The Catholic Thing
The Perils of Intra-Christian Apologetics Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Thursday, 30 September 2010

In March 2006 one of my graduate assistants, a Baylor doctoral student, visited my office to discuss with me his personal journey in the direction of Catholicism. An alumnus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an ordained Baptist minister, this student, I’ll call him Joseph, told me that he and his wife were on the brink of choosing to seek full communion with the Catholic Church. He wanted to know from me, President-Elect of the Evangelical Theological Society, if I could give them any reasons why they should not make the move. Much to Joseph’s surprise, I said “no.” 

Although I was a year away from my own Catholic moment, I had reached a point in my Christian journey where I began to see more peril than promise in intra-Christian apologetics. This is not to say that I did not believe, or do not continue to believe, that when one is asked about one’s faith that one should not offer reasons for why one is Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. I do not doubt that one has a responsibility, in the words of St. Peter, “to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15a). Thus, if Joseph had asked me to explain why I was a Protestant, I would have done so. But he did not ask me that. He asked me to give him reasons why he should not become Catholic.

There is a question here that many Catholics eager to evangelize other Christian brothers and sisters may not appreciate. As someone who now has been on both sides of the Tiber, I need to explain precisely what I mean. I could not in good conscience provide what Joseph requested. For I did not know whether, at that time in his journey, Catholicism was becoming to him the only Christian tradition that he thought plausible to believe. Because he was a follower of Jesus and cared deeply about his walk with Christ, I had to treat Joseph’s inquiry with a certain delicacy, making sure that I did not place in his path a stumbling block. Months after meeting with me, he and has wife were received into the Catholic Church, and I soon followed.

But we often forget that no one comes to the question of intra-Christian dialogue and disputation with a blank slate. Consider, for example, the poorly catechized cradle Catholic who finds herself confronted by one of the many itinerant and irascible “Protestant apologists” whose polemical and superficial tomes are published for the very purpose of shaking the faith of such Catholics. The goal, of course, is to get the papist prey to “accept Jesus in her heart” and to become “born again.” But what if the Catholic, overwhelmed and ill-equipped, thinks of Catholicism as really the only legitimate Christian option, even though she does not know it very well? And what if the arguments against the Catholic Church simply destroy all of Christianity for that person? In that case, the Protestant apologist, though winning the argument, cooperates in the loss of a soul.

St. Paul evangelizing in Athens (Baylor University’s Robbins Chapel)

Similarly, imagine the case of the prodigal Protestant, an Evangelical college student who encounters on campus young and enthusiastic Catholic apologists. They spend most of their time with their Evangelical friend trashing the Protestant Reformers and contemporary Evangelicalism in such a way that the student, rather than entertaining Catholicism, considers abandoning his Christian faith altogether. This is because the student grew up an Evangelical Protestant in a vibrant ecclesial community that was the center of his family’s social, cultural, and religious life for generations. For such a person, Catholicism is not even on the conceptual radar. Thus, his Catholic friends, though intending no harm, contribute to his loss of faith in Christ.

Again, I do not mean to imply that Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox should not respond to inquiries, or offer reasons, to other Christians who raise questions about their theological beliefs. Apologetics, in that sense, is vital to our better understanding each other and our respective traditions. Moreover, as a Catholic, it is my hope that my Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. Thus, if a Catholic can answer the queries of her separated and Eastern brethren and help move them toward ecclesial unity with the Bishop of Rome, then she should do so.

But because of the Great Schism and the rift of the Reformation, we Christians over many centuries have grown apart, developing our own histories and traditions oftentimes with very little contact with one another. The road back to unity is rocky and treacherous. For this reason, we have to be careful in our practice of intra-Christian apologetics so that it does not become, as St. Paul would put it, “a stumbling block to the weak.” “When you sin in this way against your brothers,” writes St. Paul, “and wound their consciences, weak as they are, you are sinning against Christ.” (I Cor. 8:9b, 12)

This is not a merely theoretical problem. It arises more often than people think. And those who really want to present the truth of what they have come to believe need to be fully aware of the challenges we face.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. His most recent book is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft

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Comments (16)Add Comment
written by russ rentler, October 01, 2010
I have thought about this problem often after I returned to the Catholic Church. I have many godly friends and family who love Jesus and have vibrant walks of faith outside of the Catholic Church. Why should I "disturb' them so to speak, by introducing them to the Catholic faith? For some it would divide families(as it did mine) others would separate friends etc. cause employment issues ..
But when I look at my own life and realize, despite the rejections and loss of approval of others, that this is the best thing that has ever happened to me, I am compelled to share the treasure. I liken it to the Pearl of Great Price parable. I have found this Pearl and it would be selfish to not share it with my non-Catholic brethren.
All that being said, I think that the way in which we share our truth is the key issue. It is easy to become triumphalistic with apologetics and as Dr. Beckwith says, you may not win a convert but imperil a soul.
written by Robert, October 01, 2010
An excellent piece. It brought to mind something that I noticed some time ago: many of the "new atheist" polemics against religion (Christianity in particular) are often only slightly reworded versions of old Protestant polemics against the Catholic Church. I, for example, cannot often tell the difference between a quotation from Ian Paisley and one from Richard Dawkins!
written by morag marinoni, October 01, 2010
I had never thought through the possibility that my evangelising might endanger a soul who in fact was altogether weak in his Christian faith, so I am grateful to this timely article.
written by Ray Hunkins, October 01, 2010
Well said Dr. Beckwith; well said Mr. Rentler. As one who "discovered the pearl" not long ago, with a dear Christian wife who remains Protestant, I would add this thought: Do not ignore the power of prayer in the art of apologetics.
written by Dennis J. Dixon, October 01, 2010
I thought I was devout until my in-laws left the Church and found a closeness to Jesus in a strongly anti-Catholic denomination. That move set me on fire, and to be honest, I do not think that my in-laws would ever be as close to Jesus, as they are now, had they not left the Church. Had they not left, I too would not be as close to Jesus, as I am now. Like the bible.....which one is the best translation???? (Answer)...the one that you will read.
Which is the best Christian church....well the original of course...but if you are lukewarm there....and you would be on fire elsewhere....the answer is not so obvious. I will always try to steer my Christian brothers to the Fullness of Faith, but some mountains cannot be moved except by one stone at a time.
written by Joel, October 01, 2010
I deeply appreciate this post, mostly because I'm in my own "crisis of faith" right now.

I am somewhere between Evangelical and Orthodox right now (moving from Evangelical to Orthodox), engaging in much questioning of my own faith, and creating a very unstable ground for myself. Though I consider myself to be deeply committed to Christ, my faith has been shaken so badly in this transition period (or at least period of questioning) that I've had to avoid more liberal writings on Christianity. It's not that I'm considering leaving Christ -I don't foresee that occurring - but more along the lines of I don't know what is true when it comes to some of the more nuanced aspects of faith. Thankfully, the belief in the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the basics don't require any change. But thoughts on inspiration, understanding and interpreting the Scriptures, on moral questions, and the like are certainly undergoing a major shift.

The Orthodox have been very good about not pressuring me or trying to say my evangelical beliefs are wrong. Instead, they've simply displayed what they believe and hope the Holy Spirit will guide me towards their beliefs.

I certainly think that intra-denominational apologetics can be and is dangerous, ESPECIALLY in our current period in history. If our culture had a Christian consensus, then there might be a justification for such apologetics. But our culture is becoming more and more secular, where even church-goers have adopted a secular mentality. We can't afford to debate each other at this moment in history.

We can't afford to question each other's faiths right now; we need to stand together as much as possible.
written by Tom Brennan, October 01, 2010
A fine posting by Dr. Beckwith; I agree on being careful when dealing with weaker Christians.

But it seems to me that, when dealing with Evangelicals who are stronger in their faith, a similar argument makes a very pointed point: when their children grow up and get into the wider world, particularly college, their Evangelical beliefs will be challenged directly on the matter of Creationism/Young Earth, and they are likely to accept the (well-established) authority of their teachers and thus experience the confusion that Dr Beckwith and Joel alluded to in not knowing what authority from their upbringing can be trusted - and this will all happen at the very worst point in their lives, when they are also challenged (hourly) by the culture all around them to abandon Christian morality and to use their new independence to seek unbridled sexual fulfillment.
In other words, the evolution vs Creationism debate isn't just the parlor game it sometimes seems in intra-Christian sparring.
written by Tom Brennan, October 01, 2010
@Joel: Yes, you _can_ walk on water!
Jesus told his disciples "Be not afraid". There is only one Truth, and one Author of that Truth - seek it out, where ever it leads you.

But be prudent and discerning in selecting guides to that Truth - and, after 2000 years of Christian experience, there's no need (and plenty of harm) in trying to "go it alone" in that search. This is why Catholics and Orthodox point to the lives of the Saints to serve as ideal models for our lives - look to see who in that heavenly company has experience that speaks to your situation.

May you let the Holy Spirit guide you in right paths!
written by Kevin in Texas, October 02, 2010
Excellent piece and insights, Dr. Beckwith. As a soon-to-be-seminarian in an orthodox Catholic religious order (late vocation, as well), I sometimes struggle with the temptation to "argue" my agnostic and Protestant friends and family into the fullness of the faith that the Catholic Church holds. I have many agnostic family members who haven't fully rejected Christ or even the Catholic Church, but are just living fully secular lives. My best friend is a Reformed Protestant and lives his faith with a passion and love for Christ that I often envy. While I am tempted to debate with them by criticizing their beliefs (or uncertainties, in the case of my agnostic family members), it also makes sense that debating and criticizing can be harmful to their spiritual journey towards Christ and the Church. We have an awesome, beautiful faith, we have Tradition, we have the saints, and most importantly, we have the sacraments. As Catholics, we are so blessed by God that we actually, physically consume Christ every time we receive the Eucharist. There is simply no more intimate union with Christ (at least here on Earth and among the Church militant) than to consume Him in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. What a treasure that Christ offers Himself to us so completely. We must work to bring our separated brethren and agnostics and atheists to come to understand and believe, so that they may share in this treasure, for Christ didn't only die for His Catholic faithful, but for all mankind.
written by Marie in Massachusetts, October 02, 2010
A very timely commentary for me to read today Dr. Beckwith...thank you!

I literally just put down your own book,"Return to Rome" which I found last weekend at Franciscan University's bookstore during a Collage visit for my daughter....most interestingly,she is indeed struggling between her strong Catholic faith , the specifics within our the Catholic Catechism that she is studying this year in High School (sacraments are necessary for salvation) and reconciling this with her 9 years in a Classical Christian school , where she memorized the shorter Westminster Catechism,developed a deep knowledge of Scripture, and a personal realization that our Savior died for her sins...

I am watching her struggle as she has lived the beauty of both Protestant and Catholic Schools,Church,Youth Group and Christian Camp and Home...We have tried to help her see that she has had indeed the" Best of both Worlds" so to speak..and have come to realize whatever path she will walk down as she enters her adult life, it is really only most important that she stays close to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit....and so I see her now having this mental argument in many small ways...sometimes with her teachers, mostly withinin herself also equally.considering a great Catholic College like FUS...or maybe deciding on a strong Protestant school .like Covenant....time will tell!

There are indeed great difficulties in intra-Christian apologetics as you so clearly articulate . We have to be so thoughtful and careful of how we defend our Faith...and how far to go with these discussions with our Protestant friends...and vice versa! Being the only Catholic family in our small Christian school, I can honestly say that thru a few heated discussions, lots of prayer together and a common goal of communicating Christ in all we say and do..both sides learned quite a bit from each other..and I came away with a respect for and deeper knowledge of both traditions that I never had before.

Thank you again for your wonderful insights,Dr.Beckwith!
written by Sam Urfer, October 03, 2010
"—Then, said Cranly, 'you do not intend to become a protestant?' 'I said that I had lost the faith', Stephen answered, 'but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?'"

Stephen Dedalus's friend at Trinity College asks the question about conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ch. 5.
written by Alexander Pruss, October 03, 2010
Frank that's a really, really fascinating post. The most thought-provoking post I've read in a long time. I also find Joel's comment that the danger is particularly tied to the lack of a social consensus that Christianity is right. Here is a scattering of thoughts.

1. While the danger is really big in the case of the immature, it obviously could be there in the case of the mature, and maybe sometimes in even more striking form. If after years and years of thought, Jim has concluded, rightly or wrongly, that the two intellectual options in the world to be taken seriously and chosen between are, say, Eastern Orthodoxy and a morally subjectivistic naturalism, then any argument against Eastern Orthodoxy runs the danger of throwing him into the embraces of naturalism.

2. However, it seems to me that there are two kinds of apologetic arguments that reduce (but perhaps do not eliminate) the dangers you note. I'll assume for definiteness that one is Catholic.

a. Apologetic arguments that focus on a difficulty in the interlocutor's view that the interlocutor is himself troubled by, and showing how Catholicism can help resolve that difficulty. For in that case, one has a greater chance of strengthening the faith.

b. Apologetic arguments that in providing evidence for Catholicism also provide evidence for Christianity in general. For instance, an argument (like this one) from the historical unchangingness of definitive Catholic teaching is simultaneously an argument for Christianity. Likewise, the apologetic spiral argument (go from rough historical reliability of the Gospels, to Christ's divinity (via the Lord/liar/lunatic path, say), to the correctness of what Christ said, to the fact that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth, to the infallibility of the Church's faith, and finally to the inspiration of Scripture) simultaneously defends Catholicism and reinforces Christian faith. (A related case is if the apologist's loving manner of offering the arguments is itself a testimony to the Holy Spirit's activity.)

3. Do you think the dangers you mention are present when one is offering Christian apologetics to Jews and Muslims? Namely, one might fail to convince them of the correctness of Christianity, and instead only convince them of the incorrectness of their own theological views, leading them to atheism or agnosticism.

4. But I wonder if in fact there are many cases of people losing their Christian faith due to thoughtful and gentle intra-Christian apologetics. I suppose this might turn somewhat on judgments as to whether something counts as thoughtful and gentle.
written by Mike, October 03, 2010
"But what if the Catholic, overwhelmed and ill-equipped, thinks of Catholicism as really the only legitimate Christian option, even though she does not know it very well? And what if the arguments against the Catholic Church simply destroy all of Christianity for that person? In that case, the Protestant apologist, though winning the argument, cooperates in the loss of a soul."

This is importantly misleading, I think. Of course there are cases in which the counterfactual consequences of what you might have done are bizarre and unexpected. But such strange hypotheses about what would happen were you to do X are, really, skeptical hypotheses. And it's a serious mistake to begin deciding what you're going to do on the basis of skeptical hypotheses. We never know (for sure, for certain, for good and all, etc.) what would happen were we to take a quite reasonable course of action in evangelizing. But that certainly cannot mean that you (morally) should not take what presents itself as the reasonable course. It's mistake to make it a practical rule to refrain from taking the course that reasonably suggests itself on the basis of counterfactual hypotheses that (epistemically) might result from what you do. It shouldn't even give you much pause. That sort of reasoning--like all skeptical reasoning--is paralyzing and very likely to cause as much harm as it is designed to avoid.
written by Bob Irving, October 04, 2010
Hi everyone.
If I am a bit off topic feel free to ignore this.
Is there another perspective to the issue of intra Christian apologetics?
We can look at the different church organisations and try and persuade others into this or that church organisation. But from God's perspective is there only one church, regardless of whether I see myself as protestant, orthodox, Romam Catholic, etc? Is there only one body?
Perhaps God has already done the work of placing us in the only church that matters (the one Jesus is building). Therefore, as an example, I am free to treat my Roman Catholic brethren as full brothers in Christ without any precondition that they move from the Roman Catholic church, or need to suggest they do so.
written by Dan Lower, October 07, 2010

Recently went Catholic (Tiber Swim Team 2010, baby!) after a Free Methodist/Protestant - R.C.C. crisis-of-faith transition period.

After several years of friendly yet polemical discussion/dialog with a Calvinist friend both before and after my conversion. Of course my particular influences shifted and so did my theology. While I am far from convinced that I single-handedly destroyed his faith I am afraid that in trying to convince him of the authority of Christ's Church, I may have given him excuse to reject the authority of the Scriptures. Now my friend still considers himself, so far as I know, a Christian, and I consider him such as well; but his current contemplation of leaving the institutional church is not what I had in mind and not what I want for him, even if that alternative would be to stay in a potentially anti-Catholic church longer. But at the same time, I'm not sure how I feel about any of this. The whole thing makes me uneasy because navigating the line between not earnest enough in spreading the Truth, and so eager to spread the Truth that you wind up spreading it in a morally irresponsible and thus untruthful fashion...well, that's an uneasy business.

Thanks for the article, Dr. Beckwith.
written by Fr Alvin Kimel, October 09, 2010
Dr Beckwith, I find myself in strong agreement with your article. Perhaps only the truly holy should engage in apologetics. The danger of wounding the souls of others is so great. We so desire to prove to others why our faith, the Faith, is superior to all others--truth is truth, right?--but this very need to prove the rightness of our beliefs and the rightness of our conversion decisions can cause us to present the Faith in such a way as to be a stumbling block to faith.

Lord, have mercy.

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