Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Examining an Anti-Catholic Attack

The Usual Disclaimer

Yes I am aware that not all anti-Catholics express beliefs in the same way, and that not all people who believe some of these claims are anti-Catholic.  However the claim I am addressing are real and often get thrown about in Internet debate with the express purpose of attacking the Catholic faith.  Please keep this limiting frame in mind before accusing me of holding a position I am not stating.


One of the common arguments used to attack the Catholic Church is that it "imposed" certain doctrines not found in Scripture.  From this, it is claimed that because they were not found in Scripture, they must have been invented for (insert nefarious reason here).

As this claim circulates, there are certain assumptions which get repeated but, when looked at, don't have a logical basis.

Defining the Difference

Let me make clear here that I do not equate "anti-Catholic" with "Disagrees with the Catholic Church."  One can be civil in disagreement, holding "I believe X is true, so I think Catholics must have the wrong interpretation here," without imputing an evil will to the Catholic Church.  I believe such individuals are wrong when they believe this of course, but hostility to Catholic beliefs does not fuel their claims.

However, the anti-Catholic generally seems to assume that the difference in belief is based on an evil intent from the Church designed to "enslave" people in a religion deliberately calculated to keep people from God.  Such individuals make it their business to "save" Catholics from Hell, often using scare tactics, and sometimes using some rather unethical practices involving the misrepresentation of what Catholics believe.

Of course we can't explore all of these claims as they are numerous indeed (a recommended place to start is Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism), but let's start with a common one which recently showed up again in a retort a person made to me.

The Premise to Be Explored

The common premise to be explored today is: that things which the Catholics believe, which Protestants reject, are Unchristian and not true.  Normally this gets expressed as something similar to the following (which has many forms): "X is a false beliefIf you want me to believe your belief is true, then show me where it says this in the Bible." 

Now this can be expressed in different ways than put here of course.  Some are expressed in ways which are logically valid.  Some are not.  I can't anticipate all of the ways this can be expressed, but since most of the differences are semantics and not real difference in meaning, I will take the form I have often run into above and use this as the basis for the investigation.

Some Initial Problems with this particular argument

This argument normally strikes me as being rather petulant in nature.  It makes a claim ("This belief is unbiblical") but instead of showing whether the claim is true, it actually insists on making the person who disagrees with a claim disprove them.  In logic, this is known as Shifting the Burden of Proof).  This tactic presumes the claim (X is a false belief) is already proven and demands the person who disagrees to disprove the case.

The gut instinct might be to just say "Well, prove your own claim" but I don't recommend this.  This usually gets into a Scripture slinging match which can never end because there is no one authority to determine whose interpretation of Scripture is correct.

The reason this is ineffective is there are three things which are presumed by this demand which need to be established, before we can accept it:

  1. That the Word of God is limited to the Bible alone
  2. That the Protestant canon of Scripture is authoritative.
  3. Who is authorized to judge which interpretation of Scripture is correct.

So first we need to look at what is wrong with the argument by putting it into a valid syllogism.

Putting the challenge in a logical form

The first step is putting the argument into a form which is logically valid.  [That is, if the premises are true then the conclusion is true].  It is true that many of these arguments are expressed in logically invalid ways [even if the premises were true (which I don't grant), the argument cannot prove the conclusion].  However we do need to put it in a valid form to avoid accusations of creating a straw man argument.

So let's try to take this argument, listed in the section "The Premise to be explored," which claims Catholic beliefs are not true because they are not in the Bible.

I think the best way to express what the argument hopes to achieve is to make it a negative statement about what truth involves in relation to scripture instead of a positive statement about Scripture in relation to truth.  Hopefully this phrasing will exclude enough [Such as avoiding side roads about whether things outside of Scripture like math can be true] through definition, to avoid misunderstanding what we mean by "truth" and therefore avoid meaningless quibbles about "that's not what I meant."

Here, we need to recognize the enthymeme (the unspoken but assumed argument), which is essentially that the only truths concerning salvation come from scripture and anything else claiming to involve salvation is false.  So, we can state the syllogism this way:

  1. No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True] (No [A] is [B])
  2. Some [Catholic Teachings] are [Teachings pertaining to salvation not found in the Bible] (Some [C] is [A]
  3. Therefore some [Catholic Teachings] are Not [true] (Therefore Some [C] is not [B])

(Hopefully, the reader, will recognize that this is not an attempt to create a straw man, but is an attempt to make a common anti-Catholic claim fit into a logical form so it is valid.)

If we limit it this much, the logical form is valid (the basic premise is, a thing [C] that is in group [A] is excluded from group [B]), and if the premises are true, then the conclusion can be said to be proven true.  However, if one or both of the premises are false, or cannot be established to be true, then the conclusion cannot be said to be proven true.

So let's look at the premises.

Examining the Major Premise

The first problem is the major premise.  In order for the argument to be proven true, the premise

"No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]"

has to be shown to be true.  The problem is one cannot demonstrate this.  Scripture itself does not claim "No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]."  Nor does Scripture define what books of the Bible are part of the Bible.


  • IF the claim "No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]" is a [teaching pertaining to salvation]
  • AND This claim is [not found in the Bible]
  • THEN logically this claim is not [true]

(In other words, the premise contradicts itself unless it can be shown from Scripture).

I think we can establish that "No [Teachings pertaining to salvation not Found in the Bible] are [True]" is supposed to be true and necessary for salvation (such as Sola Scriptura).  If it weren't, people wouldn't have problems with Catholic beliefs and there would be no concern from some that Catholics are damned for following such beliefs.  So if such a teaching is not found in the Bible, the major premise is not true, and the conclusion (Therefore some [Catholic Teachings] are Not [true]) is not proven.

Moreover, we can point to a few verses of Scripture to show that a Sola Scriptura approach is not held in the Bible.

25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

(John 21:25)

15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thes. 2:15)

The first passage demonstrates that Scripture does not claim to be the exhaustive source of what Jesus did.  The second demonstrates it was not the written documents but the teaching the Apostles gave, regardless of the media used, which were important.

[It should be noted that two common verses used to justify Sola Scriptura, 2 Tim 3:15 and Acts 17:11, do not demonstrate the exclusive nature of "Scripture alone."]

Examining the Minor Premise

So having given some of the reasons I reject the major premise of the argument, let us move on to the minor premise: "Some [Catholic Teachings] are [Teachings pertaining to salvation not found in the Bible]."

There are two problems with the Minor Premise.   The first problem is the disagreement over canon.  The second is over the dispute over meaning of Scriptures.

In the first case, the problem is over canon.  Certainly as far back as the canon of Scripture was defined, it was the Septuagint (LXX) canon for the Old Testament.  It was not until the 16th century that Protestants adopted the canon of the Masoretic text (which does not have the Greek only books of the Old Testament).  So the question is, on which authority is it to be determined that Scripture is based only on the 66 books recognized by Protestants?

If an anti-Catholic wants to attack a belief on being "unbiblical" the questions that must be asked are which version do you call authoritative and under what authority do you insist on such a version?  Until that is settled, the only reason for rejecting beliefs discussed in the deuterocanonical works is merely personal preference.

The second problem is the dispute over meaning.  Catholics do indeed read Scripture, and our beliefs which we hold can be said to not contradict Scripture.  So it is a matter of interpretation.  anti-Catholics hold to one interpretation and claim that Catholic beliefs are "unbiblical" because they do not.  So for the minor premise to be shown to be true, it has to be shown that the Christian teaching excludes the Catholic interpretation and it has to be shown by appealing to an authority which both would accept.

Those I have met who hold Sola Scriptura generally invoke two areas as authority that their teachings are correct:

  1. The "Plain Sense" of Scripture
  2. The "Inspiration of the Holy Spirit" on the Reader.

"Plain Sense" as Authority and "Inspiration of the Holy Spirit"

I believe we can show the problem with the claim of the "plain sense" of Scripture as a source of authority.  We merely need look at how so many teachings of Jesus are disputed as to what the "plain sense" means.  Take the "Bread of Life" discourse in John 6, where those who reject the Catholic view claims Jesus spoke merely symbolically… but usually cannot agree on what the symbol "means."  Or take Jesus' words on Baptism and see the wide dispute on whether it is necessary or merely symbolic.

These contradictions over the "Plain Sense" also shows that the invoking of the Holy Spirit as inspiring the reader to "know" the truth is dubious.  The Holy Spirit, being God, cannot be contradictory.  If, as Christians, we believe in Christ's teachings, we believe they are true for all people.  Not one truth for me and another for you

If the different groups cannot agree on the meaning of the "plain sense," how can it be invoked?  If the Holy Spirit inspires the reader, how do we justify the contradictory beliefs except as "I'm right, you err!" 

In such a case, it claims the individual reader has infallibility in a way far beyond what Catholics believe the Pope possesses.

The Flaw of Inconsistency

There is another flaw as well, which was hinted at in the section "Examining the Major Premise."  If the claim is made that some Catholic claim must be shown explicitly from Scripture if it is to be believed and the idea of indirect allusions to a belief are rejected, then the one who insists this must practice what they preach and show explicitly from the Bible that only the Bible is authoritative.  If the individual claims the right for indirect proof to establish this claim, but denies the Catholic the right to do the same, the charge of "hypocrisy" sticks.

The Flaw of Presuming Too Much

As I said in the section "Some Initial Problems with this particular argument" the problem is the anti-Catholic seeking to argue that Catholic beliefs are manmade and demonic (which is an interesting contradiction as well) presumes too much that needs to be proven.  Before invoking "Show me the word in the Bible," they need to establish that the Word of God is limited to the Bible alone and the books contained in their canon."

The reason this needs to be established is that if the Word of God is not limited to Scripture alone, then it follows that some of the Word of God is outside of Scripture.  If some of the Word of God is outside of Scripture, an appeal to Scripture alone would be imposing artificial limits on the Word of God.


Of course I do not presume to claim that the entire dispute between Catholics and Protestants about teaching authority is ended on account of this article.  However, I do believe that I have shown substantial problems with the "Beliefs not in the Bible are false" argument.

  1. How do we know the Bible alone is the sole source of truth?  (Scripture seems to emphasize the authority of the Church)
  2. Which canon of Scripture is authoritative?
  3. Who is an arbiter in determining whether an interpretation is legitimate or not?

These points need to be proven true before we can accept the premises of "Things outside the Bible are not truths required for salvation," and "Some Catholic teachings are things outside the Bible."

Because the premises cannot be established as true, the argument (even though it follows a valid form) cannot be said to prove the conclusion.

This is because ultimately, the dispute over Scripture is not over whether or not it is true, but over what authority is recognized to interpret it.

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