Straining gnats and swallowing camels

Beware of sudden and foreign novelties

Saint John Paul II

As a Protestant, I objected that the Catholic Church taught doctrines contrary to, or absent from, Scripture.  I was wrong.  More than that, the objection backfires.  Protestantism’s foundational doctrine, sola Scriptura, a bedrock of heresies since the sixteenth century, is not found in the Bible at all.  The very doctrine I used to bash the Church was itself illusory.

I saw the movie

A few weeks ago, I saw Paul, Apostle of Christ, the big-screen film featuring Jim Caviezel (from The Passion of the Christ) as Luke and James Faulkner (from Downton Abbey) as Paul.  The aged Apostle to the Gentiles is a prisoner in Rome.  But for Luke, Paul is all alone (2 Tim. 4:11*).  Saint Paul knows his time is short; the time of my departure is at hand.” (1 Tim. 4:6).  Second Timothy is the last-known letter from Paul to the young pastor.  If sola Scriptura is true, the epistle is striking by what is not written.

Is authority found in the Church or the individual?

Most of Protestantism maintains that the Bible-alone is the sole, final rule of faith for all things concerning faith and morals.  We recognized that in the days of the apostles there was no Canon of Scripture, so the apostles were the authority in the early church.  The apostles interpreted Scripture.  After the death of the apostles, the theory goes, the Bible-alone became the sole rule of faith.  This idea stands in contrast to the Catholic Church: authority is found, not within the individual believer alone with his Bible, but in Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium (bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, Bishop of Rome).

Back to what’s not in Scripture

Recall in his first epistle to young Timothy, the Apostle Paul warned, “Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions through the hypocrisy of liars with branded consciences.” (1 Tim. 4:1-2).  So, Paul wants to communicate warnings explicitly given by the Holy Spirit.  But, where is the warning that the source of authority in the church was about to change from the apostolic to the individual with his Bible-alone?  Where is the Spirit’s explicit warning that with the death of the last apostle, there would be a sea-change?

It’s not there.  Nowhere, in 2 Timothy (or elsewhere), do we find any mention of Protestantism’s foundational doctrine – – sola Scriptura.  How could something so foundational go unsaid in the very document that is to be the sole rule of faith?  Indeed, if it were true, how could it go undiscovered until the sixteenth century when a German monk has his back against the wall?  God knew Christ’s second coming would not happen during the lifetime of the apostles.  God knew the second coming would not take place before today (now, 2,000+ years and counting).  God knew the infant-but-growing church would need to know how to answer the authority question.  A few short words from Saint Paul is all it would have taken.  Instead, crickets.

What Scripture actually says

Far from giving a Bible-alone warning, if sola Scriptura be true, Saint Paul goes in the exact opposite direction: “So you, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.” (2 Tim. 2:1-2; emphasis added).  Remember, this is Paul’s farewell address to Timothy.  The apostle ran the race.  He finished his course.  Already Paul is being poured out like a drink offering (1 Tim. 4:6).  Instead of bracing the infant church with a Bible-alone scheme, it is as if the early church actually believed Jesus’ words that the Holy Spirit would lead the church into all truth; that our Lord would never leave or forsake His Body on earth.

This is the community of believers God left on earth when the last of the apostles died.  Reason and common sense must be suspended if we do not grant the natural hypothesis offered by John Henry Cardinal Newman: “the society of Christians, which the Apostles left on earth, were of that religion to which the Apostles had converted them”An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Notre Dame Series in the Great Books), Newman, John Henry Cardinal (1994), Kindle iOS version, Retrieved from, at 5 / 361.  If Protestantism be true, there is a glaring hole in the doctrines of the ancient church.  Sola Scriptura is entirely missing.  Instead, we see the deposit of faith, received and handed on.

Development from the beginning

Far from being a self-interpreting document, Cardinal Newman argues that the very nature of Scripture raises questions which cannot be answered on the surface of the pages.  The nature of the case necessitates development of doctrine:

“[G]reat questions exist in the subject-matter of which Scripture treats, which Scripture does not solve; questions too so real, so practical, that they must be answered, and, unless we suppose a new revelation, answered by means of the revelation which we have, that is, by development. Such is the question of the Canon of Scripture and its inspiration: that is, whether Christianity depends upon a written document as Judaism;—if so, on what writings and how many;—whether that document is self-interpreting, or requires a comment, and whether any authoritative comment or commentator is provided;—whether the revelation and the document are commensurate, or the one outruns the other;—all these questions surely find no solution on the surface of Scripture, nor indeed under the surface in the case of most men, however long and diligent might be their study of it.” (60 / 1123).

Cardinal Newman takes the matter of baptism, a subject about which numerous questions arise from the surface of Scripture.  However, these difficulties were not “settled by authority, as far as we know, at the commencement of the religion; yet surely it is quite conceivable that an Apostle might have dissipated them all in a few words, had Divine Wisdom thought fit. But in matter of fact the decision has been left to time, to the slow process of thought, to the influence of mind upon mind, the issues of controversy, and the growth of opinion.” (60 / 1130-33).

 Further, we see the development of Revelation throughout the Old Covenant, up to the ministry of Christ, but we cannot find a point at which development of doctrine ceased:

“Not on the day of Pentecost, for St. Peter had still to learn at Joppa that he was to baptize Cornelius; not at Joppa and Cæsarea, for St. Paul had to write his Epistles; not on the death of the last Apostle, for St. Ignatius had to establish the doctrine of Episcopacy; not then, nor for centuries after, for the Canon of the New Testament was still undetermined. Not in the Creed, which is no collection of definitions, but a summary of certain credenda, an incomplete summary, and, like the Lord’s Prayer or the Decalogue, a mere sample of divine truths, especially of the more elementary. No one doctrine can be named which starts complete at first, and gains nothing afterwards from the investigations of faith and the attacks of heresy. The Church went forth from the old world in haste, as the Israelites from Egypt ‘with their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.’” (67-8 / 1229-31).

The end from the beginning

Cardinal Newman argues as “probable that developments of Christianity were but natural, as time went on, and were to be expected; and that these natural and true developments, as being natural and true, were of course contemplated and taken into account by its Author, who in designing the work designed its legitimate results.” (75 / 1335).

If the Protestant objects to the Theory of the Development of Doctrine, expecting every doctrine of the Church to be in bold, black letters on the surface of Scripture, then the Protestant fails to appreciate the problem.  His own tradition depends on the development of doctrines over hundreds of years.  His own tradition, more importantly, depends on the doctrine of sola Scriptura.  Therein lies the fatal problem.  The Bible-alone doctrine is not found in the pages of Scripture.  Nor does it develop as doctrine, as centuries unfold.  Rather, Protestantism’s linchpin proves to be a sudden and foreign novelty.  In the sixteenth century, it bursts upon the scene, popularized and dogmatized by Martin Luther and the revolutionaries who followed.

Beware friend.  The one rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church, holding fast to a Bible-alone scheme, strains a gnat but swallows a camel. (Mat. 23:24).





*New American Bible Revised Edition

Author: Danny Collier

Catholic. Husband. Father. Lawyer.

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