The Perils of Intra-Christian Apologetics

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 & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).