Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Checking Armstrong's Facts on the Reformers
04/26/2007 - James SwanI've been asking Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong a very simple question lately. It all has to do with one of Armstrong's books. Dave cites one of the Reformers, and I've simply been asking him if he's actually read the Reformer he's citing, in context. So far, I've gotten a massive amount of response from Dave, but a simple yes or no is yet to appear (probably never will).
Why is this a big deal? In a recent debate book by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson entitled, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, the Catholic contributor cites, you guessed it, one of Dave Armstrong's books as a source for information about the Reformers views on Mary.
I find this curious, because Dave Armstrong is neither a historian nor a theologian. As far as I know, he's a guy in Michigan sitting in his attic with a computer. But yet, this book cites him as if he were an authority on the Reformers. Now, if I were to cite someone on the Reformers, I would at least want to know they've actually read the Reformers, particularly the material being cited. Well, Dave won't answer, which leads me to believe there is a strong probability he has not read the primary source material.
I found this out a few years ago when I did a written exchange with Mr. Armstrong on Luther's view of Mary. I methodically cited Luther from the standard English set of Luther's Works. This makes it quite easy for anyone to go to a library, look up the citations, and check my work. Now in the electronic age, Luther's Works are available on CD. It becomes quite difficult to obscure facts when tracking down the context can be done with ease by anyone.
Dave on the other hand primarily cited Luther's German Works. He referenced the German Weimar edition 33 times. Some of the references didn't even make sense. Then he cited numerous secondary German sources. Now, one could stand in awe of Armstrong's seeming fluency in Luther studies, if of course Armstrong spoke and read German, and had access to scores of books that have been out of print for many years. But, as far as I know, Armstrong does not read or speak German, nor does he have access to the Luther goldmine of written material.
And then comes the kick. In checking Armstrong's citations, all is not as it appears. For instance, Dave is fond of saying Luther was "extraordinarily devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary." He loves to put forth historical data suggesting Luther held a lifelong belief in the Immaculate Conception. Back when I dialoged with him, his original source for this was a Luther quote put forth by Catholic historian Hartmann Grisar, nearly 100 years ago:
"It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary's soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God's gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin" (Sermon: "On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God," 1527)
So, I tracked down the Grisar book Armstrong was using. Sure, the quote was there, along with this commentary from Grisar:
"The sermon was taken down in notes and published with Luther's approval. The same statements concerning the Immaculate Conception still remain in a printed edition published in 1529, but in later editions which appeared during Luther's lifetime they disappear."
The reason for their disappearance is that as Luther's Christocentric theology developed, aspects of Luther's Mariology were abandoned. Grisar recognizes this. In regards to the Luther quote in question, Grisar goes on to say,
"As Luther's intellectual and ethical development progressed we cannot naturally expect the sublime picture of the pure Mother of God, the type of virginity, of the spirit of sacrifice and of sanctity to furnish any great attraction for him, and as a matter of fact such statements as the above are no longer met with in his later works."
Even in material readily available, one wonders if Dave reads what he cites. For instance, Dave has said, "In fact, Martin Luther praised Mary and said that she should be honored in his very last sermon at Wittenberg." This is an easy one to track down. Armstrong is correct Luther mentions Mary in his last Wittenberg sermon. Luther did not say or imply though that Mary should be honored. Luther's tone is quite sarcastic, and his main point is that Christ alone should be worshiped. Luther mocks those who would call upon Mary or venerate her. Luther insists that those who seek Christ through Mary do so by the use of reason, and reason is by nature a harmful adulteress.
Dave accuses me of nitpicking over tedium like this. He wants to be taken seriously as a Catholic apologist. If it were my book going to print making historical claims, I would make sure that I actually read and understood the material presented. It has nothing to do with Dave's Catholicism. Recently on this blog I took a look at some historical assertions made by C. Gordon Olson, a Protestant.
As a layman, I do my best to read critically. If I'm going to respect someone as an authority on a particular subject, the facts should check out. With Mr. Armstrong's work, he still has yet to impress me as an authority on the Reformers. Catholic laymen should know that there are in fact Catholic historians and scholars that have put forth some excellent books on Luther. Don't settle for material that sounds good because it makes Rome look better. Check the facts; look for the truth, even if the facts come from your own camp. Simply because they do, does not mean they are correct.