It is not unusual to hear the complaint from Protestants that Catholics cannot prove their beliefs from Scripture. While it is admitted that Catholics do OK with the Trinity, deity of Christ, and obvious stuff like that, when it comes to Catholicism’s distinctive doctrines (e.g.,baptism, the Eucharist, Mary, the Pope, prayers to the saints, etc.), they must depart from the Bible and rely on tradition (thus violating Mark 7:8-13). Protestantism, on the other hand, is said to run its teachings through the uber-doctrine of sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) – and if one cannot prove doctrine from the Bible, it can be safely ignored or even jettisoned. This is thought to make the Protestant position the stronger of the two – for both sides admit that only the Bible is inspired of God.
Does this line of argument succeed, or is it simply hiding the true state of things?
Bible vs. Tradition?
Here are some examples of doctrines attacked using the above argument form and the result of the two methods of doing theology over the centuries.
Based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, Catholics believe that baptism is performed primarily by immersion or infusion, and that it is a salvific act (e.g., Mk. 16:16, Jn. 3:5; Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21; cf. CCC 1213).
Based on the Bible alone, Protestants believe . . . well, it depends on which Protestant you ask. Some believe Baptism is merely a symbolic profession of faith that nonetheless must be by full immersion (Baptist). Others think of baptism as being the occasion of regeneration by immersion (Christian Churches/Churches of Christ). More traditional denominations practice infant baptism (often by sprinkling) as a regenerative act (Lutheran). Some see the infant baptism of children as fulfilling the covenant (Reformed) [SOURCE]. Other groups are more eclectic and hold mixed views [SOURCE].
Based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, Catholics believe in the actual transubstantiation: one thing becoming another) of the communion elements (thus bread and wine actually become Jesus’ body and blood in substance even though they retain the accidental appearance of bread and wine (Jn. 6:54; Mt. 26:26; 1 Cor.11:27-29; cf. CCC 1374-1381).
Based on the Bible alone, Protestants believe . . . well, it depends on which Protestant you ask. There are again a number of competing views from Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostal, and Baptist views [SOURCE]. There is the Baptist view where communion is nothing more than a calling-to-mind of Jesus’ sacrifice and at the opposing end, the Reformed view that sees communion as Jesus’ spiritual presence. There is also the Lutheran view of Consubstantiation which sees Jesus and the communion elements as both present somehow. [SOURCE].
Based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, Catholics believe in a multi-faceted description of Jesus’ atoning work (following from Scripture’s multi-faceted description, e.g., Jn. 5:24; Lk. 5:31-32; Lk. 15; cf. CCC 599-615) that includes the truthful elements of the more reductive views (e.g., “Christus Victor” and “Satisfaction”) while denying the errors of others (such as penal-substitution atonement and some features of Calvinism).
Based on the Bible alone, Protestants believe . . . well, it depends on which Protestant you ask. Numerous specific views are held, such as Christus Victor, penal substitutionary, subjective, or governmental. Some believe that Christ’s atoning work secured the redemption of his elect alone (Reformed), while many others teach that Christ’s death provided atonement generally for all mankind but its actual extent is based on faithfulness [SOURCE]. Evangelicals alone account for several views, adding “Kaleidescopic” and “Healing” [SOURCE].
(INSERT ALL CATHOLIC DISTINCTIVES HERE)
Examples of disputed doctrinal beliefs like those above can be easily multiplied (see this article for a representative list), but the point should already be clear: Protestants relying on the Bible alone for their doctrinal beliefs do not seem to be doing very well “proving” them – even to the satisfaction of other Protestants!
It is therefore unnecessary to go into detail concerning the various Protestant positions on other Catholic doctrinal distinctives. Suffice it to say that they all vary among different Protestant groups save that they are all not-Catholic (which often seems to be the sine qua non of Protestantism). Of course, holding to a doctrine in a manner contrary to the Protestant understanding is no concern for the Church that predates Protestantism by 1,500 years. But what about those doctrines that Catholicism (and, often, Eastern Orthodoxy which is usually left out of these debates) alone affirms (such as those surrounding Mary, Purgatory, the Pope, etc)? As it turns out, the issues are similar.
Bible and Tradition
Of those doctrines that Catholicism alone is said to affirm (under any description), these are said to suffer from being absent from the Bible and are thus to be treated as “traditions of men.” Ironically, this objection is even more problematic for Protestants – for the same can be said of numerous Protestant beliefs and practices as well (e.g., the Nicene and Chalcedonian specifics concerning the Trinity and Incarnation, communion for women, meeting in church buildings, denominationalism, and let’s not forget the canon of Scripture itself!). If “not being taught in the Bible” is a problem for Catholics, it is an even bigger problem for Protestants who not only lack a clear biblical basis for some of their particular beliefs and practices, but who lack traditional support as well.
Sola Scriptura has resulted in a list of Protestant doctrinal disagreements that is truly staggering. These are remarkable both in their quantity (two Protestant publishers have entire series devoted to the debates!) and quality (contrary to popular opinion, these disagreements exist over essential issues – e.g., salvation – as well as secondary issues – e.g., church government). What Catholics understand and Protestants deny is that while the Bible is “useful for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16) and cannot be safely contradicted, for numerous reasons it simply cannot function as the sole ultimate authority for the Christian faith. Although it is the only inspired collection of documents we posses, the Bible must still be interpreted. This is why God gave us a Church and not simply a book (1 Tim. 3:15).
Without Sacred Tradition to safeguard Sacred Scripture, it’s anybody’s game.
Catholics often cannot “prove” their doctrine from the Bible for the same reason Protestants can’t: the Bible was never meant to be the single source for Christian faith and practice – and when it is treated as such, disunity and division always follows. At the end of the day, ALL Christians rely on their particular group’s traditions to understand the Bible. The difference is that Catholics acknowledge that this is so.
“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.
“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”
“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”
“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”