Sunday, December 02, 2018

The Future of Contra Protestant Apologetics

Recently on social media I saw a certain Catholic apologist trying to sell off some of his books online in a special sale. He was offering significant discounts, offering multiple books at cuts of 50% or more. Most of the books had to do with contra Protestant apologetics, the sorta stuff that made Catholic Answers famous back in the 1990s.  In order to offer books at that kind of rate, he must have either been hurting for money, or simply wanting to offload titles that weren't selling anymore.

I'm betting it was the latter, because judging from the responses on the thread, there was not a lot of traction on the sale. But what was really interesting were several comments people made about the content of such works. More than one person said, "Apologetics to Protestants is not my area of focus right now", or "I'm not interested in that currently"; others echoed the sentiment. It was a kind of "we've got bigger fish to fry" sort of response.

I am not going to mention the apologist. This isn't really about him anyway; plus he has a Beetlejuice-sort of way of showing up whenever his name is mentioned. And I of all people know what it's like to be an author wanting to offload books. What I am really interested in is the attitude of the people on the thread who essentially said that Catholic apologetics to Protestants was simply not on their radar at the moment.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece entitled "Bad Liturgies Cripple Evangelism" (USC, July 2018). The premise of that article was that the poor quality of the liturgy in most Catholic parishes offers nothing to pique the interest of non-Catholics into wanting to learn about the faith. We could posit a corollary principle: if bad liturgy cripples the evangelical effect of the Mass, the Church herself being in a state of chaos diminishes the impulse Catholics experience for bringing others into it. 

I do not believe this is because such Catholics are ashamed of the Church or do not desire the salvation of others or anything like that; rather, I think it has to do with the fact that their energies and attention are taken up by what is going on inside the Church. In other words, Catholics' natural impulse is to put the fire out inside their own home before they invite others inside.

What will the future of contra Protestant apologetics be? My hunch is it is diminishing, and apologists who have made their careers debunking Protestantism will find themselves more and more irrelevant. 

The main reason for this is simply that the essential divisions within Christianity are no longer confessional. It used to be that Christianity was divided up into several confessions and that the members of each confession were presumed to be faithful at least to the tenets of their own confession. A man was a Baptist because he affirmed the Baptist confession and denied those that were at odds with his. And of course a Catholic was a Catholic because he affirmed the teachings of the Catholic faith. To be sure, the Baptist or the Catholic may have been born into these communities, but did not detract from the expectation that one who belonged to a certain confession actually professed it.

In that sort of climate, it was easy for confessions to dispute with one another. Persons professing some sort of formulaic creed can argue with others who profess a different creed because they had the common ground of both professing some creed. "Look here, you and I both acknowledge Christians live by a creed. Your creed is different than mine. Let's argue about whose is correct." It was in this atmosphere that Catholic apologetics contra Protestantism could flourish. 

But the situation has changed drastically. The contemporary division within global Christianity is not creed vs. creed, but people who profess a creed vs. people who have no creed—those whose faith has a doctrinal skeleton and those whose faith has no structure at all, but is a kind of gelatinous mass. This division transcends all forms of Christianity. Across the Catholic Church, the world of the Orthodox, and the Protestant confessions there is a profound de facto schism between those who believe Christianity has an objective, definable form whose boundaries are delineated by particular doctrines and, on the other hand, those who believe Christianity to be essentially whatever its adherents wish it to be at any given time.

In this atmosphere, creed vs. creed apologetics no longer has the weight it once did when most sincere Christians of any stripe are fighting bitterly simply to affirm the existence of any creed within their respective communities.

This is not to say contra Protestant apologetics will go away. It will always have a place, but it will probably give ground to other forms of apologetics which are not textual and doctrinal but rather more about defending an entire way of viewing religious belief in general. It will be about conflicting worldviews, not about the right interpretation of biblical texts. At least in the near future.

It is possible, of course, as Christians who are faithful to their own confessions fight the doctrinal devolution that is dissolving the creeds of Christendom, that Catholics and Protestants may find themselves arguing more or less along the same lines. The Protestant apologist arguing for the existence of revealed truth is going to be making more or less a similar argument to the Catholic apologist who does the same—the content of that revealed truth and how it is transmitted are a different matter, of course. But it is possible that in making arguing for the existence of confessional religion, Catholics and Protestants unwittingly become allies and many of the latter return home to the former. 

This is similar to how the Anglicans of the 19th century British Oxford Movement, in arguing against low church Anglicanism, actually argued themselves back into the Catholic Church because they realized the arguments they made against low church Anglicanism also undermined Anglicanism itself. Thus, contemporary Protestants compelled to argue for confessional Christianity may find their arguments undermine the existence of their own confessions and end up returning to the Catholic Church as a result.

Regardless of what may come, one thing is certain: it is not the 1980s and 1990s anymore. The days of the supremacy of Catholicism and Fundamentalism Surprised by Truth and similar such works is rapidly fading. The average Catholic, if he is faithful, is much more concerned with the corruption in the episcopate, the homosexual clerical scandals, the erosion of the liturgy. and the auto-demolition of the Church coming from the Vatican than he is about convincing a Protestant about the canonicity of the Book of Tobit. What logical reason does he have to argue with a Protestant about the Church's doctrines just to bring said Protestant into a Church whose leaders are overthrowing the very doctrines the apologist argued in favor of?

Please understand I am not saying the Great Commission is no longer valid or that we ought not to witness to Protestants; I am saying that the current situation it makes it difficult to prioritize such apologetics. This is why, I think, this apologist attempting to sell contra Protestant books found that astute Catholics were simply not interested in that right now, nor will they be until the fire in our own house has been extinguished.

"It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God." ~1 Peter 4:17

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Kathleen1031 said...

It is very hard to explain why Protestants should join the Church now. It is hard enough to explain to fellow Catholics. They've killed the brand. What on earth do we say, the closest I can come is, we have two Catholic Churches right now, one faithful, one not. Even after that, the eyes glaze.
What a mess.

A.R. said...

Protestants will only join the church now if they meet Catholics who are saintly enough to outweigh the corruption. Everyone grab some Garigou-Lagrange and get praying; everyone's soul is at stake.

Boniface said...

Indeed. Although I would never say there are "two churches" except in a rhetorical way; the Church of Christ is a seamless garment.But times are very challenging indeed.

M said...

"plus he has a Beetlejuice-sort of way of showing up whenever his name is mentioned. "


Unknown said...

"plus he has a Beetlejuice-sort of way of showing up whenever his name is mentioned. "

So much ROFL. I already knew who you were talking about before you said this, but had me dying.

Blue said...

Unless you have been in a bubble or locked up somewhere for the past half-century, you must know that converting those to the one, true faith, i.e., Catholicism (for those who don't know) has not been on the agenda of the Church. Obviously, it is no longer the mission of Christ's Church to teach and preach the true Gospel to make disciples of all nations, as Sacred Scripture teaches. No, it is the confirming, praising, and respect for all false religions that is the mission while those of us faithful to the true teachings of the Church are mocked, shunned, called all kinds of vile names and persecuted.

Joe M said...

Here is Protestant champion J Gresham Machen writing a century ago:

'Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today!
We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent to us a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.'