As an active Protestant in my mid-twenties I began to feel I might have a vocation to become a minister. The trouble was that, while I had definite convictions about the things most Christians have held in common—what C. S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity”—I had had first-hand experience with several denominations (Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist) and was far from certain which of them (if any) had the overall advantage. So I began to think, study, search, and pray. Was there a true church? If so, how was one to decide which? The more I studied, the more perplexed I became.
At one stage my elder sister, a very committed Evangelical with flexible denominational affiliations, chided me for becoming “obsessed” with trying to find a “true church.” “Does it really matter?” she would ask. Well, yes it did. It was all very well for a lay Protestant to relegate the denominational issue to a low priority among religious questions: Lay people can go to one Protestant church one week and another the next week and nobody worries too much. But an ordained minister cannot do that. He must make a serious commitment to a definite church community, and under normal circumstances that commitment will be expected to last a lifetime. So that choice had to be made with a deep sense of responsibility, and the time to make it was before, not after, ordination.
As matters turned out, my search lasted several years and led me where I never suspected it would—to the Catholic Church. In this article I shall not attempt to relate the full story of how and why I “came home to Rome,” but will focus on just one aspect of the question as it developed for me, an.aspect which seems quite fundamental.
To the Brink of Despair
As I groped and prayed my way toward a decision, I came close to despair and agnosticism as I contemplated the mountains of erudition, the vast labyrinth of conflicting interpretations of Christianity (not to mention other faiths) which lined the shelves of bookshops and libraries. If all the “experts” on Truth–great theologians, historians, philosophers—disagreed interminably with each other, then how did God, if he was really there, expect me, an ordinary Joe Blow (as we say in Australia), to work out what was true?
The more I became enmeshed in specific questions of biblical interpretation—of who had the right understanding of justification, of the Eucharist, baptism, grace, Christology, Church government and discipline—the more I came to feel that this whole line of approach was a hopeless quest, a blind alley. These were all questions that required a great deal of erudition, learning, and competence in biblical exegesis, patristics, history, metaphysics, and ancient languages—in short, scholarly research.
But was it really credible (I began to ask myself) that God, if he were to reveal the truth about these disputed questions at all, would make this truth so inaccessible that only a scholarly elite had even the faintest chance of reaching it? Wasn’t that a kind of gnosticism? Where did it leave the non-scholarly bulk of the human race? It didn’t seem to make sense. If, as they say, war is too important to be left to the generals, then revealed truth seemed too important to be left to the biblical scholars. It was no use saying that perhaps God simply expected non-scholars to trust the scholars. How were they to know which scholars to trust, given that the scholars contradicted each other?
Therefore, in my efforts to break out of the dense exegetical undergrowth where I could not see the wood for the trees, I shifted toward a new emphasis in my truth-seeking criteria: I tried to get beyond the bewildering mass of contingent historical and linguistic data upon which the rival exegetes and theologians constructed their doctrinal castles, in order to concentrate on those elemental, necessary principles of human thought which are accessible to all of us, learned and unlearned alike. I began to suspect that an emphasis on logic, rather than on research, might expedite an answer to my prayers for guidance.
The advantage is that you don’t need to be learned to be logical. You need not have spent years amassing mountains of information in libraries in order to apply the first principles of reason. You can apply them from the comfort of your armchair, so to speak, in order to test the claims of any body of doctrine, on any subject whatsoever, that comes claiming your acceptance. Moreover logic, like mathematics, yields firm certitude, not changeable opinions and provisional hypotheses. Logic is the first natural “beacon of light” with which God has provided us as intelligent beings living in a world darkened by the confusion of conflicting attitudes, doctrines, and world views.
Logic Is Finite
Logic has its limits. Pure “armchair” reasoning alone will never be able to tell you the meaning of your life and how you should live it. But as far as it goes, logic is an indispensable tool, and I even suspect that you sin against God, the first Truth, if you knowingly flout or ignore it in your thinking. “Thou shalt not contradict thyself” seems to me an important precept of the natural moral law.
Be that as it may, I found that the main use of logic, in my quest for religious truth, turned out to be in deciding not what was true, but what was false. If someone presents you with a system of ideas or doctrines which logical analysis reveals to be coherent—that is, free from internal contradictions and meaningless absurdities—then you can conclude, “This set of ideas may be true. It has at least passed the first test of truth, the coherence test.”
To find out if it actually is true you will have to leave your logician’s armchair and seek further information. But if it fails this most elementary test of truth, it can safely be eliminated without further ado from the ideological competition, no matter how many impressive-looking volumes of erudition may have been written in support of it and no matter how attractive and appealing many of its features (or many of its proponents) may appear.
Reformers’ “Proud Reason”…
Some readers may wonder why I am laboring the point about logic. Isn’t all this perfectly obvious? Well, it ought to be obvious to everyone and is indeed obvious to many, including those who have had the good fortune of receiving a classical Catholic education. Catholicism, as I came to discover, has a positive approach to our natural reasoning powers and traditionally has its future priests study philosophy for years before they even begin theology. But I came from a religious milieu where this outlook was not encouraged and was often even discouraged.
The Protestant Reformers taught that original sin has so weakened the human intellect that we must be extremely cautious about the claims of “proud reason.” Luther called reason the “devil’s whore,” a siren which seduced men into grievous error. “Don’t trust your reason, just bow humbly before God’s truth revealed to you in his holy Word, the Bible!” This was pretty much the message that came through to me from the Calvinist and Lutheran circles that influenced me most after I made my “decision for Christ” at the age of eighteen.
…But Reason Is Inescapable
But as I dutifully attempted to obey this solemn injunction, the weari-some experiences which I have already related made it painfully clear that you just cannot avoid “trusting reason.” You may start out with the intention of not trusting it, but you inevitably end up trusting it anyway, in your very attempts to decide between all those conflicting interpretations of the Infallible Book. The Reformers themselves were forced to employ reason, even while denouncing it, in their efforts to rebut the biblical arguments of their “Papist” foes. And that, it seemed to me, was rather illogical on their part.
With my awakening interest in logical analysis as a test of religious truth, I was led to ask whether this illogicality in the practice of the Reformers was accompanied by illogicality at the more fundamental level of their theory. As a good Protestant I had been brought up to hold as sacred the basic methodological principle of the Reformation, that the Bible alone contains all the truth that God has revealed for our salvation. Churches that held to that principle were at least “respectable,” one was given to understand, even though they might differ considerably from each other in regard to the interpretation of Scripture.
But as for Roman Catholicism and other churches which unashamedly added their own traditions to the Word of God–were they not self-evidently outside the pale? Were they not condemned out of their own mouths? But when I got down to making a serious attempt to explore the implications of sola scriptura, the Reformers’ rock-bottom dogma, I could not avoid the conclusion that it was rationally indefensible.
Eight Easy Steps
I submit to the reader that this is demonstrated in the following eight steps, which embody nothing more than simple, common-sense logic and a couple of indisputable, empirically observable facts about the Bible:
1. The Reformers asserted Proposition A: “All revealed truth is to be found in inspired Scripture.” This is quite useless unless we know which books are meant by “inspired Scripture.” After all, different sects and religions have different books which they call “inspired Scripture.”
2. The theory we are considering, when it talks of “inspired Scripture,” means in fact those 66 books which are bound in Protestant Bibles. For convenience we shall refer to them from now on simply as “the 66 books.”
3. The precise statement of the theory we are examining thus becomes Proposition B: “All revealed truth is to be found in the 66 books.”
4. It is a fact that nowhere in the 66 books themselves can we find any statements telling us which books make up the entire corpus of inspired Scripture. There is no complete list of inspired books anywhere within their own pages, nor can such a list be compiled by putting isolated verses together. (This would be the case (a) if you could find verses like “Esther is the Word of God,” “This Gospel is inspired by God,” “The Second Letter of Peter is inspired Scripture” for each of the 66 books and (b) if you could also find a biblical passage stating that no books other than these 66 were to be held as inspired. Obviously, nobody could even pretend to find all this information about the canon of Scripture in the Bible itself.)
5. It follows that Proposition B, the very foundation of Protestant Christianity, is neither found in Scripture nor can be deduced from Scripture in any way. Since the 66 books are not even identified in Scripture, much less can any further information about them (such as that all revealed truth is contained in them) be found there. In short, we must affirm Proposition C: “Proposition B is an addition to the 66 books.”
6. It follows immediately from the truth of Proposition C that Proposition B cannot itself be revealed truth. To assert that it is would involve a self-contradictory statement: “All revealed truth is to be found in the 66 books, but this revealed truth itself is not found there.”
7. Could it be the case that Proposition B is true but is not revealed truth? If that is the case, then it must be either something which can be deduced from revealed truth or something which natural human reason alone can discover, without any help from revelation. The first possibility is ruled out because, as we saw in steps 4 and 5, B cannot be deduced from Scripture, and to postulate some other, revealed, extra-scriptural premise from which B might be deduced would contradict B itself. The second possibility involves no self-contradiction, but it is factually preposterous, and I doubt whether any Protestant has seriously tried to defend it, least of all those traditional Protestants who strongly emphasize the corruption of man’s natural intellectual powers as a result of the Fall. Unaided human reason might well be able to conclude prudently and responsibly that an authority which itself claimed to possess the totality of revealed truth was in fact justified in making that claim, provided that this authority backed up the claim by some striking evidence. (Catholics, in fact, believe that their Church is precisely such an authority.) But how could reason alone reach that same well-founded certitude about a collection of 66 books which do not even lay claim to what is attributed to them? The point is reinforced when we remember that those who attribute the totality of revealed truth to the 66 books are ready to acknowledge their own fallibility, whether individually or collectively, in matters of religious doctrine. All Protestant churches deny their own infallibility as much as they deny the pope’s.
8. Since Proposition B is not revealed truth, or a truth which can be deduced from revelation, or a naturally-knowable truth, it is not true at all. Therefore, sola scriptura, the basic doctrine for which the Reformers fought, is simply false.
Calvin Tries but Fails
How did the Reformers try to cope with this fundamental weakness in the logical structure of their own first principles? John Calvin, usually credited with being the most systematic and coherent thinker of the Reformation, tried to justify belief in the divine authorship of the 66 books by dogmatically postulating a direct communication of this knowledge from God to the individual believer:
“If we desire to provide in the best way for our consciences—that they may not be perpetually beset by the instability of doubt or vacillation, and that they may not also boggle at the smallest quibbles—we ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit….For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit….Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960], 1:78-80).
Don’t Take Calvin Literally
The context makes it clear that, in saying Scripture is “self-authenticated,” Calvin does not mean to be taken literally and absolutely. He does not mean that some Bible text or other affirms that the 66 books, and they alone, are divinely inspired. As we observed in step 4 above, nobody ever could claim anything so patently false. Calvin simply means that no extra-biblical, human testimony, such as that of Church Tradition, is needed in order for individuals to know that these books are inspired. We can summarize his view as Proposition D: “The Holy Spirit teaches Christians individually, by a direct inward testimony, that the 66 books are inspired by God.”
The trouble is that the Holy Spirit himself, although God, is an extra-biblical authority as much as a pope or council. The Third Person of the Trinity is clearly not identical with the truths he has expressed through human authors in the Bible. It follows that even if Calvin’s Proposition D is true, it contradicts Proposition B, for “if all revealed truth is to be found in the 66 books,” then that leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to reveal directly and non-verbally one truth which cannot be found in any passage of those books, namely, the fact that each one of them is inspired.
In any case, even if Calvin could somehow show that D did not itself contradict B, he would still not have succeeded in showing that B is true. Even if we were to accept the extremely implausible view represented by Proposition D, that would not prove that no other writings are inspired, and much less would it prove that there are no revealed truths that come to us through Tradition rather than through inspired writings.
In short, Calvin’s defense of biblical inspiration in no way overthrows our eight-step disproof of the sola scriptura principle. Indeed, it does not even attempt to establish that principle as a whole, but only one.aspect of it–that is, which books are to be understood by the term scriptura.
Limited Church Infallibility?
Many of our separated brethren have come to recognize frankly that a strict sola scriptura principle is untenable, for reasons such as those we have set out. Leading Anglican thinkers such as Richard Hooker realized it centuries ago, and even Luther himself did not resort to Calvin’s sophistry of claiming to know the correct canon of Scripture by direct inner enlightenment from the Spirit. Luther, never noted for clarity, stability, and consistency in his doctrines, could at times come close to recognizing that sola scriptura was false, insofar as he was relying, to some extent, on the despised “Papists” and not only on the Bible. (There was yet another inconsistency: Why rely on the supposed “Antichrist,” in league with the “Father of Lies,” for any information at all, much less for vital information?)
In his Commentary on John, discussing the sixteenth chapter of that Gospel, Luther admitted, “We are obliged to yield many things to the Papists—that with them is the Word of God, which we received from them; otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it.”
At times Luther seemed ready to take the more radical, but quite logical, step of ceasing to rely on the pope, whom he denounced as supremely unreliable, for his knowledge of which books belonged to the New Testament canon. At one stage, as is well-known, he was prepared to condemn the epistle of James (an “epistle of straw,” as he termed it) since it clearly contradicts his doctrine of justification by faith alone (Jas. 2:24). He was prevailed upon eventually to leave it in the canon, for no better reason, it seems, than an awareness of the abyss of doctrinal chaos and skepticism which would open up if Christians were to start picking and choosing among the New Testament books.
The Liberal Protestant Solution
Luther thus lapsed back into the less-dangerous inconsistency of trusting Catholic Tradition at this point. Conservative Protestants have followed him, while liberals have escaped either form of inconsistency by the simple “solution” of rejecting belief in any form of infallible authority. The Bible is seen as a collection of fallible human documents, none of which is inspired in the traditional sense of having God himself as principal author.
In this school of thought, the New Testament has a privileged position over other early Christian documents only in the purely secular, historical sense of being a “primary source”: It gives the best evidence of what early Christians thought, without guaranteeing in any way that what they thought was in accord with objective reality.
Some ecumenically-inclined Protestant scholars now seek to avoid inconsistency by the less-drastic means of conceding a limited role to the Church as the bearer of revealed truth independently of Scripture. Recognizing that the New Testament canon was not settled until about the fifth century and that the Church depended a great deal on oral teaching and preaching in early times, these theologians put forward the view that the Holy Spirit gave the Church just enough infallibility to recognize with certainty which books were divinely inspired, but no more. Once the canon of Scripture was settled, it is suggested, this charism of Church infallibility was no longer needed and was withdrawn.
In any case, we are told, it never extended to the interpretation of the inspired books, only to their identification from among other early Christian writings. This has always seemed to me a rather desperate attempt to patch up a theory which was fatally defective to begin with, instead of having the courage and intellectual honesty to reject the bad theory root and branch, once its falsity had been exposed.
(This kind of “concordist” Protestantism is reminiscent of the virtuous sea-captain in H.M.S. Pinafore who “never, never” used bad language. To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan: “The Church never, never speaks infallibly!” “What, never?” “No, never!” “What, never?” “Well…hardly ever.”)
The Fifth-Century Church’s Claim
We shall not attempt to deal fully here with this theory, but we can point briefly to some of its glaring improbabilities. What positive evidence is there in its favor? Is there any historical evidence that the fifth-century Church claimed, either implicitly or explicitly, to possess an infallibility which was limited to an identification of the inspired books? I have never seen any.
(Catholics would say, of course, that, by decisively anathematizing all sorts of doctrines purporting to come from Scripture, the Church throughout all the early centuries was implicitly claiming an infallible power of interpreting Scripture, even if the word “infallible” was not used at that time. Also, the early Church, like the Catholic Church today, repeatedly insisted on the authority of unwritten Tradition side by side with that of the inspired writings.)
Is there any historical evidence that the fifth-century Church renounced some power which it possessed up till the settlement of the canon of Scripture? None at all. The Protestant champions of limited infallibility would say, of course, that the fallibility of the Church after that date is proved by the fact that the later patristic and medieval Church came to impose beliefs and practices contrary to Scripture.
“Infallible” = “Inerrant”?
Well, if that were true (which Catholics of course do not concede), the reasonable conclusion to draw would be that the Church was never infallible to begin with. “Infallible” means more than simply “inerrant”; it means incapable of error, so that, if the Church did come to err in her formal teaching sooner or later, she was always capable of error (and hence non-infallible) from the beginning. Why should any rational person rely absolutely on the Church’s judgment regarding the canon of Scripture, if it was shown to be unreliable on other doctrinal matters?
This point is particularly telling against the Protestant proponents of limited infallibility, in view of the fact that this same fifth-century Church whose judgment they are prepared to rely on unreservedly when it comes to the canon of Scripture already exhibited quite explicitly most of the Catholic doctrines and practices which Protestants have always rejected.
Veneration of Mary and the saints, popes claiming universal jurisdiction by divine right as Peter’s successors, the authority of Tradition as well as of Scripture, purgatory and prayers for the dead, the sacrifice of the Mass and an order of sacrificing priests, monasticism, the veneration of images and relics—these were all well-established features of the Church’s life by the time the New Testament canon became fixed.
Why suppose that the Holy Spirit should have guaranteed an accurate discernment of the canon to this fifth-century Church while withholding from it the grace to discern and correct these other “abuses” and “corruptions”? If there were some divine revelation telling us that the Holy Spirit did adopt this improbable course of action, it would no doubt be a different matter. But those who postulate this limited infallibility theory cannot and do not claim to have any evidence of a special revelation of this sort. Clearly, the theory in question is nothing more than a flimsy and gratuitous hypothesis.
Its chief attraction would appear to be not that it has any concrete or positive evidence in its favor, but simply that it pretends to offer perplexed Protestants a refuge from the social and emotional traumas of conversion to Rome or loss of faith, after they have come to see clearly that sola scriptura has no logical coherence and is thus untenable.
The use of logical analysis to show the fundamental flaw (or, better, a fundamental flaw) in Reformation Christianity does not of course prove immediately that the object of the Protestant protest–Catholicism–is true. I had ceased to believe in this key Reformation doctrine for quite some time before I was finally given the grace to see the truth of the Catholic Church. Other problems and questions had to be faced before I reached that point. But refuting an erroneous position is always a constructive step along the road to truth: Weeds and undergrowth need to be cleared away before we can begin planting a garden.
What I have sought to highlight in this article is that in my personal experience an emphasis on examining the inner logic of sola scriptura led to a more certain recognition that the Protestant Reformers were wrong than did the endless debates about specific doctrines. Discussions of this sort seemed incapable of yielding anything better than opinions which were more or less probable, since they depended on the gathering of detailed factual data by prolonged research and on the correct interpretation of the relevant documents.
Forest and Trees
The very bulk of these erudite theological debates over the correct interpretation of the New Testament’s obscurities and seeming contradictions is, I believe, what prevents many learned and intelligent Protestants from seeing the great error that underlies their whole scholarly project. Their scholarly work blinds them.
Moreover, there is that persuasive, but deceptive, parallel between the sola scriptura criterion for Christian doctrine and good historical method. When I confronted my elder sister, a highly intelligent and theologically literate Protestant, with my argument based on logic, she did not attempt to rebut it directly (how could she?), but side-stepped it by using a historian’s argument. She replied in a letter, “It simply is not ‘illogical’ to base one’s Christian beliefs on the original documents coming from those closest to Christ himself and to judge Catholicism’s alleged ‘developments’ in later centuries in the light of these original texts.”
Indeed, it would not be illogical to take this approach if Christian theology were simply a branch of history, if it were a merely human inquiry into certain.aspects of the history of ideas and, as such, an inquiry yielding only probable opinions which in principle are always subject to the possibility of correction as a result of future exegetical and historical research. But in fact theology is not like this–and on the Reformers’ own showing. They insisted as much as the Catholic Church that faith is not mere scholarly opinion but humble acceptance of an infallibly-declared divine revelation.
It is precisely Protestantism’s basic structural incapacity to sustain a logically-coherent account of revealed truth which we have exposed in our eight-step refutation of Reformation Christianity. The schizoid history of Protestantism itself bears witness to the inner contradiction which marked its conception and birth. Conservative Protestants have maintained the original insistence on the Bible as the unique, infallible source of revealed truth, but at the price of logical incoherence.
Liberals, on the other hand, have escaped the incoherence while maintaining the claim to “private interpretation” over against that of popes and councils, but at the price of abandoning the Reformers’ insistence on an infallible Bible. They effectively replace revealed truth by human opinion and faith by an autonomous reason. Thus we see both sides teaching radically opposed doctrines, even while each claims to be the authentic heir of the Reformation.
Surprise—Both Sides Are Right!
The irony is that both sides are right: Their conflicting beliefs are simply the two horns of a dilemma which has been tearing at the inner fabric of Protestantism ever since its turbulent beginnings. Reflections such as these from a Catholic onlooker may seem a little hard or unyielding to some, but logic is of its very nature hard and unyielding. Insofar as truth and honesty are to be the hallmarks of true ecumenism, the claims of logic will have to be squarely faced, not politely avoided.