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Does God Use Even Lowly Apologists to Help Save Folks?

Does God Use Even Lowly Apologists to Help Save Folks? October 28, 2021

Reply to Scott Eric Alt-Left’s False Caricature of Apologists Over Against Documented Biblical Views

There is a strain of thought floating around today, which has infiltrated the Catholic Church, to the effect that apologetics is something that one ought to be ashamed of, as if it is merely a self-serving, arrogant, know-it-all enterprise (and apologists, pompous pretenders). We apologist-types supposedly get an “I told you so!” charge out of telling people when they are wrong, as if that is the sole factor that defines and gives meaning to what we do. It’s one of many negative stereotypes of apologists. Heaven knows, there are self-described apologists who do fall into this description (we being human and fallen like everyone else), but it’s by no means an accurate representation of the whole. And as such, it is a species of prejudice.

It’s not just a supposed air of superiority that marks the apologist (so we are told), which frosts many people, but the very notion and concept that anyone can deign to tell anyone else that they are wrong (tough love / “faithful are the wounds of a friend” /the biblical rebuke) — and that very unpopular, unfashionable traditional teachings are right — that are under fire. We’re in a postmodernist world now. Everything is subjective. Everyone’s truth is their own. Absolute truth is a quaint fable, held only by old-fashioned, naive, fuddy-duds. And I believe that is ultimately what lies behind this antipathy to apologetics, along with a certain virtue-signaling, “woke”, holier-than-thou, smarter-than-thou elitism that is especially prevalent today on the political left.

I want to analyze a recent article by elitist (not pop!) apologist Scott Eric Alt-Left (“When it comes to apologetics: caveat emptor.”: 10-5-21), as a prime and textbook example of these outlooks that I have just described. His words will be in blue.

Any schmo can start a Catholic blog and call himself an apologist; it’s not like it’s a doctoral dissertation or anything, and there’s no such thing as an official apostolate of Catholic apologists supervised by some bishop. A Catholic apologist is accountable to no one.

It’s certainly true that anyone can start a blog and start calling himself an “apologist” without credentials. It’s also equally true that legitimate apologists with credentials can start blogs and have multiple ways of being accountable. First of all, lay apologetics is enthusiastically sanctioned and encouraged by the Catholic Church and by popes, and has a long and storied history.

Secondly, there are all sorts of means of accountability. In my own case (which I can authoritatively speak to!), as far back as 1993, before I ever got online, my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism was warmly recommended (in what is now the Foreword: available online) by the late Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, who was widely considered to be the foremost catechist in America before the Catechism came out. He was also an advisor to both Pope St. Paul VI and St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) and her Missionaries of Charity. That’s being “accountable to no one”? That’s not supervision?

Lay apologetics is an activity that has (or should have, if individuals lack this) many networks of accountability. So, for example, I am published by about seven different Catholic publishers. These in turn often have oversight (or at least commendation) from bishops. The same is true of Catholic Answers, a lay apologetics organization, which has the approval of many bishops, as I have written about and documented in the past. I’ve written several articles for them, been on Catholic Answers Live twice, and had a book published by them. The same is true of apostolates like The Coming Home Network, for whom I worked for three years as a forum moderator, or National Catholic Register, for which I have written 261 articles over the last five years. I also have two Imprimaturs for works of mine.

Before I ever started a website / blog, my first book: later to be published by Sophia Institute Press, was already complete. I had been published in several Catholic magazines, and my conversion story was included in Patrick Madrid’s runaway bestseller Surprised by Truth in 1994.  If anyone here simply “start[ed] a blog”: minus any particularly impressive credentials or background in Catholicism, and started (improperly?) calling himself an apologist, it was Scott Eric Alt-Left, not myself, or many of those whom he is now excessively criticizing, like Scott Hahn and Karl Keating and Tim Staples. He needs to look at the beam in his own eye and not the speck that he sees in everyone else’s.

This is a problem, because Catholic apologists often get (or claim for themselves) far too much credit for turning people into converts or keeping Catholics in the Church. It is not thus. The Holy Spirit alone makes converts. The Holy Spirit alone keeps Catholics in the Church. It’s certainly not men who do this. Someone who says, “I converted to Catholicism based on Dan Aricelli’s 30,000 blog articles” likely converted to Aricellism, not Catholicism.

Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? Were you received in the name of Dan Aricelli? Or Matthew Schrank?

Or of Christ?

Now, this is the heart of the problem that made me want to write this critique. Alt-Left is not thinking biblically at all in these comments, as I will massively demonstrate. It’s not Catholic teaching that any apologist or priest or DRE or nun or anyone else who is called to a particular apostolate or vocation as a full- or part-time Christian worker are mere worms, while God gets all credit for everything and we fallen, miserable, wicked human beings never get any at all. That may be Calvinism, but it ain’t Catholicism or Bible teaching. Has Alt-Left ever heard of the Catholic and biblical doctrine of merit, for heaven’s sake?

He wants to make out that we apologists are always going around with our noses so high up in the air that we would drown in a thunderstorm, pridefully and foolishly crediting ourselves with the work that is ultimately the Holy Spirit’s, and thinking we are really “something” and superior to underlings because someone might have said they came into the Church as a partial result of something we wrote (or said). Anyone who knows anything at all, theologically and spiritually, knows that God’s grace is the ultimate cause of all salvation, repentance; indeed, of any good thing whatsoever that any human being does. DUH! But it doesn’t follow that God is the only cause. He Himself told us so through His inspired revelation, the Bible.

It’s people like Alt-Left who arguably exhibit excessive pride, in writing like this. He sure is putting out an impression of being proud of his supposed humility and feeling that he is “not like other men”: as Jesus said of the prideful Pharisee (Lk 18:11, RSV). I again use myself as an example of one such “lay apologist” or what Alt-Left has started derisively calling a “pop apologist”: because I am the world’s biggest expert on my own interior thoughts and past history. I have always taken great pains to give glory to God if someone thanks me for having aided them in becoming  Catholic or returning to the Church. I will say “thanks” but immediately add (usually) “all glory to God always.”

I try to learn from and emulate my mentor, Fr. Hardon in this respect. In my tribute to him, written just two days after he died (1 January 2001) I recounted a story about him:

Fr. Hardon’s manifest virtue of humility was one of his leading character traits. He would habitually refer to himself as “this sinner,” which always reminded me of the Apostle Paul calling himself “the chief of sinners.” The last time I saw him was about a year ago at a conference for Catholic radio, where he was to be given a well-deserved award for lifetime achievement. I knew that he would be very uncomfortable with this because undoubtedly he would regard it as improperly extolling him. Yet he was far too courteous to ever consider refusing to accept the honor. His words upon receiving the award were entirely what I expected from such a humble servant of God. He rose from his chair in the middle of the crowd. I paraphrase, but his entire “acceptance speech” was essentially as follows: “Thank you very much. To God be all the glory — all the glory.” If I remember correctly, he also blessed the audience. And then he sat down.

When I wrote about 156 documented cases where someone gave me partial credit for their becoming Catholic or returning to the Church, I noted in the subtitle that this was “Completely Caused by God’s Grace.” My opening words of introduction were:

All glory to God always, for everything. We are just vessels, if He uses us to spread the message to someone else: one sinning beggar sharing spiritual food with other beggars. It all goes back to God and His grace in the end. No one can do the slightest good thing without it. Praise Him!

I’ve been doing apologetics and evangelism for now 40 years: the first nine as a Protestant. This was always my opinion. I had great instruction and theological and spiritual formation as a Protestant and as a Catholic.

Now I want to show what the Bible actually teaches about such matters. Is it indeed the case that “The Holy Spirit alone makes converts. . . . It’s certainly not men who do this”? The biblical answer is emphatically different from Alt-Left’s non-inspired, non-infallible opinion. God (rather strikingly) refers to us as His fellow workers:

Mark 16:20 (RSV) And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them . . . 

Romans 15:17-19  In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. [18] For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, [19] by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyr’icum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ,

1 Corinthians 3:9 . . . we are God’s fellow workers . . . (KJV: “labourers together with God”)

1 Corinthians 15:9-10  For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [10] But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

1 Corinthians 15:57-58  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [58] Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Philippians 2:13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

God (mostly communicating via St. Paul) goes beyond that. He gives us partial credit for spreading His grace:

2 Corinthians 4:15 For it [his many sufferings: 4:8-12, 17] is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

Ephesians 3:2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you . . . 

Ephesians 4:29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.

1 Peter 4:10 As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace:

St. Paul is so gung-ho on the notion of his distributing grace to folks, that he mentions this at the beginning of practically every epistle that he wrote. When Paul and others use the common greeting of “grace to you” (e.g., Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; Phlm 1:3; Rev 1:4) it is in the sense of “may God give you more grace.” St. Paul is stating that he hopes and prays that his readers will receive more grace from God, as in the sense of 2 Peter 3:18; Ephesians 4:7; James 4:6; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Peter 1:2, etc. And in so doing he is acting, again, as a sort of “mini-mediator.” Jesus is ultimately the mediator of grace. It all comes through Him. But He also clearly uses human beings to distribute the grace, allowing others to attain salvation, as these passages establish beyond any doubt.

God even gives us partial credit for being vessels or conduits of His salvation:

Psalm 51:13 Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee.

Acts 2:38-41 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [39] For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” [40] And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” [41] So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Acts 11:12-14 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. . . . [13] And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, `Send to Joppa and bring Simon called Peter; [14] he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’

Romans 11:13-14 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry [14] in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.

1 Corinthians 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

1 Corinthians 7:16 Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?

1 Corinthians 9:22 I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

2 Corinthians 1:6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; . . . 

1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

2 Timothy 2:10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory.

James 5:15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

James 5:19-20 My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, [20] let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. [this puts the lie to Alt-Left’s assertion: “The Holy Spirit alone keeps Catholics in the Church.”]

1 Peter 3:1 Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives

God even chooses to share His glory with us: His creatures, as I have shown in many Bible passages.

Recently a Catholic apologist known for his verbosity was forced into a retraction when he speculated that Audrey Assad’s “deconversion” came of not reading enough apologetics. As it turned out, Assad is very well-read in apologetics.

Think for a moment about what this incident really tells us. It’s a small thing to retract an obvious factual error about whether or not Assad knows apologetics. But there’s a larger error behind it that explains why this apologist made the assumption he did; and that error has to do with how important apologetics really is in making Catholics and retaining Catholics.

To my knowledge, that error was not recanted.

But why should anyone assume that, wherever there is a “deconversion,” it must have to do with ignorance of apologetics? That’s a large, unproven, and even self-reflexive assumption to make.

That’s me, of course. I retracted and apologized to Audrey, and she graciously accepted. But what Alt-Left conveniently omits from the account is the fact that his Facebook page and website, Mark Shea’s Facebook page, and Mary Pezzulo’s web page at Patheos kept up a huge attack against my reputation and my work for weeks on end (he secretly removed his worst hit-piece without apology and retraction). So we have the pathetic spectacle of his lecturing me about how to properly do apologetics, while he and his cronies can’t even get to to first base with “Biblical Ethics 0101.” Again: consider the beam in thine own eye.

Moreover, in his zeal to gloat over what happened and make out that I am a clueless idiot, he misrepresents the facts. I did not claim that apologetics was the only reason she deconverted. I have my former article in my files and can verify everything I state here. This hypothesis was prominent in my critique, but not the only factor. I mentioned at least three other things:

1) the general principle of “we are what we eat”: i.e., whoever we hang around and what we read and watch and listen to all influence our opinions. 

2) The influence of radical feminism and leftism.

3) The influence of eastern religious concepts.

That’s at least four reasons I provided, not merely one. I took the whole piece down out of charity and because (in a broad sense) I blew it. It doesn’t follow that I renounce everything in it, nor that I renounce the very idea of critiquing a deconversion story. I most assuredly do not do those things. Shortly afterwards I wrote a clarifying paper about the latter idea:  Why Do I (or How DARE I?!) Critique Deconversions? (10-5-21). I stated:

Reading my loudmouthed, acid-tongued critics, one might get the impression that all I do with my time and in my life’s work (according to their jaded, inaccurate perception) is pick away at, condemn, totally misunderstand, have no sensitivity towards whatsoever, personally attack (without cause) folks who have been brought to an agonized place where they feel they must abandon Catholicism. I have written literally 3,850 online articles. Out of those, I can recall only five — not counting my retracted one — that were devoted to people who left the Catholic faith (Anne RiceRod DreherDamon LinkerMichael Boyle, and Mindy Selmys: all quite vocal in public about their departures). This is one out of every 770 articles that I write, or 0.13%. Nor does this “genre” play any part whatsoever in any of my fifty published books.

My view has always been that  conversions are “extraordinarily complex” and for many and multifaceted reasons. I temporarily neglected this in my analysis of Audrey’s journey. But it has been my opinion for as long as I can remember. Hence I wrote on 7-19-17:

I agree with you that conversion processes are extraordinarily complex. I don’t question that aspect in my recent critiques, and confine myself mainly to the question of, “is the reasoning in these stories sufficient to compel one to abandon Christianity?” Since that is the realm of ideas only, and not experience and social milieu and Kuhnian transformations, and all the rest, I can do one thing without disagreeing with you on the complexity of conversion processes. I’ve been through them myself, so I know firsthand.

I wrote way back on 9-7-05 in my article,Conversion to Catholicism: Reflections on its Complexity”: (I would maintain that the dynamics in these respects of conversion to Catholicism and deconversion away from it or Christianity are the same):

A big part of my objection to many Protestant explanations of conversions to Catholicism, is my intense dislike for single causal explanations of almost anything. I find that intuitively false: almost from common sense. This is one valuable thing I received from my studies in sociology and psychology.

Reality is always more complex than one simple explanation. Conversion is all the more so. It’s an extraordinarily complex and painful process . . . 

We are human beings in communities, with experiences, emotions, stories, influences, psychological, personal, familial, temperamental, and many other factors all having an effect on both our beliefs and actions. . . . 

There are a host of factors leading to conversion. There are mystical and intuitive reasons, there is the moral argument (which has even been developed by philosophers in great detail, but need not be philosophical in a given individual), there is experiential and miraculous evidence (philosopher William Alston has developed this line in great depth), there are pragmatic and psychological and relevant emotional and highly personal considerations.

One might, for example, read of accounts of miracles at Lourdes and Fatima, or about the Incorruptibles, or people being raised from the dead or healed in extraordinary ways, about the bi-location of saints like Padre Pio, or exorcisms, etc. They may witness some miracle themselves or be so moved by an act of love by some Catholic that this convinces them that Catholicism is the True Way.

This is eyewitness, legal-type testimony similar to that found in the Bible accounts of miracles. One may read of these and become convinced that Catholicism is true. 

I also wrote on 10-16-06:

Belief systems and reasons for adopting them are exceedingly complex. I’ve always thought that: at least as far back as my first philosophy course in 1977 as a freshman in college, if not before.

I suppose that, for many Catholics and many Christians, apologetics means a great deal.

Yes it does, and for good reasons.

And I get the tendency to want to think that the work you do is important.

Apologetics is important because 1) the Bible, and 2) the Church say it is. Period. End of story.

But for a great many others, argument has not a thing to do with whether you come into the Church or stay in the Church.

Yeah, I know. That’s why I made the statements I did, above. In fact, one of the key factors in my conversion to Catholicism, and the initial “sea change” was a factor that was not primarily rational. I intuitively came to believe that Catholic moral theology was correct and the best version around. In particular, the issue of contraception was the first thing where I changed my mind. Reason was part of that, yes, but mostly it was a gut feeling, or spiritual discerning, if you will, that it was simply wrong.

So I can be spared condescending lectures about why folks come into and stay in the Church when my own experience and past writings prove that I don’t disagree at all with what Alt-Left thinks I supposedly don’t grasp. He vastly underestimates me as a person, and (I dare say) the depth and nuances of my thinking and reasons for why I hold my beliefs.

This happens at times, but it never works out very well for my critics, because my “vast” amount of articles online and 50 books (one of many things he is now mocking) provide documentation of what I have believed, and why I believed it. Thus, the critic leaves himself wide open to be embarrassingly refuted, once they go down this road of lecturing me about my own (in his case, fictional, falsely imagined) beliefs.

That is what has happened here. Will Alt-Left learn from it? We’ll see, won’t we?

The faith is not about an argument. It is about a person. And that person is not the apologist.

No kidding. More simplistic, condescending, arrogant, patronizing contempt of what is allegedly the apologist’s attitude en masse. . . . 

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Photo credit: St. Paul, by Guercino (1591-1666) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: Scott Eric Alt-Left claimed: “The Holy Spirit alone makes converts. . . . It’s certainly not men who do this”. Not! Scripture sez men (even apologists) help, too!

 


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