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.