The Semi-Permeable Membranes of the Various Protestantisms

One basic rule of thumb to understand in Catholic/Protestant conversations is that it is not the case that Catholics rely on Sacred Tradition and Protestants don’t. Rather, Catholics (and, by this, I mean “educated Catholics speaking out of the Magisterial teaching of the Church”) rely on Sacred Tradition and know they do, while Protestants rely on (parts) of Sacred Tradition and (usually) don’t know they do.

So, for instance, despite Paul’s prescriptions (directed only at clergy of his day) that a man must be the husband of but one wife, nowhere in the text of Scripture is it made clear that Christian marriage must be monogamous for all (a fact that did not escape Luther or John Milton). Nowhere does Scripture spell out or that the Holy Spirit is a person, much less the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, consubstantial with the Father and the Son. Similarly, you will look in vain for instructions in Scripture on how to contract a valid marriage (unless you buy this list of “Top 10 Ways to Find a Wife, According to the Bible”):

10. Find an attractive prisoner of war, bring her home, shave her head, trim her nails, and give her new clothes. Then she’s yours. – (Deuteronomy 21:11-13)
9. Find a prostitute and marry her. – (Hosea 1:1-3)
8. Find a man with seven daughters, and impress him by watering his flock.- Moses (Exodus 2:16-21)
7. Purchase a piece of property, and get a woman as part of the deal. – Boaz (Ruth 4:5-10)
6. Go to a party and hide. When the women come out to dance, grab one and carry her off to be your wife. – Benjaminites (Judges 21:19-25)
5. Have God create a wife for you while you sleep.-Adam (Genesis 2:19-24)
4. Kill any husband and take his wife. -David (2 Samuel 11)
3. Cut 200 foreskins off of your future father-in-law’s enemies and get his daughter for a wife -David (I Samuel 18:27)
2. Even if no one is out there, just wander around a bit and you’ll definitely find someone. -Cain (Genesis 4:16-17)
1. Don’t be so picky. Make up for quality with quantity. – Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3)

….which doesn’t really help much). The fact is, the Bible says “Marriage is good” but gives us not one word of instruction on how to do it. That’s because Scripture is not and never was intended to be the Big Book of Everything. And yet, of course, Protestants all over the world get married, believe in God the Holy Spirit, and have but one spouse because, as James Dobson says, God’s plan is one man and one woman. How do they do this when Scripture is so unclear?

They do it by, whether they realize it or not, accepting Sacred Tradition percolated to them from the Catholic Church through the Protestant tradition. It’s the same way they know that the books of the Bible they accept are supposed to be books of the Bible. It’s the same way they know that public revelation closed with the death of the apostles even though Scripture is completely silent on the matter (Revelation 22:18-19 doesn’t count since that passage refers to the Book of Revelation, not to the Bible which was not fully collated—and from which Revelation was sometimes excluded—before the late 4th Century.)

Retention of Catholic Sacred Tradition fragments has kept Protestantism in such sanity as it still possesses. So when the Bible Answer Man appeals to “historic Christianity” in understanding what the Bible means, that’s typically a good thing. He’s appealing to Sacred Tradition and agreeing with the Church. It’s Eupocrisy in action!

However, in those places where Protestantism attempts to reject Catholic Sacred Tradition, the narrative suddenly and wrenchingly changes. Suddenly, the demand is made for nothing less than an explicit proof text from the Bible. It works like this:

  1. If a thing is condemned by the Church, but permitted by the Protestant (say, gay marriage) the demand is for an explicit text forbidding it (“Show me where Jesus said one word about not allowing gay marriage! That’s just the Church imposing its purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.”).
  2. Conversely, if a thing is allowed by the Church but condemned by the Protestant, the demand is for an explicit text commanding it. So, for instance, we get demands like, “Where in the Bible do you find anyone asking us to pray to dead people? That’s just the Church imposing it’s purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.”

Note how the terms of the argument shift to suit the “Heads I win, tails the Church loses” agenda. It’s no longer good enough to say (as the Protestant generally does when, for instance, arguing for the divinity of the Holy Spirit), “Here are biblical passages which, taken together, point to the reality that the Holy Spirit is a Divine Person even though there is no text that says ‘The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity’.”

No, arguing from such obvious implication is out the window. In many circles, even a nearly algebraic piece of logic like

  1. Jesus is God.
  2. Mary is his Mother.
  3. Therefore, Mary is the Mother of God.

…gets rejected as “inbred reasoning” since Catholics can’t produce that Bible verse which says explicitly “Mary is the Mother of God.” Suddenly, only direct, explicit testimony and instruction in legally watertight language will do.

How this works on the ground can be seen everywhere. The Protestant who wants to permit abortion points out that there is no unequivocal commandment in either the Old or New Testament saying “You shall not have an abortion” and evinces absolutely no interest in how the texts we do have (“You shall not murder”, for instance) have been universally read by the Church from the earliest times. Likewise, the Protestant who dogmatically rejects, say, prayer to the saints simply ignores you if you point to the fact that Scripture show us that the dead (like Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration) are aware of what’s happening on earth, that we are told that “we shall be like Christ” (who intercedes for us), that the Body of Christ is One (not split in two by death) and that the early Church understood all this to imply that we can ask prayers of the dead just as we ask them of the living.

As remote as the flaky pro-choice Episcopalian and the starchy Bible-thumping Fundamentalist preacher may seem to be from each other, they share a deep commonality in the way they reject whatever aspect of Catholic teaching they dislike. From liberal to conservative, the argument proceeds: “Unless the Bible explicitly commands what I forbid or forbids what I want to do, then the Catholic teaching I dislike is ‘unbiblical’.” (Of course, the word “Bible” is not unbiblical–even though it also never appears in Scripture—because the word “Bible” is a fragment of extra-biblical Christian tradition generally acceptable to Protestants.)

Indeed all the various forms of Protestantism have this (and only this) one feature in common. They may differ on Mary, or baptism or the divinity of Jesus or even the existence of God (if you include Unitarians as a particularly robust form of Protestantism that has jettisoned more of Catholic teaching than its predecessors). But they all agree on erecting semi-permeable membranes in which some (but not all) elements of Sacred Tradition are allowed through (different bits for different groups). Those elements that are allowed through are called “the witness of historic Christianity” or “the clear implication of Scripture” or “the obviously reasonable position”. Those not allowed through are called “human tradition” or “myths” or “the unbiblical teachings of Rome” or “relics of patriarchy” or “ancient superstition” (even when they are the obvious testimony and practice of all the apostolic communions in the world since the beginning of the Church.) Finally, to the filtered-in elements of real apostolic theological and moral teaching are stapled sundry human traditions like sola scriptura or some theory about predestinarianism or the “perspicuity of Scripture” or the need to speak in tongues or (in the past) the curse on Canaan as a biblical basis for American chattel slavery or (more recently) the glories of homosexuality or abortion.

Of course, as history goes on and at least some sectors in Protestantism allow the centrifugal force of Private Judgment to move them further and further from both Sacred Tradition and (inevitably, given the logic) from Sacred Scripture as well, you reach a point where appeals to Scripture as an authority in debate don’t matter since Scripture is, after all, simply the written aspect of Tradition. Sooner or later, it occurs to people trending away from acceptance of Apostolic Tradition to ask, “If I’ve rejected everything else the Church says, why should I care about its ‘holy’ writings? I can find a hundred German theologians who say of the supposed ‘word of God’ what I’ve been saying of ‘Sacred Tradition’ all along.”

For the present, many (graying) Evangelicals still retain a deep reverence for the sacred writings of Holy Church (though there are some signs that the itch to deconstruct Scripture will wreak enormous damage among those who come to clearly face the choice between the pole in Protestantism that seeks the Apostolic Tradition and the pole that seeks to keep deconstructing until nothing, including Scripture, is left).

For those still in this betwixt and between stage, who reverence Scripture and have this conflicted grasp of an Apostolic Tradition coming to them through a semi-permeable membrane, what is needed is a paradigm shift: the realization first of the shell game that is played in order to filter out Catholic traditions according to the preferences of the particular Protestant tradition one adheres to and second, a willingness to acknowledge the possibility that when this is honestly done, it will be found that no Catholic doctrine—none whatsoever—actually contradicts Scripture and that all that is essential in Scripture is also essential in Catholic teaching.

That’s a terrifying prospect if one has accepted any of the various myths by which the sundry Protestantisms justify the rejection of whichever bits of Catholic teaching they reject. All the myths ranging from “I listen only to the Bible alone and not to the traditions of men!” to “I accept Tradition within reason, except that church tradition is never accepted as equal in authority to canonical scripture. It is always subject to revision provided a scriptural basis can be found” are equally doomed if that turns out to be so, which is why those committed to the sundry Protestant schemas require not new information as an alteration of the will: a willingness to consider the possibility that there is no conflict between Catholic Tradition and Scripture and that every apparent conflict is just that: apparent and not real. Once that possibility is squarely faced and accepted, the argument for receiving all of Sacred Tradition rather than simply the bits you like can naturally follow in a rather reasonable way. But first, the membrane(s) must go.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • So right, Mark. Without the Church, ultimately they have no Scripture. And as process theology continues to poison Protestantism, they will be without God as well. Let’s hope that what is going on now as we near the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt is a great sifting that will bring those on God’s side to Rome and allow the rest to dwindle off into the historical obscurity of their apostate predecessors.

  • fishman

    very good article but doesn’t Mathew 19 explicitly set out the conditions of 1 man and 1 woman? I suppose you could ‘interpret’ it not to mean that , but the intent seems pretty obvious to me?

  • bambushka

    Thank you, Mark. You are a jewel in the Church’s crown.

  • or a diamond in the rough…

  • rakeys

    ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
    So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

    I am not sure how you can interpret this to mean you can “become one flesh” with more than one person. or how “be joined to his wife’ can indicate gay marriage

    Also, if you are married to one person but have thoughts about marrying another, isn’t that adultery? Mt 5 “Lust after another woman”

    i guess you can ignore or interpret what ever you want!

  • Warren Jewell

    (Heh-heh) As a ‘diamond in the rough’, Mark Shea can be observed as a true Jewell (sorry, just had to . . .)

    This article is another ‘Mark’ that as Shea writes, the Spirit and many now-sainted apologists look over his shoulder with gleeful approval. Just a helpful hint here, a little nudge there.

    And, yet, for all his power of thought and word, it is plain that Mark Shea has his Father’s glory at heart.

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  • Mark Shea

    Bambushka: I think I’m more of a plastic ring in the Crack Jack Box of life.

    Fishman: For more detail on the difficulties of upholding monogamy on a sola scriptura basis, go here

  • lkeebler

    I thought this was the main, but not only, instruction for marriage. I always figured if both husband and wife were obedient to do what God says here, then no problem. It is when we sway from this we have problems.

    Ephesians 5: 22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

    25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— 30for we are members of his body. 31″For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

  • GaryT

    This is an excellent article. Thanks Mark!

    Now that I read them, you are right that the passages cited on marriage certainly imply one man and woman but don’t mandate it. It just goes to show that if you try hard enough you can probably twist the Bible to mean whatever you want it to mean.

    However even this approach is unbiblical. The Bible actually tells us how to read itself in a sense. Reading of the greatest commandments and 1 Cor 13:13 (“greatest of these is love”) should clue us in that we need to read all of scripture through this “greatest” perspective of love. Every one of Christ’s actions is an example of love. When reading the rest of scripture we need to see how it commands us ultimately to love. And what we find then is that the teachings of the Bible are remarkably….Catholic.

  • wayneg

    Hi Mark, good to se you are still around. I see you are still using inuendos and eye winking to prove that the catholic church teaching are all correct. Like this Mary “adoration” business. Jesus was born of a woman as promised. Ok, thats nice. So what? Jesus made no big deal about his mother. To go from that to Mary is the mediatrix of all gods grace? Thats where the eye winking comes in. Now that the vatican has the faithfull believing that, they have a license to snowball the Mary effect. Its like little children testing out what they can get away with from their parents. Now Mary was lifted up into the sky as Jesus was. So now , Mark, you invoke the boogy man protestant world to justify shabby catholic theology. Thats what my grandma used to say was..the pot calling the skillet black. The protestant religions are staffed from top to bottom with the unsaved just as the catholic church is. Both peoples believe anything and everything they are fed. Protestants dumped the more obvious scams like holymen in big holy robes and children being taught to kiss pictures and statues.But, they are still unsaved, so whats the difference? So,Mark, if you want to validate catholic theology, Go to the bible instead of pointing at some boogyman.

  • stirenaeusoflyons

    Hello wayneg,

    I do not find that Catholic teaching regarding the Virgin Mary relies on eye-winking, contrary to your assertion. Rather, I think that Protestants, unlike informed Catholics or Orthodox, are simply unfamiliar with the beliefs of the early Church, so much so that they would be stunned upon learning of the Marian consensuses of the Apostolic, sub-Apostolic and Patristic Fathers the “consensus patrum.” Please consider this passage from Fr. John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman:

    Eve had a definite, essential position in the First Covenant. The fate of the human race lay with Adam; he it was who represented us. It was in Adam that we fell; though Eve had fallen, still, if Adam had stood, we should not have lost those supernatural privileges which were bestowed upon him as our first father. Yet though Eve was not the head of the race, still, even as regards the race, she had a place of her own; for Adam, to whom was divinely committed the naming of all things, entitled her ‘the Mother of all the living,’ a name surely expressive, not of a fact only, but of a dignity; but further, as she thus had her own general relation to the human race, so again had she her own special place as regards its trial and its fall in Adam. In those primeval events, Eve had an integral share. ‘The woman, being seduced, was in the transgression.’ She listened to the Evil Angel; she offered the fruit to her husband, and he ate of it. She co-operated, not as an irresponsible instrument, but intimately and personally in the sin; she brought it about. As the history stands, she was a ‘sine-qua-non,’ a positive, active cause of it. And she had her share in its punishment; in the sentence pronounced on her, she was recognized as a real agent in the temptation and its issue, and she suffered accordingly. In that awful transaction there were three parties concerned – the serpent, the woman and the man; and at the time of their sentence, an event was announced for the future, in which the three same parties were to meet again, the serpent, the woman and the man; but it was to be a second Adam and a second Eve, and the new Eve was to be the mother of the new Adam: ‘I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed.’ The Seed of the woman is the Word Incarnate, and the Woman, whose seed or son He is, is His mother Mary. This interpretation, and the parallelism it involves, seem to me undeniable; but at all events, (and this is my point) the parallelism is the doctrine of the Fathers, from the earliest times; and, this being established, we are able, by the position and office of Eve in our fall, to determine the position and office of Mary in our restoration (John Henry Newman, in Sr. Eileen Breen, ed., “Mary-The Second Eve,” p. 2).

  • mindyleigh

    In response to wayneg’s comment, here is a link pointing to the scriptural references for doctrine pertaining to the Virgin Mary.

  • mhopwood

    It’s not fair to say that the Bible doesn’t contain those doctrines at all.

    Marriage between one man and one woman for life is clearly implicit in the Old Testament.

    Otherwise how could modern orthodox Judaism have arrived at more or less (yes, I know they can divorce) the same idea as Christianity? I’m speaking from a merely formal, legalistic point of view but it holds.

    No, the concepts are all there. Even the Trinity.

    Scripture and “the rest of Tradition” form one sacred deposit of faith and there’s no “junior partner” there. The Bible is “wholly sufficient” in one sense although not without Tradition.

  • mhopwood

    Monogamy for life is not something purely legal and formal though.

    It’s the mystery of charity (=God’s very nature) imprinted in our imperfect, created being.

    It’s clearly spelled out in Genesis (hence Theology of the Body) and Christ references this directly in his ruling “against divorce” (really a ruling *for* marriage).

    Also St. Paul makes it clear that marriage is not “just marriage” – it is a mystery (i.e. a sacrament) making visible and present “Christ and the Church” – now, how can there be more than one Church? (In fact the Bible clearly says there is one Church). Christ can have only one Body. A man can have only one wife.

    Not a huge leap of reasoning.

  • mhopwood

    Hmmm. Thinking some more, the real problem is not Scripture vs. “Tradition” (as some body of ideas).

    It’s “my word against yours” – Christianity is personal, not conceptual.

    Protestants follow a human authority, so do we.

  • What am I trying to do?

    You may well ask???
    What is Michael Jaffray King trying to do?
    Why is he always knocking PROTESTANTS?
    Is it just to make the Prots look stupid and silly and wrong?
    No! That is not the reason.
    Maybe he is just trying to boost his own ego after being a Protestant for nearly 40 years?
    Not really as I am trying to decrease my ego and my body weight! Lord help me!!

    I love and in many areas we as Catholics have a great deal to learn from many Protestants.
    However we are in a very serious WAR.
    Much more serious than even the 1st or 2nd World Wars!
    We are in a war of the Worlds!
    The Devil’s world and the KINGDOM OF GOD!
    On the face of it Satan is surely winning.
    He has got everyone running around working their 9 to 5 job.
    Making as much money as they can.
    Filling up all their spare time with Sport and plain fun.
    All the time the clock is ticking away and before you can say, “Jack Robinson!” it’s your time to die!
    “Got yer!!” He screams and it’s too late to do anything about it.
    You have heard of that slogan, “Divide and conquer! I’m sure you have! Right?
    Well that is what he successfully has done with Christendom.
    Two divides would be bad enough, but 60,000 makes it just crazy.

    A serious Christian knows that Jesus has already won on Calvary, but how to get that across to the vast majority of people who do not know that???
    And how to get the Christians that are aware of this point to fight in the Spirit together???
    We desperately need a united front.
    From this article I just sent you from Mark Shea….it is very plain to see that we cannot and should not unite around a skeleton of the TRUTH. The Bible!!
    It just does not work and I do not believe that God even wants that to work.
    It is not meant to work as the perfect answer.
    The written word in all the many books which make up the Bible simply by itself does not give us enough info to make up the rules as we go along.
    The Bible as we know it will not contradict the doctrine that we use and have used for 2000 years through thick and thin.
    It has stood the test of time.
    The structure modelled around the Roman Empire with a Pyramid structure of an Emperor at the top and then different layers right down to the wide base is what Catholics successfully use.
    The Emperor is The Trinitarian God.
    Every Firm, every business, every organisation, even our human body with the head at the head and not in the right smallest toe, works exactly like it should.
    Saint Paul makes this very clear.
    I beseech you to take this seriously.
    I am not trying to score points at your expense.
    I just want you to see the reasoning behind what I am saying.
    THEN please pray with an OPEN MIND and ask God to show you.
    He will through His Holy Spirit.
    If He could do it for me an Anti Papist and coming from the antipapal land of England, then he can do it for you too.
    Then we can make a real impact on this seriously hurting world.
    Millions of Muslims need to be converted.
    Millions of Agnostics and Atheists and those of other religions need to be brought into the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
    Am I asking too much??
    I do not think so!
    Just pray and ask the Lord.
    We already have the structure.
    This structure has lasted the test of time very successfully.

    Very much look forward to your serious reply.
    God love you!

  • wayneg

    2 Tim 4:8 – Paul says that there is laid up for him the crown of righteousness. The saints are crowned in heaven, and Mary is the greatest saint of all.

    This is from the site Mandy put up for me, or whoever. A little bit of truth then a lot of fabrication. Read the new testament, the saints are those that are saved and born again. The saints Are crowned in heaven, present tense? No humans are crowned as of yet. The are asleep, except for the 3 men who were taken up befor death. Scratch that. Moses did die. But he was taken up after that. The rest of the saved dead are resting now. Lets clarify that. The people who died and are slated for heaven who died befor the holy ghost was given are asleep. Those who die after being born again by the spirit go to a paradise and hang out with Jesus while awaiting the end of days.The holy ghost was given to men on the day of pentacost. No one was born again befor that, not even Mary. Im sure she got saved later when someone told her the good news. This cardinal Newman admits his ideas are interpretations. The Adam and Eve thing he twists to include Mary in on. Calling Mary the new Eve. I have read catholic doctrine that says Mary allowed god to put the christ child in her. Then she allowed Jesus to be crucified, making her co redeemer. Mary didnt allow nothing. The angel told mary she was with child. News to Mary. Jesus died on the cross by his own will, no help from Mary. Read Isaiah, the Lord says over and over that he redeemed us by himself and that there is no other redeemer. The new testament is quite clear that Jesus gave his life. Mary was a fine lady, no doubt. Just one out of many players in the bible. Mandy refers to that site as scriptural evidence. Actally its half scripture and half fabrication. Stiraenus say i need to know more about that the early church believed. Im going to take that church as the catholic church. Respectfully, why would i care what they thought? If they are wrong why should i study them? I have a King James bible. Why do i need the doctrine of men? Christ and him crucified is all i need to know. Paul was of like mind. By the way, going back to the “scriptural” site, satan in the garden did the same thing. He reminded Eve that god said not to eat of this tree or you will die. In the same breath he says that she wont die but be as god, knowing good and evil. Oldest trick in the book as they say, weaving in falsehoods with truth

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