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A Protestant Parody of Catholic Presuppositionalism?




From the "A Catholic on the Areopagus" blog.



In a previous article, I laid out an argument against the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura as follows (I have added steps 9 and 10 for the purposes of this article):


  1. If a collection of books is fallible, then it can be the case that something that one of the books in the collection teaches is wrong (since at least one of the books could be fallible).

  2. If a collection of books is a collection of infallible books, then all of the books in the collection are infallible.

  3. If a book is infallible, then it cannot be the case that something it teaches is wrong.

  4. Therefore, if a collection of books is a collection of infallible books, then all of the books in the collection are such that it cannot be the case that something that one of the books in the collection teaches is wrong (2, 3).

  5. Therefore, if a collection of books is a collection of infallible books, then it is not the case that the collection of books is fallible (1, 4).

  6. Assume for reductio that Sacred Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books.

  7. Then, Sacred Scripture is not a fallible collection of infallible books (5, 6).

  8. Contradiction (6, 7). Therefore, Sacred Scripture is not a fallible collection of infallible books.

  9. If the doctrine of sola Scriptura is true, then Sacred Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books.

  10. Therefore, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is false (8, 9).


The justification for (9) is that given that the canon of Scripture is not taught in Scripture and given that sola Scriptura maintains that Scripture is the sole infallible authority, it follows that the canon (since we know of it by a source other than Scripture) is known only fallibly. But then since the canon specifies the collection of books that belong in Scripture, Scripture becomes—epistemologically speaking—a fallible collection of infallible books. The other premises essentially just unpack the concept of a fallible collection of infallible books.


This argument seems rather devastating for the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. But consider the following parody argument that a Protestant could construct against the Catholic doctrine of an infallible Magisterium:


  1. If a collection of teachings is fallible, then it can be the case that something that one of the teachings in the collection teaches is wrong (since at least one of the teachings could be fallible).

  2. If a collection of teachings is a collection of infallible teachings, then all of the teachings in the collection are infallible.

  3. If a teaching is infallible, then it cannot be the case that something it teaches is wrong.

  4. Therefore, if a collection of teachings is a collection of infallible teachings, then all of the teachings in the collection are such that it cannot be the case that something that one of the teachings in the collection teaches is wrong (2, 3).

  5. Therefore, if a collection of teachings is a collection of infallible teachings, then it is not the case that the collection of teachings is fallible (1, 4).

  6. Assume for reductio that the Magisterium is a fallible collection of infallible teachings.

  7. Then, the Magisterium is not a fallible collection of infallible teachings (5, 6).

  8. Contradiction (6, 7). Therefore, the Magisterium is not a fallible collection of infallible teachings.

  9. If Catholicism is true, then the Magisterium is a fallible collection of infallible teachings.

  10. Therefore, Catholicism is false (8, 9).


Now, as Catholics, we would straightaway reject premise (9). We would surely want to maintain that the Magisterium is an infallible collection of infallible teachings. But a Protestant could respond by saying that, while the Magisterium in and of itself might be an infallible collection of infallible teachings, because of our epistemic uncertainty regarding what the Magisterium is, the Catholic can at best say that he has a merely fallible knowledge of what the Magisterium is in the same way that the Protestant allegedly has a merely fallible knowledge of what Sacred Scripture is. And if the latter fact reduces Sacred Scripture to a fallible collection of infallible books for the Protestant, then the former fact similarly reduces the Magisterium to a fallible collection of infallible teachings (in the form of councils, creeds, etc.) for the Catholic.


To escape from this difficulty, we have at least two options: (1) Recognize that, unlike Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium explicitly identifies itself as an infallible authority (it is, unlike Sacred Scripture, literally self-attesting); (2) Appeal to the Holy Spirit infusing by grace the theological virtue of faith into the believer whereby the believer knows the object of his faith infallibly based on the direct testimony of God speaking to him interiorly. It should be noted that these two options need not be thought of as being mutually exclusive.


(1) does not initially seem very promising. It is the seemingly viciously circular argument of "The Magisterium says it is infallible; therefore, it is infallible." Then again, it could be argued that this isn't necessarily viciously circular. The argument would be viciously circular if in order to accept the statement from the Magisterium that it is infallible, I must already assume that the Magisterium is infallible. But I don't actually have to do that. Instead, I can have reason to merely think that the Magisterium is generally credible and reliable (something that can established on the basis of attending to motives of credibility), and this fact would give me grounds to trust the Magisterium when it tells me that it is infallible. (I give a sketch of an argument for this in an article on my blog HERE). The philosopher Robert Koons argues along these lines in his book A Lutheran's Case for Roman Catholicism:

So far, I have argued for the existence of a reliable and authoritative magisterium, firmly anchored in the apostolic succession of bishops headed by the pope. I have not, however, provided grounds for affirming the infallibility of the Church generally, nor of the pope specifically. There are several arguments for this further conclusion. First, there is a simple argument: the Church teaches that it is infallible; the Church is authoritative and reliable; therefore, we must believe that the Church is infallible. If the Church is infallible, and the pope is, both de facto and de jure, the head of the Church, with the power and authority to establish and enforce doctrinal standards, then the pope must be infallible in so doing (that is, when he speaks "ex cathedra") (pg. 73).

Of course, once I arrive in this way at the conclusion that the Magisterium is infallible, I will then (retrospectively) accept the Magisterium's statement that it is infallible as itself an infallible statement, thus allowing me to know infallibly that the Magisterium is infallible. In this way, it could be argued that given the nature of infallibility, the Magisterium is capable of, in a sense, infallibly reinforcing its own infallibility (which seems quite appropriately transcendental!), at least for the faithful who come to accept the infallibility of the Magisterium with at least moral certitude on the basis of first accepting its general reliability on the basis of the motives of credibility. Garrigou-Lagrange seems to be getting at this point when he writes the following:

[W]e must note that, in order to establish the apologetic proof of the divine origin of Catholicism, ... It suffices to know with moral, historical certitude that Christ declared that he himself was instituting a hierarchical Church, giving it infallibility to propose revelation, conferring it perpetuity. However, we have proven this presupposing the historicity of the Gospels. Moreover, it is infallibly and supernaturally certain for the faithful on the basis of the definitions of the Church herself (On Divine Revelation, Vol. II, pg. 284, emphases in original, boldface added).

Now, there is a kind of circularity involved here, but it does not seem to be a vicious sort of circularity. As the philosopher Tyler McNabb writes:

Now, you might think that all circular reasoning is bad, but that simply isn't the case. As some epistemologists have pointed out, circularity is only bad when you aren't already confident in the belief in question. For example, it seems permissible to utilize your cognitive faculties when you form the belief that your cognitive faculties are reliable...If you are already certain that the belief in question is true, circularity can be your friend ("Doubt and Certainty," Ch. 34 in The New Apologetics: Defending the Faith in a Post-Christian Era, pg. 199).

This is the kind of peculiar circularity that is involved in a transcendental argument. In McNabb's example, one can reason transcendentally to the conclusion that one's cognitive faculties are reliable all the while one is using one's cognitive faculties in the very process of reasoning to this conclusion. Along the same lines, Aristotle's transcendental argument for the law of non-contradiction (see my previous article HERE for a discussion of this) makes use of the law of non-contradiction in the very act of arguing for it. Similarly, the infallibility of the Magisterium can be argued for transcendentally by making use of one's belief in the infallibility of the Magisterium (a belief that can initially be grounded in the motives of credibility in conjunction with the testimony of the Magisterium itself—thus initially giving one at least moral certainty) in the very act of reasoning to the conclusion with infallible certainty that the Magisterium is infallible. Just as the reliability of one's cognitive faculties or the truth of the law of non-contradiction can be seen to reinforce themselves in a transcendental way, so too can the infallibility of the Magisterium be seen to reinforce itself in a transcendental way. Such is the nature of an ultimate authority.


To conclude this line of thought, it is important to see that this line of argument is not available to the Protestant. For the Bible, unlike the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, does not (not in its entirety at least) declare itself to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant word of God. I think that the best a Protestant could do to rebut this claim would be to point to the following passage of Scripture:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

But there are significant problems with the Protestant's reliance on this passage of Scripture in establishing that the Bible declares itself to be infallible in the same way that the Magisterium declares itself to be infallible. First of all, how does the Protestant know that this particular passage is a part of the Bible? While the Magisterium is a single unit, the Bible, historically speaking, was not a single unit until the canon was finally settled by the Catholic Church, and surely the Protestant does not want to appeal to the Catholic Church in order to account for his Bible. Historically, the Bible was assembled by collecting together various writings that were initially separate from each other. It did not fall down from heaven bound by leather with chapter and verse. At the time that St. Paul was writing 2 Timothy, the only assembled Bible was that of the Old Testament canon. The Bible that Paul used was the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament that included the Deuterocanon (cf. The Case for the Deuterocanon: Evidence and Arguments, pg. 85-101), an awkward fact for Protestants who do not recognize the Deuterocanon as Scripture. It is this Old Testament that is the referent of "Scripture" in 2 Timothy 3:16.


The recognition by the Church of the divine inspiration of 2 Timothy came after 2 Timothy was written. Given this, how does the Protestant know, without appealing to the authority of the Catholic Church, that 2 Timothy was properly recognized as being inspired and therefore was appropriately added to the Bible? It is important to see that 2 Timothy does not identify itself as being inspired by God. It says that all Scripture is inspired by God, but it does not identify itself as Scripture. This would be like if the Magisterium of the Catholic Church declared that the Magisterium is infallible but without identifying itself as the Magisterium. In response to this problem, a Protestant might try appealing to the following passage of Scripture:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16, emphasis added).

From this, a Protestant could argue, St. Paul's letters are identified as Scripture. Therefore, we may conclude that 2 Timothy is Scripture and thus, according to 2 Timothy, it is itself inspired by God. Thus, the Bible does declare itself to be inspired by God in the same way that the Magisterium declares itself to be infallible. But the problem raised against the appeal to 2 Timothy alone recurs here with respect to the appeal to the conjunction of 2 Timothy and 2 Peter. For now the question is, how do we know that 2 Peter is a part of the Bible? Again, historically speaking, the Bible as we know it today was not a single unit until the canon was finally settled by the Catholic Church. In response to this, a Protestant might appeal to various motives of credibility for believing that a writing is inspired by God. For instance, the Reformed theologian and apologist Cornelius Van Til writes:

When the believer is asked why he thinks of the Bible as the Word of God, he may point to the notae [i.e., notes] and criteria of Scripture. He may speak of the majesty of its style, the elevated nature of its content, the depth of its thought, the blessedness of its fruits, etc. (The Defense of the Faith, pg. 374).

Van Til, however, goes on to say, quoting the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck:

[B]ut "these are not the grounds of [the believer's] faith, they are but characteristics and evidences which are later discovered in Scripture by believing thought...The Deus dixit [literally, "God said it"] is the primum principium [i.e., foundational principle], to which all dogmata [i.e., dogmas], including that pertaining to Scripture, can be traced" [Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, pg. 589] (ibid.).

This is right in line with the teaching of the Westminster Confession:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (Westminster Confession I.V).

Given all of this, the Protestant can argue that the notes and criteria of Scripture give us good grounds to conclude with at least moral certitude that 2 Peter is a part of the Bible; that is, it is inspired by God. Given this, we can, again with at least moral certitude, conclude from 2 Peter, which is a part of the Bible, that 2 Timothy is a part of the Bible as well. Thus, we can know with at least moral certitude that 2 Timothy identifies itself (indirectly through 2 Peter) as being inspired by God. Then, in the same way that the Magisterium reinforces its own infallibility by declaring itself to be infallible, 2 Timothy reinforces its own inspiration and infallibility by declaring itself to be inspired and thus also infallible.


Of course, this is all assuming that the notes and criteria of Scripture can give us moral certitude that 2 Peter is a part of the Bible in the first place, but let's grant this assumption for the sake of argument. Even in this case, however, the Protestant has at best established infallible knowledge of the Pauline epistles as well as the Old Testament canon (since, as aforementioned, it is the Old Testament that is at least the primary referent of "Scripture" in 2 Timothy 3:16). This leaves open the question of the Gospels, Acts, Hebrews (depending on who you would ask), James, 1 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. [As an aside, it could actually be argued that Revelation does identify itself as divinely inspired (cf. Revelation 22:18), but it is interesting to note that Revelation was, historically speaking, one of the more contested books of the New Testament]. These are not individually self-attesting, and to say that they are covered by the term "Scripture" in 2 Timothy 3:16 is to simply beg the question as to whether they are Scripture. And given that some of these books were written after 2 Timothy 3:16, they cannot be included as part of the referent of "Scripture" in that passage. This same reasoning would apply to the Pauline epistles written after 2 Timothy as well, but I am being generous and assuming that, because they are all written by Paul, he can have them in mind even before he writes them when he is penning 2 Timothy 3:16. But even with this generosity, the problem remains for the other books.


There is no way, therefore, for a Protestant to maintain that Scripture as a whole, as a unit, is self-attesting in the way that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is self-attesting. And yet, Scripture as a unit is supposed to function for Protestants as a first principle of their revelational epistemology. As Van Til puts it (drawing from Abraham Kuyper): "For the believers, Scripture is the principle of theology. As such it cannot be the conclusion of other premises, but it is the premise from which all other conclusions are drawn” (The Defense of the Faith, pg. 348). K. Scott Oliphint comments on this statement as follows:

Van Til is using the notion of principle here in its technical sense. For Reformed thought, the principia are the foundations upon which being and knowledge are, and are understood. God is the principium essendi (the source or principle of all being) and Scripture is the principium cognoscendi (the source or principle of knowledge) (ibid., footnote).

A first principle must be taken as a unit. It is by its nature an all or a nothing. But Scripture is not self-attesting as a unit. Not all of the books of the Protestant canon can be construed as self-attesting in the way that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is self-attesting. This means that the Protestant is given the opportunity to question the canonical status of at least some of the books in the 66-book canon (just as Luther felt he had the right to question—and ultimately reject—the canonical status of some of the books in the 73-book Catholic canon). This destroys the unity of the Bible as the principium cognoscendi. And once part of the Bible—qua word of God—can be questioned, it opens up the way for doubting all of it. As Van Til puts it (regarding the necessity of holding to the unity of the first principle of special divine revelation):

As soon as the elements of the special principle...are set next to one another as largely independent of one another, the natural man is given an opportunity to do his destructive work. He is then allowed to judge at least with respect to one or more of these elements. And if he is allowed to judge of the legitimacy or meaning of any one of them, he may as well be given the right to judge of all of them. If the natural man is allowed the right to take the documents of the gospels [or of the New Testament more generally] as merely historically trustworthy witnesses to the Christ and his work, he will claim and can consistently claim also to be the judge of the Christ himself...Then [the words of Christ] are absorbed in what is a hopeless relativity of history (ibid., 350; quote from A Christian Theory of Knowledge).

If the Bible is to function as a foundational principle of theology, therefore, it needs a unifier. And it is historically certain that that unifier is none other than the Catholic Church. Now, the unifier, in order to function as a unifier, must be able to attest to the canon of the Bible—particularly to the books of the Bible that are not self-attesting—in an authoritative way, in a way that would be binding on the consciences of all Christians so that Christians would not have the opportunity to treat the books of the Bible in a piecemeal fashion, the doing of which would compromise the unity of the Bible as a foundational principle of theology. To have this kind of authority is to have nothing short of infallibility, for anything short of infallibility would give Christians the opportunity to question the judgement of this unifier in determining the canon, which would in turn give Christians the opportunity to treat the Bible in a piecemeal fashion, and this was precisely the problem that the unifier was supposed to solve.


Thus, we come full circle and yet again arrive at the infallibility of the Catholic Church, an infallible teaching authority that additionally attests to its own authority as a unit in a way that the Bible does not. The Magisterium, of course, when it decreed the canon of Scripture, was not operating in a vacuum but rather discerned the canon from Sacred Tradition, that non-written form of divine revelation that was handed on from the apostolic age. It is in this way that the principium cognoscendi for Catholicism is the venerable three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium together. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls" (CCC 95).

Scripture cannot be identified without Tradition. Tradition is too vague to serve as a rule of faith without Scripture. The Magisterium has nothing to interpret without Scripture and Tradition (as I write this, for some strange reason, this comes to mind). Scripture and Tradition are not sufficient to settle theological disputes about their correct interpretation without the Magisterium. There is an interdependence that is mutually reinforcing. There is thus a supreme unity and self-standing nature to the principium cognoscendi of Catholicism that is absent from the principium cognoscendi of Protestantism. The Protestant parody, therefore, is clearly weaker than the Catholic original. It thus fails as a parody argument.


Having said all of this, an important point needs to be made: From the foregoing, the reader may have gotten the impression that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is in some sense a higher and more fundamental authority than Sacred Scripture. But this is not in fact the case, and the Magisterium itself teaches as much:


The apostles entrusted the "Sacred deposit" of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church... "The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. "Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith" (CCC 84-86, emphasis added).

And as Robert Koons explains:

It is certainly true that God's Word is prior to and constitutive of the Church. The Church came into existence as a result of the apostles' preaching of the gospel. However, it is an error to identify God's Word with the Bible. God's Word includes the Bible, but isn't limited to it. The Church is not constituted by the Bible, since the recognition of the Bible as the permanent, normative record of God's Word was an institutional fact (the formation of the canon), which presupposed a prior institutional fact: the existence of the Church as an enduring, trans-generational society. The Church is not prior to God's Word, but it is prior to the delineation of Bible as the permanent source and standard of God's Word (A Lutheran's Case for Roman Catholicism, pg. 72).

Overall, then, option (1)—recognize that, unlike Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium explicitly identifies itself as an infallible authority—seems to be a viable response to the Protestant parody argument. What about option (2)—appeal to the Holy Spirit infusing by grace the theological virtue of faith into the believer whereby the believer knows the object of his faith infallibly based on the direct testimony of God speaking to him interiorly? This option seems legitimate, but it seems to also be open to the Protestant with respect to knowing infallibly what Sacred Scripture is. Van Til, for instance, adopts this response: "I believe in this infallible book, in the last analysis, because ‘of the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in my heart' [Westminster Confession I.V]" (The Defense of the Faith, pg. 241). This move would allow the Protestant to maintain that Scripture is an infallible collection of infallible books without needing recourse to the Magisterium. And any complaint on the part of the Catholic of this Protestant solution to the canon problem being too subjective can be thrown back at the Catholic with respect to him adopting option (2) as a solution to the problem of infallibly identifying the Magisterium. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.


Along these lines, consider next the second argument I laid out in the previous article:


  1. Sacred Scripture functions as an infallible authority for Christians.

  2. If Sacred Scripture functions as an infallible authority for Christians, then what Sacred Scripture is must be known infallibly.

  3. Therefore, what Sacred Scripture is must be known infallibly (1, 2).

  4. The Catholic Church ultimately and originally makes known what Sacred Scripture is.

  5. If the Catholic Church ultimately and originally makes known what Sacred Scripture is and what Sacred Scripture is must be known infallibly, then the Catholic Church makes Sacred Scripture known infallibly.

  6. Therefore, the Catholic Church makes Sacred Scripture known infallibly (3, 4, 5).

  7. Whatever makes something known infallibly itself has to be infallible

  8. Therefore, the Catholic Church is infallible (6, 7).


This is a kind of transcendental argument for the conclusion that the infallible authority of the Catholic Church is the necessary presupposition for Sacred Scripture to function as an infallible authority for Christians. In response to this, a Protestant could ask what the necessary presupposition for the Catholic Church to function as an infallible authority for Catholics is. The natural response is to say that the answer is the direct authority of God. We might formulate an argument for this as follows:


  1. The Magisterium functions as an infallible authority for Catholics.

  2. If the Magisterium functions as an infallible authority for Catholics, then what the Magisterium is must be known infallibly.

  3. Therefore, what the Magisterium is must be known infallibly (1, 2).

  4. God ultimately and originally makes known what the Magisterium is.

  5. If God ultimately and originally makes known what the Magisterium is and what the Magisterium is must be known infallibly, then God makes the Magisterium known infallibly.

  6. Therefore, God makes the Magisterium known infallibly (3, 4, 5).

  7. Whatever makes something known infallibly itself has to be infallible

  8. Therefore, God is infallible (6, 7).


So, just as the infallible authority of the Catholic Church, according to the Catholic presuppositionalist, is the necessary presupposition for Sacred Scripture to function as an infallible authority for Christians in general, the infallible authority of God is the necessary presupposition for the Catholic Church (the Magisterium) to function as an infallible authority for Catholics in particular. In response to this, however, the Protestant will simply proceed to cut out the middleman, so to speak, and maintain that the infallible authority of God is the necessary presupposition for Sacred Scripture to function as an infallible authority for Christians without having recourse to an infallible Magisterium at all. For the Protestant, as aforementioned, Scripture is the first principle of revelational epistemology. Again quoting Van Til: "For the believers, Scripture is the principle of theology. As such it cannot be the conclusion of other premises, but it is the premise from which all other conclusions are drawn" (The Defense of the Faith, pg. 348). The Protestant might even appeal to Ockham's razor and argue that by cutting out the middleman of the Magisterium, the Protestant theory is simpler while retaining the same explanatory power; consequently, Ockham's razor enjoins us to shave away the redundancy of the Magisterium.


At this point, therefore, it would seem that the Catholic and Protestant are at an impasse. They are both claiming to have infallible knowledge of their respective authorities on the basis of the internal witness of the Holy Spirit effectuating within them the theological virtue of faith. To break out of this impasse in the present apologetic context, some appeal to evidence (motives of credibility) in favor of—for the Catholic—the authority of the Magisterium or—for the Protestant—the authority of the 66-book canon of the Bible would seem to be necessary. But isn't this to essentially quit doing presuppositional apologetics and to instead revert to classical/evidential apologetics? Well, recall that in my first article on presuppositionalism, I argued that there is no reason why the presuppositionalist method cannot make use of evidence and arguments of the more classical kind, especially if such evidence and arguments are used in service to the task of defending a transcendental style of argument. And we've seen from the foregoing treatment of option (1) that the motives of credibility can give one rational grounds to affirm the general reliability and authority of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Magisterium, as we've seen, explicitly attests to its own infallibility. This fact in conjunction with the motives of credibility allows the Magisterium to infallibly establish its own infallibility in an objective way. This in conjunction with the more subjective inner witness of the Holy Spirit in principle gives the Catholic complete certainty of the infallibility of the Catholic Church. The objective and the subjective mutually reinforce each other in a way that they do not for the Protestant with respect to the infallibility of Sacred Scripture, and this is because, as we've seen, Scripture considered as a unit is not self-attesting in the way that the Magisterium is. Given this fact, while the subjective basis of infallibility might seem to put the Catholic and Protestant on an equal footing with respect to their systems of authority, the objective basis is clearly in favor of the Catholic system of authority.


The superiority of the Catholic system of authority is additionally and especially highlighted in cases of theological disputes between Christians, where Scripture alone is clearly (as can be seen by a cursory survey of the history of Protestantism) insufficient for settling disputes and maintaining unity among Christians, unity that Scripture itself commands us to have (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10). Scripture also, as St. Francis de Sales is wont to remark, enjoins us to go to the Church as the final court of appeal to settle our disputes:

But he who shall consider how perfectly authentic is the testimony which God has given of the Church, will see that to say the Church errs is to say no less than that God errs, or else that he is willing and desirous for us to err; which would be a great blasphemy. For is it not Our Lord who says: If thy brother shall offend thee . . . tell the Church, and if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican (Matt, xviii.) Do you see how Our Lord sends us to the Church in our differences, whatever they may be? How much more in more serious offences and differences! (The Catholic Controversy, I.XII).

But which Church must we address ourselves to? The second-century Church Father St. Irenaeus of Lyons testifies to the answer:

It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority. But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition of the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition (Against Heresies 3.3.1-2, emphases added; taken from The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, pg. 89-90).

Thus, it is the Catholic Church that is the final court of appeal in settling theological disputes so that unity and pure doctrine can be maintained among Christians. Truly, therefore, did St. Paul declare that the Church is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).


There is one final point I want to make before concluding this article, which is admittedly already too long as it is. Sometimes Catholic presuppositionalism is caricatured as arguing that, without the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, we would be unable to understand anything of what Scripture teaches with any kind of certainty. But this "ecclesial positivism" is clearly absurd; therefore, Catholic presuppositionalism is a ridiculous apologetic. (See, for instance, this video HERE for an example of this kind of objection). But this is a straw man of Catholic presuppositionalism. Now, can you find a Catholic presuppositionalist who argues like this? Maybe, but you can also find a classical apologist arguing like this: Everything has a cause. So, the universe has a cause, and this cause is God. But this is clearly a bad argument because God, by His very nature, cannot have a cause, and yet He must have a cause by the first premise in the argument. But just as it would be ridiculous to impute this argument to classical apologetics as such, it is ridiculous to impute ecclesial positivism to presuppositional apologetics as such.


The question is not whether Scripture can be read and interpreted correctly much of the time. Of course it can be. There are many things in Scripture that are sufficiently clear so that the average Christian can understand what is being taught with facility and with some degree of certainty. The question is rather what we are to do when Scripture isn't clear. As St. Peter said referring to St. Paul's epistles: "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). And as the Ethiopian Eunuch said in response to St. Philip's question as to whether he understood an apparently difficult passage of Scripture: "How can I, unless some one guides me?" (Acts 8:31). The unclear passages are all the more pressing when they give rise to disputes and disunity among Christians. It is in these cases of interpretational uncertainty that the Magisterium becomes indispensable. As Robert Koons puts it:

Some Roman Catholics claim that the Scriptures, like any text, need an authoritative interpreter. I think this claim is too broad. There are context-free meanings...However, the context-independent meanings of the Scriptures are not in fact sufficient to settle all doctrinal disputes that must be settled (including the question of which doctrines are essential and which are not). This is confirmed by the testimony of history, including Lutheran history. If the Scriptures were perspicuous comprehensively, there would be only one major sola scriptura denomination, instead of hundreds (A Lutheran's Case for Roman Catholicism, pg. 68).

It is the necessity of having a mechanism for settling doctrinal disputes that is at the core of St. Francis de Sales' argument for the infallible authority of the Catholic Church. He focused less on the canon problem in and of itself than I admittedly have. While the canon does factor into his argument, he focuses more on settling disputes over the canon rather than the knowledge of the canon as such. Perhaps I have made a mistake in my own presentation of Catholic presuppositionalism in focusing too much on the canon problem in isolation from the problem of settling disputes in a way that is binding on a Christian's conscience. If that is the case, then I can only say: Mea culpa! In any case, though, I conclude that the Protestant parody of Catholic presuppositionalism (as I've presented it) that I have considered in this article is unsuccessful, and I further conclude that Catholic presuppositionalism does not, or at least need not, lead to ecclesial positivism.

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