Thursday, March 02, 2006

Catholicism and the Two "Pillars" of Protestantism (Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide)

By Dave Armstrong (3-2-06)

Words of others will be in green and blue.


I've always found that Protestants will stop the conversation as soon as it gets to hard questions about sola Scriptura. They will gleefully fire shots at Tradition, but then refuse to see that sola Scriptura is itself a sort of odd, self-defeating variant of tradition. They'll go one round and then split before the second round begins. This has always been the case in my experience.

Thus, there was a big discussion at the notoriously logically circular, presuppositionalist Reformed Catholicism blog recently on this subject (mentioned here in another post), with the usual suspects taking the usual timeworn (and rude) potshots at a recent Catholic convert.

Someone (a scholar himself) asked, "have you read Keith Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura?" This is considered by many to be the best Protestant defense of sola Scriptura.

The charges keep being made, and the appeals to books like that, yet when Catholics give their critique (as I have, myself), the discussion is over. Protestants won't take that next step of defending their best shot.

And so they keep repeating the same arguments that have, in my opinion, been decimated by Catholics and Orthodox alike (even some Anglicans, for that matter). It's as if polemics and empty, repetitious, slogan-like rhetoric is given priority over substance and rational discourse.

Maybe it is because they are scared that their "best shot" is ultimately a dud like all the other desperate attempts to shore up this biblically, historically, and logically bankrupt position. After all, if this pet doctrine goes down, what becomes of Protestantism?

No one wants to deal (i.e., in sufficient depth, and at the appropriate length) with a topic that is essential - in fact, a pillar - to their position, lest it be refuted. Then what? The two pillars of Protestantism and the so-called "Reformation" are sola Scriptura and sola fide. Knock one down (like Samson) and the entire Protestant superstructure comes tumbling down.

As far as I am concerned, sola Scriptura has long since been refuted many times over by Catholics. Since Protestants refuse to defend (again, beyond the first round where their belief is merely stated) even their most plausible, thoughtful defenses of it, then by default, I guess they have conceded the extreme weakness of the position (and indirectly, the weakness of Protestantism itself, which rests on it).

This may be pipe dreaming, but here goes: From the Protestant's perspective, one can well argue that the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification indicates that the Catholic Church has accepted, or at any rate made its peace with, the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia.

Not quite. We never denied the latter (Protestants only wrongly thought that we did). Nor do we now assert the former. Rather, the talks made it clear that both sides had more in common than was commonly understood by your average Catholic or Lutheran. We don't accept sola fide; Lutherans haven’t suddenly decided to accept infused justification, but there is significant commonality nonetheless.

(The Catholic would say that, to the extent the Joint Declaration represents Magisterial teaching, which may be open to debate, the Church has clarified that the Lutheran doctrines on these points are capable of being understood in a way that is consonant with Catholic teaching, including the teaching of the Council of Trent.)

Yes. The soteriology is closer than usually supposed. But it is not identical, by any means.

The Protestant will then say to himself, it is said that sola fide and sola gratia are the "material principles" of the Reformation, and sola Scriptura is the "formal principle." So (says the Protestant) if Rome has now found a way to affirm (or at least tolerate) the material principles,

Again, on sola gratia there is no disagreement at all. Sola fide has to be carefully qualified and clarified as to what (qualified!) sense the Catholic can accept it.

might it not find a way to affirm the formal principle as well? Is there a way in which sola Scriptura can be understood to be consistent with Catholic doctrine?

No; it is fundamentally incompatible, logically and ecclesiologically. And that is because sola Scriptura posits only the Bible as the ultimate infallible source of Christian doctrine, and denies ecclesial infallibility (and in effect, de facto individual judgment as to hermeneutics and exegesis becomes the inevitable outcome). This can never be reconciled, because Catholics won't (and indeed shouldn't) give up the infallibility of the Church: that is too incompatible to its truth claims vis-a-vis ecclesiology and Catholic uniqueness as the self-understood infallible, indefectible Church of Christ.

There is more common ground here, too, though, than is usually supposed. Lutherans talk far more about the importance of tradition (within their sola Scriptura paradigm) than the average Catholic realizes. And Catholics revere the Bible far more than Joe Protestant imagines. Many Protestants think that the pope has proclaimed infallible interpretations for each Bible verse, or at least the most important ones.

There are all kinds of myths floating about on both sides.

I ask this because it seems that the Protestant of a magisterial Reformation tradition would not explicitly deny any of the three legs of Dr. Martin's tripod, although they would introduce important (and, to the Catholic Church, possibly ultimately unacceptable) qualifications.

That's right. They don't deny the importance of Tradition, but they deny that it can be protected by God and preserved from error (i.e., they deny infallible Tradition). The same applies for their notion of the "Church." We both accept the infallibility and inspiration of Holy Scripture, but the Catholic views Church and Tradition also as organic constituents making up our formal principle of Christian Authority. Lutherans and other Protestants tend to think that "demotes" or even derides Scripture. But it just ain't so . . .

That's that dreaded “either/or” mentality that Fr. Louis Bouyer critiqued so well in his classic, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism.

In Foundations of Faith, Karl Rahner says there is a sense or a way of understanding each of the Protestant "solas" which Catholics can affirm. Louis Bouyer does something similar in Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. Both of these books had quite an effect on me in my journey to Catholicism (but I can't relate their arguments here because both volumes are at my other office!)

I agree there are senses and ways that we can agree. For example, material sufficiency of Scripture forms a significant common ground with sola Scriptura (though it is only one aspect of the latter and in Catholicism goes beyond it and coexists with elements foreign to orthodox Protestant ecclesiology).

I have argued myself in the past that Catholic initial justification is quite similar (if not identical) to faith alone. But when the Christian life proceeds beyond the initial stage, sola fide is no longer a sufficient proposition.

Nevertheless, I still think it is impossible to reconcile sola fide and sola Scriptura with Catholic thought (sola Scriptura being the most difficult). In my opinion, this is not so much because they are at opposite poles of thought, but because the Protestant outlook is typically too restrictive (as Bouyer argues in that book), and rules out by presupposition what Catholics (and, I say, Scripture) offer in these regards. In other words, I think these two "pillars" are much more partial truths than they are untruths.

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