Does Hart’s Dogmatic Universalism Miss the Real World Engagement of Christian Hope?

David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved, arrives at an unquestioning universalism which he poses against the “hopeful” but “timid” universalism of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and concludes that to be timid simply springs from being muddled. Either everyone will be reconciled to God through the work of Christ or some human beings will never be reconciled – both cannot be true. If Hart’s argument has a target audience, beyond those who already agree with him, it must be to nudge the hopeful universalists toward his dogmatic universalism. Hart blends philosophical and biblical argument and concludes that the notion of “tension” between two irreconcilable positions is simply a way of eliding “contradiction” and, the ultimate Hartian insult, this timidity is just giving way to a “post-Hegelian dialectical disenchantment, as well perhaps as a touch of disingenuous obscurantism” (p. 103). It is his blending of modes of discourse which I want to question: Is biblical certainty of the same order as philosophical certainty and do these modes of discourse position us differently in regard to the work of Christ, history, and most especially the problem of evil?

It is not that philosophy and theology are absolutely discreet, but the incremental difference between “hopeful” and “certain” universality pertains to tone and perspective. That is, Hart’s tone, his wonderfully entertaining arrogance, is not a side light of this work but is gained from a perspective he would have everyone adopt. Here we have not so much to do with the hard work of explaining how justice can possibly be meted out or how evil can be resolved. This tone of certainty smacks more of the perspective of a philosophical transcendence, which need not bend to the limited perspective of a mere human. The categories are dealt with, the formal causes and problems engaged, while there is really no comprehension of how this really works. I certainly believe in a final justice but the comprehension that this is so is far different than understanding how it is going to be made the case. The justice enacted in Christ, the revelation of God in Christ, by way of contrast, deals in the realm of human history, human experience, and allows for human understanding. This too is a certainty, but it is a certainty in progress, working itself out in history, and engaged not in terms of an absolute philosophical certainty but the “hopeful” certainty of faith. The former need not take into account the realm of evil or the contingencies of history. The latter is a humble “hopeful” certainty which deals in the reality of human perspective and the existential fact of suffering and evil.

The argument for humility may sound like a niggling critique, but it makes all the difference in terms of the problem of evil. We can, in portions of Hart’s argument, momentarily set aside the real-world overcoming of evil in the Cross of Christ – the engaged position of those responsible men and women called to action in the face of evil[1] – as we our now given a God’s eye view above all of the sound and fury.  It turns out that the weight of God’s action is in the future, far removed from real-world engagement with evil, beyond history and on the other side of death. Isn’t the danger of this absolutely confident universalism that, like infernalism, it so weights future categories so as to empty out the necessity of the Cross and our taking up the Cross?

The objection is not that Hart does this permanently or all the time, he is too good of a theologian for that, but the entire argument is geared toward adopting a tone warranted, not so much by a Christocentric perspective as by arguments from formal cause. Both may give rise to what we call “certainty” but the former brand of certainty is an engaged certainty, which looks to the gradual triumph of the work of Christ and the Cross. The latter certainty can skip over all mere historical, known categories, and invest its trust in an incomprehensible future. For example, purging fire (a perfectly sound idea) is as metaphorical as punishing fire, how either works is beyond comprehension. Unlike the Cross, which we can ascertain, comprehend in part, witness to, the certainty imbued by this future work is made of the same stuff as purely formal analytical arguments (of which Hart is so critical).

Hart’s confident universalism functions in this book much in the same way that divine apatheia functions in The Doors of the Sea. In order for God to not be implicated in the problem of evil, the mode of rescue is through an apatheia beyond comprehension. A book spent on disclaiming theodicy reverses course in the case of God so as to provide Him, if no one else, a way out. The Cross in turn, rather than being a real world unfolding of the defeat of evil (as an ongoing battle) is “a triumph of divine apatheia” (p. 81). Hart’s formal cause is protected from evil, in both instances, by formally dismissing the contingencies of evil as entering into the equation. This is accomplished not by focusing on what is knowable about God in Christ, but by trusting primarily in what is apophatic, a-historical, and ultimately unknowable. One might speak of this trust as “certain” as part of a formal and flawless argument but it is a certainty that almost certainly has nothing to do with the real world-defeat of evil found in the historical Jesus. The fault is not in the logic of the argument but in the perspective it affords.

The Christocentric perspective, as with the evil which it takes into account, primarily deals in the concrete and specific and is not aimed at protecting formal arguments nor an abstract understanding. While one might be certain of one’s formal statements about God, does this form of certainty give rise to ethical behavior, to resistance to evil, to assuming personal responsibility or does it, in fact, have the opposite effect?

As with the discourse of the friends of Job, the heirs and guardians of infallible arguments, their knowledge is dispensed from a height which could lord it over the evil that plagued their poor, muddled thinking, friend. Their knowledge is pure and positive and does not rely upon taking into account momentary evil. While their thought takes flight from the world, Job’s hope is that God would show up in the midst of the world.

“This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27).

There is a certainty in Job’s statement, but it is not the certainty of his friends in their apprehension of formal cause. It is a hopeful certainty that takes into account his present suffering. It is not through denying or turning away from suffering that we see the presence of God in Christ; it is by entering into the truth of these realities that we best apprehend God.

In his deployment of creation ex-nihilo Hart notes, “God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly.”[2] While God does not determine himself in creation, is it the case that this is sufficient revelation for his human subjects? Contrast this with Luther’s critique of scholasticism:

Thesis 19: ‘He is not rightly called a theologian who perceives and understands God’s invisible being through his works. That is clear from those who were such ‘theologians’ and yet were called fools by the apostle in Romans 1:22. ‘The invisible being of God is his power, Godhead, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and so on.  Knowledge of all these things does not make a man wise and worthy.’

Thesis 20: ‘But he is rightly called a theologian who understands that part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world to be presented in suffering and in the cross. That part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world is opposed to what is invisible, his humanity, his weakness, his foolishness…For as men misused the knowledge of God on the basis of his works, God again willed that he should be known from suffering, and therefore willed to reject such wisdom of the visible, so that those Who did not worship God as he is manifested in his works might worship him as the one who is hidden in suffering (I Cor. 1:21).  So, it is not enough and no use for anyone to know God in his glory and his majesty if at the same time he does not know him in the lowliness and shame of his cross. Thus, true theology and true knowledge of God lie in Christ the crucified one.’[3]

Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critique of theological liberalism, which mostly served the Nazi cause, took its strength from their engaged form of Lutheranism. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). Hart’s form of certainty stands in danger of foregoing the necessity of reconciling the two forms of discourse he engages and thus produces a philosophical certainty in place of the hopeful assurance of faith. The formal realities of God known through creation take precedence, in his dogmatic universalism, over the hopeful universalism of faith in Christ.  The danger is in missing the prime reality of the world engaged by Christ; the basis for a responsible ethical overcoming of evil.


[1] In Bonhoeffers description.

[2] David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho, in Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, (Vol. 3, Number1 (September 2015): 1-17) p. 5

[3] Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

Learning to Prophesy from Jean Vanier

As Jean Vanier confronted death, he wrote of it as a “descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me.” He confronted life in much the same way, living in community with the intellectually disabled, his was a life spent in essentials, without pretense. In Vanier’s picture, living in community is a stripping away of the extraneous and confronting human brokenness and poverty. Apart from this openness community, he maintained, is not possible, so that those least prepared to live in community are those who bear the heaviest pretense of importance.

Henri Nouwen describes the move from the heights of academic success to living in Vanier’s L’Arche community where no one cared whether he had written a book: “L’Arche is built upon the body, not the word. Words are secondary.” Holding someone’s hand as they cry, saying “I forgive you for annoying me” and “I will also work on my own patience” – it’s about “a spirituality of love through small things.” It is not about idealized notions of community or love, but a communication reduced to the basics of heart and body.

Living in community and Vanier’s preparation to meet God seemed to consist of the same reduction: “That will be all that remains when the rest is gone: my naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God.” In community and before God it may be that “our groanings” or our deepest essence exposed is the point of contact with others and the Other.

There is an isolated and suffering part to all of us which, in Paul’s description, is the opening to the deepest communion: “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Ro 8:26-27, NASB). In Bonhoeffer’s echo of Paul, we cannot live in community apart from the capacity to be alone and we cannot be alone apart from the capacity to live in community. The openness of the one feeds into the opening to the other: the deep spiritual private communion with God which passes beyond articulation, and the human connectedness able to deny self for the building up of other.

Could it be that Paul’s “groaning” (of Ro 8) and his picture of a prayer life which passes beyond intelligible communication (I Cor 13-14) consist of the same exposure Vanier describes in his imagined final encounter with God? The passage beyond “success and shadow” to the deepest part of the self to the isolation of the individual, in Vanier’s description (in his 10 rules for living), is a passage beyond finite language: “We are very different from birds and dogs” as there is a “sort of cry of the infinite within us. We’re not satisfied with the finite.” Paul too, encourages the reach beyond articulate language into communion with the divine. What the “species of tongues” might consist of is unclear, other than that it is unintelligible and, if correlated with Ro 8, it is individual participation in the Trinity; private communion with the infinite.

At the same time, this informs us that the private is not synonymous with being isolated, as if we cannot get outside of ourselves so as to share the deepest part of who we are. This private interiority which passes beneath or beyond the intelligible is the place God meets us, “searches us” (Ro 8:26-27) and communes with us in the Spirit (I Cor 14:14-16). Paul describes this prayerful, unintelligible experience, as the encounter with the Spirit, which he presumes can be made intelligible. This “mystery” (14:2) does not pass beyond the possibility of symbolization, but is to be interpreted. The species of tongues describes private communication with God as, perhaps, everyone’s experience before God is unique. It must be that the Word woven into the fiber of our being is a “species of language” or communication that refracts, reflects, groans, as part of our unique identity. This communion is as specific as the name – the secret name by which God calls us.

Vanier, speaking at Nouwen’s funeral, captured this familiarity, shared anguish, shared yearning and understanding with a simple comment: “Henri was always Henri.” Our name spoken by our closest friends bears a familiarity marked by shared experience, a shared journey. When loved one’s speak our name it comes not only with a knowledge of our identity but as part of a joint identity. When God says our true name, when we have overcome and received the name inscribed upon the white stone (Rev 2:17), we enter fully into the identity by which he conceived us and has known us. When we learn our name, I presume, it will be from out of the private language in which we commune with God. Daily entry into this communion, must be as Vanier imagined it, a continual dropping off, cutting away, being reduced to the essence of who we are.

Noam Chomsky posits the necessity of a universal grammar shared by all languages and built-in to language users such that any particular language lights up a portion of this deep grammar. As image bearers communing with the Logos, perhaps this deep grammar is ignited in the peculiar image each of us shines forth.  It is not only that God communes and communicates with us appropriate to who we are but this communication uniquely shapes us. God must reveal himself through our individual hearts and minds but as this revelation flows it refracts differently, shaping the character of the receptor, the reflector, the heart and mind into and through which this revelation passes.

In Vanier’s description of his first experience of living in community he thought that he would come and help those with intellectual disabilities, then he realized it was working the other way around. His paradigm shifted away from separation between the helped and helpers to recognizing all are called to share their gifts – to speak a unique word from God to one another.  In the words of George McDonald:

“Each will feel the sacredness and awe of his neighbor’s dark and silent speech with his God. Each will regard the other as a prophet, and look to him for what the Lord has spoken. Each, as a high priest returning from his Holy of Holies, will bring from his communion some glad tidings, some gospel of truth, which, when spoken, his neighbours shall receive and understand. Each will behold in the other a marvel of revelation, a present son or daughter of the Most High, come forth from him to reveal him afresh. In God each will draw nigh to each.”

From out of the peculiar communion with God, the unique tongue, each is to bring a prophetic word from God.

“Come and prophecy” is the call to all of us, not so as to compare to our neighbor, but because the word we bear brings our unique identity before God into the body. In this body we always count the other better, the point, the purpose of our own aspiration to make ourselves intelligible, as our own well-being is tied up with this other. Vanier said, “People come to community because they want to help the poor. They stay in community because they realize they are the poor.” There is no ambition, no competition in the openness of love as each is dependent on the gifts of the other (Paul’s point to the Corinthians). God has made me for the body, for himself, so that my most private groanings and brokenness, which joins me in communion with God, joins me to the body.  Life together opens a space and purpose for our private groanings, which made intelligible is our prophetic word.

Jean Vanier – what a marvel of revelation – would that we each could so prophesy.

Shall We Sin That Grace May Abound: A Formula for Discerning Authentic Christianity

Paul seems to be identifying the deep grammar of a system antithetical to his Gospel in the question “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” This is not a simple aside (he repeats it and reformulates it 4 times) but may represent what some are teaching in the name of Christ. It goes to the heart of Paul’s argument and counter-argument in Romans in which he is laying out the sinful logic of both Jews and Gentiles. Whether judged by the Mosaic law or the law of the heart, all are unrighteous and this unrighteousness is not simply a failure of will but a failure of thought. That is, the conscious or unconscious logic of sin is to transgress the law so as to attain the good.  The very point of the Gospel, in Paul’s explanation in Romans and elsewhere, is deliverance from the misorientation to the law due to sin. If I am correct, this means that where this misorientation is incorporated into the religion, though this religion may call itself Christian, it is in fact antithetical to the Gospel. This is not simply a technical argument in that this un-gospel will show its true nature in the presumptions it makes and the fruit it produces. Just War Theory, Calvinist notions of predestination and the necessity of evil, penal substitution, or whatever doctrine or theology allows for evil, is operating according to the logic of Paul’s sin formula. There are forms of the faith that justify systemic evil (violence is a necessity, the Fall was part of God’s plan, Jesus is punished by God, or I am justified in hurting some for the greater good, etc.) and this self-justifying engagement with evil (whether personal or corporate), embraces Paul’s depiction of what is absolutely forbidden (“God forbid, it shall never be,” he says in Ro. 7.7).  Unfortunately, this failure of thought definitive of sin gets at the controlling logic of multiple forms of perverse Christianity. Recognizing this bleak reality though, comes combined with the possible realization of a faith that involves total (psychological and corporate) recreation. Continue reading “Shall We Sin That Grace May Abound: A Formula for Discerning Authentic Christianity”

Looking for the Church

Driving on the interstate with my wife tonight, we passed another giant church billboard advertising for a church which, prophetically and almost literally, meets at Six Flags here in Atlanta.  In bold letters next to a picture of the preacher in a slick suit, it said something to the effect of, “[name of church] Feels Just Like Home.”

In the darkest recesses of my mind I found myself thinking, “Then why not just stay home?” Continue reading “Looking for the Church”

Recapturing Bonhoeffer’s Vision: Seminary as Radical Discipleship

With the rising cost in education, classical notions of education (liberal education aimed at character formation) are being squeezed out.  Seminary education (by which I mean any collegiate biblical education) has been especially hard hit.  Paul House, a seminary professor, describes the reigning questions tempting today’s seminaries: “How do we give our constituents whatever they want? Or, How do we sell degrees like any other commodity? Or, What brand of education pays well in a hurry? Or, How do we fit into the newest trend of educational technology? Or, How do we survive at all costs?”[1] He concludes that the age in which the seminary is able to produce a viable academic setting through a “good credentialed faculty” is passing as these questions come to dominate the course of seminary education.[2] Continue reading “Recapturing Bonhoeffer’s Vision: Seminary as Radical Discipleship”