In this third and last interview of David Bentley Hart by Tony Golsby-Smith, Tony starts out asking David to contrast Augustine’s reading of Paul with the reading that we get in Gregory of Nyssa (the focus of their first and their second interviews). Tony uses language at first that casts all of Augustine in an exclusively negative light, but David quickly points out that Augustine is revered as a saint both east and west, and gives several reasons for this. David points out multiple ways that Augustine’s theology is most beautiful at its outset (including elements that David praises as filled with timeless beauty and insight). However, David says that he follows the Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena in using the early Augustine to critique the late Augustine. David argues that Augustine’s later theology grows calcified and cruel as Augustine labors under some basic misunderstandings of the original Greek in Paul and also faces tremendous stresses in the challenges of life and church leadership within the Western part of the Roman Empire.
David and Tony’s conversation ends up moving into an analysis of the modern world. David makes a case here for how the fall of Christianity came about as a response to the problems of late Augustinian theology, especially as it became even more extreme in various late medieval Catholic theologians as well as in the works of Luther and Calvin. Although the reformers come out looking entirely rejected and condemned in this excerpt, David (here and elsewhere) does have praise for both Luther and Calvin (although primarily only as a stylists, in the case of the latter).
I’ve transcribed the passages below for three key insights that I’m interested to consider further. First is that the modern autonomous self and its sovereignty of will is a concept that can be traced back to the theology of the late Augustine with regard to God. Second is that the modern nation state is the inheritor of a relatively late medieval concept of divine sovereignty that briefly went under the name of the “divine right of kings” but quickly was handed over to the secular nation state (at the Peace of Westphalia), giving rise to modernity and secularism as we know it today. Third is that secular modernity came about in large part because the God of late Augustine became a false God that was rejected (while at the same time becoming the basis of our own self-understanding.
From the high middle ages onward and in the next century, the 14th century more and more, the Augustinian tradition—in a now modernized and even more severe form—began to become one of the dominant strains of thought. Luther comes out of an Augustinian monastic tradition. He’s familiar with nominalist doctrines of absolute sovereignty—ideas that actually go beyond Augustine’s much more careful much and more brilliant metaphysical understanding of God—and begin more and more to take the element of what looks like sheer arbitrariness in the God of the late Augustine and elevate that to a virtue to make it represent divine sovereignty which now becomes the highest good.
There’s a curious convergence between this way of thinking about God and the emerging political models of early modernity. The absolute monarch (which is not a medieval idea, it’s an early modern idea), the absolute prerogatives of the nation state—more and more there’s some sort of strange occult interchange going on between the picture of God as this absolute sovereign (hidden behind quite often the nominalist veil of absolute mystery who’s only dealing with his creatures is the pure power of his will to be the sovereign disposer of all things) and the image of the monarch as the absolute sovereign. Then you could argue that the story of modernity has been more and more the migration of this understanding of what it is to be free—to be truly free, to be absolutely sovereign, to be just pure will willing what it wills for the sake of what it wills—migrates from the image of God to the image of each individual, and that becomes our picture of the libertarian modern individual subject invested with absolute prerogatives whose freedom consists in pure spontaneity of will—sovereignty over self.
How this happened—you can see the genealogy of this picture of divine sovereignty and its effect both in political thought and on our thinking about what it is to be a free rational creature from the late medieval period onward, but it’s by a subterranean stream that this is a possibility in late medieval thought because it has always been latent in the tradition going back to the late Augustine. Because from the moment the late Augustine decides that the answer to the Pelagians is this story of absolute praedestinatio anti-provisum merit—which is one of his clear misreadings of Paul (that God predestines either to damnation or salvation entirely without any pre-vision of the merits of the creature because those merits are in fact the effects of predestination not their premise, not their cause)—from that moment onwards, this poison, I hate to say it, is present in the blood system of the West and of Christendom.
…Theologically, [Calvin] took it to a new extreme because he was willing in book three of the Institutes to say something that neither Augustine nor Aquinas would say, which was that God predestined the fall. So that the whole drama of fall, mortality, damnation, salvation exists purely as the display of divine power, display of divine sovereignty. Calvin’s quite clear here (and sadly there’s great precedent for this in the tradition), the rarity of grace, the fact that it’s given to only very few (understand, the vast majority of humanity was created with no other purpose than to suffer eternally)—the rarity of grace is what demonstrates its preciousness, its goodness. Actually the truth is, if that were true, it would demonstrate a certain revolting ego in that grace.
…You know, obviously, I believe that the whole notion of eternal torment is an accident of ecclesial history, and I can give you any number of arguments for why it became the predominant view. For most of Christian history, most Christians were largely unacquainted with the details of something like the theology of grace that you have in the late Augustine. It’s only in early modernity. …One of the reasons why, obviously, Calvin is an influential figure is because the printing press existed, and I think more and more the theology of the 16th century became more and more militantly late Augustinian. I want to point out again in Catholicism too, not just in Reformation in Evangelische circles but in a lot of Roman Catholicism as well. It also was the first time that many Christians actually came to be acquainted with the full contents of this theological and dogmatic tradition. Actually, [for] most medieval Christians you know, rather vaguely, there’s heaven, there’s hell, there’s the Mother of God who will plead first before her son the Judge. …Once a year you may communicate if you’re especially pious, if you’re one of the peasants. There’s not a strong consciousness of the theology—as a system of thought about God and God’s relation to creation. But in the early modern period, the late medieval into the early modern period, now, it becomes a matter of general consciousness, and that’s the beginning of the end when the Augustinian tradition is dominant. All of these movements—the Reformed church, Lutheranism—at first they’re marked by great vitality, but all these modern expressions of Christianity more and more begin to sink into a kind of morbidity because as people become aware of the full spectrum of this kind of late Augustinian theology [they are going to] see how repellent it is.
Now at first this will take the form of attempts to rescue other kinds of Christianity from historical forgetfulness, like John Wesley was a great reader of the Greek fathers, and he rejected out of hand this picture so the Methodist tradition stands outside. There were huge movements of universalism in 19th century Britain (not just in Britain …but throughout the Christian world, Russia too)—but if you just look at Britain in the 19th century, the the sheer number of prominent figures who were believers like say the Brontes, Lewis Carroll, George McDonald, you know, …Tennyson—you go down the list of people who are devout but with enough sensitivity and intellectual tact to be genuinely horrified by the picture they’ve been presented. But then of course what also happens is that more and more, at a very tacit, very quiet level, more and more people are driven away from this picture.
The late modern picture of God that became dominant, the voluntarist God of absolute sovereignty who was rooted in the late Augustine’s theology, is two things at once. He becomes the model of freedom as such, pure sovereignty, so he becomes a rival to each of us, an intolerable rival. He’s also a tyrant, and for both those reasons he has to be killed. In modernity, we discover our liberty by killing the ancient omnipotent rival to our liberty—the only one who can be sovereign in a way that leaves us subordinate to him. But also he’s a tyrant, you know, you cannot believe, you cannot love this God, and you should not, and he must die. So by the time we get to the late 19th century, and Nietzsche’s proclaiming the death of God and giving it a genealogy that’s rather brilliant, but one thing he leaves out is the degree in which the age [of] the death of God, the birth of modern atheism, the fragmentation of the Christian view of reality is something incubated within late medieval and early modern christianity itself.