In this installment, we look at some of the introductory material. I go on and on about a couple obscure things, but bear with me!
Unless you are into academic theology or monitoring the Twitter accounts of British theologians who like to show you pictures of placid ponds on cloudy spring days, you might not have any idea who John Milbank is. Born in 1952, he studied at Cambridge under Rowan Williams (later Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Communion) who gave him a reading list which converted the young man from a vaguely pantheistic Methodism to an Anglo Catholic. Later, with kindred spirits Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, he laid the groundwork for a theological and social school of thought known as Radical Orthodoxy.
A feature of this theological school seems to be particularly dense prose, but let me attempt to summarize their project: The dreams of secular utopianism had by the late 80s all curdled into nihilism, whether it was the weakness and impotence of the USSR on the eve of collapse or the numb consumerism in the developed West. This collapse in meaning was inevitable because once Christendom had been rejected, the new nation-states (themselves parodies of the Church) were only able to rest on a Christian foundation for so long until the Nietzschean “death of God” removed the only coherent grounding they had. What had gone wrong? Following the theology of history of the Catholic theologians of the Communio sort—especially Henri de Lubac—they place the blame on late Medieval theological innovations which pitted nature against the supernatural. (The villains of this story here are Duns Scotus, William of Okham, and the neo-Thomists—sometimes known as manualists—who carried on what in Radical Orthodoxy’s view was a deeply compromised version of Thomas’s theology down to the early-20th century). The Supernatural was separated from the Natural, perhaps at first for its own safety, but separate from the Natural the Supernatural became distant from daily life. As the Western world came through the spasms of violence and new ideas the supernatural became an unwelcome interloper, and then finally was disbelieved entirely. They view secular humanism, quite literally, as a Christian heresy.
Along with this counter-narrative of modernity they are known for their high view of liturgy, a high view of the Eucharist, and their socialist politics. Why aren’t they more popular? Especially in America their advocacy of Christian socialism is a stumbling block for some. Their books are published by academic presses and will often set you back 40 dollars, even for a used copy with quite a bit of underlining. (Or at least more underlining than Eugene Peterson’s Knox.) One reason is that one of the secular modernity’s triumphs has been the dis-integration and overspecialization of knowledge and inquiry. Biologists study biology, historians study history, theologians study theology, and only rarely are these paths allowed to cross. We have forgotten that until the high Middle Ages, Christian writers eagerly looked to what we think of as the natural sciences for insight into the Creator. The thinkers of Radical Orthodoxy wish to usher in a Christian re-integration and take back theology’s role as “queen of the sciences”. In the service of this they have written volumes on history, economics, language, theories of motion, and all sorts of other arcane topics, but have not yet done what the layman would recognize as the kind of theology they are used to. For thinkers like John Milbank, all is religious, and all is fair game.
Perhaps in the future Milbank or another thinker of his school will compose a Christology or something structured along the lines of NT Wright’s academic work, but until then I think you can count on Radical Orthodoxy being an incredibly insightful marginal movement. I hope I am wrong, though. If you allow me to break the fourth wall for a moment, this is the most important thing going on in theology outside the Catholic Church since Karl Barth’s Dogmatics—and this work contains much more agreement with the theology of the Church and engagement with the contemporary world than Barth’s work ever did.
David Bentley Hart was exposed to this Radical Orthodoxy at some point in his education, perhaps during his time studying philosophy at Cambridge, and while he has never been considered part of this loose movement, I don’t think anyone can understand Hart’s work without a passing familiarity with Radical Orthodoxy. Without that contact, I’m not sure if Hart’s peculiar mixture of Rowan Williams, Sergius Bulgakov, classical metaphysics, socialism, and the Communio theologians would exist in the same proportions. His work in the first decade of the new millennium, much of it in dialogue with the New Atheists, points out that modern atheism is not a return to some kind of default human viewpoint cleansed of dogma, but is a particular expression that could only occur in a post Christian world. Christ has led the evil spirits of the nations into captivity in triumphal procession, desacralizing the world except for the One God, who once banished from our site leaves us in a world quite empty and lifeless.
John Milbank knew of Hart’s work from the beginning and was already describing him as the best systematic theologian in America on the back of Hart’s first book, 2003’s Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.
This has all been in preparation for John Milbank’s long, audacious blurb for Hart’s translation of the New Testament, one which I think will reframe the volume as something other than, “that Universalist New Testament.”
David Hart’s translation of the New Testament is a theological and ecclesial event of the first magnitude. By providing, for the first time, a literal English translation of the Greek (and demonstrating that the most literal can be the most strikingly beautiful rendering) Hart has shown, after 500 years, that the core of Reformation theology is un-Biblical and that certain currents of Latin theology are dubious or inadequate. This new version, which should become the standard one for scholarly use, also makes it clearer that, while doctrinal liberalism is wishful thinking, credal Christianity only emerged from a plausible but subtle reading of sometimes teasingly ambivalent texts. Hart’s brilliant postscript amounts to a call for a more genuinely Biblical orthodoxy: universalist, synergic, participatory, cosmic, gnostic (in a non-heterodox sense) and communitarian.John Milbank, University of Nottingham
I take enjoyment in reading academic-ish theology from time to time, but if there is one thing I cannot understand it is the pleasure of these eggheads quoting things in foreign languages. This epigraph is in Koine Greek, but is not actually a biblical quote. Thanks to the Youtube review of this New Testament by R. Grant Jones, in my opinion the best bible edition reviewer on the internet, I now know that these are the words “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This is from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, likely a collection of Jesus’ sayings from a gnostic group in Syria around the late 2nd Century. It is an odd mixture of parallels with the canonical Gospels, odd heterodox exchanges between Jesus and his disciples, and a few quotes that are neither canonical nor heterodox. A complete manuscript of the text in Coptic was found in 1945, but this quote is from a Greek papyri found in the 19th century at the old dump at Oxyrhynchus. It should be noted that this saying of Jesus is thought by some to be part of the agrapha of Jesus, a short number of sayings of the Lord not recorded in the New Testament. It is quoted in this context by the Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware in his slim book, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality.
Is Hart a Gnostic? Certainly not, though like his counterparts in Radical Orthodoxy he sometimes speaks of a sort of true gnosis in Christianity—the revelation that changes us, so to speak. In Orthodox folk belief there is in some circles a belief that goes by the name of Aerial Toll Houses which certainly may have been imported from late antique gnostic spirituality. Hart, when asked about this at a speaking engagement gruffly dismissed the topic out of hand as “Orphic nonsense”.
A Note on Transliteration
Whereas Marc recently wrote about the New Catholic Bible containing a one-page introduction to their entire rendering of the sacred text, Hart gives us two pages on what to expect which he expresses Greek words in the Latin alphabet. (This applies to the introduction, the footnotes, and the “Concluding Scientific Postscript”, a long article explaining some of his unusual translation choices). In general, I don’t recall a single bible translator that went to such great lengths to explain their renderings. Knox had On Englishing the Bible, but once you cut out the wonderful digressions on the history of the Douay-Rheims you are left with about 55 pages. Between preparatory material, the postscript, and the post-mortem apologia in his latest book of essays, I estimate Hart has more than 130 pages of material explaining his translation.
I only bring up this note on transliteration because there is a particular teachable moment here on how Hart can approach an established theory from an unfamiliar angle and aggressively declare it wrong with persuasive and corrosive argumentation. The truism in question is the pronunciation of Koine Greek used in Western academia. Hart thinks it is wrong.
“While it is possible to debate the degree to which modern Greek pronunciation matches that of late antiquity, there can be no serious doubt that it comes much nearer to doing so than does the accent invented by sixteenth-century Western European humanists, which corresponds to no version of spoken Greek—Homeric, Attic, Koine, Mediaeval, Katharevousa, Demotic—ever heard on the lips of a native speaker.” He lists off several proofs that Koine had an accent “at least very close” to modern Greek: plays on words predicated on certain vowel sounds, misspellings based on mistaken phonics, and variant spellings due to homophones. A theologian with less swagger would put this in a paper in a peer reviewed journal. David Bentley Hart puts it in the front of a translation of the New Testament.
Not satisfied with making a rather persuasive case over the course of a long paragraph, Hart goes on. “It is something of a mystery that classicists are still taught to lisp Sophocles or Plato in the entirely artificial and really rather hideous intonations of what is often called Erasmian Greek.”
This is precisely what makes Hart so adored in some circles and causes others to dismiss him completely. Here he has a great insight made possible by his omnivorous background in the Classics. It seems to be an open secret that most translators don’t know Koine Greek, they’ve just learned how to recognize the vocabulary and grammar of the New Testament. Often the more they copy previous translations, the more they are praised. Hart, in contrast, was preparing to translate the epic poem Posthomerica by Quintus of Smyrna when his editor asked him to translate the New Testament instead. His familiarity is much wider and deeper when it comes to how language was used in late antiquity, and it leads him to some fresh conclusions. He argues these points not at the glacial pace of an appeal to the footnotes, but with verve and excitement, and then often gets in a good sharp word about his intellectual opponents for good measure. He called the accent with which nearly the entire Western Christian world pronounces Greek, “hideous intonations.” It may be mean, it is definitely unnecessary, but it is also lively writing that is often fun to read. Read that sentence out loud. It is not a simple sentence, nor is it in any way lyrical, but his sentences seem to flow in that well rounded manner. His translation is quite different from his prose, you will see.
Now that we have done the introduction to the introduction, next time we will tackle the introduction itself.