Category: Bible and Theology

The hugely influential reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) writes in his commentary on Romans 13:

Meanwhile, the Gospel teaches the godly properly about spiritual and eternal life in order that eternal life may be begun in their hearts. In public it wants our bodies to be engaged in this civil society and to make sure of the common bonds of this society with decisions about properties, contracts, laws, judgments, magistrates, and other things. These external matters do not hinder the knowledge of God from being present in hearts or fear, faith, calling on God, and other virtues. In fact, God put forth these external matters as opportunities in which faith, calling on God, fear of God, patience, and love might be exercised.

There is a certain wisdom worthy for a Christian to know. God cast the church into the midst of these occupations because he wants to become known among men in a common society. He wanted all offices of society to be exercises in confession, and at the same time exercises of our faith and love.

Wise words on justice and the social and political implications of the Gospel from the reformer whose impact is still felt today, 450 years after his death.

Rev. Jerry Hoffman, Director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary, reviews the NIV Stewardship Study Bible. “What I found was a remarkable resource that leads one to see how strong the stewardship thread exists throughout scripture…. I anticipate using this resource in my writing, preaching and teaching,” he says.

To keep abreast of the different resources available on stewardship, become of a fan of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible on Facebook and follow the Twitter feed @Oikonomeo, which means, “to be a steward.”

The NIV Stewardship Study Bible is available for purchase from the Acton BookShoppe (in hardcover or duo-tone), along with the complementary Effective Stewardship DVD curriculum.

in-the-land2In what is another book that points to America’s cultural divide, Gina Welch decides to go undercover at the late Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. An atheist, Yale and University of Virginia liberal graduate from Berkeley, California, Welch declares her undercover ruse was needed to better understand evangelicals.

In the Land of Believers, Welch decides to fake conversion, become baptized in the church, immerse herself in classes, and even goes to Alaska on a mission trip to evangelize the residents of Anchorage. But an exposé of apish Christian neanderthals never emerges. What does emerge is the authentic depth to the people she writes about deeply contrasted with her counterfeit self, and to a degree a larger secular culture that lacks authenticity. The relationships that emerge for her at Thomas Road are heartwarming and sincere. Her friends and acquaintances at Thomas Road even offer to get her a job teaching at Liberty University. They are sincerely concerned with her life and well being.

Evangelicalism is widely diverse, and members of Thomas Road represent a brand of Christian fundamentalism far different than that practiced by many evangelicals. Falwell of course was a favorite whipping boy not just among the secular left, but by many evangelicals as well. This point is often unknown by those unfamiliar with evangelicalism. In my evangelical seminary, Falwell bashing was standard fare. But the Southern Baptist Church, despite theological differences one may have with that denomination, has faithfully served as a giant thorn in the side of religious pluralism and moral decay. While some protestant denominations seek to better reflect a secular world in the name of relevancy, Southern Baptists stand against this dangerous stream.

One aspect Welch touched on nicely in her account was addressing the anti-intellectual streak of some believers at Thomas Road and also questioning the effectiveness of some of the ways the Gospel was presented to non-believers. But this was of course not a book about theological debates, but more about a church community. And the book slowly devolves more and more into an inner struggle, where the author feels guiltier about the illusion she has crafted. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the hurt she will dole out when her friends and fellow members find out she is a fraud and has been aping belief to write about their lives. Adding to the compassion and sincerity of her subjects, when after a year she finally tells two of her closest church member friends she is a fake, one who is a pastor, and she is going to write a book about them, they only offer forgiveness and grace.

Welch comes out of her undercover episode as she did when she came in, as an unbeliever. She of course has a more open mind now, and is able to have friendships with evangelicals. Bridging the cultural divide is one of the stated purposes of her account.

Welch also makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about evangelicals and pokes fun at their prayer language and beliefs. There was one statement she made though that caught my attention, although she meant it somewhat derisively. It was one of the few statements I highlighted in my reading of the book when she said “Evangelicals are a little obsessed with the crucifixion.” She offers up examples about their “obsession” with the cross which includes The Passion of the Christ film and animated preaching on the crucifixion. Last week I was talking to Jordan Ballor, a colleague here at Acton, about an individual who live tweeted their abortion, and we were discussing the sadness of the situation. After a long silence Ballor said, “but this is the world that God has seen fit to redeem.” Welch even provides a quote from a young preacher who says “We are never more like Jesus when we are forgiving the unforgivable.”

The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” If we ever wonder if God has abandoned us, if we wonder if God loves and adores us we only have to look to the cross of Christ. In our many dark nights of despair and anguish we are awakened with the truth that God has made us acceptable in Christ. The reconciliation of God and humanity is perhaps the most vivid and basic theme of Scripture.

While Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple is a much more entertaining account in the undercover evangelical sagas, Welch’s account has value as well. Welch befriends a little girl on her missionary trip to Alaska and even reads a salvation tract to her, albeit reluctantly. The girl professes faith and later comes up to Welch and says she is going to write about God and draw a picture of her new friend, who is Welch. This account is rife with contrast and the greatest contrast of all is Welch’s unbelief with a childlike faith that Jesus commands of us. This is well depicted when Welch writes about several children and their openness to the Gospel. While Welch’s judgment, skepticism, and unbelief is at the forefront of this account, perhaps she is unaware just how much she presents the Gospel through her many contrasts of faith and unbelief, and an emptiness that encompasses a life outside of the Triune God.

Riffing off of Lord Acton’s quote on liberty and good government, I came up with an analogy that was well-received at last month’s inaugural Acton on Tap.

In his essay, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Acton said the following:

Now Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together; but they do not necessarily go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

I tried to think of an image or analogy that captured what Acton meant by “good government.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I came up with a sports analogy.

Fans of various sports, basketball for instance, know that the best games are typically the ones in which you do not notice the referees. Yes, the referees are there, making calls when appropriate. But they do not become the center of attention. They are not the ones putting the ball in the hoop. They are not making a spectacle of themselves. They go about their duties and are at their best when they are not noticed. The referees are not the center of attention; instead, the focus is on the players and the game.

"Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." (Westminster Shorter Catechism)

'Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.'

Good government is like that. It protects liberty as its highest end, but it is a liberty that is used in pursuit of other ends, what Acton calls “the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” Foremost among these is religion, and they are ultimately oriented to and subsumed under what the Westminster divines identified as man’s chief end: “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”

In this analogy, good government is like the referee that calls a fair game and does so in a way that does not produce a slanted playing field, or favor one team over the other. Good government is at its best when it is not the focus and is not grandstanding for attention.

Keep that in mind over the next month while you’re watching the NCAA tournament (and hopefully watching the seemingly-perennial Final Four run from the Michigan State Spartans, this year’s Big 10 co-champs). And be sure to mark your calendars for the next Acton on Tap, Tuesday, March 31, featuring Rudy Carrasco.

In the Orange County Register, Senior Editorial Writer Alan Bock reviews the Acton Institute book, “Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” (Available in the Acton Bookshoppe for the bargain price of $6).

Environmental Stewardship
The book might be viewed as an extended rebuttal to a famous 1967 Science magazine article by Lynn White that contended that the biblical injunction for people to have “dominion” over the Earth led to an arrogant view toward the environment that led to widespread environmental despoliation. The proper religious attitude toward the Earth, the authors argue, is one of stewardship, which includes using Earth’s resources to improve the lot of humankind, but doing so with an attitude of responsibility and even love, taking care not to destroy what cannot be replaced. Mistakes certainly have been made along the way, but these have resulted from an imperfect understanding of the requirements of stewardship – often by people who were not motivated by religious attitudes – rather than biblically decreed arrogance.

The perhaps counterintuitive but, on reflection, logical thread running through the three essays – along with a statement called the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship promulgated in 1999 by an interfaith group meeting in Connecticut – is that achieving a certain level of wealth in a society seems to be a prerequisite to effective environmental stewardship. A secondary theme is that a system of private property and relatively free markets is the most effective way to achieve both societal wealth and environmental protection and improvement.

Read the entire review on the OC Register site.

Blog author: michael.severance
Friday, February 26, 2010
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socialism1Popes in Rome have attempted to steer the Catholic flock away from the “seductive” forces of socialist ideologies threatening human liberty, which since the  late 1800s have relentlessly plucked away at  “the delicate fruit of  mature  civilizations” as  Lord Acton once said.

From Pius IX to Benedict XVI, socialism has been viewed with great caution and even as major threat to the demise of all God-loving free civilizations, despite many of their past and present socio-political and economic “sins.”

In their various official publications and social encyclicals, at least since the advent of the latter with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Roman pontiffs have given socialism a bad rap: It has never been positively perceived as a good political order, east or west of the Tiber River.

Why so? We do not have to look further than the popes’ own teachings regarding their vision of human work, anthropology, happiness and basic dignity.

First of all, socialism ultimately allows political authority to direct the ends of human happiness; that is to say, its supports the secular state’s programs and its functionaries’ potential and power to resolve much of man’s social and economic needs. It, therefore, replaces and distrusts individuals, local communities and families acting in free alliance with their Creator to build a good and better society for all. In a nutshell, socialism treats ordinary citizens like children incapable of governing themselves. When replacing  private charity with public welfare programs, socialism takes full advantage of the contemporary crisis of adulthood infecting free societies, whose dishonorable,  capricious and selfish citizens are unwilling to make sacrifices gratuitously for their neighbor  (see these two Acton videos one character by Lawrence Reed and Michael Miller).

Hence, socialism tends to defile human dignity and dehumanize the personal and local processes of free collaboration and personal responsibility. And as socialism advances closer its pure form in political practice, it ultimately attempts to dictate and bureaucratize all of human socio-economic well being, a concept of social justice built on the dangerous quicksand of modern materialism, which ultimately drags human freedom down to a slow, merciless death.

As the current pope, Benedict XVI, writes:

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person − every person − needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.… In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3) − a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human. (Deus Caritas Est, n. 28)

In order to give you a smattering of just how other popes have tended to view socialism, I recommend reading Gustavo Solimeo‘s “What the Popes Have to Say About Socialism” published for The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

In Mr. Solimeo’s article we read that various popes believe that socialism is part of an “iniquitous plot…to drive people to overthrow the entire order of human affairs” (Pius IX); that “communism, socialism, nihilism (are) hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin (and part of) a wicked confederacy” (Leo XIII); socialism is “contradictory (in) nature to the Christian religion (…) No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Pius XI); socialism has “no account of any objective other than that of material well-being” (John XXIII); and finally that the “fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature…. (It) considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.” (John Paul II)

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

In this book, Novak aims to understand and analyze the theological assumptions of democratic capitalism, its spirit, it values, and its intentions.

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…)