The Protestant’s Burden

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Introduction

For 500 years now, Protestants have been arguing that Catholicism is a false (or at least an extremely faulty) version of Christianity. After entering into this debate more deeply over the last couple years, I noticed some trends in the debate and also came up with a thought experiment I’d like to share. I wondered what it would really take for a Protestant to disprove Catholicism. I’ve come to think it may be more difficult than I at first imagined (and more than many Protestant polemicists admit) for a Protestant to disprove Catholicism without violating one of his own principles. In fact, it may even be impossible.

Here is what I came up with:

  1. Three legitimate means exist for a Protestant to disprove Catholicism: LogicalHistorical, and Scriptural.
  2. Protestantism probably cannot disprove Catholicism logically, because unresolvable contradictions are rare.
  3. Protestantism probably cannot disprove Catholicism historically, because history is on the side of Catholicism.
  4. Protestantism probably cannot disprove Catholicism scripturally, because it cannot prove that any Catholic doctrine contradicts scripture.
  5. Therefore, Catholicism probably cannot be disproved by Protestants.

A Few Disclaimers

Even though I use terms like “disprove” for efficiency’s sake (instead of something like “make a successful attack against”), this is not meant to be a rigorously logical argument. It may be deductively valid, but I do not want to seem like I am making a stronger claim than I am, and I can’t really cover its supporting points sufficiently in this space. Those familiar with the overall debate will likely recognize their import, and most are fairly uncontroversial claims anyway (even if their support is contestable). Also, because the argument primarily concerns those who are already Christians, it assumes the truth of the basic core of the Christian faith that both Protestants and Catholics agree upon (e.g., that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, that Jesus is the Son of God and the savior as proven by his resurrection, that God is a Trinity, etc.).

Here is the argument with supporting points:

Argument Expansion

1. Three legitimate means exist for a Protestant to disprove Catholicism: LogicalHistorical, and Scriptural

  • Most religious doctrines cannot be proven true either rationally (e.g., logically or mathematically) or empirically (e.g., historically or scientifically) because they are not objects of those disciplines. They can, however, be proven false rationally if they involve a logical contradiction.
  • Catholicism is a rational belief system based on supernatural revelation found in history and scripture, and it is those means which must be used to attempt to disprove Catholicism.
  • Other means might be available in principle, but Protestants could not consistently use means other than those which they agree apply to religion generally and to this debate in particular.
    • Examples:
      • Philosophy might be included as a test of religious claims, but to be definitive it would reduce to the logical test.
      • Science might be included as a test of religious claims, but nothing scientific is at stake in this particular debate.
      • Morality might be included as a test of religious claims, but:
        • If a group’s moral code is evaluated against scripture, it would just reduce to the “Scriptural” test.
        • Acting morally or immorally would only constitute a test of an individual’s or group’s adherence to their moral code. Unless successful adherence to such a moral code is a claim of a person or group, it is immaterial to the debate (for example, David remained God’s chosen king and Israel remained God’s chosen people whether or not they were acting according to their God-given moral code).
        • Both groups have significant moral failures in their past.
        • Jesus said the Church would be a “weed-filled field” (Mt. 13:24-30), so such failings are to be expected.
  • So, Protestants will have to disprove Catholicism using logic, history, or scripture.

2. Protestantism probably cannot disprove Catholicism logically, because unresolvable contradictions are rare.

  • It is just a fact of human thought and communication that even where logical contradictions seem to exist, nuanced explanations are usually available to avoid them.
  • Alleged contradictions are often confused with other kinds of relationships:
    • Contradictory statements are of the form “X & ~X” where one must be true and the other must be false (e.g., “Christianity is true.” & “Christianity is not true.”).
    • Contrary statements are of the form  “X & non-X’” where both could not be true but both could be false (e.g., “Christianity is true.” & “Islam is true.”).
    • Different statements are of the form  “X & Y” where both could be either true or false (e.g., “Christianity is true.” & “Christianity is fun.”).
  • The Bible seems to contain contradictions which Protestants agree can be resolved (e.g., James 2:23-24 vs. Rom. 3:28-4:3).
  • Protestantism embraces mutually exclusive doctrines, but does not consider itself a false movement.
  • So, Protestants will have to disprove Catholicism using history or scripture.

3. Protestantism probably cannot disprove Catholicism historically, because history is on the side of Catholicism.

  • The Christian Church was founded by Jesus Christ in the 1st Century and can never be overcome (Mt. 16:18; Acts 2), but Protestantism did not come into being until the 16th Century.
    • Protestantism’s claim to be merely restoring the Church to pre-Medieval Christianity is dubious due to the fact that the Church was doctrinally unified and historically identifiable until at least the 6th Century (many would say the 11th Century when it split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy over non-Protestant issues), and:
      • Numerous Catholic-specific elements existed in the pre-Medieval Church.
      • Protestantism clashed with Eastern Orthodoxy too.
      • Protestantism introduced historically innovative theological positions.
  • >The pre-Protestant Church determined the content of the New Testament and settled Christian orthodoxy in authoritative councils.
  • Protestants do not generally admit history as determinative for theological matters in any case.
  • So, Protestants will have to disprove Catholicism using scripture.

4. Protestantism probably cannot disprove Catholicism scripturally, because it cannot prove that Catholic doctrine contradicts scripture.

  • Demonstrating a true scriptural contradiction is necessary for the Protestant to disprove Catholicism scripturally.
    • If a given scriptural interpretation is at all possible, it is not sufficient to definitively disprove a group’s teaching scripturally.
    • Possible but conflicting interpretations are insufficient for disproofs because each would beg the question.
    • Catholicism’s extra-biblical doctrine (teachings that exceed specific statements of scripture) are not sufficient disproofs unless they are shown to be anti-biblical.
      • The Bible does not state that only teachings found in the Bible are allowable.
      • If theological conclusions are extra-biblical, then Protestants have extra-biblical teachings as well.
      • Protestantism embraces numerous contradictory interpretations of scripture but does not consider itself false.
  • If the foundational Protestant principle of Sola Fide does not count as a contradiction of scripture, no other theological position will either.
    • Sola Fide says that people are “justified by faith alone apart from works” (e.g., “justified freely, without their own works . . . faith alone justifies us” – Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, 2.1).
    • The Bible says that people are “justified by works and not by faith alone.” (e.g., James 2:24).
    • Sola Fide and James 2:24 are linguistically contradictory statements which are said to be resolved theologically by Protestants.
  • So,  Protestants will not disprove Catholicism using scripture.

5. Therefore, Catholicism probably cannot be disproved by Protestants.

  • If neither logic, history, nor apparent contradictions of scripture, are sufficient to disprove Catholicism on Protestant principles, then there is no way for the Protestant to consistently do so.

Conclusion

If a Mormon wanted to argue against Catholicism, she could easily do so by invoking the authority of her contrary prophets or scriptures. At that point it would become a question of the reliability of those sources. However, the Protestant does not have this strategy available to him because disagreement over the authority of the Catholic Magisterium or Pope usually reduces to disagreement over their interpretation of scripture, and Catholics and Protestants share the same Bible (with the exception of the largely-moot-in-this-debate Old Testament deuterocanon).

In closing it should be noted that if the above argument is sound, it would not prove Catholicism true – it would simply mean that Catholicism could not be proven false by Protestants. Further, although the argument has traditional Protestants in mind, it is relevant for other non-Catholic groups which would not consider themselves to be “Protestant” as well (e.g.,  many Baptists and non-denominational churches). The more a given group leans toward some authoritative tradition or that skews toward being “Bible-only,” points 3 and 4 will become more important respectively. Although this argument will not settle the Catholic-Protestant debate, it may help move it forward as the above attempts are modified to avoid inconsistency.

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