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Principled Apologetics

Engaging in apologetics is a skill that, like many other endeavors, is developed only over time and often is learned as a result of periodic failures. One’s theological prowess has to be honed on the sharpening stone of real-life dialogues, and more often than not the “Aha!” moment of apologetic insight comes after your dialogue or debate has ended (“I should have quoted that passage from Mark . . .” or “I failed to mention the patristic writings about . . .”). Occasionally hindsight is as good a teacher as study and preparation.

That’s not to suggest that we should be ill-prepared to enter into a defense of our Catholic faith (formal or casual), but the plain fact is that we sometimes make our theological or doctrinal connections only after the dust has settled from our conversations. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s biblical. In the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35), the disciples first had an experience of the risen Christ (they walked and talked with him), but it was only after he “vanished out of their sight” that they later made a theological connection (“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us?”). Or take John 12:16: Here it is evident that the disciples knew Jesus before having a theological reflection about him. The beauty here is that such afterthoughts likely will bear fruit in a future defense of the Catholic faith. Over the years I have had dialogues with Fundamentalists, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, skeptics, and atheists, and I have had my share of tardy apologetic insights. Having thought about them in retrospect, it occurred to me that rather than debating specific Bible verses or slinging passages back and forth, a more effective approach would have been to identify the underlying principle being advanced by my counterpart and to hold it up to scrutiny.

Such an approach can be useful even when you may not have researched a particular point of doctrine or done a lengthy exegesis of a given Bible passage. A basic familiarity with Scripture is quite helpful with this method, but even if you are lacking in this area you can raise considerations during your encounters that can be examined more closely at another time.

In the following examples, the method used is to identify the underlying principle behind the point being advanced by your friend—assuming that all your debate counterparts are friends, not foes, is a great starting point—and to test the validity and application of that principle. This method can be effective in getting your friend to see the flaws in his interpretations or reasoning. If he acknowledges an underlying principle to be valid, then a specific application of it cannot be denied. Your task will amount to enabling your counterpart to see that his objection to a specific Catholic teaching or practice does not follow from an underlying principle you have identified and validated.

In such instances, avoid getting bogged down in defending individual considerations (such as trying to water down how much of a scandal Pope Alexander VI was to his office) but instead to show how an underlying principle can be more helpful in arriving at biblical truth (such as discussing whether immorality invalidates a Church leader’s position). Like any approach to apologetics, this particular one is not meant to be used to the exclusion of others, but it does have the advantage of enabling you to gain significant ground even though you may not have a working knowledge of biblical hermeneutics, patristic writings, systematic theology, etc.

To illustrate this approach I have chosen issues that tend to be raised by those who want to attack or discredit the Catholic faith. In each of these examples, if your friend responds in the negative to your “principle” question, then you really have no need to further hammer out theological details. Perhaps the question itself has identified the flaw in your counterpart’s objection. But if he answers in the affirmative, then you can proceed with addressing the issue of the underlying principle.

Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament

There’s nothing quite like plunging headfirst into the deep end of the pool, so I begin with a topic that is hotly debated between Catholics and Protestants.

There are seven books in the Catholic version of the Old Testament known as the deuterocanonical books, meaning “second canon”—the canon being the inspired table of contents, if you will. These books (Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, and Baruch) were identified by the Catholic Church as being divinely inspired at a later time relative to the other Old Testament books. Protestants refer to these books as “the apocrypha,” meaning in effect that they are not divinely inspired and therefore do not belong in the Bible.

The issue of the deuterocanonicals—and by extension the entire biblical canon—is a particularly important debate topic because it impacts one of the two “pillars” of the so-called Protestant Reformation: the belief that the Bible alone serves as the authority for Christians (known as sola scriptura). What your Protestant friend maintains is that because these seven books were not “first-round draft picks,” and because there was disagreement over their status as Scripture, they are not the product of the Holy Spirit. Cut right to the chase and ask your friend, “Does the fact that they were disputed and included at a later time in and of itself demonstrate that they are not authentic Scripture?”

If your friend answers yes, then ask him if he accepts the New Testament books of James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation as inspired Scripture. He most certainly will reply yes. Point out that these books, too, were disputed in some Church circles and did not receive official approval until the “second round of draft picks.” If your friend wants to insist that a book’s delayed or disputed status is reason enough to reject it as being inspired, then his own reasoning compels him to eliminate six books from his New Testament. It’s safe to assume that no Protestant would be willing to do this, so you have demonstrated at least that the grounds on which he objects to the deuterocanonicals are unfounded.

One caveat is necessary here. Other considerations center around the deuterocanonical books, such as the Protestant claim that they contain “unbiblical” doctrines like offering prayers for the dead (which strongly implies the existence of purgatory, a belief rejected by Protestants). Such considerations are valid and important, but deal with one issue at a time. Keep your debate topic clearly defined, and guard against falling prey to a doctrinal “bait and switch.” Is your conversation about when an Old Testament book was included or is it about what material it contains? In this specific example, we are dealing with the former. Agree to discuss the latter at another time.

Immoral Church Officials

In light of the recent clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, this issue is particularly relevant. Historically speaking, the examples cited by our detractors often centered on the lust for power and/or money, not sex abuse. Either way, the standard you will highlight remains the same.

Begin by acknowledging that such behavior is always wrong and brings great dishonor and scandal upon the office of the one who is guilty of such immorality. In our efforts to defend the legitimacy of our clerical institution, we don’t want to overlook that being offended by immoral and scandalous behavior is a valid reaction. What we want our friends to see is that rejecting the institution of the Church because of a few corrupt humans within its ranks is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. So get to the heart of the matter by asking, “If a Church leader is guilty of gross immorality, does his sin invalidate his position or authority?”

I suspect that your counterpart’s answer will be yes, so you must point out some important precedents to demonstrate that such a response is unbiblical. For example, Scripture states that Jesus knew “from the beginning” who would betray him—namely Judas, whom Jesus calls a “devil” (cf. John 6:64–71). This fact is significant, since Judas was selected as an apostle even though Jesus knew that he was corrupt.

Another example would be “Moses’ seat” mentioned by Jesus in the opening verses of Matthew 23. “Moses’ seat” referred to a position of legitimate teaching authority held by the scribes and the Pharisees. But when you read the remainder of the chapter, Jesus makes it patently clear that this “seat” is occupied by “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “serpents,” and a “brood of vipers,” whom he utterly condemns.

If it were true that immorality invalidated a religious leader’s authority, then why does Jesus command his followers to “do and observe all things whatsoever” the scribes and Pharisees tell them? Jesus merely admonishes his followers not to follow their hypocritical example. There is not even the slightest hint that their positions were to be forfeited or abrogated because of their hypocrisy or immorality. If anything, the reverse is true because Jesus validates these leaders’ office—not their behavior—by telling people to obey them.

Calling Priests “Father”

This issue is a perennial favorite for those who wish to attack Catholicism’s “false” teachings. Our opponents are quick to cite Matthew 23:9 (“Call no man your father on earth”) as an example of how the Catholic practice of addressing priests as “Father” is contrary to Scripture. Of course, a surface reading of this passage appears to show that Catholics are disobeying Christ. But don’t fall for this straw man. Get to the heart of the issue and pose this question to your counterpart: “Is Jesus’ prohibition against calling someone ‘father’ to be understood in an absolute sense that allows for no exceptions?”

If the answer is yes, then ask your friend to turn to the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. This example is especially powerful in that Jesus himself is the one narrating the story. Note that in verse 24 Jesus has the rich man crying out, “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me” (emphasis added). Ask your friend if Jesus is guilty of violating his own principle laid out in Matthew 23:9.

The answer, of course, is a resounding no. “But wait!” your friend will object. “Jesus is obviously using the title Father here in a relative sense. What he really means is—”Ah,” you respond, “so what you’re saying is that while Jesus said not to call anyone ‘father,’ he clearly must have meant it in a relative sense, not an absolute sense.” If it were otherwise, then Jesus is a bad teacher for either violating his own mandate or for setting an incredibly poor example for his disciples.

I once had a dialogue with a Jehovah’s Witness over this very issue, and when I pointed out the “Father Abraham” consideration to him, he replied that Jesus was using the term father in the sense of “forefather.” No argument from me there. I pointed out that my counterpart had proved my own point by his observation. If it is possible to use the title Father in a way that does not violate Matthew 23:9—that is, in some relative or derivative sense—then Catholics are simply not guilty of violating any biblical mandate when they address their priests with the title Father. To boot, Paul uses the term fatheror the idea of spiritual paternity behind it in a number of places in the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 4:11–12, 16–17; 1 Cor. 4:14–15; 1 Thess. 2:10–12), as does John in 1 John 2:12–14.

Ornate and Expensive Churches

It is often pointed out by non-Catholics that because the Catholic Church has many ornate and costly buildings it is guilty of squandering money and focusing on the “trappings” rather than offering God true worship. Rather than defend why the building of an individual church or cathedral or basilica was justified, identify the underlying principle by asking: “Is it inherently wrong to spend large sums of money to build an elaborate place of Christian worship?”

If the response is “yes,” then ask your counterpart to read the biblical descriptions of the temple in Jerusalem. The ancient Israelites spared no expense in constructing an extremely ornate and costly place for worshiping God, and nowhere in the Old Testament are they condemned for doing so. (Note that the passages about God not dwelling in temples made by human hands is a separate issue, so don’t allow your counterpart to shift the topic of discussion.) You can tell your counterpart that even though he may disagree with such building projects, there is at least a biblical precedent for them.

He may object that while the Israelites built the Jerusalem temple, it was only one instance of such construction, while the Catholic Church has built numerous cathedrals and basilicas. Simply point out that the ancient Israelites were not found in large numbers all over the world as Catholics are, and consequently one temple served their needs. Also, the very reason that believers have elaborate churches built is precisely because they view it as a fitting environment in which hearts and minds are lifted to God, who is at all times deserving of the best we have to offer. At the very least, you have shown that there is a biblical basis for building an expensive place of worship for God.

Believers Not Heeding Papal Authority

I have been told a number of times in conversations that the office of the pope cannot be valid in part because there are instances of Church leaders disregarding or disobeying papal directives. My counterparts have reasoned that if Peter’s successors were truly the head of the universal Church, then those under him would obey his authority at all times. Since there are plenty of instances in the Church’s history when priests and even bishops have disobeyed the pope’s authority, many Protestants conclude that his office and authority must be bogus.

One of the more notable examples of this issue occurred in the early third century when Cyprian of Carthage and Pope Stephen I butted heads on the issue of the re-baptism of heretics. If you read the ancient documents, Cyprian—a saint, mind you!—clearly did not submit to Stephen’s authority and decision in this matter. When your friend cites an example like this, forestall his salivating at the prospect of having “gotten” you by asking, “Are you saying that because some people don’t obey the directives of a religious authority that such an authority therefore cannot be valid?”

If your friend gives a hearty yes, don’t fret. This claim is disproved easily—almost embarrassingly so. Simply refer your friend to some biblical accounts where people did not heed legitimate spiritual authority—like Jesus himself or an apostle. Consider the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16–22. Jesus tells the man to sell his possessions in order to be “perfect” and to follow him, but the man balks at the request and walks away. In 1 Corinthians 16:12, Paul strongly urged Apollos to “visit you with the other brethren” at a particular time, but Apollos declined. Or try 3 John 9, where Diotrephes “disses” the apostle John. In all these instances, the person making the request has quite valid spiritual authority, yet their requests went unheeded. I would certainly not conclude—and hopefully neither will your non-Catholic friend—that Jesus and his apostles had no legitimate authority.

So there you have it: some practical examples of how focusing on underlying principles can be an effective tool in deflecting charges of Catholics being guilty of “unbiblical” doctrines and practices. The next time you find yourself in a situation where someone you know is leveling an accusation against Catholic teaching, remember to ask him, “What’s your principle for that?”

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