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Some Thoughts on Catholic-Protestant Discourse (Part 1)

My goal with this paper is first to explore the question of theological authority and second to show, in light of what is laid out in the first part, where we Catholics can agree with the Protestant position above and where we have to part ways.

“Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. “ –Matthew 28:19-20

As Christians, we’re all bound by this command. But the Christian faith, being nearly 2000 years

old, has been articulated in numerous ways. We see this especially in the West where Protestantism has

grown into the thousands of denominations we see today. Because Catholicism and Protestantism are

the dominant expressions of Christianity in the West, we often come into contact with each other.

Because we’re each committed to what we believe to be the Truth of Christ and we disagree on exactly

what that Truth is, we often end up in arguments about doctrine.

Protestants place their doctrine of salvation at the center of their theology. This doctrine of

salvation is traditionally summed up by the slogan “Sola Fide” ie faith alone. The idea is that when a

person receives the necessary grace of the Holy Spirit to confess Jesus is Lord and to believe in his heart

that God rose Him from the dead, this person is saved (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 12:3). Further, this is not the result of anything the person has done but is rather the result of God’s sovereign decree

(Romans 4:4, Romans 8:29-30, Romans 9, Ephesians 2:8-10 etc). There are a variety of views within

Protestantism about whether or not salvation can be lost but this core argument would be accepted by

all Protestants.

Now, it should be obvious that in order to obey the command of Christ to teach the nations all

that Christ has commanded us, we have to know what He commanded us. My goal with this paper is

first to explore the question of theological authority and second to show, in light of what is laid out in

the first part, where we Catholics can agree with the Protestant position above and where we have to

part ways.

The Canon Argument

If you’ve spent any time listening to or participating in Catholic-Protestant discourse you’ve

probably heard what is called “the canon argument”. It goes like this:

Protestant: (The doctrine of the Catholic church) is an innovation! Where does the Bible say that?!

Catholic: Why are you appealing to the Bible? As a Catholic, I readily submit to the teaching authority of the Church. But you, with your Sola Scriptura doctrine, only have the Bible for an authority. The Bible doesn’t spell out which books are in the Bible. To get that, you need holy tradition and the infallible authority of the Church. You’re being inconsistent by accepting Church authority on this question (the canon) but denying it on this other issue you’ve asked me about.

Now there are some people who find this reasoning very compelling and I’m not necessarily

here to say they’re wrong. From a historical perspective they’re absolutely correct. Rather, I want to

offer a few points of constructive criticism to “beef up” the point a bit. But since this argument is often

taken as a “death blow” to the Protestant position, Catholics very rarely see a substantive counter to it,

and, let’s be honest, I’m messing with one of our favorite arguments against Protestants, I think it’s

necessary to motivate the point. To do that I’ll begin by playing devil’s advocate for the Protestants to

show one way the argument could run into some problems.

A Possible Short-Coming of the Canon Argument

Let’s assume we have a thoughtful Protestant. He has heard this argument before and he’s done

his research on it. Assuming he has been honest in his research and he is intent on following the truth,

he must conclude that the Catholic is correct to say that the Catholic church determined the canon.

He still is not convinced of Catholicism though and he responds to the Catholic by “turning the tables”. It might go something like this:

Protestant: Ok, the Catholic church decided on the canon. But there was a canon before the Catholic

church. That canon, the canon of the Old Testament, was determined by Jewish tradition. Shouldn’t we both give up on Christianity and become Jews?

Catholic: No, because we can look through the Old Testament, find the types and prophecies of Christ, show that the Jews are apostate because of their rejection of Christ, and that the Bible now belongs to His followers rather than the Jews.

Protestant: So you can reject Judaism as a whole, because you can use the Jewish Scripture to show that

the Jews are apostate, even though you benefit from Jewish tradition by having the Old Testament, a

product of that tradition, to point you to Christ?

Catholic: Yes

Protestant: This is what I do with the Catholic church. Paul teaches that salvation is by faith alone, not

by works, and this position is condemned by your church. Your church may have given me the Bible but by condemning Paul’s teachings they’ve since become apostate. Just like your church claimed the Old Testament after the Jews became apostate, the Reformers claimed the Bible for us Christians when your church became apostate.

At this point the Catholic is in an uncomfortable position. It may be tempting to quote James

2:24 at the Protestant to counter his point that salvation is by faith alone but this will ultimately fall

short if a proper foundation isn’t laid first. It could also be tempting to argue the historical points that

Jewish tradition determined a canon of Scripture and that the Church has condemned the teaching of St. Paul. The theologically minded Catholic could also be tempting to correct the way they’ve presented St. Paul’s teachings. But again, this is often done by “proof-texting” the Protestant without giving an adequate challenge to their way of interpreting Scripture, making the proof-texts fall flat by allowing the Protestant to interpret them according to their theology. What could the Catholic have done better here? More on that in a moment.

Definition of Sola Scriptura

One of the most problematic things about what our hypothetical Catholic said above is that he

assumed an over-simplified definition of Sola Scriptura. This isn’t entirely his fault. If we literally

translate the words into English, his understanding that Sola Scriptura means the Protestant “only [has] the Bible [for an authority]” seems justified. If we assume that he’s an American Catholic it seems even more justified given that many American Protestants behave as if Scripture were the only authority for Christians. Against this version of Sola Scriptura, the canon argument is devastating. The Protestant has to concede that tradition has authority as well as Scripture.

But our Protestant is smart. He knows that historic Protestantism doesn’t have this simplistic

view of Sola Scriptura. “Sure, traditions, councils, creeds and so on all have some degree of authority” he may say “but their authority is not infallible. They could all be wrong. Scripture alone is the infallible authority for the church and it stands in judgement over all other sources of authority. Scripture contains within it everything an individual needs to know to be saved and it’s sufficiently clear that any reasonably intelligent person could read it, understand it, and be saved without some additional authority telling him what to do”. He will almost certainly cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17 thinking this supports his position: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” The assertion is that a more literal translation of the Greek would say that Scripture is “God-breathed” (“theopneustos” if he’s trying to impress you) and nothing else is described in those terms. This individual would be in good company, according to his tradition.

The position he articulates here is held by most Reformed theologians and articulated by many highly influential Protestant creeds, including the Westminster Confession.

This, I submit to you, is the strongest form of Sola Scriptura. This is the form we ought to

focus our attack on. Attacking the strongest form of an argument is called “the principle of charity”.

Even the disbelievers see this as good practice and do it. As Catholics, followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, goodness, truth, and love Himself, it’s even more important for us to use this principle. If the Protestant is correct that Scripture alone and nothing else is described as God-breathed, he has a strong case for Sola Scriptura. And I will readily admit that I don’t know enough Greek to know if there is another verse which uses the word “theopneustos” to describe anything else. So, are they correct? In order to evaluate this question we need to understand what it means to be God-breathed.

What “God-Breathed” Does NOT Mean

Any Bible-believing Protestant would have to concede that Scripture being God-breathed does

not mean that some booming voice spoke to the inspired authors from the clouds saying “Genesis 5:5

will say..., and Exodus 2:3 will say…” and so on. It also does not mean that the Holy Spirit “took over” the bodies of the inspired authors. When the inspired authors of Scripture wrote, they wrote freely under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Further, while God does at times give revelation by dictating a message to a prophet to repeat verbatim, this is not the only way God gives us Scripture or even the main way He does it.

What “God-Breathed” Does Mean

“God-breathed” refers to the fact that Scripture, while written by fallible human authors,

ultimately traces back to the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:16, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 1 Corinthians 2:12-13, 2 Peter

1:20-21 etc). How do we see this work in Scripture?

When we consult Scripture, we can see that God speaks in different ways. Sometimes He speaks

from the sky, but other times He’s speaking in the flesh. He also writes messages, dictates messages to

prophets who will repeat them verbatim, gives prophets visions which He helps them to interpret by His grace, even allows fallible human beings to speak their own words and preserves them from error by the grace of the Holy Spirit to proclaim His intended message. So, if we put together everything we’ve laid out so far, we will say that Scripture is infallible because it comes from the Holy Spirit but it comes from the Holy Spirit in different ways, namely, more or less directly from God.

Now that we’ve laid down a framework, we can begin to approach the question.

Luke 24:27 – The Old Testament Points Us to Christ

After Jesus rose from the dead, He encountered some of His disciples leaving Jerusalem on the

road to Emmaus and He explains to them how the Old Testament told them about Him. St. Paul gives us one example of how this happened in his Letter to the Romans where he describes Adam as “a type of Christ”. We read in Romans 5:18-19 “Therefore, as by the offence of one, unto all men to condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life. For as by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners; so also by the obedience of one, many shall be

made just.” These passages are why St Augustine can say “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old,

and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New”.

So we need to ask an important question: does the above verse, or any other teaching of the

New Testament, limit the teaching Jesus gave to his disciples on the road to Emmaus to the crucifixion?

It is my conviction that this is highly unlikely. How could Jesus explain the full significance of His

crucifixion without explaining essentially connected doctrines like the incarnation, redemption of sins,

the beginning of a new covenant etc? It seems far more plausible to believe that Jesus explained what

we read about in the Gospels, written by the Holy Apostles under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, about His life. One of the events from the life of Christ is the establishment of His Church with whom He promises to leave the Holy Spirit. What do we read about this Church?

Matthew 16:18–19 – On This Rock I Will Build My Church

I’ll begin with familiar territory for us Catholics, Matthew 16:18-19. But I’m going to take it in a

bit different of a direction than we might be used to. We’re used to looking at this verse and seeing Our

Lord establishing the papacy and I absolutely affirm that reading. However, not all Christian groups see it that way. They may focus on the confession of faith St. Peter makes back in verse 16 “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God” and assert that it, not Peter, is the rock Our Lord will build His church on.

We can side-step that argument entirely by going with what is indisputably true about the passage – namely, that Our Lord is signaling His intent to build a Church and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. How can Jesus make such a claim? And how does He have the right to do something as incredible as giving to a human being the keys to the kingdom of Heaven? The answer to both of these questions is that Jesus is God. This assertion, that Jesus is God, is shared between all Christian traditions, including the Protestants.

One meaning we can pull from this verse is that this Church must still exist. That is because Jesus, as God, stated that the gates of Hell would not prevail against this Church. If this Church did not

exist in our time, the gates of Hell would have prevailed over it and we would have to concede that

Jesus was either wrong or lying. But this is obviously unacceptable. So this Church must exist in our own time. This argument is further bolstered by another passage.

Matthew 28:20 – Christ Will Be With Us Until the End of the World

We began our examination with this verse but it’s worth returning to. The logical argument

above is sound but even the conclusions of sound logical arguments are not as certain as those truths

revealed by God in Scripture.

Who was Christ speaking to when He said this? Our only options are that He’s speaking to His

Church collectively or He’s speaking to the Apostles and disciples currently present when He was

speaking. It should be obvious that the latter cannot be the case, since the world has not ended.

The only plausible meaning is that He was speaking to His Church collectively. But if He’s speaking to the Church collectively, and we accept that Jesus was speaking the truth, we can only conclude that the

Church Christ established must still exist today, since the world has not ended. Because the Church still exists today, Christ is still with it.

John 16:12–13 – The Holy Spirit Will Guide the Church Into All Truth

This shows another character of the Church Jesus established in Matthew 16 – it is guided by the

Holy Spirit into all Truth. This point and the one before it has important implications for our theology but the most damning for the Protestant is that, taken altogether, we would have to affirm that this Church existed at all points in history and that it had been guided by the Holy Spirit to teach Truth without error the entire time.

This is why St. Paul can say in 1 Timothy 3:15 that the Church is the “pillar and ground of

the truth”. The Church, because She is guided by the Holy Ghost to teach truth without error until the end of the world, is the foundation for all certainty. We acknowledge that individuals in the history of the Church could disagree with each other but when we see decisive agreement on a certain point of

doctrine, we cannot regard that agreement is false without good reason. This is because the Holy Spirit

is God and God is not the author of confusion.

The Holy Spirit was given to the Church to guide Her into all Truth. If He guided Her into error, we could reasonably call the Holy Spirit the author of confusion, which is blasphemy. Therefore, we must either accept the teachings of the Church expressed in Holy Tradition and the magisterium, or dispute them on the basis of the higher authority of Scripture. But if we reflect on this dilemma, we can see that the second option is not valid. This is again because God is not the author of confusion. Therefore, we must accept that the teaching of the Church in Holy Tradition and the magisterium are rooted in the guidance of the Holy Spirit and are infallible.

From what has been laid out so far, we might be able to understand Tradition as infallible but

why magisterium?

Acts 15 – Council of Jerusalem

This passage is significant because in it we see both the authority of the Church and the authority of St. Peter over the Church. We’re told that there was a dispute among Jew and Gentile Christians, with the former telling the latter that they needed to be circumcised in order to keep the Law of Moses. Undoubtedly this is because they saw the Gentiles as being made into sons of Abraham

through the sacrifice of Christ, as St. Paul will lay out later in his own writings.

This obviously caused a problem among the believers so the issue was brought to the Apostles for a ruling. From this alone, we can see the authority of the Church recognized by the early believers. The dispute was not settled on the basis of exegeting the Old Testament Scriptures alone. Instead, it was brought to the Apostles, whose judgement was not based on anything in Scripture. The Holy Ghost moved through the Apostles to settle the dispute authoritatively. And which Apostle was most significant to this dispute? St. Peter.

Acts 15:7 says “And when there had been much disputing, Peter, rising up, said to them: Men, brethren, you know, that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.”

This is why we see the institution of the Papacy in Matthew 16:18-19 and its reaffirmation in John 21:15-17. We can agree with the interpretation that Our Lord was speaking about the confession of

faith, but we can also assert that He was not speaking only of the confession of faith based on these

verses above.

Otherwise, we risk being inconsistent by accepting the ruling St. Peter gave about circumcision on the one hand and denying the basis for accepting what he said on the other. This is also why we reject that Scripture alone is the infallible rule of faith for the Christian. The ruling issued by the Council of Jerusalem was not given on the basis of clear evidence from the Old Testament Scriptures or the teaching of the Apostles which would later become the canonical Gospels.

Rather, the issue was resolved by the Holy Ghost moving through the Apostles to issue a correct ruling. This should not be understood as undermining the authority of Scripture, but rather that it highlights the authority of the Church, under the authority of St. Peter and guided by the Holy Ghost, to infallibly interpret and apply the teaching of Scripture to disputes within the Church. On the basis of this passage we can issue the following challenge to Protestants: when was the ruling against circumcision for Gentiles made at the Council of Jerusalem infallible? When St. Peter spoke it or when it was recorded in what we now call the Book of Acts? On what exegetical grounds do you give your answer?

Who Gets To Speak Infallibly About the Christian Faith?

From what has been laid out above, we see that Christ established a Church during His lifetime,

put the Church under the authority of St. Peter, sealed it with the Holy Ghost to teach all truth, it would have the authority to settle disputes by guidance of the Holy Ghost alone without clear evidence from Scripture, and that it would last until the end of the world.

Taken altogether, we can safely conclude that it is the Catholic Church, not Scripture alone, which gets to speak infallibly about the Christian faith.

Returning to the Question: Is Only Scripture God-Breathed?

From what we have established above, we can safely conclude that Scripture is NOT the only

thing described as God-breathed in the Bible. Instead, the rulings of the Church are also described as


This undermines sola Scriptura in a fairly direct manner: if we have a Church, guided by the Holy Ghost to speak truth without error, to such an extent that the leader of the Church, St. Peter, can make a ruling on whether or not Gentile Christians need to be circumcised, without any clear evidence from the Old or New Testaments one way or another, then it follows that it is not only Scripture that is infallible but also the teaching authority of the Church. The only Church which retains all of these characteristics today is the Catholic Church.


As Catholics, we are zealous for the faith and we want to spread it as much as possible. In our

zeal, we are sometimes tempted to go for quick “gotcha” points against Protestants. This is especially

true today when many people we encounter have short attention spans due to social media use. As a

result, the canon argument has become a favorite of ours since it seems to undermine the Protestants

ability to make an argument at all because of his (apparent) inability to account for the canon. While this approach may work with some Protestants, it will not work against a more thoughtful, historical

Protestantism, which does recognize the authority of tradition, albeit in a different way than we do.

This form of Protestantism is stronger because it can withstand more of our attacks (as opposed to a Protestantism which sees tradition as having no authority at all). Out of charity, we ought to attack this version of Sola Scriptura. I’ve attempted to show that we can argue from Scripture for the authority of the Catholic Church. I propose that this approach will be more effective at engaging Protestants who are not already disposed to the Catholic faith because we are meeting them where their challenge is, not where we think it ought to be.


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