Category: Bible and Theology

As a graduate of Notre Dame I have been asked many times what I think of Notre Dame inviting President Barack Obama to speak at commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. Many have ably commented on this, including Fr. Sirico here at Acton, Dr. Donald Condit, and over 50 bishops. I think the ND Response video piece sums it up well. But I received a video appeal from Notre Dame the other day asking for money which prompted me to comment. (See my reply to the appeal below)

I think Fr. Jenkins made a serious mistake of judgment in inviting President Obama to the graduation. The controversy over President Obama coming to Notre Dame is not an argument about the value of open debate at a university; it is not about President Obama. It is about a Catholic institution honoring a public figure whose positions directly contradict those of the Catholic Church on the key non-negotiable issues of life.

Faithful Catholics are free to disagree about a host – in fact, the overwhelming majority – of political and economic issues, but some moral issues, like the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life, are not up for debate and never have been. See Cardinal Ratzinger’s Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles especially paragraph #3

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Jenkins, has tried to justify the invitation on many levels, but the attempts have been exercises in sophistry. If you have any doubts on this score see Fr. Raymond De’Souza’s fine piece on the matter.

Despite the outcry against Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins and his staff seem oblivious and continue business as usual. Just last week I received an e-mail from the Notre Dame development office with a video asking for money. The style was postmodern and adolescent, and the content of the appeal focused predominantly on race and environment–important concerns but tone deaf in the context of the current controversy.

Below is my (edited) response to the development appeal and my views on Notre Dame’s decision to honor the president. (more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
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joker It is appropriate that Donovan Campbell offers an inscription about love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 at the beginning of his book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. That’s because he has written what is essentially a love story. While there are of course many soldier accounts from Afghanistan and Iraq, some that even tell more gripping stories or offer more humor, there may not be one that is more reflective on what it means to be a leader, and what it means to love the men you serve and lead.

This book is receiving considerable press attention and Campbell’s ability to convey love the way he does has to be a big reason for the popularity of the book. Campbell movingly says about his own Marines in the opening chapter, “And I hope and pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as I do, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.”

Campbell’s account looks at the seven and a half months in which he serves as a platoon leader in some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war, which occurred in Ramadi in 2004. Before the Marine Corps, Campbell was an undergraduate at Princeton who spent a summer completing the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) because he thought it would look good on his resume. Campbell says he hated the entire program, and didn’t think twice about joining since he hadn’t taken any money from the Corps, and therefore didn’t owe them anything. He would ultimately change his mind however as graduation approached.

If love and leadership are recurrent themes, it is often discussed from a faith perspective, and Campbell is somebody who has thought seriously about his own faith and what that means for him and his men. Campbell talks about how before each combat mission he huddles up with his platoon for prayer, which often included reciting the twenty-third Psalm. “I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs, and those included their spiritual as well as their material ones,” says Campbell. He also discusses some of his early thoughts on the prayer ritual before each mission:

Deep in my heart, I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare us all from Mac’s fate [another Marine seriously wounded by a road side bomb]. What I know now, and which didn’t occur to me then, was that by praying as I prayed, and hoping what I hoped, and believing what I believed, I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie who, if just fed the proper incantations, would give the sincere petitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.

This book is masterful at tracing the growth and experience of Campbell’s theological progression just as it does concerning his leadership skills, decision making ability, and the moral questions he asks himself. Where prayer before was focused more on personal safety, He says it changed even more as the chaos and random violence surged. “To those who sought it, the prayer also provided some comfort that God was in control, that their lives had worth and meaning stemming from an absolute source,” says Campbell.

After one of his own Marines, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding was killed in action, Campbell understandably lost much of his enthusiasm to continue the mission. He had promised himself that he would bring all of his platoon home. He says:

For whatever reason, [Private First Class Gabriel] Henderson’s tender heart kept a close watch on me, and one day, roughly two weeks after Bolding’s death, he walked up to me and said out of the blue: ‘Hey sir, you know that none of the platoon blames you for what happened to Bolding. It’s okay, sir.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. Henderson broke into a smile. ‘Bolding’s in heaven now, sir, and I know that he’s smiling down at us right now, just like he always smiled at us when he was here. He’s okay, sir. Don’t worry, sir. He’s okay. And someday you will get to see him again, sir.’ I had to turn away to keep from crying. I think that Henderson’s profound, simple faith was what finally allowed me to pick myself back up, and, in some very real sense, regain my own faith.

This book deals with a lot of raw emotion, the frustrations with all the problems in Iraq, and tragedy. At the closing of Campbell’s account, he does a beautiful job of articulating the greater-love principle from John’s Gospel (15:13).

In seminary I took a class on leadership and I know Campbell’s book teaches more lessons about leadership than classes or many other books could. His account is a strong reminder that some of America’s best, regardless of policy debates or politics, are the ones silently shouldering a heavy burden in America’s current conflicts. While much of the country goes to the mall, shops, and attends sporting events, there are those who suffer and have to make quick life and death decisions where the consequences of combat often result in bad or worse.

This is definitely one of the best books of 2009. The narrative is somewhat similar to Nathaniel Fick’s book from 2005, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in that both authors do a wonderful job at baring their heart and telling the stories of young men who do courageous acts solely for others and not themselves. Interestingly enough, both authors were officers in the Marines who came out of Ivy League schools. All of the wonderful sacrifices Campbell’s platoon made for a largely unappreciative civilian Ramadi population in 2004, and the havoc they wreaked on their foe, is a reminder of the truth that rings out from the great unofficial U.S. Marine motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.”

lazarus1Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11: 25, 26

The text comes from the account of Lazarus being raised to life by Christ after already being dead for four days. The question “Do you believe this?” was posed to the sister of Lazarus, Martha. There have been people who have shunned their faith, and shunned Christ because of a great tragic event in their life. Perhaps somebody intimately close to them has died. Maybe we even know somebody who has left the Church because they suffered a great loss.

While reading God’s Word it is important to take note of the point being made. Do we ourselves believe? In this passage Jesus is quick to be clear that our own resurrection and eternal fellowship with Him is related to our own confession and faith.

Concerning the account of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb in John 11, it is assuring that the dead listen to Christ. They hear his words and they are raised to life. In the passage Martha says that she knows that Lazarus “will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus counters “I am the resurrection and the life.” Christ is the author of the resurrection power. As the writer of the Gospel has already testified, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). For Christ, isn’t it as easy to raise Lazarus now as it would be at a later resurrection?

Earlier in this passage Martha says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha has great faith even though she did not have a full understanding yet. A full comprehension notes that Jesus, the very one speaking to Martha at that moment, is the resurrection and author of all through eternity. Jesus shows his power and authority over death with his raising of Lazarus.

Easter Sunday celebrates the power of Christ over death, and how that power is the joy and the fulfillment of the life of the believer. Our suffering, imperfections, tears, and grief are wiped away by the promises and power of Christ. It brings meaning and assurances to everything we know about the Christian faith. “The Gospels do not explain the resurrection. The resurrection alone is what can explain the Gospels,” says Thomas C. Oden.

The witness of faith for those who gather to celebrate Easter will testify mightily against a world and lifestyle that suffers to find meaning, redemption, joy, immortality, and love outside of God. All too often we see the consequences of the kind of lifestyles that are absent from faith, and the haunting despair that follows. But the Christian lives with the assurance and promise of eternal life because of the intercession and power of Christ over sin and death.

rebellion In the new book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan, James Mann wants you to meet Reagan as the rebel who parted ways from cold war hawks in his own administration and foreign policy “realists” who were loyal to containment. It could be argued that Reagan was the atypical conservative dove in Mann’s view.The author does provide a relatively fresh thesis on Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War, which reinforces his rejection of what he calls “both left wing and right wing extremes.” Mann believes conservatives who champion Reagan as the president who had a well formulated economic and military plan to execute the end of the Soviet Union, and left wing critics who saw Reagan as lucky, overly simplistic and vapid, were both wrong.

When it comes to Soviet diplomacy, Mann’s account is highly praiseworthy of Reagan and his Secretary of State George Schultz. He sees the end of the Cold War as a result of both of men’s instincts and creativity in dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev, rather than the heavy arms build up, resistance to détente, and “saber-rattling” of Reagan’s first term. Critics of Reagan from the right, “failed to see the dynamics that were propelling change [in the Soviet Union]. Reagan would come to grasp the situation better and more quickly than they did,” says Mann. (more…)

It’s not quite gotten to the point of robbing Peter to pay Paul, at least not yet, but following the spate of foreclosures on residential and commercial properties, you can expect another rash of foreclosures on church buildings across the country. There are a number of factors that will contribute to this phenomenon. In no particular order:

  • In many churches the same people who overbought McMansions run the church’s finances. They wanted to be as comfortable at church as they are (or were) at home, and so they led the church into overbuying.
  • The general economic decline will lessen the ability and/or willingness of members to give.
  • Decreased tax deductions will disincentivize giving by the heavy-hitters who carry the major financial water in nearly every congregation.
  • Zoning boards and municipalities that have been frustrated for years will leap at the chance to convert tax-free church buildings into potential sources of tax revenue.

In general, many churches have become a bit too comfortable in this world and a bit too eager to worship in temples rather than tabernacles, if you catch my drift. This economic downturn will expose the priorities of these congregations and their members. The onerous mortgages for multi-million dollar expansions will tap the resources and the generosity of many congregations, preventing them from funding missionaries, Christian day-schools, charitable work, and ministry programs. You will hear cries about religious freedom and persecution, especially related to the last point listed above, but in many ways these churches will simply be reaping what they have sown.

The good news? “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”

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.