Readers of this blog site know that I engage in open dialog and friendship with numerous Catholic priests and theologians. I have read Catholic theology for years and even taught it. I sometimes make critical references to the conservative right within evangelicalism, with comments to the effect that I am not convinced of the popular arguments employed by some conservatives. I have also made passing reference to the conservative right in the Roman Catholic Church. The danger in using these types of labels is that they can slander and misrepresent the views of truly wonderful Christian people. I don’t like them but sometimes they seem appropriate. Today was one such day for me
Now I bring this up because I quite often listen to Relevant Radio, the Catholic radio network in the U.S. I have actually gone so far as to meet several of the personalities associated with Relevant Radio through public forums and private phone calls. I think, for example, that Dr. Ray Gurendi is one of the finest practical Christian counselors I have ever heard, period. I find several other Catholic speakers on Relevant Radio quite compelling. Even when I disagree with them, as I do, they lift up Jesus and exalt the central core of mere Christianity well. They build up my Christian faith better than most all the pop-evangelical radio broadcasts if the truth is told. (The exception would be really good Bible exposition, which Protestants generally do much better than Catholics for obvious reasons.)
But, and I do not really enjoy saying this, there are times when certain Catholic apologists on Relevant Radio make me want to scream. I have heard Luther, Calvin and other historic Protestant figures so badly misrepresented that I just find the presentations hopelessly sectarian and spiritually fruitless. I listen to my friend Father Robert Barron preach the Scriptures at every opportunity I can find. I long to hear this kind of effective preaching in the wider Catholic Church. Then I hear some of the programming that I listened to today as I was shelving books in my basement library and I wish these Catholics would take the time to truly study theology much more carefully. You would think nothing meaningful has happened in the theological world in five hundred years if these voices are to be believed.
Today’s example came near 6 p.m. when an apologist named John Salza was answering questions from listeners. He so misrepresented the concept of "faith alone" that when one caller read him Ephesians 2:8-9, and then asked about faith alone in this text, he stuck on the word "alone" as if this is the sine qua non of the evangelical view of faith. Since the word "alone" is only connected to faith in one text in James, and there it is clearly used negatively as anyone knows who has ever been engaged in this debate, Salza insisted the case was closed. His argumentation was as bad as much of that used by Protestants that I have heard provide slam-dunk attacks on Catholicism. Serious Catholic writers and theologians are often as chagrined by this kind of presentation as I am, in fact more so. They will not say this quite so openly but they see the harm in reverting to this kind of polemical posture and also long for a better Catholic apologetic in public dialog.
I went to John Salza’s Web site this evening. He is a young man of 39 who drifted away from the Catholic Church and then came back after a stint among the Freemasons. His story is quite moving and presented very effectively on his Web site. Since John also read the evangelical polemical arguments against Masonry he saw the evangelical argumentation and felt that he also needed to study his own Catholic faith more deeply. (No problem with this at all.) This led him to personally study the Church Fathers, the medieval theologians, the Scriptures and both Catholic and Protestant apologetics, so he writes. By apologetics John seems to have in mind "defending the Catholic Church" against Protestantism, not primarily defending the Christian faith against unbelief.
Now I teach apologetics, as most readers know, at the graduate college level. I use several texts. One is by Peter Kreeft, a noted Catholic scholar who was once a Reformed evangelical. I use handouts from Catholic sources and we study the Church Fathers. I also use Cardinal Avery Dulles on the history of Christian apologetics, a massive and wonderful book. One would never get the idea from my class that I am using apologetics to attack Roman Catholic positions, though I will happily discuss differences and my understanding of them with my students. I say this because I have become very tired of the brand of apologetics that I hear on Relevant Radio. It seems, to me at least, that about 85% of what I hear is about what is wrong with other Christians and churches and about 15% is really about the truly important issues regarding reaching unbelievers with the gospel. I doubt these lay apologists like John Salza would agree with me but this is not the path that will lead to either Christian unity or the wider work of the Holy Spirit in the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ. I have known Protestants who seem stuck in the words and arguments of the 16th century. Sadly, popular apologists like John Salza seem stuck in the same time warp and argumentation. If I were a Catholic theologian, seriously trained and charged with defending the faith, I would do everything that I could to get people to read and listen to richer and better Catholic apologetics than what I often hear on these popular programs. It breaks my heart that in the attempt to keep Catholics faithful to their own church these speakers make it a regular goal to attack evangelical Christians and their biblical views. We could do so much better if we loved more deeply. (I am reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s excellent little book on brotherhood, which does a far better job of making necessary distinctions while also explaining why and how we are still brothers. The best John Salza could come up with today was the possibility that some of us evangelicals might actually get to heaven since we are ignorant of the true faith. Ah, such blessed ignorance I guess!)
John Salza’s Web site says that he is one of the most popular Catholic apologists on the Internet. He is presented as a strong proponent of the Latin Mass and of the restoration of various older church traditions. Sadly, John is a brilliant man (he is listed as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and also is a well-trained lawyer) but his brilliance is being used to attack Protestant positions on the Scripture rather than to promote Christ’s Kingdom. In the attacks that I heard today he showed very little ability to grasp adequately what a nuanced Protestant position really is all about. This makes me all the more grateful for our recent Catholic and Evangelical dialog with Father Barron and Father Baima.
There are two large radio voices for Christian teaching in Chicago. Neither one would touch what we did on September 16th when we approached them. (Father Baima was able to plug the effort through the hour he is given each week by the Chicago Archdiocese.) The reason for this unwillingness is almost identical. Both stations fear that an honest dialog that comes with such a public setting might actually open people’s minds to understanding both love and Scripture in new ways. I sometimes think Relevant Radio might be more open to a voice like mine than the evangelical stations but then after listening today I have to say, "I often seriously doubt it."
I will not give up. Love doesn’t quit, ever. Both Catholics and Protestants know this much and at least we can start there.
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Another great post John! And a very important one for us Roman Catholics who are serious about ecumenical dialogue with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ among the three Great Traditions. I too very much enjoy Catholic radio in our city, and it has helped me immensely on my own “return to Rome” as we say. However, I have encountered the same type of sloppy apologetics that you have mentioned also. As an Evangelical I studied much in the area of theology and reformation history. I studied Luther and Calvin as much as I could, and even looked into Wesley some. I’m no expert on these men, but they command my respect. It grieves me when popular Catholic apologists misrepresent the teachings of these reformers or evangelical protestant doctrine in general. By doing so and almost intimating that Protestants “just might make it to Heaven” is to work against Christian unity and charity and to downplay much of the teaching of our own Catechism. I know that as Catholics and Protestants we must be committed to a diligent effort to know, believe, and live the Truth of the Gospel, yet the key here is greater knowlege and intimacy with Christ rather than doctrinal boxing matches. It’s our Lord Jesus Christ who makes us members of His Body, and drawing closer to Him is what makes us One. Keep up the good work brother!
I totally agree with Nick.
However John, I expect similar posts from you in the near future on Sproul, MacArthur, McCarthy, Rhodes, Boettner, and White. 😉
Great blog. I also enjoyed reading Nick’s comments. I’d disagree with Chad in that I find James McCarthy to write with a gentle spirit, a passion for Catholics (himself, a former devout Roman Catholic) and a great amount of knowledge of official Roman Catholic doctrine. Similarly, from what I have read of Ron Rhodes, I don’t believe he misrepresents official Catholic teaching, or is combative in spirit. I find James R. White a capable defender of Reformed theology and Protestant apologetics, but do find in his online debates some exchange of “body blows” with certain Catholic apologists (e.g., Sungenis, Keating, Sticko [sp.]). Still, White’s study of original source materials is impressive. Often, as you know better than I, theological discussion produces more “heat than light.” I experience this myself in online forums with folks from the International Church of Christ (i.e., former Boston Movement), as they hold to a very rigid soteriology. I believe it would profit everyone where we have substantial theological disagreements to follow a few simple rules: (1) represent the opposing view as accurately as possible, without setting up strawmen, and by researching the opposing view and not relying upon suspect second hand material; (2) engage one another charitably and with a gentle spirit; (3) keep before oneself the question, ‘Is what I am doing bringing glory to God, or am I merely trying to one-up my interlocutors without regard to the impact my words and disposition might have on fellow Christians?’. John, what sets you apart from many others is that you are open to interacting with those who embrace opposing theological views and that you are willing to overlook theological distinctions to see genuine spiritual fruit and a love for Christ in others.
Thank you for listening to my show. When a caller quoted Eph 2:8-9 to prove that we are saved by “faith alone,” I simply pointed out to him that the verses do not say we are saved by “faith alone.” Paul says we are saved by grace and not “works of law.” I then explained the difference between a works-based system (where we view God as a debtor) and a grace-based system (where we view God as our Father). This paradigm is at the center of St. Paul’s theology on justification, but you evidently have not understood this to date.
Instead, without providing any examples or argumentation, you post on your website that I have “attacked evangelical Christians.” Is this how you, as a teacher of apologetics, respond to textual arguments? You view them as personal attacks?
I can assure you that I have studied the “nuanced Protestant position” (which varies from denomination to denomination) inside and out, and I always come up with the same conclusion: it is neither Scriptural, historical nor logical. If you disagree, please show us from Scripture where Scripture teaches we are saved by “faith alone.”
You claim you are looking for “richer and better apologetics.” Why don’t you start with Augustine and Aquinas, two of the greatest theologians the Church has ever produced? They, and the entire 2,000 year-old Christian tradition, has never held salvation comes by faith alone.
I believe Protestant apologists like yourself resort to ad hominem arguments instead of addressing the issues head-on for this reason: the Bible doesn’t teach the core doctrines upon which they base their entire faith (e.g., sola fide, sola Scriptura). This tension is understandable. In fact, it is this tension that ultimately leads Protestants home to the Catholic Church.
The comments to this blog are all quite interesting. They include reflections that actually demonstrate the point I was seeking to make. And the respondents include comments from both Catholics and former-Catholics.
A few comments about John Salza’s post.
1. Thanks for reading and writing John. I respect you for responding to me. I do not intend to respond with a form of “debate” as this is not how I use this blog. I am, however, very pleased to let readers see your point and your disagreement with me.
2. Mine was not an ad hominem response in any real sense. I am NOT attacking your argument by undermining your character. I was responding to what I heard you say to the caller. The only way we could settle this, if we had the time, would be to “hear” the comments to the caller and then engage one another in what you said and how I understood it. I may have misheard you but this post actually proves I did not, so far as I read your words correctly. You are clearly a devout Catholic and thus your understanding of apologetics seems to be one that aims to convince people that Protestants are consistently wrong. You are, of course, entitled to do that. This approach has, in my estimation, minor value in the modern world. As I noted I recommend, use and engage Catholics apologetics very seriously. Readers of mine know this from my large corpus of written work on Catholic and evangelical issues.
3. My point was simple really. You represent a “type” of apologetics that is popular in media related Catholic arguments. If readers want to see a different approach to (classical) apologetics, used as an argument to seek the conversion of non-Christians, then I repeat what I wrote—try Peter Kreeft, Cardinal Avery Dulles, etc.
4. The argument you make about Augustine, and “faith alone,” is one that would require much more dialog than this blog will allow. No one used this phrase as you are understanding it, not even Luther if he is read correctly. I do not much care for the term, in its formulaic sense, and again my readers know this quite well. I said as much in the blog if you read it again carefully.
5. My point was to say that you represented a common misunderstanding of serious evangelical arguments but you gave short change to the actual views held by people like me. My Catholic friends, who engage me in public and private, know that I listen and respect their views and the careful nuance of them. My passion is for the unity of the whole Church and you hold the view, it seems, that this comes ONLY by everyone outside of Rome coming into the Roman Catholic communion with the papal office. This is still held formally by Catholic theologians but the way it is understood and expressed has clearly changed since Vatican II. Clearly salvation is NOT found only in the Catholic Church at least in the way that it was understood in the 16th century. Vatican II clearly expresssed new insights regarding the salvation of people outside of Rome, unless you argue that the magisterium is not a living entity that continues to interpret Scripture and teach doctrine.
I do not wish to debate you John. I would be pleased to meet you sometime and discuss these matters with you. My goal was never to attack you as a Christian. That is not what I do if you read more of my material carefully. I hope you will and I will seek to listen to you better as well.
May God bless us with his grace and the wisdom that leads us both to godliness.