Recommendation of an Old But Good Book about the Human Condition (A Follow Up to the Previous Post about Christian Ignorance and Anti-Intellectualism)

Recommendation of an Old But Good Book about the Human Condition (A Follow Up to the Previous Post about Christian Ignorance and Anti-Intellectualism) August 6, 2015

Recommendation of an Old but Good Book about the Human Condition (A Follow Up to the Previous Post about Christian Ignorance and Anti-Inellectualism)

Do you like to read serious but understandable Christian theology? Are you interested in creative and insightful, biblically-based, serious investigations of biblical themes correlated with contemporary cultural questions and issues? Are you not biased against “old school” thinking but actually believe a past Christian thinker might have something valuable to offer?

Although it is now long out of print many used copies are available at and other online used book sites. The author is E. La B. Cherbonnier and the title is Hardness of Heart: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Doctrine of Sin (Doubleday, 1955). It is a volume in the Christian Faith Series edited by Reinhold Niebuhr. To the best of my knowledge this was Cherbonnier’s only monograph, but he wrote many articles published in journals such as Theology Today. Surprisingly, Cherbonnier is still alive at age 97! I have his e-mail address and have attempted to make contact with him, but am still waiting to hear back from him. He is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut). (His first initial stands for Edmond.)

Cherbonnier came onto my radar screen many years ago when my own mentor John Newport (at Rice University, 1978-1979) mentioned him as a theologian attempting to discover and articulate an authentically “biblical metaphysic.” Only recently have I had occasion to remember and read Cherbonnier’s articles and this book—as part of my own current research project.

I have found in Cherbonnier a Christian thinker after my own heart—a postliberal before anyone imagined such a movement. He’s biblically serious and critically orthodox, rational without being rationalistic, and highly critical of all uncritical correlations of Christianity with non-Christian philosophies. He believes (in the book, articles and, still, I assume) that the Bible itself assumes a metaphysical outlook on reality that is discernable, and that a Christian’s duty is to be biblically literate enough to recognize unbiblical beliefs even when they are paraded as “Christian.” But he was/is no fundamentalist. (He remarks, for example, that the Apostle Paul made some “unguarded” remarks about marriage that, in the light of the whole of Scripture, cannot be taken as God’s Word.)

Cherbonnier was extremely critical of the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christianity and especially of Augustine’s adoption of ideas from neo-Platonism. He’s equally critical of much twentieth century existentialism in Christian thought and especially of Paul Tillich’s use of that philosophy. About all Christian theological adoptions of extra-biblical philosophies as frameworks for making theology “relevant” Cherbonnier writes:

“These embarrassments will continue to beset Christian thinking until it develops explicitly the philosophical implications of the Bible instead of casting about for a ready-made metaphysical framework upon which to hang a few biblical adornments. Such philosophies always turn out to be a Procrustean bed on which biblical Christianity is disfigured.” (73)

Cherbonnier’s main purpose in the book is to demonstrate that both Pelagius (and his heirs) and Augustine (and his heirs—mainly Luther and Calvin) were both right and wrong. He argues that both points of view, interpretations of the human condition, ultimately fall into the same trap which he labels “moralism.” Pelagius was right to emphasize human freedom and responsibility; Augustine was right to emphasize the universality of sin and human inability to love without grace. Pelagius was wrong to imply that anyone can be righteous without grace; Augustine was wrong to teach that it is impossible not to sin—especially when Luther took that to an extreme teaching that all good works are sins. One might think especially Luther and Calvin were free from the suspicion of moralism, but Cherbonnier argues they (and their heirs) were not. In place of salvation by righteous conduct they asserted salvation by agreement with their dogmas. Their followers had to discover litmus tests for discerning who is and who isn’t saved and those litmus tests always turned out to be moralistic in nature (e.g., “signs of grace”).

Cherbonnier affirms the essential goodness of humankind together with humanity’s corporate “hardness of heart”—a condition in which all (except Jesus) are implicated together and for which all are responsible. He seeks to recover a biblical view of human solidarity as part of the explanation for the universality of sin but without any idea of inherited sin. (In this he follows Emil Brunner closely even though he does not mention him specifically.) In other words, the origin of and reason for sin cannot be explained. The nature of sin can, however, be expressed as hardness of heart (lack of love).

Hardness of Heart, however, is not just another book about the doctrine of sin. It’s also incisive cultural critique from a biblical-Christian perspective. It’s a book about idolatry—including modernity’s idol of reason (as in rationalism and scientism). Perhaps the thing I find most insightful is Cherbonnier’s insistence that “man” is a religious being in that every person has something outside the self he or she considers the “ultimate good” which provides the orientation of his or her heart and will. The ultimate good, from a biblical-Christian perspective, is the event symbolized by the cross of Jesus Christ—the Creator dying on behalf of his creation. Not Hegel’s “speculative Good Friday,” but a real event in which the absolute, the personal God of the universe, the Creator of all, gave himself up for the world out of agape (which Cherbonnier rightly says has no good equivalent translation in contemporary English).

Hardness of Heart stands as a pre-postmodern deconstruction of both traditional “Christian” dogmas (especially Augustinian original sin and Lutheran-Calvinist total depravity) and modern secular philosophies and cultural tendencies. Cherbonnier practices reductio ad absurdum on any theology or philosophy that ultimately denies human freedom and responsibility—showing that they end up contradicting themselves in practice if not in theory.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Cherbonnier says. I think he is too hard on Luther and even Barth (occasional “zingers” directed toward the Swiss theologian). But I strongly agree with his affirmation of human freedom and responsibility and his critique of Augustine’s, Luther’s and Calvin’s extremely negative estimations of humankind and their doctrines of predestination. I also agree with his critique of Pelagius—even that Pelagius’s intentions were good although his views were mistaken.

What I like about Cherbonnier (this book and his articles) is that he insists on viewing the world, reality, through biblical lenses and resists Whitehead’s claim that Christianity is a religion searching for a metaphysic. According to Cherbonnier, Christianity has a metaphysic; it is presupposed by and implied in the Bible! The Christian’s duty is to not only know the facts of the Bible, but to allow the Bible to absorb the world—to “see” the world “as” the Bible sees it. That requires stripping away the encrustations of centuries of extra-biblical philosophies that have served as Procrustean beds for interpreting the Bible and who and what God “must be” and what the Bible can and cannot “really mean.”

I remind you; Cherbonnier was (and, I assume, still is) not a fundamentalist. If he were actively writing Christian theology today he would best fit the category “postliberal.” I cannot recommend this book strongly enough; if you are dissatisfied with traditional accounts of humanity—secular, heretical, orthodox, whatever—“take up and read!”

Let me end this book review and recommendation with a typical quote from Hardness of Heart—about America and the idolatrous sin of nationalism (which I have written about here several times). Speaking of “nationalistic idolatry” Cherbonnier writes:

“A very simple test will determine whether our own country ever falls into such an ominous condition. Do we say that a thing is American because it is good or vice versa? The former case implies a standard transcending national limits by which a particular thing may be judged good and therefore incorporated into American life. In the latter case, whatever happens to be American is “good” by definition. This would be idolatry wearing the mask of patriotism. There was a day when a patriot could write, “America, America. God mend thine every flaw.” We will know that that day is over when this hymn is censored on the ground that it asks God to engage in un-American activities. It would then be too late for warning. Instead, the ancient prophecy will come true once again…. (Revelation 18:7-8)” (171)


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