Saturday, June 03, 2006

On Dialoging With Catholic apologist Art Sippo on Luther Scholarship

To the Right: Catholic Apologist Art Sippo

This is a continuation of look at Catholic apologist Art Sippo’s take on Luther scholarship. Previous entries can be found here:

Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Father O’Hare’s “Facts About Luther”

Catholic Apologist Art Sippo on Luther Scholarship and Research (Part 1)

This evaluation grew out of a discussion with Art on the Envoy Forums. Some may question why I would engage Art Sippo, particularly on a topic like this. I know that a discussion with Art Sippo on either the Reformation or Luther is somewhat of an exercise in futility. I go into this knowing that he’s probably not listening, nor cares what I say. He will either ignore the sources I cite, or attack the authors I mention rather than what they’ve written. That being said, my reasons for energy directed towards this discussion are multiple.

First, I think that the task of understanding Luther and the Reformation has changed dramatically with the rise of the Internet. Previous to the Internet, serious written discussions about Luther really only took place in either books or periodicals. In other words, discussions like the one in which Sippo and I are engaging wouldn’t have been as easy previous to cyberspace. Written discussions of this nature usually only took place amongst those entrenched in academia.

If one traces these discussions, a general historical outline emerges. Previous to the early 20th Century, one finds Roman Catholic academics vilifying Luther. As Eric Gritsch has so aptly pointed out, “Catholic biographers employed the best scholarly methods to produce the worst images of Luther” [Eric W. Gritsch, Martin- God’s Court Jester: Luther in Retrospect (Philadelphia: fortress Press, 1983, 205]. By and far, the majority of serious Catholic scholarship abandoned this approach in the 20th Century. It can be argued that many Catholic scholars were perhaps motivated by ecumenical concerns in abandoning hostile invective against Luther. This solution though does not do justice to the tremendous output put forth by men like Joseph Lortz, Adolph Herte, Jared Wicks, Harry McSorley, John Todd, Leonard Swidler, Thomas McDonough, or even the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

What really should be considered in the change of approach in serious Catholic scholarship is the fact that it is scholarship. Many of the authors cited above did the work necessary at arriving at truth. In effect, they recognized the historical flaws in the early Catholic treatment of Luther. They saw that that the approaches taken by Cochlaeus, Denifle, Grisar, O’Hare, and even the Old Catholic Encyclopedia were seriously flawed.

But consider the rise of the Internet. Catholic laymen with little or no knowledge of this historical progression zealously defend their beliefs. There is still a strong undercurrent of the previous tendency toward Luther vilification within the heart of many Catholic laymen. Thus begins the rise of web pages seeking to “expose” Luther- in the same way Catholic polemical approaches did previous to the 20th Century.

Then comes along the rise of the new breed of Catholic apologists- many of whom were ex-Protestants. Many of them got a hold of the reprint of the outdated and historically flawed book, The Facts About Luther. Some of them even got a hold of the books from the 19th Century- like those put out by Hartmann Grisar. I have a tendency to discredit the work of many of the new breed of Catholic apologists and laymen on Luther- simply because I have found in many instances, they are not really doing historical work on Luther- but are simply parroting back the old polemical work put forth by Grisar and O’Hare.

Consider also the impact of Erik Erikson’s book, Young Man Luther-, which is widely available, and came at a time when the psychoanalytical approach to history was taken seriously. Erikson’s book gave the approach of Denifle and Grisar new life- the book is easily available and has wide distribution. Numerous authors have seriously debunked Erikson’s psychoanalytical approach to Luther- but for the most part, these refutations are ignored. I recall sitting next to a stranger at a classical concert. She overheard me talking about Luther, and commented that Luther had serious psychosis and Erickson’s book proved it. Was this person a Christian? No, probably not- she was just someone who read this popular book of worldly wisdom and bought it hook, line, and sinker.

My discussion with Art Sippo is thus geared toward exposing his outdated approach to understanding Luther, and also will serve as a tool for proving the theory above. Sippo serves as an example of the stereotypical Catholic laymen approach to Luther. Sippo is infected with the typical pop-apologetical approach to all things Protestant. He vilifies Luther rather than understand Luther. He vilifies the Reformation rather than understand the Reformation. Because he is given a particular weight of authority, he perpetuates hostile polemic that feeds those who are already emotionally geared against the Reformation.

I think that the scales are tipped towards the Catholic apologists when it comes to disseminating information about Luther and the Reformation. I think they put forth a lot of criticism that goes unanswered by Protestants. I can understand why Protestants generally don’t spend the time to provide responses about Luther- and my Guest blogger Frank Marron provided some insight on this as well, found here:

Guest Blog: The Word Of The Lord Endures forever, Not The words Of Martin Luther!

I applaud my fellow Protestants for spending the majority of their time defending the Bible rather than the man, Luther. This is indeed the main battlefield. On the other hand, I think it necessary to at least provide historical answers to the Reformation when they arise. In this, I think Protestant apologetic sites could do much more.

My work on the Reformation grows out of a frustration with knowing that cogent answers have existed for quite a long time- but have not been disseminated down from the ivory towers of academia. Catholic apologists do a much better job of putting forth mis-information about the Reformation than Protestants do in responding to it. I see the same questions and comments from Catholic laymen over and over again- but just try going to some of the more popular Protestant apologetic sites to find responses about the charges against Luther. It is not an easy task to find answers.

My evaluation of Art Sippo will be really an exercise in Presuppositional apologetics, as most of my work is. Sippo begins with flawed presuppositions, therefore his conclusions are flawed. Sippo’s approach is an extreme version of the majority of pop-Catholic apologetics. Sometimes though, dealing with the extreme is an excellent way to be prepared to analyze those in the same vein that have less intensity. Ironically, in reading Sippo’s comments thus far, I have a new appreciation for those less extreme in hostile polemic.


Anonymous said...

James, I was just on Planet Envoy and the thread is still there. I had some difficulty logging on te other day, too. Your problems logging on may have something to do with the clitches the website was experiencing some weeks ago. Everybody seemed to have difficulty logging on and had to change there user names and passwords.

James Swan said...

Hi aman2,

I was out all day, and low and behold all seems to be well with the Envoy boards. I did though think it suspicious that the thread was gone, as well as my ability to log in. I had visited the Envoy boards a few years back, and had my posts deleted...thus you can understand my suspicion.

I made the necessary corrections to this blog entry. Thanks though for pointing out the technical side of the boards- i'm thankful the discussion can continue.