David Bentley Hart, Divine Violence, and the Figurative Interpretation of Scripture

If you were hanging out on Twitter last Friday and Saturday, you may have come across a flurry of tweeting regarding David B. Hart and his controversial 2019 response to Peter Leithart. That response elicited from many the charge that Hart is guilty of Marcionism. If you do not know who Marcion was, he was a second-century bishop who distinguished the God of Israel from the God of Jesus. He was scandalized by the violence and evil of YHWH. He rejected the Old Testament as Scripture and excised those sections of the New Testament that he and his followers found offensive. Marcion was excommunicated as a heretic around A.D. 144. It appears that the Leithart–Hart exchange was not seen by everyone three years ago, given its recent resurrection by the Byzantine Scotist:

This tweet was retweeted by Edward Feser and . . . BOOM . . . suddenly everyone was talking about Hart, the Old Testament, YHWH, and Marcionism. When extracted from David’s article and read just by itself, it’s understandable why so many found the quoted paragraph offensive. (I confess I cringed too when I first read it.) What these folks apparently did not do, though, is read the entire article with its important three paragraph explanation:

Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time. Neither was ever literalist in the way you apparently are. The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope. He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible—if taken in the mythic terms provided there—is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God. Happily, his literalism was an aberration.

Much of the Judaism of the first century, like the Christianity of the apostolic age, presumed that a spiritual or allegorical reading of the Hebrew texts was the correct one. Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways. Even when, in the New Testament, the history of God’s dealings with Israel is united to the saving work of Christ—as in Acts or Hebrews—it is in the thoroughly reinterpreted and intenerated form that one finds also in the book of Wisdom (a worked audibly echoed in Romans, incidentally).

In short, you want me to account for myself in a way answerable to the hermeneutical practices of communities gestated within a religion born in the sixteenth century. But those practices are at once superstitious and deeply bizarre. They are not Christian in any meaningful way. They are not Jewish either, as it happens. They are a late Protestant invention, and a deeply silly one. From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority. In that tradition, even “literal” exegesis was not the sort of literalism you seem to presume. Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read “spiritually.”

When I read these paragraphs three years ago, I did not fully appreciate what David was saying, but more on that below. Anyway, I jumped into the fray with a series of tweets of my own. Where angels fear to tread, bloggers recklessly rush in:

To accuse DBH as not being a Christian on the basis of his response to Leithart is unwarranted. He is not saying anything that historical critics of the Old Testament have not said over the past 150 years. If his response has a weakness it lies in his failure to clarify how the Old Testament can be Scripture. The answer lies in the patristic hermeneutic which insisted that the difficult passages–those passages that depict YHWH as engaging in ways that would be unworthy of the God of Jesus–are to be read figuratively, typologically, allegorically. They must be read in and through Christ. Only thus are they truly Scripture. To read and preach the Old Testament only through a critical-historical lens is to read it as historical artifact, not as Scripture.

This does not make DBH a Marcionite, though I concede his blunt words leave him open to that charge. But as John Behr has stated a number of times: if you aren’t reading the Bible allegorically, you’re not reading it as Scripture.

The key and revealing question: Did the Father of Jesus Christ really order the massacre of the Canaanites? If you say yes, then, yes, you have a hermeneutical problem. For the same reason, if you believe that the God of Jesus damns the wicked to eternal suffering and torment, you have a hermeneutical problem. The Bible is not rightly read and proclaimed if it contradicts God’s self-revelation in Christ as absolute love.

Interestingly, it was the philosopher Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation that helped me to understand that the literal sense of the Bible can only be discerned when it is read through Christ. The Song of Songs is the example par excellence. In his On Christian Doctrine, St Augustine’s states:

“We must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as metaphorical. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbor; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor.”

That is the patristic hermeneutic and we see it worked out again and again in the Fathers. Exegetes who use this hermeneutic may differ on the interpretation of a specific text, but they are united in their recognition that the Scriptures must not be interpreted in a way that is unworthy of the God made known in the crucified and risen Christ.

So instead of accusing DBH, or the rest of us, as not being Christian, it would be more accurate to say that he is not a Roman Catholic and therefore not obligated to interpret the Bible as Catholics do. And be careful, for you may also find yourself excommunicating a host of saints.

The Byzantine Scotist was apparently not impressed by my erudition and repeated his accusation:

I also tweeted several quotations from Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. I read this book back in the early 90s, and I found his approach to the interpretation of Holy Scripture instructive and adopted it as my own:

“So there was this wide tradition in the early Church of reading the Bible metaphorically and not always also literally; it was the Church of those centuries, the Church of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine, which established the canon of Scripture which taught that this was the way in which it ought to be read. It was the Bible understood in this way which they declared to be true.”

“But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Bible came to be interpreted by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in perhaps the most literal and insensitive way in which it has ever been interpreted in Christian history. This literalism was encouraged by the basic philosophical mistake of equating the ‘original meaning’ of the text, gradually being probed by historical inquiry, with the meaning of the text in the context of a Christian document. We may hanker after the ‘original meaning’ in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork, and context changes meaning.”

“Of course, if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted. Of course, if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted.”

“Yet, as the Church of the first 1,500 years of Christianity always taught explicitly, the Bible must be understood in the light of the Church’s teaching, and this will mean at least what I have called central Christian doctrines. And the rules for interpreting passages seemingly disconsonant with Christian doctrine or known truths of history or science are there, sanctified by centuries of use by those who claimed in accordance with Christian tradition that the Bible was ‘true’. If we wish to take seriously claims for the truth of the Bible, we must understand it in the way that both philosophical rules for interpreting other texts and the teaching of the Church which gave canonical status to the biblical books indicate; and this includes their admission that it contains deeper truths which future generations wiser than themselves might detect by using their rules.”

The next day the tweet storm continued. Roberto De La Noval helpfully contributed a citation from the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan:

This is an illuminating quote, which I promptly retweeted. It confirms the hermeneutical rule stated by St Augustine: if a biblical text contradicts either the moral teaching of Jesus or the nature of God, it must be interpreted figuratively. In this way the Church retained the Scriptures of Judaism as her own.

The Thomist scholar Taylor Patrick O’Neill also jumped into the fray:

From this followed a fascinating exchange between O’Neill and fellow Catholic theologian Jordan Daniel Wood:

Taylor: I’m not saying that DBH isn’t a Christian. But this is absolutely scandalous stuff for a Christian to write [when asked by someone if the Canaanite genocide really happened as depicted in the book of Joshua]. Yes. One has two choices here: either it happened as described or the way in which it is described doesn’t merely obscure the truth about God but positively perverts it. So either that part of the OT is demonic propaganda or else it speaks to something true.

Jordan: Wild to read here what I was forced to read in Ken Ham books at my fundamentalist Bible college. Some of us were reared in fundamentalist reactionary traditions. We know where this leads: rejection of biblical scholarship or rejection of the faith, since both assume an dangerously naïve view of both hermeneutics and revelation. This can’t be the future of catholic theology. Thankfully the tradition itself is far richer than such foundationalist either-or’s: not only did Clement, Origen, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine, Maximus et al., consider it possible that there are “obstacles” and inaccuracies on the literal level, so did Kierkegaard! And what nonsense to presume admission of a literal obscurity means inattentiveness to the letter. Does not the letter instruct precisely when it “fails” too? How absurd to accuse Origen of denigrating the letter! Have you yet composed your Hexapla, O great seer of scripture? In fact, these figures say that the Holy Spirit might well have arranged for such obstacles precisely to rouse your sluggish spirit from assuming you know in advance how God just reveal himself—so that you know to move beyond the letter which kills for the spirit that gives life.

Taylor: The gulf between what I said in that tweet and Ken Ham makes it hard to take this tweet seriously. That’s very uncareful thinking.

Jordan: You said quite plainly that we have two choices when faced with God’s command of genocide—either it happened that way or else we cannot trust the text reveals truth about God, right? That is the exact premise of Ham’s *Why Won’t They Listen?* Perhaps you should consider why.

Taylor: Yes. I don’t maintain that God reveals things about Himself that are false. It’s one thing to subvert a command He’s never portrayed as actually wanted fulfilled (the sacrifice of Isaac). It’s another thing for Him to deceive about Himself.

Jordan: Well that’s Ham’s position too, like it or not. It’s definitely not the Fathers’ position, not even Augustine, who says that when something vile is attributed to God in scripture—so it does happen!—such texts “are to be read figuratively.” And also your first proposition is so abstract as to be beside the point. Who maintains that God reveals what’s not true of God? In fact that’s precisely what lead the fathers to reject the literal sense in places in view of what’s “worthy of God.”

Taylor: Well then I guess Ken Ham says exactly one thing that makes sense.

Jordan: You should consider why you agree with Ken Ham rather than St Augustine on this point.

Taylor: I don’t think this actually has anything to do with whether the passage is literal. Yes, I am aware that Augustine rejects exhaustive literalism. The question is whether “Scripture errs in portraying God as evil.”

Jordan: Let’s be precise: Augustine rejects exhaustive literalism precisely because sometimes “vile things are attributed to God and the saints” in scripture. You have made his very assumption an impossibility. So why do you disagree with Augustine here?

Taylor: St. Augustine does not say what you’re attributing to him, nor does he speak in any way similar to David above.

Jordan: De doctrina christiana III.11-12: “Matters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether merely spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative. Such mysteries are to be elucidated in terms of the need to nourish love.”

Taylor: Yes, and within the context it’s clear that he’s speaking about things like “wrath of God” which attribute vices to God. But the particular interpretation of commandments like the ones given to Joshua are not necessarily included in this passage.

Jordan: That’s an unbelievable stretch there, bud! How else to discern wrath except through wrathful actions. Anyhow you’ve already betrayed your original position: now you say that scripture does falsely prevent God as wrathful in the literal level, right?

Taylor: Hey, bud [sic]. What do you make of St. Augustine’s actual commentary on the passage? “16 (Jos 11,14.15). Joshua did not leave anyone alive in it. As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses and Moses had commanded Joshua in his turn, so Joshua did: He did not let anything of all the things that the Lord had commanded Moses go through. We should not think that this was a cruelty, that is, the fact that Joshua did not leave anyone alive in the cities he conquered, since God had ordered him to do so. Those who draw from this the conclusion that God was cruel, and therefore do not want to accept that the true God was the author of the Old Testament, judge as perversely about the works of God as of the sins of men, ignoring what each one It deserves to suffer and thinking that it is a great evil that is torn down that has to fall and that the mortal dies.”

Jordan: When was this written? I ask because it’s clear that he does change his specific interpretations as later controversies heat up. But still, on your original view, you’ve stated a principle that such texts either reveal God literally or not at all. Did Augustine abandon his principle that some vile things are attributed to God and the saints? (Presumably not since book 3 of DDC was written late). So it’s better to say he applied it differently. But his principle still clashes with your own. On all these matters I prefer other fathers to Augustine, no doubt. Augustine’s Ad Simplicianus vs Origen’s Princ on Jacob and Esau makes this clear to me. But it’s striking then that Augustine, who doesn’t mind genocide here, still doesn’t take your hermeneutical view broadly.

Taylor: I didn’t state that they have to reveal God literally, but that specific commandments attributed to God are not going to be precisely the opposite of what God wishes. This is very different from calling God “wrathful.” I disagree that [Augustine] doesn’t take it. He takes it precisely as I’ve laid out the distinction above. The context of the passage you’ve laid out is anthropomorphic language about God. And his interpretation of Joshua is precisely what I said I thought it would be. This also doesn’t square with what you said just recently, i.e. that this was a stumbling block for St. Augustine who only converted after Ambrose taught him to take it literally. Why would his next position after conversion be to take it literally?

Jordan: That’s actually not the context since he specifically mentions the saints too—why would it be a problem to anthropomorphize the saints? It’s is rather the wicked deeds attributed to “God or the saints” that call for figurative interpretation in the direction of love…

Taylor: I think we could at least agree that Augustine’s view isn’t as clear as one might think, since he, as you say, has no problem with genocide.

Jordan: I agree that his practice is inconsistent across his many works. But I still maintain that the principle you stated is foreign to Augustine, let alone many Greek fathers who outright oppose it in theory and practice. It’s true that literalism was an obstacle to [Augustine’s] conversion—he says so himself!—and also that certain doctrinal disputes made him reconsider *specific* points. But I’ve never seen your broad either-or even on Augustine’s lips. Where does he say the literal sense is always true?

Taylor: I didn’t say that the literal sense was always true. I said that passages which have a literal/historical sense would not be portrayed as the opposite of the historical fact.

Jordan: That means that they must be literally true! Otherwise they are deceptive and “pervert” (your word” divine revelation. And that is precisely the principle that no father stated, even if, as in Augustine’s case, specific interpretations betray the general principle.

Taylor: I don’t think that I’m stating something earth-shattering here. If the Gospels say, “Then Jesus walked to the next town,” which seems to have no value other than the literal/narratival, and then it turns out, actually Jesus never did walk to that next town, we have a problem.

Jordan: I’m not even sure that’s true, since there are many chronological discrepancies across all four gospels. We may as well reject all scholarship at that point. Anyhow, there’s difference between whether it’s true that Jesus walked somewhere and if Jesus commanded genocide in the past.

Taylor: Look, I have to run to Mass. Here are my final thoughts: if it turns out that God never actually instructed Joshua to leave no Canaanites standing, that’s great. I don’t like the literal interpretation of the passage. It doesn’t make me feel warm and cozy inside.

Jordan: Then you share the moral and spiritual motive that made many fathers—sometimes even Augustine in practice, certainly in principle—to reject that the literal sense is true, seeing that the “letter kills” but the spirit within gives true life and is thus “useful” (2 Tim 3.16).

Taylor: But setting that aside for a moment, even if it were true that it is presented so the NT can subvert the expectations (which I think happens in the OT!), I maintain my original point that describing God’s self-revelation as revealing Himself to be a “blood-drenched” pagan demon is scandalous. This is why I did not accuse DBH of Marcionism or not being a Christian but of being scandalous. If you show me multiple places where the Fathers describe Yahweh in this way, and I’ll change my mind.

Jordan: Two things here: (1) surely biblical scholarship has clarified limitations of the text premoderns might not have known; (2) DBH’s rhetoric aside, it was common to note that literal interpretation might lead to conceptions of God that we wouldn’t attribute “to even the vilest human being” (Origen, Princ 4), a common point that pagan philosophers and Jews and Christians (cf Basil’s Letter to Young Men) made when reading Homer’s depiction of Zeus. After all, if scripture attributes “any cruel word or deed” to God (Augustine), it presents him as evil. But I also suggest that the claim that scripture reveals God either literally (God must have commanded genocide b/c the story sounds historical) or not at all is just as scandalous. I’m not just provoking: I know from much personal experience the damage such a view does to faith. It is a scandal to tell people that God is both pro-life and has commanded the genocide of infants in at least 5 occasions. It’s not a matter of warm and cozy feelings for me, but if positive scandal against those seeking to see the beauty of God revealed in Christ’s face.

Taylor: This is where you and I disagree (and it affects the universalism question too). I don’t think that God is a moral agent in the way that creatures are. Note I’m not saying that God is beyond good and evil or that God can do anything (voluntarism). God cannot cause evil, e.g. command blasphemy. But I do take it seriously that God is the God of Life and Death. He permits the death of all men, even children. So executing death among men is not necessarily among the “vile things” Augustine mentions. HOWEVER … my biggest issue is that men are commanded (even as instrumental causes) to execute something which is intrinsically disproportionate to human nature. And it is for this reason that I’ve disagreed at times with St. Thomas’ interpretation of certain difficult passages.

Jordan: Yes, we do disagree profoundly on these points. I think it’s a disproportionate command to murder thousands of infants, given that (I thought) both natural law and the Christian faith prohibit this. Making an exception for God because he’s “the God of life and death” certainly sounds scandalous (scandal is always relative to the scandalized; cf. 1 Cor 12 etc), since it sounds like God is capable of violating his own natural and revealed law. Here one senses that our own epistemological anxieties have taken precedence over the anxiety over God’s beauty, goodness, love, mercy, justice, all as they are revealed to we who are not only rational and thus capable, in principle, of knowing the difference between these and their opposites, but also who have the mind of Christ and the Spirit, who searches even the depths of God–that means that the Spirit searches those depths *in us*, Oh the depths of God’s humble kenosis! It is a matter of historical fact that many in the tradition *have* sensed the profound problems on the literal and historical levels of holy scripture. Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Capps, Maximus (for whom all of this wouldn’t be in the slightest controversial), and even Augustine in principle at the very least. It is no modern unease which moved them to judge several passages as “unworthy of God”–indeed this was precisely a sign of their humility before the complete self-revelation of God in Christ, who alone reveals the truth and depths of scripture (Lk 24; 2 Cor 3). Therefore, precisely because this unease is both traditional and touches on the very ability of many to maintain faith (“trust,” not just obedience!) at all, it is imo positively scandalous to lay it down that if one doesn’t accept God as literally commanding genocide of infants then one is denying God’s self-revelation. For it’s just the reverse.

Taylor: I’m sympathetic to portions of this. I cannot imagine God commanding such acts today, and I think this has much to do with the fact that we are now able to know God (still mostly obscurely) with much greater clarity.

Jordan: Agree, and it was precisely this greater clarity that led the fathers to refute Marcion *not* by doubling down on the heinous portrayals of God sometimes found in scripture, but to refute Marcion’s own absolute literalism as “slavish to the letter, which kills.”1

Jordan states the key point in his last tweet: the Church responded to Marcion’s heretical jettisoning of the Old Testament not by justifying or rationalizing the herem command to slaughter the Canaanites (as many theologians and exegetes do today) but by insisting that, when necessary, the Old Testament must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. As Origen repeatedly stated in his writings, we may not attribute to God that which would be unworthy of him.2 The Church did not try to rationalize away the obvious evil of God commanding evil, but instead adopted a metaphorical hermeneutic. In this way, the identity of the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) and the God of the New Testament (the Father of Jesus)—and therefore the unity of the two covenants—was maintained.

The controversial biblical text is Deuteronomy 7:12:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir′gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per′izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb′usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.

How is this command to be reconciled with the gospel revelation of God as absolute love? Over the centuries Christians have adopted various hermeneutical strategies, but the Eastern Fathers insisted that the herem directive, and its consequent horrors, should not be interpreted literally. The Father of Jesus would never issue such a command. He does not do evil; he does not ordain evil. There is no dark Lord hiding behind the back of Jesus. Nor need we await the eschaton to learn how the heinous acts of YHWH are somehow compatible with God self-revealed in Christ as absolute love and mercy. As Jesus has taught us:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)

So much more needs to be said, but such is beyond my competence. But this much may be said: the Scriptures are only interpreted rightly when read through a hermeneutic of love—or what I have termed in previous articles, a hermeneutic of Pascha. The God and Father of Jesus is the same God who summoned the twelve tribes of Israel to himself. His character and nature did not change over the centuries. He always acts in love, for he is love. Even his wrath is an expression of love, intended to summon sinners to repentance and faith. For all eternity he is the good and omnibenevolent Creator, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

Footnotes

[1] My thanks to Aaron Jordan for copying the O’Neill–Wood Twitter exchange.

[2] On Origen’s critique of Marcionite literalism, see Jordan Daniel Wood, “Origen’s Polemics in Princ 4.2.4: Scriptural Literalism as a Christo-Metaphysical Error.” Also see Mark Chenoweth, “Origen’s Interpretation of Violence in the Book of Joshua.”

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48 Responses to David Bentley Hart, Divine Violence, and the Figurative Interpretation of Scripture

  1. spiltteeth says:

    Are there any other books that go into the spiritual interpretation of scripture ?

    Like

  2. mary says:

    I confess that much of this is both over my head and under my interest to plow through, though certainly an interesting topic. You caught my attention with this part, however:

    “So instead of accusing DBH, or the rest of us, as not being Christian, it would be more accurate to say that he is not a Roman Catholic and therefore not obligated to interpret the Bible as Catholics do.”

    I must have missed the memo on how Catholics are obligated to interpret the Bible during my 16 years of Catholic education. Of course, we Catholics were never particularly good at reading the Bible back in those days. We’ve made some headway but apparently I remain unaware of my interpretive obligations. In the Holy Spirit? Under the guidance of the Church?

    I await my enlightenment. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The “herem” command is, as I understand it, retrospective, the Deuteronomy passage being written after Israel has fallen or is falling because it has turned to the Canaanite gods. It is the equivalent of shouting “don’t go in there!” at a movie screen during a horror film when you know what happens next.
    The “literal” interpretation is not an interpretation of the Bible itself at all, in my opinion: almost the opposite. The purpose of the historical sections was to take historical and legendary stories about Israel’s past and re-work then to make a theological point: the “literal” interpretation seeks to reconstruct the historical basis (if any) of the stories and derive its own theological lesson from those, ignoring the Bible’s own point about them that it is trying to make.

    Liked by 3 people

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  5. Counter-Rebel says:

    I don’t see why Catholics should bow to what modern scholarship says about anything. They have something infallible to look up to. Non-Catholic scholars, on the other hand, might be subconsciously influenced by sinful desires (a desire to use contraception, for instance). What’s to stop the non-Catholic from using contraception, for even Eastern Orthodoxy has started caving in on this issue, as Trent Horn pointed out? This decade, scholars at secular academies may say one thing. Decades later, something totally different. Anything goes. Best to wager on the Church that hasn’t condescended to human weakness.

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    • andrewofmo says:

      If you really believe the Roman Catholic Church has not “condescended to human weakness,” then you really do not know what you are talking about.

      Liked by 1 person

    • N. Roberts says:

      But Catholic scholars say exactly what this “scandalous” excerpt says. In fact, it is very similar to passages in Josef Ratzinger’s writings. Some of the best scholarship on early Israelitic religion and the evolution of Judaic monotheism has been produced by Catholic biblical scholarship over the past half century, all under the approving eye of the Vatican. Why do you and O’Neill think Catholicism teaches literalism?

      Liked by 1 person

    • pilgrim says:

      Hey man, are you a Catholic again? If so, I’m very glad to hear that! 🙂

      On the other hand, I embraced Christian Universalism. I am sad that the Church condemns me as a heretic, but I know in my heart that it was the right thing to do.

      Btw, I’m the “Ave Maria” guy you talked with a few months ago.

      Like

      • Counter-Rebel says:

        I pray that God will give me enough time to return to the Church. The desire to be a universalist will likely always be something I struggle with (if not give into), but if what’s the Church teaches I have to accept it. Be weary of yielding to your heart’s desires: “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

        I was a huge fan of Hart, but second thoughts took root when I saw a video where he appeared to mock the Church’s teaching on birth control. Perhaps the motive for universal salvation (as with Atheism) is found beneath the belt. To allow birth control is to allow spouses to use each other as instruments for their own pleasure.

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        • Counter-Rebel says:

          Corrections: *but if eternal hell is what the Church teaches then…
          **mere instruments

          Like

        • DBH says:

          That is false. There is no such recording and no such conversation ever took place. I have absolutely no idea what you thought you saw, but you clearly misinterpreted it.

          That said, your notion of what the implications of birth control might be in some cases is bizarre and silly. The Orthodox Church generally allows limited (non-abortifacient) birth control on the grounds that marital intimacy is not merely intended for conception of children. Even Rome allows the rhythm method, which tacitly concedes the same thing.

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        • Calvin says:

          “The desire to be a universalist will likely always be something I struggle with (if not give into), but if what’s the Church teaches I have to accept it.”

          Why? If the church teaches something that can be proven to be incompatible with logic and morally abhorrent, has it not merely proven that either the church is fallible or that it is not in fact the church? And before you start dismissing our logical and moral faculties and their capacity to make judgements, consider by what means you yourself would then have any means of determining which religion is true, if any.

          “Be weary of yielding to your heart’s desires: “The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)”

          A heart that was entirely perverse would be nonexistent. Desire only exists within a broader transcendental framework inexorably aimed at the Good as such. Aquinas himself makes that point.

          Like

  6. DBH says:

    Al,

    While it is disappointing–though not shocking–that Ed Feser would pass on the tweet without bothering to go and read the entire piece, it is unlikely he or any other Thomist would be able to judge its accuracy in any event; nor would he have enough knowledge of the Fathers to be aware of how very clear the greatest of them were on what actions could and could not be ascribed to God. Thomists do not study Christianity or Christian tradition; they do not even necessarily study Thomas; they study Thomism.

    Arguing with fundamentalists of obviously volatile emotional composition, moreover–like this Byzantine Scotist fellow–is simply not going to have an effect.

    With O’Neill, one has an example of one of those bumptious Thomists who takes the boring metaphysical truism that “God is not a moral agent” to mean that God somehow can act outside of his own moral law and nature (a weirdly Ockhamite Thomism, that is). They don’t put it that way, but obviously the God they imagine is beyond Good and evil (which, of course, makes him evil). Of course, God is not a moral agent–because he is the Good as such, not someone good, and as the living God is infinite moral agency as such. Hence he cannot directly will evil (such as slaughtering babes in arms). What is more bizarre about O’Neill is that he’s clearly unaware of his own church’s approach to scripture, which does not demand anything like the credulity he suffers from. Moreover, typical of a Thomist, he obviously has never read the Bible, or he would know that there are plenty of conflicts of “fact” in the text. Goodness, the synoptics set the crucifixion a day later than John does. The Books of Samuel and Chronicles contradict one another on various points. Acts and Paul’s own account of his early dealings with the Jerusalem church are flatly irreconcilable. And so on.

    That certain commentators mistake a critique of fundamentalism on the ground that it logically leads to Marcionism as in fact a statement of Marcionite convictions is testament, I suppose, to the reading skills of the post-book generation.

    In the end, though, what is unforgivable is the crass primitivist indifference to the Jewish and Christian (and other) scholarship of now three centuries, and the abundance of textual evidence on which it rests. If one’s faith contradicts historical fact, then it is one’s faith that has been proved false.

    But all of this is beside the point. The sort of people who are scandalized by simple facts about the evolution of Hebraic religion, and froth and foam at the mouth and scream “heretic!”, are not the innocent victims of poor education. They are passionate advocates for the God they have chosen as the one they want to worship. You wish to appeal to their sense of justice of love; but their sense of justice and love is so thoroughly warped that this omnipotent monster they call God is in fact the God of their deep yearnings–the God of their hearts. Pray for them, but don’t imagine you can dissuade them from the horror they embrace.

    DBH

    Liked by 8 people

    • Calvin says:

      “You wish to appeal to their sense of justice of love; but their sense of justice and love is so thoroughly warped that this omnipotent monster they call God is in fact the God of their deep yearnings–the God of their hearts.”

      I would just point out that, if what you’ve said about the fundamental transcendental orientation towards the good as such is true, such a thing isn’t truly possible. They may think it is, but only insofar as they are deluded about both God and themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DBH says:

        Sure, but I didn’t say the *deepest* yearnings of their heart. As with all spiritual error, the sword of God’s Logos must sometimes cut very deep indeed, even so far as to separate soul and spirit, joints and marrow.

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    • Tully says:

      Dr. Hart,

      While I’m not bothered in the least by contradictions in scripture, it does seem that your first example is an unhappy one. In the fourth chapter of his Jesus and the Last Supper, Brant Pitre persuasively argues that the arguments in favor of an earlier crucifixion date in John are based on too narrow an understanding of passover.

      Pitre summarizes his argument in this brief talk: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/rethinking-the-date-of-the-last-supper-in-john-brant-pitre/id904289058?i=1000379145181

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      • DBH says:

        And he is wrong. The synoptics clearly place the last supper on the Passover as the night of the seder. John’s gospel clearly omits any mention of a seder and places the crucifixion on the ONE day when the seder would have been observed. Pitre’s argument does not work, and he makes it out of a desperation to fix something that does not need fixing. John’s gospel is making a theological point.

        Liked by 3 people

    • TJF says:

      Your words ring true. I tried to dissaude a friend who recently was radicalized to Traditionalist Catholicism. Every logical and philosophical argument I made for universalism was rebuked as being too reliant on paganism and not on Christianity whilst every scriptural argument I made was deftly undercut with accusations of me being a Sola Scriptura low church Bible thumping protestant pretending to be Orthodox. And his overall conclusion was that I’ve been completely and surreptitiously coopted by radical secularism and progressivism to abandon God since I don’t subject my will to the Roman pontiff and crucify my intellect on the altar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I lost a friend. These are dark times.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Rob says:

    Well, when I read DBH’s response to Leithart (yesterday), I nodded in agreement. Guess that makes me a heretic too.

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  8. Joel says:

    Honestly, this topic exhausts me, which is quite frustrating because I quite enjoy the academic study of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern history and religion, as well the history of Judaism, but, alas, I have yet to learn Hebrew. Also, I’ve been long been tired of studying historical criticism personally, not its validity but rather all the twists and turns and minutiae it’s taken in recent years, and have settled for the most part into the softer literary perspective, like Gary Rendsburg. I re-read DBH’s statement, and, despite a few historical issues – such as I’m not certain Yhwh was distinct from El of Canaan and Syria or was ever a second-tier member among the sons of El in council, despite that position being the most popular right now in scholarship, so I would be hesitant to call Yhwh a pure storm god in the manner of Baal Hadad (though Baal himself was also much more sophisticated theologically at Ugarit as a dying-and-rising god of fertility and all life than the northern Mesopotamian Adad who was a much more straight-forward storm-wielder) – I really don’t see what’s so controversial in its key points.

    I mean, I enjoy ancient Near Eastern and Ugaritic literature a lot, so it pains me a little on that level, but DBH’s position is certainly not Marcionite – insofar as the God-language of the classical Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and some others – is reflective of God proper and not a demiurge or angel like Marcion – but merely acknowledges development, or further deepening of revelation over time (Paul’s veil darkly; or, Moses seeing God’s “back,” or, more literally, “what is behind/after” the inaccessibility of the divine face; certainly it’s part of the Biblical tradition itself for prophets to one-up each other), and also, I would add that, even apart from evolution over time, which I think can be a bit overstated since I’m not sure the divine council shuffled as much between the pre- and post-exilic periods, between schools and individual writers – so putting the God of Jonah or Ruth in dialogue with the Pentateuch, Hexateuch, Enneateuch, or whatever sources are postulated therein, or the God of some psalmists with other psalmists. Just as the image of God held by some churches is different the image of God held in other churches or between people in the same family, but, technically, we profess the same religion and texts. Just as the Zeus of Hesiod or Homer is not Zeus of the Stoics, the latter of whom is more reflective of God proper.

    Aside from fundamentalist concerns, I do think part of the discomfort may come from well-intentioned concerns about the relationship between Christianity and contemporary Judaism post-Shoah, and supersessionism, and the corporeal Jewishness of Jesus, and the need to revisit the Hebrew Scriptures’ responsible and irresponsible use in Christian liturgical contexts in that light, i.e. the controversy over the Good Friday petitions, or the desire on the part of Catholic and Protestant academic theologians today, again, well-intentioned, to use the Hebrew Scriptures more fully in liturgy and in a way that more positively reflects God’s covenantal relationship with the Jewish people rather than as purely negative examples to be juxtaposed against the Gospels readings used in liturgy. In the early 20th or 19th centuries, it would possible to put forward that the Father as revealed in Jesus Christ as a fuller revelation of God, but that also lent itself to other darker uses. And then are those theologians who are worried about “Scriptural illiteracy” on the part of the parishioner who only gets their theology from the liturgy and what that means for keeping up old devotional practices as, say, the Liturgy of the Hours would be impossible without a working familiarity to the Psalter. Part of the issue, which DBH also states, is the lack of understanding on the part of Christians of Judaism as a “living religion,” a sister of Christianity in the Second Temple period, with its own history, on the part of parishioners and its own philosophical currents, like the Sefer Yetzirah and the Zohar or Maimonides or Ibn Ezra.

    On a more speculative level, however, I’d like to ask about something I really have no position on, which is: how does revelation occur as a cooperation between the divine and human author? Does author’s wonderment towards the divine – say, like the in the majesty of the storm in Psalm 29 – prompt composition alone? What would the psalms canonically inspired or revealed than the way God is revealed to Ralph Waldo Emerson or Hesiod insofar as they were all reflecting on, however errantly, the divine embodied in the same world around them (and certainly that’s how Job’s spiritual imagination was also working) as we are? I do think they are also “inspired” poetically. But what makes poetic or literary inspiration different, if anything? I suppose this is really more of a question about Celsus than Marcion in his debate with Origen about the utility of divine names. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    • DBH says:

      You are so right on the failure of Christians to acquaint themselves with Judaism as a living religion. The odd habit of thinking a scholarly reconstruction of the history of Hebrew and Israelitic religion as somehow anti-Jewish is evidence of a total ignorance of Jewish exegesis of scripture and Jewish scholarship.

      But, as for whether “Yahweh was distinct from El of Canaan and Syria or was ever a second-tier member among the sons of El in council”—well, the evidence to that effect is incontrovertible. It’s right there in the Bible. At an early point, this was certainly the case. And Yhvh was certainly an Adad-like figure and conqueror of primordial monsters.” I think resistance to this simply can’t be sustained.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. The issue with Hart’s thesis is that he wants a strange mix of Wellhausen and Origen. If he wants to defend allegorical readings as the literal readings of certain passages, which I have no issue with, then it has to be the intended meaning of the author. When for example a Psalm says something, we understand it as allegorical precisely because that is the meaning of the author.

    At other times, there can be an additional allegorical meaning to something. For example, plenty of passages in Paul make it clear he thinks Abraham actually existed. So when he says in Galatians that Abraham and Hagar is an allegory, he is intending it as an additional meaning. Authors frequently bake additional allusions into a text without intending to destroy the literal meaning. For example, if I were to describe the Iraq war in terms of the Vietnam war (not to comment on politics but just as an example here), I would not be meaning that the Vietnam war did not happen, but that it is something well recognized as a failed war so that my listeners will adopt the same attitude towards Iraq. The Fathers frequently use this second layer of allegory. For example, when Eusebius describes the drowning of Maxentius in terms of the Pharaoh drowning in the Red Sea, I don’t think he intends to deny that the exodus or the battle of the Milvian Bridge actually happened.

    If however the original intended meaning of the Joshua narrative was to justify a genocide of Canaanites that Hart would consider abominable, then Hart is taking an allegorical reading against a literal reading. Again, I do not mean literal here in the modern sense of the term, but in the sense of the intended meaning of the author. This is actually deeply against how the Fathers understood scripture.

    I take great issue with the fact that Hart refuses to engage fairly with critics. In my comments, he dismissed Leithart as an “idiot” despite the fact that Leithart’s biblical commentaries are widely recognized as excellent. He also dismissed me out of hand as though I were unable to understand how the Church Fathers read scripture when I have read plenty of patristic commentaries on scripture. Hart seems unwilling to acknowledge he might have critics who have legitimate concerns that what he says jeopardizes the coherency of the Christian faith.

    Hart says in the comments here that “resistance to this [source criticism] simply can’t be sustained.” I don’t wish his apostacy, but if he thinks that the scriptures are simply pagan nonsense, why still be Christian? If I believed half the things he did, I would have left the Church long ago.

    As to whether or not my comments were offensive, Hart is no stranger to provocative writing. If he can dish it out, he can take it.

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    • Tully says:

      Leaving the discussion of biblical hermeneutics to others, I’m curious about your theological understanding of such passages.

      I take it you believe that God did, in fact, command Joshua to kill Canaanite babies, for example.
      Question 1: In carrying out that command, did Joshua (and company) commit murder? If not, why not?

      Presumably, you think one human being murdering another is an evil act.
      Question 2: Is God willing evil (in this case, willing that one human being murder another) problematic in your view? If not, why not?

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    • Calvin says:

      Question 1: Do you believe God to be the Good itself, fundamentally by his very nature both unable and unwilling to will anything evil, in any circumstances whatsoever?

      Question 2: If you believe the books of the Old Testament to be claiming to be literal, historical fact and archaeology is able to disprove their claims, would that not entirely falsify your faith?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Alura says:

      So what then do you make of passages such as, “I will hate them with a perfect hatred,” (Ps 138) or “I will dash the babes upon the rocks” (Ps 136) or the contradictions in how Saul dies? Seems difficult to argue the authors of any of these clearly intended an allegorical meaning as their primary point.

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      • Fr Matthew Kirby says:

        “If he wants to defend allegorical readings as the literal readings of certain passages, which I have no issue with, then it has to be the intended meaning of the author.”

        This is the claim of By. Sc. that seems to me absurd and unnecessary, especially if we take a stronger view of inspiration than perhaps Dr Hart would like, namely, divine verbal inspiration. If God through various means caused humans to write Scripture exactly as he wanted, then there is no basis for thinking the full meaning He intended (the sensus plenior) is limited to what was going through the human minds at the time. A priori that assumption makes no sense, for surely God can intentionally communicate more through a sacred text than any human mind can comprehensively grasp.

        More importantly, the Scriptures encourage the contrary assumption. The High Priest who will condemn Christ prophesies truly but without truly recognising the significance of what he says (John 11.49-52). 2 Peter 1.20-21 implies that inspiration transcends the human understanding and will of even the prophets themselves. It is highly unlikely the author of Psalm 22 was consciously thinking of Crucifixion, and most Apostolic applications of OT prophecy fall into the same category. Indeed, if you had said to a Hebrew prophet that God’s intentions through his proclamations must be limited to what the prophet understood, he may well have either laughed or started picking up stones. Or even using the word “heretic”, had that not been an anachronistic category for him!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        But which author?
        Almost every book of the Bible has layer upon layer of author upon author, and the inclusion of them within the Bible is yet another piece of authorial intention – if those who decided to add the book to the canon did so because they read the book as having a different intention than the intention of the last person to add their edits and redactions to it, author of the book, who themselves understood the book differently to the author whose underlying work they were readacting, who themselves were producing a revised version of a yet earlier work that they understood differently from that work’s author, which intention counts? And even if you get past that, if you reading the OT as a Christian are you reading it for what the author / compiler / curator saw in it, or for what Jesus saw in it when he said it all revealed him?

        Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “If he wants to defend allegorical readings as the literal readings of certain passages, which I have no issue with, then it has to be the intended meaning of the author. When for example a Psalm says something, we understand it as allegorical precisely because that is the meaning of the author.”

      You have misunderstood patristic hermeneutics. Reread the St Augustine quotation in my article:

      We must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as metaphorical.

      Augustine’s point is not whether the historical author intended allegory. Authorial intention is irrelevant. The relevant concern is whether the plain meaning properly expresses the true character of God and the moral life. If it does not, then the text must be interpreted figuratively. Scripture must not be interpreted in a way that misrepresents God–that is the patristic hermeneutical principle.

      Liked by 6 people

    • DBH says:

      1. The claim that I called Leithart an idiot in my reply is a lie. I said that in Origen’s day one could make the mistake of thinking the world only a few thousand years old with perfect intellectual innocence, but that anyone today who makes such a mistake would have to be an idiot. That might imply something about Peter–I’ve never asked him if he’s an actual committed young-earther of the totally unqualified kind–but as far as I know I was simply stating an obvious fact about fundamentalism. It is inexcusable to deny the clear evidence of the sciences out of fidelity to a creation narrative that is clearly mythical in form and that even in the Bible appears in two incompatible variants.

      2. You clearly do not understand patristic exegesis. As Augustine and other fathers clearly stated, the allegorical reading of scripture is not an attempt to discover an allegorical intention of the author. The author’s intention is a matter of indifference. Allegorical readings can differ wildly for the same passage and still all be valid, because it is the church reading scripture under the guidance of the Spirit that is supposedly the true location of inspiration.
      https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/01/ad-litteram

      Liked by 2 people

    • Bob Briggs says:

      What about the fact that the Patriarchs, as well as most other Biblical figures, down to around 800BC, likely either didn’t exist or didn’t exist as portrayed in the Bible? That seems the majority opinion in Biblical scholarship. It isn’t just there is no evidence, but that aspects of their stories seem to reflect a later period. Camels, for example, were used on any scale only after about 700BC and it seems that the core area of Israel, including that of Jerusalem (which only seems to have become a city after 800BC), was sparsely inhabited until well after the time of Abraham. Instead, most of the future Jewish people were nomads in the deserts to the east.

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  10. What about John Walton’s argument that OT translations (e.g. re. ‘the killing of babies’) completely misinterpret the Hebrew language and culture of the era?

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  11. kadaiaero says:

    Excellent and important article; Jordan Daniel Wood is great here. The bit about Catholics needing to interpret Scripture a certain way – i.e. implying the literal way justifying divine violence as rightfully critiqued here – is also rightfully contradicted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who said famously in his 1988 Erasmus lecture “Violence is incompatible with the Nature of God”, and who advocated for a “method C” of exegesis which synthesizes into a new hermeneutic the best of patristic-medieval exegesis with the best of critical-historical scholarship. Matthew Ramage has written and spoken admirably on these “dark passages” as a proponent and interpreter of Benedict: https://stpaulcenter.com/13-nv-13-1-ramage/

    Rowan Williams has also noted how later Prophets criticize and correct earlier actions of Israelite figures initially portrayed positively for their violence, such as Hosea regarding Jehu’s slaughter of Ahab’s house: https://peteenns.com/when-the-bible-corrects-itself-more-on-violence-in-the-bible/

    The apparent contradiction of Christian values and divinely ordained genocide and infanticide in the OT when interpreted literally and directly was one of the biggest things that kept me at a distance from Christianity for awhile having similarly been brought up in a fundamentalist, literalist, biblicist context until reading perspectives like those Jordan Daniel Wood gives here in citing several patristics on this issue.

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  12. LDF says:

    People bickering about these thins never seems to mention the most fundamental point, which is this: in the ancient world, violence was not an ethical problem as we perceive it to be (despite out real attitudes). The ancient pagans who attacked Christians did not attack the Scriptures for the amount of violence contained in them, those pagans still worshipped heroes of war even if they were philosophers and tried to incorporate them in their monistic visions, see for example the Neoplatonist. The writings of the Old Testament, in fact, are often a moral improvement on what was common back then in the Middle East. One could mention many passage in the Deuteronomy in support of this.
    I don’t understand why this point is never stressed, as Israelites were cruel people in a world of pacifists. Marcion was scandalized by some passages of the Old Testament because he was a Christian and had read about Jesus Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joel says:

      I’m sure others will follow up who are more competent in Late Antique literature than I am. I agree with this whole-heartedly except there may have to be a distinction between the literature of antiquity and late antique revisionism here. For Hebrew Scriptures, written between the 11th-6th BC, largely, contemporary with Homer and Hesiod and some of the Pre-Socratics (Gary Rendsburg and Frank Polak have written great essays on the demise of “orate” or “epic-style” literature by annalistic literature in Israelite royal chanceries), that’s true for that time period. Just look at the Moabites, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and Babylonians. Egyptian mythology is as beautiful and philosophically sophisticated as they come, close to panentheism even, what Egyptologist Jan Assmann terms “cosmotheism,” but that didn’t stop them from engaging in nakedly imperialistic terror campaigns seeking human tribute in the New Kingdom, which early Israel’s formation was largely forming against, the background of the really archaic Psalm 68 according to Israel Knohl, where Egypt and Ethiopia, and all the kingdoms of the earth, are beckoned to submit to Elohim, who mounts the clouds in the ancient heaven of heavens. The Assyrians’ intellectual tradents even adopted some of this “self-created god” language of Egypt for their chief god Assur/Anshar (see Debra Ballentine) – and look at their brutality. But, by late antiquity, Stoic or Middle Platonist writers could also look askance at some of their own embarrassing customs found in their own archaic periods – so, the early Romans had practices that were quite similar to *herem warfare that later writers were embarrassed by, not to mention human sacrifice or human scape-goat city-exile practices. Part of the issue is that early Christian and Jewish writers held their own monotheism as “Plato before Plato,” superior to Homer and Hesiod’s raucous divinities, and yet superior to Greek philosophy by virtue of Moses’ antiquity. Both philosophically-minded pagans and Jews and Christians of late antiquity had things in their respective sacred writings which they all found embarrassing in hindsight and argued over which body of Scripture could be appropriately allegorized or not, and which parts were evidence of a superior philosophical culture.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joel says:

        On the other hand, I probably should preface that I don’t mean to downplay the brutality of late antique Roman customs and the Roman Empire in its provinces either, and that Christianity really did affect the moral outlook, including of Marcion, as you mention, in a positive way. If anything, that speaks to the self-correcting nature of the tradition, that the standards of Christ were what Marcion was responding positively towards as you mention.

        Liked by 1 person

        • LDF says:

          Yes, my point is that the philosophers themselves may have arrived at better morality through reason, but they were still bounded by their traditions; the quite dreadful gods of the Greeks may be one of the very reasons there was created a division between mythology, religion and philosophy which in other cultures are mingled together.. Anyway, you can have a great monist conception of the cosmos and see nothing wrong with the possession of slaves. In fact, you can justify slavery and violence by recourse to the natural hierarchies inherent and required by nature (and even Christians, later, but only through a fundamental betrayal of Christianity’s requests). But the Old Testament shows an evolving picture of God, which is consistent with the idea of revelation in itself. An example: Israelites were taught to clean themselves rigorously, but they were a crude people, and did not do that for hygienic reasons – still we now understand that many of those Leviticus prescriptions make sense even in the light of modern medicine. But many human things were mixed with God’s commands, and Jesus himself said so. God is always the same, but man has the potential to evolve or devolve. So both DBR and his critics are right in certain aspects.

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  13. Logan(mercifullayman) says:

    So I’ll jump into the fracas because I think there are a couple questions that arise for what will be and will not be viewed as probably proper, but it feels as if there is some question begging that is somewhat occurring leads me to questions from the issue of “revelation” itself. There are two sides to this coin that I feel both have a say in the discussion and is why the tension is always rampant in these discussions.

    While we are on this topic of allegorization, we have to remember that root of that is a middle platonist view (Philo) that then gets pushed out into the Hellenized world of Egypt which already understands its religious world via the mystery cults, and innate religion itself, as allegory that explains the depths of the mythological. It falls in step with a mode that was already disseminated through centuries of Egyptian/Greek religious practice that is then updated by the emergence of Plato moving in as well. We have a problem though with even that of Origen following Philo. If you read the commentary on John, he literally says that while God can be the one that is good, the Son has the ability to issue all sorts of things that could be perceived as Bad. In fact, he names “punishments” etc, as the justice that the Son employs but never the Father because he is beyond that and is only ever the good as such (this occurs on the scripture where Jesus says Why do you call me Good?). So even in the midst of the argument with JDW about Augustine, even the most allegorical of the fathers, isn’t consistent on what exactly is or isn’t allowed and who exactly is or isn’t the one bringing the action (albeit “evil”) forth. No less than Theodoret of Cyprus (remember him, the guy who wanted to run with Mopsuestia, the one who is known as the greatest of historical-literal exegetes (also very allegorical himself) all the way until an imperial smackdown) even posits this same conundrum in his Commentaries. John of Damascus doesn’t really sugar coat much either….Tertullian, Basil (at times)…we can find as many fathers that don’t travel this royal road as well.

    To borrow about from Indian philosophy, I guess, the question that is begged is that if an action occurs within an existent sphere is deemed “negative,” why does it necessitate it to be “evil” per se? I don’t agree at all with the notion that a God beyond Good and Evil in the existent sphere is Evil. I’d like an explanation on this. Aurobindo sure didn’t. The Buddhist Kyoto School didn’t. Neither did the likes of the later Schelling, etc. The nameless Good is the Sovereign good. It lies beyond the rationality or irrationality of an act and is deeply embedded into the divine will (Hamann is good here as well). It is also no less than the fact that at the end of the Gita, after all the carnage, and all the destruction, that everyone in the end emerges within the divine. They circle back home….everyone ends in the same universalized sphere in the “good” beyond the existential reality of good and evil. Why should we assume it is any different? How is this any different than what Origen too implies in the Johannine commentary, the Father can be “Good” (the named Good but yet beyond the act as occuring) but if the Son is His executioner, the justice as Origen names him…..And the Son is also God….is this an autonomous movement that allows God to be beyond the ontic act that may occur? And yet, still give us the result that emerges of the All being submitted in the end?

    One of the questions that this begs is that if an event can’t be literally true in the sense of history, than how are any events deemed as such? If the standard is what it implies about God and what we can say about Him, then in actuality we can’t make heads or tails of a lot of acts that find being in the divine command. And if we are merely cherry picking which one falls along philosophical lines, then what occurs are moments where how can one understand the revelatory process as it unfolds? How could any moment, such as the Babylonian Captivity in which the Prophets are told it is coming, are told I am doing this and this King is the weapon etc, then does Isaiah’s (e.g.) pointing to Christ suddenly lose its historicity….is the captivity an allegory since we know it occurred historically? It’s a literal fact! Or is this some other version of YHWH that wasn’t really real and so the captivity that was forced by divine decree (again a negative act because people died, and God himself said he’d punish his own tool for the captivity after Israel returns in faith (again another negative act)) defy the logic of the historicity that then brings forth the literal advent and call of a Messiah? Is this moment in all of its negation also the birth of a dialectical move of the positive for the purpose of the salvific act? It all can’t be allegory because in the end you lose out on the history that allows for the revelatory act to actualize and have a real meaning when it does. What about Ananias and Sapphira…..is that an allegorical moment for us (they weren’t killed for cheating the system and were alive walking around) to learn about or did they receive divine punishment for their sin (negative act)? And if we want to go beyond the stretch here, then doesn’t that also kind of make the Crucifixion an allegory? What about Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples who have a literal historical ground to rain down fire on a town that mistreated them, and His is response is basically, “Well, we’re doing things differently now.” There is something about the negative that still emerges into the existent world for which it may or may not divine

    In the end, what we are doing is allowing a philosophical mode dictate the lens of scripture as such. That was the exact problem that most of the good “Antiochians” had with the “Alexandrians” is that it was an external imposition. We see which side of the debate won and it wasn’t always because of who was correct or not. The scarier part to me, is that usually, when the myth and allegory predominate, it is usually human consciousness making its own case for its own behavior and what it likes. It is trying to create a world in which an a priori truth “exists” but in actuality is an a posteriori eventuation that is misapplied and then posited as such. The truth of those acts, as they occur will reveal something…and it is in the revelatory moment, not the the allegorical, that we find the truth and where it falls.

    Again, I’m just a noobie, and maybe should stay in my lane…..but this all just seems so strange.

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  14. Stranger says:

    As an outsider, I find aspects of this debate fascinating; other aspects, simply distasteful.

    After freeing myself from fundamentalism a good many years ago, and finally becoming willing to confront the reality of my life to that (violence and worse perpetrated against me; violence and depravity in which I engaged; systemic and other evils in this world), I lost not only faith altogether (“How can a good God allow any of this?”) but indeed any hope that if a good God exists, he would be willing to associate with the likes of me who, while railing against being wounded, could so easily turn around and wound others.

    I was no atheist. Neither was I a “seeker,” nor even a “reconstructing” believer. I was simply exhausted from attempts to figure it out, on the one hand, and attempting, without great urgency, to find establish principles and practices to obtain my own healing, help others heal if possible, and determine an understanding of and proper responses to the evils that go on in this world. Along the way, I figured if there were a God similar in some ways to what I had previously been taught, he would essentially be fine with this approach and, as I gathered ideas, if I thought “differently” on some points, that too he would make clear to me. In the meantime, the only imperative I adopted was that I “had to” live up to what I attained along the way, which most of time, meant simply not adopt any belief or practice I found nauseating, i.e. which violated my conscience (paraphrasing a guy who himself paraphrases a lot).

    I dont quite remember when I first stumbled across Father Aiden’s blog. The idea of universal reconciliation was the first piece of Christian teaching I encountered as “good news” in a long time, maybe ever. So, I continued to read. Occasionally. When I remembered. Because I wasnt trying to become a Christian again, or even for the first time, and not trying to reconstruct any type of Christian faith.

    In case he reads this, I want Father Aiden to know it was his thoughts about his own son that bound his writing to my broken heart as I had struggled so many times and for so long with the desire to end my own pain and know so many (great, humble, contradictory, scary) guys who have chosen to do so, rather than live with the pain and intense complications our shared experiences forces us to engage. I do not judge them. To this day I sometimes still envy them but have made a different choice.

    Fast forward many years (I know this is a not an autobiographical or confessional blog, I am getting to the “theology” part of all this, I hope. I find myself unable to put down or stop buying David Bentley Hart’s books: That All May Be Saved, Theological Territories, God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. Even his New Testament, a collection of material I swore I’d never touch again. (For those of you who might worry my current affinity for DBH’s writings will lead me away from the living God (who apparently promises to make my questions clear to me, but no matter), I’ve also read Athanasius and some John Behr and *may* read more.

    Nothing has done as much to give me what I hoped to find over these past few years: some encouraging good news in a Christian context; respect for other faiths which have also aided me in this wearying journey; frameworks for developing a theodicy that no longer keeps me up at night, or causes me to regret bringing life into this world; and, to my great surprise, the unsought benefit of giving a desire to strive for certain “Christian” virtues: a zealous conviction that I am right (just kidding!); humility, forebearance, compassion (although pictures of and a visit to a statue of the Buddha of Infinite Compassion still resonate more deeply); forgiveness (not of all, not there yet), etc. My only questions to DBH if he ever reads this is: Has he read any Mikhail Bakhtin and has he found any spiritial encouragement in what he’s seen there. Seems to me DBH would like MM Bakhtin.

    Writing all this to say: was surprised to open Father Aiden’s blog today and encounter this debate. Not that I havent seen debates before, and enjoyed a few. It was more the words “David Bentley Hart is not a Christian.” Not because I’m a DBH fan-boy. I’m not (Sorry DBH) but because such an attitude, and the idea that we’re privy to that knowledge regarding others, and to make such judgments, and to toss them around, is a good part of what drove me out this tent so long ago.

    Is there no other way of approaching disagreements or questions? Where is it, and what is it, Paul says to Timothy, or Titus, or the Thessalonians (sorry, its been a couple years) about the effects of debate on outsiders. I mean, debate about theoligical points, sure, fine. But calling into question each others’ standing before God or motivations (because what exactly does it mean to say someone is not a Christian in this context?) Perhaps the entirety of this blog’s readership is “insiders.” I am not an insider. So, I suppose the idea that its worth being wise about how you conduct your debates before outsiders isn’t worth raising? (It’s a huge turnoff to me, if anyone’s wondering why I decided to go from lurker to commentor).

    The Byzantine Scott justifies his words as an instance of giving to DBH what DBH dishes out to others. I am new to DBH’s work. Should I encounter an instance of his flatly asserting the non-Christian status (non-believer? non-saved?) of a fellow traveler with whom he disagrees, it will dissapoint me greatly. Cant say I will burn the books of his I own (they are on my phone). Just that, in my own approach to these questions, the ones taking on themselves the right to decide and announce who’s in and who’s out, typically have little else I want to hear or read at that point. If I am wrong on that approach, I believe God (who I hope exists) will make thst clear to me. In the meantime, having developed that conviction, I must live up to it. I hope TBS, DBH, and all other readers and commentors here can take such a viee of each other. It makes for a somewhat more pleasant reading experience, for one.

    It may be possible I will hear the voice of God in the (twitter) storm but for now I’m tired of those who thunder. If he has anything to say to me at all (God, that is), I hope he’ll continue saying it to me as he has been: through both powerfully and gently persuasive words and through teaching charachterized and seemingly motivated by compassion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Stranger says:

      My sincere apologies for all the typos and missed punctuation.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Never apologize for typos! I assure you that Tom Belt has so overwhelmed us over the years with his typos that none of us can tell the difference any longer. 😁

        Liked by 1 person

        • Stranger says:

          Hahaha. Ok, good. If I happen to come across him here, I will thank him.

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          • Stranger says:

            Dr. Hart, despite reading some of work online and some of your books, I did not register prior to today that you too are a PhD. I apologize. I meant no offence in my shorthand reference to you as DBH.

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          • DBH says:

            Mr Stranger,

            Everyone calls me DBH–I’ve even started doing it myself over the past four years–so don’t fret. Yes, I’ve read Bakhtin and am a great admirer. No, I don’t go around excommunicating people rhetorically as the Byzzy Scot does, though I have said at times that certain right-wing racialist cultural “Christians” are not in fact Christians, and I have said that certain beliefs (like Ed Feser’s defense of capital punishment) are not Christian positions. And, as for the causa prima of this little fracas, the letter to Peter Leithart was a defense of patristic allegory as the only way to avoid Marcionism–quite the opposite of the Marcionite manifesto that less attentive readers found there. I’m afraid that fundamentalism is on the march again, and pointing out things about scripture that even the Fathers–indeed, even some of the later prophets–acknowledged is now seen as an assault on faith. Even, weirdly enough, Catholic or Orthodox faith.

            Liked by 4 people

          • Stranger says:

            DBH, can’t figure out how to reply to your reply, so replying here in hopes you see it.

            Thank you for your kind response. I’m glad and not surprised to hear you are familiar with Bakhtin’s work.

            Glad also to hear you do not make it a practice to excommunicate others, rhetorically or otherwise. I can see a case for challenging teachings, especially teachings and practices which lead to harm or create unnecessary hardship, guilt, fear. Also for attempting to wrestle back the name “Christian” from those who would misappropriate it in an attempt to “sactify” vile politics, behavior, or teachings. I am glad that at present I have no need to burn my phone for containing your books (joking, for those who dont know).

            As to how best to engage in the “fury” and “fire” of an (online) debate (was attempting sarcasm there, or at least light-heartedness), I don’t know. Bakhtin was one of the ravens that brought me scraps when I was living out in the furthest desert, i.e., I found some good guidance and ideas in what he wrote including this quote, contrasting rhetoric with dialogue: “In rhetoric there are the unconditionally right and the unconditionally guilty; there is total victory, and annihilation of the opponent. In dialogue, annihilation of the opponent also annihilates the very dialogic sphere in which discourse lives. . . . This sphere is very fragile and easily destroyed (the slightest violence is sufficient, the slightest reference to authority, etc.).”

            I re-read the entire Leithart exchange yesterday, then telescoped out to try and grasp the exchange’s reignition and intensification on twitter (based on second-hand accounts here. Twiiter is not accessible where I am currently). As Fr. Aiden points out above, the twitter storm does seem based on a mis-reading of your book.

            As for a non-literal reading of the bible in general and the violence episodes and commands in particular (and I read other online discussions of yours and others on that issue yesterday as well. Long day.) all I can say is: “Thank God.” The non-literal, non-historical (dont know the proper term for turning the bible into a history book, or economics book, or health text book, or catalog of easily-applied sin-lists, or etc., for that matter) approach to those troubling questions has enabled some of the steps in my hesitant, potential return to faith. It is nice to not have to condemn myself by what I approve even if only in my own eyes.

            As I journey, I appreciate the life-giving dialogue I am often witness to in the comments to many of the posts here, nevermind the posts themselves (of course).

            Your work has been similarly sustaining.

            I need the sustenance and I appreciate it, wherever I encounter it.

            Liked by 2 people

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