Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tragic misapprehensions

Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn

This is the story of Scott and Kimberly Hahn's conversion to Roman Catholicism. They came out of evangelical Protestantism, and both studied at Grove City College and Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary.

It's an intriguing story, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Scott became a Catholic a few years before Kimberly, and they relate the struggles they had in a "mixed marriage". Secondly, one can detect in this book a trajectory from intellectual conviction (believing that the Roman Catholic Church is the True Church) to emotional connection (feeling at home in the Catholic Church).

However, both of these reasons are built on flimsy foundations. Firstly, the Hahns completely misunderstand key Protestant doctrines such as Sola Scriptura. Now, Rome Sweet Home is more than twenty years old, and it is quite likely that the Hahns have refined their understanding as they have engaged in Catholic apologetics, but they think that Sola Scriptura means the Bible is the "Christian's only authority" (p. 53). As Keith Mathison demonstrates in The Shape of Sola Scriptura, that is most emphatically what it does not mean. Rather, it means the Bible is the only ultimate authority. It is a shame that both these people could study at an evangelical seminary and not know this.

Secondly, their emotional connection to the Catholic Church is also a flimsy foundation for conversion. Kimberly says regarding the rosary, "I really felt the Lord was giving his approval and ministering to me through it" (p. 160). It is, of course, impossible to argue with such feelings. But it is significant that the Hahns need to retreat into such mysticism in order to justify their conversion.

The Hahns make much of 1 Timothy 3:15, where it says that that the Church is the "pillar and foundation of the truth". They rightly point out that this might go against the evangelical instinct of regarding the Bible as the pillar and foundation of the truth. But quite apart from the fact that both could be true, there is still no reason to believe that Paul is talking here about the Church of Rome.

This is therefore a rather sad book. The education that the Hahns received and the conversations they had with evangelical friends were not sufficient to keep them from converting to Rome. But they did so on the basis of some tragic misapprehensions concerning Protestant doctrine and spirituality.

Monday, September 08, 2014

An important theme, but mixed contributions

The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality

The volume is a Festschrift of sorts. A Festschrift is a collection of essays written in honour of a particular academic, usually on a topic that is dear to that academic's heart. Well, The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality honours Geoff Thomas, who is not an academic at all, but rather an ordinary pastor.

The theme of this book is an important one, for two reasons. Firstly, there seems to be a misconception that Reformed theology is weak on the Holy Spirit. Some would even suggest that while Reformed theology may be good on soteriology, when it comes to pneumatology we need to turn to Charismatic theology.

Now, it is true that there is no chapter in the original Westminster Confession of Faith specifically on the Holy Spirit, but many reformed theologians have written volumes on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit: George Smeaton, Abraham Kuyper, and James Buchanan in previous generations, and Sinclair Ferguson more recently.

The second reason why this topic is important is that there are some people who like reformed theology, but prefer other spiritualities. Catholic writers like Brendan Manning and Henri Nouwen are quite popular in some Reformed circles. But although Reformed spirituality is often neglected, it is inseparable from Reformed theology.

Unfortunately, the essays in this volume do not really match the importance of the theme. It is often the case that contributions to Festschriften vary in quality, but overall this book is somewhat disappointing. It was interesting to see no less than four chapters dealing with some aspect of John Owen's thought. Two of these (by Carl Trueman and Derek Thomas) were good, but the other two seemed to merely rehash what Owen had written. Similarly, there is another chapter that is merely rehashing Louis Berkhof.

Even more disappointing is Stephen Turner's contribution on the call to the ministry. Turner notes that Acts 13:2 describes the Holy Spirit calling men to ministry. He suggests that this was communicated through a prophet, and acknowledges that we no longer have prophets in that sense. But Turner still wants to hold to the idea that today the Holy Spirit calls men via an "inward" call. Yet that is simply not in the text – the passage is quite clearly describing an outward call.

On the other hand, Robert Oliver's piece on Edward Dering is very good. This book really is a mixed bag, and generally fails to live up to the promise of its title.