Monday, January 16, 2006

On David Bentley Hart

I came across a quote from David B. Hart, supposedly the "next big thing" in theology. Not in my house, however. Observe.

The following appeared in the most recent Christian Century, where Hart was promoting his new book on God and the tsunami (yes, I know, I have to cancel that subscription for the sake of my blood pressure).
"I quite explicity admit in my writing that I think the traditional Calvinist understanding of divine sovereignty to be deeply defective, and destructively so. One cannot, as with Luther, trace out a direct genealogy from late medieval voluntarism to the Calvinist understanding of divine freedom; nevertheless, the way in which Calvin himself describes divine sovereignty is profoundly modern: it frequently seems to require an element of pure arbitrariness, of pure spontaneity, and this alone separates it from more traditional (and I would say more coherent) understandings of freedom, whether divine or human...Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted."

Let me begin by making a few corrections. First, Calvin's understanding of sovereignty was not modern, but Augustinian (early church!), and influenced by both scholastic and late Medieval theologians. For example, arbitrariness and spontaneity are hallmarks of Duns Scotus' doctrine of God. Has Mr. Hart not read Gregory of Rimini (ca. 1300-1358)?, who can serve as a representative of the entire Augustinian double predestinarian position. I would recommend that Mr. Hart read Reformers in the Wings, by David Steinmetz, before making any more comments on Calvin's "modern" view of God's sovereignty! Hart clearly has a limited grasp of the late Medieval period, and Calvin's place along the Augustinian continuum.

Hart's comments on predestination, however, are both offensive and dismissive of the positions of Christ and St Paul. I find it incredible to label blasphemous, a portion of God's Holy Word. Paul writes in Romans 9:14ff, "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So that it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth." Therefore He has mercy on whom he wills, and whom he wills he hardens. You will say to me then, Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted his will? But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this? Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another vessel for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show his wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had prepared beforehand for glory" (emphasis mine).

Calvin and all other Augustinians were not blaspheming when they took the Bible at its word and dealt openly and courageously with the knotty doctrine of predestination. If Calvin is blashphemous, then Augustine is blasphemous, and if Augustine is blasphemous St Paul is blasphemous, and if St Paul is blasphemous, Christ is also so guilty (see Mt 24:40ff.). The God of David Bently Hart is not completely sovereign, and therefore, not completely God. I prefer to stay with Calvin and Scripture, and acknowledge both the mystery and grandeur of God's perfect and universal sovereign will. Anything less will leave one lost in the mists of emergent relativism.


Blogger Jeff said...

Amen. Keep up the good work!

1:37 PM  
Blogger Call Me Ishmael said...

"Anything less will leave one lost in the mists of emergent relativism." Yes, but liberal postmodernist Christian Century writers love the mists, because their deeds are relative.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Mofast said...

F. Scott,
As someone who has read more of David Bentley Hart than a quote from a magazine I assure you that Hart's grasp of church history is more than adequate. I would kindly suggest that you read his actual books prior to passing judgment upon his competence in the debate on Calvinism and the like.
Also, as a Wesleyan-Arminian (which Hart is not) I get a little tired of statements such as:
"Calvin and all other Augustinians were not blaspheming when they took the Bible at its word and dealt openly and courageously with the knotty doctrine of predestination."
It assumes a priori that the Calvinist side of the debate uses the Bible and the Arminian side relies on humanist philosophy or something else. Thus, most real live Calvinists that I have heard debate end up throwing out some verses, such as your listing of Romans 9:14-23 and assuming that no one will actually read Romans chapters 9-11 in order to follow the flow of Paul's actual argument as it pertains to the people of Israel. This context changes the whole interpretation of the verse. The election is a corporate election of the people of Israel, and God in his mercy is reaching out to the Gentiles because God will have mercy upon whom he wills, and whom he wills he hardens. Furthermore, within that context you find Romans 10:13 which says, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." But surely you've heard these arguments before? Now I don't pretend to think that you'll be swayed by this suggestion, but I do hope that you realize that a view contrary to Calvinist Determinism can be based upon a reasonable interpretation of Scripture.
Hart does believe in God's sovereignty, he just does not equate that with a strict determinism that refuses to differentiate between primary and secondary causation.

Anyway, I will stop, I love going back and forth on this stuff and I do mean it in the spirit of goodwill. I hope it didn't come off as snide. I appreciate your high view of Scripture, and I'm sure in terms of that and I would imagine your Christology, I have more in common with you than with many in my own denomination.

12:50 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

My offense over Hart's comments were twofold:
1. Their vituperative nature.
2. His glaring misreading of the Augustinian theological tradition. Thus, I was passing judgment not on his books, but on his comments. Also, my statement (which you are tired of) about not blaspheming, was not directed at Arminians, but at Hart, whose comments were deeply offensive to me.

As far as Scriptural interpretation viz. Calvinism vs. Arminianism, I take the position of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who wrote that while disagreeing with the Arminian position, such a view can be drawn from Scripture, and that those who hold such views are sincere, devout, and saved members of the body of Christ. I hold Wesley in the highest of esteem.

Orthodox Christians of a variety of stripes do indeed have more in common with each other than the tepid liberalism of our day. So God bless, and thanks for displaying both Christian charity and a keen mind.

9:08 AM  

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