Theology & Spirituality

Book Review: “Tradition and Apocalypse”

If you’ve poked your head in on the academic discipline of “Religious Studies” within the past few years, you’ve likely noticed a tic that—to nonspecialists—seems rather odd: the frequent references not to “Christianity” as such, but rather to “Christianities.” (The horrifically ugly neologism “a/theologies” tends to show up too.) That pluralization is deliberate, and encodes a specific value judgment: there is no such unified thing as “Christianity” in general, with a coherent and discernible essence, but instead merely a range of practices and ideas that all claim association with the “Christian” moniker. On this view, any talk of a unifying center is inherently crypto-theological, and has no place in a discipline committed to the “scientific” study of belief.

Of course, for those of us who self-identify as Christians, this will not do. The history of Christian belief is replete with doctrinal debates and schisms, in the search for some underlying orthodoxy; to speak of “Christianities” is to give up on that effort altogether, and so render moot Jesus’s promise to preserve his Church. But what, then, is the essential ground of small-o orthodoxy? How can authentic elaborations of the original Christian kerygma be distinguished from corruptions? That is the question that Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart takes up in his new volume Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief.

Hart’s own relationship to “tradition,” broadly understood, has always been complex. On the one hand, it’s hard to find a theologian who takes more seriously the Neoplatonic roots of Christian philosophical thought, and how that thought developed in the hands of the patristic writers. No modernizing “social trinitarianism” or “eternal subordination of the Son” for Hart; indeed, his 2013 volume The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss is probably one of the greatest defenses of classical Christian theism ever penned. On the other hand, he has openly expressed his willingness to revise elements of received belief that strike him as implausible or illegitimate. Chief among these is the “eternal conscious torment” picture of hell, which Hart directly rejected in 2019’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation in favor of a universalist model. In light of this dichotomy, it seems quite reasonable to wonder how Hart as a Christian theologian, understands his own relationship to tradition. And Tradition and Apocalypse is Hart’s effort to square the circle.

Tradition and Apocalypse begins with a straightforward observation: the “dogmatic” and “historical” branches of scholarship on Christianity often seem to have little to do with one another.1 The “dogmatic” faction presumes that Christian theology possesses an organic unity of its own, while the “historical” contingent traces a pattern of seemingly radical shifts in doctrine predicated on extrinsic events. For example, how did Christians ever make peace with the authority of imperial Rome and the institution of private property?2 Or, as Oswald Spengler might put it, how was the “Magian” world-picture of a cavernlike cosmos enslaved by evil archons, which might be saved only by the inbreaking of the transcendent, so comprehensively displaced by a “Faustian” idea of infinite immanent space, with no place for this dense thicket of spiritual beings?3 As Hart sees it, any serious-minded Christian must be able to account for these shifts, given the centrality of specific historical events to Christian belief.  So what, then, is the fundamental element that holds together “Christianity as such”?

Much of the book is taken up by Hart’s careful assessment of two of the most celebrated accounts of Christian tradition: John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine and Maurice Blondel’s Histoire et Dogme. Both of these efforts, Hart concludes, are ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful. For Hart, both volumes fail because they are essentially tautological, beginning from a latent assumption that the doctrinal development that occurred from the apostolic age to the present was legitimate simply because it happened.4 Thus both, in the end, amount to little more than extended exercises in special pleading.

The central problem, Hart posits, is that too often Christian tradition is backward-looking rather than forward-looking. Instead of contending that doctrinal developments must already be present in some form in the earliest days of the church, and trying to trace forward a single unitary through-line, Hart argues that it is far more fruitful to begin from the Christian vision of the final end of all things, the consummation of the created order in Christ.5

To illustrate the point, Hart undertakes an extended treatment of the Arian controversy, which culminated at the Council of Nicaea. On Hart’s view, the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father is a necessary metaphysical dimension of what it must mean for God to be “all in all” at the end of time—and thereby the creedal formula constitutes a legitimate doctrinal development over against the seemingly more “conservative” theological claims of the Arians.6

Perhaps the best way to enter critically into Hart’s argument is to ask a very simple question: who is this book for? Early on, Hart suggests that an account of Christian tradition must be one that can justify itself to a hypothetical disinterested observer, one capable of bracketing out their own faith commitments (or lack thereof) from the evaluative project.7 He also emphasizes, however, the need for Christian communities to be able to give an account of whether a purported “development of doctrine” is a genuine development or a mutation.8

The question of target audience matters here because Hart’s argument must accomplish quite different things depending on which is prioritized. If the book is directed toward those “outside” the Christian fold, then by Hart’s lights it must be able to articulate a unifying center to Christian doctrine that is not contingent on “faith-based” assumptions. So, for instance, it would be no good (on this view) to argue that the Holy Spirit has guided the development of Christian doctrine all the way along; to invoke the providential role of the Holy Spirit in directing the development of doctrine would be to deploy a Christian faith claim that lacks a warrant extrinsic to itself.9 We’d be back in the rift between dogmatic and historical theology.

By contrast, if the book is directed principally to those within the self-identified Christian Church, it should be able to offer a “rule of recognition” (of some sort) by which the Church can distinguish truth from error and thereby adjudicate serious doctrinal controversies. (In earlier days, this was known as the regula fidei, or rule of faith.) Hart argues that the past, taken solely as the past, does not provide such a rule of recognition given how tangled historical controversies inevitably became.10

Unfortunately—and as a great admirer of Hart’s work, it brings me no joy to state this—Tradition and Apocalypse succeeds on neither score.

Assuming the target audience for the volume is secular, then Tradition and Apocalypse undoubtedly fails to provide a “neutral” ground of tradition, for the simple reason that the genuine reality of the future eschaton is not something that can be established by disinterested academic investigation. As Wolfhart Pannenberg recognized, the promise of the final consummation of all things in Christ cannot be justified according to the standards of conventional scientific inquiry; it is rather rooted in a promise made long ago and in the longings within human hearts.11 From a purely metaphysical vantage point, one could far more easily conclude to something like the intractability of saṃsāra, an endless procession of contingent realities within the horizon of an indifferent Absolute, than to the Christian restoration of all things in Christ.

As noted, for methodological reasons Hart is quick to bracket out the question of whether the Holy Spirit has led the church into truth over the course of time, arguing that this claim plays a theological trump card too rapidly.12 But how does Hart’s argument—which assumes the reality of the eschaton and the movement of Christian faith towards that future—not play exactly the same card, just in an opposite “direction”? No scholar outside the Church will be convinced to jettison the language of “Christianities” on the ground that the Kingdom which Jesus promised really is at hand, and really is the unifying principle of Christianity, just as no secular scholar will be readily convinced that the Holy Spirit has stewarded the essential Christian truth through historical thick and thin.

To be sure, Hart does gesture at this problem.13 But his proposed answer does not in any sense resolve the dilemma with which Tradition and Apocalypse began. A far more promising route, to my mind, would be the simple admission that there is no presuppositionless standpoint from which to evaluate the claims of the Christian tradition. Whether one works as a dogmatic theologian embedded within a particular denomination of the faith, or as a “secular” historian determined to exclude supernatural causality tout court, metaphysical commitments loom in the background. The question is whether one admits them.14

So let us turn then to the second question: whether Tradition and Apocalypse provides a helpful evaluative paradigm for the Church itself. In a context where all the parties agree that their tradition does in fact possess a unifying center, can Hart’s approach help today’s Christians understand why their faith has evolved in the ways it has over time, and help them understand better how to resolve their contemporary disagreements?

I very much agree with Hart that Christian faith must take eschatology seriously, and readily acknowledge that the tradition has often failed to do so. But I’m not sure Hart’s turn to eschatology quite does the work he wishes it to do here. The fundamental difficulty inherent in Hart’s critique of “traditionalism” and his proposed alternative is this: either the theoretical and metaphysical content of the apocalyptic expectation is normed by the received Christian tradition, or it is not. But both horns of this dilemma produce undesirable results.

Here’s what I mean by this. Hart’s eschatological model, while impressionistic, is a powerful and mystical vision based on the exitus-reditus cosmology of Neoplatonic (and also, for what it’s worth, Thomistic) thought: just as God created and sustains all things in every second of their existence, so too He will call all things back to Himself at the end of time, so that He is “all in all.”15 God, in short, is the eternal destination and (in the Aristotelian formulation) the “final cause” of all things. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Hart on all of this!)

But this interpretation of the Christian eschaton is profoundly historically conditioned. If this is in fact the particular apocalyptic vision that must anchor Christian tradition as a tradition, then since that vision derives from the original Christian “deposit of faith,” it inevitably finds itself bound up with the same questions of historical process and dogmatic accretion that trouble Hart so deeply. In short, we are back to searching the past, in order to deepen our understanding of what this promised eschatology must entail.

By contrast, if our understanding of the eschaton is not normed by the existing tradition, Christian theology necessarily dissolves into a haze of irresolvable ambiguities. By what standard could the Church legitimately reject Thomas J.J. Altizer’s argument that the final destiny of Christian thought is its own disappearance into the secularization of the world—a “Death of God” that is as much sociological as it is metaphysical.16 Or how could Christian theology exclude Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s conflation of the Christian eschatological expectation with the defeat of physical entropy—a decidedly immanent end?17 Neither of these paradigms is consistent with Hart’s own understanding of the promised apocalypse, and if allowed to serve as lodestars for Christian theology, both visions would almost certainly lead to aberrant doctrinal outcomes. But how to rule them out of bounds except by a turn to the past?

To be sure, Hart disclaims much of an interest in formally policing doctrinal boundaries, instead suggesting that the best litmus test is whether one has actually contravened the words of Christ Himself.18 But this too is fraught: on the basis of what can we conclude that we have, in fact, received the true words of Christ that ought to guide our reasoning within the Church? In a passage that’s sure to spark backlash, Hart deploys an aggressively historical-critical interpretation of the Old Testament’s Garden of Eden story to challenge familiar accounts of “original sin” (something I don’t find all that surprising, given that he’s Orthodox).19 And yet strangely, he is unwilling to turn this same buzzsaw on the received New Testament texts: the assumption that we do in fact have the authentic words of Christ, as well as sufficient context within which to understand them, is never contested. Bart Ehrman, no doubt, would have a different view.

If nothing else, Tradition and Apocalypse does ultimately illuminate an important point: there will always remain a gulf between those who see in Christianity an enduring Church, being led by the Spirit into all truth, and those who see only a motley collection of beliefs governed by the vicissitudes of history. The presence or absence of Christian πίστις always colors the assessment. And so all defenses of Christian tradition as tradition, whether penned by Newman or Blondel or Hart, will always feel “tautological” to the extent that they rely on a fundamentally contested premise.

But I would go somewhat further than this. One theme that never quite comes through in Hart’s volume, curiously enough, is the fact that we are as much shaped by tradition as we are shapers of it. Hart, commendably, has little patience for blind dogmatism that refuses altogether to interrogate the past. Is the past, though, wholly incapable of interrogating us and our conclusions? One has no guarantee, after all, that they are understanding the past—and what they are attempting to reject—correctly. And it seems to me that it is precisely because Christianity is rooted in a series of historical events that the teachings which emerged in close proximity to those events ought to be weighted heavily.

If you, like me, have benefited greatly from Hart’s writings over the years, Tradition and Apocalypse is probably still worth your time. Perhaps the volume is best read as a personal testament of sorts, a study in how one of today’s most challenging and insightful theologians approaches the question of tradition. And while I’m not sure the book quite succeeds in what it set out to do, it is nevertheless filled with Hart’s characteristically arresting digressions, such as a lengthy excursus on Catholic right-wing integralism and an exploration of “doctrine as disillusionment” after the Second Coming of Christ was seemingly deferred.20

Speaking for myself, I suppose I am content to trust Christ’s promise that, though the Church may struggle, it will never fail; “the gates of Hades shall have no power against it.”21 The life of faith, then, is a life of conformity to that reality that Christ has guaranteed to still exist, to a tradition perpetually rooted in Word and Sacrament. And in the end, that is enough.

*I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher, Baker Academic. I was not required to write a positive review.

[1] David Bentley Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022), 19–21.

[2] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 33–34.

[3] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 35–36.

[4] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 91.

[5] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 94, 104.

[6] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 112–30.

[7] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 21–22.

[8] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 41–42.

[9] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 31–32.

[10] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 32.

[11] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. III, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (New York: T&T Clark International, 1994), 589, 601. See also Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 101–03.

[12] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 187.

[13] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 145–46.

[14] See Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 273–74.

[15] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 157.

[16] Thomas J.J. Altizer, “William Blake and the Role of Myth,” in Radical Theology and the Death of God, eds. Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1966), 187.

[17] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: HarperPerennial, 1959), 272.

[18] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 168–69.

[19] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 164­–67.

[20] Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, 13–15, 134–39.

[21] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 33.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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