The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics
"Chapter 17: Protestant Scripture Alone"
Is there any great difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism? In our ecumenical striving for reunion today there is a strong tendency to gloss over differences. Vatican II had warned against straining doctrine to promote ecumenism: "It is altogether necessary that the complete doctrine [of the Church] be presented lucidly. Nothing is so foreign to ecumenism as that false peace-making, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss, and its genuine and certain sense is made obscure."108
In other words, in discussions with Protestants, Catholics must still "tell it like it is," and not deceive people into joining us by false representations, though the Church admits the language could be improved to promote better understanding.109
Not only Vatican II, but good sense and common decency call for this honesty. In spite of the fact that there are some things on which Catholics and Protestants can agree, there is yet a great gulf between them. Unless this gulf is overcome, agreement on peripheral items is good and perhaps may help to prepare the way for real union, but there can be no real union without agreement on the most basic principles of all, which we have examined thus far in this book.
It could be expressed this way: There are two ways of seeking an answer to any Christian religious question, the Protestant way and the Catholic way. Both will agree we should study the sources of revelation-Scripture alone for Protestants, or Scripture plus the ongoing teaching of the Church (Tradition) for Catholics. But that is only step one. The essential step reveals the complete gulf between the two. One can hardly claim that the meaning of Scripture, or even the Gospels, is clear on all points. Yes, we did see that we can clearly find six simple basic physical facts in the Gospels, on which faith depends. But there are so many other things: the divinity of Christ, His Presence in the Eucharist, the nature of the Mass, the means by which we try for salvation, and many more that are not so obvious. The number of churches listed in the yellow pages of the telephone book makes clear that things are not so obvious. Notice the multitude of denominations claiming to know what the Scriptures mean on the points we have mentioned, and many other things too.
So, since Scripture often needs interpretation, how do we get the correct interpretation? For the Protestant, the only rule is: What do I think it means? Yes, many Protestant bodies have creeds, which they often call "Confessions," such as the Augsburg Confession. But if a man were to tell his Lutheran pastor, "I cannot believe the Augsburg Confession," the pastor would not tell him, "You have an obligation, divinely imposed, by the authority of Christ, to accept it." He would merely say, "I guess you belong in some other denomination."
But for the Catholic, the principle always has been, and still is: What does the Church teach? For the Church is protected by the promises of Christ. Vatican II, contrary to sadly false reports about it, restated this principle vigorously: "The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on [Scripture or Tradition] has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [Magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."110 Thus, Vatican II appealed to the authority of Christ, that is, the promises of Christ to protect the teaching of the Church, which we studied in the past chapters.
We are not asked to think a particular Pope, with or without a Council, is holy, well-educated, brilliant, or anything of the sort. No, these qualities are good if present, but they are not essential. The important thing is that the Magisterium is on the receiving end of the promises of Christ. Nothing else matters. We may think a particular Pope or Bishop is a very disreputable person. Pope Alexander VI even had illegitimate children and made no secret of it. Yet, Christ could and did protect his teaching. In fact, someone said, "One of the better evidences of the divinity of the Church is that it can survive its churchmen." Those who have read Church history can smile and say, "Amen." So could Luther say, "Amen." Abuses in the Church were immense in his day. Yet the teaching of the Church then, as now, was still protected by Christ. It was not the teaching that was in error, it was rather a case of mismanagement of things and a lack of prudence. Imprudence is not the same as false doctrine.
So, the basic difference is that the Protestant founders all denied that Christ had protected the teaching of His Church, and asserted instead that Scripture was clear. As we said, the yellow pages prove that Scripture is not clear. What the Protestant founders claimed amounted to supposing that Christ had told the Apostles or others: "Write some books; get copies made; tell the people to figure them out for themselves." That would be unthinkable for multiple reasons. It was some time before the New Testament was complete (the earliest part was probably 51 A.D.); copies were very expensive before printing; and so many people were illiterate, or at least lacked the knowledge to interpret Scripture. The inspired Second Epistle of Peter says of the Epistles of St. Paul, "In them there are certain things hard to understand, which the unlearned and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do the other Scriptures." (2 Peter 3:16).
Actually, the Protestant founders and their followers had no logical right even to appeal to the New Testament. In the first centuries, there were in circulation many "gospels" bearing the names of Apostles: The Gospel of Thomas, of James, of Peter, etc., not to mention many epistles. Many Protestants have searched diligently for a way to know which books are inspired. But it is not enough to say that a book which gives one pious thoughts is inspired-many devotional books do that. Nor is it enough to say that those books are inspired which proclaim salvation by faith alone-many books outside Scripture do that. And how can one be sure that is the test? Are there not other doctrines? And what does "faith" mean, anyway? As we will see in the next chapter, Luther was mistaken about the meaning of the word "faith," as many fine Protestant scholars today admit.
Should one say that: "Only Scripture itself can say in a binding way what authority it claims and has ... Scripture considers itself as revelation." This proposal, from the major Lutheran publishing house at Concordia, is really a fine case of begging the question.111 It really means: "inspired Scripture says it is inspired." If so, we must first take for granted that Scripture is inspired and then let Scripture tell us that it is inspired.
The truth is, there is no other way to be certain what books are part of the Bible except through the process examined in Chapter 14. The conclusion was that a body protected in its teaching by the Divine Messenger can say which books are inspired. So without the teaching authority of the Church protected by Christ, one cannot know that Scripture is inspired. Then what becomes of the security of appealing to Scripture alone? It is left resting on a cloud with no firm ground beneath it for support.
So if some Protestants say, "We follow the Bible, not the Pope, who is just a man," we reply, "First, how can you know what is or is not part of the Bible? Only by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church can you be sure of that. Secondly, although the Pope is human, and is a man, he is not an ordinary man. He is the one who is on the receiving end of the promises of Christ. Nor are we, as people sometimes charge, 'putting the Church ahead of Scripture.' No, the role of the Church is, in part, that of making certain for us what Scripture really means-a function given it by Christ Himself."
It has been established that it is only part of the Church's role, for it has, in addition to Scripture, its own ongoing teaching coming down from the Apostles, in accord with His command to go and teach-not to go and write books. We recall that the Gospels are just part of the Church's ongoing teaching, written down under inspiration.
A similar response is in order when someone challenges, "Where in the Bible do you find that?" We reply again that he cannot even know what the Bible is without the Catholic Church, and that Church, like St. Paul, depends not just on the written word of Christ, but on its own ongoing teaching coming down from the Apostles and Christ. For St. Paul wrote, "And the things which you have heard from me before many witnesses, commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others also." (2 Tim. 2:2).112 St. Paul was making provision for the ongoing, living teaching of the Church, in response to the mandate of Christ to go and teach all nations.