Book Review: The Salvation Controversy by James Akin

The topic of Catholic vs. Protestant views of salvation has come up several times in conversation lately.  With that in mind, here’s a reprint of the review I wrote several years ago of Jimmy Akin’s book The Salvation Controversy, published by Catholic Answers in 2001.  The book is currently in print in electronic version only, but you can find hard copies used here and there.

Read on, and see if you are the target audience.  If you’re not, give it a skip; but if you are the likely reader, I’m not aware of any better title to meet your need.

James Akin _The Salvation Controversy_ book cover, Kindle edition.

Click through for the link to the Kindle edition.

So I used to have this bad habit of making jokes about double predestination (gross violation of my own rules, you might notice) . . .  until the other week when a pair of friends called me on it using the highly effective Stony Silence method.  Point taken.  And that was the week that The Salvation Controversy turned up on the Catholic Company’s list of blogger-review product choices.   What with the promised Tiptoe Through The TULIP, how could I say no?

Verdict: Excellent book – highly recommended.  But only if you are the intended audience.  (Otherwise you might be kind of lost and bored – it’s a soteriology book.  And yeah, I had to look up that word too.)  So here’s a synopsis of what is in the book and who is the audience, to help you decide if this is for you.

***

Contents

The book is about everything that has to do with what Catholics believe about salvation, and how that stacks up to common Protestant views of salvation.  (“Soteriology” is the branch of theology devoted to the doctrine of salvation.  Per the glossary in the back of the book, verbatim.)

The first several chapters lay the groundwork, looking at what the Bible says (and hence, what Catholics believe) about the when’s and how’s of salvation.  Key concept: the word “salvation” refers to more than just a single instant when your eternal fate is sealed.   So when debating “salvation” it is important to make sure you know what kind of salvation you are debating.

→ These chapters are essential.  Jimmy Akin is notoriously meticulous in how he examines a topic and builds arguments.  If you jump ahead to the really gory stuff – indulgences, predestination, faith-versus-works – without reading the front chapters, you will be lost.  Maybe without realizing. Gotta read those laying-the-groundwork chapters.  (If you are a catechist, you should read those chapters just for an “Aha!” about what it is Catholics believe about salvation.)

After these preliminaries, there are chapters tackling all the hot topics:

  • Penance
  • Indulgences
  • Predestination (per Calvinism)
  • Faith versus Works
  • The Joint Statement between Lutherans and Catholics on salvation

And then it ends there.  This is a handbook; no great thesis being pushed, just a thorough explanation of the issues at hand.  In addition to the glossary, there is a topical index and an index to all the scriptural citations.

The Reading Level

Jimmy Akin writes very clearly, and in ordinary language.  Nothing at all like some horrid paper you had to read for an upper-level elective.  BUT, he uses big words where necessary.  I had to look up maybe four big words (I lost my list – I was keeping one for you) towards the beginning of the book, mostly ones that I more or less knew what they meant, but wanted to make certain.  There’s a glossary at the back of the book to help you keep your vocabulary straight.

The arguments are not difficult, but they are very precise and laid out very carefully.  Which means you need to pay attention and follow them step-by-step, both within and across chapters.  At times this requires patience.  Definitely not a three-quick-bullet-points approach to apologetics.

Prerequisites

First, you need to have a basic understanding of the Christian faith – that Jesus died to save us from our sins so we could live with Him forever in Heaven, all that. In no way is this an “Introduction to Christianity” book.  Just not.

Secondly, you need to be familiar with at least the broad lines of debate between Protestants and Catholics.  Jimmy Akin is essentially walking into the midst of the argument, holding up his hands and saying, “Ho now guys, let’s get our terms straight, and then see how much we really disagree after all.”  If you haven’t been immersed in these topics already, I think you might get lost.

And finally, you will want to be knowledgeable of the Bible.  All arguments revolve around the study of scripture, and I expect you’d get exhausted if you had to go read all the citations for the first time.  You should be at that point where when you read, “It says in Romans 2:6 . . .” you can at least nod and have a rough idea of what Romans is all about, even though how many of us go around thinking, “Oh yeah, 2:6, let me quote that for you?”  Maybe you need to go back and re-read, but the epistles should not be new material for you.  (The word “epistle” should not be new to you.)

→  FYI Catholic Answers and the Envoy Institute are both excellent sources for entry-level materials if you are just wading into the world of apologetics for the first time.  Come back to this book later.

Would a Protestant Hate This Book?

Mmn, I’m not sure.  I was tempted to ask some friends to test-read for me, but in the end I didn’t.  As apologists go – apologists can be a grumpy bunch – Jimmy Akin is the picture of charity.  In my limited experience, he’s one of the three most charitable people on the Internet, honestly.  You can read his blog here and see for yourself.   He does indulge in the periodic “Catholics are just using the words of scripture” observation, which is of course very encouraging for Catholics, but if you were a sensitive non-Catholic, that could rub the wrong way.  (Unless you happened to agree with the Catholic position on the particular point in question.)

To the best of my knowledge, Akin is very careful to state protestant beliefs accurately, and never to argue against a straw man.  If anyone finds otherwise, I would like to hear about it.  (Obviously in a short book he isn’t going to address every possible position on the various controversies. But my impression is that he builds fair arguments.)

→ Which makes sense, since one of his goals is to demonstrate that the Catholic position is not necessarily an impossible leap for assorted Protestants.  So if you are a non-Catholic trying to figure out “Is my position on salvation consistent with Catholic teaching?” this is the manual to assist you. [Good news: the odds are in your favor.]

Conclusion: This boy is not leaving my shelf.

This book is immensely useful if you are ready to tackle the material.  Clear, concise, well-explained, and covering material that was new to me.  I’m due for a re-read, because there’s no way I mastered everything on the first read-through.

(→  Luckily I lost my original copy for a while and had to buy a second, so I do have a loaner available for my handful of real-life friends who fit the target audience.)

Not a beginner book, but if you are looking for a very approachable intermediate-level discussion, this one is superb.  I give it a firm ‘buy’ recommend if this is the topic you want to study.

Cover image via Amazon.com used for the purpose of this review.

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About Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the mother of four fantabulous children, and author of Classroom Management for Catechists. She writes online for Patheos and for the Catholic Conspiracy. When she isn't blogging, teaching, or complaining about something, she likes to play outside.