Category: Bible and Theology

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.


From the Holy Land, sung in Arabic. Merry Christmas to all PowerBlog readers and our blogging crew!

St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 4:4-7

Brethren, when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir of God through Christ.

By Cassia the nun, from the Great Vespers for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ

When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to end: and when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.

I love the song, “Mary, did you know?”

Reflect on the words

The Incarnation is at the heart of the Gospel– not just that Jesus came
as the GodMan in bodily form,
as the ultimate sin-bearer,
as the Perfect High Priest offering Himself
as the Perfect Sacrifice for our sins.

Beyond that, consider the manner of the Incarnation– He didn’t just
roll down here for a week,
hop on a cross,
and rise from the dead.

He lived our kind of life
from cradle
to cross…

For the full post, click here

A few weeks ago Hunter Baker posted some thoughts on secularism and poverty, in which he wrote of the common notion that since private charity, particularly church-based care, had failed to end poverty, it seems only prudent to let the government have its chance.

Hunter points out some of the critically important elements in creating a culture of prosperity and abundance, what Micah Watson calls “cultural capital.”

But it’s worth examining in more detail the point of departure, that is, considering the relationship between the church’s approach to charity and the creation of the welfare state. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write of this in a brief essay contained in their book, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship, first published in 1980.

DeKoster and Berghoef argue in “The Church and the Welfare State” that “The Church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” But they also contend that the diaconal office is the key to answering the challenge posed by the welfare state: “The Church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems. IF enough deacons caught the vision!”

The church helped to bring about the welfare state in two ways. First, the Church embodied the idea of loving self-sacrifice in service of others. “The Word which the Church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare,” write DeKoster and Berghoef. “The Church is the parent of the welfare community.”

But this “welfare community” became secularized when the Church “did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to her own ideals. Not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless given shelter, not all of the oppressed and exploited relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state. The government undertakes to do what the Church demands and then fails to achieve by herself.”

In this sense, the welfare state is understood to be God’s preservational (thus imperfect) answer to the failed duty of the Church:

Thus the Church is, both by commission and by omission, author of the welfare state. Deacons start from here. Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.

In the brief essay Berghoef and DeKoster go on to outline some practical steps that can be taken to address this failing and rein in the scope of governmental responsibility. Some of these specifics need updating given what has happened in the United States over the last thirty years. But the vision of The Deacons Handbook, that the core of the answer lies in the diaconate, is a worthy and compelling insight.

Hunter will be pleased to note that among the practical advice given by Berghoef and DeKoster is that the meaning of the First Amendment needs to be reconsidered. Their advice for the deacon? “Do a study of what is so readily called ‘the separation of Church and state’.” This aligns with the argument Hunter makes in his new book, The End of Secularism.

This much remains true:

What is important, with an eye on tomorrow, is to discern what constructive relations may be developed between alert diaconates and public welfare. And it is immediately obvious that diaconates are uniquely qualified to amend what are commonly perceived as defects in the welfare system.

Check out an excerpt from the original edition of The Deacons Handbook containing the essay, “The Church and the Welfare State.” And sign up over at Christian’s Library Press to keep informed about upcoming releases in 2010, including new editions of The Deacons Handbook, The Elders Handbook, and more.

Deacons Handbook Excerpt

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 23, 2009
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Contrary to the belief of some, the two realities referred to in the title of this post are not identical.

But the discussion around a recent Boston Globe article reminds me of the saying from Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.” It may well be that capitalism without the threat of hell doesn’t work very well either.

The Globe piece refers to a bit of research that links belief about punishment in the afterlife with economic development. This is important, since “knowing exactly how and when God influences mammon could lead to smarter forms of economic development in emerging nations, and could add to our understanding of how culture shapes wealth and poverty.”

It is promising that there is “a larger movement in economics, in which the field is looking beyond purely material explanations to a broader engagement with human culture, psychology, and even our angels and demons.”

Blog author: hunter.baker
Saturday, November 21, 2009
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I have been thinking a lot about the way we sell church-related goods and services.

jesus-money-changers-temple

I have been thinking about that and about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and sacrificial animal sellers in the temple.

The marketing inside the church has probably never been more feverish than it is today. Hollywood hires savvy Christian marketers to try to gin up interest in certain films among our demographic. We trademark little phrases for sale to Christians. I recently heard an acquaintance excitedly describe a system for integrating Prayer and Your Priorities. I shall not share the catchy name for this system so as to avoid smearing the person working on it. This results in a marketing platform for an inspirational book, a devotional, a daily planner for the system, calendars, sticky notes, etc. I imagine it will prove attractive for some Christian publishing house.

My question, though, is whether this is a wholesome thing for the church. As the author of a book, though not a super consumer-oriented one, I think about it all the time. For example, if called upon to preach at a local church, should I take along a box of books to sell at the end of the service? Should I even mention the book? Should I ask whoever introduces me to mention the book? Should we sell ANYTHING in the church?

The question is not as easy as it may appear. For example, the market instincts of new publishers spread Martin Luther’s work to a large audience. Without the printing press, Luther probably would have died as just another dissenter. Marketing and the honest profit motive are surely reasons why the Bible is as incredibly widely available as it is.

But the question remains. How far do we go in making a profit from the gospel of Jesus Christ? I don’t have a good answer.

The other day I was tracking down a quotation I heard repeated at a local gathering and came across an interesting book published in 1834. On the title page of the “Googled” Oaths; Their Origin, Nature and History someone had scribbled “full of information… a superior work.” The introductory paragraph reads:

It is well observed by an ancient writer [Hilarius of Arles] that would men allow Christianity to carry its own designs into full effect; were all the world Christians, and were every Christian habitually under the influence of his Religion in principle and in conduct, no place on earth would be found for Oaths; every person would on all occasions, speak the very truth, and would be believed merely for his word’s sake; every promise would be made in good faith and no additional obligation would be required to ensure its performance.”

A few years ago I was asked to help organize a “business ethics conference” for a Catholic diocese. At the end of the day it was in fact a fundraising event, but the cause was good — supporting urban Catholic schools — and everybody knew what we were doing. Former Gonzaga University President Fr. Robert Spitzer was one of the speakers and I’ll never forget his “utility based ethics versus principle based ethics” talk. Enron was the whipping boy of those times and the example made by Fr. Spitzer was rather easy to understand. Enron’s accountants had spent too much time wondering how much they could hide rather than questioning whether hiding was the right thing to do. Lately, we’ve had Barney Frank and his famous “roll the dice” strategy with low income housing loans take Enron’s place, but the Massachusetts Congressman doesn’t seem to be reaching for a scourge. Not for that sin at least.

Speaking of Massachusetts, Harvard University’s Safra Foundation Center for Ethics had an interesting speaker on November 12th. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer [no relation — you can be sure] spoke on the topic “What Should Be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market?” Since his resignation brought about by a prostitution scandal in March 2008, Mr. Spitzer has been teaching classes in Political Science to the kids at City College in New York and working at his daddy’s real estate firm. Kristin Davis, the former madam who supplied Spitzer’s needs and a reported Harvard alumnus wrote the Center’s Professor Lessig protesting the Spitzer apperance in which she described her former client as “a man without ethics.” The Spitzer appearance at Safra was characterized by some as the start of a “comeback.” We’ll see.

To sort this invitation out it’s probably worthwhile to read Safra Foundation Center’s mission statement:

Widespread ethical lapses of leaders in government, business and other professions prompt demands for more and better moral education. More fundamentally, the increasing complexity of public life – the scale and range of problems and the variety of knowledge required to deal with them – make ethical issues more difficult, even for men and women of good moral character.

But wait there’s more. Under the banner of one of the Center’s niches — Practical Ethics — we find the following:

“The diversity of the various methods and disciplines on which we draw and the range of the social and intellectual purposes we serve are too great to permit an orthodoxy to develop.”

For me, that leads to a version of I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s okay.

On the heels of Spitzer’s Harvard appearance The Wall Street Journal ran a story titled “Networking for Social Responsibility” in which they report on other business ethic efforts at some of the nation’s colleges. Creating an ecumenical balance to Harvard’s Safra Center is Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship organized because “a growing number of companies are turning to business schools these days for help in redefining what it means to be socially responsible.” In North Carolina at yet another college, Gil McWilliam, an executive director at Duke Corporate Education says, “One reason for the heightened interest in social responsibility is that companies seeking to expand globally need to first understand what social issues matter most in their target countries.”

Speaking about expanding globally, several years ago some guys I knew in the real estate business got introduced to some rich Chinese from the mainland. They were looking for investors and opportunities but ran into this cultural roadblock everyone called Guanxi. That doesn’t sound like our word for it, but Guanxi translates as a payoff or bribe. “Everybody does it.” they told me.

Most of these ethics centers have “green” and “eco-friendly” in their brochures and promotional materials. Synonyns in the Thesaurus of social responsibility. But those words sound empty when one hears them from Maureen Kelly, founder of Tart Cosmetics who, during a video interview for The Wall Street Journal tossed them out unsparingly while touting her start up cosmetic company — she uses recycled products because her customers care about global warming — but was unashamed to tell us that her big break came when she lied to a potential customer about an order she had from one of their competitors in order to seal a deal. Maybe she can sign up with the folks at Harvard, or BC or Duke for some remedial work. Or not.

Because that brings us back to where we started — with oaths? How about “the truth and nothing but.”