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Tradition and Apocalypse: An essay on the future of Christian belief by David Bentley Hart

06 May 2022

John Saxbee reviews a book about continuity and change in doctrine

THE Preface to the Declaration of Assent addressed to those about to be licensed to ministry in Anglican churches speaks of the “faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation”. Implicit in this declaration is an acknowledgment that the Christian faith or, at least, the way in which it is articulated will always be to some extent novel and contextualised. Whether this involves saying the same thing in a new way or saying a new thing is an issue that goes to the heart of debates about Tradition and the development of Christian doctrine and praxis.

Surely, those to whom we proclaim the faith are entitled to know how tightly tethered our teaching is to the inherited deposit of faith. But if that faith is to be proclaimed afresh in each generation, then they are also entitled to expect it to resonate with the times in which we and they find ourselves.

It is ironic that the most familiar and influential account of Tradition as a concept central to the development of Christianity has itself developed hardly at all since it was promoted by John Henry Newman almost 200 years ago. So, in this short essay, David Bentley Hart dissects in detail Newman’s arguments, and also those of Maurice Blondel, who took up the issue again early in the 20th century. Hart does not deny the significance of continuity with the past, but he painstakingly exposes the flaws in such arguments, and the dangers to which they expose Christianity as a coherent and credible faith for today and tomorrow.

Although in relation to certain doctrinal issues, e.g. deification, and key events in church history, such as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Hart is conspicuously an Eastern Orthodox theologian, he is effusive in his admiration for the ways in which Newman and Blondel didn’t shy away from tackling issues around Tradition and development head-on when mainstream theology had bypassed them for so long.

Hart offers Christianity a way out of an embarrassing sense of its history as full of often contrary beliefs, and a present global cacophony of competing doctrinal commitments. Who was or is right or wrong, and by what criteria can a judgement be made: loyalty to inaugural historical occurrences, adherence to an inspired text, compatibility with evolving world-views, endorsement by acknowledged theological authorities?

All these, he argues, can be only ever partial and provisional, being but staging posts on a trajectory towards the final apocalyptic consummation of all that was, is, and is to come in the Kingdom of God. Christian Tradition and doctrinal development is not backward-looking but forward-facing, and is to be evaluated not as it preserves the past, but as it anticipates the transformation of all things in God.

The final chapter addresses the practical difference that this makes to how we live out our faith, and Hart pulls no punches in decrying the arrogance, intolerance, and intransigence associated with the dogmatic, historicist, and fideistic appeals to Tradition which he criticises as theologically incoherent.

Elegant writing, impassioned, honesty and an invincible commitment to an adventurous faith combine to promote Christianity as “a boundless excess of meaning that lies beyond the scope of every formulation of the faith. . . It is the horizon of a truly transcendental object of desire, the divine fullness which in its infinite simplicity is hospitable to limitless expressions, but reducible to none.”

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


Tradition and Apocalypse: An essay on the future of Christian belief
David Bentley Hart
Baker Academic £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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