What of Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse is Shared with Wilken’s The Myth of Christian Beginnings?

[Advanced notice: Please see one correction in a comment below from David Bentley Hart.]

Robert Louis Wilken

Two of Robert Louis Wilken’s wonderful books blessed me a few years ago (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God and The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity). For another project recently, I’ve sat down to read two earlier works by Wilken. With one of them, The Myth of Christian Beginnings, I was impressed by the remarkable alignment with David Bentley Hart’s recent Tradition and Apocalypse (which I have already written a lot about here, here, and here). Wilken’s The Myth of Christian Beginnings was published in 1971 by the University of Notre Dame and again in 2009 by Wipf and Stock (the edition that I read). Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse was published in 2022 by Baker Academic.

I noted eight points (some being subpoints and one a double point, but I’m not recounting) in common between Tradition and Apocalypse and The Myth of Christian Beginnings about which I will comment briefly below:

  1. Both reference the idea that piety might be a better judge of heretics than doctrine.
  2. Both cite the example of Arius being a traditionalist and the fathers of Nicea being innovators.
  3. Both respond specifically to John Henry Newman’s understanding of tradition and with similar contours to their critique (although Hart’s is by far more developed and substantive in a host of ways that are not suggested by Wilken’s). Note that Wilken devotes less than five pages to Newman (135-140) whereas almost all of Hart’s book is engaged with Newman to some degree.
  4. Both reference the idea of the historical Christian faith being best understood as a community that is “drawn forward” by its own future.
  5. Both speak of the guidance provided by our current vision of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Christ and accessed in the present through our prayer and worship.
  6. Both say that we cannot identify a single original conception of the Christian faith that was universally held at some “first stage” or know what Christianity might become in the coming years.
  7. Both speak of post-Constantinian Christianity as our current reality and as something that warrants serious reflection. Wilken also notes that “Constantinian Christianity had a 1500-year history that will always be a part of our shared Christian experience for both good and ill (195-196).
  8. Both sound a lot like Gregory of Nyssa (as I have noted here and implied here with regard to Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse), and Wilken closes The Myth of Christian Beginnings with an extended passage from Gregory of Nyssa (205-206).

Before I run through a very few comments on each fascinating point, I will note that I don’t know how conscious Hart is of these points of alignment between his former teacher and himself. Obviously, I also don’t know to what extent either Hart or Wilken would agree with me that these are in fact points of alignment. As far as I can find with some quick review, Hart does not mention Wilken among the list of many others who he thanks within the “Acknowledgements” of Tradition and Apocalypse. Hart does thank “many others whose contributions I have shamefully forgotten” (x). If I had to guess from within my condition of abject ignorance, I would conjecture that Hart did not wish to presume upon the reputation of his former teacher with his own far more lively and developed account of some overlapping points from so early in his teacher’s career. It is also possible, of course, that Hart just does not remember the reading and the conversations connected to Wilken from so many years ago. After all of his own reading and subsequent conversations on these and many other related topics that make it into Tradition and Apocalypse and that do not appear at all within The Myth of Christian Beginnings, this would be understandable. It is certainly the case that Hart’s published output is extraordinarily diverse, profound, wide-ranging, and prolific. Forgetting details of his own past learning would be understandable. Moreover, Tradition and Apocalypse—whatever the points of alignment with Wilken might be—goes far beyond Wilken in a host of obvious and fascinating ways (among them, one of the most beautiful and profound defenses I’ve ever read of the Nicene Symbol). At any rate, I don’t consider the questions important, and I don’t presume that Hart would consider it important or I would ask him. (He has occasionally read things that I write here and has even commented here once, so if he does happen to see this and does care, he can correct and enlighten as he wishes. This, of course, would be delightful.)

I should also be clear that I appreciated Wilken’s book very much in its own right and not simply in comparison to any possible connections with Hart’s later work. Wilken brilliantly shows both the one continuity and the many discontinuities of Christian tradition. The core aspect of the one continuity is the ever-present access to the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus Christ (more in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God). While insisting upon a wholeness and a continuity to the Christian church, Wilken also clearly argues that change in the church is real and often very good (and that Christians, on the whole, have actually loved change despite proclaiming loudly that they do not). His book clearly demonstrated why Eusebianism with regard to our conceptions of Christian history should be rejected as a wrong vision despite its centrality to the entire period during which “Constantine reigned for 1500 years” (195). While being a powerful attack on traditionalisms of all varieties, Wilken also recognizes the importance of passing on a distinctly Christian memory of our whole history. This history, says Wilken, must always be recognized as containing both what has been good about Christianity as well as what has been evil about Christianity. For example, Wilken makes the case that antisemitism is endemic to Christianity and that this fact of history should not be explained away. Finally, Wilken also acknowledges that this preservation of a Christian historical memory is out of keeping with the fads of our own day:

In an age in which men worship the goddess Now and serve her in a cult of Relevance, it is well to remind ourselves that the value of the historical memory of a religious tradition is that it allows men to meet their age in a perspective that transcends their times. A people without a historical memory is like a country with no roads to guide the traveler. (190)

This post, however, is supposed to be about the points of alignment that I thought I saw between Hart and Wilken. Therefore, on the first point, Hart says in Tradition and Apocalypse that perhaps the demanding ethical teachings of Christ should be the only grounds for identifying heretics. This is clearly not a categorical claim by Hart but only a speculative one for rhetorical purposes. It is, however, reminiscent of what Wilken has to say about the “epoch-making” church history written by Gottfried Arnold (125-120), a Pietist who Wilken identifies as the first Christian to introduce the criteria of piety as a higher standard than correct doctrine in the writing of Christian history.

With the second point, the parallels are clear. Although Hart develops these points even more fully than Wilken, we see the same essential claims in Wilken:

Arius took this traditional understanding of God to mean that Christ, the Word, or Son, of God, had come into being at a particular moment by a creative act of God the Father. Unlike the Father, the Son was ‘created,’ and there was a time when he did not exist. He was not eternal. Arius based his views on the traditional Christian view of God’s transcendence, and for this reason, his views, especially in modified form, received a wide hearing and gained much support, especially among bishops in the Eastern half of the empire. Arius was a traditionalist. (180)

Nicaea is a new stage in the history of Christian thinking. It represents a new way of looking at the relation of the Son to the Father in light of the biblical tradition and the ideas Christians had learned from the Greek philosophical tradition. The council of Nicaea and the debates that followed it introduced something new into the Christian tradition. Athanasius and his supporters, in spite of their protestations to the contrary, are the innovators in the fourth century. (183)

Third, they both respond to John Henry Newman and critique his understanding of tradition (which Hart in his book also specifically compliments as the first theological treatment of the topic). As I noted, Wilken offers his critique in less than five pages (135-140) and makes the simple point that the organic metaphor employed by Newman for the growth of Christian doctrine nevertheless assumes that there is a pure and single expression of Christian doctrine at the outset. Wilken argues that this is just Eseubianism in another form. While I found Wilken convincing on this, I will note that Wilken himself loves to use organic metaphors later in his own book for the ways in which Christian doctrine must grow and change over time. Hart, in his much longer treatment of Newman, goes substantially beyond Wilken in his critique, but that is another topic (and one that lies beyond my own command of Newman although I did find Hart clear and compelling as well).

On the fourth point, both express a very similar point (although Wilken never makes the teleological and Aristotelian connections explicit as Hart does). Here is Wilken:

As a first step in constructing a new historical picture of Christianity, I would suggest that we turn the whole history of Christianity on its end. Instead of viewing the Christian history as a movement away from something—an original perfection—why not view it as a movement toward something? Perfection lies, if anywhere, not at the beginning, but at the end. The stumbling efforts of Christians to embody their vision of God in ideas and concepts, in institutions, in morals and actions, and in customs and liturgy, are the striving, the reaching forward, indeed the longing, of men for something that is not yet realized and has never been realized in human history. The Christian dreams of things that never were. (192-193)

Wilken also cites Wolfhart Pannenberg on this point (an author that Hart has referenced in other places as well). This citation by Wilken also relates to the next point about the Kingdom of God announced by Christ:

The Kingdom reveals itself again and again as still unrealized future that confronts every present and that will confront a, hopefully, better future situation. This futurity of the Kingdom opens ever new possibilities for action while still denying any human institution the glory of perfection that might warrant its making an absolute claim on the obedience of individuals. [Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia, 1969), pp. 114-15; as cited in Wilken on pp. 193-194.]

With the fifth point, while both reference the vision of God’s Kingdom as an ever present reality that guides the church, Hart makes less reference to this (as I recall) while also making the connections to prayer and liturgy more explicit than Wilken does (in this particular book). In any case, it is clear enough that both authors consider the vision of God’s Kingdom—as proclaimed by Christ, ensured by Christ’s resurrection, and made present in prayer and sacrament—to be a central guiding light across all of Christian history.

Sixth, both make clear that there is no golden age in the Christian past, not even within the New Testament. They also both state emphatically that the future of Christianity might be virtually unrecognizable to us now (for both good and bad reasons). With regard to the future of Christianity, Hart suggests that recognizing the gifts brought to us by other ancient wisdom traditions (much as early Christians recognized and received the gifts of neoplatonism) might be one good road forward. Such grand visions from Hart align well with the claims of Wilken about the openness of the future:

The Christian movement began at a particular moment in history, but its meaning, its significance, was not given once, nor was it ever captured by one age or idea. Indeed its meaning is still unfolding as long as new moments continue to appear and the future stretches before us. Now we know in part, as we see through a glass darkly. (157)

The Christian phenomenon can only be grasped by looking at the historical experience of Christianity as it stretches from its beginning to the present and into the future. And because the Christian movement is still very much alive, we do not know what its final destiny will be. In future years it may become something even we have trouble recognizing. (170)

Looking beyond just the comparison of these two books, Hart is generally more enthusiastic in upholding several early Christian communities as moral exemplars (with extended passages in several works on the examples of the desert mothers and fathers, the monastic life of Saint Macrina, the homily condemning slavery by her brother Gregory of Nyssa, and the glorious communal life of the first church described in the Acts of the Apostles). Nonetheless, Hart is equally as clear that there has never been an ideal past to which we can return, and he would certainly agree with this passage from Wilken:

No matter how deeply we probe, how early we extend our search, we will never find an original faith. We can’t go home again, not only because the home we once knew has changed beyond recognition. No, there never was a home. From the beginning, Christians have been wanderers and pilgrims whose dream lies not in the past, but before them and all men—in the future. (185)

Seventh, they are both concerned to point out that we live in a post-Constantinian world. Hart insists even more emphatically than Wilken (in this early work by Wilken at any rate) that Christians must be content with, even grateful for, the end of Christendom. Hart writes extensively about the ways in which Christianity contains within itself a means of its own ongoing critique (an apocalyptic element) that destroys its own most powerful manifestations (for good in the long term, although Hart would note that there is never a guarantee of this, historically). In all of this, Hart goes substantially beyond Wilken, but is also clearly following as one theme in his work a subject that was also important to Wilken and talked about by Wilken in some similar ways (195-196).

With my eighth and final point, I was delighted when Wilken quoted Gregory of Nyssa at length at the end of his book (205-206). Hart regularly refers to Gregory of Nyssa as a most innovative and brilliant thinker, and the debt to Gregory within Tradition and Apocalypse specifically is remarkable and profound. I was so glad when I found that another beloved Christian teacher in our day (and one who was for some time a teacher to Hart) also understood his vision of church history to be one inspired by Gregory of Nyssa’s vision of our infinite life in communion with a God who “is always being discovered anew” (206) as Gregory portrays even our life in eternity following our own perfection in God.

9 thoughts on “What of Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse is Shared with Wilken’s The Myth of Christian Beginnings?

  1. Jesse,

    What’s interesting is that The Myth of Christian Beginnings is a title of RW’s I’ve never read. So maybe I’m just catching up to where he was in 1971.

    One correction. While I was Wilken’s TA one semester, I wasn’t among his students. We were in separate divisions of the RS curriculum. He was, however, on my dissertation committee and has always been a great friend to me, in times good and bad.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hello Jesse,
    Thank you for this post, which I have stumbled upon only recently.

    If you see this comment, I have a question for you: if its not too much trouble, can you point me to any resources that further discuss the idea in Point 1 above, that “piety might be a better judge of heretics than doctrine.”

    Other than the two books referenced: I have Dr. Hart’s book but have not yet started it. If that is what you’d recommend, good enough. If anything else comes to mind, please let me know.

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    1. Dear commenter, as I note in the article, Wilken focuses on Gottfried Arnold with regard to the idea of piety as a ground for what is faithful to Christ (a kind of replacement of heresy). Hart does not mention Arnold, but mentions the idea of faithfulness to Christ’s moral teaching as an alternative aspect of tradition that might be more important in some respects. Hart is clearly being a little playful at this point and is not actually suggesting a rejection of the traditional category of heresy (which Hart fully respects as properly understood). These two books by Wilken and Hart were the first books where I had heard anyone compare the category of orthodox doctrinal faithfulness with faithfulness of practice and moral life as possible alternative ways of thinking about heresy, so I do not have other recommended reading on the topic. To be clear, again, Wilken does not agree with Arnold but simply shares his ideas as a critical part of the development of contemporary ideas about tradition.

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