Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I have learned something about Catholics

I think I have learned something significant about the difference between Catholics and Protestants. It corrects a misunderstanding of mine. What I learned is no doubt old hat to the rest of the world, but it is new to me. And the insight is due to blogdom’s unique type of interaction. I doubt I would have grasped it without the unprecedented ability to hold thoughtful discussions with Catholics.

Two asides before I launch into the substance of this post:

  • I think what makes blogdom unique is the effort required to make a post. It is much more that a chat response, but much less than a polished article. Chat responses are spontaneous, unwashed reactions that are good for communicating small bits of information, but not good for developing larger concepts. Articles demand a proper amount of reflection yet, like a blog, most of that is way up-front. The rest of the time is spent on non-substantive tweaking and dealing with the vagaries of publishing. Blogs are just right. The good ones demonstrate thoughtful reflection, good writing, yet a concession to expediency.

  • As always, by Catholics and Protestants I mean the conservative Bible believing variety. I don’t know what the liberals of each group actually think, or even if they actually do think. They (the repulsive Bishop Spong comes to mind) are good for naught but sport.

Okay, here is what I have learned, pay attention: The seat of the papacy is the antichrist. Just kidding! I am in a bit of a silly mood, sorry.

The insight I have had (again, it is most likely a belated epiphany) has to do with what bugs one group about the other. I assumed that each had different side of the same coin as their most important point of departure. I am now reasonably convinced that each is most concerned about different sides of different coins. Protestants (well, at least this Protestant) are (rightly, honorably, and justifiably) still most concerned with Rome’s denial of Justification by Faith Alone (sola fide) and the unconscionable anathemas placed on the Reformers at the Council of Trent. The thing that bugs Catholics (at least those I’ve been talking to) most is the Protestant proclamation of Scripture Alone (sola scriptura) and the fact that is linked to the dreaded Private Interpretation.

Sola fide and sola scriptura are both important aspects of the Reformation, and are quite related. Nevertheless, the button to push for a Protestant tends to be sola fide, and for a Catholic, it is sola scriptura (and Private Interpretation).

Protestants believe that scripture is inerrant, inspired, and sufficient, and that the church does not have a legitimate claim to bind a believer either through its own interpretation or extra-scriptural revelation. Catholics do not like the sufficient attribute.

Many of the questions asked by Catholics are legitimate technical questions such as:
  • Don’t you really have a form of church tradition but you just don’t admit it?
  • How do you decide what is scripture? (i.e., what about the Apocrypha?)
  • What Bible translation should you use?
  • Can you self-referentially support sola scriptura via sola scriptura?
Good questions, none of which I will answer here, at least in this blog.

Actually I will say something about church tradition because it is one of the things most misunderstood about sola scriptura. It is not that we don’t have church tradition—we surely do. The difference is that we hold that it cannot bind the conscience. Sola scriptura does not mean that every Protestant must start with a clean page and write in his own theology by reading nothing but the Bible. That would be foolish. In addition to scripture, one’s theology is developed by parents, children, Sunday School, Sermons, peers, mentors, elders, other books, the world, nature, everything.

Sola scriptura means that you put everything you can to the simple test: Is this based on scripture alone? In carrying out the test you might still use other resources, but only as they are helpful in addressing the question of scriptural support.

No matter how much I admire a pastor or writer, I test what they are telling me against scripture. That is Private Interpretation. It does not mean I develop all doctrine by myself, locked in a room with only the Bible. I do my homework. I try to start with an open mind. I read what others have written on the same subject—both those that agree with where I am heading and those that don’t. I talk to people. I pray. But when all is said and done, I accept not what I want to believe and not what others want me or tell me to believe, but what I honestly believe I have discerned from scripture.

What seems to be unfathomable to Catholics is the nonchalant way in which we accept the inevitable: intelligent, well intentioned believers will reach different conclusions. Right from the start Luther and Calvin had disagreements. Across the spectrum of evangelical churches there are different views on baptism, the Lord ’s Supper, predestination, etc. It’s the old: In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in All Things, Charity approach.

Now the things I mentioned are not non-essentials in all aspects. The Lord ’s Supper is mandated by Christ. A church that doesn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper is an apostate church. However, God has chosen not to make it absolutely clear to us precisely what happens during the sacrament/ordinance. So most Protestants (not all, one can never say all) are not overly ruffled by the fact that there are different views.

The fact that we can agree to disagree (by no means always peacefully, but in theory anyway) on important concepts is utterly un-Catholic. That is why Private Interpretation rattles the cage of Catholics the way a denial of sola fide rattles ours.

That is the obvious thing I learned recently. The hot button issue is different for Catholics and Protestants. Not very earth-shattering, I readily admit.

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