Good God? A Response
October 7, 2019

Last week, I posted a critical response to David Bentley Hart's recent That All Shall Be Saved. Below, David responds.

Well, Peter, let me give you credit for what you have not done.  To this point, no reviewer who has written a negative piece on my book has actually described, referred to, or in any respect engaged the actual book I wrote.   That All Shall Be Saved is constructed around a rather sophisticated philosophical and theological argument built out of five principal themes.  In fact, I regard the argument as irrefutable (but we need not talk about that here).  But to this point, rather than address that argument, the book’s detractors have spent their time inventing another book altogether and then attacking it vehemently.  In the pages of First Things, the excitable and delirious Doug Farrow took the novel approach of simply misrepresenting the book’s contents, repeatedly and exorbitantly, and then dissolving in demented rage at his own misrepresentations.  The American religious historian Michael McClymond, author of a ghastly history of Christian universalism, did much the same, though more inadvertently I imagine, and even less coherently.  Some kid at Patheos too.  They have also complained that the book is too rhetorically fierce, though in fact it is not; that too they have misrepresented by willfully taking phrases out of context.  (And, of course, what they really mean is that, if I find a particular theological idea—say, babies who die unbaptized descending to perpetual torment—“repellant” or “foolish,” I am supposed to observe American theological etiquette and call it instead “troubling” and “debatable,” thus never challenging anyone with the moral scandal that such an idea might involve.)

So, oh for a worthy critic!  One who can follow the argument (the very good argument) my book actually advances. 

You have not quite provided me that.  Yours is not a full review.  But you have done me the courtesy of not simply objecting to my conclusions in a fit of pique and then reverse-engineering some other book that might have produced those conclusions, so that you can grapple with it rather than with my actual text.  And you are definitely right about one thing: my argument does indeed depend on a definition of goodness that, if not univocal, is at least analogically consistent.  I do in fact deal with the issue, more than adequately I believe, in the book (pp. 53-61; 73-75; 80-87; etc.).   My meditations on the possibility of any meaningful or intelligible theological discourse do in fact constitute one of those five principal themes I mentioned above.  But your question is one regarding scripture, and here we come upon a hermeneutical matter that I suppose must be addressed directly. 

Still, to my way of thinking, yours is a truly astonishing argument, Peter.  I often have to remind myself how great a distance separates apostolic, patristic, and pre-modern orthodoxy from modern fundamentalism; somehow it always comes as a shock to the system.  So let me say this upfront, and then return to it: fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all.  That is not an accusation, but it is a lament.  You may be pure, but your premises are corrupt.

You ask if I think the YHVH of the Old Testament was “good.”  First of all, there is no single YHVH in the Hebrew corpus.  The various texts that the Second Temple redactors collated into the Torah and Tanakh emanate from various epochs in the development of Canaanite and Israelitic religion, and reflect the spiritual sensibilities of very different moments in the evolution of what would in time become Judaism.  Most of the Hebrew Bible is a polytheistic gallimaufry, and YHVH is a figure in a shifting pantheon of elohim or deities.  In the later prophets, he is for the most part a very good god, yes, and even appears to have become something like God in the fullest sense.  But in most of the Old Testament he is of course presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god.  Neither he nor his rival or king or father or equal or alter ego (depending on which era of Cannanite and Israelitic religion we are talking about) El (or El Elyon or Elohim) is a good god.  Each is a psychologically limited mythic figure from a rich but violent ancient Near Eastern culture—or, more accurately, two cultures that progressively amalgamated over many centuries.

Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time.  Neither was ever literalist in the way you apparently are.  The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope.  He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible—if taken in the mythic terms provided there—is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God.  Happily, his literalism was an aberration. 

Much of the Judaism of the first century, like the Christianity of the apostolic age, presumed that a spiritual or allegorical reading of the Hebrew texts was the correct one.  Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways.  Even when, in the New Testament, the history of God’s dealings with Israel is united to the saving work of Christ—as in Acts or Hebrews—it is in the thoroughly reinterpreted and intenerated form that one finds also in the book of Wisdom (a worked audibly echoed in Romans, incidentally).

In short, you want me to account for myself in a way answerable to the hermeneutical practices of communities gestated within a religion born in the sixteenth century.  But those practices are at once superstitious and deeply bizarre.  They are not Christian in any meaningful way.  They are not Jewish either, as it happens.  They are a late Protestant invention, and a deeply silly one.  From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority.  In that tradition, even “literal” exegesis was not the sort of literalism you seem to presume.  Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read “spiritually.”

In fact, it is for you to account for your beliefs, since they are so incompatible with the teachings and practices of the ancient church and the New Testament regarding the reading of scripture.  And, while we are at it, please go back and read Galatians several times.  Then, in fact, read Hebrews.  If you cannot see what is going on in those texts—how much of ancient Hebrew tradition is rejected and reinterpreted even in being preserved and reclaimed—then you are not paying attention.

Really, you make a good case against ecumenism, I have to say.  You also make a good case against your own faith.  Because, if fallen reason were really as debile as you suggest it is—if we could not even tell the difference between good and evil, between laying down one’s life for the world and exterminating the inhabitants of a city down to the last babe in arms—then neither would we have any warrant for believing anything at all.  All faith would be arbitrary and therefore, paradoxically, faithless.  To think that our concepts and language, especially about the good, could be that equivocal is to embrace an epistemic and moral nihilism that is logically self-defeating.

This is not the true gospel.  And one slanders the God revealed in Christ by suggesting that it is.  You need to become Eastern Orthodox.

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