Monday, July 25, 2011

Apologetics for The Masses

This originally appeared on the aomin blog, 02/26/2008

I am subscribed to a number of Roman Catholic e-newsletters. One particular newsletter is Apologetics for The Masses by John Martignoni. The latest issue included some interesting comments on how to dialog with Protestants. John claims to have developed a line of questioning that is supposed to befuddle Protestants. When encountering "someone who has a problem with Catholic teaching and they seem to think their opinion is what the Scripture actually says," John suggests asking in response "are you an authentic interpreter of the Bible?" He explains:

"If someone says they are an 'authentic interpreter' of the Bible, then that leads to the question of infallibility. If they are an authentic interpreter of the Bible, then they must be infallible. Yet, most Protestants... will never claim to be infallible. So, that puts them in a predicament. Plus, if they claim to be an authentic interpreter of the Bible, then the logical question is: Who appointed you to be an authentic interpreter of the Bible? If they say the Bible did, then you ask them for chapter and verse as to where their name appears so that you might believe them. If they say anyone else, then you ask by what authority that person or persons appointed them authentic interpreters of the Bible. If they don't claim to be an 'authentic interpreter' of the Bible, then that means their interpretation of the Bible must necessarily be fallible- in other words, they have to admit their interpretation could be wrong. And, if they could be wrong, then why should you, or anyone else, risk the salvation of your soul on what this person is saying?"

Here we have an excellent example of obfuscation by Catholic rhetoric. This is a version of the typical, "You need an infallible authority to understand the Bible" argument. One must apply the claim being put forth to see if it works in practice. Catholic apologists use these tired arguments as if... they actually work. They do not. Rather than actually opening the Bible, looking at a passage and its context, Mr. Martignoni suggests questioning if any of us are infallible interpreters. For Martignoni, the Bible must be so cryptic, confusing, and difficult, that none of us could ever understand any of it without being infallible! Just think of how difficult it is to understand such verses like Acts 3:1, "One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer- at three in the afternoon." Imagine, for Martignoni, without an infallible understanding of this text, none of us could ever comprehend even this simple verse.

Martignoni's argument actually insults the author of the Bible. Throughout the Scriptures, it is stated and implied that the Bible can be understood. Luke tells us the Bereans "were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11). How would Martignoni approach these people? Where was the Roman Catholic infallible interpreter guiding the Bereans to read their Bibles? To be consistent, Martignoni would have to conclude the Bereans were in quite a predicament! He would have to similarly ask, "Who appointed them to be an authentic interpreters of the Bible?"

I would argue, even a non-believer could exegete a verse of Scripture and comprehend a passage in a context. Of course, that person would never savingly believe in the power of the text without the work of God's Spirit illuminating and giving understanding. The words of the Scripture would be nothing more than foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). When the Lord chastised the Sadducees in Matthew 22, he stated they were in error because they did not know the Scriptures. He further states, "have you not read what God said to you?" (Mt. 22:31). The Lord Jesus clearly held these men responsible for knowing and understanding the Scriptures. Were the Sadducees supposed to respond, "How could we? We did not have an authentic interpreter of the Bible!"

Martignoni's apologetic reminded me of a section from A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (London: Thomas Nelson, 1953) pp. 11-12. In speaking of the Reformation, the commentary states, "A dumb and difficult book was substituted for the living voice of the Church, in order that each one should be able to make for himself the religion which suited his feelings." It is pointed out how positive it has been for the Roman Church to keep the Bible out of the hands of individuals: "We must also keep in mind that whenever or wherever reading endangers the purity of Christian thought and living the unum necessarium it has to be wisely restricted."

The irony of course, is that Roman Catholics are forced to excessive amounts of private interpretation because their infallible interpreter rarely does what it says it can do. It rarely, if ever, infallibly interprets Scripture. Sure, Rome makes dogmatic pronouncements. Up until something is dogmatically defined, Roman Catholics are free to interpret Biblical passages. Also, what Roman apologists rarely tell you is that the Biblical texts used to support a dogma haven't been infallibly defined. That is, the dogma is infallible, but the proof texts supporting the dogma have not been infallibly interpreted. In essence, Martignoni's Church can't deliver the goods promised.

Martignoni then suggests methods of doing apologetics, and it was simply too ironic not to mention:

"What I would suggest, if you wish to cut down on your response time, is to steal stuff from other folks. Steal things from my newsletters. Go to Catholic.com (Catholic Answers website) and use their search engine to look for articles on whatever topic you're discussing. Don't hesitate to lift verbiage from an article here and an article there. If you want to cite your source fine, but if you want to leave that out- I don't see any problem, as long as you're doing it in private correspondence."
Irony of ironies: Martignoni doesn't direct his readers to infallible Roman documents, he directs them to Catholic apologists and websites! He directs his readers to fallible interpreters of Roman Catholicism! He then states,

"I don't know of any Catholic apologist who would mind if you quote them without citation- not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement or for profit- but for the purpose of saving a soul. After all, I don't know of any Catholic apologists who are coming up with original stuff. These arguments have been out there for hundreds of years. I always tell people that if there is anything original in any of my stuff, it's quite by accident."

Well, he does have point. The new e-pologists have not reinvented the Catholic wheel. What should be obvious, is that Catholic apologists are not infallible, and they are interpreters of Roman Catholicism, and they are not always unified in their argumentation. The very avenue of certainty Martignoni directs his readers down is a dead end. Enough of these arguments that the Bible can't be understood without Rome. Rome hasn't really infallibly interpreted much of the Bible, and based on what it comes up with by dogmatic pronouncements, I'm going to stick with the work of exegesis and the Holy Spirit to confirm the message of Scripture.

3 comments:

kaycee said...

I wonder if Timothy was unable to understand the letters written to him from Paul.

Did he have to send for a magisterial verdict on the meaning?

Were the letters written by Paul to the churches, not meant to be understood by the churches?

The magisterium kind of leaves a gnostic taste in my mouth

Constantine said...

James,

Thanks for a great post. A few years ago I did a little research on Mr. Martignoni after having heard him on the radio. He apparently has an MBA which probably explains why theological or philosophical subtleties elude him.

Whenever I hear Catholics talk about the Bible, I am reminded of what one (genuine) Roman Catholic scholar had to say about RC biblical scholarship in the 20th century:

The pope (Leo XIII, 1878-1903) did his most lasting damage to Bible scholarship when he set up the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1902, which for decades would police Catholic thought on the Bible, threatening and punishing any exegetes who departed from its directives. These directives included, in the decades to come, that Catholic priests must be taught in their seminaries that the first five books were written personally by Moses, that Eve was literally created from Adam's rib, and that the Beloved Disciple wrote the fourth gospel. Catholic professors, thus fettered, became a laughingstock in the world of biblical scholarship. Wills, Garry. “Why I am a Catholic”, Houghton-Mifflin, 2002. p. 202

So one might reasonably ask Mr. Martignoni since he is obligated to follow the dictates of the Magisterium, whether he believes Moses personally wrote the first five books. And, if not, on what basis (i.e. his infallible personal interpretation) he would not.

Peace.

EA said...

If the revelation of God's Divine Word requires a further unveiling or revealing, then it must not have been properly unveiled to begin with.

Given that in Catholicism there are various degrees of "reception" of doctrinal understanding by the laity, the alleged "advantage" of the Magesterium fails to address the very "problem" it is intended to solve.

All one has to do is to spend a few minutes browsing the forums over at Catholic Answers to witness the widespread UN-certainty the laity has about any number of issues. And to whom are they turning, the Magesterium? No, they resort to other layman, pop apologists, and a smattering of clergy.