Archive for the ‘Warnings’ Category

Avoiding Landmines in Roman Catholic Apologetics

May 6, 2009


One branch of Apologetics deals with responses to the challenges to the faith brought by Catholicism. Since one apologist for Catholicism has recently posted a list of unsound arguments that are sometimes used by those defending Catholicism, I thought I’d post a similar list that at least identifies some areas of caution for Reformed apologists addressing Rome.

1. Eschatological Identifications

Yes, it may well be that Rome should be identified with the Whore of Babylon and that the Pope is the Antichrist. Our doctrinal standards (at least those of us that hold to the same 17th century standards as they were drafted) do identify the Pope as the Antichrist, and there are good reasons for adopting this view.

Nevertheless, these arguments don’t really deal with the central issue of the gospel itself. Any argument that the Pope is the Antichrist or that Rome is the Whore require one to address the issue of whether Pope preaches the gospel or not. If he does, then clearly he is not the Antichrist nor is Rome the Whore.

Furthermore, of course, outwardly at least John Paul II and the Benedict XVI (the two most prominent popes in the minds of folks these days) were relatively decent human beings. They were not like the late medieval popes. Therefore, people have a harder emotional time dealing with arguments that seem almost ad hominem (though, of course, the argument is about the office), when the popes are outwardly moral.

Also, people have tons of trouble with the fact that “anti” in “Antichrist” is a Greek root, not a Latin root, and means “substitute” or “vicar” not “opponent” as such. That, coupled with the general difficulty associated with divining the sense of prophecy caution against using the antichristian nature of the papacy (or similar eschatological issues) as a primary argument against Catholicism. It is something better left for situations where a belligerent Romanist insists on hashing it out.

2. Sexual Abuse Allegations

Yes, sexual abuse may be a real problem in Catholicism. It may even be the necessary and natural outworking of the celibate priesthood that Rome imposes. Nevertheless, again, it is not the central issue. There are occasionally good, Christian men who fall into sin. Recall David’s terrible sin with Bathsheba.

There may even be a place for noting the widespread nature of the sexual abuse problem when Roman Catholics place the character of their bishopric into issue. Nevertheless, in general, the fact that there is sexual abuse in Catholicism is simply a reason not to make your son an altar boy or your daughter a nun, not a reason to repent and trust in Christ alone for salvation.

It’s not a central issue, and it shouldn’t be your primary argument against Catholicism. It should be something you should bring up with reluctance, and something that you should place in perspective.

3. Dates on Doctrines

Yes, doctrines within Roman Catholicism are not static and modern Catholicism’s beliefs do not much resemble the beliefs taught in the Bible or believed in the early church. Nevertheless, be careful about trying to assign dates to particular doctrines.

For example, it is frequent to see on various websites a list of doctrines and dates. The dates are when the doctrine was supposedly invented. The idea is to press home to the Roman Catholic the fact that his church has made up a lot of stuff as it went along.

There are usually a few problems with these lists. Sometimes the lists are actually not what you think they are. For example, sometimes the lists are when the doctrines were defined not when they were innovated. That’s an important difference. For example, in the case of transubstantiation, we may have a doctrine that is innovated in perhaps the 11th century and then defined in the 12th century (don’t rely on those dates, please – they are very approximate and just intended to illustrate the general point).

A more dramatic example is the Apocrypha. The dogmatic definition that requires Roman Catholics to accept the Apocrypha comes from Trent in the 16th century, but one can find many older writers (perhaps even a millennium before) who seemingly accept the Apocrypha as inspired.

It’s important to remember that a lot of things in Catholicism were the result of a gradual development over a long period of time. As such, pinning specific dates on doctrines is liable to error and can place one in an embarrassing position.

4. “The” Roman Catholic Position

Yes, there is sometimes a single Roman Catholic position on something. For example, in theory the canons of the council of Trent are “the” Roman Catholic position on Justification (and several other topics). Very often, however, there are a myriad of positions on a particular topic within Roman Catholicism. Despite all of their myths and propaganda regarding the need for unity, Roman Catholicism has an amazing amount of diversity of views on subjects that would cause denominational splits within typical “Protestant” denominations.

So be careful. Just because you yourself were a Roman Catholic doesn’t guarantee that what you were taught is going to match what a Roman Catholic from Timbuktu was taught. Just because your friend who is a Roman Catholic said that Roman Catholics believe “x” doesn’t make that the only view.

As a result, either deal with the declarations of the specific person you’re talking to, or qualify your statements with references to sources. For example, if you want to address liberal Catholicism, identify who your source for “the Roman Catholic view” is. Likewise, if you want to go with the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (a fairly official document) cite it as your source.

Be careful, recognizing that your Roman Catholic friend or acquaintance may be more or less familiar with his religion than you are. There are many times that I encounter Roman Catholics who either were badly catechized or simply not good learners, who have no idea what the official positions of Roman Catholicism (as expressed through the various available mechanisms) are. Other times you may discover that your friend is a canon lawyer who can explain the ins and outs of very arcane matters of church law that would be beyond the ken of the typical parish priest.

And if you got “the Roman Catholic Position” from one of Jack Chick’s tracts, double-check it. Maybe he got it right, maybe he got it wrong, but quoting him as your source is not going to be very compelling for the Roman Catholic to whom you are speaking. Do a little more research and find a more detailed explanation of the issue.

5. Martyrologies

Yes, everyone that is involved in apologetics with Roman Catholicism should obtain and carefully read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (link) and there may be other similarly edifying histories. However, again, the fact that Rome has slain Christians is not the primary argument against Rome. The Reformers themselves executed folks for religious crimes (such as blasphemy) and so did those Jews who followed the Mosaic law.

The question largely is whether Rome teaches the gospel or not. If Rome does, then many of those whom she persecuted in the middle ages were not Christians. More importantly, perhaps, Rome’s inquisition did not target only Christians but also blasphemers, witches, Muslims, and Jews. The fact that Christians were persecuted by Rome is not in itself a primary argument for someone to become a Christian since Rome also persecuted witches.

6. Arguments You Don’t Understand

There are lots of good, Scriptural arguments against Roman Catholicism. If you don’t understand them, though, you have no business using them. I’ll list a few:

a) “One Mediator”

If you cannot answer the objection that Christians ask each other to pray for another, you shouldn’t be using the “One Mediator” argument. The argument itself is perfectly fine, and it is clear that Catholicism is against Scripture on this matter. You, however, need to carefully understand what it means to be a mediator as well as how the Roman Catholic appeals to Mary, Angels, and the Saints violate the Scriptures.

b) “Call No Man Father”

If you cannot answer the objection that Christians call their birth fathers “father,” you shouldn’t be using the “Call No Man Father” argument. The argument itself is a perfectly fine one against the use of the title “Father” for every priest, but only if you understand the relationship between the injunction and the Roman Catholic usage of the term “Father” as a title.

c) “Petra not Petros

If you cannot answer the objection that the Aramaic would not have any distinction between the two terms, you shouldn’t be using the “Petra not Petros” argument. The argument itself is an acceptable argument, particularly if it is reinforced with more direct grammatical arguments (for example, Petra not se). Furthermore, the objection from a speculative Aramaic source (whether from a claim that conversation was in Aramaic, or from a claim that the evangelic text was originally written in that tongue) can be easily identified as nothing more than baseless speculation. However, one has to be aware of the typical counter-arguments and why those counter-arguments miss the point.

7. Scriptures You Don’t Understand

This is perhaps a variation on (6). The point here is that you need to know the Scriptures yourself before you can instruct someone else. You need to be familiar with the Word of God if you want to lead someone else to Christ by it.

I don’t say this to discourage young or immature believers, but to encourage you to grow in faith and in the knowledge of the Lord. The Bible describes the Christian apologist as being armed for battle with the “whole armour of God.” In that armour, the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God.

If you were going to go to battle these days, you’d hit the target range and make sure you could hit the target from at least point-blank range. In the days of swords, you’d want to hone your skills whether with stylized sports like fencing or with more practical and direct martial training.

The same is true of the spiritual warfare that we fight. Christian apologists against every false gospel must be prepared and thoroughly.

8. Falsehood

Be scrupulously honest. Not all our opponents are honest opponents. Still, we are called to be truthful in all our dealings. The fact that the other side is not (or we think they are not) does not justify untruthful or inaccurate claims from us.

9. Arrogance

Avoid arrogance. If you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit that you erred and to correct your mistake. This will, of course, damage the patina of perfection that you had going for you, but it is the better course of action.

I’m not saying you have to grovel, but simply admit your mistakes and move on. Learn from the experience, and remember that you are merely a human being who can and does err. Maybe your honesty will win over your opponent, maybe it will lead him to mock you. You cannot control that, but you can maintain your own integrity by correcting your mistakes.

10. Church History

The history of Christianity is not simple. Roman Catholicism certainly sometimes tries to portray it as simple. Sometimes apologists who deal with Roman Catholics try to portray it in simple but opposite terms. Don’t fall into that error.

I’m not suggesting we cannot argue from church history. Rather, I am suggesting that one should approach church history with caution, as well as with a mind that church history is not our rule of faith: scripture is.

There are certain general statements that can be made about church history. As with most ares of history, however, there are numerous complexities. This is illustrated by several points:

a) Diversity Amongst the Church Fathers

On a lot of topics there was immense diversity both among the early Christian writers in general and even among those that are viewed as “church fathers.” If you say, “No one ever believed ‘x'” – you may quickly find yourself facing some obscure quotation from a “saint” that you never heard of before.

b) Development of Individual Fathers

Like all Christians should, many of the church fathers grew in their knowledge of God throughout their life. Accordingly, one sees some fathers (Augustine is a notable example) retracting explicitly or implicitly positions that they had held earlier in life.

As with many of us, the battles they faced inform and alter their perspective. We are much more cautious talking about the atonement in view of the Remonstrant controversy now than the Reformers were before then. The same is true of the caution that various major controversies provoked during church history.

c) Paucity of Data

There is a scarcity of patristic data, even though the works of the Greek and Latin fathers can fill almost 400 volumes in Migne’s patrology. Many fathers have left only a few works behind. Other fathers have left many works behind, but have also been subjected to forgery by pseudonymous urchins, which have attempted to promote their own works under the name of a more famous writer.

Furthermore, even where the works are genuine there is often suspicion or even proof that the works have been subject to interpolation by later authors. Ignatius’ works are famous in this regard, but others are not immune from this problem.

Oftentimes as well, there is a gigantic gap in the textual transmission of these early Christian writers with the earliest copy of a given work sometimes being a full millennium after the death of the author. These gaps in the transmission make tracking down the original text much more difficult.

Finally, of course, there are numerous writers whose works have been lost for a variety of reasons. For example, works that spoke out against the idolatry of icons were intentionally destroyed in the 8th century. Likewise, most of Nestorius’ works have been similar lost. We also see Jerome’s opponents on a variety of topics represented only in the extant works of Jerome, with their own works being lost in time.

11. False Ecumenism

For whatever reason, some folks seem to think that they will be in a better position to witness to Roman Catholics if they tell the Roman Catholics that they accept them as Christian brethren. This is just bad thinking.

If you think Roman Catholics are your Christian brethren, why are you witnessing to them? Why are you bringing them the gospel if you think they already have it? I understand that such an ecumenical statement may help lower defenses, but it really is inconsistent with your evangelical purpose.

After all, the only folks that need a physician are those who are sick. If you go around telling people that they are well, they’re not going to be offended by you, but they’re also not going to seek a doctor.

That’s not to say that everyone who is currently affiliated with the Roman Catholic church is consequently unsaved. After all, as I’ve noted above, there is great diversity within Catholicism, and it is possible for those within Catholicism to read the Scripture and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

That gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, however, is not the message of Catholicism. It should not, therefore, be one’s default position that those within Catholicism have the gospel, and it is foolish (on our part) and dangerous (to their souls) for us to treat Roman Catholic apologists as though they were our brethren: in defending the gospel of Rome against the gospel of Christ they are giving strong contrary evidence of grace in their heart.

A friend of mine put it this way, with which I agree:

Our regard, generally speaking, of the lost condition of Romanists is (contrary to their complaints) a judgment of charity, because it exhibits a concern for their never-dying souls, and should always be kept in mind in dealing with them. This regard for their lost condition is not because we bear them animosity, but because we care for their souls.


We must be ready always to give an answer (to every man that asks us) a reason of the hope that is in us. We must do so with meekness and fear, having a good conscience. We must arm ourselves with truth, with righteousness, with the gospel of peace, with the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit: the Word of God.

We must always pray, both for the salvation of the lost and for strength in the battle for ourselves. Pray also for us, brethren, who are actively engaged in boldly proclaiming the gospel to those who need to hear it. If Paul needed prayer to boldly proclaim the gospel, we certainly need it as well.


Rocks Ahead!

June 16, 2008

Those of us who live inland are sometimes blissful unaware of the dangers of coastal navigation in boats. In old times, it would be routine for some sailors to make their living guiding out-of-town boats through the waters even of a harbor out to the ocean, assisting them in avoiding submerged rocks, and sandy shoals that could sink a ship, or cause it to become stuck. When such a pilot was not available, those operating the ship would have to keep their eyes peeled for clues as to the dangers at hand, and proceed cautiously. Thus, “Rocks Ahead” would be a call of alarm, much like the call “Iceberg Dead Ahead” became a chilling warning of impending doom in the cinematic portrayal of the Titanic’s demise.

So to, I’d like to try to help a bit in this regard. There are a few rocks that I’ve noticed, that I’d like to draw to your attention – rocks that are especially dangerous to young or new Christians, rocks that are especially dangerous to developing Christians, and rocks that are dangerous to mature Christians.

I. New Christians – Zeal and Love without Knowledge

Many who come to faith in Christ, whether young or old, come with great zeal and love of God. Usually, however, they have a rather minimal understanding of theology and the Bible. They are eager to serve God who they love, but they don’t always know how. This can pose a danger because their lack of knowledge can lead to gullibility or to misdirected zeal.

The solution, the way to avoid these rocks, is to study Scripture. Learn what God has to say in the Word. That is not to say that one must only study Scripture unassisted by human aids. When one uses human aids, even the aids of excellent commentators like Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, or John Gill, one needs to be cautious carefully comparing what the commentator said to the Word of God, remembering that the commentator is a man, and that men sometimes make mistakes: even Godly men.

II. Developing Christians – Inadequate Methodology

Christians who have started studying sometimes seem to forget the rock summarized by the adage: “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” These are Christians who have found some useful tool or other for studying Scripture, have been delighted by the influx of knowledge they have gleaned from it, and have overlooked their own lack of experience in using it or (perhaps) lack of gifts in applying it.

The most frequent example of this sort of behavior that I have seen is the misuse of lexicons. These days one can find on-line dictionaries and, for Greek, parsing software, that can enable a person with very little training or actual linguistic or even grammatical skill to unearth some of the nuances of the Bible.

This sort of thing can have its place, certainly. Strong’s lexicon and concordance are an invaluable (that means “of enormous value”) resource. It is helpful to be able to learn sometimes that the Greek word for “suffer” in the verse “suffer the little children to come” means to permit, not to torture. Another example, is to look up the Greek word underlying “whosoever” in John 3:16 to discover that the Greek word means “all.”

A lexicon, though, has to be used carefully. Languages, especially ancient languages, are full of traps for the unwary. One typical example of such a trap is the use of paraphrastic constructions: ways of saying something in a roundabout or indirect manner. We sometimes do this in English, though much more rarely. For example, one might consider the expression “I am going to sell my house,” to be an example of an English paraphrastic way of saying, “I will sell my house.” Someone who did not know English, and who only had a lexicon and/or some parsing software might conclude, by looking up each word individually, that the person was trying to say that he was presently (“am”) moving (“going”) to a closing on the sale of a house. In fact, the person simply means that he will sell his house, and “am going to sell” is a round-about way to express that.

Another example of this sort of error can be found in the use of “word studies.” I have met many Christians who seem to live and die by word studies. Typically, these people will do the word studies in English in some English version (such as the KJV), but a few will do the same in Greek. Again, these studies can have value. For example, one might want to know the semantic range of a particular Biblical word, such as “Lord.” A word study is a way to discover (in English) that the word “Lord” is used of a variety of different referents, and not only about our Lord God.

On the other hand, these word studies can (especially when performed only in English) be misleading and dangerous. For example, while it may be helpful to find out that some particular word is used 99% of the time in the context of judgment, that statistical analysis (at best) provides a default position for understanding the term in the context you are considering. Assuming that the Bible always uses words the same way is a sure way to lead to absurd results. Consider, for example, the problem with assuming that the words in “For God so loved the world,” and “If any man love the world,” are supposed to have precisely the same meaning.

Finally, a third example combines the last two techniques, in a way. In the third example, the person uses Strong’s number for the word (translated “X” in English) in question in verse A and finds out that the same word has been translated with meaning “Y” in one or several other verses. The person then concludes that since the word can mean “Y” in those other verses, it can mean “Y” in verse A. This sort of analysis overlooks the complexity of translation, and the importance of understanding a word’s semantic range as limited by the context in which the word is used. What one has to be especially cautious of, is finding a word in a verse that does not fit one’s theology, running to a lexicon, and finding a definition within the general semantic range of that word that does fit one’s theology, and then insisting that the word has been either poorly translated or mistranslated by others (especially when this means claiming that the verse has been wrongly translated by virtually all the previous translators).

The solution for each of these errors is to be cautious and cognizant of one’s own academic, linguistic, and grammatical abilities. Don’t assume that Strong’s Concordance makes you a Greek scholar, and be cautious about standing opposed to Greek scholars when it comes to translating Greek (or Hebrew for that matter, though fewer people seem to get hooked on trying to re-translate the Hebrew). If your translation of a verse doesn’t jive with either the traditional translation (KJV or the like) or the newer translations (ESV or NASB), consider whether perhaps you may have made a mistake, and try to learn why the other translators translated it the way they did. They may know something you do not. In fact, they may know plenty that you do not.

III. Mature Christians – Pride

Knowledge truly can puff up. It’s easy for mature Christians, having studied the Bible extensively, having learned theology in many nuances to become proud and think that have arrived at a full understanding or a methodology that does not need external correction. This is sometimes seen in the “Not Invented Here” (NIH) syndrome. NIH rejects ideas that one did not think of oneself. If someone tries to provide new light on an issue, a person suffering from NIH simply rejects it out of hand, “I never heard of that.”

This kind of stubbornness can be helpful in keeping the mature Christian from being buffeted by every wind of doctrine. On the other hand, this can stop the growth of the mature Christian. It is always important for the mature Christian to be ready to go back and reconsider his views in light of Scripture. That does not mean we hold views that have been demonstrated from Scripture without tenacity. Instead, it means that we are careful to remember that we two are merely men, and in need of the sharpening iron of our fellow Christians.

This kind of stubbornness can also lead to another problem: disrespect for God-given spiritual authorities. That is to say, Christian men can (aware of their own well-developed knowledge) become scornful of the elders that God has given them for their spiritual edification. It’s fairly common knowledge that in many households one of the main items at Sunday lunch is Roast Sermon, in which problems (real or perceived) in the sermon are dissected and amplified as though under a microscope. That is not to say that there is not a place for sermon criticism, simply that it is easy for people to forget that their elders have an important and God-ordained rule in providing teaching and spiritual rule. We can disagree Scripturally with them, but we must not allow ourselves to become disdainful of their gifts, while pretending to be under their leadership.

This problem extends beyond the man-elder relationship to the wife-husband relation and the child-parent relationship. While children normally would fall into one of the two previous categories, should a child by God’s grace develop a mature understanding of Scripture while still a child, he must still remember the place and purpose not only of his elders, but of his parents as well. Likewise, wives need to remember that their primary human authority in spiritual matters is their husband. This can be especially difficult for wives who are more well read in theological matters than their husbands. The solution there is partly for the wives to learn humility, but also for the husbands to study harder: study the Word so that your wife will not have to ask for your help, but will be eager to ask for your help when it comes to understanding what was preached in church, or what is taught in Scripture.

With these cautions, let us do our best to navigate (with the help of our brethren and that Pilot of our souls, the Holy Spirit) the sometimes rocky harbor of this life, until we reach at last the open sea of heaven, a sea where there will be no icebergs – but we will have the Light of the Lamb to guide and teach us.

Praise be to the Lord!


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