If you’ve had long conversations with your Roman Catholic friends, chances are you’ve come across the statement, “Protestants are little popes.” In my experience, this statement has something to do with Protestants having their own private interpretations. When Protestants themselves interpret the Bible, rather than submitting to the teaching authority of the Church, they become their own teaching authority. Thus, the Protestants illicitly appropriate the authority which belongs by right to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. They thus become “little popes”.
I argue that the claim that “Protestants are little popes” is at best pointless. It is more likely that this statement is simply false. Certainly, there are things that Protestants and the pope have in common. Both are human beings. Both profess to follow Christ. All parties interpret the Bible. But these similarities are not what Catholics have in mind when making the comparison. The comparison is made to illustrate a point about religious authority. Accordingly, the consistent Protestant should see himself as his own religious authority and therefore a “little pope”.
protestants and pope
But what kind of parallels between Protestants and pope exist in this context? Some of the relevant categories are:
- Apostolic succession
- Infallibility (under certain conditions)
- Teaching authority
Protestants generally do not believe in apostolic succession. Or if they do, it’s not the same sort of thing you find in Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox circles. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox generally do not believe that Protestants have legitimate apostolic succession. Without apostolic succession, a Protestant cannot be a “pope”.
With few exceptions, Protestants do not believe that their interpretations of Scripture are infallible. There might be an exception if God spoke directly to a Protestant saying, “Add this book to the scriptures.” However, if this happened, Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would have to follow God’s directive. Barring this situation, however, Protestants do not think their teachings are infallible. If Protestants cannot be infallible on the basis of their ecclesiastical office, then a Protestant cannot be a “pope”.
Protestants maintain that there are religious authorities. But these teaching authorities are fallible. They are not able to proclaim of faith statements which engage the conscience of all faithful Protestants. Even Reform Confessions of Faith Don’t Carry the Weight of a Papal of faith education. If a Protestant can’t have that kind of teaching authority, then he can’t be a “pope.”
No party involved thinks Protestants can actually be the pope. This point seems pretty obvious, but I’m stating it explicitly to clarify what we’re talking about and what we’re not talking about.
what kind of little pope
If a Protestant cannot actually be the pope, then in what sense can he be considered a “little pope”? What I take away from my conversations with Roman Catholics is that Protestants are little popes because they interpret Scripture for themselves and in doing so they become their own teaching authority. They do not claim that Protestants are true teaching authorities in the relevant ecclesiastical sense. They rather think that the Protestants appropriate de facto teaching authority. Another way of saying it is to say that every Protestant act as if he were a little pope.
This is less an ecclesiastical claim than a psychological/epistemological claim. Even if the Protestant does not think he has set himself up as a teaching authority, he has, in fact, set up his own interpretations as a binding force. In all honesty, this usually only binds him to his own conclusions. However, in his mind, his doctrine trumps that of the pope himself to the extent that the pope contradicts his conclusions. The Catholic asks, what could be more authoritative than your own interpretations if they supersede even the dogmatic proclamations of the Pope? Besides, what could involve more pride than assuming that your own intellect and understanding of Scripture could produce surer conclusions than those of the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church?
A charitable interpretation of the point of view of Roman Catholics helps us see how they might view Protestants as absurd and arrogant.
Are we little popes
At first glance, the problem here seems to be one of establishing an authority vis à vis the other and showing the absurdity of the comparison. Interpreted this way, it looks like a confrontation between the Supreme Pontiff and Bob the Montana plumber whose theological understanding is derived from a regular diet of Joel Osteen and Beth Moore. To oppose the authority of these two individuals, on a purely academic level, is absurd. You don’t have to be a Catholic to see that the head of the Catholic Church has a deep understanding far beyond that of Bob the Plumber. However, this way of interpreting the question is a distraction. That’s not the real problem.
The Roman Catholic claim begins by characterizing individuals’ private interpretations as “authoritative”. However, Protestants and Roman Catholics can agree that private Protestant interpretations of Scripture are of no ecclesiastical interest. de jure authority. The most controversial claim is whether or not private Protestant interpretations have de facto authority. Are these private personal interpretations really act like an authority ? If not, characterizing the problem as one authority versus another is a false characterization.
Let’s say I interpret “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” in John 6:53 as a symbolic statement. Does the fact that I have come to this conclusion mean that my interpretation is authoritative? If so, who must agree with me to be a faithful Christian (objectively speaking)? Am I able to force others, by right, to believe me? How is he “authoritarian”? The answer is that it is not authoritative in this sense.
Perhaps the assertion is that my interpretation of John 6:53 is authoritative “for me”. But in what way would it be authoritarian “for me”? Does my interpretation force me to believe myself? If I subsequently modify my interpretative conclusion, am I bound to stick to my previous authoritative interpretation? Is my subsequent conclusion more or less authoritative than my previous conclusion? I think the answer is no. And so our private interpretations do not act as a teaching authority, even for myself.
My interpretation is a conclusion drawn from Scripture and reason. If scripture and/or reason had led me to a different conclusion, then I would believe him. I cannot violate either when developing my understanding of the scripture text. But I can change my interpretation when I find it more closely agrees with Scripture and reason. This fact implies that it is not “my interpretation” that has the power to force belief. He can’t even constrain my own beliefs. Rather, what compels belief are the Scriptures, reason, and facts.
I can’t think of any sense in which Protestants can be meaningfully called “little popes.” Our private interpretations do not force belief for others or for ourselves. Calling Protestants “little popes” seems like an illicit imposition of Catholic categories on Protestants. But even if one adopts the Catholic categories, one does not see how Protestants could be interpreted as “little popes”.
I must stress that I have great respect for Roman Catholics. My article is in no way a diatribe against them. My hope is to help the conversation by helping people who use this kind of polemics. It is a request for Catholics to stop using the “Protestants are little popes” rhetoric. This is neither true nor useful.