Monday, July 21, 2008

The Problem of Apologetics

Bill Cork and Dave Armstrong have picked up their war of words from a year ago: Dave a year ago, Bill, Dave again.

In his reply, Bill corrects Dave's use of the term "postmodern," and rightfully so. He then dismisses "the rationalistic, forensic style of apologetics that has its roots in the Reformed tradition and that has crept into Catholicism through converts from the fundamentalist Presbyterian Church in America." According to Bill, this system is incompatible with Catholicism's capacity to develop doctrine beyond the explicit bounds of scripture:

I did not accept the eisegetical method whereby they anachronistically attempt to read Catholic teaching back into the Bible, denying the Catholic church’s own teaching that the development of doctrine explains why Catholic teachings are not to be found in the Bible.

I can understand why Bill was not impressed with "attempts read Catholic teaching back into the Bible," though I also understand why Dave believes that stance contained the seeds of Bill's destruction. As worded, the concerns that led Bill to the Catholic Church in 1992 could not have easily negotiated an actual experience in his Catholic Church:

Where to find a clear sense of Christian morality? Where to find a Church that was consistent through the ages? Where to find a Church that spoke with authority?

Bill entered a Church overrun by scandal, insensitive to sex abuse victims, and in the midst of a internal culture war. At the level of pew and chancery, the Church hardly seemed to have "a clear sense of morality" or an administrative "authority" worth trusting. No doubt, the Catechism provides all the consistency and authority Dave requires, but Bill had trouble trusting the "consistency" of the Vatican in the face of even legitimate developments in doctrine (e.g., religious liberty, possibility of salvation for unbaptized infants, etc.).

Is Bill keen to suggest that Dave's (arguably, overstretched) reliance upon the Bible to vindicate the Catholic teaching is a very Protestant instinct (which requires a verse for every belief)? Or, does Bill's quick dichotomy of Bible and Church teaching (where both stand more or less independently) flow from yet another Protestant instinct or caricature? In his own words:

Many Catholic teachings have no other foundation than the Church’s claim to teach with authority: purgatory, Marian dogmas, saints, indulgences, the papacy, etc. These are not Bible doctrines.

In fact, the ancient fathers and theologians of the Catholic Church cited Biblical precedents or bases for all these doctrines. St. Damasus cited Matt 16:18 to defend papal authority sixteen centuries ago; the Latins and Greeks debated the significance of 1 Cor 3:15 to the question of purgatory six centuries ago; Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception explored the meaning of Luke 1:28 two centuries ago, etc. In this light, Catholics have every reason to believe these doctrines have true biblical roots. Moreover, it becomes readily apparent that the PCA converts have pioneered almost none of the arguments they popularly present. (This is my difficulty: trying to distinguish the "rationalistic" arguments allegedly unique to modern Catholic converts from the arguments they have clearly inherited from previous generations. I find few unique contributions in their writings--not to their discredit, but to the credit of so many theologians in centuries past.)

One may dispute the legitimacy of certain textual interpretations used by Catholics. This is fair; I certainly do. Then again, the use of OT texts by the writers of Matthew, Romans, and Hebrews easily qualifies as "eisegetical" by the (perhaps, too) exacting principles of biblical studies today. This serves as a caution to all of us: modern exegetical principles are man-made and hardly absolute. I will not outrightly dismiss especially those textual interpretations that carry great antiquity in the Catholic Church, though you will not see me make recourse to many of them in my essays. I do not have to; there are so many more convincing arguments to relate.

Bill is right to note that eye towards "the development of doctrine" discourages anachronistically reading Catholic doctrine into the Bible (as though the principles of exegesis and textual criticism were not enough). At the other extreme, however, one should avoid interpreting the concept of "development" as a license for innovation. In Catholic thought, doctrine develops logically: an unpacking as natural as acorn to tree. Apprehension of Mary as Theotokos, in time, leads to an appreciation of her immaculate purity (I best save a discussion of this for another post), etc.

At this point, this may all seem very abstract. And perhaps, that is the point: I find it next to impossible to weigh the merits of an apologetic system in broad brushstrokes. (For instance, it is chic to ridicule "proof-texting," but all theology rests on the understanding of select biblical texts.) Ultimately, rival systems must confront themselves on the field of battle: i.e., the exploration of a particular theological issue (e.g., the Immaculate Conception); only then can we assess their persuasiveness.

1 comment:

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Hugo,

Good post. You cited Bill Cork:

". . . the rationalistic, forensic style of apologetics that has its roots in the Reformed tradition and that has crept into Catholicism through converts from the fundamentalist Presbyterian Church in America."

The only problem with this, insofar as it is applied by insinuation to me, along with other convert-apologists, is that I was neither fundamentalist nor Presbyterian at any time. I was never a Calvinist. I was an Arminian as a Protestant, and am a Molinist (technically a Congruist) as a Catholic.

Moreover, in apologetics, the dominant style in Presbyterianism is presuppositionalism: something I have never held, and which I have vigorously critiqued, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic.

My own apologetic methodology is largely evidentialist (with, however, many elements from different schools: particularly the analogical reasoning of Cardinal Newman), which hearkens back to Catholicism and St. Thomas (I love, e.g., the cosmological argument and that basically goes back to Aquinas).

So, far from thinking like a Protestant and bringing that into Catholicism with me, it was much more the case that I had been thinking like a Catholic as a Protestant for years, and brought that with me into the Catholic Church. I was thinking more and more "Catholic" for years before actually becoming one.

That is patently obvious if one reads any of the several versions of my conversion story. How odd, then, to be accused of "Protestantizing" Catholicism: which has been a theme from both anti-Catholic Protestants and "traditionalist" Catholics.

That may be true of some few apologists, but not of me.

God bless,