If you are not the sort of person who celebrates divorce anniversaries or sends congratulatory notes to pals for holding onto grudges, it may not have occurred to you that 2017 is going to be a big party year for some of our friends.
The Banner of the “Reformation” Still Flies
That year, October 31 to be precise, marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany, the spark that lit the fire of what many Protestants still proudly call the “Reformation.”
What can we Catholics expect, given the climate of cooperation and dialogue that has thawed relations between ourselves and our Protestant brethren during the past 50 years? I believe we can expect a renewed emphasis on the oldest Reformation issues and a strong reassertion of Protestant polemics. Not because the thaw has not been real, but because it has led to so many Protestants recognizing Catholics as fellow Christians and opening themselves to our witness, that it worries many Protestant leaders and teachers.
The banner of the Reformation is sola scriptura (scripture alone). There are several other Reformation slogans: “Christ alone,” “faith alone,” and “grace alone.” But sola scriptura is the key to the rest. Cutting as it does, straight to the heart of the real issue between ourselves and our separated brethren — authority — it remains the key subject that we have to know how to talk about with Protestants.
Oh, Please, Let’s Talk!
This is a subject we should welcome. Catholics have the advantage here, because we already agree with so much of what Protestants bring forth. This might not feel like much an advantage in a debate scenario — like we are giving a great deal ground to our opponents at the outset — but the purpose of our argument with them is not the winning of debates, it is the winning of hearts. To that end we should never lose a chance to say to a Protestant, “Look how very wide a swath of common ground we have here; let’s see if we can expand it.”
It is all to the good then, that Protestants often begin to approach this subject with us by discussing the authority and power of Scripture. To much of what they assert, a Catholic can respond, “Amen. Agreed!” If you as a Catholic are not clear on what the Church teaches about the authority and power of Scripture, a good place to begin is with Dei Verbum, the document on Scripture from the fathers of the Second Vatican Counsel. Its full title is Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.
What specific use do I have in mind for these documents when you are talking to a Protestant? It is important for you to be able to express what the Catholic view of Scripture is. Many of our separated brethren consider Catholics to have a diminished view of Scripture, discounting the Bible. If we express ourselves regarding Scripture according to the words of this document, the high view that the Church has of Scripture will be evident in our conversation.
Are You Credible?
“Scripture alone” Protestants want to know that you love the Bible, believe in the Bible, and accept the inspiration of the Bible. Remember, they do not have all of the Sacraments that we have to bring us close to Christ. They rely much more heavily on Bible reading to sustain them spiritually. They will not consider you credible unless you demonstrate love for and familiarity with the Scriptures. Studying Dei Verbum will not only give you the correct language for expressing the Catholic view of Scripture, it will also convince you of your need to be a student of Scripture.
If then, the Catholic Church has a “high view” of Scripture, how do we differ from Protestants? What we Catholics deny is the Protestant view that the Scripture is the only infallible authority in the Christian life, the only deposit of “God’s Word” and that it must be so because Church councils and Traditions are not infallible. (This is what is known as the formal sufficiency of Scripture as a rule of faith.) We do believe however, that every true Christian doctrine is found in Scripture, either implicitly or explicitly. (This is called the material sufficiency of Scripture).
In the final analysis it does not matter whether we call a particular view of Scripture the “high view” or the “low view,” what matters is that our view of Scripture be the scriptural view! If sola scriptura is the key Reformation doctrine, then the key question is whether the doctrine of sola scriptura is in the Bible. This is what has to be answered because the very issue is framed so that the argument for it has to come from the Bible itself and from the Bible alone. To put it in a nutshell our apologetical task is to demonstrate that sola scriptura fails logically as a principle drawn from Scripture. And since it makes (and can make) no appeal other than to Scripture, it therefore fails completely.
Tomorrow we will consider the key Bible text that Protestants use to make a “scriptural” defense of sola scriptura.