In this episode, Hart revisits things he first communicated in his “Christ’s Rabble”, the article for Commonweal where he introduced many of the concerns that would consume him from 2017 to present: The New Testament’s animus toward the accumulation of wealth as such, universalism, and the inaccuracy of the “magisterial Protestant” reading of Paul.
The Community of the New Testament
The next section of Hart’s ample introduction to his translation of the New Testament is well worth reading in full, but I will give a summary. Sections of it are taken verbatim from his Commonweal piece, which he credits in the acknowledgements. “Before embarking on this project,” he writes, “I doubt I ever truly properly appreciated precisely how urgent the various voices of the New Testament authors are, or how profound the provocations of what they were saying were for their own age, and probably remain for every age.” Commenting on the wildly varied voices of the authors, he proposes that what they hold in common “is the vibrant certainty that history has been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was, and that all terms of human community and conduct have been altered at the deepest of levels.”
The early Christians were certainly radicals in his estimation, “in values almost absolutely inverse to the recognized social, political, economic, and religious truths of not only of their own age, but of almost every age of human culture.” These men and women bear little resemblance to the Christians of today, “or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social stations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions.” Looking out over the comfortable Christians of his imagined audience, he doubts that more than a few of us would want to be the type of people the New Testament describes as “fitting the pattern of Christ.”
David Bentley Hart: One Man Counterreformation
One might imagine the reaction to the demands of following Christ is throwing up one’s hands and thinking that there is no use in even making the attempt. Hart says, in fact, that “therein lies the perennial appeal of the venerable early modern theological fantasy that the Apostle Paul inveighed against something called ‘works-righteousness’ in favor of a purely extrinsic ‘justification’ by grace—which, alas, he did not.” Going further than any “New Perspective on Paul” scholar or Catholic writer on Paul, Hart simply says that Paul was opposed only to the idea that a person is “shown righteous” by observance of the Mosaic Law and that Paul “quite clearly insisted” that we would be judged by our works. He lists five places and scriptures that demonstrate Paul “taught works salvation” (to steal some internet fundamentalist vocabulary), but alludes to the fact that he could’ve listed many more.
While comparing Hart to a more conventional literal translation is always illuminating, we are also going to pit him against three translations he has had issue with. In one corner, we will have the Hart translation, and in the others, NT Wright’s Kingdom New Testament, the NIV, which both Hart and Wright think present Paul as a 20th century evangelical and not a 1st Century Jewish Christian, and the ESV, the other committee translation that Hart mentioned as being compromised by the theology of its translators. I’ve bolded the juxtapositions I find especially interesting. Keep in mind that I am not going to spend much time as an exegete here. Rather, I am simply choosing the verses he cites because in the context of his introduction I thought they might have some illustrative differences.
Romans 2: 1-16 (Hart cites these 16 verses, but we will only look at verses 2-8 in this comparison):
Hart: “But we know that God’s judgment on those doing such things is in accord with truth. And do you, O man—you who judge those doing such things while also doing them—reckon that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you disdain the abundance of his kindness and forbearance and magnanimity, ignorant that God’s kindness leads you to the heart’s transformation? Yet you store up indignation for yourself—in accord with your obduracy and impenitent heart—on a day of indignation and of a revelation of the just judgment of God, who will requite everyone according to his deeds: To those who by perseverance in good work seek after glory and honor and incorruption—the life of the Age; but to those of selfish ambition, who are also defiant of truth and yet compliant with injustice—indignation and vehemence.”
NT Wright: “God’s judgment falls, we know, in accordance with the truth, on those who do such things. But if you judge those who do them and yet do them yourself, do you really suppose that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you despise the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience? Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to bring you to repentance? But by your hard, unrepentant heart you are building up a store of anger for yourself on the day of anger, the day when God’s just judgment will be unveiled – the God who will ‘repay everyone according to their works’. When people patiently do what is good, and so pursue the quest for glory and honour and immortality, God will give them the life of the age to come. But when people act out of selfish desire, and do not obey the truth, but instead obey injustice, there will be anger and fury.”
NIV: “Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”
ESV: We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
I don’t see too much controversy here. Hart uses inclusive language sparingly, as evidenced by his “O man”. I have not done a systematic study of any sort, but I feel like his level of inclusive language is about equal to the ESV, which to me means the language is only inclusive in constructions where it is not noticeable. Hart chooses to translate metanoia as “the heart’s transformation” rather than “repentance”. This is an interesting interpretive choice. I’d say “the heart’s transformation” is a phrase that seems more initially inviting than “repentance”, and might even give a better idea of the radical commitment to a continuous process. “Repentance” is one of those biblical words with wildly varied connotations from person to person. His word choice is similarly idiosyncratic in choosing “indignation and vehemence” rather than anger, fury, wrath, et al. “Requite” is also a word that might give some pause. NT Wright’s translation is more dynamic than I thought it would be. I’ve never read it before, but it seems in this comparison to be of a pair with the NIV.
Hart: “How then was it taken account of? When he was in circumcision or with a foreskin? Not in circumcision, but with a foreskin; and he received a sign of circumcision, a seal of the uprightness of his faithfulness during the time when he had had a foreskin, so that he might be the father of all those who have faith while in possession of a foreskin, so that [this] uprightness might be accounted to them, and a father of circumcision not only to those coming from circumcision, but also to those who walk in the steps of our father Abraham’s faithfulness when he had a foreskin.”
NT Wright: “How was it calculated? When he was circumcised or when he was uncircumcised? It wasn’t when he was circumcised; it was when he was uncircumcised! He received circumcision as a sign and seal of the status of covenant membership, on the basis of faith, which he had when he was still uncircumcised. This was so that he could be the father of all who believe even when uncircumcised, so that the status of covenant membership can be calculated to their account as well. He is also, of course, the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who follow the steps of the faith which Abraham possessed while still uncircumcised.”
NIV: “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
ESV: How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Possibly this is my American Christian-ness showing, but I had to read this one a few times before I saw why it was on Hart’s list. Compared to the others, this seems the weakest in proving Paul taught that we will be judged by works, but I commend Hart for going right to the battleground of Romans 4. Here is the faith/faithfulness dispute again. What someone really ought to do is get a bunch of proof that the meaning of “faith” to the pre-modern Christian was much more similar to what we would now call “faithfulness”, rather than the lobotomized version of “faith” that has been current in an English speaking world which has been beset by voluntarism and individualism for about 500 years. I will say, however, that the injunction to walk in the footsteps of Abraham is rather suggestive of faithfulness rather than faith. Perhaps the reader might disagree but I think metaphors of walk, of path, or of journey are suggestive of action, not simply mental assent. Besides that, this is a good chance to see what Hart does instead of writing “uncircumcision”. I had read some say that NT Wright’s translation contained a lot of interpretive glosses relating to his interest in covenant theology, but I was unprepared for this! His translation is marketed under the name “New Testament for Everyone” in the UK and the Kingdom New Testament in America. Maybe if the publishers decide to unite the editions, they can call it the Covenant New Testament, or—even better—the Covenant New Covenant.
1 Corinthians 3:12-15
Hart: “Now, if on this foundation one erects gold, silver, precious stones, woods, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it is revealed by fire and the fire will prove what kind of work each person’s is. If the work that someone has built endures, he will receive a reward; if anyone’s work should be burned away, he will suffer loss, yet he shall be saved, though so as by fire.”
NT Wright: “If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass or straw – well, everyone’s work will become visible, because the Day will show it up, since it will be revealed in fire. Then the fire will test what sort of work everyone has done. If the building work that someone has done stands the test, they will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, they will be punished by bearing the loss; they themselves will be saved, however, but only as though through a fire.”
NIV: “If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
ESV: Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Here is an interesting one. The NIV is the only translation out of the four which depicts the metaphorical building burning, as opposed to the builder’s works. And the final line about “escaping through the flames” seems to reduce all the eschatologically rich obscurity into something that will menace but not harm the one who has bad works…I think? NT Wright’s choice to add the indefinite article and make it “a fire” seems to reduce the importance to my ears. The fire seems to me to be fire of an eschatological sort, and not exactly “a fire”, which calls to mind any garden variety catastrophe. I do not keep up with what goes on in the world of apologetics, but a quick Google search confirms that verse 15 is indeed a proof text for purgatory for many. That makes an awful lot of sense. Hart views this similarly, but more along the lines of the pedagogical punishment of a non-eternal Hell. The ESV is looking better and better side by side with the NIV. I get why all the young Calvinists who are into espresso and expensive pens love this translation.
2 Corinthians 5:10
Hart: “For we must all of us appear before the tribunal of the Anointed, so that each may be requited for the things he did, whether good or deplorable.”
NT Wright: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah, so that each may receive what has been done through the body, whether good or bad.”
NIV: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
ESV: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
At first I thought I had made a mistake transcribing Hart’s rendering, but he is lacking any mention of the body, which is in every other translation I have looked up. An oversight? It is possible, as the original hardcover printings of Hart’s New Testament had a missing word in Romans 8:12, turning “we are indebted not to the flesh” into “we are indebted to the flesh”. Part of the dispute between Wright and Hart was the latter being angry that the former questioned this rendering when it was an obvious typographical error. That has been corrected in the paperback edition, but I don’t think the verse in question from 2 Corinthians has been changed.
Hart: “…holding forth life’s word, so that the boast may be mine on the Anointed’s Day that I neither ran in vain nor labored in vain.”
NT Wright: “…clinging on to the word of life. That’s what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn’t run a useless race, or work to no purpose.”
NIV: “…as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.”
ESV: “…holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”
As with the 2 Corinthians 5:10, we see that Hart prefers the “Anointed”, Wright “the Messiah”, and the committee translations both prefer “Christ”. NT Wright’s translation here is the loosest translation, giving a rather dynamic version of a phrase I think would be obvious even in an interlinear translation.
Hart believes that Reformation era theology emerged when it did to fill a specific need for a Christianity that would be palatable to the political powers of Northern Europe and the new middle class which was their power base. So, it would make sense that Hart begins looking into the New Testament’s view on accumulated wealth. “The New Testament,” he writes, “condemns personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. Actually, the biblical texts are so unambiguous on this matter that it requires an almost heroic defiance of the obvious to fail to grasp their import.”
I can say it no more succinctly and strongly than Hart, so I will simply transcribe his words: “For obvious reasons, forms of Christianity took shape that were especially well suited to the needs of an emerging prosperous middle class, and to the spiritual complacency that a culture of increasing material security dearly required of its religion. For this vision of the gospel, all moral anxiety became a kind of spiritual pathology, the heresy of ‘works-righteousness’, sheer Pelagianism. Grace had set humanity free not only from works of the Law, but also from the spiritual agony of seeking to become holy by moral deeds. In a sense, the good news announced by scripture was that Christ had come to save humanity from the burden of Christianity.”
He steps back from this precipice and commends the theological innovations of early modern Christianity for their sanctification of daily life, but then quickly returns to the statement that this development is quite different from the “extremism” of the New Testament. To illustrate what he means by this, somewhere else in his writing on the New Testament Hart notes that for all the theology on the family and its importance, Jesus is quite ambivalent about family bonds and spends quite a bit of time proposing an entirely different way of organizing his Kingdom.
“The New Testament,” Hart tells us, “emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly). There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade. Everything is cast in the harsh light of a final judgment that is both absolute and terrifyingly imminent. In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, commonsense interpretation is always false.”
One recurring theme in the New Testament epistles that Hart views as important is alluded to in that paragraph: the understanding of the gods of the nations—in other words the “principalities and powers” as being incompetent or evil spiritual beings that God was no longer willing to separate Him from His people. In ascending to His Father, Jesus led these spirits in triumphal procession into imprisonment. At one point Hart writes about these gods or angels as mediators between God and creation whose time has passed, replaced by the victorious Christ. If you think this is awfully strange, it is one of the ways Psalm 82 is interpreted. There is also Galatians 3:19, which seems to suggest in its context that whereas the Law is imperfect as it was transmitted imperfectly by angels, the law of Christ is unmediated, trustworthy, and perfect.
This also brings up something Hart wrote in his book “The Doors of the Sea”, a masterful work of theodicy that contains almost none of what makes Hart controversial and almost all of what makes him incisive and worth reading. The concept he proposes is a “provisional cosmic dualism”, which (put sloppily) is the current state where the forces of evil are defeated and chained, but still capable of biting us. The book is a long essay observing what he judges as failed attempts to explain how a loving God would have allowed the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004. Its main point is that there are things we attribute to God that are not God’s doing at all, but the work of the Evil One, who is still a force in the cosmos despite his defeat at the hands of Christ. A simple glance around the world would show any sane person that this is not the Kingdom promised us, and while we intend to defend the power and sovereignty of God when we wax poetic about God’s will in allowing the deaths of thousands, we commit the unforced error of making him out to be a monster. It is a book worth reading.
David Bentley Hart on Mammon
Hart had been dancing around this point for a while in this introduction, but on page xxviii he drops the hammer, asserting that Jesus did not speak against “an unhealthy preoccupation with riches” but rather wealth acquisition as such. To illustrate the depth of this, he brings up the episode of the rich young ruler, but he does not focus our attention on the camel/eye of the needle comparison but rather the apostles’s question to the master. It is usually translated as something like “who then can be saved?”, but Hart proposes that in the context the apostles aren’t talking about just any people, but any rich people. In this interpretation, Jesus’ reply can be understood as “by divine power even a rich man might be spared.”
What follows is a long list of pericopes:
Luke 4:18 (Jesus has been anointed to preach good tidings to the poor.)
Luke 6:24-25 (The woes to the rich in the Sermon on the Plain.)
Luke 16:25 (Abraham’s explanation to Dives in Hades.)
Matthew 5:42 (Freely give to all who ask things of you.)
Matthew 6:3 (Give with an irresponsible generosity, as if you don’t know how much you have left for yourself.)
Matthew 6:19-20 (Jesus condemns the storing of earthly wealth and allows only the storing of treasure in heaven.)
Luke 12:33 (Jesus tells all would-be followers to sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor.)
Luke 14:33 (“No one of you who does not bid farewell to all his own possessions can be my disciple.”)
“It is truly amazing,” Hart writes, “how rarely Christians seem to notice that these counsels are stated, quite decidedly, as commands. Certainly the texts are not in any way unclear on the matter. After all, as Mary says, part of the saving promise of the gospel is that the Lord ‘has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:53).”
Not wishing to bury us in scripture citations, he speaks more generally of the epistles. Hart explains that pleonexia, a word translated usually as “greed” truly means any acquisitive desire. The Pastoral epistles also condemn aischrokerdes, a word we assume means “greed for base gain”—the filthy lucre of the King James—but actually denotes seeking profit for oneself. After a breezy analysis of the issue of the rich and poor in the Letter of James, Hart concludes “it is almost as if, seen from the perspective of the Kingdom, all property is theft. Fair or not, the text does not distinguish good wealth from bad—any more than Christ did.”
The section concludes with appeals to early Christian history—the data from the Acts of the Apostles, the Didache, and what we know of the early Christian community of Edessa, the “Rome” of Syriac Christianity in late antiquity. He engages with the text of 1 Timothy 6, a text he argues is more radical than normally understood.
He concludes his introduction with more material which magnifies his point from “Christ’s Rabble” that the early Christians were not like us, and that any attempt to transform Christianity into something which would congratulate the life we live now would be quite far off from the New Testament Church. Holding up Clement of Alexandria as an early example of those who sought to “accommodate the gospel to the realities of a Christian empire”, Hart notes that it was the Desert Fathers who at that time were “taking the gospel as its word.”
Hart’s parting words deserve to be heard in full: “To live as the New Testament language really requires, Christians would have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world. And we surely cannot do that, can we?”
I wish it were not so, but this challenge will be marginalized and dismissed, not only because of our comfortable lifestyles, commitments, and debts, but also because of our theological differences with David Bentley Hart, and his belligerence. This appeal to the Desert Fathers is one that Hart also used to conclude his book “The Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies”.
The Desert Fathers and their spirituality has been a fascination of mine since I returned to the Church seven years ago. They seemed so strange! One way of thinking of Hart’s translation of the New Testament is that it presents to us a New Testament that would have made sense to those unruly early monks more than us.
In the next episode I will discuss the textual basis of the translation and then go over some verses that us Catholics always want to know about when we investigate a translation.