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How to Avoid Verse-Slinging with Protestants

You don't want your dialogues to devolve into dueling Scripture verses. Here's a way to improve the conversation.

It is common for dialogues and debates with our Protestant brothers and sisters to devolve into a verse-slinging contest:

Protestant: “We are justified by faith alone, not works! Read Ephesians 2:8-9!”

Catholic: “No, we are not justified by faith alone! Works justify as well. Read James 2:24!”

Protestant: “Baptism doesn’t save you! No one is justified by works of the law. Read Romans 3:28!”

Catholic: “Baptism does save you! Read 1 Peter 3:21!”

And so on. While there is value in engaging in these back-and-forth biblical arguments, what often happens is that a seemingly endless, verse-slinging stalemate results, in which both sides simply remain committed to their respective interpretations, and apologetics comes to a halt.

A presuppositional approach to apologetics—practiced by such eminent individuals as St. Irenaeus of Lyons (see Against Heresies) and St. Francis de Sales (see The Catholic Controversy)—offers a way out of the gridlock. Rather than simply engaging in the low-level details of comparing and weighing Bible verses, the Catholic presuppositionalist goes straight to the foundations: he examines the fundamental presuppositions both of Protestantism and of Catholicism, particularly with regard to their respective systems of authority. What we might call the offensive apologetical task is to attack Protestant presuppositions, while what we might call the defensive apologetical task is to defend Catholic presuppositions. These tasks can be accomplished in either order, and even simultaneously.

The key presuppositions behind every Protestant biblical dispute are, for the Protestant,

(1) the doctrine of sola scriptura and

(2) the absolute right of private interpretation of Scripture.

The key Catholic presuppositions are

(1’) the doctrine of an infallible Magisterium, which authentically interprets Scripture, and

(2’) a limited right of private interpretation of Scripture.

The Catholic presuppositionalist will refute these Protestant presuppositions and demonstrate the Catholic presuppositions and will thereby collapse at once all of the biblical objections aimed against Catholicism by his Protestant interlocutor.

In order to accomplish this task, the transcendental argument rooted in Matthew 18 (as defended, for example, by Jeremiah T. Bannister) can be deployed. One way to understand a transcendental argument is that it is a kind of “meta-argument” about the conditions that make it possible to have a “regular” kind of argument. In this case, the regular argument is about the correct interpretation of Sacred Scripture. So the transcendental argument begins with the following passage:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:15-18).

This passage is at the foundation of St. Francis de Sales’s argument for the infallible authority of the Catholic Church. He understands this passage as teaching that Christians are to take their disputes, including doctrinal disputes, to the Catholic Church and that the Church authoritatively settles them.

Now, at face value, this passage seems to have in mind scenarios in which one Christian sins against another. If the sinning Christian remains obstinate, then the Church is to excommunicate him. What does this have to do with infallibly defining doctrine?

One way to understand this is that heresy is a serious sin against the body of Christ. Hence, heresy is one possible sin that could be brought before the Church. Now, if the heretic remains obstinate, then the Church is to excommunicate him. Moreover, this decision of the Church is confirmed in heaven (v. 18)—i.e., confirmed and backed by infallible God. Thus, to say that the Church can err in her judgments in these matters is to say that God Himself can err, which is both absurd and blasphemous (see The Catholic Controversy, I.XII).

If the Church were not infallible in its teaching of doctrine, then it could mistakenly condemn as heresy a doctrine that is not in fact heresy and then excommunicate a Christian whose beliefs are not in fact heretical. So the Church must be capable of infallibly defining and teaching doctrine, and this entails the existence of an infallible Magisterium . . . and sola scriptura has to be false. Thus, the first Protestant presupposition that we identified earlier is refuted, and the first Catholic presupposition is demonstrated.

Without this infallible Magisterium, Christians would be lost in a sea of doctrinal pluralism and theological disunity generated by fallible, private interpretation of Scripture, which is evidenced by a cursory survey of the history of Protestantism. This is the interpretation problem for Protestantism, which is solved by the Catholic system of authority.

Another way of looking at this is that if the Church can err in its judgement in these matters, then its decisions would not be binding on the consciences of Christians, which would mean there could be conscientious objectors who continue to associate with heretical Christians, contrary to what is clearly intended in Matthew 18. But if the judgment of the Church is binding on a Christian’s conscience over and against his private interpretation of Scripture, then the Protestant belief in the absolute right of private interpretation of Scripture must be false. Thus, the second Protestant presupposition is refuted, and the second Catholic presupposition is demonstrated. This completes both the offensive and defensive apologetical tasks that we identified earlier.

The Protestant can of course dispute the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 18. He might argue for a different interpretation and might throw in additional verses to support the alternative interpretation. This might seem to land the Catholic apologist in yet another verse-slinging stalemate, but this is where the transcendental nature of the argument comes into play. For the same authority the Protestant appeals to in order to subvert the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 18—namely, Scripture itself, insofar as it is known and understood as the inspired word of God—ultimately presupposes the authority of the Catholic Church, the Church that Matthew 18 discloses as being able to infallibly settle doctrinal and interpretational disputes, including disputes about the interpretation of Matthew 18! Consequently, whether a Protestant accepts the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 18 or rejects it, his appeal to Scripture as the word of God in defense of his interpretation unwittingly presupposes the authority of the Catholic Church, for it was and is the authority of the Catholic Church that made and continues to make Scripture as the word of God known, and known with certainty.

Without the authority of the Catholic Church behind it, what Sacred Scripture even is in the first place—that is, its contents—could not be known with the kind of certainty needed to function as an infallible authority for Christians. How do we know with certainty, for instance, that 1 Corinthians belongs to Scripture, but that 1 Clement does not? This is the canon problem for Protestantism, and the solution, historically, is the authority of the Catholic Church. It was the Church that defined the canon of Scripture in a binding way that was normative for all Christians.

A Protestant could counter that it is not the Catholic Church that makes the canon known, but rather the simple handing on of Scripture from the apostles to the early Christians and on down to us. But this appeal to early Christian tradition is problematic for the Protestant. For early Christian tradition explicitly testifies to the authority of the Catholic Church. St. Irenaeus, for instance, appeals in particular to the authority of the Roman See in the course of combatting heresy in the early Church (see Against Heresies 3.3.2).

Now, the Church’s definition of the canon was either fallible or infallible. If it was merely fallible, then the canon itself is merely fallible; consequently, Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books, which is ultimately incoherent, and thus the canon problem is left unsolved. So the Church’s definition of the canon must be infallible. But an infallible effect can come from only an infallible cause. Hence, the Catholic Church must be infallible.

This is how the transcendental argument of Matthew 18 demonstrates the authority of the Catholic Church: such authority is the necessary precondition for Protestants and Catholics to debate the meaning of the word of God in general and of Matthew 18 in particular. To dispute the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 18 is to dispute the authority that makes Matthew 18 known as being the inspired word of God in the first place. With this argument, the Catholic apologist is equipped to bring all verse-slinging to an end.

Of course, the transcendental argument isn’t a magic bullet. Like any argument, there is always more work that will have to be done in defending it and answering objections against it. But it seems to me that this argument, and Catholic presuppositionalism in general, offers a promising way to break out of verse-slinging gridlock.

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