The Sola Scriptura Dance
by Mark Bonocore
Any experienced Catholic apologist is quite familiar with "the dance". An Evangelical Protestant "Bible-alone" believer will accuse the Catholic Church of "error" - of contradicting what the Bible "clearly" teaches, and of following the "traditions of men" rather than the Scriptural Word of God.
The Catholic apologist's first response to this challenge will typically be to address the substance of the argument - to deal with the Scriptural passage in question (the Scriptural passage that Catholicism supposedly "contradicts"), and to illustrate (using mature exegesis and historical precedent, etc.) that Catholic doctrine does not contradict the content of Scripture at all, but is actually in full accord with it.
In reaction to this, more often than not (and even if the Catholic's response is obviously sound, and perfectly acceptable to any reasonable person), the Evangelical Protestant will continue to insist that the Scripture passage is incompatible with Catholic doctrine - that the "error" of Catholicism is exposed by this "clear" and "obvious" Biblical teaching. And, at this point, an Evangelical Protestant will typically "pile on" his accusations, claiming how many other Catholic doctrines (which of course have nothing to do with the present discussion) are also "refuted" by the Bible.
In response to this, the Catholic is now forced to address the Evangelical Protestant's methodology. Since the Evangelical will not accept (or even acknowledge) the Catholic's Scriptural exegesis, the Catholic must point out that there is a reasonable distinction between what is actually written in the Bible and this Evangelical Protestant's interpretation of what is written. At this point, the Catholic expects the Evangelical to acknowledge that his argument against Catholicism is based, not on an obvious and undisputed reading of the Biblical text, but on the Evangelical's own, specific interpretation of the Biblical text; and since their dispute is based on mere interpretation, the Catholic expects the Evangelical to at least admit the possibility that his own interpretation of what is written may be incorrect. Indeed, if the Evangelical continues to insist that his own reading / interpretation is clear and obvious, then the Catholic will refer him to the bigger picture in "Bible alone" Protestantism - to the fact that there are literally thousands of separate and doctrinally-divided "Bible alone" Protestant sects, all with the same Bible, but all interpreting it differently.
At this point, the specific response depends heavily on the personal character, maturity, and level of education of the Evangelical Protestant. Some (never realizing this problem before, and recognizing that they are unprepared to continue) will end the discussion. Some will simply ignore the problem, and continue to bash Catholicism (sometimes making the totally irrelevant "tit-for-tat" argument, that the same kind of heterodoxy supposedly exists within Catholicism). And some will acknowledge the problem of Protestant heterodoxy, yet give various excuses to account for it: Some, not appreciating the untenable and blindly subjective nature of their position, will say that all other Protestant denominations are also reading the Bible incorrectly. Only their own denomination has a sound appreciation of what Scripture really says. Others will insist that the rampant heterodoxy within Protestantism has nothing to do with the use of "Bible alone", but is created by the same sort of "human error" that supposedly plagues the Catholic Church.
Yet, no matter what the excuse or attempt to justify the "Bible alone" position, two profoundly obvious elements are always at play: The first is the Evangelical's unwillingness to seriously acknowledge the problem of pure subjectivity (and even outright relativism) in Protestant Biblical interpretation - something quite obvious to all Catholic apologists. But, the second element, I would seriously argue, is even more important. For, it speaks to the fundamental psychology of the vast majority of Protestants - the very thing that drives them to be Protestant - to belong to a religion that, in essence, "protests" against "error" - a form of Christianity that is preoccupied with the principals of "purity" and "reform". And this second element is the assumption (implicit in almost everything the Evangelical says toward his doctrinal opponent, whether it's a Catholic, someone from a competing Protestant sect, or even a secular atheist) that the opposition is "corrupt", and thus "blinded by" sin and iniquity, thus accounting for his doctrinal error. In other words, in the Evangelical Protestant's (implicit perhaps even subconscious) view of things, the reason we Catholics are in error, isn't merely because we (supposedly) read the Bible incorrectly. Rather, it's because (as the Evangelical sees it - given his religious world-view), we Catholics are part of the "sinful corruption" - the "mess" that his sect is committed to redeeming and reforming. This is the essential and fundamental mentality of nearly every Evangelical Protestant - his psychological raison d'etre; the nature of what a Catholic apologist is really dealing with, when he responds to challenges like the one illustrated above.
And, once one realizes this, it becomes fairly obvious why purely rational, fact-based arguments against Protestant positions predominately fall on deaf ears. For, when a Catholic points out how the use of "Bible alone" only results in relativistic heterodoxy, or even when we illustrate how "Bible alone" is not a Biblical teaching - how it's not taught anywhere in the Bible, and thus both self-contradicting and the same kind of extra-Scriptural "human tradition" that we Catholics are accused of embracing, none of this seems to effect or significantly disturb most Evangelical Protestants. And the reason is because no rational argument is strong enough to penetrate their psychological preoccupation - their invincible certainty that they stand for what is right and good - that they are the upholders of God's moral truth and saving message, in opposition to "the corruptions" that stands against it. Ergo, no matter how logical or reasonable its arguments may be, the Catholic Church "must be wrong". This is the psychological (perhaps even subconscious) presumption at play.
Indeed, consider the very historical origins of Protestantism in the 16th Century, and one can see the why "Bible alone" is so easily justified in the "reforming" Protestant mentality. At this time, and especially from the point of view of honest, hard-working burgers in northern Germany (i.e., the first Protestants), the Roman Papacy was held by notoriously sinful, secular-minded, politically corrupt Italian aristocrats, who certainly did not embody the time-honored 'Germanic' virtues of purity, simplicity, and straight-forwardness, but (with good reason) were seen as quite 'tricky', scheming, and untrustworthy. These Popes (and their associates) "sold" indulgences, and practiced all sorts of (literally) Machiavellian tactics in order to advance their (political / religious) agendas. So, in short, from the perspective of those who were preoccupied with the vices of these Popes and other Catholic clergymen, the 16th Century Catholic Church was seen as primarily and fundamentally corrupt - a Church that required radical reform. In other words, unlike faithful Catholics (such as Erasmus and Thomas More) who also appreciated the need to rid the Church of corrupt influences, the first Protestants saw the Catholic Church itself as corrupt. Or, more to the point, they saw the (supposed) "doctrinal errors" in Catholicism (e.g. its focus on the saints, Mary, and "ritualistic" Sacraments, as well Catholicism's opposition to sola fide, and other Protestant "truths") as mere extensions (or the natural results) of the pervasive moral corruption in the Catholic Church itself. This is a subtle but crucially important dimension in how Protestants view Catholics and Catholicism - something that is dramatically different from how Catholics commonly view Protestants. For, while a Catholic may believe that a Protestant is in error, this Catholic will almost never presume that the Protestant's error is rooted in personal (or communal) moral corruption. Rather, the Catholic typical assumes that the Protestant is merely poorly educated or woefully ignorant of the truth. Not so when it comes to this Protestant's view of the Catholic. ;-) For, while a sympathetic Protestant may recognize and take pity on a Catholic for intellectual ignorance, the presumption that this Catholic's doctrinal error is actually rooted in sinful / worldly corruption is still always there.
For, even today, the presumption that the Catholic Church is intrinsically corrupt - just as "corrupt" as it was in the 16th Century, is essential to Protestant belief and the Evangelical Protestant mentality. This is the unspoken element in every Catholic-Evangelical debate - a psychological presumption that significantly limits (or even nullifies) the rational arguments made by a Catholic apologist. For, even when a Catholic begins to make rational sense, there is always that "specter" lurking in the back of the Evangelical's mind - a suspicion that this Catholic (and/or his Pope) is really an immoral (or self-deluded) "enemy of the Gospel" - that he probably practices or endorses (or, at best, foolishly tolerates) all manner of corrupt and sinful activities; and this sinful / secular corruption is what leads him to believe as he does (i.e., "wrongly"). In other words, in the Evangelical mind, the Catholic apologist may come across as rational and seem to make sense; but this is all part of Catholic "trickiness" - all part of the sinful/secular corruption that Catholicism notoriously stands for (at least, as Protestants traditionally see it - i.e., the Protestant prejudice and psychological presumption). For, while a Catholic views the world as fallen and in need of redemption and communion with God, we still recognize the world's fundamental created goodness, and we celebrate this goodness and incorporate it into our Faith (e.g. Sacramental theology). But, a Protestant (who harbors an "either/or" Germanic mentality) does not typically see things this way. For the Protestant, the world is primarily a corruption, from which man needs to be delivered. Thus, it is blatantly obvious (to the Protestant mind) that Catholicism's "accord" with the world is a sign of our "corruption".
Now, when it comes specifically to the Protestant use of "Bible alone", both originally in the 16th Century and still today, if one is operating under the (passionate) impression that they are employing the pure and reliable Word of God in opposition to sinful/secular corruption - with sinful / secular corruption seen as the primary and ever-present enemy of the Gospel, then it is not surprising if one is not really concerned about the pitfalls of subjectivity or relativism (e.g. different Protestants deriving different, or even contradictory, doctrines from the Bible). For, in the Evangelical mentality, the urgency is not really truth. Rather, it's "purity" or "reform" - the goal being to rid the believer of the corrupting, sinful/secular influences of the world (including those, so they presume, of the Catholic Church). As long as this is achieved, then the Bible has served its purpose. In other words, as long as the primary preoccupation of Protestantism is realized (to "reform" and to "deliver" the believer from that which is seen as "the error" no matter what that "error" might be), then doctrinal unity or consistency isn't so important. This is the mentality that we are dealing with.
Indeed, the fact that all Protestants hold this same "reforming" preoccupation in common accounts for why Protestants have a much higher threshold of tolerance when it comes to other Protestants than they do for Catholics. For, while other Protestants may disagree with them (even quite passionately, and on numerous key doctrines) the fact remains that both (e.g.) Baptists and (e.g.) Presbyterians are committed to the same primary goal - i.e., to deliver people from the "corruption" of "the world". And, in the Protestant mind, Catholicism is part of this "world" - a (supposedly) corrupt, "secularized Christianity" from which their forefathers escaped.
Now, problems only arise in the Protestant camp (viz. their "Bible alone" methodology) when secularism/"Catholicism" is not a pressing threat, and their own contradictory doctrines become apparent. At this point, one of two things will invariably happen: The Protestants in question will either gloss over their differences by appealing for the need of "charity" among Christians (as if mere "charity" nullifies heterodoxy and is enough to achieve true Christian unity. If it did, then it should be enough to correct the Catholic-Protestant schism as well; and no Protestant is willing to say that). Or, the contending Protestants will adopt (toward each other) the very same presumptions that they apply to Catholics. In other words, they will assume that the Protestants who interpret Scripture differently than they do are the victims of some kind of moral failing or corruption - that they are unable to read the "clear message" of the Bible "correctly" because of some human weakness or secular mentality. In essence, their Protestant opponents have fallen into the "mess". They have (to one degree or another) succumbed to the same "corruption" that plagues Catholics and other such "infidels", whereas "sincere", "faithful", and "obviously true" believers read still Scripture "correctly".
So, is this a primacy of pure subjectivity? Of course. Is it no better than relativism? Most certainly, when looked at objectively and dispassionately. But, you see, objectivity and dispassionate realism are not what is at play here. Rather, we are dealing with the passionate exercise of a reforming agenda - an urgent need to stave off "corruption" and to maintain the "purity" of one's faith. While recognizing this may not correct the problem, it certainly explains WHY Evangelical Protestants are not (apparently) troubled by their purely subjective (and obviously relative) methodology (i.e., their use of "Bible alone"). For while it may not be objective or even rational, it does achieve what the Evangelical Protestant desires to achieve - namely, it serves to "protect" the Evangelical believer from what he personally (or communally) perceives to be "corrupt"/"unclean"/"erroneous". And this is all that matters. This is the nature of the Evangelical Protestant religion. And, lest we Catholics merely become frustrated by what we perceive (quite correctly) to be an immature and irrational mentality, we would first do well to realize what we're dealing with, and to understand why the Evangelical behaves as he does. At the very least, it will serve to improve our "dance steps". ;-)
March 28, 2013