Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Protestant Conversions Critique: Tradition

Pardon my being nearly two decades late, but a loved one recently brought to my attention an article by David Hagopian, Esq., entitled Romeward Bound: Evaluating Why Protestants Convert to Catholicism. It was originally published in an OPC church's magazine Antithesis, and is available here (at 11), and here. I would like to comment on this article; as near as I can Google, no one else has.

Mr. Hagopian analyzes, and asserts the fallacy of, a plethora of conversions from Protestantism to Catholicism. His goal is to help "Protestants to come to grips with the reasons why these Neocatholics [(his term)] have set their compasses toward Rome, because only then will Protestants be able to see some of the shortcomings of their espoused faith..." (internal citations omitted).

Tradition. Hagopian cites tradition as that which Neocatholics embrace "above all else". They think Catholicism is far "richer" because of its unique claims to living tradition and the teaching authority of the Apostles' successors.

He attempts to show the fallacy of this reason for conversion by first taking up the Catholic claim that the Church was founded on Peter, the rock. While conceding that "some Protestants" handle Matthew 16 ("for thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church") poorly, he addresses the Neocatholic's "unconvincing", question-begging interpretation of this passage. Even if Peter is the "rock" to which Christ referred, "Neocatholics simply assume that Christ thereby gave Peter papal authority" (emphasis in original). They "also assume that this passage grants a right of succession". Finally, "[u]ntil and unless Neocatholics can prove that Christ, in Matthew 16, specifically granted Peter papal authority and that Christ thereby intended to establish an unbroken chain of apostolic succession from Peter onward (both of which are read into the text), they have not met the exegetical burden that is incumbent upon them."

The last sentence speaks of an essential matter that I was surprised to see a lawyer presuppose. His argument is this: Catholics assume that Matthew 16 gave to Peter the papacy, and that this involved a right of succession, but since they cannot prove these assumptions, their position is false. His surprising presupposition is that the "burden" here is "incumbent" upon Catholics. But, I wonder, why would the onus probandi be on Catholics in their interpretation? If the Church Fathers refer to Peter as having some form of primacy over all the Bishops, and if the Church has maintained throughout the centuries that the Petrine See involved a type of succession, it seems instead that the onus is "incumbent" upon the party proferring an alternative understanding of Christ's designation of Peter as "rock" (if one insists on having burdens of proof at all). Perhaps Mr. Hagopian disagrees with this view of history, but in that case he would do well to address the matter, instead of presupposing that Neocatholics bear any burden in interpreting Matthew 16. Also, his argument presupposes that Catholics, or at least Neocatholics, look to prove their positions from Scripture alone.

He does address history enough to dispute Catholicism's claims to be the Church dating back to "antiquity". In a few sentences he seeks to debunk this claim. He tells us that, "along with dispensationalism, Catholicism simply assumes that the church sprang up in the first century A.D.", but that the proper "truly covenantal view" sees that the Church did not begin on Easter, but when God declared a covenant people for Himself (i.e., the Jews). "Thus", to be connected with antiquity, one should be Reformed Protestant.

I believe this is a non sequitur: if one believes that one should be affiliated with the church where it has ties to antiquity, since antiquity began with the Jews of the Old Covenant, one should be Reformed Protestant. How is Reformed Protestantism more affiliated with covenantal Jewish antiquity than, say, Orthodox Judaism? I believe Mr. Hagopian's position is that since the Reformed recognize the spiritual nature of the church as the new covenantal People of God, they therefore share in that nature. And since they share in it, they are the proper tie to "antiquity". But I believe Catholics also recognize that God has maintained a Covenant People from the Old Covenant onward (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1093). Therefore, they would seem to have a claim to "antiquity" either under the Neocatholics' purported view (back to the first Easter) or Mr. Hagopian's view (back to the Covenant with Abraham).

Also, Mr. Hagopian did not discuss how a 3rd or 10th or 14th century Christian would feel about this proposition on antiquity. I believe Christians of those eras would have held as today's Neocatholic does, namely, that their ties to the Christ-commissioned (new) Church validates their orthodoxy. As Christ is the culmination of the Old Covenant, a proper line of affiliation with Him is a line of affiliation to all of redemptive history.

To be continued (next up: Sola scriptura)...


Gil Garza said...

I recently had the privilege of listening to Jeffrey N. Steenson, PhD (Oxon), give his testimony on why he gave up his ministry as a bishop in The Episcopal Church (USA) to seek full communion with the Catholic Church (to be found here: http://www.anglicanuse.org/files/The-Causes-for-Becoming-Catholic.pdf ). As he did his doctoral studies in Patristics at Oxford, his comments on Tradition and the teaching ministry of the Church directly apply to this present conversation.

Bob said...

Interestingly enough, there seems to a bit of difficultly for Protestants now, regarding Scripture. It's not merely that the canon was decided in the 4th century, it also a problem now. Is it KJV or NIV? While KJV has the power of long years of traditional use, eventually, English will change such that KJV will be just as readable as the Latin Vulgate.

And so a translation will need to be undertaken. And that will require some theological frame work. We see it now at its worst in controversies of whether gender inclusive language should be used in translation. But these are not the only concerns.

So not only does the Church need to operate in the 4th century, we find a need throughout time, an infallible Church to pass on an infallible Scripture.

Tim A. Troutman said...

I could make a better argument for Protestantism than he could.

Joseph said...

Is it just me or does Mr. Hagopian sound a bit condescending and presumptuous to the converts he is speaking of? None too happy, I guess.

Thos said...

Thank you Gil and Bob for what you shared with me. All of interest.

Tim and Joseph, I want very much to remain charitable, and have a long road left if I can keep up with this commentary on his 1990 article. I especially want to be mindful of the writing's age, and its not being on a website he controls -- maybe his approach has softened with the years. I think it is not unreasonable to agree that his tone back then had at least an edge of condescension. I (personally) try to avoid the use of sarcasm in ecumenical and religious discussion, even though I (like, I think, Mr. Hagopian) am naturally inclined toward it. I noted elsewhere that he was an O.P.C. member then (and a C.R.E.C. member now), and they tend to be direct more than indirect. Also, his background is in debate and rhetoric, and I think you see that reflected in his approach too.

I hope I don't sound like I'm making excuses, nor being uncharitable toward him, and I hope I didn't sound that way in my post. He is a brother, after all.

Peace in Christ,

Joseph said...


Right. Sadly, I always have a habit of introducing sarcasm into my conversations, but usually it is amongst friends and those of like minds. I suppose it is resonant of the sitcom world in which we live. On occasion, I slip and use sarcasm with those who are not close friends or of like minds because of the habit I've formed. Some laugh (because of the sitcom culture, I suppose), some nervously laugh (somewhat of a peer pressure?), and for those who don't laugh at all, my guess is that they were turned off by my use of sarcasm and my nubile relationship with them just took a hit.

It is usually when I notice the latter that I realize my bad habit has gotten the better of me and I am filled with regret and sorrow, for I am always trying to do battle with sarcasm (which I believe is a destructive device originating from the Evil One - that may be the explanation why it is so easy to use). Sarcasm, only on some occasions, can be an effective aid to conversation, but only when surrounded by like minds in my experience. Unfortunately, it is never good when it is used to tear down some one or some thing, even indirectly or accidentally. Words must always be watched. The continual use of sarcasm eventually will lead to rash judgment, so it seems that it might be better to avoid it altogether. Once again, I think that's extremely difficult to do in a society where Seinfeld and Chandler are heroes.

Anyhow, my point is, I fall into the same condescending trap as what I perceive Mr. Hagopian may have fallen into in his commentary. I don't believe that his primary or intended targets were Catholic converts. Therefore, I can see where his intended audience would tend to agree with him and either overlook the condescending nature in his commentary as colour or possibly even get a snicker. Still, it is a written article. Eventually, those Catholic converts, and even those whom Mr. Hagopian knew personally when he wrote his commentarty, may stumble upon it, and that is where it's destructive force may become apparent.

Basically, I'm defending Mr. Hagopian because I am giving him the benefit of the doubt as to who his intended audience was. But, I am not defending him in his use of what I perceived as sarcasm and a condescending tone in an article which would be inevitably read by the audience which he is discussing. Articles good - Sarcasm bad.

Thos said...


Your thoughts on sarcasm are interesting, particularly the suggestion that it might always be bad. I use sarcasm often. The likes of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus uses it all the time in his writing. I don't care for my own use, and try to hedge it in. It has the effect, similar to what you described, of making some people who don't (yet) know me well nervous, and empowers people who do perceive my use of it to laugh a lot and feel like they've got the inside scoop on my style. The words are, on their face, dishonest, or a lie. So it could only be justified by creating some exception or qualification to the no-lies rule of Christianity, something like "if you don't mean it as a lie" or "if the listener knows you're lying" then lying is okay. Interesting.

I am not a fan of Mr. Hagopian's tone because, especially bearing in mind his intended audience of Protestants curious why others are converting, he gives their itch just enough scratch for the time-being. They hear a few arguments, and put-down type language against his opponents, and figure he must be both smart and right. Then they end their healthful inquiry prematurely.

Peace in Christ,

Joseph said...

I got ya. But my approach was not in regards to whether or not the use of sarcasm is a clever way to bypass the "no-lies" rule of Christianity, intentionally or unintentionally. Though, that is an interesting point. Sarcasm can be used to add flavour to the deliberate untruth (not necessarily an outright lie, but one which uses omission to its fullest) in order to divert one's attention or make someone who sees through the sarcasm afraid to speak up for fear of appearing stupid by those who laugh with the sarcastic person.

I was more concerned with the "do not intentionally offend" or "do not intentionally disrupt peace" rules of Christianity. Like I said, I use sarcasm frequently (though I find it a problem), and you've admitted to its use. Fr. Neuhaus also uses it. But, when it's used while making a serious point (such as a theological debate, paper, an analysis of why Protestants are converting to Catholicism, or any conversation where another person may not agree with your position), it will no doubt offend a person who doesn't agree with the point, could possibly damage the relationship, and most definitely puts an end to any constructive dialogue. As you pointed out when you said, "Then they end their healthful inquiry prematurely" from the side that agrees with the sarcastic person, it also has the same effect from the side that does not, and it has offended that person.

When I read G.K. Chesterton, who is as sarcastic as they come in making his points, I find myself chuckling and thinking, "Yep, too bad the people he's talking about just don't get it". I make myself an "insider" and those who don't have the same understanding are not as clever as I am. Then I think about the person who, unable understand Chesterton's point of view (say, my Evangelical Uncle), and I imagine how much Chesterton's writings would get under his skin.

Compared to how Pope Benedict speaks and writes without making use of sarcasm, one can see where, at the least, one who does not agree with him can still find his writings accessible and may even contemplate them. I believe that, to the die-hard anti-Catholic Evangelical, reading Chesterton may make them want to punch the wall.

So, though you do raise another interesting point, mine was how sarcasm effects the others on the receiving end, and not necessarily how it effects the person using it. Thanks for letting me opine on your blog.