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5.0 out of 5 stars What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?, 6 Mar 2013
This review is from: A Biblical Defence of Catholicism (Paperback)
One of the most troubling features of today's Euro-American Catholic Laity is that while many are prepared to offer their opinions about 'what the Catholic Church should do', and why, they find it difficult, when asked, to relate their ideas to any understanding of its essential doctrines. The reason for their embarrassment is, on the whole, an inadequate religious education both at home and in schools, and that inadequacy itself derives from a reaction against the dogmatic style of instruction which operated on the basis that faith could be reduced to a series of premises, which, if logically followed, led to a set of unarguable conclusions. This approach had its origins in mediaeval scholasticism and was intensified by the Church's combative response to the Reformation, but by the middle of the last century, many lay people, and much of the junior clergy. were coming to believe, firstly, that it was unhelpfully defensive; secondly, that it put too much emphasis on 'the law'; and, thirdly, that it had the undesirable effect of perpetuating division. Meanwhile, the spread of attitudes based on higher biblical criticism made people more inclined to question the Church's key contention - namely that the faith derived directly from the teaching of Jesus Christ, transmitted by the Apostles, elaborated by the fathers, and rendered conclusive in the formulations of the Ecumenical Councils. Furthermore. the authoritarian style was unattractive to an age in which conformity to the prescriptions of any institution could be regarded as the endorsement of an unwarrantable interference in the rights of individuals to make choices, to fashion lifestyles, and to follow conscience. Many in the Church were sympathetic to this increasingly popular movement and there developed a widespread belief that it was preferable to abandon the strictly catechetical method: the study of dogma was to be replaced by an emphasis on mission; the focus shifted from the letter to the spirit; and there was a concentration on general, non-specific, beliefs that were perceived to be conducive to reconciliation - not the perpetuation of division.

What many people did not perceive was that the abandonment of dogmatic instruction and the fostering of a more comparative and ecumenical style would expose the Church to pressures and arguments which an understanding of Church history and doctrine would previously have made pretty well unthinkable. The decline of religious faith, particularly in the established churches of Protestant Europe and of North America, has not in any way lessened the cultural presuppositions which their populations inherited from more committed generations and the insistence on an absolute right to personal judgment in all matters involving conscience led to an unsurprising growth in relativistic, pragmatic, individualism which soon presumes not only to justify the individual's personal conduct but even to determine doctrine in accordance with popular sentiment. Where this assertion of the right to personal judgment is coupled to a lack of interest in, or downright hostility to, the authority of doctrine - especially in matters involving sexual choice - the effect is to create a body of popular opinion which, while thinking of itself as 'christian', has little understanding of, or sympathy with, those parts of traditional christian teaching which conflict with its increasingly secular presuppositions. Where they are subservient to the state, the Protestant churches have been all but overwhelmed by the opinions that have come to shape the social and political culture in which they exist, whilst non-scriptural 'developments' in doctrine and practice make the prospect of Church unity more remote than ever. Euro-American Catholics now find themselves divided between those who would like to see the Church evolve in accordance with the demands of its immediate cultural environment (thus furthering the desirable evolution towards ecumenical unity) and those who are convinced that there can be no accommodation with forces that are, knowingly or unknowingly, opposed to scripture, as interpreted by tradition and established by conciliar authority.

In trying to deal with these comparatively recent social and political developments, the Church finds itself painfully embarrassed by the consequences of the very instructional policies which it was previously anxious to espouse. it is appreciated that there is an urgent need for religious instruction that goes beyond a state-sponsored curriculum of a religious 'education' dictated more by social and political considerations than by genuine commitment to promoting belief, but there is also an appreciation that there can be no return to authoritative religious 'instruction' without the kind of exposition, explanation and justification which is so necessary to the modern temperament. On the other hand, the Church has, since the Reformation, entertained a deep and justified suspicion of taking Scripture alone ('sola scriptura') as the determinant of dogma. Instead, it has insisted on a vision which sees the the Church travelling through the ages as the repository of the Faith committed by the Saviour to the Apostles, interpreted by the Fathers, given authority by the ruling of the Ecumenical Councils, and received with trust, respect and humility by the Community of the Faithful. This doctrine, which is fundamental to the Church, and which all Christian men accepted until 1517, now seems strange, and even absurd to men who see themselves in their most intimate moments not as members of a community, but as autonomous individuals - droplets that rejoice as they catch the light, and that tremble at the thought of being subsumed in a dark and undifferentiated sea of Faith.

In the 8 years of his papacy, Benedict XVI, who had a keen insight into the problems posed for the Faith by the competing forces of tradition and modernity, sought to resolve them by emphasising the significance that recourse to Scripture should have in the spiritual lives of Catholics. Again and again, the Pope emphasised the connection between what Our Lord said and did, and the scriptural context in which He said and did it, for this, according to the Pope, was the best guide to understanding who our Lord was and how He intended Himself to be understood. It was within this spirit of renewed, scriptural evangelism that Dave Armstrong had already produced 'A Biblical Defense of Catholicism' - a book which he clearly intended to be something of a 'vade mecum' for Catholics confronted by Evangelical claims that their core beliefs are contrary to Scripture. Mr.Armstrong, came well-equipped for the task, for he was, until 1991, a Protestant 'campus missionary', who, while 'actively and sincerely engaged in a lengthy historical and biblical critique of catholicism' intended to convert catholic partners in an ecumenical discussion group of their errors found, instead, that he became the one to change his 'mind.

Mr.Armstrong's book accordingly serves as something of a Primer of Catholic doctrine, showing not just what Catholics believe, but why they believe what they do. Taking as his chapter headings such topics as Tradition, Justification, the Mass, the Eucharist, Penance, Purgatory, the Communion of Saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, he Papacy and Infallibility, Mr.Armstrong first sets out the doctrine which the Church affirms (usually by quoting the Councils on the subject). Next, he considers the Scriptural basis for the affirmation, and, finally, sets out the alternative view, and, inevitably, its deficiencies, demonstrating in the course of debate, that these deficiencies usually arise from a misunderstandings (and misrepresentations) of what the Church actually teaches, and from misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Scripture itself. In fact, the list of topics itself provides the clearest indication of the essential differences between the two outlooks, for they centre on the relationship between God and Man, between Authority and Conscience, and the between Sin and Salvation. In each of the areas covered, we see that what is at stake is the rejection of the idea that Man can 'rely' on any form of mediation, but relies instead wholly on the intervention in his life of God's saving grace: no amount of works, no amount of observance, no amount of prayer, no amount of intercession, no amount of purgation, whether in this life, or in the hereafter, can have salvific effect - only the direct intervention in God in the life of the individual is of any salvific effect, but once we are the subject of God's intervention, everything else becomes not only unnecessary, but an actual stumbling block, for it becomes, in the eyes of the elect of God,no more than trickery, trumpery and an enslavement to the world.

It is interesting to ask oneself what it was that came first in the mind of the Reformers - whether it was a sense of the intolerable weight of sin; the yearning for an unmediated relationship with God; a justifiable rejection of clerical abuses and a despair at the corruptibility of Man; or the electrifying effect of sudden accessibility of the printed Word - but what is clear is that, in a historical context where there could be no effective challenge to Church teaching from within, and where the mere assertion of personal conviction was as nothing against the accumulated doctrine of the centuries, any challenge to authority had to be based on what was presented as the the only authority as to what had been the 'true' 'original' and 'uncorrupted' teaching of the Saviour in the very words of Scripture. Reinterpretation of Scripture therefore became the key to the proper understanding of God's will on all masters in practical dispute, and its original interpretation could be justifiably discarded. The question as to what Scripture actually said about the issues which were uppermost in the minds of the Reformers and of the Reaction became absolutely central, and have, in a sense remained so. All that has happened recently is that the so-called 'higher criticism', growing out of the German protestant tradition, has undermined the authority of Scripture as a source of historical and dogmatic truth, so that 'progressive' christians of all stripes are ready to reinterpret their beliefs on the premises that see the Gospels themselves as the production of a specific cultural and social milieu, full of the presuppositions, prejudices and assumptions of their time, and therefore of little real weight in interpreting the contemporary operations of the Spirit in the Modern World

On one level then, the debates on which Mr.Armstrong focusses may seem to be academic - what, it may be asked, is the relevance of a set of doctrines worked out in one context, rejected (for what may be perceived to be perfectly good reasons) in another, and wholly 'irrelevant' to the issues being debated by a third? Well - the answer to that lies partly in the fact that these debates are still manifestly relevant to a very large section of the world's population outside Northern Europe and America; partly in the fact that the argument between the claims of authority and personal judgment are a recurrent issue in nearly all thought, so that their manifestations are interesting in nearly all disciplines; and partly because the religious experience of Christianity is so fundamental to Western culture that, even where that culture rejects it, the attitudes to which it gave rise remain instinct to the continuing enterprise, and it helps in understanding that enterprise, to trace its intellectual, emotional and cultural roots. But for those who are ready to take the claims of Christianity seriously - by which I mean the system of beliefs that hold that God created man, participated in his creation through the incarnation, taught a gospel of salvation, suffered, died, was buried and rose again form the dead - the real evidence for what He taught and what He wished us to understand by what He taught becomes absolutely crucial.

It is not for me to attempt to summarise or re-present the illuminating analysis that Mr.Armstrong conducts: he lets the texts speak largely for themselves in the manner, and according to the system which I have already described. For me, the chief value of the book lay in its minute exposition of scripture, and the way in which Mr.Armstrong related it to the doctrinal points under discussion - the analysis, claims the blurb, 'relies on hundreds of Bible passages (including verses from 229 of the 260 chapters of the New Testament), shedding light on the meaning of those passages as well as on the meaning and truth of the doctrine in question'. Whilst I am in no position to vouch for the accuracy of the number of verses said to be quoted, I can confirm that the advertisement accurately summarises the technique and that it formed, for me, the chief value of the book. Those who are comparatively unfamiliar with Scripture often find the habit of reference to passages drawn from it tedious, if not intimidating, but Mr.Armstrong usually quotes a clear, modern version of the whole verse, attractively spaced and in decently sized print. The book contains a thorough and helpful reading list to enable the reader to take any particular interest forward, and the only defect is the lack of an index - though this matters rather less than it might have done had the subject of each chapter not been so clearly indicated by its title.

Anyone reading this book will end it feeling fully informed as to the interpretative issues which have traditionally arisen between the protestant and the catholic traditions. These have been debated many times, and in many different ways in the last 500 years, but Mr.Armstrong's exposition is particularly attractive for its reasoned, uncontentious, and courteous style: he choses as his epigraph, a verse from the First Epistle of St.Peter in which the saint instructs the faithful to 'Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence' (1 Peter 3:15). and he seems to me to practice what St.Peter teaches. There are also moments in which his scholarship provides illumination that goes well beyond the immediate issue on which he is seeking to cast light. So, in his discussion of the Mother of God, Mr.Armstrong notes that the language of the Annunciation at Luke 1:35, and particularly the use of the Greek word επισκιαζω (which is used also in the context of the Transfiguration), invokes instances of the 'shekinah' or 'the manifestation of the 'glory of God' which is so compelling a feature of the Old Testament description of the impression produced on witnesses when that glory condescended to 'occupy' the Ark (Ex:40;34-35) and the Temple of Solomon (i Kings 8:4-11, esp. 8:10-11). The words uttered by David on seeing the Ark find their parallel in the words uttered by Elizabeth at the Visitation (2 Sam 6:9 Luke 1:43), the shouts for joy uttered to greet the Ark, with that uttered by Elizabeth (2 Sam 6:!4-16; Luke 1:42): David's 'leaping for joy' before the Ark with the Baptist's 'leaping in the womb' (2 Sam.6:14-16; Luke 1:44), and 3 month residence of the Ark of the Old Covenant in the hill country of Judaea finding its complement in the residence of Mary (the Ark of the New), in the house of Elizabeth (2 Sam 6:10-12; Luke 1:39-45, 56) - and all point to the quite extraordinary reverence in which the gospel writer held both the Mother of God, and the unique and sanctified relation in which she stood to the Saviour.

On completing this book, my chief reflections centred on the inadequacy of so much of our response to God, and particularly to the Word made Flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. It sometimes seems that we moderns have little conception of the demands made by any rational, let alone imaginative, understanding of what true and sincere belief in Divinity actually involves. We are comfortable with the idea of a God made Man who healed the sick, spoke up for the poor, and set himself against the cruel working of the world. We see Him, above all, as a compassionate God, a forgiving God, a God who who could not, and would not, consign us to damnation for our pitiable, and not so pitiable, failings. The difficulty is setting this conception of the divine against the clear, logical and unequivocal implications of a doctrine which teaches that only the pure and the holy can, or will, enjoy the final vision of a pure and holy God: this teaching carries with it certain inevitable and painful consequences as regards compromising with the world, adopting its values, and consenting to its practices. If we reject the idea that God simply 'elects' those who are to be considered pure and holy in his sight, whilst rejecting his rest of human creation for eternity, we might conclude that the world in which we live is indeed, a testing ground, and that we need all the help and assistance we can get from the Sacrifice and Intercession of Our Saviour, His Blessed Mother, the Communion of Saints, and that the Sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, Penance, together with progress through Purgatory are not only necessary but merciful dispensations of a loving God. Such a system, too, carries with it the not unreasonable conclusion that the individual's disposition towards God is quite as significant as God's disposition towards the individual - a conclusion that might follow from the two great commandments - namely, that we should 'love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and all our souls, and all our might' and that we should 'love our neighbours as ourselves' - what follows on mortal life can then be regarded not as a 'reward' or a 'punishment' for what we do, but as the inevitable consequence of what, through our choices, we have come to be.
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