Thursday, April 14, 2005

Catholic sophistry

Armstrong's latest response to what I've written is an elaborate exercise in sophistry. For all I know, Armstrong may be completely sincere about this. He has clearly picked up a lot of scar tissue over the years, and like a bad divorce, he brings all this old baggage with him into the next encounter. Yet it is quite possible to be sincere and still work yourself into a primal crouch. And, to be perfectly frank, no one should go into apologetics unless he has a pretty thick hide to begin with.

In addition, it is a commonplace of moral theology that we are not always the best judges of our own motives. We do need, from time to time, to check our self-image against the impression others have of us.

The only reason that this has gotten so personal is that Armstrong has made it so personal by trying to make me the issue, or talk about himself, instead of addressing himself to the question of objective truth-claims and objective criteria. I've made abundantly clear, all along, that I only want to talk about Catholicism, not about Armstrong. That is only a fallback position when he forces me to fall back.


Armstrong makes a great deal of the fact that I never notified him of my little essay on “Helping old mother church across the street.” He even goes so far as to say that “Steve originated the attack upon my very essence as a Catholic (I had never heard of him before a few days ago, let alone read his stuff, so I couldn't have started this mess).”

Actually, that's not the case. He just doesn't remember. This all got started two or three years ago when a friend of mine (an Episcopal priest) emailed me Armstrong's “150 reasons” he's a Catholic essay-which was making the rounds of the Internet. I dashed off a reply, which I emailed to him, as well as a number of other friends. In addition, I cc'd a copy to Armstrong.

This was “first contact.” Armstrong never responded. Now, I don't blame him for not responding. And I don't blame him for not remembering. Given the volume of email he probably receives, I wouldn't expect him to respond.

But by that same token, if he chooses not to respond, then he doesn't wish to open up a dialogue with me. Fine. That's his prerogative. But in that event, I don't see that I'm under some standing obligation to notify him when he showed no inclination to interact with me when the occasion presented itself.

After I started blogging, I posted a revised and expanded edition of my reply. (“150 Leaky Buckets.”)


Ordinarily I wouldn't bother to comment on what a lay Catholic apologist has to say because the laity don't ordinarily speak for the RCC-unless a particular layman is a semi-official consultant to the magisterium, an individual whom the magisterium has delegated to speak in some capacity for the RCC.

I only did so in this instance at the best of a friend. And that was also the point of my “Helping old mother church across the street,” posting-to document the ironic and incongruous fact that, to a remarkable degree, the case for the magisterium is being made, not by the magisterium itself, but by self-appointed laymen.


I'd add that the whole issue of prior notification is a moot point, for Armstrong excuses himself from responding to the substantive issues by saying that he is now honor-bound not to respond given his resolution.

Presumably, the purpose of prior notification is to give your opponent the chance to respond to your substantive objections. But Armstrong says that he has recused himself from responding at a substantive level. So all the histrionics about prior notification, aside from being inaccurate, are at this stage of the non-debate, much ado about an empty gesture. Armstrong is waxing indignant because I didn't give in a further chance not to respond. “How dare you not give me a chance not to respond!”


Another stalling tactic is for him to allege a double standard in Reformed circles. To begin with, Dr. White et al are quite able to speak for themselves, so I don't presume to speak on their behalf. Certainly I'm under no obligation to do so.

Rather, what it looks like is that Armstrong is trying to settle some old scores with Dr. White by using this non-responsive response to me as the pretext for a backdoor swipe at Dr. White.

But more to the point, it's is a red-herring. For Armstrong has done nothing whatsoever to show that I personally operate with a double standard. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, the charge is inapplicable to Dr. White as well since he does debate Roman Catholics. I guess Armstrong is just offended because he didn't make the cut.

I would further add, however, that if there is a double-standard, it is a double-standard based on Catholic theology itself. For there is a fundamental asymmetry between the status of a lay Catholic apologist and the status of a Reformed apologist.

In terms of Catholic theology, the most responsible thing a Reformed apologist can do is to direct his comments to a member of the magisterium or someone designated by the magisterium to speak for the church. That is the best way of mounting a fair and accurate critique of Roman Catholicism. For the sake of argument, the Reformed apologist takes the teaching office of the church seriously.

5. Along the same lines, Armstrong tries to drag in what other “anti-Catholics” have posted on his blog in the comment box. Once again, he is free to address them directly, and they are free to address him directly-unless he kicks them off his blog. Indeed, he has issued certain veiled threats to that effect. I'm not going to put words in their mouth or get diverted onto yet another ground-shifting rabbit-trail about what they said about what he said about what they said about what he said, ad nauseum.


Yet another odd habit of his is to impute to me accusations I never made, and then take offense at the accusations he imputed to me in the first place-like a cat hissing and spitting at its own reflection in the mirror.

I have never said or implied that Armstrong is a “lightweight” or a “simpleton.”

In addition, I've never denied that Armstrong is a Christian. I haven't said that he is, and I haven't said that he isn't. I've observed a studied and silent neutrality on that question, and for a couple of reasons:


I don't pretend to know his state of grace, and, what is more:

(b) His state of grace is wholly irrelevant to the substantive claims of the RCC.

In response to a question of his, I did offer a carefully caveated distinction between a credible profession of faith and a saving profession of faith. But that seems to be lost on Armstrong.

Armstrong is the one who tries to personalize everything as a substitute for an honest debate over competing truth-claims and truth-conditions.

BTW, no one has to stipulate to my state of grace to debate with me.


Then there's the matter of his “resolution.” He uses this as his favorite escape hatch to evade a substantive discussion. But any reasonable person can see that this is a viciously circular appeal. He begins with a self-serving and self-imposed resolution. In addition, his resolution is predicated on a self-serving classification of his opponents. He has debarred himself from debating with “anti-Catholics.” And who is an “anti-Catholic”? Anyone he doesn't want to debate with, that's who!

This is like a boxer who issues a bold challenge to all comers, except that he's made a vow to himself never to box with any contender who might actually beat him in the ring.

Who does he think he's kidding with this transparent ploy? But if you're desperate enough, I guess you'll resort to any last-ditch escape maneuver, however obvious.


And he appeals to his resolution to justify a tendentious restriction on the scope of the debate. In a phony show of magnanimity, he is prepared to discuss anything with me as long as it isn't something he doesn't want to discuss with me-which just so happens to be all of the substantive issues in the conflict with Rome.

Again, is any reasonable person taken in by this non-choice? Like a used-car salesman, Armstrong gives me a choice: I can either buy the car with wheels, but no engine-or else buy the car with an engine, but no wheels! Thanks-but not thanks!


Then you have his set of trick questions. Armstrong has tilted the playing field to a 179-degree gradient, with himself conveniently perched atop the high ground at the 10-yard line, where he challenges me to score a touchdown.

The trick is to frame a question in totally generally terms. Then, if your opponent answers in the affirmative, you immediately apply the answer to your particular case.

But that is plainly fallacious. One could answer a general question in the affirmative without that answering the question in the affirmative in any individual instance. To infer from the general to the specific would require a separate argument altogether. What Armstrong has done is to skip directly from the major premise to the conclusion minus the minor premise.

Does he really think I've going to step into his trap? I guess he's hoping his trap is sufficiently camouflaged that no one will see it for what it is. But he's not going to play me for the chump.

10. Just consider his questions:

“Is there such a thing (a concept, prior to that) as a position which doesn't deserve the dignity of a reply, or one that can be described as intellectual suicide? This would be a point of view so internally incoherent and inconsistent that it is hardly worth talking about or interacting with?”

“Is there such a thing as a vain, or "stupid, senseless" conversation, to be avoided?”

“Is it possible to have 100 or 200 similarly exasperating, futile, frustrating, non-constructive experiences over 15 years, in attempted dialogue with proponents of a particular position?”

“Is it rational, ethical, and permissible to avoid situations and advocates of positions which lead to the futility and negative experiences and discord and acrimony and lack of constructive accomplishment, as detailed in #3?”

“Is it possible, therefore, to regard a position (in this case, anti-Catholicism, and the usual hostile emotions and conduct that accompany it) as having the negative attributes of #1, 2, 3; and therefore have a perfectly sound, sensible, reasonable justification for avoiding it, on these grounds, rather than on grounds of inability or fear?”

Now what is wrong with all these questions? They all suffer from the very same fallacy. For they all build a question-begging premise into the question. They all assume, in preemptory fashion, that the objections I have raised don't dignify a response, are stupid, senseless, and best avoided, futile and non-constructive, &c.

Now, if he were already in a position to know, by proving the point, that in the case of my objections, his premise was true, then he'd be justified in opting out of the debate. But he is assuming the conclusion to a debate that never took place, and then invoking that very conclusion to justify the absence of debate. It should be needless to say that this burden-shifting ruse is entirely without warrant.

It can be rational, ethical, and permissible, after you get into a debate, to decide that further discussion is futile.

BTW, I've never said that Armstrong is under any inherent moral or intellectual obligation to respond to me.

What, however, is irrational, unethical, and impermissible about Armstrong's stone-walling behavior is that I have already discharged my initial burden of proof by mounting a number of reasoned arguments based on his own putative authority sources, while he, for his part, is trying to have it both ways by rendering a preemptory judgment on the merits of my case without making any effort to engage the supporting arguments. So the onus is on him.

Now there are two rational, ethical, and permissible avenues open to him. He could simply reserve or suspend judgment on the grounds that he doesn't have the time or inclination to deal with me. He could say that he's in no position to render an informed judgment on the case I've made.

That, however, comes at a cost. For he has already drawn public attention to my arguments. To leave them hanging out there, unchallenged, is damaging to his cause.

Or, secondly, he could render a value-judgment after attempting to engage and rebut them. But what he is not morally or intellectually entitled to do is to reap the benefits of a summary judgment without having done the intellectual spadework to warrant a summary judgment in the first place.

For my part, Armstrong says that I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Well, maybe I should, maybe I shouldn't. That is, in the nature of the case, a judgment call, and I can only call 'em as I see 'em. And what I see is that Armstrong is spending an awful lot of time defending his position not to defend his position. And this invites the alternative explanation, which is, to my mind, the more plausible one, that he wouldn't spend so much time defending his position not to defend his position unless his position were indefensible


  1. Had to add this here as "back to Bablyon" does not have a link to comment.

    Steve wrote:

    "Just try that mental experiment yourself. Imagine that you’d never heard of the papacy. Would reading these verses suggest the papacy, all by themselves? You can only "see" the papacy in these verses because you've seen the papacy outside these verses."

    Imagine "TULIP" or "Rapture" (not pertinent to Mr. Hayes' interpretive paradigm, granted) or even Sola Scriptura without seeing TULIP or Rapture or Sola Scriptura outside supporting verses. Such doctrines are hewn from an interpretive paradigm that is robust with the collective conscience of historic thought. In fact, any council or confession is rendered unecessary if such doctrines stand full-bodied right from the pages of Scripture.

  2. Hi,

    I'm sorry for being intrusive in to your blog. But I am Melissa and I am a mother of two that is just trying to get out of an incredible financial debt. See my hubby is away in Iraq trying to protect this great country that we live in, and I am at home with our two kids telling bill collectors please be patiant. When my husband returns from war we will beable to catch up on our payments. We have already had are 2001 Ford repossessed from the bank, and are now down to a 83 buick that is rusted from front to back and the heater don't work, and tire tax is due in November.

    I'm not asking for your pitty because we got our ownselfs into this mess but we would love you and thank you in our prayers if you would just keep this link on your blog for others to view.

    God Bless You.

    Melissa K. W.
    To see my family view this page. My Family

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  3. Hello, just visited your bible blog, I also have a bible related website, it's about some books which is helpful to understand the God's Words

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."