Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Forget About My Bad Arguments

Mark Shea is a Roman Catholic apologist that is sometimes fun to read. I interacted with him sometimes as a Protestant and wrote a critical review of his book at amazon (11/9/99). He has a bit of an acerbic style not unlike that of J.P. Holding. It's probably irritating to those he directs it to, but interesting for an outsider to read.

Anyway, he recently wrote an article about how some apologist types are maybe a little weird and misguided. The focus unfortunately is more about an apologist looking to bludgeon his opponent whereas the focus would preferably be elsewhere. And it's unhealthy to focus on apologetics to the exclusion of so many other wonderful things that should be experienced in life, like smelling the flowers or commenting on H.P. Lovecraft.

Sounds fine. But I do take exception to one thing. He mentions a letter he got from a Roman Catholic reader that was bothered by numerous blunders made by Roman Catholic apologists in defense of the faith that were being exposed by a Protestant. He mentioned one that Shea himself had been guilty of regarding Jerome.

Shea's response did graciously concede the error, but he continued by saying that the letter writer has a wrong headed approach. He needs to recognize that apologists are not protected with the charism of infallibility as the church is. Only the Church has that. The faith is not toppled by the fact that he made a mistake as an apologist. Don't look to the apologist. Look to the infallible Church.

But wait a second. How do I know there is an infallible church? To my mind the only valid reason is that the evidence suggests that there is. And who is it that helps explain to me that the evidence points towards the infallible church? Isn't it the Roman Catholic apologist? I'm not to be bothered when I see repeated critical mistakes from such people?

Imagine I'm a lawyer defending a client in a murder trial. A murder occurs in Detroit and in defense I say that my client was in Los Angeles at the time. But the prosecution presents credit card receipts proving that my client was in Detroit. What would you expect the jury to think? The fact that my client was in Detroit is not proof that he's a murderer. But when I, as the advocate of my client, repeatedly make use of bad arguments in defense of my client the jury is naturally going to conclude that since I don't have good replies to the claims of the prosecution my client is probably guilty. Why? Because this is how rational people evaluate claims.

"Don't look to my bad arguments," Shea would say. "Look to the innocence of my client." But your client's innocence is the very thing you need to show. I cannot assume your conclusion.

One mistake by an apologist is not proof that the apologist's overall position is wrong. Advocates on all sides make mistakes. But Shea seems to be saying that it is never rational to doubt a conclusion when numerous well known advocates of that conclusion make critical mistakes. I think such occurrences would very rationally lead to doubt.

Interestingly as my review at amazon indicates, Shea was initially pushed out of Protestantism because his fellow church goers were unable to give him valid reasons for accepting the particular Protestant canon of Scripture. So for him (if I remember right) rather than consulting well known advocates of the Protestant position, he began to make his move toward Roman Catholicism due to the poor defenses of ignorant lay Protestants. Yet now he seems to have a problem with a Roman Catholic that is troubled by bad arguments from well informed apologists. His criticisms seem to apply to himself as a Protestant much more than they apply to his Roman Catholic questioner today.


tizzidale said...

I didn't become Catholic because of apologetics. Period.

Dave Armstrong said...

Me neither. It was moral theology (contraception) and history ("Reformation" period and development of doctrine) that most influenced me.

Interesting article.

BJ Buracker said...


Interesting reflections on this. I like your argument here. While it isn't rock solid, it does provide some great food for thought. Perhaps it is wood solid... I don't know. :)


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