Staff Review

Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief

David Bentley Hart (Baker Academic)
Tradition has been a formidable, venerable concept for many Christians, particularly Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers. Roman Catholics especially assert against Protestants that tradition is required alongside biblical revelation. The paleo-orthodox movement within Protestant, championed by figures such as the late Thomas C. Oden and Christopher Hall, have sought refuge in the “Vincentian canon” of St. Vincent of Lérins of the fourth century that holds to “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” Yet Hart interrogates this very formulation.

David Bentley Hart is one of the most prolific and pugnacious theologians writing today. He is (in)famous for his caustic barbs, byzantine diction, and theological swagger. Even though I have not been exposed to as much of his work (before this book I’d only read the short The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? and I had had an abortive attempt to read The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth), many of these qualities and quirks are present throughout Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief.

Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, critically interrogates the venerable concept of “tradition” in Christianity. His two primary interlocutors are both Roman Catholics, Cardinal John Henry Newman (who, like Hart was a former high-church Anglican), author of the much-touted An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and the Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel whose works, including The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma, proved to be very influential among the nouvelle theologie school of Catholic thought. Admittedly, Newman’s essay on tradition is probably the text most closely tied to tradition but one wishes Hart could have considered a Protestant voice on doctrinal development, such as James Orr’s turn of the century tome The Progress of Dogma (I have heard it said that J.I. Packer would recommend this book to Protestants wading in the waters of the Tiber). When Hart does give attention to Protestantism it is primarily in the form of an acerbic rebuke against Calvinism.

Hart defines the concept of tradition as:

“a rational and indivisible unity somehow subsisting within a history that encompasses an incalculable number of large, conspicuous, and substantial transformations. In one sense, it is an organic unity, within which every discrete part contributes to the life of the whole while no part is in itself wholly accidental or dispensable. It is also, in another sense, a logical unity, each of whose discrete developments is implicated in the dialectical sum of all its parts. And in yet another sense it is a causal continuum, at least according to the Aristotelian model of causality: the essential unity of a single identifiable “substance,” with an intrinsic entelechy that allows it to grow and change while remaining solely what it is. That is to say, a truly living tradition, as opposed to a mere series of mechanically related episodes, must possess the indissoluble rational unity of a material nature that has been shaped by a single real formal content and by an efficient power of development whose effects are determined by an inherent and purposive finality” (pp. 9-10). 

Hart also describes it: 

“as a hermeneutical practice: an attitude of trusting skepticism, hesitant impetuosity; a certain critical hygiene of prudent reluctance, a certain devotion to the limitless fecundity of the tradition’s initiating moment or original principle, a certain trusting surrender to a future that cannot alter what has been but that always might nevertheless alter one’s understanding of the past both radically and irrevocably. It is the conviction that one has truly heard a call from the realm of the transcendent, but a call that must be heard again before its meaning can be grasped or its summons obeyed; and the labor of interpretation is the diligent practice of waiting attentively in the interval” (p. 142). 

Hart acknowledges that Newman’s work is good, albeit deeply flawed (p. 66). The Church of England of Newman’s day was rigorous and scholarly compared to nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism and it questioned the narrative of early catholic unity among Christians, insisting that the story of one shared theological narrative was not so simple (pp. 7-9). This is all the more surprising when one considers that Newman, the most important English convert to Catholicism in the 1800s, has been venerated by many Catholics today as an inspirational figure and acclaimed theologian and that converts to Catholicism from Protestantism tend to be quite intellectually-minded. Hart rebukes zealous converts to Catholicism and Orthodoxy (one thinks, for instance, of the likes of Rod Dreher and Sohrab Ahmari), lambasting them for lacking real historical depth and for simply falling sway to a questionable traditionalism that fails to take seriously the theological pluralism in the early Church (so much for Newman’s mantra “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant;” all Christian streams are prone to their own blindspots and biased narratives, pp. 13-14). The traditionalists of the 20th century, such as Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, had been formed by a scholastic neo-Thomism that rigidly set itself against the ressourcement movement (p. 16). 

History and dogma have often been at odds over the centuries with one another. Hart notes that there has been a divide between theology and “Early Christian studies;” the former tends to be scandalized by the pluralities and contradictions of doctrinal beliefs that existed among early groups claiming to be Christian, sometimes leading to complete deconstruction of faith (pp. 19-20). Yet Hart eloquently argues that history and dogma ought to refine one another:

“The imperfection of either history’s or dogma’s attainment of the end that each shares with the other is also the impulse of both toward the future that summons them as one. On the way to the Kingdom, each is the other’s ironizing and enlivening counterpoint, each urging the other on, each modifying and relativizing the other’s every present configuration and then in turn submitting to a reciprocal modification and relativization” (p. 171).

Newman had suggested that as Church tradition was refined it “assimilated” or absorbed dogmatic truth into itself but Hart queries whether this is the case; sheer adaptability is no indication of the reliable truthfulness of a doctrine. The fact that some Christian neoconservatives back the free market based on religious principles does not, in fact, indicate that free market economics is in accordance with the Kingdom of God’s economy. Few believers have actively scrutinized tradition (and theology) itself; they “inhabit their religion more than reflectively assent to it,” often largely cemented by experience rather than understood and intellectually affirmed belief (Hart claims, for instance, that few believers actually believe in the eternal, conscious torment of Hell, pp. 16-17). 

Tradition has been a formidable, venerable concept for many Christians, particularly Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers. Roman Catholics especially assert against Protestants that tradition is required alongside biblical revelation. The paleo-orthodox movement within Protestant, championed by figures such as the late Thomas C. Oden and Christopher Hall, have sought refuge in the “Vincentian canon” of St. Vincent of Lérins of the fourth century that holds to “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” Yet Hart interrogates this very formulation - early Christianity was rife with deep theological divides, particularly the Alexandrian vs. Antiochian conflict over Christology. Hart asserts that history is not a directed path; it is not linear or logical but full of unexpected twists and turns, “phylogenic” rather than “ontogenic” and “seen thus, any discrete ‘development’ of doctrine might just as well be viewed as a fortunate mutation - a fortuitous but useful ‘corruption’ - that preserves and enhances the tradition’s durability” (pp. 6-7, 47). For centuries certain beliefs in early Christianity were widespread and accepted that to us on this side of Nicaea are deeply problematic yet “The dogmatic formulations of Nicaea, in adopting terms not drawn directly from scripture and in rejecting many of the principal certitudes of centuries of orthodox theology, were radical innovations; in fact, they were disruptions of the tradition as much as they were developments” (p. 158). Errors or mutations in the tradition are supposedly excised once their “transitory character” (in Newman’s words) are ascertained. Yet sometimes sheer historical circumstances have dramatically affected the course of theology. Rather than casting aspersions on the Oriental Orthodox Churches for their Miaphysite Christology, one could instead admire the

“resolute endurance of Egyptian and Syrian Christian communions through so many centuries, without the support of the Christian empire of East or West and under the frequent hostile governance of various Islamic rulers, proof of a ‘vigor’ that few other Christian communions have ever been called upon to exhibit. That, say, the Roman Church long enjoyed fortunate circumstances that the Alexandrian did not no more demonstrates the intrinsic vigor of the former and decadence of the latter than the divergent fates of seeds that fall both on fertile soil and stony places demonstrate anything about those seeds innate fecundity” (pp. 63-64). 

Be this as it may, I am not certain that Hart effectively dispatches adherence to the Vincentian canon; if in the decades following the time of Christ pockets of early believers formulated their theologies, sometimes without the aid of what we now have as the New Testament, it is understandable that heterodox beliefs may have developed and been practiced. Nicaea is one of the episodes in which latter developments cleave away aberrations. Indeed, Hart even explains that the early Church was not as concerned about enforcing dogmatic conformity because “Apocalyptic expectation - an eager certainty of the imminence of the full and final revelation of God’s truth in a restored and glorified cosmos - and not dogmatic purity was the very essence of faithfulness to the Gospel” in the time before the Christian faith was entrenched with empire in the fourth century (p. 134). Thus, if Christ’s return was imminently expected, evangelization and conversion may have taken precedence over finessing orthodoxy; believers share the hope of Jesus first before pivoting to doctrines like the atonement or ecclesiology.

Hart applauds Maurice Blondel’s attempt to navigate between historicism and extrinicism by proposing “‘living tradition’ as the real synthesis of dogma and history” even though he is not completely satisfied with this as a full solution either and he accuses Blondel of ultimately favouring dogma over history (pp. 73-74, 83, 85). For Hart, “a proper understanding of the life of the tradition frees one from the delusion that change is a scandal, which the extrinsicist must deny in the tradition’s defense and which the historicist must accept as the tradition’s defeat” (p. 162).

Yet despite Hart’s critiques of Newman and Blondel, he admits that: 

“I have offered nothing here less airily abstract or infuriatingly idealized than they did…At most, I have suggested a rule for the alignment of intentions: try to keep the correct end in view, even if its precise features are at present hard to see. I do, admittedly, presume more than a confirmed historicist skeptic might allow: I believe there is an apocalyptic content in the tradition that truly discloses a final horizon of faith, and that a tacit and somewhat inchoate knowledge of the tradition’s final causality is indeed possible, and that the tradition’s ultimate end is foreshadowed in its origins and in certain broad but confluent streams of history” (p. 156).

Tradition has been wielded as a bulwark for orthodoxy yet it has also proven to be extremely malleable (as has the work of the Holy Spirit in “leading,” which is why Hart essentially ignores the Holy Spirit’s part in directing tradition; as Hart states, the third member of the Trinity should not be used “as an empty rhetorical device to be invoked whenever there is a need to fill in the gaps in an argument,” p. 187). Hart states “whatever the situation, ‘tradition’ must be invoked to defend both everything that has never changed in the faith and everything that has; and the faithful, as participants in that supposedly ‘living’ tradition, are always suspended somewhere in the middle of this curious oscillation” (p. 98).

For Hart, tradition is both “always reforming” in that it both gleans new knowledge based on refined considerations as well as excises beliefs that were at one point erroneously deemed orthodox. Using historical example, Hart reflects: 

“The hierarchically graded Trinitarian orthodoxy of ante-Nicene Alexandrian theology and metaphysics had more than adequately answered some of the deepest and most urgent questions of the faith for centuries, and had thereby established itself as a seemingly indestructible edifice of orthodox faith. But then it failed to answer all the questions raised in another epoch, and within a generation or so had been reduced to dust. And there is no reason to think that the power of the tradition’s final horizon should prove any less devastating for the conventional beliefs of Christians today. A true fidelity to the tradition must be one that leaves open the possibility that the orthodoxies of the present - including the orthodoxy that tells believers that the tradition has isolated a single recognizable and infallible orthodoxy, or that tells them what dogmatic definitions are and why they should be credited - may yet be surpassed by a fuller revelation of the truth, one that will be wholly given only at the end of tradition’s long historical course (pp. 151-52).

Hart notes that because there has never been one uniform expression of Christianity, many doctrines that believers today of various traditions take to be orthodox and biblically sound would have been alien to thousands or millions of other Christians (p. 149, 162). For instance he states “it would be of only very dubious historical validity to suggest that…Valentinus’s understanding of salvation was more remote from Paul’s, in either shape or substance, than was Calvin’s tragically misguided theology of substitutionary atonement” (p. 150). In Hart’s mind, Valentinus’ theology “may be an exaggeration and even a violent distortion, but [Calvin’s] is a complete misrepresentation” conceived of eons after the Pauline epistles were written in the culture of the Roman Mediterranean (p. 150). Hart has similar critiques of Thomism and he retorts that “only a deep lack of acquaintance with the religious and speculative language of the first century would permit anyone to imagine that Thomas or Luther or Calvin clearly practiced a faith any more consistent with Paul’s beliefs than did, say, Marcion of Sinope” (p. 150). Though an ardent Calvinist might wince at being contrasted to a Marcionate, at its best Hart’s book provocatively compels Christians to reexamine the teachings - both accepted and rejected - of the Church through the ages. This is perhaps an especially important task for Protestants who often leap from Paul to the Reformation - with a possible layover at St. Augustine. However, Hart also criticizes Eastern Orthodox adherents, particularly converts who steadfastly hold to a “fabled consensus patrum” that Hart does not believe truly ever existed except for “some very broad agreements on some very particular issues” (interesting given Hart’s own convert-status, p. 174). Hart believes that since the mid-twentieth century Eastern Orthodoxy has been dominated by a “neo-patristic synthesis, with its neo-Palamite infrastructure” and asserts that the church fathers have actually held varying levels of authority for the Orthodox Churches across the centuries (p. 174).

Hart dwells extensively on the sharp divides in the early Church over the Trinity - specifically, whether the Trinity is hierarchical or not (i.e. is the Son in submission to the Father?). Hart’s critique of tradition seems to me to open the door to downplaying the Church’s rigid defences of orthodoxy - after all, though an “orthodox” position has been articulated, it has never been unanimous. In light of this, I wondered about the recent Trinitarian debates among theologians. Some conservative evangelicals have reasserted belief in the Eternal Functional Submission of the Son (EFS) which, opponents argue, inevitably results in the heresy of Arianism. One wonders if Hart’s critique would unwittingly provide fuel for EFS’ advocates.

One also wonders how Hart’s project might deal with aberrant doctrines that lack the weight of tradition yet have seized large segments of the Church, such as dispensationalism. Hart provocatively ponders the possibility of Christianity gaining beliefs from other refined and sophisticated creeds, classically in the case of Platonism and perhaps, in the future, with an importation of concepts from Hinduism (pp. 182-86). I myself wonder if rather than truth in Hinduism, we might instead focus on emerging theologies in the Majority World that are slowly but surely unshackling themselves from the Western theological tradition and offering new light and insights into Scripture.

As much as Hart decries theological opponents who would preach on the eternal nature of hell or who have carelessly fused their theology and neoliberalism together, he also urges restraint and charity when accusing one another of heresy. He laments that “All too often in Christian history, the word ‘heretic’ has been just another word for someone who, honestly seeking first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, has had the misfortune of doing so in a way ultimately pronounced defective either by his or her contemporaries or (more contemptibly) by later generations. There have always been grave errors of judgment on the parts of believers and systems of theology running the gamut from the infantile to the monstrous” (p. 169).

Hart’s declaration that tradition is living and thus, continuously unfolding, accords with George Florovsky’s views. As Kallistos Ware has written “Florovsky implies that the patristic era is open-ended. It did not come to a conclusion with the Chalcedonian Definition in the fifth century, or with St John of Damascus in the eighth. Nor did it conclude with Palamas in the fourteenth century or with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Up to the present day, Orthodox theology remains fundamentally patristic. Is it not possible that the twenty-first century will bring forth new patristic teachers, equal to the Fathers of ancient Christendom? The Holy Spirit has not abandoned the Church.”1

We are already witnessing results of revisiting tradition, such as in the case of the recent rehabilitation of Origen, one of Christianity’s earliest and greatest theologians who has never been canonized (p. 180). John Behr has recently retranslated Origen’s important work On First Principles, presenting Origen in a more sympathetic light than his many critics across the ages. Again, for me, Tradition and Apocalypse inspires me to look back through the tradition and to become more familiar with those figures who have been marginalized and neglected.

1 - Kallistos Ware, “Orthodox Theology Today: Trends and Tasks,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 12, no. 2 (2012): 112