Monthly Archives: November 2015

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:10-11

JamesJames 2:10-11
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Here James defends his earlier assertion that those who practise partiality are “transgressors” (parabatai), which as we have seen, was a loaded and possibly offensive accusation for a Jewish audience. Whereas in verses 8-9 he uses direct address (“If you…” – second person plural), here he shifts to third person singular with the subjunctive to indicate a hypothetical situation: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point…” (Hostis gar holon ton nomon tērēsē ptaisē de en heni).

James assumes that his listeners in the messianic congregation are, like himself, Torah observant, aiming to “keep” the law as an expression of the divine will, to practise it, and to guard it from violation. His emphasis on the whole law was typical in Judaism and in at least some sectors of the early church. Jesus taught that “not an iota, not a dot” in the law can be overlooked, and even the “least of these commandments” must be kept (Matthew 5:18-19). So, too, Paul noted that the obligation of one who accepted the law was to the whole law (Galatians 5:3). Behind this sense of the unity of the law is the unity of the one lawgiver (James 4:12). The will of the one God is expressed in the one law, of which each command and instruction is a constituent part. Therefore to fail in one point—in this case, the command against partiality (Leviticus 19:15), itself a part of the love command which is the centre and sum of the law’s requirement—is to “become accountable for all of it” (gegonen pantōv enochos). Simply put, because the law is the singular expression of the will of God, to stumble or falter in one aspect of it, no matter how small or insignificant, is to become answerable or liable (enochos) to the whole law.

James extends his explanation with a specific illustration in verse eleven. “For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder’” (Ho gar eipōn, Mē moicheusēs, eipen kai, Mē phoneusēs). The first point to note here is James’ conviction that God has spoken his commandments, specifically these commandments found in the so-called second table of the Decalogue. As such, the commandments are the expressed will of God. Second, although the commandments are in themselves distinct, they express the one will of the one God. Third, we note that James has here reversed the order of the sixth and seventh commandments, though this reversal is probably insignificant (cf. Paul in Romans 13:9; and Luke’s report in 18:20). More interesting is why James chose to illustrate his point with these particular commands. The on-going relevance of the Decalogue for the New Testament church, and especially the “second table” is undoubted, and as we have already noted, the commands against murder and adultery are specifically mentioned multiple times by different authors. In Jesus’ list of antitheses, these two commands occupy pride of place, although in their usual order (see Matthew 5:21-30). James will also allude to both commands again in chapter four, verses two and four:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. … Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

In this text, at least with respect to adultery, James uses it as an analogy for his hearers’ relation to God. Spiritually speaking, they are adulterers. Is James similarly accusing them metaphorically, of murder? Certainly there are disputes, quarrels and disunity among them, which Jesus insisted was a violation of the seventh commandment (Matthew 5:21-26). It may be that James is extending the analogy that Jesus has already drawn: just as anger and insults constitute a violation of righteousness indicated in the murder command, so any failure to love one’s neighbour is a similar violation.

“Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (Ei de ou moicheueis phoneueis de, gegonas parabatēs nomou). Thus, the violation of the law at a single point—here the love command—makes one a transgressor. For James, obedience to the law is an all-or-nothing proposition, and his hearers’ partiality against the poor has rendered them guilty before God.

Two final points are needed here lest I leave a wrong impression. First, James is making a rhetorical point here in order to accuse his hearers and hopefully stimulate a change of their behaviour with respect to the poor. Thus, his reference to keeping the “whole law” must be understood in terms of the illustration he is giving, rather than as a theological point in which he insists that Christians must keep the whole Mosaic law, including the ceremonial detail and so on (see my comment on 1:25 and 2:8 where I explore James’ understanding of the ongoing relevance of the law in the life of the messianic congregation). Second, James is not commending a heroic spirituality of moral perfectionism. He knows as well as any that such perfection is impossible. While he insists on ethical rigor with respect to our relation to God’s will, he is also aware that it is only by grace that we stand in the presence of God (4:6-10), and that we remain ever in need of God’s forgiveness which thankfully, is also freely offered (5:16-20).

Grandpa’s Teeth

IGrandpa's Teeth am busy trying to get end of semester stuff nailed and locked away, and it has taken weeks longer than I anticipated. Still going, but almost there. As a result, I haven’t had time to think much about blogging…

So, here is a recent post from Steve McAlpine that I thoroughly enjoyed, not simply for its message but for its style. It is an issue I would like to write on but could not have come close to the way Steve does it here. I enjoy much of what Steve writes. This post – Grandpa’s Teeth and Same Sex Marriage – captures him in doing what he does best: good Christian commentary on cultural and political issues, with a whimsical and incisive eye.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:9

JamesJames 2:9
But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

This verse is a second conditional clause answering the first conditional clause given in verse eight. There, James has said that “if you love your neighbour, according to the Scripture, you do well.” Here, he poses the contrary condition, pressing home the point he has been making since verse one: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin…” (Ei de prosōpolēmpteite, hamartian ergazesthe).

The Greek term translated “acts of favouritism” in verse one is the same as that translated “partiality” here, thus uniting the whole section. Just as favouritism is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, so it is also incompatible with the royal law of love which is the centre and sum of the whole law, and the most complete expression of the divine will. Whereas the one who loves their neighbour “does well,” the one who shows partiality is “committing sin.” It is worth noting that the verbs in the second conditional statement, like those in the first, are also in the present tense and so also imply enduring action. So Vlachos suggests that prosōpolēmpteite depicts a pattern of prejudicial behaviour (79). James names this bluntly for what it is: sin, a form of behaviour contrary to and in violation of God’s will as it is revealed in the Scripture.

Many commentators note that James need not journey far from the Levitical love command to find a specific prohibition against partiality; the two commands occur in the same passage:

You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour (Leviticus 19:15).

To love one’s neighbour includes treating them with justice, and specifically, without partiality. To the degree that James’ hearers practice favouritism, they set themselves at variance with God’s expressed command: they “commit” sin. We have previously met ergazesthe in our discussions of 1:3 and 1:20, where it carries the sense of produces. The person is working and productive, but these are not the good works James will go on to commend, but an evil work springing from an evil heart (v. 4).

Not only is the partial person committing sin, they are also “convicted by the law as transgressors” (elegkomenoi hypo tou nomou hōs parabatai). The same law which is expressive of the divine will now acts as judge against those who violate its commandments. James again presses his primary point: in showing partiality, you are convicted; you have become transgressors of the law. Parabatai denotes a direct violation of a known command (Vlachos, 79), and as such constituted serious rebellion for the Jew and the Jewish Christian. Such a person was throwing off the divine yoke, and placing themselves instead under divine judgment (Davids, 116). McKnight (210) concludes, then, that acts of partiality in the congregation have a twofold effect, first releasing the destructive power and agency of sin to work in the midst of the congregation (cf. 1:14-15), and second, conferring the status of transgressors upon those who act in this way.

Theological Education, 12th Century Style

AbelardIn twelfth century Western Europe, independent schools were springing up alongside the older cathedral schools as a precursor to the development of the universities. There was a market for students as more and more people wanted the kind of education that prepared them for the growing civil service required by both church and state. According to Gillian Evans,

A school did not need buildings or organization or a syllabus. Would-be masters could simply set themselves up and lecture to students, so they needed to be in places where potential fee-paying students might be found. There was rivalry. Masters tried to capture one another’s students, sometimes adding critical comments about one another’s opinions in their lectures….

One of the most notorious of these wandering masters, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) describes in his History of My Calamities how he went to hear Anselm of Laon (d. 1117) lecture at the cathedral school at Laon, with the express purpose of capturing some of his students. Abelard had already made his name as a daring logician and now he wanted to move on to theology, an obvious career move because it was regarded as a more advanced and prestigious subject. … Abelard was not a trained theologian. He had, however, skills in linguistic analysis from his knowledge of logic, and he began to apply these to the interpretation of the text of Scripture with disturbing results. Students loved this for its danger and novelty. They flocked to hear him. He was able to set up a school in Paris at St Geneviève on the left bank of the Seine (Evans, The Roots of the Reformation, 161-162).

I had to smile at Abelard wanting to “move onto theology, an obvious career move…”, and also at the rivalry between teachers and schools. Some things change and some things don’t.

It is also evident that some things about students haven’t changed much either, though perhaps this can be forgiven. Part of the joy of education is the opportunity to explore novel and even dangerous ideas. Problems occur when such education is broken off too quickly, and the novel is embraced uncritically, or worse, because it is novel. Sometimes, though, the novel may prove to be a breakthrough, a new paradigm that advances knowledge and opens new vistas of understanding. This has happened time and again in the history of theology. It is evident, however, that Evans does not think much of Abelard’s innovations.

Theology is Too Hard! A Letter to My Student

Theologians_Top 10 of All TimeLast semester I had a Graduate Diploma student who could not take a class on-campus, so I organised a Directed Study Contract for him to take the unit in that mode instead. We met a number of times during the semester to discuss the lessons, assessments, etc, while he did most of the work on his own. After the semester finished he sent me the following note:

And thanks for making DSC allowances for me – much appreciated. From talking to [my friend who took the class on campus], I did miss a lot of good discussion during the lectures, though. 🙁

I have a love-hate relationship with Theology now: I love the idea of it, and thinking about it is really uplifting, but I hate that it’s sooooo hard!

I am afraid I just couldn’t let that last line slide, so here is how I responded:

Hi ….!

Yes and No!

Yes, we had some very good students, and so good discussions in the class – I think you would have enjoyed it.

And No, theology’s not “sooooooo hard”!

The difficulty with doing units the way we do is that we make it harder than it needs to be by exposing you to a whole range of view points on a whole range of subjects all at the same time. That’s hard! (so, Yes, perhaps it was hard!)

But, if you take the time to read Erickson (Christian Theology) & Migliore (Faith Seeking Understanding) through and one at a time, you will get first a solid conservative take on theology, and then a briefer, broader more liberationist but still (mostly) orthodox take on theology. Then at leisure think through the issues that arise around each of the topics. Or you could work through sections in both correspondingly. Erickson on Scripture, Migliore on Scripture. Either way is fine. But done over time it is not “so hard”! (Note: these are the two texts we use at present in the Seminary in our introductory units on theology).

Then pick up Grenz (Theology for the Community of God) or McGrath (Christian Theology), and then one of the Reformed theologians such as Horton or Frame (because Reformed theology emphasises doctrine there are probably dozens to choose from!). Along the way pick up Olson (The Story of Christian Theology) for a survey of the development of theology over twenty centuries, and Stassen and Gushee (Kingdom Ethics) or another fairly comprehensive ethics text to remind yourself that theological convictions always include moral commitments. Perhaps also choose another theological text along the way to diversify yet again, perhaps reading a theology from a Roman Catholic or a feminist or an Asian or a (fill-the-blank) perspective.

If you took a year, or even two to do this you would be well set for a lifetime of theological reflection that enriches your whole approach to faith and life. And the slower more systematic approach will help alleviate some of the difficulty experienced in a seminary setting. (If you were to go onto to do the whole MDiv, though, some of these “pieces of the jigsaw” would begin falling into place.)

Once you have laid a good foundation like this, then you are in the position to dive deep into either or both according to how your interests have developed:

  1. One of the great masters ancient or modern: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bavinck, Barth, Pannenberg, etc; or,
  2. One of the great loci or issues: the doctrine of God, atonement, pneumatology, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, etc, etc; or even a third possibility emerges,
  3. The integration of Christian faith and thought with another discipline or field of endeavour: philosophy, ethics, science, politics, psychology, business, education, technology, etc.

Perhaps that third option should be a permanent option no matter where we are in our theological endeavours, but as always, there is a crying need for specialist engagement with every sphere of life from a deeply informed Christian base.

So, what’s your summer reading going to be? And 2016?

I think the letter might have worked, because the student then responded back…

Thanks so much for taking the time to write that email response! That’s a great guide which I will definitely work through! Much appreciated!

 I think you’re right – it’s the approach of picking a topic, then doing a few readings on it, discussing it, then moving on to the next topic which makes it hard. You don’t have time to a) learn about the topic in a broader sense (just very particular parts of it) and b) get to know how the authors *think* about everything. I’ve heard Keller say once or twice that you know when you’ve read someone enough when you can pose hypothetical questions and just *know* how that particular author/theologian would’ve answered them. I’m not at that level with any author!

There is some wisdom here. I read two very different authors many years ago (Trevor Hart and John Piper), telling how they had been advised in the early years of their development to choose a theologian with whom to “go deep,” so that, after some years of study, that theologian would become your dialogue partner. Piper chose Jonathon Edwards, and Hart, Barth. Both testified that their decision to sustain a life-long study of and “dialogue” with a particular theologian had proven to be an incalculable blessing in their life, and in their ministry as a Christian theologian.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:8

JamesJames 2:8
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (NRSV)

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing well. (NASB)

To recap: in verse one James provides the imperative which governs the first half of the chapter: no partiality! Partiality in the Christian congregation is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ because (a) God has chosen the poor of this world (v.5); (b) the rich who some in the church are favouring are also those oppressing the church and blaspheming the name of Jesus (vv. 6-7); (c) partiality issues from an evil intent and divides the church (v.4). That verses 8-13 continue this theme is evident especially in verse nine where James again directly refers to partiality and labels it as sin. These verses provide additional theological reasons to support his initial imperative.

The two translations of verse 8 are both possible. Ei mentoi (“if, however,” or “if you really”) sets up a conditional statement which is then contrasted with a second similar condition in verse nine. Mentoi appears seven times in the New Testament and in each of the other six, it is translated “however.” If understood in this way, James is probably drawing a contrast with the accusation of verse six, “But you have dishonoured the poor man…” and so exhorting them to a better path. Many translations and commentators, however, prefer the second possibility which sets up the contrast with verse nine in a more thoroughgoing way: “If you really fulfil … but if you show partiality…” Both translations are acceptable and nothing of significance hangs on either one.

The point in question concerns if they “are (really) fulfilling the royal law” (ei mentoi nomon teleite basilikov). Teleite, second person present plural of teleō, means to “accomplish” or “to observe fully.” The verb appears in the present tense suggesting continuous or enduring action, and so calls James’ hearers to observe habitually and completely the law in its entirety. James further identifies this law as royal (basilikon), thus designating it the “king’s” law, or perhaps better in view of his reference in verse five to the kingdom (basileia), the “law of the kingdom.”

It is tempting to apply this phrase “royal law” to the single command James now highlights: “according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (kata tēn graphēn, Agapēseis ton plēsion sou hōs seauton). Understood as such, it may suggest that this is the only command that one need be concerned with. In verses 10-11, however, James goes on to insist that his hearers are accountable for the whole law, thus showing a more complex relation to the law. Some commentators, such as Vlachos (78), suggest that the law here refers to the Mosaic law as a whole. Moo (94) suggests that the royal law refers to the entire will of God for Christians, especially as that will is revealed in the teaching of Jesus. Nevertheless, “James is concerned to show that the ‘law of the kingdom’ does not replace, but takes up within it the demand of God in the Old Testament.” Davids (114) notes that James’ use of nomos rather than entolē (“command”) decisively shows that he intends the whole law. He asks nevertheless, “is it not most natural to see a reference to the whole law as interpreted and handed over to the church in the teaching of Jesus, i.e. the sovereign rule of God’s kingdom?”

The command James cites derives from Leviticus 19:18 (cf. v. 34). Although the verb “love” is in the future tense, it functions imperativally as a command. In their original context in Leviticus, the words “love” and “neighbour” are as broad in meaning as they are in contemporary English, and so resist being limited to a narrow range of activities or persons (Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [NICOT], 269). In the New Testament, the command is identified by Jesus as the second most significant command of the law, after the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul and strength (Mark 12:28-31; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-6). Jesus’ linking of these two commands was unique in Judaism, and McKnight (208) notes that James, too, links the ideas in this text (2:5, 8). Jesus’ identification of the central significance of this particular command was also shared by Paul who viewed the Leviticus command as a summary and fulfilment of the whole law (Romans 13:9-10; cf. Galatians 5:14).

It appears, then, that James also stands in this broad sweep of New Testament ethics in which love of neighbour came to be seen as the centre and goal of the law. James now resolves the condition with which he began the verse: If you really love your neighbour, you are doing well. “You are doing well” (kalōs poieite), also in the present tense, also has enduring force. This little phrase again suggests that the keeping of the love command fulfils what God requires of his people in terms of ethics. As McKnight (209) says, this becomes “a noble, excellent and proper rule of life for the messianic community.”

This text, therefore, stands alongside a host of other New Testament passages in which love is the sum and substance of the Christian life. This does not mean, however, that the law has no place in the Christian life. James was Torah-observant, as McKnight (207) insists, and, as we shall see, he intended the messianic community to live in accordance with the law. Still, if Davids is correct as I suspect he is, it is the law as interpreted by Jesus and passed onto the church. Thus we see in James a hermeneutic at work, a hermeneutic in all likelihood learnt from Jesus, in which the Old Testament law still plays a role in the life of the Christian community, albeit as mediated in and through the authoritative tradition of Jesus’ life and teaching.

Enthusiasm in Ministry

A Serious MinisterI have heard it claimed that somewhere there is a plaque celebrating a minister of a church who served for decades “without ever once showing any trace of enthusiasm in his ministry.”

I think I know this person – kidding! I found this humorous aside in Stephen Holmes’ article on the Trinity in Gundry & Sexton (eds), Two Views on the Doctrine of the Trinity (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology; Zondervan. Kindle Edition), 48; p. 28 in the print edition. Holmes is discussing the changing character of words. In the eighteenth century, when the plaque was supposedly written, enthusiast meant fanatic.


David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea – Part 2

Doors of the SeaDivine Victory

Hart begins the second chapter with a meditation on nature, which in the West, at least, has been disenchanted. To some extent the church is responsible for this state of affairs since nature no longer can be deified. But the Enlightenment also has played a role, desacrilising nature, making it simply a “thing,” or a fact. For modern theists or deists, creation is that of an absent God; for atheists it is not creation at all, but an entirely natural system of cause and effect. For both camps, the idea of impersonal causation is central. “To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to this reality.”(52) But Hart rejects this view, seeing instead creation as imbued in every particle of its being with the glory, love and beauty of God.

“God is love,” says 1 John 4:16, “and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in Him.” Christian metaphysical tradition, in both the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, asserts that God is not only good but goodness itself, not only true or beautiful but infinite truth and beauty: that all the transcendental perfections are one in him who is the source and end of all things, the infinite wellspring of all being. Thus everything that comes from God must be good and true and beautiful. As he is the sole source of being—as he is being itself in its transcendent plenitude, beyond all finite being—everything that is, insofar as it is, is entirely worthy of love. And it is this love and goodness of God that the Christian is bidden to find in the entirety of the created order. (54-55)

Yet there is also duality in creation, an alternate kingdom, vision and experience, and both sides of this duality are real. The created sphere has been gifted a genuine though contingent autonomy which humanity has used in opposition to God, and thereby has given itself and the physical order into the hand of another master. Hart is unapologetic in his appeal to the New Testament as the foundation of this somewhat mythological worldview (61-66). Yet before, alongside, within, and beyond this broken history into which we have fallen is a “contrary history” that pervades and will finally overwhelm this world of our fallenness. (68)

The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days. (60-61)

God’s glory is a kind of parallel world hidden and yet present, accompanying this world but not born from its ructions and sufferings. Rather, God has come into this world of death for the purpose of conquest and victory. This is the gospel: “An ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won.” (66)

Evil itself has no ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It is a privatio boni, a privation of the good. Hart asserts it is a child of the will, a

Turning of the hearts and minds of rational creatures away from the light of God back toward the nothingness from which all things are called. … a kind of ontological wasting disease. Born of nothingness, seated in the rational will that unites material and spiritual creation, it breeds a contagion of nothingness throughout the created order. Death works its ruin in all things, all minds are darkened, all desires are invaded by selfishness, weakness, rapacity, and the libido dominandi—the lust to dominate—and thus tend away from the beauty of God indwelling his creatures and toward the deformity of nonbeing. (73)

Evil has not come from God nor is it used by God for the fulfilment of his purposes. “It has no ‘contribution’ to make.” (73) Divine providence, therefore, is not divine causation, the reduction of God to one almighty act of willing that fails to distinguish between what God wills and what God permits. Hart makes much of this distinction, arguing that God permits that which God does not will, that the integrity of the world and its limited sphere of freedom might be maintained. Providence, therefore, is not a universal teleology. Rather, providence maintains the integrity of the world and also saves the world by judging its evil. To reduce providence to an abstract omnicausality is to render God indistinguishable from the world, sin and the devil (90-91).

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God. … God may permit evil to have a history of its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him in love, but he is not the sole and irresistible agency shaping that history according to eternal arbitrary decrees. (86-87)


Ultimately, then, the origin of suffering and evil is a mystery grounded in created freedom, and in “another time” inaccessible to us (102). It is a surd within the created order and utterly alien to the being, purposes and will of God. Thus Hart’s theological vision is one of the infinite beauty and infinite goodness of God, a beauty and goodness so all encompassing, it is utterly impossible that God could do evil or even make use of evil in the pursuit of his will. It is on account of this vision of God that Hart rejects all attempts at theodicy which endeavour to make sense of evil or find a place or purpose for it in the overarching purposes of God. Evil remains evil, so we are permitted to hate it with a perfect hatred.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But one should consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines (and so on). It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. (98-99)

No! God is utterly good and goodness itself. His work in Christ is a work of judgement and victory, and his eschatological revelation will be the same. God will not bring every event in history into “one great synthesis but will judge much of history false and damnable … and will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes.” (104) He will wipe every tear from our eyes and make all things new.

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (Review)

Doors of the SeaAlthough just 104 small format pages, there is much to admire in this book. This, my first foray into a David Bentley Hart book, was intended as some brief light reading in the midst of a busy semester programme. It took only a page or two to disabuse me of this assumption. Hart is a literary artist, a man of letters, exhibiting a breadth of knowledge encompassing diverse disciplines and several languages, writing with a beautiful, literary hand, all the while straining and extending not only the limits of my vocabulary but those of my theological vision as well.

The book had its origin days after the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, when Hart wrote a small piece entitled “Tremors of Doubt” for the Wall Street Journal on Friday December 31, 2004. A longer article appeared in First Things in March 2005, with this book coming to press shortly afterwards, born as it were, on account of the response his initial article generated. Hart wonders whether, in fact, he should have spoken at all; surely the most apt response to such devastation would have been to remain silent? (6, 92) Yet he does not:

I still find myself less perturbed by the sanctimonious condescension of many of those who do not believe than by either the gelid dispassion or the shapeless sentimentality of certain of those who do. (92)

Thus the book is both a reflection on the critical issues of God’s goodness and sovereignty in light of this catastrophe, and a polemic against what Hart considers to be defective views of these very same issues.

Universal Harmony
The Doors of the Sea contains just two chapters—“Universal Harmony” and “Divine Victory”—each comprising five short sections. The first chapter surveys various responses to the tsunami, and varieties of such responses to other tragedies in history. He takes aim first at those vocal atheists who used the devastation and consequent suffering of the tsunami to “prove” there is no God. For Hart,

There is no argument here to refute; the entire case is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism—abstracted from any living system of belief—that reduces God to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes are measurable upon the same scale as ours, and whose ultimate ends for his creatures do not transcend the cosmos as we perceive it. (13)

Although the arguments of Christianity’s critics have emotional and even moral force, they are utterly bereft of logical force. In a wry conclusion Hart states, “For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture.” (15)

For, if we are honest in asking what God this is that all our skeptics so despise, we must ultimately conclude that, while he is not the God announced by the Christian gospel, he is nevertheless a kind of faint and distorted echo of that announcement. It is Christianity that not only proclaimed a God of infinite goodness but equated that goodness with infinite love. The atheist who argues from worldly suffering, even crudely, against belief in a God both benevolent and omnipotent is still someone whose moral expectations of God—and moral disappointments—have been shaped at the deepest level by the language of Christian faith. (24-25)

Though this line of argument might give some superficial comfort to Christians, this is not Hart’s intent. Worse than the rants of shallow atheists and the protests of Voltaire against a deist God, are those Christian “explanations” of evil that seem to justify the evil and suffering by appeal to some kind of eschatological calculus, whereby the ultimate purposes of God will make all this suffering along the way somehow “worth it,” as though divine ends justify the most horrific means (see 25-29). Here, and throughout the book, Hart takes particular aim at certain versions of Reformed theodicy.

It may seem…that I have made Calvinism into my particular bête noire, though that was never my intention. In part, this merely reflects the reality that, after the appearance of my column, those among its critics who exhibited the most exuberant callousness regarding the dead—even all those tens of thousands of dead children—and who reacted with the greatest belligerence and most violent vituperation to any suggestion that God might not be the immediate cause of all evil in the world were all Calvinists of a particularly rigorist persuasion. (92-93)

So Hart rails against every form of explanation that justifies the evil, the suffering, the tragedy, or the darkness which afflicts creation and history by appeal to some final balancing of accounts. There can be no final resolution which ultimately explains evil and suffering such as to remove its offence and thereby make it meaningful. Certainly God can bring about his good ends even in spite of evil (29), but for Hart, God is not in any way implicated in the evil itself, and especially by schemas which predicate the entirety of history on the outworking of the pre-determined divine will.

Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism. Quite apart from what I take to be the scriptural and philosophical incoherence of this concept of God, it provides an excellent moral case for atheism. (30)

The hero in this search for universal harmony turns out to be Dostoyevsky, for whom there is no explanation of or justification for suffering—and so no universal harmony, rationally conceived, either. For Hart, Dostoyevsky makes a Christian prophetic protest: if the cost of eschatological shalom is all the suffering endured in and by creation—or even simply the suffering of one innocent child—the price is too high.

Whatever the case, for the Christian, [Dostoyevsky’s] argument—taken simply in itself—provides a kind of spiritual hygiene: it is a solvent of the liberal Protestantism of the late nineteenth century, which succeeded in confusing eschatological hope with progressive social and scientific optimism, and a solvent as well as of the obdurate fatalism of the theistic determinist, and of the confidence of rational theodicy, and—in general—of the habitual and unthinking retreat of most Christians to a kind of indeterminate deism. And this, again, marks it as a Christian argument, even if Christian sub contrario, because in disabusing believers of facile certitude in the justness of all things, it forces them back toward the more complicated, “subversive,” and magnificent theology of the gospel. [Dostoyevsky’s] rage against explanation arises from a Christian conscience. …

Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoyevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were. (43-44)

(Continued on Thursday…)