Having already published one caustic review of That All Shall Be Saved, First Things has just published yet another piece on the book: “Theological Fraud” by Michael Pakaluk. The accusive title will no doubt bait many clicks. So what is David Bentley Hart guilty of today?
Pakaluk has charged Hart with misrepresenting a passage from the short monastic Regulae of St Basil the Great. Basil is addressing the question whether there will be an end to eschatological punishment:
Question: If one will be punished with many beatings and one with few, how can some way that there will not be an end to punishment?
Answer: Things that seem ambiguous and expressed in a veiled way in some passages of the Scripture inspired by God are clarified on the basis of the more explicit words found in other passages. Now, in a passage the Lord says that these will go to αἰώνιος punishment, in another passage he sends some to αἰώνιον fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, and yet another time he mentions the Gehenna of fire and adds: “where their worm does not die and their fire is not extinguished”; again, the prophet has foretold, concerning some, that “their worm will not die and their fire will not be extinguished.” In divinely inspired Scripture there are these and similar passages in many places. But, for a deception of the devil, many people, as though they forgot these and similar statements of the Lord, adhere to the conception of the end of punishment, out of an audacity that is even superior to their sin. For, if at a certain moment there is an end to αἰώνιος punishment, αἰώνιος life will certainly have an end as well. And if we do not admit of thinking this concerning life, what reason should there be for assigning an end to αἰώνιος punishment? In fact, the characterisation of αἰώνιος is equally ascribed to both. For Jesus states: “These will go to αἰώνιος punishment, and the righteous to life αἰώνιος.”
If one accepts this, one must understand that the expressions “One will be punished with many sufferings,” or “with few,” do not indicate an end, but a difference in punishment. For, if the Lord is a righteous judge, he is so not only with the virtuous, but also with the wicked, and renders to each one according to one’s deeds. One may deserve the eternal fire, and this, milder or stronger; one may deserve the worm that does not die, and his such a to cause more or less suffering, in accord with each one’s desert; and another may deserve the Gehenna, which is similarly differentiated in its kinds of punishments, and another person may deserve the outer darkness, where one may be found only in weeping, another also in the gnashing of teeth, according to the duration of these punishments. And it seems indeed to be the case that there are an outer and an inner darkness. And the Proverbs’ expression, “down to the bottom of hell,” indicates that there are some who are in hell, to be sure, but not on its bottom; these undergo a less severe punishment. Now, too, it is possible to notice something of the sort in bodily illnesses: one has fever along with other symptoms and suffering; another has only fever; the latter is not found in the same situation as the former; and yet another one has no fever, but is afflicted by some suffering in his limbs, and this one too, in turn, has more or less pain than another one. Now, also what the Lord said, “with many or few pains,” was said according to the established custom […] Likewise, the expression “to be tortured by many or few punishments” should not be understood—I repeat—in the sense of an extension in time or a fulfilment in time, but in the sense of a differentiation in punishments. (Reg. brev. 267 PG 31.1264C-1265D; trans. Ramelli; emphasis mine)
I first read this passage many years ago, as it’s included in Ilaria Ramelli’s book The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis. I recall Basil’s claim that because of the parallel structure of Matt 25:46, aionios punishment must be as eternal in duration as aionios life and found the argument persuasive. At least in this one dominical sentence, it would seem, aionios punishment must mean “eternal.” Later on I began to question whether the parallelism dictates the duration of eschatological punishment. After all, we know that aionion life is eternal because we know this is entailed by Christ’s resurrection and our baptism into his glorified body. What if we also knew from some other source—say the Apostle Paul or St Gregory of Nyssa or our own philosophical reasoning—that the aionios punishment of the eschaton is temporary? Would it still be aionios punishment? In other words, can the same polysemic adjective be used to modify both eschatological punishment and eschatological life, even in the same sentence?
I’ve been wanting to ask an ancient Greek scholar this question (yes, it’s taken me a long time), so last night I texted Fr John Behr and described the problem. (He’s lying in bed recovering from leg surgery, so what else does he have to do but answer my silly questions.) His answer: “Father Aidan, you are positively brilliant!” … okay, he didn’t quite say that, but he did agree that the meaning of aionios is determined by that to which it is applied. Hence when we read the sentence “These will go to αἰώνιος punishment, and the righteous to life αἰώνιος,” we need not jump to the conclusion that the aionios punishment must enjoy the same duration as aionios life. The principle, of course, works with all adjectives, and we don’t even think about it in daily life; but it’s helpful to keep in mind when interpreting words like aionios that have a wide semantic range. While the parallel between aionion punishment and aionion life is suggestive, it need not be determinative.
I think I’m on the right track here, but given my incompetence in Greek, I will wait on linguists and ancient Greek scholars to confirm or disconfirm my disagreement with Basil’s parallelism argument.
Back to the Pakaluk article. Take a look at it, reread the above Basil citation, and reach your own verdict. Personally, I think that David may have tried to get a bit more mileage from the passage than the words allow—but Pakaluk surely goes overboard on an inconsequential point. Apparently he believes that if he can impeach David of sloppy scholarship regarding Basil, the entire book will be discredited, thereby obviating the need to call additional witnesses … oops, a slip of the pen … I meant to say, actually address its substantive arguments.
But Pakaluk’s article also raises an interesting question about St Basil and his authorship of the above citation. Could it be an interpolation? If you want to know more, read this article by Ramelli:
Ramelli’s proposal of an interpolation sounds like a desperate measure, and as far as I know, she is presently alone in proposing it, but ask yourself: Do you think that Basil believed—and would publicly imply—that his siblings St Macrina and St Gregory were deceived by the devil?