Three Responses to David Bentley Hart (and one pseudo-response)

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David Bentley Hart (“DBH”) has created quite a stir in the Christian world with the publication of his new book, That All Shall Be Saved, in which he argues quite passionately for a version of Christian universalism. Hart has espoused this idea for quite some time, but he has been more vocal and up front about it in recent years, and comes out swinging with the release of this book.

It has already illicited a number of critical responses, four of which I share here at the end of this blog post. The responses are varied and from multiple perspectives, but are nevertheless critical of Hart’s thesis. The first one is an article from The Gospel Coalition by a confessional Reformed Protestant scholar of church history, representing the traditional evangelical perspective. The second is a guest post on Scot McKnight’s blog, “Jesus Creed”, from a theology professor that represents the Neo-Anabaptist camp as “theological moderate” who nevertheless finds problems with Hart’s perspective. (Both offer a sweeping, panoramic critique.) Returning to the Reformed-ish camp, the third is by Peter Leithart on Theopolis, who, in typical Reformed fashion, tackles Hart’s hermeneutics and attempts at exegesis from a tacit presuppositionalist perspective. Hart responded to Leithart’s article.

A Confessing Millennial’s Perspective

But it is Hart’s response to Peter Leithart that really caught my attention. Now, for what it’s worth, I haven’t read the entirety of his book yet–mainly just excerpts and reviews–so I’ll try to afford him the courtesy that I rarely give to movies (whose Rotten Tomatoes ratings I look up long before entering the theater) by keeping my comments as brief as possible and limiting them to his response to Leithart. That’s the least I can do in the interest of fairness. But if his aforementioned response to Leithart is any indication of the book’s content, then it would be hard to take him seriously, even with the most charitable reading.

First off, on the topics of “fairness” and “charity”: it does not seem to be a courtesy that DBH is interested in extending to his interlocutors. He rolls up his sleeves, doesn’t pull punches, and quite frankly plays a little dirty–something that we’re used to seeing when he goes up against atheists, but are not accustomed to being on the receiving end of. Whether it’s in his book’s introduction or his response to Leithart, his quips are mercilessly scathing. It’s apparent that he fancies himself as a world class rhetorician and debater, and finds few who match his acumen to be truly worthy of his time. He references “Some kid at Patheos (the blog site)”, but the reader reads “Some punk at Patheos.” But I won’t dwell on that.

In Leithart, he sees something of a worthy opponent, though he doesn’t quite go that far. It’s because of this that Hart decides stoop down to humor this lowly Protestant.

At first glance, it might seem like Hart is playing the part of dutiful Eastern Orthodox Christian by tossing out the entire Augustinian (not to mention Protestant) tradition. I’d be amused to lock him up in a room with Luther to see which one could outdo the other in creative insults. (Luther, ever the Augustine aficionado, would give him a run for his money. He did after all, make Zwingli cry.) At his worst, Luther would pound his fist on the table yelling “Hoc es corpus!” in response to Hart’s accusations of biblical literalism, and wouldn’t even let Hart get a witty word in.

Once you move past that facade, however, you’ll see that something different is going on entirely. 

In a surprising twist, Hart takes a page out of Marcion’s book by ripping pages out of God’s book. Long time followers probably saw this coming a mile away. He effectively guts the biblical narrative by dismissing the OT as nothing more than the evolutionary development of man’s imagining or conception of the deity “God” before finally revealed in Jesus Christ.. “Literal readings” of Scripture are for amateurs. They are apparently a novel, Protestant innovation. “Spiritual” and “allegorical” interpretation is what the cool kids are doing these days. With these remarks, Hart has effectively jettisoned almost two millennia of Christian historical witness. Never-mind the historical inaccuracies.

Hart writes, “I often have to remind myself how great a distance separates apostolic, patristic, and pre-modern orthodoxy from modern fundamentalism…”

What he SHOULD have written is, ““I often have to remind myself how great a distance separates apostolic, patristic, and pre-modern orthodoxy from post-enlightenment modernism…”. 

What is ironic is that he claims the support of the fathers when elsewhere he does not feel beholden to them. In an even more bewildering move, he puts Marcion squarely in the camp of “fundamentalists” (apparently, you are a fundamentalist if you believe the Bible is true and is the Word of God).

I don’t know how else to say it other than this idea is irresponsibly eisegetical and historically revisionist, and quite frankly unbecoming of a scholar of his reputation. Where should I start? I could start talking about how Hart’s buddy Philo was a Hellenistic Jew, and Paul likely was not. I could flip the question back at him and ask him about his presuppositions. I could go in all sorts of directions. But it would probably fall on deaf ears. As far as I’m concerned, exegesis and church history is on the side of his detractors.

When all is said and done, Hart’s analysis chalks up to wishful thinking under the guise of clever, witty rhetoric and dizzying arrays of theological gymnastics by which he hopes to disorient his readers and ultimately hypnotize them into his way of thinking. But where his gymnast lands is ultimately unconvincing. It’s quite a precarious tight rope, if you ask me. And the DBH Kool-Aid leaves a sour taste. I won’t be drinking it any time soon.

As for me, I’m sure you can guess where I stand. I wouldn’t be a “confessing” millennial Christian if I believed what Hart believes. I’ll leave it at that for now, lest Hart label me as “some kid on WordPress.” I am, after all, throwing stones at an intellectual giant (I the David this time, not he); a puppy barking up a giant oak. Hart would probably regard me as not worth his time, and to be honest, the feeling is mutual. Hart claims to be Orthodox, but he is far from it. One would think that if he were Orthodox, he would take seriously the article of Christ judging the living and the dead. But alas, he does not take it seriously, and therefore neither can I take him seriously.

Leithart has yet to respond, perhaps because he has been content to lean back after exposing Hart’s true colors and watching him self-destruct. Like the unmasking of a Scooby-Doo villain, Hart reveals himself for what he really is: a white, modern Westerner and the product of the Enlightenment that he claims to deplore. In an ironic twist of fate, he finds himself in good company with Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and other liberal Protestants. Sorry, Dr. Hart, they’re in the other room (not that he was ever interested in being in the same room as us, anyway). Until he recognizes himself for what he is, I can’t take his argument seriously. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

#1: David Bentley Hart’s Lonely, Last Stand for Christian Universalism, by Michael McClymond, The Gospel Coalition

#2: Reviewing David Bentley Hart, guest post by Geoff Holsclaw on “Jesus Creed” (blog of Scot McKnight)

#3: Good God? by Peter Leithart, Theopolis

Bonus: THE POWERS, “THE MYSTERY OF CREATED FREEDOM”, AND HART’S POINTLESS DEAL WITH THE DEVIL, by Derek Rishmawy, “Reformedish” blog (from a systematic theology perspective)

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