Rebutting the "Historical" Argument for the Roman Catholic Church
By Timothy G. Enloe
Perhaps the most important aspect of the continuing controversies between Protestants and Catholics is the area of epistemology, or how we human beings know things--in this case, how we know divine truth. The question "How do you know?" is central to the Catholic polemic as it is presented to Protestants by some of the former's ablest contemporary defenders. 1 Unfortunately, these apologists not only commit a fundamental error in the target they direct this attack against, but they also miss a fatal flaw in their own logic.
The first mistake lies in the confusion of modern "evangelical" Christianity--almost universally identified by Catholic apologists as "fundamentalism"--with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Many Catholic apologists have honed to near perfection the technique of blasting to smithereens the anti-creedal, anti-historical, anti-intellectual positions of "Bible-Only" fundamentalists. By focusing their attention on the "no creed but Christ" foolishness of the latter and wrongly equating it with the classical Protestant formal principle of Sola Scriptura, they attempt to expose what they believe to be a glaring inconsistency in something they rather generically call "the Protestant view". 2
After discarding this caricature as hopelessly false, the defenders of Rome then attempt to establish the authority of their Church by building a step-by-step inductive argument, or more simply stated, by gratuitously piling up "historical" facts as if such can stand on their own outside of their basic interpretive framework. In so doing, they ironically end up exposing a basic inconsistency in their own apologetic! This inconsistency appears when the Catholic principle of how humans know divine truth meets its Protestant opponent on the field of historical battle. Let us try to follow their reasoning.
The Bible--"Just Another Ancient Book"?
The argument usually begins by admitting up front that it is not going to treat the Scriptures as if they are divinely inspired, but merely as legitimate historical documents. It then proceeds to build a chain of "purely" historical evidence--passages of Scripture, quotations from early Christians and Councils, etc--which is supposed to show that Christ instituted a Church with certain properties, properties which are today found only in the Roman ecclesiastical hierarchy.
In a debate on Sola Scriptura with Patrick Madrid (then of Catholic Answers), James White asked Madrid how he could know that the Roman Church is the one true Church. Madrid responded as follows:
Notice that Madrid's argument follows the familiar evidentialist pattern of much of "evangelical" Protestantism, though it is used by him not to establish the authority of the Bible, but of the Roman Church 3 --a fact which reveals that there are two competing ultimate authorities in the debate: Sola Scriptura and the Catholic Magisterium. It is then marshalled against a caricature of the Protestant position--which, it is said, amounts to believing the Bible is inspired simply "because it says it is". 2 I quote Madrid again, from his essay "Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy":
The Catholic doesn't have this problem, claim Madrid and the others, because he has an external authority--the Church--to tell him that the Bible is inspired and which books are contained in it. Madrid continues:
The problem with this line of reasoning should be manifestly obvious. Notice the numerous Scriptural references Madrid cites as part of his proof that we need the Church to tell us what the Scriptures are. Since he has already told us that no one (particularly Protestants, of course) can know the Scriptures apart from the witness of the Church, how then can he cite these passages of Scripture as part of his "proof" for how he knows those Scriptures in the first place?
The problem is particularly acute when we examine the central passage of Scripture Madrid cited--Matthew 16:18-19. These verses supposedly imply that the Church will be infallible (so that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it). But on the Catholic premise that the infallible witness of the institutional body of bishops is necessary in order for one to "know for sure" that the book of Matthew is legitimate while, say, the Gospel of Thomas is not, how can the book of Matthew be used as part of a "proof" of the existence of that infallible body of bishops? Thus, the Roman apologist uses Scripture to support his claims about the infallible Church and then inconsistently asserts that no one can know what Scripture is until the infallible Church tells him so!
These facts show us that despite the assertion that the authority of the Roman Church can be "proven" by the use of the New Testament records "merely" as legitimate historical records, exactly the opposite is occurring. Madrid and all Catholic apologists who use this type of argument are tacitly assuming from the get-go that they "know for sure" what books are trustworthy historical records, nay, even infallible historical records! On what basis do they reject the numerous heretical writings, many of which also claim to be presenting the "catholic" (universal) faith?
Those Marvelous, Unbiased, Infallible Catholic Historians
But the problems don't stop with this disingenous use of Scripture.4 Catholic apologists treat all of Church history with the same question-begging, "neutral" evidentialism. I will not even attempt to get into detailed refutations of Catholic historical points as historical points. Such is beyond the limited scope of this essay, and at any rate, has been done by others far better than I ever could. 5 My focus is on the inconsistent epistemology that is used by the Catholic apologists.
If we were to take the principle that such apologists apply exclusively against Sola Scriptura and make it into a general principle, it would be this: infallible external confirmation is a prerequisite for any claim to "know for sure" that a chosen ultimate authority is the correct one. Very well. If this principle is true, we should rightly expect Catholics to jump at the chance to show us such an infallible external proof for their Church, especially if they are going to parade through the town square proclaiming that Sola Scriptura is invalid because it has no infallible external proof. It seems obvious that if the identity and supreme authority of Scripture must be "proven" by means of an infallible external authority, then so must the identity and supreme authority of "the Catholic Church".
Oddly, this challenge goes unanswered. Though Catholic apologists often like to point out that even heretics quote the Bible in support of their errors, I have yet to find even one Catholic apologist who honestly attempts to grapple with the fact that many heretics (both past and present) also claim to be "the Catholic Church". 6 With tongue in cheek, I must ask these apologists how they can "know for sure" that the particular organization they are defending is the real "Catholic Church". How do they "know for sure" that the Protestant Reformers--or for that matter, the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses--weren't right after all?
Never ones to follow the supposedly Mormon-esque "I know its true because I feel it in my heart" tactic they wrongly attribute to classical Protestants, these heroically "objective" warriors tell us they have an answer to our query. They ask us to wait patiently while they zealously weld into place beam after beam of historical data, following a blueprint only they can see. Soon, they point proudly to the veritable skyscraper they have built, and note with triumph that its shadow overwhelms the pitiful shack of Protestant "novelties" that were seemingly spun from whole cloth barely five centuries ago.
Unfortunately for them, this massive edifice of historical trivia turns out to be utterly useless as a "proof". This is so because the very apologists who are compiling the evidence are not themselves infallible, and so, on their own criterion of knowledge, they cannot really "know for sure" that they are dealing with history fairly. How do they "know for sure" that they have not left some relevant historical facts out of the picture, or allowed their own peculiar biases to warp their reading of history, or perhaps even that the "historical" sources they are drawing upon are not clever frauds which have simply not been detected yet? 7
All these questions reveal that the use of historical evidences as a ground of faith in the trustworthiness of the Roman institution is a well-meaning, but nevertheless misguided tactic. Such evidences do have their place--as warrants, or supports, of the trust these Catholics already had in their Church (although they can still be challenged by Protestants). But if, as the Roman defenders tell us, the warrants for our faith must be infallible, these warrants can never serve as the foundations, since they, like the apologists who adduce them, are fallible.
If one still doubts the validity of my reasoning here, just ask why, if the historical skyscraper produced by Catholic apologists is really so incredible, really so "obvious", why does it not convince Protestants like James White, who is at least as well-informed about Church history as Patrick Madrid? And why can a James White or a William Webster produce similar skyscrapers that appear "obvious" to Protestants but not to Catholics? One begins to suspect that it is just not enough to say one's faith is true because it is "historical".
The claim that the identity and supreme authority of the Roman Catholic institutional Church can be established to be true solely by the use of non-inspired historical writings (which include those writings known as "the Bible") is false for two reasons.
First, it tacitly assumes the very thing that it is supposed to be proving. Both Catholics and Protestants take the Scriptures as reliable sources of information about God even if any given individuals in either camp cannot produce external supports for it. Protestants at least admit that this is what they are doing. Catholics, on the other hand (particularly the apologists), propose to treat Scripture "only as a historical document", which they then use to build up the authority of their Church. But in so doing, they ignore the fact that they are assuming that they "know" what books constitute "Scripture"--the very thing they deny that can be done apart from their Church!
Second, the claim that the identity and supreme authority of the Roman Catholic institutional Church can be established to be true solely by the use of non-inspired historical writings neglects to factor into its equation the fact that historical arguments are by their nature fallible, since they are constructed by fallible people who can never know all the facts and their inter-relationships with perfect clarity.
Thus, the apologetic tactic used by many Roman Catholic apologists today actually undermines the very "certainty of faith" it is supposed to safeguard. The Catholic tells the Protestant that he cannot know that Scripture is trustworthy since he doesn't have an infallible Church to vouchsafe the canon to him--that he has only a "fallible collection of infallible books". But the Protestant need not be nervous about admitting the truth of the last phrase, for he is still in a better epistemological position! He can simply reverse the argument and point out that the Catholic cannot know that Rome is the true Church, since all he has is "a fallible collection of (possibly false) historical trivia".
Hence, like the fundamentalists they so vehemently
oppose, the argument of today's Catholic apologists rests in what one
of their number, Patrick Madrid, termed "an absolute epistemological vaccuum".
The irony is too delicious to ignore.
(Notes at bottom)
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1. I am referring primarily to Gerry Matatics, Scott Hahn, James Akin, Dave Armstrong, David Palm, Scott Butler, Robert Sungenis, Patrick Madrid, and Tim Staples, though there are a host of lesser known lay apologists who follow in their footsteps.
3. From a strictly classical Protestant--e.g., Reformed--viewpoint, this serves to show that Rome and "evangelicals", for all their disagreements, share the same fundamental view of man's spiritual problems. Just show unbelievers enough "evidence" to convince "any reasonable mind", and they will have a foundation for coming to faith. That NOBODY grounds their most basic beliefs on collections of external evidences (but rather, at best, merely supports such beliefs with external evidences) is a fact of human nature that is missed by evidentialists in all camps. We shall see momentarily how this approach mires the Catholic apologist in epistemological quicksand.
4. I say it is "disingenous" because of the intial premise that Scripture was going to be treated "only" as a collection of valid historical works. If Catholic apologists would simply admit that they, like the Protestants they criticize, are relying on a conviction about Scripture that they brought to their apologetics--not that they derived from their apologetics!--the debate might actually progress beyond the level of playground bragging about how their daddy can beat up our daddy.
5. I refer the reader to the essays at William Webster's site Christian Resources, and to the much more detailed versions of the same contained in Webster's book The Church of Rome at the Bar of History. Also see the following articles by James White: Looks Can Be Deceiving, Is Roman Catholic History Reliable?, and Jesus, Peter, and the Keys: A Summary Response. Also see White's debate with "Brother John Mary" at Resolved: The Church of the Council of Nicea is not the Roman Catholic Church.
6. Not only do organizations such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) claim to be the true heirs of Apostolic teaching, but so did ancient heretical groups like the Arians. Although it is a very long document, I would refer the reader to Athanasius' work De Synodis, which quotes at length numerous Arian creeds which all purport to be setting forth "the catholic faith" in the name of "the catholic church". Additionally, the fifth century work by Vincent of Lerins, The Commonitory, notes what I said above, that even heretics are wont to quote the Scriptures profusely in the name of their own dogmas. These facts serve to show that Catholic apologists are doing the same thing with their ultimate authority (the Church) that Protestants do with theirs (the Scriptures)--they take it for granted and use its authority to deny the claims of competitors.
7. I am here referring to the fact that between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, a series of "historical" documents were used by various Popes and Roman Catholic doctors to firmly ensconce the Roman papacy as the supreme authority in the Western Church. These documents (the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, the Liber Pontificalis, and the Donation of Constantine) purported to be records from the early Church, and they clearly showed the Roman pontiff exercising dominion over other churches as their head. (For much more detail on these forgeries, see William Webster's article "Forgeries and the Papacy".) Whether or not the Popes and doctors knew these documents to be fraudulent is irrelevant. We can give them the benefit of the doubt and still maintain that this provides us with an undeniable witness to the extreme fallibility of historical apologetics. One can never derive "absolute certainty" from any historical record, given the limits of the inductive process that is used to gather the data and the fallibility of the human beings who gather it.