Though I think David Bentley Hart is a brilliant man, and I have learned a great deal from reading him, I also believe he has some bad intellectual habits, and here I want to explain what I think his chief bad habit is.
Here’s the first paragraph of a recent essay by Hart:
If I seem to take N.T. Wright as an antagonist in what follows, he functions here only as emblematic of a larger historical tendency in New Testament scholarship. I can think of no other popular writer on the early church these days whose picture of Judaism in the Roman Hellenistic world seems better to exemplify what I regard as a dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies — one that occasionally so distorts the picture of the intellectual and spiritual environment of the apostolic church as effectively to create an entirely fictional early Christianity. Naturally, this also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy — and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.
Here, then, are the primary claims that Hart wants to make:
- There is a strong “historical tendency in New Testament scholarship” that he wants to call attention to;
- That tendency is largely the product of Protestant scholars (a point only implied here, but made explicit later in the essay);
- That tendency is utterly wrong;
- The wrongness results from the “dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies”; and, finally,
- The work of N. T. Wright is characteristic of this erroneous tendency.
Hart will develop these points by claiming that Wright and scholars like him are in the grip of “the Cartesian picture of things” and that only if one manages to “take leave” of that picture may one get a historically accurate grip on first-century Judaism — and therefore on the New Testament documents which emerge from it.
I do not want to contest any of these claims. For what it’s worth, they have some prima facie plausibility to me — I have myself complained about what in shorthand we might call Wright’s Cartesianism, though my complaints have focused on hermeneutical method rather than historical judgment. My frustration with Hart’s essay is simply that he provides no evidence for his claims: no evidence whatsoever.
Consider this passage:
In the New Testament, “flesh” does not mean “sinful nature” or “humanity under judgment” or even “fallen flesh.” It just means “flesh,” in the bluntly physical sense, and it often has a negative connotation because flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death. Hence, according to Paul, the body of the resurrection is not one of flesh and blood animated by “soul,” but is rather a new reality altogether, an entirely spiritual body beyond composition or dissolution. And this is how his language would have been understood by his contemporaries.
Is the view that Hart criticizes here widely held by New Testament scholars (Protestant or otherwise)? Here’s what Hart says:
the early editions of the New International Version of the Bible, where the word “flesh” was in many cases rendered as something like “sinful nature” (I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV).
I am not sure what Hart means by “early editions” here: editions prior to Today’s New International Version in 2005, perhaps? One can’t be sure, because Hart doesn’t specify, and indeed makes a point of letting us know that he hasn’t even checked a copy of the NIV to make sure that he has the wording right.
But let’s assume that he does have the wording right. Even so, I would ask whether the NIV (a translation closely associated with evangelicalism) is characteristic of Protestantism tout court. How do other translations produced wholly or largely by Protestants translate σάρξ (sarx, flesh)? I would further ask: How do we know that the NIV’s choice is wrong? What evidence supports Hart’s claim that in Paul σάρξ “just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense”? Or that “this is how [Paul’s] language would have been understood by his contemporaries”? Many scholars — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike — have argued about these points for centuries, and have amassed a great deal of evidence about how key Pauline terms were used in the Hellenistic world — including in the Septuagint, from which Paul sometimes diverges in what appear to be highly significant ways — and how such “typical” usage might shape our understanding of Paul. Hart doesn’t cite any of these scholars. Hart doesn’t cite any non-biblical use of σάρξ. He doesn’t note that in addition to σάρξ Paul also uses the word σῶμα (soma, body), which would seem to be very nearly a synonym for σάρξ if Hart is right — and yet the two words seem, to many readers, to have very different functions in Paul. (Indeed, one might become vaguely aware of this divergence even in the parts of the essay where Hart discusses bodies, the σώματα ἐπίγεια and σώματα ἐπουράνια of 1 Corinthians 15.) Hart doesn’t cite, he doesn’t argue, he doesn’t provide evidence: he just asserts.
Now, to be sure, Hart quotes passages from N. T. Wright’s translation of the New Testament that he finds objectionable. But he does not quote any of the scholarly works in which Wright has exhaustively — to my mind exhaustingly — made his case for how he understands Paul’s use of flesh, spirit, and soul. Hart writes, “Wright has his own understanding of resurrection, one more or less consonant with the casually presumed picture today, even if it is one entirely alien to the world of first-century Judaism and Christianity. His categories are not those of Paul — or, for that matter, of the rest of the authors of the New Testament.” Not only does Hart fail to quote Wright on these matters, one would not even guess from his statement that Wright has written an enormous book on just this subject, called The Resurrection of The Son of God that explores all of the categories, terms, and authors that Hart invokes. Nor does Hart quote any other scholars who represent this putative Protestant tradition of eisegesis that he deplores. He just tells us what’s what.
The whole essay is like this. Another example:
If we could hear the language of πνεῦμα [pneuma, spirit] with late antique ears, our sense of the text’s meaning would not be that of two utterly distinct concepts — one “physical” and one “mystical” — only metaphorically entangled with one another by dint of a verbal equivocity; rather, we would almost surely hear only a single concept expressed univocally through a single word, a concept in which the physical and the mystical would remain undifferentiated.
But would we? Would we all hear that one concept? Are all “late antique ears” the same, in this respect? Maybe; but before I accept that judgment I’d like to have something more than one scholar’s word for it.
There’s another, related, issue I want to explore. Though Hart doesn’t mention it, the very position he stakes out in the passage I just quoted was articulated ninety years ago in what would become a very famous book, Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. Barfield claims that “the study of the history of meaning”
assures us definitely that such a purely material content as “wind”, on the one hand, and on the other, such a purely abstract content as “the principle of life within man or animal” are both late arrivals in human consciousness… We must imagine a time when “spiritus” or πνεûμα, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified.
It’s possible that Hart hasn’t read Barfield; it is more likely that he has read him but has forgotten that Barfield made this argument. For the record, I do not believe that Hart is intentionally concealing his intellectual debts, at least not in the sense that he seriously wants us to believe that he came up with these ideas all by himself. But I do think that his habit of assertion — this “rhetoric of authority,” as Frank Lentricchia once called it in writing about a very different figure of great intellectual appeal — leads him to neglect his debts in ways that are counterproductive to his arguments.
One might reply that in what is after all merely a brief essay one cannot expect scholarly documentation. Point taken; though I would add that it’s an essay that doesn’t hesitate to get into some fairly deep philological weeds. But be that as it may, Hart manifests the same habit elsewhere. Consider this passage from my favorite of Hart’s books, The Experience of God:
Our brains may necessarily have equipped us to recognize certain sorts of physical objects around us and enabled us to react to them; but, beyond that, we can assume only that nature will have selected just those behaviors in us most conducive to our survival, along with whatever structures of thought and belief might be essentially or accidentally associated with them, and there is no reason to suppose that such structures — even those that provide us with our notions of what constitutes a sound rational argument — have access to any abstract “truth” about the totality of things. This yields the delightful paradox that, if naturalism is true as a picture of reality, it is necessarily false as a philosophical precept; for no one’s belief in the truth of naturalism could correspond to reality except through a shocking coincidence (or, better, a miracle).
That last word makes me suspect that Hart knows perfectly well that he has just summarized the argument that C. S. Lewis makes in the third chapter of Miracles. But he doesn’t cite Lewis anywhere in The Experience of God. Nor does he cite the people Lewis probably got the argument from, Arthur Balfour in Theism and Humanism and G. K. Chesterton in the “Suicide of Thought” chapter of Orthodoxy. (I say Lewis “probably” derived his argument from those sources because, as it happens, he doesn’t cite them either. There may be a lesson here.) I’m inclined to think that Hart also knows that that chapter of Miracles has prompted a whole subgenre of philosophy devoted to evaluating the claim that philosophical naturalism is self-refuting, in the course of which the core idea has been traced all the way back to Epicurus — see, e.g., this article.
My point here isn’t to chastise Hart for failing to document his sources. As it happens, I am quite sympathetic to a mode of argument that is less dependent than academic scholarship usually on citation and documentation. But when you ignore the scholarly context as completely as Hart often does, you can end up leaving your reader with the suspicion that your case is little stronger than “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” Documenting your sources can be a powerful way to strengthen your argument.
Again, I am quite sympathetic to the case that Hart makes in this essay. Hart moves towards his peroration by appealing to the Gospel of John. He acknowledges that “Nowhere in scripture … is this fundamental opposition between flesh and spirit given fuller theological (and mystical) treatment than in John’s gospel; and nowhere else is the promise that the saved will escape from a carnal into a spiritual condition more explicitly or repeatedly issued.” But he continues, in a long paragraph I’m going to cite the whole of,
At the same time, of course, no other gospel places greater emphasis upon the physical substantiality of the body of the risen Christ — Thomas invited to place his hands in Christ’s wounds, the disciples invited to share a breakfast of fish with him beside the Sea of Tiberias — but even this is perfectly compatible with Paul’s language. It is, as I say, extraordinarily difficult for modern persons to free their imaginations from the essentially Cartesian prejudice that material bodies must by definition be more substantial, more concrete, more capable of generating physical effects than anything that might be denominated as “soul” or “spirit” or “intellect” could be. Again, however, for the peoples of late Graeco-Roman antiquity, it made perfect sense to think of spiritual reality as more substantial, powerful, and resourceful than any animal body could ever be. Nothing of which a mortal, corruptible, “psychical” body is capable would have been thought to lie beyond the powers of an immortal, incorruptible, wholly spiritual being. It was this evanescent life, lived in a frail and perishable animal frame, that was regarded as the poorer, feebler, more ghostly of the two conditions; spiritual existence was something immeasurably mightier, more robust, more joyous, more plentifully alive. And this definitely seems to be the picture provided by the gospels in general. The risen Christ, possessed of a spiritual body, could eat and drink, could be felt, could break bread between his hands; but he could also appear and disappear at will, unimpeded by walls or locked doors, or could become unrecognizable to those who had known him before his death, or could even ascend from the earth and pass through the incorruptible heavens where only spiritual beings may venture.
It’s magnificent stuff. But I can’t resist noting that this is the very picture — of σώματα ἐπίγεια (“terrestrial bodies,” as Hart has it) being simply less real than σώματα ἐπουράνια (“celestial bodies”) — that forms perhaps the chief conceit of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
Now, I am not suggesting that Hart needs to quote Lewis. Good old St. Jack already plays too large a role in our image of what orthodox Christianity is, and quoting him can often be counterproductive. But then, Lewis didn’t come up with this conception himself. Where did he get it? You can’t expect him to footnote a work of fiction; but when Hart uses the same concept in an essay, then maybe a citation or quotation of some kind would be appropriate and indeed helpful. For Hart to acknowledge that his understanding of Christ’s resurrection is not wholly original would, I think, enable him to make the case more plausible. (As I have suggested, had he made sure to cite his “antagonists” accurately and fairly — or at all — that would have helped too.)
It’s curious that Hart seems so consistently disinclined to do this kind of thing, and given how exceptionally intelligent Hart is, I cannot help thinking that the tendency is strategic. Hart is Orthodox, and Orthodoxy is almost defined by its account of Holy Tradition; which means that one can, if one is so inclined, dismiss the argument made by an Orthodox philosopher/theologian as a mere deference to that Tradition. It is perhaps in order to avoid being dismissed in this way that Hart disdains appeals to authority, whether religious or scholarly. One might in this context note that the core of his complaint about Wright et al. is that they sacrifice “historical fact” to “theological predispositions.” And Hart insists, in his eloquent and rather inspiring Introduction to his own translation of the New Testament, that he wants it to be “pitilessly literal” and as free from theological presupposition as he can make it — though of course he knows that he cannot erase history from his own mind.
So there may be strategic reasons for Hart to maintain a certain reticence about his intellectual inheritance. The question — for me, anyway — is whether that reticence can be maintained without falling into the “rhetoric of authority” that may win over certain kinds of readers but makes others, myself included among them, intensely suspicious.