Reflections Based on Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua

John Henry Newman published his Apologia Pro Vita Sua in 1864, some twenty years after he became a Catholic, in response to an attack by Charles Kingsley.

I’m not about to write a book, but some attacks do require response, such as that made recently by Dave Armstrong.

Armstrong says statements that I have made about my return home are “postmodernist mush.” He declares I didn’t give reasons for leaving Adventism and I haven’t given reasons for returning to my spiritual home. He says, “He apparently had no theological clue as to why he left Adventism and none for why he adopted Catholicism.” In particular, he attacks me for not being interested in Biblical proof-text apologetics. He says, moreover, that I was “trashing apologetics.”

I never “trashed apologetics.” I did–and do–take exception to the forensic methodology of apologetics, developed in Reformed circles, which was imported into Catholicism through the conversions of conservative Presbyterians like Scott Hahn, Gerry Matatics, and Robert Sungenis. I have consistently opposed this methodology, both for thriving on debates (as if truth is a matter of scoring points), and for being ahistorical (treating Catholic doctrine as something that can be proved by Scripture alone, despite the fact that the Church has always defended its extrabiblical teachings by rejecting sola Scripture and insisting on the authority of tradition).

To be against this approach is not to be opposed to apologetics. There are other methods of apologetics–for which you don’t have to apologize when the dust clears. I suggest Armstrong read Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics.

When I left the Adventist church, I gave lots of Biblical, historical, and theological justification/rationalization, in long letters to friends and family. I had some of that posted on my webpage at one time. I did the same when I became Catholic. I posted much of that on my webpage, and included it in published writings. My arguments were not based on scriptural proof-texting, but historical and theological reasons for which I accepted the Catholic Church’s authority, akin to those arguments which persuaded John Henry Newman, whose Essay on Doctrinal Development was the single most influential book of apologetics I read.

I have lots of Biblical, historical, and theological arguments (as well as some from personal experience) I can give now for why I could no longer accept that, as well as Biblical reasons for the truth of positions held by Seventh-day Adventists. Some I gave in the weeks and months prior to my decision, on my blog.

I’m choosing not to continue in that path for the present. I chose not to do so in that sermon. I will no doubt say more in the future. But ultimately, conversion isn’t about arguments and reason. It’s about grace. I choose at present to give all glory to God, not to bask in the brilliance of my own arguments.

I’ve given credit to my family, but are they the only reason? No. Someone suggests in Dave’s comments that I left after “someone found out my wife was Adventist.” What a silly thing to say. I worked full-time for the Catholic Church from 1994-2007. Everyone always knew my wife was Adventist, including bishops, archbishops, and cardinals from here to the Vatican. No one ever expressed shock about it. Scott Hahn notes the advice he was given by an Opus Dei spiritual director–use romance rather than reason. That’s the kind of advice I was given, too.

Some say, “Well, he didn’t really know the Catholic faith.” That’s not what folks were saying when I was teaching Church History, Church Doctrine, and Christology in the archdiocesan Formation toward Christian Ministry program. It’s not what my professors at CUA, Dominican House of Studies, Washington Theological Union, and University of St. Thomas said (a total of nine graduate courses over the years, as part of my masters’ programs and continuing education). That’s a kind of knee jerk reaction from those who really can’t comprehend that someone would, upon reflection, be persuaded otherwise.

But enough of that. My bottom line is this: Is anyone ever won to Christ through being defeated in a debate? I don’t think so. Debates stir up contentiousness and pride. They are “near occasions of sin,” if not occasions of actual sin.

My grandfather used to say, “Don’t get into a pissin’ contest with a skunk.” Wise advice. That’s why I steer clear of debates, and why I don’t let my comments boxes get overheated.

I will for now, just proclaim the awesome mystery that is grace, citing as my text that statement by Chesterton quoted by Waugh: “I caught him … with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

One thought on “Reflections Based on Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua

  1. (This is a repost, approximately)
    I confess I don’t understand your move. But I think you are right about the primacy of love over apologetics. No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit, that is, except that the love of God flood his heart. It is important to be able to give reasons; they confirm and sustain and orient our love. But arguments are persuasive to those who are open, and they are open because God opens them. The heart of the king is in the hand of God who turns it wheresoever he wills.

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