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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Wisdom from Peter, Part One

I'm currently reading Mark Brumley's How NOT to Share Your Faith: The Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics and Evangelization, which was recommended to me by my sister. I'd wholeheartedly endorse this book for anyone who is engaged in apologetics, especially internet apologetics. I think if you cruise the blogosphere or message boards long enough, you'll find examples of each of the deadly sins.

But that's not what I'm going to talk about today. I've already done some grumbling about the state of Catholic apologetics in general in this blog, and I won't repeat it. Rather, I want to talk about a particular Biblical text which is frequently misused by Christians of all stripes: 1 Peter 3:15-16. Brumley talked about it briefly in the chapter on "Contentiousness," but there's a good deal more to be said about these verses. The passage reads:

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.

These are the "apologetics" verses of the New Testament. They are frequently used as a justification for the work of apologetics. But they are, I'd argue, frequently either misapplied or taken out of context, or both. I'd like to make several points about them.

1. First of all, as Brumley notes, people who make these verses their motto frequently ignore the second half, the "do it with gentleness and reverence" part. Again, I could point you to many examples of what Brumley calls the sin of "contentiousness," both in Catholic apologetics and Protestant apologetics. But I won't. Suffice it to say that too many would-be apologists leave off the "gentleness and reverence."

2. A second sometimes missed point is that this verse refers to Christian's response to people who ask for a reason about "the hope that is in you." There are other places in the New Testament which advocate being ready to preach the Good News in season or out of season. That's not what this verse is about. This verse is not, therefore, an instruction to Joe Catholic to bring up religion in the middle of a conversation about baseball, or to insert an explanation of the Incarnation in the middle of a holiday party at the expense of making non-Christian co-workers uncomfortable. This verse doesn't, of course, say that such behavior is wrong- but it certainly isn't endorsing it. It is not a justification for battering your friends, coworkers, or family members with the Truth at every opportunity. Rather, it is an instruction as to how you are to answer people when they ask you about your faith. If your friends, family members, co-workers or archenemies aren't the ones who initiated the conversation about religion, then you're dealing with a situation not covered by these "apologetics verses."

3. My third point comes in two parts. One of these is a pitfall of Catholic apologists; the other may be more common among evangelical or fundamental Protestants. But the basic point here is that these verses refer to our conduct in relation to non-Christians. They are not intended to instruct us on our behavior with regard to other Christians. There may be indirect applications possible here, but these verses do not directly apply to encounters between two Christians. Please, read 1 Peter 2:11-25 and 2:1-17 if you don't believe me. As I hope to demonstrate in the second half of this series, this passage is one dealing with the Christian response to persecution. It's part of an instruction on how Christians are to behave rightly in relation to a non-Christian world, at every level of society. Though 1 Peter contains some instructions on how Christians are to relate to each other, these verses are about right behavior in relation to a presumably pagan population.

There are two implications I want to draw from this point.

A.) These verses do not provide a justification for apologetics aimed at other Christians. As Brumley points out, one of the major "sins" of Catholic apologetics is that it tends to be aimed not at the non-Christian population, but at non-Catholic Christians, particularly Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. Rather than using their skill to prove to agnostics, atheists, or nominal Christians that God is both true and important, most Catholic apologetics spend their time trying to show Baptists that they ought to become Catholic. It is true, as Brumley says, that if we believe our Church to contain the fullness of grace and truth, we will want other Christians to find that fullness of grace and truth within the barque of Peter. You'll get no disagreement from me there. I do truly believe that the Christian life as it is meant to be lived can only be found in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But over the last few years, I've come to agree with Brumley that it is really a waste of our energy to concentrate our "fire" on those who ought to be our allies.

Now, we do need a solid Catholic apologetics which is aimed at Protestant objections to Catholicisim. But I think that we need this, first and foremost, not for Protestants, but for Catholics. We need it for all the uneducated Catholics whose dear Evangelical brethren will invite them to the megachurch for worship. We need them for all those Catholics who are going to be told that they worship Mary, that they don't believe in the grace of God, that they are going to Hell unless they are born again. There are good and Scriptural answers to Protestant objections to Catholicism, and we Catholics need to know them, for our own good. We need to know them, too, for the good of those Christians who don't have the fullness of grace and truth. When we are challenged to give a defense for our Catholic distinctives, we need to be prepared to give it with charity, honesty, and gentleness.

But if we think that 1 Peter 3:15-16 is a command to Catholics to go out and proselytize Christians who are already in relationship with Christ and His Church (however imperfect that relationship is), we are mistaken. This is an instruction for dealing with the pagan world. Proselytize when appropriate, but don't pretend that this passage is talking about that kind of work. It's not.

The same of, course, applies to Protestant apologetics aimed at Catholics. Just as these verses don't instruct Catholics to evanglize to Protestants, they don't instruct Protestant Christians to evangelize Catholics. The difficulty here, of course, is that the most vehement Protestant apologists usually single out Catholics because they don't believe that we really are Christian, or that we are likely to be in a right (saving) relation to God. That's why I think we Catholics are more culpable in this matter. We should know better, because our Church clearly teaches that Protestants may be saved through their relationship to Christ and His Church.

B) Not only do these verses not apply to apologetics, they don't apply to the need for Christians to give "testimony" to each other. True, it says that we are always to be ready to give an explanation for the reasons of our hope. But it's talking about a situation in which Christians are being persecuted and oppressed and yet, are still hopeful. Peter imagines that the pagan/gentile society will look at the hopeful behavior of oppressed Christians and say "Wow! How can you be so hopeful when you're suffering so much?" Personally, I find this instruction to be very challenging precisely because I don't tend to demonstrate hope under adverse circumstances- but more about that in the following entry.

What Peter is not imagining is this scenario: Joe Christian encounters Sally Christian, becomes suspicious of some of her beliefs or her behavior for one reason or another, and says: "Sally, how do I know that you are really in a saving relationship with Christ? Show me evidence that you are truly Christian! You owe me an explanation." There may be other places in the Bible which endorse this behavior on the part of Joe, but 1 Peter 3:15-16 is not one of them. If we as Christians have a right as Christian to examine the "credibility" of each other's "profession," that right is not given here in Peter. (I have to say that I personally don't see any evidence that the Bible grants such a "right" to ordinary Christians outside of the pastoral relationship, but that's an argument for another day.) Again, there are other parts of the Petrine epistles which do address our behavior within the body of believers, but this verse is about our relationship to a broader, non-Christian culture.

So, I've said a lot about what 1 Peter 3:15-16 isn't saying. And, I admit, I've not offered much proof for it. Later this week, therefore, I want to offer what I think is a solid reading of these verses. And, as I've hinted here, I think we'll find that there are some very challenging implications of these verses which have gone ignored by many modern Christians, precisely because we have misappropriated this passage and turned it into an all-purpose justification and instruction for apologetics.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason I want to use apologetics as a cudgel against Protestant Fundamentalists and not against non-Christians is that non-Christians so rarely try to tell me that I'm not a Christian or try to misrepresent my beliefs.

I do correct atheists who misstate Catholic beliefs, but I have no interest in arguing them into a belief in God.

I also don't try to get Protestant Fundamentalists to become Catholic, because I don't like them and I don't want the Church to be full of them. I just want to show them how wrong they are, and for them to leave me alone.

I almost get the idea from this blog entry of yours that I'm looking at apologetics or evangelization the wrong way. I, however, have hope that the second entry in this series is more affirming of my style and approach to apologetics. Let me know if you want a gentle and reverent explanation of the reasons for the hope I have.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

The reason I want to use apologetics as a cudgel against Protestant Fundamentalists and not against non-Christians is that non-Christians so rarely try to tell me that I'm not a Christian or try to misrepresent my beliefs.

This is a fair point. I do recognize that many conservative Protestants have a belligerant attitude towards Catholics. I also agree that we have a right to respond to people who critique our religion, or to correct misconceptions. Since some Protestant groups actively try to convert Catholics to evangelical or Fundamentalist Protestant, it makes sense that many Catholic apologists would want to concentrate on defenses against such attacks.

The problem comes when this defensive apologetics eclipses attempts to bring the Gospel to a non-Christian world, or when the very defensiveness causes Catholic apologists to alienate good-hearted Protestants who might be willing to learn about Catholicism if it weren't presented in a smug or triumphalistic way.

As for the rest of your comments, though. . . I highly recommend Mark Brumley's book to you. If your apologetics isn't root in charity, you are indeed doing something wrong!

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Bob the Baker said...

Nope, that wasn't me. (Just for the record). Actually, that sounded a bit more like my brother Joe.
It was pretty funny, though. My favorite was this bit:

"I also don't try to get Protestant Fundamentalists to become Catholic, because I don't like them and I don't want the Church to be full of them."

I have nearly the same feeling sometimes. But then I remember that if God will let redheads be in His Church, then it's pretty much open to everyone who wants in.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

Nope, that wasn't me. (Just for the record).

I didn't think it was!

11:26 PM  
Blogger La Mama Loca said...

I thought it was Bob being a dork.

The longer I sit up, the more I feel like puking. So I'm going to go lie down.

4:17 PM  

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