When two theological heavyweights clash with one another, the ensuing dialogue can be fireworks. But one can learn a lot about the state of the church from such disputes.
The immensely erudite and (apparently recently) idiosyncratic Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart published an extended essay, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Listen to this summary in Hart’s own words). Hart has been one of the greatest theological voices undermining the pretentiousness of the New Atheist movement. In exposing the fault lines of thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Hart’s Atheist Delusions has been regarded as one of the finest polemical works against early 21st century atheism.
Alas, Hart’s star has since fallen after his That All Shall Be Saved, a bold and dogmatically absolutist defense of a Christian universalism, which argues that while there is still a future hell and divine judgment, that experience of hell is ultimately purgative and redeeming, such that none are ultimately lost in the very end.
Like what former megachurch pastor and now California surfer and podcaster Rob Bell strongly hinted at, and what the author of the evangelical blockbuster novel, The Shack, William Paul Young finally came out and admitted, the brilliant and exceedingly well-read David Bentley Hart has whole-heartedly endorsed a theological position that has historically been condemned by the vast majority of Christians. Hart does not care. Anyone who disagrees with him about universalism is effectively morally challenged, in his view, and he is not afraid to unload condescension on his critics.
That was just a few years ago. Now that this previous storm has passed, he has yet again triggered even more controversy.
David Bentley Hart: Christian Universalist Who Wants to Help Christians Reframe the Judaeo-Christian “Tradition”
As a lowly computer network engineer, I am certainly no match for the incredibly gifted rhetorical powers of Hart, not even close. Like him or not, David Bentley Hart makes for a stimulating read. I get a lot of benefit in reading Hart, even when I ultimately disagree with him.
But when a few years ago I blogged about a survey of reviews condemning That All Shall Be Saved as wholly unorthodox, and that Hart had gone rogue, I was greeted with scathing reviews left in the Veracity comment section by some of Hart’s disciples. I was castigated for not having read That All Shall Be Saved, despite having listened to several extended, hour-plus long interviews given by Hart about the book, and despite having read other attempts to fit some form of universalism into the Bible for a number of years. I suppose Hart’s disciples believe that somehow Hart had finally stumbled on that “knock-out” punch to completely demolish any attack on universalism, that no one had ever considered before in 2,000 years of church history.
I have always considered myself as someone who would want universalism to be true, at least to a certain extent. For if indeed a compelling Scriptural case for a Christian universalism could be made, a Christian should gladly embrace such a doctrine. But since I am not convinced by the exegetical Scriptural defense for a Christian universalism, in any dogmatic sense, I walked away from reading those comments as though I had been labeled a “moral cretin.” All of that for simply desiring to hold to a form of classic, historical Christian orthodoxy.
OK. I guessed I should try to give Hart another chance. Perhaps I did miss something. Alas, an essay from Gerald McDermott, another esteemed theologian, finally drew me into the challenge.
In July, 2022, Gerald McDermott wrote a negative review of Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse in the pages of the First Things magazine, entitled “Hart’s Turn to Heterodoxy.” Though not nearly as well known as Hart, McDermott might be one of the best contemporary interpreters of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. McDermott has also written cogent defenses for a type of Christian Zionism, in support of national Israel, that do not fall within the theological scope of popular evangelical dispensationalism. McDermott is a first-rate theologian, who speaks at various universities and seminaries. McDermott is no slouch… and he has no sympathy for Hart’s recent idiosyncrasies.
Let us consider what Gerald McDermott has to say….
Theologian Gerald McDermott Calls Out D. B. Hart as Essentially a False Teacher
McDermott’s first paragraph ends with this:
‘But in his new book, Tradition and Apocalypse, [Hart] argues that the Christian tradition is bankrupt. Using [John Henry] Newman’s Essay on Development of Doctrine as a foil, he insists that the “rational unity” of the Christian tradition cannot be known with any certitude, and what we take to be apostolic is little more than the result of “political compromise,” “rhetorical evasion,” and “institutional expediency.” Put simply, creedal Christianity radically contradicts Jesus and the apostles, who—according to Hart—taught anarchist communism, pacifism, and the rejection of all political authority.’
Hardly a positive endorsement, McDermott claims that David Bentley Hart has now embraced ideas that attack at the base of received Christian tradition, handed down over the centuries. David Bentley Hart would not be someone to ignore if it were not for the fact that he is an extraordinarily accomplished rhetorician. I do not always know that Hart is really trying to say, but it is always entertaining to read him, to say the least. As expected, Hart does not take such critique laying down:
‘I have been asked by a number of readers whether I intend to comment upon Gerald McDermott’s truculent and ridiculously misrepresentative “review” of Tradition and Apocalypse—wherein our intrepid warrior in the cause of orthodoxy claims that the book portrays Christian tradition as “bankrupt” (which came as a bit of a surprise to its author, I can tell you). The review appeared on the online site of (as if it needed saying) First Things, where editorial standards have been in tragic decline ever since my dog decided to sever ties with the publication.’
Perhaps this is just my sense of humor, but David Bentley Hart’s barbs always give me a chuckle, even when it comes to serious stuff like this. If you do not find Hart at all amusing, such as in this paragraph above, then reading the rest of my review is probably not for you.
Ready to continue?
Hart goes onto reference a few other more moderate critical reviews of Tradition and Apocalypse, by Jesse Hake, that address some of McDermott’s concerns (here and here). Hart counters McDermott with:
“In fact, the book is a defense of tradition—as a living thing to be cultivated rather than as a dead artifact to be curated—and mounts a defense of the creedal formula of Nicaea in particular. … Chiefly I argue that Nicaea was not a reaffirmation of a single prior orthodoxy, but was instead an “inspired” hermeneutical sifting of wheat from chaff and a reformulation of the past in what were novel terms and concepts at the time, guided by a firm if somewhat inchoate sense of the final cause shaping the tradition.”
Gerald McDermott is not buying any of Hart’s defense. In his rejoinder in First Things, “A Lonely Hart, ” McDermott doubles-down on his critique of Hart:
‘But in defending his book Tradition and Apocalypse against my “ludicrously inaccurate” review, David Bentley Hart only confirms my accuracy. When he insists that his book “is a defense of tradition” against my charge that he declares the Christian tradition bankrupt, we are tempted to ask which tradition he thinks he is defending. For it is a strange defense of Christian tradition to say that until the apocalypse it is “nothing more than an impenetrable enigma,” that the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” have no “convincing synthesis,” that the so-called “intrinsic unity” of Christian tradition “is an illusion—or even perhaps a lie,” that “the dogmatic content of tradition . . . appears to be full of odd disjunctions and contradictions,” and that “perhaps, of course, the entire tale is an illusion at the end of the day, a fable Christians have told themselves over the centuries in order to carry themselves through the dark places of this world.” ‘
Gerald McDermott’s final statements are terse and shocking, warning the faithful to stay far away from David Bentley Hart. Buyer beware, in other words:
“Hart has never been a man of the Church, devoted to its orthodoxy, dedicated to the emerging wisdom of the Christian community and its Great Tradition. He is an independent religious thinker who urges his readers to adopt his own private method of theological interpretation. …….Hart’s message is an anti-gospel. May the sheep of God’s flock listen to the voice of their Lord, and not that of a stranger.”
Making Sense of the D.B. Hart – Gerald McDermott Exchange
If it were not for the fact that the subject matters involved are of vital importance, having eternal consequences, one could easily look upon this literary ping-pong match with cynical or mind-numbing amusement. Alas, these are grave, serious matters that can not be swept under any rug, and which should not be laughed at nor cynically dismissed. McDermott willingly concedes that not all Christian universalists reject other important matters of Christian doctrine. But it would appear that Gerald McDermott believes that David Bentley Hart has gone down that proverbial “slippery slope” and has departed from the faith once delivered to the saints.
I have been reminded by friends that a “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy. Just because someone embraces an opinion that sidesteps an important and impactful aspect of Christian tradition does not necessarily mean that one will inevitably slide down such slippery slopes. But “slope slipping” nevertheless does happen. I am always concerned that if the epistemological foundations for a contrary opinion lack sufficient support that it could easily precipitate a further slipping away from an historically orthodox Christian faith.
Having grown up in a 20th century, liberal Protestant mainline church, a movement that today has been transformed into something called “progressive Christianity,” I have seen such spiritual digressions happen far too often. What was once a clear dividing line between mainline liberalism and conservative evangelicalism has been muddled, as the free flowing use of terms like “deconstruction,” “ex-Evangelical,” and “deconversion” regularly cross social media feeds, often coming from voices originating from even the center of the “Bible Belt.”
Strangely, some of my conservative evangelical friends who learned of their faith from a fundamentalist-leaning cradle environment do not seem to understand this. Once someone becomes convinced that some “significant” theological received tradition can not be trusted as having a reliable pedigree then this can easily become a gateway for the unraveling of Christian faith. It would appear that at least some segment of the so-called “mega-church” Christianity of the past 30 years or so has lost sight of the genuine value of received Christian wisdom through tradition, in favor of fog-machines and the wearing of ear plugs to avoid hearing damage on Sunday mornings, and things like that. Even more modest expressions of American evangelical Christianity, without all of the flashy fanfare, are not immune from these digressions.
It would help to offer some definition of “tradition,” or “traditions” as 2 Thessalonians 2:15 refers to it. Paul advises the Thessalonians:
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (ESV).
Many Christians have a very negative view of “tradition,” as in the man-made traditions of the Pharisees that Jesus condemns. But Paul is talking about something different with the Thessalonians. For Paul, the “traditions” are the teachings that are to be passed down from generation to generation, in the life of the church, which is a very positive thing. The problem is in how Christians should go about handling such “traditions,” and how successful have they been in doing so. Have Christians adequately and faithfully handed down the faith once delivered to the saints, to newer generations? In other words, which “traditions” actually go back to Jesus, versus “traditions” which have been altered down through the generations, such that we have lost out on the true message of Jesus as originally given?
For a Christian, this is an essential matter.
Ironically, the dispute between McDermott and Hart about “tradition” (or “traditions”) is the core issue that Hart is seeking to address in Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief. Before going any further, it is important to acknowledge at the outset that both McDermott and Hart would agree that there has been doctrinal development throughout the history of the church, continuing on in every generation, even in our own day, here in the early 21st century. The doctrine of the Trinity articulated at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople did not flow right off the lips of Peter or Paul, and the canon of the New Testament itself took several centuries to solidify. Where McDermott and Hart differ is how much such development actually has taken place, and how much, if any, did that development depart from the original teaching of the apostles.
Here is the situation that the church today finds itself in: The early decades of the 21st century have been the occasion of withering attacks on various aspects of Christian “tradition,” not only from the Western culture at large, but even within certain segments of the Christian church. Such attacks are not simply on non-essential matters of the faith, but they are upon more fundamental matters as well. The pressures that exist to try to force the Christian movement to give up on certain aspects of “traditional” Christian teachings, particularly when it comes to questions about human sexuality, marriage, and gender identity, or the doctrine of the afterlife, are intense. The reliability of the Bible is under siege in the academy. Other stresses and strains, such as the ascendancy of science, as the only reliable means of interpreting reality, as opposed to revelation, and the scandal of particularity regarding the uniqueness of Christian truth claims, that have challenged previous generations of Christians have only increased those pressures. Can any understanding of “tradition,” used to define classic, historical, orthodox Christianity, make any sense any more in a postmodern world?
So, is Gerald McDermott right? Has David Bentley Hart gone completely mad theologically? Has Hart’s war against “traditionalism” also been an attack on Christian tradition itself? I picked up an Audible copy of Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief to find out for myself. A little over six hours of reading time seemed like a good investment on such a vital topic. In my listening, I have come to the conclusion that the real answer here lies somewhere between McDermott’s desire to uphold historic Christian orthodoxy and David Bentley Hart’s attempt to reformulate that.
David Bentley Hart on “Tradition”
Hart wisely chooses John Henry Newman’s approach to Christian “tradition” as a focus piece for the book. Newman had been raised in the 19th century Church of England. The Enlightenment was in full swing in Newman’s day, and the seeds of liberal theology were just beginning to take root in Newman’s Anglicanism. Newman could see what was happening, and what eventually did happen in the Church of England, despite the attempts of 20th century Anglican evangelicals, like John R.W. Stott and J. I. Packer to reinvigorate Anglicanism with a more classical evangelical disposition. The Anglicanism that nourished the faith of a C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest Christian apologist in the modern era, had also given birth to the radical liberalism of a John A. T. Robinson, the 1960s Bishop of Woolwich, a New Testament scholar and author of the infamous Honest to God. Robinson’s Honest to God was part of my now deceased parents’ library, a well-worn copy, unlike the several Bibles we had in my home when growing up, which were kept more pristine in comparison. All of this from my mainline liberal Protestant heritage.
Newman made the leap to become a Roman Catholic, at a time when Roman Catholicism was an early 19th century version of a 21st century “Christian Nationalism,” mired in a recalcitrant anti-intellectualism and stalwart traditionalism. Nevertheless, Newman saw that the future of the Christian faith was to be found in a traditional, and yet somewhat nuanced Roman Catholicism, without being hopelessly nostalgic, as opposed to the disintegrating and growing progressive Protestant liberalism of Newman’s childhood and young adult Anglicanism. Newman brought his intellectual powers to bear on Roman Catholic thought, and revitalized that church. Today even, the most well known and well regarded American Roman Catholic bishop, Robert Barron, regards John Henry Newman as perhaps the greatest Roman Catholic thinker within the past several hundred years.
In contrast, most evangelicals I know have never even heard of John Henry Newman.
Nevertheless, David Bentley Hart is not convinced by Newman’s defense of “tradition.” In Hart’s view, much of the received Christian tradition has taken Christianity far away from its actual Biblical roots:
“Viewing, moreover, the history of dogma in long and skeptical retrospect, one can scarcely fail to notice how easily and with what rapidity small misunderstandings of scripture metastasized into enormous conceptual constructs of their own, ponderous enough to overwhelm and crowd out the actual original messages of the texts. Even ideas as preposterous and alien to the actual teachings of scripture as predestination “prior to foreseen merits” (ante praevisa merita), or penal substitutionary atonement, or limited atonement, or extrinsic or merely forensic justification, or the impotence of human good works in salvation, or the reality of a hell of eternal conscious torment, or an absolute partition between grace and nature, or inherited guilt—ideas, in short, that could not be true in any possible world— could come in various epochs and regions of the Christian world to be accepted as constituting the very essence of the faith” (p. 28).
Hart’s list of “alien” teachings that have become essential in the minds of people is illuminating, and some deserve at least a modest response here, though far from complete:
- “predestination ‘prior to forseen merits’“: This speaks of the Calvinist/Arminian theological controversy that still divides evangelicals today. We can toss “limited atonement” in here as well. If you have not guessed already, D.B. Hart is EXTREMELY anti-Calvinist to the max.
- “penal substitutionary atonement” : What exactly Hart has in mind is hard to tell. There is a popular caricatured version of penal substitutionary atonement, versus a more robust, historically grounded version (read what I wrote about Anselm, which I learned from the Christian Urban Legends series of books ). Which one is Hart talking about?…. Nevermind. Come to think of it, we already know what D.B. Hart thinks about the classic evangelical doctrine of the meaning of the Cross. And it ain’t sympathetic in the least… but is he adequately representing what he is trying to vilify?
- “extrinsic or merely forensic justification”: Is this about the conflict between the magisterial Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, against medieval Roman Catholicism? The whole controversy regarding the “New Perspective on Paul” also comes to mind, perhaps. Where exactly does Hart stand on this?
- “eternal conscious torment”: Hart’s core argument in favor of the complete opposite pole in the hell debate is unconvincing, but he continues to bring this up, as he is in many ways the most recognizable standard bearer for a Christian universalism today.
- “inherited guilt” : Hart is most probably correct here, if I understand him accurately. Saint Augustine’s approach to original sin, which in addition to a proclivity towards sin (believed by all Christians), also includes an inherited guilt of Adam’s sin being imputed to humanity. Augustine’s reading was based on a faulty Latin translation of the Bible.
All of the above have been contentious topics among Christians for centuries. None of the controversies are new. What is unique about Hart is that he comes across as having a full comprehension of each one of these topics, which then in his mind enables him to dismiss each point of dogma as “alien,” as though the results of his argumentation should be clearly obvious to the reader. Hart goes on:
“The actual narrative of the New Testament—the epic of celestial theomachy, of cosmic rescue and restoration, of the Age to Come as a new terrestrial dispensation, of God becoming “all in all” so that the governance of creation by inadequate intermediary powers might be no more—has been displaced from the position of the burning core of the faith to that of some small, remote incidental feature of the historical record (so remote and incidental, in fact, as to have been thoroughly forgotten by almost everyone, except for a few “primitivist” communions that still misconstrue the little they do remember of it). Terms and imagery once so essential to the faith that the Gospel could not be uttered without them are now recalled, if at all, as just so many relics of a vanished cosmology”(p.28).
Hart’s overview of the “actual narrative” makes a valid point, as demonstrated to me by the work of Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser, and other studies in Second Temple Judaic history and thought. We do possess a deeper knowledge of Ancient Near East thought and grasp on Second Temple Judaism, that many of the early church fathers had little to no access to. It would be wise for us to recover that narrative. Hart also highlights how misunderstandings of “Satan” and the demonic powers persist today, despite the work of evangelical Bible scholars who demonstrate the weaknesses of that faulty exegesis over the years:
“Conversely, certain conceptual and narrative features of later Christian tradition became such prominent parts of the picture preserved in Christian consciousness that one would hardly guess that they arose principally through fanciful misinterpretations of the biblical texts, on the parts of readers unaware or only partially aware of the religious frames of reference in which the original authors of those texts had written. Thus, for instance, the invention of the myth of an archangel named Lucifer who, along with his angelic accomplices, fell from heaven at some point before the creation of the world, he and they alike becoming demons. This story was distilled out of the wanton intermixture of four unrelated scriptural passages: the tale of the mischievous but impeccably honest snake of the Eden narrative (Gen. 3:1–15); a mocking apostrophe to a fallen Assyrian or Babylonian king (probably Sargon II, Sennacherib, or Nebuchadnezzar II) as the Canaanite god of the Morning Star, Son of the Dawn (Hillel ben Shahar), now apparently fallen out of the sky and into Sheol (Isa. 14:4–21); Christ praising his disciples on their return from their independent missions by telling them, with gallant figural hyperbole, that they had succeeded so well that they had shaken Satan out of his throne in the sky and caused him to fall to earth like a lightning bolt (Luke 10:18); and the book of Revelation’s vision of a future war in heaven, resulting in an eventual expulsion of the “Dragon” from on high and into the earth (Rev. 12:7–9)” (p. 28-29).
Hart points out a better understanding of the true “traditional” view of demonology:
“But, as it happens, what most of the first generations of Christians believed about such things as fallen angels and demons was the tale told in the first part of the book of Enoch (the Book of the Watchers), and repeated in altered form in other Second Temple “scriptures.” On this account of the matter, the rebel angels were those “Sons of God” who, well after the creation of the world and under the leadership of a chief angelic dissident named Semyâzâ, had become enamored of the “daughters of men” (Gen. 6:1–2); and the demons now haunting this world were the ghosts of the monstrous giants, the nephilim (Gen. 6:4), who had been the offspring of those angels and their human wives, and who had been slain by the archangel Michael at God’s command. At least, as late as Justin Martyr this was still, it seems, the standard narrative. It is almost certainly the story presumed by Paul and the other New Testament authors who drew on the Second Temple sources. As for “Lucifer” (Φώσφορος), the only figure associated with that name in the New Testament is Christ (2 Pet. 1:19; cf. Rev. 22:16).” (p.29)
In other words, the Rolling Stones big hit “Gimme Shelter” has the identify of “Lucifier” completely all wrong! Hart has this comment on the “Antichrist” imagery in the Bible:
“Something similar might be said for the fully limned mythical figure of a future “Antichrist” who is also “the Beast” and who will appear in the last days—a chimaera cobbled together from Revelation’s allegorical picture of Rome and (in particular) Nero as a wild beast, the first two Johannine epistles’ enigmatic remarks on certain heretics expelled from the congregation, and an obscure reference to a “Man of Lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3–4 (who himself seems to have been a fanciful mélange of Antiochus Epiphanes and Caligula, imagined as harboring designs on the temple in Jerusalem)” (p.29).
These observations may shock some Christians, but Hart is quite right on a number of these points. I only just recently learned that the emperor Caligula wanted to place of statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem, in the late 30’s or 40 C.E., as an object of worship, almost a decade before Paul was first engaged in his missionary journeys in Asia Minor and Greece. Caligula died before he succeeded in doing this, but it appears obvious to me that Paul had Caligula in mind in his second letter to the Thessalonians. Perhaps Paul envisioned another future Caligula as a “Man of Lawlessness,” with the historical Caligula as a type who anticipates that future Antichrist figure, who precipitates the Second Coming of Jesus.
Likewise, I have learned that emperor Nero sent his general Vespasian to put down the Jewish rebellion in 67 C.E., but that there appears to be a time factor present explicitly mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Interestingly, 42 months later, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. Should it really be any mystery then who the “beast” of Revelation really is, when the “beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months” (Revelation 13:5 ESV)?
Who hears about Caligula’s or Nero’s history in many of today’s evangelical churches? Or about the typological method of biblical interpretation practiced by Second Temple Jews, including New Testament writers like Paul or the John of Revelation? Others may have different experiences, but I certainly have not heard much at all, and I have been an evangelical Protestant Christian for over 40 years! To this extent, Hart’s contribution offers some valuable lessons in how the Bible has been read in the history of the church.
The point here is to say that the quest for the original historical Christianity, which serves as the basis for Christian “tradition,” which has been handed down over the ages, is a non-trivial controversial exercise, to put it mildly. Along the way, various man-made “traditions” have sadly crept into the received Christian “tradition,” originally derived from the first apostolic fathers and followers of Jesus. Discerning the difference between those man-made “traditions” and the received genuine “tradition” going back to the earliest Christians, under Jesus’ tutelage, has been a momentous, on-going task to undertake. But this does not mean that we should just throw up our hands and say that the teachings of the Bible are wholly incomprehensible and woefully out of reach to those without graduate degrees in biblical studies. We just need to make a more concerted effort to learn from good Bible teachers, listen well to different perspectives offered by other Bible readers, practice good principles of responsible Bible study, and take up some lessons learned from church history. Is that too much to ask?
The pitfalls one discovers on the extreme sides of the effort to recover Christian tradition are legion. On the one side are those who cling to particular expressions of “the” tradition, whether they be Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and a dizzying array of Protestants, all the while contending that they, and they alone, have been the guardians of particular points of important Christian teaching, all appealing to conflicting interpretations of Holy Scripture to make their arguments. On the other side are the “historical critics,” who have “safely” set aside the divine inspiration of the biblical texts in order to get at the (supposedly) true historical retelling of the Christian story, without the encumbrances of conflicting church dogma. David Bentley Hart’s observation that Christian “tradition” is not well understood today is surely right. But has he properly framed the whole story? I have my doubts.
D. B. Hart Roaring Around Like a Bull in the Theological China Shop
Later in Tradition and Apocalypse, we begin to see some of the more specific alarms that triggered Gerald McDermott to issue his “Danger! Danger!” warning concerning David Bentley Hart’s theology. Despite some fascinating nuggets of church history that Hart articulates concerning the great church councils of the 4th century, Nicea and Constantinople, there is this sense gathered from Hart that the outcome of the debate over the divinity of Christ and doctrine of the Trinity could have gone any number of ways. The arch-heretic that precipitated the crisis at Nicea, Arius, could have easily won the day, according to Hart:
“As a traditional Alexandrian believer, then, Arius was clearly operating within the ambit of the faith as he had received it from a long Christian past. And, frankly, it is little more than a ridiculous accident of history that his rather ordinary theological career should have become the occasion for resolving a crisis. That crisis, after all, was not primarily one of creed and confession, since Christianity had long accommodated a vast variety of beliefs regarding the nature of the divine Son. Diversity of belief was the common state of things, so long as theology had not been made subject to dogma. Rather, the crisis was one of imperial policy: Constantine, the new Augustus in both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire, had adopted the Christian faith as his own cultus, and now he required a single visible structure of power and a single audible voice of doctrinal authority if the newly enfranchised institution of the church was to serve his ends and prove docile to his will. Arius was the victim in part of his own lack of imagination, but in larger part of the new political circumstances of his age” (p. 68-69).
The “new political circumstances of [Arius’] age” prompted the most unifying, summary statement of Christian belief, in the history of the church? A “ridiculous accident of history?” Really? The political consequences behind Nicea are well-known, but this is a side issue. Hart’s description here comes across as sensationally cynical. In full disclosure, and contrary to what McDermott possibly insinuates, Hart does manage to affirm the work of the Nicea-Constantinople councils. That point should be conceded. But Hart does so at the risk of raising dubious doubts over to the inherent faithfulness of the Trinitarian formula to the witness of the Scriptures, for a set of doctrines that remain fundamental tenets of most of the world’s Christian churches!
A “ridiculous accident of history?” Hart makes it sound like Arius was at the wrong place at the wrong time, which comes across as a trivialization.
Sure, Arius was a theological conservative, who sought to be faithful to Scripture. Sure, Arius’ opponents at the Council of Nicaea appealed to terminology not found in the Bible, like the Greek homoousios, to describe the Son as being of “one substance” with the Father, an idea that Arius protested as not being sufficiently grounded in the theology of the New Testament. Sure, Arius was concerned that any elevation of the Son’s status to that of the Uncreated Father would threaten the monotheist convictions of the Christian faith. But he was still wrong.
If Arius were with us today, he would most likely find fellowship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Arius’ thinking was regarded rightly as wrong-headed by the bishops gathered at Nicea, and his obstinacy in making his arguments proved to be disastrous for the church as a whole. It would take several centuries before the Christian community largely was able to finally rally around the Nicence Creed. McDermott is well justified in calling out Hart on this point, for effectively minimizing the threat that Arius’ theology had become for the Christian church. One can have a high regard for the truth of the Bible and still be completely wrong as to what it teaches. Does David Bentley Hart not know of any Jehovah’s Witnesses?
McDermott’s concerns over Hart’s orthodoxy stem also from some unwarranted statements found in Tradition and Apocalypse.
“….It would be of only very dubious historical validity to suggest that, for instance, Valentinus’s understanding of salvation was more remote from Paul’s, in either shape or substance, than was Calvin’s tragically misguided theology of substitutionary atonement……And only a deep lack of acquaintance with the religious and speculative language of the first century would permit anyone to imagine that Thomas or Luther or Calvin clearly practiced a faith any more consistent with Paul’s beliefs than did, say, Marcion of Sinope” (p.150).
Hart is quite given over to hyperbole at times. But this type of analysis is simply over-the-top. Lumping Calvin in with the Gnostics is laughable. Thomas, Luther, and Calvin are no more orthodox than Marcion? Come on! These type of rather silly statements demonstrate how much Hart despises certain theological commitments that do not subscribe to his own idiosyncrasies. Granted, McDermott’s patent dismissal of Hart’s claims of orthodoxy can be a bit over-the-top on his side of dispute, as there is still much to gain from reading Hart. There is much about the Gnostics and Marcion that Christians need to learn from, to understand why false teaching is so insidious and attractive at the same time. Hart is correct on that score, if I am understand him correctly.
There are still Gnostics and Marcionites in our churches today, and while such divergences from orthodoxy may take a different form, it is still important for us to better grasp what draws Christians today towards such heresies. Nevertheless, McDermott is correct to suggest that David Bentley Hart has been given over to wild overstatements that only make his efforts to elevate theological conversation difficult to sustain. Hart may not have gone completely mad, but he is dangerous. Despite numerous places of helpful insight, Hart has made theological conversation more difficult, not easier. Christians who are not well versed in the depths of Christian theology are right to be wary of him.
But I have not even come to the most contorted part about Tradition and Apocalypse.
McDermott’s Last Straw: D.B Hart’s Reading of Genesis
In the final full chapter of the book, Hart offers a number of good insights as to how we might wrestle with the apocalyptic expectations of Jesus’ message, in an effort to have a more robust, defensible understanding of Christian tradition. But Hart muddles his own effort by his retelling of the supposedly original meaning of the Garden of Eden story. Brace yourself, dear reader.
‘An obvious example is the enormous significance the narrative of Eden assumed in Christianity’s understanding of itself and of the work of Christ in history. The original tale, of course, had nothing to do with any notion of original sin or of a great “fall” requiring an extraordinary divine repair, except in the cloudy way that all of humanity’s myths of a lost beatitude or communion with the gods seem to carry with them a kind of memory of some immemorial loss…… Rather, the Eden myth was originally a tale of the gods and of the chief god Yahweh, who had planted a garden containing the trees whose fruits granted those gods both their immortality and their divine knowledge of the nature and value of things (good or bad); and it tells also of how Yahweh invented a peasantry to tend that garden by crafting a man from clay and then a woman from the man’s side, and of how he kept these two pitiable serfs in ignorance of better things and lied to them by telling them that the magic trees the gods fed upon were in fact poisonous, and of how the cleverest of the animals Yahweh had maladroitly tried to fashion as helpmeets for the man (before fixing upon the scheme of fashioning one directly from Adam’s flesh instead) was the snake, and of how that snake mischievously apprised the peasants of the ways in which they were being exploited, and of how the peasants then stole from their deceitful landlord and ate of the fruit of knowledge and thereby discovered that the snake had told the truth (and that, by the way, Yahweh had not even given them any clothes), and of how Yahweh, on learning of this growing peasant rebellion, fled in panic to the other gods and told them that there was an imminent danger that the man and the woman might now eat from the tree of life as well and become immortals and ultimately displace the gods, and so they must now be expelled from the garden before the catastrophe occurred. In short, it was a fairly typical Mesopotamian story about gods of no great moral or intellectual eminence, and of a humanity sadly denied any share in their happiness.’ (p.91-92).
This is the main passage from Tradition and Apocalypse that fired off the heresy detector in the mind of Gerald McDermott. McDermott is right about exposing Hart’s misguided, confusing message here. But it requires a bit of unpacking.
Hart claims that he is only showing “how that [Genesis] narrative explicitly reads when confined to the purely literal level, without spiritual (that is, allegorical) supplement.” It would have been helpful if Hart had provided definite sources here to support his argument. Even a Young Earth Creationist, who pride themselves on reading Genesis at a “purely literal level,” would be shocked by Hart’s reading.
First, It is true to say that the Garden of Eden story does not necessarily take on the meaning that the Apostle Paul later assigns to it in the Book of Romans, prior to the arrival of the New Testament era. Jews themselves have debated the meaning of this story for centuries, long before even the Apostle Paul. To insist that the original Eden myth carried with it a sense of Yahweh trying to deceive Adam and Eve, and then after Adam and Eve’s transgression, that Yahweh “fled in panic to the other gods and told them that there was an imminent danger that the man and the woman might now eat from the tree of life as well and become immortals and ultimately displace the gods,” has surely been one way of reading the text, but it would be completely false to say that this is “the” original way to read it. The text is simply given to us as is, without completely obvious indicators that Hart’s supposedly original meaning was undoubtedly what the Mosaic author had in mind, if that is indeed what Hart is getting at. Did the Mosaic author simply copy and paste the Garden of Eden story from a prior source? Hart is not clear about this.
Scholars still sift through the evidence, yet Hart’s reading assumes that early Israelite religion was polytheistic, which is not well established at all. There are other indicators that Hart is completely wrong. Yes, Yahweh has a divine council, but the Scriptural evidence indicates that Yahweh himself is the ultimate Creator of those divine beings that make up the divine council, as opposed to being merely a local expression of the Israelite deity. To complain that Yahweh did not give the couple clothes, prior to the fruit eating act of disobedience, misses the point as to the significance of the animal skins, a sign that God made for a sacrifice to atone for the couple’s sins, which prevented them from experiencing physical death immediately.
If anyone suggests that this alternative, indeed truly orthodox way of understanding Genesis is suspect, then one must consider why there are those, like myself, and presumably Gerald McDermott, who find Hart’s own explanation to be so lacking. Strangely enough, in the essay by Jesse Hake that Hart cites as evidence against McDermott’s position, not even Jesse Hake finds Hart’s “historical antecedent” or original, pagan reading of Genesis 2 & 3 to be convincing either, and neither is Hake apparently taken in by Hart’s view that Paul’s inspired commentary of Genesis as found in Romans 5 is merely “an elegant rhetorical gesture.”
To suggest that Yahweh was lying to the couple about the fate of those who eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil anticipates the development of 2nd century C.E. Gnostic Christian thinking more than it does reflect the “assured” results of “historical criticism,” as to what the text originally meant to the Mosaic author. More that one expression of Gnostic Christianity, whole heartedly condemned by all streams of Nicean orthodoxy, has looked upon Eve, not as one who disobeyed the God who is later revealed in Jesus. Rather, the Gnostic Eve was the truly enlightened soul who rejected the “Creator’s” trickery, and thus obtained true spiritual wisdom, and leading her spouse into that same realm of advanced spiritual knowledge, or “gnosis,” which gives us the terminology of “Gnosticism” to begin with. For the 2nd century Gnostic, it was Adam who was deceived and not Eve, thus turning 1 Timothy 2:14 on its head.
A better way to think of the Garden of Eden story, and the development of its interpretation, is to acknowledge that the exact way of interpretation of the story was in a state of flux prior to the 1st c. C.E. days of Jesus, at best. Hints of later Gnostic thought may or may not be traced in Jewish writings prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70 C.E., but frankly, the exact place of Adam and Eve in particular in the Old Testament narrative of salvation history was largely set aside prior to the Christian Era. Instead it was Paul, who through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the pages of his letters, particularly in Romans 5, who would give us the divinely inspired way of understanding this foundational passage of the Bible, thus locating the story of Adam and Eve at very start of salvation history. The Christian church has continued to reflect on what Paul was trying to articulate here, but there is no need for anyone to try to improve upon or correct what the great Apostle taught.
Hart is at best confusing here, in his attempt to give us the “real” history behind where the Adam and Eve story came from. I would merely suggest that David Bentley Hart take a closer look a Dr. Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, for a more cogent, and ultimately more orthodox way of thinking through how the interpretation of the Garden of Eden story was played out in Second Temple Judaism.
D. B. Hart’s Coming of Age…. Or A Touch of Hubris?
In that last chapter of Tradition and Apocalypse, the snubbing of those Hart deems as being not as enlightened as he is ramps up. For example, not even his fellow Eastern Orthodox believers escape Hart’s almost sarcastic derision of Eastern “tradition”:
“For many Orthodox today, perhaps especially the converts from other communions, the word “tradition” refers almost exclusively to this fabled consensus patrum; but of course there really was no such consensus, apart from some very broad agreements on some very particular issues (and then often as a result of minimal reflection). The unanimity of patristic witness has always been a posterior construction and ideological fiction. Even then, the centrality of the fathers, or of what their authority represented, has shifted from generation to generation. In fact, what the Orthodox today regard as their theological tradition is to a very great degree an artifact of the middle of the twentieth century. The neo-patristic synthesis, with its neo-Palamite infrastructure, is not even a century old yet. If one were to go back to the eighteenth century to find what Orthodoxy taught in the academies and the pulpits, one would discover almost nothing the modern convert to Orthodoxy would recognize or even find attractive. One would be in an even more alien theological environment if one went back to the sixteenth century. If one leapt ahead again to the late nineteenth, however, one might very well be shocked by the speculative daring of the Russian religious philosophers, or shocked even more by the Calvinist-inflected dogmatics taught to Greek seminarians. At any of those periods, the narrowing of Orthodox options to the modern synthesis had not yet occurred. The healthy recovery of the fathers as living voices had not begun to be undertaken in earnest by Orthodox scholars, and neither had the unhealthy and procrustean attempt to fuse their writings into a single “system.” In the twentieth century, as a result of certain obvious historical pressures, Orthodoxy became for the first time a kind of theological ideology, inaugurated principally in France, then exported principally to the United States, and then absorbed into the consciousness of Orthodoxy’s native lands (those in Europe, at any rate). At present, of course, throughout the Orthodox world that synthesis is being taken apart, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. In the United States, alas, it is being displaced to a great degree by an Evangelical fundamentalism in Orthodox garb, as the result of converts who have changed their confessional addresses but not their mental habits; and it turns out that patristic fundamentalism is every bit as ridiculous and pernicious a phenomenon as biblical fundamentalism” (p.103).
Sources please? Where are footnotes to substantiate all of this? This news will obviously come as a surprise to most of my Eastern Orthodox friends, who believe that their faith goes right back to the age of the original Apostles. Where is Hart’s evidence to support such claims? Is this really Hart’s “coming of age,” or does the reader not detect a healthy serving of hubris here? No matter who you are, Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox, the recovery of Christian “tradition,” as much of the Christian world has been doing, is judged to be a complete failure in Hart’s mind.
If that were not enough, Hart takes the opportunity to have a swipe at his critics who were not convinced by his dogmatic defense of a Christian Universalism, expounded in his 2019 That All Shall Be Saved.
“Many reviewers advanced arguments that more or less obliged them explicitly to embrace a God who is evil, and transparently so, and then to pretend that this was not at all what they had done by resorting either to the reason-stifling mystifications of pseudo-piety (God’s ways are not our ways, and so forth) or to genuinely perverse attempts to make that evil seem like moral goodness (this being the more tragic option)” (p. 98).
Okay. Granted, there are some really bad arguments presented against Christian Universalism. Granted also, Hart has raised a number of philosophical objections to the traditional doctrine of hell that should be taken seriously. But I have read a number of reviews of That All Shall Be Saved and I read not one, and I mean, not one argument explicitly presenting a “God who is evil,” or that sought to “make that evil seem like moral goodness.” Nevertheless, Hart makes these claims all the while protesting that his critics never fully comprehended his own argument. Then Hart castigates some of his critics for their “reason-stifling mystifications of pseudo-piety (God’s ways are not our ways, and so forth).” To dismiss the mere acknowledgement that there are things in the Bible that suggest that God has an understanding of things that we mere mortals can not comprehend is not “pseudo-piety.” Rather, it is a humble acknowledgement that we as humans lack the ability to fully grasp the mind of God. Does Hart not recognize this? The real mystification here is how Hart can not hold up a mirror and see the shortcomings in his own ways of thinking.
Well, it may come as a surprise to David Bentley Hart, but not everyone is impressed by his own “”reason-stifling mystifications of pseudo-piety (God’s ways are not our ways, and so forth),” much less Hart’s efforts to “pretend” that his own full reasoned logic is convincing… and I am not even talking about Christians!
Last month, I finished reading Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (reviewed here), that sought to explain the Bible’s teaching on life after death, from his own perspective as a non-believing Biblical scholar. As an agnostic/atheist, Ehrman has no skin in the game to try to defend any particular reading of the Scripture that affirms any traditional view of Christianity. But Ehrman is fully convinced that the type of universalism that David Bentley Hart argues is clearly taught in the Bible is actually nowhere to be found in that text, from Ehrman’s historical perspective. Instead, Ehrman is willing to concede that Christian universalism is much preferable to any other version of the doctrine of hell, whether that be the normative view of eternal conscious torment, or the less known alternative of annihilation, or conditional immortality. Nevertheless, Ehrman’s examination of the evidence shows him that Christian Universalism was a later invention of the Christian church, an invention resulting from some kind of acceptable alternative to Jesus’ failed prediction of the last judgment, in the 1st. century C.E. In other words, since Jesus never came back, in the expected timeline, the prospect of universalism for a new generation of Christians sounded like a reasonable replacement for Jesus’ failed prophecy.
However much I disagree with Erhman in many respects, I at least appreciate Ehrman’s honesty in acknowledging that Christian Universalism finds little support in the Bible, despite David Bentley Hart’s insistence that the case he makes for his view should be obvious to anyone. If anything, it would appear that David Bentley Hart is the one doing a lot of “pretending” and projecting his own brand of “pseudo-piety.” Sadly, much of the same kind of efforts to “pretend” his arguments are convincing can be detected in the seemingly never-ending display of hubris throughout Tradition and Apocalypse, particularly in this last chapter. While there is much merit in Hart’s thinking, in that he is indeed a skilled rhetorician, with occasional bursts of helpful insights, the overall repeated hubris or downright arrogance eventually becomes off-putting.
Vindicating McDermott (Mostly): Trying to Salvage What is Left of D.B. Hart’s Take on Tradition… And Apocalypse
A less combative review than McDermott’s, but more cogent critique of Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse comes from John Ehrett, at Conciliarpost.com. Ehrett asks a question that McDermott does not touch, namely, what is the audience intended for Tradition and Apocalypse? Is it a secular reading audience? Or is it a Christian audience, that Hart seeks to prod and poke? Regardless of what audience Hart has in mind, Ehrett finds that Hart has not written a winsome argument for either audience.
Even another reviewer, generally more sympathetic to Hart, finds him hard to swallow at points. See this review by John Stamps.
The alarmist tone of Gerald McDermott is hampered by McDermott’s use of, according to D.B.Hart: “phantom quotes”—which is to say, quotation marks placed around some seemingly damning phrase in order to give the impression that it was drawn from the book under review when in fact it was not.” I picked up on that a couple of times in McDermott’s critique. McDermott is not totally without fault here.
Nevertheless, in the final analysis Gerald McDermott is right. McDermott wisely calls out some of Hart’s highly questionable confessional commitments. D.B Hart was once one of the leading intellectual lights of a robust intellectual Christian faith, who has now gone so sideways that is hard to tell where he is really going with his theological journey. Some of D. B. Hart’s recent ventures into inter-religious dialogue have only raised even more skepticism over his commitment to historic, orthodox Christian faith. The whole affair between McDermott and Hart illustrates just how easy the brilliance of a mind can lead one to slip off a theological cliff.
David Bentley Hart might indeed protest, but he appears to fit within that category of being “progressive Christian” I described earlier. I will leave it to others to sort out the implications of that, but to be a “progressive Christian” is not something I desire to be.
One more comment, as I try to end this review of Tradition and Apocalypse on at least somewhat of a high note, sympathetic to Hart….
If and when Christians embrace a form of Christian universalism, it pretty much spells the end of interest in evangelism and missions. After all, if indeed all will be saved in the end, then it becomes difficult to sustain any sense of urgency that has traditionally propelled Christians to tell the world about having saving faith in Jesus. Hart apparently knows this, which is why he has taken such an interest in the apocalyptic dimension of Christian faith.
D.B. Hart several times brings out Alfred Loisy’s quote, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church.” Loisy, an early 20th century Roman Catholic French theologian, has been described as a father of modernism in the Roman Catholic church. Loisy apparently believed in some version of Albert Schweitzer’s thesis, expounded so memorably in Schweitzer’s 1906 The Quest of the Historical Jesus, that Jesus was a kind of End Times prophet, who expected a great cataclysmic event within the near term of his ministry, or shortly thereafter. As this way of reading the Bible goes, Jesus never preached about a coming “Church,” but this is what we got instead, presuming that Jesus was yet another failed eschatological prophet, when it was eventually realized that the expected “end of the world” never materialized for the early Christians.
To Hart’s and Loisy’s credit, the imminent expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus, within the lifetime of the first generation of Jesus’ disciples did result in at least some form of rethinking, as the most prominent leaders of the Christian movement like Peter and Paul died off and history moved on. But to describe Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet, which underpins the dominant skepticism view of the New Testament, is far from settled and way overblown. Why anyone would consider Jesus to be a failed prophet, and still call themselves “Christian” is baffling, anyway. Instead, a good and compelling case can be made that Jesus did accurately predict the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, an empirically verified fact of history in 70 A.D., as a type of “Second Coming” that expects the full fulfillment of that prophecy at some later time, that we are still waiting for (Explore this for a more concrete detail of the case).
Furthermore, another good argument can be made that the delay of the Second Coming might be due to the conditional character of a great deal of Biblical prophecy in general. Jesus would have come back in the fullest sense in the 1st century, but God in his mercy found reason to delay. Perhaps that early Christian community petitioned God in their prayers to grant a stay of the Final Judgment, in hope that more and more people, across the vast range places, times, and cultures could hear the Good News and be converted to Christ.
No matter what the best way is to explain the delay, that Hart fails to fully explore, this apocalyptic message of the New Testament is crucial to Hart’s argument of the book. Hart believes that recasting a renewed theological vision of the apocalypse will help to cure the tendency to fall into “traditionalism,” while claiming to uphold Christian tradition. It is a noble goal that Hart that has in mind, and probably he is not that far off from saying that a renewed Christian vision of the final things in this world will help to reinvigorate how Christians understand the received teachings of the Christian faith, in an era when much of the received tradition of the Christian church is either highly suspect or else comes under popular derision.
I reiterate once again that a great deal of this suspicion and derision comes not only from outside the church, but also from within. Some of that suspicion and derision is justified, but a great deal of it is not.
This is what Hart appears to be getting at by thinking about “apocalypse,” those concerns ranging from the impending threat of death that each human must experience, to the threat of God’s future judgment over how we have lived our lives on this planet, to the promised Second Coming of Jesus who will make all things new. Making that connection between Christian tradition and apocalypse is an essential task that needs to be take up today in the Christian church. It is just too bad that Hart’s idiosyncrasies obscure his theological project.