Friday, October 07, 2011

Pride and Protestantism

Catholics and Protestants come at the truth through two different avenues. In the Catholic theology, we look at the content of Divine Revelation and interpret it through the lens of our own tradition, which we hold to be authoritative. Thus, while certain questions are open for discussion and will always be so, there are many others which we hold as "settled." For these settled issues, such as Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, etc., the task of the theologian is not so much to prove them or argue for them as it is to explain and expand upon them, making these truths more accessible and penetrating to the average Catholic. We receive something that was given to us, accept it with docility and humility, and then attempt to pass it on to others in the best way we know how.

Thus, in Catholicism, truth is something that is given. It is a gift. In the first place, a gift from God, who gives us revelation gratuitously for the sake of our salvation, but secondly, a gift from the Church itself. Nobody learns the faith on their own; it is handed on from generation to generation, and the essence of what it means to be Catholic is to receive this truth humbly and with docility. Thus, the Catholic concept of Divine Revelation as being handed on and protected by the Church promotes an attitude of doctrinal humility even while allowing us to repose in the certainty of the content of those doctrines. Doctrine is primarily something that is received.

This is an interesting contrast to Protestantism. In Protestantism, there is no idea of an absolutely authoritative tradition. Some Protestant groups value tradition more than others, but no Protestant sect teaches that any tradition can have divine authority behind it, as we do. Thus, all authority, ultimately, must rest with the individual, who decides for himself what is truth and what is error. He may consult tradition, or the teachings of others wiser and older than himself, but ultimately it is the believer and the believer alone who decides how much influence he will allow these teachings to have. Doctrine is not something that is given and received in humility, but something that each person must painstakingly sort out for themselves.

If doctrine is not something that is given, then it is not something that is received. It is something the believer kind of cobbles together, based on whatever criteria he wants to include or not include. In Protestantism, all doctrine is ultimately the creation of the believer. As such, the believer always has what we could call a "vested interest" in defending his doctrines because they are really his in a way that doesn't apply to the Catholic, whose teaching is handed on and received.

This means that, for a Protestant, defending his doctrine means defending his own privately formed opinions. They might be opinions shared by a great many other Protestants, but they are still opinions, because there is no final arbitrating authority in Protestantism other than a fuzzy consensus. Note the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism here - in the one case, believers are empowered to adhere to certain, infallible truth but in a spirit of humility, which is possible because the doctrine of the Catholic is now his own. On the other hand, the Protestant, who has no infallible authority beyond himself, is forced to make a "personal investment" in his own doctrine. His own doctrine represents his common sense, spirituality and personal judgment all wrapped up into one. Thus, for a Protestant, it would seem that it is much more difficult to have that sense of humility and awe before the truth that is so necessary for spiritual growth.

How can one be humble and docile before a truth that one ultimately does not receive but creates? I am not accusing all Protestants of being prideful, but it seems that the manner in which Protestantism teaches that doctrine should be appropriated leads rather to pride in one's own judgment and opinions than to humility. Is dogma a gift handed on or is it our own fabrication? If it is a gift, we can repose in wonder and humility before it; if it is a creation (which it ultimately must be if we reject authoritative tradition), then it comes with all of the arrogance and close-mindedness that all men display when defending their own personal opinions.

Interesting how we could apply this principle to liturgy, too (liturgy that is handed on versus fabricated and which promotes a greater sense of humility - are we the humble recipient or the grand master?). An authoritative Tradition makes it possible to receive the truth with docility; sola scriptura leads us to invest our own opinions with divine authority, leading to pride.

John 7:16~ "Jesus answered them, and said: My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


as one who has been protestant, both within Seventh Day Adventism and Evangelical Anglicanism, I can tell you that the Protestant notion of Scripture speaking for itself to the reader with the need for no human framework of interpretation or mediation stems from Phil 2: 12-13, wherein said principles expounded are taken to their 'logical' extreme.

if you want to best understand the mind of Protestantism, you need look no further than to the brilliant Catholic appologetics of Tim Staples, one of the greatest Catholic appologists in the English Speaking world, himself from an Evangelical Protestant background to the point of having been a pastor.

There is much gross misinformation peddled in evangelical and fundamentalist protestant circles concerning Catholicism.

May you, your family and your blog ministry be richly and wonderfully blessed,

A very very new Catholic convert - just 6 hours old in the Fullness of the Faith!! (took my first confession and confirmation this afternoon!! will be taking my first eucharist tomorrow morning).

I'm home!!