Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief
By David Bentley Hart.
Baker Academic, 2022.
Hardcover, 208 pages, $24.99.
Reviewed by Paul Krause.
“Once upon a time, Christianity grew and endured and even flourished over the course of many generations in total and blissful ignorance of any officially defined dogma, any single universally recognized canon of scripture, anything remotely like the systematic dogmatic theologies of the coming ages of Christendom and after.” Christianity, in the lands of former Christendom, is in crisis. But this is neither the first nor last time Christianity will be in crisis. In fact, one might say that the history of Christianity is one of crisis after crisis and Christianity has managed to grow stronger and stronger in the aftermath of these crises.
David Bentley Hart has been one of the more provocative theologians in the English-speaking world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. An Anglican convert to Orthodoxy, he has spent a lot of his time teaching and researching at Catholic schools. In this sense, he is truly ecumenical. A longtime writer at First Things, he had a falling out with his former compatriots and colleagues over Donald Trump and “Christian nationalism.” Recently, Hart has been engaged in a full-throated attack on “traditionalism” within Christianity—something he sees as dead, dreary, and despotic. “Tradition,” however, is something a bit more benign with Hart’s theological twist to its understanding. In Tradition and Apocalypse, Hart teases out the distinction between tradition and traditionalism in a book that is thought-provoking and rewarding even where one disagrees with him.
Contra Newman and Blondel
Two of the most important figures in crafting the modern concept of tradition as a living process of unfolding clarity of an original revelatory deposit are John Henry Newman and Maurice Blondel. The two men thrived in an age of crisis and confusion for Christianity when the religion was under attack by Darwinian science, historical criticism, and social and political revolution. Newman’s famous Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine serves as the gateway into Hart’s new book. Blondel’s History and Dogma, an equally historicized apologia for the unity of history and Christian doctrine, is likewise contended with before being dismissed like Newman’s seminal work, which preoccupies much of Hart’s early commentary.
Although Hart eventually brushes aside Newman and Blondel, our author is adamant he means these two great philosophical and intellectual titans no denigration—they are the only two theologians of the past worthy of a conversation. In fact, as Hart points out, the seemingly “conservative” Newman and Blondel were, in fact, progressive in their time; they sought to give life to dead traditionalism and dogmatism, which were struggling to wrestle with the latest discoveries of modern science and history.
Christianity is unique among the major religions in the world because God is Logos and humans are made in the image of the Logos; God is Reason and to be made in the image of God is to possess a rational soul. This has long been a core tenet of Christianity since the writings of the New Testament and the Church Fathers. Thus Newman and Blondel sought to rearticulate the rationality of Christianity in an age when the rationality of Christianity was under withering assault. One hundred years later, Hart is trying to do the same but without the supposed failures of Newman and Blondel.
Hart’s contention is that Christian tradition is not just rationality; it is, moreover, innovation (Hart’s thesis also implies that rationality demands innovation). Both Newman and Blondel recognize dynamic innovation in the Christian tradition, but they were unable to project this dynamism of Christianity into the future. Their failure, Hart contends, was taking Christian innovative dynamism and projecting it backward—thus safeguarding “traditionalism” even though both men were responding to traditionalism’s failures in the light of modernity.
On this note, Hart reevaluates the famous theological controversies that led to the Council of Nicaea on the grounds of innovative radicalness vis-à-vis dead and unimaginative traditionalism in a manner similar to the crises that Newman and Blondel were reacting to. But in this reevaluation, Hart eventually leaves Newman and Blondel behind. When I was a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, our coursework in early Christianity was rigorous in the disputes of the patristic era. Far from a golden age romanticized by Christian apologists, the patristic era was an age of contested theologies and theological diversity. In a word, the patristic era was an age of energetic innovation.
Nicaea as Innovation
In this contested world was Arius of Alexandria, after whom the famous Arian controversy is named. However, Arius was not a heretical innovator (as popularly conceived) but “a profoundly and inflexibly conservative theologian, and in the context of Alexandrian theology was almost without question a much more faithful representative of the oldest and most respectable school of Trinitarian speculation.” Arius did not deny the divinity of Christ as sometimes claimed and popularly believed. On the contrary, he accepted the divinity of Christ but wanted to protect the absolute transcendence of God the Father on Neoplatonist grounds. This led him, along with many before him, to assert the distinctiveness of the Son as less than the Father.
Against Arius stood the eventual Nicene party of creedal “orthodoxy.” These theologians asserted the co-equality of Father and Son. As Hart points out, during these debates “the members of the Nicene party were the daring innovators, willing to break with the past in order to preserve its spiritual force…[they] were theological and metaphysical radicals, and as a consequence their language gave the tradition new and enduring life.” Instead of looking back and seeing how Nicaea revealed an original murky revelation, Hart implies the “Nicene Settlement” was an innovative break with the past and gave new life to Christian theology and spirituality and represented an important mark of progressive advancement in metaphysics, theology, and cosmology.
This sheds light on Hart’s own theological project that he has been engaged in over the past several years. Hart wants to take the innovative and revolutionary “tradition” of Christianity forward, not backward, looking into the horizon of what is to come rather than reminiscence about some mythic golden age past:
To make a case for that kind of truly ‘living’ tradition, however, [Newman and Blondel] should not have looked backwards so avidly into the realm of history, or upward so obediently to an exalted realm of ideas grounded in an authority that is its own justification, but should have looked forward with sustained attention to that sole mysterious horizon where the historical and the idea—the truth of time and timeless truth—naturally and necessarily coincide. And that is, and can only be, the eschatological horizon.
What is the “eschatological horizon?” Unlike the heavy-handed dogmatisms of conciliar theology that burden Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy or the creedal confessionalisms that enslave Protestantism (especially of the Reformed, Calvinist, variety), Hart’s eschatological horizon is what scholars have long called the apocalyptic in Christian studies: the belief in cosmic transformation through the imminent end of the world. Not only is the apocalyptic “tradition” in the sense that the world of New Testament consciousness was saturated in the apocalyptic when its texts were written (the apocalyptic is the root of Christianity; or in the words of Ernst Käsemann, “the mother of all Christian theology,”), but it is also progressive and forward-looking because the apocalyptic hopes for the coming return of Christ, the vindication of good over evil, and the establishment of a kingdom of justice to amend the wrongs of historical injustice. This is what Newman and Blondel supposedly failed to see.
The apocalyptic, then, is about cosmic transformation balanced on the scales of love and justice. The apocalyptic is grounded in a hope that dispenses with the need to defend establishment institutions (the failings of Newman and Blondel who, despite their relative progressivism, were still operating in the ruinous shadows of Constantinian Christendom) and has its eyes and heart fixed on that forthcoming horizon and not a romanticized past. The apocalyptic is also revolutionary and innovative: it marked a departure from rigid religiosity and gave to Christianity its spirit of charity and pacificism that Hart believes was crushed under the imperialization of Christianity in Late Antiquity (notwithstanding the positive developments that flowed from this like notions of human solidarity and the emergent egalitarianism that shattered the martial-aristocratic ethos so romanticized by eventual modern critics of Christianity like Friedrich Nietzsche and Julius Evola and their contemporary heirs).
If, as Hart argues, the future of Christianity rests in its “tradition” looking forward rather than backward, then there is reason to hope that the innovative spirit of Christianity may be reinvigorated amidst the crises it currently faces. “[Tradition] relies, rather, on what the testimony of the past was pointing toward, an as yet still future fullness of meaning that casts a light of discrimination backward over all the forces that have brought the tradition to this or that moment of crisis.” That traditional testimony is not “predestination” or “penal substitutionary atonement” or “the reality of a hell of eternal conscious torment” but rather the Parousia of coming cosmic transformation where everything will be made new, “all in all,” through the incarnate Love and Logos of God in Christ. Hart’s “tradition” is about the future and not the past. This gaze over the past is what enslaves Christianity to its death, be it Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, and it turns tradition into traditionalism according to Hart’s analysis.
Although Hart does not explicitly say so until the end—and he does so rather obliquely by talking about the insufficient criticism of his book That All Shall Be Saved—throughout Tradition and Apocalypse the whisper of universal salvation is what he is pointing toward as the true living tradition of apocalyptic hope. This is what apocalyptic tradition first pointed toward, this is what contemporary theological innovation and radicalism point toward, and this is what will breathe new life into the theological heart currently enslaved to the dead, sterile, and unimaginative traditionalism that currently grips Christianity.
Cosmic transformation with a universalist soteriology, Hart is asserting in between the lines, is the future of Christian belief. And this gives him a great hope that out of the ruins of Christendom, nationalism, and scandal, Christianity’s brightest days may yet still be ahead of it when it frees itself from the shackles of dead traditionalism just as it has done for two millennia. Once freed from this dead traditionalism, the scandalous demand of “perfect love” is what all are called to—and that is the Gospel looking forward, not backward.
Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView and the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021) and the forthcoming book Finding Arcadia: Wisdom, Truth, and Love in the Classics (Academica Press, 2023).
Support the University Bookman
The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated!