A Review of David Bentley Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse

As I have previously described (here), it may be hard to trace the survival of the fullness of the gospel in particular periods of church history, and to assume that it is fully traceable historically or institutionally (in the tradition) would be a category mistake. It would be to assume that the victors are capable of writing a history of losers (those who take up the cross). At the same time, to presume Constantine or the Dark Ages or American Evangelicalism wiped out any trace of the authentic gospel, presumes Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Protestantism, with their various institutions and formulations, are the sole purveyors of the gospel. I assume that the word of the cross is, as Paul describes it, a suspension of the symbolic order in which the law and its oppressive force is rendered inactive. The symbolic order is that place where things are thought to endure, where history is written, where people make their mark, where institutions reign, and it is where order is maintained through an established hierarchy (the arche of this world), but this is precisely what the gospel is not.

David Bentley Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse,[1] concurs with my understanding that the truth of the gospel continues to unfold, but not necessarily in ways that are traceable through history and doctrine. As he points out, his work may not provide any immediate practical benefits in sorting out the paradox that the teaching of the New Testament and the institutions and doctrines which claim to be passing on this teaching may be (and often are) in complete contradiction. But the book, in pointing to a future eschatological coherence, does an important work in indicating the form of salvation in which that coherence would consist. In turn, the attempt to paper over the contradictions is in danger of misconstruing salvation (at least this is implicit in Hart’s argument). For example, the drive to unify church history and doctrine in a coherence it does not intrinsically possess is in danger of making salvation a matter of forensics, a matter of adhering to authority, a matter completely summed up in doctrine and history, and under the domain of various institutional manifestations and authorities.

Hart nowhere states it this plainly, as his is a concerted effort to imagine an open-ended element to every distortion in which there is more than meets the eye. The “truest in tradition” has not yet been “delivered over” – so there must be the “yet more” consisting of “the nimbus of the unseen that shines all around the seen, a boundless excess of meaning that lies beyond the scope of every formulation of the faith” (pp. 1632-1636).  To foreclose too quickly the contradictory elements in history and doctrine is to miss out on the unfolding nature of the truth of Christ which will only be fully realized in the eschaton.

Hart provides an abundance of examples indicating that what is at stake in embracing his open-ended take on tradition is the understanding of salvation.  Negatively, a salvation that devolves to “forensic justification” and “a happy hereafter” will have missed the story of “a real union of creatures with God himself” brought about through the mediation of the Son and Spirit, in which “God became human that humans might become God” (p. 123). Positively, salvation as theosis bears an unfolding and not yet realized coherence which relinquishes final trust in the Christian tradition’s historical forms, the failures of which can be fully admitted, such that “believers might surely rejoice to some substantial degree in the collapse of Christendom” (p. 172).

Part of the problem is that the constraints of his project do not allow for a clear definition of either Christendom or the exact nature and extent of its failure. From an Anabaptist perspective, one need not wait for the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of the modern nation state, the collapse of the so-called Christian empires, to declare Christendom collapsed – Christendom is itself a collapse (of the gospel). But Hart’s point is to define the tradition in such a way as to escape this conclusion while at the same time acknowledging the failures of Christendom. It is not clear that he succeeds.

He acknowledges “even the most prominent features of the faith were altered almost beyond recognition by the imperial culture into which the faith was integrated from the time of Constantine on.” According to sound historical judgment “essential elements of the Christianity of the first generations became at best accidental to the Christianity of the next few centuries, and then as often as not entirely absent from the Christianity that ensued in the next few centuries after that, as social, political, and ideological conditions shifted around the communities of believers” (pp. 534-538). The Constantinian shift would end the early communalism of shared goods and condemnation of accumulated wealth and private property. It would end proscriptions against military service, participation in capital punishment, disdain for those who lord it over others and for those who dwell in palaces and wear fine clothes (pp. 538-551).

He suggests that what we call Christianity in contemporary America cannot possibly be made to fit into the original understanding of the faith, with its commitments to a “comfortable bourgeois cult of civic respectability and personal prosperity, or to the free-market capitalist orthodoxies and ridiculous gun-obsessions and barbarous nation-worship . . . (even among many Catholics and Orthodox).” One would be hard pressed to say “how any of this (and similar departures throughout church history) could truly be regarded as a single continuous faith, rather than merely a series of historical ruptures, divagations, accidental sequelae, and frequent total inversions” (pp. 552-557).

His conclusion makes one wonder what can be said to have survived of the original faith. The “entire way of life” which was once the essence of being Christian, with “its contempt for wealth and its civic dereliction and its hostility to the mechanisms of power by which societies and nations and empires thrive and survive and perpetuate themselves, is the very way of life to which most Christian culture throughout the centuries has proved implacably hostile.” Modern Christians would be precisely those condemning the lifestyle of the first Christians as equivalent to hippies, delinquents, unpatriotic sentimental snowflakes or seditious socialists. “It would be no exaggeration to say that, viewed entirely in historical perspective, cultural and institutional ‘Christianity’ has, for most of its history, consisted in the systematic negation of the Christianity of Christ, the apostles, and the earliest church” (pp. 560-563). His scare quotes around “Christian” indicate he is suggesting that this “Christian” has erased the authentic kind.  

Is there any survival at all in a Christianity which has “consisted in the systematic negation of the Christianity of Christ, the apostles, and the earliest church?” He describes the “church surviving” – but this survival seems to be by way of totally abandoning anything that would make the church the church. “Certainly, the church survived after the time of Constantine as much by virtue of the early Christian principles it abandoned, belied, or inverted as those it preserved and ‘naturally’ developed” (pp. 742-744). Is it a mystery so grand that words such as failure, contradiction, and negation are rendered equivocal and possibly mean the opposite? Is there no possibility of an apostate church, and if there is must it remain a mystery as to which church, which place, which time, which teaching, this must refer?

In fact, in Hart’s depiction of New Testament salvation as a defeat of archons and powers and the ushering in of “a cosmic dispensation under the reign of God” (see pp. 568-581), one wonders if a Christendom, which stands for a negation of New Testament Christianity, is not among the very powers to be defeated by the Christianity of Christ. In his own estimate, there are specific beliefs which are “preposterous and alien to the actual teachings of scripture.”  Penal substitutionary atonement, limited atonement, imputed righteousness, salvation through faith apart from good works, eternal conscious torment in hell, inherited guilt, arbitrary predestination – beliefs that, he concludes, “could not be true in any possible world” are taken to be the very core of the faith. These teachings which contradict Christianity have been presumed, “in various epochs and regions of the Christian world,” to be “the very essence of the faith” (pp. 597-601). So, there is, at least in these instances, no clear doctrinal survival of the essential core of the faith.

His attack on the institutions of Christendom is only slightly less negative. Mythic and retroactive notions of apostolic succession, the development of cults of the saints, tautologous notions of authority in which “every claim to authority turns out to be reducible simply to itself,” a “mythical consensus partum” and notions of “all but infallible testimony of the ‘holy fathers’, are accorded an authority and authenticity “too absolute and uncomplicated to correspond to reality” (pp. 174-175). Hart pictures his approach to the tradition in the positive light (which he acknowledges, “many do not crave”) of enabling liberation “from too great a reliance on organs of authority” entangled with “a very great deal of ideological and institutional myth” (p. 173).

Lest there is any doubt, he spells out who might be guilty of belief in this myth: “The Protestant fundamentalist clinging to literalist scriptural inerrancy, the Catholic traditionalist clinging to a brutally reductive concept of infallible dogmatic pronouncements, the Orthodox traditionalist clinging to the nonexistent unanimity of the fathers – all are merely clutching at whatever bits of flotsam seem to them most buoyant atop the ocean of historical contingency, following the shipwreck of Christendom” (p. 179).

He raises the question of any possibility of connection between the unhouseled (those who have not received the Eucharist as the peculiar institutional encrustations which render it the “Eucharist” have not developed) and those social recusants (the anti-institutional) “that constituted the church of the apostolic era” – how can these have anything to do with “the enfranchised and powerful institutions of imperial or national Christendom?”  The implied answer – there is no continuity, no “organic vitality,” no “living idea” which can possibly connect them (pp. 826-829). His project is not such that he is advocating full liberation from institutionalized notions of authority (a clear break with the institutional church), but it is clear that he holds such notions loosely. Though he still holds to the legitimacy of church offices, he does not explain on what basis he holds this position or to what extent.

One cannot disagree with his premise that the truth of the gospel continues to unfold in spite of not being able to trace it in the history and doctrine of the tradition. One can agree that this is a mystery and that the love of Christ breaks through in most every situation, by ways and means that we know not of. One can agree that the eschaton will bring about a coherence which will only be realized in retrospect. This is all helpful, but Hart seems unwilling to address the very gaps he notes which make later forms of the faith a contradiction of the Christianity of the New Testament and the early church. He admits he is offering no practical solutions and no program of action.

Mine is a more peaceful and anti-institutional inclination (while recognizing none have escaped Christendom and its seeming necessities). I presume we really should attempt to reduplicate the economy, the nonviolence, and the disempowerment of the first church and the first Christians so as to put in place the lived reality of the peace of Christ. I presume it is not enough to name the failures without specifying their nature and striving to rid ourselves of the specific forms of violence, the oppression, the abject failures and contradictions which have negated and continue to negate the gospel preached by Jesus and the Apostles. Specifying the nature of this failure comes with the practical necessity of doing something about it; an imperative of which Hart remains free.

[1] David Bentley Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse (Baker Publishing Group, Kindle Edition).