Since We’re Talking about Talking

The Pertinacious Papist cautions Roman Catholic apologists about how to talk to confessional Protestants (via Greg Krehbiel). An excerpt:

Get Over Jack Chick Already

Along with these accusations of hard hearts and thick skulls comes the staple of apologetic discussion: your apologists are meaner than ours. Yes, we all know that some anti-Catholics misrepresent Catholicism. Guess what? It goes the other way, too. And yes, we all know that some people can be very mean. Guess what? People are sinners. I even heard a rumor that one of the apostles wasn’t a choir boy.

Along those lines, former Protestants who have converted to Catholicism are not necessarily experts on any form of Protestantism, including the one they left, and they can misrepresent Protestant doctrine. Do you trust a former Catholic’s knowledge of Catholicism? Then don’t expect Protestants to trust a convert’s view of Protestantism.

When it comes to the “your apologist beats up old ladies” argument, the best thing to do is to get over it. Or, as a friend says in a slightly different context, “don’t feed the energy creature.”  I’s best to ignore rude noises at the dinner table, and I think we can treat the apologetic variety of those rude noises the same way. Fussing and whining about how mean the other guy is just makes you a crybaby.

23,000 Denominations

Some Catholics have the apologetic equivalent of Alzheimers. They criticize Protestantism because there are (so the story goes) 23,000 separate Protestant denominations, all teaching different things. And then a minute later the Catholic apologist will speak to a Methodist as if he is a Baptist, or a Lutheran as if he’s a Pentecostal. If they all teach different things, then for heaven’s sake don’t treat all Protestants the same.

It is very annoying to a confessional Presbyterian to be treated as if he’s guilty of the same errors as the non-denominational charismatic. Listen to what the other guy is really saying without putting his words through an apologetic filter that says “this guy is a Protestant, and I’ve read all about those guys.” You may find that you have more common ground than you suspected.

BAD HABIT: Learning about Protestant doctrine from Catholic sources.
BAD HABIT: Learning about generic Protestant doctrine and applying it to all Protestants.
REMEDY: Let your Protestant friend speak for himself. Listen to what he’s saying without imposing any doctrinal template on his words. . . .

No One Ever Heard of ____ Until the Reformation

It’s very common for a Catholic apologist to argue that Protestant doctrine is unhistorical, that nobody held to Protestant positions until the Reformers came along and invented them all out their fevered brains. (Remember, of course, that there are all kinds of Protestants, and on many issues the Reformers would be on the Catholic side arguing against many modern Protestant beliefs.)

The claim goes like this. “No one ever heard of sola scriptura, or sola fide, or doubted the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books, [or whatever,] until Martin Luther.”

Really now. Have you read all the Christian theologians of east and west from the time of Christ until 1517? If you’re particularly ambitious, you may have read bits and pieces from a very small sample of the church fathers. The Reformers were serious scholars, and they also read the church fathers. They did not believe their doctrines to be novelties, and only an expert on the history of doctrine is qualified to say that they were. And there are experts on both sides of that question.

Pointing out the contrast between the faith of the early church and the faith of your modern Protestant friend is a very effective apologetic tool. It’s very easy to show how Catholic doctrine developed from the faith of the early church, and it’s very hard to show any continuity between the early church and the faith of Bethel Bible Church down the road. So don’t spoil a good argument with claims you can’t prove or defend.

BAD HABIT: Asserting a universal negative.
BAD HABIT: Repeating extravagant claims you read in apologetic literature that the apologist himself could not possibly have known.
REMEDY: Stick to what you really know.

What’s that Verse Scott Hahn Uses?

Every once in a while I meet someone on the train, or in a store, and I get a sense that person is an Evangelical Christian. I spent a lot of years among Evangelicals, and I got to know their mannerisms. Sometimes it’s a certain tone of voice, or a choice of words. When someone’s been baptized into Evangelicalism, it starts to wear off on him. It makes a difference.

Scripture is the same way. When you start talking to someone about the faith, it’s very obvious who has and who has not devoted himself to Bible reading. It comes out.

Again and again I’ve run across well meaning Catholic apologists who seem to know Scott Hahn better than they know their Bibles. Believe me, it shows, and every decently trained Protestant is going to spot it and recognize that apologist for what he is. The Protestant will know that the Catholic is just proof-texting — that he hasn’t internalized the text. It’s just something he cites to prove his point, and when he does read the Bible, it’s only to find ammunition for the next battle. The Protestant will assume that the Catholic apologist lacks a personal relationship with Christ, and he’ll have all the more reason to mistrust Catholic arguments.

If you’re that apologist, it’s time to stop, retire, apologize to your opponents, wish them well, and spend some time (a few years, perhaps) getting to know God through His word. Donate all your apologetics books to your priest and spend the next few years reading nothing but the Bible and the catechism. Your goal isn’t to find 25 reasons why Protestants are wrong about Baptism. Your goal is to listen to what God says to you about your soul.

When apologetics is a distant memory, if you still feel the call to witness to other Christians about the Catholic faith, praise the Lord. You’ll be better prepared.

BAD HABIT: Using the Bible like a tool to win arguments with other Christians.
REMEDY: Quit apologetics, major in Bible study and work on your personal relationship with Jesus.

What Good is an Infallible Bible?

“What good is an infallible Bible without an infallible church to interpret it?” I’ve heard that too many times to count. What good is an infallible Bible? That any Christian can seriously ask the question defies belief. We want to know what God is like. We want to know how He regards us, and what we have to do to please Him, and here we have, not just a document, and not just a pretty good document, but the very words of God.

What good is the Bible? That kind of language makes Protestants roll their eyes. “Those Catholics really don’t get it, do they?” Any serious Evangelical knows scores of people whose lives have been miraculously transformed by reading the Bible. Besides that, the Evangelical himself has personally experienced God speaking to him in the words of Scripture.

When a Catholic says, “What good is an infallible Bible?” he has given up any claim to credibility with that Evangelical. It would be like asking a man who was just rescued from the desert, “What good is water without a crystal glass to drink it in?”

BAD HABIT: Trying to magnify the church and Catholic doctrine by disparaging the Bible.
REMEDY: Always speak of the Bible reverently. Read Psalm 19 and 119 and learn to regard the Bible the way king David did. Never, ever even consider saying “What good is the Bible?” You’d be better off to cut out your tongue and chop off your fingers.

Now, some will complain that I’ve missed the point of the question. The Catholic doesn’t mean to disparage the usefulness of the Bible, but the usefulness of the Bible as the sole guide for the church. I’ll get to that, but I felt it necessary to point out the horrible blunder that is made by making the point by criticizing the Bible.

The Catholic apologist looks around at the mess in the Protestant world and wonders why Baptists interpret the Bible one way while Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and the Assembly of God all interpret it differently. He concludes, correctly, that the Bible alone is not a sufficient guide to regulate faith and life.

It is clear that something else is necessary, and that something else is an authoritative church.

But the Catholic apologist typically makes two errors while making this argument. The first is to imply that authority requires infallibility, which is clearly not true since parents and governments have authority but are not infallible. The second error is to claim that infallible Scripture requires, in the very nature of the case, an infallible interpreter: that it does no good to have infallible Scripture unless someone can tell us infallibly what it says.

The obvious reply to the question “What good is an infallible Bible without an infallible church?” is “What good is an infallible church without an infallible church interpreter?”
Just as the Catholic criticizes the variety of opinion among those who confess the authority of an infallible Bible, so the Protestant can criticize the variety of opinion among those who confess the authority of an infallible church. Traditionalists come to mind.

The problem is that there has to be a break in the chain somewhere. God is infallible, we are not. If we diagram the progression from God’s infallible self-revelation to our fallible perception of that revelation — for simplicity’s sake let’s just say the steps are A then B then C then D — the infallible part has to get lost somewhere. It starts off infallible in God’s mind and ends up a muddled mess in mine. It really doesn’t matter where you put the transition; the logical problem is the same. We can ask, “What good is an infallible A without an infallible B?” just as well as we can ask “What good is an infallible C without an infallible D?” It’s simply the wrong question.

The Protestant confesses that Scripture is infallible, but the church that tells us which books belong in Scripture is not. The Catholic confesses that the Magisterium is infallible, but the ministers who teach us what the Magisterium says are not. Both have to move from an infallible something to a fallible something, so the Catholic apologist has to guard against unleashing an attack dog that bites his own leg.

BAD HABIT: Tossing around infallibility as if it solves everything.
REMEDY: Focus on the need for an authoritative church. Once that is established, then work on infallibility.

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