Spiritual Life
Reasons to Believe
Religions & Sects
Church History
Theology
Philosophy
Ethics
Interviews
Testimonies
In the News
Miscellaneous
Faith & Reason Press Speaker's Forum Links Resources About Us

What Think Ye of Rome?


The Catholic-Protestant Debate on Biblical Authority

(Part Three)


by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie



Summary


Traditional Roman Catholicism has always, in its official pronouncements, held sacred Scripture in high esteem. Indeed, doctors of the church such as Jerome, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas -- when dealing with Holy Writ -- at times sound positively Protestant. Unfortunately, Roman Catholicism has not followed their lead and has elevated extrabiblical tradition to the same level as the Bible. The authors maintain this is a serious error, having dire consequences on the practical formation of the layperson's Christian faith. Scripture itself should be the final authoritative guide for the Christian. As the apostle Paul reminds Timothy, "From infancy you have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15 [The New American Bible]).


How should evangelical Protestants view contemporary Roman Catholicism? In the first two installments of this series[1] Kenneth R. Samples showed that classic Catholicism and Protestantism are in agreement on the most crucial doctrines of the Christian faith, as stated in the ancient ecumenical creeds. Nonetheless, he also outlined five doctrinal areas that separate Roman Catholics from evangelical Protestants: authority, justification, Mariology, sacramentalism and the mass, and religious pluralism.


Samples observed that Roman Catholicism is foundationally orthodox, but it has built much on this foundation that tends to compromise and undermine it. He concluded that Catholicism should therefore be viewed as "neither a cult (non-Christian religious system) nor a biblically sound church, but a historically Christian church which is in desperate need of biblical reform."


With the first two installments of this series being largely devoted to establishing that Catholicism is a historic Christian church, it is appropriate that in the remaining installments we turn our attention to the most critical doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants. This is especially important at a time when many ecumenically minded Protestants are ready to portray the differences between Catholics and Protestants as little more important than the differences that separate the many Protestant denominations. For although the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants do not justify one side labeling the other a cult, they do justify the formal separation between the two camps that began with the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and that continues today.


Among the many doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants, none are more fundamental than those of authority and justification. In relation to these the Protestant Reformation stressed two principles: a formal principle (sola Scriptura) and a material principle (sola fide)[2]: The Bible alone and faith alone. In this installment and in Part Four we will focus on the formal cause of the Reformation, authority. In the concluding installment, Part Five, we will examine its material cause, justification.


PROTESTANT UNDERSTANDING OF SOLA SCRIPTURA


By sola Scriptura Protestants mean that Scripture alone is the primary and absolute source for all doctrine and practice (faith and morals). Sola Scriptura implies several things. First, the Bible is a direct revelation from God. As such, it has divine authority. For what the Bible says, God says.


Second, the Bible is sufficient: it is all that is necessary for faith and practice. For Protestants "the Bible alone" means "the Bible only" is the final authority for our faith.


Third, the Scriptures not only have sufficiency but they also possess final authority. They are the final court of appeal on all doctrinal and moral matters. However good they may be in giving guidance, all the fathers, Popes, and Councils are fallible. Only the Bible is infallible.


Fourth, the Bible is perspicuous (clear). The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear, but rather the essential teachings are. Popularly put, in the Bible the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. This does not mean -- as Catholics often assume -- that Protestants obtain no help from the fathers and early Councils. Indeed, Protestants accept the great theological and Christological pronouncements of the first four ecumenical Councils. What is more, most Protestants have high regard for the teachings of the early fathers, though obviously they do not believe they are infallible. So this is not to say there is no usefulness to Christian tradition, but only that it is of secondary importance.


Fifth, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is known as the analogy of faith principle. When we have difficulty in understanding an unclear text of Scripture, we turn to other biblical texts. For the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In the Scriptures, clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear ones.


CATHOLIC ARGUMENTS FOR THE BIBLE PLUS TRADITION


One of the basic differences between Catholics and Protestants is over whether the Bible alone is the sufficient and final authority for faith and practice, or the Bible plus extrabiblical apostolic tradition. Catholics further insist that there is a need for a teaching magisterium (i.e., the Pope and their bishops) to rule on just what is and is not authentic apostolic tradition.


Catholics are not all agreed on their understanding of the relation of tradition to Scripture. Some understand it as two sources of revelation. Others understand apostolic tradition as a lesser form of revelation. Still others view this tradition in an almost Protestant way, namely, as merely an interpretation of revelation (albeit, an infallible one) which is found only in the Bible. Traditional Catholics, such as Ludwig Ott and Henry Denzinger, tend to be in the first category and more modern Catholics, such as John Henry Newman and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in the latter. The language of the Council of Trent seems to favor the traditional understanding.[3]


Whether or not extrabiblical apostolic tradition is considered a second source of revelation, there is no question that the Roman Catholic church holds that apostolic tradition is both authoritative and infallible. It is to this point that we speak now.


The Catholic Argument for Holding the Infallibility of Apostolic Tradition


The Council of Trent emphatically proclaimed that the Bible alone is not sufficient for faith and morals. God has ordained tradition in addition to the Bible to faithfully guide the church.


Infallible guidance in interpreting the Bible comes from the church. One of the criteria used to determine this is the "unanimous consent of the Fathers."[4] In accordance with "The Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent" (Nov. 13, 1565), all faithful Catholics must agree: "I shall never accept nor interpret it ['Holy Scripture'] otherwise than in accordance with the unanimous consent of the Fathers."[5]


Catholic scholars advance sever