Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reformed Polemics 2.0

Carl Trueman recently did a post noting the need for an up-to-date response to Roman Catholicism. This has stirred some controversy. I’ll venture a few comments:

1. Dated scholarship

In the conflict with Rome, dated scholarship can still be very useful. But we need to draw some distinctions and consider the limitations of dated scholarship.

i) There’s a difference between quality dated scholarship and pop dated scholarship. For instance, Boettner’s monograph on Rome is an example of pop dated scholarship. The problem is not simply that it’s out-of-date. The larger problem is that even at the time of writing it was never well-researched.

It’s an overrated book because it was written by a Calvinist, and, as such, had the benefit of a sympathetic, built-in constituency.

But works like Boettner can be counterproductive. They can unwittingly queue people raised in Calvinism or evangelicalism to turn their back on the Protestant faith. For once you discover what shoddy scholarship it is, it’s easy to feel hoodwinked. Catholic epologists prey on ill-equipped evangelicals.

ii) Quality scholarship in the conflict with Rome includes Calvin, Turrettin, Chemnitz, Owen, Whitaker, Cunningham, Mozley, Goode, Salmon, von Döllinger, and early Berkouwer. 

2. Up-to-date scholarship

There’s a dialectical relationship between quality dated scholarship and contemporary scholarship. The dated scholarship documents the state of play at the time of writing, while contemporary scholarship documents the theological developments and reversals since the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

It’s helpful to have both the historical witness and the current stage to compare and contrast the past with the present. You need both perspectives to see the relationship.

3. Catholic scholarship

Modern Catholic Bible scholars and church historians frequently challenge the historical and exegetical underpinnings of the traditional case for Rome. It’s important to draw attention to this in-house critique.

4. Dissidents

While dissidents like Hans Küng don’t speak for Catholicism, he writes about a critical, transitional phase in modern Catholicism from the vantage point of an insider and eyewitness observer. He lived through that period. He lived that period. He knew all the major players. He can report on horse-trading that took place behind closed doors.

In the nature of the case, you won’t be getting that from the loyalists. Their lips are sealed.

5. Reformed scholarship

Calvinism is making great strides in the field of exegetical theology. This places Reformed theology on a firmer footing. It better positions us to respond to both traditional and contemporary objections to Reformed theology or evangelical theology from Rome’s apologists.

6. Evangelical scholarship

Outside the Reformed stable there is also a wealth of often excellent material on canonics, church history, and exegetical theology which can be redeployed in the conflict with Rome.

7. Liberal scholarship

Liberal scholarship, both Catholic and Protestant, can sometimes be useful in the conflict with Rome. You don’t have to be a liberal to use liberal scholarship. To begin with, even a liberal can get some things right some of the time.

But beyond that, the church of Rome has moved to the left in its view of Scripture. Therefore, we’re simply responding to Rome on her own terms, for the sake of argument.

8. Dogmatics

Reformed dogmatics and Reformed systematics present a useful exposition of the Reformed faith. They give traditional prooftexts. Summarize the traditional supporting arguments.

However, this can’t do the work of polemical or exegetical theology. It takes too much for granted.

9. Catholic epologetics

Modern Catholic epologetics is generally driven by converts and reverts. A rearguard action that’s to the right of the Catholic establishment. It recycles obsolete arguments.

Becoming conversant with mainstream Catholic scholarship provides a necessary corrective to the quaint, Hallmark card depiction of Catholicism peddled by the self-anointed lay Catholic guardians of neverland.

10. The perennial conflict

At this juncture in history, Catholicism and Protestantism are both too big to destroy each other. Both will likely continue, with variations, until the end of the church age.

However, what’s old is new to the younger generation. So, to some extent, we must keep refighting the same battles. Even if the battle was “won” a generation ago, that victory will be forgotten by the next generation.

In addition, some of the landmarks have moved. So it’s not just a case of refighting the same battles. We also need to show how, under cover of darkness, the other side abandoned some traditional outposts and retreated to more defensible positions.

In all likelihood, the church of Rome is here to say. What we are doing is to take a chain cutter to the Roman fence. This gives the inmates an opportunity to escape. Some will seize the opportunity while others will remain dutiful captives, guarding their own prison.

11. Marquess of Queensberry

You can win fair-n-square, but still lose. You only win if you play be the rules–assuming the other side is equally honorable. But life isn’t fair. So if you wish to win, you must go beyond the call of duty.

12. Beggars All

One blog that’s doing as much as anyone, and more than most, to fill the gap is http://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/


  1. Thanks, Steve. That's a very helpful post. I will certainly ponder these things. You cited the blog that you think is doing the most. If you were going to recommend one book, what would it be? Maybe the folks at Beggars All should write a book.

  2. Yes, Steve. A very reflective post dealing with some of CT's most recent comments without the knee-jerk reaction. The kind of post I would have written if I had...

    ...your knowledge of these things...

    ...your articulative writing skills...

    ...your readership...

  3. Steve, I can't thank you enough for this overview of the issues and for the public affirmation here. The fact that Rome confounds evangelicals, and Reformed evangelicals especially, shows the necessity of re-fighting the battles that have been fought in past generations.

    I think we have a tremendous opportunity to press for significant concessions from Rome in our generation -- we know more today -- and Rome seems more aware than ever of the shakiness, and the non-existent nature, of its own history.

    And the communication speed of the internet makes it likely that anyone in the world can know the same things at the same time.

    I believe good days are ahead for the Reformation vs. Rome.

  4. I remember in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Christian passes the dead or dying giants "Pagan" and "Pope." Pope is described as a toothless, weak giant. I had a hard time believing that when I was feeling the pull of Roman Catholicism from my former fundamentalism.

    Triablogue and Beggars All are daily reading for me.

  5. Kurt, a lot of people have been fooled by Rome over the centuries. It's a tribute to the power of a bureaucracy. They had a long time to work out their "story". And some people will believe anything.

    Maybe in our day, Bunyan's prophecy will become more evident.

    Thanks for reading.

  6. Steve,
    Thanks for this - great overview of issues in dealing with Roman Catholicism - is there an on-line critique (or book) of Boettner that corrects his mistakes, but honors his theology and right points?

  7. Right after I posted this, I noticed Turretinfan has written a new post on Boettner and answers some of my questions.