A Philosophical Critique of Protestantism
By Jeremy Hausotter
Oct. 3, 2021
The title of this essay may appear unusual, for it is not a theological critique of Protestantism that is our goal, but strictly speaking a philosophical one. Our motives for such an inquiry are twofold: first, namely, that apologetics on Biblical grounds alone is oftentimes insufficient. Protestants and Catholics both use the same book (excluding the question concerning the Deuterocanonical books), and yet there are many disagreements due to hermeneutics and interpretation. We can bypass any theological disagreements by removing ourselves towards a philosophical examination.
Second, if we follow St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Contra Gentiles, he argued that if Catholicism is the True Religion, then any argument against it or objection can be refuted in principle. On the other hand, non-Catholic religions possess some errors even if they possess many truths. Since they contain errors, these errors can be exposed. Hence, every non-Catholic religion can be answered on either theological or philosophical grounds. A question arises as to whether every non-Catholic religion can be given a philosophical critique. Most certainly can and here we do so with Protestantism in mind.
In order to be successful in our critique, we need to determine a common principle across Protestantism. Protestantism has many sects and denominations and so, if we are to give a critique to all, we need a common principle to attack. This principle is Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that the Bible alone possesses authority. This raises an obvious point of contention with Catholics since we believe that Scripture and Tradition are both equally authoritative.
This brings us to an important exegetical question. Since Scripture is the sole authority, this leaves a vacuum for Protestant theologians. Scripture requires interpretation, but how do we know the Protestant thinker has accurately interpreted Scripture? What guarantee do we have for his veracity? Some Protestant thinkers, in order to evade this conundrum, invoke the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in some respect, guarantees the veracity of the Protestant exegete. Such a claim is, however, dubious.
Are we to expect that the Holy Spirit is speaking through the Protestant exegete who claims, based on Biblical support, that God condemns homosexual acts and that for another Protestant exegete, with the same grounds of support, the Bible, approves of homosexual acts? Can God affirm two contradictory propositions? To argue thus is asinine, for God is no longer a rational Being, but outside the laws of logic. God cannot affirm A and not A at the same time and in the same respect. This violates the very notion of God as Word and Logos.
If the Holy Spirit were indeed speaking through any Protestant exegete, then would we not likewise experience the fruits of the Holy Spirit? When we consider the fruits of Protestant exegesis, it is not unitive, it does not unite. It is inconsistent. There is no overarching principle of unity amongst the different denominations other than their protest against Rome and the Catholic Church. We can recall the prayer of Christ when he said: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:21). Within Protestant exegesis we do not find this unity, for we find new denominations splintering off with apparent frequency. There is a reason non-denominationalism arose as a popular movement, for it sets aside precisely these questions of doctrine for the sake of a unity imposed by a relativistic hegemony.
We will however bracket aside the Protestant claims of the Holy Spirit guiding their exegesis. This may or may not be true, but I believe it is more of a case by case situation versus an overall principle. This leaves us then with the following principle: Scripture alone is of absolute authority. Everything else is subsidiary.
This raises, of course, the question of interpretation. Books of any kind require an interpretation. They require understanding and understanding itself is always an act of interpretation. When two exegetes follow the Sola Scriptura model, they use the Bible to state their claims and are following what they believe are the best interpretations of the same written word. In the case of homosexuality, the question arises who is right, those who approve or those who disapprove of homosexual acts based on the evidence of the Bible alone. What is key is that two people can read Scripture and come to completely different conclusions. A Catholic reading Matthew 16 would conclude that this passage is evidence for the papacy whereas the Protestant may oppose and reject such an interpretation. In order to resolve the conflict, both must resort to Scripture under the Protestant model.
The whole enterprise, however, is self-referentially inconsistent. Two people can come to entirely different conclusions once Sola Scriptura is embraced as a hermeneutical principle. Hence, Sola Scriptura in the capacity as a hermeneutical principle can be utilized to either validate or refute itself depending upon the exegete. One exegete can apply it as a principle and conclude that Sola Scriptura is true. Another, on the other hand, can interpret some passages as if St. Paul is granting authority to tradition. In other words, the application of the same hermeneutical principle can achieve contradictory results.
Sola Scriptura as a hermeneutical principle is self-defeating. It is a self-referentially inconsistent proposition. Self-referentially inconsistent propositions refute themselves through their application as a principle. The theory that all truth is relative is another example, for one is attempting to establish a universal truth about truth itself, but the theory itself denies universal truths. Sola Scriptura is isomorphic with relativism.
The isomorphism between Sola Scriptura and relativism is readily apparent given the fact that ultimately each exegete is his own authoritative interpreter. It is precisely because each exegete is his own authoritative interpreter that different exegetes ascribe both A and ~A as Biblical teaching, and why it is a common occurrence for Protestant denominations to splinter over teachings.
The exegete of Sola Scriptura is fundamentally his own magisterium. Sola Scriptura is self-referentially inconsistent in a second way due to the fact that each exegete becomes his own authority. Sola Scriptura affirms that Scripture has ultimate authority, but it fails to describe how to obtain definitive interpretations. At best, the exegete can claim inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The claim that the Holy Spirit guides the exegete is however self-refuting. Scripture requires interpretation. Some passages are difficult. Scripture itself attests its own difficulty (cf 2 Pet. 3:16). One could claim that Scripture is clear even though Scripture suggests otherwise. This however raises precisely the problem of interpretation on the Sola Scriptura model. We can bracket aside the question as to whether Scripture itself attests to it being clear or whether there are difficult passages, however, and raise the following point.
Sola Scriptura ignores the existential stance of the exegete. Some exegetes are authentically attempting to interpret Scripture. Some desire to manipulate Bible passages for their own gain, and yet others are merely confirming their held beliefs. There are many existential stances the exegete may adopt. This is relevant since not everyone is interpreting Scripture authentically. An individual may believe in A, another in ~A. The defender of ~A may cite the literal meaning of the passage and the meaning of the words in the original language, and yet this may not convince the believer of A due to the application of other hermeneutical principles for the sake of confirmation bias or for ideology.
There needs to be an appeal to authority, for otherwise theological belief itself becomes mere possibility alone. Biblical exegesis on the grounds of Sola Scriptura alone requires one to hold suspension of belief in theological propositions, for perhaps the “Spirit” or future research indicates that one’s previously held proposition is in fact erroneous. How is one to determine the truth when this as the object of Biblical investigation and research must be paused, waiting for the next research study’s results as to whether a question or interpretation is valid, and the result of this study likewise requires the same. It is this kind of argument Kierkegaard gave at the beginning of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments.
Without an authoritative interpreter, the exegete of Scripture on Sola Scriptura grounds alone cannot give a definitive interpretation. The exegete is his own authority. Sola Scriptura makes man his own authority for Biblical exegesis. As such, when Sola Scriptura is applied, the exegete can come to realize that this principle is erroneous on the account of his own Biblical research. The implementation of Sola Scriptura requires its own negation, and hence why Sola Scriptura is self-referentially inconsistent. Since Sola Scriptura is a self-referentially inconsistent proposition, then one ought to not assent to it, for in doing so, he or she who gives such assent becomes irrational. It is irrational to assent to a proposition that is self-referentially inconsistent. Therefore, on grounds of reason alone, I reject Protestantism.
Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo