You might have seen my post the other day about the theologian David Bentley Hart and his new translation of the New Testament. In the post, I discussed why Prof. Hart left the original Greek word kosmos (rendered “cosmos” in the translation) where most English translations render it “world.” In an essay accompanying the translation, Hart explains the usage in part like this:
But, while there are instances in the text where the world functions as an equivalent of oikoumenē, the inhabited world of human beings, it more frequently means the whole of the created order, the heavens no less than the earth. It certainly carries this latter meaning in some crucial and occasionally unsettling ways in many verses in John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters, and elsewhere. It is good, for example, to be reminded that in the New Testament, and in Paul’s theology in particular, both slavery to death in sin and final liberation from death in divine glory are described as cosmic — not merely human — realities, taking in the whole of creation. Moreover, the word “world” as we use it today simply does not capture what is most essential to the ancient concept of “cosmos,” a word that most literally means “order” or “arrangement” or even “loveliness of design.” For us, the “world” is either merely the physical reality of nature and society “out there,” or it is the human sphere with all its attendant moral and historical contingencies. For the late antique cultures from which the New Testament came, the “cosmos” was quite literally a magnificently and terribly elaborate order of reality that comprehended nature (understood as a rational integrity organized by metaphysical principles), the essential principles of the natural and animal human condition (flesh and soul, for instance, with all their miseries), the spiritual world (including the hierarchies of the “divine,” the angelic, and the daemonic), the astral and planetary heavens (understood as a changeless realm at once physical and spiritual), as well s social, political, and religious structures of authority and power (including the governments of human beings, angels, celestial “daemons,” gods, terrestrial demons, and whatever other mysterious forces might be hiding behind nature’s visible forms). It is a vision of the whole of things that is utterly unlike any with which most of us are today familiar, and that simply does not correspond to any meaning of “world” intuitively obvious to us. For the author of 1 Peter or of 1 John, for instance, to tell his readers to have nothing to do with the “cosmos” is to say something far more comprehensive, imponderable, and astonishing than that they should avoid vice and materialist longings, or that they should withdraw from society. It seemed better to me to risk oddity of expression than to risk losing sight of these truths.
This evening, Prof. Hart e-mailed some further comments to me. I publish them below with his permission:
You’re quite right about the need for some way of representing the cosmic dimensions of salvation. Certainly, one cannot make sense of much of the theology of the fathers if one does not understand “kosmos” with sufficient breadth (Athanasius and Maximus come to mind especially forcibly). But the issue is not merely “how much is saved,” but also the entire nature of salvation as an act of God—an act, that is, of descent, conquest, and restoration.
Throughout the New Testament, with very few significant exceptions, and most acutely in the Johannine and Pauline texts, the “kosmos” is the entire universe, physical and spiritual. Admittedly, today the universe looks considerably larger, but only in material terms; in terms of the realms of reality it encompassed, the ancient cosmos was far far larger. For these texts, kosmos means everything heavenly, terrestrial, and subterranean, embodied or not. For Paul, for instance, the whole story of salvation is the story of Christ’s conquest of the archons, potentates, thrones, and dominions (call them angels or daemons) that rule from the planetary spheres, throng the sublunary air, and govern the nations. Christ, having subdued these powers, as well as those under the earth, has “subordinated” the whole of reality “under his feet,” and having re-ordered the cosmos will, on the last day, hand over all to the Father, that the Father may be all in all. In the Age to come, all things will be governed directly through the Son, and the archons will no longer be able to cut us off from God. Read 1 Corinthians 15. If that sounds a mite gnostic—well, yes, to a point.
For John too, Christ is the “one who is from above”—that is, he dwells in the hyperouranian (or supercelestial) empyrean beyond the planetary and astral spheres, in God’s “aeon,” while we are from below, creatures subject to generation and death and under the rule of “the archon of this cosmos.” Christ literally comes down into the cosmos to destroy the power of its archon and redeem creation. That is why most good New Testament scholars speak of the “vertical” eschatology of the gospel, or of its realized eschatology, and why so many decline to read the word “aionios” in John as referring merely to a state of endless duration “after” this age. Rather, they see it as referring (as it does in Plato’s Timaeus) to a divine reality above time, a reality that happens to be eternal, of course, but not in the simple sense of successive everlastingness. That is, aionios refers to a reality that is eternal (the Age above), but does not simply mean eternal in the sense we habitually use that word.
In any event, this cosmology and this soteriology are, in a very real sense, the essential theology of the New Testament texts. A vast majority of good New Testament scholars tends to agree that “cosmos” is a better rendering of “kosmos” than is “world,” and refrain from doing so only to avoid sounding odd. Instead they tend to use footnotes to explain that “world” should be taken as meaning the entire created universe…etc. I don’t mind sounding odd, because “world” in our sense is simply wrong.
UPDATE: DBH adds:
Oh, and I should note that, while there are ambiguous uses of “kosmos” in the New Testament (sometimes, for instance, it means just the moral order of the world, human and spiritual), when an author is keen to limit his reference strictly to the human world he tends to use the word “oikoumenē”—literally, “the inhabited earth.”