David C. Ford responds to Michael Plekon’s review of David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Savedby David Bentley Hart
ISBN: 978-0-300-24622-3
Published by Yale University Press on September 24, 2019
Language: English
Pages: 232

Without going very deeply into any of the issues involved due to space constraints, I would like to address certain problems with Fr. Michael Plekon’s ostensibly neutral review of David Bentley Hart’s book, That All Shall Be Saved. Assuming IOTA exists to represent and convey the truths of Orthodoxy, I don’t believe we can just remain neutral and noncommittal about the serious problems with Hart’s book, even though he’s a well-known Orthodox writer.

First, I’d like to address this paragraph from Fr. Plekon’s review:

Hart is not alone is asserting his faith that there is universal salvation. He argues that in the early church, there was little evidence of a widespread, common conviction that God’s wrath required the eternal banishment and punishment of human beings. This was Basil the Great’s conclusion, with temporary purification or purgation giving way to the resurrection and salvation of all. He names the teachers who were explicit universalists: Gregory of Nyssa and Makrina his sister; Clement and Origen of Alexandria; the Syrian fathers Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Isaac of Nineveh; and much later, Kierkegaard and the greatest of Eastern Church theologians in the modern era, Sergius Bulgakov.

It’s simply not the traditional Orthodox understanding that “God’s wrath requires the eternal banishment and punishment of human beings.” Rather, it’s God’s infinite love that some human beings and the demons continue to reject; and that, for them, is hell.

Second, Fr. Plekon makes it sound as if St. Basil the Great himself supported Universalism, something Hart does not claim. Hart only says that Basil once observed that many Christians in his time were believing it (That All Shall Be Saved, pp. 1–2). What Hart doesn’t make clear is that Basil was actually lamenting that fact.

Third, Fr. Plekon’s list of Hart’s sources hardly represents the core of our Tradition, since most of these figures had certain associations with one or another heresy—Clement with Gnosticism; Origen with the condemned theory of the pre-existence of souls; Diodore of Tarsus and his pupil Theodore of Mopsuestia were the direct progenitors of Nestorianism; Kierkegaard was not even Orthodox; and Fr. Bulgakov, with his very controversial theories known as Sophiology. Yet Fr. Plekon does not point out these problematic associations.

Furthermore, Fr. Plekon does not point out that St. Gregory of Nyssa’s supposed Universalism, upon which Hart relies the most by far in his book, is not a definite fact by any means, as his commentary on the Beatitudes makes clear: “You looked not with compassion, so you will get no merciful looks; you ignored suffering, so you will be ignored as you perish” (addressing the rich man who spurned Lazarus; On the Beatitudes 5.8).

Even more serious, Fr. Plekon does not explain how Hart’s ultimate source of authority is not the Scriptures and the consensus of the Church Fathers—and not the hymnography of our Church, or her iconography; and not prayer, or guidance from the Holy Spirit, or ascetic and/or mystical experience, or consultation with others of his own time—but rather, his own reasoning power. As he says, “My reasoning convinces me entirely” (p. 6). In response, I’d like to remind Fr. Plekon of these words from St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Church Father whom Hart relies upon the most:

For it is both safer and more reverent to believe the majesty of God to be greater than we can understand, than, after circumscribing His glory by our misconceptions, to suppose there is nothing beyond our conception of it… For in speculative enquiry fallacies readily find place. But where speculation is entirely at rest, the necessity of error is precluded… Would it not have been safer for all, following the counsel of wisdom, to abstain from searching into such deep matters, and in peace and quietness to keep inviolate the pure deposit of the Faith? (Epinoia: Answer to Eunomius, second book).

So I’m surprised that Fr. Plekon does not point out that while human reasoning may become convinced that the Lord must eventually save every rational being in order to be truly loving, the fact remains that human reasoning will always fall short of the fullness of the Truth. As the Lord says through Isaiah, “Your ways are not My ways, and your thoughts are not My thoughts; for My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8–9).

It’s also disappointing that Fr. Plekon does not observe how Hart’s handling of the Scriptures is problematic. To give three examples: Hart falsely translates thelei in 1 Timothy 2:4 as “intends” instead of “desires” (p. 96); he flagrantly misinterprets 1 Corinthians 3:11–15, as he disregards the context of those verses (pp. 105–106); and he ignores the main Gospel passage about life after death—the one about the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which Christ makes very clear that after death there is a gulf fixed separating the redeemed from the lost, a gulf that cannot be crossed (Luke 16:19-31).

Fr. Plekon is also remiss in not pointing out Hart’s misunderstanding of the crucial distinction between our human nature and our distinct human hypostasis, when Hart overemphasizes our unity with other human beings to the point of nearly extinguishing the distinctiveness of each human hypostasis (pp. 152–158). Strangely, this is the very portion of Hart’s book that Fr. Plekon most clearly favors in his review!

I would also like to consider the Universalist claim from a pastoral perspective—something Fr. Plekon does not do in his review. This claim, that hell will not last forever—and that all rational beings, including the Devil and all his hosts, will indeed be saved eventually—is exactly what our profligate world would love to hear: “Great! I can live however sinfully and irreverently I want to in this life, and it won’t matter a bit! I’ll just plan on repenting the moment I get my first taste of hell.” Of course, anyone who really loves Christ would not think or act in such a way. But for many people, living especially in our promiscuous age of unfettered feelings/emotions/indulging in fleshly pleasure, the Universalist assertion very likely would provide a great temptation to make such a “deal” in their minds, even if not with God directly! To guard against such thinking, St. John Chrysostom often reminded his flock of the threat of hell to help them along the road to salvation; as he once said about the need for that reminder, “To have offended God is more distressing than to be punished. But now we are so wretchedly disposed that, were there no fear of hell, we would not even choose readily to do any good thing” (Homily 5 on Romans).

Another observation: according to St. Mark the Ascetic in the Philokalia, “Each man’s knowledge is genuine to the extent that it is confirmed by his gentleness, humility, and love.” So Hart’s vitriol, his disparagement of virtually every single Saint in our Church (there are over 100 instances in his book of churlish name-calling and/or remarks about all those who do not believe in Universalism; for example, “infernalists”; “moral idiocy”; “collective derangement”; “chronic intellectual and moral malformation”; exhibition of “emotional pathologies”; “moral squalor”), not to mention the untold millions of believers through the centuries who have been trusting and following the Tradition (as we are all called to do) and hence have been rejecting Universalism, is a strong indication that Hart’s reasoning is incorrect.

The same goes for Hart’s striking lack of humility—that virtue which is the hallmark of the Orthodox phronema—as he holds himself up as the final word on this issue. Yet even Origen, whom Hart greatly admires, in the introduction to his On First Principles, said he would yield to the teaching of the Church on any issue where the Church had made a definitive pronouncement—as our Church most certainly has in rejecting Universalism through the centuries. But very sadly, Hart says he will never change his mind (p. 6), even if it means rejecting Orthodoxy as a whole (pp. 199–200; 208–209). This would seem to be the biggest of all the errors in Hart’s book, yet Fr. Plekon does not point it out.

In light of the apparently great popularity of Hart’s book, it would seem prudent for IOTA to post a more accurate and thorough review of this very problematic work.

Dr. David C. Ford
Professor of Church History
St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary