Category: Acton Commentary

[Thanks to RealClearWorld, ThePulp.it, NewsBusters and PewSitter.com for linking to this commentary.] Over at the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points to Europe’s “perceptible inability” to acknowledge some of the deeper dynamics driving its financial crisis. And these are primarily a “slow-motion population implosion” complicated by the exodus of young European Union citizens and the return of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to their homes in developing nations. That is an ominous development for a region where the dependency rate — the ratio of retirees per member of the labor force — has ratcheted up as the welfare state has ballooned over several decades.

Gregg:

These facts have made some Europeans willing to ponder the necessity of labor-market and welfare reform, not least because those countries that have weathered the crisis better than others (e.g., Germany and Sweden) actually implemented such changes in the 2000s. Getting Europeans to talk publicly about the continent’s population-trends and their economic consequences, however, is a different matter.

Why? One reason is that many Europeans have long been in thrall to the over-population gospel. Long before Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) — whose doomsday future-scenarios of a world devastated by famines, mass disease, and social unrest unleashed by overpopulation never materialized — numerous European economists had bought into this thesis.

In 1798, the Anglican vicar and one of the first modern economists, Thomas Malthus, published his Essay on the Principle of Population. This argued that growing populations would produce an increasing labor-supply. The result, Malthus insisted, would be lower wages and therefore mass poverty. “The power of population,” he claimed, “is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Another English philosopher-economist, John Stuart Mill, was so convinced by Malthusian arguments that he actually spent time in London parks distributing birth-control pamphlets to bemused onlookers.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Europe in Demographic Denial” on the American Spectator.

The Keynesians will have little to cheer about in this story. Yesterday I saw this report from CNN Money that said U.S. consumer credit card debt fell by 11 percent in 2011. Mississippians led the Union by reducing their card balance by 23 percent. While total household debt fell by only 1 percent last year, it is still a towering accomplishment when compared to the U.S. federal debt increase.

This is exactly the point Jordan Ballor and I made in our 2008 commentary “The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats.” In that piece, we pointed out that the federal government is a significantly poorer steward of our resources when put up against the supposedly “materialistic” and “selfish” consumer.

The inability of the federal government to curtail spending should be considered a form of insanity when one simply looks at the numbers. Instead, as I pointed out before, government spending is now so sacred for some in the religious community, it is a shrine that must be encircled.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 16, 2012
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In connection with the current Acton Commentary, over the last week I’ve been looking at what I call the “the overlap and varieties of these biblical terms” like ministry, service, and stewardship. As Scot McKnight notes in his recent book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, the theme of stewardship is absolutely central to the biblical message. In his summary of the gospel toward the conclusion of the book, he begins this way:

In the beginning God. In the beginning God created everything we see and some things we can’t yet see. In the beginning God turned what existed into a cosmic temple. In the beginning God made two Eikons, Adam and Eve. In the beginning God gave Adam and Eve one simple task: to govern this world on God’s behalf.

McKnight goes on to trace this stewardship theme through the further lenses of Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. With God’s “new creation people” were “Eikons like Adam and Eve but with a major difference: they had the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit could transform them into the visible likeness of Jesus himself. As Christlike Eikons they are assigned to rule on God’s behalf in this world.” We “now rule in an imperfect world in an imperfect way as imperfect Eikons. But someday the perfect Eikon will come back, and he will rescue his Eikons and set them up one more time in this world.”

The best resource I know of on stewardship in its comprehensive sense is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible. The Stewardship Study Bible includes an array of features to help clarify, explain, and develop the biblical theme of stewardship. At 1 Peter 4:10, for instance, which articulates wonderfully the variety of forms stewardship takes, Wesley K. Willmer, senior vice president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), describes stewardship as “God’s way of raising people, not man’s way of raising money.” And in the corresponding “Exploring Stewardship” feature identifies “hospitality” (v. 9) as one of the various ways in which we are to “serve others” (v. 10). As the feature explains, “hospitality is not outdated; in our world there are always those who need a room for a time or a home-cooked meal.”

It seems to me that one of the things we need to do is to begin to better appreciate common grace ministries like hospitality, and the crucial role that such “common” and concrete acts of service play in the Christian life. One of the problems with our world today is that such true expressions of common grace are all too uncommon.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Ministers of Common Grace,” I note that in addition to ministry, “Another scriptural term, that of stewardship, can helpfully describe the pluriformity of God’s grace, both special and common: ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms’ (1 Peter 4:10 NIV).” I conclude by calling for “better attention to the overlap and varieties of these biblical terms.”

What I have primarily in mind is the way in which Scripture seems to use concepts like ministry, service, and stewardship somewhat interchangeably. This is undoubtedly true in the case of translations into English. As I noted in the commentary, the NIV and the ESV read Romans 14:6 alternatively as “servants” or “ministers.”

Bishops Bible Elizabeth I 1569And in sixteenth century editions of the Bible, the ministerial terminology was often preferred to that of stewardship, as in the NIV of today. For instance, in the Bishops’ Bible, 1 Peter 4:10 reads, “As euery man hath receaued the gyft, eue so minister the same one to another, as good ministers of the manifold grace of God.” Likewise the Geneva Bible renders the verse this way: “Let euery man as hee hath receiued the gift, minister the same one to another, as good disposers of the manifolde grace of God.”

It’s in Coverdale’s translation (“& mynister one to another, eueryone with the gifte yt he hath receaued, as good stewardes of the manifolde grace of God.”) and the Catholic Douay-Rheims bibles (“As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another: as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”) that we find stewardship and ministry connected explicitly, and this follows through in the KJV text tradition.

It’s interesting to note that one of the updates to the NIV since the 1984 edition has been the integration of this stewardship terminology. The 1984 edition emphasizes the idea of service, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” while the latest update I quoted in the commentary reads, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

The relevant terms at play in the Greek here are words based on the roots διακονέω (“to serve”) and οἰκονόμος (“a manager of a household”; a steward). As Martin Luther reflects on the impact of this dynamic of ministry, service, and stewardship, he writes:

The Gospel wants everyone to be the other person’s servant and, in addition, to see that he remains in the gift which he has received, which God has given him, that is, in the position to which he has been called. God does not want a master to serve his servant, the maid to be a lady, a prince to serve the beggar. For He does not want to destroy the government. But the apostle means that one person should serve the other person spiritually from the heart. Even if you are in a high position and a great lord, yet you should employ your power for the purpose of serving your neighbor with it. Thus everyone should regard himself as a servant. Then the master can surely remain a master and yet not consider himself better than the servant. Thus he would also be glad to be a servant if this were God’s will. The same thing applies to other stations in life.

As good stewards of God’s varied grace.

God did not give us all equal grace. Therefore everyone should pay attention to his qualifications, to the kind of gift given to him. (LW 30:124)

The Puritan William Ames draws out three reasons and two uses of the doctrine gathered from 1 Peter 4:10 (pp. 98-99): “It is an office of charity to minister unto others the gifts which we have received, of what kinde soever they be.”

Reasons:

  1. Because the gifts of God do in their nature tend unto the glory of God in promoting the good of men.
  2. Because to this end are all the gifts of God committed unto us, as stewards of the grace of God, as it is in the text.
  3. Becuase this very thing doth the communion of Saints require, to the believing and exercising whereof all are Christians called.

Uses:

  1. This may serve to comfort us, in that there is no faithfull Christian, but hath some gift, whereby he may minister something unto others.
  2. To exhort us, every one to use that gift which he hath, to the good of others.

Should the President of the United States be seen as theologian-in-chief? That might be one way to understand Bryan Fischer’s claim that “we are in fact choosing a minister when we select a president.”

I explore some of the dimensions of understanding politicians as “ministers of God” in this week’s Acton Commentary, “Ministers of Common Grace.” It strikes me that those who seek salvation from politicians are making a significant category mistake. Politicians cannot save because politics cannot save. Politics cannot save because it is an arena of common or preserving rather than special or saving grace.

So it’s important to see politicians, as well as businesspersons, artists, scientists, teachers, and line workers as “ministers” in a broad sense: in their work they are means or channels of God’s common grace, his blessings on all people. This is an important insight into how God’s purpose for our lives finds expression in our daily lives. (A great source for exploring common grace in the areas of science and art is the recently-released Wisdom & Wonder by Abraham Kuyper.)

But it’s equally important to distinguish between common and special grace and see how the two relate. And this is one of the things that makes the institutional church and its ministers unique. The church is where we hear, see, touch, and taste Christ, proclaimed in the Word and sacraments. That’s why the Belgic Confession contends, for instance, that “every one ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the Church very highly for their work’s sake.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
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Fojol Bros. of Merlindia

Customers standing beside the food truck operated by Fojol Brothers of Merlindia, a theatrical, mobile Indian restaurant, serving food at various locations throughout Washington, D.C

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Food Fights and Free Enterprise,” I take a look at the increasing popularity of food trucks in urban settings within the context of Milton Friedman’s observation that “it’s always been true that business is not a friend of a free market.”

As you might imagine, the food truck phenomenon has found opposition from brick and mortar eateries that fear competition from the mobile units. In this they are merely acting from self-interest, trying to influence the local laws and ordinances to favor them. As Friedman says, “It will be in the self-interest of individual businesses to promote a tariff here and a tariff there,” or a specially-designed zoning ordinance here, a tailored regulation there.

Various Christian traditions have recognized the right to food as basic, and there is thus a corresponding right for those who would provide food for others. We therefore ought to respect those who provide us with “our daily bread,” whether it be in the form of traditional restaurants, grocery stores, or food trucks. This means that the prejudice should be in favor of freedom for food trucks to operate and bring daily sustenance to many, or as Lester DeKoster writes, bring food to “God himself, hungering in the hungry.”

One response from brick and mortar restaurants could be to start up their own mobile operations. This would be far more helpful and healthy than trying to get city commissions to disallow them. The relatively lower barriers to entry (e.g. lower capital costs) can make food trucks an ideal start-up enterprise for a culinary entrepreneur. But the mobility and versatility of the food trucks can be a great complement to the stability of a traditional restaurant as well, as many establishments are already finding.

And the complementary relationship between food trucks and sit-down restaurants can work both ways. The food trucks can be a good “first step” into the food service business, and down the line the food truck brands can be well-served by setting up a base of operations with a brick-and-mortar establishment, too.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, December 22, 2011
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Acton President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico asks us to take a breather from the frenzied preparations that lead up to Christmas and reflect on the true meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation. Thanks. to ThePulp.it for linking.

The Magi -- Depicted on a Third Century sarcophagus (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Contemplating Christmas

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?

Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.

Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.

Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”

Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?

The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.

The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas — is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.

Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.

The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.

So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas?  Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?

He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

A practical man?

On the American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines the baleful influence exerted on economic thought and public policy for decades by John Maynard Keynes. Gregg observes that “despite his iconoclastic reputation, Keynes was a quintessentially establishment man.” This was in contrast to free-market critics of Keynes such as Friedrich Hayek and Wilhelm Röpke who generally speaking “exerted influence primarily from the ‘outside': not least through their writings capturing the imagination of decidedly non-establishment politicians such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and West Germany’s Ludwig Erhard.” Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of Keynes’ most prominent devotees are also “insider” types:

The story of Keynes’s rise as the scholar shaping economic policy from “within” is more, however, than just the tale of one man’s meteoric career. It also heralded the surge of an army of activist-intellectuals into the ranks of governments before, during, and after World War II. The revolution in economics pioneered by Keynes effectively accompanied and rationalized an upheaval in the composition and activities of governments.

From this standpoint, it’s not hard to understand why New Dealers such as John Kenneth Galbraith were so giddy when they first read Keynes’s General Theory. Confident that Keynes and his followers had given them the conceptual tools to “run” the economy, scholars like Galbraith increasingly spent their careers shifting between tenured university posts, government advisory boards, international financial institutions, and political appointments — without, of course, spending any time whatsoever in the private sector.

In short, Keynes helped make possible the Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Reichs, Joseph Stiglitz’s, and Timothy Geithners of this world. Moreover, features of post-Keynesian economics — especially a penchant for econometrics and building abstract models that borders on physics-envy — fueled hopes that an expert-guided state could direct economic life without necessarily embracing socialism. A type of nexus consequently developed between postwar economists seeking influence (and jobs), and governments wanting studies that conferred scientific authority upon interventionist policies.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “The Madness of Lord Keynes” on the American Spectator.

This week’s Acton Commentary comes from Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University. Professor Kidd is the author of a new biography of Patrick Henry, and he sees in Henry’s anti-federalism a certain foresight that Madison and Jefferson lacked. The unlimited power to tax was what drove us from British rule in the first place, and Henry saw no reason to give that power back to a national government. In 220 years, the national government has turned that into an unlimited thirst for borrowing.

The utter travesty that was the congressional “Super Committee” has led us to even lower depths of skepticism about the government’s ability to control debt and spending. In this new era of malaise, lessons from the time of the Constitution’s adoption — and fears from those days about what the newly-framed government might become — seem more relevant than ever. Some key Patriot leaders predicted in the 1780s that a government with unlimited power to tax and spend would become an ever-growing monster.

Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Americans have had a hard time taking the Antifederalists (opponents of the Constitution) seriously. How could anyone, we may wonder, not appreciate the wisdom of the Constitution? But remember that some of America’s greatest Founders, most notably Virginia’s Patrick Henry, opposed the Constitution. Having fought against the centralized, intrusive British government in 1776, the Antifederalists balked at placing such a government over themselves again. Many of them, including Henry, expressed fundamental doubts — concerns rooted in Christian principles — about politicians’ capacity to handle this kind of power.

Henry’s Antifederalism was rooted in a shrewder understanding of human nature than men like Jefferson possessed.

At the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788, Henry proclaimed that American liberty was at stake in the decision over the Constitution. He asked how Americans would bear the “enormous and extravagant expenses, which will certainly attend the support of this great consolidated government”? America would find “no reduction of the public burdens by this new system.” Taxes would just fuel the “uncontrolled demands” of bureaucrats not contemplated by the Constitution.

To Henry, these fears were rooted in his assumption that in the long term, officials would inevitably misappropriate and abuse the power granted to them. “Did we not know of the fallibility of human nature,” he told the Richmond delegates, “we might rely on the present structure of this government, … but the depraved nature of man is well known.” Henry’s Christian worldview made him acutely sensitive to the risks of placing expansive power in human hands. Hoping that only ethical, public-spirited people would serve in national office was foolish, he believed. Henry would “never depend on so slender a protection as the possibility of being represented by virtuous men.”

Read the full article and Kidd’s conclusions here.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I examine Jesus’s famous parable of the Lost Sheep in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable after some people grumble about him eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors at the time had a bad reputation of unfair business practices and government ties. Yet, Jesus tells the parable of a man who left ninety-nine sheep to find the one that went missing in order to caution his detractors about marginalizing even these tax collectors.

In light of this, does the “we are the 99%” rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which implicitly insinuates that anyone in the top 1 percent has gotten there unjustly, amount to shunning the lost sheep (and others) of our society today? Read this week’s Acton Commentary for more.

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Unported Author: Another Believer