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Without a Steering Wheel

It is now twenty years since I debated Peter Ruckman, a Fundamentalist minister from Pensacola known not just for his anti-Catholicism but for advocating the most extreme form of the King James–only position. Then as now, he went further than just saying that English-speaking Christians ought to use the King James Version (also known as the Authorized Version) and no other. He asserted that this translation is quasi-inspired and so is the only English translation that is the authentic Word of God. Every other translation, he said, had so many errors as to undermine the faith. Since few Fundamentalists agree with this reasoning, throughout his career Ruckman has found himself at the most distant end of the Protestant spectrum.

Our debate was held at a Baptist church in Long Beach, California, the city where I spent my formative years and where my parents still live. Those running the church surely must have been sympathetic to Ruckman’s end-of-the-spectrum views—they would not have offered him the venue otherwise—and that made it all the more surprising to find that the church prided itself on a fine collection of Marian art. I wish now that I had asked the presiding minister to explain this incongruity.

I no longer recollect the precise topic of the debate, but I well recollect a man sitting in the front row. He was a Ruckman groupie. When Ruckman was at the podium, the man held up a sign that read “Amen, brother!” When it was my turn, he flipped the sign over to read “Repent, Catholic!” I thought it was good advice, but not for the reason he suspected.

Ruckman worked the crowd, using hyperbolic language and asking “Amen?” after making a point. “Amen, brother!” the almost exclusively Fundamentalist audience responded. Sometimes, I admit, I had to work not to laugh at Ruckman’s antics, which, if nothing else, tended to prove that most stereotypes have a basis in fact. He may have come as close to Elmer Gantry as I ever have seen.

At the conclusion of the debate I offered him my hand, but he just turned and walked away. I took the snub as a sign that at some point during the evening I had made at least one good argument—or maybe it was just that he was afraid of catching Catholic cooties.

However that might have been, Ruckman was a “Bible Christian,” and he prided himself on knowing the Bible. He made a point of telling his listeners that, as of the time of our debate, he had read the Bible straight through 106 times—or a little more than twice yearly since his teenage years. If he has kept that up in the years that have passed since our debate, then he has read the Bible cover to cover about 150 times.

If you consider the theological positions Ruckman espouses, you see that he unwittingly has demonstrated that Scripture alone is not enough. After all, by this time he certainly must have gotten everything right, if all one needs to do is to read the sacred text on one’s own. But reading it on one’s own is not enough. One needs to read it in concert with the Church. Private interpretation, as the first pope famously noted, leads to ruin.

You can drive a car that has no steering wheel, but the results are not pretty. You can drive it 150 times but never will find yourself making proper headway. Invariably you will go into a ditch. This has been happening to private-interpretation people ever since their pet theory first was proposed. Some, eventually, have learned from the experience, and some have not.

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