Book Review: The Catholic Verses, by Dave Armstrong

A number of former Protestant Evangelicals, like me, claim that the reason we became Catholic was that for the first time the Bible, as a whole, suddenly made sense. As Protestants we were always trying to find a logical way for the “Bible difficulties” we encountered to fit together into a cohesive whole.

Bible Difficulties

“Bible difficulties” are what Protestant-Evangelical scholars call the result of comparing desperately different Bible texts that create paradoxes. For example, Romans 3:28 seems to says we are saved by faith not works, but in James 2 we are told that works are necessary for our salvation; while in Hebrews 11 we were are told not only is faith necessary, but that the ancients were justified by their works. For the Protestant, correlating these texts into a cohesive theology that makes the Bible capable of standing alone (without an interpreter) becomes difficult. It is for this reason that the full title of the book is The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Sophia Press).

The crux of these Protestant biblical difficulties is what I call the Protestant Fallacies. Protestantism cannot exist without using linguistic fallacies to force-fit a host of biblical texts into molds that crack under the slightest pressure of scrutiny. I’d like to say that Dave Armstrong’s The Catholic Verses, dares to use a sledge-hammer on these molds, smashing them to smithereens. But Dave’s style is more like a soft but relentless tapping of a rubber mallet. Nonetheless, the result is the same. Smithereens!

 

But I digress into hyperbole.

Fallacies, Armstrong shows, are necessary to keep the Protestant lifeboat afloat. They are like dirty rags jammed into the holes of an old wooden dinghy suffering from dry rot. (There I go again.) Let me give you a few examples of Protestant Fallacies that Armstrong elucidates.

Special pleading. This is used to explain 1 Timothy 3:15 “the household of God, which is the church of the living god, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Armstrong quotes Methodist Adam Clarke about this verse: “Never was there a greater variety of opinions on any portion of sacred Scripture….” And then Armstrong summarizes Clarke’s special pleading that possibly the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” could refer to Timothy, God Himself, revealed truth, or the mystery of godliness. But never can Clarke take the literal meaning — the Church — for fear of admitting that the Catholic Church just might be the literal and direct meaning of the text (Armstrong, p. 6).

Attacking a straw man, obfuscation, and appeal to emotion. Calvin: “The Pope hath made such [doctrine] always as seemed best to him, contrary to the word of God.” Says Armstrong, “It is an old lawyer’s tactic: when one has no (biblical) case, attempt to caricature the opponent, obfuscate, and appeal to emotions rather than to reason” (Armstrong, p. 10).

False dichotomy, either/or argument. Protestants continue to label Catholic theology as a “salvation by works” system, claiming the correct biblical understanding is salvation by faith alone. Armstrong quotes numerous Bible passages showing that both faith and works are necessary and that they both are the result of God’s grace (Armstrong, p. 63-68).

This naming of fallacies is what I believe to be long overdue in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue. Fallacies are the language of polemics, which is the art of selecting evidence and ignoring the counter-evidence to support a foregone conclusion.

Unique Technique

Armstrong’s technique in The Catholic Verses is unique among the Catholic apologetic books I’ve studied. Like other books, the text is divided into topical chapters: The Church, Divisions and Denominationalism, Bible and Tradition, The Papacy, Justification and Salvation, Judgment and Good works, Baptism, The Eucharist, Penance, The Communion of Saints, Relics and Sacramentals, Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead, The Blessed Virgin Mary, Clerical Celibacy, Divorce, and Contraception — sixteen chapters in all.

But rather than just explain the Catholic position, Armstrong begins each section with a collection of Bible “proof” texts that do two things at the same time. They (a) support the Catholic position on the topic, and (b) undermine the Protestant position by using Protestantism’s own technique — the “Bible alone.”

The uniqueness of Armstrong’s approach is in what comes next. He liberally quotes Protestant leaders and commentators on these same verses and puts these quotes next to each other, and in one place summarizes their conclusions in a table to prove that Protestants cannot interpret these passages with any consistency or assurance of absolute truth. A great deal of fundamental theology for Protestants is “through a glass darkly.” The juxtaposition of Protestant quotes trying to explain away the difficulties in place of the explicit and plain Catholic meaning not only reveals the desperate measures Protestant theology must resort to, but is, at times, humorous.

The implicit running joke in the book is the vision of Luther, Calvin, Clarke and a host of others arguing among themselves over what a Bible passage means, yet never arriving at a consensus. But even though they cannot agree among themselves, they do agree on one thing — the Catholic Church is wrong. The image pops into mind of two companies of soldiers marching in a parade, one behind the other. The company in front marches together, each in sync with each other and the drumbeat. But in the second company, no solider is marching in sync with any of the others; each marches to a different drummer. Nevertheless, with one voice this second company yells at the company in front, “Get in step!” Can anyone wonder at the confused look on a Catholic’s face when a Protestant, in an attempt to “save” the Catholic, tries to explain the “false teachings” of Catholicism?

Armstrong adeptly points out that the main reason Protestants can’t agree among themselves on doctrine is because they’re too preoccupied with not being Catholic. Protestant theology is based more on “not being Catholic” than “being a Bible Christian.” Armstrong gives more than one example of the “logic” and “analytical” exegesis that his Protestant witnesses bring to the stand. Armstrong points out that because Protestants reject the infallibility interpretation of the Church (decreed by Christ in the New Testament), Protestants are stuck with the Bible alone. Without an infallible interpreter, Calvin, Luther and others found using the Bible alone intellectually inadequate, and so to make their points they often lapsed into fits of outrageous, unbiblical, fallacious logic. Here’s an example from Luther writing about clerical celibacy:

The sum of it all is that pope, devil, and his church hate the estate of matrimony…that is to say that marriage is harlotry, sin, impure, and rejected by God; and although they [Catholics] say, at the same time, that it is holy and a sacrament, that is a lie of their false hearts…. Because they do forbid [priests to marry], they must consider [marriage] unclean, and a sin, as they plainly say…. (On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; Armstrong, page 196)

Changed Doctrine

An enlightening by-product of Armstrong’s analysis is the revelation of how much Protestant doctrine has reversed itself from the original Reformers to today. Anti-Catholic sentiment incorrectly claims that Catholicism has changed or reversed fundamental dogma over the centuries, leading Catholicism into corruption. While many who are ignorant of Catholic doctrine believe this, no one has ever been able to point to a single doctrine where such a reversal has occurred. But the same is not true of Protestantism, and Armstrong proves it by comparing the original Reformers’ claims with contemporary Protestant theology — well, with some contemporary Protestant theology, inasmuch as there’s little agreement.

For example, one issue debated is whether or not the Eucharist is the real flesh and blood of Christ, or is symbolic, as is held by most Evangelicals today. The debate here must focus on the Catholic Mass, not common “communion” in most Protestant and Evangelical settings where there is no debate — there, the communion elements are and can only be symbolic because there is no consecration and there is no priest to perform it. But Luther rejected the symbolic view of the Eucharist, and Armstrong says that Luther would be horrified if he could see how Protestants have reversed this doctrine. Luther writes:

[S]ince we are confronted by God’s words, “This is My body” — distinct, clear, common, definite words, which certainly are no trope, either in Scripture or in any language — we must embrace them with faith…. [N]ot as hairsplitting sophistry dictates, but as God says them for us, we must repeat these words after Him and hold to them. (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; Armstrong, p. 116)

For Catholics, The Catholic Verses is an accessible explanation of why Protestants continue to sidestep, ignore, mumble, or just pretend certain Bible verses do not exist, while at the same time claiming to hold the Bible up as the inspired, inerrant Word of God which contains everything we need to know for salvation. For Protestants The Catholic Verses demonstrates that Catholics also believe that the Bible, read with and in the Church, contains everything we need to know for salvation. Armstrong gives ample and convincing evidence that when you look at the Bible through Catholic eyes, it all fits together and makes sense; there are no contradictions, there is absolute truth, and God and Jesus become real instead of the mystical uncertainty with which Protestantism must be satisfied. Let us pray that this book helps many of them to recognize the irrationality of their protest and join us at the Lord’s table.

© Copyright 2005 Stan Williams

Dr. Stan Williams is Executive Producer for SWC Films, an independent film and television production company. He is the producer of the television series currently in production titled Reformation Paradox: The Renaissance of Christianity, and is the author of the motion picture screenplay writing guide: The Moral Premise: The Guiding Principle of Writing and Making Great Films to be released in 2006. His website is www.stanwilliams.com and he can be reached at SWC@StanWilliams.com.

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