Sola Scriptura or Non Habemus Papam? A Further Response to Michael Horton

Jun 14th, 2012 | By Barrett Turner | Category: Blog Posts

“…and so you see, the concept of nothingness employed by these modern physicists is not ‘nothing,’ but is something. Thus the arguments of Hawking and the like do not refute the arguments for why God is necessary for creation. They still have not answered the question of why there is something rather than nothing because they have just redefined some ‘something’ as ‘nothing.’”

“But God can’t exist because of all the evil in the world! And how can you believe that a piece of bread becomes the flesh of a first century Jew?!”

“I’m sorry, I thought we were talking about these arguments by some physicists about how the world really came into being from nothing without God.”

“The Bible is just mythology!!”

“Um, well, thanks for the conversation. Good day to you!”

The atheist in this story commits the logical fallacy of diversion, losing the thread of discussion in the process. He does not rebut the arguments and challenges that the theist raises against the belief that modern physics has proved that something could come from nothing without God. Instead, he throws down irrelevant objections from other quarters, thereby avoiding the real issue.

Recently, Michael Horton has written a series of blog posts responding to questions about the validity of the Reformation principles of sola fide and sola scriptura, which questioning has in some cases led Reformed pastors and seminarians to convert to the Catholic Church. These posts catalogue why Dr. Horton believes people are wrongly attracted to the Catholic faith. The most striking feature of the most recent post, however, is that Dr. Horton indulges the same bad logic as the atheist above. Instead of showing why sola scriptura does not fall victim to the objections we and Catholics through the ages have raised, Dr. Horton changes the topic to why the Catholic Church’s claims are wrong. “But sola scriptura is true because the papacy didn’t exist in the first century!! How can you believe that Scripture is a dark, obscure book!?”

Now, Dr. Horton is within his rights to raise objections to the Catholic faith. But in an article on the authority of Scripture, he is not within his rights to wave his hands over the text of the bible, mumbling, “Non habemus papam!” and then claim that he has really solved the fundamental problems with the sola scriptura paradigm.

In light of such a misdirected response to the problems of sola scriptura, Horton is in a way making the case for agnosticism. If he cannot refute the Catholic objection to sola scriptura, then we have reason for thinking sola scriptura is not true. By implication, we would have reason for thinking traditions untrue that hold sola scriptura to be crucial for understanding reality. On the other hand, if Horton is correct about the Catholic Church’s claims being historically untenable, then Catholicism is not true, either.1 One is left with something other than either the sola scriptura traditions or Catholicism, perhaps a Church-less belief in Jesus Christ or even agnosticism or atheism. But one is not left with a good reason for thinking sola scriptura is the formal principle which Jesus Christ gave his Church for preserving and advancing in their understanding of his saving work.

All this is ironic in light of Horton’s previous dismissal of the claim that either Catholicism is true, or atheism or nihilism is.2 Dr. Horton has, in his own way, given evidence for the claim’s plausibility. The claim, which comes down to us from Bl. John Henry Newman’s history of his religious opinions, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, is not that it isn’t possible to articulate some other view, Anglican or Reformed or whatever. Rather, Newman’s point was to say “that the same bad logic that leads to the rejection of Catholicism necessarily leads also to the rejection of Theism.”3 The meaning of this striking claim is explained by Newman in the Apologia:

Moreover, I found a corroboration of the fact of the logical connexion of Theism with Catholicism in a consideration parallel to that which I had adopted on the subject of development of doctrine. The fact of the operation from first to last of that principle of development in the truths of Revelation, is an argument in favour of the identity of Roman and Primitive Christianity; but as there is a law which acts upon the subject-matter of dogmatic theology, so is there a law in the matter of religious faith. In the first chapter of this narrative I spoke of certitude as the consequence, divinely intended and enjoined upon us, of the accumulative force of certain given reasons which, taken one by one, were only probabilities. Let it be recollected that I am historically relating my state of mind, at the period of my life which I am surveying. I am not speaking theologically, nor have I any intention of going into controversy, or of defending myself; but speaking historically of what I held in 1843-4, I say, that I believed in a God on a ground of probability, that I believed in Christianity on a probability, and that I believed in Catholicism on a probability, and that these three grounds of probability, distinct from each other of course in subject matter, were still all of them one and the same in nature of proof, as being probabilities—probabilities of a special kind, a cumulative, a transcendent probability but still probability; inasmuch as He who made us has so willed, that in mathematics indeed we should arrive at certitude by rigid demonstration, but in religious inquiry we should arrive at certitude by accumulated probabilities;—He has willed, I say, that we should so act, and, as willing it, He co-operates with us in our acting, and thereby enables us to do that which He wills us to do, and carries us on, if our will does but co-operate with His, to a certitude which rises higher than the logical force of our conclusions. And thus I came to see clearly, and to have a satisfaction in seeing, that, in being led on into the Church of Rome, I was not proceeding on any secondary or isolated grounds of reason, or by controversial points in detail, but was protected and justified, even in the use of those secondary or particular arguments, by a great and broad principle. But, let it be observed, that I am stating a matter of fact, not defending it; and if any Catholic says in consequence that I have been converted in a wrong way, I cannot help that now.4

This argument is, it seems, illustrative of another principle of Newman’s, viz, that to just be able to doubt is no warrant for unbelief. The analogy with the arguments for God’s existence is that, though there are philosophical demonstrations of the existence of God, most people in the event do not come to faith in God by following these arguments in detail (few can do that), but by the cumulative force of the testimony of the surrounding culture, incomplete pieces of evidence (external and internal), and imperfectly followed arguments, each attended by difficulties, but nevertheless, on the whole, showing forth the truth, such that one is not excused from the duty of believing by the possibility of a doubt.

Lacking a cogent response to the case against sola scriptura, Horton’s arguments against Catholicism leave his readers with little but doubt. Here at Called to Communion, we believe that faith in Jesus Christ leads one to adopt the truth of divine revelation as expounded by the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, for Christ founded one visible Church endowed with a teaching office which transmits and protects the deposit of faith for as long as the Church is on her pilgrim journey to the Heavenly Jerusalem. The paradigm of sola scriptura has not maintained and cannot  maintain the unity of the Church in holding to the truths of the gospel, not even with the Reformed nuance of having a fallible ministerial pastoral office which is a norma normata for which the norma normans is Sacred Scripture.

We have interacted with other points of Horton’s recent post, from arguments for sola scriptura to the criticisms of Catholic teaching about apostolic succession and the papacy. For the consideration of our readers, we offer Bryan Cross’s dialogue with Dr. Horton in the pages of Modern Reformation, to which we have added Bryan’s original final reply, together with an extended response to the numerous claims made by Dr. Horton in his concluding remarks. Most of these claims are repeated in the blog post at White Horse Inn. We also commend to our readers a post written by Dr. David Anders which further points out how objecting to Catholicism when posed with an objection to sola scriptura commits the fallacy of non sequitur (“It does not follow.”).

Other material on the principle of sola scriptura and the nature of ecclesial authority can be found on this site’s Index, particularly under the categories The Church (cf. the sub-categories “Apostolic Succession” and “Authority and Infallibility”) and Sacred Scripture.5


  1. Horton’s claims would implicate the rejection of Orthodoxy, as well, given that his objections would apply to any system investing interpretive authority in bishops ordained in apostolic succession. []
  2. Here, third paragraph from the end. []
  3.  The Philosophical Notebook of John Henry Cardinal Newman, ed. Edward Sillem (Louvain, 1968-1970), 2:46, as cited in Ian Ker, John Henry Newman (Oxford, 2009), 565. []
  4.  Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Chapter 4, Part 2, paragraphs 3–6. []
  5. My thanks to Andrew Preslar and Bryan Cross for their indefatigable and forbearing editorial work. Many thanks, brothers! []
Tags: Sola Scriptura

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  1. Great article Barrett. Was the following quote in this article of Horton fictional or a real quote? “But sola scriptura is true because the papacy didn’t exist in the first century!! How can you believe that Scripture is a dark, obscure book!?” I couldn’t find where he said that but it may have been the case that you were simply summarizing an argument he made.

  2. Pio,

    Barrett might be unable to respond for a while, but I can pretty confidently say that that material in quote marks is just a summation of Dr. Horton’s objections.


  3. Pendulum-left, pendulum-right. Absolute certainty or Absolute doubt. Univocity or equivocity. Catholicism or agnosticism. I think you proved Horton’s point for him.

  4. … and a sarcastic summation of Horton at that.

  5. Walt,

    I think that you are mistaking the rhetorical effect of this summary (which is intended) for sarcasm. Barrett is certainly pointing out the irony in Horton’s position, and the fallacy in his method of argument, but his way of doing so is not caustic.


    The post does not present the reader with those false dilemmas. The meaning of Newman’s proposed dilemma between Catholicism and agnosticism is explicitly explained as positing an analogy between arguments against the existence of God and arguments against the Catholic Church. This can be appreciated by reading the quote from Newman, together with the paragraphs immediately preceding and following this quote.


  6. Agnosticism is definitely an issue. For me, without the history of the Church, the saints, and living witnesses, the Bible is just another book, filled with a lot of good words, but little different from other books like the books of Plato, the Stoics, and the Buddhists.

    I didn’t see the movie, “The Book of Eli” but I did hear about the ending. In the end, the last Bible has been saved but the last Christian dies. The Bible is now printed in bulk, along with books of the Koran, the Dhammapada, the Confucian Analects, and other religious books and great works of fiction. Society is free to read these books at their leasure. But there’s nothing to distinguish one book from the other. There’s nothing in the books that tell which books are meant to be taken seriously and which are fiction, and if “supplementary gospels” like those from the Gnostics or Book of Mormon should be included. All that’s left is just books without context.

    To me, this is a fundamental disproof of sola scriptura. Without context, you have no idea what to take seriously and what is officially part of the book and what shouldn’t be. Even if it is meant to be taken seriously, its not clear what’s meant to be historically true and what’s meant to be metaphorically true. It’s just a pile of books.

    Granted, some things like the Book of Proverbs (the Bible), Ecclesiastes (the Bible) , the Confucian Analects, the Dhammapada, and the Dialogues of Socrates are clearly talking about how the wise man acts and how fools act, so its clear, that they are meant to be taken seriously and its easy to test those things out in real life. But how are we to take the Book of Job? Is it okay to commit genocide if we hear a voice in our head saying God said so? Do Jesus and Krishna mean the same thing when Jesus says the Father and I are One? Sola scriptura doesn’t tell you.

  7. The dialogue between Dr. Horton and Bryan is, in my mind, a model of charitable yet serious, ecumenical dialogue.

    I would very much like to see Dr. Horton resume dialogue with Bryan in response to Bryan’s extensive final comments (which, as I understand, went unpublished). That dialogue was so very rich, but would be all the more so, if Horton would continue that conversation in depth. The same can be said for Keith Mathison’s response to the “Sola Scriptura” article here on CTC. It seems to me that the “last word” from both of these fine theologians with respect to the Catholic challenge to the doctrine of sola scriptura, is not so much a response to the challenge itself, as it is a general criticism of other Catholic claims – especially the Catholic claims regarding the Petrine ministry as an enduring Christ-established office and principium unitatis. In the case of the Petrine ministry in particular, something close to a categorical denial that there exists evidence for the Catholic claims has been put forth by both men. Yet, the Catholic exposition of the scriptural, historical, and patristic evidence for the Petrine office (and apostolic succession generally) has been offered in response to both theologians, with an open request for interaction.

    I realize that both men are likely busy with many other responsibilities. Still, I cannot help feeling a bit disappointed by the lack of direct response to the sola/solo critique in itself, as well as any further interaction with the Catholic evidential claims regarding the papacy that were offered upon their initial dismissal thereof. I doubt that simply stating that there is no evidence for a Christ-established Petrine ministry and office will suffice for those seriously weighing the claims of Catholicism over against Protestantism generally – especially in light of a rather abundant set of evidence to the contrary which can and has been produced by Catholics on this site. Upon wrestling for several years with these questions in the late 1990’s, prior to my conversion, the positive scriptural, historical and patristic evidence for the Petrine ministry and office was – for me – at least as compelling as the epistemic inadequacies which Catholics pointed to as embedded within the doctrine of sola scriptura. I have yet to see the Catholic Petrine evidence, or the Catholic criticisms of sola scriptura directly addressed by Reformed theologians. I would very much like to see such an effort – especially in conversation with Catholic theologians. That could be done here.

    Pax Christi,


  8. In reading Dr. Horton’s article, I was arrested by this “quotation” from Jerome:

    … as Jerome observed in the 4th-century, “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders”.

    I googled this in an attempt to find the original quotation. In the Second Helvetic Confession, this reads:

    “St. Jerome also in his commentary upon The Epistle of Paul to Titus, says something not unlike this: “Before attachment to persons in religion was begun at the instigation of the devil, the churches were governed by the common consultation of the elders; but after every one thought that those whom he had baptized were his own, and not Christ’s, it was decreed that one of the elders should be chosen, and set over the rest, upon whom should fall the care of the whole Church, and all schismatic seeds should be removed.”

    “…. something not unlike this”? Does anyone out there have a copy of St. Jerome’s commentary on Titus? I would love to know what he actually wrote, and in what context.

  9. You’re saying more than Newman is saying. The similarity between the arguments is not in subject matter but epistemology, i.e. “arriving at certitude by accumulated probabilities,” “arriving at a certitude which rises higher than the logical force of our conclusions.”

    What you and the author of this post are doing, I believe, is forcing Newman to say something he is not. For example, “On the other hand, if Horton is correct about the Catholic Church’s claims being historically untenable, then Catholicism is not true, either. One is left with something other than either the sola scriptura traditions or Catholicism, perhaps a Church-less belief in Jesus Christ or even agnosticism or atheism.” This is text-book rationalism.

    Hence, my comment above: equivocity or univocity are the rules of CTC, as much you may “thomistically” say otherwise…

  10. Jon,

    The article does say more than Newman says, but not by way of making his argument say more than it says. The article simply says more by considering items not considered by Newman; e.g., Michael Horton’s argumentative strategy. Here is what we have:

    1. Horton responds to objections to sola scriptura by objecting to various teachings of the Catholic Church.

    2. The article points out that this strategy does not render sola scriptura any less problematic. If Horton’s arguments are successful, it only leaves us with two untenable versions of Christianity.

    3. This plays right into the hands of the atheist (and any other critic of Christianity), who claims that there are no tenable versions of Christianity.

    One could respond to this dilemma by arguing that some version of Christianity is tenable–the version argued for does not have to be Catholicism. We, of course, want to respond by arguing specifically for Catholicism. In particular, we want to first put the argument to non-Catholic Christians, who believe that God exists. In this post, we do this by pointing out that the case for Catholicism is similar in kind to the case for theism. The hope is that this observation will help the non-Catholic Christian appreciate that Catholic belief is epistemically warranted.

    In this case, we would have a defeater both for the atheist objection to theism / Christianity and the Protestant objection to Catholicism, and the non-defense of sola scriptura would be rendered moot with respect to the question of whether or not some version of Christianity is tenable. Win, win, win (which is the optimal outcome in conflict resolution).

    Thus, we can agree wholeheartedly with your observation about Newman’s argument:

    The similarity between the arguments is not in subject matter but epistemology, i.e. “arriving at certitude by accumulated probabilities,” “arriving at a certitude which rises higher than the logical force of our conclusions.”

    But we cannot agree that we are engaged in “text-book rationalism.” The bit you quoted, to that effect, is not rationalistic. It does not seek to reduce divine revelation to the deliverances of human reason, or reduce the latter to a priori deductions from intuition. Rather, Barrett has simply pointed out what options are left once one has decided that Catholicism and sola scriptura are untenable. This has nothing to do with modes of predication (equivocal, univocal, or analogous).


  11. Barrett,

    Thank you for articulating so succinctly the basis for my recent depression! I do think you have nicely summarized the unfortunate position of many of us who find themselves somewhere between the apparent insufficiencies of our Protestant presuppositions and the apparently untenable historical position of Rome.


    Please forgive my ignorance, but can you explain in simpler terms your frustration with CtC? I have followed Micheal Horton’s recent posts at WhiteHorseInn. I do not see a rigorous defense of Sola Scripture either at these posts or in his response to the Sola/Solo article here at CtC. Whether or not the historical data definitely undermines the Catholic position (and I do think that is a very important discussion), I wish that Dr. Horton would spend less time explaining why the Catholic Church cannot be what it Claims to be and more time explaining positive arguments in favor of Sola Scriptura.


  12. Burton,

    You wrote to Jon “Whether or not the historical data definitely undermines the Catholic position (and I do think that is a very important discussion)”.

    Sorry to jump in on a conversation you are having with another but I’d be curious to see a discussion on this as well. Do you have any particular bits of historical data in mind that you believe undermines the Cathlolic position? If we have to move such a discussion to another post that is fine but I’d be interested in reading what you have in mind.


  13. So, I’m curious, why should one become Roman Catholic rather than Greek Orthodox? I know it is a little off topic but if Horton is right about the falsity of Papal claims and Mr. Turner is right about the untenability of sola scriptura then isn’t the Greek Orthodox church the natural option to go for? I mean, it has all the pluses of Roman Catholicism (continuous history, ecumenical councils, etc.) but none of the drawbacks (e.g., the papacy, Vatican II, etc.). Or am I missing something here?

  14. Dear Nathanael (#13),

    Your comment is off topic, since this post was more about the problem of Dr. Horton’s strategy playing into the hands of opponents of Christianity in general, and that the kind of arguments that get us to theism are the same that get us to Catholicism. I appreciate the naturalness with which the mind goes to that question, though, so I understand why you asked. Nevertheless, many of Horton’s reasons against Catholicism are simultaneously reasons against Orthodoxy, such as Horton’s treatment of church offices or holy orders, apostolic succession, etc. So if Horton is right, he’s right not only about the Catholic Church, but also any Apostolic Church, whether Eastern or Oriental or whatever Orthodox Church.

    To understand why Horton’s claims about the papacy are unsubstantiated, see Bryan’s response here.

    As for a Catholic approach to ecumenical relations with the Greek Orthodox, or any other Orthodox Church, a good place to start is Jonathan’s post, “I Love the Orthodox…,” or any of our other posts on Orthodoxy, to be found under the “Church” section of our Index.


  15. Another angle on the Tu Quoque refrain,

    Here at CTC, a lot has been said about the epistemic problems with sola scriptura and the way in which the Catholic paradigm does not fall prey to those criticisms. In addition, much has already been written by Bryan and others in response to the common Tu Quoque rejoinder brought to bear on the Catholic position. Nevertheless, the refrain seems to keep recurring, even from the pens (keyboards) of well regarded Reformed theologians. In fact, the general response to the Catholic authority critique of Protestantism seems to reduce to the following 1-2 response: 1.) “Tu Quoque” (the claim that the Catholic epistemic approach fares no better than the Protestant) and 2.) The Catholic position must be false because there is either zero (or grossly insufficient) NT or early, early, early evidence to warrant embrace of Catholic (and especially Petrine) ecclesiology. While I think response number 2 is worthy of a broad and substantial response by Catholics, I would like make some comments which might further clarify why response #1 fails.

    The first response has been met repeatedly by Catholics who point out the crucial difference between the role of human reason before (and up to) the moment of recognizing a locus of some Divine authority; and the role of human reason after having recognized such authority. Both Catholics and Protestants use (as they must) fallible human reason in coming to embrace the claims of some purported Divine authority. For instance, both Catholics and Protestants use reason as it considers the motives of credibility for the claims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. Further, I think both Catholics and Protestants would readily admit that if Jesus Christ were physically still walking the earth, we would all face a lesser quandary regarding the differentiation between orthodoxy and heresy.

    We could go straight to Jesus and ask for clarification on any given issue. Its true that we would still have to use our fallible intellect to actually understand whatever responses He might give to our doctrinal questions; but even if we were unclear as to His exact meaning with reference to some point; He would be personally available such that we could come back to Him again and again for further clarification until the precision of His responses reached something approaching a yes/no level of simplicity. In other words, with a living, speaking, Jesus Christ right in front of us; we could ask first order, second order, third order, fourth order questions (and so on) until simple clarity was achieved. And this is possible because the fact that the human intellect is fallible (able to fail) does not entail that it must, or always, does fail. With sufficient clarification, the human intellect is perfectly capable of reaching such clarity – we do it all the time in common areas of life.

    As a thought experiment, imagine that Jesus Christ personally and directly began commenting on this CTC blog. Further, imagine that both Catholic and Reformed Christians acknowledged that it was indeed He who was submitting combox responses. Is there any doubt that the very best Catholic and Reformed theologians could join the discussion and begin asking Him precise questions about a highly divisive doctrine like Justification (questions about semi-pelagianism, synergism/monergism, grace as infused versus imputed, merit, cooperation, etc, etc) in such a way that after “X” amount of entries we would know, with certain clarity, whether the Catholic or Protestant (or neither) position was correct? Consider this scenario. No one is going to enjoin theological blog debate with Jesus! There will simply be a sequence of clarifying questions, at the end of which, there will be a definitive, precise, resolution. And this brings me to the key point with reference to the Catholic versus Protestant authority paradigms.

    Why will no one (in such a scenario) use their reason to argue with Jesus? Or asked another way, why will all parties in the discussion (both Catholic and Reformed) restrict the use of their reason simply to gaining a clarified understanding of Jesus position? Why will all theological argument or dispute with Jesus be off the table? It is because, having used reason to arrive at an acceptance of Jesus’ Divine authority, thereafter whatsoever He says – no matter how counterintuitive or contrary to our previous confessional commitments – simply must be accepted as the truth – as theological orthodoxy. The role of reason with regard to the orthodox understanding of revealed data becomes limited to learning what Jesus’ position is by asking whatever questions are necessary to gain clarity about that position. The discursive, argumentative (in the positive sense), role of reason that was at play while coming to an acceptance of Jesus’ claims to Divinity are now necessarily set aside. With the Divine Jesus right before us, we need only use reason (with regard to matters of revealed truths) in an effort to gain a clear understanding of what Jesus – THE Divine authority – has to say.

    With that scenario in mind, we can temporarily set exegetical and historical debates aside and ask how the Catholic and Protestant authority paradigm compare – as paradigms. Given what I have just said above, the paradigm difference becomes clear. Both Catholics and Protestants use (as they must) their fallible intellect in coming to an acceptance of the real-world locus of some Divine authority based on various motives of credibility. In the case of Catholics, we use our fallible reason to assess the motive of credibility and thereby come to accept that Jesus is the Son of God, Scripture is God-breathed, and that the Catholic Church was founded and organized by Christ and invested with the Holy Spirit such that she can act as the living voice of Christ in the world. Protestants use their fallible intellects to come to an embrace of the first two propositions, but not the third.

    Now, in light of the above scenario, the paradigm difference (again, prescinding from exegesis and historical quarrels) becomes abundantly clear. Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven and is no longer among us in the same way as He was in first century Palestine. So in what way – from a communicative point of view – is He still with us? The Catholic paradigm asserts that by leaving us with a living, personal, communicative authority that can speak repeatedly and definitively in His name; we therefore, still have a means of reaching clarity and certainty regarding the orthodox understanding of revealed data, not entirely unlike if Christ were still personally walking among us. Hence, humans can ask repeated clarifying questions and actually arrive at doctrinal clarity and certainty over time – and that is just what the history of Magisterial pronouncements and the development of doctrine entail. Therefore, similar to the scenario mapped above, the Catholic use of reason changes radically after having come to recognize the locus of Divine authority in the living voice of the Magisterium centered in the Petrine office. There is no theological arguing with the Magisterium about the content of her definitive statements, because she speaks with the authority of Christ in such instances. Yet, we necessarily use our reason to understand what the Magisterium teaches. And, in fact, the people of God, across time, have required repeated input from the Magisterium to gain clarity on this or that issue (as will continue to the end of time); but there is no question of “holding our own” in matters of theological doctrine, over against the definitive teachings of the Magisterium. That notion would be as bizarre as a Reformed theologian having a combox dialogue with Jesus Christ, and after reaching a clear understanding of Jesus’ position on some theological matter, then began to offer exegetical and/or historical arguments to rebut Jesus’ theological claims!

    The Protestant paradigm, on the other hand, by insisting that the sole remaining Divine communicative authority after the ascension of Christ and the death of the last apostle is a book; simply cannot avoid bringing his fallible reason to bear on matters of doctrine as much after having come to embrace the divinity of Christ and the inspiration of Scripture as before. That is the crucial epistemic difference between the two paradigms. The Protestant claim that their submission of reason to Scripture in equivalent to the way in which a Catholic submits to the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, is simply indefensible on philosophical grounds because a book has absolutely no means of answering second, third and fourth order questions in the repeated, clarifying manner that a person can. And in refusing to acknowledge that any personal, living voice imbued with Christ’s own Divine authority, any longer exists in the world to offer such communicative clarification; the Protestant is left to his own fallible resources in concert with the fallible resources of his coreligionists to come up with a hopeful understanding of the content of divine revelation – i.e. orthodox doctrine.

    He is forced to regulate his understanding of the orthodox content of Divine revelation by means of his own fallible reason. He can attempt to play down this fact by reading widely the opinions of other fallible persons who themselves deny any Divinely authorization. This gives the illusion that his doctrinal positions are arrived at in a more democratic or intellectually sophisticated manner – but this does not make the problem go away. When it comes to the correct understanding of revealed truths, he has his opinion and only opinions – no matter how informed by the educated opinion of others. The book cannot answer for itself; cannot respond to second, third, fourth order questions, etc. No doubt there are sections of Scripture (“Thou shall not kill”) that are already so precise that no second order questions are necessary, because the compact quality and clarity of such passages fall easily within the competence of human reason to understand without error (remember fallible means only that we are subject to the “possibility” of failure).

    But given the diversity of authors, genres and historical epochs from which, and out of which the various books which comprise the biblical codex are derived; it is no surprise that other questions – often of great theological and salvific import – simply evade the possibility of clear, certain, understanding in the absence of some means of asking second, third, fourth order clarifying questions and receiving some definitive answer. The bible is no systematic theology text, and anyone who has engaged in high-level Protestant – Catholic debates about the correct Pauline understanding of Justification knows exactly what I am talking about (and this is an issue of monumental importance, as all sides agree). The hard truth is that scripture is only partially perspicuous and that perspicuity – quite frankly – does not cover all the essential doctrines of salvation. For however the “essential” doctrines might be defined, Justification is clearly one of those essential matters (if not the penultimate case). Yet, the biblical data pertaining to the doctrine of Justification, perhaps more than any other doctrine, requires assimilation and coordination of more texts from more authors and from more biblical books than any other. Moreover, each one of those texts, in turn, are open to serious scholarly disagreement as to the proper “context” in which the text itself is to be interpreted. Hence, from a strictly exegetical point of view, the doctrine of Justification is possibly the most synthetically difficult doctrine known to theology – but it lies at the soteriological core of Christianity!

    The bottom line is that by placing a book, rather than a Divinely authorized living authority, at the center of his epistemic paradigm, the Protestant not only must use his fallible human reason to arrive at the locus of Divine authority (as the Catholic also must do); he must continue standing upon that fallible ground for the very determination of doctrinal truth itself – even after embracing the locus of Divine authority in scripture. Hence, he cannot escape the fallible interpretive spiral that blocks his ability to achieve clarity and certainty on some crucial matters of faith (such as Justification). Such is the problem with any “religion of the book” or any other system which exclusively places a text at the fundamental base of its epistemic edifice.

    The Catholic, while in the same boat up to the point of locating the source of Divine authority in the world; leaves that boat (for the solidity of dry land) after having located such a Divine source. For the Catholic thinks he has good reasons for placing a Divinely authorized, living, personal, voice at the center of his epistemic paradigm. And the ability of such a voice to provide clarifying responses to second, third, forth (and so on) order questions over time, removes the requirement for the Catholic to continue utilizing his fallible intellect to determine the orthodox” content of revelation (a job description for which the fallible human intellect has no competency whatever). Rather, in order to know the orthodox content of revelation with certainty and clarity, he need only utilize his reason to gain an increasingly clarified understanding of the Magisterium’s definitive teachings. He can do this by researching the Magisterium’s responses over 20 centuries, where such clarification has often reached a significant level of perpiscuity, and this activity of the intellect does indeed fall within the competency of fallible human reason because “fallible” human reason which is merely able to fail, does not generally do so when the questions it asks and the answers it receives have reached a sufficient level of simplicity or perspicuity.

    For all these reasons, the Tu Quoque response fails to achieve its goal. The two paradigms are simply not epistemic equivalents. Therefore, if there be even equal persuasive force to the exegetical and historical arguments for the Catholic and Protestant authority paradigms, the Catholic paradigm would remain manifestly superior because of it fundamental epistemic superiority even prior to an assessment of the data. If the exegetical and historical data should, in addition, weigh in favor of the Catholic paradigm (as I think it does), that would only solidify the warrant for embrace of the same.

    Pax Christi,


  16. Ray (re#15):

    Simply brilliant explanation.


    Thank you,
    Frank La Rocca

  17. Ray,

    This is the best discussion of the difference between the Catholic and Protestant paradigms that I have read. It should be required reading for all involved in this discussion. Is there any chance that the CTC team could make it an article or blog post so that it could attract comments of its own?


    K. Doran

  18. Frank & K

    Glad it was helpful. Its up to the CTC team as to whether its worth cleaning up and posting as a guest article. I just thought it fit within the context of Barrett’s article.



  19. Ray:

    Great job. You’ve produced a response to the tu quoque objection (TQO) that highlights something I didn’t highlight in my own response (sections IV and V of this article.) Although many of us have described the epistemic advantage of a living locus of divine teaching authority on Earth in roughly the sort of way you have, none of us have so clearly done it in reply the TQO. That’s especially important since the TQO is, as you point out, one of the two most common objections we face. Thank you.

    All the same, I’d like to pick up and follow a few threads for the sake of our Protestant readers as well as our own.

    First, it’s essential to remember that our main audience is Protestants who believe that Scripture is both (a) inerrant and (b) perspicuous enough to establish a comprehensive orthodoxy. That sort of Protestant is no longer in the majority. Most Protestants in the “mainline” churches are no longer willing to defend both (a) and (b), and for that reason have tacitly accepted the fact that their position reduces religion to a matter of opinion. Pointing out that consequence to them will mostly elicit a big “So what?”–unless there’s a lot of additional philosophical and spiritual spadework which most of them are disinclined to do. Moreover, the fastest-growing branch of Christianity is pentecostalism, whose adherents are so into bosom-burning that they don’t even engage these issues systematically. And most Catholics who leave the Church go to pentecostal or evangelical churches, not primarily for doctrinal reasons but simply because, for whatever reason, they have not had a felt encounter with Jesus Christ as Catholics. All told, the other side in this debate we go on conducting consists mostly of conservative, theologically educated Protestants of the Reformed, confessional-Lutheran, and continuing-Anglican churches. The regular writers for this site know that, and the site’s stated purpose more-or-less suggests as much. But that purpose can be obscured by directing our arguments simply against “the Protestant paradigm.” We should label the target more specifically. I shall devote more thought to that, and I’m sure you will too.

    Second, members of our intended audience can and sometimes do point out, correctly, that the epistemic advantage of accepting the Magisterium’s authority is genuine only if the Magisterium’s claims for itself are true. That is what makes objection (b) so powerful for many of them. They believe that unless those claims are first established on exegetical and historical grounds, our rebuttal of the TQO is just building a castle in the air. We’ve both had that go-round many times with Andrew M. and others. Of course we regularly point out that such an approach begs the question by applying rather than justifying the “Protestant” paradigm, thus leaving it things at the level of scholarly opinion. But I’ve noticed that, for the reason I stated at the beginning of this paragraph, they generally don’t see any alternative. That’s why it’s essential to hammer home the point that a philosophical question needs answering first, and we both know what that is: How, in principle, can one distinguish between divine revelation and human opinion about the sources alleged to transmit it? I think we have the better of that one, but we’re not going to get far with our audience just by trying to produce a better exegetical and historical case for Catholicism. There’s a necessary place for that, but to start there is just playing in their sandbox. That’s why our rebuttal of the TQO is primary: it provides a cogent reason to prefer the Catholic paradigm entirely apart from the sort of debate our Protestant audience is comfortable with.

    Once again, thanks for advancing the necessary discussion. I too hope your comment gets turned into a post.


  20. O my goodness. I’ve tried for weeks (months?) to track with you all regarding the epistemic difference between Reformed and Catholic paradigms an I think I just got it. Thanks so much Ray! Required reading, indeed.

  21. Ray- I’d like to echo the others. Your comment is priceless.
    Thank you!

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