Thursday, August 27, 2015

"They Have So Much Confusion, They Must Be Wrong, Right?" - A Criticism of a Common Argument I've Heard Catholics Make Against Sola Scriptura

If one is familiar with Catholic apologetics, particularly apologetics against Protestantism, one often encounters an argument that goes something like this:

It is obvious that Sola Scriptura doesn't work.  I mean, look at all those Protestant denominations out there!  There are tons of them!  If Sola Scriptura worked, there wouldn't be so much division.  Obviously, the idea of everyone interpreting the Bible for himself is a failure.  We clearly need the infallible guidance of the Catholic Church to get the Bible right.

I have a problem with this argument, and the problem is one I have addressed elsewhere in a more general way.  I call this argument the Good and Intelligent People Disagree Argument (or GIPD, for short).  There are two basic problems with it (I deal with these problems even more thoroughly in the linked article):  1. It just isn't the case that disagreement on an issue must indicate a lack of sufficiently available evidence or a lack of sufficient means to know something.  2. If this argument is a good one, it is just as much a problem for Catholics as it is for Protestants.

1. It isn't the case that disagreement is always indicative of lack of evidence.  In the case of interpreting the Bible, it could be that there is enough objective evidence available to interpret the Bible rightly in a Sola Scriptura sort of way, but the evidence is just hard enough to get at that people who don't put in the necessary effort or care are prone to getting it wrong.  And people can get confused sometimes, even when they are trying hard.  Just because people get confused, it doesn't necessarily prove that something cannot be understood--even if lots of people get confused.  People get confused about all sorts of things.  I've personally encountered many people who get confused about self-evident or logically certain things like whether one can prove conclusively that 2+2=4, or whether logic applies to all reality, or whether things that come into being must have causes, or whether something must either "exist" or "not exist" and there is no third possibility, etc., etc.  When something is not right in front of us in an empirical sort of way, when it is more abstract and requires more careful and disciplined attention, we are more likely to find confusion.  This doesn't prove we can't know the truth in that matter.

And the argument fails to consider biases people have.  Perhaps there are lots of different biblical interpretations not because it is impossible to understand the Bible aright but because people tend to approach the Bible with pre-conceived ideas as to what it must mean, what it can't mean, etc.  People are often very personally (and not always rationally) motivated to hold certain positions and avoid others in religious matters.  Sometimes coming to a certain conclusion would mean social upheaval for a person.  Sometimes it would be very uncomfortable.  Sometimes it would require certain lifestyle choices that are seen as absurd and/or undesirable.  Sometimes people are biased by cultural or family upbringing.  Etc., etc.

So it just isn't the case that even widespread confusion proves a lack of available evidence or proves that something cannot be understood in a certain way.

2. If GIPD is a good argument against Sola Scriptura, Catholics are in a lot of trouble too!  Listen to this argument:

It's obvious that no one can really know that Catholicism is the true religion.  I mean, look at all the religious disagreement out there!  If we could know what the true religion is, there wouldn't be so much disagreement!  This proves that we all ought really to be Agnostic until we really know something more definitely.

I submit that if the earlier argument against Sola Scriptura is a good one, so is this one against Catholicism and for Agnosticism.  It's the same argument--"There is disagreement.  Disagreement shows that something can't be known.  So we can't know what there is disagreement about."  In the earlier anti-Protestant argument, the idea is that no one can really know (using Sola Scriptura, without the Church's infallible guidance) what the Bible teaches, and we can tell this because people using Sola Scriptura can't agree.  In the latter argument, the idea is that we really can't know which religion (if any) is true, and we can tell this because all the people of the world examining the available evidence in such matters have been unable to agree.  So the available evidence must not be sufficient to determine the matter, so we should be Agnostic.  But I don't think this is a good argument for Agnosticism, and for the same reasons I don't think this is a good argument against Sola Scriptura.

Now, let me add that I do in fact think that there are serious problems with Sola Scriptura.  More particularly, I do think that the Bible alone, without further infallible guidance, provides insufficient means for deciding between controverted denominational teachings.  I think this because, upon examination, it seems to me that there is simply not enough evidence in the Bible to decide all sorts of things that Christians need to know.  For example, the Bible simply doesn't give us enough information, I think, to decide what to do about infants and baptism (unless we add in extra-biblical assumptions--but if we do that, we have to justify them on grounds outside of the Bible, and I don't think we can do this with the assumptions we need).  We can guess at what, say, Paul would have said if we could have asked him about it.  But we really don't have enough information to know with any significant degree of confidence what he would say based on what he has actually said.  (Baptists and Paedobaptists, of course, will have responses to what I've just said, but this is not the place to get into this more fully.)  But notice that my argument here against Sola Scriptura is not based merely on the fact that people trying to use it disagree, but on a substantial examination of what the Bible actually says.  I think that, perhaps, sometimes Catholic apologists have good reasons to oppose Sola Scriptura but mix those good reasons up with not-so-good ones.  You can see how it would be easy to do this.  "Sola Scriptura is not feasible, because it doesn't provide enough information to decide important issues.  Because it is not feasible, people using it aren't able to agree.  Therefore, their disagreement is evidence of Sola Scriptura's non-feasibility."  The fallacy here is that while it is true that widespread Protestant disagreement should be seen as a symptom of Sola Scriptura's non-feasibility, it is not the case that this means that widespread Protestant disagreement by itself proves Sola Scriptura's non-feasibility, as if there couldn't possibly be any other explanation for such disagreement worth considering.

ADDENDUM:  Here's an article raising some similar issues from an Eastern Orthodox point of view.


Robert said...


Hello again,

I think this because, upon examination, it seems to me that there is simply not enough evidence in the Bible to decide all sorts of things that Christians need to know.

It seems to me there is some kind of logical fallacy here, though I don't know what to call it. Could it not be the case that if the Bible (or pick your source) doesn't given "enough evidence," we really do not need to know the answer to the question?

Consider the question: How many people are in heaven? Neither Scripture, Tradition, or the Magisterium give us enough evidence to answer that question. So why cannot I not conclude that the STM is insufficient because it does not give us enough evidence to answer the question.

Or what about the most significant question of all: Rome cannot tell me whether or not I am saved, and that's what I need to know more than all else. Why should I not conclude that STM and Roman Catholicism is insufficient because it does not give me the answer to what a Christian needs to know more than anything else?

It seems to me the only answer you can give and remain RC is that there are some things Christians don't need to know and therefore there is not enough evidence for it. But then that would undermine your critique of sola Scriptura because I could just as well say that the things you think you need to know aren't really necessary to know for salvation if there is not enough evidence in the Bible, and so therefore the Bible's sufficiency need not be questioned.

Robert said...


But in any case, thank you for pointing out the errors in the common argument against sola Scriptura and for demonstrating that it is a critique that can apply equally well to RCism.

Mark Hausam said...

Hi Robert! Thanks again for your thoughts!

"Could it not be the case that if the Bible (or pick your source) doesn't given 'enough evidence,' we really do not need to know the answer to the question?"

Good question. There are some things we need to know because we cannot avoid acting on a particular position regarding them. For example, should we baptize infants or not? One position is that we should, another is that we should not, another is that it doesn't matter, another is that we should allow both, etc. Any church has no choice but to pick one of these positions, because she has to do something with her infants. Therefore, it is necessary for her to know which position is the right one to go with so she can know if she is pleasing God or not. I would argue, however, that the Bible simply doesn't provide enough information to know what we should do in this matter. And that is a problem, I think.

Now, Sola Scriptura has a possible way out of this, and it is the way I used to hold to. You could say that God has given us reason, and reason tells us that on things we need to know, we should go with the most likely answer. What we should do then is look at all the evidence we possess from reason and from Scripture, find the most likely answer, and go with that. Perhaps the Bible doesn't give us enough information to conclude any particular way, but perhaps there is enough information to at least lean in one particular direction, and we can then assume that since we have to do something and God therefore must have given us enough information to know what to do, we can be sure that even if one answer is only slightly more probable than the others, it must be the right answer. I used to call this the "best reading is the right reading" principle. (I was intending eventually to write a blog article on it shortly before the Catholic transition began.)

Now, I think this defense of Sola Scriptura could work, upon a certain condition. If it is the case that we know that we are supposed to use Sola Scriptura and not rely on anything else (like the Church as an infallible interpreter), then I think this "best reading" practice would be reasonable. But here's the rub for me. I've come to think that we don't have sufficient warrant to conclude that Sola Scriptura is the right way to interpret Scripture. I've come to think that we ought to default to trust in the Church in the matter of how to interpret Scripture, so that we should not deviate from that without conclusive proof that we should, and I don't think there is such conclusive proof. I talk about this in a few different places:

To be continued . . .

Mark Hausam said...

My conclusion, then, is that there is no good reason to assume that Sola Scriptura is the right way to use the Scriptures, and good reason to think it is not. Without that assumption, however, we have no good reason for thinking that the "best reading" method will lead us to correct conclusions. Therefore, my overall conclusion is that the Bible (because it does not give us good reason to believe in Sola Scriptura or that the "best reading" rule is right) does not give us sufficient information, used in a Sola Scriptura manner, to answer certain necessary questions.

As you can see, my conclusion here depends on a number of other things that we would have to agree on first before we would necessarily agree on this conclusion. But that's my argument, basically.

"Rome cannot tell me whether or not I am saved, and that's what I need to know more than all else."

This is an interesting and important issue. I think you are right in pointing out that the Catholic view teaches that most of us cannot be absolutely certain of our eternal salvation. I think the Catholic view is closer to the Reformed view than is often recognized, but there are substantial differences. (I'm still considering this, so we'll see if I still think this as time goes by.) The Catholic view holds that we can have a kind of what we might call "ordinary certainty" that we are in a state of grace at any given moment of time. We can look inside ourselves and discern that we are repentant of our sins, trust in Christ, etc., and so we know that we are in a state of grace, in the same way that we can know that we don't like broccoli or that we enjoy Baroque music, etc. In this regard, I'm not sure the Catholic position is really substantially different from the Reformed view. The Catholic view would say that we can perceive a very strong likelihood that we will die in a state of grace and so be eternally saved, but it is possible to fall from grace (for God does not give the gift of perseverance to everyone who is temporarily in a state of grace) and so we cannot know for sure that we will be eternally saved (unless we are one of the few who know this through divine revelation for some reason or another). I say we can have a strong likelihood. The Catholic position is very practical on this point. Do I know that I won't rob a bank in the future? No, not for certain, for it is possible that I might rob a bank in the future. But is it very likely, given what I know about myself right now and given the control my present self has on my future self? No, it's not very likely. I don't need to go around worrying about it. When I am in a state of grace, I am able to grow in grace, and the more I do this, the less likely I am to fall into mortal sin (that is, into deliberate unrepentant sin in which I consciously and fully reject obedience to Christ, as opposed to venial sins, which are still infinitely evil, but which are sins that regenerate people can slip into, where there is no complete rejection of Christ but a slip into various sins). Grace enables us to develop habits that stretch into the future, much as I am able to develop habits in other areas (the more I practice playing the violin, the less likely I am to make certain mistakes, etc.). So if, by God's grace (which is the source of all our good acts), I make good use of grace and develop strong and good habits, I can produce a moral character that is very unlikely to fall into mortal sin and extremely unlikely to die in such a condition. I would say, then, that the Catholic view allows us to get very close to certainty of eternal salvation. But, I acknowledge, the views aren't exactly the same. As I say, though, I'm still working through my articulation of some of this. I'll probably right up something on it before too long.