Not By Scripture Alone?

One of the main apologetics books from a Roman Catholic position on the doctrine of Scripture is entitled Not By Scripture Alone, a Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It is edited by Robert Sungenis, a Westminster Philadelphia graduate. Sungenis also wrote Not By Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification. Sungenis has been busy seeking to convert Protestants to the Catholic faith. (I first read about the Scripture book while reading David King’s first volume Holy Scripture.) In this book, 8 Catholic authors seek to show that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not defensible. I propose to go through this book in some detail, refuting its arguments point by point. I would certainly invite my Catholic authors to seek to contact Mr. Sungenis, so that he would become aware of this refutation, and I would certainly welcome him to comment on my posts. I hope to engage this book fairly, yet critically, since I fundamentally disagree with the book. I would encourage my readers and commenters to stick to the point, and avoid name-calling, but rather examine the logic of each point carefully.

The foreward is by Peter Kreeft, and will be the focus of this post. After noting that there are many areas of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics, he states that “all of these disagreements are derived from a single one (he means Sola Scriptura, LK). On each of these divisive issues, Protestants say that Catholics believe too much, and Catholics say that Protestants believe too little. Protestants see Catholics as semi-idolaters, and Catholics see Protestants as semi-skeptics” (xv). One or two comments on this are in order. Firstly, I don’t know that the confessional tradition sees Catholics as “semi” idolaters. The Protestant position is that the Mass is idolatrous, and that the elevation of tradition and the magisterium to the level of Scripture is idolatrous. Nothing “semi” about it, as far as I can see. I can appreciate Kreeft’s attempt here to be generous to Protestants. However, it would be best to have all the cards clearly on the table. Secondly, though I agree with Kreeft on his analysis of believing too much versus believing too little, I am not sure it is tremendously helpful. One could say Protestants need to have more faith to believe what they believe, since so little of it is visible, unlike Catholicism. That being said, it is only a tangential point.

Kreeft gets at the main point rather clearly, as one of authority: “All the Catholic doctrines and practices that Protestants reject are rejected because Protestants do not find them clearly in Scripture. And the reason Catholics accept them is not that they have reasoned each one out by independent, rational theological criteria. Rather, Catholics accept them on the authority of the Church” (p. xv). The authority of the Bible alone, versus the authority of the Bible plus the Church is one way of putting it. However, and this will be a refrain that echoes later, Protestants have never denied that the Church has authority. So far, I have read about 50 pages of this book, and one clear thing has emerged: to a Catholic, unless one accords the authority to the Church that the Roman Catholic Church claims, then one has accorded no authority to the Church whatsoever. This false dichotomy will play a very important role in sorting out the Catholic doctrine from the Protestant one. The basic point Kreeft makes is clear enough, however, and is helpful as a succinct way of putting the issue. The main point is one concerning authority.

On the next page, Kreeft makes an argument for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church by asking this question: “If the cause (the Church) is not infallible, how can its effect be infallible? By what authority do we know what books constitute the New Testament?” (p. xvi). As to the first question, we merely note that Kreeft seems to assume that there is only one cause for the Bible’s writing, namely, the Church. However, it is much more complicated than that. To speak of the causality of the Bible, one would have to speak about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, inspiration, and human beings. Is it theoretically impossible that God should cause the writers to be infallible without giving perpetual infallibility to the Church? Just because God inspired some authors to be infallible when they wrote portions of Scripture doesn’t mean that the whole Magisterium is infallible. That is in fact quite a leap of logic. As to the second question concerning the canon, we will get into that more later. I will merely outline here what will be spoken of in painstaking detail later: the authority of the Bible rests in itself, the Holy Spirit applying that authority to the Church. It makes no sense to say that God requires humanity to lend authority to God’s own writing. God chose to use human instruments, that is true. But when it comes to the authority of Scripture, God used no human authority whatsoever. If the authority lies in itself, the Church’s job is simply to receive what is self-attesting, and self-authoritative. The question of the Apocrypha will be dealt with much later.