Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Primer On Roman Catholic Epistemology
09/05/2009 - James SwanYears ago I sat through a number of philosophy courses debating how or if one could know ultimate reality. How do I know what color the desk really is? How do I know I even exist? At the time, I recall thinking, who sits around wondering about how they know something? These "how do you know" issues, while fun in college, will never be something I'll face in daily conversation. At the time, I did not engage Roman Catholic apologists. Now, years later, a large chunk of my time is spent in philosophic chess with Roman Catholics over how do you know?
Roman Catholics think their epistemological problems have somehow vanished by their choice to believe the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants approach the certainty claims of Roman Catholics a bit differently than a skeptical gadfly in a philosophy class arguing over the basis for reality. We ask similar questions, but with the purpose of showing that allegiance to a secondary infallible authority or an infallible interpreter gives no such thing as the absolute certainty Roman Catholics claim to have. Rather, their claims to certainty when scrutinized reveal blatant double standards.
As a refresher course for those of you engaging in the same mental chess games with Roman Catholics, Eric Svendsen's, Upon This Slippery Rock: Countering Roman Claims to Authority [New York: Calvary Press, 2002] asks helpful questions that you should commit to memory:
1. When the Roman Catholic apologist asks, "How do you know your private interpretation of the Bible is correct over against the private interpretation of every other denomination?," we should respond by asking a question of our own: "How do you know that your private interpretation of Roman documents is correct over against the private interpretation of other Roman Catholics?"
2. When the Roman Catholic apologist asks, "how can you be certain that you are in the truth since all you have to go on is your own fallible private judgment that your church is right?", we should counter with a similar question: "How can you be certain that you are in the truth since all you have to go on is your own fallible private judgment that Rome is right?"
3. When the Roman Catholic apologist asks, "How do you know you've picked the right denomination?," we should respond by asking, "How do you know you've picked the right infallible interpreter?"
4. When the Roman Catholic apologist insists that the principle of Sola Scriptura has resulted in 25,000 denominations, we should in turn insist that the principle of Scripture plus an infallible interpreter has resulted in an even greater number of religious cults.
Source: Eric Svendsen, Upon This Slippery Rock: Countering Roman Claims to Authority [New York: Calvary Press, 2002] 65-66.
A mantra-like point made by Roman Catholic apologists is that Protestants rely on their own fallible private judgment when reading the Bible or studying Church history. A Protestant therefore can have no actual certainty, because they have no infallible interpreter making doctrine and history explicitly clear. A Protestant is forced to pick and choose which interpretation of Scripture and history seems best to them. If I had a dollar for every time I heard this put forth, I could pay my mortgage every month with the money collected.
Of this line of reasoning, Dr. Svendsen points out:
"[T]his implies that if one decides on Rome as that choice, he must do so without engaging in the very private judgment that the Roman Catholic apologist has told us is illegitimate. That means, for instance, that the Roman Catholic cannot appeal to his interpretation of Matthew 16, which he thinks identifies Peter as the first pope; nor to any other biblical passage for that matter, since appealing to any passage of Scripture would necessarily force the Roman Catholic to engage in private interpretation. Nor can he look down the annals of Church history to find evidence that the churches granted primacy to the Roman bishop, for those writings too are subject to interpretation, and most church historians disagree with Rome's understanding of them. Hence, he would again be forced to engage in private judgment." [Upon This Slippery Rock, 33].
To put it bluntly, those that have chosen to become Roman Catholics have to use their own private judgment to do so. One who converts to Rome had to engage in private judgment when making a decision to become Roman Catholic. Those touting Catholic certainty over against Protestant uncertainty are putting forth a double standard. They are claiming that their position is certain, while anything else is uncertain. But their own decision to become Catholic comes from their own private judgment. Svendsen notes of the convert to Rome:
"The fact is, he had to engage in the very same principle of private judgment that we all must use to decide among the various options; namely, a thinking, objective reasoning process, apart from reliance upon the system to which he would eventually subscribe. But it is that very same principle of private judgment that leads him to Rome and others of us away from Rome. Certainly Rome condemns the decision we reached, but she cannot condemn the principle we used to that decision, since it is the very same principle that all Roman Catholics must use to decide that Rome is the 'true' church. The Roman Catholic cannot introduce a double standard at this point and still be consistent." [Upon This Slippery Rock, 34].
But the final blow to the Roman argument comes with the fact that the entire basis it rests on is self-refuting. Svendsen notes: "The body of literature we are told plainly identifies the 'infallible interpreter' for us (namely, Scripture and church history) is the very body of literature that we are later told we cannot understand without an 'infallible interpreter'" [Upon This Slippery Rock, 36]. When asked how the Roman Catholic Church can establish her authority, the Catholic apologist answers that it is proved by the testimony of the Scriptures. Hence, they use a circular argument: they prove the authority of the Scriptures by the Church, and the authority of the Church by the Scriptures.