I’m currently re-reading David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and am loving going back through this text again. This is truly a magnificent work of Christian theology that deserves extensive thoughtful engagement. After my initial reading of Hart’s book, I found myself giving a profoundly negative assessment thereto; however after letting the book sit and digest over the last year or so and now reading it again, I am finding it more and more joyous an experience.
Ultimately, I think that my own differences with Hart occur at the same theological locale that defines Hart’s argument with Robert Jenson. In the actual discussion of Jenson’s theology and Hart’s argument with him, the disagreement seems to be based on — as Hart says in the preface to the book — a different understanding of the economic and immanent trinities. Particularly there seems to a wide divergence over the issue of what Hart perceives as Jenson’s historicization of God’s being. For Hart it is essential to assert that creation is not necessary to God, that it adds nothing to God’s being, being a purely gratuitous gift of God which neither adds nor detracts from God’s plenitude. For Jenson, however, the revelation of God in Israel and Jesus requires us to identify God’s own self-definition by and as particular historical events, supremely the event of the resurrection which defines and indeed, constitutes God’s own eternal life. For Jenson, “If Jesus is not risen, this God simply is not.”
However, in the course of Hart’s book he makes claims that sound utterly Jensonian, from his musical ontology through which he describes the beatific vision to his Trinitarian theology of divine beauty, Hart and Jenson sound much more alike than unlike one another. The real locus of their disagreement, I suggest is located at the level of their respective theologies of time. Hart’s whole project, including his geneological assault on continental philosophy, is predicated on the positing of a primordial, protological harmony, an original peace that is definitive of creation. This original peace forms the ontological ground of Hart’s entire project. Violence is privatio boni, a secondary intrusion of negation into an ocean of beatific plenitude that the world, as creatio ex nihilo is imbued with. For Hart, it is all about origin. The key to his understanding of the Christian gospel, as a rhetoric of peace is grounded in the positing of an original ontological harmony, a protological ontology of serendipity.
For Jenson, by contrast, the Christian evangel is not primarily constituted by its appeal to an original created harmony, but rather by its proclamation of an irreducible future of eschatological abundance which is the outcome of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Jenson, the ontological ground of the Christian gospel does not reside in the past, as a primordial harmony to which we hope to be restored, but rather in the future which is an eschatological superabundance of resurrection life, overturning the world of sin and death in a dynamic confrontation between the powers of death and the life of the Triune God.
Hart’s magnificent Trinitarian aesthetics is grounded protologically; Jenson’s is grounded eschatologically. Herein, I think lies the true difference between the two thinkers. This is seen even in terms of how much attention they respectively give to the doctrines of creation and eschatology respectively. Jenson does not even begin to treat the doctrine of creation until the second volume of his Systematic Theology, only beginning to discuss it after establishing a doctrine of God that is radically determined by the resurrection and eschatology. Hart, by contrast, devotes over a hundred and fifty pages to establishing the doctrines of the analogia entis, divine apatheia, and a doctrine of creation and only then turns to salvation and eschatology, only devoting a mere 18 pages or so to eschatology when he does get there. And even in his discussion of eschatology, the first words thereof are that Christian eschatology affirms the goodness of created difference, again taking recourse back to Hart’s grounding principle of protological harmony.
My point in all this is not to attempt to adjudicate the disagreement between Hart and Jenson. On the whole I find Jenson’s theology to better conform to the ratio of the Christian gospel, which begins with the eschatological proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection then proceeds to retroactively read that overriding reality back into our understandings of God as Trinity and God’s creation. Hart seems to invert this scheme, moving instead from an original metaphysical vision of God and creation to an evaluation and incorporation of the significance of the resurrected Messiah. Ultimately, the difference really lies in the area of ontology: does the being of creation (and God?) take its form and ratio from an original protological harmony, or an irreducible future of superabundance? Or is some sort of third way possible as Jenson seems to hint in his review of Hart in Pro Ecclesia? How one answers that question will probably determine whether one finds Hart or Jenson more persuasive to one’s theological sensibilities.