Some Books I’ve Read Recently on Roman Catholicism

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.

On Transliteration of Hebrew and Greek

No doubt the publishers mean well. Supposedly they are trying to make a book look less intimidating, and more “user-friendly.” No doubt there are a (very!) few people out there who want to look up Hebrew and Greek words in their English transliterations, and thus do language study without knowing the language. But the rest of us fall into two categories: those who do not know Hebrew and Greek, and would skip over discussions of the original language, transliterated or not; and those of us who do know Hebrew and Greek, to which transliteration is a pain in the neck, because we always have to “back-translate” the transliteration into the original letters to know which word we are talking about.

I could be wrong about my impression, but it seems to me that there are very few people in the first category (people who don’t know the languages but still want to do word studies in transliteration). We are moving (and have significantly moved) away from being a word-based culture to being a visual-based culture. Interest in grammar and words is therefore on the decline, except in such areas as speech-act theory. Those who really want to do word studies are going the whole hog and learning the language.

One of most ludicrous examples of transliteration is the Yale Anchor Bible commentary series. This is one of the most scholarly, most technical series out there, and they always have Greek and Hebrew words transliterated! There may have been a time early in its history when it was more geared towards the laity. However, under the editorship of Freedman, the series as a whole has become one of the most scholarly series on offer. Why in the world, then, does it retain transliteration? This makes absolutely no sense to me. It only slows the scholar down, and most normal people who don’t know the languages will simply skip it anyway. There is no reason to keep transliteration anymore.

East and West on Spiration

When discussing the doctrine of the Trinity, something that comes up very quickly is the difference between the Eastern churches and the Western churches on how the Holy Spirit is spirated (or breathed out, or processing). The West added a small modifier to the Nicene Creed (this happened at the third Council of Toledo in 589). The original ran “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father.” The Council of Toledo added the phrase “and from the Son,” indicating that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but also from the Son. This clause is called “the Filioque clause.” The Latin “Filioque” means “and from the Son.” This procession, of course, happens in eternity, not in time, in parallel to the Son’s eternal begottenness from the Father. The East objected to this phrase, since they believed that the Father was the only fount (Latin, fons) of divinity. They equated “fons” with the person of the Father. The West believed that, aside from unbegottenness, everything that the Father has He gave to the Son. If that is true, then the Father also gave the power of spiration to the Son. Attempts have been made recently to try to reconcile the two positions. The usual formulation is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. This does not entirely solve the problem, since it could be interpreted to mean that the Son is a mere conduit through which spiration passes. It seems to me that there is a better way, and that is simply to make a logical distinction (not a distinction of essence, mind you) between the character of the Father’s spiration and that of the Son’s spiration. For it must be acknowledged, even by the most die-hard Westerner, that the Son’s ability to spirate the Spirit comes from the Father. So, why not simply say that the Father’s spiration is original, while the Son’s spiration of the Spirit is derived (eternally, of course, not in time, since we are speaking of a communication of essence)? That would preserve the East’s concern about the Father being the fount of divinity, while preserving the West’s concern that the spiration of the Spirit does not leave the Son “out in the cold,” so to speak. Spiration cannot be an attribute of the personhood of the Father, then, because, it is something that He communicates to His Son. The personal attributes are those that belong only to one of the three Persons. What do you think?

While I’m Temporarily Experiencing Writer’s Block

I encourage you to go over to my friend Jason Van Bemmel’s new blog, especially if you are new to the Reformed faith. He will be blogging through Calvin’s Institutes and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Even if you are not new to the Reformed faith, and missed your chance at celebrating the 500th anniversary (2009) of his birth (1509), then here’s your chance.

God on Ghosts

(Posted by Paige)

‘Tis the season for those perennial conversations about ghosties. Reed and I wrote this article, A God’s Eye View of Ghosts, a couple of years ago to be a resource that he could share with people in his church and community. Perhaps it will come in handy for you in your ministry setting as well.

Soli Deo Gloria!

A Word on Debate

Debate is a tricky thing. On the one hand, when we hold firmly to a position, there is a danger to misread our opponents. Then, when faced with strong arguments, we tend to look only for the small items that are weak in what our opponents have said, and attack those things, rather than the strength of the opponents’ positions. I am not aiming this at anyone in particular, mind you. It is merely something about debate that I have witnessed, and no doubt I have done it myself. I would suggest a reorientation of thinking on debate. I’m not making this a rule or anything for this blog. However, here is a suggestion: hunt very carefully for the very strongest things about our opponents’ arguments, acknowledge what is strong about them, and then attempt an answer. What we are so often tempted to do is nitpick, and then think we have answered the opponent, when the only thing we have done is to aggravate them. The opponent likes to know that the strength of his position has been acknowledged. This is a platform for much more helpful and constructive forms of debate. I think that I have at least tried to do this in the past, though with undoubted unevenness as to the results. It is something to which I am going to commit myself, and to which I encourage my readers to commit themselves as well. I know the frustration of unanswered strength. It has happened so many times. I will write a blog post in a debate, and the opponent will nitpick at the argument, ignoring the strength entirely, and only going after the weakest points. This does not raise credibility, but only gives the impression that the opponent is trying to score points. A debate is not a competition.

The other aspect about the nitpicking form of debate that is distressing is that it makes the nitpicker sound a bit desperate. Are we really so unsettled in our opinions, so waffling, so invertebrate, so lacking in confidence, that we cannot face the strength of opposing viewpoints? It is all too easy to brand our opponents with stupidity, ignorance, or muddled thinking, and think that we have therefore answered their arguments. Logic doesn’t work this way. Neither does civilized debate. Why can’t we acknowledge plausibility in our opponents’ statements? Are we so defensive? It has been said that the more unsure we are of our positions, the more voluble and angry we become in defending our positions. I have seen a fair bit of that on this blog. The other possibility, of course, is that some people privilege truth over love. Neither should be privileged over the other, nor should they even be in competition. Unity can only be obtained around the truth. How can two walk together unless they are agreed? However, truth cannot trump love, either. It seems evident that truth is more under attack today than love is. Everyone loves love. Few love truth. But that fact does not give us an excuse to ignore love or sideline it in the interests of truth.

On Bryan Cross’s recommendation (I asked him what he thought the best Roman Catholic books were on the nature of Catholicism, and he gave me quite a good list, which I am working my way through), I am currently reading Morerod’s Ecumenism and Philosophy. One of the fascinating points he makes about ecumenism in that book, and one I think that relates closely to the subject of this blog post, is that ecumenical debate stalls when it talks only about the things that both sides have in common. On the one hand, that might seem like mere common sense. It is a point, however, that most ecumenical endeavors seem to miss. He argues that the only way ecumenism can move forward is to address the differences head on, and actually focus on those, and be honest about them. Only then can mutual understanding happen without the fear that the very real differences are being shoved under the rug. A point I wish to extrapolate from this is the following: why do we engage in debate? Is it to bring out the nature of the differences for the sake of mutual understanding? Is it to prove that I’m right and you’re wrong (and thus to stroke my own ego)? Is it to convince our opponent? Is it a combination of these things? How about a pursuit of the truth? Properly to understand the nature of the difference means that we must listen well. There hasn’t been a lot of that on my blog. Many engage in debate for the purposes of crushing the opponent into the dirt. I would suggest that this is not a very good reason for debate. I want light on the issues more than heat.