Epistemolgical Problems with the Catholic critiques of Sola Scriptura

Here is a quote that demonstrates the Catholic’s challenge to Protestants.

“The implications of Roman Catholic approach on the question of canon become immediately clear. When faced with the dilemma of how we know which books should be in or out of the canon, the Roman Catholic model claims a quite simple solution. As H. J. Adriaanse observes, “Catholic Theology . . . has solved the canon problem with a plea to the authority of the Church.” Thus, the canon is ultimately community determined. The fundamental challenge from Roman Catholicism is that in order to have an infallible Scripture, we need to have an infallible guide (namely, the church) to tell us what is, and what is not, Scripture. As Karl Rahner asserts, “[Scripture] exists because the church exists.” Thus, it is argued, the Protestant claim of sola scriptura is inevitably hollow—you cannot have Scripture as the ultimate authority if you have no certain way of knowing what Scripture is. (Michael J. Kruger (2012-04-05). Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books.)

The question is “how do we know, with certainty, which books are properly deemed inspired scripture?” Many protestants use three criteria to answer this question: canon as reception (exclusive), canon as use (functional), and canon as divinely given (ontological). But, in using these criteria to establish our beliefs as warranted and justified, the question comes with the first two criteria. How can we know that the “right” canon was received? How can we know that the “right” canon functioned as the authoritative foundation of the early church?

The problem with these questions are the espistemological difficulties that plagues them. So I will issue critiques on the Roman Catholic critiques.

Let me start by asking a simple question and demonstrating their complete inability to answer simple questions with the amount of certainty they expect from us, which will be followed by a demonstration that their amount of certainty in the magesterium fairs no better, in fact much worse, than the Protestant position of Sola Scriptura.

Question: How do you know that the earth is spherical?
Answer: the evidence proposed from reliable sources (like Nasa) lends more credibility to spherical than flat, and therefore I believe that it is round.

Question: How do you know Nasa is reliable? How do you measure credibility? How did you identify reliable sources to begin with?
Answer: Well I have seen pictures, and seen the unanimity of the global scientific community.

Question: How do you know the pictures were real, and how do you know that the global scientific community is reliable?
Answer: They demonstrate proficiency in other matters and have therefore won my trust.

Question: How do you know that your criteria for judging reliability are not themselves flawed, and how do you know that they (your sources) are not intentionally deceiving you? As a matter of fact, what basis do you have to place so much confidence in your ability to spot authentic reliability? How can you be certain until you have seen for yourself? Even if you have seen for yourself, how can you be certain that your vision itself is reliably relaying information to your brain that properly correlates to that which is in world? How do you know that you are not mentally insane, and therefore totally unable to interpret any form stimuli received via your sense perception? How do you know that you are actually able to think correctly about anything?

See, the point is this: The problem is really based on the difficulty of the epistemological process. Do we formulate “true” truths, and when we do, how do we know? And how do we formulate “false” truths?

In the end, we operate with a unit of fallible equipment searching through fallible evidences looking for the source of infallible truth. This is true, both for the Protestant and for the Catholic. I will demonstrate this point with some quotes from Kruger.

“How does the Roman Catholic Church establish its own infallible authority? If the Roman Catholic Church believes that infallible authorities (like the Scriptures) require external authentication, then to what authority does the church turn to establish the grounds for its own infallible authority? Here is where the Roman Catholic model runs into some difficulties. There are three options for how to answer this question. (1) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by (and derived from) the Scriptures. But this proves to be rather vicious circular reasoning. If the Scriptures cannot be known and authenticated without the authority of the church, then you cannot establish the authority of the church on the basis of the Scriptures. You cannot have it both ways. [And the Tu Quoque response doesn’t solve this epistemic problem] Moreover, on an exegetical level, one would be hard-pressed to find much scriptural support for an infallible church (but we cannot enter into this question here). (2) The church could claim that its infallible authority is authenticated by external evidence from the history of the church: the origins of the church, the character of the church, the progress of the church, and so forth.

“Rahner seems to argue on historical grounds that the Catholic Church is the true church (and therefore rightly bears authority). He states that Roman Catholicism is the true church because “it possesses in the concrete a closer, more evident and less encumbered historical continuity with the church of the past” (357). However, if our assurance of the church’s authority is only as certain as the historical evidence, then how is that an improvement over those Protestants who claim that the extent of the canon can also be determined by historical evidence (as opposed to being determined by the church)? Are not both claims as certain as the historical evidence? How then can it be claimed that only Roman Catholicism avoids the problem of uncertainty regarding the extent of the canon?”

“However, these are not infallible grounds by which the church’s infallibility could be established. In addition, the history of the Roman Church is not a pure one—the abuses, corruption, documented papal errors, and the like do not naturally lead one to conclude that the church is infallible regarding “faith and morals.”

“This language of “faith and morals” comes right from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, or “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” and also from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 891. The history of papal errors has been well documented. Examples include Pope Liberius, who signed an Arian confession condemning Athanasius; Pope Honorius, who was condemned by the Third Council of Constantinople for the heresy of being a monothelite; Pope Boniface VIII, who declared salvation to be impossible outside of Rome, but then the opposite was taught by Vatican II (Unitatis Redintegratio 1.2–3, makes this clear), and on it goes. For more, see Hans Küng, Infallible? An Unresolved Inquiry (Edinburgh: Continuum, 1994); and Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962), 248–53. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church attempts to mitigate some of these errors by suggesting that the pope is infallible only in a very narrow sphere, that is, when he speaks ex cathedra (Catholic Catechism, par. 891). Since the Roman Catholic Church has no infallible list of ex cathedra statements, however, one wonders how the church can know which statements of the pope hold infallible authority and which do not (Powell, “Canonical Theism” 202–3).”

3) It seems that the only option left to the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it. Or, more bluntly put, we ought to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church because it says so. The Catholic Church, then, finds itself in the awkward place of having chided the Reformers for having a self-authenticating authority (sola scriptura), when all the while it has engaged in that very same activity by setting itself up as a self-authenticating authority (sola ecclesia). On the Catholic model, the Scripture’s own claims should not be received on their own authority, but apparently the church’s own claims should be received on their own authority. The Roman Catholic Church, functionally speaking, is committed to sola ecclesia. If so, then this presents challenges for the Catholic model. Most pertinent is the question of how there can be a canon at all—at least one that can genuinely challenge, correct, and transform the church—if the validation structure for the canon, in effect, already presupposes that the church bears an authority that is even higher? On the Catholic system, then, the canon’s authority is substantially diminished. What authority it does have must be construed as purely derivative—less a rule over the church and more an arm of the church, not something that determines the church’s identity but something that merely expresses it. Even Lienhard, when discussing Rahner’s expression of the Roman Catholic view, expresses his discomfort with its implications: “For Rahner, the Church produces the Bible; it is difficult to see how the Church is not primary, the Scriptures secondary.”
(Michael J. Kruger (2012-04-05). Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books.)

Kruger’s point is this: The Catholics problem with Sola Scriptura is that there is no way of knowing “for sure” that we have the right canon. But, there is no way of knowing “for sure” that the magesterium is infallible. When we end up discussing the criteria for judging the magesterium itself, you find the same sort of appeals to historical and fallible evidences that the Catholics chide us protestants for using.

There can be no more certainty in the infallibility of the magesterium itself than there can be of the “right” scriptural canon when considered apart from the authenticating process of the magesterium.

When the Catholics go about proving the magesterium, they use the same criteria that a protestant uses to affirm Sola Scriptura, and then turns right around and tells the protestants “oh, you can’t use that criteria because it is self-defeating.”

I could say, “Prove the magesterium is true.” They would appeal to scriptures; which scriptures the “magesterium has established” to prove the point (though there is an apparent lack of exegetical evidences). Logically, one cannot appeal to the scirptures as authoritative if one cannot know what constitutes scripture until one has a magesterium to constitute it; so the Catholics must go elsewhere. Then they will point to the divine occurence in history. Then I will ask: according to whose account? Then our certainty of the magesterium hinges on the reliability and the “actual meaning” of the sources they quote to us. Their evidence ends up being only as good as their sources, and authoritative sources cannot be biblical if the magesterium itself is what determines what is actually constituted as scripture. You must have the magesterium before the scripture, logically. And to prove the magesterium you must use fallible evidences to establish any amount of certainty.

Therefore epsitemelogically, the stance on the magesterium is no better off than the Protestant stance of Sola Scriptura; except that the stance on the scriptures as the sole infallible authority is much more accounted for by the scriptures themselves. And, in this scheme you don’t need the magesterium to decide what constitutes scripture.