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A Look at Dave Hunt, Leading Anti-Catholic Fundamentalist
It has been observed, by Catholics with dismay and by others with satisfaction, that in America sizable numbers of Catholics are leaving Catholicism for fundamentalism. Some have left the Catholic Church permanently, it appears, while others—as Catholic journals of apologetics show — have returned, chastened by their experience. Many tell of having been encouraged away from the Church by such writers as Dave Hunt, who writes against humanism, against the occult, against the New Age — and, most fiercely, against Catholicism.
American Catholics seem particularly vulnerable now to people such as Hunt, as more and more we blur the teachings and surrender the rituals that might help us to distinguish ourselves from the times in which we find ourselves. When the Mass is a freestyle drama, when sacred music is superficial and hardly sacred, when the homily is an amiable chat rather than explication and instruction, when the rich communal life of devotions, adorations, novenas, feasts, and retreats has been abandoned, the ordinary Catholic can find that visits to his parish leave him not clear-eyed and enthusiastic but confused and lethargic. Catholic hearts left unmoved by a stripped-down American Catholicism are reportedly being moved by lively evangelical congregations, and Catholic minds left uninstructed by woolly or dissenting catechizers are offered sharp lessons by such as Dave Hunt in his speeches and widely selling books. Is it any wonder that people respond? Hunt's explicit anti-Catholicism speaks forthrightly the tacit anti-Catholicism so often encountered in the American Catholic Church today.
This article, I hope, will suggest that the clarity of vision offered by Hunt is specious, and that if Hunt could but see more clearly he might realize that his soundest spiritual instincts and best ecclesiological insights put him, too, on the road to Rome. The better we get to know Hunt, the more confidently we will remain in Rome, waiting to welcome him when he eventually reaches us.
Dave Hunt is the author most recently of A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days, which expounds the classically Protestant thesis that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon portrayed in Revelation 17, something we've been hearing for over four centuries. (No less a convert than John Henry Newman acknowledged, in his Apologia, that the old apocalyptic Protestant propaganda continued to exert a poisonous influence on his religious imagination long after he had ceased to credit it intellectually.)
Because of secular humanist and feminist challenges to our faith, many of us have not taken seriously enough the persistence and vehemence of the fundamentalist belief that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon — i.e., not simply a competing denomination, not indeed a Christian church at all, but an apostate institution, a counterfeit, a positive evil. Catholics who experience an evangelical conversion typically view their experience through the lens of Hunt's type of fundamentalism — and are therefore lost to the Church precisely when they are most inclined to take religious commitment seriously. If we are to be effective in bringing them back to the Catholic fold, we have to distinguish the authentic Christian content of their Christ-centered conversion from its anti-Catholic accretions and misinterpretations.
Curiously, in a recent book on Catholic-Protestant issues. Reformed theologian John H. Armstrong tells how he first realized that the common evangelical call to "make a decision for Christ" is actually more Catholic than Protestant (in the strictly Reformed sense):
I will never forget the first time I led a young man into a decision, not realizing then that such evangelistic methodology is more Roman Catholic than genuinely evangelical, only to ask him the so-called follow-up question, "Where is Christ right now?" He answered happily, "I have received Him into my heart in prayer with you, just as I receive Him into my heart every time I take [sic] the Mass."
Another contributor to the same volume, in commenting on writer Thomas Howard's reception into the Catholic Church, agrees that "in some senses it is a natural and logical progression from pietism to Roman Catholicism." This same Reformed theologian goes on to say that Protestant pietism and revivalism have more in common with Ignatian spirituality than with Reformed practice. He's right. We Catholics are at fault for not making this sufficiently known.
Dave Hunt is an excellent example of the incoherence of the anti-Catholic fundamentalist position: He damns the Catholic Church but doesn't realize that his own spirituality is ultimately of Catholic derivation through William Law, the 18th-century high-church Anglican mystic and spiritual writer whom Hunt deeply admires. If we are to witness effectively to fundamentalists like Hunt, we must point out the incongruity of their position. And in order to do that, we must take a look at the historical and personal origins of Hunt's opinions.
Hunt is a "dispensationalist," a follower of John Nelson Darby (who founded the Plymouth Brethren, the denomination in which Hunt was raised). Darby was an Anglican clergyman in Ireland. Ordained in 1826, the parson of a poor country parish in County Wicklow, he grew increasingly dissatisfied with Anglican formality and externalism, as well as with the socio-political position of Irish Anglicanism. Though a militant anti-Catholic Protestant, Darby (to his credit) was appalled by the Protestants' treatment of the Catholic peasants whom he was seeking to evangelize. Intent on converting Irish Catholics to his understanding of true Christianity, Darby came to see the established Anglican church as fatally compromised by the world.
But disillusion with the established church was having quite other effects, notably in the Oxford Movement. The leaders of this movement (John Henry Newman, John Keble, and others) found the Establishment's accommodations to the times driving them in a more Catholic direction, while Darby in Ireland went the other way, toward a radically sectarian and otherworldly Protestantism. Darby concluded that "Christendom, ..was really the world and could not be considered as 'the church.'"
For Newman, Rome became the solution to the Anglican puzzle. For Darby, Rome was the cause of it: The Church of England shared in Rome's apostasy by retaining too much from the Catholic past — particularly its privileged status in affairs of state. True Christianity, as envisaged by Darby, would be practiced by small fellowships, who worshiped in simplicity, with no ordained clergy and no fine church buildings. Since the Devil is the prince and god of this world, said Darby, the large and powerful churches were not only apostate but were positively in the service of the Antichrist who was to come.
The exegetical system worked out by Darby is known as dispensationalism. The central idea is that God has offered salvation to mankind on a different basis in each successive era or "dispensation" of human history. These are Innocence (in Paradise), Conscience (after the Fall), Government (in which men were subject to rulers), Promise (Abraham and the patriarchs), Law (Moses at Sinai), the Church (ever since the Resurrection), and the Kingdom (a millennium during which Christ will reign in Jerusalem).
Catholics and Reformed Christians acknowledge that some of these represent stages in salvation history, but to call them unique "dispensations" is to break up the story. The unity of God's saving plan — culminating in Christ, the Savior of both the Old and the New Testaments — is thereby undermined or rejected outright by Darbyites.
Dispensationalists like Hunt deny the Catholic and Reformed belief that the Church is the Kingdom already mysteriously present in the world. They define authentic Christianity as radically otherworldly and discarnate — to a degree that far exceeds the attitude of the original Protestant Reformers themselves. The rapture doctrine — the dispensational teaching that true Christians will be assumed into heaven before the final tribulation and the reign of the Antichrist — is part and parcel of such a radically otherworldly understanding of Christianity.
The rapture doctrine is much more for Hunt than an opinion: It is inextricably tied up with the entire Darbyite system of biblical interpretation and with the church's relation to the world. If true Christians are to be raptured out of the world — removed from the fray — in the end times, there is little reason to be concerned about social and political responsibilities, or about building up Christian culture and institutions: The time is short, and we won't be around anyway. Evangelism matters, but everything else, says Hunt, distracts from the Gospel message and leads evangelicals toward Catholicism or its offshoots in the rest of apostate Christendom.
Hunt is aware of Calvinist and Lutheran opposition to Darbyism, but he regards his Protestant opponents as dupes of Rome. The Catholic Church, by claiming to be the visible People of God, is self-evidently for Hunt the enemy of authentic Christianity. Hunt recognizes that, if the Church in the present age is the People of God, then by analogy the Old Testament worship, law, and polity have valid analogues in the life of the Church today. That is what Catholics and Reformed Christians have always maintained. But the entire dispensational system is premised upon the denial that this is even possible.
The dispensationalists claim that the messianic prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel concerning the restoration of Israel must be fulfilled literally for the Jews as a people. According to the Darbyites, all things pertaining to the visible People of God belong only to the Jews. The Church of the gentiles is merely a parenthesis in God's plan for human history; therefore, the Catholic claim to be the People of God marks the Roman Church as apostate. Of course, by such a standard, the Reformed and Lutheran churches are no less apostate; but the Catholic Church is always the real enemy.
In A Woman Rides the Beast, Hunt attributes the Catholic Church's historic pre-eminence to political factors. He fails to comprehend that both John Darby and John Henry Newman were dismayed by the Church of England's politico-religious compromises, and that Darby's descent into radically sectarian, anti-Catholic reaction may have been less logical and less inspired than Newman's ascent to Rome. Because most American fundamentalists are Darbyite dispensationalists, the mentality of Darby still keeps them from following Newman's path into the Catholic Church — even when their spirituality actually points Romeward.
Rome is ever at the center of Hunt's thoughts. According to Hunt, the Catholic Church will play a crucially villainous role in uniting all the world's religions in the service of the anti-Jewish and totalitarian Antichrist. By that time, the true Christians will have been raptured into heaven; the Jews in Israel will then return to the center of the historical stage. The Antichrist will turn against the Whore of Babylon (the Catholic Church and her allies) and destroy her. Then the Jews will recognize Christ at last, and Christ will come on the clouds to establish His millennial Kingdom in Jerusalem. Such are the end times, according to Dave Hunt.
Strangely, Hunt is zealous in defending the Protestant Reformation but does not realize that his own emphasis on "deciding for Christ" inescapably implies the possibility of co-operating with the grace of justification — a possibility the Reformers constantly condemned but upon which the Catholic Church insists. Also, dispensationalism's radical distinction between Law and Grace, and its choice for the latter over the former, is implicitly an invitation to a lawless or antinomian spirit among Christians. Some dispensationalists even say that the Ten Commandments are not meant for gentile Christians in the present age. For this the dispensationalists are condemned as heretics by real Calvinists such as the late John Gerstner, who called dispensationalism "spurious Calvinism and dubious evangelicalism." Gerstner saw that the Church-Israel dichotomy caused dispensationalists to "retreat into a hyper-spiritual Gnosticism which spurns the structures of the visible church which God has graciously given His people."
The crucial role of the Jews in the last dispensation leads, understandably in the aftermath of Nazism, to the question of the Jews' survival as a people. Another of Hunt's charges against the Catholic Church is that her claim to be the People of God is the source of ideological anti-Semitism:
Roman Catholics were taught they had replaced the Jews as God's chosen people. The land of Israel, promised by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now belonged to "Christian" Rome. She became the "new Zion," the "Eternal City," and "The Holy City," titles which God had given to Jerusalem alone (A Woman Rides the Beast, p. 335).
The Catholic claims, says Hunt, put the Church "in direct conflict with God's promises concerning the true City of David." In Hunt's Darbyite scheme, Rome and Jerusalem are eternal enemies and rivals for spiritual supremacy in the world. Catholics respond that anti-Jewish hostility has no necessary link to Catholic doctrine and that pre-Christian pagans and post-Christian Nazis were anti-Semitic. This response doesn't faze Hunt because he sees Catholicism as the paganization of Christianity. Hunt blames Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology for the Holocaust — at least in the sense of preparing the way for it.
Oddly enough, in making this accusation, Hunt agrees with anti-Catholic secular liberals and with radical neo-Modernist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. In her 1977 book Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roofs of Anti-Semitism, Ruether maintained that anti-Semitism is the "left hand" of New Testament Christology and of the Pauline and patristic doctrine of the Church as the New Israel. Predictably enough, Ruether proposes that the New Testament itself be subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion — i.e., to ideological cleansing — and that Christian doctrine concerning the Messiahship and incarnate divinity of Christ be radically revised to suit the post-Holocaust era. Ruether acknowledges that modern racial anti-Semitism is the by-product of the secularization of the Christian world, but she nevertheless sees anti-Semitism's remote origins in the New Testament and the Fathers.
The very idea of Dave Hunt and Rosemary Ruether agreeing about anything is astonishing. Anti-Catholicism makes strange bedfellows! But upon closer inspection, dispensationalism is, in certain ways, akin to neo-Modernist theology. Let us recall that the early liberal Protestants and the Catholic Modernist Alfred Loisy asserted that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God — but we got the Church instead.
Dispensationalists say much the same thing: Jesus offered Israel an earthly kingdom but was rejected and crucified and then rose and ascended to Heaven. The Church of the gentiles is not heir to the prophecies of the Old Testament. Loraine Boettner — no friend of Catholicism — makes the following pointed observation:
Dispensationalism contains a strong element of Modernism, even to the extent of asserting that in the Kingdom age salvation is possible apart from the work of Christ on the Cross. That man can be saved apart from the suffering of Christ is in fact the very heart of the Modernistic heresy, and there is no doctrine of Scripture that the Modernists would more gladly be rid of than that of blood atonement (The Millennium, 1957).
Ruether, seeing Scripture through her radical humanist-feminist lens, and Hunt, reading the Bible through the lens of dispensationalism, don't seem to realize how much of the Scriptures they have tacitly rejected.
As for anti-Semitism and the Church, one notes that anti-Catholic writers like Hunt condemn the Church for her involvements in politics but also condemn the Church for not doing enough about the Holocaust. Question: How can Hunt demand that Catholics be political and apolitical simultaneously?
It puzzles me that while Catholics readily recognize writings such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as incitements to anti-Semitic prejudice and hatred, and vociferously condemn them, Catholics have said little about Dave Hunts anti-Catholic writings, writings which are, ironically enough, very much like anti-Semitic propaganda: They demonize an entire group of people and, in apocalyptic fashion, trace every evil in 2,000 years of history back to the international conspiracy called Catholicism. It is time for Catholics to respond.
And to whom are we responding? A brief look at Dave Hunt's personal spiritual journey may help us understand him and his concerns. (The facts come from a 1992 study by William DeArteaga entitled Quenching the Spirit.) Hunt was raised in a devout Plymouth Brethren home which looked askance at the enthusiasms of the Pentecostals, and Hunt continued to share these sentiments through his college years and marriage. He majored in mathematics, served in the Army, and eventually became a certified public accountant. He hoped to become a prosecuting attorney but had to change plans when, as general manager of a financially troubled lumber and real estate company, he became legally responsible for the company's debts.
In this desperate situation, he prayed to God for help and received assurance that all would be well. According to DeArteaga, "that began several years of living on a financial precipice, where one miracle after another saved the business from folding." This experience, followed by a physical healing in answer to prayer, convinced Hunt that the Plymouth Brethren's cessationism (i.e., the view that miracles ceased after the apostolic age) was a dead faith: "Would I be left with the emptiness of an orthodox 'faith' that contents itself with beautiful prayers and songs about a God who hides far away in heaven and waits to free men after death, but who plays no real part in their here and now?"
Hunt's new opinions about the gifts of the Holy Spirit put him on a collision course with his Brethren congregation. When the elders at Hunt's church found out about his attendance at a charismatic home group, they charged him with heresy and excommunicated him. But soon Hunt began to see some of the dangers of enthusiasm in his charismatic prayer group: the lack of spiritual discernment, the "easy believism" without discipleship or commitment, and the lack of both love and unity.
Hunt began to look for a via media between the charismatics and the more conventional (cessationist) evangelicals. He read the writings of the South African evangelist Andrew Murray, whose teaching on the Holy Spirit derived from the writings of the Anglican mystic William Law, whom Hunt began to study assiduously. In 1971 Hunt produced an edition of Law's book An Humble, Earnest and Affectionate Address to the Clergy, under the title The Power of the Spirit. Hunt saw Law's teaching as the golden mean between cessationism and the charismatic renewal. In his introduction to this work. Hunt wrote:
He [Law] would rebuke, ..both camps.... To the mainline denominational adherent he would press home the necessity of the sovereignty and power of the Holy Spirit for today; and upon the Pentecostal he would impress the fact that the power of the Spirit is bestowed primarily to witness and to live a holy life.
Without realizing it. Hunt was groping toward the Catholic position on faith, grace, and the special charisms in the life of the Church. If only Hunt were not prejudiced by Darby's dispensationalism, he might see this and recognize the substantial Catholicity of Law's spiritual teaching.
The missteps of the Protestant Reformation have created the problematic situation Hunt has, in part, correctly recognized. He even sees part of the answer in the spirituality of William Law. The Catholic tradition that Hunt excoriates is itself simply the Holy Spirit—guided elucidation of the revealed Word. Like the Virgin Mary, the Church is filled with the Holy Spirit and treasures the Word in her heart, that it may remain in all its purity for all generations. Hunt's identification of Catholic tradition with "mere traditions of men" is wide of the mark. It could be more aptly applied to the eccentric doctrinal system of dispensationalism, the very system Hunt unquestioningly accepts.
By 1985 Hunt came practically full circle to near-cessationism, almost to where he had begun. In alarm at the advance of New Age ideas, Hunt began to oppose the enthusiasm of the charismatic renewal, which he saw as influenced by occultic and Gnostic assumptions (putting faith in faith rather than in Christ, and such). Hunt still sees practically all political involvements as participation in the establishment of the New Age—dominated reign of the Antichrist — with the help of Catholicism and Christian Reconstruction, no doubt.
There is a final irony in Dave Hunt's story. He remains a follower and admirer of William Law, the high-church Anglican mystic who refused to swear allegiance to the House of Hanover. As a nonjuror, Law lost his career in the Church of England but remained a faithful Anglican of basically Catholic sympathies: His writings reflect the influence of Thomas a Kempis, Ruysbroeck, and other medievals. Law also commended the religious life of consecrated celibacy and poverty as found among monks and nuns, and he emphasized the indwelling of Christ in the soul of the Christian. William Law's spiritual teaching is essentially Catholic. It is therefore not surprising that Law's writings profoundly influenced John Henry Newman and other members of the Oxford Movement in their attitude toward both the spiritual life and the Establishment. Though Law, as a nonjuror, was disqualified from church office, he disapproved of schism and dissent.
The problem with men like Darby and Hunt — the burden they bear and the burden they impose onus—is that they are perpetually looking for some pristine Christian purity and constantly accusing others of falling prey to pagan influences. And yet, at some point in their ever-renewed protest against Catholicism, they arbitrarily assert that one or more parts of Catholic Christianity has remained incorrupt — it may be the authorizing of the canon of Scripture, the gifts of the Spirit, the mystical tradition, or the reality of miracles.
A.W. Tozer, the great evangelical pastor, is another figure whom Hunt deeply respects and commends as a model of spiritual discernment. But Hunt conveniently ignores the fact that Tozer gratefully acknowledged his spiritual debt to St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Brother Lawrence. Is it likely that such a godly evangelical was deceived by false Catholic mystics? If Catholicism is truly apostate, as Hunt shouts from the rooftops, then how can the Catholic mystics be reliable guides in the spiritual life?
We must say to Dave Hunt, as to all anti-Catholic Protestants: If the springs of Catholic tradition are as poisoned as you say, why do you drink from them when you need to slake your spiritual thirst? •
W. Robert Aufill is a Benedictine novice at Saint Louis Abbey in St. Louis, where he has taken the name Brother Ambrose in honor of St. Ambrose Barlow, the English Benedictine martyr who was executed in 1641.
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