Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Strangeness of the New Testament

David Bentley Hart, Eastern Orthodox scholar, has published a new translation of the New Testament that he calls "subversively literal." As he explains in this passage on the teachings of Paul, the New Testament does not literally say what we interpret it to say:
Questions of law and righteousness, however, are secondary concerns. The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.

In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly. Sometimes, Paul speaks as if some human beings will perish along with the present age, and sometimes as if all human beings will finally be saved. He never speaks of some hell for the torment of unregenerate souls.

The new age, moreover – when creation will be glorified and transformed into God’s kingdom – will be an age of ‘spirit’ rather than ‘flesh’. For Paul, these are two antithetical principles of creaturely existence, though most translations misrepresent the antithesis as a mere contrast between God’s ‘spirit’ and human perversity. But Paul is quite explicit: ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom.’ Neither can psychē, ‘soul’, the life-principle or anima that gives life to perishable flesh. In the age to come, the ‘psychical body’, the ‘ensouled’ or ‘animal’ way of life, will be replaced by a ‘spiritual body’, beyond the reach of death.
The contrast between the early Christian cultists and their sane, proper, moderate descendants is quite stark.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"The contrast between the early Christian cultists and their sane, proper, moderate descendants is quite stark."

And yet, it was the supposedly sane, proper, moderate descendants that would go on to shed oceans of blood and perpetrate (and, indeed, perpetuate) unimaginable cruelties through the ages.

No, I don't believe Christianity ever actually stopped being a mad cult. It just had to wrestle with the hard truth that the prophecized End of Days wasn't coming.

Faced with that realization, Christians didn't abandon their cult ways - they merely changed their focus. If the Apocalypse would not come to the world, then they would do everything in their power to bring the world to the Apocalypse. They would spread their faith to the far reaches of the globe through sword and fire. For only once the world had been converted, could it then be brought to an end.