Thursday, December 16, 2004

Review of _The Catholic Verses_ by Dave Armstrong

"Irenic" is not the first word that ordinarily comes to mind when a book is subtitled "95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants," but in this case, it's just proof of the old adage about judging books by their covers. The only beliefs that come under attack in this book are the ones that have been frustrating ecumenical dialogue and poisoning discussions with anti-Catholic stereotypes for far too many years. For Catholics, this book will come as a reassurance that Catholicism is firmly rooted in the Scriptures. For Protestants, it will provide a valuable opportunity to reexamine the hard questions that every faithful Protestant should be able to answer. But for all readers, the lesson is that those who gloss over serious study of Scripture in making reckless attacks on fellow Christians do so at their own peril.

One feature that distinguishes this book from many other works is the genuine respect that Armstrong bears for the other side of the aisle. He cites arguments by famous Protestants from Calvin to Luther, Wesley to Kelly, not to tear them down but to demonstrate the amount of effort they put into forming their own conclusions. The point of these demonstrations is to illustrate that even thoughtful, devoted, and scholarly men can reason their way to different conclusions about these passages, and that in most cases, the Catholic view is no less thoughtful or reasonable an explanation. In an attitude of genuine intellectual humility, Armstrong constantly repeats a simple theme: "recognizing that reasonable men can disagree, here is why I believe what I do." Exercising the rare poise found in such writers as Jaroslav Pelikan, Armstrong makes his case strongly and convincingly while maintaining a profound respect for his opponents' intelligence.

The book covers a number of Catholic distinctives that frequently arise in Protestant-Catholic dialogue, such as ecclesiology, the role of tradition, the papacy, and justification. On these issues, there is no new ground covered that has not been discussed at length in a number of places, but the advantage here is that the presentation is clear and concise, focused particularly on developing the strength of the Biblical argument. This is extremely helpful for beginners in Catholic theology, but it also reminds more advanced students just how effective it can be to make a simple, focused Scriptural argument that goes back to basics. Time and time again, Armstrong demonstrates the power of such arguments to convey the Catholic message.

What impressed me most, though, was Armstrong's handling of sensitive moral issues in the final three chapters. In discussing clerical celibacy, contraception, and divorce, he bring an optimistic and idealistic perspective centered firmly in Christ to areas that have become overwhelmingly dominated by cynicism. Armstrong's positive view of human nature and the human condition is a refreshing change from the modern worldview that envisions people as being doomed to gross moral failings. His presentation is an excellent example of how sound moral teaching founded in the Gospel can truly be a light to the world.

I recommend this book without reservation, and I encourage my fellow Catholics to take the study of these verses to heart and to commit them to memory. They are excellent reminders of how the Catholic faith is rooted in the Word of God.

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