EDWARD O'NEILL RESPONDS
Response to Abraham Heck

November 2004Edward O'Neill

Edward O’Neill formerly taught religion on the college level.

I was asked by the NOR’s Editor to provide a response to Abraham Heck’s critique of my article on Scott Hahn, so I will do my best to provide one. Truth be told, I strongly considered declining the request. My attitude is that responses should be published to serious critiques of claims and ideas, but much of what Heck has written does not fall into this category. Instead, Heck substantially busies himself with analyses and insinuations regarding my own person rather than the concerns I raised. He spends time attempting to discern my emotional state (he attributes the emotions of fear and disdain to me), declares that my manner is “ungentlemanly” and elitist, and at one point appears to state that I need a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit. He also suggests that I am out to slur Hahn by pointing to his theonomic background, and at the conclusion of the piece he explicitly questions my motives in writing the article. He defends Hahn’s autobiographical writing style and goofy puns. He also takes the predictable tack of defense by proxy (i.e., citing other people who have said good things about Hahn).

It would be ungentlemanly to respond to Heck as he has responded to me, therefore I will not do so. I will point out that the just-named considerations are not germane to the theological issues I laid on the table. It does not matter what my emotional state may or may not be. I suggested that there are serious causes for concern with some of the biblical and theological ideas that Hahn has advanced in his books and tapes and that, given the extreme popularity of these works and the extreme seriousness with which they are taken by individuals not in a position to properly appraise these claims, Hahn should either refrain from publishing such ideas or he should test them in front of an audience of his peers rather than rushing them into print before a popular audience. If Heck wants to know my motive, he need look no further: It was to call attention to the points just made.

Neither is it germane to the theological issues what my manner or attitude is. The causes for concern still exist. If I express myself by saying things such as “one has cause for concern” or “one must proceed with caution,” Heck should discern in this the academic idiom of dispassionate politeness. There are far less polite ways to say the same things, but academics strive not to use them, so that an atmosphere of reasoned discussion may be fostered. I do not know Heck’s academic background, but it may be a lack of familiarity with this idiom that is the source of some of his perplexity. As to the charge of harboring an elitist attitude, it also is not germane to the theological issues on the table. Yet I will note that the Church has long honored the principle that theological experts should exercise discretion in what they say to a popular audience. The more influential one’s position, the more discretion must be shown, and as Hahn is the occupant of a very influential position, this obligation should weigh very heavily on him.

My pointing out of Hahn’s theonomic history was intended to help the Catholic theological professionals reading the NOR to understand an important fact about Hahn’s background that seems to explain many of the eccentricities in both the content of his work and the manner in which he approaches it. Hahn is so often styled a “former Presbyterian pastor” that he is likely to be read as if he were a run-of-the-mill Presbyterian before his conversion to Catholicism. On such an understanding, much of what Hahn says would be inexplicable, for run-of-the-mill Presbyterians do not employ the kind of highly speculative approach that Hahn does. But his approach is explainable when one realizes that his initial theological formation was in an unusual school of Presbyterianism which displays many common elements with his current approach. I cannot help it if Heck thinks I have made theonomy sound “dangerous,” but I daresay that many Presbyterians would regard as dangerous a theological movement in their midst that has a substantial number of adherents who openly advocate the execution of incorrigible children, the restoration of slavery, and the idea that the Second Coming has already occurred. I do not charge Hahn with thinking these things. His views on them are unknown (except for the Second Coming, which he has stated will occur in the future, though he has admitted that he was tempted by the alternative position for a time). One hopes that Hahn has absorbed the Catholic way of doing theology sufficiently that he would not hold extreme theonomic ideas, but the theonomic way of doing theology continues to influence his style and his views as a Catholic.

The note regarding the role of autobiography in Hahn’s writings is also relevant to Hahn’s theological method. When one subtitles a book Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity and then advocates a Dad/Kid/Mom identification of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, it is worth noting that autobiography plays an unusually prominent role in his writings, particular when he himself identifies his own wife as “the Holy Spirit of our home.” At that point it is entirely fair to ask the question, “Is this man allowing what happens in his family life to assume too prominent a role in his theology?”


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