Category: Bible and Theology

In the Feb. 27 issue of WORLD Magazine, editor in chief Marvin Olasky interviews Anthony Bradley about his new book, Liberating Black Theology (2010, Crossway Books). Bradley is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, a professor at The King’s College in New York, and a contributor at WORLDmag.com. Excerpt:

Olasky: From what does black liberation theology have to be liberated?

Anthony Bradley

Anthony Bradley

Bradley: Black theology has to be liberated from itself. Its primary anthropological presupposition is that humans are victims of social oppression: That is the starting point of a person’s identity. I want to switch the conversation and say, “Slavery happened, injustice happened because the devil is real and the Fall is real, so you’ll always have injustice. But the core of a person’s identity is that of the Imago Dei, being made in God’s image.”

Olasky: Where does black theology fail?

Bradley: If theology emphasizes “victim status” and not something more ontological, the remedy is often short-sighted: When your theology is nothing but politics and sociology, it doesn’t help you when you get cancer or your husband leaves you. If your theology of liberation is grounded in the Imago Dei, you’re much more open to looking at the multiple ways in which the Fall affects human life.

Download the introduction to Bradley’s new book and the first few pages of Chapter One here.

Here’s the brief description of Liberating Black Theology from Crossway:

When the beliefs of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, assumed the spotlight during the 2008 presidential campaign, the influence of black liberation theology became hotly debated not just within theological circles but across cultural lines. How many of today’s African-American congregations-and how many Americans in general-have been shaped by its view of blacks as perpetual victims of white oppression?

bradley_bookIn this interdisciplinary, biblical critique of the black experience in America, Anthony Bradley introduces audiences to black liberation theology and its spiritual and social impact. He starts with James Cone’s proposition that the “victim” mind-set is inherent within black consciousness. Bradley then explores how such biblical misinterpretation has historically hindered black churches in addressing the diverse issues of their communities and prevented adherents from experiencing the freedoms of the gospel. Yet Liberating Black Theology does more than consider the ramifications of this belief system; it suggests an alternate approach to the black experience that can truly liberate all Christ-followers.

Watch for it soon in the Acton Bookshoppe!

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 15, 2010
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Longtime Acton friend John H. Armstrong notes the recent discussion of Rowan Williams’ pronouncements on ethics and the economy here at the PowerBlog, commenting that “The archbishop of Canterbury is an extremely likable Christian gentleman, a first-class Christian scholar. He is also a leader who often fails to address some of the more difficult issues in our time with a straight, clear answer.”

Armstrong’s description of Williams coheres well with the overall picture of theologians engaging economics presented by Susan Lee, who says, “The habit of picking and choosing means that many theological discussions of economics take place under a cloud of incoherence, or at least to economists, ignorance.”

In this brief piece from APM’s Marketplace, “Bridging the theology-economy gap.” Susan Lee, “an economist and a theologian based in New York City,” passes along her experience at a public appearance that included Rowan Williams. She gets of some real substantive observations, including the following:

…ethics are the common ground for theology and economics…

Both theologians and economists are interested in improving the lives of all humans. Both groups agree on policy goals like low unemployment and sustainable growth. In fact, these goals are in harmony with a definition offered by the archbishop. He said: “An ethical economy is one where we care for our neighbor by creating conditions so the most vulnerable aren’t abandoned.” Well, this is a description of capitalism in the U.S….

Economists are interested in how to make the pie larger. Theologians are interested in how to divide the pie. And so many theologians treat capitalism like a Chinese menu. They pick the wealth-distribution parts and discard the wealth-creation parts….

Her commentary is brief, but worth reading or listening to in full. Jeff Walton at the IRD also provides some background for the Trinity Institute event, and includes fuller observations from Lee (HT).

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Like many, my first encounter with Orthodox theology was intoxicating. Here, finally, in the works of thinkers such as Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorf and Alexander Schmemann and others I found an intellectually rigorous approach to theology that was biblical and patristic in its sources, mystical in its orientation and beautiful in its language.

But over the years I have found a curious lacunae in Orthodox theology.

For all that it is firmly grounded in the historical sources of the Christian tradition, Orthodox theology often lacks what Elizabeth Theokritoff in her book Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology calls “the practical application” that is central to patristic thought. “There is a temptation [for Orthodox Christians] to say, ‘Look, it’s all in the Fathers'” as if somehow this solves all of life’s problems (p. 253). However fidelity to patristic theology requires more than simply reading the Fathers. As the Fathers did in their own time, I must wrestle with the intellectual and practical concerns of the contemporary world with an eye to redeeming the time (see Ephesians 5:16).

Theokritoff wrestles with the cosmological and anthropological implications of Orthodox theology as they apply to contemporary concerns about the environment. In so doing she sketches out what I would call a theory of natural law grounded in the Scriptures, the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For many outside the Orthodox Church, and for not a few within, the notion that there even is an Orthodox understanding of natural law might come as a surprise. But such tradition exists and while Theokritoff does not use the term, her work is very much a work concerned with natural law.

Following St. Maximus the Confessor, Theokritoff argues that as a “‘bond of unity’ in creation,” humanity’s vocation “is progressively to unite the disparate aspects of the created order, and ultimately to unite the whole with God” (p. 31). For this reason, “It is necessary to accept that human beings are the cause of the world’s plight.” Unlike many in the environmental movement however, the author does not  take this to mean that humanity is a blight or a cancer on the enviroment. Rather she argues “that we are also God’s chosen instruments through which all things are to be brought to fulfillment in Christ” (p. 32).

That said, it is not all together clear to me what, if anything, are the author’s specific environmental goals. What, in other words, does she hope us to accomplish as we work to bring all things to fulfillment in Christ? And how, in a practical way, are we to accomplish this?

These are not trivial questions. And to assert, as she does, that it is “not the task of theology to come up with such solutions” is less than satisfying. This is doubly the case given that she thinks policies such as fair trade, population control, and reduced consumption and production in the West are appropriate Christian means of caring for the environment (p. 30).

On the last page of the book there is a trivial illustration of the author’s uncritical identification of the tradition of the Orthodox Church with her own preferred environmental policies. Rightly, as the author reminds us, “there is no path to the Kingdom except through a thousand ordinary, humdrum decisions.” But is it also true to say, as she suggests, that “recycling a sheet of paper . . . is a practical assent to [God’s] plan of salvation. . . . [and] signals our willingness to be co-workers with the Almighty in bring his creation to the fulfillment for which it was made” (p. 265)? Maybe, but not necessarily.

While I disagree with author’s progressive politics and policies, it is important to note that Theokritoff offers her suggestions in a spirit of humility. As she writes, “there will sometimes be genuine differences among Christians about the practicalities of remedying various ills” (p. 30). True enough, but I do wish that the author had left her own politics completely out of the book or, having included them, she engaged those who disagree with her.

While we certainly ought not to minimize the seriousness of Theokritoff’s policy suggestions, — especially what I would argue are her misguided and very dangerous flirtation with population control — the real strength of the book is in her articulation of an Orthodox approach to natural law grounded in Scripture and the Church Fathers and embodied in Christian worship and the lives and witnesses of the saints. Living in God’s Creation offers us a rich cosmological and anthropological vision that has implications not only for the environment but also economics and politics and it raises themes worthy of further exploration and study.

Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, February 12, 2010
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It’s not easy being a global warming alarmist these days, what with the cascading daily disclosures of Climategate. But if you are a global warming alarmist operating within the progressive/liberal precincts of churches and their activist organizations, you have a potent option, one that the climatologists and policy wonks can only dream about when they get cornered by the facts. You can play the theology card!

Over at the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program blog, writer “jblevins” is troubled by a lot of the skeptical talk about global warming in the wake of serial East Coast blizzards. Not to worry, if you’ve bet on the Atmospheric Apocalypse, because right away “jblevins” throws down the trump card [emphasis mine]:

… our call to care for God’s Creation is not contingent on weather events or even on scientific proof. We are called as people of faith to live in relationship with all of God’s People and all of God’s Creation. Part of that means addressing the way we have been living that has caused unbalance amidst that Creation. For us, this is not an issue of politics, or even necessarily of science. It is a call of our faith, as our principles again state, “as people of faith we are guided by the value of sustainability. Sustainability requires that we enable biological and social systems that nurture and support life not be depleted or poisoned.

There you have it. Global warming (note the semantic shift to climate change as the activists dig out their driveways) is not about the science, it’s about the “call of faith.” Now, I happen to think this is pious nonsense, but let us ask for the sake of asking: If your global warming alarmism is not based on sound science, then it is based on … what? Divine Revelation? Or is it simply a feeling, a mood, an emotion? As in, “I feel like Creation is poisoned.” (more…)

Discover God’s design for life, the environment, finances, and eternity.

This NIV Stewardship Study Bible trailer provides a 30,000 foot view of the rich resources found within this study Bible. Whether you are pastor, deacon, elder, financial planner, development director, ministry leader, fundraising consultant … or simply someone interested in becoming a better steward of the resources entrusted to you by God, you might want to check out this video!

NIV Stewardship Study Bible Guided Tour from Brett Elder on Vimeo.

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, February 4, 2010
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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a talk on theology and economics at New York’s Trinity Church last week. The historic Wall Street church was the site of the Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace conference which promised to “bring together leading theologians and economists to talk about the relationship between economics and Christian belief and action.”

Williams had this to say:

“Inevitably at some point, you have to talk about what level of wealth generation is compatible with the finite setting in which we live.” The global economic crisis, he said, brought to light “unreal forms of wealth generation which simply produce naughts on the end of a balance sheet that correspond to nothing.”

“Theology,” he said, “while it can’t solve specific economic problems, will be at the very least nagging at the vocabulary, nudging at the assumptions.”

And that’s how his talk went — long on literary and theological metaphor (“money is a metaphor like other things”) but precious little on economics. What’s more, there seemed to be no words in his vocabulary that would help him distinguish between competing economic systems or, in fact, help him describe how the economic systems in the United Kingdom or the United States actually work. At some point, economics transcends mere metaphor and goes to work in a concrete way in the world in which people live.

Is the archbishop aware that there has been a jaw-dropping, incredible reduction in global poverty?

World poverty is falling. … new estimates of the world’s income distribution and suggests that world poverty is disappearing faster than previously thought. From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa. Barring a catastrophe, there will never be more than a billion people in poverty in the future history of the world.

How did this happen? What type of economic system brought this about? Doesn’t it seem as though more than “naughts” are being produced in some of the poorest regions of the world? Is this poverty reduction not an occasion for rejoicing, or at the least singing a few hymns right there on Wall Street?

You can read the 3,600 word transcript of Williams’ talk here, but you won’t learn much about poverty reduction. Or economics.

And how many times do we have to be informed, by people who apparently believe they have discovered the connection for the first time, that the root meaning of economics is from the Greek word οικονομία for household management? Can you see the metaphor coming?

Williams announces that the “isolated homo economicus of the old textbooks, making rational calculations of self-interest, has been exposed as a straw man: the search for profit at all costs in terms of risk and unrealism has shown that there can be a form of economic ‘rationality’ that is in fact wildly irrational.”

Rowan Williams’ visit to Wall Street would have been more educational for him, and more edifying for those who heard his talk, if he had actually spent some time with the people who work in that district. He would have found out that, by and large, they’re not so “irrational” after all. They might help him understand how the world works, and that not everyone who labors on Wall Street, or on Main Street, believes that all human relations “are actually to do with exchange and the search for profit,” as he describes it. He might even find the imago Dei in one or two people who work on Wall Street. But he will only find that Image in real human persons, not metaphors.

The current issue of Touchstone magazine features an impressive cover essay by Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. In “The Audacity of the State,” Farrow uses the biblical Ichabod motif to examine the crumbling pillars of the family and church, which when properly respected form critical foundations for a flourishing society.

In their place, writes Farrow, is the “savior state,” which “presents itself as the people’s guardian, as the guarantor of the citizen’s well-being. The savior state is the paternal state, which not only sees to the security of its territory and the enforcement of its laws but also promises to feed, clothe, house, educate, monitor, medicate, and in general to care for its people.” As Lord Acton said, “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

In a piece as far-ranging and challenging as this, there are bound to be some minor points with which to quibble. For instance, Farrow’s characterization of the role of Erastianism in the overarching narrative seems to be a bit of a caricature, or at least not contextually sensitive. But in any case, there is one larger lacuna in Farrow’s otherwise admirable, impressive, and worthwhile essay, a piece which has far too many worthwhile sections and quotes from which to pull an adequate nosegay. Farrow’s piece must be read in its entirety. (And while you are there, sign up to receive Touchstone.)

But in discussing the elements of civil society, those institutions other than the state which provide it with limits and humble its would-be soteriological ambitions, Farrow considers only the church and the family, “the two most prominent pillars of political freedom, the pillars that have always provided for a roof or shield over the individual and his conscience.”

To be sure, there is some historical basis for considering only these three (church, state, family). These are, after all, the so-called “three estates,” orders, or institutions of classical Christian social thought. These estates have in some form or another functioned vibrantly in the discussion of Christian social thought from Luther’s own time to the present. Richard Baxter (Weber’s proclaimed paragon of the Protestant ethic), for instance, had a threefold distinction beyond personal ethics: economics (referring in the older sense to family), ecclesiastics, and politics.

But in speaking of the tyrannical habitus of the state, at least passing reference must be made to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified as the fourth institution: the realm of work, business, culture. It is understandable why Farrow might not pay much attention to this multifaceted pillar of civil society, especially since that pillar has largely been ground to a nub in the course of the twentieth century. But state control and invasion of this sector of social life is as far-reaching, perhaps more so, as it has been with the state’s involvement in the church and family.

The church and the family certainly have their defenders in the public square, although they are too few and fragmentary, as Farrow rightly laments. But who will speak against the audacity of the state for the realm of labor, work, and cultivation? These need their defenders, too, and that in one sense is precisely what we aim do here at the Acton Institute.

Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, takes note of an in-depth NYT profile of Prof. Robby George (HT: MoJ). In the NYT profile, George is presented as the central figure in the formation of the ecumenical coalition behind the Manhattan Declaration, and adds a number of important contexts for George’s academic, intellectual, and political endeavors.

Anderson characterizes the profile as “pretty evenhanded,” saying it “provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.” But Anderson levels a serious charge against the piece by David D. Kirkpatrick:

But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.

Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.

Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.

I can certainly understand Anderson’s concerns that George be properly presented as heir to a long-standing intellectual tradition. But I disagree that the profile does injustice to this aspect of George’s work.

For instance, the dominant paradigm that is presented throughout is that George is drawing deeply on the Thomistic tradition. Kirkpatrick writes early on in the piece, for example, that George “has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence.” Kirkpatrick also notes that George’s “admirers” say that “he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Of course at other points, including in the section below, specific natural-law arguments that George makes are referred to as “new,” so in this sense Anderson’s clarifications are valuable.

It seems to me that the most serious potential misunderstanding in the article is at least superficially based on George’s own declaration that in organizing the broad Christian support for the Manhattan Declaration from a variety of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, “I sold my view about reason!” This is of course a reference to the specifically (neo)Thomistic view of reason’s relation to natural law that serves as the intellectual framework for the entire article, and indeed, for George’s own intellectual career.

Somehow I doubt that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration understood themselves to be endorsing a specifically Thomistic view of natural law when they pledged their support for the document’s agenda.

Here are the concluding paragraphs the profile in full:

I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.

It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.

Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.

“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”

On the one hand the canard about the Reformation’s wholesale rejection of natural law is repeated here full stop. But at the same time it is true that in the time since the sixteenth century there have been varieties of natural-law thinking, both within and without Roman Catholicism, that more or less diverge from the standard neo-Thomistic line.

Acton’s own Stephen J. Grabill has definitively shown that Protestants who draw their inspiration from the magisterial Reformation don’t need to be “sold” a view of natural law; they have their own explicit natural-law traditions on which to draw.

As Grabill has summarized elsewhere, “the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured.”

There’s a new answer to the question, “What would Jesus drive?”, a contention that won’t sit well with the environmental activists who first raised the question.

The inevitably revisionist logic of the prosperity gospel has to hold that “Jesus couldn’t have been poor because he received lucrative gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — at birth. Jesus had to be wealthy because the Roman soldiers who crucified him gambled for his expensive undergarments. Even Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, lived and traveled in style.”

As the Rev. C. Thomas Anderson, senior pastor of the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Arizona, says, “Mary and Joseph took a Cadillac to get to Bethlehem because the finest transportation of their day was a donkey. Poor people ate their donkey. Only the wealthy used it as transportation.”

After all, who would want to follow a poor Jesus? “That’s so pathetic, to say that Jesus was struggling alone in the dust and dirt,” Anderson says. “That just makes no sense whatsoever. He was constantly in a state of wealth.”

While the materialistic economism of the false prosperity gospel continues to spread like wildfire, the Lausanne Theology Working Group says that “the teachings of those who most vigorously promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ are false and gravely distorting of the Bible.”

For more, check out what J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu has to say in CT’s Global Conversation, and the accompanying video:

The Prosperity Gospel from The Global Conversation on Vimeo.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 28, 2009
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As we enjoy the final days of 2009, notable for among other things the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, take the time to enjoy this video creation from James C. Schaap, professor of English at Dordt College, featuring quotes about creation from the writings of John Calvin, music by the Dordt College Concert Choir, and photography by Schaap.


As Calvin writes, “Nothing is so obscure or contemptible, even in the smallest corners of the earth, that it can’t display some marks of the power and wisdom of God.” This is of course a sentiment held not only by Calvin, but also by other Reformed predecessors, contemporaries, and followers, as well as by those within the specifically Augustinian and broader Christian traditions. Peter Martyr Vermigli said that “nothing may be found in the world so abject or lowly that it gives no witness to God.”

The best book related to these themes in Calvin’s work that I can recommend is by Susan Schreiner, Theater of His Glory: Nature & the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Baker Academic, 2001).

Cross-posted to Mere Comments.