Saturday, September 09, 2006

An open letter to Dave Armstrong

I’d like to take the occasion to set the record straight where Dave Armstrong is concerned.

I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of being a traitor or apostate or infidel.

Everyone is entitled to his own usage. I won’t judge someone else’s usage. They have their reasons.

But those are not the adjectives I’d reach for in the case of Armstrong.

Those are words I reserve for extreme cases, not borderline cases.

To judge by his conversion story, he had a rather brief and superficial experience with Evangelicalism—reading popularizers and attending emotive, anti-intellectual churches.

A transition from a shallow brand of Evangelicalism to devout Catholicism is not the same thing as apostasy—much less infidelity. Not by my definition, at least.

And, unless he’s sheltering his wealth from the Feds, I don’t think one can accuse him of changing sides for fast cars, fast women, and a vintage pint of sherry.

So it’s not as if he’s another Kim Philby or Guy Burgess with a Rosary.

I have nothing to say, one way or the other, regarding his state of grace. But his sincerity is unquestionable.

I also don’t dislike him. And this is not a pro forma disclaimer to prove what a charitable guy I am, for there are some bloggers whom I do dislike. (Sorry, no names!)

I don’t think there’s anything malicious about Armstrong—unlike some people who come to mind.

In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever said he was unintelligent.

For the record, it’s obvious that Armstrong has a quick, nimble mind.

As to the fact that I don’t link to his apologetic stuff on Islam, &c., there are several reasons for this:

1.I’ve only read a fraction of Armstrong’s prolific output. And only the fraction concerning the conflict with Rome.

2.I’m quite prepared to quote Catholic scholars when they have something worthwhile to say. Indeed, I do so from time to time in my review of The Empty Tomb.

3.Linking to his blog or website would be a way of promoting his agenda. Even if the material is on something other than Catholicism, it is on a Catholic blog or website, and there’s no reason why I should steer my readers in that direction.

It’s not as if Armstrong is plugging for Triablogue.

4.There’s no dearth of apologetic material on atheism, Islam, the cults, &c. There are many online sources of information, often by experts in the field.

And if it comes to a popular treatment, we can do that ourselves.


  1. Do you mind saying briefly why you wouldn't call abandoning a professed evangelical faith for Rome "apostasy"?

  2. Thanks, Steve, for the nice things said. I appreciate it. This was a classy piece. Just a few observations, if I may:

    I'm amazed at the people who say they "like" me, or don't dislike me (if there is a difference). These include Shawn McElhinney, my former (Catholic) friend whom you cited against me in a recent post. Man! If you two "like" me, I'd hate to see someone who disliked me. :-)

    Your theory of my odyssey from evangelicalism to Catholicism is -- shall we say? -- "interesting." I was in a shallow environment, so that Catholicism was quite possibly even a "step up" and I get a pass for ignorance; therefore I am not an apostate, etc. (never having been a Calvinist - is the implication). This reminds me of a statement I saw from Phillip Johnson, where he said that much of evangelicalism was worse than even Catholicism in the 16th century.

    The problem, of course, is that this is an inaccurate portrayal of what I used to believe and the circles I used to be in.

    You claim that I "had a rather brief and superficial experience with Evangelicalism—reading popularizers . . ."

    James White made the same argument: that I was supremely ignorant and an evangelical, and so that amply explained my conversion, which need not give anyone the slightest pause.

    Hence his description of me in December 2004 as "one who has given very little evidence, in fact, of having done a lot of serious reading in better non-Catholic literature to begin with. In fact, I would imagine Armstrong has done more reading in non-Catholic materials since his conversion than before. In any case, this lack of background will resound loudly in the comments he offers, . . ."

    And so I went ahead and showed White exactly what I had read in my 13-year evangelical period:

    That reading included many Reformed scholars and otherwise solid evangelical biblical scholars or Church historians, such as, e.g., Bernard Ramm, John Walvoord, R.C. Sproul, C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, A.W. Tozer, Francis Schaeffer, Harold Lindsell, Merrill Tenney, James Montgomery Boice, Lorraine Boettner (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination), Oswald Allis, George Marsden, J. Gresham Machen, Kierkegaard, John MacArthur, J.I. Packer, Billy Graham, Walter Martin, G.C. Berkouwer, F.F. Bruce, D.A. Carson, Norman Geisler, Alvin Plantinga, Gerhard Maier, Augustus Strong, Charles Hodge, Gleason Archer, John Gerstner, A.A. Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, Dunn, Alford, Westcott, J.B. Lightfoot, Peter Berger, Os Guinness, Thomas Oden, John Ankerberg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jonathan Edwards, Ronald Nash, Carl F.H. Henry, Charles Colson, and James Davison Hunter, Dorothy Sayers, among many others.

    Now, how did White respond to that?:

    "Mr. Armstrong has provided a reading list on his blog. In essence, this means that instead of blaming ignorance for his very shallow misrepresentations of non-Catholic theology and exegesis, we must now assert knowing deception."

    Will that be your approach now, too, once you have discovered that I was not nearly as ignorant as you would like to make out presently? I hope not.

    My "brief and superficial experience with Evangelicalism" included intense anti-cult research and many other informal studies on various theological topics. You can see, e.g., what sort of thing I was doing and writing back then by perusing the following papers (dated 1982 and 1987). If you want to classify this as "superficial," you have every right to, but I don't think one out of hundred evangelicals who read this stuff would agree with you.

    Biblical Refutation of "Hyperfaith" / "Name-it-Claim it" Teaching: Is it Always God's Will to Heal in Every Instance?

    Jehovah's Witnesses: "The Apocalyptic Arians": A Biblical and Historical Critique

    This experience included intensive street witnessing at the Ann Arbor Art Fair in Michigan, for ten straight years, and in many other places (often, Kingdom Halls or Marxist meetings), and a five-year stint as a campus evangelist.

    As for "attending emotive, anti-intellectual churches," this is also grossly inaccurate. It is true that I attended some charismatic churches, but they were not "anti-intellectual" by any means (if they had been, I wouldn't have been there in the first place). One of the non-denominational churches I went to had an assistant pastor who had a master's in philosophy. Later, the pastor was Al Kresta, one of the sharpest people I have ever met, who had a very popular evangelical talk show for ten years in the Detroit area, on the largest Christian radio station, WMUZ. He later converted to Catholicism, but in any event, he is no anti-intellectual, by any stretch of the imagination.

    I also started out at a Lutheran church, with a brilliant, missions and outreach-minded pastor named Dick Bieber. Lutherans are generally not accused of anti-intellectualism, to my knowledge.

    The man who "baptized" me (when I believed in adult believer's baptism), and who married me has a Ph.D. in education, etc. Another good friend, who pastored a Reformed Baptist church that we often attended, eventually obtained his Ph.D. and is now a professor at a college in Michigan. Hardly "anti-intellectual" circles again . . .

    You can stereotype charismatics if you wish as "emotive and anti-intellectual," but as in all categories (even Calvinism) you can always find solid proponents and shallow ones. I believe in the spiritual gifts, on biblical grounds. I never believed, however, that everyone had to speak in tongues in order to truly be indwelt with the Holy Spirit, because I saw that as contrary to Paul's clear teaching on the gifts.

    At the same time, also, I was issuing strong critiques of excesses within the charismatic movement (see the paper above about healing: from 1982). I was strongly criticizing Jim Bakker even before the big scandal hit. I attended MENSA groups and meetings of university philosophy professors during my evangelical apologist / evangelist period in the late 80s. Etc., etc., etc. "Anti-intellectual"? Um, I don't think so. Strange that you would claim this.

    I became an avid pro-lifer and participant in Operation Rescue all during my evangelical period. Was all this "a shallow brand of Evangelicalism"? I think not.

    The only way you could make such a claim (having truly understood my background) would be on the basis that all non-Calvinist brands of evangelicalism are "shallow" and "superficial." I think that is rather silly and laughable (and would apparently include even your own compatriot Jason Engwer), but then I think that about the tiny anti-Catholic wing of evangelicalism too.

    So, thanks again for the nice things you said, but I had to correct the misrepresentations of the state of my theological and spiritual knowledge and what sort of fellowships I was involved in as an evangelical.

    I converted precisely for the reasons that I have explained in my four or five different accounts. It wasn't because I was ignorant of evangelical Protestantism. It wasn't because I despised or hated same or came to regard it as worthless. It wasn't because I was disenchanted with where I was. My journey began out of simple intellectual curiosity about why Catholic believed certain things that I thought were exceedingly strange and puzzling (particularly, the ban on contraception, and infallibility).

    Many of the things I hold very dear now (love of the Bible, interest in Christian worldview, pro-life, opposing cults and atheists, evangelism, fighting cultural sexual immorality, apologetics in general, strong family values, political conservatism, concern for the poor, love for great Christian authors and thinkers) were cultivated during those days. That's where I initially learned all that stufff. It was the air I breathed. I'll always be thankful for that and remember those times with the utmost fondness. Ironically, you appear to view many of your evangelical brothers and sisters far, far more negatively than I would ever dream of characterizing my own past.

    You see, those of us who were evangelical and loved it, who later become Catholics, don't have to reject our past and regard it as an evil, bad thing. We simply think that we have come to understand in faith some additional elements of Christianity that were lacking in our previous Christian circles (a sense of history, sacramentalism, ecclesiology, the saints, greater emphasis on the Incarnation and actual sanctification, etc.).

    As I wrote recently, it isn't "evil vs. good". Rather, it is a matter of "very good" and "better" or "a great deal of truth" and "the fullness of truth" or "excellent" and "best."

    I cross-posted this on my blog:

    In Him,

    Dave Armstrong

  3. Hi Dan,

    The term "apostasy" carries with it a heavy presumption that the apostate is a hell-bound reprobate.

    I think it's unwarranted to assume that all Catholics or converts to Catholicism are damned.

    In addition, when you use the same adjective for Dave Armstrong or Scott Hahn that you use for John Spong or Robert Price, the charge loses credibility and can backfire.

    In fact, some former evangelicals have swum the Tiber precisely because they discovered a disconnect between hyperbolic polemics and the less lurid reality.

    We should avoid the temptation to exaggerate and overplay our hand.

  4. "the charge loses credibility"

    What "credibility"? So-called "apostates" merely snicker when the superstitious wax angry at the fact that some have simply grown up.