Theological Territories (Hart)

Hart, David Bentley. Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020.

This collection of essays reveals David Bentley Hart at his extreme best and extreme worst. In other words, it’s like everything else he has written.

Early Notes

Description of phenomenology: it always evokes a prior metaphysical deduction “because it always already assumes a metaphysical premise: that there is a real correlation between the givenness of the phenomena and the intentionality of the perceiver” (28).

Barthian theology sees God as a “Wholly Other,” thus reducing him to an aliud who is now posed “over against” creation. And if God is always “Wholly Other,” then he is always posed against the Other, which means creation is eternal. This is why Barthianism has always been caught in a dialectic of creation either being eternal or fallen.

Nicene metaphysics: abandoned the Middle Platonic hierarchy.  In this case Logos is no longer a lesser manifestation of a God who is beyond all manifestation. “It is in fact the eternal reality of God’s manifestation of his own essence to himself” (37).  The essence is a movement of infinite disclosure. He doesn’t relate to creation through a hierarchy of hypostases, but he is the “infinite act within and beyond every finite act.”

Bulgakov, Metaphysics, and Christology

This is where Hart’s reputation as a classical theist is on full display.  If Hart’s view of capital punishment is him at his worst. This is him at his best.  Of interest to Reformed readers is Hart’s interaction with Barthian scholar Bruce McCormack. While we have a proper distaste for Barth, McCormack is probably the sharpest Reformed thinker on Christology. The fact that McCormack is wrestling with Bulgakov and has appeared on Hart’s radar is something of note.

Sergius Bulgakov was a Russian theologian who was exiled by the Communists. He was easily the most profound thinker of the 20th century regarding God, creation, Christology, etc. Bulgakov realized that arbitrariness in “our understanding of the relation between divine transcendence and creation’s contingency” threatens both (58). This hinges on actuality and passivity.  God is an infinite God of pure act. He cannot be determined by unrealized potentiality.  

Hart summarizes the divine moments quite eloquently: “that infinite donation and surrender, that infinite receiving that is also the eternal constitution of the giver, that infinite outpouring in the other that is also the eternal being of God” (59).

Hart wants to avoid any conception of God as having a “gnomic” or deliberative will. If God has to deliberate, then creation constitutes for him a real relation, and therefore “a pathos that modifies his nature.”

God is pure actuality. He is “the source of every act of being” (61). “God does not require the indeterminacy of the possible in order to be free because he is not some particular determination of being, some finite reduction of potency to act.” 

Freedom and Universalism

You would expect me to argue against Hart that universalism is wrong.  That’s not my argument, though.  I’ll grant him the point for the time being.  I won’t even say, “Yeah, but what about Hitler?”  I’ll make it worse: will Hart and his disciples concede that Donald Trump will be in heaven?  I’ll take my leave then.

We should look at his comments on freedom, though.  He’s not entirely wrong and despite his sheer hatred of Calvinism, he sounds very Augustinian at times. Hart’s argument is that someone cannot freely and rationally choose the evil.  A purely libertarian act cannot be one of sheer chance or mechanical impulse (this is also Jonathan Edwards’ argument).  A truly free will, by contrast, is oriented towards the good.

Let’s not dismiss this argument too quickly.  While he hates Calvinism, Hart is not giving the same arguments that your typical free-willer does.  Quite the opposite, actually.

Science and Mind

This section is also quite good.  Even if I am a physical system, I am an intentional physical system, which is problematic for hard naturalists since intentionality is not a physical process.  Even worse, assuming evolution to be true, it cannot be reduced to pure physicality.  Evolution is unintentionally (pun, maybe) hierarchical, with more complex systems superimposing on less complex ones.  In short, I have reasons for being here and those reasons aren’t physical processes (131).

Science as science cannot tell us anything about science.  It engages in what Heidegger calls “ge-stell,” or framing: reducing the world to a collection of objects.  There is no ontological participation between the objects.

Intentionality: the mind knows by being actively disposed toward what lies outside of itself (169).

On Capital Punishment

This is Hart at his worst.  His essay is full of invective.  He comes across sneering.  This is doubly unfortunate since he actually scores some points on Greek vocabulary. His main argument is that the Christian is forbidden from retributive justice per the Sermon on the Mount.    That’s just the plain meaning of the passage, says Hart.  He does not allow similar hermeneutical charity to those who would go to the “plain meaning” of Romans 13.  I just want to focus on a few points:

1) I will grant to him that machairos doesn’t mean “sword of capital punishment,” but more like a police symbol.  Okay, that might be true.  The rest of the passage, though, does not admit Hart’s desire for “rehabilitative justice.”  This “state as police” is to be a “terror to evildoers.”  It cannot do that and rehabilitate them at the same time.

2) I can’t find the exact passage, but somewhere Hart says that Jesus never imagined the death penalty being used.  I can only plead Matthew 13.

3) Hart’s petty childishness comes out when Feser quotes Hart’s more Anabaptist view of state punishment: “Again and again, the New Testament demands of Christians that they exercise limitless forgiveness, no matter how grievous the wrong” (Hart, quoted by Feser).  Feser then gives the rhetorical counter: “We also have to refrain from punishing rapists, bank robbers, embezzlers, etc….The jails should be emptied” (quoted on p. 208).  Feser has correctly cited Hart’s beliefs.  How does Hart respond: “Twaddle…balderdash…I don’t need to explain a d*mned thing” (Hart 209).

Does this sound like an adult in control of his rational faculties?

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom should be more than just the negative freedom to say what I want.  It should be the freedom to orient the will towards the Good and True. There is an intrinsic good to which the mind strives.

Beauty and Being

Whatever else Thomas Aquinas meant by beauty, he was correct that Beauty is pleasing just simply by being seen.  A beautiful object must be complete and not lacking, its parts must be in proportion to each other, and it must be radiant (247).

Hart wants to go beyond this, and borrowing from Heidegger, he suggests a distinction between beauty and the event of beauty. Heidegger assimilates the event of beauty to the event of truth (249).  “This is one of those rare moments in Heidegger when the light momentarily breaks through the clouds and he not only asks the right question but comes close to giving the right answer.” We understand beauty in the same way that we understand how the distinction between being and beings is made manifest. Beauty is the excess of Being as being gives itself to us, like in a Bach concerto.  It is “a nimbus of utter gratuity” (250). This is also the language of “gift.” Beauty “shines out” as the sign and gift of that which transcends discrete beings.

This is similar to a Nicene ontology. As the other persons of the Trinity are coequal with the Father, there is no interval or gap that requires the Logos to be a lesser manifestation of the Father (252). “God’s eternal identity is convertible, without any reduction of degree, with his own manifestation of himself to himself.” As a result, creation becomes a free gift instead of a diminished manifestation.

On another note, while I generally don’t approve of Hart’s translation idiosyncrasies, I think he is quite close to the original context when it comes to the spirit realm.  In any case, he is far more accurate than those who think in the traditional manner of “angels vs. demons.”  There is a “realm of powers pervading this cosmos and mediating between it and the exalted, supercelestial realm of the truly divine, to theion.  The secondary, more proximate divine orders of daimones–genii, longaevi, aerial sprites, the ethereal and spiritual forces pervading nature, the rulers of the planetary spheres, the angelic or daemonic governors of nations….composed a whole unseen hierarchy” (365-366). We, on the other hand, are so numb to it we just call everything “angel” or “demon,” when usually they are neither.

I also like “vale of Abraham” (367). Hart runs into problems elsewhere on exactly where the “rich man” is, if not in torment.  Still, he marshals a number of classical sources that translate kolpos as vale or valley. His comparison with the Greek of 1 Enoch 22 is very interesting.  It is a series of four koiloi separated from each other.

Other notes:
Soul–life principle (374).

Spirit–able to exist outside the body.  Hart rejects a pure incorporeality, if only because soul and spirit are irreducibly local.  They aren’t physical, but we need to avoid later Cartesian readings.  It can be spatially extended without having physical magnitude.


This book gives you a “taste” of almost everything Hart has written, both good and bad, very good and very, very bad. Whenever Hart comes against a Christian tradition he doesn’t like, he dispenses with argument and just starts making fun of them. Ironically, this is a caricature of the very fundamentalists he so disdains.

There are some legitimately funny moments.  In critiquing an author for engaging in psychoanalysis, Hart writes, “Dilworth gratuitously [interjects] the observation that, in regard to this or that aspect of Jones’s life, ‘A Freudian might say…’ That is a sentence that need never be completed” (300).

Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology

Williams, Rowan.  Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology.

Rowan Williams has given us a masterful reading of Bulgakov’s political theology. There are introductions by Williams to each section, followed by some of Bulgakov’s most key works. Unlike many annotations and summaries, Williams does not water down Bulgakov’s ideas with artificial selections. The book roughly follows Bulgakov’s own theological timeline, beginning with his slow rejection of Marxism to the more polished Sophiological readings of economics.

In “The Economic Ideal” Bulgakov still accepts many Marxist categories as normative, but already doubt has formed. It is a basic summary of 18th and 19th century European economic thought and a quite valuable one at that. He is able to give a post-Marxist account of Marxism without the usual capitalist arguments.

In “Heroism and the Intellectual Struggle” Bulgakov follows Dostoevsky’s narrative ideas in *Crime and Punishment.* The Russian intellectual of this time is a (so he perceives himself) heroic individual persecuted by the Tsar and religious authorities. But he’s also a revolutionary in whom the seeds of atheism are already sown. As Bulgakov is writing this, Russia is facing a crisis: to whom will she turn in the post-Tsarist age: Father Zosima or Vladimir Lenin?

Over against the intellectual revolutionary is the “podvizhnik,” or ascetic. He is the one who conquers by suffering. Following the Lord Jesus and Dostoevsky in *The Brothers Karamazov,* he is the one who conquers and lays low the powers by taking his cross and dying to himself. This is prophetic for Russia as Bulgakov writes this, for both prophecies come true.

“The Unfading Light” is Bulgakov’s own theological autobiography. Here he introduces Sophia, or the beginnings of Godmanhood. The influence of Solovyov and Florensky is obvious, though Bulgakov will correct both. This essay is not quite as polished as S.B.’s later stuff own Sophia.

“Godmanhood” is the more polished essay on Sophia.Sophia is set as the glory-beauty of the Trinity. It is not a 4th hypostasis (SB later rejects that problematic language). It is the relation of God to the world and God to man. It allows for proper deification of man (the revolutionaries were not entirely wrong in seeking the uplifting of man) by providing the proper channels to him.

The final essays in the book point towards a Russian political theology by critiquing socialism. It is arguable that Bulgakov would have accepted the Christian Socialism of John Ruskin and John Milbank, but given that state socialists in Russia had just murdered 30 million people, it probably wouldn’t have been the best question to ask him!

We see the true, utter brilliance in Bulgakov here. He is known as a Sophiological thinker. And as a truly brilliant thinker, he ties Sophia into economics. Sophia determines politics. Sophia is an active agent in the world (the act of the Trinity loving the love).  Thus, Sophia is God manifesting himself in the world. If this is true, then the world must reflect God and its structures must be called to account and remade.


This book is called a Russian Political Theology because it fashions a new way to think about politics while remaining firmly committed to the truth and revelation passed down to us. It rejects Enlightenment values and even conservative values that have been compromised. Opening itself to the work of the Spirit, Bulgakov’s project has immense implications for America today. As many are seeing Bush and Obama destroy America with socialism, and (rightly) rejecting socialism, some think the only proper alternative is anarcho-capitalism. Bulgakov gives a sustained critique of both and against both offers to us the Sobornost of the Body of Christ

Sergius Bulgakov: The Comforter


Bulgakov begins with a survey of how the early fathers understood the Holy Spirit. He goes a step beyond the typical statements that no one called the Spirit “God,” not even Basil. Bulgakov’s point is that no father had an in-depth pneumatology of any sort, and this would be a huge problem for Orthodoxy in the Filioque debates. He chides Roman Catholic thinkers for reading Filioquist doctrines into early Fathers, for example when the Fathers say the Spirit is ek tou hiou or dia (from and through). It’s a highly strained reading to think they are advocating what was taught at Florence and Lyons. And again, this underscores the problem: what did the Fathers mean by these statements? We really don’t know, since they don’t say.

Monarchia of the Father: Dangerous and Undefined

Bulgakov is insistent we maintain the doctrine of monarchia, the Father as the principle of the Godhead. He notes, though, that when guys like John of Damascus refer to the monarchia, it’s not clear what they mean. How does John use the term cause? He oscillates between two positions: cause of the other two persons of the Godhead, but this moves close to Arianism, which John rejects. He maintains the equi-eternity of the persons. One cannot get past the idea, though, that John is using cause in terms of origination.

An Inadequate Tradition

Was there doctrinal development? This is particularly evident in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Someone could respond, via Basil, that Basil said the unwritten tradition always said the Holy Spirit was “God.” Besides begging the question, that’s not really what Bulgakov is getting at. The early Fathers did not develop a thorough doctrine of the Holy Spirit, leaving a lot of prepositions unqualified which later Latin writers would exploit. For example, when Photius argued that the spirit proceeded ek patre monou, and claimed that such was the tradition of the Fathers, Latin writers quickly made short work of that: numerous Fathers said at the very least that the Spirit proceeded through the Son. I don’t think that’s a Filioquist reading, but neither does it line up with what Photius said.

A Shared Problematic

Bulgakov points out that both sides had the same presupposition: whatever one may discuss about the Holy Spirit and his relation to the other persons of the Godhead, it will be primarily in terms of his origination from either one or both persons. In either case, one is left with a dyad and never a triad: if the Father alone generates both Son and Spirit, then we have Father and Son/Spirit; or if we take the Filioquist route, we will have Father/Son and Spirit. Bulgakov notes that no side really got to the intratrinitarian relations.

Ousia as Spirit-Love

By contrast, Bulgakov sees the essence of God in a new way, free from Hellenistic constraints. God is Spirit (John 4). God is Love (1 John), and Bulgakov suggests that God’s being is love. This definition points to three-ness and here Augustine was on the right track: Love implies more than one (and stop the analogy right there!). Therefore, God’s essence is Spirit-Love (Bulgakov, 61).

Christianizing Hegel

The Hegelian overtones are heavy in the next few pages, and is my favorite part of the book. Bulgakov writes, “The Son then is the hypostatic self-revelation of the nature of the Father (Hebrews 1:3)…the self-consciousness or hypostatization of the divine ousia of the Father; the Son is present before the Father as his Truth and Word” (63). Bulgakov notes that these hypostases are mutually defined through their relation in the divine ousia. The Father is not only revealed in his ousia through the Son, but he lives in said ousia by the Holy Spirit.

I know that sounds weighty, but it’s really not. In biblical revelation we understand God the father to be the first person of the to-be-yet-revealed-Trinity. In the New Testament we see Jesus saying, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (Jesus seems to be making positive affirmations about knowing God, contra the later tradition). We know that when Jesus ascends, the divine life lives in the church through the Holy Spirit. At this point this is simple Sunday School stuff and Bulgakov has nicely tied it together.

Sergius Bulgakov: The Lamb of God


This is the hallmark of Bulgakov’s “Sophiology” project. Since it is prone to misunderstanding, and those councils which condemned it lacked the philosophical tools to evaluate it, it would be wise to state what Bulgakov means by “Sophia.” The short answer: Imagine what would happen if Platonism and Hegelianism had a child. Longer answer: Sophia is the divine prototype. To speak even more loosely, it is the receptacle and vehicle of God’s divine nature (Bulgakov, 98ff). It is the divine glory. Bulgakov even says it is “the divine world.” He then moves to identify Sophia as the “pre-eternal humanity in God” (113).

Whether we agree with him or not, Bulgakov’s comments gain new relevance after we explore what he calls “The Patristic Dialectic.” The heretic Apollinaris was the first to identify the problematic: What is divine humanity and how is the Incarnation possible (4ff)? He, in good Alexandrian fashion, denies a duality of personal principles. He argues, rather, that two perfect principles cannot become one. Thus, how can one understand the union without transforming it into a duality?

We reject Apollinaris’s heretical teaching, but we must admit he formulated it on very good grounds: the union cannot be of two whole integral persons, which is why Apollinaris dropped the human nous from the humanity. Aside from the comments on the nous, this isn’t that different from Chalcedon (11)!

Cyril responds to this by giving his famous answer: there is one nature of the enfleshed Logos. Cyril now has several difficulties: in order for this statement to be Orthodox, we have to reinterpret what we mean by “phusis.” It is also worth pointing out that Cyril is ideologically dependent on his opponents, which likely prevented him from developing a full, positive alternative to Nestorius.

Bulgakov’s genius (if he proves successful) is to solve the dialectic in this manner: man contains within himself the receptacle of divinity. This is so because he is created on the divine proto-image. In other words, there is a mediating principle between divinity and humanity. It will be Bulgakov’s argument that this is what preserves Chalcedon: the third-term mediation allows a true union and avoids duality.

An Analysis and Critique

Strictly judged on Platonic grounds, it’s hard to argue with him. Without agreeing with him on all specifics, I have to admit his project seems to ‘work.’ He gives a very beautiful and engaging discussion on creation, time, and eternity.

His heavy Platonizing could be forgiven if it weren’t for the occasional foray into Gnosticism. He identifies the Logos with the “Demiurgos” (111). This isn’t that different from the god of Freemasonry. It is an “architect” that merely re-shapes dead matter. He runs into other dangers with loose terminology: he speaks of a tri-hypostasis, a feminine hypostasis of Sophia, but at other times he denies that Sophia is en-hypostasized. He rightly argues that the Ascended Christ is bodily in heaven, notwithstanding any difficulties that entails. The problem for his Eucharistology is that how can the bodily Christ stay in heaven and be physically present in the elements? Bulgakov responds by saying…I kid you not…”He comes down without leaving heaven.” Understandably, some won’t be convinced.

I think Bulgakov successfully defended himself from charges of heresy. Further, if one is committed to substance-ontologies, then it’s hard to avoid Bulgakov’s proposal. If there remains some truth in Hegel, then Bulgakov’s ideas could prove quite valuable. At the end of the day, though, many are nervous about employing a heavily Platonic schemata in our theology.