I have long been aware of the fact that David Bentley Hart's theology was far from Orthodox, but I have become convinced -- after reading more of his writings, and listening to him speak -- that his theology cannot even be categorized as properly Christian. Especially after his recent assertion that the God of the Old Testament was mostly evil, and began as a Canaanite storm-god.
In response to DBH's recent book, "That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation," Peter Leithart, who is a conservative Protestant biblical scholar, wrote a review, entitled "Good God?" Leithart correctly zeroed in Hart's dismissal of the Old Testament. He asked Hart whether he believes that the God of the Old Testament is good, by his (DBH's) standards. Leithart didn't use the label "Marcionite," in his review, but Hart got the point, and wrote a rebuttal, which Leithart posted in full: "Good God? A Response." In this response, he leaves little doubt on the matter, though he tries to turn the Marcionite label on his opponent:
"I often have to remind myself how great a distance separates apostolic, patristic, and pre-modern orthodoxy from modern fundamentalism; somehow it always comes as a shock to the system. So let me say this upfront, and then return to it: fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all. That is not an accusation, but it is a lament. You may be pure, but your premises are corrupt.
You ask if I think the YHVH of the Old Testament was “good.” First of all, there is no single YHVH in the Hebrew corpus. The various texts that the Second Temple redactors collated into the Torah and Tanakh emanate from various epochs in the development of Canaanite and Israelitic religion, and reflect the spiritual sensibilities of very different moments in the evolution of what would in time become Judaism. Most of the Hebrew Bible is a polytheistic gallimaufry, and YHVH is a figure in a shifting pantheon of elohim or deities. In the later prophets, he is for the most part a very good god, yes, and even appears to have become something like God in the fullest sense. But in most of the Old Testament he is of course presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god. Neither he nor his rival or king or father or equal or alter ego (depending on which era of Cannanite and Israelitic religion we are talking about) El (or El Elyon or Elohim) is a good god. Each is a psychologically limited mythic figure from a rich but violent ancient Near Eastern culture—or, more accurately, two cultures that progressively amalgamated over many centuries.
Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time. Neither was ever literalist in the way you apparently are. The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope. He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible—if taken in the mythic terms provided there—is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God. Happily, his literalism was an aberration."
Photo: Wikipedia One has to ask here whether Marcion's problem was indeed that he simply took the Old Testament literally, and then concluded that the God of the Old Testament was evil? The answer, from everything we know about Marcion, is that this was not the problem. Marcion was the son of an Orthodox bishop, but he was ex communicated for fornication, and later went to Rome, and joined himself to a gnostic sect that rejected the Old Testament because the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the material world, and they believed matter to be evil. They also, consequently, denied the resurrection of the body. So his problem was that he came to the Old Testament with a foreign set of philosophical assumptions, and rejected it for those reasons... much in the same way that David Bentley Hart does.
Modern Approaches to Scripture
DBH labels the approach of Protestant "fundamentalists" as a "modern heresy," but then goes on to repeat, as if they were undeniable facts, some of the conclusions of the worst of Protestant scholarship, which is certainly no less modern in origin. It is actually not a fact that the various texts and redactors of the Old Testament originated with those worshiping an evil Canaanite storm-god, or that such a God was the original subject of their writings. DBH apparently takes for granted that the Protestant historical-critical approach to Scripture is a neutral and reliable means of understanding the history and meaning of the Old Testament text, but such scholarship is far from neutral or scientific.
Certainly, there are aspects of such scholarship that provide useful and valuable information, and there are aspects of it that are more empirical than others, but this scholarship does not come free from ideological agendas. In particular, the German Biblical Scholarship that emerged after the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation had a consciously secularizing agenda. I talk about the ideological assumptions of such scholarship in my essay on Sola Scriptura, but for more on why this is the case, I would refer the interested reader to two books on the subject:
Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture (1300 - 1700), by Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (New York, NY: Herder & Herder Books, 2013)
The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, by Michael C. Legaspi (Oxford University Press, 2010).
When Rudolf Bultmann, for example, argued that Jesus was not only not the Christ, but that he did not even believe himself to be the Christ, this was not a scientific conclusion that we are bound to accept unless we wish to be anti-intellectual and deny reality. This was the expression of Bultmann's opinions, cloaked in scholarly bluster in order to make it sound scientific. His opinions were not based on any hard evidence or undeniable facts whatsoever. This is true of quite a lot of what passes for biblical scholarship today.
If you take the JEDP theory of how the Pentateuch supposedly came into being from the weaving together of four earlier sources (which forms much of the basis of DBH's assertions here, along with the conclusions of the history of religions school), here you have a theory based on a great deal of circular reasoning. The scholars who formulated it selectively chose the "facts" and "evidence" that suited their agenda and then proceeded, with their conclusions essentially predetermined by their basic assumptions, to apply their methods to the Scriptures. And so if you assume, for example, that any mentions of liturgical worship would be later than the time of Moses (because you're a Protestant, and see that as a later corruption), and obviously, the work of later priests, your starting assumption is how you identify the "P" (Priestly) source, and then you know the "P" source, because it matches your assumptions. The reasoning is circular, but because it is presented with confidence, by people who sound like they know what they are talking about, people too often assume there is something objective and compelling about it, when in fact, it is completely subjective. This theory is still taught only because there has not been a new theory that has gained the consensus that the JEDP theory once held in some sectors, but even among Protestant scholars it has largely been discredited.
Even better Protestant scholars have come to see that such an approach to the text of Scripture misses the forest for the trees. For example, Brevard Childs (a Yale Old Testament Scholar, who was a Protestant, but who came closer to an Orthodox approach to Scripture than does DBH), argues that we should interpret the Pentateuch as a whole, in its canonical form, not as separate sources. It is the form that the Church has received that we regard as Scripture, and not hypothetical atomized sources (see his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1979).
Is it possible that the Pentateuch was comprised of more than one source? It is possible. Is there any way that we could confidently know which source was which in the Pentateuch, given the information available to us today? No. But even if we knew for sure that the Pentateuch was composed of four sources, and even if we could confidently identify which source any particular portions of the Pentateuch came from, if we believe in God, and believe that the Scriptures are inspired by Him, and have confidence that the form that we have received is the form that God intended for us to receive, then the form we have received is what we should concern ourselves with.
For more on that subject, see:
A Critical Assessment of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis, by Colin Smith.
A Rigid Scrutiny: Critical Essays on the Old Testament, by Ivan Engnell.
The Old Testament and Rationalistic Biblical Criticism, by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky.
Having said all of that, I would never suggest that Orthodox scholars or clergy should ignore such scholarship. In fact, I think it is very important that they be familiar with it, but like the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, I would encourage them to apply the same hermeneutic of suspicion to that scholarship, which its practitioners so love to apply to Scripture. As Oden observes:
"Scripture criticism is more firmly captive today to its modern (naturalistic, narcissistic, individualistic) Zeitgeist than Augustinianism ever was to Platonism or Thomism to Aristotelianism. Trapped in modern prejudices against pre-modern forms of consciousness, reductionistic exegesis has proved to be just as prone to speculation as were the extremist forms of Gnosticism and as uncritical of its own presuppositions as supralapsarian Protestant scholasticism" (Agenda for Theology: After Modernity What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) p. 111).
"Historical biblical criticism has been allied with polemical concerns since its eighteenth century inception as an ideological agent of "Enlightenment." It has expressed a determined interest from the beginning in discrediting not merely the authority of Scripture, but authority in general -- all authority as such. Just read the biographies of Reimarus, Rousseau, Lessing, Strauss, Feuerbach, and of course Nietzsche (cf. Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other). It has operated especially as a partisan "ideology for the demystification of religious tradition"... It is astutely described as the strike force of modernity, "the Wehrmacht of the liberal Church"... The hermeneutic of suspicion has been safely applied to the history of Jesus but not to the history of the historians. It is now time for the tables to turn. The hermeneutic of suspicion must be fairly and prudently applied to the critical movement itself... One obvious neglected arena is the social location of the quasi-Marxist critics of the social location of classic Christianity, who hold comfortable chairs in rutted, tenured tracks. These writers have focused upon the analysis of the social location of the writers and interpreters of Scripture. Yet that principle awaits now to be turned upon the social prejudices of the "knowledge elite" -- a guild of scholars asserting their interest in the privileged setting of the modern university" (The Word of Life: Systematic Theology Volume Two, (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 225f).
Literal and Allegorical Interpretation
Hart went on to attempt to pit the literal meaning of the Old Testament against spiritual interpretations:
In short, you want me to account for myself in a way answerable to the hermeneutical practices of communities gestated within a religion born in the sixteenth century. But those practices are at once superstitious and deeply bizarre. They are not Christian in any meaningful way. They are not Jewish either, as it happens. They are a late Protestant invention, and a deeply silly one. From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority. In that tradition, even “literal” exegesis was not the sort of literalism you seem to presume. Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read “spiritually.”
In fact, it is for you to account for your beliefs, since they are so incompatible with the teachings and practices of the ancient church and the New Testament regarding the reading of scripture. And, while we are at it, please go back and read Galatians several times. Then, in fact, read Hebrews. If you cannot see what is going on in those texts—how much of ancient Hebrew tradition is rejected and reinterpreted even in being preserved and reclaimed—then you are not paying attention.
This is of course, complete and utter nonsense. Christians believe that there is only one God not because of allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament, but because of the literal sense of countless passages that tell us precisely that. We believe that God is the creator of all things visible and invisible, not because of allegorical interpretations, but because this is literally what is taught throughout the Old Testament.
Both Christ and St. Paul make mention of the various Ten Commandments, and we find them taking them literally. Christ also spoke about deeper implications of these commandments beyond the more obvious literal meaning, but he did not undermine those literal meanings by doing do. In fact, it was the Pharisees who used creative interpretations to try to get around the literal meaning of the commandment to honor one's parents, and Christ took them to task for doing so (Matthew 15:3-9).
DBH attempts to set the literal meaning of Scripture in opposition to its spiritual meaning, because he wishes to get around the former by means of the latter. But the Fathers do not approach the Scriptures this way. The Fathers interpreted Scripture both literally and allegorically.
Very rarely in any of the Fathers do you find them saying that something described as having happened, really did not, but that the text in question should be read as having a spiritual meaning only. Most of the Fathers never do that. But even in those instances where a Father does take such a text allegorically, and denies the literal meaning, he does not ascribe error to Scripture, or suggest that the text was the work of those worshiping a Canaanite storm-god. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses, does indeed say that he believed the death of the Egyptian firstborn would require an unworthy view of God and His justice, and so he sees it as having only a spiritual meaning (The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press,1990), pp. 75–77). He believed the text was not intended to be read literally because he did not believe it was literally describing what actually happened. He did not suggest that the text was in error or that God was actually evil. And his reading of this passage is a minority opinion in any case. Blessed Theodoret, for example, wrote:
"Why did he kill the firstborn of the Egyptians? Since Pharaoh was subjecting Israel, God's firstborn to such harsh slavery -- as you recall, the Lord God himself had said, "Israel is my firstborn son [Exodus 4:22] -- God quite justly gave the firstborn of the Egyptians over to death" (The Questions on the Octateuch, vol. 1, On Genesis and Exodus, trans. Robert C. Hill, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), p. 259).
St. Ephrem the Syrian likewise writes:
"The firstborn of the Egyptians died in the middle of the night, and every person in the solitude of his own house, mourned the death of his firstborn, the first of his sons. Just as the river had been filled with the firstborn of the Hebrew women, Egyptian tombs were filled with the firstborn of the Egyptian women" (The Fathers of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian, Selected Prose Works, trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr, and Joseph P. Amar (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994), p. 247f).
It is in fact a false dilemma to pit the literal meaning of Scripture against the spiritual meaning. As St. Cyril of Alexandria, wrote:
“Those who reject the historical meaning in the God-inspired Scriptures as something obsolete are avoiding the ability to apprehend rightly, according to the proper manner, the things written in them. For indeed spiritual contemplation is both good and profitable; and, in enlightening the eye of reason especially well, it reveals the wisest things. But whenever some historical events are presented to us by the Holy Scriptures, then in that instance, a useful search into the historical meaning is appropriate, in order that the God-inspired Scripture be revealed as salvific and beneficial to us in every way” (quoted in: Dr. Mary D. Ford, The Soul's Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, PA: St. Tikhon Monastery Press, 2915), p. 69).
What this reveals about David Bentley Hart's Theology
DBH clearly does not regard the Scriptures as divinely inspired revelation of God to man. He sees Scripture as a record of man's search for God. Gradually, over time, smart people like DBH began to reason their way towards a higher view of God. He does not really see the Scriptures as being different from the writings of the pagan Greeks, the Hindus, or the Buddhists. If you doubt me, consider what he has said in the essay we are examining:
"Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time."
And in a subsequent reply to Peter Leithart, Hart wrote:
"Again, the myths of their war god invoked by the people of ancient Israel to justify acts of slaughter were part of the history of what became Jewish and Christian monotheism. Just as the Homeric myths were the (frequently allegorized) prehistory of later philosophical pagan monotheism."
So, according to DBH, just as later pagan philosophers allegorized Homer's Iliad, Christians allegorized the Old Testament. Both were equally primitive myths, unworthy of the real God, but by allegory, later philosophers were able to make good use of them, by completely reinterpreting them to mean something quite at odds with the original meaning of the text.
DBH, was asked, in an interview on the show "Closer to the Truth," how it could be that many religions can be true, despite the differences between them, and he replied:
"Well, I never take any religion as a closed system of propositions, every one of which is true, or true in the same way. And that's the way you think about religion. I mean, I think of all religions -- including Christianity -- as cultural artifacts that express truths, or fail to express them, in ways determined as much by cultural history as anything else.... Among the traditions that are serious traditions, you know, not the kind of religion you might make up, if you were trying to sell a certain product rather than the spiritual life, that yes, they can all converge upon the same truths, with all of the fallibility that every human approach to truth exhibits. The same way the different schools even in the sciences are going to diverge from one another. Now, ideally, we say, well at some point there will be a theoretical breakthrough that will either reconcile the differences in the sciences, or show that one theoretical path was sterile. Well in a sense that's true also in religious experience, I mean, but it's just not going to be within the realm of empirical investigation. But yes, no, many different religions can be true, in the sense that they are speaking of the truth in the best way that the cultural tradition to which they belong allows them to do so, while at the same time differing from one another on specific affirmations which may be right or wrong" (Closer to the Truth, 12/16/2017).
It is one thing to say that there are many truths to be found in other religions. Anyone who has done much study of other religions would generally concede that point. However, it is quite another matter to say that other religions are true, and to put them on the same level as the Christian Faith. DBH sees these many religions as having much in common in terms of philosophy and morality, but he clearly does not appreciate the fact that Christ did not come to establish a philosophy -- He came to establish a Church, which is His Body. And the Christian Faith did not arise because smart people eventually developed true ideas about God, it rises or falls on the person of Jesus Christ, and His incarnation, death upon the Cross, and His Resurrection -- and if those things didn't happen in history, then our Faith is in vain, and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). If "philosophical pagan monotheism" is equally true, then the martyrs died for nothing, because they could have just embraced this pagan philosophy, fit right in with everyone else, and not shed a drop of blood standing for the Christian Faith.
When I reviewed DBH's translation of the New Testament, I thought it was odd that he was so anxious to read into the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Jude a Gnostic interpretation, by positing that there were two distinct classes of Christians within the Church: those who were "psychics," and those who were "pneumatics." However, it does make sense if you realize that DBH is not far off from the Gnostics, and probably thinks they represented a true religion as well. The Gnostics could attach themselves to virtually any religion, reinterpret it, and simply appropriate the texts and terminology of that religion, sort of along the lines of a religious version of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." However, the end result was a religion that had the trappings of the "host body." but a completely different substance. DBH's theology is likewise not derived from Christ, the Gospel, or Scripture, and his theology would not be seriously impacted if you took all three of them out of the equation altogether. He could do just as well with the Iliad and pagan Greek philosophers, or with Hinduism or Buddhism and their texts.
Furthermore, what this tells us is that while DBH will spend time arguing about the meaning of various texts of Scripture, it is clear that it doesn't really matter to him what the Scriptures actually mean. After all, he thinks that much of it was written with an evil Canaanite storm-god as its focus, and yet thinks it perfectly acceptable to reinterpret those texts to fit his views. There is every reason to believe he feels just as free to reinterpret the rest of it to fit his views as well, since they are merely "cultural artifacts" of one true religion among many others.
DBH ended his response to Peter Leithart by saying:
"This is not the true gospel. And one slanders the God revealed in Christ by suggesting that it is. You need to become Eastern Orthodox."
One might say the same thing to David Bentley Hart about his theology.