Tradition and Apocalypse
An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief
By David Bentley Hart.
Baker Academic. pp. 208 $24.99
Review by Cole Hartin
One of the chief weaknesses of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved was its failure to grapple with tradition. Despite the deep engagement with Scripture and the acute philosophical arguments that we’ve come to expect from Hart, he had little to make of the centuries of Christian tradition that posited the existence of a hell in which he did not want to believe.
I point this out only to suggest that its natural to find Hart writing about tradition only a few years later. He had to, in my opinion, because it remained the last obstacle for him to clear as he made the way straight for Christian universalism. In fact, he refers to the furor over That All Shall Be Saved in the closing pages of this book. Hart felt many of his most passionate critics had damaged themselves by “subordinating conscience to some seemingly greater dogmatic imperative” (p. 176). I do not mean to say that Tradition and Apocalypse is a book about universalism. It is not. But much of the argument does gesture towards the summing up of all things in Christ. In fact, though Hart’s argument is at times quite subtle, the general thrust of the book is that in thinking about tradition as a theological category, one must not only reach into the past, but gaze into the future of what God is doing in Christ.
The book is divided into seven dense chapters.
The first chapter is an attempt to delineate a concept of Christian tradition that doesn’t fall into traditionalism, that “fretful, even at times neurotic, fixation upon those past configurations of the faith that one remembers from childhood, or remembers one’s parents remembering, or remembers hearing about from those who vaguely remember remembering” (p. 12). Hart’s primary conversation partner in this chapter, and really throughout the book, is John Henry Newman and his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
The second chapter argues that using only the tools of historical science, we cannot determine any kind of rational coherence in the Christian tradition over time. So Hart, “Only through some kind of proleptic apprehension of that tradition’s final cause could one really judge whether the sequence of its shifting cultural and intellectual configurations over the centuries has represented an advance toward an intrinsically necessary end or has been merely a movement in one or more or less fortuitously determined direction” (p. 31). In other words, if there is a kind of metaphysical unity to the Christian tradition, it is not visible and intuiting it is really an act of faith.
In chapter three, Hart digs into Newman alongside of Maurice Blondel’s Histoire et Dogme. To Hart, both Newman and Blondel wanted to say that Christian tradition was neither a static list of doctrines that Christians had always believed, nor was it an accidental conglomeration of chance mutations in Christian belief that had no inner unity. Both failed, according to Hart, because their argument boiled down to tautology: “What happened was correct because it happened, because what happened must be correct in order to have happened, because what is correct must have happened… (and so on)” (p. 91).
Chapter four is a discussion the ways beliefs of the Church are hardened into dogmas not only to clarify what they mean (and thus exclude certain possibilities) but also to open up “an altogether new set of such avenues, many of which will lead to new and unanticipated conflicts further along the tradition’s course” (p. 110). The beliefs of the Church are grounded in historical claims (such as the incarnation or the resurrection). Chapter five illustrates this argument as Hart turns to Nicene orthodoxy, including the ways it brought very novel words and concepts to Christian belief, all under the gaze of an imperial eye. The development of dogma cannot be separate from these historical contingencies around which it solidified.
Hart’s argument is really crystalized in chapter six, where he turns from the history of tradition to its possible future. He writes:
The hierarchically graded Trinitarian orthodoxy of ante-Nicene Alexandrian theology and metaphysics had more than adequately answered some of the deepest and most urgent questions of the faith for centuries and had thereby established itself as a seemingly indestructible edifice of orthodox faith. But then it failed to answer all of the questions raised in another epoch, and within a generation or so had been reduced to dust. And there is no reason to think that at the power of the tradition’s final horizon should prove any less devastating to the conventual beliefs of Christians today. (pp. 151-52)
Hart goes on to suggest that true “fidelity to the tradition” has to be balanced with an openness to the future’s divergence from what has been inherited (p. 152). He does not go so far as to speculate what this might mean here.
This leads to the last chapter, where Hart does get speculative, and makes some jabs at his usual opponents (typically theological conservatives, though Hart deems them fundamentalists). He suggests that the Christian tradition (or any tradition for that matter) cannot be said to be alive except that it “anticipates and even wills it own overthrow in a fuller revelation of its own inner truth” (p. 154). The idea here is that tradition has to be held with an open hand. And who knows what the future might reveal not only about Christian beliefs themselves, but how they might jive with other philosophical and religious traditions?
I’ve tried to offer broad overview of the book, but its argumentation is detailed, and Hart wades into complex historical debates as he carefully walk through his case. He is exceptionally difficult to summarize (and I don’t think this is a virtue). As far as I can tell, however, it is unfair to say that Hart is turning to heterodoxy unless one holds to very narrow account of orthodoxy. It’s true that Hart is not pleasant to his theological opponents. Nor does he have an ounce of humility. For example, though he believes “not a single critical review [of That All Shall Be Saved] succeeded in accurately describing the contents of the book’s argument,” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that perhaps he has not written as clearly as he might (p. 176).
The self-assuredness also leads Hart into making some dubious historical claims. As one example, Hart seems to have discovered that “a great many very faithful Christians thought that the Nicene formula…had obscured a vital scriptural distinction” and that “the symbol of Nicaea seemed like little more than the institutional settlement of a dispute” (p. 120). Claiming to know what “a great many very faithful Christians thought” is to go far beyond what we can discern from the sources we have. So is to divine what Nicaea “seemed like” and to whom.
In part, the question that this book leaves me asking is who exactly Hart is writing for. His argument is deceptively simple: tradition has to be understood not just by the past but the trajectory it sets for the future. And his touch point for evaluating tradition is the life of Jesus and the religion of the apostles. This is the kind of argument that a popular audience could get behind. The size of the book and the sparse foot notes give it the feel that it was written for such an audience. But then one sees Hart’s prose. They are needlessly complex. He takes what could be a simple argument and veils it in abstruse vocabulary. This is shame, because Hart has something important to say.