Sunday, April 25, 2004

The Epistemology of My Conversion / My (Protestant) Letter to Karl Keating in 1990 / How I Became an Apologist

Yours truly in October 1987: right in the middle of my evangelical campus missionary days, and never dreaming in a million years that I would ever be a Catholic.

From the Q & A #2 Thread. I have added significant new material: lengthy excerpts from a letter I wrote to Karl Keating in February 1990, when I was a Protestant and still eight months away from conversion. This is probably the primary written document I have, pertaining to my opinions of Catholicism, as I was just starting to seriously study it. It also strongly puts the lie to claims that I wasn't a "real" Protestant (James White) or that I never correctly understood sola Scriptura and perspicuity. I did in 1990 and earlier, and was citing Hodge and Calvin.

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EL Hamilton (evangelical Protestant) is asking the questions (in blue):

I'd be interested in knowing what teaching(s) of Catholicism you found hardest to embrace during your conversion-study period.

Papal and conciliar infallibility.

I don't necessarily mean historical "scandals" ("this Pope was corrupt", or "the Crusades were too violent"), but actual dogmatic teachings.

That stuff was highly offensive to me as well. I wrote a letter to Karl Keating complaining about all that. Here are some excerpts from it. It was dated 25 February 1990, which was near the beginning of my serious study of Catholicism (initially purely out of curiosity). I had begun my ecumenical group discussions only the month before and this was before I changed my mind on contraception. This is the first time I have ever cited this since my conversion. It may provide some insights to people who wonder how I was thinking when I was a Protestant considering Catholicism:

I am an evangelical with growing and sincere respect for Roman Catholics, largely due to my increased communion with them by virtue of the Operation Rescue movement . . . I consider Catholicism as a fully Christian faith . . . I am, with you, disgusted and scandalized by works such as Boettner's and Jack Chick's and all such ilk, which, if any works deserve to be censored, certainly qualify in the highest degree.


I then proceeded to a lengthy exposition on my disagreement with Keating's constant use of the term "fundamentalist" on the grounds that it paints with too broad a brush, and wrongly included many ecumenical evangelical Protestants (like myself at that time) in its sweeping scope. I argued that this was setting up a straw man and was, though on a much lesser scale, what the anti-Catholics did to Catholics in their literature. I suggested that he use "evangelical" or "Protestant" instead. I wrote, "I'm concerned with being lumped in with people I have very little affinity with."

After that, I objected to a subtle insinuation Keating made, that Jehovah's Witnesses were a species of Protestant, and made an argument that if they were similar to any Christian groups, it was Catholicism. I concluded:

The idea of sola Scriptura and individual conscience and study would release thousands of JW's from their spiritual bondage to false and deceitful leaders. But if it's so clear that a JW should "check up" on the validity of his leaders by reading the Bible, why should this not be the case with Catholics?


I then strongly objected to an article by William Reichert, entitled "I will be where Peter is," in This Rock, January 1990 (in retrospect this was really hitting a nerve). I responded to two paragraphs which I described as "logically outrageous," "rather foolish," and guilty of "unfounded and illogical conclusions." I stated that Riechert "betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly perspicuity is." To show what it was, I cited Charles Hodge, backed up with two citations each from St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine. I wrote:

Therefore, differences over "minor" matters not necessary to salvation do not cast doubt on the concept of perspicuity by definition. Protestants are merely allowing freedom of diversity on matters such as church government, modes of baptism, views on the Lord's Supper, worship style and liturgy, etc. On central doctrines, we are indeed unified (God , Man, Salvation, Biblical Authority). So we have unity as Christians, at the same time allowing for differences of opinion on non-crucial items, and we all mutually-recognize one another as part of the Body of Christ -- something Catholics cannot comprehend because of their different view that the Church is equivalent to an ecclesiastical organization -- i.e., Roman Catholicism.

The falsity of that view is well dealt with by Calvin in Book IV of his Institutes. Although it is unfortunate that denominations (usually smaller ones) do split over much more trivial matters than those mentioned above (die to sin, to be sure, on someone's part), I still prefer this state of affairs to the purely formal "unity" Catholics have.

In theory, no diversity on doctrine is allowed, but in practice, you well know (and I'm familiar with enough Church History) that there is much dissension held privately -- notable examples today being widespread Catholic dissent concerning contraception, abortion, and even fornication, but particularly the first, because it is so summarily and disobediently broken. Likewise, theological liberalism looms large in Catholicism, despite this supposed "unity" you claim.

Human nature is everywhere the same, and there will be diversity of opinion, whether due to illogic, different perspectives, evil, conscience, or whatever. We recognize it and allow for its expression, within certain bounds, whereas you attempt to deny and suppress it, which only causes it to flourish and become rebellious in spirit (I see this in countless young former Catholics whose questions were ignored).

Further, it is true that many will differ due to ignorance (Hodge: "things hard to understand") or evil (Hodge: "all men need the guidance of the Holy Spirit"). These are not incredible assertions nor are they peculiar to Protestants, and they are quite consistent with perspicuity rightly understood, as opposed to the caricature of it by Reichert. The least one can do in "refuting" a position is to portray it accurately (another "straw man").

Catholics recognize the same two factors in their distinction between formal and material heresy, denoting evil and ignorant differences from catholic Dogma respectively. I can't resist mentioning in passing the case of Galileo, whose views which were condemned as heresy were neither ignorant nor evil -- far from either, whereas his accusers were obviously ignorant and arguably evil as well.

. . . for us, unity is not "a joke." For the invisible Church is a far more profound unity than a merely formal, artificial, organizational unity, as it is comprised of those truly in Christ, including those now with the Lord -- somewhat like your "communion of saints." You might say we value individual conscience and standing under God more than the unity you aspire to -- in fact, we regard separation from a group with which we cannot agree as a duty, not as a dreaded "schism" -- far preferable to the spectre of millions of Catholics refusing to honestly acknowledge that they are not "true" or "good" Catholics.

Lastly . . . I would like to see how you would respond to the material enclosed. Are you familiar with a book: The Infallibility of the Church, by George Salmon, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI (orig. 1888)? It is very good (from my perspective!). The photocopies are from a work very well-written and worthwhile (Salmon) -- it is not at all stylistically like Boettner. Salmon is an Anglican with much respect for Catholicism.

The fundamental disagreement between Catholics and Protestants is, I believe, the issue of Apostolic Succession, Tradition, and its corollary, Infallibility. Therefore, I've set out to show that Catholicism has in fact not been infallible historically, by means of clear logical contradictions and instances of undoubted heresy. If this is shown, then the whole edifice collapses, and you are on the same ground as we are. I think that such an utterly extraordinary and remarkable claim as Infallibility must be prepared to meet objections of example seemingly contradictory to that claim. Thus, out of motives of sincere inquiry and interest, I seek your assistance on that score. Thanks so much for your time.

With respect and sincerity,

Dave Armstrong

And did you resolve that opposition more by 1) convincing yourself that your objections were unfounded, or 2) just deciding to submit to the authority of the church even when you didn't understand it?

Both, but more so, the first. The first thing I changed my mind on was contraception, so that could be classified under "moral theology" or "the moral argument." But it also related to the history of dogma because I was shocked to discover that all Christians opposed contraception until 1930 (and Church history and doctrinal precedent were highly important to me. I had a strong "historical sense"). In my own developing moral theology (especially all the "sexual" issues whch are always controversial -- for some odd reason), I had arrived on my own at positions that were invariably held by the Catholic Church all along. I increasingly felt that "here was the place where someone (at last) got it all right -- the traditional Christian moral teachings are all firmly in place."

As for infallibility, I was studying all the "usual suspects": people like Hans Kung, Joseph Dollinger, and George Salmon (precisely as the anti-Catholics do today: people like William Webster and Jason Engwer and David T. King: those who concentrate on historical critiques). I even worked up a long paper of 95 Feces, containing difficult "problems" of Catholic history and alleged contradictions and so forth, to torment my Catholic friends with, in the discussion meetings I was having at my house. So I was behaving very much like the big bad (cynically chuckling) "Catholic-slayer" and gadfly, who brings up all the "embarrassing" facts of the scandalous history of the Beast (though I was never anti-Catholic, I hasten to add; just thoroughly Protestant, through and through).

Anyway, while I was doing that, I was also fair-minded enough (at first out of sheer curiosity; never thinking I would possibly convert) to read Catholic works, like Karl Adam's The Spirit of Catholicism, and Chesterton, and Thomas Howard, and Thomas Merton, and Alan Schreck's Catholic and Christian. And then I took to studying the Protestant Reformation from a Catholic perspective. I discovered that my hero, Martin Luther, was not this perfectly noble guy who was merely bringing the "gospel" back from darkness, etc., and that the actual facts of what happened during that volatile time were immensely more complex than I had been led to believe as a Protestant: hearing only one side all those years.

At length, I read Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which brought about a paradigm shift in my thinking. he explained all the facts of doctrinal development in a way far more plausible than I had ever heard before. It was simply a brilliant historical and analogical argument, and I found myself unable to refute it. I was honest enough with myself to admit that I could not, and had to admit that this was a huge problem for me to resolve.

My conversion, then, was a combination af the cumulative effect of three different "strands" of evidences, all pointing in the same direction. This was perfectly consistent (epistemologically) with my apologetic outlook that I had developed over nine years: the idea of cumulative probability or what might be called "plausibility structures."

So I converted (apart from God's grace; I am talking specifically about my thought processes -- not denying God's role) because I was convinced on all three grounds. The Catholic arguments were better than the ones I had been setting forth previously. I was simply ignorant about early Protestant history (I accepted what might be called "the Protestant myth of origins" uncritically); I had come to agree on my own with Catholic moral teaching, and the historical arguments of Newman blew Salmon and Kung and all their ilk out of the water, revealing them to be mostly special pleaders or sophists with an axe to grind (which is the way I myself had been acting in my arguments about papal infallibility).

All this stuff led me to the notion that the Catholic Church had a unique status, and so I accepted its authority in faith. Of course, I hadn't answered every jot and tittle of the arguments I had myself produced (no one ever answers everything; it is unreasonable to think that they can), but I had seen more than enough to come to a place where I was more than rationally justified to accept the authority of the Catholic Church and to reject the Protestant rule of faith (private judgment and sola Scriptura).

So there is faith involved; of course, just as in any religious view. I keep saying: "Christianity is not philosophy." But at the same time, I was following the direction that my mind and thinking had led me. I would never adopt a view which was contrary to my reason or thinking. Since then, I have become always more convinced, as I keep defending the Catholic faith and observing how weak or nonexistent the opposing arguments are. I didn't, for example, do all the "biblical Catholicism" stuff I do now, before my conversion. I started that right after my conversion, in an attempt to justify my change of mind to my Protestant friends, and to strengthen my own newfound, fledgling faith. It is then that I learned how very strong the Catholic biblical "case" is.

The version of my conversion that goes into the above dynamics the most, would be:

How Newman Convinced me of the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church

Do you think one of those two approaches is better than the other, with respect to either Catholicism in particular or "mere Christian" apologetics in general?

I don't think we have to choose; consistent with my longterm apologetic outlook. One ought to always have a reasonable faith, supported by as much evidence as one can find (I thoroughly oppose fideism or "pietism" -- which attempt to remove reason from the equation). We accept in faith what appears most plausible and likely to be true from our reasoning and examination of competing hypotheses and worldviews. We are intellectually "duty-bound" to embrace the outlook that has been demonstrated (to our own satisfaction, anyway) to be superior to another competeing view.

Is that absolute proof? No, of course not. I think "absolute proof" in a strict, rigorous philosophical sense is unable to be obtained about virtually anything. But one accepts Catholicism in and with faith, based on interior witness of the Holy Spirit and outward witness of facts and reason and history; much like one accepts Christianity in general or how the early disciples accepted the Resurrection and the claims of Jesus.

For my general epistemological outlooks, see:

Catholic Apologetic Method, Epistemology, and Open-Mindedness

The Relationship Between Christianity and Philosophy (particularly regarding the interpretation of the Church Fathers)

Catholics and Reason: Reply to Certain Misrepresentations of Catholic Apologetics and Philosophy -- including excerpts from Newman's Grammar of Assent --

"Chronological Snobbery": History of Ideas, Socratic Philosophy, Christian Worldview, Scientists and God (Dave Armstrong and John Kress)


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I have been doing apologetics since 1981 (initially influenced by C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Walter Martin). I was a full-time campus missionary as a Protestant from 1985-1987 and then part-time till 1989. After I converted in late 1990 I kept writing, but had no intention to publish at first (I was writing strictly for my Protestant friends, then, in order to explain / defend my conversion). I happened to meet Fr. Peter Stravinskas in Steubenville at the Defending the Faith Conference in 1992, and gave him copies of some of my writings on Martin Luther. He liked them a lot, and so an article on Luther in his magazine, The Catholic Answer, in 1993, was my first published piece as a Catholic.

So I kept on writing and seeking publication. I got my conversion story in This Rock in late '93 and then in Surprised by Truth in 1994. The latter, of course, gave me much name exposure (though not one penny in royalties), as it has sold some 200,000 copies.

It is really the Internet that has made so much possible for me. The first, much larger draft of my first book (about 750 pages), A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, was completed in 1994. Fr. John A. Hardon, one of the most respected and orthodox catechists in America, whom I had met in 1990 and with whom I attended many "Ignatian Catechist" courses, recommended it and wrote a foreword. Of course that was a big boost and vote of confidence.

I went online in March 1996 and was active in the Compuserve Religion Forum (where I had the pleasure of meeting the winsome anti-Catholic, David T. King). I started posting excerpts from my book, and shorter articles there. In February 1997 I began my website, where a virtual explosion of writing was able to be promulgated. People like Scott Hahn and Marcus Grodi were saying nice things about my writing, which confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing. After that I just worked worked worked!

My first book (revised, shorter version) was done in May 1996 but was turned down by five publishers. One had actually accepted it (I had a signed contract and an advance), but then business problems set in and they never published it. So -- exasperated and absolutely disgusted with publishers -- I decided to do it myself with 1stBooks Library in October 2001. It sold well, so that eventually I convinced Sophia Institute Press to pick it up, in 2003. So basically it took me seven years to get published by a "real" publisher.

I lost my delivery job in December 2001 through no fault of my own (they went out of business), -- a month after my daughter was born --and so I decided to see if it was feasible for me to be a full-time apologist (which is all I had really wanted to do with my life, since 1981). I was getting good royalties from my book (perfect timing!) and received many donations when I announced what had happened on my website. So I have succeeded as a full-time apologist since then. I've also tried to network with virtually all the apologists I know of, by sending out my monthly updates, and keeping in touch, making links, meeting them at Steubenville and other conferences, etc.

I've gotten to the place where I am through endless hard work -- much of it without any remuneration at all -- (basically, I had to wait 20 years to really be able to devote myself totally to my calling in life), determination, and a spiritual assurance that this is my vocation. I have tried to simply do my writing and let whatever value it has speak for itself, with a bare minimum of "begging."

But I do need contributors badly, and I hope whoever reads this and whoever likes my work, or has been helped by it in some fashion, will prayerfully consider becoming a monthly supporter or one-time contributor, or buying one or more of my books. I have to feed my family, and the Bible says that "the laborer is worthy of his wage." By contributing, you help to make possible, conversions and a rejuvenated faith-life for many people (I know, because I get letters from folks saying how their lives have been changed, by God's grace, helped in some small way by this unworthy vessel). Thanks!


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