Why I’m a “Fan” of DBH — But the Problem of Authority

by David W. Opderbeck, Ph.D.


Thanks to Fr. Kimel for inviting me to comment on David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved. I have been a “fan” of Hart’s for many years, and enjoyed hosting him as speaker in a “law and theology” series at my law school several years ago. Like all of Hart’s writing, this new book is magnificent, penetrating, and rich in its attention to scripture and the Christian intellectual tradition. There are some key places, however, where I see seams in Hart’s argument — important and contestable moves that I think are less smooth than Hart’s rhetoric suggests. I don’t think any of these seams mean Hart’s argument can easily be torn apart, but I do think they make his conclusions much less certain than he suggests. Before getting to the seams, however, I’d like to discuss the whole garment.

In my first draft of this post, I included a lengthy narrative about my traumatic experi­ences with hellfire preaching growing up in dispensationalist-fundamentalist churches. I use the word “trauma” here intentionally to invoke post-traumatic stress disorder and the like. I decided against including that longer narrative in the final draft for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that the people who were part of these churches, including my family, were on the whole good people who loved God, loved each other, and loved me. I learned an enormous amount from them, including a passion for the scriptures. Another is that I pretty early on began to receive a better education with some broader perspec­tives. But it did take me a long time to re-learn some things, and I suppose I’ll always be re-learning.

So let me just note a theological/sub-cultural milieu that I think will be familiar to many “fans” of Hart who find him refreshing: a very literal eternal Hell; the need for a specific kind of personal conversion experience; the belief that everyone who hasn’t had that very specific experience — including all Jews and people of other faiths, people who never heard of Jesus, and “deceived” psuedo-Christians such as Roman Catholics — that is, the 98% of humanity who don’t think just like us — will burn forever; the imminent destruc­tion of most of the world during a seven-year Tribulation under the auspices of the anti-Christ; the “rapture” of the Church before that event so true Christians can avoid the Tribulation; the conflicting claims that world missions will speed the rapture and that a return to “Christian America,” in partnership with the state of Israel, will delay it; the nagging feeling that if all of this is true one shouldn’t be wasting time studying for school or pursuing a career or family; the disquieting fact that everyone listening to these sermons and consuming the related literature, videos, and televangelist programming is otherwise a regular person with an ordinary career and a family rather than a frantic mendicant missionary.

Hart’s book doesn’t cure my PTSD, or say anything that I haven’t heard said before. But there is something especially helpful about hearing someone like Hart say (I’m paraphras­ing): “If an apologetic argument is dumb and a theological position is morally vile, you don’t have to believe them — and in fact, your commitments to Christian faith and to truth require you to reject them.” This isn’t, after all, just some hipster preacher like Rob Bell tossing off a few Zen-like aphorisms, or yet another confused and hurting megachurch pastor announc­ing on Twitter that he’s leaving the faith. Hart actually has the chops to expose bad theolo­gians and bad apologists as the shills, hucksters, and ideologues they so often are, or at least to show they are just not as well informed as they claim to be. At this point in my life, I don’t, or shouldn’t, need Hart to do that for me, but it’s good to see I’m not alone, and indeed that someone far more accomplished than me can speak truth plainly to powerful forces in our religious landscape.

But — and if you’re like me, you know there’s always a “but” — Hart’s appeal to conscience is also one of the big “seams” in his argument. There is, of course, a long and complex history of debates about authority and conscience throughout Church history. Those debates have produced innumerable excommunications, breakings at the rack, stake-burnings and the like, two great eras of schism (between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century and between the Roman Catholic church and what became the Protestant churches starting in the 16th century), devastating intra-Christian wars, and the multitude of conflict­ing confessions and denominations on offer today. It isn’t just as simple as deferring to conscience if scripture and traditional also carry weight.

Method and Authority

I’m a “method” guy. I think the method someone is using, whether as a legal scholar, theolo­gian, scientist, or whatever, matters. And I think, except maybe for the method for solving certain kinds of math problems, there is no such thing as one indubitable method for doing anything. This is certainly true for theology.

For example, a Roman Catholic theologian is obligated to take certain propositions of the Church’s Magisterium as axiomatically true, or at least to explain why, within the assump­tions of Roman Catholic theology, he or she feels one or more of those propositions should not be fully normative. Many Roman Catholic theologians speak of philosophy (reason) and conscience as a means of interrogating and clarifying Magisterial propositions. Some liberal Roman Catholic theologians have suggested that reason and conscience can supercede Magisterial propositions, but their moderate and conservative co-religionists respond that such a view is really Protestant and not Catholic.

These more traditional Catholic voices argue that any individual’s conscience or reasoning processes can be misdirected and malformed — an observation that is impossible to dispute — and that individual judgments therefore must always be submitted to the fuller commu­nity of the Church. A person may indeed be obligated to believe, or at least try to believe, or at least externally acknowledge and abide by, propositions that twinge his or her sense of conscience or reason, if in the end the collective body of judgment tells that individual he or she is misguided.

I am not a Roman Catholic theologian, so I have no interest in entering into the intramural debate of what role conscience should play in Catholic life and thought, but this example shows that neither conscience nor any individual person’s reason can self-evidently supplant tradition as a source of authority. In fact, the requirement that sometimes an individual must set aside his or her own judgment for a decision reached by the broader group is a necessary component of any kind of human society. If everyone only does “what is right in his own eyes,” to use a Biblical phrase (Judges 17:6), the result inevitably is violence and chaos.

The same is true for Protestants who hold scripture — however they might specifically define the meaning of its “inspiration” and truthfulness — to be the final norm. Roman Catholic polemicists can score points by noting that when Protestants say scripture is the norma normans non normata, in practice this means that each person’s individual interpretation of scripture governs. That might be true in practice, but at least the ideal remains: individual conscience and reason are supposed to serve the reading and interpretation of scripture, not supplant it, and the reading of scripture is supposed to involve a communal dimension, informed by the expertise of those called and equipped for deeper study, led by those called and equipped to proclaim it through preaching, and tested within the broader community of faith.

And, the same is true in Eastern Orthodoxy. It’s true that neither “tradition” nor “scrip­ture” usually are viewed in Orthodoxy as “final” norms or even as co-equal norms. I personally appreciate the sense within Orthodoxy that “scripture” is really a part of “tradition” just as “tradition” is a part of “scripture.” And I also appreciate the sense in Orthodoxy that, even in our fallenness, there is more left of our original human created goodness than usually seems to be the case in Western theologies influenced by Augustin­ian versions of “original sin.” But the spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy — one of the elements of that tradition that, again, I deeply appreciate — emphasizes the need to overcome our human “passions” in order to become free for union with God.

Authority doesn’t disappear in the context of an ascetical theology informed by the Eastern Church. It might be that my strong sense about a teaching’s moral ugliness or unreason­able­ness stems from ascetical practice and a clearer vision of God. Or, it might be that my impres­sions reflect an inability to tame my passions and to take solace in God’s utter other­ness. Since I’m not a saint, I should at least suspect that the latter might be part of how I think and feel. Again, I’m not looking to enter into any intramural Orthodox theological debate, much less to question the bona fides of Hart’s commitment to capital-O Orthodoxy. The point is that, no matter how you slice it, Christian theology and practice are never grounded on personal conscience or individual reason alone.

Sapere aude is the motto of the Enlightenment. The Church’s motto is fides quaerens intellectum. Contrary to fundamentalisms of all sorts, I don’t think the charge to dare to know, to think for one’s self, is a bad thing. But even that charge, as a charge, cannot be taken literally: if I refuse to think for myself, I’m disobeying the charge, and thumbing my nose at Kant and everyone else who says I ought to be enlightened. There is always first some kind of fides before the intellectum.

The fact is that humans cannot escape some kind of appeal to authority. As I mentioned in my introduction, I think Hart’s invocation of conscience and reason in relation to how we think about eschatology is vitally important. But to make the theological case that universalism must be accepted as a dogmatic claim requires more attention to the ambiguous, and often contrary, strains of scripture and tradition. That ambiguity of authority — and not, as Hart suggests, some kind of morally culpable timidness — is why I can’t accept the claim that universalism must be true.

Scripture, as Hart ably points out, contains many escha­tological images and metaphors, which are not always consistent, and which in places seem to suggest both a dual outcome and universal salvation. The tradition as a whole, as Hart acknowl­edges, has always included universal salvation as a minority voice, but only as a minority voice. Maybe, according to the typical Orthodox trope Hart alludes to, the Western church has terribly misunderstood scripture and the tradition since Augustine. I think it’s fair, though, to treat this kind of sweeping, polemical historical decline narrative with more than a bit of suspi­cion. The presence of so many important voices over such a long period of time, and their persistence in the dogmatic formulations of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, inclines me against excessive confidence in my personal conclusions.

This post on “authority” might suggest that I think Hart’s appeals to conscience and reason are seamless. I don’t. I think those appeals are often compelling, but that they depend too much on overstatements — even, at times straw men — and highly particular and endlessly debateable metaphysical presuppositions. These thoughts will be the subject of my next post.

(Go to “The Problem of Infernalism”)

* * *

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University Law School. In addition to his legal training, he earned an M.A.T. from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology from the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Law and Theology, forthcoming with Fortress Press this November.

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34 Responses to Why I’m a “Fan” of DBH — But the Problem of Authority

  1. Wayne Fair says:

    “…during a seven-day Tribulation…” – Did you not mean a seven “YEAR” tribulation?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ben the oenophile says:

    “Hart’s book doesn’t…say anything that I haven’t heard said before.”

    With all respect, Mr. Opderbeck, I don’t think you could have read the book as carefully as you think you did. The book is one long, pretty intricate philosophical argument, and it’s not one that anyone has heard before. Parts of it, sure, but not as a whole.

    “…they depend too much on overstatements — even, at times straw men — and highly particular and endlessly debateable metaphysical presuppositions.”

    Not really. There aren’t a lot of metaphysical claims in the book. The book points out metaphysical commitments that Thomists have and so on, but none of the book’s own claims about how rational freedom would have to work are actually metaphysical. They’re just logical.

    I really don’t think you’ve quite figured out how tight the argument in this book is. It isn’t a lot of assertions based on conscience.

    I think this whole business of the tension between reason and authority is a fake issue, to be honest.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Cliff says:

    This was a fair reply written by professor Opderbek, and one I mostly agree with. The reason the tradition of universalism has been understated is it’s seemingly unapologetic encouragement of license. The sentiment being that I can live life how I want to, go to hell, then get a free pass out. The only problem with this line of thought; it’s predicated on the irrational desire to spend even one second in hell. We know from the healing of Demonic that even those who reside in hell have no desire to return. Why would anybody seriously consider going there? This is where I believe the argument becomes problematic and begins to break apart. In one, hell isn’t such a terrible place, in the other unbridled license is the way to go. From a purely logical standpoint I can’t see that either one of these assumptions to be true. Hell is a place where I don’t want to go, and license will never lead me to liberty. In fact I will become enslaved by it in this life and the next. Knowing my own propensity towards sin I can only hope that, “The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.” I can also pray for God to weaken those gates and allow me to help in the process.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DBH says:

      No, I think not. Give me a few moments…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Cliff says:

      What I’m trying to say is the argument against universalism seems weak, because who would consider going to hell, just to live a life of license? It really looks as if eternal damnation is a reaction against universalism, that seeks to blur the line between license and liberty. Since the west was keen on exercising more control over it’s parishioners they took the liberty out of the Spirit, that you find in Orthodoxy, and replaced it with church dogma. In essence they made liberty out to be license, which it is not.


    • This was Justinian’s thought also, and in one sense, it is completely understandable. Perhaps the proper presentation of Apokatastasis is a three-fold approach in which the sinner, in the genre of Jonathan Edwards, is made aware that to spurn the love of God will result in a most dreadful and painful scourging of love, to also somehow make him aware that the love of God will not permit this to go on forever, then to again to warn the sinner against thinking that he should engage in licentious behavior because he is going to eventually make it out of that punishment.

      I don’t know….I’m not exactly sure how one would properly evangelize in the context of Apokatastasis as truth. One thing I do know – preaching a red-hot, eternal hell of torment hasn’t had the most saluatory of effects on the behavior of the general population over the last few centuries. If was meant to scare the hell out of people, I don’t see it particularly working on the vast majority of the “massa damnata.”

      Maybe it’s past time to try a new approach to make people love God rather than obey out of fear.


      • Grant says:

        Simple, you preach, act and live the truth of Christ defeat of death and all dark and twisted powers that frustrate us and the Cosmos, His total victory and the here and to come freedom of all creation and all in it, and the complete revelation of God’s infinite and all-embracing and overcoming love. One which can, does and will restore, reconcile and complete all things, freeing all from false images and illusions to their true selves and to share in His glory, were every power to destruction, capitivty, addiction and decay above, below, on Earth, in or hearts, minds and bodies or anywhere in creation has been overcome and will pass away and all made new, where nothing can seperate anyone from the love of God in Christ and all are more than conquerors in Him. That there is another King, and all darkness fades before Him, and God will be all in all with Love and Life revealed in all.

        You would be surprised what that message does when preached and lived out, it’s something to live and die for, preach and live Christ and Him crucified and the Resurrection and that is all you need. Even when you don’t see it it reaches all and will blossom eventually, show Him who is the love that conquerors all, the love that casts out fear.

        Do that and leave trying to terrorize people into submission to the fallen forces of defeated and impotent death it belongs too, the age that is passing away.


  4. DBH says:

    Dear David,

    Thank-you for going to so much trouble. I am grateful for the “fan” language. And thank-you for writing something worth replying to. I have been longing for a critic asking real questions of the book.

    That said, to be honest, it seems clear to me that you have gotten hold of my book by the wrong end, and fundamentally misread it. You have certainly mischaracterized it. Sorry to say so, but—as you are a “method guy”—you need to pay attention to the actual method I am using in the book. I do not think you appreciate how the argument is constructed. In fact, I am deeply, deeply, deeply wounded that, to my mind, you have not quite grasped the originality, force, or solvency of the argument in its totality. (Here a barely suppressed sob should be just audible to you.) There may be seams, I suppose (or, at least, I am willing to pretend that I suppose), but they are not where you locate them. And I am quite sure that, contrary to what you say, the book does not merely tell you things you have heard before. I am quite sure too that the argument as laid out is not one that has been fully made before. I am quite sure also that the questions raised in Meditation One and returned to continually thereafter are of quite a different nature than you quite realize.

    There is absolutely no appeal to conscience in TASBS. I mention there in passing that my own conscience prompts me to speak candidly. That is all. An appeal to moral intelligence is something else altogether. And the warrant for analogical judgments regarding the moral coherence of certain dogmatic or theological claims (and hence for the coherence of any theological language) is laid out in the book’s second chapter, and then expanded in the First Meditation (pp. 53-61; 73-75; 80-87; etc.). In fact, your characterization of my approach could not be more misleading. At no point do I counterpoise authority against conscience. Instead, I counterpoise the authority of Christian tradition against itself. There are five major themes that are combined in my argument (I’ll enumerate them some other time), and in each case what I argue is that the tradition’s own claims—dogmatic, metaphysical, scriptural, and even practical—contradict one another irreconcilably unless the whole Christian narrative is construed in universalistic terms. If there are flaws in my reasoning, they have not yet been exposed to me.

    I think also you see difficulties or conflicts where none exists. Sapere aude and fides quaerens intellectum are not opposed principles. Each is implicit in the other. A faith that does not seek to understand is no faith, obviously, because it does not believe in anything other than submission to the unintelligible. Therefore, a true faith is one that must dare to reason. By the same token, the very call to “dare to reason” makes sense only as expressing a real faith in the possibility of finding the Truth, and a trust in the Truth’s hospitability to rational desire. So this is simply not a useful contrast. In fact, it’s a false dichotomy of the most distracting kind.

    Moreover, it is logically self-defeating. It is true that I find many appeals to authority meaningless, because I find many claims to authority circular. In the case of institutions, and powerful institutions above all, I believe all such claims must be held suspect until justified by more than their own internal logic. But this is not some silly distinction between “faith” and “reason.” In the end, like it or not, you cannot avoid the necessary primacy of rationality in both. Say I ask you why you accept the authority of the Roman magisterium (rather than, say, the authority of the Qur’an or the Philosophes). You can give me any number of apologetic or autobiographical justifications, but at the end you will have to choose between two answers. Either you must say you accept its authority because it has the authority to tell you to do so (that is, you must accept a sheer tautology, in which case your faith is an empty gesture of rational surrender). Or you must say that, with whatever qualifications, it is because you find it convincing rationally to trust in that authority, and more so than it would be to do otherwise. In the former case, your faith is a closed circle, a sheer assertion of will (or will-lessness). In the latter, there may be some kind of circularity, but not a logically self-defeating one. So, yes, sapere aude, for otherwise fides tua non potest quaerere intellectum.

    When, moreover, you write “The presence of so many important voices over such a long period of time, and their persistence in the dogmatic formulations of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, inclines me against excessive confidence in my personal conclusions,” you seem to suggest that “personal conclusions” are the issue, and that a loud noise should be more persuasive than a quiet truth. Sure, lots of voices—echo chambers tend to be full of echoes, after all. But this is not a matter of doubt. One of the great developments of Roman Catholic thought in the last century was a golden age of biblical scholarship, set free by the magisterium’s decision to allow such scholarship to exist (principally by abandoning the “Vulgate alone” rule). No good New Testament scholar or specialist in late antique religion is unaware that, as a matter if indubitable objective fact, the traditional Western readings of Paul (chiefly) to which you advert are simply not present in the text of the New Testament and could not have existed in first century Graeco-Roman Jewish world, and that almost all of those ideas arose (of necessity) in an atmosphere that was unable to make sense of the conceptual, cultural, and religious terms of Paul’s time and place. This is not open to any meaningful debate. And it is not surprising that generations of Western theologians, raised within that tradition and lacking the sort of knowledge that modern scholarship has made available to us, should have repeated the defective story they had learned in the theological nursery. Here you are not invoking a real authority; you are invoking only a history of repeated errors and the force of cultural inertia.

    All of this is beside the point, however. It has no bearing on my argument in the book. And that argument is either correct or it is not (it is correct, by the way). If you follow the argument to the end (and I don’t think you have yet), do with it what you will. For me, there is no authority that can tell me to see white where I see black or to believe that 2+2=5. For a Catholic, obviously, the stakes are higher. The Orthodox approach to doctrine is much more minimalist—Seven Councils and then a lot of yelling at each other. The Roman communion, since the days of Bellarmine, has taken on board so gigantic a dogmatic apparatus that there is little room for movement—even when this means believing, say, that the Council of Constance and the Council of Florence are both infallibly correct even though they also contradict one another (and, yes, I know there are ways of getting around such things). But, frankly, that’s not my problem.

    Your mission, Mr. Phelps, if you should choose to accept it, is to determine whether my book’s argument is as radical and complete as I say it is. (Again, it is, but don’t tell anyone I was arrogant enough to say so). As of yet, it is evident to me that you have not followed that argument. And, to make it simpler, let me point out that it is not an argument that depends on “highly particular and endlessly debatable metaphysical presuppositions.” There too you are in error. The only metaphysical presuppositions adduced in the book are those native to the Christian intellectual traditions I am bringing under my gaze, and I invoke them only to expose how they conflict with other claims made by those traditions if we suppose the reality of an eternal hell. My own arguments are entirely logical and phenomenological in character. I may, for instance, believe in all the classical definitions of God as esse subsistens or the Good (I do, on philosophical grounds); but such beliefs are not necessary for my argument, which is about the logical coherence of what Christian tradition claims for itself.

    When, for example, I talk of the conditions of rational freedom, for instance, my arguments have to do with a) The phenomenological structure of rational desire (which you can confirm from daily experience), b) The necessary correlation between rational cognizance and rational freedom (which is logically undeniable), c) The degree to which such rational cognizance is possible in this world (again, easily confirmed), d) The logical contradiction between saying an irrational choice has a rationale sufficient to make that choice perfectly free, e) The possibility of perfect rational freedom expressing itself in the self-destructive rejection of its own necessary end (if there is such a thing as rational freedom at all), and f) The proportionality between a punishment of absolute dereliction and torment (or destruction) and the necessarily relative culpability of which finite agents in this world are capable. None of that is the result of a debatable metaphysics. It is not metaphysical at all.

    Anyway, thanks again. But I think you need to revisit the text. You have missed the overall structure. It is not nearly as simple—or as merely emotive—as you seem to think. I cannot take any of your criticisms as legitimate. Your concerns, yes, perhaps.

    Liked by 7 people

    • dopderbeck says:

      I’m grateful for an opportunity to dialogue. Let me say first that the “nothing I haven’t heard before” comment was about moral arguments against an eternal Hell. In my third post I have some questions about freedom and the will, and Maximus’ view of it, which get more to the heart of the argument. In my second post I have some questions about “justice.”. I’m sure you can tell me what I’ve missed there as well!

      But on authority, I’d really like to hear more about how you understand the role of the Church and the sacraments in the economy of salvation. Given that the Creed and scripture refer to baptism, what is its role if everyone is finally included? What part does the Eucharist play? I’d also like to hear a bit more about “faith” — “in” Christ or “of” Christ. These loci of ecclesiology – faith, baptism, Eucharist, community – what is their relation to soteriology?

      I hope these are fair clarifying questions and not just misreadings.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DBH says:

        I have no idea by how many means God saves souls. But it is God who saves, not the church. The church is the community of those being saved, the “earnest of the Kingdom,” but not its substance. The Kingdom is cosmic and concerns God who is all in all, not just those “with Christ at his coming.” Gregory covers all that well enough. So does Paul probably.

        As for the other questions, I await them. But I suspect I have certainly heard them before.

        Liked by 2 people

        • So how do you understand Jesus in John 3:5: “Amen,amen, I will tell you, unless a man is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (your trans). Not a challenge – genuinely curious since this is often taken as a touchstone for baptism as a necessary sacrament. Is this entirely realized eschatology? Not a reference to sacramental baptism at all, as some suggest? Honestly not baiting here – one of a complex of issues I’m trying to work out myself. (As I understand Gregory here, water baptism may save from the purgative fire of Hell, which is a kind of baptism by fire. Interesting, but that would seem to make Hell a sacrament and render the atonement as surplus.)

          Yes, everything in my second post on “justice” will be old hat, though there’s a question in there about restorative justice I hope you can address. In my third post I hope there’s room for a good conversation on Maximus’ view of the will. I do think I make some specific observations there that haven’t been part of conversations I’ve seen in this book yet.


        • DAVID W OPDERBECK says:

          I hope this isn’t a double post — I think I posted a reply that got lost.

          So, this isn’t a challenge, I’m genuinely curious how you understand John 3:5’s reference to “water and spirit.” Entirely realized eschatology about the Kingdom now, not about the future? Not a reference to sacramental baptism, as some Protestant scholars suggest? Just one of many nagging things I’m trying to work out for myself.

          Yes, there’s nothing in my second post on “justice” you haven’t hear before, though there’s a question about restorative justice I hope you can comment on. In the third post on Maximus’ views, I hope there’s room for a good conversation — I do think I raise some things there that haven’t come up in other reviews that I’ve seen.

          Thanks again.


      • If baptism really IS necessary, then you can thank God for restoring the church in 1830 via the holy and perfect prophet Joseph smith. Those cheeky bastards keep the baptisms coming on behalf of everyone who’s ever lived haha :p


    • Snowy says:

      Ouch. Not harsh, but precise.

      Other than Talbott’s reviews on this site, I haven’t seen any reviews directly engage Hart’s philosophical argument. Is that because no one can come up with a goid refutation?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I find the above almost completely incomprehensible, the sentence “The fact is that humans cannot escape some kind of appeal to authority.“ in particular flatly wrong. It seems to me to be either an assertion of the necessity of utter hypocrisy or, if not, a mental attitude I would consider out-and-out insanity. It is a concept of “authority“ that I am simply unable to mentally process.
    The rational brain believes something because, for whatever reason, it has become convinced that it is true. An “appeal to authority“ might be relevant to convincing someone else that a particular proposition that one wishes to advance is true, but is and can be only relevant to a rational brain’s own beliefs where it lacks, or thinks it lacks, the knowledge or understanding to form its own conclusions, or simply hasn’t the time or inclination to figure it out for itself. If one understands and is informed on a subject to an extent that the “authority“’s knowledge and reasoning is comprehensible, and has given the issue proper consideration so as to come to a conclusion concerning it, an “appeal to authority“ to the contrary position is either rank hypocrisy – an assertion for the sake of conforming to the authority that one believes it when one does not – or complete irrationality – simultaneously believing that a thing is both true and that the authority is correct in holding it untrue.
    I am currently reading DBH’s book and doing my best to follow it. I already hold more-or-less to his general conclusions (and indeed did so before starting the book) but agree with some bits and don’t agree with others. In so far as I disagree I am sure DBH would tell me I am wrong (I may well be) but where I agree or disagree it will be because what is actually said is in and of itself convincing or otherwise, not because of any particular persons or group of people’s views on the subject, however many they are of them or for how long they have held it. I find it particularly odd to object to DBH’s conclusions based on an appeal to majority opinion when (it appears) the church’s current majority opinion has arisen following a rejection of what was previously by all accounts once itself the majority opinion of the church.
    The justification of the “appeal to authority“ that otherwise “If everyone only does “what is right in his own eyes,” … the result inevitably is violence and chaos.“ is just plain wrong. All religious viloence and chaos, and the very splits in the church which submission to authority are supposed to prevent are precisely the result of the assertion of that authority. Religious violence occurs precisely proportionally to the extent to which conscience is attempted to be supressed by “authority“, and every schism in the church has been caused by religious authorities deciding that Christians were proibited from believing one thing or another that they actually believed – the split in the church that was the Protestant Reformation started not when Luther pinned his thesis to the church door but when “authority“ declared him a heretic when he refused to recant.
    If DBH is wrong it is because he is wrong, not because some authority says so, and if someone wahts to take up the cudgels for the opposing view there is no point in them doing so by appeals to authority, but by addressing the arguments concerned. If you don’t think you understand the argument sufficiently to form your own view, and would rather simply assume he is wrong because he conflicts with what “authroity“ tells you, fair enough, but what on earth is then the point of your getting involved in the discussion in the first place?

    Liked by 1 person

    • dopderbeck says:

      Well, anything that compels assent by a person committed to truth has “authority.” This is as true for a rational argument as it is for something revealed by God. There’s nothing controversial about this claim.


  6. Christian Cate says:

    Christianity is not just for brilliant scholars, but also for the common, everyday person. Eastern Orthodoxy advises that we can hope (and pray) for the Salvation of all, but we really shouldn’t take a step beyond this hope and insist that it will happen.

    Saint Silouan advised us to keep our minds in hell, but despair not.

    I hope perhaps that a majority may be saved, but I won’t know until judgement day.

    In the meantime . . .

    Fearing shipwreck of life and faith is prudent. Fearing hell is also prudent.

    Despairing Not is absolutely necessary.

    Any argument against such prudence is an argument for itching ears, imo.


    • DBH says:

      Which Eastern Orthodox figures are you referring to? There is no dogmatic rule of the sort you enunciate. From Gregory of Nyssa to figures like Bulgakov, Evdokimov, Turincev, and Clement, there are plenty of “Orthodox “ who say otherwise.

      And, if the argument is right, then it is right. Other considerations are unimportant.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Maximus says:

    David, thank you for this. You speak for many, and you speak well. I appreciate the clarity of your thought and presentation. I’m especially grateful that even thought Dr. Hart is “quite sure” your criticisms are illegit on every level, you’re still bold (and articulate) enough to write what many are thinking. Your main point about submitting our own reasoning (and conscience) to the common voice of Church Tradition, no matter how “air-tight” we think our argument is, is both correct and patristic through-and-through. The exceedingly-humble father of apokatastasis would be proud…

    “I want to be a man of the Church. I do not want to be called by the name of some founder of a heresy, but by the name of Christ, and to bear that name which is blessed on the earth. It is my desire, in deed as in spirit, both to be and to be called a Christian. If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to preach the Word of God, if I do something against the discipline of the Church and the rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, the Church, then may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and throw me away.”

    ~Origen of Alexandria

    Liked by 1 person

    • TJF says:

      You know, when I was a kid I used to get mad when my Mom wouldn’t let me take part in stupid activities with some of my friends. I would whine “Mom, but EVERYONE is doing it. Kids have been doing this for years!” And she would say: “If everyone jumped off a bridge would you do it too?”


      • Grant says:

        Not to mention if everyone had followed majority understanding and authority at the time and tradition’s common voice as it had been understood no one would ever have followed or listened to the Messiah, the tradition then decided against Him. A caution to submitting to a tradition blindly, against reason, and more against your heart and conscience (the light and illumination you have). That way can be a sure path into dark and dangerous paths, tradition is important, but we must ever like Jacob wrestle critically with it, with our hearts and minds and spirits, to understand it’s truth and heart and not just words and empty actions. If it is vital and alive and burning with with Divine fire, it must be ever engaged and revealed evermore and renewed and reborn in the generation it is given to, and something which enflames understanding and love, not sonething that closes us off to truth or it’s demands or leads us to searing our own consciences and calling something manifestly evil and an unthinkable horror to us good or just by appealing to the demands of authority and the unfathomable mystery that demands we void our own love and sense of goid. This makes us moral automatons and makes tradition paint God as some Eldritch nightmare of unknowable horror from the pen of HP Lovecraft, not the One who is Love revealed in Christ. If tradition is just repeating the majority words of the past and blind submission to what is assumed to be what it says by certain authorities who demand a fossilized and even in that particular interpretation and simplified narrative of the history of Church tradition then it is nothing but empty words and gestures and cannot save and is not alive, but place of white sepulchers containing dead men’s bones and full of death and corruption.

        Liked by 1 person

    • DBH says:

      No. Origen did not think of the church as an institutional authority with a bureaucracy and magisterium, with a long history of institutional evils to go along with its virtues. He also regarded it as impossible for rational truth and doctrine to be at odds. Make sure you know what the church is, and don’t use the church as a justification for not thinking.

      Moreover, despite rumors to the contrary, the Orthodox Church has no precise doctrine on this matter.

      That said, I admit it: if there were such a clearly defined doctrine, I would simply abandon the church, since a logical falsehood cannot be true. I find talk if submitting reason and conscience to the majority to be a grotesque idea—-a betrayal of Truth and Goodness, which is to say a betrayal of God. Faith on those terms is not faith but, as I say in the book, a meaningless spasm of the will.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Maximus, I appreciate your desire to be a man of the Church. When I left the Episcopal Church, the question of “private judgment” was paramount for me. Once I realized I could not in conscience remain an Episcopalian, I did not for a moment consider joining another Protestant denomination. I wanted to be in the Church.

      I have come to realize, however, that the question of private judgment is more complex than I realized 15 years ago. Roman Catholicism believes it offers a clear solution to the matter: believe what the Church authoritatively and irreformably teaches—and it provides formal criteria by which these dogmas may be identified. But as many Catholic theologians will tell you, matters are not nearly as clear as often presented. And matters become even more challenging in Orthodoxy. Orthodox are loath to admit that doctrines develop, but they do, as any good book on the history of Christian doctrine demonstrates. The teaching of the Church never exists in a frozen state. In a sense it must always be recovered in every generation as the Church wrestles with the challenges of its day in her faithful proclamation of the gospel. Inherited doctrinal statements can never just be reiterated word-for-word. They must be interpreted, and in that very act doctrine develops.

      Consider, for example: if you lived in Carthage (or Rome or Constantinople) in the 5th century, you would have been authoritatively taught that all who died without baptism are eternally lost (including infants). Of course, exceptions were stipulated, but on the whole the rule was clear and unyielding. This belief would not have been advanced as a theologoumenon but as dogma. You and I would have accepted this belief as divine revelation. And so the Church believed and taught for centuries. And yet today, many Orthodox would be reluctant to affirm this ancient teaching, as it stands. We make clarifications and qualifications, because we refuse to restrict God’s universal salvific will. We know that the God who is Love will find a way to save those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Doctrine develops, and this development is always accompanied by fierce debate and contention. Often the development does not even receive formal recognition. It happens, rather, at the level of parochial preaching and catechesis and becomes established one burial at a time.

      I believe you are showing wisdom in not jumping on the universalist bandwagon. But the questions and arguments now being advanced by Dr Hart and many others will not go away, because it touches on the gospel itself and a proper understanding of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

      Personally, I believe that a development the Church’s doctrine of perdition is already happening. How often does your priest threaten eternal damnation in his homiies? I imagine that fire-and-brimstone sermons were fairly common in Orthodox congregations. I suspect they are far less common today, at least in the U.S. and Europe. Today it is not uncommon for bishops and priests to say that we may “hope” for the salvation of all. They would not have said that 500 years ago.

      Liked by 5 people

      • TJF says:

        My parish priest doesn’t preach fire and brimstone sermons, but he does favor the CS Lewis “doors locked from the inside model” and brings that up all the time, adding that the Church teaches that not all are saved. But, I do understand what you mean, it seems like this is the great doctrinal battleground of our time. I have a question. Is it possible for doctrine to develop back and forth then? Can one generation believe in eternal damnation of infants, while 1000 years later that goes away only to come back as normative 1000 years after that? Is this a linear progression toward truth or a yo-yo? How then can we know the doctrine of the church is sound? Just by our private judgment and conscience and logical arguments? This is all very confusing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Maximus says:

        Fr Aidan, thanks for this response. Your words concerning development of doctrine carry much weight. If I became convinced this was a doctrinally adiaphora topic, I still don’t think I could ever move beyond the “hope” position—which I’m fairly comfortable with—for the “shall be” position seems to explain too much, like an eschatological equivalent to RC transubstantiation. I don’t think the Orthodox Church will ever formally and cataphatically define this mystery in terms of “shall be.” But If they ever do, I hope I would gladly relent.

        There are always possibilities of error in my (and in everyone’s) logic. It’s risky business, but I believe the safest path is to submit to our leaders and obey them (Heb 13:17), and then proceed with speculative reasoning within those constraints. And it seems to me the Church has spoken on this matter. There’s a certain freedom in this (fideistic?) approach, not a freedom not to think but a trust in God that he will faithfully lead His Church, no matter the next brilliant teaching that comes along to the contrary.

        Thanks again for your comments, Fr Aidan. I always take them to heart.


  8. Sherman Reed says:

    I have now read TASBS twice and will read it again shortly; It was convincing the first time and more so the second. It is mystifying to hear people appealing to the “Church’s authority” as a legitimate reason to embrace something absurd. What about the book’s logical arguments? For me, Dr. Hart’s logic on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo revealing the character of the Creator so cemented the necessity of the salvation of all rational beings in my mind that I could never be a Christian if universalism is not true. If one simply connects the logical dots you are forced to embrace it.

    Having been an Evangelical pastor for 20 years and leaving because I simply outgrew its doctrinal rational I guess it has never occurred to me that any institutional “church” could hold such an authority on doctrinal matters today. As convincing as TASBS is to me, I am just as convinced of the fallacy of giving the “church” today such a place of blind guidance in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Seth Wiewel says:

    I am always puzzled by the Christian obsession with authority (or perhaps it is simply a human obsession which find hierarchy and power comforting). Why is it immediately assumed that tradition is right? That the council and creeds made by men (albeit highly intellectual men) who have long since turned into dust bunnies are perfectly accurate and should endure for ages?
    It appears more to be a parameter that creates a cohesive community, regardless of its functionality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TJF says:

      It’s due to the belief that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in all truth based on Acts 15, to my understanding.


  10. J. JACKSON says:

    HI, David,

    Sorry, just a few quick, unedited thought.

    We’ve met a few times, mostly at Girard events. Thanks for your book. I find its virtue in its “arrogance” and the way it clears space for forthright talk. I like it a lot and am very sympathetic (i.e., I agree) with your positions. In short, I think they are logically sound. But I do think there is space one has to carve out for the Von B “hope” position, which I don’t think you can ever answer completely, no matter the tightness of your logic. Perhaps I’ll send Fr. Aiden my own review that parses it out more fully.

    But I’ll go here briefly: “Or you must say that, with whatever qualifications, it is because you find it convincing rationally to trust in that authority, and more so than it would be to do otherwise. In the former case, your faith is a closed circle, a sheer assertion of will (or will-lessness). In the latter, there may be some kind of circularity, but not a logically self-defeating one. So, yes, sapere aude, for otherwise fides tua non potest quaerere intellectum.”

    I think that for the Orthodox here’s the difficulty with regards to authority: Knowledge by analogy is helpful but superficial, an invaluable beginning point, clarifying, certainly about God, but not the truest knowledge of God. This level exists only in the discussion of the beingness of God, but since God, as you readily witness, is beyond being, the source of being, then this language is not wholly sufficient (though one cannot dismiss analogical logic for something other than the logical). The next level is apophatic, which admits that the Being of God is otherwise and that only negation gets at the approximation of the “aboutness” of God. All well and good, and I doubt you’d quibble with any of this. Being of God = analogy and logical postulates of God; apophatic = admission that analogy breaks down because God transcends our notions of being while also constituting them. So then there is vision of God, prayer. This is where things get tricky, I think, because this is part of Tradition as well.

    So when you question whether we can rely on authority alone, then you place your lowest form of knowledge (and in my book, your account of our lowest form of knowledge–logic, analogy–is the absolute highest of the lowest) at the top of the ladder. But there are other ways of knowing, and the Church asks for a certain fideism at times. More times than not, parishioners ask me about, from a position of relative scandal, our Kneeling Vespers prayers. So your absolute logical position has a clear affirmation in these prayers (and, again, I agree), but there are other prayers (I’m not sure how many times you’ve chanted the various Menaion) that do not take up a universalist position, nor do they seem all too nuanced with regards to a fear of God or eternal punishment. I’ve read them in Greek, and I don’t think they deal in the subtlety in the NT Greek you see.

    None of this is to disagree with your logic (I find it sound), but it is to say that the “hope” position may be logically stronger within the Orthodox tradition than you have taken into account logically. And at the end of the day, if Orthodox have to take the logic of your proofs for universalism versus the logic of your logically tight proofs of universalism versus liturgical texts that can be read as universalists texts (and I think there are many) and liturgical texts that speak of eternal and not pedagogical punishment, then I then a logical reading has to tend toward “hope,” because the texts are torn. If not, then I’m afraid this all slouches towards a protestantism, logically pure but without a full tradition (and I realize our full tradition of universalists). I readily admit that I see liturgical texts as theologically normative in Orthodoxy. If you reject this position and argue that our liturgical texts do not reflect our theology, then your logical proofs are sound and one need not rely on “hope” in the Von B sense.

    I hope you’re feeling well these days. I have lots of students studying with you, and they love you, David. There’s your onion if you were ever worried.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brayer Asprin says:

      Re the “primacy of rationality,” Dr Hart, are you familiar with (and perhaps willing to comment on) C. S. Peirce’s derivation of the theological virtues at the level of logic? It’s striking to me that he starts out by roundly rejecting reasoning from authority and a priori metaphysics in favor of empiricism (albeit of a more capacious and probabilistic variety than mostly obtains these days), only to promptly reintroduce faith, hope, and charity as essential to the implied teleology of any logical thinking whatsoever.


  11. Patrick says:

    With even the most basic understanding of classical or Thomistic ontology (to say nothing of Daoism or the Vedic variants), it becomes impossible to make sense of anything but universalism.

    Ask someone what he means by Hell, and you can easily determine if you and he worship the same thing. What people mean by Hell is either comically childish (lakes of fire and the like) or literally nonsense (something existing separate from the ontological fundament, and ordered toward its own dissolution).

    I find the whole matter absurd. I don’t take people who believe in Hell seriously because they don’t take themselves seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

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