Rials, Kirby. The Protestant’s Guide to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: How To Answer the Tough Questions. Greenville, MI: Delta Mills Books, 2006. Reviewed by Edmund Rybarczyk.
This book’s strengths are two-fold: A rapid-fire overview of the many doctrinal issues that separate Catholicism and Orthodoxy from conservative Protestantism. Second, it is succinct and therefore quite readable, and for a non-academic study it has wonderful portions of historical research interspersed throughout. The sections denoting the diversity of positions among the church fathers are especially helpful. That said, this book is overly ambitious. It addresses far too many intricate issues at a cursory level.
One would expect that a long-time missionary to Russia would produce a careful study that takes seriously the foreign contexts of Catholicism and Protestantism. Instead, Rials seems to assume that the apostles both read the Scriptures and thought like 21st century Western Evangelicals. With that assumption, Rials scrutinizes the teachings, traditions, and biblical hermeneutics of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. In this examination, neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy fare very well.
This is not to say that a harsh polemic is wrought against these two oldest Christian traditions. Indeed, Rials says at the outset that his goal is to love “our brothers in the midst of doctrinal disagreements (p. 9).” But the lack of a contextual treatment of multi-layered issues including ecclesiology, the mystery of the Godhead, biblical hermeneutics, sacraments, the doctrine of saints, hesychasm, theosis, liturgical aesthetics, and iconography, will leave the thoughtful but uninitiated reader with more doctrinal questions than answers. For example, Rials finishes a very brief assessment of the filioque controversy by quoting II Timothy 2:23: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” On the one hand, this is an attempt to be pastorally disarming. On the other hand, it assumes that the doctrine of the Trinity is not worthy of deep thought. This is neither the way to help Protestants carefully understand ancient trajectories of Christian history nor the way to teach them how to persuade others of their own perspective.
Throughout the book the goal clearly is to show that Evangelical Protestantism is right while Catholicism and Orthodoxy are both wrong. But Rials’ contention that Evangelicals are more committed to Scripture than other confessions is not a sufficient method. In characterizing his non-Evangelical brothers, the author regularly cites the Catholic Councils of Trent and Vatican I, defensive councils convened amid tremendous historical shifts, pressures, and polemics. On the Orthodox front, Rials repeatedly quotes Sergius Bulgakov, an Orthodox theologian who is rather infamous among other Orthodox theologians for some of his speculative positions. Unfortunately, Rials’ reliance upon such sources promotes old and unhelpful stereotypes that recent ecumenism has worked hard to correct.
Moreover, there are too many “baby and bath water” arguments espoused. For example, “Insofar as the [apocryphal] books promote false doctrines, such as the possibility of praying for the dead or purchasing eternal life, they may be harmful” (pp. 103-4). The same type of critique could be made of several of Rials’ own (and my own) Assemblies of God Pentecostal historic practices (speaking in tongues, healing, prophesying, and exhibiting emotion in services). If post-modern philosophy has taught us anything, it is that there is no objective vantage point from which to view and interpret reality. We all are profoundly shaped by our own historical-cultural-philosophical milieu. And it follows that these contexts bear heavily upon us as we encounter the reality of the risen Christ. These facts do not mean that all is relative, or that Truth does not exist. It also does not mean that the Lord does not intend to place demands and obligations upon our knowing, our thinking, or what we value in life. But what it does mean is that God takes our context seriously. Indeed, He intended that the power and influence of His teaching (the Gospel) be taken to all the earth’s historical-cultural contexts where it is to penetrate like yeast (Luke 13:21) and salt (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50). Following that same impulse, 21st century believers absolutely must carefully consider the historical-cultural contexts of the Christian “other.” This book does not do that.
Edmund Rybarczyk is assistant professor of systematic theology, Vanguard University, Costa Mesa, California.