The comments made on Michael Mercer’s April 24 blog about the Catholic and Protestant wars of the last five hundred years – “Memo to Tim Challies: The War is Over” – allow a person to encounter a number of all-too-common responses to Catholic-Protestant disagreements. Some of the comments at this blog were astute and thoughtful. A few revealed raw prejudice. Most simply revealed various forms of what I would call an all-too-common ignorance. Some of this ignorance, such as what we can see in the original blog written by Tim Challies, is egregious. Tim Challies has recently gone from bad to much worse in his spirited and unpleasant post against Lectio Divina. Read Mark Moore’s fine comments for a thoughtful evangelical writer’s response to the Lectio Divina discussion.
Most of the comments made on these several sites about the pope and Catholicism are quite innocent. There is a particular kind of innocent ignorance that is common on both sides, at least among everyday Christians. The more egregious kinds of ignorance are far less tolerable. These variety of posts quite often come from popular writers and polemicists. They occur on both sides. The less egregious “common” ignorance is often reinforced by these Internet interactions. You can see this in the comments I received on my earlier blogs in this series. Both Catholic and Protestant polemicists pour out an abundance of new work on television, radio and (now) through an interesting variety of Internet programs. I have only searched in this particular area for less than two hours over the last few weeks. I am amazed at how many sites there are – sites hosted by former Protestants, by former Catholics and by people who are just sick of both sides. Now the Orthodox are getting into this Internet exchange.
Please do not get me wrong. There are some really outstanding programs and sites to be found that deal with the Reformation, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the differences that we still have between us. On the Orthodox side the Ancient Faith Radio broadcast is a great example. I know the men who founded this network. Most of them are ex-Protestants. On the whole they have avoided the polemical edge that is so common to the “ex-whatever-you-were-before” syndrome. Do not get me wrong. Evangelical websites which attack the Catholic Church are often very bad. If I had to name my top-five “worst anti-Catholic sites,” and I will spare you such a list since I have not spent much time searching, I think all five are led by angry ex-Catholics who now sound like strident fundamentalists. They are generally unfair and grossly unhelpful to the hard work of Christian unity and gospel mission. (I confess my own bias here since I have discovered a few such sites where I was critiqued and listed as Exhibit A for a confused Protestant who was now an apostate!)
I have heard a number of Catholic apologists, almost all converts from very conservative backgrounds (e.g. Assemblies of God, LCMS, SBC, PCA, etc.), pick apart the “weakest” links in the evangelical chaos of the present moment. I often agree with their major points in these critiques. In fact, if what they say about my church family was all that I saw in the non-Catholic world then I would join them in a moment. But there is one large exception to my genuine praise. These sites, and some of these authors, are generally doing what all such apologists do well – taking the most obvious and emotive issues and boring down into them with compelling logic against the doctrinal positions of their opponents. In this case the opponent is Protestant Christianity. But here is the problem. The examples they use are clearly weak thus they are fairly easy to pick off in simplistic debates, especially when you are debating in monologue. These programs often come across as emotional appeals with a weak treatment of the truly substantive issues that remain serious barriers for well-taught Protestants.
It is well known that I believe the gospel is better served when we cease this form of apologetics. What is needed is serious, loving and direct dialogue, in both private and public contexts. Readers know that last December I did such a dialogue with the person that I consider to be the most effective communicator of Catholicism in America today, Fr. Robert Barron. Fr. Barron and I were invited by the Student Theological Fellowship at Moody Bible Institute to do a dialogue that was moderated by a faculty member, Dr. Bryan Litfin (see photo of the three of us above). On December 3 we had that 90-minute meeting. It was respectful, cordial and informative. No offense was given and none was taken. Hard questions were asked and no emotional polemics were employed. More importantly, no false stereotypes of our respective views were presented. We asked questions, listened and responded. The format was warm and free-flowing. (I am working on doing another Barron-Armstrong Dialogue in 2015 so please stayed tuned. This time I will do everything in my power to video tape it.)
I urge Catholic apologetical writers and readers to stop majoring on what is wrong with evangelicals and follow Fr. Barron’s leadership. He clearly knows how to reach the head and the heart and to give Catholics good reasons for their faith and practice. I respect him, disagree with him on some points, and speak with him in obvious love. He does the same. One never gets the feeling that either of us is trying to batter, or better, the other. And there are no misrepresentations. We defer to one another in love and let the opposite dialogue partner state what they believe and why. We take no prisoners and Christ, I believe, is wonderfully honored. Fr. Barron’s incredible ministry blows me away. If ever there was a brother/friend who could convince me of the need to be a Catholic it would be this fine man. Yet I remain deeply committed to my faith and practice as an evangelical Protestant. But I have learned so much from Fr. Barron. I hope he has learned something from me but I honestly doubt it. If you want to see what I mean about his ministry then visit Word on Fire and check him out. Catholic or Protestant you will be impressed if you are a historic, confessional, Bible-informed Christian. His ten-part video series, Catholicism, is the best such teaching I’ve ever seen. I would say, without precise memory, that I agreed with about 85%-plus of the content. If every Catholic in America saw this series and believed what Fr. Barron teaches I would be pleased beyond words. I think we would very likely see a spiritual awakening inside the American Catholic Church. I earnestly urge you to pray that your Catholic friends will watch these videos. In fact, watch the first three videos yourself even if you are not Catholic. You will get a better grasp of historic, confessional Christianity, something that we all need to better understand in the midst of a Christian meltdown in the wider culture. If you come from a Catholic family then buy the set and watch them first. Then share them with your family and talk about them openly. You will all be better for the effort.