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Watch Out for Wild and Crazy ‘Scholarship’

Scholarship is often touted as the gold standard in making arguments for (and against) the Catholic faith. But not all "scholars" are created equal.

Trent Horn

Some Protestants distinguish Catholic apologists from Catholic scholars or Catholic theologians. According to them, apologists gather any kind of evidence, no matter how flimsy, in order to convince people Catholicism is true. Scholars, on the other hand, aren’t interested in polemics or apologetics. They just want to understand a certain field of study, and so their conclusions are more modest than those of Catholic apologists.

So when Catholic apologists make a biblical case for Mary’s perpetual virginity, a Protestant might say in response, “Why should I believe that when the renowned biblical scholar Fr. John Meier says that an unbiased historian ‘would most likely come to the conclusion that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were his true physical brothers and sisters’”? Or, when Catholics cite 1 Corinthians 3:15 as evidence for Purgatory, a Protestant might point out that study notes in the Catholic New Jerusalem and New American translations of the Bible say this verse “does not envisage the doctrine of purgatory.”

But the problem with this approach is that you can find scholars in any religious tradition who hold unorthodox views or who denigrate the evidence for a tradition they accept only for personal or professional reasons. This includes Protestants who say they’re Christian but also claim there’s no historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection. So if it is bad form to cite liberal Christians as expert witnesses against the evidence for Christianity, then it would be equally bad form to cite liberal Catholics as expert witnesses against Catholicism.

Let’s look at Fr. John Meier, a Catholic priest best known for his four-volume work Jesus: A Marginal Jew. Meier could be classified as a moderate scholar who affirms basic Christian doctrines while expressing deep hesitations about the amount of evidence for them. For example, Meier is skeptical not only of the evidence for Mary’s virginity after Jesus’ birth, but of the evidence for Mary’s virginity before Jesus’ birth (which Catholics and Protestants both affirm).

Meier believes, as a matter of faith, that Jesus was miraculously conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. However, he disagrees with conservative scholars over how much evidence there is for the Virgin Birth. One progressive Christian blogger writes, “As [New Testament] scholar John Meier, who is Catholic and has no reason to deny the historicity of the Virgin Birth (indeed, he doesn’t) puts it: ‘We have no clear evidence that the famous passage of Isa. 7:14 . . . was ever taken to refer to a virginal conception before NT authors used it.’”

Meier is also pessimistic about the amount of evidence for Christ’s resurrection. He says the Resurrection cannot be proved historically because “the restrictive definition of the historical Jesus I will be using does not allow us to proceed into matters that can be affirmed only by faith.”

There’s no shortage of liberal, self-professed Christians, like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who critique the evidence for Christianity as fiercely as any apologist for atheism. In fact, the Muslim apologist Shabir Ally routinely cites these scholars in his public debates—a point James White mentioned in his own debate with Ally on the reliability of the New Testament. He said, “Mr. Ally has adopted the most radically liberal, skeptical, naturalistic sources as the mainstream in Christian scholarship, while using the most conservative forms of scholarship in defense of the Qu’ran.”

White later wrote an open letter to Ally saying that his “reliance upon the Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond Brown, and other notorious liberals who have no concept of allowing Scripture to speak for itself, no concept of the very unity and consistency you asserted for the Qur’an last evening, remains, and will always be, your Achilles heel.”

Granted, White also routinely cites Brown and his co-authors in the Jerome Biblical Commentary in order to cast doubt on Catholic doctrines related to Mary and Purgatory. In one debate on Purgatory, White said, “Hence as Roman Catholic McBrien admits: ‘There is for all practical purposes no biblical basis for the doctrine of Purgatory. This is not to say that there is no basis at all for the doctrine but only that there is no clear biblical basis for it.’”

What White doesn’t tell the audience is that Fr. McBrien was a notorious dissenter to Church teaching. McBrien even said the Church’s opposition to female priests made being Catholic feel “like belonging to a private club that won’t admit blacks or Jews.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized McBrien’s book Catholicism because it “gives very little weight to the teaching of the Magisterium,” and on several moral issues, it “regards the ‘official Church position’ as simply in error.”

But Catholics also need to be careful not to make this same kind of error.

In my book The Case for Catholicism, I often cite Protestant sources in defense of my arguments—but I do so in a way that doesn’t commit the error of relying on “liberal allies” who are barely Protestant in their own right. For example, I cite Reformers like Martin Luther on the subject of baptism and modern conservative Protestants like Jerry Walls in defense of concepts like “mere Purgatory.” I also reference Richard Bauckham’s case that “the brethren of the Lord” (Matt. 13:55-56) were born from Joseph’s first wife rather than Mary because, although Bauckham rejects the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, he does not see references to Jesus “brethren” as proof against that doctrine.

But there are other Protestant theologians whose work is generally considered heterodox by Protestant apologists. Consider this passage from Protestant scholar Peter Enns, who once taught at Westminster Theological Seminary:

When people read the Bible for themselves, they often disagree about what it means. The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it. Take us back to the carefree days of the papacy and the few who interpreted the Bible for the many. At least you had some order. Now you have chaos (The Sin of Certainty, 48-49).

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Enns was a Catholic apologist, and his former position at Westminster would surely vouch for his theological credentials. The problem is that most conservative Protestants, especially those who engage in criticism of Catholicism, would reject Enns as someone with a low view of Scripture who doesn’t really believe in essential Protestant doctrines like sola scriptura and biblical inerrancy. Matthew Barrett, a conservative scholar I engage in The Case for Catholicism, critiques Enns in an article whose title adequately summarizes its content: “Sola Scriptura in the Strange Land of Evangelicalism: The Peculiar but Necessary Responsibility of Defending Sola Scriptura Against Our Own Kind.”

In conclusion, if an apologist is critiquing another belief system, it can be very effective to cite experts in that system whose scholarship agrees with your points. You just have to make sure the expert you cite is someone your opponents respect, or at least someone they don’t easily dismiss. And you definitely shouldn’t cite that person’s scholarship to support your arguments if you simply dismiss him as a “liberal hack” when his scholarship is used against you. Instead, we should always seek to critique and employ the best scholarship for any position we argue against.

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