Friday, November 02, 2018

If sola scriptura is the problem, is the magisterium the solution?

Perhaps the major Catholic objection to the Protestant faith is that sola Scriptura "fails" to secure unanimity. It spawns "30,000" denominations. It's a "blueprint for anarchy". An infallible book is pointless without an infallible interpreter. 

Here's one way to formulate the objection: Calvinists don't find Arminian interpretations convincing while Arminians don't find Calvinist interpretations convincing. Paedobaptistis don't find credobaptist interpretations convincing while credobaptists don't find pedobaptist interpretations convincing. Zwinglians don't find sacramental interpretations convincing while sacramentalists don't find Zwinglian interpretations convincing. Amils don't find premil interpretations convincing while premils don't find amil interpretations convincing. Charismatics don't find cessationist interpretations convincing while cessationists don't find charismatic interpretation convincing. And so on and so forth. 

Therefore, we need an authoritative tiebreaker to cast the winning vote. A referee to say which side is right. 

But if that's the problem, is the Roman Magisterium the solution? No, because the magisterium simply relocates the same problem. The magisterium has failed to secure unanimity. It failed to forestall the Photian schism. It failed to forestall the Protestant Reformation. It failed to forestall the Jansenist movement. It failed to forestall the rise of modernism in the Catholic church. It failed to forestall the RadTrad backlash. 

And for the same reason: Protestants don't find the purported evidence for the magisterium convincing. They don't find the biblical prooftexts and patristic prooftexts convincing. What is more, they don't find the answers provided by the magisterium to be convincing. And not just Protestants, but Eastern Orthodox. And not just outsiders, but insiders (e.g. Jansenists, modernists, RadTrads). 

If God intended the magisterium to be the solution, why didn't he provide convincing evidence? Evidence sufficient so that everyone is persuaded by the "solution"? Just as rival Protestant groups find each others interpretations unconvincing, ever so many people both inside and outside the Roman communion find Magisterial interpretations unconvincing. 

So the Catholic answer fails to resolve the problem it posed for itself. And that's worse for Catholics since Protestants don't concede that sola Scriptura is a disqualifying objection to begin with. If, however, you're going to say that sola Scriptura is fundamentally unsatisfactory because it fails to secure unanimity, then the onus is on you to solve the perceived problem. Catholic apologists fail to discharge their own burden of proof because their alternative merely repackages the perceived problem. So they failed on their own grounds. There's no failsafe. The magisterium is just another "answer" that lots of people find unpersuasive–like answers in general. 


  1. Thanks so much Steve. This is one area that I've tried to understand for a long time. RCs might say its fair that the magisterium just relocates the problem, but then they turn right around and claim "but we have been divinely appointed to get it right." And they'd never admit to getting it wrong. So how do you show a Catholic that there was no divine appointment to begin with?

    I have an excerpt from Cardinal Wiseman, who explained how the ordinary magisterium gets at the truth. When you read it, it's *identical* to how all non-Catholic students of Scripture get the truth-by practicing sound hermeneutics! So the fallback is to claim "our interpretation is divine, yours isn't." How do we get around that?

  2. They face a dilemma. They can't argue from the magisterium unless they first argue for the magisterium. They can't appeal to the authority of the magisterium to interpret Scripture and the church fathers before they establish that God did indeed appoint a magisterium. So they must initially rely on ordinary reasoning to interpret their prooftexts. But if ordinary reasoning is adequate to interpret their prooftexts, haven't they unwittingly demonstrated that the magisterium is unnecessary?

    1. They can't validly say their interpretation is divine because they arrive at their belief in the magisterium through ordinary reasoning. They have a fallible belief in the infallible church. They can't rise any higher than their fallible belief.

    2. You'd think 3 versions of the Catechism's teaching on the death penalty might open the eyes of a few catholics, but it doesn't seem to have happened.

  3. One objection I hear is that Protestants can't get something as central/essential as the Eucharist correct and/or achieve unanimity. Or that some Protestants are even indifferent about the topic. Thus showing Protestantism as likely not a real manifestation of the church. But that begs the question that the metaphysical details of the eucharist is an essential. I've pointed out that the doctrine of predestination is arguably more clearly taught and more frequently addressed and/or alluded to in Scripture than the doctrine of communion. Yet, Catholicism has room for disagreement on the issue of predestination. Some are Augustinians, some Thomists, some Molinists et cetera. Using Catholic reasoning, wouldn't that imply indifference, uncertainty and a lack of an ability and mechanism to settle an important doctrinal issue? In which case, wouldn't that disqualify the Catholic Church given that particular Catholic objection that's often made? Seriously, if the RCC's claims are true, why didn't a Roman Bishop rule on the Arian issue and settle the matter for all time? Instead, the controversy lasted half a century.

    Moreover the original objection fails because the Corinthians had to be instructed about communion at least twice. An additional time is recorded in 1st Corinthians by Paul. Other authors possibly addressed the topic further in other passages, like the mention of "agape feasts" in Jude 1:12 (etc.). If the first instructions weren't sufficient to dispel all future disagreements in doctrine and practice regarding communion, why assume the final Apostolic instructions by the last living Apostle would dispel or prevent the rising of all future theological disagreements on that (and other) topic(s)? Therefore, disagreements among Protestants on the Eucharist isn't disqualifying.


    1. The difference between 1st century Christians and us is that there are no longer living inspired Apostles who have full Apostolic prerogatives, like the giving of new Revelation (verbal, written etc.). Even the Catholic Church doesn't claim that its (alleged) Apostolic Successors have such prerogatives. Not even the Pope or the Magisterium as a whole.

      Moreover, various "Catholic" communions/denominations (RCC, EO, Coptics etc.) claim to have MORE Revelation than Protestants to draw upon by which (in principle) to be able to resolve theological questions/disputes, not less revelation. So, shouldn't they have greater unanimity? Yet, they really don't. And often on issues THEY THEMSELVES consider essential (e.g. is the Bishop of Rome the supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church). Whereas we Protestants can consistently live by the well known maxim, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity" (falsely attributed to Augustine).

      On the one hand they criticize Protestants on disagreements on the Eucharist, yet the various Catholic groups also disagree on it. For example, Orthodoxy doesn't accept the philosophical explanations of transubstantiation by Romanists. When you point out that there is that disagreement despite a shared Tradition, Romanists will say, the Orthodox doctrine of the liturgy and the eucharist is close enough to their own. Thus exposing the arbitrariness of what they consider essential and non-essential, what's required precision, and what permissible imprecision. They waffle on principles, methods, approaches, criteria by talking from both sides of the mouth in a self-serving manner.

    2. The eucharist is central in Catholicism, and in traditional Catholicism you had to be a communicant member of Rome to be saved. That certainly raises the stakes. If, however, the real presence is wrong, then it's not an all-important issue. And of course, post-Vatican II theology doesn't regard as as a dispute which jeopardizes one's eternal soul.

    3. Moreover, almost all Protestants celebrate the eucharist, so even if the real presence is true, it doesn't follow that you must believe in the real presence to receive it. That's an additional assumption.

  4. Excellent article Steve! Really sums it all up well. (and I could understand it)
    Here is something else I just put up over at Luis Dizon's Facebook page, (that just come to me how to express what Newman's "to be deep in history" statement really means:

    What Newman ultimately meant that was to be deep in his development theory that anachronistically reads all the dogmas developed from 500s and 600s AD up to the 1870 Papal Infallibility dogma - reading all of that back into early church history; but it was not there. (Reading PVM 553 AD, Purgatory, Transubstantiation 1215, Trent 1545-1563; 1854 (ICM), 1870 (PI) back into early church.

  5. Hi Steve, thanks for this helpful post. I’m wondering if you could help me with something along the lines of what you’ve written. I have been in touch with an RC apologist, having had a growing interest in RC. I am no longer in contact because he didn’t seem to want to think with me regarding my questions. His main point was that holding to sola scriptura makes oneself ones own pope, case closed.

    Here’s part of our interchange that led up to it:

    I wrote:

    “I don’t see how anyone of us –– in grappling with truth claims –– escapes the process of needing to come to conclusions based on what we deem is the best evidence. Isn’t it true that you, Jim, and you alone had to decide whether or not the RCC was right in its truth claims or not? You did your homework. You weighed the evidence. You came to your conclusion quite apart from any authority telling you that “you must accept this as true.” Then once you decided that the evidence was convincing and belief was warranted, you set all that aside and handed over that process to the collective RCC consensus.”

    Jim (RC) replied:

    “It’s true that I had to "decide" at some point to hand my own magisterial authority over to another. I see this as analogous to what anyone meeting Jesus or one of the apostles would have to have done. I would have to listen to Jesus and watch and "decide" but once I decided that He should function as an authority in my life, from then on I would listen. It would seem that so far you have found no one on earth to function as an authority for you. Which makes sense until you realize that on that basis you can't even know which books to include in the Bible which you are interpreting for yourself.”


    The following are my latest thoughts. While I don’t anticipate any further contact with Jim, for my own peace of mind I’d like to know if I am I on the right tract. I’d appreciate your feedback. -Charlie

    Jim, your claim that

    A. Scripture + Tradition + Magisterium mean “I’m no longer my own pope” over against
    B. “sola scriptura” meaning “I am still my own pope” seems like a false dichotomy.

    To live each day believing that “A” is the way to go is every bit as much your opinion as me living each day believing that “B” is the way to go.

    The amount or degree of submission to our preferred authority is irrelevant. It will always be your opinion, based on presuppositions you subscribe to, that legitimize your submission to your authority. And so with me.