Protestantism as a Negative: No Reason for Being in Itself?

The more I read of Protestant apologetics, the more I am convinced that Protestantism exists only as a rejection of the Catholic Church. It is wholly a negative; it has nothing substantive or positive to say in support of itself. When it comes down to the issues that define the Protestant tradition, the venerated “five solas,” Protestantism was born as a polemic against Catholicism, and even today, 500 years later, has no reason for being in itself apart from that polemic.

Sola Scriptura, now a major motion picture!

That’s why Protestant apologists appear to rail so desperately against Catholic claims. I have yet to read a work of Protestant apologetics that can stand for itself, apart from its opposition to Catholic claims. This book, Sola Scriptura, is a case in point. I have not read more than a paragraph or two that sought to support the doctrine by anything more than a negative reference to Catholic doctrine. “Protestantism is true because Catholics say this and this is not true.” Solaalone — the very notion implies a rejection, “and not something else.”

Catholic apologetics, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. It is by definition positive, and even in reference to Protestant claims, it presents a positive case from Scripture and Tradition why Catholicism is true. It can support itself in most cases without even referencing the Protestant claim: “Catholicism is true because Scripture teaches this and the Church has always held this to be true.” With regard to sola scriptura, it is not incumbent upon the Catholic apologist to prove that Scripture is not an authority, since it most certainly is the highest authority! (in contrast to the Protestant apologist, who seeks to prove that Tradition is not an authority). All one must show is that Scripture is not the only authority, and one can do that simply by pointing out the many reasons why Tradition is authoritative.

Titian, Pentecost

Pentecost (c. 1545), by Titian.

I am often critical of Protestant doctrine, it’s true, but in that criticism, I offer something better; I don’t outright declare Protestantism false, since in most cases, it contains something of the truth. A cursory search of my blog turns up fewer than thirty posts in which I’ve even used the word “false,” out of some 230. Sola scriptura is not a bad doctrine in itself: holding Scripture as a high authority is a wonderful thing! It is only wrong-headed it that it limits God and redacts His revelation.

Where Protestants and Catholics agree, in the great positive that is Christ Jesus, we have no meaningful dispute at all. Jesus saves! It is by His grace alone, not by anything we must do, that we are saved! Our sins are forgiven, and the bonds of sin and death are broken! We have eternal life in Him, by His grace and overwhelming love and mercy! It is only where Protestants seek to stir up dispute — that salvation is by faith alone (in rejection of something or another Catholics supposedly believe, or do not in fact believe) that we have dispute.

It often seems to me, in reading Protestant apologetics, that these people are scared out of their minds. They see the mass defections from Protestantism and fear down to their marrow that they have no reason for being at all: that especially at this generation, as more and more people are finding the truth of the Catholic Church, their longstanding polemic is finding fewer and fewer footholds. I am frequently flabbergasted by the extent to which these Protestant apologists — invariably, and I mean no offense, old men, in contrast to the many, many, young and vibrant Catholic apologists — spew thorough and apparently willful misunderstandings and wanton misrepresentations of Catholic positions, statements so fundamentally wrong that I can only think they have been told otherwise hundreds of times and yet stubbornly cling to their flawed understandings.

sinking ship

I have recently come across a prominent anti-Catholic Protestant apologist (I will not name him, lest I steer more traffic his way) who prints flat-out lies and fabrications about the Catholic Church, factual errors that are so demonstrably false that the quickest google could disprove them — and he does so willfully; when confronted with his errors (and I have confronted him), he refuses to correct them. I think, in this digital age, it’s above all the easy access to the truth that is responsible for so many crossing the Tiber: the oft-repeated falsehoods about the Catholic Church can no longer stand up to simple scrutiny, and yet the old Protestant apologists continue to hurl them, railing desperately from their sinking ships.

13 thoughts on “Protestantism as a Negative: No Reason for Being in Itself?

  1. For some reason, there is a great deal of fear still lingering in Protestant communities. I think that fear will diminish in time. Remember, it’s but one or two generations older than us who were raised to believe that Roman Catholics were evil people that you didn’t play with when the neighborhood kids went out to play. Younger generations receive less and less of that and are exposed to a much greater diversity of thought and people. I still remember being in seventh or eighth grade, and when my school’s Pastor started talking smack about Roman Catholics, I knew he was wrong because half of my family is Roman Catholic and are not bad people.

    And in some ways, you are right about the existence of Protestantism. It was born out of protest against false teachings and abuses. And for the most part, those abuses have been corrected, at least depending on your viewpoint. I suspect that Protestant traditions whose origins are closer to the Roman Catholic church are more aware of this than those who are down the chain.

    The Roman Catholic Church is also an easy target for comparison because it is so big. Sure, some people have heard of Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians. Some may have even heard of Mennonites, Moravians, or Disciples of Christ. But everyone knows about the Roman Catholic Church, and everyone thinks they know everything important about it.

    • Here in the South, many people still do talk smack about the Catholic Church. I didn’t grow up hearing much of it, thankfully, but certainly I did as an adult before I converted (in many ways, my impulse to defend her pushed me in this direction).

      And yes, one thing I have to frequently remind people is that just because there have been hundreds of reported cases of child abuse by Catholic priests doesn’t mean it’s the pandemic people or the media imagine. There are over 400,000 Catholic priests in the world in over 200,000 parishes — and much fewer than 1 percent of that number have ever been alleged of any wrongdoing. The fact that the Catholic Church is such a huge, global body makes her the fattest target in the world. And every time a priest anywhere sins or causes scandal, it’s a black mark for every other in the world. Statistically, Protestant clergy are just as likely to abuse children or do anything else wrong as Catholic priests.

  2. ‘It is only wrong-headed it that it limits God and redacts His revelation.’

    Thank you for this post. It was a highly interesting read and is pretty similar to a thought I had just yesterday evening, during RCIA class… (because comparison will inevitable come to your mind when you start getting to know both sides).

    It’s a shame, isn’t it? God is so much more than what Protestantism “allows” Him to be and that mostly just for the sake of opposition.

    As for this:

    ‘They see the mass defections from Protestantism’

    They were talking about that here on radio last week and the really sad thing about this is that they tried to explain it away with problems in the catholic church and that their members are apparently unable to differ between the two denominations – instead of realizing that people may have other reasons to leave Protestantism…

    • You will find many Protestant arguments that Roman Catholics limit God’s ability and will, too. There’s no real difference–everyone has their view of God and everyone thinks that they are right.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And yes, there are articles all over the Internet of Protestants trying to dismiss the many conversions, pointing various fingers and things having gone wrong in Protestantism but not giving credit for anything good in the Catholic Church. Called to Communion is one of my favorite blogs, where they give responses to such articles, particularly those from the Reformed (Calvinist) end of things.

      • I forgot to thank you for the link! It’s a great website and I already spent far too much time there, reading articles and comments. And so much sounds familiar from my past! I clearly remember some of the anti-catholic arguments when the topic came up in our protestant household… In the end, they all seem to be repeats. It’s fascinating.

  3. Joseph!

    I really encouraged this read. I’ll have to start posting some more thought provoking and theological blogs. I’ve been more light in my writing as of recent. I miss your comments.

    I’ve really enjoyed this read. I think even more so in America there is this idea that “tradition” in all caveats of the word is wrong. Many protestants cling to what is new or hip or not their parent’s idea of Christianity, and I think because of that they are missing out on a lot of wonderful heritage that has come through the church catholic.

    I do think there are a lot of churches that still hold onto tradition, though it might not be as well-grounded as the Roman Catholic church.

    I’m wondering what happens when you try to present this case to another part of the church that has a long-standing embrace of tradition – anything rooted out of the Byzantine Church. It might be sort of a red herring, but what happens when there are two different branches of Christianity that are equally rooted in their tradition that have differences within their said tradition? Am I making sense.

    Anyways, I’m still not sure whether or not the Reformation was a good or bad thing for our faith. The Roman Catholic church was heading down a bad road, and Luther’s intent wasn’t to split from it. I understand why the 95 Theses was written, and I understand why such a split happened. In our limited knowledge it is just hard to know if the Catholic Church would have went back on the right course had someone not agitated their wrong “traditions.”

    • Bobert, thanks. I appreciate the comment. And I would really love to read more posts of a theological bent. :)

      I was reflecting on the Reformation last week on “Reformation Day.” There were definitely many things in the Catholic Church that needed to be reformed, and thought there were people talking about reform even before Luther (the Fifth Lateran Council sat to discuss reform issues from 1512 to 1517, right up until a few months before Luther’s publication), but nothing was getting done very quickly. It’s possible that nothing would have happened the way it did without Luther putting a fire under it. But I do wonder what might have happened if there had been a cooperative and graceful and charismatic reformer within the Church instead of Luther — someone like Charles Borromeo, or many of the others who helped reform the Catholic Church after the split had already happened. As it happened, I’m convinced Luther was ill-tempered and stubborn and impatient and probably the wrong person to lead a reform movement if he had any intention of remaining in the Church. He didn’t do much to cooperate with the pope or to discuss things civilly, and made breaks with the Church in his theology even long before there was a formal schism.

      The situation with the Eastern Churches is interesting. Though theologically, our understandings differ widely, with regard to tradition we’re not as far apart as one would think. We both recognize the same sacraments and accept each other’s holy orders as valid. A good few Eastern Churches have returned to communion with the Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches. I think if there were to be a wider reunion there wouldn’t be much friction. The Catholic Church accepts and values the traditions of the East (see Orientalum Ecclesiarum from Vatican II, especially §§ 5 and 6) — I don’t think the Orthodox are quite as open going the other way. The main problem they continue to have is the power of the papacy. I do hope and pray I’ll see a reunification in my lifetime.

      See my most recent post for some more thoughts about Protestants and tradition, from a different angle. Thanks again, and God bless you!

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