3 Reasons Why Catholics and Protestants Interpret Scripture Differently
While Protestants are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Catholic professor Matthew Levering is asking a basic-level question:
Was the Reformation a mistake?
In his similarly titled book, Levering makes it clear he believes “they were right in seeking reform” (31). Yet he does “consider that the Reformers made some doctrinal mistakes” (15), and addresses nine of them. Over the past few weeks we’ve engaged a few of his arguments here and here.
Concluding the book, Kevin Vanhoozer offers a “Mere Protestant Response.” He evaluates Levering’s theological method in establishing Catholic doctrine as biblical, showing why Protestants and Catholics interpret Scripture differently.
Here are three important differences highlighted by Vanhoozer.
1) The Locus of Authority
The main interpretive difference between Protestants and Catholics is where they locate authority. “For Catholics…the true meaning of Scripture is a joint product of the biblical text and the church’s developing tradition of reading it” (212).
For instance, Vanhoozer explains that when Levering argues Marian dogma is biblical, it means: “how Catholics have come to read the Bible in the tradition of the church” (213). The sense is that key doctrines are suprabiblical “in the sense of supplementing what the Bible directly teaches” (213).
“For Protestants,” writes Vanhoozer, “the church’s say-so does not make it so” (213).
2) Sola Scriptura
Vanhoozer argues that for Protestants, the sola scriptura pattern of theological authority places the church and tradition in a ministerial position, rather than magisterial one; the church is fallible, not infallible.
In a nutshell, sola scriptura means that the Bible alone authorizes doctrine, yet the Bible that authorizes is not alone, for the Spirit who speaks in and through Scripture does not do so independently of the church’s tradition and teaching ministry. (213)
For Catholics, the church and tradition authorizes doctrine; for Protestants, the Bible alone authorizes doctrine.
3) Canon of Truth
A final difference is the canon of truth, which is similar to sola scripture:
[W]hen Irenaeus appealed to tradition as the ‘canon of truth,’ he was appealing to the faithful distillation of Scripture’s content, which is ultimately Christ…Irenaeus insists that Scripture, not the church, is the ‘pillar and bulwark’ of the truth, because Scripture is how the apostles handed down their proclamation. (214)
The canon of truth, then, is what has been handed to the church through Scripture—not merely decided by the church. Which leads Vanhoozer to suggest “Protestants rather than Catholics are the true heirs of Irenaeus’s approach to Scripture and tradition” (214).
Vanhoozer offers an irenic yet purposeful challenge to key Catholic views, including: Marian dogma, purgatory, and ecclesiology. He argues for “an evangelical catholicity bounded by the gospel, not by Rome” (231).
Engage the book yourself to get Vanhoozer’s full evaluation, as well as Levering’s own defense of why Catholic doctrine is not unbiblical.
Was the Reformation a Mistake? surveys nine key themes of Catholic doctrine, clarifying it and helping you understand why it is not unbiblical. Engage his book yourself to better understand the Reformation.
Professors, this conversation between a Catholic and a Protestant and clearly conveys a biblical rationale for Catholic doctrine. If you are interested in considering this for a text for a class, you can request a free exam copy here.