Scott Hahn is a popular apologist who converted to Roman Catholicism from Presbyterianism. He is very popular on the speaking circuit and has numerous books in print and CDs in circulation. One of his more popular books has been Rome Sweet Home, a recounting of his family’s journey home to the Roman Catholic Church. Mr. Hahn writes in a folksy disarming way, and is often hailed as a leader in the Protestant return to Rome.
A number of years ago, I was invited to read Rome Sweet Home, and I did. About three months ago, I decided to read it again, but the waiting list at the library was quite long. It finally arrived at the tail end of July, and I wanted to review Mr. Hahn’s writing on justification and sola fide.
Reflecting on his time in a Presbyterian seminary, Mr. Hahn writes:
Saint Paul (whom I had thought of as the first Luther) taught in Romans, Galatians and elsewhere that justification was more than a legal decree; it established us in Christ as God’s children by grace alone. In fact, I discovered that nowhere did Saint Paul ever teach that we were justified by faith alone! Sola fide was unscriptural!
I was so excited about this discovery. I shared it with some friends, who were amazed at how much sense it made…
I remembered how one of my favorite theologians, Dr. Gerstner, once said in class that if Protestants were wrong on sola fide — and the Catholic Church was right that justification is by faith and works — “I’d be on my knees tomorrow morning outside of the Vatican doing penance.” We all knew, of course, that he said that for rhetorical effect, but it made a real impact. In fact, the whole Reformation flowed from this one difference.
[Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, Ignatius Press, 1993, page 31].
First an observation: before he became Roman Catholic and while he was in a Presbyterian seminary, Hahn thought of St. Paul as “the first Luther”? That’s a strange thing to say. In fact, Mr. Hahn has strange statements about his Protestant experience interspersed throughout his book. For example, just one page later Hahn writes that Luther was his “main source of inspiration and powerful proclamation of the Word.”
I grew up Lutheran. Luther is revered, and I could imagine a zealous nine-year-old claiming that Luther was the second Paul, but not Paul the first Luther.
Anyway, even though Hahn claims Luther as his “main source of inspiration,” Hahn wasn’t Lutheran, he was a Presbyterian. Here is a very mild example of what Luther said about people like the Presbyterians:
We earnestly believe that … all … who deny that the body and blood of Christ are taken with the bodily mouth in the venerable Eucharist are heretics and estranged from the church of God.
[“Against the Thirty-Two Articles of the Louvain Theologists,” Luther’s Works, vol. 34].
Second, Hahn has a propensity to say that Protestant doctrine doesn’t encompass even the most basic tenets of Christianity, such as the concept of God as Father. Hahn claims that the concept of God as Father was foreign to Luther and Calvin. In his journey to Rome, says Hahn, “I was beginning to see that … God was our Father.” (Page 30). However, every Christian who prays the Lord’s Prayer knows that God is our Father. This is not unique to Rome.
Hahn ties the concept of God as Father into the doctrine of justification “by faith and works,” after all, children are expected to behave. According to Hahn, we are saved “by faith and works.” (Page 31). Fine. He is bound by his conscience here. However, he also claims that justification through faith alone is unscriptural, and “that nowhere did Saint Paul ever teach that we were justified by faith alone!” (Page 31).
Nonetheless in Romans 1:17, Paul declares that the righteousness of God “is by faith from first to last.” And again he declares that those who do not “know the righteousness that comes from God,” and instead seek to establish their own, do not attain righteousness. They stumble. (Romans 9:30-10:3).
One very bothersome aspect of Rome Sweet Home is the almost complete lack of serious theological discussion. Hahn takes a difficult issue like justification, and flippantly declares that Paul never taught that we are saved by faith and not by works. Case closed, according to Hahn, and he moves on to the next topic. Justification is not an easy issue, but in Rome Sweet Home the conclusion that “justification is by faith and works” comes across as all too easy. (Page 31).
I believe that God wants us to struggle to reconcile James with Paul. Only by struggling through this difficult issue can we even begin to properly understand it. Only by wrestling with the Word of God do we show that we are Israel, the man who struggles with God, and not Jacob, the deceiver. (Genesis 32:22-30).
Here is a small excerpt of what I consider to be a serious wrestling with the issue of faith and works taken from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (one of the authoritative Lutheran Confessions):
[True] faith is not an easy thing, as our opponents imagine; nor is it a human power, but a divine power that makes us alive and enables us to overcome death and the devil… Since this faith is a new life, it necessarily produces new impulses and new works. Accordingly, James is correct in denying that we are justified by a faith without works. When he says we are justified by faith and works, he certainly does not mean that we are regenerated by works. Nor does he say that our propitiation is due in part to Christ and in part to our works. Nor does he describe the manner of justification, but only the nature of the just who have already been justified and reborn.
“To be justified” here does not mean that a wicked man is made righteous but that he is pronounced righteous in a forensic way, just as in the passage (Romans 2:13), “the doers of the law will be justified.”
[The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church, Tappert (143). Philadelphia: Fortress Press].
Here is another example of good theology from Saint Augustine:
But the statement that “the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13) must be so understood, as that we may know that they are not otherwise doers of the law, unless they be justified, so that justification does not subsequently accrue to them as doers of the law, but justification precedes them as doers of the law.
[St. Augustine; On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapter 45].
Rome Sweet Home is about a family’s journey into the Roman Catholic Church, but on the most important issue of justification, it stumbles. It stumbles badly. Dr. Hahn believes that we are saved “by faith and works,” and that is why he made his journey. Everyone should join the denomination that they believe confesses the most truth.
Jesus builds his Church on the Rock of Truth, and that Truth is the confession of Jesus as Christ. (Matthew 16:16-18). Where we find the truth, there we find the Church. (John 4:23). However, the difference between salvation through faith alone and salvation “by faith and works” is the difference between salvation with Jesus as Christ and salvation with Jesus as Helper.
The Church can be seen where She makes a clear pure profession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16:16-18). Those titles “Christ” and “Son of the living God” have eternal significance. They do not mean mere “helper for those seeking to establish their own righteousness,” but rather they do mean “Savior,” and they encompass every possible meaning of that word “Savior.” Jesus is Savior. Jesus alone is Savior.
Works are the evidence of our salvation, not the cause. We are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, and not by works.