It was brought to my attention that James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries has devoted one of his “Dividing Line” broadcasts to these issues concerning Roman Catholics and Evangelicals here on the Parchment and Pen blog. Most of his comments are directed critically toward Dan Wallace and I. I cannot speak for Dan, but I thought that I would respond very briefly here.
First, I just want to say that theologically, as I have read through James’ material and listened to his broadcast, I line up very closely with him. I think where we part ways is in methodology. We at Reclaiming the Mind Ministries see more value in a irenic (peaceful)Â approach to theology and his is more of a polemic (confrontational)Â approach. As I said in my blog Advise to Christian Apologists last night, there is a definite place for polemics. I appreciate James’ passion even if I disagree with his methodology. We are both apologists, we just part ways when it comes to our methodology.
A couple of things in response (I can’t respond to everything as his program was over an hour long and full of criticism)
1. I am neither post-evangelical, post-modern, or emerging Â (although he did not say emerging that I can remember, but it was implied). Although I see much value in what these groups are bringing to the table and agree with their concerns, I am a committed Evangelical and do not want to be identified with the abuses of their more radical representatives. (For more on this see our Theology Unplugged broadcast on the emerging church). James said at one point that we were parting ways with historic conservative Protestant Evangelicalism. I disagree. Look at our theology. Go through the courses in The Theology Program. You will see that this is far from the truth. I, myself, and Dan as well, are both Evangelical Calvinistic Protestants.Â I am notÂ ashamed of this title and I don’t think Dan is either. Simply because we are not as anti-Catholic as James is and don’t interpret Catholicism in the way he does,Â does not mean that we are leaving ourÂ Evangelical heritage in any way. I don’t claim to knowÂ Creedal Catholicism as well as James, but I am not ignorant of the issues either. WhileÂ I do find some egg on our face with regards to the Pope’s recent declaration (or redeclaration) ofÂ the illegitimacy ofÂ the Protestant churches, I still contend that Catholicism can be interpreted differently and the situation can progress. I have had much personal contact with Catholics who do interpret their documents differently than the hard liners.Â We do not have toÂ cement ourÂ polemics in theÂ context of the 16th century, especially if things are changing.
The Pope’s declaration yesterday,Â ironically,Â did demonstrate that what I had said about the progressÂ and attitude ofÂ modern Catholic scholarship was true.Â This perceived disagreement and change in theÂ Catholic church is the exact reason why the Pope felt it necessary to sign this document yesterday. HeÂ is more hard-line than John Paul II was and demonstrated this yesterday. I am not sure what this will do to the ethos of the situationÂ or the tone of the conversation between irenic Catholics and Protestants, but it certainly has reiterated that theÂ supreme bishop of Rome does not want progression in the way it wasÂ seeming to head.Â
But James must recognize that semper reformanda does allow us to advance.Â As hard as it is to admit, the Reformers are not anÂ infallible magisterial authority. They did encourage us to continue to progress. I just don’t think we should get upset when progress might possibly be taking place. Isn’t progression what we want? DoÂ we really have to have the Pope stand on his balcony and say he was wrong as James suggested?Â I am just not sure about this. I think change is the goal, not a proclamation of defeat from an enemy. But this is the difference in our emphasis. I could be wrong and respect James’ opinion.
2. James justifies his approach to apologetics by referencing Paul’s polemical approach, primarily seen in the book of Galatians. I believe this is a somewhat misunderstanding on how we are to use Paul as our exampleÂ for three primary reasons.
1. Paul was an Apostle who carried the authority of an Apostle. This included infallibility in certain areas. Both of these you and I donâ€™t have. Therefore, we cannot approach these issues with the degree of certainty that Paul had.Â Even if we can have a high degree of certainty about certain passages and theological issues, this does not mean that we are infallible and authoritative as an Apostle.
2. Paul did not always handle things polemically. In other words, I would not make his descriptive encounters prescriptive with the way we should go about our apologetics, especially since he gives us prescriptive advice that should set our attitude and tone:
Colossians 4:2-6 2Â Â¶ Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; 3 praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; 4 that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. 5Â Â¶ Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.
Notice the purpose clause â€œso that.â€ If you do not speak with grace, Paul seems to suggest that you are not qualified to know how to respond to each situation. Grace gives us clarity of mind. It is not unlike Christâ€™s admonishment to remove the log from our own eye so that we will be able to see clearly enough to correct another (Matt. 7:5). The basic idea here is that without grace we cannot understand the issues. Emotions will rule and harsh polemics will be counter productive.
3. We also must recognize this: When Paul was polemical, from what I can tell, it was to those who were under his authority. In other words, it was pastoral. He did so with the Galatian and Corinthians precisely because he had expressed authority as their leader. Most of the people with whom apologists engage are not under their authority. Therefore, a better model is how Paul handled the Athenians on Mars Hill in Acts 17. It was gracious, understanding, and intent on building bridges. He could not approach them the same way he did the others. Therefore, we need to employ discernment and tact.
3. I also believe that bridges can be built one plank at a time. James seems to suggest that it is all or nothing. Either the bridge is immediately complete as one side concedes everything or nothing. As well, I think the building needs to come from both sides. Evangelicalism is not perfect and is not beyond correction and learning things from other traditions. We do have serious problems in our own ranks as well. I just would not stand with a torch burning every plank that is laid, one at a time.Â
We live in a postmodern world where people are suspicious of all absolute truth claims. I just don’t think polemics and claims to absolute certainty about these issues is the way to go about it.Â I hope that we can use tact in our discussion and if bridges are being built one plank at a time.
For more on our methodology at RMM see Googling for Truth: The Importance of Irenic Theology in a Postmodern World.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]