On Being Protestant: Authority and Intellectual Evasion

I recently made these comments over at Theologyweb (which is worth checking out if you haven’t already – see my links page). I thought some people might find them worthwhile here.

I’m a Protestant. That means many things. Some Protestants are more Protestant than others, but at very least, they have this in common: We aren’t Roman Catholic, and we aren’t part of the Orthodox Church – by which I mean the church of that name, I don’t mean that we’re “unorthodox,” although some might think we are. There are a lot of differences between Protestants and Catholics (and the Orthodox). I’m not going to say anything about most of those differences here, but that’s not because I think they’re minor. Different views on divine grace, on justification, on the sacraments and the nature of the church, on Mary the mother of Jesus, and a whole host of other things, are very important as far as I’m concerned. But here I’m going to talk about one thing (well, perhaps two): Authority and intellectual evasion.

This problem – and I really think it is a problem – was impressed upon me by a couple of recent discussions with Catholic and Orthodox believers on the subjects of the place of Mary the mother of Jesus, and the doctrine of the afterlife (from this point on I’ll use the term “Catholic” to refer to both Catholic and Orthodox, for convenience). The details of the arguments prior to this point don’t matter here, but – and I’m simplifying here – the arguments ended in much the same way. After I had given the historical and/or biblical reasons in each case for why I held my view, the responses were given, not in the form of the same kind of evidence, but rather in the form of “well, I accept that my view is the Apostolic view because my church teaches it – and my church is, after all, the Apostolic one.” In one case, involving questions about Catholic doctrines like the immaculate conception of Mary or the claim that she was bodily assumed into heaven and made “Queen of heaven,” this response (or one very much like it) came after I had repeatedly asked for evidence that the Apostles taught anything like this. None was ever given, apart from the claim that this man’s church was the repository of the Apostolic faith, and so what they taught was Apostolic, and that was that. In the other case, the final line was along the lines of “well, I prefer to believe the Apostolic Church,” by which the additional claim “my view is the Apostles’ view” was implied.

What is particularly frustrating about at least one of these responses is that it came after the issue has been debated in terms of actual Apostolic evidence, and when my partner in dialogue realised that the well was dry, this unbeatable reply came. So here’s the difference between Catholics and Protestants that I have had thrust into the foreground recently: When a Catholic seeks evidence that a belief is Apostolic, he looks to what his church currently teaches. He is then satisfied that the doctrine is an Apostolic one, since it is, after all, taught by the Apostolic Church. When a Protestant seeks evidence that a belief is Apostolic, he looks for evidence in the writings of the Apostles, or he looks for the claim that the Apostles taught it when that claim is made by someone who knew the Apostles. He then calls a belief Apostolic to the extent that it can be demonstrated that the Apostles taught it.

What follows from these two methods is fairly self-evident. If anyone believes that the Apostles taught something contrary to what the Catholic churches teach, then they are relying on their own opinion, while the Catholic believer needs no such unsafe foundation – he has the Apostles. But, how does he know that his view is the view of the Apostles? Because his church teaches it, and his church is the Apostolic one, which settles the matter. But how does he know that the view taught by his church really is Apostolic? Did the Apostles actually teach it? Well they must have, otherwise the Apostolic Church would never teach it! “But I can read the Apostles’ teaching, and there’s nowhere in their writing where they do teach that,” a Protestant might say. And he’d get a reply along the lines of “Oh, and who are you, Mr Johnny-come lately? I don’t care how much you think you know about the Apostles, it’s not the Apostolic view because it’s not taught by the Apostolic Church!” You can see how such a discussion is going to end. It isn’t.

All I’m doing is making the meek suggestion that the way to examine what the Apostles taught is to read what they wrote. It’s not like their writings were destroyed, and their teaching was passed on orally because there was no other way to keep the flame alive. Sure, if that were the case then we’d have to ask the heir of this knowledge what the Apostles taught. But the abundance in manuscript records of what the Apostles themselves taught is simply huge. Nobody can say that we don’t have access to the primary sources. Appealing to the Apostolicity of ones own church to settle an argument when the evidence is still readily available for all to say is like saying “Don’t bother watching that crystal clear security camera footage, shot from multiple angles which show the bank robber’s face in full colour and in close detail. My friend John said that his friend Cyril said that his friend Marty said that his friend Sam …. (insert a few hundred names here) … said that her friend Karen was at the bank, and she saw the face of the robber, so I am the only one who can tell you who did it!”

To my Catholic and Orthodox friends: I’m sure that not all of you do this. But if you are ever tempted to do so, please don’t. Opinions do not pop randomly into my head about what the Apostles taught. I have access to every single piece of historical textual evidence that you have. Neither one of us is in a privileged position in that regard. So here’s a suggestion: When you and I come to a disagreement about what the Apostles taught, don’t appeal to what you church says the Apostles taught. Appeal to the Apostles. Anything else would be a circular argument.

Glenn Peoples

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