A Response to James Akin’s article in the July, 1993 This Rock entitled
“Fatally Flawed Thinking”
The Fatal Flaw was first printed in 1990. As soon as the first copies arrived at our offices, I packaged up a copy and sent it off to Karl Keating of Catholic Answers. I assumed that since Catholic Answers advertises itself as the leading Catholic apologetics organization, a group that fearlessly tackles the many “anti-Catholics” in the United States and abroad, that Mr. Keating and his associates would quickly respond to a newly published work on the subject of Roman Catholicism. Surely this would be the case, especially in light of the fact that The Fatal Flaw was very different than many of the works currently available on Roman Catholicism. First, it is Reformed, secondly, it makes a strong attempt to accurately represent the teachings of Roman Catholicism.
Nearly three and a half years later, Catholic Answers has provided a review and rebuttal of The Fatal Flaw. It was not written by Karl Keating, or Patrick Madrid, but by a newcomer to the Catholic Answers staff, James Akin, himself a convert to Roman Catholicism of hardly a year.1 Mr. Akin’s review was known to me for quite some time, at least in substance. He had written to me in October of 1992, and had included in his letter nearly all the objections he raises in the cover story of the July, 1993 This Rock article entitled “Fatally Flawed Thinking.”2 I had responded to Mr. Akin’s letter in early December of the same year, but did not receive a reply. A few months later, he requested that I send him the letter again, as he had lost the original, and I complied. To this day, I have yet to receive a reply to my letter correcting various of Mr. Akin’s misapprehensions about The Fatal Flaw. I can only imagine that the footnotes in the article provide me with about all the personal response I am going to get.
I begin by thanking Mr. Akin for avoiding most of the invective that seems to be part and parcel of these kinds of articles. While he still managed to include a few cheap shots, as we shall see, at least the seven-page article does not contain nearly the level of personal material that L. Ara Norwood inserted in his attempted rebuttal of my book on Mormonism, Letters to a Mormon Elder. And while I feel he really missed the central aspect of the book, at least Mr. Akin attempted to provide some kind of meaningful response. It is, to this date, the most in-depth response I’ve seen, which, given the length of the book and the issues that it raises, is an amazing thing.
The Catholic Answers review is surely a very encouraging thing. The article attempts to charge me with misrepresenting Roman Catholic teaching on two points, and two points only. Neither point is even marginally central to either the argument of the book, or its extensive presentation and documentation of Roman Catholic teaching. And while I believe Mr. Akin wrong even here, I wish to point out what this article represents in what it doesn’t say. From the very start, as soon as I mentioned to Roman Catholic acquaintances that I was writing a book on the topic of Roman Catholicism, I was told that it would be filled with misrepresentations of Catholic teaching. This is the most common means of deflecting criticism of one’s position: accuse the critics of being clueless about what you really believe. And surely I left myself open to such charges, if, in fact, I am ignorant of Roman Catholic teachings, for large sections of the book, entire chapters, are nothing but a presentation of the dogmatic teachings of Roman
Catholicism on topics that are not exactly simplistic in nature. For example, I spent thirty-two pages explaining the Roman doctrine of the Mass, citing sources from Trent to post-Vatican II. Another chapter is devoted to the doctrine of Purgatory. Few Protestants works of this size spend as much time as The Fatal Flaw in presenting, and documenting, the Roman Catholic position. And yet, after all this, the leading Roman Catholic apologetics organization in the United States can find only two items upon which they think I have erred, neither of which has anything to do with the Mass or purgatory, the two doctrines that make up the central aspect of the argument of the book! One can only conclude, then, that even Catholic Answers is forced to admit that The Fatal Flaw is accurate in its presentation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass, including all those aspects touched upon in the book regarding transubstantiation, propitiation, etc. Indeed, with the exception of only two points, it seems we can say
that Catholic Answers has admitted that The Fatal Flaw accurately represents the theology of Roman Catholicism.
I shall respond to Mr. Akin’s comments in two parts. First, I shall provide the text of my as yet unanswered response to Mr. Akin’s initial letter, which more than adequately replies to the criticisms he provided in his published article. Then I shall address those issues that were not included in his letter to me of October 23, 1992, which include his personal comments made at the beginning of the article in This Rock as well as some other items that came up here and there.
I shall not include in the text of the letter any personal information that was part of our correspondence.
I am finally able to carve out a short period of time so as to respond to your letter of October 23rd. I hope you received the tapes of my most recent debate with Gerry Matatics.
In replying to your letter, I must comment, hopefully in the same manner in which you wrote, that reading my work in context seems to be a bit of a weak point for you. I feel that often your objections were based upon isolating phrases or sentences without recognizing how those phrases or sentences functioned in the whole of the work. Further, I believe you jumped to a number of unwarranted conclusions as well. I suppose I should not be surprised at this, as it is somewhat natural when reading a work critical of one’s own faith. However, in your case, I was given to understand a strong background in the Reformed faith (I could have been wrong about this, please correct me if I was), and hence expected a little more “understanding” ear.3 Be that as it may, allow me to work through your letter from the beginning.
I thank you for kindly stating that I was “more accurate” in my presentation of Roman Catholic theology “than most anti-Catholics.” I have had few substantive criticisms of the book on that level, though I most certainly have had many disagree with the book’s presentation. I have discovered, over the past few years, that there are as many different “one and only” views of Roman Catholicism as there are Roman Catholics, and I have certainly encountered those who disagreed with the book’s perspective merely on the basis of personal beliefs or taste.
You began by asserting that the quotation on page 27 regarding baptism at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church “carries the implication that a person does not enter a state of grace if baptized outside the Catholic Church.” However, such an implication was not in any way meant in what I said, and I am well aware that baptism operates ex opere operato in Roman Catholic belief.
Next, you objected, twice, to my statement that particular acts are “absolutely necessary” in order that a person be saved. You focused upon the term “absolutely” and interpreted it to mean that I was either unaware of, or deceptively hiding, the concept of the baptism of desire, etc. I can assure you that I am well aware of the concept, and in no way intended the statements to deny the teaching. However, the fact remains that one is considered baptized if one dies with that desire, and one is considered absolved when one has that desire, based upon love of God, for absolution. In both cases, the desire must have the proper object, and that object is the same as that found in the sacraments under discussion. The point, as I would assume you are aware, is not to allege that the mere work of baptism is an absolute necessity (so as to deny that an unbaptized person could be saved), but to focus upon (as you would put it later) the “instrumentality” of the action as something that must be undertaken in order to be
saved. To use an analogy, if I were writing a book against the Judaizers in Galatia, I might say that they believed that circumcision was “absolutely necessary” for salvation, even while they might have taught a “circumcision of desire.” My point would not be to argue the concept of “desire,” but that there is something that must be added to faith in Christ, some further act, unattainable without autonomous human action (whether aided by grace or not, as long as it is possible for it not to happen), that must be done. I would, of course, argue that this is very much contrary to the truth of the Gospel.
Therefore, when you say, “I hope that your conscience is clear before God on this matter”, I can assure you that it is.
The Fatal Flaw
On the third page of your letter you quoted from page 156 of The Fatal Flaw, which reads,
Here then is The Fatal Flaw of Romanism: the Church of Rome teaches a gospel that is devoid of the all-sufficient and finished work of Jesus Christ, and therefore declares that there are ways of expiation, atonement, forgiveness, that are outside of and distinct from, the atonement of Jesus Christ.
You write, “Taken at face value, this would seem to mean that Catholics have nothing to say about the work of Jesus Christ or ascribe to his work no role in our salvation.” Even though you go on to admit that this is in error, I am at a loss as to understand how you could say this. If “taking something at face value” includes reading it in context, this paragraph sums up the entirety of what has come before, not just in the sixth chapter, but in the previous chapters on the Mass and purgatory, as well. Hence, the meaning of the passage is clear and unmistakable, especially in light of the use of the terms “all-sufficient” (which you later described as ‘talismanic’) and “finished” right in the quote. It is based upon the arguments that have preceded it, those arguments alleging that a repetitive, unbloody sacrifice, whose efficiency is based upon the personal disposition of the communicant, cannot possibly be the same sacrifice as that wrought by Jesus Christ upon the cross. You later write that, “The work of Christ on the cross is absolutely central to Catholic life and worship” yet the passage cited above speaks of an all-sufficient, finished work in clear
contrast to the Roman Catholic mass, which is, as you must admit, styled “propitiatory.”
Next we read,
It is surprising how much time the book spends hammering away at “L.” This seriously impairs its effectiveness because the doctrine or the Limited Atonement is central to the overall argument, meaning that unless one is a five-point Calvinist, one will not find the central argument convincing. And, since most Protestants are not five-point Calvinists, they will not share one of the key premises of the argument.
I find this comment very interesting, James, for it speaks to why you would think I would write the book that I did. It is not my desire to write a “popular” book that would find a wide audience. It is not my desire to “convert” people to “my” perspective. Instead, I desire simply to present God’s truth, even if that truth is not popular in my culture or at this time in history. I believe that the Reformed understanding of the atonement is the only view that can properly address the Roman Catholic concept of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice.
As to the time spent on the subject, it would seem that this would be an obvious necessity: the idea that the atonement is limited in extent, but not in effectiveness, would be new to both Roman Catholics as well as most Protestants. Hence, time must be taken to explain the concept and provide Biblical evidence for it.
In reading your letter, I was honestly struck with the fact that you did not deal with some of the most important elements of the book’s presentation, including the concept of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice 4 (which I find inconsistent with your own presentation of what the Roman Catholic position is), the idea of expiation, and the idea of satispassio. All of these were equally important in the work, or at least I intended them to be so. Likewise, when you represent my viewpoint, you do so in a way that surprises me, for I would expect one who is familiar with the Reformed position to see more of what I was saying than you in fact did. I am thinking especially, at this point, of your repeated reference to “faith and love.” I surely do not believe that any human action, including those actions prompted by God’s grace, are properly “additions” to Christ’s work, nor that His work remains a theoretical possibility until these actions, borne of the will of man (and therefore conditional and uncertain), are undertaken. But as you must be aware, the Reformed position highly prizes faith and love as the work of God’s Spirit in the heart of the redeemed. We simply recognize that faith and love are the results of God’s work, not the initiators thereof. And, we do not limit faith and love so as to say that they may come from some “prevenient grace” that is a mere aid, a mere helper, but is, in point of fact, in most cases, frustrated and caused to fail by the evil heart of man. Instead, we see that God must move first to bring about regeneration (by His Spirit, not by a laver), and hence free man from bondage to sin before that man can truly have faith and love for God. The Spirit of God leads the regenerate man to faith and love, and it is natural for the new creature in Christ to love God and believe in Him.
You say that the book “bashes” the Roman Catholic Church for teaching that one “must trust and love God in order to be saved.” If what you mean by this is that trust and love precedes regeneration, then surely such would be false teaching. I would add in passing, however, that my disagreement with Rome’s doctrine of justification is, in fact, incidental to the main thesis of The Fatal Flaw.
You next allege that if the standards I apply to Roman Catholicism are applied to most Protestant groups, then they, too, must be denied the title “Christian.” This charge (repeated a number of times in your letter) ignores the very basis upon which I built my case. The issue, as I presented it, relates not to an acceptance of Limited Atonement at all, but rather the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice. Since the Mass is a different sacrifice than Calvary (demonstrated by its different effects), then another “way” of forgiveness is presented, outside of the perfect way of Christ. The last time I checked, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists, did not believe that there was a non-bloody propitiatory sacrifice in the Christian faith. Hence, the charge has no foundation.
Next, you wrote, “Faith and repentance do not count as true additions to the work of Christ because it is the work of Christ which makes them possible.” I would reply that even if you assert this, it does not change the fact that without these actions, the work of Christ remains theoretical, unfulfilled, empty. And, since you allege that these actions precede regeneration, and that God’s work cannot proceed until man freely exercises faith and love, then it becomes clear that these actions, conditional and uncertain as they are, become the “key” by which all of God’s desire for salvation is either freed, or frustrated. God’s work in a person’s life is dependent upon that person’s choice to “cooperate,” rather than His sovereign freedom allowing Him to raise the spiritually dead to life and give to them holy and loving desires for Him. Indeed, this remains true throughout the life of the Christian, from the Roman position, 5 for whether one remains “in the state of grace” (justified) is dependent fully upon that person’s own actions. God’s grace is not sufficient, in and of itself, to avail for that individual, unless God’s grace is aided by
the powers of man.
This shows how erroneous is the statement that the “Catholic Church has a better grasp on this than the book does because it notes that, not only faith and repentance are gifts of God, but that love is as well.” May I ask where “the book” denies that love is the gift of God? Indeed, the very passage you cited from 1 Timothy 1:14 is cited in another of my works, God’s Sovereign Grace, specifically with reference to our need to seek God’s grace so that we may love Him as we ought. I fully affirm that love of God comes from God; that He must change our hearts so that we are able to love Him as we should. And I further affirm that this takes place, infallibly, as the Spirit of God works in the heart of those He has regenerated in accordance with God’s sovereign decree of election. But since the ability to so love, and the impulse to so love, comes only from God, it follows that such love (and the actions that flow from that love) cannot be seen as “meritorious” so as to “earn” eternal life. Indeed, I find this concept completely contrary to
Scripture, yet I see it expressed in Roman Catholic works all the time. Note, for example, Matthias Premm’s quotation on page 30 of The Fatal Flaw.
Next, you cited (out of its context) page 155 of the book, where, speaking of the concept of indulgences and merit, I said, “The idea that there can be any merit before God outside of Jesus Christ boggles the Christian’s mind,” to which you replied, “It boggles the Catholic Christian’s mind, too, since Catholics do not claim that there is any merit before God outside of Christ.” May I ask, then, what indulgences involve? Is the concept of “merit” not involved in the “treasury of merit”? And is not this treasury made up of both the “excess merits” of Christ and the “excess merits” of the saints?6 A person who then receives “merit” to his “account” from this supposed treasury, then, is receiving a “mixed” merit, one that is not solely the merits of Jesus Christ. The only defense I can see is to say that the very mechanism whereby such merit is supposedly made available is possible only because of the grace of Christ, but such is a weak defense in my opinion, for the Judaizers could have just as easily claimed that it was by the grace of Christ that circumcision was made available, and hence they were not, technically, abrogating God’s grace in salvation by insisting upon circumcision. I am quite skeptical that Paul would have found this argument convincing at all.
Further, the concept of satispassio is, I believe, quite correctly described as presenting a concept of merit outside of Jesus Christ. How can one’s own suffering in purgatory be related to the merits of Jesus Christ, James?
Next, you allege that I “ignored” half the Biblical evidence regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ. I assure you, I have ignored nothing. Each of the passages you cited have been the object of intense study on my part. I disagree with your interpretation, and do not find your view to fit with the clear statements regarding the intention, and result, of Christ’s death. But even if one were to accept your words, it would still not follow that what I said was irrelevant to the Roman position, for the intention of the atonement, and the result of the atonement, remain contrary to the intention, and result, of the Mass; hence, the fact that the Mass is not the same sacrifice as the cross remains a valid point, even if you wish to assert some kind of “universal” aspect to the death of Christ that is somehow unrelated to the effectual remission of sins.
In dealing with the Mass, you make two words mean the same thing, and on that basis criticize the book for inconsistency. You take the Roman use of the term “re-present” and make it equal to my use of the term “present” with reference to Christ’s office of Mediator. However, such is an improper concept, and certainly is not accurate when used in the context of The Fatal Flaw. The role of Christ as the ever-present Crucified One in the presence of the Father is surely not the same thing as the concept of the priest of Rome rendering Christ “present” on the altar as a less-than-fully propitiatory sacrifice in the Mass. You insisted that “It [my book] admits that Christ is doing exactly what the Catholic Church says he is doing in heaven and through the Mass.” But this is plainly not true. The propitiation for the sins of God’s people was made at Calvary; His death, as an accomplished act, is presented before
the Father, not “re-presented” in the Mass. And, most importantly, the presentation of His sacrifice in heaven is not propitiatory in and of itself. Such would result in two different propitiations, the one wrought on Calvary, and another wrought in the presentation of the previous action. Such is simply not the case.
At this point I would like to introduce a quotation from Cullmann on this important subject:
Christian worship in the light of that “one time” which means “once for all time” is possible only when even the slightest temptation to “reproduce” that central event itself is avoided. Instead, the event must be allowed to remain the divine act of the past time where God the Lord of time placed it—at the exact historical moment in the third decade of our chronology. It is the saving consequences of that atoning act, not the act itself, which become a present event in our worship. The Lord present in worship is the exalted Kyrios of the Church and the world, raised to the right hand of God. He is the risen Lord who continues his mediating work on the basis of his unique, completed work of atonement.7
I think it is vital to point out that presenting a propitiatory act is not, in itself, a propitiatory act.
When we speak of purgatory, and the “eternal and temporal punishment of sin,” we enter into a category of non-biblical terms, for, of course, one will not find such things as “venial sin,” “temporal punishment,” or “purgatory” being discussed in the Scriptures. Hence, as with many of the Marian doctrines, it is impossible to find a single Scripture that says “purgatory doesn’t exist” since the topic is not discussed specifically (just as one cannot find a passage that says “Artificial insemination is wrong;” both concepts are anachronistic to Scripture).
In Scripture, forgiveness of sins comes about by the Great Substitute of God’s people, the Savior Jesus Christ, taking the sins of His people upon Himself. Notice that He does not merely take the penalties of our sin, but the sin itself. As the writer to the Hebrews said, Christ did away with sin through the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:26), and Paul said that God made Him sin in our place, so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
Now, if sin is removed in Jesus Christ, how can the penalties of this sin remain attached to those who now have the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ? What is it to say that Christ has atoned for our sins, when the penalties of those sins (at least some of them), still accrue to us? How car we know, for example, that the eternal punishment of sin is fully remitted, when the temporal punishments are not? This is not full and complete atonement.
Now, you present the common defense of the concept by the citation of 2 Samuel 12. But I feel this defense does not do justice either to the New Testament presentation (I am often skeptical of those defenses that must appeal solely to Old Testament passages when defining the New Testament Church) nor to the context of Nathan’s encounter with David. First, nothing is said by Nathan, or God, concerning “temporal punishments” with reference to David, or the death of his child. For your concept to hold, the child would have to die as the natural consequence of David’s sin for his death to be considered punishment due David’s sin. But such is not the case at all. Furthermore, God’s action in taking the child from David was the free action of a sovereign God, but was not a necessary action. Temporal punishments, on the other hand, must accrue to sinful acts by force of law. Therefore, we see that God’s action in taking David’s child was, as you indicated, “educational” in purpose; that is, as the writer to the
Hebrews said, God scourges each child He receives. This is discipline, not punishment. I feel the Roman Catholic system does not properly recognize the difference between the two. Discipline may, or may not, be related directly to sinful actions; punishment cannot be spoken of outside of sinful actions. For example, I will seek to engage in a particular kind of discipline next year, that of translating the entire New Testament in the space of one year. This is a use of “discipline” that has nothing to do with wrong. In the same way, God may “scourge” His children through the bringing of difficult circumstances into their lives, so as to conform them to the image of Christ. But as the writer to the Hebrews said with reference to God’s discipline of His people, “But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). Notice that this discipline (and surely this is what David encountered as well) is for our good, not for our cleansing or our atonement.
I must insist that the Roman Catholic concept of “temporal punishments,” since it is a legal matter related to sin, cannot be connected with the biblical discussion of the discipline of God’s people. Indeed, your own letter described the situation as being “bound to a sin.” I am not bound to sin, because Jesus Christ bore my sins in His own body upon the tree.
Now, with reference to the Apocrypha, Mr. Matatics and I will be debating that topic at Boston College in April.8 I do not believe, of course, that anyone has “hacked up” the Bible, and since I see no reason to believe that my Lord or His apostles believed those books to be inspired or authoritative, I see no reason to give weight to the passage, even if it said what you allege it does.
Your discussion of indulgences was very interesting. Might I mention that it seems to me that you went to great pains to avoid scholastic, or traditional, terminology regarding the concept? I truly find but a small amount of similarity between the way you expressed the doctrine and how it was taught at the time of the Reformation. Historically, the concept of indulgences has not merely referred to “helping someone else,” but has involved the very transfer of merit itself, which goes quite beyond “helping” someone. In light of this, one has to ask if your references to biblical stories is proper. Where do we see that merit is transferred to Solomon from David’s “excess”? When you allege that “This is an example of God lessening the punishment he would have otherwise given and doing so for the sake of one of his saints” are you saying that this reduction in “punishment” was due to David’s merits being transferred to Solomon (a legal action) or to God’s mercy acting out of love for David (an action based upon grace)? Indulgences flow from the scholastic mind-set, James, a mind-set that I believe to be but little informed by the freedom of God’s grace. Indulgences are legal transactions based upon merit, not works of grace and mercy.
Finally, with reference to “anti-instrumentalism,” it is not so much an aversion to instruments (there is that element in Baptistic thought, as you said), as an aversion to the subjugation of God’s grace under the authority of mankind and man’s actions. As I believe, I have attempted to communicate in the above paragraphs, the point is that the Roman Catholic system makes it’s “instruments” into controls over God’s grace, and without the action of these “instruments,” God’s grace becomes ineffective, frustratable, in my opinion, impotent. I surely do have an aversion to anything which limits God’s free grace, James, and I feel that aversion is borne out of a desire to see the Gospel proclaimed in power.
Those who have read Mr. Akin’s article in This Rock will see immediately that the major substance of the criticisms he levels were answered long before the July, 1993 This Rock went to print. It is plain, however, that Mr. Akin utilized this letter in writing his response. How so? Mr. Akin provided a number of references to the letter in the footnotes of his article. For example, he directly quotes from the letter in footnote #7, citing my words, “It is not my desire to write a ‘popular’ book that would find a wide audience…. Instead, I desire simply to present God’s truth, even if that truth is not popular in my culture at this time in history” (see above, pg. 3). He follows this with the statement, “This is an implicit admission his argument against the Mass will not work properly without limited atonement.” Given that I stated as much in the book, such is not “implicit” at all. Further examples will be seen as we continue reviewing Mr. Akin’s article.
There are a number of simple errors in Mr. Akin’s article, some of which were so glaring that it’s difficult to understand how they were made. For example, footnote #4 provides us with basis upon which to thank Mr. Akin, as well as shake our heads in wonder. We thank him for reading my letter and acknowledging my real position with reference to Roman Catholicism and the cross. He wrote:
Even then White’s claim must be read carefully to be understood. If taken in isolation, it would appear White thinks Catholic teaching is “devoid of the… work of Jesus Christ,” meaning Catholics have nothing to say about the work of Christ. But anyone who walks into a Catholic Church and sees the crucifix hanging above the altar or who looks at the stations of the cross knows the work of Christ is central to Catholic life and worship. White knows this too, which is why his claim must be read carefully. He does not mean Catholic teaching is utterly devoid of the work of Christ, but that it does not view Christ’s work as being “all-sufficient and finished.”
But the same reference started out on a sour note. Mr. Akin quoted my statement from page 156 which provides the conclusion to the central portion of the book, which reads as follows:
Here then is the fatal flaw of Romanism: The Church of Rome teaches a gospel that is devoid of the all-sufficient and finished work of Jesus Christ and therefore declares that there are ways of expiation, atonement, forgiveness, that are outside of and distinct from the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, he provides the following comment:
White, 156. This is the first time White states the central thesis of his book. It is disappointing that a book titled The Fatal Flaw does not give a clear statement of the flaw until two-thirds of the way through itself.
When this article was posted in computer text on the Catholic Information Network, a number of Catholics who are familiar with the book immediately raised a red flag, knowing this statement to be utterly untrue. Even they could not understand how Mr. Akin could have skipped the “infamous” page 19, where, upon defining ecumenical dialogue as that kind of discussion that denies the uniqueness of Christian truth, I wrote,
Could “ecumenical” dialogue, then, properly take place with the Roman Catholic Church? In our opinion, no, it cannot. Why? That is the subject of this book. Some books make you hunt and search or make a wild guess about the “thesis statement”; We shall be quite open about it. Here it is: The Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the work of Jesus Christ (specifically, His atonement) is anti-Biblical and false; hence, the Roman Catholic Church is not in possession of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and cannot, therefore, be considered a Christian Church.
The emphasis in the above is in the original! Personally, I have no idea how I could have stated my thesis any more plainly than that!
Another disappointing aspect of this article is its utilization of what can only be called the “Catholic Answers Poisoning the Well Technique.” I first encountered this when I debated Gerry Matatics on sola scriptura in Long Beach in August of 1990. The technique is pretty obvious, at least to non-Catholic observers. It works like this. As soon as you get a chance, make the Protestant look like a heartless, mean, unloving, Jack Chickian, Tony Alamo clone, so as to shut down any and all chances that the Catholics in the audience will listen to a word he has to say. In other words, engage the emotions of the Roman Catholic so as to cloud the message that might actually get through otherwise. Mr. Matatics did this by spending 14 of his 20 opening minutes attacking me personally and grossly misrepresenting my books and my position. He was obviously attempting to make it look like I had just hacked up two little old nuns in the back yard of the church right before I came into the debate, thus making me look like the
“enemy” who was there to simply deceive and destroy.
Though James Akin has not been with Catholic Answers long, it seems the infection takes hold quickly anyway. The article began with three paragraphs that had absolutely no purpose other than to engage the negative emotions of the Roman Catholic reader right from the start. Here are his words:
Many people think overt anti-Catholicism is found only among elderly, anti-intellectual Fundamentalists. Not so. One younger Fundamentalist author, by no means anti-intellectual, shows his anti-Catholicism publicly by refusing to shake hands with Catholic debate opponents or to pray the Lord’s Prayer with Catholics. He has been known to walk off the stage when an ecumenical prayer is offered by a Catholic.
His name is James White, and he is a Calvinist who directs Alpha and Omega Ministries, an Arizona-based apologetics group that offers advice on dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, atheists and Catholics. Small as it is, Alpha and Omega distributes some of the more soberly written anti-Catholic literature published today.
White believes Catholics must disown their faith and embrace “true” Christianity. He does not regard them as Christians, which is perhaps why he has refused at times to shake hands or pray with them in front of audiences.
I’m certain James never spoke with Gerry Matatics about this subject, for in nine debates with Matatics, I have never once refused to shake his hand, as Mr. Matatics would have to confess. And I guess James does not have Dr. Mitchell Pacwa’s number, either, since he, too, would have to testify in my behalf as well. James’ partner at Catholic Answers, Patrick Madrid, and I have shaken hands at the Long Beach debate, in Toledo, and at my debates with Gerry Matatics in Denver. Patrick claims we did not shake hands at our debate in San Diego (I thought we did), but he admits he did not offer! To what, then, is Mr. Akin referring? He is referring to one instance in 1991 that I refer to as the “ambush in Toledo.” Without going into details, I flew to Toledo to debate Dr. Art Sippo, a medical doctor and Roman apologist. In my opinion Dr. Sippo was anything but either scholarly or gentlemanly in the debate. He spent his entire closing statement doing nothing but misrepresenting the Protestant position (indeed, I never felt he listened to a single word I said during the entire debate), and that despite my having attempted to correct his errant presentation.9 I could only conclude that his words were deliberate, so when he walked across the platform, rather than shaking his hand, I informed him that he had just lied to the audience about the truth, and that he should repent before it was too late. I would do the exact same thing today. This is the only time such a thing has happened, hence, Mr. Akin’s use of the plural “opponents” is simply misleading and untrue.
Mr. Akin was also, by his own admission,10 dependent upon second-hand information for his allegations regarding ecumenical prayers and walking off of stages. In point of fact, he derived these charges again from only one event which took place in April at Boston College. I engaged in two debates with Gerry Matatics, the first on justification by faith, the second on the Apocrypha. At the end of each debate we took audience questions. On the second night a gentleman rose to his feet as if to ask a question. But instead he requested that we all stand and say the Lord’s Prayer together as a sign of unity. I replied 11 that such would be improper in light of the topic of the preceding night’s debate (that of justification), and the fact that as I believe prayer to be an act of worship, I could not engage in such worship in those circumstances. Mr. Matatics refused to take a position, simply saying that if anyone wanted to know what he thought, they should ask him later. Unfortunately, the moderator, himself a Protestant, ignored my response, and asked us all to rise. I, and the vast majority of the Protestants in the room, remained
seated during the length of the prayer. No one walked out, no one left the stage. We sat respectfully, but did not join in the prayer. This is, at Mr. Akin’s own confession, the basis of his comments in these opening paragraphs.
Having attempted to invoke the negative feelings, Mr. Akin launches into the body of the article. Unfortunately, the article provides very little interaction with the central aspects of The Fatal Flaw. We are provided with a critique of Reformed theology, and a surface-level defense of Roman theology, but the main issues raised by my book are conspicuous by their absence from Mr. Akin’s review. For example, I focused in upon the concept of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, and demonstrated that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the effect of the Mass is dependent upon the perfection of the disposition of the person approaching to worship (see page 56). Akin utterly ignores this entire issue in his reply. The entire chapter on the atonement, which included discussions of the intention and extent of the atonement, as well as the intercessory work of Christ, is passed over in silence, despite its centrality to the work as a whole. I pointed out with reference to purgatory that the suffering of the “poor souls”
is styled satispassio, the “suffering of atonement” by Roman theology, and that this is yet another way outside of the finished work of Christ whereby sins and their punishments can be remitted. Akin attempts no defense of the concept of satispassio in his article, despite the importance of the concept in The Fatal Flaw. And even though I had demonstrated the fact that the Mass differs in intention and accomplishment from the sacrifice of the Cross, Akin not only mis-states my own thesis (“How can the Mass be propitiatory, White asks, if the sacrifice of the cross was propitiatory?”), but he is satisfied to merely repeat the assertion that the Mass is just the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross. And finally, the entire issue of the treasury of merit, so plainly discussed in my book, finds no place in the Catholic Answers response.
Another aspect of the article is the discussion of “limited atonement.” James argues that “When one looks at it all, one discovers God intended the atonement to be efficient for a limited number of men but sufficient for an unlimited number.” Surely as a former Calvinist, Mr. Akin is aware that this is exactly what I believe, and exactly what has been confessed by the Reformed perspective for centuries. How, then, can it amount to a rebuttal of my position? Perhaps the answer lies in these words: “God is the Savior of all men in the sense he made salvation hypothetically possible for all, but he is the Savior of those who believe in a special and superior manner since only they have salvation made efficacious for them.” I would simply point out that in The Fatal Flaw, I demonstrated (pp. 140-146) that this kind of “special and superior” faith is, in fact, saving faith, which is a gift of God given only to the elect of God. Rome, trapped in her sacramentalism, cannot affirm this kind of special gift of faith, nor the unique role
of the Holy Spirit in sovereignly bringing about regeneration in the hearts of the elect. Since she teaches that men are regenerated at baptism, and that any who are saved can lose that salvation through the commission of a mortal sin, she cannot affirm the glorious truth that God will not fail to bring to completion the work He Himself begins in the life of His people. And despite his noble attempt, Mr. Akin cannot clothe Roman doctrine in Reformed terminology and expect to present to us a consistent position.
In both his letter and in his article, Mr. Akin asserts that if I am consistent with my stated position, I must deny the title “Christian” to anyone who is not a Calvinist. He attempted to rebut my response
White says such people “cannot truly own Christ as Savior and Lord” and therefore must be refused the name “Christian.” It turns out that anyone who denies limited atonement and believes in hell must not be a Christian. Almost all traditional Protestants [Everyone except five point Calvinists.] deny limited atonement, so almost all traditional Protestants must not be Christians. (page 3 paragraph 4 – Jimmy Akin, Catholic Answers, Fatally Flawed Thinking, July 01, 1993.)
by insisting that I am saying that rejection of limited atonement means one is adding to the work of Christ. That is not necessarily so. Rome dogmatically adds to the work of Christ through its sacraments, its concept of merits and satispassio, and by its concept of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice. Most (not all) non-Reformed Protestant Churches do not dogmatically affirm any of the Roman concepts, and even some who do do so inconsistently with their own stated beliefs. Be that as it may, I did not assert that belief in limited atonement was the “water-shed,” but that the teaching of a way of forgiveness outside of the finished work of Christ is the key issue. Non-Reformed Protestants are not, by their mere rejection of limited atonement (very few reject it knowingly, for very few have ever studied the issue), attempting to do what Rome does in her doctrines of the Mass and Purgatory, and hence
Mr. Akin is introducing a point that is not in fact relevant to the thesis of The Fatal Flaw.
One is further left to wonder about Mr. Akin’s former standing as a “Calvinist” by his statement, “In White’s view faith and repentance do not count as additions since the work of Christ makes them possible. The Catholic Church agrees with this wholeheartedly.” In light of a later article on the Reformed faith, noted above, I have to conclude that Mr. Akin is attempting to use as much Reformed language as possible in his description of Roman doctrine so as to create the appearance of some sort of “common ground” when in fact, as the Reformers well knew, there was no common ground on these issues. Surely Mr. Akin is aware that in the Reformed perspective, the gifts of faith and repentance are not merely made possible by Christ’s work, but are in point of fact infallibly secured by that work. And, unlike Roman theology, in Reformed theology these gifts are applied by the Sovereign Spirit to those who are the objects of God’s divine favor in election. The issue of the salvation of God’s people is not left in question or doubt. It is not merely the means of salvation that is made possible by Christ’s work, but it is salvation itself that is made sure by that work! In light of this we can see how hollow are these words:
The Catholic Church teaches that faith, hope, love and repentance are gifts of God, so on White’s definition they do not qualify as additions to the work of Christ and the Church is not open to White’s charge that it rejects an all-sufficient view of Christ’s work.
Surely anyone who has read The Fatal Flaw knows that this is a tremendously weak reply. Surely Rome says that without God’s grace, no one could be saved. That is not the issue. The Mormons say the same. The issue is this: are we saved by grace alone, or by grace coupled with human effort, human initiative? Mr. Akin must admit that while Rome says that these gifts are made possible by grace, they are not made certain by grace. God cannot create faith in the heart alone, but man must cooperate in this joint-venture, and without that cooperation, all is lost. I made this point plainly on pages 26 through 37. I quoted from page 36:
It is common for Christians who are involved in evangelizing Roman Catholics to say, “Rome teaches a works-salvation system.” It is important that this kind of allegation be understood correctly, both by those who use the phrase and by Roman Catholics. First, Catholics assert that they do not believe that they are saved by their works alone or primarily—Roman Catholic dogmatic statements are legion that deny just this thing. But, most Christians are not asserting that Catholics give no place at all to Christ. It is obvious that the Catholic doctrine speaks of the work of Christ, and asserts that without the atonement of Christ, salvation would be impossible.
Having said that, it is important that the Roman Catholic understand what the Christian is trying to say as well (indeed, it is important for the Christian to make sure they have thought through exactly what they mean when they speak of “works-salvation” and, just as importantly, are consistent in their own beliefs about the subject). “Works-salvation” would refer to the concept that man’s works are necessary for salvation; that is, that the work of Christ, in and of itself, without human works, actually saves no one at all. If it is asserted that Christ’s work is dependent upon the actions of man, and that God has simply made a way of salvation available that is still dependent upon the works of man (whether these works be penances, baptism, whatever), this is “works-salvation.” Works are a necessary part of this kind of doctrine, and it is this that is said to be in contradiction to the Word of God. It is not necessary that God’s grace or mercy not even have a part in salvation for a teaching to be branded “works-salvation.” The key issue is whether those works are necessary and determinative. Given what we have already seen, Roman Catholicism is rightly called a “works-salvation” system.
Surely Mr. Akin would have to address the above more adequately for us to find his “review” credible.
Finally, in an entire text block, taking up a full page (page 13), Mr. Akin shows us that Catholic Answers either had precious little to say about my book, or far too much space to fill in This Rock. In a section entitled “White’s scholarship problems—and a mysterious Ph.D.”, Akin repeats the same allegations made in his October, 1992 letter concerning my supposedly not understanding Roman theology which were refuted in my return letter (see above, pp. 2-3). Then, in a further demonstration that Catholic Answers has a fixation on Bart Brewer, Mr. Akin takes yet another shot at Bart, asserting that his identification as “Bartholomew F. Brewer, Ph.D.” in the foreword of The Fatal Flaw is somehow relevant to my supposedly poor scholarship. And why is this? The folks at Catholic Answers seem to feel that Bart doesn’t have a doctorate. I discovered this one afternoon when a man with a strong English
accent called me on the phone. He identified himself as a staffer with Catholic Answers and asked me about Bart’s degree, and not knowing anything about it, I referred him to Bart. He became tremendously abusive, insisting that since I had him write the foreword to my book, I must somehow answer his question or demonstrate what a poor scholar I was! We have since encountered this gentleman in other contexts, and I can honestly say that without a doubt I have never met anyone as abusive and mean spirited in any religious organization as this man from Catholic Answers. Be that as it may, I refer anyone who would even find the issue relevant to Bart himself, as it is obvious that I am under no compulsion to act as Bart’s representative. I asked Bart to write the foreword not because of any scholastic credentials but because of his long-standing testimony to the grace of God and his love for the Roman Catholic people (surely a poor reason from the viewpoint of Catholic Answers, or so it seems). I think the reason
those folks over in San Diego have such a problem with Bart is that he keeps telling them about grace and freedom and calling them to repentance!
And so the first printed response to The Fatal Flaw fails completely to even begin to interact with the material it presents. And while Catholic Answers hopes that such articles will keep the faithful in the faith, the Lord continues to bless the book itself, using it to confirm some in their faith, and others in their decision to embark upon the road away from Rome and into the land of freedom.
1. James Akin identifies himself as a former Calvinist in a later article, “Uprooting Calvin’s Tulip” in the September, 1993 issue of This Rock, pg. 8, footnote 8.
2. Patrick Madrid indicated to me in January of 1993 that all six of my books were slated for review in This Rock.
3. Mr. Scott Butler, a Roman Catholic from Southern California, had first spoken to me about Mr. Akin, and had given me Mr. Akin’s number. It was my recollection that Mr. Butler informed me that Mr. Akin was Reformed.
4. Mr. Akin did provide a defense of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice in This Rock, hopefully in response to this section of my letter.
5. I included the following footnote at this point in my letter: “You objected to the terms ‘Roman Church’ and ‘Romanism.’ You would prefer simply ‘Catholic Church.’ However, there are many, many who reject the supremacy of Rome who yet use the term ‘Catholic,’ and hence to simply use the term ‘Catholic’ of the Roman Church is to deny the catholicity of those others whose claims are just as valid (or even more so). Furthermore, I do not use the term ‘catholic’ because of the sacral concepts associated with it historically. Indeed, one of the methods used by the Inquisition was to see if a person was willing to use the term ‘catholic’ in the creed. Those who rejected the idea of a sacral church would not use the term, and hence were detected. As to ‘Romanism,’ I truly doubt that you would object to its use by Newman after his conversion (he used it frequently). If it is seen as merely descriptive, how can it be more objectionable than ‘Protestantism’?’’
6. I included here the following footnote: “I do not, of course, believe in any concept of ‘excess merit’ regarding any of the redeemed. All ‘merit’ (if the term can be used at all) is Christ’s merit, and He alone is worthy of any ‘reward.’”
7. Cited in Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 348.
8. The tapes of this debate are available from Alpha and Omega Ministries, order # 445.
9. I have requested, multiple times, the tapes of this debate from Catholic Answers, who sponsored the debate, but have never received a complete set.
10. As soon as I received the article, I faxed Mr. Akin with corrections regarding these allegations. He acknowledged in a return fax that he had depended upon second-hand information at this point.
11. The copies of this debate that were sent to me lacked the final questions. I have been promised the tape of the statement I made in response to the request for the saying of the Lord’s Prayer, but have as yet to receive it seven months later.