Friday, June 16, 2006

Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Roland Bainton's "Here I Stand"

"People like Mr. Swan attack me because I assert opinions that disagree with theirs. When I challenge them to defend their views, they are unable to do so and so they run away making excuses."- Catholic Apologist Art Sippo

Comments like the one above from Dr. Sippo are definitely "head scratchers". If anyone reading through my "discussion" (for lack of a better word) with Dr. Sippo can substantiate Sippo's assertion, i'd like to see it. For the most part, Sippo has ignored my comments. I write about 3 pages reviewing his comments, and then he responds in a few paragraphs ignoring what I wrote. This cycle has gone on now for a few weeks. My review of Roland Bainton's book Here I Stand followed this same cycle.

I assume those who are interested in finding a Luther biography really don’t want books written for scholars- they want easily readable and digestible material. Probably the most popular biography of Martin Luther written in English is Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life Of Martin Luther [New York: Mentor Books, 1950]. I always mention this book when asked for recommendations. The reason? The book is easy to find, it’s very affordable, and it’s historically reliable. It’s been in print for over 50 years now.

The book presents the basic “facts” about the 16th Century Reformation in non-technical terms. Bainton’s work is generally very reliable. A review states,“…Dr. Bainton displays masterful skill in writing a history of those times which is at once technically sound and singularly readable. In relatively few pages he has made those eventful timescome alive” for the lay reader of church history” [Westminster Theological Journal Volume 13 (Vol. 13, Page 167)].

One knows if they utilize his book as a historical reference, one is not getting “hearsay” or speculative psychological interpretations. One is getting the facts from a man who spent his academic career keenly focused on Luther’s writings. A review from 1950 states, “Dr. Bainton, who holds the Titus Street Professorship of Ecclesiastical History in the Yale Divinity School, is one of the foremost Reformation scholars in this country—a fact which in itself lends considerable worth to this work”[Westminster Theological Journal Volume 13 (Vol. 13, Page 164)]. It should be pointed out, Here I Stand is not a book very interested in expositions on Luther’s theology. Primarily, the book is a historical analysis, and a simple one at that.

Catholic apologist Art Sippo though does not recommend this book:

Bainton is also a convinced Protestant who lacks balance in his study of the Deformation. He acts as if there was nothing wrong with Luther and that it was the Catholic Church which was at fault. His book is definitely not recommended.”

Granted, Roland Bainton is a “convinced Protestant”, but this doesn’t diminish the accuracy of the presentation. Even a scholar that Dr. Sippo recommends positively utilizes the book. For instance, Dr. Sippo strongly recommends the work of Richard Marius on Luther. If one picks up his book, Luther: The Christian Between God And Death, Marius utilizes Bainton’s Here I Stand, as well as other of his writings. In most instances, Marius uses the book in the same way I do: simply a ready guide for the “facts.” If the books shouldn’t be used because it was written by a “convinced Protestant”, Sippo needs to explain why Marius used it, and if the writings of Marius can still be trusted.

Sippo also says Bainton “acts as if there was nothing wrong with Luther…”. Granted, Bainton is sympathetic to Luther, and this has been a criticism of his work over the years. Interestingly, another Catholic apologist has used Bainton’s book to prove many of the negative characteristics of Luther that Sippo so gravitates to. One would think that if Bainton’s book “acts as if there was nothing wrong with Luther…” this other apologist wouldn’t be able to use it to build a case. (See the review of Roland Bainton and Luther here).

What one finds in Bainton’s book is a head on interaction with some of the hot issues surrounding his life. Bainton says, “There are several incidents over which one would rather draw the veil, but precisely because they are so often exploited to his discredit they are not to be left unrecorded” [Here I Stand, 292]. Bainton takes on issues: like Luther’s later coarseness in his writings, his usage of Cranach’s paintings, his railings against the Jews, the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse, to name a few. Bainton though provides an apologetic in evaluating these issues. This isn’t acting as if nothings wrong with Luther- this is an evaluation of the facts surrounding the “hot” issues and putting them in perspective. If Dr. Sippo disagrees, he should be willing to get himself a copy of Here I Stand and be ready to counter argue against Bainton’s explanations. I would never argue that Bainton is an infallible interpreter of Luther’s life, but I would say his apologetic is sound in most instances.

Dr. Sippo also states that Bainton writes as if “…it was the Catholic Church which was at fault…” in the Reformation controversy. What Bainton does in Here I Stand in present the facts going on at the time of the Reformation. One reads the deliberate subterfuge of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. One sees how the Papacy was motivated by its desire to continue gaining funds for its building project. Discussion would have probably helped the situation, but Luther came up against a “bulwark” of Roman power that basically said, “our way or the highway”.

Bainton recalls the basic “facts” of the situation: The Pope sent one of his best theologians to demand Luther to recant his position on indulgences: Cardinal Cajetan. Luther refused. The Cardinal was well versed in Roman Catholic doctrine, and realized quickly the dilemma the Pope had: there was no adequate foundation to condemn Luther as a heretic. Why? Because there was not an official teaching on indulgences when Luther posted the 95 Theses. There was no official doctrine as to the effect of the indulgence upon Purgatory. So Cajetan knew that in order to put Luther down as a heretic, he must first be declared one according to some sort of doctrinal standard. Cajetan quickly drafted a declaration of dogma on the subject of indulgences. Pope Leo X found this to be a good idea. Thus came the decretal Cum postquam. The dogma of indulgences was defined as Cajetan outlined them. The Pope also threatened any of his representatives that may have held a divergent view on the subject.

Sippo concludes of Bainton, “…His book is definitely not recommended.” Of course Art Sippo would never recommend Here I Stand. The book has a noticeable absence of psychohistory (a.k.a. “guessing”)… and by the way, Bainton elsewhere wrote a devastating critique of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther.

Here I Stand is a basic presentation of the facts surrounding Luther’s life. The book should be read by Catholics- if for just the reason to have an accurate account of the Luther situation. Balance this with Catholic biographies of Luther, like John Todd, Jared Wicks, or George Tavard. All I’m asking is that Catholics at least be willing to read the works by Protestants. I frequently read Catholic produced material. It doesn’t hurt to have perspective. Take the time to understand where your opponent is coming from.

I know where Dr. Sippo is coming from in his opinion on Luther and Luther biographies. This is why he so wants to move away from a discussion of sources. It puts the spotlight on why he believes what he believes about the Reformation. This spotlight shows a bias that produces hostility. It shows why we could never discuss the actual facts about Luther in a cordial way.


EA said...


I have been following with interest your exchanges with Art Sippo. I must say that you should be commended for your patience in dealing with his invective.

Keep up the good work - I find the material very interesting and your analysis fair and even-handed. I would have shaken the dust from my sandals with Dr. Sippo long ago.

Churchmouse said...

The guy is just not getting it, Jim. He is incessant. A one track mind that focuses totally on the beration of Luther. Truly, I don't know of anyone who is as psychotically driven against Luther as this man. I believe that the only thing you can do is continue to post your excellent research and disregard what he says, unless it is a blatant misrepresentation or a matter of putting words in your mouth. I guess he brings new meaning to the "Art"ful Dodger because of his tendencies to misdirect the reader. As it stands, the Catholics who participate on that forum are a bunch of Sippo-lites/Sippowannabees, but hopefully, there are lurkers reading the interaction who can spot a mule a mile away. I expect Sippo to eventually implode.

On another note, I haven't read Bainton's book on Luther, but I will put it down on my Father's Day wish-list.