I don’t often find myself siding with a “Gnu Atheist” against one of their most brilliant critics – especially when the Gnu Atheist in question is none other than Professor Jerry Coyne, and the critic is Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, the author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies who recently penned a biting online critique of the New Atheists entitled, Believe It or Not (First Things, May 2010). Readers will recall that on several occasions, I have written posts critical of Professor Coyne’s views, but this time I have to say that Coyne is right and Hart is wrong. It’s as simple as that. Hart’s errors, some of which relate to St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), exhibit the same kind of shoddy scholarship found in the writings of theistic evolutionists who cite Augustine in support of their views.
Regular readers of Uncommon Descent will be aware that David Bentley Hart is not a fan of Intelligent Design theory, which he disparaged as “an argument from personal incredulity” in a mostly positive review (First Things, January 2010) of Professor Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. When I read Hart’s review, I was disappointed at his failure to grasp the abductive logic which underlies the case for ID: the inference to intelligent design is only made after alternative explanations have been methodically ruled out. But in Hart’s defense, it might be argued that he was talking about matters outside his field of expertise.
This time, however, David Bentley Hart has been caught with his pants down, making several egregious blunders on matters relating to his own specialty: theology.
In Part II of a recent six-part interview with Simon Smart in Baltimore on “The New Atheists and an Ugly God”, at 2:04 in the video, Smart put the following question to Dr. Hart on the character of God in the Old Testament:
“Certainly, ah, I wondered about this part though: Dawkins and Hitchens especially attack the God of the Old Testament as a moral monster. How do you respond to those criticisms? Because even, ah, Christians, if they read the Old Testament, find it strange and troubling…”
Hart replied (and here I’m quoting him verbatim):
Well… what’s the news here? I mean that’s the..uh is that, uh, Dawkins and – and- and Hitchens both hold up these stories and- and Dawkins especially, say, “Well, of course, people take – The Bible is supposed to be understood as a moral guide. When in Christian history, wh- before …- well, it may be true in certain fundamentalist circles – we- we- we breed every kind of exotic [tuts audibly] flora here, so … But all the Church Fathers, uh, you know, say, “Well, of course, we read this allegorically,” and they didn’t – and that doesn’t mean reading it as if you believed that there were messages encoded secretly in the text. It’s just that the ancient understanding was that it serves as a spiritual text to the degree that the mind of Christians read it and allegorize in relation to the- the truth that they believed was revealed in Christ … But, you know, all the Church Fathers, all the great medieval theologians, they were quite aware that, that, er, God often, of course they, not “the God of the Old Testament” as if there’s only one to pick – you know, the God of the prophets, many of the prophets, is quite, is much more, uh, uh, urbane, let’s say, [embarrassed laugh] than uh, than some of the Patriarchal narratives … Uh, this is no surprise, and- and it’s only if you think that the history of Christian exegesis takes the Bible, say, as a verbatim – the way a very pious Muslim fundamentalist is expected to understand the Koran – as a verbatim, uh, sort of set of oracles from God, that that’s a problem. If you do impose the sort of, the sort of clod-hopping modern sense that “Well, it must be that whatever the intention of the author was is what the text means, and that’s how it’s always been,” not only Christians, but pagans and Jews in antiquity, wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. That’s just not how texts were read. That’s not how they were understood. Augustine says this in The Confessions: “The intentions of the author of Genesis differ – perhaps entirely – from what a Christian is to make of them.” (Bold emphases mine – VJT.)
Yes, folks, he really did say it exactly as I have transcribed it.
Commenting on these remarks of Hart’s in a recent post entitled David Bentley Hart on the Gnus, Professor Jerry Coyne wrote:
People like this irk me far more than fundamentalist Bible-thumpers, for they should know better.
Indeed, Hart should know better. Let’s have a look at his blunders, before we proceed to discuss their relevance for Intelligent Design.
Egregious Blunder Number 1: Misquoting St. Augustine, making him out to say exactly the opposite of what he actually said
This is a pretty embarrassing mistake for a theologian to make. Apart from St. Athanasius, it would be difficult to think of any Christian, after the death of the apostles, who had more influence on the history of the Church than St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Here’s how David Bentley Hart quotes St. Augustine in The Confessions:
Augustine says this in The Confessions: “The intentions of the author of Genesis differ – perhaps entirely – from what a Christian is to make of them.”
And here’s what St. Augustine actually said in his Confessions Book XII chapter 31, paragraph 42:
42. Thus, when one [person] shall say, “He [Moses] meant as I do,” and another, “Nay, but as I do,” I suppose that I am speaking more religiously when I say, “Why not rather as both, if both be true?” And if there be a third truth, or a fourth, and if any one seek any truth altogether different in those words, why may not he [Moses] be believed to have seen all these, through whom one God has tempered the Holy Scriptures to the senses of many, about to see therein things true but different? I certainly, – and I fearlessly declare it from my heart – were I to write anything to have the highest authority, should prefer so to write, that whatever of truth any one might apprehend concerning these matters, my words should re-echo, rather than that I should set down one true opinion so clearly on this as that I should exclude the rest, that which was false in which could not offend me. Therefore am I unwilling, O my God, to be so headstrong as not to believe that from You this man [Moses] has received so much. He, surely, when he wrote those words, perceived and thought whatever of truth we have been able to discover, yea, and whatever we have not been able, nor yet are able, though still it may be found in them. (Bold emphases mine – VJT.)
In this passage, St. Augustine:
(a) affirmed that Moses was the author of Genesis;
(b) declared that Moses may well have intended the words of Genesis to have multiple meanings;
(c) suggested that Christians had not yet discovered all of these meanings;
(d) asserted that Moses explicitly perceived and thought (i.e. intended) all of the true meanings of the words of Genesis – including those that still remain hidden to us today.
This is completely the opposite of what Dr. Hart claimed St. Augustine said.
Egregious Blunder Number 2: Asserting that people in antiquity did not believe in interpreting a text in accordance with the intentions of the author
David Bentley Hart declares:
If you do impose the sort of, the sort of clod-hopping modern sense that “Well, it must be that whatever the intention of the author was is what the text means, and that’s how it’s always been,” not only Christians, but pagans and Jews in antiquity, wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.
Not one scintilla of evidence is cited by Dr. Hart for this bald assertion.
Unfortunately for Dr. Hart, the “clod-hopping modern” position he pooh-poohs just happens to be the official teaching position of the Catholic Church. And since the Eastern Orthodox Church’s understanding of the meaning of Scripture is nowhere listed among the theological differences dividing the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, I can only conclude that the following passages, which are taken from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, also represent the teaching of the Orthodox Church, to which David Bentley Hart belongs.
109 In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.75
110 In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.”76
111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.”77 (Bold emphases mine – VJT.)
75 Cf. Dei Verbum 12.1
76 Dei Verbum 12.2
77 Dei Verbum 12.3
Going back to the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, cited by the Catechism, I found almost the same wording in chapter III, section 12, as well as the following supporting footnotes:
6. St. Augustine, “City of God,” XVII, 6, 2: PL 41, 537: CSEL. XL, 2, 228.
7. St. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine” III, 18, 26; PL 34, 75-76.
8. Pius XII, loc. cit. Denziger 2294 (3829-3830); EB 557-562.
9. cf. Benedict XV, encyclical “Spiritus Paraclitus” Sept. 15, 1920:EB 469. St. Jerome, “In Galatians” 5, 19-20: PL 26, 417 A.
Thus the Catholic Church – and by implication, the Orthodox Church, to which David Bentley Hart belongs – clearly teaches that the meaning of Scripture consists in what the human authors intended to affirm, and that this meaning is also what God wanted to reveal to us through their words. What’s more, the footnotes to the Vatican II document Dei Verbum show that this teaching goes back at least to the time of Saints Augustine and Jerome – in other words, back to the fourth centry A.D. I think I’d call that “antiquity.” Wouldn’t you?
Egregious Blunder Number 3: Asserting that all the Church Fathers allegorized the passages in Scripture where God seems to behave like a moral monster
In his interview, Simon Smart put the following question to David Bentley Hart: “Dawkins and Hitchens especially attack the God of the Old Testament as a moral monster. How do you respond to those criticisms?” Dr. Hart responded by making a sweeping assertion:
But all the Church Fathers, uh, you know, say, “Well, of course, we read this allegorically,” and they didn’t – and that doesn’t mean reading it as if you believed that there were messages encoded secretly in the text. It’s just that the ancient understanding was that it serves as a spiritual text to the degree that the mind of Christians read it and allegorize in relation to the- the truth that they believed was revealed in Christ. (Bold emphasis mine – VJT.)
This is breathtakingly ignorant. Let me begin with a passage often cited by “Gnu Atheists” when attacking the Old Testament: the story (2 Kings 2:23-24) of how the prophet Elisha cursed a band of youths who mocked him for his baldness, and of how two bears suddenly came out of the woods and tore 42 of the youths to pieces.
The earliest Christian writer to discuss the morality of God’s actions in this passage was Tertullian (c. 160-220 A.D.), in his work Against Marcion, Book IV, chapter XXIII. Marcion (85-160 A.D.) was a second century heretic who wanted to jettison the Old Testament, since he believed that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the God of the Old Testament, and that the God of the Old Testament was a different person from the God of the New Testament. In the passage below, Tertullian responds to an objection of Marcion’s, that Christ loved little children, whereas the wicked God of the Old Testament sent bears to kill little boys for mocking Elisha:
But see, [Marcion says], Christ loves the little ones, and teaches that all who ever wish to be the greater, need to be as they; whereas the Creator sent bears against some boys, to avenge Elisha the prophet for mockery he had suffered from them. A fairly reckless antithesis, when it sets together such diverse things, little children and boys, an age as yet innocent, and an age now capable of judgement, which knew how to mock, not to say, blaspheme. So then, being a just God, he did not spare even boys when disrespectful, but demanded Honour to old age, and more particularly from the younger: but as a kind God he loves the little ones to such a degree that in Egypt he dealt well with the midwives who guarded the child-bearing of the Hebrews, which was in peril through Pharaoh’s edict. So here too Christ’s disposition agrees with the Creator’s. But now for Marcion’s god, who is opposed to matrimony: how can he be taken for a lover of little ones? The whole reason for these is matrimony. One who hates the seed must of necessity detest its fruit. (Bold emphases mine – VJT.)
Tertullian, when confronted by the heretic Marcion about this passage where God sends bears to kill 42 boys, did not allegorize it away. Instead, he accepted its literal meaning, and defended God’s behavior as morally justified.
The reader may be wondering how St. Augustine interpreted this troubling Biblical passage. It turns out that he, too, interpreted it literally, in his Exposition on Psalm 47:
Recollect the Gospel, where they crucified the Lord, and you will find Him crucified in the place of Calvary. Furthermore, they who deride His Cross, by devils, as by beasts, are devoured. For this also a certain Scripture signified. When God’s Prophet Elisha was going up, children called after him mocking, “Go up thou bald head, Go up thou bald head:” but he, not so much in cruelty as in mystery, made those children to be devoured by bears out of the wood. (2 Kings 2:23-24) If those children had not been devoured, would they have lived even till now? Or could they not, being born mortal, have been taken off by a fever? But so in them had no mystery been shown, whereby posterity might be put in fear. Let none then mock the Cross of Christ. (Bold emphases mine – VJT.)
Here, St. Augustine treats the Biblical passage literally, declaring that the children were killed by God, not as an act of cruelty, but in order to show future generations that God punishes those who mock Him.
I could go on here, and discuss how the literal historicity of this passage was universally accepted Christian theologians as diverse as Matthew Henry and John Wesley, until the late 19th century, but I think readers get my drift. I might add that Jewish commentators also accepted the historicity of this passage (see the article on Elisha). Some of these commentators faulted Elisha for yielding to his anger in cursing the boys; but others insisted that they were not boys, but young men. It should be noted that John Wesley held the same view.
Let’s return to St. Augustine. In his work Contra Faustum, St. Augustine records a disputation he had with Faustus, the Manichean Bishop of Milevis. The Manicheans were dualists, and like Marcion, they rejected much of the Old Testament, arguing that the books of the Old Testament contained a badly distorted picture of God. In Contra Faustum Book XXII, paragraph 4, Faustus charges:
4. These books, moreover, contain shocking calumnies against God himself. We are told that he existed from eternity in darkness, and admired the light when he saw it; that he was so ignorant of the future, that he gave Adam a command, not foreseeing that it would be broken; that his perception was so limited that he could not see Adam when, from the knowledge of his nakedness, he hid himself in a corner of Paradise; that envy made him afraid lest his creature man should taste of the tree of life, and live for ever; that afterwards he was greedy for blood, and fat from all kinds of sacrifices, and jealous if they were offered to any one but himself; that he was enraged sometimes against his enemies, sometimes against his friends; that he destroyed thousands of men for a slight offense, or for nothing; that he threatened to come with a sword and spare nobody, righteous or wicked. The authors of such bold libels against God might very well slander the men of God. You must join with us in laying the blame on the writers if you wish to vindicate the prophets. (Bold emphasis mine – VJT.)
St. Augustine replied to the charge that the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster in Contra Faustum Book XXII, paragraph 79:
79. Let no one, then, be so daring as to make rash charges against men, not to say against God. If the service of the ministers of the Old Testament, who were also heralds of the New, consisted in putting sinners to death, and that of the ministers of the New Testament, who are also interpreters of the Old, in being put to death by sinners, the service in both cases is rendered to one God, who, varying the lesson to suit the times, teaches both that temporal blessings are to be sought from Him, and that they are to be forsaken for Him, and that temporal distress is both sent by Him and should be endured for Him. There was, therefore, no cruelty in the command, or in the action of Moses, when, in his holy jealousy for his people, whom he wished to be subject to the one true God, on learning that they had fallen away to the worship of an idol made by their own hands, he impressed their minds at the time with a wholesome fear, and gave them a warning for the future, by using the sword in the punishment of a few, whose just punishment God, against whom they had sinned, appointed in the depth of His secret judgment to be immediately inflicted. That Moses acted as he did, not in cruelty, but in great love, may be seen from the words in which he prayed for the sins of the people: “If You will forgive their sin, forgive it; and if not, blot me out of Your book.” The pious inquirer who compares the slaughter with the prayer will find in this the clearest evidence of the awful nature of the injury done to the soul by prostitution to the images of devils, since such love is roused to such anger. We see the same in the apostle, who, not in cruelty, but in love, delivered a man up to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Others, too, he delivered up, that they might learn not to blaspheme…
[S]uch was the intention of Moses, the servant of God, when he cut down with the sword the makers and worshippers of the idol; for his own words show that he so entreated for pardon for their sin of idolatry as to ask to be blotted out of God’s book if his prayer was not heard.
St. Augustine here affirmed the literal historicity of the events that the Gnu Atheists commonly refer to as Biblical atrocities, but added a twist: the terrible punishments that the Israelities suffered in these incidents ensured their forgiveness in the hereafter.
Relevance for Intelligent Design
St. Augustine is often cited by theistic evolutionists (see here) as a theologian whose mindset was hospitable to the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Unfortunately, theistic evolutionists who make these claims are guilty of the same carelessness as Dr. David Bentley Hart: they haven’t read St. Augustine’s own writings on the subject. Instead, they’ve read essays and scholarly commentaries instead of sitting down and reading the texts themselves. If they did that, they would discover that St. Augustine expressly taught that the world was 6,000 years old (City of God, Book XII, chapter 12); that creatures of all kinds were created instantly at the beginning of time; that Adam and Eve were historical persons; that Paradise was a literal place; that the patriarch Methusaleh actually lived to the age of 969; that there was a literal ark, and that the Flood covered the whole earth; and that he vigorously defended all of these doctrines against skeptics in the fourth century (yes, they existed back then, too), who scoffed at them. The curious reader can confirm what I have read by consulting St. Augustine’s City of God Book XIII and Book XV.
Let me finish with a piece of advice for Dr. Hart: if you’re going to defend Christianity, do it intelligently. Don’t misquote sources that even skeptics can check for themselves, and don’t gild the lily. Please portray the past accurately, warts and all.