It would be good for me to keep readers updated on what I’ve been reading in the field of Roman Catholicism. Over the last four months or so, I’ve read the following nine volumes: Catholicism, by Robert Barron; Catholicism: East of Eden, by Richard Bennett; The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, by William Webster; The Reformation’s Conflict With Rome, by Robert Reymond; The Roman Catholic Controversy, by James White; Roman Catholicism, by Loraine Boettner; Catholicism and Fundamentalism, by Karl Keating; Ecumenism and Philosophy, by Charles Morerod; and Are We Together? by R.C. Sproul. I’ll give some brief thoughts on each volume.
The book by Robert Barron is a very well-written book indeed. Barron is a Roman Catholic priest who has written a book that seeks to get at the heart of Roman Catholicism. It is not a polemical book. He touches only briefly on matters related to apologetics. It is instead a constructive book. There are chapters of straight doctrinal explanation, but there are also many stories and biographies whereby he seeks to illustrate the earlier chapters of exposition. He posits that the great principle of Catholicism is the Incarnation (p. 1). In answer to the question of how this is distinct from Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy, he answers that they don’t “embrace the doctrine in its fullness” (p. 3). In his view, the entire Incarnation includes the church via the doctrine of the totus Christus: “Mary is the summation of Israel” (p. 6). He is entirely up-front about the syncretistic nature of Roman Catholicism (although he would almost certainly not use this word): “Part of the genius of the Catholic tradition is that it never throws anything out!” (p. 8). There are many fascinating insights into the nature of Roman Catholicism in this book, even though it cannot be reckoned a comprehensive study of Roman Catholicism.
Loraine Boettner’s book has been the mainstay of Protestant apologetics vis-a-vis Rome ever since it was published. It is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are many powerful arguments against Roman Catholicism in its pages, arguments that Roman Catholic apologists almost universally ignore in their assiduity in pointing out Boettner’s errors. There are definitely errors in Boettner’s book, errors that seriously hamper the particular arguments connected with them. Probably the most glaring error is the sources quoted, which are not mainstream Roman Catholic sources usually, but often sensationalist literature. However, in his favor, as I said, there are many powerful arguments that the Roman Catholic apologists have not answered.
Karl Keating’s book was rather disappointing. The bugaboo here is the definition of “fundamentalism.” Sometimes the way he uses the term is something with which I can agree. At other times, he paints the Reformed faith with fundamentalism’s colors when they do NOT agree, thus producing some rather severe distortions. Plus, he only attacks Boettner’s problems, and never gets around to addressing Boettner’s strong arguments, of which there are many.
Richard Bennett’s book is one of the two very best books from a Protestant perspective that I have so far read (the other being Sproul’s book). Not only is Bennett a former Roman Catholic, and thus someone in the know, and able to describe the system from within, but also he is not bitter about his experience. There is no trace of the bombastic bitterness so characteristic of many others who have left the Roman Catholic church.
William Webster’s book is also written by an ex-Roman Catholic, and is especially good at the historical aspects of the debate, as you might expect from the title. Webster deals with biblical and systematic theological arguments in other volumes (which I will note in further posts, most likely).
Robert Reymond’s book has some good points, but also some illogical points that will turn some readers off. For instance, in his review of Sungenis’s book Not By Faith Alone, he criticizes Sungenis for not dealing with Mary, saints, relics in the Vatican document released on August 6, 2000 “Declaration ‘Dominus Iesus’ On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.” But Sungenis’s book was on justification, not on these other topics. Also, he criticizes Sungenis for attempting such a work when his only degree is an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary! This is highly illogical. A Ph.D. is a piece of paper signifying that someone can do research. By no means does it prove that a person can do good research. Conversely, a person without a Ph.D. can sometimes do far better research than someone with more letters after their name. Not my first recommendation for a Protestant book on the subject, though he still has some good points to make.
The book by James White is characteristic of White’s work: thoughtful, not bombastic, workmanlike. White tends to focus on narrower issues. As a result, he is a good resource for individual issues like Sola Scriptura, not so much for seeing Roman Catholicism as a whole. The organization of this book is not nearly as good as some of his other books. The treatment of Sola Scripture, for instance, though good, is split up into varying and unconnected chapters!
Charles Morerod’s book spends most of its time seeking to delineate the idea of paradigm, and then applying that idea to ecumenical dialogue. There are definitely important insights here, though none of them were new to me. I am quite familiar with Popper and Kuhn, and I also already believed that Roman Catholicism was a completely different paradigm from Protestantism. Describing that difference of paradigms will be a major challenge, of course.
Sproul’s book is most certainly the best short book from the Protestant perspective that I have read. Sproul’s trademark getting-to-the-gist of things quickly and memorably is on magnificent display in this volume. I am fairly confident (and have already received indications from Roman Catholics) that Roman Catholicism is not caricatured in this book. This makes it especially valuable as a book to give to Protestants and Roman Catholics who are curious about the differences. I have yet to see a Roman Catholic book that gets Protestantism correct without caricature. And I have seen plenty of Protestant caricatures of Roman Catholicism, too. But here is a real gem.
I am currently reading Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Ludwig Ott; the Summa Theologiae, by Thomas Aquinas, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, all of which are very slow reads indeed. Ott and Aquinas are both very dense, of course. My reading of the Catechism is slow because I am looking up every single marginal cross-reference to other parts of the Catechism, which means that I am reading the catechism at least twice.