Monday, October 01, 2007

Lutheran-Catholic Group Dialogue Commences: Introductions

This most welcome and refreshing opportunity for respectful, amiable Christian dialogue came about as a result of Johnny Montalvo, who was a Lutheran and converted to Catholicism. Pastor Larry Nichols was his pastor, who asked a friend of his, Pastor Ben Maton, to be involved as well. Johnny asked me. I happily agreed, with the stipulation that I was allowed to post the discussion on my blog. And so we have begun.

Pastor Larry A. Nichols (Lutheran - Missouri Synod, or "LCMS") is the author of several books, including Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions, and the Occult (Zondervan Publishing House, 1993, with George A. Mather & Alvin J. Schmidt), Masonic Lodge (Zondervan, 1995; with George A. Mather & Alan W. Gomes), Discovering the Plain Truth: How the Worldwide Church of God Encountered the Gospel of Grace (Intervarsity Press, 1997; co-author George A. Mather), and Encyclopedic Dictionary of World Religions (2006; with George A. Mather & Alvin J. Schmidt). He has also written many journal articles.

Pastor Benjamin O. Maton (Lutheran - Missouri Synod ["LCMS"] ) pastors two congregations: in Ashaway, Rhode Island and New London, Connecticut (we visited both those states on our vacation in August).

Throughout the dialogue, my words will be in plain black, Pastor Nichols' in blue, Pastor Maton's in green, and Johnny's in orange. Here are the first posts:

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit

It is my pleasure to engage in lively discussion/debate concerning the nature of our basic differences as Roman Catholics and Lutherans. As I understand it, there will be four of us participating in this dialog.

My introductory remarks are chiefly for David Armstrong. The other participants in this discussion already know me. David I am familiar with several of your writings and have read your chapter in Patrick Madrid’s book.

Concerning myself, I am an ordained Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and have been so for 19 years. I was raised Episcopal, experienced a brief stay in Pentecostal and charismatic circles and then discovered the Gospel via the great Wittenberg Reformer, Martin Luther. It was in reading Luther’s commentary on Galatians, Romans, and his Bondage of the Will that I “got hooked,” if you will. I went on to Yale where I earned an M.Div. From there I matriculated to Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne and was ordained in 1988. I have since become the author of four books on World religions, cults, sects etc. and have been a teacher in the area of Systematic theology both at our seminary in Fort Wayne, in Novosebirsk, Russia, and the Luther Academy in Latvia. I am presently earning a PhD at St. Andrews in Scotland.

Some of my own background has helped me to keep up with progress that is being made by the “big guns” in Lutheranism and in the Roman Catholic Church. I am a former student of George Lindbeck at Yale. There is hardly anyone more participative than Dr. Lindbeck in the Lutheran/Catholic dialogs except perhaps for Dr. Carl Braaten. These are the people that I have followed closely as I attempt to learn where we have come. I also have read some of the great Roman Catholic theologians who are interested in ecumenical dialog. Some of these include Yves Congar, Joseph Lortz, Karl Adam, Father Louis Bouyer, and the like….

Perhaps along with an introduction, we could all state the reason why we are participating in this dialog. Mine is quite simple. As Johnny Montalvo’s former pastor, he has engaged me with some very good questions that I believe deserve what I hope will be reasonable, sound, and truth-filled answers. The value of a dialog with several participants is that we can take time to reflect upon and engage various topics as we have the time to do so. “Rome wasn’t built in a day!” (no pun intended – given the nature of this dialog).

I look forward to hearing an introduction from our other three participants.

It has been suggested that we start out with a given topic and stick with it. Perhaps we should begin with a discussion of the nature of the Gospel? This is the suggestion of my esteemed colleague, Pastor Ben Maton.

But first – your introductions.

In Christ,


The Lord be with you all!

As to introductions, I, am an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod currently serving two congregations -- Trinity in Ashaway, RI and Our Redeemer in New London, CT. In LC-MS circles I am what is known as a "system kid" -- almost all my formal education took place in Lutheran institutions. I attended Lutheran grade and high schools. After a year at a secular university, I transferred to a Lutheran university to pursue pre-ministerial studies. I received the M.Div. and S.T.M. degrees from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Apart from 300 or so sermons aimed at breathing life into the sheep of the flocks with which the Lord has entrusted me, I have written nothing of consequence.

I enter this dialogue for two primary reasons, both of which are selfish. First, because Larry asked me to and I covet his approval. Second, because I wish to fill what I see as a serious gap in my theological make up. Let me explain. I once heard Father Richard Neuhaus quip "It is a terrible to thing to learn one's catechism in the negative." By that he meant to lament that sort of pedagogy which proceeds by first condemning (usually in caricatured form) the "wrong " teachings of x, y, and z communions as a means of then highlighting the grandeur of one's own communion -- i.e., "this is what the Catholics believe and its wrong, this is what the Baptists believe and its wrong ... aren't we blessed to be truth loving Lutherans!" One is left with an over-simplified view of Christendom and the feeling that only a total idiot or demoniac could be anything but a confessional Lutheran. That idiot/demoniac bit may be true ... but I think it best to give a listen to a couple real, live, flesh and blood adherents before making that judgment. So that's what I am here for -- to hear it from the horses' mouths, hopefully learn a thing or two, and perhaps along the way contribute something germane to the conversation.

God grant us all His Spirit of Love which cannot but speak His Truth.

Peace in Jesus,

Ben Maton

Hello to Johnny and Pastors Ben and Larry,

I'm honored and delighted to be involved in this discussion. Very nice to meet your acquaintance. I'm a Catholic apologist, with four books published by "real" publishers, and over 1700 posts on my blog and counting (I'm known -- or dreaded in some circles -- for my prolific writing!). I did a lot of apologetics also when I was an evangelical Protestant (Jesus Freak / "Bapticostal" to describe my somewhat hybrid beliefs briefly). I was seriously engaged in counter-cult research way back in the early 80s (largely Jehovah's Witnesses), studied Judaism, biblical evidences for the Trinity and Deity of Jesus, errors of the "name-it-claim-it" crowd, the evolution-creation issue, the biblical teaching on suffering, and many other things over 20 years ago now (most of those old papers are now posted on my blog). I was also heavily involved in pro-life activism.

Eventually I became a campus missionary (along the lines of Inter-Varsity). That was basically all through the 1980s. I became a Catholic in 1990 (I won't bore you with my capsule conversion story; one of you has already read my published version). But the three main reasons were development of doctrine, moral theology (particularly contraception), and a closer study of the Reformation from both sides (never having read the Catholic perspective on it till 1990).

One of the themes I push quite a bit, whenever I get the chance, is the notion that apologetics and ecumenism are not mutually exclusive. I am passionately committed to both, and I don't see how they contradict at all. As I see it, I can argue (even quite vigorously) for various Catholic distinctives, without having the slightest lack of respect for my Protestant or Orthodox brethren. Just last night I wrote in a personal letter to another pastor:

Insofar as we all claim to be adhering to a group that we feel best represents biblical Christianity, I don't see that there is much difference between us and y'all [I didn't mean doctrinally; rather, in the sense of general approach to the Christian life]. The real divide is between liberals and conservatives: those who believe that religious truth claims are valid and supremely important and those who don't. I agree with C.S. Lewis that those at the center of their religious tradition have more in common with those at the center of other faith traditions, than they do with the liberals on the fringes of their own group.
I was asked to give a few words of advice about a situation where a wife was considering becoming a Catholic, to the consternation of her Protestant husband. I replied:
We're talking about two Christians (i.e., unless he is an anti-Catholic, which is immensely more difficult, because then the wife is rushing off to damnation, etc.). But assuming he recognizes Catholics as fellow Christians, then he should rejoice that his wife is following God in a more profound way, according to what she has come to believe. If he respects her, he ought to respect her ability to follow God as He wills for her life, no?

This reminds me of Kimberly Hahn, whose father is a Presbyterian minister. During the long period when she was confused about and troubled by her husband Scott's conversion, she was talking to her father and said "I will NEVER become a Catholic." And the father actually rebuked her by saying, "Kimberly, I raised you to always follow God wherever He leads you, and if He is leading you to the Catholic Church, then you must go there, and I rebuke your attitude." I always found that deeply moving, and it is how I also feel about the same thing. If someone feels that they are being led in one particular direction, I think we must give them that freedom and respect their decision, even beyond doctrinal issues that we would disagree with.
One of the reasons I am excited to be able to participate in this exchange with such devoted and educated Christian brothers, is that I have thoroughly enjoyed my dialogues with Lutherans. In fact, recently (March 20th of this year) I declared that Lutherans were the type of Protestants that I respect the most:
Lutherans, are, in my estimation, the most respectable and intellectually cogent Protestant denomination. I say that after years of interaction with all sorts of Protestants (and being an evangelical Protestant myself, from 1977-1990).

I've enjoyed my dialogues with Lutherans through the years. I disagree with many things, of course, but it is with a lot of respect and thankfulness for all that Lutherans and Lutheranism have brought to Christianity, historically and in the present era.
Now, you may know that I have written a lot about Martin Luther, and have been quite critical. Some have accused me of being "anti-Luther" in the sense that we speak of "anti-Catholics" (those who deny that Catholics are Christians). But what many seem to overlook is that I have actually defended Luther many times, or agreed with him (I think it is about sixteen papers at present). I wrote at the top of my Luther and Lutheranism web page:
For those who falsely think I am some sort of "Luther-hater" or "Luther-basher", beyond disagreeing with his theology, and can never praise or agree with him: in many of the papers below, I defend Luther (as well as, by the way, John Calvin) against myths and bum raps, cite him in agreement, or take a fairly neutral stance towards his opinion.
As with Calvinists, I think there is a great deal of common ground between us: some of which is misunderstood, so that people think there is more disagreement than there actually is. I think the dialogues on justification have highlighted this. I myself have been quite struck and surprised by how "Catholic" Luther was in his Mariology (I've had very extensive dialogues on that topic). He believed in the Immaculate Conception even when Catholics were not required to, and in only a slightly different fashion from the Catholic dogma today. He accepted the Assumption at least up to 1522. Eric Gritsch stated as much. Perhaps he rejected it later but I don't believe there is any hard evidence. He believed in Mary's perpetual virginity. He defended the use of the term "Mother of God." He didn't object to a Rosary if done in the right spirit. As Lutheran pastors you probably know this stuff, but perhaps not all the details. But anyway, this is impressive to me as a Catholic and caused me to admire him in some respects, if not in all respects.

Recently I did a multi-part critique of Martin Chemnitz's Examen, especially his proof texts from the Fathers. I had hoped that some Lutherans would join in the conversation but none did. Many of my dialogues with Lutherans had to do with whether the Fathers tended more towards Lutheran-type beliefs or Catholic. It's an interesting (and I think, fun) debate because both sides claim to be the legatees of the Fathers in a fuller or unique way, so it is a challenge to both to demonstrate this by hard patristic facts.

I love Jaroslav Pelikan's work and often cite his series on development of doctrine. My own favorite Catholic theologian / thinker is John Henry Cardinal Newman. I remember reading [Roland] Bainton's Here I Stand [famous biography of Martin Luther], coming home from my honeymoon in North Carolina, in October 1984. :-) I would have definitely said that Martin Luther was one of my heroes, prior to 1990.

That should be enough for now. I will be defending Catholic beliefs (as any apologist worth his salt would), but at the same time I truly want to better understand and appreciate Lutheranism and see and interact with your best arguments for your position. Hypothetically, if I am persuaded, then I would become a Lutheran, but we both know that is not very likely. Nor is it that you would convert to Catholicism. But I think open-minded dialogue demands at least the theoretical possibility of being persuaded. After all, in 1989, I wouldn't have imagined in my wildest fancies that I would be convinced of Catholicism by the end of the following year.

I have no "agenda" going in, and am happy to follow the trajectory of what others would like to discuss (at least initially). Once it gets going I always get stimulated and could go in any number of directions, but I never want to dominate that direction. I like it to be by consensus.

Thanks for reading, and I eagerly look forward to this entire dialogue. I recognize that I am interacting with folks who have advanced theological degrees, from whom I can learn a lot indeed. At no time do I ever make any pretense of being any kind of scholar (I've been accused of that at times; it seems to be a common complaint against lay apologists), but I have done a great deal of personal theological study for thirty years now (I have a ~2000 book library) and have been in some 450 written debates, so I know a little bit about a few things, if I do say so, and may (hopefully) have a little tidbit here and there to offer you.

Your brother in Christ,


In the name of the Father, the +Son, and the Holy Spirit!

It was great to hear from all three of you. Dave I appreciate your extended introduction. It told me a bit more about you than the chapter in the Madrid book. I also appreciate that you have made an effort to examine Chemnitz’ “Examen.”

Gentlemen, as I’m sure all four of us can say that we are extremely busy – as I know that we all are, perhaps we should try to address any given question and take the needed time to answer. I will try to offer a response roughly on a weekly basis. If we need more time, then let’s assume that the e mail silence greater than a week accounts for that.

Pastor Maton had suggested that we begin with a discussion of the Gospel and what it is. Quite obviously, that is what the end goal must ultimately be. (I hope that this is obvious). But since Johnny is really the originator of this inquiry, perhaps we should ask him to offer a basic question that he has and let us then get started.

In Christ Jesus,


Jesus taught concerning Church discipline that if a brother refuses to hear the Church’s verdict on a dispute, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Mathew 18:15-20. This is also taught in the Law of Moses. However, in Deuteronomy17: 8-13 the sentence is harsher. This binding and loosing Authority by the Church was given to her by God and should be taken very seriously. I would like to know by what authority did Luther have to start his own church after he was excommunicated for refusing to listen to the Church?

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