Marian Study, Not Marian Apologetics

Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of GodHail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God by Scott Hahn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I struggled with my selection of a star rating for this book; I vacillate between liking and disliking it. I liked it because it’s very forthright, very dedicated, very committed; I disliked it because Mr. Hahn allowed that dedication to surpass good judgment and good argumentation.

Before I get started with the major things, let me offer up very minor things. First, some people like puns; others don’t. If you don’t, you may not appreciate Mr. Hahn’s section titles–this is your fair warning. There are also a few typos and poor word choice that affect the flow of the prose, but nothing grammatically offensive.

Let me begin the meatier section with the good points. This is a good book for Catholics who want to know more about the history and basis of Marian devotion and Marian theology. It answers questions that Protestant objectors tend to raise, and it presents information based on Scripture and Tradition to back up those answers. It does all of this with the impassioned voice of someone who truly adheres to the teachings of the Church on these matters, which are often difficult for non-Catholics to consider.

But this is not a good apologetic book, and it should not be given to Protestants.

We (human beings) are emotional creatures. In many ways, and at many times, we allow our emotions to influence our judgment. A book that is poorly worded, or a book that chooses phrasing and imagery that is insulting from an opposing point of view, loses almost all the ground it may gain through good sourcing and effective argumentation. “Hail, Holy Queen” suffers from this problem. One main trouble is not that Mr. Hahn did not know his Bible, or that he did not know his papal documents or council documents or Augustinian writings–the trouble was that he, on more than one occasion, made statements that would be emotionally objectionable for a disagreeing reader. He also made several key errors in argumentation, which I will address as I come to them.

While Mr. Hahn’s knowledge of Scripture and Tradition seems well-established, so far as I can tell, his Roman history is somewhat lacking. It seems a crucial point, for example, that he interpret the beast of the sea (in Revelation) as the Roman dynasty that empowered the Herodian dynasty to oppress the Christians–but he says that there were “10 Caesars” from Julius Caesar to Vespasian. It should be pointed out that the dynastic view of the Roman emperors does not run from Julius to Vespasian, but from Julius to Nero, and from Galba to Domitian, and from Nerva to Commodus, and so on. Furthermore, the name “Caesar” truly belonged to Julius Caesar, but in classic Roman style, it was applied to nearly every emperor until the 4th century (to the point where “Caesar” became synonymous with “emperor,” which is why the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called the Kaiser and the emperor of Russia the Czar). It only stopped in the 4th century because, by then, it was the job title instead of a name. One of the exceptions to this naming custom, of course, was Vitellius–the emperor immediately preceding Vespasian. Nevermind that Octavian (“Caesar Augustus”) was, at best, adopted by Julius Caesar, but still had to win a civil war to become emperor himself.

From time to time, Mr. Hahn also made statements that eroded his own position. He quoted Tertullian, for example, to summarize Catholic Mariology–and immediately pointed out that Tertullian’s Mariology is mostly flawed and erroneous. This almost nullifies the quote, and one must wonder: could there not have been a better quote, from a more reputable source?

Chapter 5 is something of a turning point in the book. In the first four chapters, Mr. Hahn is focused on establishing Mary as the culmination of a number of Old Testament types. In Chapter 5, he finally addresses, in so many words, the Marian doctrines of the Catholic Church (the perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption). Yet it is here that he begins to struggle with clear argumentation. He proposes that Mary (as a person) be the focus of this study, since she is not merely a collection of ideas–yet the ideas are what must be discussed, because there is no serious historian who denies the existence of the person of Mary. More than once, Mr. Hahn makes blanket statements and broad assumptions, declaring as fact things that are not in evidence and have not been established earlier in the book, ostensibly to establish Mary as a “person”–an establishment which no one will controvert, though they will certainly controvert the assumptions.

He first makes bold claims, and asks his reader (who may have doubts about Mary and Marian doctrine) to establish Mary (as taught by the Catholic Church) as the goal of the discussion–not to discuss the doctrines and how she might fit them, but to run towards those doctrines as though towards a finish line. This is counterproductive to the discussion, because the opposing mind will simply refuse, and no ground will be gained. He uses the earlier chapters of the book to justify his assumptions, but those earlier chapters have not yet been proved to the doubtful reader–making these new statements all the more dubious. He even uses emotional arguments from popular belief and popular historical opinion.

None of these arguments are effective, but rather, they are counterproductive to the intended goal of increased understanding of Marian doctrine and greater devotion to Mary as our exemplar.

At one point, Mr. Hahn seems to suggest that the doctrine of perpetual virginity arose, not from fact or historical understanding or theological necessity, but from an oversimplification caused by creedal speech (i.e., that “born of the Virgin Mary” equivocates Mary with Virginity). He uses the more ambiguous term “brethren” to translate adelphoi–probably because it sounds more gender inclusive, but it comes across as intentionally avoiding the “from the [same] womb” literal translation that Mr. Hahn insists upon in later chapters.

Perhaps Mr. Hahn’s most egregious mistake is to use language and arguments that would be emotionally charged for a Protestant reader–especially a reader looking for any reason to discount this book, and all it contains, as hogwash. He uses terms like “unfamiliar,” “non-issue,” and “amateur” to describe anyone who would disagree with the interpretation of Scripture that he posits. He oversimplifies the nature of sin by equating it to an auto mechanic overcharging for services. He says outright in two different places that one’s acceptance of the Gospel can be measured by one’s acceptance of Marian doctrine. He engages in poor word choice, talking about the “union” of Mary’s human will with God’s divine will–clear enough to a theologian that understands the distinctions between that “union” and, say, the hypostatic union of Christ, but unclear to someone who may think Mr. Hahn is again trying to deify Mary. At one point, he seems to say that the Church is only the spouse of Christ and the mother of the faithful (a common point of agreement between Catholics and Protestants) only because Mary was those things first (and so Mr. Hahn removes the common ground he might otherwise have had). He frames Mary and the Church in opposition, saying that Mary is over there with God, and the Church is over here, trying (in vain) to emulate her. This, indeed, seems to be the only case of genuine overreach on Mr. Hahn’s part–going beyond the Mariology that seems acceptable to suggest that Mary is exterior to the Church, rather than an exemplary part of it, and that the Church is merely a type of Mary.

He closes the argumentative portion of the book (prior to the final chapter, which advocates caution and love in the face of opposition, and the appendix, which is, in many ways, a redeeming passage) with the declaration that the Church should not put ecumenism before Mariology; he surely did not mean it as such, but at this point in the book, it almost sounds like justification for his occasionally uncharitable tone.

All that to say, I vacillated between liking and disliking this book. Clearly, I had more negative things to say than positive, but that usually happens when I take notes. This book is very good for Catholics who want to know more about Mary, but I maintain that it is not a good work of Marian apologetics.

View all my reviews

Effective or Fallacious?

OrthodoxyOrthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A re-read is sometimes a wonderful thing. It’s especially useful when I have attained a greater depth of understanding for the work that I am re-reading. This book is one such case.

Chesterton’s work is rightly praised by Christian readers everywhere. His honest approach to the agnostic and atheistic arguments of his day is compelling and persuasive. His prose is entertaining, his thoughts illuminating, and his conclusions reasonable.

All of this, of course, is such to a Christian audience.

The only negative things I can think to say are these: Chesterton tends to simplify his opponents’ arguments; and he tends to ridicule his opponents themselves.

From a pro-Chesterton perspective, he is distilling opposing arguments to their root beliefs, pointing out that necessary (if unspecified) premises are false, and ultimately destroying the agnostic and atheistic conclusions by those means. From an anti-Chesterton perspective, he is committing either the reductio ad absurdum or the straw man fallacy.

From a pro-Chesterton perspective, he is treating his opponents’ ideas with the incredulity and disdain they deserve. From an anti-Chesterton perspective, he is committing the ad hominem fallacy.

Ultimately, I think the book works very well and succeeds where many other apologetics works have failed (in no small part because it is a chronicle of personal experience and not a work of apologetics)–but I can see how some of Chesterton’s then-and-now intellectual opponents would severely disagree.

View all my reviews

“If Protestantism Is True,” Part Deux

Recently, I wrote about a book entitled “If Protestantism Is True,” by Devin Rose. Even more recently, Mr. Rose replied to my review with comments of his own. This is the exchange that followed:


In fact, most people – especially religious and spiritual people of the evangelical Christian variety – think in purely emotional terms.

Yes, and that’s a problem. Mormons feel the bosom-burning and think Mormonism must be true. People have to learn to reason, and my book encourages them to do that. So it is not that I “didn’t realize” Evangelicals are often emotion-driven but that appealing to emotions is not the right way one should go about discerning where God’s truth is found.

The book does not engage with genuine issues, but mocks straw men.

This assertion is false as I will demonstrate by responding to your criticisms.

He emphasizes over and over against a series of arguments from origin, implying or claiming that if someone accepts the teachings of one person or group (such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or the Anabaptists), that someone must accept all other teachings of that person or group as well.

Of course Protestants pick and choose what they believe, but my point is that it is ad hoc to pick and choose one thing from an authority while rejecting another. Protestants look to the Reformers as authorities, accepting various doctrines based on their authority, yet when confronted with other teachings of the Reformers, they reject them because they are too Catholic, or seem unpleasant, etc. What I do in the book is to help Protestants realize where their particular beliefs first originated (say, for instance, purely symbolic communion championed by Zwingli), so that they can think critically about how and why they came to accept that belief.

Beyond that, he also lacks studious knowledge of Protestant theological doctrines. Some Protestant groups, for example, support prima Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is first among theological authorities, and that all other (potential) authorities must be measured by it.

It can and has been shown, deductively, prima Scriptura is really sola Scriptura and sola Scriptura reduces to solo Scriptura–that is, under Protestantism, that the individual is the ultimate interpretive authority of the Scriptures. So it is not that I “lacked studious knowledge of Protestant theological doctrines,” but rather that prima Scriptura is a semantic illusion that really reduces to sola Scriptura.

Regarding public revelation’s closure, you said:

Clearly, he hasn’t read Revelation 22:19 or the many relevant interpretations thereof.

I have read that passage, and the book of Revelation as a whole, many many times. That passage in Revelation is referencing the Book of Revelation itself. As the previous verse states: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.” Note, “this scroll” and the plagues recounted therein. A similar thing is said in Deuteronomy 4:2 yet no one thinks that subsequent inspired books that were written violated that command. It was specific to that part of Deuteronomy.

So again, you are quite mistaken, both about what I have read and in how well I understand Protestantism.

In one place, he is quick to point out that the Scriptures did not exist as such until long after the death of the last Apostle – and yet, in another place, he acts as if John knew that his letters would become sacred Scripture, and that Apostle neglecting to include information in that letter meant that Tradition must be true.

Please cite where I “point out that the Scriptures did not exist as such until long after the death of the last Apostle.” I assume you are referring to some part of the canon of Scripture chapter. But I have never said the Scriptures didn’t exist–of course they existed the moment they were written–but it did take the Church centuries to discern the complete canon.

The Apostle Paul wrote four letters to the church in Corinth, yet Scripture preserves only the first and the fourth (which we now call 1 and 2 Corinthians). If the Church left certain apostolic writings out of the canon, might it not be that God intended for a certain sermon to be left out? So may go a Protestant counter-argument.

You don’t understand sacred Tradition. Those sermons are lost to Protestants, but they are not lost to Catholicism, because their content was absorbed as part of sacred Tradition, through the local Churches that read the letters.

Ironically, Mr. Rose concludes his book by encouraging his readers to follow the Protestant model of authority, and decide for themselves where the fullness of truth resides.

You make an error here. The difference between choosing to become Catholic or Protestant does NOT lie in the fact that a person uses his intellect to study and research the data to make a decision. We as rational beings cannot help but do that, and we should do that, because that is how God made us. So my recommendation to study and decide is not the Protestant model of authority. The Protestant model of authority is making oneself the ultimate interpretive authority of Scripture (and indeed, choosing which books to accept as inspired in the first place). The difference between becoming Catholic vs. remaining Protestant is what is discovered (or not) in the search. The person who becomes Catholic discovers the Church that Christ founded, the living Church that even today is guided by God “into all truth.” The person can submit to this Church as he submits to Christ, believing that Christ will only lead him to truth and good. The person who does not become Catholic fails to discover anything outside of his own opinion about what is the content of divine revelation. He thus remains his own ultimate interpretive authority.

Finally, note that the book was written for both Catholics and Protestants, and many have remarked to me how helpful it has been in their lives, even those who have not (yet) become Catholic.

God bless,

I replied:

Dear Mr. Rose,

I appreciate the time and effort you have applied in critiquing my response to your work. As a writer myself, I understand how important it is that others view one’s work accurately and do not twist it for their own purposes.

With that in mind, I intend to clarify what I have said, especially in those areas where I may have been more personal in my remarks than focused on the content. (Please bear in mind that, by now, it has been some time since I read your book, and my memory is a faulty thing.)


I completely agree with your assessment of the problem of pathos-based philosophy. It is neither the most efficient nor the most accurate means of determining truth. But given that so many are enrapt by that method, it behooves us to engage them on a level they comprehend. “Be all things to all men,” as St. Paul writes to the apologists and evangelists that follow him. We may present a profound and coherent logical argument for the Catholic Church, but if our audience speaks only in emotion, we have accomplished little. That, in essence, was my objection: I am concerned that your treatment of the subject matter is more logical than that from which the average reader may benefit.


In my experience, both as a Protestant and in conversation with Protestants, those who think about their faith enough to accept one teaching and reject another do not make that assessment on any basis of authority. That decision comes, rather, from a judgment of the theory or position as it relates to the beliefs they already hold. For those who operate in this manner, an appeal to authority is quite meaningless, since they hold to no authority but their own. I am certain that, for those who adhere to the teachings of Calvin or Luther (or their intellectual descendants) as taught and without variation, yours is an extremely effective argument. But that does not apply, as I have seen it, to the majority.


Logical reductionism may very well present prima Scriptura as sola Scriptura, and sola Scriptura as solo Scriptura. The same methods may also reduce agnosticism to atheism, and atheism to nihilism, but no agnostic will appreciate such an argument. Again, my concern is that apologetics should approach readers where they see themselves, not only where we see them. I do not disagree that prima Scriptura and sola Scriptura are functionally similar, if not identical, but there are many Protestants who disagree with that notion; it is better, I think, to acknowledge that and work with it than to dismiss it out of hand.


On the closure of public revelation, two quick points.

First, I am not arguing for the Protestant interpretation of the passage in Revelation, but pointing out that it exists. In your book, you declared (without even mentioning the passage in Revelation) that Protestants have no Scriptural basis for claiming the closure of public revelation, but a Protestant familiar with that doctrine would be quick to bring up Revelation 22 (as I did). It would have been better, I think, to address that possible interpretation (and point it out as fallacious) than to pretend it does not exist.

Second, as to whether there are any who believe Scripture ended with Deuteronomy… I am not certain that they based their belief on Deuteronomy 4:2 (although it would surprise me if they did not), but I do know that many Biblical scholars hold that the Sadducees limited their canon to the Torah (thereby eliminating certain doctrines to which the Pharisees adhered), both on the authority of Josephus and on evidence regarding their beliefs in the New Testament. I do not argue that either Protestants or Sadducees are correct in this regard, but I will not hesitate to point out that they certainly believe it.


I confess that I have misplaced the page reference for the earlier of those two assertions. I want to clarify, however, that neither your work (nor my representation of it) asserts that Scripture did not exist, but rather that it was not, in public view, the corpus of Scripture held today (which is quite accurate). The issue I took with this was that if there was no New Testament, then John could not (or should not) have presumed that every letter he wrote to one (little-C) church would be canonized. The argument that his obviation of certain teachings proves Tradition is a viable support of the doctrine, but not very convincing to those who disagree with it.


Curiously, you make my point for me here. Protestants, as a rule, do not understand the doctrine of Sacred Tradition. Their argumentation, therefore, falls along the lines I have indicated: if such-and-such written by the Apostles wasn’t good enough for Scripture (in their vision, the ultimate measure of faith), then the “lost” sermons are equally irrelevant. The Catholic position, on the other hand, is that neither the sermons nor the letters were lost, but that everything beneficial and productive was retained in Tradition.

There is a fundamental disconnect between these positions, allowing Protestants to produce counter-arguments such as the one I have postulated–a counter-argument against which you prepared no defense in your book. (That cannot, of itself, be judged, since no one can predict all possible counter-arguments to one’s position, and if you tried, your book would never end. But I thought this one particularly poignant.)


On the close of the book: the Protestant model of authority is to make oneself the ultimate authority on everything. My point, though not well-established, was that in order to become Catholic, Protestants must sacrifice that authority and submit to the authority of the Church. In order to make that judgment, however, they first must utilize the very authority which they must abandon. It is a paradox, a mystery, and exactly the sort of method I find agreeable in the God Who chose to die so that death itself may die.

I apologize for characterizing that as a judgment on you.


My only comment on the issue of audience is that the introduction of your work might have been more effective with a clear declaration of your audience; if only there had been a statement in an early chapter, explaining that you were writing to both curious Protestants and doubtful Catholics, I think many of my objections would have been softened. My frustration was that, lacking a declared audience, Protestants alone were the apparent audience, and that led to some confusion and irritation on my part, and for that, I apologize.

I apologize, too, for the personal rancor reflected in several of my remarks in my original review. I admit that I often become overzealous in my comments, which may lead to hurt.

Finally, I want to express how overjoyed I am that your work has brought others closer to Christ. There is, in my estimation, no greater praise than that your efforts have benefited an endangered soul, and I rejoice with you that you have received such praise.

Nathaniel Turner

And, graciously, Mr. Rose replied,


That is a gracious response, kind and charitable. I see the validity in your points and agree that the book could have been better in those regards. Specifically, you are right that many Protestants do not care a wit what Luther and Calvin say, even if many of their beliefs stem directly from those men.

God bless and thanks again!

From Apologetics High to Apologetics Low

If Protestantism is True If Protestantism is True by Devin Rose
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After reading Francis de Sales’ work on essentially the same topics, this book was very disappointing. I have very little good to say about it, to the point that I have to intersperse my positive comments among my negative comments. I shall endeavor to be as succinct as possible.

There are a number of typos in this book; there is inconsistent capitalization of divine pronouns (at one place “he,” at another “He,” both referring to God or Jesus Christ), missing prepositions, mistyped words (“is” instead of “it” or vice versa), and even one place where “whom” is written, but it really should be “who.” And in the title itself, “is” should be capitalized. (For anyone grammatically minded, the title is not otherwise incorrect; even though Mr. Rose did not use the subjunctive “If Protestantism Were True,” he poses his arguments as factual, not counterfactual, so the indicative “If Protestantism Is True” is correct.)

Other than typography, there are two root issues in this book which pervade its content and produce every other complaint I have. These are the problems of audience and rhetoric.

Mr. Rose cannot seem to decide on his audience. Superficially, he is writing to curious Protestants, trying to convince them of the truth of Catholicism, but very little of the book seems effectively geared toward this purpose. In many places, it is much better suited to convincing Catholics to remain Catholic (i.e., not to become Protestant). Elsewhere, he seems to be admonishing Catholic educators for their shortcomings, and exhorting them to improve the catechesis of the faithful. In no place does he seem assured of his audience; if he doesn’t know to whom he’s writing, how can I know if he’s writing to me?

The second root issue is his rhetoric. This stems from the nature of his argumentation. Everything seems framed in a system of skepticism and incredulity, logically questioning every thought and doctrine until it proves itself. Probably, this comes from Mr. Rose’s youth as a staunch atheist, as well as the process by which he became Christian, then Catholic specifically. While that is unsurprising, Mr. Rose should realize that very few people fit into this mold. In fact, most people – especially religious and spiritual people of the evangelical Christian variety – think in purely emotional terms. “How does this make me feel?” they ask, or, “Does this offend my sensibilities?” Most people do not stop to consider the logical ramifications of their position, because to do so would often be unpleasant.

In short, this book is the author’s personal conversion experience masquerading as rhetoric.

Keeping in mind this disconnect in argumentative style (logical versus emotional), what Mr. Rose intends to be distant and methodical comes off as a harsh invective against Protestant theology. He uses evocative and emotional terms to describe (or, more accurately, ridicule) theological points. He does, on occasion, show a great deal of respect for Protestants and their efforts, but his manner of doing so reminds me of the old saying, “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” He often praises Protestant endeavors to expand and strengthen the Kingdom of God (although it seems to me he should have opened the book with that praise, but he did not). Yet at the same time, much of the book (especially any paragraph that follows the phrase, “If Protestantism is true,” in italics) is a reductio ad absurdum for nearly every Protestant belief or argument. The book does not engage with genuine issues, but mocks straw men. This sort of under-the-belt treatment suggests that Catholicism is not strong enough to stand on its own, but must be defended by “fighting dirty” with fallacious arguments.

Another downside of this book being based entirely on his personal experience is his ignorance of Protestant belief. According to this book, he spent approximately one year as a Protestant, and since that time has been a Catholic for ten years. He has done extensive reading on the subject, but he barely lived his Protestant beliefs day-to-day. As a result, he does not understand the way born-and-bred Protestants think (or, at least, not as well as he thinks he does).

A major issue is his inherent misunderstanding of the Protestant view of authority. As suggested by his conclusion, most of the book is enforcing the notion that authority must exist, and must be followed. He emphasizes over and over against a series of arguments from origin, implying or claiming that if someone accepts the teachings of one person or group (such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or the Anabaptists), that someone must accept all other teachings of that person or group as well. For example, if one rejects the perpetual virginity of Mary, as some Anabaptists did, one must also deny discussion of the Trinity, as some Anabaptists did. This is directly contrary to the very notion of Protestantism, i.e., that each Christian must decide for him-/herself what to believe.

Beyond that, he also lacks studious knowledge of Protestant theological doctrines. Some Protestant groups, for example, support prima Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is first among theological authorities, and that all other (potential) authorities must be measured by it. This is separate and distinct from sola Scriptura, which Mr. Rose ascribes to all Protestants, but more accurately describes only the Anabaptists and their intellectual descendants.

In another place, he points out that Protestants attest that public revelation ceased with the death of the last Apostle, but claims that they do so with absolutely no Scriptural backing (and he spends two pages admonishing them for this). Clearly, he hasn’t read Revelation 22:19 or the many relevant interpretations thereof.

And then, ironically, he accuses Protestants at large (and even mentions one by name) of being as ignorant and insulting as he is.

There are still more rhetorical blunders among the pages of this small book. Let me close with just a few:

While it is emotionally and spiritually painful to consider, the idea that your opponent’s position would condemn millions of souls to Hell is not, in and of itself, an argument – yet Mr. Rose uses it as such on numerous occasions.

In one place, he is quick to point out that the Scriptures did not exist as such until long after the death of the last Apostle – and yet, in another place, he acts as if John knew that his letters would become sacred Scripture, and that Apostle neglecting to include information in that letter meant that Tradition must be true. There are reasoned, Scriptural arguments in favor of Tradition; this isn’t one of them.

On a related note, he claims that Protestants dismiss unwritten sermons as “unknowable,” that their content was unimportant and therefore irrelevant. In so doing, Mr. Rose ignores that the Catholic Church, when deciding the New Testament canon, had certain writings of the Apostles (notably Paul) and determined them to be unnecessary for sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul wrote four letters to the church in Corinth, yet Scripture preserves only the first and the fourth (which we now call 1 and 2 Corinthians). If the Church left certain apostolic writings out of the canon, might it not be that God intended for a certain sermon to be left out? So may go a Protestant counter-argument.

Ironically, Mr. Rose concludes his book by encouraging his readers to follow the Protestant model of authority, and decide for themselves where the fullness of truth resides.

Mr. Rose’s work is indicative of the mindset many Catholics have toward Protestant Christians. While this book may be useful to convince Catholics not to fall away from the Church, it is not likely to be effective among Protestants who are not already questioning everything they believe.

View all my reviews

Respect in Apologetics

The Catholic ControversyThe Catholic Controversy by Saint Francis De Sales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was not an easy read, though not on account of the text. Francis de Sales’ work requires a certain philosophical mindset, but it is excellently written and addresses each topic specifically for the layman. Rather, this was difficult to read because in many places, it has opposed my own beliefs; even so, I will strive not to address matters of faith except insofar as they relate to this review.

Let me start with the negative points. This book is originally a collection of letters, with numerous author’s notes, ideas, and self-editing appended. As such, it does not always flow naturally. Some of the chapters seem to follow from the last, while others seem arbitrary, and occasionally, the editor will include an author’s note about wanting to add such-and-such a chapter where none is included. Also, the end of the book lacks any sense of finality; there is no summation, no conclusion. In the context of a series of letters, such a conclusion would make little sense, but in the context of an argumentative book, its absence leaves the reader wishing for closure.

The only other negative quibble I can pointedly offer is an editing issue: there are easily half a dozen typographical errors throughout the book. This may seem minor, but when addressing a matter as vital to the human person as religious faith, there is no room for mistakes, no allowance for deviation. A number of grammatical errors make it easy for the opponent to avoid the tough questions of the argument and attack the weakness of the arguer. Fallacious and ridiculous it may be, but still, it’s important.

Now for my praise. The book is very well written. Its argumentation is succinct, effective, reasonable, and based in Scripture. One of the shortcomings of modern debates is the disagreement on qualifications for evidence; atheists demand materialism, Protestants deny tradition and praise emotional experience, and Catholics require objective reasoning… yet when atheists, Protestants, and Catholics disagree, atheists speak entirely in materialistic terms, Protestants speak entirely in spiritual terms, and Catholics speak entirely in terms of tradition. Under this model, no one accomplishes anything.

Francis, on the other hand, acknowledges the belief structure of his audience and meets them where they are; he is “all things to all men,” so that he might save some (1 Corinthians 9). He knows that he is writing to Calvinists, so he takes the Calvinists’ bases of faith: Scripture, tradition only up to a point, predestination, and so on. Using that structure, even so, he efficiently and powerfully argues in favor of the Roman Catholic Church. As someone who followed Calvinism for a time, I found that Francis’ argumentation left Calvin without a leg to stand on.

There were a few specific moments that I found peculiarly prophetic, given that Francis was writing very early on during the Reformation. Here I sit now, looking back on five hundred years of Protestant history, and I find these expectations more apt than ever. In discussing the notion of valid interpretation of the Scriptures, Francis writes,

“Who knows not how many passages the Arian brought forward? What was there to be said against him except that he understood them wrongly? But he is quite right to believe that it is you who interpret wrongly, not he, you that are mistaken, not he; that his appeal to the analogy of the Faith is more sound than yours, so long as they are but private individuals who oppose his novelties. Yes, if one deprive the Councils of supreme authority in decision and declarations necessary for the understanding of the Holy Word, this Holy Word will be as much profaned as texts of Aristotle, and our articles of religion will be subject to never-ending revision, and from being safe and steady Christians we shall become wretched academics.” (pp164-65)

As a part-time academic, I found this especially apt. Academics, particularly in the realm of literary and philosophical study, are obsessed with novelty. New is always better – and if you can tie it into some modern philosophy, some notion of feminism or liberation theology or the emergent church, all the greater is your triumph. Day to day, the “accepted” understanding of Scripture or history or philosophy is morphed into something totally unrecognizable by its progenitors. Academia is subject to the whims of cultural phenomena, and by placing Scriptural interpretation within that realm, orthodoxy becomes moot and faith becomes relative. It not only will happen, it does happen; spend a few years in the religion department of nearly any university to see it in action.

Not long after, Francis writes on the subject of accepting the Councils’ authority (or, more generally, the authority of any tradition),

“We are not hesitating as to whether we should receive a doctrine at haphazard or should test it by the application of God’s Word. But what we say is that when a Council has applied this test, our brains have not now to revise but to believe. Once let the canons of Councils be submitted to the test of private individuals, as many persons, so many tastes, so many opinions.” (p167)

Here, too, we see a realty now enacted. Even within the Roman Catholic Church, which struggles so particularly with divergent liturgies and lapses among the faithful – there are even religious orders which oppose the Papacy, the Councils, and God Himself. It is the cultural milieu to allow personal opinions to influence one’s understanding of religious truths, as if one’s opinions could never be skewed by the sin nature which runs rampant within us. And we see among Protestants this phenomenon especially; where once there were the followers of Luther, then there were the followers of Luther and of Calvin and of Zwingli and of King Henry VIII; where once there were only these, now there are hundreds, even thousands of denominations, from Lutherans to Presbyterians to American Baptists to Southern Baptists to United Methodists to “apostle” churches to mega-churches to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Latter-Day Saints. It is the modus operandi to split from one’s church when it diverges from your personal opinion, and – to summarize this mathematically – as time T approaches infinity, the ratio R of persons to denominations approaches one. Eventually, if this trend continues, there will be no churches, no denominations, no religions – only people with opinions.

I will expound on one final quote: When discussing the primacy and authority of the Papacy, Francis goes into great detail explaining the difference between infallibility in cathedra (literally “in the chair,” i.e., the chair of Peter, referring to the belief that Peter was given authority to speak on issues of morality and faith) and infallibility extra cathedra (literally “outside the chair,” an infallibility which no one claims the Pope possesses). During this discussion, he addresses an issue which I have found to plague the writings of Protestants and Catholics alike in the centuries since the divide: ad hominem attacks. Francis writes,

“You read the writings of Calvin, of Zwingle [sic], of Luther. Take out of these, I beg you, the railings, calumnies, insults, detraction, ridicule, and buffoonery which they contain against the Pope and the Holy See of Rome, and you will find that nothing will remain. You listen to your ministers; impose silence upon them as regards railings, detraction, calumnies against the Holy See and you will have your sermons half their length. They utter a thousand calumnies on this point; this is the general rendezvous of all your ministers.” (p229)

In absence of good argumentation, debaters fall immediately to this option: defame your opponent, and you delegitimize his argument. Catholics, too, are guilty of this (I recently wrote a review addressing this very issue in the writings of a modern Catholic apologist and motivational speaker). Instead of addressing their opponents where they are, with reasons they will understand (as Francis does so well in this book), they simply decry their opponents as foul men. It is tantamount to a child being presented with a cogent argument and replying, “Yeah, well, you’re just a meanie!” (Except that Luther’s tongue is far more wicked in its verbiage.)

I do not include these things to proselytize, but to expound upon this detail: Francis was a very successful apologist for the Roman Catholic Church in his day, in no small part because he (1) knew his opponents, (2) applied reason and reasonable extrapolation to their arguments, and (3) avoided the fallacies that have plagued argumentation since the beginning of time.

In short, this is an excellent book, and a must-read for anyone trying to understand Roman Catholics and where they stand.

View all my reviews