Saturday, January 27, 2007

Who to Trust on Luther Biographies?

"You expect me to trust a guy who apparently spends most of his life defending protestantism to recommend an even handed treatment of its originator?"

I get comments like this all the time. Usually, from the folks over at Catholic Answers. I received a blogback comment on my previous entry on the Facts About Luther from the person who prompted this entry. I would like to briefly respond to the points he made.

"I'm 'manualman' from Catholic Answers. I hadn't realized my post had become a blog entry."

Well, you should probably check the private message feature that the Catholic Answers site provides. I sent you 2 private messages.

The first was sent to you January 1, 2007 at 10:30 AM. I mentioned, “I will probably address the comments raised in the recent thread you started. There are many good books on Luther written by Roman Catholics. O'Hare's book is not one of them.” I then linked to my blog.

The second private message was sent to you January 2, 2007 at 7:01 AM. I stated, “As noted, I took a look at your comments on Patrick O'Hare's Facts about Luther: Christmas Present: The Facts About Luther.” This message linked to this very blog entry.

"Your thoughts are appreciated, but your mind-reading skills are wanting..."

Why not just come out and say you don’t appreciate my perspective?

" 'He's interested in being fueled in maintaining an outdated Catholic polemic.' If that were true, I wouldn't have started the thread in the first place! Instead of ascribing base motives to me, try a bit more imagination."

I am accurate in my assessment, and you demonstrate that you don’t even understand my position. The approach that Catholic scholars previously took in studying Luther was to evaluate Luther the “person” rather than Luther “the theologian”. To gleefully read and recommend a book like that put forth by O’Hare is to maintain an outdated approach to studying Luther. The book has value only in demonstrating how flawed this particular method was.

Just recently, I noticed that a Catholic apologist put up a list of recommend books to study Luther and the Reformation. I noticed he included O’Hare’s book. I wrote about this here on this blog. Then all of sudden, O’Hare’s book disappeared from his blog entry. Hmm…wonder why? At least he seems to grip that O’Hare’s book is not helpful in studying Luther. See also, this blog entry- He notes of O’Hare’s book, “That was the first research I did upon converting and I think I would do it a bit differently today.” Perhaps the same could be said of you.

“You expect me to trust a guy who apparently spends most of his life defending protestantism to recommend an even handed treatment of its originator? Simply because you named a few catholic authors is scant reassurance. I can find a few nominally protestant authors' work which you might not like much too you know!”

Oh yes, you nailed me. I’m up to my usual deceptive tactic of trying to mislead Roman Catholic layman in his pursuit of historical truth. Give me a break. In my own writings, I’ve positively cited many Catholic authors that have written on Luther, and I can also point out books by Protestants that are a waste of time to read. I am familiar with a large corpus of writings on Luther.

Much of my work is available to be scrutinized by those who oppose me. In regard to Luther biographies, I’ve had Catholics thank me for the research I provided. If my recommendations of books on Luther are so biased and untrustworthy, I challenge you to prove your case rather than merely state it. If you’re interested in fueling an outdated polemical approach to Luther, you can follow Art Sippo’s advise. Sippo claims to be knowledgeable on Luther and the Reformation, but as I demonstrated in my discussion with him, he doesn’t know what he talking about.

"On the contrary, I intend to read Rix and Hillaire Belloc before finishing O'Hare. THEN I will give a few protestant apologetic authors a shot. I suspect you proceed no differently. Pick authors you trust first and THEN examine the arguments of those you don't."

You are mistaken. My personal library of Luther and Reformation books is extensive. I read and use the books as I come across them. O’Hare’s book was one of the earliest books I acquired on Luther. Upon an initial reading, I was shocked by the information, as you were. I initially read more Catholic web pages on Luther than either Protestant books or web pages on Luther. One of the reasons this very blog exists is because I found the Protestant community severely lacking in providing responses to the polemical material put forth by Roman Catholics. In other words, I read Catholic material on Luther, and then began my in-depth studies on Luther.


MasterJedi said...

Curiously, when I asked myself the same question as this blog title "Who to Trust on Luther Biographies?", I sat back and thought - hmmmm, I can't think of many even handed folks after all, except maybe ... James Swan. After perusing this site since its inception and watching James go to work on other Forums in his earlier years, I could honestly say that James is very, very fair, honest, duly researched, and does an all around great job at what he does. Therefore, I cast my vote for Jimmy!

Anonymous said...

-manualman again-

I fear my statement is a bit misinterpreted. Perhaps you are more used to dealing with debaters trying to refute you than people attempting to be cautious as to what they read. I did not mean to insinuate that you were a malicious propagandist, merely that I already knew we had disparate world views and theological perspectives. Your story of investigating Luther is impressive, but rather time intensive! My choices are a bit more limited in my current state of life and reading time available.

It's not personal, I just happen to NOT be one of the multitude who thinks he is impervious to advertising (and other persuasion techniques). Therefore, I try to monitor how much influence I grant to those I don't yet trust, versus those I do. (Which is also why I watch little TV!)

I DID note your link to your website, but having been there before when you once (correctly) noted at CAF that the "snow covered dung heap" appears to be a myth (nice job), I somehow missed that it wasn't a generic link, but a specific blog link. Unlike forums, blogs aren't much familiar to me.

As an item of constructive criticism, you might want to refine your blog on OHare a bit. Your work seems to mostly focus on 1. The fact that OHare generally assumes the worst about Luther's motives and intentions.
2. His citations are not complete or scholarly.
Absolutely true! But anybody who has spent a few minutes in the book already knows this.

Your readers might be better served if you move on from those defects and note more factual flaws instead of harping on OHare's lack of charity and the difficulty to you to check him. After all, if a lack of charity disqualifies the legitimacy of one's reasoning, then Luther's own work ought to be in the dustbin too. Just as Luther might be excused by his apologists as being frustrated, you might do well to remember what the English speaking world was like for catholics in 1910 (maybe you've heard of the Klan?). Same (flimsy) excuse.

Your critique as of now, gives the impression that you did not find substantive defects in the factual information presented by OHARE, but merely a plethora of examples of ad hominem, invective and cheap shots. Consider spending more time on the historical content and value of the book for the benefit of readers who think they can step over the polemics.

Lest you think me argumentative, I should point out that your participation in the CAF is why I have put OHare on the shelf for now until I have allowed more even headed authors to inform me of his life. I have not merely blown you off. But that doesn't mean I entirely trust you either. As one who seems to believe we are 'beggars all', you shouldn't take offense at that!


Anonymous said...

manualman P.S.

I certainly didn't gleefully recommend the book to anyone. Go on back to CAF and it should be clear that I originally posted the thread because I was shocked at the characterization of Luther to the point where I wanted to input of others to verify if what I was reading was reliable.

How can you call that a gleeful recommendation?

James Swan said...


Thank you for a fair, well-constructed response. I have only time to answer one of your comments:

Your readers might be better served if you move on from those defects and note more factual flaws instead of harping on OHare's lack of charity and the difficulty to you to check him.

I have covered "factual flaws" by O'Hare, that is, by checking some of the quotes O'Hare uses, putting them in an actual context,and explain where O'Hare is mistaken. For instance, I've done this in my papers on Luther and the canon, and in my paper, "Did Luther say, "Be a Sinner and Sin Boldly"?, and a number of other times in various blog entries.

I've often planned on combining all these scattered times I've explored a text cited by O'Hare into one large paper, for the reason you mention.

People tend to think something like, "Well, ok, O'Hare villifies Luther, but that doesn't mean he gets his facts wrong." O'Hare is not wrong in every citation, or in every fact. He does though get some of the "facts" wrong- usually because he's so intent on villifing Luther, he misses the context Luther said "x" in.