A Great Pro-Protestant Argument against Sacred Tradition from Ross Douthat

Matthew Lee Anderson and Derek Rishmawy just spoke on their Mere Fidelity podcast to my favorite New York Times columnist, the conservative Catholic Ross Douthat, about his new book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, a work critiquing the current pope for his push toward liberalizing the body he leads.

Rishmawy went rather around the block and back again to say it, but I felt he made an excellent point (my transcript, which I spent my whole commute on the bus getting down for you as accurately as I could, removes some verbal clutter):

One thing that struck me is it’s—you’re kind of on the two horns of the ressourcement [the return to the sources that conservatives see in Vatican II] and the aggiornamento [the “getting-with-the-times” updating that liberals like to see in Vatican II]…. The papacy itself is what keeps the thing problematic, because…on a Protestant logic…you can go back to the original sources, whether it’s the text or the fathers and say, “Well, actually, we misread them, or we’re reinterpreting… [We’ve had a] fresh encounter of the Spirit, better Greek exegesis… We actually are reading the texts in a better way, and so we’re more conforming to the Word of God and Sola Scriptura, and [its] final authority—without completely chucking tradition, but just setting it in a secondary role and we can have some sort of reform according to the Word of God based on the sources, that goes in a more updating way.”

Now the liberal mainline usually went way beyond that and actually tried to reform the text itself. And it’s not even clean Protestantism. But…you have that impulse to reform, that impulse to update. But [given] the theology of the papacy, the theology of [the] magisterial authority of the church and what it’s already said—…if the liberals in the communion win…using the power of the papacy, they have to concede the Protestant point, that the previous papacy can get things wrong… It can be reformed according to some revelation—the Word of God or some sense of the Spirit. Or [if] they lose, the papacy continues unchanging, [and] all of its statements are in an unbroken line of continuity with only internal development that only looks like it’s been changing…. It seems like the Reformation-era issues are still in play.

In other words, the liberals in the Catholic Church have a dilemma: if the pope gets to contradict Catholic tradition in the arena of sexual ethics (etc.), then they have to admit that popes can be wrong. Later in the interview Douthat says basically the same thing: Catholic liberals don’t appear to recognize that if the pope radically changes the tradition, he undercuts his own authority, because (and this is Mark Ward, not Ross Douthat:) popes create tradition and tradition creates popes. The two are part of an indissoluble system.

But Douthat’s immediate answer to Rishmawy was this:

One thing that’s interesting to me about watching this play out is that ten or fifteen years ago, if you talked to a slightly smug conservative Catholic… they might say to you something like, “Look, the great weakness of Protestants in resisting the spirit of the age is that you don’t have a papacy and the authority of tradition, you just have the Bible itself. And the Bible in the hands of modern interpreters is going to lead to modern interpretations unless you have some sort of institutional guarantor of continuity with the past. And so, you foolish Protestants, you need a pope. You need the magisterium. Otherwise, your more liberal brethren are just going to run with their liberal interpretations and no one’s going to be able to stop them.” That’s what the smug Catholic would’ve said.

But you could make now…a counterargument, which is that in effect the idea that the church has, going back to John Henry Newman but arguably the figures before that, this idea of development of doctrine, this idea that the interpreters of doctrine—the pope, ecumenical councils, the church, and so on—that there can be what look like changes of various kinds but are in fact the full truths of the Church being understood in an unfolding way. That idea can become a kind of intellectual license for creative reinterpretation, in a way that Protestants with their sola scriptura sense don’t feel license to do.

When Douthat appeals to tradition and the Bible, he says he now has liberal Catholics telling him, “Don’t be such a Protestant—don’t be a fundamentalist.”

Which just goes to show ya. Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody has an intellectual baseline, a bedrock of axioms lying directly on top of the hot magma of their loves. If you love the zeitgeist, your thinking will fall in line. If you love the Lord, you’ll listen to his words. Building institutions to promote and defend the truth is important and good. But it will never fully work. Those institutions themselves are shot through with the effects of the fall, with people who love idols.

Sometimes I have wished for a pope. A buddy pope who tells my theological opponents, “U R WRONG!” with cool-looking encyclicals on parchment. A tough pope who keeps me in line, too, when I need it. A biblical pope who is just enforcing Christ’s words. And as Douthat points out in the interview, Catholic tradition has long held a line on divorce that (many? most?) Protestants have let go. But if Catholic tradition isn’t sufficient to keep Catholics from entertaining the idea that maybe men can marry men, then what is it good for? What good is it to have a pope? Sola scriptura has, perhaps, given us mainline Protestantism (I’d rather say people have twisted it into mainline views). But surely Catholic tradition has given us liberal Catholicism—and a bunch of other accretions. I’ll stick with my sola scriptura, norma normans non normata, ad fontes, ressourcesment. Christ will build his church. I don’t need a mediator or a magisterium besides those prescribed in Scripture.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “A Great Pro-Protestant Argument against Sacred Tradition from Ross Douthat”

  1. Great post, Mark. I know that you’re not saying this (or at least I think I know!), but does your conclusion then leave us with a paper pope? If not, how so? And if so, how is that better? (Sorry, I guess I’m asking you to continue beyond the scope of your original thought for the post!)

  2. I searched my Logos library for “paper pope” and came up with about 50 hits, going back well into the 20th century. One good quote, from Gerald Bray:

    Some critics to say that Protestants, especially evangelical Protestants, treat the Bible as if it was a kind of paper pope. That, of course, is false, because the biblical text, although it is held to be infallible, is also public and unchanging. Nobody knows what the pope is going to say on any particular issue, but whatever it is, it will come out as infallible. The Bible is not susceptible to that kind of change or indeed manipulation. It’s there already, and it is open. And it can be investigated and studied by everybody.

    Gerald L. Bray, BI352 History of Biblical Interpretation II: Seventeenth Century through the Present, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

    And then I’ve always felt like that charge—that Protestants have a paper pope—was evasive. It’s like the teenage boy whose dad put a post-it note on the fridge with all the driving rules: 1. No driving after 10 p.m., 2. No more than four people in the car, etc. At 10:48 p.m. one night his buddy says from the back seat, “Didn’t your dad say not to drive the car after 10 p.m.?” And he replies, “Naw, that wasn’t my dad. It was just a note on the fridge.”

    And Mark D. Thompson argues effectively in a book I really think you should read, Jeremy, A Clear and Present Word that the Spirit goes with the Word of God. It isn’t a paper pope, a dead letter.

    You might also want to dig a bit into Kevin Vanhoozer—like the book I’m reading now, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. He uses speech act theory to good effect, I think, to talk about how God’s word does, not just is.

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