Philip Bakardzhiev, “a Fellow Orthodox Christian,” Finds “the Author” Not Orthodox

Philip Bakardzhiev has posted an online review of David Bentley Hart’s You Are Gods and does so from “the perspective of a fellow Orthodox Christian who wishes to appraise Hart’s legitimacy in presenting his views as Orthodox.” This review was a little disorienting, and not primarily because of it’s extraordinary number of typos. (There is clearly no editing of any kind with the just as is the case on this team blog where I am putting down these few thoughts.) What made Bakardzhiev’s review disorienting was his use of sweeping categories at the start and finish that leave Hart with two options—either being the champion of a “theological school [that] has finally exhausted itself” or that was “never truly Orthodox at all” (the review’s grand closing words)—while diving in to a fundamentally confused analysis of the details within the body of the review where we get some more conciliatory and qualified language:

  • You are Gods is a work that would be of great interest to the student of theology, and it is also one that opens up a number of important debates which are worth having.”
  • “None of this should be taken to mean that the book contains no traditionally Orthodox thought at all, but that great caution be exercised in this respect would be a wise recommendation for the Orthodox reader.”

So I’m left to conclude that Bakardzhiev wants to have it both ways: to identify Hart as the champion of a theological school who has finally demonstrated that his school was never Orthodox to begin with while still saying that Hart “opens up a number of important debates which are worth having.” While there is no necessary contradiction between these two positions, these are a rather grand set of claims to make within a short review. I also found it slightly disconcerting for Bakardzhiev to refer to Hart more often than not as “the author” while opening with the line of being “a fellow Orthodox Christian” who has a brotherly reprimand to deliver regarding the dangers of “turning to non-Christian religions for inspiration and argumentation” and other such reprehensible tendencies.

However, enough from me on the tone and framework of Bakardzhiev’s review. With regard to substance, I’ll just note three points that illustrate a fundamentally confused analysis by Bakardzhiev.

First, I don’t see how anyone who is claiming to defend the church fathers (against the dangerous innovations of the Paris school) can say that “man’s fallen intellect” is “defined by passions and limitations.” If patristic and Orthodox theology is saying anything, it is saying that humans must and can respond to God. We must participate in our own salvation, and the deepest source of this participation is identified specifically as the nous (often translated “intellect” or “mind” although it is most essentially an organ of spiritual sight in the writings of all the mothers and fathers of the church). Our fallenness clouds our nous by means of passions that are no longer guided by a vision of God, and this blindness and confusion profoundly limits our will. However, to say that our fallen nous is “defined by passions and limitations” is ludicrously out of keeping with the writings of the church fathers. Our nous is our innermost and most pure capacity. In the writings of the fathers, it is not redefined or changed by the fall but simply buried and unused. When we allow the nous to guide us in prayer, we are most certainly upon the road to salvation. This all fully aligns with Hart’s arguments in Your Are Gods, while this phrase by Bakardzhiev (that “man’s fallen intellect” is “defined by passions and limitations”) places him in the sad camp of most later Christian anthropologies (primarily those of the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation) wherein the fall of humanity is made absurdly conclusive by all sides.

Second, to say that “the Paris school has remained a largely academic phenomenon” is to forget that it’s greatest witness is Mother Maria of Paris (whose profound theology of divine sonship and motherhood as the definition of God’s image in humanity is one of this school’s greatest gifts to the world in my humble opinion). At any rate, for any persuaded by this slight from Bakardzhiev, consider the life of Mother Maria of Paris and its ongoing witness within the church for one quiet and thoughtful week and then let me know again if “the Paris school has remained a largely academic phenomenon.”

Third, and most substantively, Bakardzhiev entirely fails to grasp what Hart is saying about Arius and orthodox doctrine. Just as Hart does more fully in Tradition and Apocalypse (as I have tried to explain here), Hart is defending the development of the great Orthodox creeds in the face of a visionless traditionalism (such as that of Arius and, I must be honest, Bakardzhiev). It was disheartening to watch Bakardzhiev move immediately from a ham-fisted account of Hart’s discussion of Arius to the claim that this shows how Hart portrays “the defined dogmas of the Church as generally unhelpful.” Hart is doing just the opposite in providing the Orthodox Church (and beyond) with a beautiful and profound defense of our creeds (which Hart expounds under the traditional term of symbol) as alive and of ongoing vitality.

It is telling, in this portion of Bakardzhiev’s review, that he fails to make any distinction at all between Christian “orthodoxies” of which there are obviously many wildly contradictory varieties and the living credal faith of the one church that is, as we profess, both catholic and orthodox. Bakardzhiev betrays a very basic confusion regarding Hart as Bakardzhiev makes his claims in this portion of his review:

Apparently many of the teachings we now hold dear and consider Orthodox are, in fact, incompatible with what Paul believed happened in Christ. This is, of course, a radical claim but it is certainly not the most radical to which we are about to be exposed…

What Bakardzhiev fails to expound upon (or perhaps comprehend at all) is that the doctrines attacked by Hart as silly orthodoxies (small “o”) would not be considered a part of the one catholic and orthodox faith by any Orthodox theologian (as well as by a substantial number of Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and other Christian theologians): namely doctrines such as penal substitution, biblicism, a deistic God, or the total depravity of our fallen human nature. To confuse Hart’s attacks on such pervasive modern distortions of the historic Christian faith with an abandonment of that historic Christian faith is a sad state of affairs indeed.

Yes, Hart does point out that Christianity has always learned much from other wisdom traditions (such as Neoplatonism) in its exposition of who Christ is to a world that is badly in need of Christ’s light so that we all might grow in our understanding of the incarnation and in our capacity for the ancient virtue of religion (which was understood as a simple human capacity until the rise of secularism). However, Hart is insisting that this all be guided by our life of prayer and worship together as we orient ourselves toward the eternal kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ (a point made explicitly in Tradition and Apocalypse). All of the great defenders of the Christian faith against heresies and heterodox gnosticism within the ancient church understood this vision of Christ (as the one who reveals God to be “all in all”) to be the true gnosis. May Mother Maria of Paris pray for us as we continue to consider these truths together today.

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