The Semi-Permeable Membranes of the Various Protestantisms
by Mark Shea
One basic rule of thumb to understand in Catholic/Protestant conversations is that it is not the case that Catholics rely on Sacred Tradition and Protestants don't. Rather, Catholics (and, by this, I mean “educated Catholics speaking out of the Magisterial teaching of the Church”) rely on Sacred Tradition and know they do, while Protestants rely on (parts) of Sacred Tradition and (usually) don't know they do.
So, for instance, despite Paul’s prescriptions (directed only at clergy of his day) that a man must be the husband of but one wife, nowhere in the text of Scripture is it made clear that Christian marriage must be monogamous for all (a fact that did not escape Luther or John Milton). Nowhere does Scripture spell out or that the Holy Spirit is a person, much less the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, consubstantial with the Father and the Son. Similarly, you will look in vain for instructions in Scripture on how to contract a valid marriage (unless you buy this list of "Top 10 Ways to Find a Wife, According to the Bible”):
10. Find an attractive prisoner of war, bring her home, shave her head, trim her nails, and give her new clothes. Then she’s yours. – (Deuteronomy 21:11-13)
9. Find a prostitute and marry her. – (Hosea 1:1-3)
8. Find a man with seven daughters, and impress him by watering his flock.- Moses (Exodus 2:16-21)
7. Purchase a piece of property, and get a woman as part of the deal. – Boaz (Ruth 4:5-10)
6. Go to a party and hide. When the women come out to dance, grab one and carry her off to be your wife. – Benjaminites (Judges 21:19-25)
5. Have God create a wife for you while you sleep.-Adam (Genesis 2:19-24)
4. Kill any husband and take his wife. -David (2 Samuel 11)
3. Cut 200 foreskins off of your future father-in-law’s enemies and get his daughter for a wife -David (I Samuel 18:27)
2. Even if no one is out there, just wander around a bit and you’ll definitely find someone. -Cain (Genesis 4:16-17)
1. Don’t be so picky. Make up for quality with quantity. – Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3)
....which doesn't really help much). The fact is, the Bible says "Marriage is good" but gives us not one word of instruction on how to do it. That’s because Scripture is not and never was intended to be the Big Book of Everything. And yet, of course, Protestants all over the world get married, believe in God the Holy Spirit, and have but one spouse because, as James Dobson says, God's plan is one man and one woman. How do they do this when Scripture is so unclear?
They do it by, whether they realize it or not, accepting Sacred Tradition percolated to them from the Catholic Church through the Protestant tradition. It's the same way they know that the books of the Bible they accept are supposed to be books of the Bible. It's the same way they know that public revelation closed with the death of the apostles even though Scripture is completely silent on the matter (Revelation 22:18-19 doesn’t count since that passage refers to the Book of Revelation, not to the Bible which was not fully collated—and from which Revelation was sometimes excluded—before the late 4th Century.)
Retention of Catholic Sacred Tradition fragments has kept Protestantism in such sanity as it still possesses. So when the Bible Answer Man appeals to "historic Christianity" in understanding what the Bible means, that's typically a good thing. He's appealing to Sacred Tradition and agreeing with the Church. It’s Eupocrisy in action!
However, in those places where Protestantism attempts to reject Catholic Sacred Tradition, the narrative suddenly and wrenchingly changes. Suddenly, the demand is made for nothing less than an explicit proof text from the Bible. It works like this:
- If a thing is condemned by the Church, but permitted by the Protestant (say, gay marriage) the demand is for an explicit text forbidding it ("Show me where Jesus said one word about not allowing gay marriage! That’s just the Church imposing its purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.").
- Conversely, if a thing is allowed by the Church but condemned by the Protestant, the demand is for an explicit text commanding it. So, for instance, we get demands like, “Where in the Bible do you find anyone asking us to pray to dead people? That’s just the Church imposing it’s purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.”
Note how the terms of the argument shift to suit the “Heads I win, tails the Church loses” agenda. It's no longer good enough to say (as the Protestant generally does when, for instance, arguing for the divinity of the Holy Spirit), "Here are biblical passages which, taken together, point to the reality that the Holy Spirit is a Divine Person even though there is no text that says ‘The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity’."
No, arguing from such obvious implication is out the window. In many circles, even a nearly algebraic piece of logic like
- Jesus is God.
- Mary is his Mother.
- Therefore, Mary is the Mother of God.
…gets rejected as “inbred reasoning” since Catholics can’t produce that Bible verse which says explicitly “Mary is the Mother of God.” Suddenly, only direct, explicit testimony and instruction in legally watertight language will do.
How this works on the ground can be seen everywhere. The Protestant who wants to permit abortion points out that there is no unequivocal commandment in either the Old or New Testament saying "You shall not have an abortion" and evinces absolutely no interest in how the texts we do have (“You shall not murder”, for instance) have been universally read by the Church from the earliest times. Likewise, the Protestant who dogmatically rejects, say, prayer to the saints simply ignores you if you point to the fact that Scripture show us that the dead (like Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration) are aware of what's happening on earth, that we are told that "we shall be like Christ" (who intercedes for us), that the Body of Christ is One (not split in two by death) and that the early Church understood all this to imply that we can ask prayers of the dead just as we ask them of the living.
As remote as the flaky pro-choice Episcopalian and the starchy Bible-thumping Fundamentalist preacher may seem to be from each other, they share a deep commonality in the way they reject whatever aspect of Catholic teaching they dislike. From liberal to conservative, the argument proceeds: "Unless the Bible explicitly commands what I forbid or forbids what I want to do, then the Catholic teaching I dislike is 'unbiblical'.” (Of course, the word "Bible" is not unbiblical--even though it also never appears in Scripture—because the word "Bible" is a fragment of extra-biblical Christian tradition generally acceptable to Protestants.)
Indeed all the various forms of Protestantism have this (and only this) one feature in common. They may differ on Mary, or baptism or the divinity of Jesus or even the existence of God (if you include Unitarians as a particularly robust form of Protestantism that has jettisoned more of Catholic teaching than its predecessors). But they all agree on erecting semi-permeable membranes in which some (but not all) elements of Sacred Tradition are allowed through (different bits for different groups). Those elements that are allowed through are called "the witness of historic Christianity" or "the clear implication of Scripture" or "the obviously reasonable position". Those not allowed through are called "human tradition" or "myths" or "the unbiblical teachings of Rome" or “relics of patriarchy” or “ancient superstition” (even when they are the obvious testimony and practice of all the apostolic communions in the world since the beginning of the Church.) Finally, to the filtered-in elements of real apostolic theological and moral teaching are stapled sundry human traditions like sola scriptura or some theory about predestinarianism or the "perspicuity of Scripture" or the need to speak in tongues or (in the past) the curse on Canaan as a biblical basis for American chattel slavery or (more recently) the glories of homosexuality or abortion.
Of course, as history goes on and at least some sectors in Protestantism allow the centrifugal force of Private Judgment to move them further and further from both Sacred Tradition and (inevitably, given the logic) from Sacred Scripture as well, you reach a point where appeals to Scripture as an authority in debate don't matter since Scripture is, after all, simply the written aspect of Tradition. Sooner or later, it occurs to people trending away from acceptance of Apostolic Tradition to ask, "If I've rejected everything else the Church says, why should I care about its 'holy' writings? I can find a hundred German theologians who say of the supposed 'word of God' what I've been saying of 'Sacred Tradition' all along."
For the present, many (graying) Evangelicals still retain a deep reverence for the sacred writings of Holy Church (though there are some signs that the itch to deconstruct Scripture will wreak enormous damage among those who come to clearly face the choice between the pole in Protestantism that seeks the Apostolic Tradition and the pole that seeks to keep deconstructing until nothing, including Scripture, is left).
For those still in this betwixt and between stage, who reverence Scripture and have this conflicted grasp of an Apostolic Tradition coming to them through a semi-permeable membrane, what is needed is a paradigm shift: the realization first of the shell game that is played in order to filter out Catholic traditions according to the preferences of the particular Protestant tradition one adheres to and second, a willingness to acknowledge the possibility that when this is honestly done, it will be found that no Catholic doctrine—none whatsoever—actually contradicts Scripture and that all that is essential in Scripture is also essential in Catholic teaching.
That’s a terrifying prospect if one has accepted any of the various myths by which the sundry Protestantisms justify the rejection of whichever bits of Catholic teaching they reject. All the myths ranging from “I listen only to the Bible alone and not to the traditions of men!” to “I accept Tradition within reason, except that church tradition is never accepted as equal in authority to canonical scripture. It is always subject to revision provided a scriptural basis can be found” are equally doomed if that turns out to be so, which is why those committed to the sundry Protestant schemas require not new information as an alteration of the will: a willingness to consider the possibility that there is no conflict between Catholic Tradition and Scripture and that every apparent conflict is just that: apparent and not real. Once that possibility is squarely faced and accepted, the argument for receiving all of Sacred Tradition rather than simply the bits you like can naturally follow in a rather reasonable way. But first, the membrane(s) must go.
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Mark P. Shea is a senior editor at www.CatholicExchange.com and a columnist for InsideCatholic.com. Visit his blog at www.markshea.blogspot.com
. Copyright © Mark Shea. All rights reserved.