Called to Communion

There’s a problem with a lot of contemporary Catholic apologetics. It goes something like this: Protestant doctrine “A” is wrong because it’s based on a false interpretation of Scripture; if Protestants interpreted Scripture rightly, they would recognize that Catholic doctrine “B” is better. And by the way, as a corollary to this, sola scriptura, the clarity of Scripture, and all the other Protestant doctrines about scripture, are also wrong, for various Scriptural, theological, and historical reasons.

The dilemma here is that Catholic apologists effectively begin the debate on Protestant terms, by engaging in highly technical debates over the nuances of Biblical exegesis. Yet if Catholics are right that Protestant doctrines of Scripture are erroneous, we’re spinning our wheels. We can do better.

Trent Horn’s recently published The Case for Catholicism: Answers to Classic and Contemporary Protestant Objections at times succumbs to this apologetic dilemma. Horn deserves much praise for his scholarly and systematic approach to the Biblical, theological, and historical data. Anyone interested in understanding the strongest Protestant criticisms of Catholicism, and the strongest point-by-point refutations of those criticisms, will benefit from this book.

All the same, Horn, like many Protestant converts to Catholicism, is guilty of a certain “Protestantization” of his apologetic method. The underlying objective is to persuade Protestants that Catholicism is more Biblical than any Protestant theology. Any Catholic scholar or theologian worth his salt would, of course, agree. Persuading a Protestant is another matter, especially given significant divergences on the foundational philosophical propositions underlying the entire conversation.

For example, in his chapter on the New Testament canon, Horn argues that “while the Bible tells us to test everything (1 Thess 5:21) and even gives specific tests to determine if prophets are genuine (Deut 18:21-22), it never tells us to pray and rely on our feelings to determine if a certain writing is inspired.”

The unspoken assumption here is that Protestants and Catholics sitting down together can determine the Bible’s “plain meaning,” and that “the Bible” is a text both sides approach with a certain level of objective detachment. Yet Horn elsewhere does a superb job demolishing sola scriptura. A reflective reader might wonder: should we bother to debate Scriptural interpretation or not?

            I’m a contributor for the Catholic website Called to Communion, whose target audience is Reformed Protestants. I’ve spent a lot of time in the trenches debating this or that Bible passage. I don’t usually find Protestants persuaded by this approach. Moreover, the back-and-forth on the intricacies of Scriptural exegesis quickly causes fatigue.

I’d like to briefly sketch out a different approach, one that borrows heavily from Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and seeks to contrast Protestant and Catholic “interpretive paradigms,” or modes of understanding their beliefs, traditions, and reading of Scripture.

As I’ve said, Horn does an excellent job critiquing sola scriptura, as well as the Protestant conception of the formation of the Biblical canon. For example, Protestant apologists don’t actually practice the principle of “the Bible alone”: “Most of them, including scholars who have studied Scripture, believe in truths about the Christian faith that come from Tradition rather than Scripture.”

For instance, the belief that general revelation stopped after the death of the last apostle, as well as the tradition of the canon of Scripture itself. I wish Horn had kept pulling that string. He has exposed a fundamental problem with the Protestant Interpretive Paradigm, or PIP.

The PIP is fundamentally at odds with human experience. How could there not be both Holy Scripture and a magisterial authority? The idea of a canon of inspired texts presumes that there be some authoritative body able to recognize and define it, one that in reference to certain essential questions does not err (i.e. a magisterium).

Moreover, there will undoubtedly be different interpretations of those texts, some of which are legitimate, and some of which are not. Only a magisterium can provide the proper restraint on the human inclination to total interpretive and organizational chaos.

Protestant accounts of “receiving” the canon in some non-magisterial authoritative way are an attempt to create a paradigm that limits human agency in the compilation of Scripture. Which makes sense, given Protestantism peculiar theological belief regarding justification, which effectively obliterates human agency.

Yet, as the late former Lutheran pastor and Catholic convert Richard John Neuhaus argued, “The Church is not a theological school of thought, or a society formed by allegiance to theological formulas – not even formulas such as ‘justification by faith.’” The Church, by any fair reading of its history, has been defined rather at its core by its ecclesiology (i.e., bishops) and its liturgy (i.e., the Eucharist).

Indeed, it’s quite strange that the sixteenth-century Church hemorrhaged over the fairly obscure doctrine of justification. Especially when the Protestant belief system proposed that individual Christians could somehow overcome the linguistic, cultural, and historical separation between themselves and the writers of the Bible in order to understand its “plain meaning” on justification. This is in spite of the fact that there are other self-professed Christians seeking to accomplish the same exact task – and come to diametrically-opposed interpretations.

The PIP account of Scripture and the Church is thus one fundamentally of rupture: rupture of liturgy, rupture of the Body of Christ, rupture of belief, and rupture of authority.

The Catholic Interpretive Paradigm (CIP), in contrast, is internally consistent, offers a more coherent understanding of Scripture, tradition, and authority, and is inherently organic in its belief and practice.

Its interpretations of Scripture are true and defensible, yes, but too much effort gets invested in proving that point. A robust critique of the PIP quite quickly exposes inescapable and unresolvable dilemmas within Protestantism. A subsequent description of how the CIP addresses and resolves those dilemmas, God willing, will set the wheels turning and in time bring the open-minded, Spirit-led Protestant home to Rome.

At least that was the case for me, as it has also been with the many former Protestants (pastors, theologians, and seminarians) persuaded by the work of Called to Communion.

Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture and The Persecuted. He is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.