My goal with this paper is first to explore the question of theological authority and second to show, in light of what is laid out in the first part, where we Catholics can agree with the Protestant position above and where we have to part ways.
“Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. “ –Matthew 28:19-20
As Christians, we’re all bound by this command. But the Christian faith, being nearly 2000 years
old, has been articulated in numerous ways. We see this especially in the West where Protestantism has
grown into the thousands of denominations we see today. Because Catholicism and Protestantism are
the dominant expressions of Christianity in the West, we often come into contact with each other.
Because we’re each committed to what we believe to be the Truth of Christ and we disagree on exactly
what that Truth is, we often end up in arguments about doctrine.
Protestants place their doctrine of salvation at the center of their theology. This doctrine of
salvation is traditionally summed up by the slogan “Sola Fide” ie faith alone. The idea is that when a
person receives the necessary grace of the Holy Spirit to confess Jesus is Lord and to believe in his heart
that God rose Him from the dead, this person is saved (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 12:3). Further, this is not the result of anything the person has done but is rather the result of God’s sovereign decree
(Romans 4:4, Romans 8:29-30, Romans 9, Ephesians 2:8-10 etc). There are a variety of views within
Protestantism about whether or not salvation can be lost but this core argument would be accepted by
Now, it should be obvious that in order to obey the command of Christ to teach the nations all
that Christ has commanded us, we have to know what He commanded us. My goal with this paper is
first to explore the question of theological authority and second to show, in light of what is laid out in
the first part, where we Catholics can agree with the Protestant position above and where we have to
The Canon Argument
If you’ve spent any time listening to or participating in Catholic-Protestant discourse you’ve
probably heard what is called “the canon argument”. It goes like this:
Protestant: (The doctrine of the Catholic church) is an innovation! Where does the Bible say that?!
Catholic: Why are you appealing to the Bible? As a Catholic, I readily submit to the teaching authority of the Church. But you, with your Sola Scriptura doctrine, only have the Bible for an authority. The Bible doesn’t spell out which books are in the Bible. To get that, you need holy tradition and the infallible authority of the Church. You’re being inconsistent by accepting Church authority on this question (the canon) but denying it on this other issue you’ve asked me about.
Now there are some people who find this reasoning very compelling and I’m not necessarily
here to say they’re wrong. From a historical perspective they’re absolutely correct. Rather, I want to
offer a few points of constructive criticism to “beef up” the point a bit. But since this argument is often
taken as a “death blow” to the Protestant position, Catholics very rarely see a substantive counter to it,
and, let’s be honest, I’m messing with one of our favorite arguments against Protestants, I think it’s
necessary to motivate the point. To do that I’ll begin by playing devil’s advocate for the Protestants to
show one way the argument could run into some problems.