The Protestant’s Burden



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.


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.


24 thoughts on “The Protestant’s Burden

  1. The fundamental flaw in your argument is a false dichotomy is set up. First if all we Orthodox exist (and while I’ve yet to be chrismated ill use the term we for me and my family) thus the omission of the third option that shares the same logic history and scripture (mostly for all 3) so a Protestant could use a historical critique that is usually implemented from the EO (such as Peter if he was the supreme head of the Church spent far more time in Antioch than Rome thus the pontiff should be Antiochian not roman, and innocent 3 changed the title of pope to be the vicar of Christ thus fundamentally changing the relationship the pope has with his people and the east, etc). The second flaw exists with equating all Protestants. Anglicans and Lutheran have different core history and theology, it’s possible for England to claim some autonomy from Rome in the west and maintain apostolic succession but not Germans as they never possessed autocephalous status so the issue of authority of the pope over England “could be” challenged historically. And if disproving an aspect if the argument is the precondition for negating the remainder I am not sure it works. If on the other hand you point out Luther Zwingli bucer Calvin menno Simons and the rest were in error with there division because they lacked history reason and scripture on there side, I could not disagree with that claim.

  2. Justin,

    Thanks for commenting on here as well as Facebook!

    The fundamental flaw seems to assume I am trying to prove Catholicism true (which I was not) via dilemma (which I also was not). In fact, I think EO could be substituted for RC in the argument and it would work just as well. However, you are right to point out that there are historical arguments against RC available from EO. If those arguments could succeed, and if they did not call Protestantism into question, those would be useful to Protestants. I am not sure a consistent Protestant could use those as effectively, though, because history rarely determines anything theologically for a Protestant. As to Anglicanism, since neither EO nor RC recognize their claim to apostolic succession, I think their use of that historical argument might appear to beg the question. Further, any overlap between some Anglican doctrine and the continental Reformer’s might suffer from the theological innovation problem as well. Finally, historical apostolic succession does not guarantee fidelity – many heresies began with Bishops and even Patriarchs. Thus, Anglicanism’s existence would not disprove RC any more than it would EO.

  3. It is a thought provoking argument you’ve provided. As you state, it doesn’t settle the issue, but it may perhaps facilitate more productive discussion on the matter. My immediate thought was, “I wonder how this might work in reverse?” – that is, can Protestantism be disproved by Catholicism? I would assume that (1) would be accepted again, and some of the same reasoning in the other premises would also apply. In reverse, the big difference would be with (3), as you have stated it. So what I would understand is that it may be possible for Catholicism to disprove Protestantism using history. Is that your inclination? That was one thought.

    My next thought was that I remain unconvinced of the truth of Catholicism or the falseness of Protestantism using the argument. There is simply too much asserted and left unproven, and I’m sure you would agree with my sentiment here because you’ve discussed this as a framework for further (more meaningful) discussion, not as a demonstrative proof. In particular (4) intrigues me. The principle illustrated is that there are apparent contradictions in Scripture that Christians are able to resolve, though Protestants and Catholics sometimes resolve them differently (using the understanding of different you described in (2)). It may be possible that (4) may come down to distinguishing the correct interpretation from interpretations that, while perhaps inadequate in themselves as they handle the text, do not violate the core doctrines of the faith all (Nicean) Christians affirm as true and biblical. If this is the case, believing something untrue about a Scriptural passage doesn’t necessarily mean one’s faith isn’t genuine, which seems provide the grace we need to be able to grow in our faith.

    Another implication of your argument, it seems to me, is that converting from Catholicism to Protestantism isn’t going to be about seeing the truth of Protestantism and the falseness of Catholicism. It’s going to concern other things: a perceived superior set of doctrines, personal relationships with Protestants and/or Catholics, personal or witnessed suffering and injustice in this life, etc. This is a move from one branch of Christianity to another, not a move from outside the faith to inside it. So perhaps the resources of the Church should not be used to fight over the flock as much as looking for others to join the flock. On a personal level, though, it seems (1) there’s no objective incentive for a Catholic to investigate becoming Protestant (2) there’s little incentive to investigating whether a Protestant should become a Catholic – unless I care about history. And even then, a Protestant could care about history and, for less objective reasons, choose to remain a Protestant and still be growing as a Christian.

    Very Intriguing article.

  4. I don’t think the issue really is whether or not Catholicism is wrong because of history, logic, or scripture but because it is an extremely burdensome system which is entirely unnecessary for a personal relationship with Christ. People who try the anti-Catholic rant at our Bible studies don’t get a sympathetic ear from me simply because there are saved people in crappy churches and denominations. But the enormity of what isn’t scriptural and the immense violations of Scripture within a body makes being an adherent to that body rather stupid. The number of pedophile priests and instances of abuse within the church is reason enough to find another place of worship. Add in all of the non- and extra-biblical hoo how and one has an extremely complicated system of something which is so easy – Call on the name of the Lord and you will be saved. Everything in a church should revolve around that, not Mary, not statues, not the ever-increasing burden of crap.

  5. As always, my post was just off the top of my rather small head. After taking a shower and preparing for tonight’s Bible study, I’ve got a few more thoughts on this… keeping them short. If we were to compare the RCC with the temple worship of Israel (a rather good one actually if you see how things have turned out for both) 1) Logically, those in Israel were following the true God. 2) Historically, well, they had a monopoly on the historical aspect of the worship, and 3) Scripturally, they were both the bearers of the Scriptures and the ones who followed them meticulously (as even Jesus cited out concerning their tithing, etc). Despite these points of “boasting” as Paul reveals elsewhere, their hearts were far from God and they had gone off following the traditions of man, holding them equal to and even above Scripture. Once again, there were saved people in the society, but the leaders were so bogged down in crappy religion that they had departed from the premise of what the true religion should entail. It really is a perfect fit with the RCC (and many other denominations in recent history) as well. There is a simple message which needs to be given out along with all of the deeper theological issues one can be instructed on. In our small Bible class, I have three “reformed catholics.” I myself am a “reformed Episcopal.” The clear, concise message of salvation was unheard of to all of us. Only yesterday morning, a catholic came to my house to take a sunrise photo. We talked and he, for the first time in his life, was given the simple gospel. Catholicism in general blows because it fails to pass the one test needed for entry into heaven in a large portion of its adherents. Precious souls, off to the Lake of Fire, because of the negligence of heady theologians and Mary-worshippers. It really is a distasteful system. The Lord must be very displeased.

  6. Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Let’s see – as to reversal, I think that RC would have a better case because their principles include some that would show Prot to be false/flawed. For example, they could point out that the Church is historically identifiable by (at least) apostolic succession, and Prot lacks that. Now whether that criterion is legitimate might be disputed, but it at least would not be inconsistent for a RC to use.

    I think you are right that 4 would, at best, become a matter of interpretive quality and so would not ultimately serve as a solid means of disproof. But it could, in principle, strongly incline one in one direction or the other. In fact I think this often happens with cults – most of the time their false understandings are not 100% disprovable from scripture.

    I am not sure about your last point. The converts I have read and know all point to problems with Prot they could not resolve and the superiority of RC resolutions to those problems as reasons for the move. On the other hand most converts from Prot to RC that I know seem to based on bad personal experiences (or bad interpretations of those experiences). I think that the claims of RC are more robust that Prots and so investigation is important. For example, if the RC are right about the Eucharist in John 6, that would apply to both sides importance-wise. Yes, I think if a Prot cares about history, RC is going to be a huge issue.

  7. Charlie,

    Thanks for reposting this from FB. Most of what you cited here as the issue seems to me to in fact be the “scriptural test.” You call RC “burdensome,” “unnecessary,” “stupid,” and you listed what “isn’t scriptural and the immense violations of Scripture” and “non- and extra-biblical hoo how.” In fact pretty much everything you said assumes that your understanding of scripture is correct and the RC’s is not. Therefore it all falls under the scriptural test.

    As to pedophile ministers, be careful – there seem to be more in Protestantism.

  8. Charlie,

    I haven’t had a shower yet but here are my non-showered thoughts haha. There certainly are parallels between Israel and the RC Church – but these can be exploited in more than one way. For example, Israel did not cease to be the true people of God simply because they made mistakes. The ruler if Israel remained the king even when he was wicked. The seat of Moses was to be obeyed even when the Jewish leaders that occupied that seat were immoral. Etc. The claim that RC is analogous to Israel when it comes to the “clear, concise message of salvation” or “traditions of men” begs the question and would fall under the scriptural test again. Also I am pretty sure you know RC does not allow Mary worship.

  9. I don’t understand Jesus’s imperative statement in Matt 23 to do what the Pharisees say, for they do not practice what they preach. But didn’t Jesus also challenge their *teaching* (preaching)? If they taught that it is not lawful to pick grain on the sabbath, then that teaching on morals was false (Matt 12:1-8). So it couldn’t be true that we ought to do everything the Pharisees say, or that the seat of Moses (Pharisees) has infallible teaching authority.

  10. Jordan, That’s right – they were not infallible, but they had real authority as a governing body and were to be obeyed by the people of God (note that Jesus laid the blame for bad teaching on the leaders, not the laity). When teaching scripture, they apparently retained that authority even while living scriptural lives. Moses was not infallible either unless safeguarded by God when speaking for him or writing scripture. However, when Moses was opposed, things did not turn out well for his opposition! Infallible authority is only granted to those in authority under whatever conditions that infallibility is safeguarded – so one can have legitimate authority without infallibility or with it. Peter is another good example, he blew it several times, but was still in legitimate authority and could write scripture.

  11. You also need to remember that there was not just one pharasetic ideal/belief/custom etc. the pharasies (literally separatist) wanted to “reform” the abuses in worship many disagreed on what that reform would look like eventually they would merge into a more cohesive ideology but this did not happen until 250 AD at the earliest. So Jesus would/could extol them while chastising them because they were not a them in our way of seeing it

  12. wonderful work , clearly unbiased…objective discussion…..your work clearly shows that in all levels of Christianity,the RCC has an edge…. God Bless

  13. If RCC needs to be called into question by using logic, history or scripture then how is this? You can not have both A and notA at the same time and in the same way(a contradiction). The Pope/Magisterium/RC teaches that Mary was always virgin. MT 1:25 states that Joseph had union(sex) with Mary after Jesus birth. In fact the term Husband used of him has little meaning in that culture without consummation. These are two infallible sources making opposing statements. This would also handle the scriptural test. The historical test isn’t as easy but I could simply state that protestants are the true western branch. Luther and the other priests that were with him can clame apostolic succession. Just because the other side has control of the properties in Vatican city doesn’t make them the default church of Christ.

  14. Jacob,

    Mt.1:25 would only be contrary to Catholic doctrine if it taught that Joseph and Mary had sexual relations. The Church has been aware of this verse for sometime, as I am sure you could guess, and your understanding is against the traditional view (which Luther and Calvin held as well, btw). But even if that is what that verse said, it would still not attain to the level of formal contradiction thatsola fide reaches with James 2:24 (yet Protestants seem to have little problem proclaiming it).

    As to apostolic succession, what one can “simply state” and what actually can be demonstrated by (or even makes sense with) history are two different things. Luther did not claimto posses apostolic succession, nor did any of the other reformers even try to make the claim – because it would have been easily verified as being false. All heretics claim to represent true Christianity, and most do it by appealing to their private interpretations of the Bible since they know they willlose the historical argument. This is why apostolic succession is not accepted on mere “statement”, nor on agreement with one’s personal favorite interpretation. Thus did Irenaeus respond to the Gnostics with an appeal to objective history:

    “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 to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” (Against Heresies 3:3:1 – A.D. 189).

  15. … “The historical test isn’t as easy but I could simply state that protestants are the true western branch. ”
    What Protestants? Lutheran or reform? Or Anglican or anabaptist? There is some extreme dogmatic differences that need to be squared to speak of “Protestants” as a single thing and do all these branches produce the same fruit?

  16. Doug,
    I agree with James 2:24, I’m not osas. You didn’t answer the Mt. Issue only stated there was a solution. I keep getting THAT answer everywhere. I hope you can answer it, its one of my few substantial objections.

  17. The Matt issue is really not an issue it states that Joseph did not know Mary before Jesus was born. The point of this verse is not to say that j knew m rather that m knew nobody. It is only a modern take that suggests that j must have then knew m. The reason why early church accounts held to the ever virgin title and the Matt verse is they never saw it as a contradiction. If you read the verse as within the tradition that wrote it you would not either but from the outside you would naturally come to a different conclusion. It’s not that it’s a bad reading if Matt just one ignorant of the way it has been read.
    Also there are many accounts if couples throughout church history who while married never consummated it. Marriage was not just sex but land, inheritance, and family ties this many were arranged
    Finally Jesus gave John the responsibility to take care of Mary if she had other children than this would be an agony to them and the only way to show a reason would then discount Janes and the others as followers of Jesus and early leaders of the church

  18. To anyone who will answer,
    I don’t know why this is like pulling teeth, bur it is. That was another non-answer. In what way did he not know her?

  19. Jacob,

    Maybe the confusion is not over “know” but over “until.” The historical/traditional reading of this verse is that Joseph never “knew” Mary (i.e., sexually) – period. The “until” is sometimes thought to mean that Joseph simply did not know (i.e., “have sex with”) Mary before Jesus was born. This understands “until” to be a contrast between two states: before and after. But “until” does not necessarily indicate this in Greek any more than in English where it can be used with no indication of what happens afterward. We see this in the Bible (e.g., 2 Sam. 6:23; 1 Tim. 4:13; 1 Cor.15:25). Given the historical support (see below), this reading should be favored.

    Church Fathers:

  20. If the point of the Mt verse is Mary knew no one sexually, then the fact its referring to sex is established. My question is now about the ending phrase. “until after Jesus was born.”

  21. Pingback: Does the Thief on the Cross Prove that Salvation is by Faith Alone? | Douglas Beaumont

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