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When A Theologian Goes Rogue: David Bentley Hart’s Universalism

David Bentley Hart is one those theological minds that I have hesitated to dive into deeply.

It is not as though he is not erudite (which he is), nor that he is not polemical in the most insightful way (which he also is). It is because he is so well knowledgeable and so marvelously incisive that I think it almost impossible to explain the penetrating power of his intellect to the average evangelical lay person. Why waste all of the effort? Let the academics have at him, and leave the rest of us mere mortals alone. But alas, Hart’s latest book is extremely difficult to ignore. So this is fair warning that this blog post will sound quite dense and geeky. Here we go….

An Eastern Orthodox theologian, currently teaching at Notre Dame, after having picked up a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Virginia, along the way, David Bentley Hart is probably best known for his devastating critique of the New Atheism, of Dawkins, Harris, Bennett, and Hitchens, in his Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

David Bentley Hart. Astute critic of the New Atheism, who has now tasted the confusing allure of universalism, and amazingly finds it satisfying.

Long time Veracity readers will know that I greatly benefit from the pithy, enjoyable, and learned blogs posts by Reformed charismatic pastor, Andrew Wilson, of Kings Church of London, England, at the Think blog. Just about anything Andrew writes about, I try to read. He is that good. Andrew got his blogging start working his way through Hart’s Atheist Delusions back in 2011, which offers an excellent summary of the high points of Hart’s argument (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, plus a follow up essay, #10). Andrew’s blogs are a good place to start to get a taste of what David Bentley Hart is like.

But while Hart has served as a masterful champion of demolishing the New Atheism, in service to the greater Christian tradition, Hart has also applied his rhetorical, polemical skills against fellow Christian thinkers he finds to be petty and annoying. He can be over the top in some respects, but his criticisms deserve thoughtful responses. For example, he dismisses the greater classic evangelical Reformed tradition, embodied most broadly by the folks at The Gospel Coalition, as hopelessly fundamentalist, who are most likely guilty as “moral cretins.” That is a bit harsh, but for some on the far side of hyper-Reformed thinking, Hart may not be too far off.

Hart’s bristling does not end there. I am convinced that David Bentley Hart utterly despises N.T. Wright. While Wright, a British Anglican, who is perhaps the most well known New Testament scholar living today, may have captivated an entire generation of millennials, in seminaries, over the past twenty years, Hart will have none of Wright’s “idiosyncratic” style of New Testament translation methodology. Along with other critics, Hart believes that N.T. Wright’s enthusiastic embrace of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” has led Wright down the path of injecting a false dichotomy into Paul’s doctrine of justification, a core doctrine in New Testament thought. Sample just this biting, scathing sentence from Hart’s rejoinder to an earlier critique by Wright, regarding one another’s work in doing New Testament Bible translation:

Regarding, for example, [Wright’s] insistence on rendering “dikaiosyne” by the cumber­some phrase “covenant righteousness” (a special hobby-horse of Wright’s, which he takes out for a gallop around the paddock whenever he can), I would be only one among legions in pointing out that this arbitrarily isolates a single dimension of a term [within] a far larger range of possible meaning in the text.

Wright’s translation of the New Testament could hardly be any more different from D. B. Hart’s version of the same (which is why the committee approach to how the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the Christian Standard Bible were able to produce such excellent work, inviting millions of Christians to feast on their presentations of God’s Word, is far superior than any translation done by a solitary scholar…. but I digress).

Nevertheless, it is Hart’s latest volume That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universalism that has caused the greatest amount of controversy. Here, Hart has moved away from the very center of Christian tradition, causing shockwaves among today’s theological intelligentsia.

Hart’s thesis here is built on the speculative work of the 4th century Cappadocian, early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, who advocated for a type of Christian universalism, that the doctrine of hell actually serves a more redemptive purpose, suggesting that, in the end, all humans will be saved. Unlike popular forms of universalism, that blithely claim that all humans bypass hell, Hart channels Gregory of Nyssa to say that, yes, there is indeed a hell, but its purpose is more like that of purgatory, a process after death whereby all sin is to be purged from every human, thereby ultimately resulting in everyone’s final reconciliation with God.

Now, before anyone gets too suspicious about Gregory of Nyssa, it should be noted that Gregory of Nyssa was mostly known for other teachings, that most Christians take for granted today. For example, among the early church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa was singularly outspoken in his belief that Christianity and the practice of slavery were incompatible with one another, in an age when slavery was an established norm in Greco-Roman society. Gregory of Nyssa was also one of the greatest champions of the doctrine of the Trinity. But when it came to universalism, Gregory of Nyssa speculated on certain ideas that later writers, such as David Bentley Hart, have taken and run with.

Contrary to a type of “hopeful universalism” of the 20th century Swiss theological, Karl Barth, that maintains that God’s ultimate purpose of saving “everyone” be held out as a theological possibility, with a number of caveats, David Bentley Hart takes a bolder approach. As St. Louis University theologian, and historical scholar of universalism, Michael McClymond, put it, Hart’s latest work casts aside the tentativeness of a “hopeful universalism” in favor of assertiveness. To think that God “might” save everyone in the end, as a type of optimism, while at the same time soberly recognizing an utterly just and final punishment of a hell, that can not be ignored, is something too weak for Hart to counsel.

Alas, defenders of Hart believe that Hart continues to be greatly misunderstood. Yet McGill University’s Douglas Farrow believes he understands Hart all too well, laying out his concerns in the pages of First Things, a (mostly) Roman Catholic think-tank journal:

David Bentley Hart, familiar to readers of these pages as an intellectual pugilist who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, has entered the ring for the Big Fight. Armed with his recent translation of the New Testament, he is ready to prove that no one suffers eternal damnation. Almost the entire Western tradition, backed by much of the East, is in the other corner. In his corner are fellow followers of Origen, the evangelical universalists, and a motley crew of sparring partners from the gyms where he has trained. As he approaches the ring, he strikes a Luther-like pose. Of course he wants nothing whatever to do with Luther, or any other product of the Augustinian stable. But he will stand where he must stand; he can do no other. The Church has backed the wrong man. She is about to be taught a lesson.

The man in question is Augustine, the bête noire of universalists everywhere. He wears the black trunks. Hart is in the white trunks, standing in for Gregory of Nyssa, the man the Church ought to have backed and didn’t…..

Other theologians have taken notice, and have weighed in. Peter Leithart, a featured blogger at First Things, wrote a partial review of That All Shall Be Saved, that Hart considered to be at least faithful to critiquing what Hart actually wrote. Nevertheless, Hart still found Leithart’s critique to be wholly lacking. Leithart, in return, offers a rejoinder to Hart’s response. Fellow Eastern Orthodox theologian, John Mark Reynolds, wishes to disown Hart from Eastern Orthodoxy. Others, acknowledging the puzzling depth of Hart’s thought, like Nicholas Frankovich, at the National Review, watches the sparks fly. Quirky-evangelical contrarian and blogger, Andrew Perriman, is intrigued by Hart’s argument, though not entirely convinced. The debate goes on. If you like spirited dialogue among academic theologians, it does not get any more exciting than this.

Pastor Andrew Wilson, mentioned above, who has greatly appreciated Hart’s previous works, regrettably describes Hart’s latest book as “Trump with a thesaurus.

It is as though David Bentley Hart completely slept through the controversy a few years ago, surrounding former megachurch pastor Rob Bell, when he wrote Love Wins. In Love Wins, Bell hinted at but never came out and explicitly endorsed universalism, as much as Hart does in That All Shall Be Saved. But Bell pretty much had to quit his megachurch pastor job in Michigan, to take up his surfboard in Southern California, and occasionally traveling across country for various book tours. Preaching universalism in an evangelical church can not pay the bills, for any pastor. Evangelical pastors who flirt too much with universalism should consider a new career. Hart admits that he is not a pastor, which makes me wonder how in the world anyone could ever preach his message, in any evangelical church, and survive past a single sermon!

The once brilliant theologian Hart has now gone rogue, reframing a theological argument that got the early church father Origen, for all practical purposes, branded as a heretic, at least regarding his views on the doctrine of hell. The conscious eternal torment view, embraced by a majority of Christians (though not all), through Christian history, is to be rejected by Hart, as being ultimately “unChristian.” Apparently, according to Hart, this great majority of Christian believers, across the centuries, never got the memo.

Furthermore, though viewed by many as suspect, in a less obtrusive manner, the conditional immortality, or annihilationalist, approach to hell, as offered by thinkers like John R.W. Stott and Edward Fudge, is left off the table as a viable alternative to either the traditional conscious eternal torment view, or a universalist view, for Hart. No, David Bentley Hart will have none of that. Hart has planted his flag firmly in this universalist camp. Hart is now placed in the column marked “beware.” A theologian of David Bentley Hart’s stature and intellectual talents can not be ignored. But his thesis in That All Shall Be Saved makes him highly suspect, a good example of what NOT to do, when doing theology.

What is most disturbing about Hart’s thesis is that he pretty much accepts the New Atheist complaint about the Old Testament at face value. For the New Atheist, the God of the Old Testament is capricious, unjust, and vindictive, and therefore, not morally worthy of being God. This is not an aberrant view, but rather an all-too-common criticism among learned, skeptical readers of the Bible today. A quick glance at EvilBible.com shows just how pervasive this New Atheist complaint has reached into our culture.

Consider the great flood of Noah. As much of traditional interpretation indicates, Genesis would have us to think that the vast majority of humans perished in that catastrophic event, a sign indicating that God takes judgment against human rebellion quite seriously. Ah, but observers will point out, this would presumably include small children, and mothers, pregnant with child, who were among those who drowned in the rising sea of God’s judgment. To critics, this would be genocide, with divinely sanctioned abortion built-in.

Other Christian thinkers offer nuanced responses, to this interpretive quandary, looking at the story of Noah within a broader Scriptural context (for example, consider this brilliant alternative, more theologically modest and centrist perspective, advocated by Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Stephen De Young). But it would appear that in Hart’s estimation, the matter is more black and white. Hart rejects the historicity of the Noah story, but he does so on a basis that concedes this New Atheist critique of Christianity: An Old Testament God who inflicts such vindictive violence must be a caricature of the one true God (if there is a such a God). If God does not save everyone, then God can save no one.

But the New Atheist secularizes Hart’s argument, agreeing with Hart, and concluding that, yes, God can save no one, as such a God can not be ultimately trusted. Dawkins, Hitchens, and others, can easily respond: Why even bother with universalism? Just get rid of the whole concept of hell altogether, and the whole notion of final judgment, and be done with the whole problem…. while you are it, save yourself the trouble and deny the existence of God.

David Bentley Hart has touched a nerve, and his thesis deserves a thoughtful response. Yet Hart’s critics rightly pin him into a corner. Hart’s fellow Eastern Orthodox theological colleagues are not impressed by Hart’s theological innovations. Sure, I would love to think that in the end, even the most hardened sinner will embrace Jesus as their Savior. But to embrace such a view, as Hart has done so wholeheartedly, is sadly merely wishful thinking.

Even Douglas Farrow concludes his review of Hart thus, “Hart makes clear in conclusion that if Christianity requires belief in eternal punishment, then Christianity is false. Which prompts from this reporter an unhappy observation. If he really believes that, then the New Atheists, to whom he gave a thorough thrashing in earlier books, should demand a rematch. This time they might well win, and that by default.

 

 


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