David Bentley Hart’s Questions about Jordan Wood’s Christology

Note: This report was updated for accuracy in several details on August 23, 2022 based on input from a few of those involved. And see also this most recent response by Hart.

This is a dispute that I don’t really understand. However, I’m trying to follow it, and below is Hart’s latest summary of his case against Wood (with a few notes of my own at the end on the history of the dispute as far as I’ve been able to track it). This summary by Hart comes from “Episode XVII. You Are Gods” on the Forms podcast (which can also be found here on YouTube) released on August 17, 2022 (and transcribed by me starting about about 49:05). I’m not sure of the name of this podcast host, but he tweets under the name Henry Wallis (@henryjwallis):

Hart: Faith is not an irrational adherence to something that makes no sense to you. If it’s real faith, it’s because some judgment, some prudential judgment but also some logical judgment, some evaluation has been made in which you have said “this is credible” and then said “this I believe to be true.” Now, you may not be able to reconstruct all the reasoning that you’ve done, but nonetheless you’re trusting in your reason—however fallible or failed it is—even if that reason just comes down to the judgment that this sounds right, you know.

So obviously, the problem is, I found that . . . the peculiar disease [is] every tradition can overlook the analogical or reduce the analogical to almost nullity in different ways. I’ve had Muslim friends for whom the sovereignty of God is only affirmed if you affirm that he is absolutely beyond any conception that we have of even what God should do to be the good God of of creation. Now this isn’t actually in keeping with most Islamic tradition, but nonetheless, you know. In Hinduism, you can get very antinomian pictures of God based on this wonderful metaphysics of transcendence and of the “Neti neti” of the apophatic tradition in Hinduism which nonetheless again severs the strand of analogy. And for Christians, again, it’s this intense desire to reduce everything to a dramatic narrative without being able to accept that part of that dramatic narrative is that there is one in whom from eternity the triumph is already complete—that the drama is about how we come to be in God not how God comes to be in us except to the degree that it is our becoming in God.

I early on, when I said that [Sergei] Bulgakov, I thought, made an advance on neo-Chalcedonianism because he insisted (in a way that sounds more like Meister Eckhart, perhaps), but he (with the language of Sophia) [insisted] that who and what we are is already divine in its true nature its first beginning which is its ultimate end in what he would call the (it’s a very funny word really) “hypostasibility” of the divine essence.

Wallis: Yeah, you should go back to the hypostasis because when we start talking about this, especially with our Orthodox brethren, people will throw out all kind of, like: “What about essence energies? What about this? What about that?”

Hart: Yeah, that’s unfortunate. Maybe we should avoid that conversation.

Wallis: Yeah, we’re going to avoid that, but go to the hypostasis part.

Hart: Well, all right, I’ve mentioned this before. There’s very talented young scholars in America now—who follow, I think, the sort of leader of the pack, the Maximus scholar Jordan Wood—who want to put such an emphasis upon the uniqueness of Christ’s hypostatic union as the ground of creation and of the union of God and creation that they want to eschew all analogical ontology and speak instead of the radical differences in nature that only in Christ are reconciled.

The problems with this are manifold, of course. One, they start talking in terms of the reconciliation of incompatibles, that, and you know, the dynamic power of personality. Personality there has just become a vacuous category for doing something meaningless because incompatibles can’t be reconciled unless they’re reduced to a commonality that they share in common to a wider [reality]. And you know Bulgakov understood this very well and that’s why [he] introduced the idea of the Sophianic. It’s not some strange fourth person of the Trinity or some sort of Hermetic goddess (although you’re free to think of it that way; I have no problems), but you know. The issue is simply that he understood that you could never, you don’t evacuate the notion (and this is part of the history of the term: “hypostasis” also became sort of paired with “prósōpon” in Greek but both words got translated as “persona” in Latin and then persona in later years got more and more assimilated into a developing notion of persons as psychological subjects, you know). . .

Wallis: Now we’re back to Karl Barth.

Hart: Right, oh, you understand Bart. Okay, well, the issue that Bulgakov recognized is that you cannot relinquish the notion that hypostasis literally is a subsistence. Because, otherwise, all you are doing is trafficking in magic explanations that simply reaffirm the paradox in a way that doesn’t answer the question but that seems to. That is, in some way, you see, the question of christology shouldn’t be: “How is it that two utterly incompatible natures are united and reconciled in one hypostasis?” That’s a meaningless question because, if they’re irreconcilable, then they’re not reconciled, if they’re utterly disparate. You know, Maximus will use some extreme language there, but what he means when he says that there is no kenon, no “common thing” between God and [creation], what he means is that there is no univocal attribute or property.

Wallis: This is the analogical interval coming back.

Hart: Right, that’s in fact, it’s actually a statement of analogy, but that’s not how it’s taken by these young neo-Chalcedonians.

And what (he didn’t put it this way; it’s the way I put it) but what Bulgakov understood is that the question of christology will only be intelligibly answered when you understand that the question isn’t, “How are two incompatible, or two infinitely disparate natures, reconciled in one hypostasis?” It’s rather (you remember that hypostasis means subsistence and subsistence of a nature): “How is it that the subsistence of the divine nature and the subsistence of the human nature are one and the same subsistence?” And that means that the answer lies that, in the nature already, human nature is already divine [and] divine nature already human [and] that in the divine essence, already, that there is no contradiction, there’s no division here. What we are is, in this very specific mode, what we are, at the very ground of our being, is God being God in us. Now, I can’t lay out here that final chapter of the book.

Now, for a little history with some links. Jordan Wood and some of his theological friends were among the earliest to get a review copy of Hart’s book You Are Gods which they talked about with David Hart on an episode of the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast with an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020 (find it on Apple, Anchor.fm, or Listen Notes). I did not pick up on much of a dispute at that point. However, in retrospect, it does show up a little.

Moving forward in time, Jordan Wood shared a little online, informally, defending Hegel’s christology against some attacks by both John Milbank and David Hart. In particular, John Milbank tweeted (on February 22, 2022): “It is very odd that so many good younger theologians now fail to see that Hegel was an atheist. DBH was just saying this to me. Baffles us both.” Not only did Wood and several others online defend Hegel as a Christian theologian, but it became clear that Wood finds the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis to be grounded in the personhood of Christ where the ultimate thesis and antithesis are reconciled. All truth is personal and all truth can contain apparently irreconcilable realities.

Following shortly after some of these informal social media exchanges, on March 26, 2022, Hart then posted “The Sage of Jena: A Hegelian—or Para-Hegelian—Interlude” on his subscription-based Substack newsletter, Leaves in the Wind. This substantive post was not without some characteristic David Bentley Hart put-downs:

Young Hegelians are an especially feral breed, coursing as they do across the twilit tundra in great loping and baying packs, lusting after blood, relentlessly pursuing whatever quarry may at any moment have excited their fevered amygdalas, howling in savage ecstasy as they fling themselves upon their tremulous and exhausted prey, and then turning on one another with even greater ferocity to fight over this or that scrap of the system or fragment of idealized bone. At least, that is their affect. Their effect is somewhat less imposing. In reality, as most of them are academics, pallid and ectomorphic and a little on the socially inept side, they are in the aggregate slightly less formidable than a small bunny petulantly nursing an injured toe. Their arguments, however pitched and fierce, sound from any healthy distance like the shrill clamoring of a playground full of children, irate over having only the one toy to play with among them and wholly unable to agree on what game it is good for.

Things went quiet again for a while until Dr. Ty Monroe wrote a review of Your Are Gods for the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog (of Fr. Aidan Kimel) called “A (New) Suspended Middle? On David Bentley Hart and the Nature-Grace Question” which posted on August 7, 2022. Monroe was a classmate of Wood’s as they both studied theology at Boston College, and they remain close friends. Among many substantive points, this review did take up a critique of Hart’s assessment of Hegel. Conversations continued in the comments beneath this online review, including substantial notes from Hart and his playful appellation of “Young Turks” to his interlocutors. Hart considers Monroe and Wood to be distorting Maximus and reading the Neo-Chalcedonian period anachronistically (so that they should properly be called Neo-Neo-Chalcedonians).

This brings us to Hart’s comments transcribed above from his August 17, 2022 interview on the Forms podcast. Both the host of this podcast episode (@henryjwallis) and Jordan Wood (@JordanW41069857) have been exchanging Twitter comments in the subsequent days with many others joining in on the debates. On Twitter of late, Fr. Aidan Kimel (@EOrthodoxy) has played something of a moderating role in these debates between the advocates of Hart’s positions and those who favor Wood’s thinking. Here are a few examples of Kimel’s tweets:

A few thoughts about yesterday’s tweet battle between DBH and the Neochalcedonians. Despite whatever differences exist between them, they seem to be doctrinally minor. Christian theologians and philosophers always disagree, and that’s part of the creative fun. (Tweet from 12:54 PM, August 19, 2022)

David Bentley Hart is one of the great men of letters of our age, akin, in his own way (as my friend John Stamps suggested to me earlier today), to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps this is why it’s so difficult to pigeonhole him as a philosopher or theologian. (Tweet from 2:22 PM, August 20, 2022)

While the more combative tweets are a little hard for me to follow, some, such as this one by Thomas Belt (@TGBelt), provide a helpful larger perspective:

Henry, I’m sure you’ve read David’s BOI. Hart’s critique of Jenson (a champion of NC I think) early in that book would capture a lot of his criticism of NC today. I thought David had evolved beyond those criticisms & was essentially NC himself, but I guess I was wrong. Not sure. (Tweet from 8:30 AM, August 21, 2022)

In conclusion, from what I can gather, this debate centers on a christological question wherein Hart is defending an eternal humanity within God that resolves the apparent conflict between Christ’s two natures while Wood is positing the personhood of Jesus Christ as the central locus of truth that is capable of containing apparent conflicts. This debate ranges over multiple areas including:

  • The interpretation of what Sergei Bulgakov had to say about the original neo-Chalcedonians (as something to be recover) and about the nature of a divine humanity that exists eternally within God.
  • The place of Hegel within Christian theology and in relation to Bulgakov’s thought.
  • The place of several other more contemporary theologians (such as Robert Jenson) who seek, like Wood, to allow for a more dramatic antithesis between God’s impassibility and human suffering or between finite human growth and divine simplicity (all of which is reconciled only in Christ’s incarnation and personhood which is the basis of our personhood).
  • The understanding of Maximus the Confessor on topics such as Christ’s hypostatic union.
  • What is meant by “classical theism” and how useful this category might remain.

Given the theological centrality of the issues involved here and the wide-ranging areas upon which they can touch, it seems likely that this conversation will continue as Wood’s book The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (warmly endorsed by Hart despite a few public comments of late about its “problematic christology”) finally hits the shelves of readers everywhere this October. Wood’s book has a forward by Fr. John Behr as well as endorsements by several other patristic scholars including Hans Boersma and Paul Blowers. Clearly, Wood’s book addresses many substantial points unrelated to this ongoing dust-up with Hart, but controversies have a way of getting continued attention, and this christological question seems to have some staying power.

3 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart’s Questions about Jordan Wood’s Christology

    1. How can a defense of the analogia entis sound like a defense of the univocity of being? That’s so far off base that one might as well be playing hockey. Then gain, Scotus is also often misread on the point…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I wrote this in ‘The Primacy of Semiosis’ lol:

    Now it is possible at this point to sense that we are beginning to drown in a set of sterile debates that have absolutely no relevance to our experience. I have no mastery of scholasticism nor of the history of philosophy, but there is something interesting happening here that I would like to focus on.16 Duns Scotus is not seeking to completely eliminate analogy from the concept of being, but to show that it cannot be exclusively analogous. He does not exclude analogy, but rather allows for its possibility. His fundamental point is that unless there is a univocal concept of being common to the analogous ones, they will not be analogous but equivocal. In fact, he affirms that although being is metaphysically or logically univocal, in the order of entitative physical being it is analogical. Deleuze (Seminar, 14 January 1974) notes that without this distinction univocity would become heresy and lead to unpleasant consequences at the stake: ‘If I say being is univocal, this means: there is no categorial difference between the assumed senses of the word ‘being’ and being is said in one and the same sense of everything which is. In a certain manner this means that the tick is God; there is no difference of category, there is no difference of substance, there is no difference of form. It becomes a mad thought.’ Scotus did not go this far; his motives were to safeguard the possibility of our knowledge of God and to give metaphysics its proper object in a univocal concept of being. He thought this would distinguish metaphysics (as a science of being qua being) from physics portrayed as concerned with the reality of singular physical existents (entia realia). Now Scotus argues, following Avicenna, that if being is univocal it follows that being is the primary object of the intellect, preceding any particular notion of being as applied to God or creatures (e.g., infinite or finite – being-as-first-known is neither infinite nor finite). The intellect or understanding has its own proper object or primum intelligibile, just as sound is to hearing (primum audibile) or light to seeing (primum visibile). The object of the intellect or understanding is ens primum cognitum, being-as-first-known. Avicenna had made being the primary object of the intellect, in contradistinction to either God or substance, the proper subject of metaphysics. Scotus adopted this position with his own nuances, which I will not attempt to pursue here….

    Contemporary Value and Semiotic Use So what? Deely will claim that Poinsot’s conception of the coinciding univocal being of relations in objective existence (i.e., as known), whether mind-dependent or mind-independent (ontological relations are truly relations and distinct or ‘external’ to their terms, whether posited as mind-dependent or mind-independent), is grounded in the univocity of the primary object of the intellect, ens primum cognitum, as understood by Avicenna. The ontological rationale of relation is univocal, neither physical nor psychical, although capable of being either…

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