Monday, December 08, 2008

Did I Imply in My Book, The One-Minute Apologist That Some "Protestants" Deny the Trinity, & "Lump Them In" with Cults Like JWs and Mormons?



Reformed Theologian Dr. Anthony Hoekema (1913-1988) Regarded Seventh-Day Adventists as a "Cult" but Renowned Protestant Cult-Watcher Dr. Walter Martin (1928-1989) Did Not


I received the following letter. This man raised a good point which I thought was important to clarify:

Hello Dave,

I'm a Reformed Protestant, but without the anti-Catholic crazy. I firmly believe that Rome is still part of the Church universal and that Roman Christians are my brothers and sisters in Christ. To be sure, we have much to learn from each other despite our important differences. Since I'm of this mind, I was disappointed to see that in your book (The One-Minute Apologist) you lumped various non-Christian sects (i.e., liberalism and Mormonism) in with Protestantism when you discuss Catholic apologetical answers to questions about God (e.g., how can the Trinity be three in one, how can Christ be God and man). What's troubling is that well-intentioned but underinformed Catholics will be under the impression that Protestants don't affirm the Trinity or the Deity of Christ. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and liberals are not Protestants, they aren't even Christians. I'm concerned that your book will be detrimental to Catholic/Protestant relations in that your book isn't a fair representation of Protestantism. I'm sure you understand my concern, Catholics are consistently slandered and accused of all sorts of alarming beliefs that couldn't be farther from the truth of Catholicism; you'd like Protestant writers to get Catholicism right. I'd ask only the same from you.

I'm wondering if you'd be willing to share your thinking as to why you put Mormons, liberals, etc. together with Protestantism in general.


Thanks for your letter.

At first I wondered what the heck you were talking about, since I have never thought that true Protestants were non-trinitarian.

Then when I looked at the sections you reference, I realize why you thought that. The problem comes with the standard formatting of the book, where it says repeatedly in each chapter: "A Protestant Might Further Object." That's because virtually all of the issues dealt with in the book are controversial between Catholics and Protestants, and so we had a "Protestant" interlocutor, or objector. But in the section about trinitarianism, that doesn't apply.

That never occurred to me before you mentioned it, because I wasn't thinking in those terms. My opinion is exactly as you describe yours: Protestants are trinitarians, and sects and cults which are not trinitarian are not even Christian, let alone Protestant. This has been my constant position for over thirty years: as both a Protestant and Catholic apologist. See, e.g., my paper:

Mormons-as-Protestants: Is it Standard Catholic Apologetic Practice to Regard Non-Trinitarian Heretical Sects as "Protestants"? (+ Discussion)

I would say, then, that "Protestant" in these sections could only be construed in the very loosest sociological sense, of those sects which consider themselves Protestant but historically considered, really aren't (such as Unitarians or the very liberal wing of Protestantism). It'd be like referring to a "Catholic" who hardly ever goes to Mass (which is a mortal sin in our teaching), denies that the pope is the head of the Church and that Mary was without sin. He is hardly an observant, orthodox Catholic. But there is a sense in which he is more Catholic than anything else. He wouldn't claim to be a Protestant or an atheist or a Mormon, etc. There are Protestants out there who are ignorant enough to not understand or accept trinitarianism. I was one myself up till about age 18. I was exceedingly ignorant about trinitarinaism and the incarnation. But I would have called myself a "Protestant" if asked.

That said, I agree that it is a flaw in the book, for the very reasons you give. If there is ever a second edition, I'll try to get those portions changed. On the other hand, if you look closely, you would see that it is only the standard formatting that is the culprit, not my actual expressed views. In the section on the Trinity (pp. 98-99), I cite C. S. Lewis at the end. He refers to "Christian theology" (not just Catholic theology) being trinitarian.

Obviously, then, by implication, I can't possibly think that Protestantism is (as a general statement) non-trinitarian. In the subtitle of the chapter (p. 98), I refer to "The Christian doctrine of the Trinity," whereas in most of the book that is dealing with Protestant objections, I refer to "Catholic" or "Catholic Church" or "Catholicism" in the subtitles or chapter titles, to distinguish from "Protestant" (see, e.g., pp. 8, 12, 16, 20, 22, 24, 30, 34, 52, 60, 62, 64, 70, 76, 78, etc.). "Christian" is the generic term which takes in Protestants and Orthodox too (i.e., Nicene, trinitarian non-Catholic Christians).

Thus, one finds me using (in several instances) the category of "Christian" rather than "Catholic [Christian]" in other places involving doctrines where Catholics and Protestants agree:
. . . Christianity has always believed in the Fall of man.

[subtitle for chapter on original sin: pp. 86-87]
This is a good example, come to think of it, because you would say I shouldn't have said that a "Protestant" would object to this. Yet there are definitely some groups of Protestants who do: the Churches of Christ, for example (and, I believe, Disciples of Christ and other "Campbellite" groups) don't believe in it, and I've had debates myself with those from this sect, who deny original sin. Huldreich Zwingli, who was one of the founders of Protestantism, didn't believe in it (as I have written about), and Luther's successor Philip Melanchthon protested against this. One can argue, I suppose, that Churches of Christ and Zwingli aren't Protestants. But they are trinitarians, and certainly regarded themselves as Protestants. Technically, then, to contend, "A Protestant Might Further Object" is correct, if we are talking about a Protestant in the Churches of Christ. I use more generic language in this same chapter:
Most Christians throughout history have believed in infant and regenerative baptism, precisely because of the effects of original sin, and the need to counter them.
Again, when writing about hellfire, where most Christians agree, I used the following language:
Christians want to proclaim the gospel so people can avoid that miserable fate . . .

(p. 88)
The word "Catholic" does not, in fact, ever appear in this chapter at all. I again cite C. S Lewis at the end. When I cite the theoretical "Protestant" interlocutor, one can't totally object because there are trinitarian Protestant groups that deny hellfire; for example, Seventh-Day Adventists, who would argue exactly as I did in that section: claiming that Matthew 10:28 teaches annihilationism. Do they cease to be "Protestant" in so doing?

Well, that is a debate that is within Protestant circles. Some Reformed cult researchers like Anthony Hoekema (in his book The Four Major Cults) have indeed classified them as a "cult." I think he was dead wrong, and I would follow the classification of Dr. Walter Martin, in his classic on the topic, The Kingdom of the Cults. He classifies SDA as "aberrational Christian / Protestant" but not as a "cult." And I know something about this general area because researching Jehovah's Witnesses was one of my first major apologetic undertakings in the early 1980s, when I was an evangelical Protestant. I was even listed in a directory of countercult researchers and groups and once talked on the radio (largest Protestant station in metro Detroit: WMUZ) about JWs.

The section on the Two Natures of Christ (pp. 104-105) is an area where all three major Christian communions agree, as well, since it is based on the theology of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. One would have to know a bit of Church history to know that, as I don't actually state it on these two pages, but that is the background, and it is presupposed (which is why the word "Catholic" never appears in this chapter, either, except in describing the theologian I cite at the end). It's just unfortunate that the standard phraseology "A Protestant Might Further Object" was in these four sections.

Lastly, when I refer to actual sects that deny trinitarianism (p. 103), I don't write "Protestants" (which would be absurd) but rather, "Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, and others who deny the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and deity of Jesus Christ." The larger category of "orthodox Christian" (rather than specifically "Catholic") doctrine is again presupposing that it is a doctrine where all Nicene Christians agree. So I actually did exactly the opposite of your complaint: by juxtaposing "orthodox Christians" (including Protestants, as known by contextual considerations such as those mentioned above) over against true cults like Jehovah's Witnesses.

Therefore, anyone who reads the entire book can't help but see that I am thoroughly ecumenical and would never deny that "orthodox" Protestants are trinitarian: even in those four chapters with the confusing sub-section titles.

I would like to put this reply and your letter on my blog, to clarify things. I won't use your name. If this is objectionable, please let me know.

Your brother in Christ,

Dave

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