What Think Ye of Rome?
The Catholic-Protestant Debate on Biblical Authority
by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie
Traditional Roman Catholicism has always, in its official pronouncements, held
sacred Scripture in high esteem. Indeed, doctors of the church such as Jerome,
Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas -- when dealing with Holy Writ -- at times sound
positively Protestant. Unfortunately, Roman Catholicism has not followed their lead
and has elevated extrabiblical tradition to the same level as the Bible. The authors
maintain this is a serious error, having dire consequences on the practical formation
of the layperson's Christian faith. Scripture itself should be the final authoritative
guide for the Christian. As the apostle Paul reminds Timothy, "From infancy you
have known [the] sacred scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for
salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15 [The New American Bible]).
How should evangelical Protestants view contemporary Roman Catholicism? In the
first two installments of this series Kenneth R. Samples showed that classic
Catholicism and Protestantism are in agreement on the most crucial doctrines of
the Christian faith, as stated in the ancient ecumenical creeds. Nonetheless, he also
outlined five doctrinal areas that separate Roman Catholics from evangelical
Protestants: authority, justification, Mariology, sacramentalism and the mass, and
Samples observed that Roman Catholicism is foundationally orthodox, but it has
built much on this foundation that tends to compromise and undermine it. He
concluded that Catholicism should therefore be viewed as "neither a cult (non-Christian religious system) nor a biblically sound church, but a historically Christian
church which is in desperate need of biblical reform."
With the first two installments of this series being largely devoted to establishing
that Catholicism is a historic Christian church, it is appropriate that in the remaining
installments we turn our attention to the most critical doctrinal differences between
Catholics and Protestants. This is especially important at a time when many
ecumenically minded Protestants are ready to portray the differences between
Catholics and Protestants as little more important than the differences that
separate the many Protestant denominations. For although the doctrinal
differences between Catholics and Protestants do not justify one side labeling the
other a cult, they do justify the formal separation between the two camps that
began with the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and that continues today.
Among the many doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants, none
are more fundamental than those of authority and justification. In relation to
these the Protestant Reformation stressed two principles: a formal principle (sola
Scriptura) and a material principle (sola fide): The Bible alone and faith alone.
In this installment and in Part Four we will focus on the formal cause of the
Reformation, authority. In the concluding installment, Part Five, we will examine its
material cause, justification.
PROTESTANT UNDERSTANDING OF SOLA SCRIPTURA
By sola Scriptura Protestants mean that Scripture alone is the primary and
absolute source for all doctrine and practice (faith and morals). Sola Scriptura
implies several things. First, the Bible is a direct revelation from God. As such, it
has divine authority. For what the Bible says, God says.
Second, the Bible is sufficient: it is all that is necessary for faith and practice. For
Protestants "the Bible alone" means "the Bible only" is the final authority for our
Third, the Scriptures not only have sufficiency but they also possess final
authority. They are the final court of appeal on all doctrinal and moral matters.
However good they may be in giving guidance, all the fathers, Popes, and Councils
are fallible. Only the Bible is infallible.
Fourth, the Bible is perspicuous (clear). The perspicuity of Scripture does not
mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear, but rather the essential
teachings are. Popularly put, in the Bible the main things are the plain things, and
the plain things are the main things. This does not mean -- as Catholics often
assume -- that Protestants obtain no help from the fathers and early Councils.
Indeed, Protestants accept the great theological and Christological
pronouncements of the first four ecumenical Councils. What is more, most
Protestants have high regard for the teachings of the early fathers, though
obviously they do not believe they are infallible. So this is not to say there is no
usefulness to Christian tradition, but only that it is of secondary importance.
Fifth, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is known as the analogy of faith
principle. When we have difficulty in understanding an unclear text of Scripture, we
turn to other biblical texts. For the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In the
Scriptures, clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear ones.
CATHOLIC ARGUMENTS FOR THE BIBLE PLUS TRADITION
One of the basic differences between Catholics and Protestants is over whether the
Bible alone is the sufficient and final authority for faith and practice, or the Bible plus
extrabiblical apostolic tradition. Catholics further insist that there is a need for a
teaching magisterium (i.e., the Pope and their bishops) to rule on just what is and
is not authentic apostolic tradition.
Catholics are not all agreed on their understanding of the relation of tradition to
Scripture. Some understand it as two sources of revelation. Others understand
apostolic tradition as a lesser form of revelation. Still others view this tradition in an
almost Protestant way, namely, as merely an interpretation of revelation (albeit,
an infallible one) which is found only in the Bible. Traditional Catholics, such as
Ludwig Ott and Henry Denzinger, tend to be in the first category and more modern
Catholics, such as John Henry Newman and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in the latter.
The language of the Council of Trent seems to favor the traditional
Whether or not extrabiblical apostolic tradition is considered a second source of
revelation, there is no question that the Roman Catholic church holds that apostolic
tradition is both authoritative and infallible. It is to this point that we speak now.
The Catholic Argument for Holding the Infallibility of Apostolic Tradition
The Council of Trent emphatically proclaimed that the Bible alone is not sufficient
for faith and morals. God has ordained tradition in addition to the Bible to faithfully
guide the church.
Infallible guidance in interpreting the Bible comes from the church. One of the
criteria used to determine this is the "unanimous consent of the Fathers." In
accordance with "The Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent" (Nov. 13, 1565),
all faithful Catholics must agree: "I shall never accept nor interpret it ['Holy
Scripture'] otherwise than in accordance with the unanimous consent of the
Catholic scholars advance sever