Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 9, 2009
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From the opening page of Lester DeKoster’s Communism and Christian Faith (1962):

For the mysterious dynamic of history resides in man’s choice of gods. In the service of his god — or gods (they may be legion) — a man expends his energies, commits his sacrifices, devotes his life. And history is made. Understand Communism, then, as a religion; or miss the secret of its power! Grasp the nature of this new faith, and discern in contrast to it the God who alone can oppose its onward march; or misapprehend the character of the contest in which mankind is engaged, and misconceive our own historic task.

Light for the CityIn connection with the worldwide celebrations of the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009, the Acton Institute BookShoppe recently made available a limited stock of the hard-to-find Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty (Eerdmans, 2004). In this brief and accessible work, Lester DeKoster examines the interaction between the Word proclaimed and the development of Western civilization.

“Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God’s biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world,” argues DeKoster.

And in the wake of Reformation Day this past weekend, check out some reflections at Mere Comments, which include even more recommended sources for study of the Reformation.

Finally, while it’s often the case that the blogosphere breaks news before the official announcements are made, I can report that the Meeter Center’s Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is now publicly available. The PRDL is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.

The PRDL editorial board includes representatives from institutions from North America and Europe: Dr. Richard A. Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary); Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); Lugene Schemper (ex officio/Calvin College & Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).

Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, October 30, 2009
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Recently I got a phone call from an engineering manager I’ve known for over ten years. He informed me that he’d been laid off last spring, but before I could offer condolences he added that he’d been hired by another company in the same industry for a consulting assignment.

That temporary work had lasted over six months but was winding down. He hadn’t been a contract “consultant” before and after some additional small talk told me, “… and I’ve discovered something I never knew.” Anticipating a revelation about a new found inner strength, I listened carefully.

“You know,” he began, “when you work as a consultant, you have to pay twice the withholding for Social Security and Medicare that you do when you work for a company.” I told him that wasn’t exactly true and we discussed briefly the labor burden — those costs the employer pays in the U.S. when they hire someone.

The big story these days is employer provided health benefits, but unfortunately that subject overshadows the longer term liability an employer or company faces when they hire employees; and is certainly one of the reasons why many firms increasingly like “contract” agreements. My friend’s take on having to pay a greater amount to Social Security and Medicare was not “exactly true” because the money “contributed” by the employer was always part of his gross wages, but was obscured by the mechanism of the deceit explicit in the government’s term “employer’s contribution.” I have some experience here. I’ve been a business owner and self employed most of my adult life.

You see, the employer by law must add to and pay the government an amount equal to what he withholds for Social Security and Medicare on a full-time employee’s behalf. If you regularly earn $400 a week, you are responsible for sending $30.60 of that amount to the federal government. (And that’s separate from what you may owe for income tax.)

The employee’s Social Security portion is 6.2% of gross wages up to $106,800 a year; and Medicare another 1.45% of gross wages but without a cut off point. For most of us, the combined 7.65% is our “contribution” to the federal retirement and healthcare systems already in place. But it’s not the total “contribution.”

As stated above, an employer or company that hires you is responsible for an equal “contribution” in your name of an additional 7.65% of your gross wage. Many who work for company’s lose sight of the fact that employers must add that cost of having them on the payroll to their cost of hiring us. Put bluntly, our employee has to account for a profit of at least $430.60 a week in order to justify being on a payroll. And because of the federal government’s demand that his and the employer’s “contributions” must be paid weekly, or monthly according to the government’s demands; the system has a tendency to put its own demands on a company’s cash flow. A company has to have enough profitable receipts to be able to “contribute” their one-half of what is demanded for their employee’s government retirement and healthcare system. And believe me, the government wants “their” money first and doesn’t care what other bills an employer has to pay.

My engineer friend was facing the reality of having to be his own employer so to speak and ante up the total 15.3% all on his own. Like most consultants he’d arranged a fee that paid him an amount from which no deductions were taken. At times like these, we’re all small business owners. It’s sobering. Imagine if there was no withholding and all taxpayers had to write a check at the end of the year. How might they choose to act? These government systems managed by Caesar are soon to be bankrupt. I heard someone report recently that Medicare is in arrears by $38 Trillion.

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Fall is typically the season during which the sermons delivered by pastors from church pulpits concern stewardship. In making the case for Christian Stewardship many pastors will visit Genesis and the story of Abel and Cain. Compare and contrast are my favorite means of offering clarity on many subjects so I like the Genesis story of obedience versus selfishness. Many use the Bible to promote the concept of the tithe and if you Google Tithe you’ll come up with a plethora of explanations, indictments and opinions. Generally the percentage of income or produce that we are persuaded God asks of us is ten — 10%.

I can tell you that the tithe is a request that staggers most Christians. Those with work earning $400 a week are not likely to volunteer $40 when the plate is passed on Sunday — yet seemingly ignore the fact that $61.20 was sent to the IRS on their behalf that week.

It’s instructive to remember that the concept of the religious tithe contains a lesson which is not of taxation. It’s argued that all is God’s and all we have comes to us through His Grace. I believe that’s true.

Yet as I sat in the pew recently listening to one of those sermons about “giving” I took a break to recall and pray for my engineer friend’s employment perdicament, I also compared my own hesitation at pledging myself toward a 10% tithe in light of the reality that I was already on the hook to give Caesar 15.3% off the top. Glancing around the sanctuary, the question arose as to whether the bureaucrats at a government office could match our congregation in our common devotion to each other, our Lord; and the missions we support in service to Him.

And it got me realizing that when you compare the two: Caesar and God — 10% is one heck of a deal.

Arnold Kling continued last week’s conversation about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism over at EconLog.

Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”

I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.

But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.

The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).

As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.

On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.

Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.

And as I’ve noted previously, we have to take into account a standard of justice or equity, which whether communicated through the natural law or the Ten Commandments restricts legitimate civil authority (see the claim regarding OT Israel as a constitutional monarchy).

Augustine himself writes,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.

drdog-2In August, the Wall Street Journal Europe published an article exploring the difference in health care received by domesticated animals and humans. (see “Man Vs. Mutt: Who Gets the Better Treatment?” in WSJ Europe, August 8, 2009) The editorialist, Theodore Dalrymple (pen name for outspoken British physician and NHS critic, Dr. Anthony Daniels) argued that dogs and other human pets in his country receive much better routine and critical healthcare than humans: their treatment is “much more pleasant than British humans have to endure.”

Dalrymple outlines just why this is so: pets in the U.K. actually have it better than their owners since: a) they receive immediate treatment with no waitlists or postponed operations “(and) not because hamsters come first”; b) there is no fear that somehow they are being denied the proper treatment for economic reasons: there is “no tension, no feeling that one more patient will bring the whole system to collapse…; (no one is) terrified that someone is getting more out of the system than they.”; and c) pets in veterinary facilities have more options and flexibility for choosing a healthcare practitioner: “if you don’t like him, you can pick up your leash and go elsewhere.”

British humans, on the other hand, have to deal with navigating the rapids and swells of NHS bureaucracy, which requires the skills of a “white-water canoeist”. They must also endure interminable wait-times for prostheses and life-improving operations. Often they receive sub-standard administrative services, nursing assistance and meal provisions.

As President Obama continues to promote a Europeanization of the American healthcare model, the WSJ Europe editorialist beckons us to listen to such howling in the twilight of the Old Continent’s rapidly aging nationalized healthcare systems. Part of this howling is caused in the less dignified forms of public health services and treatment of human patients. Yet, there is plenty of loud barking over the mismanagement and abuse within nationalized healthcare across Western Europe, particularly in terms of mishandling budgets and sources of revenue. (more…)

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”

Blog author: rnothstine
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
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Rev. Robert Sirico delivered a sermon titled “Whistling Past the Graveyard” at Mars Hill mega-church in Grand Rapids, Mich on September 20. You can listen to his sermon in its entirety by clicking on the sermon title above. Mars Hill was founded by Rob Bell in 1999.

Rev. Sirico addressed Christology, mortality, atonement theology, and the problem of evil. In his remarks Rev. Sirico declared:

And the vision of that hill, there on Golgotha’s bloody mount, is the answer to the riddle of human existence. There in the crucified Christ, we see one who not only suffers for us…but he suffers with us. He enters our grief, our solitude, our pain. And because the one who is suffering so is innocent, he has the capacity to subsume into himself, into his divine person, all of humanity’s suffering, all the history of limitation and death.

In a column in this past Saturday’s religion section, Charles Honey reflects on the second great love commandment in the context of the national health care debate.

Honey’s piece starts out on a very strong note, detailing the perspective of Dr. John Vander Kolk, director of a local non-profit initiative focused on the uninsured:

“Where would we see Jesus in our culture?” asks the member of Ada Bible Church. “He would be down there with his sleeves rolled up, helping the people that don’t have any access (to health care). That’s what we’re being called to do.”

An editorial published this month by George Barna takes a similar point of departure.

In short, Jesus Christ showed us that anyone who follows Him is expected to address the most pressing needs of others. You can describe Jesus’ health care strategy in four words: whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever. Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.

But it is after this shared perspective that the respective pieces on health care and the Christian faith part ways.

Honey’s piece continues to argue, in the vein of the Forty Days for Health Reform, that the gospel imperative is best met through government action. “For many, it’s about treating others as you would want to be treated — seeing to it that they get the decent medical care you and I would expect. It’s just not that complicated.”

Barna, however, ends on a note of personal challenge. He writes,

Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions. It is unfortunate that when God’s people, collectively known as the Church, fail to exhibit the compassion and service that He has called us to provide, we are comfortable with the government acting as a national safety net. In a society that has become increasingly self-centered and self-indulgent, we simply expand our reliance upon the government to provide solutions and services that are the responsibility of Christ followers. Some Christians have heeded the call, as evidenced by the medical clinics, pregnancy centers and even hospitals across the nation that were initiated and funded by small numbers of dedicated believers who grasped this responsibility. Imagine what an impact the Church would have on society if it truly reflected the model Jesus gave us of how to care for one another!

This echoes the words of Abraham Kuyper, who in an address on the social question of poverty, wrote, “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honour of your Saviour.”

Blog author: hunter.baker
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
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Well, at least the book is, anyway. The End of Secularism is now in stock at Acton.org and should be available in stores, too. Help me, faithful readers.

I don’t think I’ll disappoint you. Francis Beckwith, David Dockery, Russell Moore, Father Robert Sirico, Herb London, Jennifer Morse Roback, and Glenn Stanton all liked it. I hope you will, too.

Did you get the best part, by the way? FATHER ROBERT SIRICO. Here is his take on the book:

The task of discerning the alternative to practical atheism lived by many nominal Christians and the pretense of a neutral secularism has been made easier by this rich study. Once authentic Christians grasp the ramifications of the incarnation of Christ, then and only then will it be apparent that, as Baker argues, secularism only makes sense in relation to religion.

In what deserves to be considered a modern classic, Lester DeKoster writes on the relationship between work and stewardship. These reflections from God’s Yardstick ought to be remembered this Labor Day:

The basic form of stewardship is daily work. No matter what that work may be. No matter if you have never before looked upon your job as other than a drudge, a bore, a fearful trial. Know that the harder it is for you to face each working day, the more you will to persevere schools the soul.

Here is a sense of work as soul-forming that anticipates the contemporary Shop Class as Soulcraft discussion.

But beyond the formation of the individual worker’s soul, the order of work has consequences for the larger society.

Work knits the fabric of civilization. We take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.

Those record numbers of people who are unemployed on this Labor Day in 2009 certainly need no reminders about the blessings that work offer.

DeKoster also provides needed perspective about what we can and cannot accomplish in this life, and how what we do has eternal consequences.

While the object of work is destined to perish, the soul formed by daily decision to do work carries over into eternity…. This perspective on work, as a maturing of the soul, liberates the believer from undue concern over the monotony of the assembly line, the threat of technology, or the reduction of the worker to but an easily replaceable cog in the industrial machine. One’s job may be done by another. But each doer is himself unique, and what carries over beyond life and time is not the work but the worker. What doing the job does for each of us is not repeated in anyone else. What the exercise of will, of tenacity, of courage, of foresight, of triumph over temptations to get by, does for you is uniquely your own. One worker may replace another on the assembly line, but what each worker carries away from meeting the challenge of doing the day’s shift will ever be his own. The lasting and creative consequence of daily work happens to be the worker. God so arranges that civilization grows out of the same effort that develops the soul.