Protestantism: Is it Logically Self-Defeating?

Protestantism: Is it Logically Self-Defeating? March 9, 2016
Portrait of Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of Protestantism (1545); workshop of Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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[originally posted on 15 September 2003, in reply to a Reformed Protestant]
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This problem exists, always has, and always will, and can’t be overcome by any Protestant internal principles, no matter how nuanced and sophisticated and respectable and truly in line with “Reformation heritage”. The reason for that is very simple:
Protestantism cannot settle its internal differences; each branch or sect can only (ultimately arbitrarily) assert its own authority. Thus, Calvin asserts his, Luther his, Zwingli and Menno Simons (Mennonites) and George Fox (Quakers) and William Booth (Salvation Army) theirs. You still have no way of resolving these “denominational dichotomies,” if you will. And that remains true no matter how increasingly biblical and “catholic” the best brands of Reformed ecclesiology get. I’m delighted that there is some notion of conciliarism. That’s great, but what good is it if a great percentage of Calvinists themselves seem to be unaware of it, and if such councils have no real authority to speak of?
Protestants will continue to split, and all justify their splits based on the Bible. The internal incoherence of this and the utter inability to achieve resolution is surely evident. But Protestants must come up with something that “ain’t Roman,” so they persist with the system that is so obviously internally inconsistent and incoherent, as (in effect) the “best of two bad choices.” This is your cross to bear.
It follows from sola Scriptura (even the most sophisticated, highly-nuanced versions imaginable — to anticipate your usual rejoinder that Catholics have again misrepresented what the Protestant principle and Rule of Faith entails). The simultaneous appeal to the Bible from many contradictory parties can never be resolved, whereas in Catholicism it can be because we have a final authority which claims to be binding on all Christians, not just the tiny portion that is “us.”
So you pursue your brand of “classical” Calvinism and fight against the “Enlightenment Calvinists” who harangue and harass and rebuke you and I alike (albeit for much different reasons). What does this resolve? How does that give the man on the street who has to choose between competing factions, truth? For they still have to choose whether you are right or Luther is (then they have to choose among the competing Lutheran camps). Why should Calvin have any more authority than Luther had? 
In both cases, it was entirely arbitrary. They simply claimed it for themselves (as anointed from on high) and demanded allegiance. The massive self-contradiction and inability to prevent ongoing sectarianism which runs right through Protestantism is illustrated, I think, in a summary I made of a recent encounter on Pal Talk with Calvinist apologist Matt Slick (slightly modified for the purpose of this paper):

1. I eventually boiled my query down to a simple question: on what basis — by what criterion — does a person discover truth within the Protestant system, seeing that all parties in that system appeal to the Bible, yet cannot agree on a host of issues? I asked Matt why I should believe his view of baptism (Presbyterian: infant, non-regenerative), over against that of Martin Luther (infant, regenerative) and Reformed Baptist James White (adult, non-regenerative)? Matt Slick, Luther, and James White all appeal to the Bible, yet cannot agree on the nature and practice of baptism.

2. Matt replies: “don’t go to people, go to the Bible.”

3. But this answer simply begs the question, since obviously all these folks have gone to the Bible and that solution has not worked. A person ultimately, epistemologically, has no assurance or certainty in the Protestant system. They can only “go to the Bible” themselves and perhaps come up with another doctrinal version of baptism to add to the list. I was asking how a person could arrive at TRUTH. One either believes there is one truth on baptism (whatever it is) or they adopt a (when all is said and done) relativist or indifferentist position, where contradictories are fine or where the doctrine is so minor that it doesn’t matter what opinion one holds concerning it.

4. I then challenged Matt: “why should I accept your word as a biblical expert over Luther’s?”

5. Matt replied (as I recall, anyway) that I should not take anyone’s word, but go to the Bible, and that differences don’t matter, according to Romans 14 . . .

This is the bottom line in Protestantism: these sorts of differences cannot be resolved. Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer practically admits this:

One must . . . be concerned with the problem of tradition. Otherwise, one would fail to realize that the church, in its relationship to God’s Word, has always been informed by traditions. We never deal with a blank sheet of paper . . . The mere confession of the sola Scriptura does not safeguard in the least from the dangers of . . . additions. We become aware of this at once when we consider the confessional divisions. For an appeal to Scripture’s clarity and sufficiency is continually made, but the situation of separation is not radically changed and startling tendencies toward confessional unification did not appear.

(Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975, tr. from Dutch ed. of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, 305)

Such a variety of differing and mutually exclusive interpretations arose – all appealing to the same Scripture – that serious people began to wonder whether an all-pervasive . . . influence of subjectivism in the understanding of Scripture is not the cause of the plurality of confessions in the church. Do not all people read Scripture from their own current perspectives and presuppositions . . . with all kinds of conscious or subconscious preferences? . . . Is it indeed possible for us to read Scripture with free, unbiased, and listening attention? . . . We should never minimize the seriousness of these questions . . .

‘Pre-understanding’ cannot be eliminated. The part which subjectivity plays in the process of understanding must be recognized . . . The interpreter . . . does not approach the text of Scripture with a clean slate.

(Ibid., 106-107, 119)

An attempt has often been made to solve this problem by referring to the ‘objective’ clarity of Scripture, so that every incomplete understanding and insight of Scripture is said to be due to the blinding of human eyes that could not observe the true light shining from it . . .

In considering this seemingly simple solution . . . we will soon discover that not all questions are answered by it . . . An incomplete understanding or a total misunderstanding of Scripture cannot simply be explained by blindness. Certain obstacles to understanding may also be related to Scripture’s concrete form of human language conditioned by history . . . Scripture . . . is tied to historical situations and circumstances in so many ways that not every word we read is immediately clear in itself . . . Therefore, it will not surprise us that many questions have been raised in the course of history about the perspicuity of Scripture . . . Some wondered whether this confession of clarity was indeed a true confession . . . The church has frequently been aware of a certain ‘inaccessibility.’

According to Bavinck . . . it may not be overlooked that, according to Rome . . . Scripture is not regarded as a completely obscure and inaccessible book, written, so to speak, in secret language . . . Instead, Rome is convinced that an understanding of Scripture is possible – a clear understanding. But Rome is at the same time deeply impressed by the dangers involved in reading the Bible. Their desire is to protect Scripture against all arbitrary and individualistic exegesis . . .

It is indeed one of the most moving and difficult aspects of the confession of Scripture’s clarity that it does not automatically lead to a total uniformity of perception, disposing of any problems. We are confronted with important differences and forked roads . . . and all parties normally appeal to Scripture and its perspicuity. The heretics did not disregard the authority of Scripture but made an appeal to it and to its clear witness with the subjective conviction of seeing the truth in the words of Scripture.

(Ibid., 268-271, 286)

This being the case, the Protestant is forced to appeal to one of two equally insufficient and most unsatisfactory solutions:

A) Claim (on no persuasive or compelling grounds, once adequately scrutinized) that their own brand of Protestantism is the true one and to be believed above all others. This was, of course, the standard approach taken by virtually all the early Protestant factions. But since they denied apostolic succession as historically understood, the appeal to one’s own truth became entirely arbitrary and a-historical (the very grounds which could make such a claim believable or plausible in the first place, per the methodology of the Church Fathers and Catholicism).

B) Pretend that doctrines where Protestants disagree (which are almost all doctrines other than where they agree with even Catholics and Orthodox) are “secondary” and not important enough to fight over in order to arrive at and determine truth in those matters. I have argued that this is a de facto relativizing of a host of doctrines, whereas the Bible shows no such indication that this should be done.

Both “solutions” are equally unbiblical, unhistorical, and illogical. The problems cannot be resolved. And that is one reason (among many) that the Catholic magisterium, apostolic succession, papacy, binding ecumenical councils, and the notion of an unbroken, continuous apostolic Tradition preserved uniquely by the Holy Spirit in an actual concrete institution is necessary. That’s why we Catholics continue to be a thorn in your flesh because we at least offer answers and self-consistent solutions to these vexing problems of authority, whereas yours always inevitably break down at some point. 
Oh, I almost forgot: one way Protestant apologists habitually attempt to evade this extremely uncomfortable ecclesiological and epistemological difficulty that they find themselves in, is to pretend that Catholicism suffers from hundreds of competing views, just as Protestantism does. But this is a groundless, rather silly, and easily-answered argument.
Usually this bogus claim (which I’ve answered a good half-dozen times) is based on differences-in-practice amongst Catholics (invariably involving liberal or nominalist Catholics). But that is irrelevant, as comparative doctrine must go by the books, and not by individuals who can be found who go against any particular Christian theology. The one Catholic doctrine and belief-system is clear (as can be readily confirmed by a visit to any anti-Catholic website which tries to argue against dozens of our doctrines: they are in no doubt as to what we believe, and know it full well).
Protestant divisions, on the other hand, are not merely ones of inconsistent practitioners who go against and dissent from known official teaching, but ones which are institutionalized and made the basis of actual institutional separation. There are competing denominations, confessions, and creeds, and this is no matter of Hans Kung-like dissent (the usual liberal dishonesty and mischief) but of principled differences of men who believe their theologies so strongly that they are willing to institutionalize them over against other Protestants. So this “objection” collapses as clearly fallacious and an exercise in desperate special pleading.

Protestant Robert McAfee Brown doesn’t, of course, totally agree with my analysis (which is thoroughly Catholic; some would say “triumphantly” so), but he goes a long way in accurately, respectfully presenting, and confirming at least a certain plausibility to the Catholic argument regarding authority:

How do we know that what the church says is true? The Roman Catholic answer to this question is the clearest answer that has ever been formulated . . .

Since the Christian faith is an historical faith, and since Christians are rooted in history, . . . the gospel must be ‘handed down’ from generation to generation. Protestants who refuse to concede the fact for fear that it may have Roman Catholic consequences are living in a dream world.

The ‘Roman Catholic consequences’ begin to emerge with the assertion that the Church, through its bishops, is the guardian of tradition. The task of the church is to see that the gospel is handed down without being corrupted. Since not all the nuances of the faith are explicitly developed in the Bible, it is the contribution of tradition to take what is only implicit in Scripture, and make it explicit in the church. Thus tradition is creative and dynamic, and the church sees to it that tradition neither contradicts itself nor becomes inconsistent with the Biblical witness. This means that Scripture and tradition are two sources of truth and must not be separated. If they are, so the view maintains, disaster follows. The Reformers asserted that tradition had distorted the Biblical witness . . .

Roman Catholics believe, more fervently than Protestants imagine, that Scripture and tradition are complementary rather than antithetical sources of truth.

(The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, 172-173, 214)

Simply put, the system and status quo of Protestantism was never envisioned by either the Bible (that is, the apostles who wrote the New Testament) or the early Church and the Fathers. Your task is, then, to show that:

C) History doesn’t matter, and the Bible supports denominationalism, an “invisible church” ecclesiology, etc.


D) the Bible supports denominationalism, an “invisible church” ecclesiology, etc., and furthermore, Protestantism can be shown to be a consistent development with what went before it, simply casting off the corruptions of the Church of the 16th century but continuing on with the true kernel underneath all the falsehood and accretions.

You would, of course, choose Option D, since you care about history and agree with us that Christianity is an inherently, intrinsically historical religion, and cannot be otherwise. So that takes you back to the burden of making a biblical case for any brand of Protestant ecclesiology (which you rarely do, as it is not your thing to do much exegesis and systematic theology, apparently), and/or showing a consistent development (which you have tried to do, very hard, but which no one can show; not in a sense that Protestantism supercedes Catholicism, with the latter receding into the ecclesiological background as an inherently compromised, corrupt, inferior version of Christianity — or no longer Christianity at all, as your anti-Catholic Protestant comrades believe). 
All the Protestant who thinks historically can show is that Protestantism has maintained many things in agreement with Catholicism (as I would wholeheartedly agree). That’s a far cry from showing that Protestantism is the legatee of the Fathers and early Church over against either Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in terms of theology and Rule of Faith, and fundamentally superior to Catholicism (and/or Orthodoxy), on both a biblical and historical basis. 

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521 undercut the authority of councils as well as popes, by adopting his new principle of sola Scriptura (“under fire,” we are told, but so what? He didn’t ditch the principle later “out of fire,” did he?):

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and Councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.

In my opinion, Protestantism literally began at that moment, when Luther placed his own authority above that of the Church. Everything is there which is developed by later Protetantism: sola Scriptura and the supremacy and private judgment of the individual over against the communal if needs be. 
Since councils can err, according to Luther, then he could have also dissented against the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-30), where we see Peter and James speaking with authority. This Council makes an authoritative pronouncement (citing the Holy Spirit — 15:28; thus we have protection of the Holy Spirit and infallibility) which was binding on all Christians:

. . . abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. (Acts 15:29)

In the next chapter, shortly thereafter we read that Paul, Timothy, and Silas were traveling around “through the cities.” Note how Scripture describes what they were proclaiming:

. . . they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem. (Acts 16:4)

Presumably, Luther wouldn’t have done this. He would go around preaching that the Council was not only not binding, but could be judged by any “plowboy” as to whether it was “biblical” or not, and thus accepted or rejected on that basis. You say this is different because it is recorded in the Bible? 
Well, at the time, what Paul was proclaiming was not yet Scripture; it was simply an authoritative decree made by a Council. Even the great Apostle Paul was bound to it, yet Martin Luther was “above” 1500 years of conciliar decrees; in effect reserving more authority for himself than St. Paul himself did.
And adopting this stance brings about the same epistemological dilemma that I have already outlined: if councils err, then people are left to decide which one was in error and which one wasn’t, and it all reduces to arbitrary individualism in the end, under Protestant principles. Under that scenario (presupposing that two particular councils contradict each other), there are three logical choices:

1. Council A erred.
2. Council B erred.
3. Both Councils erred; not only contradicting each other, but both issuing statements of false doctrine or theology.

These matters are decided by Protestants based on which council was more “biblical” (of course). But we’ve seen how that is an argument in a vicious circle, when scrutinized. Human authority must intervene at some point, and that authority must be non-arbitrary and based on the Bible and the notion of apostolic succession (the necessary historical continuity element which makes the argument non-circular and self-consistent), which is also eminently biblical. Luther and Calvin and all the rest of the Protestants cannot succeed in doing this. We see the circular argument and Protestant conundrum in the Second Helvetic Confession, which you cited on your blog:

The True Interpretation of Scripture. . . . But we hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves . . .

Interpretations of the Holy Fathers. . . . we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures . . .

Councils. . . . we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men which are drawn from the Word of God . . .

— Chapter II

But this is as silly as people on two sides of a legal, constitutional debate both saying, “well, we go by what is constitutional, whereas you guys don’t.” It’s the same old story. Like appeals to the Bible as proof of contradictory views, so appeals to the secular legal document: the U.S. Constitution are not sufficient in and of themselves to resolve differing interpretations. That’s where judges and courts come in, and their decrees are binding (short of an appeal, which simply sends the determination to a higher-level court). 
The Supreme Court rulings cannot be overturned except by a future Supreme Court or by constitutional amendment. In any event, there is always a final appeal which settles the matter. But Protestantism lacks this because it appeals to a self-defeating principle and a book (which must always be interpreted by human beings). Each country (a self-contained “unit”) has its system of final appeal, legally. Likewise, the Christian Church (a self-contained “unit” according to the Bible) has its system of final appeal (the papacy, or at least –lacking that — Councils, as in Orthodoxy).
So it doesn’t help your “case” in the slightest to say that Councils solve the problem of the unbridled papacy and “wascally” popes now and then throughout history. That doesn’t get you anywhere unless you grant the councils real, binding authority, as the early and medieval church did. Without a pope, that would land you in Orthodoxy.
But it is no longer the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura if the councils are binding on all Christians and regarded as infallible. You can give them lip service but in the end they are regarded (with “all due respect,” of course) as simply one more input into the individual Protestant task (as the epistemological bottom-line) of coming up with orthodoxy on their own, based on the quite-questionable assumption that their own conscience and private judgment is superior to decrees of popes, councils, and apostolic succession; indeed the whole history of Christianity, if needs be, including the Fathers and the greatest theologians.
The individual remains the “king” in terms of epistemology and the Rule of faith in Protestantism. And this is precisely what I mean when I use the phrase, “every Protestant is his own pope.” In fact, every Protestant (within his own system) has much more power and de facto or “practical” infallibility than any pope ever dreamt of. I have often stated this, and it is not simply for rhetorical effect, or to tweak. I believe it is literally true.
Each Protestant can theoretically come up with a radically-new brand of Christianity if he so chooses. He can start a new denomination. He can declare that historical precedents for doctrines x, y, and z are meaningless and hopelessly corrupt and “unbiblical” and discard them at will (even in extreme cases, doing so with full knowledge that virtually all the Fathers or the entire history of Christianity between Jesus and 1517 held something quite otherwise). No one can deny this is possible because it is precisely what Luther and Calvin, the founders of the very system, themselves did.
Each Protestant can even choose to become completely a-historical, as Dave Hunt did, when in debate with Karl Keating on whether the early Church was Catholic, he took the position that it was irrelevant to the discussion what Church Fathers believed –only the Bible could resolve the question (I clarified this by writing to him). Popes can’t do this. They are limited by precedent. But the individual Protestant has almost-unlimited freedom in practice, and it follows from the principle that Protestants have adopted: sola Scriptura.
You will say (as you always do) that this is a caricature. But my method (as almost always, with me, as a Socratic) has been to carry the logic of Protestant principles through to their logical conclusion: reducing them to certain consequences without involving any internal contradiction. One might say this is a reductio ad absurdum.
Protestants don’t like the consequences which flow logically (and often historically in fact) from their premises, so when someone (an obnoxious “big-mouth” like me) is brash enough to point such consequences out to them, they must be immediately dismissed as engaging in the fighting of straw men and merely “bashing Protestants” out of some hostile motive or unmitigated spiritual arrogance or “anger” (as you have often described my papers) or some such, rather than the Protestant actually examining the argument logically to see if in fact it flows from their own premise without contradiction; thus bringing into possible question that premise, if the conclusion is unacceptable.
One can do so without having to deny that there are many varieties of Protestantism and of sola Scriptura (or even without ceasing to respect much about Protestantism and individual Protestants, as I do, very much so). This is your confusion oftentimes in critiquing my papers: you (quite often) don’t understand how the argument is conceived and intended in the first place (and that is shown by your later descriptions of my argument, where it is made abundantly clear that you misunderstood major aspects of it). I have explained this argument in great detail precisely so you will have less excuse and won’t be able to fall back on that tactic as a substitute for a substantive reply.
But you can only prove that my argument is a caricature of the Protestant position by arguing that Luther and Calvin did not radically depart from precedent in many ways, and that simply cannot be done — no way no how (if you think differently, then present your case, concisely and cogently).
If you want to be “historical” you have to accept the record of what Christians believed all those years, and it cannot be squared with Luther or Calvin or any other Protestant system — not in its entirety, without contradiction, whereas it can easily be squared with Catholicism (once development of doctrine is correctly understood).
Talk about “tradition” and “councils” and “catholicism” (little “c”) all you want within a Protestant framework. I think that is good in and of itself and far better than the usual Protestant polemical boilerplate against wicked evil “traditions of men,” but it doesn’t change the fundamental realities, because here we’re dealing with the bedrock Protestant principle of authority and Rule of Faith. This is what it is based on, epistemologically.
If you want the principle at all costs, you have to “die” by it and face its logical and ecclesiological consequences. One doesn’t do that by playing games with words and history, as so many Protestants do, or by continually making historical claims that cannot be backed up if pressed to demonstrate them, or going on and on about Catholic abominations, hoping that the critic will forget that the original subject was alleged deficiencies in the Protestant principle and consequences which flow logically from them (also, more often than not in fact, as well). 

As far as I am concerned, my critique holds against all Protestants, because they all accept sola Scriptura, as you yourself noted, and they all reject the notion of an infallible council, as Turretin reiterated (and which was one of Luther’s premises as he decided to break with Tradition).

It’s very simple; nothing complex here to understand. My argument’s successfulness does not depend at all on truncated, modernist-influenced versions (or corruptions) of classic sola Scriptura (not in the slightest).
So my criticisms hold. No Protestant (in my 13 years of Catholic apologetics) has yet truly answered (in anywhere near the depth required) these sorts of objections or counter-responses (they scarcely even try to do so), so it’s not like I’ll die of shock or something if that state of affairs obtains yet again.
And of course it is very convenient to dismiss an argument with a one-sentence hyper-simplistic summary. You would do better next time to say that there is something to the argument (however tiny you may think it is), which ought to be dealt with. But that’s alright. This merely confirms to me that Protestants have no real answer to these sorts of fundamental epistemological objections (which I already knew).
I accept that you are busy; I have no problem with that. And I do like your current emphases because because they are more biblical than ever (which means simultaneously more “Catholic” and in line with historic Christianity and apostolic Tradition). More power to you . . . if you remain Protestant, you will have a tremendously conflict-ridden, controversial existence. But maybe you thrive on that (I don’t say that as a criticism, or to imply that that is a bad thing; only as an observation).
Someone’s gotta “fight the good fight” in the particular denomination they find themselves in — trying to get back to the original vision and classical heritage. That may very well be your role, and I am delighted to see what I regard as the best form of Protestantism (in many, though not all, ways) being eloquently set forth and defended.
I continue to assert, however, that even the very best version of Protestantism that can be stated or believed (your brand included) suffers from the serious, insurmountable flaws which I have outlined, and I hope that one day some Protestant will have the time and willingness to fully discuss these important authority / ecclesiological / epistemological issues.
My argument proper had nothing whatever to do with “the relationship of the Reformation to the preceding history” and everything to do with internal incoherence and inconsistency. Arguments of that type (by definition) make and require no reference to opposing systems. And I am saying my argument applied to your “classical Protestantism” along with the other varieties because at its heart is the charge that Protestantism cannot resolve its internal divisions.
Who cares if 1/10th of 1% of Protestants may work out a system which is coherent and consistent within its own tiny parameters, but has no effect on 99.9% of all the other Protestants? That is historically insignificant. Who cares about a merely theoretical “synod” which binds a couple thousand “classical Calvinists” while even other Calvinists (let alone millions of other Protestants) thumb their noses at it (assuming they even hear about it)? Christianity is a concrete reality, not a pipe-dream to be bandied about on classical Calvinist discussion boards and at Calvinist universities. And you know who still has councils in the real world.


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