Many reviews over the past year or so of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved have on one level or another invoked that reason and revelation often go hand-in-hand, but that ultimately there are some things that will defy reason and simply must be accepted. The latest example is Fr. Lawrence Farley’s review of Hart’s book. There are numerous objections he makes against Hart – such as on tone, lack of objectivity, treatment of the Fathers, translations, the integrity of his philosophical arguments, and so on and so on. Setting those objections aside (let individual reader weigh the balance of Fr. Farley and Hart), I would like to focus on this statement of his:
Finally, I would add that whatever philosophy might say about the question, it must stand down and take second place to the teaching of Scripture. This is not “Biblicism” or an “‘oracular’ understanding of scriptural inspiration which sees the Bible as the record of words directly uttered by the lips of God through an otherwise dispensable human intermediary” (p. 92). That fundamentalist straw man is not here in view, but rather the conviction of all the Fathers that Scripture always teaches truth and that it stands above the wisdom available to philosophers. We will examine Dr. Hart’s understanding of the teaching of Scripture below. For now I only observe that any philosophical argumentation is of limited and subordinate value to Scripture.Fr. Lawrence Farley, “David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: A Review and Rejoinder,” No Other Foundation (January 11, 2021)
It is on this point, I must object. The denial of biblicalism or something similar is not entirely convincing when one must subordinate philosophy or reason to scripture in perpetuity. Furthermore, it just happens to not really be a position that many of the Church Fathers would have endorsed. I will not trudge out a laundry list of them, but will be content to briefly discuss St. Augustine of Hippo on this point.
St. Augustine writes the following in his On the Strength of the Soul (VII, 12):
In the beginning I . . . asked you to bear our somewhat indirect method with patience; I ask you now to do likewise. We are not investigating a light matter, easily understood; we want to know it clearly and grasp it, if possible. To belief in authority is one thing; to trust in reason is another. To believe in authority is a considerable short-cut, with no work involved. If you are attracted by this method, you can read many things concerning these matters. Great and divine men spoke about them as it seemed necessary with benefit to the more ignorant, as if at a certain command. They wished that they be believed by those for whose soul, either slower of wit or more preoccupied, there could be no other deliverance. If such men, whose number is indeed very great, wish to grasp the truth with reason, they are deceived with spurious reasoning and fall into various harmful opinions with the result that they can either never or with great difficulty rise from them and be freed. Therefore, it is very beneficial for them to believe in an all-excelling authority and to live according to it. If you think that this is safer, not only do I not oppose you, but I approve very much. However, if you can not restrain that desire by which you have persuaded yourself to arrive at truth by reason, you must endure many long circuitous routes so that only that which ought to be called reason, that is true reason – and not only true, but so certain and free from every semblance of falsehood, if man can still in any way find such, that no false arguments or ones like to truth can take you from it – may lead you.Translation taken from: Frederick E. Van Fleteren, “Authority and Reason, Faith and Understanding in the Thought of St. Augustine,” Augustinian Studies 4 (1973): 60-61.
Elsewhere in Letter 120, he states:
Heaven forbid, after all, that God should hate in us that by which he made us more excellent than the other animals. Heaven forbid, I say, that we should believe in such a way that we do not accept or seek a rational account, since we could not even believe if we did not have rational souls. In certain matters, therefore, pertaining to the teaching of salvation, which we cannot yet grasp by reason, but which we will be able to at some point, faith precedes reason so that the heart may be purified in order that it may receive and sustain the light of the great reason, which is, of course, a demand of reason! And so, the prophet stated quite reasonably, “Unless you believe, you will not understand” (Isaiah 7:9). There he undoubtedly distinguished these two and gave the counsel that we should believe first in order that we may be able to understand what we believe. Hence it was reasonably commanded that faith should precede reason. For, if this command is not reasonable it is, therefore, unreasonable. Heaven forbid! If, then, it is reasonable that faith precede reason with respect to certain great truths that cannot yet be grasped, however slight the reason is that persuades us to this, it [reason] undoubtedly also comes before faith.Translation taken from: Letters, vol. 2, part 1 (New York: New City Press, 2003), pp. 130
To sum up, St. Augustine believed all must start with some sort of assent to authority or faith in their journey. However, the ideal is to pursue reason in order to explain the faith through reason, because reason is ultimately where all things start. Many are not equipped, either through shortcomings or personal circumstances, to pursue this ideal of explaining the faith through reason. These people are still saved, but they have not reached the ideal. Meanwhile, those who take the more difficult path, must be careful of false reason masking itself as true reason. In short, at the ideal level, faith must be embraced by reason.
This summation brings me to my final point. Many have argued that philosophy and reason must take second place to scripture and the Fathers. On the basis of St. Augustine, I find this to be a false choice. If a faith ultimately cannot be embraced by reason, then it is a false faith and not fully true. If one wants to condemn Hart and his philosophy in a patristic manner, then they must condemn it as false reason and not true reason. But such a line of argument carries with it a heavier burden for the critic – to both demonstrate how Hart is using false reason and how eternal damnation is completely reasonable.
Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).
Dariusz Karlowicz, Socrates and Other Saints: Early Christian Understandings of Reason and Philosophy (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).