David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament A Translation (2017) (ii)

Last year was the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg, and the beginning of the Reformation. It was marked by ecumenical activities that sought to look beyond the divisions of the sixteenth century, by stressing what Roman Catholics and Lutherans have in common. But the recent translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart and the notes attached to it take things further, by introducing an Orthodox perspective.

This he does partly by considering a few words in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that have proved decisive in Western theology. The Authorized Version’s translation of the key passage (Rom 5: 12) runs: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned…’ The Vulgate places still more weight on the sin of Adam, taking the last phrase to refer his sin, in quo omne peccaverunt (‘in whom all have sinned.’) Hart takes it differently: ‘Therefore, just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned.’ His reasoning is expressed in a lengthy and complex footnote that I won’t attempt to summarize, but it leads him to conclude that ‘just as sin entered the cosmos and introduced death into all its members, so the contagion of death spread into the whole of humanity and introduced sin into all its members.’ We are left with an understanding of the relationship between sin and death alien to Western tradition, and the notion of original guilt, or sin, for which Adam was responsible is dissolved, leaving the way open for a very different interpretation of the redeeming work of Christ.

But how is this to be appropriated? Here we come to the Reformation. Luther made much of Paul’s opposition to works, against which he set justification by faith in Christ. But according to Hart, the works in question are specifically those of Jewish observance, such as circumcision and eating kosher food, rather than whatever works a Christian may undertake. It is tempting to see Luther’s interpretation as reflecting his none-too-friendly attitude to Jews. Be this as it may, Paul does not set personal belief against concrete moral effort; in the words of James, humans are justified ‘by works and not by faith alone’. (People interested in following this up might like to look at what has been described as a crypto-Lutheran text in the Philokalia, ‘On Those who think they are made righteous by works’, by St Mark the Ascetic.) Hart sees Luther, and the tradition which takes it origin from him, as having simply misread Paul.

In a comment quoted on the back of the book, a leading theologian of the Church of England writes that ‘Hart shown, after five hundred years, that the core of Reformation theology is unbiblical…’ I’m not sure when it became possible for an Anglican to utter such a judgment, but it fairly sums up Hart’s position, which is surely worthy of ecumenical discussion.

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