16 Jan

Has David Bentley-Hart gone off his rocker?

David Bentley-Hart is a man I admired greatly for his book “God” – a quite outstanding essay in philosophical theology.

But he’s gone right off the rails in his new project to offer us a “subversively literal” translation of the Greek New Testament. No honest translator sets out a priori to produce a subversive version – or an orthodox, conservative version if it comes to that – but to produce the best translation he can

A few points then

First it is an astonishing claim to suggest that all previous translators of the New Testament got it wrong! What the immaculate Tyndale? The scholars, including Lancelot Andrewes, who produced the King James Version? The superb mostly American linguists who gave us The Revised Standard Version? All duds and just waiting for David to come along and put them right?

Besides, the interpretation of Paul which David says is plain wrong happens to be substantially the same interpretation as that held by Augustine, Luther, Karl Barth, Newman and Joseph Ratzinger. Were they all wrong too?

A few details…

Paul does not say we are born “damnedly guilty” He says “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Original Sin is our self-corruption of our own will: “The thing I would, that I do not; and what I would not, that I do.” That’s Paul’s definition of Original Sin in words of one syllable

No – we are not saved by our good deeds but good deeds in those who are saved through faith in Christ are pleasant to God, and they are performed by the grace of Christ. As Paul says, “Not I but Christ within me.” But good deeds cannot save us. As Blake said, “If moral virtue was Christianity, Christ’s pretensions were all vanity.” If good deeds save us, why the need for Christ’s sacrifice?

In St Paul, but also in the synoptic gospels and in The Book of Revelation, we find the teaching of everlasting hell. Though, as Aquinas said, “There certainly is a hell. But don’t worry, there’s probably no one in it!”

“For Paul, pistis means…” Oh dear! What does this perfectly simple Greek word mean for the rest of us? It’s from Plato  – cf “epistemology” – and it is, at least to start with, an intellectual commitment. Repentance “metanoia” – much favoured by Paul – is also an intellectual act: it means “change or renew tour mind, your way of thinking.” Repentance and faith go together in Paul – as they do in John the Baptist and in the three short epistles of John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” And so on. This theology pervades the New Testament. Hardly surprising since it IS the gospel!

Paul chooses different themes in one epistle from those he chooses to expound in another: Colossians is full of the doctrine of the Cosmic Christ (which David touches on); but that’s not the teaching we find in Romans. Philippians is largely about a different theme altogether: Christ’s pre-existence and self-emptying (Kenosis) – see especially chapter 2

It is facile to suggest that Paul is some sort of Manichee – spirit good; flesh bad. If so, why does he tell us that we shall be given “a spiritual body” – soma-pneumatikon? Why is he such a strong preacher of Christ’s Incarnation?

I’m disappointed to find David offering us sensation, a mere squib, when he is capable of writing the real thing

But then people do get tempted and corrupted – even theologians – as, of course,  St Paul says!