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).

Review: Retrieving Doctrine (Crisp)

Crisp, Oliver.  Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology.

Crisp highlights key (but often marginalized) ideas from several Reformed thinkers.  He is “retrieving” aspects of doctrine that aren’t usually talked about.  He analyzes Calvin on Creation, Providence and Prayer; Edwards on Original Sin; Turretin on sin and necessity; Barth on universal salvation, and others.

The book is a short model on how to do analytic theology.  It mostly succeeds.  There are a few chapters where Crisp either spent too much time with too little payout, or not enough time at all.  Nonetheless, some essays, like the ones on Barth and Nevin, score major gains.

Non-Penal Substitution

Crisp examines the argument of John Macleod Campbell who argues for a substitution but one that isn’t penal.  Christ isn’t punished for my sin, but he undergoes some kind of penitential act.  In response Crisp notes that this view doesn’t remove any of the key objections.  It’s not clear how Christ’s “feeling sorry” for my sin actually removes my sin.  Further, it’s not clear on what ground Christ has any right to “feel sorry” for my sin.  Therefore, in response, penal substitution is a more viable model. Or at least, the main criticisms against PS also obtain here.

Karl Barth’s denial of universal salvation

Barth’s problem was that he posited a model of Christology and election that entailed universal salvation, yet he denied this was his teaching.  Crisp shows that it was. Introductory premises:

A1. There is a domain of moral agents comprising all human agents.

A2. By Christ’s death atonement is procured for the sin and guilt of those for whom he died.

(1) Given A1 and A2, Christ’s death atones for the sin of all human agents.

(2) Christ’s death is sufficient for all human agents (CD II/2, p. 271).

(3) This work is completed at the cross.

(4) This work is appropriated, not on the traditional gloss of ‘repent and believe,’ but by agents coming to realize that ‘this is what God in Jesus Christ has done for you’ (Ibid., 317ff).

(5) Christ is the Elect One.

(6) Christ is the Reprobate One.

(7) All human agents are elect only in a derivative sense of having a saving relation to the set of the Elect and its single member, Christ.

(8)The Sin of all human agents is atoned for by Christ, the Reprobate one.

But (8) seems to entail universalism, which Barth does not want.  So perhaps he means it in this sense: 

(8*) All human agents are reprobate only in the derivative sense of having a relation to the set of the reprobate and its single member, Christ.

But this would entail: 

(9) All human agents are simultaneously members of the sets ‘elect-in-Christ’ and ‘reprobate-in-Christ.” 

But this is incoherent.  Therefore, Barth must mean (8) instead of (8*).  Given (8) we now have: 

(9*) All human agents are members of the set ‘elect-in-Christ.’ 

At this point Barth can escape (9*) by affirming some sort of Libertarian free-will, but Barth doesn’t do this (and he gives good reasons for not doing it).  Therefore, Barth must hold to something like,

(10) All human agents are necessarily (and derivatively) elect-in-Christ by virtue of his universally efficient atonement.

But now we are back at universalism, unless Barth can posit a new way out:

(11) A human agent whose redemption Christ purchased may reject Christ and may ultimately not be saved.

This is fallacious, given (1)-(4) and (5)-(8) and (9*).  Further, (11) is Arminianism, which Barth claims to reject.

John Williamson Nevin on the Church

Instead of the visible/invisible church, Nevin posits the Ideal Church and its manifestation in time.  It is an organic whole springing from a common ground.  While Nevin has much good to say, it’s not clear he can fully escape “visible” and “invisible” categories.  For example, he would rightly want to affirm OT saints as part of the church, yet since they have died they aren’t “visible.”

For all of Nevin’s problems, though, much of his teaching is simple Augustinian realism.  One wonders, though, what it would take to shore up Nevin’s conclusions without using his German Idealism.

Another difficulty: if there is a metaphysically real union with the old Adam and a metaphysically real union with Christ, then how are these two distinct? This isn’t a problem but only a place where he isn’t clear.

Crisp gives a fine summary of Nevin’s conclusions on p. 172:

(1) The Church is mystically united to Christ.

(2) The church isn’t the Incarnation, part two.  Rather it is a continuation of the new creation brought about by the Incarnation.

(3) OT sacraments are largely preparatory (I think Cocceius held to a similar view).

(4)The Church has an ideal aspect and a concrete (externalizing) aspect.

(5) The ideal is perfect in all respects; the concrete is imperfect but gradually realizing the perfect.

(6) Adam and his progeny are an organic whole.

(7) Christ and the church are another organic whole.