A book that can wait

The earliest confession of Christian faith — κυριος Ιησους — meant nothing less radical than that Christ’s peace, having suffered upon the cross the decisive rejection of the powers of this world, had been raised up by God as the true form of human existence: an eschatologically perfect love, now made invulnerable to all the violences of time, and yet also made incomprehensibly present in the midst of history, because God’s final judgment had already befallen the world in the paschal vindication of Jesus of Nazareth.

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite (Eerdmans, 2003), page 1

There are several problems here:
1.) It is a stretch to call κυριος Ιησους “the earliest confession of Christian faith.” A title and name do not a confession make.

2.) It is not “Christ’s peace” that suffered rejection upon the Cross, but Christ Himself. Nor was this “peace” raised up, but Christ Himself was. A work in which an “Eastern Orthodox theologian” loses focus on Christ on page 1 is not promising.

3.) “…an eschatologically perfect love, now made invulnerable to all the violences of time, and yet also made incomprehensibly present in the midst of history…” — buzzwordy blather. That “incomprehensibly present” is a classic. How would you comprehend it to note its presence were it incomprehensibly present? Incomprehensible polysyllabic pseudo-postmodern piffle is more like it. I can see how this book gained so much attention, now!

4.) “…because God’s final judgment had already befallen the world…” — uh, no, it hadn’t, nor has it yet, but it will someday, when there’ll be no mistaking that it is God’s final judgment.

5.) “…in the paschal vindication of Jesus of Nazareth.” — Wrong. In the theology of the Orthodox Church “Jesus of Nazareth” didn’t need “vindication,” being God and Man. The statement smacks of adoptionism.

Five strikes in one sentence on the first page. This book can wait.

15 Comments

  1. Rather than just critique – do you think you can correct his mistakes or teach him how to correct his swing…? Is he mixing up vindicate with victory? Could he be referring to our paschal vindication in Christ – mixing up vindication with justification?

    What’s wrong with noting our final judgment in his death? The mini-apocalypse and John 5:24 come to mind – some standing here who shall not die till they have seen the Son of Man coming in glory…

    It is easy to be caught with a slippage from one concept to another. We do not rejoice simply in our own orthodoxy – though I admit I have not read this man nor would I have noticed his name or book expect for your blog which I gratefully do read – though I am not Orthodox. You get my blessing any way 🙂

  2. Chiou, yes, it is possible, but as it stands in the text as quoted, it is not a sentence, but the equivalent of the English “Lord Jesus.” Had he wanted to say κυριος εστιν ο Ιησους, he could have, and the statement would still have been questionable, as the “earliest confession of Christian faith” is itself a peculiar formulation. Better would have been “one of the earliest confessions of faith in Christ.” Relatedly, it is much more likely that the earliest confession of faith in Christ as the Lord Messiah will have been in Aramaic or perhaps even Hebrew. Such formulations in Greek come along in the written traditions, which postdate the events by a number of years, even decades. So, the statement is inaccurate on two fronts, a name is not a confession per se, nor is the language appropriate for the label “earliest.”

    Bob, that is the problem with the set of objections I mentioned. The above statements of Hart are not incorrect with further qualification, but it’s tedious to read something in which so much authorial leeway is taken for granted as permissible, particularly in a text that has a reputation as a philosophical one for a general audience. This book certainly can’t function in the way of an introduction to Orthodox theology, modern or otherwise, if the above is representative of the author’s approach throughout the book, as appears to be the case from the Introduction. It’s big enough (448 pp) that it’d be a real chore to slog through the whole thing. And to what purpose? There are numerous better things to read. Hand over fist I would recommend anything by Andrew Louth to this book, particularly Discerning the Mystery, a perfect primer to Orthodox theology for the philosophically inclined, and a didactic delight for the general reader as well. Thanks for your blessing!

  3. Thank you for this post. Your third point is spot on. As a rule I avoid pomo gibberish at all costs, but I felt obscurely as if I owed Hart a hearing. I have just just finished trudging through the first hundred pages and I would have to say that on the whole it is no more enlightening or informative (in general, let alone concerning the “Aesthetics of Christian Truth”) than 100 random pages of Finnegans Wake.

    I find myself with only the vaguest notion of what he was trying to say, and the settled conviction that he could have at least conveyed an equally vague notion in considerably less space. Feh.

  4. But Kevin, surely κυριος Ιησους is meant in context to be understood as a direct quotation from 1 Cor 12:3, and therefore precisely as a confession of faith.

  5. Yes, Doug, I’m sure that’s the intention, but it’s still sloppy. That’s neither the earliest, nor is it, as quoted, a “confession,” as it’s not even a sentence. That kind of sloppy writing is annoying.

  6. I am not so sure that writing it off as sloppy is all that helpful. To what criteria ought a confession meet? What would you classify as an earlier confession? I think the issue is criteria for confession. To say that it is just sloppy dodges a more important note of disagreement in terms of a premise to an argument. thanks!

  7. Well, Drew, I don’t think I’d object to him having worded it, “an early confession” but “earliest confession” rankles. And since Hart obviously knows that these writings were preceded by people speaking to one another, it’s probably nicest to call it simply sloppy. To my ear εξομολογεω/confession requires a bit more than the usage of an ambiguously generic title, requiring at least a full sentence comprising a statement of some sort. Then there’s the language issue. The writings we have in the NT were antedated by decades of Christians talking to one another about Jesus in a variety of languages, with Aramaic and (many would say) Hebrew being in the initial mix along with Greek in the earliest decades. The “earliest” confession, whatever it will have been, could entirely safely be claimed to have been in Aramaic if we’re looking at something so basic as calling Jesus “Master” in either the Galilean or Judean vernacular, with the Greek formulation certainly coming along later, though probably not by much. Indeed, even without a greater context, “Jesus is (my/our) Master” is not really all that informative, particularly in Greek, where κυριος is also simply a form of polite address, “Sir,” or even “gentleman,” as it still is. The semantic range is similar for the corresponding words in Aramaic/Syriac and Hebrew as well. It’s only with a fuller context that the meaning might be disambiguated so as to truly reflect a confessional statement of any sort. Now, whether Hart simply is recalling something from a first-year theology class or something of the sort may well be the case, but the statement that “The earliest confession of Christian faith [is:] κυριος Ιησους” is simply wrong on several levels. In order for it to be correct, we must unpack it, move the junk around, and repack it. And then there’s the rest of the sentence!

  8. I agree with you. Unless this is an eschatological reference which I think is what is going on in the context here. If he is referring to Christ’s lordship as the cosmic Christ it takes on a rather different meaning. I think that is the place of dispute.

  9. Drew, yes, that’s a possibility, too. The problem lies in that such is not what he wrote. Readers are required to jump through the hoops of his unstated propositions on the very first page. This is sloppy for a theological/philosophical text. Such things need to be stated both carefully and explicitly, otherwise we as readers are merely eavesdropping on an internal monologue in which we lack the foregoing foundational arguments and propositions, a train of thought only the last few cars of which we see pulling out from the station.

  10. Yes, that’s actually quite a good piece. Perhaps such length as a full book affords is simply a format that he has yet to become accustomed to? He can obviously write and just as obviously has interesting things to say. Several people who are certainly not intellectual slouches have mentioned the book favorably, after all.

    By my above quibbling I only mean that I personally don’t have the time to work through this right now. My reading time is at a premium and precious. The unfortunate lapses of the first page force me to place it on a different waiting list, the “eventually get to” instead of the “immediately coming attractions.” The Papadiamandis collection is a treasure, and Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s book on St Symeon the New Theologian is riveting. I feel no qualms about them. I’ll eventually get to Hart’s book, but it’s just not as compelling as these others.

  11. Kevin – I can hardly blame you for not having time for a big book – there are too many of them!!

    I want to ask about 1 Timothy 3:16 (http://bible.cc/1_timothy/3-16.htm) – it seems to me that it does write of Jesus as “vindicated” in the Spirit (NASB)- true it can be translated as justified – but the terms are synonymous in this context. I don’t usually use the Pastorals as proof texts – but in this case, it seems useful 🙂 (In fact as you might guess, I don’t like proof-texting!)

    Even for the Orthodox, (and I have two of the catechumenate as employees), I am concerned that there is a risk of succumbing to the worship of precise language rather than the worship of God through the knowledge of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

  12. “Vindicated/proved righteous in the Spirit” is one thing, just “vindicated” is another when sitting alone. It just didn’t and doesn’t sound right.

    It may seem as though the catechumens you know are a bit too concerned with the precise vocabulary, but thought is expressed in words, and what we think about God is mighty important. This is the origin of that concern for loose theological language in particular that I’ve got, and that is shared with a number of heavy hitters who are staying out of the fray. Loose language can lead to loose theology which is guaranteed to lead to wrong ideas about God and therefore an improper relationship, or perhaps even a one-sided relationship where the person is so mixed up that they’re going in a 180 from what God actually is and wants in their lives. Precision in theological language is a foundation to prevent that. And yes, I’m sure some catechumens can go overboard with minutiae, quoting canons and whatnot, but this is something that people generally grow out of, as well.

    It’s too bad there’s not more time in a day, so I could read everything, catch up quickly and get to all the books I want to review (another showed up in the mail today). I’d have more time to spend on books like Hart’s, which aren’t particularly compelling, but which are being talked about. Glancing through, it just doesn’t do anything for me. In a complete night-and-day contrast, Fr Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery is a book that I would and likely will re-read before I ever read Hart’s, with seemingly every single page bearing something of value.

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