It’s not often that one comes across a review of a book review. Sometimes a journal or magazine will give an author the opportunity to respond to a critical review. Sometimes it will publish a second review that offers a different assessment. But rarely does one encounter a review of a review. I mean, what’s the point? But Dr David C. Ford, Professor of Church History at St Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary, has given us precisely that. In response to Fr Michael Plekon’s sympathetic review of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved (published on the website of the International Orthodox Theological Association [IOTA]), Ford has written a critical review of the review (same website). Not only is he convinced that Hart has written a heretical book (though he does not use the word), but apparently he also believes that his assessment must be shared by every Orthodox theologian, assuming that they too possess a right understanding of the Orthodox faith. Given that Plekon failed to address the “serious problems” with TASBS, we may conclude either that he has acted irresponsibly in writing an “ostensibly neutral review” or that he is a heretic right alongside Hart. With his review of a review, therefore, Ford kills two birds with one stone: he publicly rebukes Plekon for not writing the review he thinks he should have, and he solemnly warns the brethren of the heterodoxy of a popular Orthodox theologian.
At this point I need to be upfront. I have never met Fr Michael, but we have corresponded a few times over the years on specific theological topics, going all the way back to 2003 when I put some questions to him about Sergius Bulgakov’s understanding of the Eucharist. Most importantly, he did me a great kindness in 2011. After I was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood, he asked me if I had been given a silver cross to wear, as is customary for Russian Orthodox priests. When I told him that I had not, he immediately sent me one. So I harbor a fondness toward Fr Michael and was chafed when I read Ford’s piece. I deem it unfair, if not disingenuous, to make a reviewer the target of one’s criticisms when the book’s author is the true target.
(Dr Ford, if you want to take on Hart, do so directly. If a “more accurate and thorough review of this very problematic work” is needed, then please write one [5,000 words max—that should be ample enough], and I’ll publish it here on Eclectic Orthodoxy.)
So let’s go through Ford’s objections to That All Shall Be Saved.
First, Ford takes Plekon to task for this sentence: “[Hart] argues that in the early church, there was little evidence of a widespread, common conviction that God’s wrath required the eternal banishment and punishment of human beings.” Ford counters:
It’s simply not the traditional Orthodox understanding that ‘God’s wrath requires the eternal banishment and punishment of human beings.’ Rather, it’s God’s infinite love that some human beings and the demons continue to reject; and that, for them, is hell.
Ford’s objection misses the point. Hart has advanced a historical claim that a diversity of opinion on the final judgment existed in the early centuries of the Church, yet Ford counters with an appeal to what he believes to be “the traditional Orthodox understanding.” These are two different kinds of claims. Even if Ford is correct, Hart’s historical claim is not disproved. But is Ford correct in his assertion that Orthodoxy has traditionally understood damnation, not as just punishment, but as the experiential consequence of obdurate rejection of the divine love (and are they mutually exclusive)? What evidence can he provide? Can a widespread belief in non-retributive damnation be clearly documented in, say, the first six centuries of the Church’s life? Seven years ago I did some amateurish excavation of the early Church Fathers, and found that while one can easily find Latin and Eastern testimonies to the retributive nature of eternal punishment, texts supporting the now popular Orthodox view that “hell is heaven experienced differently,” as Bishop Irenei Steenberg felicitiously phrased it, are harder to come by. St Isaac the Syrian is often quoted on this point—“Those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love”—but this sentence reads very differently once one remembers that he was a universalist and believed that the sufferings of Gehenna were purgative and temporary. I published my non-scholarly findings in my 2013 article “What is Orthodox Hell?” and followed up with a second piece, “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ.” Orthodox Christians are of course free to adopt the hell is heaven experienced differently position. It’s an attractive view, at least by comparison to the punitive model of hell; but I’m skeptical that it accurately represents the consensual teaching of the Fathers or can be declared the authoritative view of the Orthodox Church.
Second, Ford criticizes Plekon for saying that Hart identifies St Basil as a universalist. Ford is right. Hart doesn’t say that, so score one point for the Church history professor. But if Ilaria Ramelli’s research holds up, Basil’s universalist sympathies may have been stronger than is generally thought.
Third, Ford accuses Hart of relying too heavily on figures associated with various heresies (Origen, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, as well as Sergius Bulgakov) than on the principal authorities within the Orthodox tradition. Whether any of these four men should be judged heretics I’ll leave to others to decide. What I do know is that they died in communion with the Holy Orthodox Church. It’s true that Hart positively mentions each, but he does not rely upon any of them. Only one theologian features significantly in Hart’s theological presentation of the universalist case—St Gregory of Nyssa. Is Gregory to be dismissed because he’s a minority of one? Is theological truth determined in the Orthodox Church by counting patristic noses? Ford continues:
Furthermore, Fr. Plekon does not point out that St. Gregory of Nyssa’s supposed Universalism, upon which Hart relies the most by far in his book, is not a definite fact by any means, as his commentary on the Beatitudes makes clear: “You looked not with compassion, so you will get no merciful looks; you ignored suffering, so you will be ignored as you perish” (addressing the rich man who spurned Lazarus; On the Beatitudes 5.8).
I chuckled when I read this. It’s true that a handful of scholars have recently challenged the long-standing scholarly interpretation of Gregory as an advocate of apokatastasis, but they have found few followers. Gregory’s teaching on apokatastasis is just too clear. Certainly no student of the Nyssen is going to be persuaded by that one sentence quoted by Ford. Judgment and punishment are intrinsic constituents of the universalist visions of Origen and Gregory. As Taylor Ross notes: “There is good reason to think that apokatastasis, the term of art for universal salvation in Origen of Alexandria and his heirs, entails a concept of judgment just as exacting, just as rigorous, and every bit as righteous as the sort of purely punitive punishment on offer in any version of the doctrine of eternal damnation” (“The Severity of Universal Salvation“).
Fourth, Ford challenges Hart’s reliance upon his own private judgment instead of explicitly grounding his views on the accepted sources of revealed truth:
Even more serious, Fr. Plekon does not explain how Hart’s ultimate source of authority is not the Scriptures and the consensus of the Church Fathers—and not the hymnography of our Church, or her iconography; and not prayer, or guidance from the Holy Spirit, or ascetic and/or mystical experience, or consultation with others of his own time—but rather, his own reasoning power. As he says, “My reasoning convinces me entirely” (p. 6).
For purposes of accuracy, here is the last sentence in its entirety: “For better or worse, my reasoning convinces me entirely, and that—sadly or happily—will certainly never change.”
What are we to make of Ford’s criticism? We may concede that Hart’s book does not resemble a typical work of Orthodox theology. It’s not peppered from beginning to end with quotations from Scripture, Fathers, Byzantine hymnography, and the holy elders of Mount Athos, though it may be noted that in meditation #2 Hart cites numerous New Testament verses that “plainly” affirm the universalist hope. My guess is that these verses did not persuade Ford. Why not? Because with a bit of effort that feels like no effort at all, they can be interpreted in consonance with the infernalist dogma. Hart of course knows this. He knows that his affirmation of apokatastsis directly challenges a venerable interpretive tradition that has controlled the Christian reading of Holy Scripture for some 1,500 years. In a situation like this, little is gained by focusing on individual texts. One must first persuade the Church to take off her infernalist spectacles and put on a new, but equally venerable, pair. One must look at Scripture and the entirety of the dogmatic tradition in a fresh way. But how does one persuade the Church to give the universalist spectacles a try? Hart’s solution: by confronting the Church with a logical incoherency embedded her evangelical message:
- God freely created the cosmos ex nihilo.
- God is the Good and wills only the good.
- God will condemn a portion of his rational creatures to everlasting torment.
One may affirm any two of the above premises with logical consistency but not all three. I’m not going to rehearse the argument, having already done so in “The Incoherency of Eternal Perdition” and “Revealing the God Behind the Curtain.” It’s a cogent line of reasoning that deserves careful attention and analysis by Orthodox theologians. It should not be ignored simply because it challenges what we have long believed to be infallible dogma, nor can it be treated as a minor matter about which we may remain compliantly silent. That the Holy Trinity is absolute and triumphant Love belongs to the heart of the gospel. This is the great truth revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the one truth the Church is commanded to proclaim at all times and in all places, for it is the only truth that rescues sinners from death and brings forth a new creation. But is this truth—this thrilling, life-transforming good news—compatible with the affirmation of eternal damnation, or does the latter force us into an equivocity that ultimately subverts the gospel? The question cannot be answered by mere appeal to authority. We actually need to think and think deeply.
Ford then identifies three New Testament texts that he believes Hart has egregiously mishandled:
It’s also disappointing that Fr. Plekon does not observe how Hart’s handling of the Scriptures is problematic. To give three examples: Hart falsely translates thelei in 1 Timothy 2:4 as “intends” instead of “desires” (p. 96); he flagrantly misinterprets 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, as he disregards the context of those verses (pp. 105–106); and he ignores the main Gospel passage about life after death—the one about the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which Christ makes very clear that after death there is a gulf fixed separating the redeemed from the lost, a gulf that cannot be crossed (Luke 16:19-31).
I’m sure that Hart would be happy to enter into the exegetical trenches with Ford; whether the St Tikhon’s professor would survive the encounter is another matter. Given that I do not read Greek and have given away most of my New Testament commentaries, I’m reluctant to offer an opinion about Hart’s alleged mishandling of the three cited texts; on the other hand, I’m just a blogger—so …
a) Is Hart’s translation of thelei as “intends” rather than “desires” a bad translation? Hart’s translation of 1 Tim 2:4: “Who intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth.” I contacted a New Testament scholar and expert on Paul and asked his opinion. He prefers the rendering “desires,” but he also copied the section on the word from the Bauer-Danker lexicon. It appears that thelei has a wide semantic range and can be used to signify intentions and volitional acts—so Hart’s translational choice doesn’t seem impossible or wildly irresponsible (also see Hart’s brief explanation). It may be noted that the translators of the King James Bible rendered 1 Tim 2:4 in an even stronger volitional sense (“Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth”), as does the New American Bible (“who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth”) and Young’s Literal Translation (“who doth will all men to be saved, and to come to the full knowledge of the truth”). Also of relevance is the Douay-Rheims rendering of the Vulgate: “Who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (qui omnes homines vult salvos fieri, et ad agnitionem veritatis venire). I think that gives Hart sufficient cover for his lexical choice; but really, what is the difference between saying that the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Deity desires the salvation of all and intends or wills the salvation of all? It all depends on who and what you think God is. God after all does not have appetites or needs. His desire is his will. He intends that which he desires and desires that which he intends. Does God, therefore, get everything that he wills, like the salvation of all? That is the question, and it can’t be begged.
b) Does Hart flagrantly misinterpret and misapply 1 Cor 3:11-16? Here are the verses, as translated by Hart:
For no one can lay another foundation beside the one laid down, which is Jesus the Anointed. Now, if on this foundation one erects gold, silver, precious stones, woods, hay, straw, Each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed by fire, and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; If anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire.
Hart cites this text in his elaboration of the universalist trajectory of St Paul’s eschatology. For those who have not yet read That All Shall Be Saved, Hart proposes that eternal damnation is not found in the authentic letters of the Apostle. Yes, it’s a controversial claim, but is it wrong? Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa didn’t think so. As Hart notes, the last two verses only identify two classes of the judged. If Paul believed in a third class, “that of the eternally derelict,” he does not say so, either here or anywhere else. Again, the matter cannot be resolved solely by appeal to patristic or ecclesial authority. Many Orthodox, I know, will find this rankling. It sounds all too like sola Scriptura. But Hart’s historical exegesis of Paul can only be successfully refuted by superior historical exegesis.
c) What about Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? Ford is right. Hart does not discuss the parable. I wish he had, just as I wish that he had discussed 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10. Oh well. That All Shall Be Saved is a little book, and it’s unreasonable to expect Hart to cover everything. Speaking only for myself, I do not believe that by this parable Jesus intended to provide divinely-revealed information about life after death. Its point lies elsewhere—namely, God’s judgment upon the refusal of the rich to provide for the poor and destitute. In any case, the parable speaks of life in hades before the Lord’s harrowing, about which Orthodoxy in fact has a lot to say, as amply demonstrated in Metropolitan Hilarion’s book Christ the Conqueror of Hell. The parable reads very differently when read through a hermeneutic of Pascha.
5. Ford chides Plekon for “not pointing out Hart’s misunderstanding of the crucial distinction between our human nature and our distinct human hypostasis, when Hart overemphasizes our unity with other human beings to the point of nearly extinguishing the distinctiveness of each human hypostasis (pp. 152–158).” I honestly do not know what to think about this objection. Read the chapter on personhood in TASBS and show me where and how Hart extinguishes the distinctiveness of the human person. On the contrary, Hart emphatically insists upon the distinctiveness of each person. It is only when every human being is reconciled to Christ in the eschaton that the body of Christ will be displayed in the fullness of beauty and glory. The loss of even just one person would diminish this display and “leave the body of the Logos incomplete and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished” (p. 144). We are not autonomous individuals. Our personhood “is created by and sustained within the loves and associations and affinities that shape us” (p. 153). We are human beings in communion. As Hart comments: “I am not I in myself alone, but only in all others. If, then, anyone is in hell, I too am partly in hell” (p. 157).
6. Ford raises the pastoral dangers of the universalist message:
This claim, that hell will not last forever—and that all rational beings, including the Devil and all his hosts, will indeed be saved eventually—is exactly what our profligate world would love to hear: “Great! I can live however sinfully and irreverently I want to in this life, and it won’t matter a bit! I’ll just plan on repenting the moment I get my first taste of hell.” Of course, anyone who really loves Christ would not think or act in such a way. But for many people, living especially in our promiscuous age of unfettered feelings/emotions/indulging in fleshly pleasure, the Universalist assertion very likely would provide a great temptation to make such a “deal” in their minds, even if not with God directly!
My experience as a priest, preacher, and pastor directly contradicts Ford’s concern. It is the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves and converts, not the threat of everlasting torment. The latter may cause individuals to change specific behaviors, but it does not generate saving faith and repentance. It does not bring about that new creation that is ecstatic life and freedom in the Holy Spirit. What is at issue here is the moral character of our God. What kind of God punishes his children with interminable suffering? What kind of God abandons them to anguish and misery? The Orthodox may protest that they reject the Latin doctrine of eternal retribution, but their preferred model of perdition, popularized by Alexandre Kalomiros under the title “The River of Fire,” leaves the sinner in the very same place. In the end the damned can only wish they had never been created. Before the God who damns (directly or indirectly, it doesn’t matter), there can only be obsequious servitude, terror, despair, rebellion, atheism. Only absolute Love and infinite Mercy liberates us into the Kingdom of love and bliss (see my article “The Divine Presence and the River of Fire“).
Yet having said this, there certainly is a place within the universalist construal of the gospel for prophetic warnings and threats of punishment. The rejection of Love necessarily creates an ever-deepening condition of alienation, obduracy, and hatred, which in turn generates ever-increasing interior suffering. We know hell; we live it. Hence the time to repent is now. In George MacDonald’s novel Robert Falconer, the young Falconer pleads with his father to repent and turn his life over to Christ. His father refuses. “You will have to repent some day, I do believe,” Robert replies—”if not now under the sunshine of heaven, then in the torture of the awful world where there is no light but that of the conscience. Would it not be better and easier to repent now, with your wife waiting for you in heaven, and your mother waiting for you on earth?”
7. Finally for Ford, That All Shall Be Saved is damned by Hart’s “striking lack of humility—that virtue which is the hallmark of the Orthodox phronema—as he holds himself up as the final word on this issue.” I am shocked by this accusation. Hart’s pugilistic and polemical rhetoric is a legitimate target of criticism (but see Jordan Wood’s thoughts about it); but the extrapolation to judgments about his moral and spiritual state is a different order of criticism. Hart does not ask anyone to accept his arguments on his own personal authority. The truth speaks for itself.
In conclusion, David C. Ford has written a ghastly review of a review. It ignores the theological and philosophical substance of That All Shall Be Saved and pointedly refuses to take up the evangelical challenge David Bentley Hart has posed. It should be dismissed for the drivel that it is. Orthodox theologians can do better and must do better.