by David Bentley Hart
I had been hoping to avoid this eventuality for some months now; and, but for a certain sense of justice that it is proving impossible to suppress in myself, I suppose I could have continued attempting to avoid it. I know Michael McClymond, and for some years have been watching the slow evolution of the gigantic book that has now appeared under the title The Devil’s Redemption, in the rather grim way that one might watch a tsunami gathering on the horizon. McClymond is a historian of American Christianity, and a fairly decent one I imagine.
But at some point he got it into his head that this rather narrow range of expertise had prepared him to undertake a task that required training and skills in classical languages and history, late antique metaphysics and culture, patristics, Church history, theology, and philosophy that he most definitely does not possess. And the result has been a disaster: an immense book that is clearly a labor of love, or at least of passion, but that no competent specialist would mistake for a work of serious scholarship. It is a feat of stupendous energy, admittedly; but energy and capacity are not the same thing. In its short existence, the book has already become something of a joke in certain of the more rarefied academic circles. But, out in the great, more casually learned world of the general readership, one also sees it being cited again and again as a real authority against genuinely accomplished scholars (among whom I include myself), and then sees those scholars feeling obliged to reply to it as though the book really merited their attention. All of which is a gross disservice to those genuinely scrupulous scholars whose work should be taken seriously. And so, since I already have a reputation for bad manners, I feel it falls to me to say aloud what many of us have been whispering in private.
How to describe McClymond’s book…?
If ever (say, in a fit of morbid prurience, induced by a spell of malarial fever) you should decide to sample some of the books written by “Oxfordians”—those poor, pale, demented neurasthenics who believe that the Shakespearean canon was actually written by the talentless fop Edward de Vere—you will notice that none of them is marked by brevity. Invariably, they come in at around 1000 turgid pages. There is a certain logic to this. The more preposterous a conspiracy theory is, the more elaborate and tortured the argument it requires; the very absence of any real corroboration makes it inevitable that any attempt to prove its veracity will consist in nothing but the frantic accumulation of every hint of a shadow of an echo of evidence, however illusory. Precisely because it is obviously false, its “demonstration” is potentially infinite.
And this, I think, accounts for the sheer staggering size—1349 pages of small type, distributed across two heavy volumes—of McClymond’s book. It may even account for its frequent moral distastefulness—by which I mean that it is a book that seems obviously animated throughout by a desire to slander anyone with whom McClymond disagrees. No putatively academic book in my recollection has struck me as so offensive a collection of malicious misrepresentations, sinister suppositions, paranoid accusations, and willful distortions. It purports at once to be an exhaustive history of Christian universalism (the belief that, in the end, all persons shall be saved) and to provide an exposé of the largely secret “gnostic-kabbalistic-esoteric” tradition that supposedly accounts for the existence of that universalism. In both respects, the book is a failure—and not just any old failure. It is so inordinately inaccurate and wildly irrational in both its premises and its conclusions that it borders on “alternative history” fantasy. This is not scholarship. It is tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theory of the most cartoonish kind.
The most conspicuous problem with the book is that McClymond simply does not know enough about much of anything that he talks about in its pages. He obviously has next to no grasp of late Graeco-Roman antiquity, or of classical culture, language, philosophy, and religion. Neither, clearly, is he a New Testament scholar. And, without such knowledge, he is entirely unprepared for the task he has set himself. Moreover, he seems to have a very poor sense of where to go in the available literature for help (his understanding of late antique Judaism, for instance, seems to have been taken in its entirety from N.T. Wright, who may be deeply beloved by Evangelicals, but who is far from a trustworthy source on such things). McClymond’s guiding narrative is that the great universalist figures of the patristic period—even such giants as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa—were unwittingly influenced in their thinking by the ancient “gnostics” (a somewhat dubious category, actually, but that issue can be set aside here) and of some alleged gnostic metaphysics of a “divine fall” and redemption; and that something like this same gnostic theological scheme was reprised in various forms in later years (in Kabbalah for instance), and reached a kind of new early modern expression in the thought of Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), through whom the disease of universalism was transmitted to just about every later believer in a final reconciliation of all creatures with God (from William Law to George MacDonald to Sergei Bulgakov, and so forth).
Utter nonsense. And not even plausible nonsense. To begin with, there is the not inconsiderable fact that neither the so-called “gnostics” of old (at least, in the explicit teachings of any sect we can identify) nor the kabbalists nor Jakob Böhme were in fact universalists. McClymond goes to absurd lengths to prove otherwise, but the more he strives, the more embarrassing the results become. His attempts to demonstrate the existence of at least some universalist gnostic groups, for example, consists in violently wrenching certain sentences from various ancient gnostic documents—documents that are explicitly non-universalist—out of their context, in order to give the impression that they are saying something they are not. There is, admittedly, one remark by Irenaeus regarding the “Carpocratians” that suggests that that sect might have envisaged an eventual salvation of all souls; even here, though, McClymond should have exercised some care. The meaning of the text is not as clear as McClymond thinks, most historians of the period doubt Irenaeus’s account of Carpocratian teachings, and even more doubt that the sect should be classified along with the “gnostic” schools. But that scarcely matters. The Carpocratians were universally detested for their reputed antinomianism, and certainly influenced no one outside their own ranks. The suggestion that they would have influenced Origen is risible twaddle. And McClymond’s attempts to find “gnostic” motifs in figures like Origen or Gregory of Nyssa demonstrate a bizarre ignorance on his part of the scriptural sources of the language to which he objects (vide infra).
As for McClymond’s suggestion that ancient “gnosticism” recurred in Böhme’s thought, and through him entered into German Idealism, it is simply a category error. Here, he is desperately unaware of how out of date the picture he presumes is, and how clearly untrue. For a long time, admittedly, the general understanding of those late antique systems of thought and devotion that we collectively designate as “gnosticism” was shaped by the early work of a number of scholars (many of them German, such as Johann August Neander and, more crucially, Ferdinand Christian Baur) who chose to read those traditions through the violet-tinted spectacles of German idealism. Hence, it used to be accepted as almost a banal truism that the gnostic systems of late antiquity were built around one or another narrative of a divine fall, a cataclysm that somehow involved even God Most High, and taught the emergence of evil or defect from God’s own depths, all of which was then followed by a redemption that effected not only a restoration, but even an advance toward perfect fullness, within God himself. Supposedly, at the heart of these systems lay a tale of theogony, of God coming to himself at the far end of a refining process of tragic loss and comic rescue.
This is simply false. It is a relic of a now thoroughly discredited historical narrative. It is also an anachronism, since the existence of such ideas would simply have been impossible in the first few centuries of the Christian era. This whole narrative was based upon a misunderstanding of the very concept of the “divine” in late antiquity, and of its immense diversity of connotations, and upon a failure to grasp the utterly inviolable distinction that was preserved in all the late antique systems of spiritual salvation—the “gnostic” no less than any of the others—between the realm of the inaccessible Father, or “God” as specified by the definite article (ὁ θεός), or the One, or what have you, and the created or emanated “divine,” or celestial, or supercelestial, or “aeonian” realm. There were definitely schools and sects that spoke of a fall within the heavenly plenum, the πλήρωμα, and many told the tale of Sophia’s departure from that fullness as a result of her mad desire to know the Father in himself. But in those texts the πλήρωμα is not God, nor is it part of God in his transcendent nature, nor is the identity of God properly speaking involved either in its fall or in its redemption. God is beyond both the cosmos and the heavenly orders, fallen and unfallen alike; he is the always more encompassing reality that holds all other things in itself, even the highest cosmic sphere, beyond the reach of any other reality; in him all things live and move and have their being, but he does not dwell in or among them, or take his own life or movement or being from their histories in return. If anything, ancient “gnostic” literature emphasizes the remoteness of God from every cosmic or even heavenly process to a more extreme degree than did most later “orthodox” writers. To confirm this, one need only consult those “gnostic” texts that directly touch upon these issues. (See, for instance, Irenaeus, Adversus haereses I.1.1; the Nag Hammadi Corpus I.5.51.8-18; I.5.54.2-23; III.71.13-18; VII.5.119.15-16; VII.5.121.20-122.8; XI.2.25-4.19; the Berlin Gnostic Codex XXII.19-XXVI.15; XCI.4-7; etc.)
There are, it is true, texts that tell of this God generating creation through the ἔννοια, the “thinking” or “intellection,” that is with him in the beginning, just as Christian orthodoxy has always spoken of God the Father as creating through his λόγος in the beginning. There are texts also that speak of the Father knowing himself reflectively, either by seeing himself in himself, as his own mirror, or in the luminous water of life that is his own eternal immaculate light (Irenaeus, I.1.1; Berlin Gnostic Codex XXVI.15), just as later orthodox trinitarian theology will speak of the Father’s λόγος as his own eternal self-knowing. But in none of these texts is there any hint that the Father enters into, suffers, or recovers from a divine fall or crisis “within the godhead,” or that his creative or emanative self-manifestation is in any sense his discovery of his own inherent potencies. Again, we must not confuse talk of the “divine” in late antiquity for a privileged discourse regarding only the truly transcendent God, or talk of the “divine realm” of the heavenly beings above as somehow other than creaturely. In fact, in all the spiritual systems of the time, the Father (or the One, or the Monad, or ὁ βυθός, or so forth) remains untouched by his creatures, even the most divine or angelic among them, and comes into relation with lower reality only indirectly, through a lesser intermediary, or several lesser intermediaries: the Angel of Mighty Counsel, the λόγος, νοῦς, the hierarchy of pleromatic hypostases. In all these systems, as well, there is a tale to tell of a catastrophe in the heavenly or aeonian or pleromatic or “divine” places above: the fall of the rebel angels under the leadership of Semyâzâ or Samael, the fall of spirits through the aetherial spaces of the celestial spheres, the mutiny of the spiritual principalities and powers who preside over this world, the expulsion from Eden (often allegorized as a pre-temporal apostasy of spirits), the rupture of the pleromatic harmony, the truancy of Sophia. In every case, however, God in the proper sense remains immune to all becoming and all change, and innocent of every evil.
Here, in fact, is one of the most grating of McClymond’s oversights. It is obvious he is not accustomed to reading the New Testament in the original Greek, and certainly not in light of the spiritual and speculative terminology of its age. Hence, he seems utterly unaware that certain motifs and turns of phrase that can be found in both “gnostic” texts and the writings of patristic universalists are similar to one another not because the former influenced the latter, but because both derive their terms directly from the New Testament. What we call the “gnostic” schools should probably be seen as extreme expressions—bedizened with often tediously opulent mythologies, some perhaps only allegorical, many probably not—of a dualistic theological register that is already present, in an only slightly more muted and qualified form, in the earliest Christian documents, and that is especially conspicuous in the Pauline corpus and in the fourth Gospel. As does much of the New Testament, the “gnostic” narrative tells of a cosmic dispensation under the reign of the god of this aeon (2 Corinthians 4:4) or the Archon of this cosmos (John 14:30; Ephesians 2:2), and of spiritual beings hopelessly immured within heavenly spheres thronged by hostile archons and powers and principalities and daemons (Romans 8:3, 39; 1 Corinthians 10:20-21; 15:24; Ephesians 1:21; etc.), bound under and cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic or archontic powers (Galatians 3:10-11, 19-20). Into this prison of spirits, this darkness that knows nothing of the true light (John 1:5), a divine savior descends from the aeon above (John 3:31; 8:23; etc.), bringing with him a wisdom that has been hidden from before the ages (Romans 16:25-26; Galatians 1:12; Ephesians 3:3-9; Colossians 1:26), a secret wisdom unknown even to “the archons of this cosmos” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8) that has the power to liberate fallen spirits (John 8:31-32, etc.). Now those blessed persons who possess “gnosis” (1 Corinthians 8:7; 13:2) constitute something of an exceptional company, “spiritual persons” (πνευματικοί), who enjoy a knowledge of the truth denied to the merely “psychical” (ψυχικοί) among us (1 Corinthians 14:36; Galatians 6:1; Jude 19). By his triumph over the cosmic archons, moreover, this savior has opened a pathway through the planetary spheres, the encompassing heavens, the armies of the air and the potentates on high, so that now “neither death nor life nor angels nor Archons nor things present nor things imminent nor Powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39).
Where the so-called “gnostic” systems, then, clearly depart from this more general narrative morphology is not in the room they make for universalism. Quite the reverse. It is in their willingness to amplify the provisional or qualified dualism implicit in this vision of things into a complete ontological schism, such that creation is conceived of as having no natural relation to God at all, even in his eternal intentions. Not only is lower reality the work of a lesser or intermediary kind of divinity; it is wholly the product of an alienation from God. As a result, here in the land of unlikeness, below the turning spheres of the planetary heavens, all is governed by cosmic fate, εἱμαρμένη, rather than by divine providence; and, far from achieving his essence through creation, in time, by way of a fall and return, the true God is so far beyond the reach of cosmic eventuality that this world has no ontological relation to him at all, not even of the most tenuously analogical variety. In place, then, of the metaphysics of participation adopted by “orthodox” tradition, these schools provided only a mediating mythology of absolute estrangement, a grand epic of exile and ruin followed by rescue and restoration. At least, so we are told by contemporary sources, and so their own literary remains largely seem to confirm (though who can tell how much of this language is ultimately figural?). Still, throughout the whole of that tale, in every school, God—hidden forever in his hyperouranian and inaccessible light, infinitely removed from time and nature and history—is eternally the same. It is not his story. He has no story.
All of which is only to say, again, that the notion of a secret gnostic current in Christian thought extending from Valentinus (c. 100-c. 160) to Böhme is a fantasy. It is also an irrelevancy, since (again) no one within that supposed genealogy was a universalist. And, even if they had been, it still would not matter, because it would explain nothing. In a sense, McClymond’s book, in addition to being a rather squalid attempt at assigning guilt through association, is little more than a monstrously hypertrophied specimen of the most logically elementary of genetic fallacies: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. There is, you see, no mystery here to be solved. We know why all of the most important universalist thinkers believed what they believed, and it has nothing to do with extrinsic influences. Origen, Didymus the Blind, Gregory of Nyssa, Isaac of Nineveh, Evagrius of Pontus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus, and so on, right up to George MacDonald, Paul Evdokimov, Sergei Bulgakov, and all the rest explained themselves quite fully, and so there is no need of some absurd conspiracy narrative.
All of them, before all else, were simply following the story they thought they found laid out in scripture. Those of them who were able (as, again, McClymond clearly is not) to read the Bible with a real knowledge of its language and the conceptual world in which it took shape were simply certain that universalism was its final word. Origen interpreted the whole deposit of scripture in light of 1 Corinthians 15, as did Gregory of Nyssa after him. The latter, in fact, produced perhaps the most majestic, coherent, compelling, and theologically sophisticated reading of the New Testament’s soteriology, cosmology, and eschatology in the history of Christian thought. It is also the least “gnostic” interpretation imaginable.
Or, then—leaping far ahead—we know why George MacDonald was a universalist too, and it had absolutely nothing with his reading of Böhme. The explanation is laid out with comprehensiveness and clarity in his Unspoken Sermons and other works, and those reasons are all resplendently scriptural and theologically untainted by any hint of a more hermetic narrative of divine becoming. There is no secret here to be exposed—no Earl of Oxford, no second gunman on the grassy knoll, no faked moon-landing, no Area 51, no “da Vinci code.”
And then, perhaps the most disastrous aspect of McClymond’s book, there is the incessant “debate” with the theology of Bulgakov that is in fact no debate at all. It was brave of McClymond to attempt to critique a figure of such colossal intellectual gifts, but foolish as well; McClymond was clearly far, far out of his depth. He gets everything wrong—magnificently, extravagantly, insanely wrong. On every point of doctrine, metaphysics, and theology, McClymond misunderstands, misstates, and gets horribly lost among Bulgakov’s arguments. At one point, in fact, he even attempts to prove that Bulgakov believed in some ground of Godhead more original than the Trinity by quoting a sentence that, in context, is Bulgakov’s statement of the position that he is explicitly and elaborately rejecting. This is a mistake that would be an embarrassment for an undergraduate. And, alas, this sort of scholarly ineptitude is typical of McClymond’s entire book. As is a no less disastrous ineptitude on McClymond’s part in making arguments of his own. Philosophy is not (to put it mildly) one of his strengths.
And, in the end, everything is distorted by McClymond’s ridiculously parochial assumption that the version of Reformed Christianity to which he adheres—a simplified Evangelical distillate of the teachings of a sixteenth-century sect, whose view of scripture would have been unintelligible to those who wrote it—is true, authentic, pure Christianity, self- evidently correct and faithful to God’s revelation. Aspects of Christian thought that have belonged to the tradition from antiquity, and that can be drawn from scripture much more surely than the sort of Reformed dogmatics he presumes, he treats as alien and heretical corruptions.
Anyway, one could go on interminably, I suppose. The proper critique of this disaster of a book would have to be as long as the book itself. And, frankly, it does not deserve even the attention I have given it here. Sometimes, the most pitiless candor is the only possible form honesty can take. There are countless genuine laborers in the fields of sane and scrupulous and at times unrewardingly tedious patristic studies and Christian history and philosophical and systematic theology, men and women who have devoted themselves to the most exacting standards of scholarly rigor. It is a crime against their honorable and difficult work, and a dereliction of intellectual probity, to pretend that an absurd, bloated, sprawling Victorian-Folly of a book like this, built around a demented conspiracy theory, is anything but the congeries of delusional nonsense that it is. It is Dan Brown “scholarship” (though with footnotes and bibliography). And there comes a point of absurdity at which polite periphrasis is discreditable and perhaps a little wicked.