Thursday, July 17, 2008

Protestant Conversions Critique: Sola Scriptura

[This continues a previous post.] Mr. Hagopian continues his efforts at helping "Protestants to come to grips with the reasons why [ ] Neocatholics have set their compasses toward Rome" (internal citations omitted), by turning to the relation of tradition to Scripture.

Sola scriptura. Mr. Hagopian's says that "Neocatholics not only appeal to apostolic succession and to the antiquity of the Roman Catholic Church; they also claim that Scripture was never intended to be the believer's sole guide for all of faith and practice"; they claim they need Scripture and tradition. Christ left a church, not a book, their argument goes, and the very act of defining a canon "requires and presupposes an infallible church."

While the Canon Question shook me from my Sola Scriptura upbringing more than any other, Hagopian dismisses it in two sentences which each repeat the same thought: "The church didn't create Scripture; it simply recognized" its divine character. The Neocatholics are guilty of failing to distinguish between recognition of Holy Writ and its creation.

Frustratingly, he offers no explanation of why this distinction is relevant. It is not evident why an infallible church, which would be required to produce infallible Writ, would not also be required to produce an infallible identification of Holy Writ. Would Mr. Hagopian agree with Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul's conclusion that the Bible is a "fallible collection of infallible books"? Would he agree with Protestant Keith Mathison's view that the church was authoritative to define canon, but only until the 4th century (see The Shape of Sola Scriptura)? In terms of needing an infallible authority, I think writing Scripture and recognizing it is a 'distinction without a difference.' I discussed various Protestant views on the Canon Question here.

Having summarily dismissed that the Church was needed to identify canon infallibly, he turns to the need for the church as an interpretive authority. A Neocatholic analogy here, that the church is needed to interpret something as complex as the Bible because even our simple Constitution needs a Supreme Court to interpret it, is also summarily dismissed. The Supreme Court has "arrogated" (assumed without justification) powers to itself, and become a judicial tyrant. He then implies that the Catholic Church has done the some, and become an ecclesial tyrant. Besides his curt dismissal of one analogy, he does not take up the Neocatholic belief that the Church is somehow needed to interpret Scripture. This is unfortunate. What is one to do when one's interpretation of a biblical text, say on a matter like divorce, does not line up with that of his church? Change churches? Sit unhappily in dissent?

Finally, he takes up the charge of the Neocatholic that "the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura leads necessarily to an "incipient subjectivism"" (citation omitted) because each man becomes his own individual interpretive authority. This position "is riddled with error", I am reassured, because it relies on the "fallacious assumption that a plurality of interpretations necessarily entails subjectivism." The "many interpretations competing in the Protestant marketplace of ideas" are not all false. Indeed, "[t]hey can't all be false, since we know that Christianity is true."

Mr. Hagopian is certainly right that some individual Protestants' interpretations of Scripture are objectively true, even if subjectively derived. I believe his implication is that a group of people (in this democracy of ideas) will be able to corporately identify an objective truth. But this is of little moral comfort for the millions of Protestants whose individual interpretations of Scripture lead them, say, to use contraception or have themselves sterilized. Does the open marketplace of ideas excuse their morally erroneous conclusions? (Note: I am assuming ex arguendo that contraception is objectively immoral.)

He next denies that there is objectivity in Tradition. Rather, he says, Catholicism is at best a system of replacing the individual's subjective views with the subjective views of one man, the Pope, or perhaps a few men, the Magisterium. This, of course, presupposes that the Catholic claims of receiving infallible direction and guidance from the Holy Spirit are false. With the likes of John 14:26 in mind ("But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you"), I wonder if this is a completely fair denial to make.

Mr. Hagopian's discussion on Sola Scriptura continues, but I will wrap it up by noting that without his admitting the possibility that the Holy Spirit could preserve a visible, actual Church, the conversation is a bust. He rejects the Sacred Tradition of Catholicism because it invariably tends to displace Scripture. By displacing Scripture with Tradition, the Neocatholics have accepted that Scripture is not necessary. But this position falls apart if one accepts that the Holy Spirit may work within a Church in ways other than through Scripture alone, if one accepts that Christ's authority could have passed to a visible, actual Church, and not to certain preserved writings alone.

This serves as yet another reminder to me of how vital it is that ecumenical discussions burrow down into the foundational layers of dispute. To bash our opponent-brothers over our surface differences may be to aggravate our divisions, and further offend the will of Christ expressed in John 17: "I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."


Tim A. Troutman said...

I gave up looking for decent arguments on behalf of sola scriptura a year or two before I converted. I am now fully convinced that there aren't any. In reality, if there was a good argument for it, Protestant apologetics would have picked up and it would be widely circulated very quickly.

I actively looked for an argument for about 5 years and couldn't find one. But every single Catholic argument I have looked for, took me all of 5 minutes to find a good one (may have taken more than that to digest it).

There are a lot of reasonable questions one might have about the Church especially given a Protestant upbringing, but in my experience the apologies are so readily available for anyone looking I don't know of any reason why not to be Catholic (or at least every reason that I had before was put to rest by arguments I couldn't answer).

In fact, when I first got the inkling to convert I didn't read any Catholic apologetics at all. All I read is Protestant reasons why not to be Catholic (like this guy although I didn't read his that I remember). And after reading Protestant reasons not to be Catholic for several weeks I was we have absolutely nothing. Where do I sign up?

By default, the Catholic Church is right. Protestants have to have good reasons to justify their "schism" (for them it is schism, it is heresy if the Catholic Church is right). That's why one Lutheran scholar whose name I can't remember said something to the effect of "a Lutheran has to ask himself every day why he's not Catholic". But Catholics don't need to ask ourselves why we're not Protestants.

So for me, I didn't ask myself why I should convert, I asked myself (or rather my Protestant friends) why shouldn't I, and they couldn't give me even one good reason.

Anonymous said...


I am absolutely stumped on this stuff. I can't seem to find any decent arguments supporting this either.

Again, I wonder what it must be like for you being in the PCA with the leanings that you have. You live in Reformation Land! I'm surprised they haven't jumped on your back at this point! I have it much easier, my church home is not so Reformation focused :)

Anyway, interesting post. May the Love of Christ fill your heart. Do you ever think we need a break from this stuff? My head hurts!


George Weis said...

There I go again commenting as my wife :D


Thos said...


"In reality, if there was a good argument for [sola scriptura], Protestant apologetics would have picked up and it would be widely circulated very quickly."

This has been a meaningful point to me for a while (see my post Sola Scriptura is Dead: Of course, others would disagree, and we would need to hammer out a definition for "good", but my (personal) readings have led me to agree with your conclusion.

I have been interested to see the bubble of interest that grew around Mathison's "Shape of Sola Scriptura", which presented a novel answer to the problem, and used scholarship that I found not to hold water (I mean, conclusions not readily supported by evidence). To me this interest was a sign that Protestants are hungry for someone to handle this apologetic Achilles' Heel. Of course, when your Achilles' Heel is also your foundation, that's troubling.

Peace in Christ,

Thos said...


Sometimes I *DO* feel that I need a break from this stuff, and I take them long and I take them often. But these church debates are always in the back of my mind. I usually feel guilty when I take these breaks, because I know I'm taking them more to ignore a problem than to take a refresher. Also, the best way to take a break is to drown my mind with something mindless -- so I'll really get into some project in the home, for example, and by immersing myself I can tune out the problem. But it's still there, especially when the home project is done.

I don't need pitty for being in Reformation land at all. I am glad to be in a somewhat denominationally focused denomination. It makes it easier to measure the one vs. the other. If I were in "free church" (non-denomination), I would feel particularly ungrounded, from history especially.

Peace in Christ,

George Weis said...


I hope you didn't misunderstand me. I certainly don't pity you my friend :) I happen to think very well of the PCA. I just attended a service at Westminster (Here in Lancaster PA). I enjoyed it very much.

But as I understand it, that is where the Reformations heart beat beats the strongest :)

Blessings to you my friend. I am with you on this... I often have this swirling in the back of my head!
My wife regularly asks me if I am thinking about it (she just did within the hour!)