This post is actually a point-by-point critique of an extended quote from David Bentley Hart’s new book That All Shall Be Saved.
Though I have not read the whole book (yes, feel free to stop reading now), I thought I would make the effort to respond rather fulsomely to the quote from the book that Eastern Orthodox priest Aidan Kimel put on his blog (from pp. 40-42).
I guessed it was what Father Kimel believed to be a key snippet in the book and so thought it would be a good exercise for me to tackle it.
Of course, I respond in accordance with the 1580 Book of Concord, which builds on the 1530 Augsburg Confession, which in turn claims to represent the historic teaching of the catholic church.
And yes, I realize that there may well be other parts of his book where he challenges thinking like mine. If this is the case, feel free to let me know! I have not written the book off as something I will not read.
Hart’s words are in dark blue.
“The more one is in one’s right mind—the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes—the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God.”
Hart is describing the attitude of the person who is already saved, and who is growing in a knowledge of God’s grace and, yes, love towards God.
It is not that a non-Christian cannot believe that “one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in [God]”—even if there are fewer of these kinds of non-Christians these days. The point is that even though one may believe this—they in fact know this even as this knowledge is suppressed—this does not mean that one can really understand just what this means in terms of following through accordingly. The man under the wrath of God may in fact be a theist or even think the man Jesus Christ was God but also have a completely false understanding of how and why man may finds true completion and joy—namely, through trust in the atoning and life-giving work of the man Jesus Christ as revealed in the Christian Scriptures.
“Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all the adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude.”
In other words, none of us can be saved because in this world, none of us is “liberated from all ignorance” and “emancipated from all the adverse conditions of this life”. This is because we are, by nature, fallen creatures under God’s wrath who live in a fallen world. We are certainly given the impression from the Holy Scriptures that man prior to the fall into sin did not possess all of the knowledge that we were meant to have – and again, neither does the one saved by God’s grace in Christ. Man prior to the fall, however, could have grown in that understanding not without the challenge of temptation, but certainly without sin. The sin which will entangle us until we are made fully and completely new when Christ returns. There is no reason to think that Adam and Eve’s continuing to be able to fear, love, and trust in God above all things was contingent on them having gained all the knowledge that they were eventually meant to have. Why would we not assume that they were right where they needed to be at the time? God does place great value on faith for a reason.
“We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered;”
The problem is that our natures are wholly unable to follow their healthiest impulses unhindered, for apart from God’s grace man’s desires are both wholly tainted and misdirected. It is only believers, those who have been made new creatures in Christ, who are able to begin to do this, albeit imperfectly, in accordance with their new natures.
“…we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue.”
While Hart is right to proclaim a “transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue,” we are, nevertheless, unable to pursue our true final end (see previous answer above). Only those given the grace of God are they who will, in their true final end, be free from all sin, sorrow, pain, and death.
“This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose.”
While is true that our nature is “produced by and for the transcendent Good” and for a “supernatural purpose,” our nature, being fallen, is spiritually unable to pursue this in the least apart from the grace of God, whom the Lord bestows on those who hear and believe the Gospel, when and where He pleases.
“God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.”
True. And none seek this rest rightly. Hart, by the way, is not in line with Augustine in any of this.
“A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself.”
Our souls continue to be rational only in the sense that we provide reasons. We are arguing animals who give reasons to others for acting in the way that we do. Even if we may be inclined, at this or that time in life, to seek some truth, none of this means that man ever seeks the whole Truth apart from the grace of God given in Christ Jesus.
“The irresistibility of God for any soul that has been truly set free…”
Who is the One who is wholly set free? The one who believes in the Son of God; the one who is set free by the One who grants grace, repentance and faith.
“….is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature.”
True enough, but this is exactly what sinful man is determined to do because this is what he, in his heart of hearts, desires to do. Even if he wants to believe in God, he does not want to do this rightly, for he suppresses the truth about God and his creation that he knows.
“A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom. So, yes, we can act irrationally, but that is no more than a trivial deliberative power; it is not yet true liberty. Only because there is such a thing as a real rational terminus for intentional action, which is objectively distinguishable from irrational ends, is there such a thing as real freedom.”
True enough. The book of James speaks about the perfect law that gives freedom. The problem though is that even those who claim the Name of Christ and follow this law externally, before the eyes of men, may do so for reasons that are impure and misdirected and hence, ultimately, evil and damnable.
“This is, in fact, an ancient Christian orthodoxy, common to the teachings of the church fathers and great mediaeval theologians; and, were it not true, the whole edifice of the Christian conception of existence and of creation and of God and of the unity of the ontological and moral dimensions of reality would entirely collapse.”
Yes. Christian orthodoxy has always spoken about the perfect law that gives freedom. In fact, in the Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther said that the law of God, exemplified in the 10 commandments, was eternal.
“Even the suicide is merely fleeing pain and seeking a peace that the world cannot give, though he or she might be able in the crucial moment of decision to imagine this peace only under the illusory form of oblivion; his or her fault is one only of perception,….”
Why is this important? If the fault is one “only of perception” it is because man has a perception which is at total war with God and therefore under His wrath. Whether one follows one’s own “law” or God’s law before the eyes of men, apart from the grace of God he will only follow it in accordance with twisted desires, evil motivations, and self-justifying reasons.
“…in a moment of severe confusion and sadness, and certainly not some ultimate rejection of God.”
On the contrary! It is indeed an ultimate rejection of God. Apart from the grace of God in Christ, there is nothing but the ultimate rejection of God in any of us.
One cannot even choose nothingness, at least not as nothingness; to will nonexistence positively, one must first conceive it as a positive end, and so one can at most choose it as the “good” cessation of this world, and therefore as just another mask of that which is supremely desirable in itself.”
Thinking like this that gave rise to Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Even the most “noble” of human beings by the standards of this world is at war against God. Even the saint in the church who follows God’s law externally (“blameless”) and yet relies on his own actions can hope for nothing but damnation. Anyone who believes they are seeking after what is good will not be able to find such good apart from the grace of God! For though they might want to find some good or truth on earth or in heaven they can only do so from false desires and motivations. As such, even their most heartfelt and sincere actions can never reliably find God. In fact, some who assert that God can be found in this way displease Him, for the law was given not to attain the grace of God but to show us our sin (Romans 3:20). Even if the Apostle Paul encourages non-Christians to seek God (Acts 17:27), we also read the following:
- The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (I Cor. 1:18).
- The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness… (I Cor. 2:14).
- That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6).
- All of us [Christians] also lived among [the unbelievers] at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (Eph. 2:3).
- No one understands; no one seeks for God (Rom. 3:11).
The real point is that unbelievers do seek wrongly, but even wrong seeking can nevertheless be beneficial when it leads to hearing God’s Word!
“In the end, even when we reject the good, we always do so out of a longing for the Good.”
We long for God because we were created for Him. That said, we do not long for God rightly. We do not acknowledge Him in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And even if we do think and believe at some level that Jesus is this, we do not even begin to do so with appropriate fear, love, and trust apart from His grace which transforms our hearts. Again, even if we seem to acknowledge and hold to His law externally, our motivations for following His law are both impure and misdirected.
“We may not explicitly conceive of our actions in this way, but there is no question that this is what we are doing. We act always toward an end that we desire, whether morally, affectively, or pathologically; and, so long as we are rational agents, that end is the place where the “good” and the “desirable” are essentially synonymous terms.”
This assumes that every decision a rational agent makes will be good. Again though, as seen above, to be rational means simply to be a creature, who, unlike other creatures, gives reasons. One attempts to justify what one does to others. Furthermore, what one desires and what is really good are often very different things, even when we talk about the decisions one makes here on earth, much less any decision one might make about spiritual matters. Here, again, man’s will is complete incapacitated, as we are by nature children of wrath.
“And our ability to will anything at all, in its deepest wellsprings, is sustained by this aboriginal orientation within us toward that one transcendental Good that alone can complete us, and that prompts reason to move the will toward an object of longing.”
Sure, but all is twisted and awry, and always will be apart from the grace of God in Christ which pulls us out of this darkness into the light.
“Needless to say, we can induce moral ignorance in ourselves through our own wicked actions and motives;…”
All human beings do this because we are sinners. Some, however, may give up completely following God’s law, flinging themselves headlong into increased sin. They might find themselves denying God exists, calling evil good, or being more and more unable to detect the sinful things they do.
“…but, conversely, those wicked actions and motives are themselves possible only on account of some degree of prior ignorance on our part.”
This assumes that if we know the good we will do it. Socrates aside, that is not true of sinners.
“This circles admits of no breaks; it has no beginning or end, no point of entry or exit. When, therefore, we try to account for the human rejection of God, we can never trace the wanderings of the will back to some primordial moment of perfect liberty, some epistemically pristine instant when a perverse impulse spontaneously arose within an isolated, wholly sane individual will,…”
The impression given in the Scriptures is that Adam and Eve were innocent until they violated God’s command and basically changed their nature (now blaming one another, realizing they were naked and feeling shame, fleeing from God). The reason for their sinning is certainly a great and terrible mystery, but the text gives every impression that they were meant to overcome in some way, shape, or form, the temptation that God allowed in the Garden.
“…or within a mind perfectly cognizant of the whole truth of things;”
The fact that the church has always taught that sin will not be possible in heaven certainly goes hand in hand with the increased knowledge that we will have. Also a fear, love, and trust that is no longer simply innocent but also fully mature. One that has fully matured and become one who for whom sin is simply never going to happen, even if some form of temptation were still present.
“…we will never find that place where some purely uncompelled apostasy on the part of a particular soul, possessed of a perfect rational knowledge of reality, severed us from God.”
Man did not need to have a perfect rational knowledge of reality in order to have good reason for trusting God’s commandment. Neither does the fact that Adam and Eve’s apostasy was compelled in some way (not in the sense that it was forced on them, but that they were swayed by another other than their Lord) mean that their culpability was not sufficiently serious to warrant both their spiritual and physical death. They had been warned.
“Such a movement of volition would have had no object to prompt it, and so could never have been a real rational choice.”
He is saying that such a movement of volition would have had no object [of goodness] to prompt it, and therefore this choice would not have been rational. But so what? This is the introduction of sin into the world, something which is not rational. For it has no good reason, no good explanation, to give to God for its action.
“Thus it is, for instance, that the Eastern church fathers, when interpreting the story of Eden, generally tended to ascribe the cause of the fall to the childlike ignorance of unformed souls, not yet mature enough to resist false notions (and this, lest we forget, accords exactly with the Eden story in Genesis, which tells the story of two persons so guileless and ignorant that they did not even know they were naked until a talking snake had shown them the way to the fruit of knowledge).”
This seem to be the thought: Adam and Eve, not fully mature, are not fully guilty. That, to be sure, goes against every impression left by the biblical text. “Did God really say?”
“Hence, absolute culpability—eternal culpability—lies forever beyond the capacities of any finite being.”
Rolling the dice.
“So does an eternal free defiance of the Good. We are not blameless, certainly; but, then again, that very fact proves that we have never been entirely free not to be blameless—and so neither can we ever be entirely to blame.”
There is no absolutely no good reason to assume that Adam and Eve were not entirely free to be without sin.
They knew what they needed to know, and God had provided everything for all of their needs, and that is all there is to the matter.
September 14, 2019 at 3:43 pm
For this reason, I am leary of ideas that we can “test the spirits” to determine that which is of God by using our reason. The Woman heard the voice of the Serpent, tested his words by using her reason, and having done so, ate. While she did learn the difference between good and evil, just as the serpent promised, the consequences of her learning were that she experienced death, not that she gained authority over it. She became Eve, the mother of all living, AND the mother of all dying. Better for her would have been to simply rely on the objectively revealed will of God than the subjectively (and wrongfully) perceived word of God.