Response to Thomas Howe’s “Drowning in the Tiber”

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Introduction

During my time at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Dr. Thomas Howe was the school’s intellectual heavyweight and the most popular professor (I have heard it said more than once that although students came to SES for Norman Geisler, they stayed for Tom Howe!). He is also someone I consider a friend. So it was with great interest that I received his response to Evangelical Exodus after I sent him a copy of the book this summer. That original response has now been published, with some changes, on the SES website as “Drowning in the Tiber“. I was happy to see that Howe did not simply repeat tired old refrains or use the book as a platform to pedal his own agenda as have other reviewers thus far. As expected, Howe actually read and interacted with the material.

I was, however, disappointed by how he chose to do so. Part of my disappointment was the presence of so many tired SES critical tropes (e.g., claims of self-referential incoherence, charges of presuppositional bias, and strings of rhetorical questions), but mostly it was due to his self-professed uncharitable manner. Accusations of me, “sounding like a rebellious teenager,” or charges of, “lacking the capacity to learn basic critical thinking skills,” is not how one treats a friend or colleague with whom he disagrees (however vehemently). Although I and the other contributors specifically expressed our appreciation for SES, I fear Howe took my journey both negatively and personally (although the only time he is named in the book is on page 221, where he is cited favorably), and his tone reflects his displeasure.

After receiving his original response, I hoped to let it drop. Unfortunately, rather than distancing themselves from this sort of thing, SES instead added it to their attempts to discredit Evangelical Exodus by publishing it on the front page of their website. Such public criticism warrants a response – but out of respect for Dr. Howe, I wish to avoid responding to his style and focus instead on his arguments. These will follow the flow of his article below.

PART 1: “Diving In? A Belly Flop!”

Testimony Not Treatise

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In his introduction, Howe begins by correctly noting that Evangelical Exodus is primarily personal testimonies, but in the very next sentence states that he will be responding to my arguments. The problem is that Howe ignores my arguments (found primarily in the appendices) and instead attacks my personal testimony as if it were an academic treatise.

As stated in the book’s introduction, the most significant arguments were included in four appendices in order to avoid redundancy and ruining the flow of the stories. Had Howe engaged those appendices instead of my personal story, his complaints would hold more water. By attacking personal stories as if they were scholarly arguments, Howe seriously mitigates the value of his entire article.

Disputing Doctrines, Not Statements

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After the first of many cheap personal shots, Howe criticizes me for something I neither said nor implied. While I wrote of “salvation by faith alone,” Howe responded concerning “salvation by grace through faith.” These are two entirely different statements – the former is a doctrine, the latter is a Bible verse (namely, Ephesians 2:8). Howe essentially turns the discussion from Evangelical’s disagreement over a doctrine to their agreement on the existence of a Bible verse. He might just as well have said, “there are no Evangelicals who dispute the Bible” (a fairly benign claim given the movement’s numerous interpretations).

The issue, though, is not that Evangelicals agree that salvation is by grace through faith and Catholics do not (see The Council of Trent’s On Justification – especially section VIII). Rather, the disagreement concerns the verse’s meaning. In Evangelicalism, what constitutes salvation, how one attains grace, whether or not one is guaranteed to keep that grace, exactly how faith and works relate, and the very nature of faith itself, are all open for discussion. That was my point.

Self-Referential Incoherence

Seeking out alleged contradictions and self-referential incoherence is a favorite tactic of SES, and Howe did not wait long to employ it. He argues that I cannot claim that Evangelicalism nearly defies definition because of its numerous divisions and yet at the same time talk about Evangelicalism as if it was an identifiable group.

First, this difficulty is one which Evangelicals themselves have asserted (as the book’s unacknowledged footnote citing four scholarly sources shows). Second, Howe’s assertion  would indeed create an incoherency had I not actually said it was practically impossible to come up with a universally acceptable definition. Evangelicals are largely self-defined and often form overlapping communities that can be identified in general even though they defy strict theological description (which was my point). Thus, my claim was neither self-referentially incoherent, nor was it simply “my characterization” of the problem.

Church Fathers and Medieval Theologians

Howe takes umbrage with my claims that I found Evangelical theology to be at odds with the historic Church – specifically the Protestant idea that the Church is an invisible entity. He further disputes my statement that Dr. Norman Geisler did not faithfully teach Aquinas on divine sovereignty or impassibility.

Rather than show that I was wrong, however, Howe asks a series of rhetorical questions (nearly two entire paragraphs worth) that merely imply that I might have been mistaken. Moreover, Howe ignores the half a page of support I provided for my claim when he accuses me of “simply declaring” that I am right.

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Shortly thereafter, Howe again complains that I cite no sources for my statements concerning the Nicene Fathers – and then attacks the sources I cited in his very next paragraph!

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Further, Howe mistakenly accuses me of trusting “Oden’s interpretations” when the book in question is actually a compilation of citations from the early Church Fathers. Now, if Howe thinks all those sources are in error, then he should challenge them rather than resorting to rhetorical questions with no support for their implied answers. Instead, he imagines a debate that he implies can only be resolved by someone who has mastered the original languages. Which brings me to his next accusation.

Reasoning in Tongues

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In my chapter, I pointed out that Aquinas describes a false view of God’s sovereignty using nearly the exact same words that Geisler uses to explain his own view (which is often confused with Aquinas’s). In response, Howe accuses me of not having facility with the languages he believes are necessary to judge such things (which apparently makes me sound like a “rebellious teenager” to him).

Once again note that Howe neither argues that my interpretation is in fact wrong, nor does he support his rhetorical implications with any evidence. Now, perhaps the translators of the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas were inadequate to the task – but Howe did not argue that either. As to the meaning of the Nicene Creed with respect to the writings of the Church Fathers, I doubt Howe would want to argue that a more accurate translation of the original Greek would show it affirming SES’s Free-Grace-Baptist-Dispensationalism, its theory of the invisible church, or its symbolic view of baptism!* And that is all that is needed for my point to stand.

*I actually had one of SES’s professors argue something very much like this once, and SES’s current president had me escorted from the building and banned from the campus because I challenged just such an idea).

Hermeneutical / Logical Chops

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After another round of implication-by-rhetorical-question, Howe concludes that the reader should see that I do not have the “hermeneutical chops” or the “capacity to learn basic critical thinking skills” to pursue such an investigation as I have described. This is a low point in an already dubious article, and also one of the most ironic.

In the spirit of Philippians 3:5, I must point out that before becoming Catholic, I was “an SESer of SESers.” I graduated summa cum laude  from SES, earning A’s in all of the logic and hermeneutics courses I took there (including those taught by Dr. Howe himself), and after graduation, I was chosen to teach the undergraduate logic and Bible study courses for SES. So whatever dismal logical and hermeneutical shape I may be in, it says as much about SES – and Howe himself – as it does me.

In any case, my reasoning followed those of many before me who certainly had the relevant academic “chops.” Indeed, a comparison of those who have left Evangelicalism for Catholicism and those who have gone the opposite direction is hardly favorable for Evangelicalism.

Sola Scriptura Redux

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The deeper issue here is really one of interpretive authority. Concerning my investigations, Howe says I “had already assumed that any authority would have to be something along the lines of the Magisterium.” This is false. Rather, that idea is the conclusion I reached after discovering the doctrinal chaos that ensued from sola scriptura and the fact that the biblical canon itself, as well as its orthodox interpretation, were both settled “along the lines of the Magisterium” (namely in ecumenical councils, starting with Acts 15).

This issue received an entire appendix in the book which I won’t repeat here. Instead I will simply point out that whatever non-magesterial method Howe claims will resolve these debates, it is clear that it has failed. There are others who share the same method who disagree with him. Howe says he learned the ancient languages to resolve these kinds of debates, yet there are plenty of scholars who know as much or more than Howe does about languages, hermeneutics, and philosophy, who nonetheless do not agree with his theology (or each other’s). This is simply what happens when a text is used as an ultimate authority.

one familiar with Evangelical doctrine should also ask: what do Howe’s complaints say about biblical perspicuity? Must Evangelicals learn all the ancient languages, philosophy, history, science, etc. in order to choose correctly from among hundreds of denominations that have cropped up since sola scriptura was invented? And in doing so, would they not be trusting extra-biblical authorities to teach them? Perhaps they must all trust an extra-biblical authority like Howe! (But of course, how could they judge Howe’s competency? Or his teachers? And down the rabbit hole we go.) The simple fact is that everyone is trusting various non-biblical authorities regardless of what depth they reach in their studies, and regardless of which ones are followed, the division and disunity of those who affirm sola scriptura remains.

The Evangelical Norm

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Here Howe complains that he has “yet to encounter an Evangelical who set ‘narcissism’ above truth.” That’s fine, and I am glad that such has been his experience. The issue, though, is whether or not it has been mine – and it hasn’t. Once again, Howe’s criticism is of my story. If I knew a lot of evangelicals that I thought were narcissists, that’s part of my story whether or not such judgments are accurate. I did not generalize my experience to all Evangelicals (note my numerous qualifications to the contrary in the quote Howe included above), and only then would Howe’s experience be relevant.

PART 2: “Drowning in the Wading Pool”

Logical Snobbery

As further evidence of my “lack of critical thinking,” Howe charges me with “blatant Chronological Snobbery” because I said that,

“Protestant denominations generally understood the Bible through some official confessions that were written when their particular group was founded, but in the end they could grant these no more binding authority than Evangelical “doctrinal statements.” It seemed to me that if one were going to trust some official statement, why choose these latecomers as authoritative?”

The fallacy of Chronological Snobbery occurs when a thing is illegitimately judged to be more or less true based on its age alone (in Howe’s words, “Simply because a statement is late does not make it false”). However, in many cases the age of a thing certainly does legitimately factor into one’s judgment of it (e.g., a witness’s memory of an event would likely be more trustworthy the day of the event rather than 50 years later). Given the context in which I made the above statement, the fallacy was, in my opinion, avoided.

You see, my complaint was not simply aimed at the age of given confessional writings – it was their lack of authority. Regardless of their age, these confessions are not universally binding on the Church (applying only to each denomination’s members). Because they came into existence long after the Church had already composed the creeds and councils which are universally binding, Protestant confessions are no more to be chosen over these than Evangelical doctrinal statements which came along even later. Perhaps that was not clear from what I wrote.

Doctrinal Disagreements

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Howe says, “The Catholic church has had just as much disagreement over the centuries as has any other Christian group.”  I’ve heard this claim made many times, but have never seen it sufficiently supported by those making the claim. And Howe’s was no different.

Howe considers the fact that two popes disagreed evidence that this is the case, but this confuses what a pope thinks and what the Church teaches. This is not, in Catholicism, the same thing – but the confusion is understandable coming from someone used to an environment where every individual’s views must be counted toward what their group teaches. The dogma of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, however, is not determined by a headcount of individuals (even popes!). Rather, it is settled by a living, authoritative magisterium.

This kind of objection therefore mistakenly assumes that the unity of the Catholic Church is based on the degree of agreement concerning matters of faith among all who call themselves Catholic. But this implicitly presupposes that there is no difference in teaching authority between the laity and the Magisterium (e.g., as in Protestantism). But one cannot legitimately judge Catholic unity using the Protestant paradigm. The living Catholic magisterium creates a real-time, orthodox, dogmatic “line in the sand” that Protestantism lacks. Further, where licit, non-divisive, doctrinal disagreement exists within the Catholic Church, there exists a mechanism for vetting it (e.g., Acts 15) – a mechanism that Protestantism lacks as well.

PART 3: “Dog Paddling into a Shipwreck”

Getting Christianity Wrong

In the book (page 46), I listed some of the great names in the Catholic Church and mentioned that I failed to see how these folks could be accused of getting Christianity so horribly wrong. Howe responds with a list of Protestants he considers great, and asserted that, yes indeed, even great people could be wrong.

This is a misleading analogy, though. I was not speaking of minor errors or disagreements (hence the word “horribly”). After 1,500 years of great Christian thinkers teaching Catholic doctrine, the Reformers came along and said that these men got salvation itself wrong. The clear implication (which is often stated explicitly by anti-Catholics) is that the historical Fathers and Doctors of the Church – some of whom gave us the biblical canon and the orthodox creeds – were not even Christians! Listing some smart Protestants is hardly a response to such a bizarre position.

Overcoming the Church

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Although Matthew 16:18 was not the only “prooftext” cited for my conviction that the Church that Christ started would not be overcome, Howe devoted about 25% of his original response to proving that the Catholic understanding of that single verse might not necessarily be correct. Oddly, Howe did so by attacking the arguments of one Francis Sullivan (a writer who is not cited for support anywhere in the body of Evangelical Exodus). Since he went through all the trouble, I’ll briefly respond.

Howe’s basic argument is that “gates don’t attack,” and therefore Jesus’ words to Peter (probably) do not mean the Church cannot be overcome. Howe does not mention the fact that “gate” is used in the Bible as metonymy for a fortified city (e.g., Gen 22:17; 24:60; Is 14:31) – so the “gate functionality argument” could be said to fail on that point alone.

Moreover, in the end Howe ironically achieves nothing more than adding his own opinion to the “no small amount of literature [that] has been produced concerning the interpretation of the statement” (his words). Howe’s rebuttal thus serves as a neat reminder that there is a variety of scholarly opinion concerning the interpretation of Scripture even among learned scholars.

PART 4: “Sawing Off the Branch on Which One Sits”

Smoke and Mirrors

This final section reflected the most significant changes that I noticed  from Howe’s original response (mostly consisting of deletions), but in the end he offered the same basic argument. In a nutshell: Howe thinks that I am committing the same error I accuse Protestants of making because we both use our intellects to choose a church (a move reminiscent of Salmon in The Infallibility of the Church – see pp.47-61).

But this is not what happened.

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As I specified in the very chapter Howe is criticizing (see pp. 38-39), the Catholic and Protestant paradigms differ not because one allows for individual thinking and the other does not. Rather, the Catholic uses his individual thinking to identify the Church Jesus established, and then submits his theological opinions to that authority. The Protestant, on the other hand, uses his individual thinking to interpret what he thinks the Bible teaches, and then chooses a church / denomination / movement based on its agreement with his interpretation. Thus, it is a case of objective historical investigation for the Catholic vs. a subjective theological comparison for the Protestant. Right or wrong, the two methodologies are worlds apart, and thus Howe’s objection is moot.

*Should the reader struggle to see the importance of this distinction, this article is very helpful (which is why it was referenced twice in the book – pp. 38 and 250).

Condemnation and Charity

In his conclusion, Howe summarizes what he considers to be my “condemnation” of Evangelicals (without explaining why I said those things or arguing that any of them are false), and then asserts that I have been uncharitable in doing so.

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In response I will say that I was deep into SES for well over a decade. I saw a lot of things no one else saw, and if I wanted to “condemn” anyone I could have done so with gusto. Instead, however, I stuck with my own story, even showing appreciation for SES online and in the book itself. Apparently that was not enough for Howe, who accuses me of  “setting myself up as the moral standard and judge of the motivations and practices of all Evangelicals.”

Now, particular criticisms are necessarily part of my story (why would I become Catholic if I had no criticisms of anything in Evangelicalism?). Howe seems to be taking individual criticisms as applying to all Evangelicals. If that is how it came across, I apologize – for I do not take that position (indeed, many of my closest friends and family remain Evangelical to this day), and neither I nor anyone else stated such a thing in the book. (In that vein, let’s not forget one of Dr. Howe’s defining taglines – “The meaning is in the text!”) 

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Finally, it should be noted that many of my chief complaints about Evangelicalism were being made public for years while I was an Evangelical (most often to other Evangelicals!). In fact, it was the criticism of Evangelicalism by Evangelicals that convinced me that the issues with Evangelicalism constituted a widespread problem. None of this caused me any interpersonal problems then, and most of my Evangelical friends continue to agree that these problems exist even if they reject my solution to them.

Conclusion

I appreciate Dr. Howe very much. He was one of the best professors I had at SES, and many of the most important things I learned in my time there were due to his teachings. I am sorry that he seems to have taken my journey so personally and responded in a manner that even he admits is uncharitable. Whatever personal beef I might have had with individuals at SES, none were with him. I continue to think of him as a valuable colleague and Christian brother. Perhaps in the future we can discuss these things as such.

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