Hart on Theological Education

I told myself (mostly in private) that I would not fall into the habit of turning this web-log or anything else I write into marginalia on David Bentley Hart, that cantankerous theologian who revels in being one of the most polarizing figures in contemporary Christianity. However, I cannot help but repeat this morsel from his Substack, Leaves in the Wind, wherein he captures an opinion I first heard expressed by Owen “The Ochlophobist” White many years ago:

While my next article (just a few days hence) will indeed, as promised, concern allegorical readings of biblical myths, it will not be followed by a reflection on the dismal state of current theological education. The reason for my change of mind is simple enough: it was a boring idea. And I can sum up the argument here in very few words: the erstwhile “Queen of the Sciences,” who demanded of her subjects that they undergo a thorough training in multiple languages (ancient and modern), as well as philosophy, history, biblical scholarship and hermeneutics, and any number of other disciplines before they could enter her service, has now become a dithering, doting, indulgent grandmother, handing out degrees with blithe wantonness, like molasses cookies she’s just baked for her visiting grandchildren.

Leaving to the side the fact that White is a critic of the “cult of Hart,” the observation that theological education means radically less today than what it may have meant 50-100 years ago still seems lost on most people. I cannot speak for what goes on in Protestant haunts, but around the Catholic watercooler stands a cadre of professional grifters who compose social-media posts, online articles, and podcasts that are as needless as they are vapid. The only amusement that may be drawn from this deplorable reality is when these “defenders of the Faith” turn on each other over the silliest minutiae involving peripheral theological points that mean next-to-nothing to their readership. And these poor readers…many of whom, I suspect, are understandably confused, dejected, and hurt by the ongoing crisis (crises?) in the Catholic Church, are left to sift through this morass of mediocrity in search of answers that are simply not there. The temptation to learn all that is allegedly worth knowing through sound bites quickly replaces any zeal for thoroughgoing research.

David Bentley Hart Is Not a Marcionite

Far be it for me to get too embroiled in one of many online fisticuffs over the works of David Bentley Hart, the recent fallout over Tradition and Apocalypse is as baffling as it is ridiculous. Tradition, which at its core is a critique of Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine, also features what I have elsewhere dubbed an “iconoclastic critical-historical reading of the Fall narrative.” This, along with some of Hart’s earlier remarks on various Old Testament lessons, has prompted some mental midgets to accuse Hart of—wait for it…—Marcionism!

Marcionism, in the popular polemical lexicon, is an empty-headed rejection of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) that was vanquished successfully in the early centuries of Christianity. Marcion of Sinope, that deeply religious man who promoted what he believed to be the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ as found in a large portion of the Pauline corpus and an edited version of St. Luke’s Gospel, is the ancient villain; his contemporary disciple is apparently Hart. Others who are either accidentally or intentionally ignorant of the Old Testament are sometimes accused of Marcionism as well. Indeed, I have heard at least one Orthodox cleric chide his co-religionists for being de facto Marcionites. Perhaps he has a point, though what I think this priest is actually lamenting has less to do with an ancient heresy and more to do with general ignorance of the Scriptures.

The problem with accusing Hart or almost anyone of Marcionism, particularly when the concern is that a person either rejects the Old Testament or, in reading it, submits it to a critical-historical interpretation, is that it ignores Marcion’s own views. Marcion did not deny the historicity of the Old Testament; he believed it to be literally true. In his groundbreaking monograph Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, Adolf von Harnack goes to great lengths to demonstrate the degree to which Marcion took the Old Testament books seriously with nary a thought given to the possibility that they were distorted through alterations and interpolations as Marcion believed much of the New Testament had been. Moreover, Harnack also reveals that despite his low view of the judgmental “creator-god” of the Old Testament and his inferiority to the merciful “alien-god” of the New, the Old Testament remained a source of instruction.

Hart, by his own lights at least, falls into the orthodox Christian exegetical tradition where allegory and typology can have their say. These abominable interpretive twins were anathema to Marcion. Equally critical is the fact that Hart has never posited two deities, and despite accepting the findings of critical-historical scholarship concerning the origins of certain Old Testament narratives, he makes clear in Tradition that these stories are not without theological value. If anything, Hart appears much more interested in where these narratives, regardless of their “empirical” origins, fit within the story of salvation history rather than casting them aside as irrelevant myths that need not occupy serious Christians.

It is all but impossible to be a Marcionite in any legitimate sense without accepting Marcion’s unqualified belief that the creator-god of the Old Testament is not the alien-god of the New, that is, the merciful and loving Father of Jesus Christ. Although there will always be limits to what we can confidently believe about Marcion’s true thoughts, enough remnants of his intellectual work remain in the extant writings of his most rabid theological opponents for us to be sure that Marcionism had nothing to do with a radical rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Some might opine that this is all beside the point. Hart is dangerous, unorthodox, misleading, corrupting, vile, and so on and so forth; it matters not if he is truly a Marcionite. Maybe. If Hart were a Marcionite, presumably he would stay in line with the movement’s namesake by telling all with ears to hear about the higher alien-god of the New Testament, the one who remained hidden from human history until he revealed himself exclusively through the Gospel preached by St. Paul and kept, following some precise excisions and emendations, in Luke. A rhetoric of love, mercy, and peace would likely flow from Hart’s fingertips, not vitriolic dismissals carrying enough scorn to make the creator-god blush.

Hart, like most of his followers and critics, remains thoroughly Christian, however.

Lubac, Ressourcement, Preparing a Talk

One could say, from a certain point of view, that there are two kinds of theologians; some say: let us reread Scripture, Saint Paul, etc.; let us examine tradition; let us listen to the great classical theologians; let us not forget to pay attention to the Greeks; let us not neglect history; let us situate ourselves in this vast context and understand the ecclesiastical texts according to it; let us not fail, either, to inform ourselves about the problems, needs, and difficulties of today, etc.—The others say: let us reread all of the ecclesiastical texts of these last hundred years, encyclicals, letters, occasional speeches, decisions made against something or other, monita of the Holy Office, etc.; from all of that, without dropping any of it or correcting the least word, let us make a mosaic, let us push the thought a little farther, let us give to each assertion a stronger value; above all, let us not look at anything outside; let us not lose ourselves in the new research on Scripture or tradition or a fortiori on any recent ideas, which might make us relativize our absolute.—Only a theologian of the second type is considered to be “sure” in a certain milieu.

“Hoc non fundatur in documentis” [This is not based on the [ecclesiastical] documents]: I have heard that more than once. The conclusion to be drawn from it: it is not a sure doctrine; it is a doctrine that is advisable to dismiss, even if it has the support of Scripture and tradition. Only the ecclesiastical documents count, especially the most recent ones. The least words of these documents are received as absolute. In response to any objection against any particular idea or formula or one-sided phrase: “Ipsa verba desumpta sunt ex documentis; sunt in talibus litteris encyclisis; in tali oratione pontificali” [These expressions are taken from the ecclesiastical documents; they figure in some particular encyclical letter or other; in some pontifical discourse or other].” So no one can do anything any longer but submit.

There is in this a very excessive positivism of method and fundamentalism of spirit—which could provoke as a reaction, among some, a contempt for all writing of the magisterium.

– Henri de Lubac, “September 30, 1961,” Vatican Council Notebooks, vol. 1 (Ignatius Press 2015), pp. 93-94.

In preparing for a panel talk based around Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s excellent First Things article, “Catholicism in an Age of Discontent,” I found myself skimming back through Fr. Henri de Lubac’s Vatican II notebooks, particularly his critical remarks concerning the so-called “Roman theologians.” It is generally expected that my contribution to the panel will be along traditionalist lines with the other two panelists defending (albeit with some possible reservations) the “new theology” and ressourcement (“return to the sources”) movement to which de Lubac belonged. Truth be told, I am not sure what “angle” I will take, or if I will even take one at all. For as White’s article itself makes clear, the story of pre-/post-Conciliar Catholic theology is not as simple as the polemicists of our age maintain. There is an undeniable childishness found in de Lubac’s description of his theological adversaries in the run-up to Vatican II; but that doesn’t make his description wholly inaccurate either. Today, there is a culture of “positivism of method and fundamentalism of spirit” found within certain traditional Catholic circles which cannot be dismissed lightly. At the same time, a nauseating triumphalism permeates the work of too many post-Conciliar theologians who wish to maintain the falsehood that Vatican II dogmatized the theological projects of a handful of men whose works were once eyed with understandable suspicion.

As a Greco-Catholic who has never had a high fondness for the excesses of manualism nor believes that the theology of the Church can be reduced to St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa and the commentarial tradition, I am not unsympathetic with de Lubac’s desire to take a broader view of the Church’s tradition, one built by the Greek and Syrian East just as it was built by the Latin West. However, as Fr. Peter Totleben observed in an old thread on a previous iteration of this web-log, one of the perils of ressourcement is the tendency for some to use this-or-that passage in a Church Father or two in order to perform an end-run around the settled magisterium of the Church. In the hands of unscrupulous souls, ressourcement becomes just another tool of dissent; it purports to uphold tradition while simultaneously tearing it down. Consider Elliot Milco’s words on the matter.

[T]here is an overall difficulty in the implications of the Ressourcement position for the proper approach to the Tradition as a whole.  If these new theologians are correct in claiming that the main threads of theological reflection as practiced over the past thousand years are largely fruitless and disposable, and that “authentic theology” needs to be recovered from some hidden trove where it has lain undiscovered in the writings of the Greek Fathers, then it becomes difficult to tell how one is supposed to perform this rediscovery.  Doesn’t one become a kind of highly-educated protestant?  Isn’t the entire function of the tradition between the Fathers and the Present that it has conveyed the former reliably to the latter together with all necessary clarifications and developments to render their testimony intelligible in the present time?  And what are we to make of the innumerable commendations by great Popes and Saints for this supposedly dry and barren mode of theological reflection?  Could it be that Ressourcement is just an excuse to abandon the Catholic tradition altogether, and reconstruct a new one according to one’s tastes and creative inclinations?

Of course, it is possible to warp Milco’s line of critique into an excuse to ignore Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the non-Latin patrimony of the Church—which, as noted, is a real problem for some traditional Catholics (though not for Milco himself). There is no obvious reason one can’t defend the Catholic renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries while drinking deeply from the theological orations of St. Gregory Nazianzus or the ascetical homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian. A Greco-Catholic should feel perfectly comfortable in joining Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Josyf Slipyj in studying the Angelic Doctor and seeing his theology as a bridge between East and West just as a Latin Catholic should see the same in the works of St. John Damascene. Why this broadmindedness seems so difficult to attain to in a day and age of unprecedented access to the Church’s vast intellectual and spiritual treasures isn’t entirely a mystery; ideological black boxes are safe havens. Noting that doesn’t make this closeminded reality any less unsettling, however.

Hunwicke on the New Coptic Martyrs

Last year, I wrote several posts on those 21 brave Coptic souls who gave their lives for Christ in Libya at the hands of the so-called “Islamic State.” You can find the first one here, and the follow-ups here and here. Not everyone agreed with what I wrote at the time. Certain traditional Catholics, armed with their fortress ecclesiology, could not contemplate a heavenly reward for any individual who died outside of visible communion with the See of St. Peter.

Now comes Fr. John Hunwicke with a renewed take on the matter. The blog entry is short, and so I will quote it in full below. If you have any questions or concerns about the content of the piece, I would suggest you take it up with him in his web-log’s combox.

In the fine CDF documents Communionis notio and Dominus Iesus, the Church’s Magisterium clarified the position of those Christian bodies which possess true ministry and Sacraments. This does clarification most certainly not imply, as some people have foolishly argued, that “the Orthodox Church” is a “sister Church” of “the Catholic Church”. Nor does it mean that “the Moskow Patriarchate” is “a sister Church” of the “Latin Church”.

By “particular Church”, what is meant is a Church constituted organically with a Bishop, his presbyterate, his diaconate, and all the holy People of God. That is a true Church by divine right, and, incidentally, this is why from time to time it becomes necessary to remind everybody that Catholic ecclesiology has no place for “national Churches”; and views with justified suspicion any movements towards giving Episcopal Conferences anything other than minmal and practical functions. As Cardinal Mueller once wisely said, we must never think of the Chairpersons of Episcopal Conferences as any sort of vice-popes. Nor, as he made clear, must Conferences and their bureaucracies come between the Diocesan Bishop and the Bishop of Rome, each of whom (unlike the Conferences) is iure divino.

What this definition of “Particular Church” means is, for example, that the Diocese of S Petersburg, and the diocese of Brentwood, are true sister Churches; it being understood that the Diocese of S Petersburg is a true particular Church but “wounded” by its separation from the See of S Peter; and the Diocese of Brentwood is wounded by the schism which hinders the Catholic Chuch from realising and manifesting the complete fulfillment of her universality in history.

This, I think, is why we need have no hesitation in recognising those Coptic peasants who, murmuring the Name of their Redeemer, had their throats cut on that Mediterranean beach as “our” martyrs.

Thy Precepts Are a Light Upon the Earth

I don’t always listen to Fr. Patrick Reardon’s podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, All Saints Homilies, but I probably should. If you, dear readers, have never given Fr. Patrick’s sermons a listen, then let me suggest you go out of your way to sample one in particular, “And Leave the Rest to God.” Billed at the beginning as a reflection on the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Fr. Patrick’s homily is a bit more than that. It is, as the official summary has it, a “look[ ] at God’s providence with respect to three things: our sin, the moral order, and our conduct.”

There is much to be said about this homily, though I fear I can neither its profundity nor seriousness the justice they deserve. What became clear to me in listening to it is how far down the consequentialist path we have tread, and by “we” I don’t mean “the world” (as if we are not in it) but rather ourselves as Christians. Bombarded regularly as I am with elaborate (and many not-so-elaborate) justifications for participating in a socio-political order that is as false as it is evil from fellow Catholics, many of whom are very well-meaning, it is remarkable to hear an Orthodox cleric get right what we so painfully get wrong on a daily basis.

Fr. Patrick Reardon on Contraception

One of the most fraught questions confronting contemporary Orthodox moral theology is the issue of contraception. As I have detailed in both The Angelus magazine (“No Light from the Orthodox East on Christian Marriage“) and on this blog, the Eastern Orthodox Church steadily shifted away from prohibiting contraception absolutely to allowing it “under certain circumstances” during the course of the last century. Today, a majority of Orthodox prelates and priests (at least in the West) take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the matter, leaving it to married couples to decide for themselves whether or not to use contraception. (It should be noted, however, that chemical contraception, such as “the pill,” is still tacitly condemned by several Orthodox jurisdictions, including the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church.) Speaking from personal experience, I can attest that one can go to any number of priests in a single city and get wildly divergent answers on what Orthodoxy’s “official stance” is regarding contraception, the ends of Christian marriage, the role of children in marriage, natural family planning, and so on and so forth.

Now comes Orthodox cleric Fr. Patrick Reardon (a man whose views on marriage and contraception I am very familiar with) to try and set the record straight on just Orthodoxy’s traditional stance on the matter, but all Christian confessions. A video of Fr. Reardon’s remarks is attached to this article on Lifesite News.

Ways Toward Renewal

Reinhard Hutter, a professor at Duke Divinity School and a leading light of “ressourcement Thomism,” penned a piece for First Things several years ago entitled “The Ruins of Disconunity.” It is an essay I have returned to many times and recommended relentlessly to anyone interested in the state of Catholic theology following the Second Vatican Council.

Lewis Ayres, a professor of historical and Catholic theology at Durham, has since penned a lengthy response to Hutter, one which was only brought to my attention today. Entitled “The Memory of Tradition: Post-Conciliar Renewal and One Recent Thomism,” Ayres calls into question some of the critical points advanced in Hutter’s essay, particularly his commitment to a “ressourcement Thomism” which is inextricably linked to the high point of the Church’s Scholastic tradition. Various duties will likely keep me from commenting on Ayres’s reply in depth for some time, but out of fairness to those interested in the direction of Catholic theology and renewal in general (whether traditional or not), I wanted to bring it to your attention.

As always, combox thoughts are most welcome.

A Remark on Patheos, Natura Pura, Not Knowing What You’re Talking About

Vapidity is never in short supply over at Patheos, particularly when Artur Rosman is at the helm as a writer, “channel manager,” or facilitator of guest blog posts. Though the entry is nearly a year old, an online acquaintance recently called my attention to Michael Martin’s guest post on Rosman’s Cosmos in the Lost web-log. The post claims, inter alia, that Pope Francis’s 2015 encylical Laudato Si “counters the theology of natura pura that has poisoned some quarters of Catholic theology since at least the seventeenth century[.]” There are several problems with this brief, triumphalist, assertion, not the least of which being the fact that it is highly contestable that the theology of natura pura is an early-modern innovation rather than a continuation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s own intellectual project. Martin doesn’t discuss this, of course; instead he quickly cites John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle, a book which has been subjected to withering criticism from numerous Thomists, including Reinhard Hutter in his 2012 tour de force Dust Bound for Heaven. Joining Hutter in refreshing the theological discussion surrounding  the topic are the likes of Steven A. Long and Lawrence Feingold, both of whom have penned substantial treatments of the subject which cast serious doubt on the commonplace criticisms of natura pura. Martin fails to mention them, or even bother to discuss how Laudato Si in any way, shape, or form upsets the theology of natura pura.

Maybe Martin is enchanted by the myth that embracing natura pura means embracing a modern, non-teleological and non-theonomic conception of nature which paved the way for both scientism and materialism. If so, he really ought to read Long’s Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace. In it, Long shows that those who defend natura pura work with a decidedly premodern and teleological conception of nature which has not lost its theonomic structure. While it is still possible to reject natura pura or to argue that it is not theologically necessary to preserve a thick doctrine of grace, Long — and others — show that natura pura‘s proponents are not responsible for ushering in secular modernity or belittling God’s action in the world. Unfortunately, no reader of Martin’s post would have any idea about this, perhaps because Martin himself remains beholden to a theological legend of recent vintage which has only served to silence natura pura‘s proponents rather than clear the way for a frank and thoroughgoing investigation of the subject.

To conclude on a positive note, let me stress that it is possible to be critical of natura pura while being both charitable and intellectually honest. Take, for instance, Aaron Riches’s freshly pressed work, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Eerdmans 2016). As an aside on pgs. 13 and 14, Riches suggests an affinity between natura pura and what he calls “quasi-Nestorian logic,” though he also stresses that classical proponents of natura pura, particularly of the Thomistic school, always retained “a robust Cyrillian doctrine of the hypostatic union[.]” Riches further notes that those seeking to overcome the theology of natura pura ought to first reckon with Long and Feingold’s work, something which most contemporary theologians have simply failed to do.

Hopko on Christ’s Descent into Hades

Since my brief review of Lyra Pitstick’s new book has prompted a mini-discussion of the “Eastern view” of Holy Saturday and Christ’s descent, let me direct you, dear readers, to a 2008 podcast by the late Fr. Thomas Hopko housed over at Ancient Faith Radio. The podcast is also available on YouTube here. Fr. Hopko makes some needful distinctions concerning the nature of Christ’s descent and who he came to liberate from the underworld. I agree wholeheartedly with Fr. Hopko that speaking of “Christ’s descent into hell” as opposed to Hades creates some unnecessary confusion and that it’s important to recall that according to the received teaching of the Eastern Church, those who rejected God’s Law before the Incarnation were not necessarily saved. However, that point really doesn’t touch on the central question Pitstick asks in her two works on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Holy Saturday theology, namely whether or not it can find support in the teaching of the Universal Church. As Hopko makes clear, Christ did not experience the torments of hell and on this point Balthasar’s theology can find no support from the Christian East.