David Bentley Hart is his own man, with his own distinctive voice and writing style—and thank God for that. His theological writings have been described as brilliant, incisive, penetrating, trenchant, over-blown, outrageous. He is impossible to pigeon-hole. He has read deeply in the Church Fathers, yet his theology can hardly be described as mere repetition of ancient views. He is a communicant of the Orthodox Church, yet his fellow Eastern theologians pay him little attention. One reviewer of his Beauty of the Infinite complained that the book is not Orthodox theology. Hart characteristically replied:
Of course it is. Admittedly it does not much resemble the sort of ‘neo-Palamite’, ‘neo-patristic’ books which have dominated Eastern theology since the middle of the last century, when the great ressourcements movement that has done so much to define modern Orthodoxy was inaugurated. But Orthodox theology has taken many forms over the centuries—mystical, scholastic, mystagogical, idealist, neo-patristic, even ‘Sophiological’—all of which have been perfectly legitimate expressions of the Eastern Church’s mind. And frankly, I think that the theological idiom to which Orthodox theology has been confined for the last fifty years or so has largely exhausted itself and has become tediously repetitive. It has also, to a very great extent, done much to distort the Orthodox understanding of the traditions of both East and West.
As I said, Hart is his own man. A few months ago, for example, he took on the predestinarianism of St Augustine in the May issue of First Things. He concluded with this indictment: “In the whole long, rich history of Christian misreadings of Scripture, none I think has ever been more consequential, more invincibly perennial, or more disastrous.” In the latest issue of First Things, Hart directs his ire toward his fellow Orthodox. The title is sure to grab attention: “Saint Origen“!
Hart begins his piece with observations about a recent intra-Orthodox internet debate on the theme of universal salvation. I wish I knew which blog or forum he had followed, though I have my suspicions. He notes that several modern Orthodox theologians, following in the footsteps of St Gregory of Nyssa, have affirmed the hope of universal salvation, at least as a theologoumenon; but there are also those who denounce the hope as heretical. Hart describes the debate:
But there are those who find this an intolerable state of affairs, sometimes because of an earnest if misguided devotion to what they believe Scripture or tradition demands, sometimes because the idea of the eternal torment of the derelict appeals to some unpleasantly obvious emotional pathologies on their parts. And the fiercest on this score seem to be certain converts from Evangelicalism who bristle at the thought that Orthodox tradition might be more diverse, indeterminate, and speculatively daring than what they signed on for. And so the argument went on, repeating a familiar pattern. Those who were keen to defend the gates of hell against every assault of hope cited the small handful of New Testament verses seeming to threaten everlasting damnation; those on the other side responded that none of those pericopes, when correctly interpreted and translated, says what the “infernalists” imagine, and then cited the (far more numerous) passages proclaiming universal rescue. The eternal-damnation party invoked various “binding” authorities, such as the 1583 edition of the Synodikon; the total-reconciliation party pointed out (quite correctly) that Orthodox dogma is the province only of the Seven Councils, not of some hoary collection of canonical pronouncements and para-canonical opinions. The hellions made vague appeals to “holy tradition”; the empyrealists (knowing that “holy tradition” can mean anything from unshaven priests to crypto-gnostic superstitions about departed souls rising through “aerial tollhouses” supervised by devils) were unimpressed.
But always when Orthodox (and Catholics) debate this question, the dogmatic authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council is eventually invoked: this council, traditionalists allege, solemnly anathematized Origen and condemned all forms of apokatastasis. Hart’s reply is to the point: “In point of fact, no—absolutely not”:
It is true that something remembered by tradition as “Origenism” was condemned by someone in the sixth century, and that Origen was maligned as a heretic in the process; and it is also true that for well more than a millennium both those decisions were associated with the Council of 553 by what was simply accepted as the official record. But, embarrassingly, we now know, and have known for quite some time, that the record was falsified. And this is a considerable problem not only for Orthodoxy, but for the Catholic Church as well, inasmuch as the authority of the ecumenical councils must in some way be intimately—if obscurely—bound to some notion of the indefectibility of the Church’s transmission of the faith. (And, frankly, the prejudices of ecclesial fundamentalists are as impervious to historical fact as are the naivetes of young-earth creationists to science.)
When Hart says that the record was falsified, he is referring, I think, to the 15 anathemas against Origenism, which have traditionally been attributed to II Constantinople. But what many people do not realize is that historians have long debated whether they in fact belong to the council. There is no mention in the acts of the council that the anathemas were ever discussed or voted upon. Historians presently hypothesize that the Emperor Justinian, at some point prior to the formal opening of the synod, submitted the anathemas to the bishops then present in Constantinople. Presumably these bishops communicated their approval, or at least acquiescence, in some manner; but regardless their “decision” does not possess canonical authority. However the council did anathematize Origen by name in the anathemas directed against the Three Chapters: “If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their heretical books, and also all other heretics who have already been condemned and anathematized by the holy, catholic and apostolic church and by the four holy synods which have already been mentioned, and also all those who have thought or now think in the same way as the aforesaid heretics and who persist in their error even to death: let him be anathema.”
Putting aside the oddity of Origen being named at the end of the list out of historical order (which has led some historians to wonder whether we are dealing here with an interpolation), the real oddity—and for Hart the scandal—is the condemnation of a faithful Christian believer who died in the peace of the Church 300 years earlier than the council:
But, really, it is the most shameful episode in the history of Christian doctrine. For one thing, to have declared any man a heretic three centuries after dying in the peace of the Church, in respect of doctrinal determinations not reached during his life, was a gross violation of all legitimate canonical order; but in Origen’s case it was especially loathsome. After Paul, there is no single Christian figure to whom the whole tradition is more indebted. It was Origen who taught the Church how to read Scripture as a living mirror of Christ, who evolved the principles of later trinitarian theology and Christology, who majestically set the standard for Christian apologetics, who produced the first and richest expositions of contemplative spirituality, and who—simply said—laid the foundation of the whole edifice of developed Christian thought. Moreover, he was not only a man of extraordinary personal holiness, piety, and charity, but a martyr as well: Brutally tortured during the Decian persecution at the age of sixty-six, he never recovered, but slowly withered away over a period of three years. He was, in short, among the greatest of the Church Fathers and the most illustrious of the saints, and yet, disgracefully, official church tradition—East and West—commemorates him as neither.
I agree wholeheartedly. The conciliar condemnation of Origen was disagraceful, shameful, and unjust, no matter what his theological errors were. Origen had already passed beyond the jurisdiction of the Church militant. He now stands before Christ and awaits his final judgment. Condemn specific teachings of Origen, if need be; but honor the man and celebrate the many gifts he bestowed upon the Church. We all stand on his shoulders. If our present understanding of conciliar infallibility requires us to join with the Constantinopolitan Fathers in their excommunication of Origen, then that understanding needs to be revised. There are anathemas and there are anathemas.
But what about the Emperor Justinian? Hart’s judgment is harsh. He refers to him as “vicious,” “insidiously stupid,” and a “murderous thug.” (But what do you really think about him, Dr Hart?) But is not Justinian a saint? Do we not commemorate him on November 14th? I will leave judgments about his life and character to the historians. I only have this to say:
That Justinian is a saint of the Church proves that apokatastasis must be true.