In the academic world, the nastiest thing you can call another scholar is the “F-word,” or a fundamentalist. The word conjures up images of an unthinking zealot who rejects scholarly methods because of his irrational preconceived ideas. That’s why I was interested in Sean Swain Martin’s new book, American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism.
Before I explain what’s wrong with Martin’s book I should disclose that Dr. Hahn is my former professor and he and I have collaborated on apologetics conferences at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. As a result, I am biased in my assessment of his work, but that doesn’t mean I think Hahn is infallible (and Dr. Hahn would heartily agree with that assessment!). But aside from minor disagreements, I admire Hahn’s work and firmly disagree with Martin’s idea that Hahn promotes a dangerous kind of Catholic “fundamentalism.” In fact, one of the main problems with Martin’s thesis is his attempt at defining fundamentalism.
The term fundamentalism grew out of a series of essays published by Protestants between 1910 and 1915. The essays reaffirmed classic Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth and Protestant beliefs like sola fide that were being undermined by more liberal Protestant scholarship. While the word was first associated with essential truths of one’s faith, it eventually acquired a connotation of a Christian who supports overly literal views of Scripture and rejects most of modern scholarship.
Because of its shift in meaning, I find the F-word as unhelpful as the C-word, or cult—originally any religion, but now more commonly non-Christian or abusive sects.
Martin ends up defining what he means by fundamentalism only at the end of his book. He writes: “I argue that the distinguishing mark of fundamentalism, born of unshakeable confidence in a common-sense approach to knowledge, is certainty. Certainty is the claim to own knowledge. It is the claim of complete mastery over at least a field of knowledge” (105-106).
This naturally leads to the question: How certain is Martin that he is correct about his definition of fundamentalism? If he is certain, then he has succumbed to the same fundamentalism he opposes. But if he isn’t certain about what constitutes fundamentalism, then why trust his judgement on the matter?
Moreover, Catholicism teaches that we can have certainty over many things in this life. As the Catechism says: “Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie” (157).
It would have been more effective if Martin had used a much narrower definition of something like biblical fundamentalism (especially since Hahn is a biblical theologian) to make his case. For example, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC)’s Interpretation of the Bible in the Church says:
Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by “literal interpretation” it understands a naively literalist interpretation. . . . It tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods.
Evidence against Hahn being this kind of fundamentalist can be seen in his commentary on the book of Genesis. A fundamentalist might simply assert that Moses wrote the book of Genesis and that the earth was created in six twenty-four-hour days, as if this were obvious from the text. But Hahn says Catholics can hold a variety of views on the authorship of Genesis (though he considers Mosaic influence “defensible” and Mosaic authorship “possible”). And instead of endorsing a simple creationist reading of Genesis 1 as if it were a transcript of the Creation event, Hahn says “the seven ‘days’ of creation are not intended to be read as literal history. . . . The cosmological presuppositions of the author should not be taken as revealed propositions to be accepted by faith” (18).
Perhaps the closest one could come to defending the claim that Hahn is a fundamentalist is to cite the PBC’s description of how fundamentalism is “opposed to the use of the historical- critical method, as indeed to the use of any other scientific method for the interpretation of Scripture.” But Hahn, although he is skeptical of the method, doesn’t outright reject it.
In his 2021 book The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture: How the Bible Became a Secular Book, Hahn talks about how faithful Catholic scholars use a “historical method” that “can make well-grounded judgements about the authorship and dating of texts, whether they are genuine or forged” without adopting anti-supernatural assumptions of modern historical-critical methods. This parallels Benedict XVI’s approach, which says we should have toward the historical-critical method “an honest recognition of what its limits are, and perhaps how it might be purified.”
Martin’s other arguments and supporting evidence that Hahn is a “fundamentalist” either fail to prove his case or reveal Martin’s own ignorance of the issues he cites. For example:
- Martin says Hahn’s approach to apologetics—to “win over” people (or even himself) with “proofs of Christianity”—is “at tension with the [Catholic] tradition” (23). But that’s not the case. (See Cardinal Avery Dulles’ A History of Apologetics and the Bradshaw/Swinburne volume Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.) He even claims that the second-century apologist Justin Martyr (whom he erroneously calls “Martyr,” as if it were a last name) did not try “to win over his interlocutor with proofs of Christianity” (23) even though Justin did just that in his Dialogue with Rabbi Trypho by trying to prove Jesus is the Messiah.
- Martin claims that Hahn’s conversion was an example of prideful intellectual self-sufficiency in contrast to Cardinal Henry Newman, who “gave over his prideful belief in his absolute self-sufficiency” and instead turned to “the simple quiet wisdom of a local parish priest” (26). Except, in his autobiography, Newman says his doubts went away due to his research on doctrinal development. He writes, “As I advanced [in writing], my difficulties so cleared away that I ceased to speak of ‘the Roman Catholics,’ and boldly called them Catholics.” In 1845, he asked Fr. Dominic Berberi (who had a reputation for arguing for the Faith) to simply receive him into the Church and not for alleged “simple wisdom” to help him decide if he should convert.
- Martin accuses Hahn of saying experts agree that Revelation was written before A.D. 70 (31), but in his quote of Hahn, he leaves out the part where Hahn says, “Scholars disagree on when the book of Revelation was written; estimates range from the late 60’s to the late 90’s A.D.” (The Lamb’s Supper, 70).
- Martin says it is “troubling” that Hahn confidently asserts things like the fact that angels do not have physical bodies (37), even though the Catechism calls angels “purely spiritual creatures” (330) and says, “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith” (328).
- Martin derides the idea that Benedict XVI could be called a “biblical theologian” (71) and that others consider him more Augustinian (66), even though Benedict said in a 1997 interview that “I couldn’t imagine a purely philosophical theology. The point of departure is first of all the Word. . . . This gives my theology a somewhat biblical character and also bears the stamp of the Fathers, especially Augustine (Salt of the Earth, 66).
- Martin chides Hahn for not footnoting or detailing scholarly disagreement related to some points he raises in his books. The oversimplification that can occur in Hahn’s dramatic prose style is a valid criticism, but Martin succeeds only in finding nitpicky disagreements among Hahn’s more confident assertions.
Finally, Martin’s book is extremely problematic as a piece of scholarship. As a dissertation, it lacks important information—and if it is only a summary or a truncated version of Martin’s dissertation, then it nonetheless should have included that important information. For example, the book includes lengthy sections that merely summarize Hahn’s work or general elements in the history of philosophy and don’t advance Martin’s thesis. The end of the book also devolves into a gripe, saying Hahn is a fundamentalist because he doesn’t confess his personal faults in his books. Hahn’s cute story about his “marital strife” involving his wife failing to roll up the toothpaste shows that “like every other fundamentalist, the problem lies with everyone else” (109).
In closing, while Martin does raise some interesting criticisms of Hahn, his book never amasses enough evidence to prove his bombastic thesis. I suggest he read more of Scott Hahn’s prolific bibliography and take notes on how Dr. Hahn has shared the joy of the gospel to untold numbers of souls.
For a longer review of this book, check out this recent episode of the Counsel of Trent podcast.
Image credit: Pints With Aquinas via YouTube.