Tradition and Apocalypse:
An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief
by david bentley hart
baker academic, 208 pages, $24.99
David Bentley Hart was once the darling of postliberal theologians for his brilliant books on divine beauty and the illogic of atheism. But in his new book, Tradition and Apocalypse, he argues that the Christian tradition is bankrupt. Using 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.
The Church’s “institutional form” through history, Hart insists, has been “often almost comically corrupt and divisive.” It would cause Hart “not a moment’s distress” to “walk away from . . . Christian beliefs and institutions” if he were to find them “false or incoherent,” and he is “more than willing to conclude” that “Christian tradition’s intrinsic unity . . . is an illusion—or even perhaps a lie.” Against traditional accounts, he sees Christianity as containing “an inner force of dissolution” that incubates movements of unbelief and nihilism, but tends to “begin again in the formless realm of spirit rather than flesh, spirit not letter.” Small wonder that Hart praises the Church’s early gnostic enemies and complains that they were misunderstood.
Christians must beware of thinking they see any rational unity to Christian tradition, for “the living tradition is essentially apocalyptic: an originating disruption of the historical past remembered in light of God's final disruption of the historical (and cosmic) future.” The past is “ever dissolving,” by Hart’s account, and the future apocalypse will surprise us with an altered theological understanding that is both “radical and irrevocable.”
As part of his polemic against creedal Christianity, Hart argues that Arius, the fourth-century heretic, was “a much more faithful representative of the oldest and most respectable school of Trinitarian speculation than were the partisans of the eventual Nicene settlement.” The Arian claim that the Son was a creature was “not especially exotic.” Nicaea’s settlement on homoousios lacked “biblical attestation,” and the Arians were “very plausibly . . . more faithful to scripture” than their Nicene opponents. In the end, Nicene Christology was “only one among many possible conceptions of the meaning of the Gospel.”
Along the same revisionist lines, Hart insists that the apostle Paul's account of salvation is closer to the gnostic Valentinus's “understanding of salvation” than to much of the Thomist tradition or to Calvin’s doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Marcion, who repudiated the Old Testament, practiced a faith “more consistent” with Paul’s beliefs than did Luther.
Hart repeatedly denounces the doctrine of eternal damnation of those condemned to hell. Those who accept it—which means the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived—“invite psychosis” and the destruction of their “moral intelligence.” Their misunderstanding of eschatology matches their naïve assumptions about the rational coherence in Christian tradition, which it is the gravamen of Tradition and Apocalypse to show is an illusion.
Following in that modern tradition of scholars who imagine that they have discovered the true meaning of the Bible for the first time, Hart tells us that Christians have failed to see that the original tale of the “narrative of Eden” has nothing to do with a fall, original sin, or diabolical interference. It was originally the story of a chief god Yahweh who lied to his “two pitiable serfs” to keep them ignorant of better things. The high god tried (maladroitly) to make the serpent a helpmeet to these serfs. The serpent truthfully told these “peasants” that Yahweh was “exploiting” them. They discovered after eating from the tree that the serpent was right, so Yahweh fled in panic to the council of lesser gods to warn them that Adam and Eve might now eat from the tree of life and displace them by also becoming immortal. This was why they had to be expelled from the garden.
A reader can only chuckle over this fanciful reading. Hart’s rendition of Genesis 3 betrays a surprising inability to distinguish between background Near Eastern myths and their subtle refutations by the biblical author. He frequently invokes “reason,” the “historical-critical method,” and “historical scholarship” for warrants. Again the informed reader smiles, knowing that “historical scholarship” changes from generation to generation, often producing wildly contradictory judgments, but always put forward with great confidence that the scholar-genius has finally settled the matter and put to rest the notions of the benighted fools who came before him.
Hart pursues other tendentious readings of Scripture that pretend to be informed by historical reasoning, often to support his claims that “true Christianity” is anarchic, socialist, and pacifist. Yet the role of the modern German theology professor is not enough for Hart. He makes a metaphysical leap to philosophical perennialism not unlike that of the American transcendentalists in the nineteenth century. Emerson, for example, posited an inner unity to all world religions and a final metaphysical oneness opposed to all dualism. Hart does the same. The distinction between God and the creation is illusory. Christians should learn this monism, Hart avers, from Hindu thinkers like Shankara, developer of Advaita Vedanta. Or we should go to Islamic Sufism, which sees the truth of metaphysical monism “with unparalleled brilliance.”
Why did Solomon turn to idolatry after God used him to lead Israel and after he had written some of the most profound parts of Scripture? Why did Gideon make a golden ephod that became an idolatrous snare to himself and all Israel after Yahweh had used him to deliver Israel? We will never have a definitive answer to these questions. But we can see a similar turn in an erstwhile orthodox theologian who now embraces a gnostic reading of Genesis and heterodox views of Christology, creation, and salvation.
Perhaps Hart’s turn toward heterodoxy goes back to his embrace of universal salvation. Not all universalists have come to heretical conclusions about other Christian dogmas. But in his magisterial analysis of the history of universalism (The Devil’s Redemption), Michael McClymond shows that universalism begins with the ancient gnostics, and once embraced by Christians, tends to unravel every major Christian dogma. This powerful tendency helps us understand—if not explain—Hart’s fall into Hindu metaphysics and gnostic theology.
Gerald McDermott recently retired from Beeson Divinity School.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted the phrase “narrative of Eden” as “true Eden story.” We regret the error.
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