Category: Bible and Theology

Jacopo-Bassano-Jacopo-da-Ponte-Departure-of-Abraham-and-his-family-and-livestock2“To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.” –Ecclesiastes 5:1

Obedience to God is a fundamental requirement of the Christian life. With our constant recitations of “thy will be done,” it may seem a rather obvious point, but while many of us are comfortable with the basic aims and directives of the Gospel – feed the poor, serve the needy, steward your talents, love your enemies – when it comes to the actual implementation, we tend to defer to our own designs and desires.

Yet no matter how much spiritual frosting we may apply, that basic question still longs to be asked: “Lord, what would you have me do, and how would you have me do it?”

In a free society, wherein individual choice and action are largely uncontrolled and often empowered, we have increased opportunities to align our lives and actions to God, and thus to others. But this same elusive freedom can also mean heightened temptations to become wise in our own eyes. For the Christian, such freedom is only as authentic as it is subservient to the true and the good — a perplexing and paradoxical notion, to be sure. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Idle RichOver at his blog, Peter Boettke writes, “The idle rich are never really idle in a free market economy.”

Now while we might want to distinguish between the rich and their riches, could it be that even in their consumption, conspicuous or otherwise, the rich are contributing to a rising tide that lifts all boats? Wesley Gant makes that related case over at Values & Capitalism: “Is It Possible to Waste Money?”

Gant seems to conclude that it isn’t possible to “waste” wealth. “Humans do not consume resources; they create and exchange them,” he says.

One might argue, however, as John Mueller does, that humans create and exchange things, but that they also consume and distribute them. It’s a truncated and reductionist economism that doesn’t do justice to that fuller picture. A basic problem with this kind of view is that it cannot distinguish between types of consumption. Maybe we need “ethics” rather than “economics” proper to do so, but that just goes to show the limitations of the economic way of thinking.

On Gant’s account, it would seem that there is no such thing as bad stewardship. Now it may be that consumption of luxuries is not always bad, or that such consumption often does have some redeeming virtues. But is it the case that such reasoning can justify any exchange or consumption? (As long as it doesn’t involve the government, of course!)

Perhaps the guy who got the one talent and buried it in the ground should have just given the wealthy owner a basic lesson in such economics.

sea sandI’ve recently discussed the temptations of self-willed religion and the risks of disobedience, cautioning against self-chosen service and sacrifice. Over at the FLOW blog, Evan Koons highlights the power in doing the opposite.

Quoting Stephen Grabill, director of programs at Acton, Koons notes that when submit our lives to Christ and obey God’s direct and divine calling, he “reverses the barrenness, isolation, and brokenness” in our lives, and thus, the world around us.

When God told Abraham his descendants would outnumber the sands on the seashore, he wasn’t just saying they would be many, he was saying they would be majestic. Each one would reveal the beautiful and wondrously creative nature of God. Every tiny and seemingly insignificant grain would stand as a colossal reminder of what our obedience to God Almighty really creates and what it truly reveals: magnificent LIFE. And the more you magnify it the more and more wonder and beauty it proclaims. (more…)

moses and the burning bushI have recently offered several warnings against self-chosen sacrifice and self-willed religion, noting that, as Christians, ours is a service not of our own design or choosing, and when we orient our lives accordingly, it’s far more powerful because of it.

Over at Catholic Exchange, Benjamin Mann offers a nice complement to such warnings, digging a bit deeper into the question of discernment, which is central to all of this. (HT)

Writing specifically of our current attitudes about vocation, Mann observes an “unnecessary indecision and anxiety” in modern Western culture — one that is “shaped by the modern sensibility of intense self-consciousness, and by the consumer culture’s obsession with options and the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”

We are living in a world filled with choices and opportunities for “self-empowerment.” And yet with such tools comes a temptation to trust too highly in our personal plans and powers. If we give way to these temptations, our perception of calling is bound to suffer. “Consciously or not,” Mann writes, “we sometimes expect a vocation to solve all of our problems, answer all of our questions, and satisfy all of our desires. But these are not the purposes of a vocation.”

So what is the purpose of vocation? (more…)

Exodus36As economic prosperity has increased, and as the American economy has transitioned from agrarian to industrial to information-driven, manual labor has been increasingly cast down in the popular imagination.

When our youth navigate and graduate from high school, they receive pressure from all directions to excel in particular areas and attend a four-year college, typically in pursuit of “white-collar” work. The trades, on the other hand — including brickmasons, plumbers, butchers, and carpenters — are not high on the minds of many, whether parents, pastors, teachers, or politicians.

In the latest issue of Christianity Today, Chris Horst and Jeff Haanen offer a challenge to this trend and the supporting stereotypes, arguing that the church has a particular precedent to build on when it comes to the ways we approach “work with the hands.”

Not only does a thriving economy and society need craftspeople, but the Bible elevates these occupations as filled with worth and dignity. Craftspeople are image-bearers, they argue, reflecting “the Divine Craftsman who will one day make all things new”:

Craftspeople (harashim)—masons, barbers, weavers, goldsmiths, stonecutters, carpenters, potters—are replete in the Bible. The first person Scripture says was filled with the Spirit of God was Bezalel, who was given “ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze” (Ex. 31:1–5, ESV). Passages like these suggest God cares about craftsmanship, above all in his most holy places. From the tabernacle to the temple, what was built was meant to reflect and reveal God’s character. The temple was not just a majestic building; it spoke powerfully of his holiness. (more…)

Golden-Calf-Painting1Last week, I wrote about the danger of self-chosen sacrifice, channeling evangelist Oswald Chambers, who warns us to “never decide the place of your own martyrdom.”

“Always guard against self-chosen service for God,” he continues. “Self-sacrifice may be a disease that impairs your service.”

As an example of how the process ought to go, Chambers looks to the story of Abraham and Isaac. God demanded something quite peculiar — the sacrifice of Abraham’s son —  and Abraham simply obeyed. “God chose the test for Abraham,” Chambers writes, “and Abraham neither delayed nor protested, but steadily obeyed.”

In Cornelis Vonk’s primer on Exodus, part of CLP’s growing series, “Opening the Scriptures,” he highlights an example of the opposite.

Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai, where God was to send down his law in written form. Yet down below, even as the Israelites had quite visibly witnessed the supernatural power of God — whether through the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the fire by night, etc. — they gave way to their humanistic impulses. Anxious and impatient for Moses to return and eager for guidance and direction, they could wait no longer.

“Make us gods who shall go before us,” they said. (more…)

titiaan_abraham_izaak_grtIn our efforts to serve others and do good in the world, we humans have a remarkable tendency to fall short, no matter how carefully constructed or well intended our plans and designs may be.

When failure occurs, economists are likely to point to some kind of knowledge problem, noting that, for instance, Western Congregation X didn’t (and perhaps couldn’tknow or foresee that sending hundreds of free shoes to Developing Nation Y would put several local merchants out of business.

To mitigate these types of ripple effects, we can work to be more careful in a variety of ways, but throughout that process, Christians have a unique responsibility to order our concerns within a particular context of transcendent obedience to a particular God and Savior. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” as Samuel once said, “and to listen than the fat of rams.”

When we seek to do good on behalf of others, we certainly ought to consider the various modes of “natural” analysis and observation — reason, history, science, tradition, etc. — but we are also commanded to consult and consider the voice of God himself, whether delivered through his Word, the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, a prophetic church community, or otherwise.

This is not to call for some form of anxious and nit-picky legalism, of course, though that temptation is sure to endure as well. It’s to say that ours is a service uniquely empowered to stretch beyond the ways of this world, which are far too aimless, far too arbitrary, and ultimately beholden to the self.

When we neglect transcendent sources of knowledge, danger and destruction will persist, both in our spiritual lives and the witness we bear in the world. As the great teacher and evangelist Oswald Chambers once cautioned, “Always guard against self-chosen service for God,” which “may be a disease that impairs your service”:

(more…)

Given the dynamics of the information age and ever-accelerating globalization, humanity faces a variety of new opportunities and challenges when it comes to creating, collaborating, and consuming alongside those from vastly different contexts.

Although Pentecost Sunday has already past, Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong wrote some related reflections on this very question, particularly as it relates to Christian vocation. As Yong notes, “location and situatedness matter, and do so across many registers — religious/theological, ideological, socio-economic, political, educational, linguistic, geographical, cultural, ethnic, racial, and experiential.”

Globalization has been a blessing for many, yet for Christians, it raises the question of what role the Gospel plays as we engage with and bear witness to our brothers and sisters across the world. As Yong asks: “How then do we not only make sense of our lives but also bear adequate vocational witness in our pluralistic age?”

The answer, he continues, can be found at Pentecost:

A look backward to the biblical day of Pentecost event might help us understand the polyphony of our world and empower wise witness in the public sphere. What I am referring to is the remarkable phenomenon of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring “on all flesh” (Acts 2:17b) that both empowered the diversity of tongues (Acts 2:2-11) and simultaneously precipitated the declaration of “God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11b). From this, we see that the multiplicity of voices is not in and of itself a problem; in fact, such plurivocity may well be a work of the Spirit of God in the present time. It is precisely in and through the many tongues of Pentecost that the glory of God is both manifested and mediated. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
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Today at Ethika Politika, I examine the longstanding claim of the Roman Catholic Church that the universal character of the common good in our present era necessitates a world political authority. The problem, I argue, lies in the tradition’s too closely identifying the good of political communities with the common good.

The recently canonized Pope John XXIII, for example, states that “[p]ublic authority” is “the means of promoting the common good in civil society” (Pacem in Terris, 136, emphasis mine). And Pope Benedict XVI continued the call made by John XXIII for a “world political authority” in Caritas in Veritate, specifically recommending that the U.N. be “vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights” (57, emphasis mine). The problem with the U.N., to the popes, is that it is not powerful enough.

In response, I write,

I would worry about a U.N. or any other global political authority endowed with such great power and means. If nation states have failed to ensure the global common good, as the pope admits, why should we expect a global government to be free from error in this regard? The only difference would be that the mistakes of such politicians would necessarily have global consequences. I like my U.N. nearly ineffective and mostly powerless, thank you very much. If anything, to ensure subsidiarity, the larger the political authority, the less power and means it should have. (more…)

bankruptcyThe Bible has a lot to say about the principles behind bankruptcy law, says T. Kyle Bryant. In the Old Testament, God gave Moses various laws concerning the poor, lenders, borrowers, and debt forgiveness.

From these passages, we get a glimpse of how God makes provision for people who cannot pay their debt after a certain number of years. Beside discouraging lenders from making “bad” loans (ones that could not be repaid in seven years), the law prevented overwhelming debt from ruining a person’s life forever. In this way, God’s law provided for a type of bankruptcy protection every seven years (and every 50 years for land).

The United States bankruptcy scheme is complex, but the similarities between it and the biblical system are striking. Both systems served to protect the relatively powerless consumers and give predictability and stability to the creditors. For example, in the Israelite law, debtors could be released from their debts every seven years—no matter the amount of the debt, it was gone. This prevented common debtors from having to sell themselves into slavery in perpetuity to pay for their debts. On the other hand, it gave a stable and predictable risk profile to creditors seeking repayment of those debts. Lenders could temper their desire to make risky loans with the knowledge that any chance of repayment after the seventh year was uncertain.

In a similar way, the Bankruptcy Code allows a person freedom from their debt every eight years. Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code governs (in large part) individual debtors and the discharge of a person’s debt. If someone has received a discharge of their debt under Chapter 7, they must wait eight years before they can file for bankruptcy again. This echoes the biblical pattern of debt being wiped away every seven years. (But whether this tempers creditors’ risky lending practices is another question).

Read more . . .