The Bible Alone Trap: The Black Hole of Protestant Epistemology

Objection:

The system of sola scriptura is just as strong as the Roman Catholic system. Both groups are appealing to an alleged infallible authority.

Response:

Under the Roman Catholic system, authority is centralized and unified to give definitive judgement on doctrinal or moral issues. Rome claims all authority for giving a definitive judgement on a doctrinal or moral issue concerning what the Scriptures teach. For instance, it is anathema to believe that faith without works justifies, or that water baptism is not necessary for salvation. Yet, on these two issues alone, Protestantism, as a whole, is divided.

But our Protestant opponent will insist that this is not a valid objection to the system of sola scriptura since there might be one (or many) particular denominations within Protestantism which are truly upholding the Scriptures as the sole infallible authority. In fact, the Roman Catholic is simply replacing one alleged infallible source (the Church) with another (the bible). Either way, the believer is in the same position with regard to the source; namely, each fallible believer is looking at an (alleged) infallible source.

On the face of it, this argument is a valid one but it falls on, at least, two grounds:

1) Perpescuity (clearness) of Scripture to all Sola Scripturists (SS)

The fact that those who follow sola scriptura all claim to be “bible aloners” and the fact that they disagree on many essential doctrines indicates that the Scriptures are not clear to everyone as a whole within this system. If it were ‘clear’, there would be no disagreement, by definition. Each individual or denomination might find a particular question ‘clear’, but when a consensus is sought with other SS, none can be found. Thus, on a macro level between adherents of this system, Scripture cannot be said to be clear or perspicuous. Obviously, however, no SS will admit that the Scriptures are unclear since it is evidently clear to each of them (at least on those matters essential to salvation).

Yet, this would betray what the very notion of ‘clear’ means. Two groups, for instance, who hold opposite views on a question may see the matter as ‘clear’ to themselves, but their very disagreement disqualifies the issue as being regarded as ‘clear’ on a macro level. Indeed, for something to be truly clear, we generally mean that any proposition advanced is evident to not only any particular individual or group within the population but to the entire population (or at least the great majority of it) under consideration. In this question, therefore, we should expect that for anything which is perspicuous, the proposition being advanced should be evident to the entire population of SS so they can arrive at some semblance of concord. However, due to the manifest doctrinal differences in Protestantism, the SS system proves, by its very nature, that the bible cannot be clear on a macro level. This system therefore fails to uphold one of its major tents: the perspicuity of Scripture.

2) Authority of Scripture

Our Protestant opponent will simply argue that the divisions in Protestantism only indicate that there are true SS and there are false SS. Normally, the Roman Catholic would then ask the inevitable question: without claiming an authority outside of Scripture, how do you identify who is the true SS and who are the false ones? Our opponent will no doubt remind us that, although there are false SS, there are also true ones as well – just like Rome claims to be the one true church and all other churches to be false in its system. So, he will claim, we are back to Square 1 since the Roman Catholic is no better off in determining who is the true interpreter of the Scriptures.

But we are not back to Square 1 at all. There does exist a significant difference between both systems. Although there might be a true SS, there can be no way of identifying them. In fact, there might not even be one person who has all the truth necessary for salvation. In essence, under the SS system, God has set up a true SS group (or various individuals known only to God or no one at all) with no way of identifying who they are (if they do exist). Yet, curiously, if the true SS were correct and all others false, then they would be essentially replacing Rome with themselves as the true proclaimers of the Gospel.

So, in other words, the SS system cannot even attempt to identify and sift who are the true SS and who are the false SS since, as we have already seen, the ecclesiology of SS – being confined to the Scriptures – traps anyone who seeks to do so. If only Scripture has the authority to determine the truth, then no individual SS can categorically reject another SS’s theology – since he has no authority to do so. He cannot point to a mechanism of resolution that his co-religionist cannot also claim, which by definition, is the bible alone. In effect, there is a stalemate with no possibility of resolution.

Our Protestant opponent says that authority is solely based on the Scriptures. Yet how is that authority to be applied in resolving differences between SS? The Catholic subscribes to a system (Ecclesia Dei – ED) where the ecclesiatical office of its church is the ultimate judge of a question. Under the SS system, anyone can apply their own authority, which is non-binding and therefore useless, in arriving at a moral or doctrinal decision. Yet, if anyone can apply the authority of Scripture licitly – yet in opposite moral or doctrinal directions – then there exists no real, relevant or binding authority in Scripture. The authority is certainly there, but there is no way of using or applying that authority to the faithful when a conflict arises. Under the SS system, there can be no definitive, universal, and binding settlement over those who do not share any particular SS’s view (unless there exists an authority outside of Scripture to apply its view). In essence, if you cannot appropriate the authority of Scripture to yourself to the exclusion of someone else, then that other person has the same ‘right’ and ‘power’ to wield the authority of that same Scripture against you.

3) Synthesis

But cannot the same objection be raised against the Catholic Church? Just because it claims to be infallible and escape the SS trap, it still has to prove that it alone is infallible while the other claimants are not.

This is true. But, the question then has fundamentally shifted from between systems to within systems. This is the first issue which must be appreciated. The question regarding who represents the true voice of the Gospel is, on a fundamental level, substantially different from evaluating the systems themselves.

By pointing to the

(a) difficulty in identifying who is the true voice among competing claims (which the SS cannot even do)

does not represent the same task as

(b) assessing the internal strength of the system itself

Our Protestant opponents like to jump to (a) without addressing (b) first.

The first exercise is to identify the internal sustainability of each system. Then and only then, do we concern ourselves with further claims within each system. We have discovered that the SS system is epistemologically flawed, and so it must be likewise rejected as an untenable ecclesiology.

The bible is (at least) a source of each system. The above diagrams represent a visual aid to capture the challenge which each system faces. The outer boundary of each system represents the means by which the Gospel is communicated.

Under SS, the outer boundary cannot sustain itself since the means of ultimate communication – the denominational filter – is fractured and divided. The boundary starts to disintegrate because of all of the opposing voices (represented by the smaller squares) and the absence of an adhesive to keep them together. These voices unrestrainedly pull the boundary in opposite directions, causing the whole system’s internal demolition. Thus, while the source of the system (the bible) is not affected, the SS system itself collapses since it cannot speak cohesively for the source.

Under the ED model, however, there is no such internal collapse since the ‘ecclesiastical office’ is the only voice which can definitively speak on a doctrinal or moral issue. While differing factions within the ecclesiastical community(ies) may seek to explode the boundary (much as in the same way as under the SS model), the internal unity of the system and cohesiveness of the message are ultimately preserved because of the centrality and authority of the ‘ecclesiastical office’ within each community.

Our opponent may simply then point out that there are many ‘ecclesiastical offices’ to choose from (i.e. Rome, Brooklyn, Salt Lake City, etc.) so there is really no difference from the Protestant denominational problem. However, this is a deficient analysis of the question since here we are talking about the system itself, not the legitimacy of the contestants within the system. The key is to appreciate that the SS does not put a judicial weight on a denomination’s authority while the ED does. That is an enormous but subtle distinction. The system of SS cannot come to a resolution on doctrinal matters while the system of ED can and does do so.

The SS system looks to the bible for a binding decision on a doctrinal matter, but since the instrumental means by which that decision comes (i.e. through each denomination’s leadership) has no ultimate juridical authority, no binding decision can be rendered over all of the adherents of that system. On the other hand, the ED system looks to the ‘ecclesiastical office’ to receive a final judicial decree on a doctrinal matter, and it receives it. Furthermore, its decision is binding on everyone, including all SS and all other claimants of the ED. The fact that a particular ecclesiastical office might not be correct or legitimate is another question altogether since that touches upon the legitimacy of the contestants to that office – it does not impugn the system itself.

Perhaps at this stage an illustration would be helpful to bring the issue down from the abstract to the concrete. Let us propose a doctrinal question and pose it to representatives of each system. Let us say that “Jack” wants to know what the truth is concerning the necessity of water baptism and what its significance is in salvation.

The representatives are…

Representing the SS system:
Paul, the Protestant

Representing the ED system:
Charlie, the Catholic
Mark, the Mormon
Joe, the Jehovah’s Witness.

Paul steps up first. But there is a problem. Since Paul represents a number of competing factions within his system (SS) with none having authority over the other, he cannot give a coherent or cogent answer. Therefore, in answer to the question, he simply says: “I can’t answer the question.”

Now the other three guys have their turn. Since their system (ED) recognizes an authority outside of the bible, they are not neutralized by the others’ opinion of the bible. (Under the SS system, recall that Paul could not speak since all of the factions he represented had equal weight and authority.) Charlie, Mark, and Joe, however, are free to voice an opinion on the question based on the alleged authority they have outside of the bible.

Of course, after hearing the answers, Jack will want to know which is the legitimate authority, but at that point, the question then changes from between systems (SS vs. ED) to within the systems – namely, within the ED system (Roman Catholic, JW, Mormon). And that is all the proponents of the ED system have to do; namely, to prove that SS cannot work and that ED does work – which we have just demonstrated. Discovering which contestant in the ED system is the legitimate one is another question entirely.

The bottom line here, folks, is that the SS is a trap. You can’t win and you can’t get out.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
December 11, 2001

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *