MONDAY, JANUARY 5, 2015
The Protestant Fallacy That Threatens to Undermine Christianity
Catholics believe in the infallibility of the Church and of the pope. This serves as both a teacher of, and an important check to, our personal interpretations of Scripture. If I understand a passage of Scripture to be teaching X, and X is a conclusion contrary to the teachings of the Church, I can be sure that I’m wrong. It’s a simple rule, but a powerful one. Think of the countless heresies have arisen from people misunderstanding Scripture. In many of these cases, these errors could have been avoided, if people would have just followed this rule.
But there’s a Protestant objection to this. It says, in a nutshell, "You Catholics believe in the Catholic Church for one of two reasons: either (1) because the Catholic Church says so, or (2) because you’ve become independently convinced on the basis of Scripture, history, etc. If it’s (1), that’s a circular argument. But if it’s (2), then you’re in the exact same position as a Protestant. You accept Catholic teachings because of your private judgment, we reject Catholic teachings because of our private judgment."
On its face, I think that this looks like a pretty strong argument. But there are several problems with it, two of which I want to highlight. The first is that the argument proves too much, and the second is that it misses a critical distinction.
I. The Unstoppable Acid
The first problem with this argument is that it’s too powerful. If it’s correct, it proves much too much. The people making this argument typically don’t acknowledge (or seemingly recognize) just how powerful this objection really is.
Typically, the people raising this argument view it as a way of reducing the authority of the Church to the private judgment of the individual. Whether I accept or reject such-and-such ex cathedra papal declaration depends on my own private judgment, so infallibility doesn’t really add anything to the equation.
But the logic of the argument goes so much further. It doesn’t just undermine the authority of popes and Councils, but of any Divine authority. On the basis of your private judgment, you believe that what Scripture says is true; on the basis of his, your neighbor believes Scripture is false. Even should God Himself appear to you, your private judgment would be necessary to determine that it was really God and not a hallucination, or a dream, or a demonic trick. So even the authority of God Himself reduces to your private judgment, according to the logic of this argument.
It’s a bit like inventing an acid so strong that it can eat through anything, and then realizing you have no place to put it: the force of the acid will eat through any possible container. At the end of the day, it destroys everything you have, dissolving down to the center of the earth. In trying to dissolve popes and Councils, the Protestant objector has come up with an acid that dissolves the Bible, and even direct revelations by God. It doesn’t just reduce Catholicism to the level of Protestantism. It reduces Christianity to the level of agnosticism.
This, of course, is the first clue that something is seriously wrong with this line of argumentation: it’s self-defeating for the Protestant to use it. To believe in the inspiration of Scripture is to believe in an authority greater than one’s private judgment. “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).