Response to James Anderson

I discovered today that a few months ago Dr. James Anderson published some comments in reply to my article The Accidental Catholic. I appreciate the fact that he took the time to do so. In this post I’d like to offer a response.

Dr. Anderson summarizes my thesis this way:

  1. If Sola Scriptura were correct and the Protestant churches were led by the Holy Spirit, there wouldn’t be many doctrinal disagreements between Protestant churches.
  2. But there are many doctrinal disagreements between Protestant churches.
  3. Therefore, it can’t be the case that Sola Scriptura is correct and the Protestant churches are led by the Holy Spirit.

I appreciate very much the need for brevity in a blog post. I am afraid that the exigencies of brevity seem in this case to have led to a mistaken construal of what my argument actually was. In the first place, it was not directed merely at the fact that Protestants disagree about many doctrines. Rather, it was directed at the fact that Protestants disagree about doctrinal issues that cannot reasonably be described as matters of indifference:

On the Protestant’s terms, and given that Protestants disagree with each other about things that even they say are not matters of indifference, there is no way that I know of to preserve any certainty whatsoever about the Bible’s teaching.

This distinction is important. Everyone agrees that there are adiophora or matters of doctrinal indifference (see, for example, Romans 14). If two men disagree about an issue that they both think qualifies as doctrinally indifferent, there can hardly be any scandal about it (assuming that they are correct in saying that it really is an indifferent question). But when men disagree about issues that they both agree are not adiophora, or when they disagree about what qualifies as a matter of doctrinal insignificance, then the situation is different, as I attempted to show in my original post. So my focus was not upon the mere fact of disagreement among Protestants, but rather the fact of their disagreement about important issues.

In the second place, my argument was directed against the means by which Protestants say that they obtain certain knowledge about what the Bible teaches. It was not directed against Protestant denominations per se, but rather against the Protestant claim that exegesis with the Holy Spirit’s guidance (and, for some Protestants, with the further assistance of appeals to tradition in some way) provides certain knowledge of Biblical truth. My article shows that there is no principled reason to accept this claim, and argues that it is undermined by the fact that Protestants making use of these means disagree about doctrines that are not matters of indifference. This fact forced me to arrive at a twofold conclusion: first, that I could no longer resort to those means myself as a way of knowing the truth (and so I could not remain Protestant), and secondly that I had no good reason to think that denominations which resorted to those means had escaped error by doing so. Whatever truth Protestants and their denominations might nevertheless legitimately possess, then, their chosen means for discovering that truth are not reliable.

With these preliminary clarifications about my article out of the way, I’d like to address some of the criticisms that Dr. Anderson makes. I am not going to address everything that he says, simply because much of what he says has nothing to do with the article that I wrote. My article was autobiographical, but it was not a complete record of the story of my conversion. My conversion occurred in two parts: first, I realized that I could no longer remain a Protestant. At that time, I had no intention of becoming Catholic, nor even of investigating Catholic claims. None. The decision to investigate the Church came later, and my article only deals with the first part of my story. Unfortunately, Dr. Anderson does not stick to criticizing what I actually wrote. Instead, many of his comments amount to a criticism of the Catholic Church. That’s fine as such, but doesn’t really seem to do the job as an adequate reply to what I actually wrote because what I wrote is essentially a record of my thinking before I became Catholic or even considered becoming Catholic. Hence it seems that my criticisms of Protestantism really need to be answered for what they are, rather than by a criticism of Some Other Guys who didn’t even have a seat at the table when all this happened.

To be sure, I believe that Dr. Anderson’s challenges about the Church have answers. Perhaps I will write other posts that address them. But since those challenges have nothing to do with my article, and since in this post I intend to defend what I actually wrote before, I will be ignoring remarks of his that do not appear relevant to my article.

1. By the same line of reasoning one would have to argue that Christian leaders who are led by the Holy Spirit would rarely fall into error or sin. But clearly that’s a bad inference. Even Catholics would have to grant that many church leaders (including popes!) have fallen into error and sin, despite their claim that the RCC was led by the Holy Spirit.

I don’t see how this criticism stands against my actual argument. On the contrary, I think that it actually strengthens my position. If we cannot assume that those who are led by the Holy Spirit won’t fall into error, then reliance upon His guidance in exegesis does not ensure that anyone will accurately discern Scriptural truth. Consequently appeals merely to the Spirit’s guidance of just anyone become worthless for purposes of discovering the truth, and the Protestant’s circumstances aren’t improved. In short, the problem remains: Protestants disagree about matters that cannot reasonably described as indifferent, and so there is no principled reason to believe that the means they choose for getting revealed truth from the Bible actually work.

2. The argument fails to distinguish between disagreements over central doctrines (the Trinity, the Incarnation, salvation by grace alone through Christ alone, the inspiration of the Bible, the necessity of baptism, the return of Christ, etc.) and disagreements over secondary doctrines (the subjects and mode of baptism, church government, spiritual gifts, the nature of the millennium, etc.). When you consider central doctrines alone, there’s substantial unity among Protestant churches (and here I mean those that are genuinely Protestant, i.e., that take seriously the claim that the Bible alone is the infallible and authoritative Word of God).

In other words, the terms are rigged by the Catholic so as to make Protestant churches look worse than they really are. Not all doctrines are created equal. (Note that it would be question-begging for the Catholic to define in advance, from a Catholic perspective, which doctrines are central and which are not.)

This turns out not to be the case. In my article I carefully stated that the problems I identified exist with regard to doctrines that cannot reasonably be described as matters of indifference. For example, I said (as I also quoted above):

On the Protestant’s terms, and given that Protestants disagree with each other about things that even they say are not matters of indifference, there is no way that I know of to preserve any certainty whatsoever about the Bible’s teaching. [bold added]

So Dr. Anderson is mistaken when he says that I failed to make such a distinction.

Secondly, he says “the terms are rigged by the Catholic so as to make Protestant churches look worse than they really are.” But I reached the conclusions in my article while I was still a Protestant, and when I had absolutely no intention of becoming Catholic (nor even considering Catholic claims). My criticisms of Protestant division do serve a Catholic apologetic purpose today of course, but I wasn’t Catholic at the time I first made them, and their validity does not depend upon being Catholic.

Thirdly, he says “Note that it would be question-begging for the Catholic to define in advance, from a Catholic perspective, which doctrines are central and which are not.” But my criticisms did not depend upon a Catholic perspective as to which doctrines are central and which are not. I was still Protestant when I first made them. Furthermore, it seems fair to ask why we ought to accept Dr. Anderson’s division here. If it would be question-begging for the Catholic to define them in advance, is it any less question-begging to make the divisions in places that are convenient for his own argument? For example, is it really reasonable to suppose that the necessity of Baptism is central but the identification of its recipients is not, as though Christ would command us to baptize without telling us exactly whom we are to baptize? Is that reasonable? Is it reasonable to say that Baptism and the Eucharist are necessary, but that their meaning is not? Why should we accept his list of central doctrines and not some other one? Dr. Anderson believes that these are all reasonable distinctions, but not all Protestants do.

3. In any case, it should be obvious that doctrinal unity is no guarantee of doctrinal truth. If it were, the Mormons must have the truth too! Indeed, one could just pick any single denomination at random (the PCA, say) and argue that its internal doctrinal unity is evidence that that denomination has the truth. But clearly that wouldn’t be a good argument.

I agree. And I did not make that argument in my article. I hope that it is equally obvious that doctrinal disunity about non-trivial matters reveals a real problem. There is certainly disunity among Protestants about non-trivial matters, and so I think it is very clear that there is a real problem with how they go about discovering the truth.

4. This leads to a further point. The author’s argument begs the question by assuming that the RCC is special and that Catholicism is the ‘default’ or ‘fallback’ option. From a Protestant perspective, however, the RCC is (at best) just one more denomination alongside all others. If you’re concerned about rigid doctrinal uniformity, why pick the RCC rather than any other ecclesiastical institution?

This is mistaken, because (as I’ve pointed out) I was a Protestant when I first made these arguments. I did not assume anything about the Catholic Church at the time except that I had absolutely no interest in becoming Catholic or even investigating its claims. That came later. So I was not begging the question on this count. To the contrary, I was judging Protestantism on its own terms.

Anderson’s fifth point (concerning historical appeals by Catholics), sixth point (concerning doctrinal unity in the Catholic Church), and seventh point (concerning magisterial teaching on certain issues) are unrelated to my article, so I am passing over them. My article had to do with problems in the ways that Protestants say that they discover revealed truth in the Bible, and his remarks in points 5-7 are unrelated to that.

8. It’s assumed too quickly that diversity is antithetical to truth. But open debate can be one of the best ways to discern and establish the truth, whereas a top-down imposed uniformity can easily lead to institutionalized error (which then becomes very hard to root out). All this to say, having different denominations may well be seen as a healthy thing in the long run if one values truth over uniformity.

Diversity is antithetical to truth when one proposition directly contradicts another. For one relevant example: “Babies may be baptized” is antithetical to “babies must not be baptized.” Furthermore, a consequence of this sort of thinking is that no doctrinal issues ever become resolved: we may say that the Deity of Christ is settled, but why? The Arians did’t think so. Playing devil’s advocate here: why could one not also say that an Arian denomination is a healthy thing in the long run if one values truth over uniformity?

9. The article makes much hay out of the claim that “the HS obviously does not lead people to contradictory positions”. Well, by that reasoning the RCC isn’t led by the Holy Spirit either because, as Luther famously pointed out, popes and councils have contradicted themselves! This point can be readily documented and is impossible to reasonably deny. Of course, Catholics have their explanations as to how these popes and councils could err; but in offering such explanations they have to abandon arguments like the one above, simply because Protestants can offer the same sorts of explanations for their own doctrinal disagreements. In short, the RCC has to engage in special pleading to excuse its own errors and theological diversity.

I am unsure what to make of Dr. Anderson’s point here. Does he mean to say that the Holy Spirit does lead people to contradictory positions? Surely not. If what he means is more in line with what he said in point 1, then perhaps I understand. But to the extent that this is so, it strengthens what I said in my article, because it means that the Holy Spirit’s guidance cannot be relied upon to preserve from error in any circumstances at all. And that means that the Protestant has no reason for claiming that he has certain knowledge of what the Bible teaches on any score.

His criticisms of the Catholic Church here are irrelevant to my article, and so I pass over them (at least for now). The same may be said for point 10 (having to do with alleged errors of the Catholic Church).

11. The article also misrepresents the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The difference between the Protestant and the Catholic isn’t that the former relies on his own judgment/reason while the latter relies on the teaching of the Magisterium. For the Catholic also (unavoidably!) relies on his own judgment/reason in interpreting the teachings of the Magisterium. (And that’s precisely why Catholics disagree over exactly what the RCC teaches on some points.) No, the real issue concerns where one locates one’s final authority: Protestants hold to the final authority of Scripture (alone) whereas Catholics hold to the final authority of the Magisterium (which stands, at least in practice, over Scripture). It’s simply mistaken to suggest that Protestants treat their reason as the final authority. Catholics use their reasoning and interpretive faculties to discern the teaching of the Magisterium (as their final authority) no less than Protestants use their reasoning and interpretive faculties to discern the teaching of the Bible (as their final authority). It’s well known that the Reformers emphasized the ministerial (as opposed to the magisterial) role of reason.

My article does not misrepresent sola scriptura, and representations of it were beyond my article’s scope. My article has to do with how Protestants say that they get revealed truth from the Bible (their final authority). Granted that they hold to sola scriptura, they must in some way discern the truth that Scripture holds. My article addresses problems with the means that they use.

He says “It’s simply mistaken to suggest that Protestants treat their reason as the final authority.” But I did not say that they do so. It is flatly undeniable, though, that exegesis requires the use of reason, and exegesis is absolutely the primary means by which Protestants attempt to discern revealed truth in the Bible. And the problem of Protestant disagreement over important doctrinal issues does not go away just because they say that the Bible is their final authority.

Dr. Anderson’s remarks here about Catholics and the Catholic Church are not relevant to my article, and so I pass over them (at least for now). Similarly, his point 12 (concerning questions of parity between Protestants and Catholics) are outside the scope of my article, and so I’m skipping it too.

In point 13, he offers the following as a defense of the Protestant view:

The Bible describes itself as “living and active” (Heb. 4:12; cf. 1 Pet. 1:23). It is not a dead book, for the same Holy Spirit who originally inspired its human authors speaks through it today to those who are indwelt by the Spirit and have ears to hear their Master’s voice. The Spirit of God has no need of a “Living Magisterium” to bring the Word of God to life.

This does not seem to resolve the problem. He has already denied that those who are guided by the Holy Spirit are protected from error in any objective way (see points 1 and 9 above). Furthermore, we have no objective way (on the Protestant’s terms) of identifying those who are indwelt by the Spirit and have hears to hear their Master’s voice. So I don’t see how this claim improves the Protestant’s situation: he still has no basis for supposing that he has anything other than an opinion about what the Bible teaches. And this is why the means that the Protestant uses for trying to get at revealed truth do not work.

He also says in point 13:

The argument relies on the dubious theological assumption that the Holy Spirit was either unable or unwilling to inspire a sufficiently perspicuous written revelation (i.e., the Bible) in the first place.

No, it does not. It relies upon an observation of the fact of the Protestant’s situation: he finds himself in disagreement with other Protestants of equally good standing about doctrinal issues that cannot reasonably be described as matters of doctrinal indifference or unimportance. This is simply an undeniable fact, and Dr. Anderson has not denied it. This fact ought to give us some information about the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, but that is outside the scope of my article, and so I will pass over it (at least for now).

In summary: I think that my article rises unscathed from the crucible of Dr. Anderson’s criticism.

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Posted in Apologetics, Protestantism, Solo Scriptura
2 comments on “Response to James Anderson
  1. Jason Yelvington says:

    Love the blog. I read your article on C2C and I had a few questions I would like to ask. If you could contact me at jyelvington at gmail.com I would really appreciate it.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Jason,

    You’ve got mail. :-)

    Thanks for your kind words. I’ll be happy to help if I can.

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