An Exchange on 'Christ's Rabble'

Continuing the Conversation

Simeon Zahl

Occasionally in today’s ever-rolling stream of commentary you come up against an essay that stops you short and lingers with you over days and weeks. Such was my experience of reading “Christ’s Rabble,” David Bentley Hart’s blistering reflection on the economic ethics of the first Christians in light of the three years he has spent on a new translation of the New Testament.

As a theologian myself, my first observation on reading “Christ’s Rabble” was how transgressive it feels to watch a member of my guild wrestle directly, intensively, and creatively with Scripture. I found myself cheering Hart on as he dove right into the New Testament text, confident that of course a theologian will have a valuable perspective to offer here, biblical-studies gatekeepers be damned. And I reflected that it is a sad comment on the state of theological discourse that this move feels fresh and unexpected.

My second observation came in the second half of the essay, where Hart makes his main point: a swift, brutal exegetical case that, for the earliest Christians, wealth was not just something that becomes a problem when you desire it wrongly but is actually an “intrinsic evil”—the possession of wealth is problematic according to its nature and not just its use.

My reluctant thought was: Damn! I think he’s right.

Perhaps some part of me had already suspected, and feared, that there may truly be something like an “essential incompatibility” between “Christianity and capitalist culture.” But it isn’t the sort of thought you want to think, at least not for long. Countercultural is one thing, but wealth as an “intrinsic evil”? It’s the sort of idea you want to look away from, to defer, to shelve for later and hope you forget.

In “Christ’s Rabble,” Hart steadfastly refuses to let us defer the question, or to reinterpret it in a less radical light. To read the essay with care and with an even slightly open mind is to be confronted with an ethical possibility that is deeply uncomfortable for any twenty-first-century Christian who wishes to take his orientation from the New Testament and the witness of the early church.

And like Hart, I am not quite sure what to do with this. Is he right to frame the contemporary significance of this radical stream of early Christian ethics as a stark choice between a melancholy acceptance of modern Christian ethical mediocrity, on the one hand, and a Desert Fathers–style life of asceticism and prayer, on the other? Perhaps he is. At the very least I am convinced that all Christians should be required to just sit a while with the prospect that the rich young ruler’s problem was not that he had the wrong attitude toward money, but the sheer fact that he had money at all. Hart has preached a sermon for our times—a mighty, disturbing sermon, and he has preached it well.

But the essay is not perfect. It has two flaws, in particular, that undermine some of its basic salutary power. In order to clear the way for us to hear the message about wealth and capitalist culture in all its disturbing force, Hart has to do away with two obvious counterarguments. First, Hart knows, or at least suspects, that there is another way of interpreting the biblical material he has identified, an alternative approach that can, at least in theory, acknowledge the radicalism of the early church’s moral demand without leaving us in Hart’s wistful despair.

It would go something like this. Yes, this interpreter might say, the moral demand is high. It is torturously, impossibly high, and this money thing is an excellent example. Indeed, the New Testament reveals an unbearable moral standard on a great many topics—we are commanded never to be angry and never to lust, for example (Matthew 5)—and that is precisely why “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). Viewed through this lens, Hart’s point about Christian ethical mediocrity in the era of late capitalism can be transfigured into an argument for why salvation is better understood as preceding moral transformation rather than as enabling it (“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” [Romans 5:8]).

For the purposes of his essay, it is vital for Hart to be able to exclude this sort of approach at the start. Otherwise his sermon would risk losing its power: it would allow some readers, armed with this “grace” waiver, to blink and look away, untroubled and unchanged in their cozy codependence with capitalism, like the jolly Protestant burghers Hart imagines.

To counter this strategy, Hart identifies such interpretations with Protestantism and argues that they go against a plain reading of the New Testament. He calls them “the magisterial Protestant fantasy that the apostle Paul inveighed against something called ‘works-righteousness’ in favor of a purely extrinsic ‘justification’ by grace.” Did Paul teach this, Hart asks? “Alas,” we are told, “he did not.” Citing a succession of Pauline verses, Hart asserts—here I would not say that he argues—that Paul “quite clearly insisted, as did Christ, that all will be judged in the end according to their deeds.”

Here we have the weakest claim in Hart’s essay, a place where rhetoric has far outstripped argument. First, the claim appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the doctrine of justification by faith. Hart does not seem to realize that there is no serious understanding of that doctrine that would have any trouble with the idea that the actual historical sins of particular human beings are really weighed and judged by God “in the end.” In fact such a judgment is necessary to the scheme: it is only once this judgment has taken place that Christ’s stepping in to cover those sins has meaning. Otherwise, God would not be taking sin seriously and Christ’s death would not have been necessary. This is the whole point of what the Reformers called the “theological use” of the law, and it is why two of the verses he cites, Romans 14:10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5:10, have never been troubling for Protestants.

But what about the other texts Hart cites in support of his reading? These, too, are hardly as devastating as he seems to think they are. The presence of eschatological “judgment by works” passages in Paul (above all Romans 2:1–11 but also 1 Corinthians 3:12–15 and Phililippians 2:16) is well known and has been the subject of an enormous scholarly literature. It is widely recognized that what makes these texts interesting is not that they “disprove” the idea that Pauline soteriology involves an extended polemic against “works-righteousness”; rather, it is the fact that they share intimate space, most famously in the first three chapters of Romans, with an account of God’s grace as an “incongruous” gift precisely to those who do not deserve it.

To take just one very recent example, John M. G. Barclay’s opus Paul and the Gift discusses this issue extensively along the way to providing a nuanced and compelling answer to the very old question of how to relate Romans 2:1–11 to the material around it in Romans 1:18–3:20. According to Barclay’s interpretation—which may or may not be right but in any case represents something like the state of the art on the question—in describing the “judgment by works” in Romans 2, Paul is almost certainly presupposing his own theology of justification apart from works.

The missing link, in Barclay’s view, is that here Paul is taking the effective and ethically transformative activity of the Spirit, itself a consequence of the “incongruous” gift of justification, for granted. In other words, “works” do not save us, but those who have been saved without works will nevertheless demonstrate some approximation of such works at the final judgment due to the transformative work of the Spirit within them; otherwise the passage is blatantly self-contradictory.

And Barclay’s position cannot be dismissed as simply a case of Protestant special pleading: the Jesuit Joseph Fitzmyer, for example, makes almost precisely this argument about Romans 2:1–11 in his commentary on Romans in the Anchor Yale Bible series.

(My focus here has been on Romans 2:1–11 because it is Hart’s strongest example. The others are weaker: Philippians 2:16 draws on a race-running imagery that Paul completely subverts in Romans 9:16 [“It depends not on human will or running but on God who shows mercy”], and in 1 Corinthians 3 even those whose works are worthless are still saved—an argument against Hart’s point rather than for it.)

 

BUT WHAT OF THE second obvious caveat to Hart’s position, what he calls the “common sense” position that the New Testament’s problem is not with the acquisition of wealth in and of itself, but with a “spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it”? According to this view, money itself is not the problem. It is the human heart, that “factory of idols,” that makes money problematic.

This approach has a long theological pedigree, and it too be must be parried for Hart to make his point to maximum effect. In Hart’s telling, it is a position that goes back at least to Clement of Alexandria’s distinction between “poverty that matters” (i.e., spiritual poverty and its dispositional effects) and poverty that does not matter (“actual material indigence”). For Hart, this distinction represents a form of ethical compromise that is better explained by political and socio-economic expedience than by the actual teaching of the New Testament; in the end, its function is to allow the rich to stay rich.

The problem is that again Hart has failed to mention a very significant counterargument. It may well be that this particular kind of Christian account of wealth and poverty begins with Clement, but if so the sources of Clement’s distinction can be located squarely within the main stream of New Testament ethical teaching. Most obviously, the Sermon on the Mount provides extensive support for the view that what is most ethically significant before God is the motivation of the heart rather than the performance of the righteous deed—this is why anger is equivalent to murder, and lust to adultery.

We find the same theme expressed in Christ’s denunciations of the Pharisees, most notably the unequivocal claim that it is the heart, as the source of evil intentions, rather than outward behavior, that is the true source of uncleanness (Mark 7:14–23; Matthew 15:10–20). And a version of this ethical approach is also at work in Paul’s identification of the fruit of the Spirit primarily with affections and motivations rather than with specific behaviors (Galatians 5:22) and in his ethical prioritization of love over martyrdom—indeed over the giving away of possessions (1 Corinthians 13:3). If Clement’s differentiation between spiritually significant poverty and actual material poverty is ethical sophistry, then it is a Christian sophistry. As an ethical concept its roots are just as early, and in their own way just as radical, as Jesus’ comments about the rich young ruler.

It would seem that a more accurate way of describing the ethical world of the New Testament would be as one where eschatologically informed moral radicalism—for example, about wealth as an intrinsic evil—is interacting with a separate and distinct ethical theme of the moral priority of right desire and action over right behavior, and where the relation between these two streams has not yet been fully resolved. Both teachings can probably be located in the ministry of Jesus himself, as well as that of St. Paul. Perhaps in the end one must swallow up the other, but I don’t think so. To conclude this would be to impose premature closure on issues the early church has left open, jagged, strange. Understood this way, eschatologically informed moral radicalism is but one component, however important, in a larger dialectic. It is but one major dimension in an early Christian moral vision that is pneumatologically and contextually dynamic—though admittedly a dimension that we prefer to sweep under the rug.

Given these not insignificant problems, what are we now to make of “Christ’s Rabble”? Yes, it is framed in terms of an unnecessary and unpersuasive contrast with an imagined Protestant alternative; and, yes, it fails to mention the other side of the New Testament ethical story, the one where motivation does seem to matter more to God than what is actually done. But none of this finally sets aside Hart’s fundamental point in its sheer disturbing power. We do not need to say everything at once, and it is often the role of the preacher—dare I say the theologian?—to draw our gaze in the clearest possible terms to uncomfortable truths about ourselves, truths about the compromises we are constantly making between faith and comfort or ambition, faith and the ocean of consumerist noise in which we are all drowning. Few such truths are more uncomfortable in the present cultural moment than the prospect of an “essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture.” I for one am grateful for Hart’s sermon, though I didn’t want to hear it.

 

David Bentley Hart

My thanks to Simeon Zahl for his scrupulous reply to my article; it is surely the best attempt at a theological riposte that I have seen. Even so, Zahl’s case is a very winsome example of precisely the sort of traditional Western Christian reading of Paul—and, through Paul, the Gospel—that I regard as objectively false. 

But some of the disagreement between us is simply a misunderstanding on Zahl’s part. Because I mentioned the issue of judgment by works in my article, he assumes that my concern was what we must do to be saved. But the issue never occurred to me. For one thing (and please don’t tell anyone), I am a universalist, who believes Gregory of Nyssa’s reading of Paul to be the most persuasive. For another, all Christians believe that salvation is something objectively achieved before and beyond anything we can do. So, when I speak of judgment, I have in mind only that final discrimination described in 1 Corinthians 3, between those whose accomplishments in this life will merit a reward and those who will be saved “as by fire” when their accomplishments are instead burned away. (Paul certainly mentions no third class of persons.) My concern was entirely with the question of how Christians are called to live.

Zahl also suggests that I do not understand the doctrine of justification by faith. In fact, I understand it all too well. Principally, I understand how very badly it has been misinterpreted in much Western Christian thought, and how often that misinterpretation has made it possible for the clear and explicit commands of Christ and the Apostolic Church to be reduced in the minds of many Christians to the status of mere helpful suggestions, or even reminders of our moral incapacity (Calvin’s scriptural commentaries exhibit a positive genius for this). The moral perfectionism of the New Testament may not be a method for attaining salvation; but it is a quite unambiguous prescription for achieving the holiness that is the very substance of being saved. Moreover, I would not even grant the accuracy of the language of “justification by faith”; a better rendering would be along the lines of “vindication through faithfulness,” or perhaps “correction through fidelity” (the very word “justification” has been so misused down the centuries as to have lost all value). As for John Barclay and Joseph Fitzmyer (both fine scholars), their interpretations of the first two chapters of Romans are in many respects the sort of procrustean readings that become necessary only when misguided presuppositions create false difficulties. 

I would also caution Zahl against complacent talk of “works-righteousness,” simply on the grounds that when Paul speaks of “erga” he is most often talking not about moral deeds, but about ritual “observances” or “practices,” such as circumcision or keeping kosher. If we fail to recall this, we can easily be beguiled into the sort of error Zahl makes in reading Jesus’ remark on “what defiles a man” as a distinction between outer works and inner disposition, when in fact it is a distinction between acts of ritual purity and good works (“what comes forth” from us).

Not that I imagine I, an Orthodox Christian, can sway many of those raised in the theological and spiritual grammar of Western tradition away from centuries of “Latin” errors; but I can make my own solitary evangelical appeal directly to Zahl. I encourage him to clear his mind of the notion that the New Testament’s moral language is fraught with tensions or unresolved paradoxes or provisional antinomies. Yes, alongside scriptural condemnations of wealth, there are equally strong—even stronger—condemnations of the corrupt promptings and idolatrous longings of the human heart. But this does not oblige us to imagine that the latter in any sense mitigate the objective force of the former; they merely carry the significance of those moral edicts ever deeper into the soul. However great its “theological pedigree,” the approach Zahl defends is without scriptural support; but, more to the point, it is devoid of any logical necessity. That Christ ascribes the deepest wellsprings of evil to the heart and its most inward longings in absolutely no way whatever implies that the outward acts of the hands are of so secondary an importance that the clear, explicit, repeated moral commands of the New Testament can be taken as anything other than clear, explicit, repeated moral commands. This entire way of thinking is nothing but the illicit substitution of an “instead” for what should be read quite simply as an “also.” Zahl writes of the New Testament’s “eschatologically informed moral radicalism” but also of its “distinct ethical theme of the moral priority of right desire and action over right behavior,” and then speaks of a “relation between these two streams” that “has not yet been fully resolved.” But there really isn’t anything to resolve. Zahl imagines that there is only because his dogmatic and spiritual formation has made him believe that there must be. The moral radicalism of the New Testament—which encompasses all the acts of a Christian, and which also penetrates into the very depths of the heart—is all of a piece: one reality, one form of life, one law of the Kingdom. And no one should presume to introduce division where none should be sought, and none can truly be found.

Published in the December 16, 2016 issue: 

Simeon Zahl is assistant professor of systematic theology at the University of Nottingham, where he directs the MA Programme in Systematic and Philosophical Theology by Distance Learning. His first book, Pneumatology and Theology of the Cross in the Preaching of Christoph Blumhardt, was published in 2010. David Bentley Hart is a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays (Eerdmans).

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