Category: Bible and Theology

Each year my alma mater, Aquinas College  of Grand Rapids, Mich., invites students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community to take part in a wide range of activities throughout the week of January 28th to celebrate the feast of our patron saint.   Although this week officially bears the name of a celebration in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas, it is also a special time when members of the Aquinas College community celebrate the college’s heritage in the Dominican tradition.  This heritage is preserved through the college’s relationship with the Dominican sisters at the Marywood Dominican center and the Dominican charisms of prayer, study, community, and service.

During St. Thomas Aquinas week, the college community highlights each of the charisms in a special way through one or many of the various events that are organized. Fittingly enough, this year’s 21st Anniversary St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture will be given by Dr. Eleonore Stump of Saint Louis University called “The Problem of Suffering: A Thomistic Approach” on Friday, January 27 at 12:15 pm in the Wege Ballroom.  Dr. Stump is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University  and author or editor of several books on Medieval philosophy, including Aquinas (2003), Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (2010) and the Oxford Handbook of Thomas Aquinas (2012).  The lecture is free, open to the public, and is sponsored by Catholic Studies – which is directed by Acton University lecturer Dr. John Pinheiro.

The next lecture in the works for the Catholic Studies program will be the Fourth Annual lecture in the Catholic Studies Speaker Series at Aquinas College.  This will be a special lecture on the Catholic intellectual tradition given by George Weigel on April 11, 2012.  Visit www.aquinas.edu for more information about these and other lectures that will be hosted byAquinasCollege throughout the rest of the academic year.

Beginning in 1908 as the “Octave of Christian Unity,” the eight days from January 18 to January 25 are designated as the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” and observed by many major Christian traditions and denominations.

All around the world, Christians who sometimes do not always get along so well (to put it lightly) put aside their discord to pray for renewed harmony and reconciliation. For example, in Bucharest, Romania, ecumenical prayer services are being held on nearly every day of this week rotating between Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical (Lutheran), Anglican, Armenian, and Romanian Orthodox churches.

In his recent book The Unity Factor, published by Christian’s Library Press, John Armstrong outlines his vision for a deeper unity between Christians of various traditions. “Christians are called to unity in love and to unity in truth,” writes Armstrong, emphasizing the need for Christians to once again share one faith, one church, and one mission.

Furthermore, Armstrong urges that

comprehensive biblical love is the defining identity and hallmark of all true followers of Jesus. I believe this is the central truth we must recover if we want the world to take notice of our witness. Today, the world mocks much of what we say and do. A great deal of this is deserved. This, however, was not the case in the earliest centuries of the church. Christians’ deep sense of shared, familial love led them to love even more deeply. As our present world polarizes politically and socially, the church must refuse to follow the ways of the world, returning instead to this unity factor.

I hope that all Christians will take some time this week to join millions of others who pray for that “comprehensive biblical love” and “unity in truth” that characterized Christians of the ancient, united Church.

The Unity Factor can be purchased through our bookstore.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 16, 2012
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In connection with the current Acton Commentary, over the last week I’ve been looking at what I call the “the overlap and varieties of these biblical terms” like ministry, service, and stewardship. As Scot McKnight notes in his recent book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, the theme of stewardship is absolutely central to the biblical message. In his summary of the gospel toward the conclusion of the book, he begins this way:

In the beginning God. In the beginning God created everything we see and some things we can’t yet see. In the beginning God turned what existed into a cosmic temple. In the beginning God made two Eikons, Adam and Eve. In the beginning God gave Adam and Eve one simple task: to govern this world on God’s behalf.

McKnight goes on to trace this stewardship theme through the further lenses of Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. With God’s “new creation people” were “Eikons like Adam and Eve but with a major difference: they had the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit could transform them into the visible likeness of Jesus himself. As Christlike Eikons they are assigned to rule on God’s behalf in this world.” We “now rule in an imperfect world in an imperfect way as imperfect Eikons. But someday the perfect Eikon will come back, and he will rescue his Eikons and set them up one more time in this world.”

The best resource I know of on stewardship in its comprehensive sense is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible. The Stewardship Study Bible includes an array of features to help clarify, explain, and develop the biblical theme of stewardship. At 1 Peter 4:10, for instance, which articulates wonderfully the variety of forms stewardship takes, Wesley K. Willmer, senior vice president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), describes stewardship as “God’s way of raising people, not man’s way of raising money.” And in the corresponding “Exploring Stewardship” feature identifies “hospitality” (v. 9) as one of the various ways in which we are to “serve others” (v. 10). As the feature explains, “hospitality is not outdated; in our world there are always those who need a room for a time or a home-cooked meal.”

It seems to me that one of the things we need to do is to begin to better appreciate common grace ministries like hospitality, and the crucial role that such “common” and concrete acts of service play in the Christian life. One of the problems with our world today is that such true expressions of common grace are all too uncommon.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Ministers of Common Grace,” I note that in addition to ministry, “Another scriptural term, that of stewardship, can helpfully describe the pluriformity of God’s grace, both special and common: ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms’ (1 Peter 4:10 NIV).” I conclude by calling for “better attention to the overlap and varieties of these biblical terms.”

What I have primarily in mind is the way in which Scripture seems to use concepts like ministry, service, and stewardship somewhat interchangeably. This is undoubtedly true in the case of translations into English. As I noted in the commentary, the NIV and the ESV read Romans 14:6 alternatively as “servants” or “ministers.”

Bishops Bible Elizabeth I 1569And in sixteenth century editions of the Bible, the ministerial terminology was often preferred to that of stewardship, as in the NIV of today. For instance, in the Bishops’ Bible, 1 Peter 4:10 reads, “As euery man hath receaued the gyft, eue so minister the same one to another, as good ministers of the manifold grace of God.” Likewise the Geneva Bible renders the verse this way: “Let euery man as hee hath receiued the gift, minister the same one to another, as good disposers of the manifolde grace of God.”

It’s in Coverdale’s translation (“& mynister one to another, eueryone with the gifte yt he hath receaued, as good stewardes of the manifolde grace of God.”) and the Catholic Douay-Rheims bibles (“As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another: as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”) that we find stewardship and ministry connected explicitly, and this follows through in the KJV text tradition.

It’s interesting to note that one of the updates to the NIV since the 1984 edition has been the integration of this stewardship terminology. The 1984 edition emphasizes the idea of service, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” while the latest update I quoted in the commentary reads, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

The relevant terms at play in the Greek here are words based on the roots διακονέω (“to serve”) and οἰκονόμος (“a manager of a household”; a steward). As Martin Luther reflects on the impact of this dynamic of ministry, service, and stewardship, he writes:

The Gospel wants everyone to be the other person’s servant and, in addition, to see that he remains in the gift which he has received, which God has given him, that is, in the position to which he has been called. God does not want a master to serve his servant, the maid to be a lady, a prince to serve the beggar. For He does not want to destroy the government. But the apostle means that one person should serve the other person spiritually from the heart. Even if you are in a high position and a great lord, yet you should employ your power for the purpose of serving your neighbor with it. Thus everyone should regard himself as a servant. Then the master can surely remain a master and yet not consider himself better than the servant. Thus he would also be glad to be a servant if this were God’s will. The same thing applies to other stations in life.

As good stewards of God’s varied grace.

God did not give us all equal grace. Therefore everyone should pay attention to his qualifications, to the kind of gift given to him. (LW 30:124)

The Puritan William Ames draws out three reasons and two uses of the doctrine gathered from 1 Peter 4:10 (pp. 98-99): “It is an office of charity to minister unto others the gifts which we have received, of what kinde soever they be.”

Reasons:

  1. Because the gifts of God do in their nature tend unto the glory of God in promoting the good of men.
  2. Because to this end are all the gifts of God committed unto us, as stewards of the grace of God, as it is in the text.
  3. Becuase this very thing doth the communion of Saints require, to the believing and exercising whereof all are Christians called.

Uses:

  1. This may serve to comfort us, in that there is no faithfull Christian, but hath some gift, whereby he may minister something unto others.
  2. To exhort us, every one to use that gift which he hath, to the good of others.

Should the President of the United States be seen as theologian-in-chief? That might be one way to understand Bryan Fischer’s claim that “we are in fact choosing a minister when we select a president.”

I explore some of the dimensions of understanding politicians as “ministers of God” in this week’s Acton Commentary, “Ministers of Common Grace.” It strikes me that those who seek salvation from politicians are making a significant category mistake. Politicians cannot save because politics cannot save. Politics cannot save because it is an arena of common or preserving rather than special or saving grace.

So it’s important to see politicians, as well as businesspersons, artists, scientists, teachers, and line workers as “ministers” in a broad sense: in their work they are means or channels of God’s common grace, his blessings on all people. This is an important insight into how God’s purpose for our lives finds expression in our daily lives. (A great source for exploring common grace in the areas of science and art is the recently-released Wisdom & Wonder by Abraham Kuyper.)

But it’s equally important to distinguish between common and special grace and see how the two relate. And this is one of the things that makes the institutional church and its ministers unique. The church is where we hear, see, touch, and taste Christ, proclaimed in the Word and sacraments. That’s why the Belgic Confession contends, for instance, that “every one ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the Church very highly for their work’s sake.”

Last Friday, January 6, marked the Orthodox Christian feast of Theophany (Epiphany in the West). It commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John in the Jordan river, the manifestation of the Trinity to those present, and the sanctification of the waters through their contact with God incarnate.

Every year this last aspect of the feast stands as a reminder of the Christian viewpoint of God’s concern for the world he created. Indeed, according to a hymn from the Great Blessing of the Waters by St. Sophronios of Jerusalem, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified.”

In the Orthodox tradition, there is a sense in which, while all of nature was made for the use and care of humankind, the ultimate purpose of the material world is sacramental. As the Russian Orthodox moral philosopher Vladamir Solovyov wrote, [M]atter has a right to be spiritualised.

This view contrasts with two rival views of ecology. One view, which continually crops up in popular culture, is that humans ultimately are doing more harm than good. Our efforts to master nature and use it for humanity’s benefit will cause its (and our) destruction someday. The second is the view against which the first is reacting. It is the modern view of a limitless use of natural resources with little concern for their preservation.

The vision given to us in Theophany is something else entirely. Through his baptism, Christ sanctifies the waters so that we might be sanctified by the waters of baptism. Water becomes a means by which humanity is perfected and the world as a whole reflects the glory of God to a greater degree.

In the Orthodox Church, this is not only true of the water, either. Bread and wine are used in the Eucharist, oil in Holy Unction and Chrismation (Confirmation), wood and gold and egg tempera paint in the making of holy icons, etc. The list goes on and on. The world is not meant to be left as is, nor is it meant to be carelessly depleted of its resources; it is meant to be spiritualized. It is a means and manifestation of divine grace and beauty.

How does this relate to economics? Economically, natural resources are material capital, and according to Vladimir Solovyov, we err if we seek to divorce them from their spiritual and moral purpose and make them independent, existing in and for themselves. He writes,

Alienation from the higher spiritual interests becomes inevitable as soon as the material side of human life is recognized to have an independent and unconditional value. One cannot serve two masters; and socialism naturally gives predominance to the principle under the banner of which the whole movement had originated, i.e. to the material principle. The domain of economic relations is entirely subordinated to it, and is recognised as the chief, the fundamental, the only real and decisive factor in the life of humanity. At this point the inner opposition between socialism and the bourgeois political economy disappears.

To misunderstand the material world, to fail to view it as the good creation of God with its own spiritual and moral purpose and, instead, to give it absolute value, ultimately leads to its degradation. It is, in fact, the definition of greed to value material things as something to be desired in and of themselves, apart from morality. The bourgeois that Solovyov criticizes are the type of people who act out of greed through manipulation of the market. The socialists, on the other hand, act out of greed through a call for revolution. Both, ultimately, make the same ecological error.

As Solovyov writes,

Socialism really stands on the same ground as the bourgeois régime hostile to it, namely, the supremacy of the material interest. Both have the same motto: “man liveth by bread alone.”

The Feast of Theophany, by contrast, calls Christians to adopt a higher, spiritual view of themselves and the world in which they live. And it is my contention that such a view is a far superior starting point for a Christian understanding of material capital. Anything less tends to degrade the world or ourselves.

For more on Vladimir Solovyov, check out the newest issue of Religion & Liberty.

Additionally, the Journal of Markets & Morality recently issued a Call for Publications on Orthodox Christian economic thought. Scholarly submissions on Vladimir Solovyov or Orthodox views of ecology would be welcome. View the full Call for Publications here.

For more on Orthodox Christianity and environmentalism, check out my post from last summer “Cosmos as Society.”

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
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Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photography by shakko

Over at the Sojourners blog, Harry C. Kiely boldly considers whether the Occupy movement can be considered “the New Pentecost.” However, there are a myriad of problems with his comparison.

First and most importantly, from a Christian point of view, there already has been a “New Pentecost.” It is found in Acts 2. The Christian Pentecost was the fulfillment of the Jewish Pentecost. The giving of the Law (which the Jewish Pentecost commemorates) found its fulfillment in the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church to write the Law on the hearts of God’s people (see Jeremiah 31:33). Thus, for Kiely to proclaim the Occupy movement a New Pentecost is to already fail to understand what he is attempting to describe.

The theological flubs do not end there, unfortunately. He goes on to write,

In Acts, the emergence of new power occurred when the “gossip” about the Resurrection became a life-empowering message that transcended all lingual differences: “each heard in his own language.” Likewise in Occupy Wall Street: in the development of a new means of communication, people of diverse backgrounds both spoke and heard in a common language. It was, indeed, a New Pentecost.

Apparently the Holy Spirit of God was a “new power” that emerged from “the ‘gossip’ about the Resurrection” and is analogous to the iPhone.

He continues,

Deprived of loud speaker technology, for example, they invented a more human method of broadcast. Because they lacked appointed or elected leaders, the newly evolved community devised ways of organizing. In contrast to Wall Street methodology, the newly resurrected human community shared their food and goods with one another.

Actually, people in the ancient world did have “loud speaker technology”: they called them amphitheaters. As for the supposedly “more human method of broadcast” that “they invented,” I would love to hear how the disciples, in fact, “invented” the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Kiely’s claim that “they lacked appointed or elected leaders” overlooks the fact that the Apostles were appointed by Christ himself (see Matthew 10:1-4), and, in fact, immediately before the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, the disciples had just deliberated over who would fill Judas Iscariot’s office in the Church and chose Matthias to be his replacement (see Acts 1:12-26).

In addition to misunderstanding the Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, Kiely also misunderstands the Occupy movement, which, despite some criticisms I may have for it, to its credit has never claimed to be a religious awakening of any sort. Indeed, no one in my generation would view it that way, whether they are for or against it. As one commentator (“Crazywulf”) wrote,

Please…please…please…… while whole heartedly supporting Occupy, I don’t believe anyone involved have actually been chosen by our saviour to be part of His inner circle… I know that wasn’t the intention of the author (or I hope it wasn’t)  but it could come off that way….

By contrast, after having completed his comparison, Kiely concludes with, perhaps, the most “Dominionist” statement I have ever read:

Emerging out of the New Pentecost [i.e. Occupy] is the promise of a New Creation that will transcend the endless, hollow, self-destructive promises of raging empires.

Yikes.