David Bentley Hart on the Gnus

May 7, 2011 • 12:21 pm

Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.John Wesley

In about a month Pepperdine University is going to have a Christian Scholar’s Conference; the star speaker is National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, speaking on “Reflections on the current tensions between science and faith”.  (I understood that Collins was going to ratchet down this kind of science-and-faith stuff when he resigned from BioLogos, but I guess not.)  Another keynote address will be by this fellow, David Bentley Hart, a well-known theologian—curiously, of the Eastern Orthodox dimension.

Take a look at the enemy: smooth-talking, dismissive, and smug, calling Dawkins philosophically naive and spouting Augustine to show that every good Christians knows that the Bible is to be taken allegorically, and that the “monster God” of the Old Testament is merely one of those allegories.  But an allegory for what? And is all of scripture an allegory, or are some parts true—like the divinity of Jesus? (Note that, at 3:05, Hart mentions “the truth that was revealed in Christ.”) If so, how can we tell which parts? If not, then how does the Bible differ from any other work of fiction?

People like this irk me far more than fundamentalist Bible-thumpers, for they should know better.

74 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart on the Gnus

  1. Anyone caught quoting Augustine to back up their argument in the 21st Century gets an instant fail.

    This is the man who thought that rape wasn’t so bad because it saved women from the sin of pride.

    Was he being metaphorical then, d’ya think?

  2. I don’t think Augustine was very allegorical. He “interprets” the creation account to make it jibe with some other Bible verses, and all of the sudden he’s “Mister Allegorical”. I don’t think so…

  3. If he finds Christianity troubling, as he admits he should and does, then why does he 1) go to church, 2) self-identify as Orthodox or 3) support these oppressive structures?

    He takes a lot of cheap shots at Dawkins.

  4. He also decided that the End of the World was coming in 1000 AD, mostly cos of the irrefutable evidence that it Hadn’t Happened Yet (the early Christians were all expecting that when Jesus said it was coming in their lifetime, he meant, um, their lifetime). Sadly, it turned out to be not the case.
    Therefore, revisionist history was born out of necessity. Somebody had to crowbar the (by now wildly inaccurate & plain wrong) claims of the bible into fitting the facts – at least, facts as they appeared to a 4th century citizen.

    It’s rather like the special pleading that Uri Geller did on the Johnny Carson show to explain why none of his magic powers worked.

    1. I’ve read a bit of Augustine’s Confessions and City of God, and I’ve never understood why he is considered such an important “thinker” in Christian history. Were they really that hard up?

      1. He may well have been one of the leading minds of 400A.D.

        But humanity (well, some of us) has moved on since then.

        Extolling the virtues of Augustine is like claiming that candle clocks have a special edge over atomic clocks because they melt or come with extra flaminess.

        1. I know this is oversimplifying matters, but Augustine is commonly quoted and revered as a great mind, and as is Aquinas.

          Was there nobody worth mentioning in the 8 centuries in between?

          1. I’m sure that a theologian could dredge up a long list of names. But it isn’t too surprising that there aren’t a vast number of Great Thinkers in the great tradition of Catholicism. Religion does not promote hard thinking. It promotes saying 10 Hail Marys and kissing the feet of statues.

  5. In the Confessions Augustine also defended criticisms of Moses’ polygamy on the grounds that God gives different rules to people at different times depending on what is appropriate for their circumstances. Clearly Augustine was taking parts of the Bible literally. The fact that Christians would take their Christ-centered readings of the Old Testament way too far–for me it calls to mind Martin Luther’s reading of the story of Jacob’s Ladder as an allegory of Christ’s role–is more embarrassing than it is exonerating.

      1. Well that just goes to show how sophisticated Mormon theology is. And it came to pass that I hit the return key.

        Also, IMO the Epistle of Barnabas in the Codex Sinaiticus puts the lie to the idea that nobody ever took Old Testament stories literally until the modern era. In it the alleged Barnabas argues that the Jews didn’t understand the Old Testament purity restrictions, and provides allegorical interpretations of the restrictions. Hence, the OT injunction against eating weasels was a warning not to be like the weasel, who according to the author reproduced through their mouths. Thus it was saying that one should not have oral sex. I’m no historian but I think this reflects the non-Jewish Christian presumption that the OT must be interpreted through Christ and shows the idea that people never took this stuff literally is an artifact of this tendency. It’s a historical falsehood which just shows how narrow-minded Christians have been about the theology they DO take literally.* Here’s a post about the Epistle of Barnabas:

        *All conclusions reached by me are not those of a trained or even moderately knowledgeable historian, and I welcome any and all correction.

  6. Let’s recap, shall we?

    If we’re gnu atheists then we’re simply too ignorant of metaphysics to have any shared basis on which to dare ask of a faithiest’s belief in the reality of god Is it true, and how do you know?

    I mean, that’s really the height of arrogance to expect an answer based as it is on such strident yet simplistic ignorance of complex and nuanced spiritualistic theology… delivered (as it always must be) with the tone of such militancy. Deference must be granted to proper religious authority first, you see.

    Silly gnus.

    What a smarmy, egotistical, and sanctimonious mouthpiece.

  7. Theology seems to be the study and practice of developing unfalsifiable explanations. If the theologian is unsuccessful, he/she can also blame you for not being sophisticated enough to understand the inadequate explanation.

  8. Even if we write off the “ugly god” of the Old Testament, we’re left with the even worse god of the New Testament. Of course OT deity is a monster, but at least his victims’ suffering has an end, whereas NT torments eternally.

  9. “Reflections on the current tensions between science and faith”

    The tensions are entirely on the side of “faith”. When Darwin wrote OoS, he certainly didn’t do it in order to attack religion, though he was aware that the theory he proposed was at odds with literal interpretations of the bible. It was the religious types (notably Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, aka “Soapy Sam”) who got all het up over the matter.

    One has to take one’s hat off to the current Dalai Lama who, when asked what happens if scientific discoveries turn out to be at odds with Buddhist beliefs, said that the religion would have to change. (Sorry, no reference handy and I’m hoping this isn’t apocryphal!)

    So first the religious types pick a fight, then they whine and complain when those they oppose stand up to them.

  10. I watched the video and the point I took away after digging beneath the smug condescension and vague handwaving was that Christians — like theists in every religion — have always read into texts whatever they wanted to read into texts. Scripture acts like a sort of Rorschach test, with stories and narratives prompting analogies or ideas or inspiration that reveal the believer’s “relationship with God” or the cultural zeitgeist of the time or what have you.

    This was the defense?

    The curious thing is that this rationale of the faith-based approach to religion is one of the common gnu atheist criticisms of religion.

    “You’re just reading what you want into the text!”

    “How dare you be so rude and ignorant! We approach the Bible as an allegory that reflects our understanding of what Christ reveals to us as part of the divine relationship…”

    “Um… that’s what I said.”

    “Yes, but you said it as if it was a nasty bug, instead of a beautiful feature.”

    How about this: the Monster God of the Old Testament is really an allegory for the way we need the authority of reason to smite the infidels of fuzzy thinking. “Slaughtering the Canaanites” is a metaphor for discarding a poorly-supported religious explanation. I say we go all “Joshua” on David Bentley Hart, who is pulling a “Samson” — for he does seek to slay the gnus with the jawbone of an ass.

    1. They claim their magic books are ‘god inspired’ and ‘magical’ – but they use them like the entrails of a chicken.

  11. People like this irk me far more than fundamentalist Bible-thumpers, for they should know better.

    Fundies are also more intellectually consistent — their axioms may be crazy (e.g., “the Bible is all literally true”), but they follow them rigidly to their logical conclusions. The liberals happily fudge implications they don’t like, which is ultimately intellectually dishonest.

  12. not-selling-so-well AUTHOR & theologian DBH’S opening comment addresses gnu book sales…

  13. spouting Augustine to show that every good Christians knows that the Bible is to be taken allegorically

    Bentley is obviously ignorant of Augustine, who opposed scientific curiosity and the “appetite for knowledge”:

    There is another form of temptation, more complex in its peril. … It originates in an appetite for knowledge. … From this malady of curiosity are all those strange sights exhibited in the theatre. Hence do we proceed to search out the secret powers of nature (which is beside our end), which to know profits not, and wherein men desire nothing but to know. —Augustine, Confessions, Book X, Chap. 35

    1. But that itself is clearly allegorical. What Augustine really meant to say is that science is wonderful, and that religion has no quarrel with it.

      Silly atheist.

    2. Wonderful quote! “This malady of curiosity” would be a great title for a science book. “To search out the secret powers of nature…which to know profits not” would be so effortlessly simple to refute for even the average kindergartener…

      1. More Augustinian fun:

        Whoever is separated from this Catholic Church, by this single sin of being separated from the unity of Christ, no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living, shall not have life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.
        —Augustine, Letters 141:5

        Such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation.
        —Augustine, Anti-Pelagian Writings

        1. How barbaric and difficult life must have been in those days, that such thought was countenanced, and even celebrated. I’m infinitely grateful to have been born in this day and age.

          (I know, I know – it’s still celebrated by some. But they are, I think, on the wane.)

  14. I don’t need to have studied religion in depth to know that it’s all made up bollocks. Either the whole babble is true, which it manifestly isn’t, or the whole thing is a man made artifact, which it is. What is so difficult about that.

    1. Oh come on!

      You know that we unbelievers have not been allowed the revelation/s which will allow us to correctly read and interpret the xtian bible!

      More of the xtian god’s justice and compassion to make sure that we don’t gain that revelation so that he/she/it can throw us into everlasting hell(welcome friends!).

    2. Even the smug response that the readers of Dawkins’ book aren’t learned enough in the ways of philosophy to understand where Dawkins goes wrong is condescending. There is this acceptance that all one needs to do to be a good Christian is to seek and be saved; but in order to be a good atheist one needs to have been a full-fledged philosopher. With a degree.

      1. Exactly right, and infuriating. In a similar vein, it’s enough to read a few passages in the King James Version to be counted as saved as long as one doesn’t question. Question, however, and it’s “but do you speak Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek? You have to know the original languages to really understand”. I was told this by a person that couldn’t read any of the languages, either.

        1. Similar with criticism of Islam. Those who assert that Islam is a religion of peace are often just as ignorant as those that assert the opposite. But only the latter get called on their ignorance and are told they must be fluent in Arabic to properly criticise the scripture.

  15. So who does offically make the distinction between what is to be taken allegorically and what is not in scripture? Who is to say why their authority has any more validity than yours,mine,or the guy who delivers my pizza.What a crock of crap.

  16. “Christianity: 2,000 years of everybody making it up as they go along.”

    (That’s when they aren’t using the “No True Scotsman” defense!)

  17. Once again god and his book has to be interpreted for the little people, before it was for illiterate and now for the theologically unsophisticated. Should call these guys the new high priests

  18. I cannot help but be reminded of David Eller:
    “….religions do not and cannot progress the way that, say, science can progress. When science progresses, it abandons old and false ideas. Once we discovered oxygen and the principles of combustion, we stopped thinking that there was a substance called phlogiston. Once we discovered that the earth is round, we stopped thinking that it is flat. Science and reason are substitutive and eliminative: new ideas replace old ideas. Religion is additive and/or schismatic: news ideas proliferate alongside old ideas. For instance, the development of Protestantism did not put an end to Catholicism, and the development of Christianity did not put an end to Judaism. With science, we get better. With religion, we get more.” (David Eller’s book: ISBN: 978-1-57884-002-1)

    This is the reason David Hart is able to so effortlessly talk of the early church fathers and Augustine in the same breath as today’s apologetical scholars. There is no verticality of improvement in religion where new ideas are built upon or developed from earlier ideas. Christian ideas are unidimensional, all on one horizontal thought plane, old and new ideas indiscriminately floating and swilling as in a shallow puddle in the street. It is as if Augustine, Aquinas, etc were not of a thousand-plus years ago, but here, with us today.

  19. What seems invariable about people like this man, Alistair McGrath and Keith Ward is an air of invincible conviction that is coupled with a protective barrage or fog of woffling that says so little that criticism nearly dies for want of something to latch on to.

    I don’t want to derail this thread, but the matter is important: supporters of Sam Harris’s views on torture (and his critics) should take a look at Amy Goodman’s interview on the Democracy Now channel with Matthew Alexander, a very experienced military interrogator who explains clearly and in detail why torture is ethically wrong and why it is ineffective.

  20. It makes me sad to see someone like this. Instead of having the courage to reject his faith and become an atheist, he just intellectualized it, recreating god in his own image in the process.

    He says that the new atheists are ignorant, but I’m pretty sure in his view, virtually everyone is ignorant. It must be a lonely existence.

  21. David is basically arguing that the Gnu Atheists’ view of the bible is too simplistic, implying that most of the issues brought up will disappear with a more complex, in-depth, study of the scriptures.
    Unfortunately for David, the problems we have with scripture don’t disappear merely by invoking “allegory”. Even the historical narratives, arguably the most literal passages, are full of commandments and acts seen as immoral by today’s standards.
    Would David argue that the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative is an allegory?
    Does David think that the laws given in Exodus are allegorical? The laws outline which sins are punishable by death (breaking the sabbath, not washing yourself correctly, etc)
    Even the non-allegorical sections of the bible are ruthless.

    So the fact that the Gnu atheists take the bible at face value changes nothing about their arguments against it. Even with a deeper and more complex analysis, taking into account the different authors, literary genres and the historical context, none of these issues are dismissed.
    David is just attempting to stand on a higher intellectual ground that doesn’t quite exist.

  22. This guy is right up there with S. E. Cupp. Yeah, I’m an atheist but gee the bible makes so much sense as long as you don’t take it literally. When are they going to write the allegorical bible so we all know which parts are supposed to be taken literally and which are not. Oh yeah, never because it’s all bullcrap.

  23. Augustine’s allegorical readings of Genesis are even more gibberish than creationist readings.

    At least creationists are on the same planet as the rest of us, and don’t produce the same ‘WTF’ feeling you get when you read Augustine’s crazy allegorical readings, which differ little from the ramblings of a lunatic.

  24. In times past, determining which parts of the bible were allegorical and which were literal was simple.

    The xians fought wars and the winner got to determine what the bible really said.

    But it wasn’t always necessary. The dominant group could sometimes just label the other group as heretics, excommunicate them, persecute them, burn their books, and kill a few here and there.

    For much of the history of the Catholic church, heresy could be and occasionally was a death penalty offense.

      1. “Occasionally? Ask the Cathars.”

        Why bother? They were all genocided centuries ago and you aren’t going to find a single one.

        Ask the Protestants. Despite a war flickering on and off for 450 years that killed tens of millions, the best the RCC can do these days is call them Fake Xians that are all going to hell.

        The Inquisition was set up to find, torture, and often kill heretics. They killed a huge number of people. Estimates vary but it was probably in the hundreds of thousands.

  25. Augustine, like so many before him and so many after, simply decide which bits are conveniently allegorical and which bits are absolute truths. Even the various christian cults do not agree on much. Was Jesus’ mother a virgin? For the catlicks it is heresy to believe otherwise, but for the various protestant sects the Virgin Mother story is a load of baloney. I guess the so-called theologians don’t recognize an Ipse Dixit argument when they see it.

  26. Augustine was a literalist accomodationist: he provided some allegorical interpretations, such as whether the firmament is a disk or a vault, but he never condemned biblical literalists of the time, only gave them a little friendly advice not to use Bible as an argument when talking to non-Christians, for it might cause a good laugh.

    Augustine was also an anti-intellectual urging good Christians to avoid “learned debates” about the Universe, and focus on soul-saving activities instead.

    Interestingly, in any other occasion Eastern Orthodox folks would favor St. John Chrysostom over St. Augustine, and he was a literalist.

    1. Orthodox folks would favor St. John Chrysostom over St. Augustine

      St. John “Golden Tongue” used his golden tongue to call that the Jews be slaughtered, as Jesus commanded in Luke 19:27. That’s why it’s great whenever Christians invoke any of the Early Church Fathers: they are all with out exception odiously repellant.


      The Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plow of his teaching. Another prophet hinted at this when he said: “Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer.” … Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter. This is why Christ said: “But as for these my enemies, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slay them.” (Luke 19:27)
      —Chrysostom, Eight Homilies Against the Jews, Homily 1

      1. Yep, many of them still seem to think that antisemitism was not exactly a bad idea.

        The point is being made, however, that biblical literalism is a relatively “modern” invention. To prove this point, they frequently refer to Augustine, and in this context his antisemitism and any other possible vices are actually irrelevant.

        However they forget to mention that Augustine himself constantly referred to great many biblical literalists of his time, which kind of defeats their point.

  27. I am an atheist living in the Bible Belt. You educated types just don’t get it. I’m educated and from N NJ; it took me a couple of years to get it. Let Charlie Daniels tell you like it is…

  28. They should really go have a serious talk with William Lane Craig about all this “knows it’s allegory” business. I mean, he tops the list of “serious theological thinkers” and all, but he doesn’t even know this simple, OBVIOUS thing! Why, someone might take it the wrong way!

  29. Also, it’s not allegory… The Bible must be read in the light of God just being a shitty administrator:

  30. This is a very old thread. Probably nobody will ever read this comment. However, I am amazed by the willful ignorance here.

    Did Augustine and Chrysostom have some misguided or flat-out wrong/immoral ideas and opinions? Sure. They lived in radically different worlds. For their time, they were actually ‘progressive’ (for instance, Augustine despised the vicious gladiatorial games, which he called “filth”). Chrysostom was deeply concerned with the health and well-being of the poor, and spent considerable time and energy in their defense.

    To judge men who wrote thousands — tens of thousands — of pages over many decades based on a paragraph or two is absurd. How many of you have studied the works of these two men in depth? Even if you don’t believe in God, they were not merely theologians but philosophers, ethicists, and social theorists.

    Nobody who has seriously taken the time to read the Confessions can outright dismiss it. Augustine entertains perennial human questions about the nature of life and death, wisdom and ignorance, sex and chastity, vice and virtue, truth and deceit, courage and cowardice, time and eternity, finitude and infinity, love and loss, family and friendship, hate and conflict.

    As for Chrysostom, consider these wonderful words, which he urges young husbands to whisper to their brides:

    “I courted you, and I love you, and prefer you to my own soul. For the present life is nothing. And I pray, and beseech, and do all I can, that we may be counted worthy so to live this present life, as that we may be able also there in the world to come to be united to one another in perfect security. For our time here is brief and fleeting. But if we shall be counted worthy by having pleased God to so exchange this life for that one, then shall we ever be both with Christ and with each other, with more abundant pleasure. I value your affection above all things, and nothing is so bitter or so painful to me, as ever to be at variance with you. Yes, though it should be my lot to lose my all, and to become poorer than Irus, and undergo the extremest hazards, and suffer any pain whatsoever, all will be tolerable and endurable, so long as your feelings are true towards me. And then will my children be most dear to me, while you are affectionately disposed towards me. But you must do these duties too” (Homily on Ephesians 20).

    1. The ‘judgement’ here is about Hart trying to use some of the words of Augustine to back up the claim that most people understand that the bible is allegorical so that he can smear Dawkins and gnus as naive to say that most believers think major parts the bible are historical and literal.

      As Jerry clearly asks, is all of scripture an allegory, or are some parts true—like the divinity of Jesus? (Note that, at 3:05, Hart mentions “the truth that was revealed in Christ.”) If so, how can we tell which parts? If not, then how does the Bible differ from any other work of fiction?

      To this central question come ‘answers’ like yours that attempts to apologize and excuse believers from having to face it honestly… an answer that no amount of deep study of and appreciation for Augustine to Aquinas will reveal… although you would have us do so to avoid your charge of willful ignorance. This is merely a diversion.

      The fact of the matter is that these authors – like all church fathers past and present – are not respectful of reality’s role in arbitrating what is true about it but remain dedicated to substitute and impose their beliefs as an alternative. The question Jerry raises about which bits of scripture are allegorical and which are historical and literal and how can we know the difference is not based on ignorance but intellectual honesty, and remains a potent and devastating question to those who try to promote and protect respect for faith-based beliefs.

  31. A lot of secular bigotry here. And here I was, expecting pure science from a blog “why evolution is true”. People like this will irk you forever. Nothing is more enraging, than unacceptable truth. If someone thinks, that biblical literalism is true Christianity, then I’d advice them to research history a bit with an open mind. And if even then they won’t see, where the biblical literalism begins, I’m not sure they will be qualified to make judgments about other people in the first place. Allegory, so frightening it seems. as it is much harder to refute than biblical literalism, as if that one was not self-refuting already. If someone thinks allegorizing is not Christian, welcome to Orthodox Church… Oh, and for the first commenter, I still use many-thousand-year-old algebra, but this doesn’t deem my equations invalid. And neither it should in a sphere, so repeated, as philosophy.

  32. Yes. The God you don’t believe in never did exist Ancients told symbolic stories and now many are dumb enough to take them literally. Literalism is the original sin of religion and will continue to sink most if not all.

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