Friday, October 31, 2008

Review: Rome Sweet Home

I recently completed a critical book review of Rome Sweet Home for a seminar in church authority. I don't plan to regularly post my academic work here, but I thought this might be of interest. Between Bill Cork and Colin Maclurin there seems to be a Catholic theme in the Adventist blogosphere this week, so I thought I'd chime in, too.

One disclaimer: Please bear in mind that the assignment was to write a critical book review, and that brings out my Adventist bias. I do realize I am not immune from the problems I point out in the authors of Rome Sweet Home.

Scott and Kimberley Hahn were a spiritually motivated, theologically conservative, intellectually brilliant, and strongly anti-Catholic couple who individually converted to Roman Catholicism less than ten years after graduating from a Protestant seminary. This review of Rome Sweet Home, the autobiography of their journey from cradle to Catholic, will critically assess the Hahns’ theological reasons for conversion. Scott Hahn’s covenant theology and its implications for justification by faith and ecclesiology led him to convert before his wife. Kimberly Hahn, who eventually accepted her husband’s reasoning, was able to convert only after overcoming her objections to Marian devotion.

Covenant Theology
Covenant theology is the motif that binds together Scott Hahn’s half of Rome Sweet Home. Hahn first mentions it in the context of his undergrad experience when, having read the Bible several times, he “was convinced that the key to understanding the Bible was the idea of covenant.” One wonders, though, if this theological hermeneutic is more the result of his Young Life mentors, who may well have imparted the basics of covenant theology as they taught him Calvin, and less the outcome of personal study.

Justification by Faith
Hahn’s study of covenants during his M.Div. lead him to conclude that the Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone was unbiblical. He determined that in the biblical sense a covenant was not just a legal transaction but a transaction involving people for the purpose of establishing familial relationships. He concluded the New Covenant establishes us a children in God’s family, partaking of “divine sonship”, which means that sanctification, not just justification, is a part of God’s saving grace.

Hahn’s discovery not only put him at odds with his Calvinist denomination, but also laid the synergist framework that gave him common ground with Catholic soteriology. It is significant that he does not present justification by faith, the key doctrine by which Calvinists distinguish themselves from Catholics, as a major issue during his study of Catholicism. On this point Hahn leaves many questions (e.g. predestination) unanswered, and one may wonder whether he considered the Arminian tradition on this point and how his story may have been different had he joined an Arminian/Wesleyan denomination.

Hahn’s theology of God’s covenant family was a theological hermeneutic with implications for ecclesiology as well. He once told a high school class he was teaching that his ideal church organization “would be like an extended family that covers the world, with different father figures at every level appointed by God to administer his love and his law to his children.” The class realized that Hahn was describing the Roman Catholic Church; he did not.

This story illustrates a weakness in Hahn’s theological method: He often made analogical application of Scripture while harmonizing passages that contradict this application to his theology. Protestants have used covenant theology in this way to justify Sunday as the Christian day of worship against Sabbath as the Jewish day of worship. In the same way, Hahn likely harmonized and, for the purposes of his book, ignored the injunction against having earthly “fathers” in the church (Mat. 23:9) in favor of an analogical application of his covenant theology.

After finding other points on which his interpretation of scripture agreed Catholic theology, Hahn began to question another sola of Protestantism: “Where does Scripture teach sola scriptura?” At issue was the interpretation of Scripture itself. With “twenty-five thousand” Protestant denominations following “the Holy Spirit and the plain meaning of Scripture” Hahn realized that Scripture alone and Scripture interpreting Scripture was not enough to bring God’s covenant family into unity.

Hahn decided that the church must also be involved in communicating God’s Word. It wasn’t enough for the Heavenly Father to speak through his Book, because His erring children were liable to misinterpret or ignore it. The Heavenly Father needed fathers at every rung of the hierarchy, delivering the final and distinct word of authority to which the true children would submit.

Marian Devotion
During the time Scott Hahn was converting and for a few years after his conversion Kimberly Hahn’s story was one of resistance. Although she could not win her arguments with him, she completely closed her mind to the possibility of becoming Catholic and hoped that someone would be able to persuade her husband to turn from his course. It was not until Kimberly Hahn’s father, a Presbyterian minister, advised her to pray a prayer the committed her to following Christ no matter what, that she began to consider her husband’s religion with an open mind.
After committing herself to following Jesus regardless of past loyalties, Kimberley Hahn began a study of Catholic doctrine that led her to similar conclusions as her husband, and she began to feel a strong connection with God during Eucharistic/sacramental worship. From that point the only major theological obstacle to Hahn’s conversion was Catholic Marian devotion.

Veneration and Worship
Apart from feeling marital jealously towards Mary and finding it hard to identify with her as an intercessor, Hahn does not elaborate on her objections except in the context of the Catholic reasons for Marian devotion. That she felt praying the rosary would be offensive to God indicates that her theological issues had to do with what she perceived to be the worship of Mary by Catholics. Hahn knew the arguments regarding the difference between worship and veneration and between prayer and intercession, but it was not until she realized that for Catholics, worship was the sacrifice of the Eucharist, whereas for Protestants it was songs and prayers, that she was able to make a distinction between the veneration and worship of Mary.

Mother of the Church
I believe family covenant theology had an impact on Kimberley Hahn’s acceptance of Marian Devotion. First, Hahn was predisposed to accept her husband’s theology because she understood him, as the father of their family, to be her spiritual leader, who, although he did not force the issue, was nevertheless someone to who’s authority she should submit. Hahn portrays the psychology of her conversion story as resistance followed by acceptance to her husband's spiritual leadership.

Second, within the analogical structure of Scott Hahn’s covenant theology, it was logical that Jesus’ father (God the Father) and mother (Mary) would be her Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. In this context, the Communion of Saints is our heavenly and earthly brothers and sisters to whom we may go for intercession, and our earthly father and mother are the Pope (and his bishops and priests) and the Catholic Church, respectively. Viewing Mary as her mother also helped her overcome the objection to the “vain repitions” of the rosary, because, as a nun told her, mothers love to hear their young children say “I love you,” no matter how many times they say it in a day.

Scott and Kimberley Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home is a compelling story told in an engaging manner, and though this review found fault some of their reasoning, the reviewer appreciated both their intellectual and moral honesty. The central and most frequent fallacy in their theological thinking is an analogical application of biblical concepts in a way that contradicts the limitations Scripture itself places on those concepts. This reviewer believes that Hahns’ story would have ended differently had they, when faced with these contradictions, challenged their theological hermeneutic rather than explaining scripture to accommodate their theology.

1 comment:

  1. I also did a critique of Hahn's book in my own blog, though from a Presbyterian perspective. I dwelt less on his theological blunders. However, I found him to be anything BUT honest. Hahn deceived his own church (i.e., prior to his official conversion) and misrepresented the Reformed faith. His mental conversion occurred long before his official conversion, but he never volunteered that information to those who had a right to know.