I was a Protestant for 34 years before becoming Catholic. But for many years prior, I had doubts that would prove to play a large role in leading me into the Catholic church. I was probably in my early twenties when I became frustrated with the glib or dismissive attitudes some Christians would have regarding the relationship of their beliefs to Scripture. “Sure, sure, that might make sense, but if we just believe the Bible, then we see that [insert doctrine under dispute] is true.”
This kind of approach was always extremely annoying to me because of how obviously circular it is. The oversimplified version of the argument seems to be, “We know Scripture teaches X because of all these passages that teach it, and we know that alternative explanations of those passages are wrong because Scripture does not teach those things, but teaches X.”
Many times this kind of pseudo-thinking is deployed, it is in the context of a debate over what exactly it is that Scripture is saying. Arguments from church history, the insights of theologians, philosophy, and experience are all brought to bear to make a case for or against some interpretation of Scripture. To merely appeal back to Scripture to resolve the dispute is like saying that we don’t need to listen to the defense attorney because the defendant is obviously guilty.
I came to realize that many doctrinal disputes among Protestants are really just closeted philosophy debates. Since you can’t really use philosophy when doing theology in Protestantism, typically those philosophical ideas work their way into the debate unseen and in the clothing of some Biblical proof-text. If you don’t do it that way, you leave yourself open to the accusation of appealing to something outside of Scripture.
Sometimes this happens in very explicit ways: I was reading a YouTube comment where a (presumably) Protestant person wrong a long list of Catholic doctrines which are “not found anywhere in Scripture.” The fact that, for example, St. John Chrysostom (4th century) pretty clearly believed that “on this rock” in Matthew 16:18 was a reference to the papacy1, at least in general terms, can ultimately be dismissed because the papacy is not spelled out systematically elsewhere in Scripture.
But sometimes it happens in more subtle ways. If you argue with a Protestant, they will say something like, “At the end of the day, you have to show this in Scripture, and if it’s not in Scripture, then you can’t treat it like dogma.” This is a more cautious and realistic form of sola scriptura, in which Scripture is not the sole source of doctrine but is rather the final authority, the judge between disputants.
What I have come to recognize about even this more cautious version of sola scriptura is that it functions as a kind of skeptical defense. It doesn’t matter if the argument is sound and well-supported by a variety of evidence; I am within my rights to refuse to believe it if it cannot be sufficiently demonstrated from scriptural sources alone. In this way, the Protestant is a lot like the atheist or skeptic, who is content to dismiss a wide variety of reasonable arguments by saying that they aren’t “scientific.”
Some atheist skeptics are clearly unreasonable. Of course you cannot prove that God exists “scientifically” because “science” deals with a limited range of subject matter. It is simply not suited for investigating (among other things) the question of God’s existence. But for the naive and unreasonable skeptic, this simply confirms that they are within their rights to deny this existence of God in spite of good arguments and evidence.
Most skeptics are not this dumb, because I think you actually have to choose to be that dumb, and most skeptics have enough intellectual integrity to avoid this mistake. But even still, many skeptical atheists would rather propose convoluted theories to explain away miracles like the Resurrection or answered prayer than simply accept that these things are possible and that believing in them is a reasonable thing to do.
There is an underlying attitude here, one that I am frequently guilty of myself: you engage in refuting or undermining every argument, waiting to find that one argument that you can’t refute, the one argument which coerces you into belief. But of course, this basically never happens, and this is what makes skeptics seem so unreasonable. Very rarely is it the case that the evidence for something is so powerful and overwhelming that it will forcibly open the mind of a determined skeptic.
This seems to be the case for the Protestants when arguing from Divine Tradition. We can find early Christian testimony for these beliefs, we can argue from Scripture that the Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth, we can show how these arguments do not contradict Scripture but in fact are in harmony with it, that they shine light on and open new avenues of appreciating other doctrines, and so on. But the Protestant is always in the position to reject all of this because a sufficiently direct case cannot be made from Scripture alone.
Sure, anybody can build a house with tools. You can use tools to build anything! You can cut and shape and hammer the wood into whatever shape you want, bending it to your will. But if you let wood just tell you want kind of house it wants to be, it’ll all just fit together naturally and then you’ll have the house that’s meant to be.
This is not to say there is no value in such skepticism. Obviously, one is within his rights in rejecting a belief for which he feels there is inadequate evidence or unsatisfactory argumentation. A Protestant is wise to want to ground his beliefs in Scripture, to reject ideas which contradict Scripture, and to value more strongly those doctrines that are explicitly laid out in Scripture.
In the same way that a Christian would tell a skeptic that reason alone is a good starting point, but that he must be open to reason taking him beyond what is narrowly marked by reason alone, so the Catholic tells the Protestant that Scripture is an excellent place to start, but he too must be open to Scripture taking him beyond what is market out in Scripture alone.
To be clear, I do not mean that anything that an ancient Christian said should be accepted on the basis of a plausible historical argument; I would agree that such an argument is merely historical and may not actually be a part of divine revelation. Rather, arguing from history, tradition, and reason is meant to point to the reality of Divine Tradition, i.e., the teachings of the Apostles which are part of the deposit of faith and are therefore part of the Word of God but for which were not recorded in Scripture.
In other words, I’m not arguing from history that some doctrine is likely inspired, given some argument. Rather, I’m using such an argument to justify faith in the authority of the church when it says that such doctrines are divinely revealed and therefore are part of the deposit of the Word of God.
Christians observe that those who argue that a belief must be demonstrated scientifically in order for that belief to be justified are using a self-refuting argument, since it is plain that the standard of scientific demonstration is itself a standard which in principle cannot be scientifically demonstrated.
In the same way, we can observe at least two ways in which sola scriptura is self-refuting:
1. Catholics never tire of pointing out that Scripture itself never claims to be sole repository or memory of divine revelation, nor does Scripture itself claim that all divinely revealed truth will eventually make its way into the canon in some form or other. The closest you are going to get are statements that Scripture is inspired and that therefore we should consider it authoritative.
We may believe that this is how God intended things to work based on some philosophical argument which does not contradict Scripture, and for which there is some Christian testimony in history. But it not directly taught in Scripture, and so therefore the sola scriptura adherent would be logically consistent if he wanted to throw out sola scriptura on the grounds that it is a “tradition of man,” a mere “interpretation,” believed by some but nowhere explicitly taught in Scripture itself.
2. In doing this, the Protestant is obviously engaging in a double-standard. How exactly does the Protestant come to believe in Christianity in general and in the inspiration of Scripture in particular if not by arguments, evidence, and the godly testimony of other Christians? Protestant evangelists and apologists make compelling arguments for the existence of God, the truth of Christianity, and, perhaps most importantly, the inspiration of Scripture itself. Why do these means of persuasion become invalid once one comes to belief in Scripture?
I think part of the underlying motivation of skepticism, the desire to be coerced into belief by irrefutable arguments, is the motivation to find certainty, to find something we can believe which is beyond doubt. Descartes famously argued that he knew he existed because, know matter how much he doubted anything, even if all his sensory experience was a hallucination created by a demon, he was still thinking. I think, therefore, I am.
What sometimes follows from this kind of skepticism is an attempt to ground knowledge on absolutely certain principles, to find something which cannot be doubted and which can hold back the skepticism from consuming everything. Since it seems like so many things can be thrown into doubt, and we can find reasons for doubting nearly everything (every argument has its rebuttal, and every rebuttal its counter-rebuttal), then in order to know anything at all with certainty, there must be some certain “bedrock” of knowledge on which we can rest everything else.
The Protestant, to a certain extent anyway, achieves this with sola scriptura. Scripture becomes a set of first principles that are completely certain, even if we doubt everything else. Sola scriptura functions to satisfy its own skepticism. If man’s reasoning is so flawed and imperfect, how am I to know anything? The answer is that Scripture can tell us what to know.
It is easy to see how this can lead to a kind of fundamentalism as a logical consequence: knowledge is unreliable, but faith is not. Therefore, instead of relying on arguments, you need to reach out in faith. But what exactly are you grabbing onto when you reach out? Only reason can tell you whether the thing you have grabbed is a suitable object of faith. It is easy to see why many people today think faith and reason are in conflict; in many ways, Protestants are unwittingly saying that it is.
What the Catholic says is that man’s reasoning, fallible and corrupted by sin as it is, is still ultimately sufficiently reliable for us to be able to have real knowledge. This must be true to some extent, since we need to be able to know what Scripture says by reading it and reasoning our way through various interpretations. And furthermore, our reason must be reliable enough for us to come to belief in the first place, unless we want to be Christians be sheer force of will (this is called fideism).
But more importantly, we would respond by wondering whether the original process of skepticism is not entirely misguided. The problem is that the skeptical approach shifts the burden of proof from the subject (the thinking person who is trying to know) to the object (the thing they are trying to know). Any thinking person knows that you can find reasons to doubt pretty much anything; but that’s a testimony to the creativity and flexibility of the human mind, not a testimony to its unreliability.
The Protestant tries to solve this by treating the Scriptures like a sacrament: you just need to read it in a posture of faith, and it will be efficacious simply by virtue of its own power. Over time, regular consumption of it will supernaturally weed out doctrinal error. Simply by showing up to Scripture in a spiritually open posture, the knowledge of the truth can be infused into us in the same way that the Catholic believes righteousness is infused into us through the sacraments.
But this clearly does not work, as shown by the many sincere, virtuous, Bible-believing Protestants who disagree amongst themselves over key doctrinal matters. Reading Scripture in a posture of faith does seem to bring us closer to God and therefore make us more disposed to know the truth, but it does not seem to resolve disputes over doctrine.
Often, skepticism (in its various forms) functions as an excuse for being unreasonable, or even for being antagonistic toward knowledge. It’s a way of making sure you never get duped or suckered or let down. I think for Protestants, sola scriptura functions as a way to avoid the problems caused by their skepticism toward the Church. Protestants don’t have any unifying principle beyond “we all agree not to be conned again by the Catholic church,” and this principle is exercised through the skepticism of sola scriptura.
1“Do you see how He, His own self, leads Peter on to high thoughts of Him, and reveals Himself, and implies that He is Son of God by these two promises? For those things which are peculiar to God alone, (both to absolve sins, and to make the church incapable of overthrow in such assailing waves, and to exhibit a man that is a fisher more solid than any rock, while all the world is at war with him), these He promises Himself to give; as the Father, speaking to Jeremiah, said, He would make him as a brazen pillar, and as a wall; (Jeremiah 1:18) but him to one nation only, this man in every part of the world.” St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on Matthew