by Dwight Longenecker & John Martin Paternoster Press, 2001 205 pages, $19.95

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When I sat down with this volume, I was expecting the classic Catholic vs. evangelical Protestant debate — a befuddling game of “My Scripture verse can beat your Scripture verse.”

The conventional choice of subjects, laid out in the table of contents, seemed to confirm my expectations: apostolic authority, the Real Presence, salvation, last things, the saints, the Reformation and, of course, Mary. To my surprise and delight, I quickly caught on that this dialogue is anything but dry. In fact, the words “refreshing” and “entertaining” came quickly to mind.

The book's appeal has everything to do with the personality of each of the “contestants” — and the fact that the chapters are transcripts of lively, spoken conversations. The authors, John Martin and Dwight Longenecker, both come from non-Catholic backgrounds. Longenecker is a convert to the Catholic faith and Martin is an active member of the Anglican communion.

Thomas Aquinas College

As I made my way through their debate, one thing that repeatedly surprised me was the vast common ground the two share on many doctrinal issues. I often wondered if I might be mistaking which one was the Catholic.

For example, Martin opens the chapter headed “Bible Only” with a quote from John Calvin, affirming that the Bible is clear enough on its own account to be understood by all. Yet he clarifies this later, saying, “I may of course, resort to reason, tradition and experience to assist me in the task [of interpretation].” Longenecker replies, “I like the quote from Calvin. There's nothing there the Catholic Church would disagree with. From the beginning the Catholic Church has venerated the Bible as the supernatural word of God.”

This is typical of Longenecker's approach throughout. He consistently affirms Martin's faith, and uses it to develop Catholic thought and doctrine. Martin's statements are often startling, but they rarely seem to throw Longenecker off his stride.

“When it comes to the question of the canon,” Martin says, “you've put your finger on a weakness in the armoury of many Protestants. Frankly, very few have thought deeply about it. … [W]hile many of us claim to be Bible people with a high doctrine of Scripture, our standards of exegesis and interpretation don't match our claims. One of the blights of the Protestant churches is the tendency to be lazy or even downright sloppy in the way they handle Scripture.”

This kind of self-disclosure prompts you to wonder if Martin is actually a Catholic dressed up like a Protestant for the sake of a good show. But, just when you think the Church has won a new convert, he tenaciously returns to his primary defense: He wants the absolute assurance of salvation.

“There must be a way on this side of the grave for me to know that I belong to Christ,” he says at one point.

In response, Longenecker invites Martin not to change his point of view, but to add to it. “The Catholic Church teaches that we should have every confidence and hope of our salvation,” explains Longenecker, “but that God alone is the judge. Like you, we believe that because of our baptism and faith we are part of the body of Christ, but that we need to persevere to the end to be saved.”

Turning the pages, I hoped that the end of the book would resound with Martin's final fiat to the Catholic Church. But this book surely reflects one reality of ecumenism: Dialogue and disclosure don't necessarily result in an individual's instant conversion to the fullness of truth. Meaningful and worthwhile discussions, however, can — and must — be had. Challenging Catholics can show you how to have them.

Caroline Schermerhorn is on the editorial staff of Envoy Magazine.