Category: Bible and Theology

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, an Orthodox Christian organization that provides information about “ancient Christianity and its deep roots in Africa,” is holding a conference Aug. 26-28 in the Detroit area. In a story in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper about the upcoming conference, a reporter interviewed a woman by the name of Sharon Gomulka who had visited an Orthodox Church several years ago on the feast day of St. Moses the Black (or sometimes called The Ethiopian). She watched “as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man.” They were reverencing the image of the saint.

“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka told the paper. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”

Well, they’re Christians as she later came to find out. Historian Christopher Dawson reminds us in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (1960) that the Church’s origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and its expansion further East, points to its universal nature:

The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.

Similarly, the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes it terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cyprian and above all St. Augustine.

While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia, under strong Oriental influence.

Dawson’s reflections should not be taken as a mere historical curiosity. This history speaks to what the Church is, and has always been. All the more reason to be alarmed at the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East — communities that have in many case been continuously rooted in these lands since Apostolic times. The Christians in Kirkuk, Iraq, have been targets of bombers in recent weeks. “This is only happening because we are Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako. “Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”

Historian Philip Jenkins in books such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (2008) has worked to deepen English-speaking Christians’ awareness of these ancient roots in places like Syria, India and China.

In a 2008 interview with, Jenkins was pessimistic about the hard-pressed Christian communities in the Middle East, whose populations are rapidly dwindling:

By far the largest change is in the Middle East, the region between Persia and Egypt. As recently as 1900, the Christian population of that whole region was almost ten percent, but today it is just a couple of percent, and falling fast. Particularly if climate change moves as rapidly as it some believe, the resulting tensions could reduce Christian numbers much further. Egypt would be the most worrying example here. Might that 1,400 year story come to an end in our lifetimes?

Europe is nothing like as serious an issue. The number of active or committed Christians certainly is declining, but the churches don’t face anything like what is happening in the Middle east. There is no plausible prospect of a Muslim regime anywhere in Western Europe, or of the recreation of the social order on the lines of Muslim law. Realistically, people of Muslim background will constitute a substantial minority of the European population, rather than a majority, and it is far from clear that most will define themselves primarily according to strict religious loyalties. European Christianity may be in anything but a healthy state, but Islam need not be its greatest cause for concern.

Matters are very different in other countries of Africa and Asia, where Muslims and Christians are in deep competition. We could imagine wars and persecutions that could uproot whole societies.

If there’s one thing that these Christian communities have experience with in the last 2,000 years, it’s wars and persecutions. Jenkins might be wrong about extinction, but there’s no question about decline. According to another estimate, the Middle East’s Christian population shrank from 20 percent to 10 percent during recent decades. Yet, the surest way to speed the decline, or realize extinction, is for the global Church to ignore the plight of their brothers and sisters in this part of the world.

More history from Jenkins, echoing Dawson:

During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.

By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy … Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.

The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)

On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.

What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”

2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.

Even philosophers can be entrepreneurial when economic reality comes crashing in, creating an existential crisis. That’s one lesson from this intriguing Washington Post story (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers.”

The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable. But it does illustrate one response to the variegated crisis faced by higher education, particularly by those in the liberal arts and humanities. When you are done with school and have dim employment prospects and looming loans, you have a few different choices. You can ask, “Would you like fries with that, sir?” Or you can get out and create something for yourself in an entrepreneurial fashion.

These philosophical counselors represent something significant in the latter realm of response. And this is illustrative of the new kind of mindset that academics are going to have to have, even if they find places in traditional educational institutions. For a long time the entrepreneurial dynamism in higher ed was largely expressed in founding new centers and even independent think tanks and research institutions. This will continue, but it seems to me at the individual level scholars are going to have to be more creative and innovative simply to make ends meet. This will mean starting consulting businesses and creating new ways of providing a service to people, often outside of a traditional classroom setting. These realities are new for many in the liberal arts, but they are nothing new to researchers in the natural sciences.

So higher education is definitely undergoing a kind of destruction, but philosoprenuerial efforts like those in the WaPo piece will help determine whether that destruction is “creative” or not. I have hope that the decadence of humanities higher education can be challenged by these kinds of economic and moral realities.

Such examples are also instructive for those in other fields, perhaps especially theology. Increasingly institutions are realizing the need for “ecclesiastical entrepreneurs,” so to speak, and looking at new ways of integrating and aligning the interests of the academy and the church. In some cases this means new ways of combining programs, or launching new majors to provide expertise and instruction in a variety of institutional settings.

Blog author: crobertson
Monday, August 22, 2011

Do you view the work you do each day as worship, or is it something you do to pass the time or merely collect a paycheck? Remember work is not only the actions you perform to obtain a pay check, but includes any action “people do to earn a living.” Signs indicate that evangelical practice is entrapped in a dangerous snare of limitation and complacence. By placing almost sole emphasis on Bible study, worship attendance, and giving/tithing — the churchly aspects of discipleship — churches have in effect diminished the importance of everyday, temporal Christian living. Time spent in the workplace and at home with one’s family is subordinated to Sabbath Day activities. However, man is not intended for part-time discipleship, but for a devoted life of constant service to Christ and neighbor.

Lester DeKoster in his excellent book titled Work: The Meaning of Your Life says, “Work is the from in which we make ourselves useful to others.” God has created us to work and worship. Additionally, it is His will for our whole-life to be used to further His Kingdom in this world, not simply what we do in Church on Sunday morning. Whole-life discipleship is something very important to the work we are doing and we promote it through one-day conferences, outreach, church kits, and a new worldview video curriculum being developed.

Take a look at this video, which talks about how — for so many of us — our mission is in the marketplace.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 18, 2011

As part of our ongoing engagement with the Protestant world, the Acton Institute has taken on the translation of Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace, under the general editorship of Stephen Grabill and in partnership with Kuyper College. We’re convinced that renewed interest in the thought of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), and in fact rediscovering aspects of his thought that have been lost or misconstrued in the intervening decades, is critically important for the reconstruction of Protestant social thought.

So it’s a big encouragement to us when we see figures in the broader evangelical world echoing similar sentiments. In a recent interview with a Dutch newspaper, the PCA pastor Tim Keller spoke about how Kuyper and Herman Bavinck have served as inspirations. The translator for our Common Grace project, Nelson Kloosterman, provides a translation of the interview in English on his blog.

Keller says that the task of the Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer in New York City would be “unthinkable without Kuyper.” He adds, “Kuyper said many helpful things. Especially his idea of sphere sovereignty has helped me. That idea assumes that various social relationships—among persons, families, volunteers, associations, and churches—each has its own responsibility.” So here in the ministry of Redeemer in NYC we have a renewal of interest in Dutch neo-Calvinism. Maybe we can call some small part of New York by its original name of New Amsterdam again!

It’s only fair to note, too, that Keller is not uncritical of the all the developments of neo-Calvinism since Kuyper’s own day. He contends “that many churches in this tradition place heavy emphasis on living according to a Christian worldview while neglecting spiritual piety and evangelism.”

Here’s a video from a few years back where Keller makes some similar points.

Be sure to follow along as the Common Grace translation project proceeds. We’ve got some developments to announce in the coming weeks and months. You can also “like” the Common Grace page on Facebook to keep up-to-date, and sign up to receive email updates on the Common Grace project page.

Blog author: hunter.baker
Thursday, August 18, 2011

Michelle Goldberg has a column up at the aptly named Daily Beast letting us all know that we really need to worry about something called “Dominionism” which supposedly prevails among Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and folks who support their campaigns. Reinhold Niebuhr once warned of the dangers of religious illiteracy. Here we have exhibit A.

Goldberg claims Bachmann and Perry are “deeply associated” with this “theocratic strain” of Christian fundamentalism. Yes, they are probably so deeply associated with it that neither one of them has ever heard of R.J. Rushdoony (whom Goldberg tags as the father of this theocratic movement).

I have been part of organizations of Christian conservatives for many years and can assure Ms. Goldberg that Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism (making Hebraic law obligatory upon the broader society) exert very little influence. In fact, I think I can probably argue empirically that Rushdoony has captured the attention of many more liberal reporters with an axe to grind than it has evangelicals. For those of us who spend so much time thinking about political theology as to even have heard of CR, it is primarily a novelty. To view standard issue evangelicals in the same light as Christian Reconstructionists would be like taking rank and file Democrats and comparing them to the most extreme and exotic atheistic socialists.

The overwhelming majority position of Christians around the world is that forced religion is a stench in the nostrils of a holy God. Instead, Christians give their money to sustain people called missionaries. We support their efforts to persuade those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ that he is the son of God and that they should enter into a relationship with him. If those people subsequently refuse to believe in Jesus, missionaries pray for them and move on to other people. Those engaged by missionaries join churches or just keep on doing what they were doing before. It’s actually a pretty non-threatening business. This is the Christian idea Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann would endorse, not some fever dream of journalists hoping to bring down candidates for office.

Now, is it true that Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann would like to get elected and attempt to pass some of their aspirations for the good society into law? Certainly. This is a process called politics. It is a feature of democracies. And I suspect what Perry and Bachmann would like to do is reduce the size of government, which, incidentally, is not all that great a danger to individual freedom.

Of course, both are pro-life and would like to protect unborn children from being killed in the womb. If that position is so extreme as to warrant exclusion from the political process and raving condemnations in print . . . well, in that case I’m afraid I can’t do much to help.

The recent English riots, soaked as they are in unrestrained Marxism, bring to mind one of the 20th century’s great anti-Marxists, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was a staunch—even curmudgeonly—defender of social order, and a derisive critic of Marxism, calling it in The Tablet “the opiate of the people.”

Waugh would no doubt have been a booster of the Acton Institute (his best man was Lord Acton’s grand nephew), and a passage in his 1945 classic Brideshead Revisited artfully sums up the Institute’s founding justification. It is a conversation between Charles Ryder and Lady Marchmain in which her ladyship reveals a history of a conscience troubled by great wealth.

It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favourites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in paganRomewas necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.

Lady Marchmain is not the most sympathetically drawn character, and at first it seems strange what she says about coveting the advantage of the poor. But of course what she was coveting was not the earthly simplicity of Lazarus’s existence, but a perceived spiritual primacy.

What she neglected to do was to put her trust in Providence, which sees to the distribution of wealth according to an Eternal Law she cannot read. What she came to see is that she is merely a stewardess of “so many beautiful things.” The cruel Roman world was that of Nero’s nihilistic tyranny, but the Domus Aurea has become the ornately restored chapel at Brideshead.

The conversation continues with Charles (the first-person narrator),

I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point.

“But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, theAlice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”

(Against charges that Waugh was a snob need only be set this comparison of himself to the ox and the ass in Bethlehem.)

The socialist rejects this Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of life, and tries to impose his own order on it. That was the folly of the Soviet Union, and it is the folly of the modern comprehensive state.