David Bentley Hart is fun to tangle with. When you disagree with him, you get treated to sesquipedalian name-calling. You also learn new things about yourself. In my case, I have discovered that I am, as he puts it so delicately, “truculent,” “incompetent,” “slovenly,” and “rhetorically violent.”
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.”
Hart claims to be shocked that I question his regard for the Nicene creedal tradition. He points to his statement that Nicene orthodoxy was “a genuinely rational and perhaps necessary synthesis of the tradition of the past.” But this self-proclaimed champion of Nicaea also says that Nicene Christology lacked “biblical attestation” and that it’s plausible that the Arians were “more faithful to Scripture” than the Fathers at Nicaea.
The creeds got Jesus wrong, which is why they cannot be reconciled with a Christian gospel that, according to Hart, is really about the non-dual or “monist” identification of creatures with the Creator, rather than the homoousios (the Son and the Father are of the same substance) asserted at Nicaea. Hart concedes that he has always been a “monist” (Hart’s own term), which means he has always rejected the metaphysical dualism of the Christian tradition. Such a monist view makes not only God the Son, but indeed all created reality, homoousios with God the Father. One can only imagine how the bishops of Nicaea would have reacted to that reinterpretation of their conciliar consensus.
Hart’s defense of his pagan account of Genesis 1-3 (in which Yahweh lied and the serpent was “impeccable”) is that this was among the “oldest strata” of myths that by Paul’s time were revised and reinterpreted. Once again, Hart misses the point—or refuses to concede—that the Genesis text already was a subtle reinterpretation of pagan myths. Tellingly, Hart tacitly accepts my criticism that his warrants for what is true come from modern “historical-critical scholarship,” not the creeds or Fathers or any developing magisterium. Finally, he agrees with my review’s assessment that he shares the views of the ancient gnostics—such as Valentinus—who, he says, “were closer to the language and vision of Paul or the Fourth Gospel than are many of the later figures of magisterial tradition (Catholic, Protestant, and even Orthodox).”
It's startling, however, to see someone who speaks so confidently about ancient gnostics get them so wrong on one of his favorite doctrines: universalism. Hart claims categorically that “there are no ancient ‘gnostic’ schools that embraced universalism—in fact, the idea is absurd.” If Hart had actually read the Michael McClymond tome that I cite in my review, which he foolishly dismisses without an argument, he would have found there a discussion of the Carpocratians’ teaching that “all souls are saved”—sic quoque salvari et omnes animas (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.25.4).
Does Hart really think that he knows the second-century gnostics better than Irenaeus did? Against Heresies, dated to around A.D. 180, may be the first undisputed reference in the post-biblical period to a teaching on universal salvation (leaving aside the question regarding universalism in the biblical texts). Hart is either ignorant of this larger history of universalism or is deliberately suppressing the data on which McClymond based his conclusions.
Hart concludes his denunciation of my review with some revealing statements. He has “never been especially concerned about terms like ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heterodoxy.’” He “was never a champion of the kind of Christianity” I believe in, creedal orthodoxy. From the first, he has been “a metaphysical monist of the Neoplatonic and Vedantic variety.” 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. Toward the end of Tradition and Apocalypse, he tells believers they can liberate themselves by “a peculiarly modern maxim: sapere aude—dare to be wise.” In the end, he implies, the truth about God is something that individuals must figure out for themselves. Hart is a lonely theologian, and he would leave us alone, apart from the Christian community who have thought together about redemption by the God of Israel.
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.
Gerald McDermott recently retired from Beeson Divinity School.
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Artwork by Charles-André van Loo is in the public domain. Image cropped.