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Muddying the Waters: A Reply to Robert Sungenis' Triumphalistic Article in the June, 1996 This Rock Magazine.


by James White

If you read only the literature of Roman Catholic apologetics organizations, you'd swear there wasn't a Protestant on the earth who had ever cracked the binding of a Bible, or had ever even known someone named Cyprian even existed, let alone had a battle royal with Stephen back in the third century. Over the past few years I have had the opportunity of examining the means Roman apologists use of deprecating their opposition first-hand, since, by their own admission, I'm one of their chief opponents. I will not take the reader's time to go back over some of the comments made by Patrick Madrid touching on this topic, for the reader can examine my comments on that by reading the article, Catholic Answers: Myth or Reality. Instead, I will limit this brief response to the attempted "We win by default" ploy by Catholic Answers and Robert Sungenis in the June, 1996 This Rock magazine. The article is titled, "Where Have All the Opponents Gone?"

Even More Slobbering Fundies

Mr. Sungenis begins by painting an altogether inaccurate picture of the situation. He notes that there is an ecumenical movement, prompted by such items as the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document, but on the other side we have only the "raw" side of things:

On the other hand, some diehard Evangelicals still refuse to relinquish the labels given in the Reformation: the Catholic Church as the "whore of Babylon" and the pope as "the antichrist." Most current Catholic bashing literature has come from the Reformed camps, and thus the old war between Rome and Geneva is alive and well.

While Mr. Sungenis is right in saying Reformed writers, such as myself, provide a great deal of the response to Rome today, I continue to wonder why he, and others, are so intent upon making us look as "mean and nasty" as possible. Surely there are lots of folks throwing about phrases like "whore of Babylon" and "antichrist," but those who are famous for using such phrases today are about as Reformed as Jacob Arminius.

I also note the common tactic of many Roman Catholic apologists today. "Most current Catholic bashing. . . ." What is "Catholic bashing"? Is it similar to "gay bashing"? It seems that Mr. Sungenis is wishing to paint in the mind of the reader some picture of mere attack, rather than thoughtful refutation and response. Would he agree that This Rock magazine, or Envoy magazine, are publications that engage in "Protestant bashing"? Or is this just a one-way street? A quick scan of Mr. Sungenis' article reveals that he likes to call the opposition "anti-Catholics." Note the following examples:

"many making a living off anti-Catholic theology"

"these men are happy to make a fortune from anti-Catholic books and tapes but don't have the guts to face us in person."

"If you think I am being too hard on anti-Catholic Protestants, read on."

"Mind you, this is a man who boasts that he has been to almost every country in the world spreading the news of anti-Catholicism-but he can't find the nerve nor the time to have someone examine the veracity of what he is preaching."

"In March 1995 the mainly anti-Catholic organization Christians United for Reformation (CURE)"

"he continues to dish out anti-Catholic remarks on his weekly radio program."

"Three ax-Catholic housewives in Ohio run a vicious anti-Catholic organization called Former Catholics for Christ."

Yet, when we search for the phrase "anti-Protestant," we don't find it appearing once in this article. I wonder why? Could it be that Mr. Sungenis, as well as others at Catholic Answers, operate on a double-standard? Could it be that they don't mind calling their opponents "anti-Catholics" yet reject the moniker "anti-Protestants"? Of course. And it is not by accident, either, I assure you. There is a purposeful attempt being made by nearly all the leading Roman Catholic apologists to foster and maintain the false impression that they are merely defending their beliefs against the irrational attacks of "anti-Catholics." They wish to define their opposition as fanatics in terms of their own faith, rather than honestly admitting that they are opposing Protestant apologists, who, like them, are intent upon defending their own faith against the claims of others. I have recently had Roman Catholic apologists such as James Akin (Catholic Answers) and Dave Armstrong defend their use of "anti-Catholic" while refusing to accept the name "anti-Protestant." Such an attitude tells us much about what drives the current movement in the realm of Roman apologetics.

Bad Motives

Throughout the article, Sungenis tries to make it sound as if there is "big money" in "anti-Catholicism." He says that many are "making a living off anti-Catholic theology" and that many are "happy to make a fortune from anti-Catholic books and tapes." Yet, I know personally many of those that Sungenis attacks in his article, and if they are getting rich, I've somehow missed it. I have written three books specifically on Roman Catholicism, and have produced many tapes on the subject (most of which are the very formal debates that Sungenis says no one except me will engage in!). Yet I'm not only not a rich man, but I can assure him of one thing: I'd be better off financially if I didn't touch Roman Catholicism at all. There are many people who would support my work amongst the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses who won't simply because I speak out on the issue of Catholicism. It is very politically incorrect to address that issue, I assure you. What's more, it doesn't help your "public persona" either. While I did dozens of radio interviews on my book, Letters to a Mormon Elder, and an equal number on The King James Only Controversy, to date I have done a grand total of three radio interviews on the topic of The Roman Catholic Controversy (not including The Bible Answer Man Show). While Sungenis tries to make it sound as if every book on Roman Catholicism is "gobbled up by an adoring Protestant public," that simply is not the case. In many ways you brand yourself a radical and an outcast to even touch upon the subject.

So why does Robert Sungenis try to make it sound as if the Protestants who are engaged in defending their faith against the claims of Rome are simply in it for the money? It seems that this is just more of the effort to de-humanize those who dare to take such a stand. Impute to them the worst possible motives, and you've gotten a long way toward your goal, that of keeping your audience safe inside the bosom of Rome. Could we not point out the ready-made audience for Roman Catholic apologetics works and make similar arguments ourselves? Of course, but such is not the way of truth or honesty.

Sungenis presents nine "cases" to back up his claim that no one is willing to take on the leading Roman Catholic apologists. Seemingly, the Protestants are in flight! The rout is on, and I, Robert Sungenis, am riding alongside Scott Hahn and Karl Keating as we lead the victorious troops across the landscape! Well, that's what it sounds like as you read the article, anyway. The nasty Protestants, while still getting rich, are in retreat, and we who uphold the banner of truth will lead you on to victory! Such would be somewhat humorous if it were not for the fact that the very words of our author often convey that very idea.

Dr. Sproul

The first target to be taken out by our author is R.C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries. I was struck by the fact that it is quite doubtful that many in the audience of This Rock would have any idea who Sproul is. In fact, if it were not for the fact that Sungenis once claimed to be Reformed in his beliefs (he actually went through a whole range of different denominational views before joining Rome), I doubt he'd be overly concerned about Sproul. But since many of the new group of Roman apologists were once Reformed (Hahn, Matatics, Sungenis), they seem to have somewhat of a fixation upon taking on the likes of Sproul or, before his death, John Gerstner. Indeed, I have personal experience with this phenomenon. Allow me to explain.

Back around 1991 I had a chance to speak with Dr. Gerstner. I had listened to some comments made by another convert to Rome, Steve Wood, regarding what he asserted Gerstner had said in a conversation with him prior to his conversion. I contacted Dr. Gerstner simply to determine if, in fact, he had said the things that were attributed to him. In the process we talked about Gerry Matatics and Scott Hahn as well (Gerstner knew both). I had sent him copies of my first books on Catholicism, The Fatal Flaw and Answers to Catholic Claims, and I may have included some tapes of my first debates with Catholic Answers as well, I'm not certain. In any case, it was a difficult conversation, because Dr. Gerstner could not hear very well. I had to repeat things often to get them across.

In a very short time (within three days), I received a very angry call from Scott Butler. Mr. Butler is a real estate agent in California who has been active in Roman Catholic apologetics for years. [Butler is co-author of a newly released book, Jesus, Peter & the Keys, which is reviewed elsewhere on this page]. At first Mr. Butler's activities were limited primarily to arranging debates and funding them. In recent years he's started to engage in them himself. In any case, Scott had said many times that he wanted to arrange a "big" debate between Scott Hahn and a "big name" like Gerstner or Sproul. When he called me that day, he was very angry with me. It seems that after I spoke with Gerstner, Butler had contacted him, and, since Gerstner was a bit angry about some of the things being attributed to him, he had agreed to do a debate, as I recall, with Scott Hahn. Then, a few days later, Gerstner reconsidered, recognizing that he simply was not physically able to participate in such a debate, especially with his hearing loss. So, when Butler called him back, Dr. Gerstner said to him (at least this is what Butler told me on the phone), "I can't do a debate with you. But there's a young fellow in Phoenix, James White, who would do just fine." Butler was incensed, for he had already done debates with me (Scott helped put together the debates in San Diego with Dr. Mitchell Pacwa of Loyola University in January of 1991), and was interested only in getting a "big name" like Gerstner. He was certain I had scuttled his plans. I informed him that I had nothing to do with the matter at all, and was not even aware that he had contacted Gerstner. What makes this story even more significant for our purposes here is that Bob Sungenis is now closely related with Scott Butler, and even teamed up with Butler to debate Robert Zins and myself at Boston College in 1995.

Going back to Dr. Sproul, I am well aware that he does not desire to debate Roman Catholic apologists. In fact, just this year, in chatting with him at the Christian Bookseller's Convention in Anaheim, I mentioned that I would be debating Gerry Matatics on the Marian doctrines the next month on Long Island. "That's a mistake" he said strongly. "Why?" I asked. "You are giving them credibility they don't deserve" he replied.

Now, I happen to disagree with Dr. Sproul on the wisdom and even the necessity of engaging in public debates, but he is right in one sense. One cannot approach this issue without proper discrimination. You don't want to grant credibility to those who do not deserve it. Yet, at the same time, an answer must be given for the sake of those who are being deceived by the smooth-sounding talk and arguments of Rome's modern defenders. It may well be that, given Dr. Sproul's prominence, he is wiser to not grant such notoriety. I am in a better position, since I'm hardly known by anyone.

What strikes me as most interesting is that Sungenis does not take the high road here. There are two ways you can respond to being declined when you offer a debate challenge. You can either attack the person and impugn his motives, or you can refute their position fairly and thoroughly, provide them with that refutation, and then point to their silence. There's one problem for Bob Sungenis here: he's not up to refuting R.C. Sproul. Oh, he certainly claims to be able to do so, but I remind the readers that this is the same gentleman who proudly proclaimed in the CURE debate that there is no forensic (legal) language used in the New Testament of justification! I believe Mr. Sungenis to be a deeply deceived man who, while firmly convinced of his ability to refute the Protestant position, is just as surely incapable of doing so on a truly biblical level.

Dr. MacArthur

Next Sungenis trains his guns upon John MacArthur. Again accusing MacArthur of growing rich on anti-Catholicism, Sungenis claims that MacArthur has declined challenge after challenge to debate. Yet, when this claim was made publically in the Internet, Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You, disputed the claim, and said that he personally had no knowledge of such challenges. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that Sungenis is right and that Dr. MacArthur won't debate. Does he therefore have a basis for making the comments he does? Let's review Sungenis' words:

MacArthur knows we're out here; he just chooses to ignore us. He writes in the above book: "A new generation of Roman Catholic apologists have taken up arms against sola fide. According to them, Scripture doesn't teach the doctrine-it is an invention of Luther and the Reformers." Almost in the same breath he then says: "Too few are able or willing to defend evangelical truths against contradictory views. It is easier-and, it seems, so much more polite-simply not to argue. Therefore attacks on crucial evangelical doctrines often go unanswered" (4-5).

In psychology they call it "projection," accusing someone else of the very thing one is doing. In apologetic circles we call it, "not putting your money where your mouth is." If MacArthur is so up in arms about those in his own camp who don't stand up to "defend evangelical truths," then why has he consistently denied Catholic apologists a formal debate?

Seemingly Sungenis confuses "defend evangelical truths" with "engage me in a debate on justification." Perhaps there is a way to defend these truths without debating Bob Sungenis? It seems that Dr. MacArthur has decided that the best way to defend these truths is to present them (most evangelical Protestants, I have often said, are nigh unto clueless about the fundamental issues at stake on the nature of justification in the first place, so someone has to explain it to them), both in written and spoken form, on the radio, in classrooms, in books, in pamphlets. If writing and lecturing is not a part of apologetics, why does Sungenis engage in these very things himself? But of course, that's applying the same rule to both sides.

Does It Go Both Ways?

Now, I have often challenged Karl Keating to debate me on just about every issue under the sun that is relevant to Roman Catholicism, and for going on seven years now, he's declined. Would it be fair, I ask, for me to say that Karl Keating is busy making a mint off of anti-Protestantism while ducking meaningful challenges to his position? How would Sungenis respond to such an assertion, if it were to be made? Could he even respond meaningfully?

What if I were to challenge the local parish priest to a formal debate? Many would consider this utterly unfair. I've engaged in such debates all over the nation. The priest may not be equipped to engage in that kind of activity. It takes special preparation, and there are many, many good men who simply cannot engage in debate and hope to do well. Should this be taken as an indication that I'm "right" and the priest is automatically "wrong"? Of course not. Even if that priest decried my work, if he was honest enough to say that debating something he has been gifted to do, I would have to admit that his refusal to engage in such a battle is not relevant to the truthfulness, or error, of his position. In the same way, if Karl Keating would say, "I'm simply not equipped to engage in public debate," I'd accept that. Problem is, Karl does engage in public debate, only, he chooses his opponents very carefully.

But I said I would be brief, so let's move on to just a few other examples. Sungenis then discusses James G. McCarthy. I have never met Mr. McCarthy, nor had any contact with him at all, so I cannot comment on his interaction with Sungenis. I only note the childish conclusion to Sungenis' comments: "I guess he figured it had some Catholic cooties in it." Next he goes after someone I had never heard of, a former Jesuit priest named Bob Bush. It seems Sungenis decided to use this piece to vent his spleen at everyone who had ever turned him down on a debate. Anyway, I'm not sure exactly who the target of the next "example" is, but there is one interesting twist, for Sungenis takes a swipe at Jim Toungate of Christian Answers (he again identifies the organization as "anti-Catholic"). He implies that while Toungate had invited Bob to debate on their program, they later backed out, ignoring a single letter Sungenis wrote to them. Bob should have discussed his article with James Akin of Catholic Answers, since it was Christian Answers who sponsored the radio debate between myself and Akin on the subject of predestination and the perseverance of the saints. I have not checked into it, but it has been my understanding that Christian Answers went off the air shortly after the conference that Sungenis references, which would, of course, explain the situation. I guess Bob didn't bother to check into that, however.

Next Sungenis goes after Bart Brewer. Bart honestly tells Sungenis that he's not a debater, and he's not. Does Sungenis believe that if you honestly recognize that you can't debate you should automatically convert to the viewpoint of whoever challenges you? Let's hope not.

Let's skip the seventh case for the moment and go to the last ones, CURE (who debated Sungenis, Madrid, and Marshner) and a group of Ohio housewives. Sungenis claims CURE cut out crucial parts of the debate in their airing of it, and in their presentation of the videos. If this is true, its reprehensible. One of the ground rules of all debates I've been in has been this: both sides get equal and full access to a master copy of the debate for distribution, and neither side edits out any of the debate. As to the Ohio housewives, I've never heard of their group, and have no comments on Sungenis' interaction with them.

That Nasty James White

So let's wrap things up by looking at Mr. Sungenis' seventh "case": me. Now why I'd be listed as an example of "where have all the opponents gone," I don't know. I guess Bob realizes I'm the living contradiction to his entire thesis, so he had to try something to marginalize me. So he did. He couldn't make reference to anything I've written, nor could he pull, from well over a dozen public debates available to him, anything to use to show my unworthiness of further debate. Instead, he takes a private conversation in the Internet, twists it around, and uses it as an excuse to dismiss me as well. Here is the scenario.

The debate at Boston College went very poorly for the Roman Catholic side. Indeed, priests who were in attendance admitted that it was a veritable slaughter. All the Protestants in attendance were unanimous in their view, and the vast majority of the Roman Catholics had to admit that this one didn't go well for the Vatican. But time seems to heal all wounds, and today we find both Sungenis and Scott Butler claiming victory (the reader is simply invited to obtain the audio, or video, tapes, and judge for themselves). Indeed, Butler has now personally claimed, "I wiped you out." I'm not sure how he would know that, since he wasn't in the room for much of the time I was speaking (Sungenis, likewise, claims to have been having bladder problems that night, and was often gone while our side was speaking). In any case, toward the end of the debate, it becomes painfully obvious that Mr. Butler is getting a bit frustrated and irritated. Finally he explodes, turning toward Mr. Zins and myself, his eyes bulging, veins popping, spitting and sputtering, screaming that we must find anyone prior to the year 400 who believed that Jesus was the rock of Matthew 16. Now, I had no more opportunities to talk-only Rob had a closing remark. I invite the reader to jot down the number of challenges I provided in the debate that went completely unanswered by Butler and Sungenis. I invite the reader to note how completely the Roman Catholics fell into the description I provided of the "Peter Syndrome," and how they never once even attempted to extricate themselves from it. But they don't remember any of those things. Instead, ignoring the piles of information that refuted their position, they have chosen to cling to one thing: the challenge to provide four (I'm not sure they gave that specific number at first, but it eventually developed into the conversation) Fathers who interpreted Matthew 16 as referring to Jesus. Now Sungenis adds, "to the exclusion of Peter," whatever that means.

As I explained to Sungenis by e-mail, this is the classic red herring. It's smoke, mirrors-whatever other term you wish to use to describe the desperate attempt to win a lost battle. Since when did the Roman Papacy stand upon such thin ground as finding four Fathers who interpreted one verse in one particular way? Why A.D. 400? Why not A.D. 500, or 600? Since Sungenis and Butler ignored my challenge to find me anyone in the first 1000 years of Church history who interpreted Isaiah 22 in the way they do, should I then use their failure as a means of avoiding any debates with them in the future?

The fact is that Sungenis and Butler lost that debate, and badly, and the only way to save face is to point to a single challenge and hope that no one stops long enough to say, "Hey, and the significance of this is?" The question of the debate was not "there were at least four Fathers who interpreted Matthew 16:18 as referring to Jesus" but is the Papacy biblically, and historically, true? I'll gladly give them the four Fathers battle-they lost on the Papacy, and I think that's a fair trade.

Hence, my refusal to allow Sungenis to hi-jack the debate was the primary reason I didn't let him determine the course of conversation. I wanted him to stick to the many issues he had either ignored, skipped, or given shallow answers to (note one example elsewhere). But there was a second reason: he already had the names of Fathers prior to A.D. 400 who interpreted the passage that way. He had had that information for quite some time, and I knew it. It wasn't my fault that he didn't read the materials provided to him, and I'm under no obligation to do his homework for him. Anyone who owns William Webster's Peter and the Rock has the same information Sungenis had even before the debate at Boston College. I find it rather funny that just this week Robert e-mailed me to ask me what my understanding of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 really is. I have an entire section on the passage in a book that he's already informed me he's purchased: The Roman Catholic Controversy (pp. 95-98). So much for in-depth study of your opponent's writings and materials. Sungenis ended his entire article, after challenging everyone but me to debate, with, "P. S. Sorry, but that doesn't include you, James White, until you finally produce the citations of the four Fathers prior to 400 who identified Jesus, to the exclusion of Peter, as the Rock of Matthew 16:18." Yet, within a few weeks of the publication of this article, Scott Butler was asking friends of mine in New York if I would be willing to debate Sungenis on justification by faith. Go figure.

Bob Sungenis asks, "Where have all the debaters gone?" I frankly confess that I wish there were more who where willing to do the work (and it is work!) to engage in meaningful public debates. I'll gladly admit this: there are more Roman Catholic apologists out speaking and debating than Protestant ones providing a response, that is true. However, Bob has completely missed the point with his triumphalistic article. The issue is not how many debates are taking place, but who is speaking the truth and carrying those debates. It's far more important to discover if the answers being given are truthful, consistent, and well-researched, or if they are half-baked, self-contradictory, and shallow. That is the issue.

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