Six and a half hours of intensive debate over the course of two evenings. That’s the privilege I had July 6-7, 2000. The first three hours had an audience of hundreds of thousands, as I was privileged to join Hank Hanegraaff at the headquarters of the Christian Research Institute in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, for the third “marathon” session of The Bible Answer Man Broadcast. Only three times in the history of BAM have they ever gone for three consecutive hours: in 1995 when I joined Hank and discussed my book, The King James Only Controversy, in 1996 when I engaged in a dialogue on Roman Catholicism with James Akin of Catholic Answers, and now this third time, again on Catholicism, with Tim Staples of St. Joseph Communications.
I was accompanied on my journey to Southern California by my good friend Warren Smith. Warren and I were joined by Eddie Dalcour once we reached the LA area, and the three of us went to the headquarters of CRI together, and then later had dinner at the gracious invitation of Sam Wall of CRI, and thereafter clowned
around a bit (see photo). Little did I know how nice it was going to be to have friends like Eddie Dalcour the next evening at the debate in Fullerton where we were outnumbered 5:1. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The BAM broadcasts were fascinating. They are currently archived at www.equip.org (click on the programs for July 6&7–the third hour has not yet aired at the time of this writing, but should air shortly). I have become accustomed to the fact that I need to speak quickly and concisely because my opponent will get at least 20% more time than I will to make his arguments. This was true with both James Akin and Tim Staples. If a person listens to the programs and times the relative amounts of time both sides are given, they will find that it averages around 60% for the Catholic, 40% for me. Hence, I’ve learned to ignore the side trails as much as possible, and focus upon the important stuff.
Mr. Staples started off as I expected: in his opening monologue he covered at least six major topics, leaving me the impossible task of refuting false assertions on a broad spectrum of things. We took no calls at all the first hour, even though BAM set a new record for call volume during the three hours, with people still calling in even as we finished the third hour. Then as the callers came in I was pleased to note a fair consistency in the questions. Though one RC caller in the second hour made it clear she considered me a liar, most calls were on the subject of Mary. During one of the breaks Tim commented on how surprised he was about that, and he wondered aloud why more people were not calling about salvation/justification. I replied, “Tim, you’ve added Mary to the gospel. What do you expect people to ask about?” He had, in fact, admitted on the program that belief in the Bodily Assumption of Mary is part and parcel of the gospel as preached by Rome.
Unfortunately, Mr. Staples does not share my commitment to fairness in dialogue. Any person listening to the broadcasts can hear that he would often interrupt me while I was speaking, or, he would simply make comments over top of me, like, “that’s a lie.” Strangely, he refused to call me a liar, while styling a number of my comments lies. Mr. Staples sounded very nervous and would often stumble over his words, or he would start a sentence and then stop half-way through to start a whole new thought. A common response I heard to both the BAM broadcasts and the debate was, “I had no idea what he was saying. He rambled on, going from topic to topic, never making a point.”
During the second or third hour we got into the topic of justification a little, and Mr. Staples illustrated the truth of the phrase, “a little Greek is a dangerous thing.” In attempting to respond to Romans 5:1 (“Therefore having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”) he immediately left the passage and went to Galatians 2, and there he attempted to make the point that Paul taught that justification was not a certainty. He referred to Galatians 2:16 which states,
nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
I sat in utter amazement as he insisted that the phrase “so that we may be justified” is a doubtful affirmation because it is in the subjunctive in the Greek. That is, “so that we might be justified.” I could tell by looking at the clock that I had little time, but I had to point out the egregious error of such a statement. Any person who can read Greek can see that there is a reason “may be justified” is in the subjunctive: it is in a hina clause. This is the classic purpose/result clause in Greek. Paul’s point is so obvious that it is amazing that a Roman Catholic apologist would attempt to use this passage to get around Romans 5:1. Paul says that we (Paul and Peter, Jews by nature) have believed in Christ Jesus so that they might be justified: the purpose of their faith in Christ was so that they would be justified by that faith. To read into the passage doubt or hesitation is utterly unfounded. No one who is a serious scholar of the language would ever say such a thing. Yet, when I pointed out the grammar of the passage refuted Mr. Staples, as with so much else, his only response was to talk over me and say “that’s a lie.”
Mr. Staples also demonstrated his lack of understanding of the mindset of a true believing Protestant. Mr. Staples, unlike other Roman Catholic apologists like Gerry Matatics or Robert Sungenis, came from a background of Pentecostalism, specifically, he attended the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College. Because of this, he simply did not realize that he was truly “shooting himself in the foot” when he responded as he did to my reading of the classic Marian prayer reproduced below:
O Mother of Perpetual Help, thou art the dispenser of all the goods which God grants to us miserable sinners, and for this reason he has made thee so powerful, so rich, and so bountiful, that thou mayest help us in our misery. Thou art the advocate of the most wretched and abandoned sinners who have recourse to thee. Come then, to my help, dearest Mother, for I recommend myself to thee. In thy hands I place my eternal salvation and to thee do I entrust my soul. Count me among thy most devoted servants; take me under thy protection, and it is enough for me. For, if thou protect me, dear Mother, I fear nothing; not from my sins, because thou wilt obtain for me the pardon of them; nor from the devils, because thou art more powerful than all hell together; nor even from Jesus, my Judge himself, because by one prayer from thee he will be appeased. But one thing I fear, that in the hour of temptation I may neglect to call on thee and thus perish miserably. Obtain for me, then, the pardon of my sins, love for Jesus, final perseverance, and the grace always to have recourse to thee, O Mother of Perpetual Help.
When I read this on the air, not only did Tim Staples keep saying, “Amen” as I read it and nodding his head in agreement, but when I got to the end he said, “And your problem is?” Surely he could not possibly understand how tremendously offensive such words are to the ears of any lover of Scripture or the gospel. He handled it with such a cavalier attitude that he immediately lost the ears of any biblically-based Protestant who was still listening at that point, and those who had already figured out where he was coming from were pushed that much farther into a full rejection of all of his claims.
Everyone at the CRI programs agreed that the encounter did not bode well for the coming debate. I was especially concerned about things Tim Staples had done four years earlier when we debated in Fullerton. As you can see from my open letter written after that debate (here), Mr. Staples had constantly gone past his time limits, and he had encouraged the behavior of his “students” who were loud, obnoxious, and rude, one even crying out, “The Eucharist!” at one point during the question and answer period, resulting in a round of applause…for what reason we can only guess. What was most troubling was the proposed cross-examination period. I had requested that we handle this most important part of the debate in the way that is best for the audience: in the formal debate style, where the questioner asks questions, the respondent provides concise responses, and the interaction is free-flowing. Seeing how Mr. Staples couldn’t even let me respond to him without talking over me and saying things like “that’s a lie” on BAM, I was very concerned he would completely run amuck during the cross-exam, which requires control and restraint on the part of both participants. So, prior to the debate, I expressed my reservations to the moderator, Jerry Usher, who like Tim Staples works for St. Joseph’s Communications. He said he would get Tim and I together before the debate to discuss it.
This led to a “huddle” immediately before the debate with Tim Staples, Jerry Usher, and myself. During this discussion I specifically pointed them both to the example set by myself and Mitchell Pacwa during our cross-examination period on Long Island in 1998. Both said they had watched that portion of the debate, and Mr. Staples specifically promised to follow the rules for cross-examination. Succinct questions, concise answers, no filibustering. It is a simple rule of debate that the person cross-examining does so in the form of questions. That person does not comment on the answers. That is left for closing statements. I was so concerned that Mr. Staples would violate the rules that I suggested we impose time limits, but I was assured that he would, in fact, follow the rules. We will see, such was a very, very empty promise.
The Plummer Auditorium is a perfect place for a debate, as far as facilities go. But we are always in the minority there, and such was the case again for this debate. And since the topic would be significantly more “emotional” for the Roman Catholics than the previous debate, where I
was defending the biblical truth of sola scriptura, I knew it would be a “rough crowd.” But, I love these opportunities, for though I know a large portion of the Roman Catholics in attendance will not hear my words, some will, and God can bless in that situation.
As you walked into Plummer you could see posters, hung by St. Joseph Communications, announcing the debate. Prominently displayed was the title: “Papal Infallibility.” Each program likewise had the title clearly displayed. Why is this important? Because, for the first 30 minutes, it seemed Mr. Staples forgot what the topic was supposed to be.
Since the topic was Papal Infallibility, the Roman Catholic representative gets to go first, so as to define the topic and provide the initial defense of it. So I fully expected Mr. Staples to define the dogma, give some background on it, and then launch pre-emptive strikes in defense of the most commonly used examples of papal error, especially that of Honorius. So I must have looked more than a little confused as Mr. Staples delivered a rambling dissertation, aimed almost only at his fellow, already-convinced Catholics, about the primacy of Peter in the New Testament. Matthew 16, Luke 22, John 21…all the classic passages, but not a word about Honorius, Liberius, or anyone else. No defense of Papal Infallibility (hereafter PI). Not even a definition. He never even read from the First Vatican Council. Nothing. Just a presentation about Peter’s alleged primacy.
When my turn came I delivered a 30-minute presentation on the topic of the debate: papal infallibility. I started by providing a short recitation of the statements John Henry Cardinal Newman had made in opposing the definition of PI at the Vatican I, and how he had eventually given in to the teaching, resulting in a truly self-contradictory position. I then pointed out that I believe the Pope to have taught many errors, such as the Bodily Assumption of Mary, or transubstantiation. But, I said that these kinds of errors are dismissed by Roman Catholics because of their dedication to the higher authority of the Pope himself. So, I said that we have to focus upon examples that would show the Pope to be in error on the basis laid out by Roman Catholicism itself. And this is I sought to prove by presenting information on three papal errors: most of my time was spent on the condemnation of Honorius by the 6th, 7th, and 8th ecumenical Councils; then I spoke of Zosimus’ error in rehabilitating Pelagius and commanding the North African Churches to drop their condemnation of Pelagius and Coelestius (a position the North Africans rejected, and eventually Zosimus had to do a complete about-face); and finally, briefly, I noted the error of Sixtus V and his allegedly infallible Vulgate.
The Protestants in the audience were more than a little surprised when Mr. Staples returned to the podium for his 15 minute rebuttal. He started off by saying that at least he had stuck with the Scriptures in his presentation, and he then spoke of the “tactic” I was using of focusing solely upon papal infallibility! When I responded in my time I pointed out that it is amazing to be accused of engaging in the use of a “tactic” just to debate the very topic you were invited to debate in the first place, and that was on every poster hanging in the foyer announcing the event! What a strange thing that is! And I likewise said I would enjoy sticking to Scripture too, but, since the Bible knows nothing of PI, that would be an impossibility. Staples attempted to begin playing catch-up by trying to respond to the information I had presented. But it was an impossible task. I had already provided far too much documentation on the case of Honorius, so that all he could do was attempt to make the same arguments I had already refuted.
At the end of my rebuttal period I pointed out yet another problem for Mr. Staples. I quoted from a papal decree of Alexander IV which prohibited laymen (and Staples is a layman) from engaging in debates with heretics on theological issues. I pointed out that Rome had used these decrees as recently as less than a century earlier. I then said that Mr. Staples would have to explain why these decrees did not apply to him, tell us if they had been rescinded, etc. I quoted extensively from Staples himself, from a tape of his on the papacy, wherein he had asserted that even the juridical pronouncements of the Papacy are binding upon Catholics. I closed by saying that either Tim would have to quit and forfeit the rest of the debate in obedience to the Pope, or he would have to demonstrate the fact that Roman Catholics have to privately interpret the Pope themselves. In either case, my point would be made, and it was.
Then came a 15 minutes intermission, during which time I had the pleasure of meeting many fine folks who can come out to support us. But this rest was short, and soon I was standing behind my podium, waiting for Staples to begin his cross-examination.
Remembering the conversation from before the debate, and the clear concerns I had expressed to both the moderator and Mr. Staples, I was experiencing true apprehension. It took no time at all to realize that I had been right all along. [I did a Rush Limbaugh style, “stop the tape!” review of the cross-examination period on the Dividing Line program of 7/22/00, which can be heard by Real Audio by clicking here]. Staples began by saying he just had to respond to what I had said about Alexander IV, and it would only take “5 seconds.” It took a minute. A plain, inexcusable breach of the rules, and the moderator said nothing. Then Staples launched into his first “question.” He made statement after statement, assertion after assertion, and finally, after taking another long period of time, finished his sermonette with the off-topic question, “How do you know Hebrews was in the canon?” Remember, this is supposed to be a debate on PI. The questions are supposed to be on the material already presented. Instead, Mr. Staples decided to go for the old “canon” question. Again, no moderator action. So I answered the question. Staples said, “Perhaps you didn’t hear it, let me try again.” Another period of
commentary leading up to the question. I respond again. This time, he replies not with a question, but by arguing with me. “Is that a question?” I ask. No response, more diatribe. I have not made the effort to time it, but, I would conservatively estimate that in the 12 minutes of cross-exam, Staples himself talked, normally making statements, catching up on stuff he wanted to say in earlier sections, or arguing my replies, for 8 of the 12 minutes. One of our regular visitors in our chatroom listened closely to the tapes and counted a grand total of five questions asked by Mr. Staples, one of which was more of a statement to which I answered, “Was that a question, sir?” Five questions in twelve minutes! Only a couple were even on the Papacy, let alone on the topic of the debate. It was exactly what I had predicted. He made no effort, at all, to abide by what he had personally said he would do only 90 minutes earlier.
At the end of his time period he went on and on and on for about three minutes, with his “question” finally coming right as his time ran out. I began to reply, but halfway through decided it would be best to just get on with my section as I could address the issues better in that format. When I asked the moderator, he agreed, but then the RC’s in the audience started yelling out, “Answer the question!” The moderator again said I did not have to, but I pressed on and indicated the answer would come in the next section. And so began the longest twelve minutes Tim Staples had ever spent behind a podium. He never once looked at me the entire time. The same individual who listened to the tapes and counted five questions by Staples counted thirty one unique questions by me in my 12 minute period, with a further 8 repetitive questions, “Yes or no, sir?” That means not counting the one statement/question by Mr. Staples, I asked almost nine times the number of questions he did, in the same period of time. And they happened to be on the topic of PI. And they happened to be on the information already presented in the debate. In other words, I followed the rules, despite the fact that Mr. Staples acted as if there were no rules at all for how debates are to be run.
The defense Staples used for Honorius, (that Leo II had in essence “corrected” the condemnation of the 6th ecumenical council) collapsed quickly under questioning. Staples insisted that no council is truly infallible until the Pope affirms it. I asked him what councils before the 6th, or where in the 6th itself, we were taught this. He had obviously never even considered the idea, and it was likewise clear he was completely unaware that the idea that a council is dependent upon papal approval made its way into canon law not from the ancient church, but from the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, forgeries that were written around the year A.D. 845, one hundred and fifty years after the 6th ecumenical council. Reading that back into the preceding time period is an obvious example of anachronism and is invalid. Staples had no meaningful response. He angrily insisted that Honorius was condemned only for his negligence. I asked him if, in fact, Honorius’ letters had been burned before the Council as “hurtful to the soul.” He didn’t know. But when he again insisted Honorius was condemned for his actions not his teachings I asked, “Were his letters actions, or teachings?” He was obviously flustered, and often had to look for words. To any person with any level of fairness in their thinking, the debate was over at that point. Well, at least the debate on the announced topic.
In my opening I had said that time failed us to mention so many other possible examples of papal error. I then listed some of those examples that have been used over the years, though I did not even begin to base my case upon them. Yet, Staples chose to focus primarily on some of those, as he seemed more comfortable debating examples I didn’t even begin to present and elucidate. This continued in his closing remarks, but even here he blundered badly. He had no response for the Zosimus situation, and when he decided to launch into the fall of Liberius, he made the incredible statement that the Sirmium Creed that Liberius had signed was not really heretical! I was incredulous. But then, as soon as he finished, his ardent supporters were on their feet, applauding wildly and cheering with gusto. It was quite the display.
Then I had the opportunity to speak. I replied to a number of issues, including how Staples had completely dodged the decree of Alexander IV, and then I concluded with these words. I quote directly from the notes I carried with me that evening:
You cannot avoid your duty this evening. You will be the one held accountable for what you believe: no man can bear your responsibility before the throne of God. I cannot convince the mind that is unwilling to listen to facts and reason. But I can, out of love for God and love for His truth, warn any and all who have embraced a deception, a falsehood. And that is why I am here this evening. It is an act of love for God, love for his truth, and love for my fellow man, that has brought me to this place this evening. We have seen that those who desire to believe in Papal Infallibility labor hard and long at finding ways to maintain that belief, even when the facts are clear and compelling. I assert that unless one had already embraced the theory of Papal primacy and infallibility that the excuses and defenses offered this evening would not even suggest themselves, let alone provide a compelling argument for faith in the infallibility of the bishop of Rome.
Let’s review what we have seen thus far this evening. A guide that leads you down the wrong path is not an infallible guide. A guide that leads you to jump off a cliff is not an infallible guide. A guide that has to constantly double-back and make corrections in his guidance is not an infallible guide. “Woops” is not a valid excuse for one who claims to be infallible. “We made a mistake, we are going to go back and take a second shot at this” does not work when you are telling folks they have to believe everything you have to say to be right with God. In light of this, we have seen how Zosimus had to say “woops” when Augustine and the North African bishops corrected him and refused his direct command, as bishop of Rome, to accept Pelagius and Caelestius back into communion. He reversed himself and his “mature examination” upon which he had commanded, by the authority of his Apostolic See, the North Africans to reverse course. Instead, he reversed course and contradicted everything he had said before. Who, here, was the infallible guide, Zosimus, or the North African bishops led by Augustine? We have seen how the entire Papacy had to say “woops” with reference to Honorius who was condemned by not one, not two, but three Ecumenical Councils, and every Pope who took the oath of the papal office for the space of three hundred years. We saw how Pope Leo II likewise anathematized Honorius and said that he had “permitted her who was undefiled to be polluted by profane teaching.” If someone had followed the understanding of the bishop of Rome during those years, they would have embraced formal heresy. We have likewise seen how Cardinal Bellarmine had to come up with a lie to cover for Sixtus V’s not-quite-as-infallible-as-we-thought Vulgate, a woops of truly biblical proportions.
In each of these instances we have seen that it would have been impossible, on the grounds taken by Rome today, to know if the Pope was speaking the truth or not.
Finally, I reiterate what I believe is an inescapable argument against belief in the infallibility of the Pope. You can’t have any confidence that the interpretation you hold this evening of the current Pope’s teaching is actually right. You may understand Ut Unum Sint or Veritatis Splendor or Redemptoris Mater one way, but history teaches you one thing without contradiction: fifty years from now, or a hundred years from now, the understanding of the same documents, the same doctrines, may be substantially different than it is today. You may accept a Papal teaching today as authoritative that will not only be abandoned in the future, but may be contradicted in the future. A person who accepted the doctrinal content of Honorius’ first letter to Sergius and died in that state would find himself anathematized by the next three ecumenical councils. Remember, Honorius’ heretical letters existed for more than 45 years before the official correction of their error. A person who accepted Zosimus’ considered and careful conclusion in his encyclical Magnum Pondus, as bishop of Rome, that Pelagius and Coelestius were Catholic and orthodox would likewise take heresy into his very soul. The simple fact of the matter is, you don’t know that what you think the Pope is currently teaching is what he is teaching, and what’s more, you have no way of knowing if what he really is teaching today will be considered orthodox and proper a hundred years from now.
And so I urge you to consider the contrast between the uncertain guide that is the bishop of Rome and the certain guide that is God’s Holy Word. While the bishop of Rome is subject to ignorance, political intrigue, abuse of power, sin, greed, and lust, the Scriptures are subject to none of these things. The Scriptures have never led any person into Arianism, Pelagianism, or Monotheletism. Only men’s own traditions, lusts, and sin have caused them to reject God’s truth in the Scriptures and enter into error. The fault has always been that of man, never that of the infallible guide that is the inspired and Holy Word of God. No matter how challenging the exegetical task of understanding even the most difficult passages of Scripture, in comparison with attempting to sort through the maze of Roman history, the volumes of papal encyclicals, the tomes of canon law, the numerous false decretals and forgeries, the reversals and clarifications and canons and decrees and everything else Rome offers the exegetical task of understanding Scripture is nigh unto simplistic. Give me Romans 8 any day over the code of canon law.
As I finished my remarks, the brave and greatly outnumbered band of Protestants likewise leapt to their feet in applause, led, I did not fail to notice, by the young folks in the front row, including my own children, and the children of my good friend Simon Escobedo (see his comments in his review of the debate by clicking here). They were joined by the students I met from Master’s Seminary, by some who had traveled from Talbot Seminary, and our good friends from New Life Orthodox Presbyterian Church in San Diego.
But closing remarks are not the end of a debate. Audience questions are always that wonderfully anti-climactic, never on the topic, never-ending, slow-death to a debate. And so it began. I believe two questions were asked of Staples: all the rest were aimed directly at me, and almost none had anything at all to do with anything I had said. No one wanted to touch Honorius. No one wanted to attempt to rehabilitate Zosimus. No, they wanted to attack sola scriptura, nothing more. It’s all they knew, for it is about all the Roman Catholic apologists who have trained them know. But the “lets get the Protestant for daring to say the Pope is wrong” tactic didn’t work, for the person to whom the question was asked got 60 seconds to respond, while the other only got 30 to comment. That meant that in the last half hour of the debate, I got to speak about ten minutes, while Tim Staples got to speak about five! I wondered if the folks on the other side realized that was happening.
Finally it was over. A crowd gathered around as I was packing up my computer and my books. My good friend Eddie Dalcour towered over me and kept an eye on things. The Protestants in the audience were ecstatic. They knew what had just happened. A little Catholic lady came up on stage and said to me, “I believe you owe Jesus an apology for calling Him a liar!” I replied, “I would never call Jesus a liar, mam, and I do wish you had listened to something I had said.” The folks at the auditorium were really hacked with us for going so long, so we got rushed out the door in a matter of minutes.
Before we left I expressed to Jerry Usher, the moderator, my dismay at Mr. Staples’ inability to keep his own word and obey rules—rules that exist to give the audience a fair shake at following the debate. Mr. Staples showed great disrespect for Mr. Usher, myself, and the audience by his behavior, and I informed Mr. Usher that if Mr. Staples ever wants to debate again, he will need to do some serious review of debate rules.
In the vast majority of my debates I let the tapes speak for themselves, and in this instance, they do so with tremendous clarity. But I will do something very unusual here, and make the clear proclamation: we won the debate Friday night July 7th, 2000, in Fullerton, California. We won it on every level you can win a debate. We won on content, for Mr. Staples chose to ignore the debate topic until we were an hour into the battle. We won on cross-examination, where he failed to even attempt to engage the debate and collapsed on his part when pressed with the issues. We won on every technical question of debate as well. And we won simply because we had the truth on our side and no amount of obfuscation could hide it. And you know why I am certain we won? It’s easy: if I knew of a person who was considering embracing papal claims, I would not hesitate for a moment to send them the tapes of this debate, and I know my fellow Protestants would not either. But while Mr. Staples himself might venture to send the tapes of this debate to such a person, other Catholics apologists who know better would not. And that proves the point.
For a review of the debate by Mrs. James White, click here, and for one by Summer White, Dr. White’s daughter, click here. Jason Engwer has also written an excellent rebuttal of the comments made by Mr. Staples in his not-quite-on-the-topic opening that I was unable to respond to without abandoning the actual topic of the evening. Click Here for Jason’s article.