Book Review: The Catholic Verses by Dave Armstrong

I was away on vacation in Vermont last week, where it’s not quite “no phone, no light, no motorcars,” but it’s darn close. Dial-up Internet only, living on a dirt road, no cell phone access at home. Plus, never too hot, surrounded by nature, hummingbirds flying by. It’s just this side of Heaven.

I like to go up there and catch up on my reading. I always tend to buy more books than I have time to read, so it’s nice to spend some time catching up, keeping the backlog as small as I can. I got through about 5-1/2 books last week, and I’ll spend some time reviewing them as time permits.

I had started the Catholic Verses before going on vacation, but finished it after arriving in Vermont. This book takes 95 Verses (get it?) from the Bible that, when properly interpreted, support the Catholic view of Christianity, rather than the Protestant versions. Versions is an important distinction to make given that from even the early days of the Reformation, the early Protestants couldn’t agree on the meaning of the Bible, despite the claim that the Holy Spirit was guiding them to the true interpretation. Armstrong details how those “Reformers” knew their disunity undercut their claims to fidelity to the true Gospel, even as they could never reconcile their differing interpretations. Since that time, Protestantism has continued to split over differing interpretations of Scripture, reproducing new denominations like rabbits. (Sometimes it seems that about the only thing Protestants agree upon is that they are not Catholic.) Even those denominations that can trace themselves directly back to a Reformer often have changed much of their doctrine. Luther, for example, had a devotion to Mary and believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist while modern day Lutherans do not, I believe. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church teaches the same doctrines it taught at the time of the Reformation, which are the same doctrines it had taught in the time of Peter.

Playing upon this difference, Armstrong shows how the early Reformers (usually Calvin and Luther) disagreed amongst themselves about the meaning of Biblical verses. He presents their arguments and then shows why they fail to be convincing when viewed in the context of the entire Bible and early Christian interpretations of Scripture.

His presentation of the Reformers views is one complaint I do have about this book. Armstrong, a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism, presents numerous quotes from the early Reformers where they expound on their doctrine, but some of them are so clearly self-contradictory or self-evidently misinterpretations, that I couldn’t help but feel Armstrong was deliberately picking weak arguments and not showing Protestants at their best. If those were indeed the best arguments Protestants could present then Protestantism would have collapsed almost immediately due to intellectual shallowness.

One interesting point though was where he showed Calvin misinterpreted Catholic doctrine on faith versus works and then elucidated a position that was in fact the Catholic position. Armstrong argues that if Catholics had simply promoted the definition of that doctrine as explained by the Council of Trent, the Reformation would have been much less divisive. This actually jives with my experience. I’ve read Protestant statements on this issue and never seen any real difference with what we Catholics believe. (Supporting anecdote: a Catholic acquaintance of mine once was really excited to discuss Catholic versus Protestant views of justification with a priest she knew. Before she could get really into the conversation, he interrupted her and “They believe the same thing we do; they just don’t want to admit it,” ending the conversation.)

That being said, I found his defense of Catholic Biblical interpretation to be spot-on and well-reasoned and the definite strength of this book. It definitely illuminating and worth the read, but I would recommend taking some of the defenses of Protestant doctrines with a grain of salt.