New book argues Scott Hahn is a “Catholic fundamentalist”—and fails badly – Catholic World Report

Sean Swain Martin’s American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism raises far more questions about the problematic hermeneutics and dubious theological methods of the author than they do about the subject.

New book argues Scott Hahn is a “Catholic fundamentalist”—and fails badly – Catholic World Report
Scott Hahn, a Catholic apologist and theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, speaks at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference Aug. 4, 2017 in Wichita, Kan (CNS photo/Christopher M. Riggs, Catholic Advance)

Sean Swain Martin argues in his book, American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism (Pickwick Publications, 2021), that Scott Hahn, noted Catholic author and longtime professor of biblical theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, is a fundamentalist. Martin claims that Hahn is “fundamentalist” because of the biblical and theological hermeneutics that Hahn actually practices despite his appeals to the Catholic tradition, patristic, encyclical, and theological sources throughout his many writings.

In other words, Martin, who is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Viterbo University, insists that “the Catholic vision that Hahn claims to be providing his audience is, in fact, different than the one he actually presents.” For instance, despite Hahn’s appeal to the three-fold meaning of the spiritual sense of the text (Christological, tropological, and anagogical) in addition to the foundational significance of the text’s literal sense, Martin criticizes Hahn for “literalism,” suggesting that his biblical hermeneutics in practice severs the literal sense from the deeper meaning and the real intention expressed by the spiritual sense.

For another, although Hahn, says Martin, “does not hold to the sola scriptura . . . of his evangelical past,” Hahn supposedly operates more out of the latter, believing “it critical that Catholics be able to provide a scriptural foundation for every aspect of the faith.” Martin suggests here that Hahn operates with a monistic principle of authority. This implies, according to Martin, a biblical purism such that Scripture alone is a self-sufficient basis for justifying all Hahn’s theological claims about Christian faith and life, including the foundational beliefs of marriage and family, sexual ethics, and the like. In short, there are no epistemic sources that have an independent authority of Scripture and hence, Martin alleges, all of Hahn’s biblical claims can purportedly stand on their own.

The main title of Martin’s book ascribes a papal status to Hahn. This suggests that Hahn regards himself as the authoritative teacher of the Scriptures. Martin, however, never demonstrates this to be the case. And, of course, Hahn never makes such a claim. In the subtitle of the book, there is the phrase “Catholic Fundamentalism.” Martin never tells readers what makes Hahn’s alleged fundamentalism uniquely Catholic since the only fundamentalism that Martin refers to is the Protestant fundamentalism of the early twentieth century. Given Martin’s insistence that Hahn’s teachings fits the definition of Protestant fundamentalism, it would have been more accurate for him to argue that Hahn’s biblical and theological hermeneutics are Protestant rather than Catholic in actual practice. (But that also is untrue, as we shall see.)

Martin’s book has four chapters. The first concerns Martin’s account of Hahn’s reasons for coming into full communion with the Catholic Church. The second discusses Hahn’s theological exegesis of the Book of Revelation as it is found in Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper. The third chapter considers Hahn’s interpretation of Benedict XVI and the issue of biblical inerrancy, and the last chapter examines Hahn’s defense of the foundations of a truly Catholic America.

What is fundamentalism?

Martin never actually gives a systematic account of fundamentalism. Still, I think his view of fundamentalism involves the following aspects: the clarity of the text, the plain sense of the text, literalism, biblical purism, inerrancy, monistic principle of authority, hermeneutical monism, presuppositionless interpretation, an ahistorical view of dogma, and, lastly, epistemic certainty about beliefs. I turn now to examine Martin’s account of each of these aspects and how they lead him to brand Hahn as a fundamentalist.

Regarding the idea of clarity, according to Martin, it is a “critical feature of Hahn’s exegetical vision”: “Whether he is discussing the nature of the New Testament itself, the story of his own theological walk of faith, or practice of arguing the defense of the faith.” For example, despite widespread disagreement regarding important Christian doctrines, such as the Eucharist, the matter of Eucharistic presence (namely, Christ is truly, really and substantially present), Eucharistic sacrifice, and Eucharistic unity—all of these aspects “residing at the heart of Catholic worship and faithfulness”—Martin claims that this doctrine and its corresponding aspects, according to Hahn, “should be regarded as. . . easily accessible by every Christian.”

Martin objects to the idea of clarity because he indicates that Hahn exalts private interpretation over against ecclesial tradition and scholarly mediation of the meaning of texts. And he sees this as a trait of fundamentalism. Perhaps Martin seeks to protect Scripture against arbitrary and individualistic exegesis? “[T]he individual’s relationship to the Scriptures is in familiarity guided towards mystery by those charged with being experts of the faith, the clergy and theologians.”

But private interpretation opposed to ecclesial and scholarly mediation cannot be his real objection because Martin acknowledges that “Hahn recognize the need for the Church to guide the faithful in their understanding of the Scriptures, [yet] appears to envision such guidance as a kind of initiation that comes to completion after which these mysteries can be actualized in a life of faith.” This objection is unclear. I dare say that Martin doesn’t understand that the purpose of God’s special revelation in Scripture is salvific.

As Hahn puts it, “With the reading of Scripture, then, comes the grace of transformation, of conversion.” Actualization, then, pertains to the recipient of objective revelation. The salvific purpose of God’s special revelation in the Scriptures is redemptive revelation. God reveals Himself in Scripture not only to increase man’s knowledge, bringing us to the knowledge of the eternal salvation of man in Jesus Christ redemptive sacrifice. But God’s redemptive revelation in Scripture also has a salvific power. For the gospel is the “power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16; see also 2 Tim 3:15, Jn 6:63). The Scriptures gives us the truth that the Word of God is living and active (Heb 4:12), and his Word has grace and power that “is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Thus, Martin’s objection against Hahn’s espousal of clarity is groundless.

One note in relationship to clarity: Martin charges that Hahn employs the notion of “simplicity” as if to suggest that the meaning of a text is naively accessed independently of the specific literary form of the text and the great variety of ways that Scripture expresses the literal sense—which is the sense intended by the author and expressed in the language that he used. Martin provides no evidence that Hahn ignores this variety. Indeed, there is no evidence that in ascribing a foundational significance to the literal sense of the text, and hence to “literalism,” that Hahn’s biblical hermeneutics in practice severs the literal sense from the deeper meaning and the real intention expressed by the spiritual sense; the coherence, centrality, and depth of God’s actions as expressed in the words of Scripture.

Says Hahn,

The literal sense is foundational. Without adequate attention to the literal-historical sense, spiritual exegesis is built upon shifting sand. Unless it is set down on the concrete historical reality of the Incarnation, spiritual exegesis can easily shift into esoteric fancies.

He adds, echoing Aquinas:

In the inspired Scripture, then, as in no other book, words signify things, but the things that are signified also signify other things. So historical realities—the people, places, and events of the Old Testament—signify greater spiritual realities.

In short, Hahn does not oppose Scripture’s clarity to openness and listening, to research, study, understanding of Scripture, and to faith and prayer, in his biblical hermeneutics.

First principle of prima scriptura

Driving Hahn’s biblical hermeneutics is the first principle of prima scriptura: Scripture must be the objective point of reference, the supreme norm of faith, the norma normans non normata (the norm of norms that is not normed). Hahn speaks against a monistic principle of authority (that is, sola scriptura), and its corresponding “naïve biblicism.” Thus, there is a necessary place for Tradition and the Church in the pattern of theological authority. Indeed, Hahn affirms that Tradition and the Church must also be criteria of theological justification for the sake of coming to certainty about what revelation teaches. If Tradition and the Church are intrinsically and necessarily related to Scripture—that is, co-inhere as a network of interdependent authorities— this presumably means that the Church can justify no truth from Scripture alone, but for that matter neither from Tradition alone nor from the Magisterium alone.

This is what Hahn’s position regarding the pattern of theological authority amounts to: denying what is called a monistic principle of authority, rejecting the position that Scripture alone authorizes or adjudicates between rival interpretation.

What is more, Hahn rejects a monistic principle of authority and a corresponding biblicistic purism because he affirms two modes of divine revelation: special and general revelation. The former is historical, verbal, and salvific; the latter refers to God’s general revelation of Himself in and through the works of creation, which entails a normative creation order or structures of creation, and a natural moral law (Rom 1: 18ff; 2: 14ff). Special and general revelation must be read in light of each other. But special revelation has a cognitive priority over God’s revelation in creation via the very structures of creation, such as marriage and family. This presupposition regarding the modes of divine revelation is evident in Hahn’s two books The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order and It is Right and Just: Why the Future of Civilization Depends on True Religion.

And Hahn’s account of marriage does not just stand on its own, as if all he needed was Scripture alone. For instance, anthropological dualism of the soul and body has led to the denial that the foundation of the form of love that is marriage is a bodily sexual union of man and woman as one flesh. But Hahn supports a philosophical anthropology in which the body is intrinsic to personhood, and hence the nature of marriage is such that it requires sexual difference, the bodily-sexual act, as a foundational prerequisite; indeed, as also intrinsic to a one-flesh sacramental union. Thus, marriage as a one-flesh union is not just posited by ecclesiastical law. Rather, Jesus calls us back to the law of creation (Mk 10:6-7) that grounds an inextricable nexus of permanence, twoness, and sexual differentiation for marriage. In particular, marriage is such that it requires sexual difference, the bodily-sexual act, as a foundational prerequisite, indeed, as intrinsic to a one flesh union of man and woman: “So then they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mk 10:8)

Biblical inerrancy

Martin also raises an objection to Hahn’s affirmation of biblical inerrancy. However, he nowhere defines the inerrancy that he links with literalism. For instance, he fails to distinguish between exactness of statement, which implies that Scripture gives an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, on the one hand, and accuracy, on the other hand, which means intentional affirmations of truth. “Every statement accurately corresponds to truth just as far forth as affirmed” (B.B. Warfield). The biblical authors are not omniscient, and hence do not give an exhaustive rendering of things. So, we can’t turn to them for philosophical knowledge, natural or human science, etc.

Of course, the teaching of Scripture bears upon the attempts of Christian scholars to integrate faith and learning, to understand the impact of the Christian worldview on the full range of human knowledge. This is because inerrancy takes up within its purview not only truths of faith and morals, but also of history and the cosmos. What is asserted in Scripture never contradicts the reality of the facts.

In all that is intentionally affirmed as true, the Scriptures are without error. Dei Verbum, affirms the centrality of “assertions,” or propositions, by the Holy Spirit in God’s verbal revelation:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.

Thus, Scripture is not simply a set of opinions but rather possesses objectivity, namely, objective truths regarding God, man, and the world. These truths have enduring validity. As John Paul II states in Fides et ratio:

The Bible, and the New Testament in particular, contains texts and statements which have a genuinely ontological content. The inspired authors intended to formulate true statements, capable, that is, of expressing objective reality. It cannot be said that the Catholic tradition erred when it took certain texts of Saint John and Saint Paul to be statements about the very being of Christ. In seeking to understand and explain these statements, theology needs therefore the contribution of a philosophy which does not disavow the possibility of a knowledge which is objectively true, even if not perfect. (par 84)

Pace Martin, therefore, the relation of inerrancy, which presupposes a propositional understanding of doctrinal beliefs—a proposition is true if and only if what it asserts is in fact the case about objective reality—and hence a corresponding objective realism, is clear regarding the trustworthiness and faithfulness of the written Word of God. We must understand that the meaning of propositional truth is linked with objective reality; doctrines are propositions expressing assertions about God, man, and reality. They bear therefore some determinative relationship to truth, and that is because assertions have a proper referencing function to reality.

Hermeneutical skepticism

Arguably, the fundamental reason why Martin rejects the idea of clarity, and, in addition, the corresponding idea of the “plain sense of Scripture, which is available to all who read Scripture from the context of faith,” is that he rejects the claim that Scripture in its main outline, its message, its core, as it were, is intelligible to the non-specialist. In short, Martin denies that Scripture has an intrinsic intelligibility. He claims:

Accessing an author’s intention, human or divine, is something that we can only ever gesture towards, and the more we attempt to disregard the complex task of critical reading the less likely we to arrive at anything approximating it.

So, for Martin, the literal sense of the text—the sense intended by the author and expressed in the language that he used—is inaccessible and unknowable. Why this hermeneutical skepticism?

Essentially, he rejects Hahn’s view because he think Hahn espouses the idea that exegesis without presuppositions is possible; in other words, “in which the human element is absent.” The removal of the human element means that we fail to “recognize all that we bring with us to a text or all that the text carries with it.” But Martin provides no evidence that this is Hahn’s view. In fact, Martin is obviously wrong since Hahn interprets Scripture in light of a hermeneutical framework derived from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum. On this point, see Hahn’s Scripture Matters: Essays on Reading the Bible from the Heart of the Church.

Of course, in one sense, exegesis without presuppositions is necessary if without presuppositions means to espouse an epistemic objectivity, in order to judge the correctness of one’s understanding of a text. As Paul Helm states: “epistemic objectivity—the attitude in investigations which eschew bias, reliance on one-sided information, and the like.” This attitude has everything to do with the question, Helm adds, “of how our beliefs about and knowledge of the world [including texts] are to properly arrived at, the question of the proper manner of human enquiry.”

In another sense, presuppositionless exegesis is not possible inasmuch as the exegete approaches the text with a specific set of presuppositions about the text. Chiefly, the text is the result of a communicative action of an author, which means that the meaning of this text is an intentional entity. Furthermore, in addition to epistemic objectivity, there is another sense of objectivity: ontological objectivity, which is the objectivity that things, including texts, have independently of any human inquirer.

Does Martin deny ontological objectivity of the text? Is that what he suggests by criticizing Hahn for excluding the human element? If so, then, Martin clearly embraces a hermeneutical subjectivism. Here’s Martin’s view:

Despite our common assumption that our beliefs are formed in some sort of abstraction and properly map on to a static and uninterpreted external world, we view the world, texts, and even traditions through the lens of ourselves and our historical-cultural embeddedness… assumptions, prejudices, and biases of the individual.

Correspondence view of truth

Unfortunately, Martin’s claim in this passage involves the exclusion of the correspondence view of truth. Hence, he rejects hermeneutical realism. Bernard Lonergan correctly states the presupposition of realism undergirding the claim that meaning of the text is an intentional entity. That is, an author produces a text in order to communicate something to someone. Thus, interpretation is a process of coming to understand the meaning and truth of what is said—the determinate meaning embedded within the text and to which the interpreter is fundamentally accountable.

In short, there is a meaning in the text, and this textual meaning is knowable, identifiable, and recoverable. Furthermore: “Such meaning of its nature is related to a meant, and what is meant may or may not correspond to what in fact is so. If it corresponds, the meaning is true. If it does not correspond, the meaning is false.” Lonergan draws out the implication that follow from views like Martin’s:

To deny correspondence is to deny a relation between meaning and meant. To deny the correspondence view of truth is to deny that, when the meaning is true, the meant is what is so. Either denial is destructive of the dogmas. . . If one denies that, when the meaning is true, then the meant is what is so, one rejects propositional truth. If the rejection is universal, then it is the self-destructive proposition that there are no true propositions. If the rejection is limited to the dogmas, then it is just a roundabout way of saying that all the dogmas are false.

John Paul II’s correctly rejects hermeneutical subjectivism: “The interpretation of this Word [=Word of God] cannot merely keep referring us to one interpretation after another, without ever leading us to a statement that is simply true” (Fides et ratio, 84). Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger remarks on this statement:

Man is not caught in a hall of mirrors of interpretation; he can and must look for the way out to the reality that stands behind the words and manifests itself to him in and through the words.

Martin’s hermeneutical subjectivism is such that we can never get at what the scriptural text actually says.

Unchangeable truth and its alternative formulations

Lastly, Martin’s epistemological commitments reject the idea of certainty. He states,

Certainty is ability to own knowledge. It is the claim of complete mastery over at least a field of knowledge and, thus, the confidence to employ this knowledge perfectly in every context. It is, most disturbingly, the belief that the other can have nothing to offer because the fullness of knowledge and truth resides inside of those on the sides of the angels, which most often, is ‘me’ and ‘those that look, act, and live like me’.

There is much wrong with these charges.

Briefly, we can know something to be determinately true without claiming that we know it exhaustively. Pace Martin, propositional revelation and the attendant claim that divine revelation has a determinate cognitive content that is knowable does not entail that truth is under control, having complete mastery such that there is nothing more to say. In this connection, we must distinguish between truth and its formulations, unchangeable affirmations and changeable representations, and this rests upon a more particular epistemological presupposition, namely, that all formulations of the truth are inadequate. But inadequacy of expression does not mean inexpressibility of divine truth.

Importantly, John XXIII depends on Vincent of Lérins as well as the First Vatican Council by implicitly distinguishing between propositional truths of faith and their formulations in reflecting on the sense in which a doctrine, already confirmed and defined, is more fully known and deeply understood.

For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.

The subordinate clause, which I have cited in its Latin original, is part of a larger passage from the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Faith and Reason, Dei Filius (1869-70), which is earlier invoked by Pope Pius IX in the bull of 1854, Ineffabilis Deus, also cited by Pope Leo XIII in his 1899 encyclical letter, Testem benevolentiae Nostrae. And this formula in Dei Filius is itself taken from the Commonitorium of Vincent of Lérins, as I cited above:

Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [in eodem scilicet dogmateeodem sensu eademque sententia].

So, contra Martin’s view of Hahn, there is a historical dimension to the clarification of unchangeable doctrinal truth. According to Yves Congar, history shows continuity, indeed, identity persisting from the apostolic deposit, which is a determinate revealed datum, to the developed assertions of Church dogma. Although the truths of the faith may be expressed differently, they must be kept within determinate bounds. That is, we must always determine whether those re-formulations preserve the same meaning and mediate the same judgment of truth. Authentic dogmatic development must preserve the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths, unfolding and hence enriching our understanding of the truth. Pace Martin. Vincentian hermeneutics does understand that “the Church is always in the mode of continuing, broadening, and explicating the scriptural foundations of Catholic faith.”

In this Vincentian light, one might say that the past linguistic formulation of a dogma, as the late Germain Grisez puts it, “is open to examination and improvement,” that is, “open to development as the Church gradually grows in understanding of God’s revelation in Jesus.” In other words, as Dei Verbum 8 puts it:

For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

Still, what cannot be said, for example—and I don’t know if Martin agrees—is that the proposition that God has revealed himself fully and unsurpassably in Christ is open to denial, and hence rejection. But this cannot be the case because this proposition is an objective truth. In other words, this proposition is true if and only if God has in fact revealed himself fully and unsurpassably in Christ; otherwise, the proposition is false. In sum, the Scripture contains truths about objective reality.


Martin’s book, to put it bluntly, is deeply wrong in its main assertions for all the reasons I argued in this article review. In short, Hahn is not a fundamentalist.

Finally: there are many embarrassing typos in the book. For example, Joseph Ratzinger published a book in 1965 with Karl Rahner—not Karl Barth. Regarding the sense of the spiritual sense of Scripture, misspelled is “tropological” as “typological”; “anagogical” as “analogical,” “senses” as “sentences.”

American Pope: Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism
by Sean Swain Martin
Pickwick Publications/Wipt and Stock Publishers, 2021
Paperback, 136 pages

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