripture and the Church. It all stems from the same root.
2. Using the term "anti-Catholic." The term is ill-defined. If it refers to a form of bigotry or prejudice then it could only be applied to individual Protestants (or other non-Catholics) on a case by case basis, and that only after they had exhibited a demonstrable pattern of bad faith. If, on the other hand, it refers to theological opposition to Catholicism, then it ought not to be used as a term of disdain. For Catholics are theologically opposed to Protestantism. Indeed, according to Dominus Iesus, Protestant "churches" are not, properly speaking, churches. The distinctives of Protestant theology are heresy, and the Council of Trent has pronounced anathema upon them. If, then, Protestants who believe Catholicism to be heretical are anti-Catholic, by the same standard Catholics who believe Protestantism to be heretical are anti-Protestant.
My Response: I agree and disagree.
I agree that the term anti-Catholic should not be used to simply refer to anyone who disagrees with Catholicism. I disagree that the term is ill-defined and should not be used. I have used the term a number of times in the past. But, I have a very specific definition of an anti-Catholic which I published in one of my past e-newsletter issues of “Apologetics for the Masses.” That definition, and the distinction between an anti-Catholic and a non-Catholic is basically as follows: An anti-Catholic is someone who will not let Catholics believe what they actually believe. They substitute their biased understanding of Catholic belief for the true substance of Catholic belief even when presented with evidence from official magisterial documents that Catholics do not believe what these anti-Catholics think we believe. They are not interested in discovering truth, they are only interested in railing against Catholicism. A non-Catholic is simply someone who does not agree with Catholic teaching.
An example: An anti-Catholic and a non-Catholic both say, “You Catholics worship Mary.” When the Catholic responds, “No, we don’t worship Mary,” and tells them that we love and honor Mary just as Jesus did, and presents the Catechism, papal encyclicals, and such that all say Mary is human not divine, the anti-Catholic says, “Yes, you do worship Mary.” The non-Catholic says, “Well, okay, I see that I did not fully understand Catholic teaching on that...you don’t worship Mary after all.” Now, the non-Catholic may still disagree on what we teach about Mary, and they may still even think all Catholics are going to Hell, but they at least are open to understanding what we believe and why we believe it. The non-Catholic allows us to believe what we actually believe, the anti-Catholic does not.
3. Justifying lack of charity by appealing to the example of St. Jerome. Not everything a saint does is necessarily worthy of emulation. St. Cyprian was insubordinate to the Pope. St. John Chrysostom said some indefensible things about Jews. St. Thomas More used scatological insults.
My Response: I agree and disagree.
I agree in that one should never be uncharitable and one should never appeal to St. Jerome, or anyone else for that matter, in order to justify being uncharitable. However, it seems to me that there is a belief behind this particular point, which I have seen many a time and with which I disagree - the belief that one can never say anything to someone else which gives them a verbal punch in the nose, as it were. That one always has to be “nice” and “sensitive” to the other guy’s feelings, cushion one’s blows, and so on. Well I say, “Bunk,” to that. (And if I am misreading the thought behind this particular point then I apologize ahead of time.)
I tend to be very direct and very blunt when engaged in a debate with someone, particularly when it is in writing - which is the medium for the vast majority of my debates - and I frequently call a spade a spade. Because of that, I have in the past been accused of being uncharitable. To me, however, I view it as being more respectful to the other person by not wasting the other guy’s time with a lot of wasted verbiage and wishy-washy niceties, nor am I treating them like a little child who is not capable of direct criticism and of being disagreed with. I prefer people do the same with me. And, if someone is being a hypocrite, I call them a hypocrite. If someone is flat out lying and purposely misrepresenting what I say, I call them a liar. If someone says something that is ridiculous or absurd, I say that it is ridiculous and absurd. If I believe someone to be wrong, I tell them they’re wrong. Is that necessarily uncharitable?
If someone thinks it is, then I would ask if Jesus was being uncharitable when he called the scribes and Pharisees liars, blind guides, white-washed tombs, sons of murderers, vipers and serpents, and said that they were full of extortion and rapacity and hypocrisy and iniquity? I don’t think anyone would say that Jesus was being uncharitable, would they? Was He being uncharitable when He got out a whip and turned over the money changers tables in the Temple? Was He being uncharitable when He asked, “How long must I endure this generation?” Was He being uncharitable when He called the Samaritan woman a dog? Of course not. He wasn’t necessarily being “nice” in all these instances, but not being nice is not the same thing as being uncharitable. What I’m saying is that one needs to be very careful in judging something to be an uncharitable act. Not being nice is not the same thing as not being charitable. What might “seem” uncharitable to some, could actually be an act of charity, and to judge it as being uncharitable could be an uncharitable act on someone’s part. We’ve gotten so touchy-feely and sensitive and we worry so much about making everyone feel “validated” these days that it sometimes borders on the ridiculous.
4. Exaggerating the inadequacy of Sola Scriptura, as if it were not possible to understand the Bible at all without the Magisterium. In reality, if one, without help from any external authority, gives the Bible a diligent, sincere, and attentive reading, it will be possible to achieve the right answer to a fair number of questions. Sola Scriptura is inadequate because it cannot give the Church definitive answers to every question which she needs answered in order to function as the Church. For example, it cannot give the Church a definitive answer regarding whether Christian marriage is dissoluble. On the other hand, the Bible is clear enough that the text alone suffices to tell the Church that homosexuality is evil, among other things. If one fails to recognize this then it will be impossible to come to terms with the patristic witness to the clarity of Scripture.
My Response: I agree.
I always say that you can read the Bible on your own and come to some understanding of what you read, but I also always say that there are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand and for which we need a guide - as the Bible clearly tells us.
5. Insisting that Protestants need to know, as a matter of faith, that Matthew wrote Matthew. According to the internal logic of their system, they do not. It suffices that the book of Matthew be inspired by God, regardless whether the traditional attribution is correct. As such, there is a limited value in asking Protestants the question, "How do you know that Matthew wrote Matthew?" If a particular Protestant does in fact accept the traditional authorship of Matthew, one might ask him on what basis he does so. If he replies that he does so on the basis of the patristic testimony, this can be an opportunity to expose any double standards he might hold as to the reliability of the patristic testimony at large. Nevertheless, it is fallacious to argue that, since Protestants need to know that Matthew wrote Matthew, and since Sola Scriptura cannot provide that knowledge to them, therefore Sola Scriptura is false.
My Response: I disagree.
First of all, I disagree that there is any kind of “internal logic” in a Protestant theological “system.” There may be internal logic in various compartments of a Protestant theological system, but not consistently throughout the system as a whole. Now, I never specifically insist that Protestants need to know who wrote Matthew (or Mark or any other book) as a “matter of faith.” I do, however, quite often ask the question: “Who wrote the Gospel of Mark, and how do you know?” And I ask because if the Bible is the sole rule of faith for Christians, and one only accepts as definitively true that which comes from the pages of the Bible, then it is indeed important to know who wrote the various books of the Bible. Why? Because the inspiration of Scripture comes from God through the authors of Scripture. The authors were inspired by God. If you don’t know who wrote the book, and the book is your only authority in these matters, then how can you know it was inspired?
So, if the Bible cannot answer fundamental questions about its own inspiration - which is what the question, “Who wrote the Gospel of Mark,” is aimed at showing - that means you cannot know from the Bible that all of it is inspired, then how can Sola Scriptura be true? So, since the Bible does not tell us who wrote Mark, or Matthew, or some of the other books, and the Bible is supposedly the only definitive source for answers regarding questions of this nature - one cannot turn to tradition when one does not believe in tradition - then Sola Scriptura has to be false because Sola Scriptura cannot provide you with a Scriptura in the first place.
6. Assuming that it suffices, for falsifying Sola Scriptura, to demonstrate that inspired oral Apostolic Tradition existed during the Apostolic era (2 Thess 2:15, etc.). Protestants grant this. One must proceed to demonstrate the perduring presence of this Tradition within the Church throughout all ages. Or at least, one must justify laying the burden of proof on Protestants to demonstrate that all oral Apostolic Tradition was eventually inscripturated.
My Response: I agree and disagree.
I agree in principle, but in practice it may indeed suffice to prove Sola Scriptura wrong to any given individual by showing them that Apostolic Tradition existed during the Apostolic era. One should always be prepared, however, after showing the verses on tradition (such as 2 Thes 2:15) to answer, should it come, the follow-up: “Well, that was just for the time before the New Testament was written,” with the appropriate responses. I would also add that one should not really try to “prove” anything with this or that verse from Scripture. Apologetics is about building the case. Use Scripture and logic and common sense, and tradition if necessary, all to build the case and to plant the seeds. Then let the Holy Spirit “prove” it.
7. Arguing that since St. Paul knew that the magicians who opposed Moses were named Jannes and Jambres (2 Tim 3:8), these names must have been preserved in the old covenant equivalent of Apostolic Tradition. According to the Catholic dogma of the inspiration of Scripture, God furnished the sacred authors with an infallible judgment in evaluating the truth of non-inspired and hence fallible historical records (Pius XII, Humani Generis, 38). As such, judging by the standard of Catholic theology (which conservative Protestants share on this point), it is possible that St. Paul learned these names from ordinary human historical records, and not from Jewish Sacred Tradition. To establish the presence of Sacred Tradition within the old covenant a Catholic must look elsewhere (e.g., 2 Chron 29:2).
My Response: I agree.
Next week: Points #8 - #18.