Monday, November 26, 2018

Does Protestantism Have A Problem With Subjectivity?

  • Discussion:
          -Leila Miller wrote an article titled "Catholicism is objective, Protestantism is subjective," attempting to illustrate how Sola Scriptura results in hopeless doctrinal confusion and anarchy. She characterizes non-Catholic interpretations of biblical texts as being inherently relativistic due to them not being rooted in an infallible teaching office. The Roman Catholic Church is thus presented as being the exclusive source of doctrinal truth and certainty. It is touted as the solution to all our problems. Following are a handful of excerpts from the author along with a critique of those assertions:

          "...this new paradigm of each Christian interpreting Scripture for himself means that there are as many interpretations of Scripture as there are Protestants. As you can imagine, this leads to a host of problems for a religion that exists to proclaim Truth."

          The inspired authors of the Bible wrote for the express purpose of instructing believers in their absence (Romans 15:4; 2 Corinthians 13:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:5; 1 Timothy 3:14-15). Scriptural truths relating to salvation are easier for us to comprehend. Other parts of the Bible are more complex and require more study. Sometimes we may even need other people to explain a passage to us, but that does not require a complex church hierarchy. The "paradigm" that the author speaks of is certainly not new, since it was the Bereans who were considered "noble" for daily searching the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-11). The Proverbs were written to give people "certainty" in regards to proper moral instruction (Proverbs 22:17-21). Luke wrote his gospel narrative to give Theophilus "certainty" concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:1-4). Scripture brings clarity in the midst of disorder. That is the testimony it provides in regard to itself.

          "Protestants will tell you that sincere Christians can find the Truth easily, because the "Scriptures are clear" -- and yet Protestants cannot seem to agree on even the essentials of salvation."

           This exact line of argumentation is advanced by cults such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and International Churches of Christ. It is a fact there are disagreements that are peripheral and tertiary in nature. There are differences that both philosophical and exegetical in nature. For example, the debate in regards to the nature of predestination is one that can be traced back to the days of Augustine. It has not even at this point in time been dogmatically defined by Rome itself. There is the possibility that people reject what Scripture says in spite of its "clear" teaching.

          "Catholics, thankfully, don't have that headache. We know what the Church teaches on every issue that touches on salvation, because Tradition has been handed down intact throughout the centuries, both written and orally, and those teachings are accessible to all."

            Matters for Roman Catholics are not as simple as Leila Miller makes them out to be. There are just as many divisions within the Roman Catholic Church as there are Roman Catholics themselves. Catholics disagree on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Catholics disagree on the number of teachings which should be considered infallible, and even what they are. Catholics disagree as to the meaning of several passages in the Bible. Many contemporary Catholic Scripture scholars do not uphold the inerrancy of Scripture. There has even been a threat of schism within the Church of Rome with the more traditionalist folks on the issue of homosexuality:

            "Much of the dissent has remained within the Vatican walls, as Francis’s opponents worked to stonewall reforms. A few high-ranking church leaders have questioned him publicly about his teachings. But the simmering opposition has suddenly exploded across the Catholic world, with a former Vatican ambassador accusing the pope of covering up sexual abuse — and demanding that Francis step down. The accusations came in a 7,000-word letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ² that could be viewed as an act of courage or unprecedented defiance. Either way, it sheds light on the opposition movement, and particularly its insistence that homosexuality within the church — and Francis’s inability to keep it at bay — is to blame for the sexual abuse crisis."...“We are a step away from schism,” said Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. “I think there is a perception among the pope’s critics that there is vulnerability here — on the part of the pope and in the Vatican generally.”

           In addition, the Catholic teaching on the death penalty is subject to change. Note the words of Roman Catholic philosopher Edward Feser:

           "For another thing, if the Pope is saying that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral, then he would be effectively saying – whether consciously or unconsciously – that previous popes, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and even divinely inspired Scripture are in error. If this is what he is saying, then he would be attempting to “make known some new doctrine,” which the First Vatican Council expressly forbids a pope from doing. He would, contrary to the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, be “proclaim[ing] his own ideas” rather than “bind[ing] himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word.” He would be joining that very small company of popes who have flirted with doctrinal error. And he would be undermining the credibility of the entire Magisterium of the Church, including his own credibility. For if the Church has been that wrong for that long about something that serious, why should we trust anything else she teaches? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken about something so important, why should we think Pope Francis is right?"

           Consider this excerpt from a Roman Catholic website called Ignitum Today on the issue of Catholics being divided on the dogma of transubstantiation:

           "According to John Young, theologian and philosopher, “Protestants reject transubstantiation, and so do many Catholic scholars. The average Catholic is vague concerning the nature of the Eucharistic presence of Christ, and one can sympathize with him, in view of the lack of clear teaching about the Most Blessed Sacrament." He further asserts, “The basic objection to the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence is not that it is against Scripture, but that it is against reason.” Theologian and professor at Virginia Seminary, Charles P. Price similarly believes that “most Catholics, without realizing it or perhaps considering it, actually believe in Consubstantiation,” as did Luther, and even a Catholic would be hard-pressed to refute the allegation."

           Is not the dogma of the Mass central to Roman Catholicism? Indeed it is. Yet, the above report plainly tells us that a significant number of Roman Catholics do not agree with official Church teaching on this issue. Consequently, the claims of unity existing within the Roman Catholic Church have been greatly inflated. Should we conclude that the Magisterium needs an infallible interpreter in order for it to make sense?

           The Roman Catholic Church has never given an "infallible" interpretation of every passage in the Bible. In fact, it has done so only on a handful of occasions to serve its own purposes. What is even more interesting is that, while the Church of Rome guarantees certainty behind the infallibility of its official decrees, it never promises that the theological reasoning used to support a decree is accurate itself. Consider these words from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia online:

           ''the validity of the Divine guarantee is independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result. It is the definitive result itself, and it alone, that is guaranteed to be infallible, not the preliminary stages by which it is reached."

           "At base, the divide between Protestants and Catholics boils down to authority. If there is no earthly, human authority, if everyone gets to decide for himself what the Bible means, then we have a system of subjectivity and chaos."

           The claim of Protestants being "subjective" is ironic, since Roman Catholics *subjectively* believe the Roman Catholic Church to be objectively authoritative. We all have to make personal decisions in searching for truth. No one is exempt from using fallible reasoning faculties in discernment. Everybody has to fallibly interpret communicated messages. Roman Catholics cannot have their cake and eat it too. They must fallibly interpret every word of Church teaching, whether they retrieve information from Papal Encyclicals, Ecumenical Council documents, the catechism, hearing priests during Mass, or the Code of Canon Law. 

           Roman Catholics do and must possess individualized, subjective interpretations of Roman Catholicism. They must judge for themselves the validity of the Roman Catholic Church in order to argue their position. Catholics operate no differently than Protestants in this regard because they *subjectively* appeal to evidence, which has to be analyzed in their own minds. In making this kind of argument, Catholics are severing the very branch of logic that they sit on because one could not even begin to submit to some outside authority without *subjectively* making the choice to do so. They are not in any better of a position to understand spiritual truth than anyone else.

            When interpreting Scripture, a person should take into account historical context and various literary devices. Commentaries, lexicons, and concordances are useful in matters of biblical interpretation. We should approach Scripture with a humble and prayerful heart. Not every argument or interpretation is equally valid. If one must have some special authority in order to give grounds for his beliefs, then how does he become a Roman Catholic in the first place? One cannot argue for an authority by appealing to that same authority. There has to be external sources verifying at least to some degree its reliability. 

           On what basis does one establish the authority of the Roman Catholic Church? If such a process involves using one's own powers of reason to evaluate evidence, then the person investigating is behaving exactly as does a Protestant or anyone else. Rome's "infallible" certainty is thus reduced to a mirage. It only provides organizational unity. Having a representative available to preside over a body of people does not translate into having no divisions of any kind. It only means that Catholics have decided for themselves they will place all their trust in the claims he makes on religious issues. If Sola Scriptura is invalidated because of divisions, then the same can equally be said of the Roman Catholic Magisterium.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Catholics are soooooo funny! What about the times in history when there was more than one pope? Which one had the authoritative teaching?!?!?

What simple-minded Catholics refuse to understand is that ALL of the doctrine of Mary is missing from the Bible and developed beginning centuries after the N.T. church. That's just one of the many subjective teachings of Rome. So don't tell me that non-Catholics are the only ones with subjective beliefs!

Oliver Olsen said...

How do you know "it's certain Catholics teach error" if you can't claim your own interpretation of the Bible is infallibly correct? Who are you to hold anyone as a heretic? You are but only a man promoting your traditions, with not even a CLAIM to Christ's authority.

Our opinions on how to interpret scripture are worthless, only God's opinion can determine right and wrong doctrine, as He is the objective compass of morality.

There is no such thing as truth without the authority of God. The protestant must admit they do not have the authority of God to interpret scripture without error.

Therefore, there is no objective truth in doctrine that disagrees with the catholic church (which has a claim to Christ's authority via apostolic succession).

Jesse Albrecht said...


The underlying problem with your argument is that it is self-refuting. The premise is inherently flawed because it has been set forth by a person who is fallible. How could the pope be of any avail to me, since I must fallibly interpret his interpretations of Scripture? I think that progress would be made in discussions with Roman Catholics, if they would realize that infallibility and authority are not requirements in order to make accurate judgments as to the meaning of Scripture. The Roman Catholic hierarchy is really just one subjective authority existing in the midst of many other subjective authorities. Having said that, you would disagree with Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses who claim to be the one true church. But who would you be to dispute their claims, since you cannot claim that your interpretations of the Bible are infallibly correct? The Eastern Orthodox Church makes identical claims to authority as does the Roman Catholic Church. Both cannot be correct because they contradict each other.

Russell said...

Hey Jesse,

Great job! You are absolutely correct. Catholics have the same "problem" as Protestants when it comes to Scripture interpretation.

Very well done!