Back in 1992 I had a near miss with the Catholic Church. I almost converted. For the next seven years or so I couldn’t shake the habit of falling into online discussions, arguments, dialogue, and—let’s face it—fights with other Christians. This nasty habit is often called "apologetics."
My almost-Catholic-yet-vigorously-and-reluctantly-Protestant status was like a bull’s-eye on my e-mail address. "Apologists" of every stripe tried their best—some to bring me into the Church and some to pull me away from the precipice. I learned what it’s like to be apologetic prey. Generally speaking, I didn’t mind. I like a good fight.
But the experience gave me a taste of the ugly side of apologetics. From nearly eight years of struggling as an almost-Catholic, I developed a unique perspective on both the Protestant and Catholic versions of this business.
Before I share my reflections on "apologetics," let me clarify one thing: I am a Catholic. I believe everything the Catholic Church teaches. But that doesn’t mean I accept every garden-variety argument used to support those teachings, and I hope you can keep that distinction in mind as I criticize some common apologetic arguments.
One more thing—I know the Protestants make their mistakes too. When I was a Protestant, I picked on them. But let’s get the log out of our eye before we take the splinter out of our brother’s.
The Church is Infallible and Therefore So Am I
The Church is the community of those people who have been called out of the world, united with Christ in baptism, and filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the Body of Christ in the world, and certain things are true of the Church because of its participation in the life of Christ. For example, it cannot fail, and the Spirit guides it into all the truth (John 16:13). One manifestation of this is the infallibility of the Church’s Magisterium.
Of course, the doctrine of infallibility is a subject of major dispute between Catholics and Protestants. But there’s another side to it, which can be illustrated by a common playground argument. Say two kids are building a sandcastle, and they disagree about the best way to do it. "Well," says one, "my daddy’s an engineer, and he says . . ." By which Junior wants you to hear, "I know what an engineer knows, and I say . . ."
The Church’s decrees on doctrine and morals are infallible, but how do you know you understand and apply them properly? Furthermore, sometimes the Church holds to a doctrine without necessarily endorsing how we should prove or demonstrate it. Even if you understand the Church’s position, the argument you use to convince others may be faulty. There is such a thing as a bad argument to support the right conclusion.
The Catholic apologist has to guard against believing that his methods are right because his conclusions are right. A more healthy approach would say, "This is the Catholic faith as I understand it, and this is why I find that position reasonable. But please go to the church’s official documents and check it out for yourself."
Bad habit: Assuming that you are right because the Church is right.
Remedy: Listen to your critics—yes, even non-Catholics. You may not know as much as you think you know.
Proper Conclusions Don’t Fix Bad Arguments
If you’ve been involved in any of those online apologetic food-fights I mentioned, you may have seen this: A Catholic apologist presents his argument, each side tries to clarify its position, nobody’s convinced, and neither participant changes his mind. The Catholic starts to lose his patience. He must be right, of course, because the Church is infallible, so what’s wrong with this silly Protestant?
The apologist figures he must not have explained himself well enough. He calls his friends and asks for bigger and better arguments. He thumbs through his apologetics books to make sure he’s covered all the bases. He tries a few more times, with no success, and finally accuses the Protestant of being hard-hearted, thick-skulled, and a bad tennis player. Meanwhile, all the other Catholics on the list are cheering.
But are the angels?
Other than a hard heart and a thick skull, what else might explain these situations? Certainly the apologist might be wrong—being Catholic does not make you infallible—but I think that’s fairly rare. People who take apologetics seriously usually know the basics pretty well. What’s more likely is that the apologist has adopted a goofy method. For example, I’ve heard some Catholics argue for the infallibility of the Church in this way: An effect can’t be greater than its cause; Scripture is infallible; the Church is the cause of Scripture; therefore the church must be infallible.
That’s a bad argument because the Church is not the cause of Scripture. Rather, "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Pet. 1:21). And we can’t expect to convince someone of the truth on the basis of a faulty argument.
I hate to say it, but the situation can get even worse. Some former Protestants have been convinced by that argument. (Converts aren’t infallible either.) And that reinforces the apologist’s certainty that he’s on the right track. "Those other guys saw their error and embraced the truth. Why are you so obstinate? You must have a bad attitude."
Bad habit: Assuming that an argument is valid because it has convinced other people.
Remedy: Listen to your critics, not just your cheerleaders. The former may have some insights on the logic (or illogic) of your arguments.
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 or two of the apostles weren’t choirboys.
Along those lines, 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—even if it’s true—is avoid it altogether. It’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.
Bad habit: Engaging in ad hominem attacks of any sort.
Remedy: Get over it. Fussing and whining about how mean the other guy is only makes you a crybaby.
Twenty-Three Thousand Denominations
Some Catholics have the apologetic equivalent of Alzheimer’s. 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 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.
Quit Picking on Luther
Martin Luther is said to have started the Protestant Reformation. In fact, some churches celebrate the birthday of the Protestant Reformation on the day Brother Martin is said to have nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. And most Protestants, to one degree or another, look to Martin Luther as a generally good guy.
But some apologists make entirely too much out of his influence, as if he’s equally regarded in all Protestantism or responsible for every error committed by every Protestant. Catholics seem to feel that if they can knock Brother Martin off his pedestal, Protestants will have nowhere to go but Rome. It ain’t so. This may be hard to swallow, but listen very carefully: In 99.9 percent of Catholic-Protestant discussions, Martin Luther is completely irrelevant. (Realize that 47.2 percent of all statistics are invented on the spot.)
If, after reading every scandal sheet ever written on Martin Luther (and why are you reading such things?) you succeed in persuading your Protestant friend that Luther worshiped the devil and ate nuns for lunch, your Protestant friend will have had a very bad day. But he’d wind up all the more persuaded that he shouldn’t follow any man—not even Luther—only God’s word. You will have accomplished nothing.
In fact, if you only got to know the guy a little better, Martin Luther is your ally on a lot of issues, since you can call him as a witness to some Catholic beliefs. He believed that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the sacrament of the altar, he was devoted to the Blessed Mother, and he believed in baptismal regeneration. So when Protestants tell you that these doctrines constitute a repudiation of the gospel, you can call dear Brother Martin to the stand.
But most of the time, even then . . . don’t do it. Leave Fr. Martin out of the picture.
Bad habit: Attacking Martin Luther based on a cursory study of his teachings or based on Catholic apologetic sources.
Remedy: Either spend a year studying Luther so you really know what he said—and don’t bother if you’re reading him only to find the juicy stuff—or purge the name from your vocabulary.
No One Ever Heard of (Blank) 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 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. Some of the Reformers also read the Church Fathers. They did not perceive their doctrines to be novelties, although an expert on the history of doctrine might be qualified to say that they were.
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 easy to show how Catholic doctrine developed from the faith of the early Church, and it’s hard to show any continuity between the early Church and the faith of the Bethel Bible Church down the road. So don’t spoil a good argument with claims you can’t prove or defend.
Bad habit #1: Asserting a universal negative.
Bad habit #2: Repeating extravagant claims you read in apologetic literature that the author himself could not possibly have known.
Remedy: Stick to what you really know.
The Gospel According to Scott
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 many 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 the writings of Scott Hahn better than they know their Bibles. Believe me, it shows. Every Protestant familiar with recent Catholic apologetics is going to spot it and recognize such an apologist for what he is. The Protestant will know that the Catholic is just proof-texting—that he hasn’t internalized the biblical 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 twenty-five reasons why Protestants are wrong about baptism. Your goal is to listen to what God says to you about your soul.
When that kind of "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 Christ.
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 utters the phrase, "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 Psalms 19 and 119, and learn to regard the Bible the way King David did. Never even consider saying, "What good is the Bible . . . ?" You’d be better off to cut out your tongue and chop off your fingers.
The Break in the Infallible Chain Is There for Both Sides
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 when you make a 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 often makes two errors while developing 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 it does no good to have infallible Scripture unless there is an infallible interpreter:
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. "Radical Traditionalists" come to mind. This isn’t to say there aren’t plausible rejoinders (i.e., the Church can issue corrections when someone misunderstands its teachings; the Bible cannot).
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 that 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.
Speak the Truth in Love
Of course I might be wrong too. Perhaps some of my criticisms are unjust and these apologetic techniques are right and holy and good. In any event, my hope is that Christians learn to listen to one another—and, in my experience, we’re a long way from that goal.
Protestants don’t always listen to Catholics. No matter how many times we deny it, some of them insist on believing that we try to earn our salvation by doing good works, and that we crucify Jesus again and again in the Mass. And, of course, Catholics often don’t listen to Protestants, as I’ve mentioned.
Tremendous progress has been made in ecumenical discussions over the last few years. The Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation have signed an incredible agreement on the nature of justification. That progress was made possible by putting aside prejudices about the other party’s position and listening carefully to what they were really saying. We need to imitate that example.
The One who said "I am the Truth" is not served by anything but our strictest honesty and careful attention to truth. Let’s commit ourselves to speaking the truth in love, even if that means "losing" an argument, or responding to a non-Catholic with an embarrassing "I don’t know" or "I didn’t realize that."
Or even "You’re right."