Protestants who engage Roman Catholics often leave the discussion in frustration. It seems that Roman Catholic apologists have an answer for everything: nothing penetrates their system revealing inconsistency with the evidence. They are good at accounting for facts, even the facts that seem to contradict other claims. Though denied, Roman Catholicism at times appears to lack falsifiability.
The idea of falsifiability will be in the background of this article, but my primary purpose will be to show that, given its theological system, Roman Catholicism lacks public verifiability. What I mean is that a Roman Catholic apologist, due to the parameters of his own theological system, cannot present sufficient reasons for a potential convert to believe the Roman Catholic Church’s claims for itself, namely that it is the one true visible church of Christ, such that one must, by good reason, assent to its authority. So, in other words, Roman Catholic apologists cannot publicly verify the authority-claims of the Roman Catholic Church.
The first section is a simple demonstration of my more complex approach in section two. The third section shows how Reformed Protestantism avoids these problems.
A Roman Catholic can consider a text to be Holy Scripture only after the Roman Catholic Church has declared it to be Holy Scripture. This means that when a Roman Catholic cites a text as scripture he is implicitly acknowledging the Church’s authority to declare a text scripture and that the Church has declared the cited text to be scripture. So when Roman Catholics cite a text as scripture in support of Roman Catholicism they must already assume Roman Catholicism.
This implicit form of circular reasoning abounds in Roman Catholic apologetics, but it isn’t simply a mistake on their part. Roman Catholicism, when on public trial, always teeters between self-refutation and circularity, as I will show. When Protestants encounter such reasoning, there is no need to respond other than by simply pointing out the fallacy. Fallacious arguments do not require anything of you other than calling them what they are. This just-point-out-the-fallacy approach might seem insufficient on our part because, as Protestants, we care about the claims of Scripture. Still, we must only call out the fallacy. A Roman Catholic argument by scripture not demands only that you consider the text cited but also its assumption: A text can be considered scripture only after the Church has declared it to be scripture. Again, a fallacious argument requires nothing of us other than a declaration that it is fallacious.
Now, if the tactic of the Roman Catholic is to jump into the Protestant paradigm to show that it is internally inconsistent, there is no necessary fallacy. But even if the Roman Catholic is successful in showing some inconsistency, this does not constitute any direct support for Roman Catholicism. It only provides support against Protestantism. Too often Roman Catholics think that disproving Protestantism means proving Roman Catholicism. It does not work that way.
We should take this further and consider what it takes and what it means for a Roman Catholic to present evidence for Roman Catholicism.
In order to avoid circular reasoning, a Roman Catholic must provide good reasons for another to become Roman Catholic apart from reasons that assume Roman Catholicism. This is basic argumentation: one cannot present evidence that points to a conclusion assumed by the evidence. This means that a Roman Catholic must assume a theoretical position of neutrality when presenting evidence. Or, to put it differently, he must theoretically suspend his belief in Roman Catholicism to put it on public trial. Evidence must be “public evidence”: it must be offered as evidence from a standpoint of neutrality toward that which it aims to support. Stated differently, public evidence or a public reason to believe is something that does not simply show the presenter’s internal consistency, but provides the person to whom it is being presented evidence that does not demand one presuppose the question at hand. In other words, it demands a theoretical neutral position. This might be startling to people of faith, but that is how argumentation works.
Now, when a Roman Catholic takes a neutral stance toward Roman Catholicism and provides evidence for it, he is assuming that Roman Catholicism is open for a legitimate and a conclusive public trial: evidence can either be sufficient or be lacking to convince one to become Roman Catholic. In a public trial of this sort, one who is not convinced of Roman Catholicism does not need to disprove Roman Catholicism; he needs to show only that the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief in it. So when a Roman Catholic enters evidence for public scrutiny he must consent to the terms of a legitimate public trial.
The issue though is whether a Roman Catholic, given the Church’s position on its own authority, can consent to the terms of a legitimate public trial. I submit that they cannot. When a Roman Catholic presents public reasons to believe Roman Catholicism, they must consent, by the rules of argumentation, that they can provide sufficient reasons to believe apart from church authority. They are in effect saying that there are sufficient reasons to believe Roman Catholicism apart from the church’s authority to establish the reasons to believe, apart from what constitutes sufficient reasons to believe, and, more importantly, apart from the Church’s authority itself. This is pretty basic: if the question of the church and its authority is the issue at hand, then one’s evidence, to be legitimate public evidence, must not rely for its value as evidence on presupposed answers to the question at hand. Moreover, the intent of the presentation of evidence must be to prove its object. When presenting evidence without intent to prove the evidence’s object, one violates the terms of a public trial. But a Roman Catholic qua Roman Catholic cannot consent to these terms: fundamental to their theological system is the notion that the Church is the arbiter of divine truth on earth, meaning that evidence itself cannot be sufficient to provide reasons to believe. In other words, no Roman Catholic can honestly enter public debate. By the very act of presenting evidence as public evidence they undermine the notion that the Church is the only sufficient mechanism of establishing the truth of a theological position. They cannot present public evidence without contradicting their overall system.
One could claim that evidence is necessary but not sufficient for belief or the “assent of faith.” Let us grant this to be true. Let’s assume that I have all that Roman Catholic apologetics has to offer in terms of reasons to believe Roman Catholicism. What is it that would compel me to move forward and make the assent of faith? The Roman Catholic cannot provide me reasons for faith, for that would, again, make reasons sufficient for belief. Faith and reason, in this schema, must stay separate. But, as someone who has heard all the evidence that Roman Catholics have to offer, where does this leave me? I am in a position to say (ironically with) the Roman Catholic that he has provided insufficient evidence or reasons to believe. Roman Catholicism has failed in its public trial. What is further ironic is that, given Roman Catholic assumptions, Roman Catholicism must fail in a public trial: the evidence for belief must fail to be sufficient (not fail in the sense it has been disproven, which is not a requirement to refuse belief). I am left with nothing but an exhortation to make a leap of faith. Perhaps this is the role of the Holy Spirit. Of course, I cannot disprove that one’s decision to make the leap of faith is due to the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction. But refusing to make the leap is not conditioned on my disproving that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring it about. In other words, one cannot demand that I justify my lack of leaping by disproving the Holy Spirit’s possible role in it. I could simply say that I have insufficient reasons to believe and no reason to make such a leap. And it ends there, for I actually do, even on Roman Catholic admission, have insufficient evidence to believe. The Roman Catholic has lost, and he can say and demand nothing more of me.
There is another argument for Roman Catholicism rooted in the thought of Cardinal Newman whose assumptions must be examined. Here is a summary of the position:
It is not a violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.
This “vexatious and preposterous scepticism” is the Protestant paradigm, according to Newman and others: a Protestant has no principled means of distinguishing between divine truth and human opinion. The debates on this characterization of Protestantism have raged and raged, but I want to suggest that we look at Newman’s prior commitments that permit him to realize the need for such a principle.
We should notice in his statement that we must “take it for granted” the continuity of “substance” of the “very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught” throughout church history. With this principle, according to Newman, we can assume the continuity of apostolic teaching: the theology of the Roman Catholic Church at present is of the same substance as the theology of Christ and his apostles. By this move, he thinks that he avoids the skepticism that can arise from allowing humans to interpret texts and determine divine truth. According to him, the type of interpretive analysis required in Protestantism must generate uncertainty and a diversity of opinions. For this reason, this cannot be a principled means of distinguishing divine truth and human opinion.
Now, I do not want to directly address this claim, and it has been addressed repeatedly, but I want show that Newman’s position is self-refuting. Here is why.
Newman can claim only the need for a principled non-skeptical means of distinguishing divine truth and human opinion after already knowing certain divine truths. How can someone claim the need for a principled means to distinguish the divine teaching of Christ from mere human opinion without already believing the divine truths that there was a man Jesus Christ who was the messiah, who died and rose again, who founded a church, and who commissioned apostles to faithfully transmit the deposit of faith? These are all divine truths that Newman has presumed to be true, apparently on the theoretical basis of human opinion; and it is on the basis of these divine truths that Newman demands a principled means to distinguish between divine truths and human opinion. We can begin to see the problem. He could know these divine truths only apart from and prior to the principle through which he claims one can only know such truths. He could not presuppose the principle prior to believing that Jesus is the founder of a church, for the principle contains in itself the idea that a deposit of truth is there to be determined. In other words, a principled means of determining the doctrine that Jesus deposited can be posited only by one already committed to all sorts of divine truths that, according to the principle, cannot rise above the level of human opinion.
We now see that these divine truths, assumed and necessary for Newman’s grand assumption, are known only through the very unprincipled “vexatious and preposterous scepticism” that he seeks to overcome: one must collect, legitimize, interpret, and synthesize the “secondary sources” (that is, the New Testament documents and statements of the early church fathers) to know these divine truths that, according to Newman, demand a principled means of avoiding collecting, legitimizing, interpreting and synthesizing sources to determine divine truths. Newman must theoretically first enter the realm of biblical scholarship with all its skepticism, and pull from it, through his own interpretation of the available data (that is, form a human opinion), numerous divine truths (such as “Christ founded a church”) that he claims then demands a principle to avoid the very same realm of skepticism from which and by which he came to believe those divine truths. Newman’s position is self-refuting: on his account one can legitimately come to divine truth, through the consideration of evidence, that Jesus founded a church, yet on the basis of this divine truth (and many others) Newman posits a principle that calls such means of attaining divine truth illegitimate.
Given my argument above, I conclude that a Roman Catholic cannot provide any evidence for his church without either contradicting himself or using circular reasoning. Roman Catholicism, when on trial, must always fail.
The situation is different for the Reformed Protestant apologist. The Reformed Protestant always has reasons to believe what he believes apart from some magisterial church authority. His belief is not based on reason alone, that is, from natural theology or philosophy alone. He has sufficient reasons to believe given all of God’s revelation to the world (general and special). The Protestant has public and sufficient reasons to believe such that anyone in his proper mind would come to accept them.
In the Reformed Protestantism, special revelation is just as self-authenticating as general revelation. Those in their right mind—those who have been renewed to see the handiwork and handwriting of God—see Scripture as God’s inscripturated self-disclosure to the world. Scripture, then, is public evidence. God has condescended in a special and direct way to the world in creation and Scripture: he reveals himself to humans immediately, not mediately through some earthly institution. Humans, when seeing the world as humans ought to see the world, will recognize the evidence of the God who has condescended with reasons to believe. Grace renews people to naturally see the evidence of God’s work in creation and redemption in Christ; and this evidence is sufficient to believe apart from some earthly authenticating authority.
True neutrality, then, is admitting all the handwriting of God as reasons for faith. Of course, nonbelievers will reject scripture as evidence, but this is due only to their degenerated view of neutrality. The claims of Scripture are reasons to believe whether or not they recognize them as such. If they were to adopt a true stance of neutrality, they would recognize Scripture as evidence of God’s work in the world. Nonbelievers unjustly declare this true evidence inadmissible. Only humans renewed by grace—humans who see as humans ought to see—naturally find all evidence admissible. Therefore, a Protestant apologist can legitimately enter all of revelation as public evidence because he knows that God has condescended to provide sufficient reasons to believe, not only to Christians but to the whole world. Scripture is a public document for the world to see; and humans in their right mind would see it for what it is: fully admissible evidence.
The Protestant apologist can enter a theoretical stance of neutrality when presenting the case for Christ, not on the terms of neutrality of the nonbelievers (who without renewing grace with not accept proper terms and who have a degenerated view of neutrality), but on terms that a renewed human would take, namely, true neutrality. So a Protestant apologist must never ask a nonbeliever to make a leap of faith; he must demand only that the potential convert look to what God has done. God has given us sufficient reasons to believe apart from the church or any other earthly authority. Faith, then, is not simply an assent to certain doctrines; it is belief in things one has good reason to believe but cannot see or understand. Faith seeks understanding, not because sufficient reasons for faith are unavailable or impossible, but because the object of faith is so glorious and so different than us that it is hard for finite and sinful beings to understand it. Faith is being “fully convinced that God [is] able to do what he [has] promised” (Rom. 4:21). And just as Abraham was spoken to immediately, so too are we. There is no need for a church to mediate the voice of God to us. It is by faith that we see or understand what God has already directly promised to us; it is not by faith in a mediating institution that we discover God’s promises.
Thus the Protestant can theoretically place his faith on public trial with sufficient reasons to believe without presupposing the question at hand. His renewed stance toward neutrality does not presuppose Christianity; it is a theoretically neutral stance, a truly neutral stance toward the world, where all evidence is admissible. The Reformed Protestant, therefore, can consistently present sufficient reasons to believe from a theoretical standpoint of neutrality and thereby consent to the proper terms of a public trial.
 I am aware of Carl Trueman’s unfortunate statement claiming that Roman Catholicism is the “default” position of the Western church. This claim is certainly false. A default position is one that possess a certain privileged status over other positions given an original position. Trueman must think that the original position of “Christ founded a church” privileges the Roman Catholic system. As I will show, this cannot be the case. In fact, if this is the original neutral position (that is, the position necessary to even ask the question “what type of church did Christ found?”), then Roman Catholicism cannot be the default position.
 Or “reasons to assent” to the Roman Catholic Church as the true church of Christ. I am not referring to reasons to believe every doctrine of Rome, only reasons to believe its claims concerning itself as the one true visible church of Christ.
The Church, in the Protestant conception, has an instrumental function; it does not mediate truth.