Don’t Let Protestants Drag You to Their Turf
When Catholics debate Protestants, it's easy to let the discussion drift to ground where the Protestant is strong. But this doesn't have to happen!
The other day, I tweeted something important: don’t forget to pray to your guardian angel. This received criticism from Protestants—for example, “Preferring to pray to an angel instead of to the one who commands them and is your Lord and Savior is cringeworthy.”
Catholic users came in to clarify—Matthew 18:10, you know the drill. But here I want to say something different.
First, no Catholic thinks Scripture is the sole authoritative source to begin with, even if it is the highest authoritative source. Catholics also have Tradition and the Magisterium, and there we find the support we need for prayer to (that is, speaking to or asking for the intercession of) the angels. Catholics believe in a living, institutional, and hierarchical epistemic authority, which, according to the Faith, comes down to us by what is said: first, what is said by God eternally in his Son, the Logos, and from there what the Logos says to the apostles and then to the bishops, and right on down the line. This is the same authority that has given us the canon of Scripture, and having it is how we (as Catholics) can say, in a non-circular way, that this canon is the canon.
The Protestant position struggles seriously in this respect. After all, it seems as though sola scriptura—which is the operative rule for many Protestants—tells us we should not take as or make into doctrine anything that is not either explicitly taught in Scripture or clearly deducible from what is. The canon of Scripture itself must be a matter of doctrine for the Protestant, yet it is not something explicitly taught in Scripture or clearly deducible from what it is. It seems that the Protestant is committed to a contradiction in this matter. Nor does saying that sola scriptura is operative simply after the closing of the canon itself answer the pressing issue of how we reliably determine what the canon is or when it was closed, nor does Scripture indicate that such a paradigm shift is supposed to take place. Moreover, if the Church was able to reliably (that is, infallibly) guide us to the formation of the canon, it is contrived to then chop off that authoritative arm after the closing of the canon, especially since what counts as Scripture is only one of the epistemological issues facing sola scriptura—how to interpret Scripture and how to apply the lessons and consequences of Scripture in changing cultural contexts. Catholicism solves these issues with its expanded and more holistic notion of authority; Protestantism is refuted by them.
The other major point is this: the Protestant is frequently performing an illegitimate operation (i.e., often begging the question) by pushing the game onto his own turf when asking Catholics for this or that biblical proof text of his beliefs or practices—that is, by demanding that the Catholic play according to the rules of Protestantism. This is something Catholic convert Bryan Cross has pointed out various times: the question-begging assumption from Protestants that the Catholic magisterium’s understanding of faith and morals is no more authoritative than the understanding of any other Christian.
But the Catholic has every right to reject those “rules of engagement.” Why? Because the question is ultimately one of authority, not personal interpretation of biblical passages—which, we know, are often all over the place, not just between Catholics and Protestants, but among Protestants. If the Catholic view of authority is correct, and that authority substantiates prayer to the angels, then Catholics shouldn’t worry about proof-texting everything simply to cause the Protestant to think his beliefs and practices are less, as it were, cringeworthy. Whenever objections like these come up, the Catholic should highlight what the larger issue is; otherwise, the conversation runs the risk of being fruitless, since debates concerning biblical interpretation tend to go on endlessly with little to no productive resolution.
But maybe not entirely fruitless . . . as one can expose in such conversations many of the deeper issues inherent to the Protestant paradigm and sola scriptura in particular.
Apart from what has already been said, the Protestant position is frequently inconsistent, or at least conveniently lax in demanding the same standards of itself as it does Catholics. Returning to our example of prayer to angels, notice that the Protestant critic first demands biblical support for a position (asking angels for intercession), but then he gives a position that itself has no biblical support.
For example, our Protestant friend above tells us, “If Jesus’ instruction was a specific prayer and a model, then we would have ample reason to not veer off of that model unless we have equally comparable reason & authority to do so.” He continues, “The disagreement is that I’m stating that Jesus’ model does not allow for prayers to go to angelic beings, but rather should be directed to the Lord alone.”
But what is the biblical support for that? Specifically, what can we find in the Bible that tells us, either explicitly or through clear deduction, that if Jesus gives one model for prayer, then it is illegitimate to employ some other model unless we have equally comparable reason and authority to do so? (In asking what could constitute such an authority, this immediately puts the Catholic and Protestant right at the larger issue.) Or that Jesus’ model does not allow prayers to angelic beings just because it doesn’t include them? The answer is nothing—or at least nothing obvious.
Moreover, there is no teaching anywhere in Scripture that condemns speaking to angels. (Worshiping them is condemned, but that isn’t what Catholics are doing.) And just because Christ taught us to pray one way, there is no good biblical reason to say it is illegitimate to pray some other way. After all, Christ never prayed directly to the Holy Spirit. Ironically enough, I’ve heard Protestants claim that the apostles didn’t, either, and so (by extension) neither should we. But I know many Protestants who definitely do pray directly to the Holy Spirit. Either way, there is a claim being made that is not explicitly taught nor clearly deduced from Scripture, by somebody who demands that claims be substantiated by what is explicitly taught or clearly deduced from Scripture. What the Protestant is doing—if I dare say it—is putting out a tradition of man to reject what is the tradition of Christ’s Church.
And so the purpose of this article is not to defend, from a purely biblical perspective, prayers to angels. Various Catholics have already issued such defenses. (Joe Heschmeyer has a helpful article, and here’s Karlo Broussard on the intercession of saints in general.) Rather, the goal here is to point out the larger issues in these debates—issues that, I believe, expose several of the more fundamental incoherencies within the Protestant paradigm, while alerting Catholics to the fact they need not, and in fact should not, be pushed into debating according to the question-begging assumptions of the Protestant critic.