The Real Problem with Protestant Biblical Interpretation

This is a follow up to my video Could This Bible Verse Destroy Protestantism? With over 75,000 views, 4,500 likes, and 3,400 comments in its first year, it is probably the most popular video on my channel.

But almost no one gets it.

Even after responding to hundreds and hundreds of comments and pinning an explanation in the comments, the continued responses made it clear that the message was not being received. So I decided to try to clarify it here. OK, so here is the point of the video:

When it comes to handling Scripture, Protestants inconsistently accuse Catholics of doing the same thing they themselves do.

Yup, that’s basically it. Here is the form of the Protestant argument I am responding to:

  • The Bible says “X” (insert prooftext).
  • Catholics teach “-X”.
  • So, Catholics are unbiblical.

The conclusion can be stated in various ways: “Catholics ignore the Bible.” “Catholics elevate tradition over the Bible.” “Catholics follow the Pope instead of the Bible.” Etc. The important thing to understand is that it is in the interaction between what the Bible says and how Protestants and Catholics understand what it says (in other words, between what is said and what is actually meant or taught). When what is said and what is understood seem to differ in favor of Protestant teachings, Catholic are attacked for not having the same understanding as Protestants.

See What I Did There?

So I decided to turn the tables. I made an argument based on what James 2:24 says that (allegedly) shows that Protestantism is unbiblical. I focused on this verse among many like it because it seems to contradict not just a teaching, not even just an important teaching, but a foundational and essential teaching of Protestantism. The Reformation was caused by Luther’s two “solas”: sola fide (that justification is by faith alone) and sola scriptura (that the Bible alone was the highest authority in matters of faith and practice). The former was the driving force, the latter was the excuse for the former. but since sola fide is a direct verbal contradiction to James 2:24 (the only verse that even uses those terms), not only is Protestantism’s chief theological position challenged, the justification (pun intended) for sola fide (sola scriptura) is as well.

Here it is laid out according to the Protestant formula:

  • The Bible says “justification is by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
  • Protestants teach “justification is by NOT works and IS by faith alone”.
  • So, Protestants are unbiblical.

How Not To Respond

Now I know full well how to get out of this biblical-theological problem – I did it for 20 years as an Evangelical. One can make arguments from the context that what James is talking about is not what Luther was talking about. OK, fine – maybe it is. But it doesn’t matter to my point. No matter what exegetical / historical / traditional explanations are brought in, the fact remains that what the Bible says is not what Protestantism teaches. Since that is all it takes for a Protestant to accuse a Catholic of being unbiblical, then it should work equally well against a Protestant (even more so, actually, because the Catholic does not affirm sola scriptura).

The Protestant, then, has two choices: admit that they do the same thing Catholics do (i.e., interpret Scripture and not just quote it in support of their theology), or remain inconsistent in their argumentation. The problem with either is that each undermines Protestantism’s claims with which they support their very existence. THAT is why James 2:24 threatens Protestantism, not because they simply misinterpret the verse (if they even do).

If You Really Want to Comment

The video was an extended illustration (using several examples – not just James 2:24) of why citing prooftexts and ignoring context can be done by both sides but it isn’t good or fair for either side.

This is why every comment that attempts to show why the protestant interpretation of James 2:24 is correct is a moot point. The best proving that would do is leave the door open for Catholics to do the same. But that is not what Protestants want, because their issue is not simply that Catholics interpret Scripture differently (or even wrongly). If that were the case, they would (should) treat Catholicism the same way they do the 100’s of Protestant denominations with which the other 100’s of Protestant denominations disagree. but because they escalate the issue into ones of biblical vs. traditional authority, they can’t do that. So, ironically, each of these kinds of comments (which make up the vast majority of Protestant responses) only succeed in supporting my point.

So, if you think I am wrong then attempt to either justify the kinds of accusations Protestants make against Catholics when they do the same thing Protestants do, or explain the difference between what Protestants and Catholics do with regard to biblical observation, interpretation, and application. THAT would be interesting!