Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Strange Theology of David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart has done a lot of good work in response to the "new atheists," and he is described as an "Orthodox theologian and philosopher," but having read his recent comments in defense of universalism, I think he would be more accurately referred to as a theologian and philosopher who happens to be a member of the Orthodox Church... because he clearly has an approach to Scripture, Tradition, and the Church that is not at all Orthodox.

I would have responded to his comments on that blog, but Fr. Aidan Kimel, the owner of the blog "Eclectic Orthodoxy," while he allowed two of my comments back in December, has deleted all of my comments ever since. The title of the blog alone is a tip-off that what is contained therein is not Orthodox in any traditional sense of the term. One of the primary themes of this blog is the promotion of the heresy of universalism.

Expressing his opinion of the Fifth Ecumenical Council, as well as St. Justinian, Dr.. Hart wrote:
"If you consult the (very dubious) records of the council, you will find something called Origenism condemned. But no authentic finding of the council condemns universalism as such."
Here we have repeated the argument that the universalism of Origen was condemned, but not universalism per se. The problem with this argument is that if universalism was OK in general, why would it be mentioned at all in the anathema's against Origen. Why not just condemn the other objectionable parts of Origen's teachings? The problem is not that the Fifth Ecumenical Council was unclear in its rejection of universalism -- the problem is that universalists will not be swayed by what the Fifth Ecumenical Council taught:
"Not that I would care if it did. That very imperial “ecumenical ” council is an embarrassment in Christian history, and I sometimes think it a mercy that such a hash was made of its promulgation that we literally do not know what was truly determined there. For my money, if Origen was not a saint and church father, then no one has any claim to those titles. And the contrary claims made by a brutish imbecile Emperor are of no consequence."
So DBH not only disputes what the Fifth Ecumenical Council taught on universalism... he explicitly does not care what it taught. Contrary to the judgment of the Church, which does not number Origen among the saints or fathers of the Church, he believes he is not only both, but chief among them. And having canonized Origen, and removed the Fifth Ecumenical Council from the Seven Ecumenical Councils, he calls a great saint of the Church (St. Justinian) a "brutish imbecile."

This is not how Orthodox Christians approach such things. The Orthodox Church teaches that the Ecumenical Councils are infallible, and so such a cavilier attitude towards them is entirely alien to Orthodox thought.

Then when asked about the fact that every year, throughout the Orthodox Church, we anathematize Origen's teaching, and universalism in particular, DBH opines:
"The Synodikon is just a compendium, and at times a converses, and possesses only as much authority as what it is quoting at any point. In itself it is no more binding on the conscience of an Orthodox than the Baltimore Catechism or a Thomist manual is on the conscience of a Catholic."
The Synodikon of Orthodoxy states:
"To them who accept and transmit the vain Greek teachings that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being, that there is an end to the torment or a restoration again of creation and of human affairs, meaning by such teachings that the Kingdom of Heaven is entirely perishable and fleeting, whereas the Kingdom of Heaven is eternal and indissoluble as Christ our God Himself taught and delivered to us, and as we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Testaments, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting, to them who by such teachings both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others, Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!"
Those who advocate for universalism argue that this is only a condemnation of Origen's universalism, not the universalism supposedly expressed by other Fathers, because they had different theological and philosophical reasons for their universalism. But that is a bit like arguing that the Church hasn't anathematized Jehovah's Witness Christology, because they have different theological reasons for denying the divinity of Christ than the Arians did. This anathema states, without equivocation, that "we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Testaments, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting..." and there is no indication that we would ascertain anything differently if people were universalists because they saw a documentary on the history channel, read pseudo-Isaac's writings, and agreed with it, or agreed with Origen.

Anyone who has ever had an Orthodox thought in their life knows that we believe what we say in the services of the Church (lex orandi lex credendi), and when what we say ends with "Anathema!", we mean it in no uncertain terms.

Then in response to my own comments on that blog, DBH wrote:
"Dear me, you really think [the statements taken in support of universalism by St. Gregory of Nyssa] are interpolations? That is something of a joke in scholarly circles. Especially since it would basically mean that Gregory’s whole theology, from the ground up, as unfolded in De anima et resurrectione and De hominis opificio and the Great Oration and the Psalms commentary is an interpolation. Maybe Gregory never really wrote anything (rather like the Oxfordian hyposthesis about Shakespeare)."
I did not say that those statements were interpolations. Fathers of the Church, like St. Mark of Ephesus did. But Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), makes a very different argument. He devotes an entire chapter to this subject in his book "Life After Death (Chapter 8, The restoration of all things, pp. 273-312), affirms that this heresy was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and goes to great lengths to make the case that St. Gregory of Nyssa did not in fact teach it, but rather taught that hell (gehenna) and its punishments are unending, and that those who attribute this teaching to him are simply failing to understand them in the context of his complete teachings on the subject. If one rejects the argument that St. Gregory of Nyssa did not teach this doctrine, that would only prove St. Gregory to be in error, because Ecumenical Councils are infallible, whereas no Church Father, as an individual, is. However, it certainly is interesting that in the one instance in which, if he was a universalist, you would expect him to put that on display, St. Gregory of Nyssa not only does not affirm universalism in his treatise on the death of unbaptized infants, but directly refutes it when speaking of Judas as an example of one who died in his sins:
"Certainly, in comparison with one who has lived all his life in sin, not only the innocent babe but even one who has never come into the world at all will be blessed. We learn as much too in the case of Judas, from the sentence pronounced upon him in the Gospels; namely, that when we think of such men, that which never existed is to be preferred to that which has existed in such sin. For, as to the latter, on account of the depth of the ingrained evil, the chastisement in the way of purgation will be extended into infinity..." (On Infants' Early Deaths).

"Something similar is true in Isaac’s case. And those two are far from being the only patristic universalists; both of the very distinct Alexandrian (including Cappadocian) and Antiochene tradition are full of them, from the days of Pantaenus to the 13th century writings of Solomon of Bostra. Goodness, there are almost overwhelming reasons to believe Gregory Nazianzen, and even Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, were so disposed (Gregory unquestionably, really)."
What he says here is simply not the case. For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, commented on 1 Peter 3:19 as follows:
"Here Peter answers the question which some objectors have raised, namely, if the incarnation was so beneficial, why was Christ not incarnated for such a long time, given that he went to the spirits which were in prison and preached to them also? In order to deliver all those who would believe, Christ taught those who were alive on earth at the time of his incarnation, and these others acknowledged him when he appeared to them in the lower regions, and thus they too benefited from his coming. Going in his soul, he preached to those who were in hell, appearing to them as one soul to other souls. When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone. And the only-begotten Son shouted with authority to the suffering souls, according to the word of the new covenant, saying to those in chains: "Come out!" and to those in darkness: "Be enlightened." In other words, he preached to those who were in hell also, so that he might save all those who would believe in him. For both those who were alive on earth during the time of his incarnation and those who were in hell had a chance to acknowledge him. The greater part of the new covenant is beyond nature and tradition, so that while Christ was able to preach to all those who were alive at the time of his appearing and those who believed in him were blessed, so too he was able to liberate those in hell who believed and acknowledged him, by his descent there. However, the souls of those who practiced idolatry and outrageous ungodliness, as well as those who were blinded by fleshly lusts, did not have the power to see him, and they were not delivered." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, Vol. XI, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Gerald Bray, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2000) p. 107f).

"And, had our our Lord spoken of everlasting punishment, that would be an interesting argument. But he did not speak English, and in fact did not speak Greek; and the Greek text of Matthew 25:46 (which is the only one you can have in mind) has been read by a great many Greek-speaking and Syriac-speaking fathers, from the earliest days, as saying nothing of the sort."
First off, I don't know that it is a fact that Christ did not speak Greek, In fact, it is hardly likely that Pilate spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, and so Greek would have been the most likely language that they would have spoken with each other. And secondly, I would like to see the evidence that many Greek or Syriac speaking fathers did not interpret Matthew 25:46 as speaking of eternal punishment. I doubt DBH can produce one commentary that asserted that it was not speaking of eternal punishment. The same word is used with reference to eternal life, and so if the punishment is temporal, how can he be sure that the life of the righteous is not temporal also?

St. John Chrysostom spoke Greek pretty well, and here is what he had to say about whether or not the torments of gehenna are temporal:
"There are many men, who form good hopes not by abstaining from their sins, but by thinking that hell is not so terrible as it is said to be, but milder than what is threatened, and temporary, not eternal; and about this they philosophize much. But I could show from many reasons, and conclude from the very expressions concerning hell, that it is not only not milder, but much more terrible than is threatened. But I do not now intend to discourse concerning these things. For the fear even from bare words is sufficient, though we do not fully unfold their meaning. But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that “they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction.” How then is that temporary which is everlasting? “From the face of the Lord,” he says. What is this? He here wishes to say how easily it might be. For since they were then much puffed up, there is no need, he says, of much trouble; it is enough that God comes and is seen, and all are involved in punishment and vengeance. His coming only to some indeed will be Light, but to others vengeance" (Homily 3, 2nd Thessalonians).
I think it is a safe bet that when Dr. Hart was received into the Orthodox Church, he was probably not asked to make the customary renunciations and affirmations found in the service book for the reception of converts. Had he done so, he would have been asked the following questions (among others):
"Priest: Hast thou renounced all ancient and modern heresies and false doctrines which are contrary to the teachings of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Church?
Answer: I have."
"And again the Bishop saith:
Dost thou accept the Apostolical and Ecclesiastical Canons framed and established at the Seven Holy Universal and Provincial Councils, and the other traditions and ordinances of the Orthodox Church?
Answer: I do.
Bishop: Dost thou acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold?
Answer: I do."
If it should turn out to be the case that God has a surprise for us, and that in the end all will be saved, failure to promote that idea will not keep it from happening. However, if it is not true, hoping it will be, no matter how hard you may hope, will not make it so. But promoting that teaching might well delude some into a false hope that will leave them eternally ashamed. And those who have enabled their delusion will have to answer for it, because as the Synodikon says of such people, " such teachings [they] both destroy themselves and become agents of eternal condemnation to others..."

For More Information:

The Hieromarty Daniel Sysoev wrote a very interesting article on this question: The Fifth Ecumenical Council and the New Origenism.

Stump the Priest: Is Universalism a Heresy?

Stump the Priest: Prayers for the Dead in the Bible and in Tradition

Holy Scripture and the Church, by the Holy New Martyr Hilarion (Troitsky)

The Hart Idiosyncratic Version


Dr. Hart has responded to some of my points. I see now why Stephen H. Webb observed:
"Hart has created one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary theology: a reluctant curmudgeon feigning weariness for being forced by so much foolishness to state the obvious. He is, it seems, our Christian Zarathustra, a bit annoyed for being called down from his mountain top, where he blissfully experiences the peak of divine unknowing, in order to correct “the rather inane anthropomorphisms that proliferate in contemporary debates on the matter, both among atheists and among certain kinds of religious believers.”
I had asked him to provide one commentary from any Church Father, on Matthew 25:46 that suggested Christ was not saying that the wicked would be punished eternally. His response was:
"...send him to fathers like Gregory of Nyssa or Isaac of Ninevah, who fully reveal how they understand such terms as “αιωνιος” or “le-alma” in the course of their expositions."
This is not what I asked for. As I figured, he cannot produce such commentary as I asked for, because there is none. I say this, not because I can claim to have read every comment from every Church Father on this subject, but because if such a comment did exist, universalists like DBH would quote it with regularity.

As for how we know what "aionios" means, we can look to the definitive lexical resource for the Greek New Testament, which is Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. It discusses how words were used in ancient pagan Greek writings, how they were used in the Greek Septuagint, and what the Hebrew background of the words the translate are, it discuss the New Testament usage, and then the usage beyond the New Testament. In the entry for this word, the one word definition is simply "eternal". It points out that Plato used the related word "aion" in reference to "timeless eternity in contrast to chronos. It says of "aionios": "An adjective meaning "eternal"..." And beyond that, I think Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) knows Greek pretty well, and he takes that word in the same sense.

"The thing to recall is that, outside the Seven Councils, the licit range of theological opinion is far larger than these self-appointed rigorists know. They do not get to say whether, for instance, Evdokimov, or Olivier Clement, or Bulgakov (etc.) are less truly Orthodox than they."
So he says, but according to DBH, it doesn't matter what the Fifth Ecumenical Council says, and so in what sense is he bound by anything other than his own opinion?

And as for Bulgakov, the Russian Church condemned his sophiology as a heresy -- in fact the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR both came to that conclusion, separately.

On the subject of St. Gregory of Nyssa, DBH says:
"...he quotes a bad translation of Gregory’s De infantibus too. Fr John, read the Greek, in the Gregorii Nysseni Opera of Jaeger et al."
And then further on, he wrote:
"But, really, no citing if [sic] crucial texts in dubious translations–that must be a rule. If Gregory of Nyssa talks of Judas suffering “eis ton aiona,” then quote him as doing so, as well as the many instances where he makes clear how he understands that biblical phrase. “Unto infinity” forsooth. One of the first things to learn about Gregory is that every version of “infinite” in Greek–apeiron, aperilepton, eyc–is a privileged name for the divine nature. Die Unendlichkeit Gottes bei Gregor von Nyssa (E. Mühlenberg) might have been one of the earliest books I read on Gregory’s metaphysics, flawed though that book is."
So based on what we have read in the TDNT, a fair translation would be "into eternity," which is not much different from "into infinity".

But let's consider an example of Christ using more concrete terminology in reference to the eternality of gehenna:
"And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell [gehenna], into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:43-48).
When Christ speaks of gehenna in these terms, he is probably alluding to Isaiah 66:24: "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh"; and Judith 16:17: "Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever."

But Dr. Hart would have us believe that the worm will die, and the fire will be quenched. Should we believe him, or Christ?

Then we have St. Paul, who says: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

But Dr. Hart would have us believe that it was St. Paul who was deceived, because he believes that everyone, along with the devil and the demons, will inherit the Kingdom of God.

St. Paul also wrote: "since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

But Dr. Hart would have us believe that what St. Paul really meant was that they would punished for a really long time, and then inherit the Kingdom of God. However, St. John Chrysostom, who spoke Greek pretty well, said (as referenced above) that this clearly teaches that torments are not temporal, but eternal.

And as converts are admonished, we must "acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold." And the fact that every year, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the entire Orthodox Church affirms that "we have ascertained from the entire Old and New Testaments, that the torment is unending and the Kingdom everlasting," we have obviously not always held, nor do we hold that the torments are temporal.

Update II:

Someone brought this chapter from St. John of Damascus' "And Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith," Book II, Chapter 1:
"He created the ages Who Himself was before the ages, Whom the divine David thus addresses, From age to age Thou art [Psalm 89[90]:2]. The divine apostle also says, Through Whom He created the ages [Hebrews 1:2].
It must then be understood that the word age has various meanings, for it denotes many things. The life of each man is called an age. Again, a period of a thousand years is called an age. Again, the whole course of the present life is called an age: also the future life, the immortal life after the resurrection [Matthew 12:32; Luke 7:34], is spoken of as an age. Again, the word age is used to denote, not time nor yet a part of time as measured by the movement and course of the sun, that is to say, composed of days and nights, but the sort of temporal motion and interval that is co-extensive with eternity. For age is to things eternal just what time is to things temporal.
Seven ages of this world are spoken of, that is, from the creation of the heaven and earth till the general consummation and resurrection of men. For there is a partial consummation, viz., the death of each man: but there is also a general and complete consummation, when the general resurrection of men will come to pass. And the eighth age is the age to come.
Before the world was formed, when there was as yet no sun dividing day from night, there was not an age such as could be measured, but there was the sort of temporal motion and interval that is co-extensive with eternity. And in this sense there is but one age, and God is spoken of as αἰώνιος [eternal] and προαιώνιος [pre-eternal, or before time], for the age or æon itself is His creation. For God, Who alone is without beginning, is Himself the Creator of all things, whether age or any other existing thing. And when I say God, it is evident that I mean the Father and His Only begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, and His all-holy Spirit, our one God.
But we speak also of ages of ages, inasmuch as the seven ages of the present world include many ages in the sense of lives of men, and the one age embraces all the ages, and the present and the future are spoken of as age of age. Further, everlasting (i.e. αἰώνιος) life and everlasting punishment prove that the age or æon to come is unending [Matthew 25:46]. For time will not be counted by days and nights even after the resurrection, but there will rather be one day with no evening, wherein the Sun of Justice will shine brightly on the just, but for the sinful there will be night profound and limitless. In what way then will the period of one thousand years be counted which, according to Origen, is required for the complete restoration? Of all the ages, therefore, the sole creator is God Who hath also created the universe and Who was before the ages."
Update III:

As to the question of whether or not the 5th Ecumenical Council anathematized Origen, the 1st Canon of the Quinisext Council settles that question:
"We take the pious utterances of the one hundred and sixty-five God-bearing Fathers who assembled upon the ground of this Imperial City in the reign of Justinian, who became our Emperor and who passed away at the termination of his pious career, and, recognizing them to have been inspired and uttered by the (Holy) Spirit, we teach them outright to our posterity; which Fathers indeed as a Council anathematized and consigned to abomination Theodore of Mopsuestia, the teacher of Nestorius, and in addition Origen and, Didymus and Evagrius, who joined hands in refashioning the Greek myths and recounting to us periods and mutations of certain bodies and souls, prompted by raptures and hallucinations of the mind, and in drunken revelry impiously exulting over the resurrection of the dead; as well as what had been written by Theodoret against the right faith and correct belief and against the twelve heads (or chapters) of blissful Cyril; and also the so-called letter of Ibas" (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 291).
And it should be noted that the canons of this council were specifically affirmed by the 7th Ecumenical Council.