Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jballor
Friday, March 20, 2009
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I caught last week’s premiere episode of NBC’s Kings. I was curious to see how the biblical parallels between the Old Testament and the contemporary Saul and David story would play out. I also find anything with Ian McShane in it hard to miss, after appreciating his masterful performances in HBO’s Deadwood.

Ian McShane as a modern-day Saul.

Ian McShane as a modern-day Saul.

After the first episode I’m intrigued enough to continue watching, in part to see how the show addresses the question of monarchy. Awhile back I proposed that we understood the government in Old Testament Israel as a kind of constitutional monarchy, given the ability of the prophets to call the king to account on the basis of Torah.

Aquinas has some relevant ruminations, and in preparation for this week’s episode on Sunday night it’d be worth scanning the section from his Summa Theologica that touches the question, “Whether the Old Law enjoined fitting precepts concerning rulers?” (Aquinas thinks so.)

Thomas writes in part that God

prescribed how the king after his appointment should behave, in regard to himself; namely, that he should not accumulate chariots and horses, nor wives, nor immense wealth: because through craving for such things princes become tyrants and forsake justice. He also appointed the manner in which they were to conduct themselves towards God: namely, that they should continually read and ponder on God’s Law, and should ever fear and obey God. Moreover, He decided how they should behave towards their subjects: namely, that they should not proudly despise them, or ill-treat them, and that they should not depart from the paths of justice.

A recent Time magazine feature, which highlights “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” has been making the rounds on the theological ‘nets. Coming in at #3 is “The New Calvinism,” which author David Van Biema describes as “Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.”

Justin Taylor’s blog Between Two Worlds is mentioned in the Time piece, and Taylor thinks “David Van Biema did a very nice job at seeking to find out what’s really happening and to identify some of the key beliefs and voices.” Shane Vander Hart similarly calls Van Biema’s piece “a pretty fair summary.” (Taylor also points to another Time article highlighting a “Calvinist comeback,” dating from 1947 and which relies heavily on Clarence Bouma of Calvin Seminary.)

One place where Van Biema is certainly right is to point to hymnody as a relevant source for gauging the spiritual state of the church. Van Biema opens his piece by noting,

If you really want to follow the development of conservative Christianity, track its musical hits. In the early 1900s you might have heard “The Old Rugged Cross,” a celebration of the atonement. By the 1980s you could have shared the Jesus-is-my-buddy intimacy of “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” And today, more and more top songs feature a God who is very big, while we are…well, hark the David Crowder Band: “I am full of earth/ You are heaven’s worth/ I am stained with dirt/ Prone to depravity.”

In a critically important article for the interaction between Reformed theology and the broader evangelical world in Calvin Theological Journal (vol. 43 [2008], pp. 234-256), Calvin Van Reken (professor of moral theology at Calvin Seminary) examines the changes to the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter hymnal over the years.

In “Christians in this World: Pilgrims or Settlers?” Van Reken compares the “old” vision, captured in a song like “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” with the “new” transformationalist vision, which is represented in omissions or alterations of “older” hymns.

He gives Rev. George Croly’s “Spirit of God, Who Dwells within My Heart,” which dates from 1867, as an example. When Croly wrote the song, it began, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from earth.” In its current form, the song begins, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from sin, through all its pulses move” (emphasis added).

Van Reken concludes that “Rev. Croly was praying in particular for grace that would help him be weaned from attachments to this world. In Reformed churches today, this is rarely sung or spoken. After all, because our world belongs to God, should we not feel at home here?”

As Van Reken also notes in the article, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey passes along the words of his former minister Bill Leslie, who “told him that as churches grow wealthier and wealthier, their preferences for hymns changes from ‘this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through,’ to ‘This is my Father’s world.'”

It’s worth considering as “The New Calvinism” becomes a force for changing the world the extent to which “Calvinism,” or better “Reformed theology,” is also changed, and not always for the better. Van Reken’s critique and engagement with the “new” view is an important one that ought to be thoughtfully considered by all proponents of “The New Calvinism.”

There are some real positives in the new vision, and some correctives to the old vision that need to be taken seriously. But as Van Reken summarizes, “The new vision can also generate a real problem: It focuses all our attention on this world and the good we can do. In so doing, the hope of heaven can be diminished, with the result that some come to love the world and the things in it. In a word, it helps us become worldly.”

I’ll save you the suspense. No.

Linker, known primarily for betraying Richard John Neuhaus by serving as editor of First Things and then publishing a book accusing Neuhaus of scurrilous theocratic aims, now writes at the New Republic. In a recent post there, he brilliantly claims to have demonstrated the idea of natural law is obvious poppycock. Why? Because he disagrees with two officials of the Catholic Church holding that a nine year old who was raped and with her life endangered by the pregnancy should still have the children rather than an abortion. Linker reasons that if the Catholic Church is wrong about that, then their idea of natural law is wrong.

Where to start?

Given that Mr. Linker worked at First Things, I’d figure he had his Aquinas down pat. Thomas Aquinas (AKA, the DOCTOR OF NATURAL LAW) held that we should agree on the first principles of natural law (like that the lives of innocent children should be protected), but that we may well disagree with the application of that natural law on a case by case basis. Well, guess what? Here we have just such a case. Does it mean the idea of natural law is vacuous? No. And Aquinas didn’t think so, either.

Mr. Linker thinks the church (or more specifically two church officials) is wrong about this case. And maybe they are. I’m unfamiliar with it. But does his disagreement with their reasoning about this case mean that the larger principle (the lives of innocent children should be protected) no longer holds? No, that position is obviously incorrect. The broad propositions of the natural law continue to hold.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, March 6, 2009
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Gina over at The Point links to a piece by Jennifer at Conversation Diary, which reads in part,

…I got out a pen to add some things to the store list. I do this about five times every day. But this time, as I wrote “bread” and “black beans” on my little pad of paper, it hit me: I am doing something really, really amazing here. Out of the blue, I suddenly saw writing items on my grocery list in a completely different light: I realized what an incredibly — almost unimaginable — luxury it is to be able to simply write down what I want to feed my children, and be able to go get it. Quickly. Easily. Cheaply.

Jennifer goes on to put this feeling of blessedness in the context of concerns of previous generations. “Can you imagine,” she wonders, “my great-great grandmother watching me do this? Or anyone who lives in a poverty-stricken part of the world today, or who lived more than 70 years ago?”

This reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation in his classic, Life Together. He notes that in Scripture “the receiving of bread [is] strictly dependent upon working for it.” But even what we “earn” in our common understanding is a result of God’s grace. “The work is commanded, indeed,” he writes, “but the bread is God’s free and gracious gift.”

When we pray the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we aren’t (usually) asking for God to “miraculously” drop manna and quail from the sky. But we are asking that he graciously rewards our labors with the material needs for our existence. Jennifer’s reflections on the blessings represented by the ability to write up grocery lists reminds us that we ought to be grateful to God even for what we think we earn.

Bonhoeffer concludes, “We cannot simply take it for granted that our work provides us with bread; this is rather God’s order of grace.” Groceries are a gracious gift, and what we owe God is gratitude.

The Making Men Moral conference at Union University is over, but there are some takeaways. This was a unique engagement of many natural law thinkers such as the Catholics Robert George and Francis Beckwith with Southern Baptists like Russell Moore and Greg Thornbury.

In that connection, Russell Moore delivered a message that I think would be considered a highlight of the conference by anyone who attended. He addressed the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals irenically without being ecumenical in any mushy way and spoke eloquently about the joint engagement by the two groups with the culture.

This was a wholly edifying address that shied away from nothing. For that reason, I’m linking the audio. It is well worth your time if you are interested in the relationship between the two traditions.

Let me underscore. Great address.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 26, 2009
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By happy serendipity two books of related interest caught my attention today.

The first is David Cowan’s Economic Parables: The Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ (Paternoster, 2007). Michael Kruse recommends the book in a brief review.

The other book is a newly-announced Christianity Today award winner in the “Biblical Studies” category. The judges describe Klyne R. Snodgrass’ Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus as “a superb culmination of career-long reflection on one of the most important genres in biblical literature.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 29, 2008
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Two of Eric Shansberg’s recent PowerBlog posts got me thinking of some other things I had run across in the last couple weeks during the run-up to Christmas Day.

The first item, “Santa and the ultimate Fairy Tale,” quotes Tony Woodlief to the effect that “fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale.” Schansberg’s (and Woodlief’s) take on this question is pretty compelling and worth considering, even though I’m not quite convinced of the value of the Santa Claus fable.

I’m still a relatively new parent (I have a three and a half year-old) and so I’m still in the midst of sorting out with my wife the best way to handle questions of the reality of Santa Claus. Until very recently, I had always been of the opinion that honesty is the best policy.

I’ve never liked the idea of putting God and Jesus on the same epistemic level (even if only for the first decade or so of a person’s life) as say, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. Rather than “preparing” the child for “embrace of the ultimate Fairy Tale,” it seems to me that such practice can foster a hermeneutic of suspicion, such that when the child finds out Santa Claus isn’t “real” in any empirical sense, he or she will, at least initially, be inclined to lump God in with other “fairy tales.” That kind of approach seems to lead as much to Freud as it does to Lewis.

I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I’m a lover of literature. I am interested (along with Tolkien) in the question of whether the proper pluralization of dwarf is dwarfs or dwarves (I too prefer the latter). I was an English major in college, and I admit to getting a bit teary-eyed when Zooey Deschanel leads a group of hard-bitten New Yorkers in a rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” at the climax of Elf.


And I agree that we need to cultivate the sense that the realm of empirical science isn’t the only or even the best way of talking about ultimate reality. But again, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that for our children we need to prepare the way for the Gospel with fiction, even well-meant fiction. If my child can’t rely on me to tell the truth about Santa, why should he believe what I have to say about God?

Rather than pointing to how such fairy tales pave the way for belief in the “ultimate Fairy Tale,” I’ve always thought that the youthful belief in Santa underscores the fundamentally fiduciary nature of human beings. We are believing creatures. We basically trust, at least at first, what other people and especially our parents tell us. We aren’t born cynical or un-trusting, but rather dependent and credulous.

This is an important thing to know about humans from a theological and anthropological point of view, but equally important is the recognition of how wrong that credulity can go. We are basically believing creatures, but without the Gospel that belief is corrupted and we create idols for ourselves. Would you say believing in Mardukh, Mammon, and Ba’al “prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale”?

All of which leads me to the item I thought of when reading that first post: the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial from 1897. As you might guess from my comments above, I have mixed feelings about the editorial, but I thought I’d recommend it since it seems so relevant to Schansberg’s point.

The other post of Schansberg’s that caught my attention was his other Christmas Day offering, in which he contrasts the Lord of the cradle, the cross, and the throne, calling for a comprehensive apprehension of Jesus Christ.

That made me think of this quote from Ed Dobson about Jesus, contained in a story from the Christmas Day Grand Rapids Press (I was out of town so I only got to it over the weekend):

“Everybody loves a baby,” mused Dobson, 58. “But when you start reading the teachings of this baby, and about the sufferings of this baby, you begin to understand better who he is.”

The story goes on in a lot more detail about Dobson’s recent history since retiring from his pastorate at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. There’s a lot more of interest in that piece.

But his quote speaks quite pointedly to Schansberg’s emphasis on the comprehensive Christ. We need to know of his birth, death, and resurrection.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
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O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices!
Oh night divine! Oh night when Christ was born!
Oh night divine! Oh night! Oh night divine!

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother,
and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his holy name.
Christ is the lord, that ever, ever praise we.
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!

In the latest volume of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, host Ken Myers talks with J. Daryl Charles, author of Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (Eerdmans, 2008). Charles is associate professor of Christian Studies at Union University, and spent the 2007-2008 year as William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ken Myers at this year’s GodblogCon and am quite impressed with the work that Mars Hill Audio does. The conversation with Charles is a good one, in part because it directly addresses the current revival of natural law within certain circles of Protestantism in North America. Within the past few years a number of books have come out that consider the positive role of the doctrine of natural law within the Protestant theological tradition, particularly that of the magisterial Reformation.

Early on in the discussion, Charles credits Acton research scholar Stephen Grabill with opening up this new scholarly interest in natural law. Charles calls Grabill’s book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006) “a very important…pathbreaking work.”

In a review of Grabill’s book published in First Things, Charles writes,

Grabill’s examination of theological ethics in the Protestant Reformed mainstream is utterly compelling, and it represents a shot across the bow of theological ethics, as it were. Protestants for the past 250 years have found practical as well as theological justification for ignoring or vehemently rejecting natural-law theory. And despite its bewildering diversity, there exists across Protestantism a broad consensus that rejects the natural law as a metaphysical notion rooted in divine revelation. This consensus is mirrored in the fact that one is hard-pressed to identify a single major contemporary figure in Protestant theological ethics who has developed and defended a theory of natural law.

Given the historical link between the magisterial Reformation and natural law and the contemporary dissolution of that link, it should be obvious that judging the doctrines of previous centuries by the twentieth-century aversion to natural law (as is done by the reference to Francis Schaeffer in this post) is a serious methodological error. One thing we learn from the work of scholars like Grabill and Charles is that there are varieties of natural-law traditions, and it is as important to identify how these differ and can be distinguished as how they share common features.

In addition to the books by Charles and Grabill, I should also mention two other recent works. The first is David VanDrunen’s short and accessible A Biblical Case for Natural Law. And the second is Craig A. Boyd’s A Shared Morality: A Narrative Defense of Natural-Law Ethics (Brazos, 2007), which VanDrunen reviews in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (Fall 2008).

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
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If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend the Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar (HT: Slashdot).

Simply stunning.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.

There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,

which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat.