Reformed vs Catholic: determining doctrine

“The Bible claims to be the sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith for the Christian church. The Scriptures are not in need of any supplement; their authority comes from their nature as God-breathed revelation; their authority is not dependent upon man, church, or council. The Scriptures are self-consistent, self-interpreting, and self-authenticating. The Christian church looks to the Scriptures as the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith, and the church is always subject to the Word, and is constantly reformed thereby.”

James R. White, Sola Scriptura.

The Reformed faith is truly the thinking man’s religion! We have the freedom to study to show ourselves approved, to apply our intellects to the issues of theology and use reason and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to arrive at correct doctrine. Whereas the Catholic is locked into a body of doctrine which they cannot change. And not only that, but the Catholic must adopt ALL of Rome’s vast body of doctrine as defined by the Magisterium or else they are reckoned as apostates. There is no picking and choosing which doctrine/dogma one is personally convinced of. Further, even if a Catholic gets a clear understanding from God through studying Scripture, they must relent and adopt the Roman view, even if they passionately disagree with it. This is a theological straight jacket they eagerly accept.

What is the likelihood that a Catholic, studying on their own, would arrive at precisely the same set of doctrine/dogma as Rome. Out of 1.3 billion Catholics (90% of which use birth control contrary to Catholic teaching, and 70% who deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist according to polling) I doubt even a single one would arrive at precisely the same set of doctrine/dogma as Rome. So it’s a given that a Catholic will be forced to accept some dogma/doctrine which they personally disagree with! This is sheer madness!

After numerous online discussions with Catholics I’ve noticed approximately 90% mindlessly regurgitate Rome’s talking points. The other 10% mindfully engages their set of beliefs, which they agreed to accept upon their entrance into the Catholic church. However even though they may be able to contrast the Roman view with the Reformed view, and even thought they may be able to both skillfully articulate Roman doctrine/dogma and adeptly defend it, they are still locked into a theology which forbids them from engaging in private/personal interpretation (and no, contrary to what some Catholic apologists assert, private interpretation is not forbidden by Scripture).

So, the Roman Catholic Magisterium (which they problematically see as infallible) is the supreme source of doctrine/dogma and a Catholic cannot disagree on even a single point, lest they be anathematized and deemed as an apostate. The Magisterium is what Catholics choose to give the most weight to in terms of textual interpretation. The Magisterium is the overall teaching authority of Rome. It is comprised of the teachings of various popes, ecumenical councils, the opinions of the Church Fathers, etc. When you boil it down, the differences between Catholics and Reformed is that they choose to give extreme weight to the opinions of a select group of people, whereas we Reformed give weight to Scripture Alone primarily and secondarily to select teachers, authors, pastors, councils, and yes even select opinions of Church Fathers. Oh, and due to Newman’s much ballyhooed “development of doctrine” (a way for Rome to weakly justify beliefs clearly not supported by Scripture) the poor Catholic also must agree to accept any new doctrine which may develop in the present or future. This was C.S. Lewis’ main point of contention with Rome. Here is an excellent article by an Anglican critiquing Newman’s development of doctrine.

This problem is not unique to just Rome. The Eastern Orthodox church also has a set of predetermined doctrine which those joining the church must accept. On some matters they are allowed discretion such as whether to use birth control, but most theological doctrine is ancient. They are locked into it for good or worse.

As a Reformed Christian I believe God wishes us to engage our minds to the study of Scripture and our understanding and interpretation of it. I further believe that as Scripture says the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. Out of the 3 major Christian denominations: Reformed/Protestant, Catholic & Orthodox – it is the Reformed/Protestant faith which gives us the freedom to arrive at our own understanding of Scripture, and to be wholly convinced of theology taught in Scripture. For us Reformed, Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) is the highest authority.

Contrary to what some non-Reformed/Protestant say, no, this isn’t us being our own pope, nor is it just a case of a “me and my Bible” bubble. Many things inform our interpretation and understanding of Scripture:

  • How closely we are listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
  • How much time and hard work we’re spending each day to read and fully comprehend God’s Word.
  • What our pastor teaches.
  • What our elders believe.
  • The consensus of what Reformed authors (whether contemporary or more ancient) believe.
  • What select Reformed pastors, whom we aren’t a member of their church, believe.
  • What Reformed theological books we’ve read and what we’ve gleaned from them.
  • Discussions we’ve had whether in person or online between the brethren to sharpen us like iron, and hone our understanding to be razor sharp.
  • The consensus of the Magisterial Reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as Luther and Calvin.
  • The writings of the Magisterial Reformers.
  • What hermeneutic we use. I personally use a hermeneutic of contextual literalism. I accept the literal plain meaning of Scripture, unless the context indicates otherwise.

These are just some of the factors which influence our interpretation and understanding of Scripture.

The Reformed believer can rest easy, knowing they are being guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit, and that they alone possess the fullness of the Christian faith. We rest on the authority of Scripture, not the mere opinions of men. Such man made doctrine is prevalent in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. They use Scripture, to various degrees, yet they give equal weight to tradition. I am confident that I am exactly where God wants me, and that I am being fed solid spiritual meat by sound Reformed teachers both contemporary and in the past! Soli Deo Gloria!

One response to “Reformed vs Catholic: determining doctrine”

  1. Zachary,

    You have some good ideas here but in case you didn’t notice it, your list of whom to consult about Scriptural interpretation is exactly what we Catholics understand by Sacred Tradition!! How about that!

    I’ll just comment on one point. The Catholic understanding of the development of doctrine is not a change in doctrine but a further understanding of its meaning or implications. Before Newman, going back to the 2nd or 3rd century, St. Ireneus said that development of doctrine as I stated above, is possible. He said exactly what I said. It is not a change in doctrine but a further understanding of its implications.

    In the future, I encourage you to consult a Catholic theologian such as myself before you write a theological article. This article contains a number of errors on what the Church teaches about Scriptural interpretation, doctrine, the role of the Magisterium and more. You do both yourself and your readers a disservice by not accurately and truthfully presenting the Catholic understanding of theology. God bless!


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