In this post, I discuss how to talk to Protestants about authority from a Catholic perspective to increase mutual understanding.
“What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises
“In the absence of any definitive magisterial pronouncement concerning which of these options (or even what range of options) could be considered authentically catholic, it was left to each theologian to reach his own decision in this matter. A self-perpetuating doctrinal pluralism was thus an inevitability.” Alister E. McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation
Protestants and Catholics hold very different views of theological authority. Protestants point to Scripture alone, whereas the Catholic position is more complex and nuanced, relying on the “whole of the Church’s Tradition.” Such Tradition includes, “Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and the Church’s Magisterium.”
While I will devote another article exclusively to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, for now it is important to understand how to talk to Protestants about authority and the common ground Protestants and Catholics share.
How to Talks to Protestants About Authority of Scripture
When speaking with Protestants, appealing to a common source of authority will go far in promoting understanding and agreement. Both Protestants and Catholics accept Scripture as divinely inspired, and so Scripture should serve as the starting point in any discussion about religious authority.
Protestant theology provides room for a large number of scriptural interpretations to coexist. Protestants are therefore accustomed to accepting different theological systems as valid interpretations of Scripture, even where they personally disagree with the conclusions such theologies present.
Therefore, by grounding a discussion of Catholic doctrine in Scripture, Catholics can gain at least reluctant acceptance of the validity of their beliefs. This is the first step in building understanding, particularly among evangelicals with their history of suspicion of anything Roman.
It is important to recognize that most Protestants do not accept 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, or parts of Daniel and Esther as canonical, and so appealing to these writings will not get you far. I will discuss how to address these books with Protestants in a later article, but at this point, we are simply discussing how to talk to Protestants about authority and that requires building bridges through an appeal to common authority.
Starting conversations with Protestants with appeals to Scripture will disarm much Protestant objection to Catholic theology, as such appeals will undermine many Catholic stereotypes Protestants—particularly evangelical Protestants—harbor, specifically that Catholics don’t value—or even read—Scripture. Therefore, grounding your conversations in Scripture will force a paradigm shift in thinking about the Catholic Church in many Protestant minds, forcing them to grapple with Catholicism as a Scripture-based faith.
Protestants and Tradition
This does not mean that you should not speak of Tradition, simply that you will find more success when pointing to Tradition to bolster your interpretation of Scripture, rather than as a source of authority in itself. If you continue to dialogue with Protestant friends, you will find it easier to move them toward understanding that point of view, but when first starting, it’s better to use Tradition as a secondary, rather than primary, source of authority.
Protestants commonly appeal to interpretive authorities—though they tend to limit their appeals to writings less than a century old, such as the works of C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. Pointing to Tradition as an interpretive authority is therefore in keeping with the Protestant mindset and will serve to strengthen rather than undermine your arguments.
On that note, when speaking with Protestants about Tradition, it is best to appeal to the Church Fathers. Protestants obviously do not accept the Magisterium as a valid source of authority, nor are they likely to give any credence to any but the earliest Ecumenical Councils.
The Church Fathers, however—particularly the Apostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers—have an appeal as remnants of the early church. Many Protestants are obsessed with getting back to the methods and teachings of the early church before—in their minds—corruptions of power distorted right teachings. Many see the conversion of Constantine as a great tragedy and turning point for the Church and so pointing to early Christian writings can go a long way in playing toward this Protestant prejudice.
Ironically, however, despite this great admiration of the early church, very few Protestants have read or are at all familiar with early Christian literature. So you will have to know the Fathers well and be able to explain who said what and when. Explaining that you value the writings of early church leaders as a valuable resource in properly interpreting Scripture will make sense to most Protestants.
(Some Protestants believe that the Church Fathers were heretics, essentially concluding that the Holy Spirit departed the Church upon the death of St. John and did not return until 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Like the Landmark Baptists who absurdly claim to have existed separately since apostolic times, such Protestants generally refuse to consider reasonable arguments. While discussions with such fundamentalists will be difficult, they fortunately comprise a minority of the Protestant community.)
How to Talk to Protestants About Authority
When discussing sources of authority, Catholics should stress their high view of Scripture, the Church’s encouragement of the regular reading of Scripture, and the importance of Scripture to Catholic theology. Catholics should make clear that Church teaching does not allow for the subjugation of Scripture to any other source of authority.
Nevertheless, Catholics should explain that their theology is done in community and does not belong to the exclusive realm of the individual. Catholics can also explain that the Church existed for several centuries before a definitive Bible existed, and so early Christians had to rely on more than Scripture for guidance. In addition, Scripture itself speaks of the value and authority of oral tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
If you take the time to stress the high value you place on Scripture as a Catholic, it will be much easier to explain that it is the Apostolic Tradition—of which Scripture is a preeminent part—that forms the basis of the faith. This tradition is passed down from generation to generation through Scripture and through the teachings of the Church.
Protestants will likely not agree with the Catholic methodology, but they should walk away with a greater understanding of—and perhaps sympathy for—the Catholic faith.
Shaping the Conversation
I will conclude this article with a statement from the Catechism of the Catholic Church for those uncomfortable with the idea of putting a Protestant spin on Catholic doctrine:
By design, this Catechism does not set out to provide the adaptation of doctrinal presentations and catechetical methods required by the differences of culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial condition among all those to whom it is addressed. Such indispensible adaptations are the responsibility of particular catechisms and, even more, of those who instruct the faithful…Whoever teaches must become “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22)…
More than different belief systems, Protestantism and Catholicism are two very different cultures, and so adaptive methods of presenting the Catholic faith are necessary to bridge this cultural divide.