By Roberto De La Noval
“Harrowing Hart on Hell”—Douglas Farrow’s review of David Bentley Hart’s new book, That All Shall Be Saved, cannot be said to fall short of that same wit and bite which characterize his opponent’s writings. In a few places, Farrow even lands some impressive punches against Hart, such as his incisive question whether Hart’s moral argument—that God would be evil in the light of eternal torments—does not also prove God evil in view of the finite sufferings of this life. Still, the passerby not familiar with Hart’s book will be misled by reading the bevy of Hart’s arguments which Farrow rehearses in, unfortunately, a less than charitable and accurate fashion. Consider this letter, then, a spectator’s plea to momentarily pause the match and review some of the worst mischaracterizations of Hart’s argument.
The problems begin quite early in the review. The central theological argument of Hart’s book is not so much an existential question as it is a question about the possibility of theological speech itself: if God can still be considered “good”—indeed, the Good itself—despite the eternal suffering of his creatures, can we justifiably claim the divine name “good” bears any analogical relation to our usage of it in reference to earthly moral action? Farrow’s recourse to an Augustinian skepticism about fallen creatures’ “instincts and feelings” is actually beside the point, unless we are prepared to admit we have no idea at all what “goodness” is. Hart’s argument is intended to force just this decision in the reader—either to fly into a fideism which throws its hands up about our ability to know the revealed character of God or to affirm that the traditional doctrine of eternal torments is morally incoherent, so much so that it threatens to destabilize the Divine Names by which we speak of, and to, God. Hart has raised a serious question about the doctrine of analogy and its relationship to both theological anthropology and the doctrine of God, but Farrow barely registers this. And let the reader not be distracted by claims that these moral instincts are actually gnostic in provenance. Chase the hare and ignore the kipper, for we are here dealing with moral sentiments nurtured by the gospel itself.
Moving on. It is not, in fact, so easy to disentangle Augustine from his double-predestinarian legacy, Farrow’s appeals notwithstanding. Divine foreknowledge may not entail determinism, but Augustine makes it perfectly clear in his final treatises on predestination and perseverance that “the ordering of his future works in his foreknowledge … is absolute and nothing but his predestination” (De Dono, ch. 41). The late Augustine was no semi-Pelagian, and his doctrine of operative grace affirms that it is God’s action, his secret and eternal predestination of his saints, with the corresponding conferral of salvation’s necessary and sufficient graces (conversion and perseverance), which explain divine foreknowledge of the specially elect. That means that God’s foreknowledge of the damnation of the non-elect is in fact knowledge of his own refusal to grant them saving grace. It may be painful to acknowledge that this pillar of Western Christianity taught that God chooses to predestine some to salvation and to leave the rest—even seemingly innocent babies—to their condign fate within the massa damnata of fallen Adam, but honesty requires that Farrow experience in his breast the same moral horror at the Augustinian doctrine of “predestination to damnation through omission” as he feels towards certain Reformed teachings. After all, Augustine explicitly, though infrequently, does indeed speak of predestination to damnation: “[God] most justly recompenses with punishment those whom he has predestined to death” (De anima et eius origine, Patrologia Latina, t. 44, c. 533). Augustine really is “responsible for the vicious God of the double predestinarian and for the evils of later Western determinism,” in Farrow’s words. Hart may not be respectful towards Augustine, but he is not unjust.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this review is the quick work Farrow makes of Hart’s Scriptural case for universalism. A hand-wave suffices to dispatch Hart’s extensive demonstration of the New Testament’s blatant insistence on the universality of Christ’s redemptive and salvific work. Farrow is certainly right that Hart doesn’t give a thought to the “covenantal and sacramental context” of the word “all” in these universalist Scripture passages (e.g., Rom. 5:18-19, Rom. 11:32). That’s because no such context could constrain all the universalist passages Hart brings forward. Consider just one verse, 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed (Christ) all will be given life” (Hart’s translation). Unless there is a particular sacramental or covenantal context in which only some die in Adam, we should take Paul at his word and admit the parallelism he clearly intends. In fact, the Apostle seems to think that grace supersedes sin (Rom. 5:20)—a point in favor of Gregory of Nyssa and Sergius Bulgakov who believed the second Adam had displaced the old as the head of the human race. Probity would require that we admit this book’s Scriptural case for universalism cannot be reduced to 1 Tim. 2:4, like some interpretive straightjacket into which Hart forces unwilling Scriptural testimonies (more determinative for Hart, in any case, is 1 Cor. 15, whose conclusion is difficult to interpret in any but a universalist fashion). One can in good faith disagree with Hart’s interpretation of this or that biblical verse, but it is a persistent untruth that universalists have no leg to stand on when it comes to Scripture. Farrow’s review, sadly, perpetuates this mistaken impression. Ref, call the foul.
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Rob De La Noval is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on Sergius Bulgakov and Russian Religious Thought. He has also translated multiple works by Bulgakov, with one in the most recent issue of the Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies and another (with co-translator Yury P. Avvakumov) in process with University of Notre Dame Press. He has published with Public Orthodoxy, America Magazine, and Church Life Journal, among others.