“Where is that in the Bible?”
This is the most common question I receive when I discuss the Catholic faith with Protestants. They ask me questions like: “Where is purgatory in the Bible? Or the Mass? Or the pope? Or the rosary?”
These questions assume that Christians should only believe a doctrine if it is explicitly taught in Scripture—what is called sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). The 1647 Protestant Westminster Confession of Faith expressed a key aspect of sola scriptura this way: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”
Now, for many questions I actually can point to explicit biblical evidence for Catholic beliefs and practices. But I consider it more fruitful to challenge the assumption behind the attitude, “I won’t believe it unless you can prove it from Scripture alone.” From my perspective, it sounds a lot like when atheists tell me, “I won’t believe it unless you can prove it from science alone.”
In both cases, the person I’m engaging has adopted a standard for determining what is true that not only fails to account for some of our most basic beliefs—it ends up refuting itself. In fact, some of the best arguments against sola scriptura can be adapted from Protestant criticisms of “scientism,” or the belief that we should only believe what can be known from “science alone.”
Studying science is a great way to understand the natural world and studying Scripture is a great way to understand God’s revelation. When Protestants require scriptural proof before believing that something is divinely revealed, they act like atheists who require scientific proof before believing that something is an objective part of reality. But Catholics can also act like atheists when it comes to knowledge about the world—when they embrace a kind of self-defeating skepticism.
For example, some Catholics say that Protestantism is fatally flawed because there is no way an infallible Scripture can be everyone’s ultimate authority. Instead, one’s fallible interpretation of that Scripture will inevitably be the final authority. But given the conflicting opinions that Protestants have about the meaning of Scripture, a Protestant can never be certain he has the correct interpretation of it. Since an authority structure can’t be built upon a fallible interpretation of God’s word, they say, it must instead be built upon an infallible interpretation of it. And this is only found in the teaching office of the Catholic Church.
You could summarize the argument this way: an infallible text requires an infallible interpreter.
But just as it is self-defeating to require scientific proof for all truths, or biblical proof for all doctrines, it is self-defeating to require infallible certainty for all interpretative judgments. After all, a Protestant can rightly ask a Catholic who makes this argument, “If I can’t trust my fallible judgment about what the Bible means, then how can you trust your fallible judgment about what various Church documents mean? Do you need an infallible interpreter in order to understand what the infallible interpreter said? Or, if you can fallibly recognize the Catholic Church’s authority then why can’t I fallibly arrive at the unique and sufficient authority of Scripture?”
No one can escape the need to make fallible judgements about what is true based on the nature of evidence. Protestants look at the evidence and make a decision to trust a model rooted in sola scriptura, and Catholics look at the same evidence and make a decision to trust a model rooted in Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the magisterium.
This is why I prefer the more modest argument which avoids claims about “fallible judgments.” Instead, it asks which of these judgments has the best chance of crossing the “gap” between the giving of divine revelation in the first century and the framework of Scripture and apostolic traditions that Christians use to understand that revelation. Catholicism is simply in a much better position to cross that gap because it allows for God to transmit his revelation through Sacred Tradition and the teachings of the magisterium instead of relying on Scripture alone to determine its scope.
We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from When Protestants Argue Like Atheists: 12 Weird Ways That Anti-Catholics Mimic Secular Skeptics.
“Where is that in the Bible?”