Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 11, 2011

Uwe Siemon-Netto, a journalist and Lutheran theologian, reflects on the upcoming half-century anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, “And the wall fell down flat.” He relates the story of the Christian peace movement and its role in tearing down the spiritual walls that helped to hold up the Berlin Wall.

He talks about the social and spiritual consequences of the flight of so many from East Germany to West Germany: “By the time East German leader Walter Ulbricht ordered the Western sectors of Berlin sealed off, up to 2,500 left his country every day. Its economy was about to collapse. Entire branches of industry no longer functioned because their skilled workforce had run away.”

But there were much more than economic effects, as he notes:

Ironically, the flight of highly qualified craftsmen, of scientists, engineers, professionals and farmers, was not just a catastrophic loss to the Communists but also had a religious dimension. These refugees belonged primarily to the social strata that had been the Christian Church’s mainstay. Ulbricht’s regime was intent on establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, relegating the former upper and middle classes to an inferior status, and driving them out. This was the main cause for the decline of church membership from some 95 percent of the population in 1945 to one quarter at the time of East Germany’s collapse in 1989.

But even so that one-quarter of the population was behind the Christian peace movement that helped to “tear down this Wall,” in the words of Ronald Reagan.

Siemon-Netto describes the contours of the movement, including its “most momentous demonstration,” which “occurred on 9 October 1989.” But following that massive public expression of faith, the religious dimensions of these eastern areas of Germany have continued to diminish. Political and economic freedom in itself has not sparked religious revival.

He concludes,

It is now 50 years since I saw the Wall go up and 22 since it came down. The Christian movement in eastern Germany seems to have collapsed. When Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990, most Protestant churches did not even ring their bells in gratitude, in contrast to Catholic churches, which did. Once again, eastern Germans are turning their backs on the Christian faith in droves. Next to the Czech Republic, the former GDR is the most secularized region in Europe, and Berlin is the most godless city.

Let us hope and pray that the spiritual walls too might come tumbling down and that godlessness is not the lasting legacy of the Berlin Wall.

Update: More on the “the spiritual dimension” of the Berlin Wall story today from Siemon-Netto.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has announced a debate later this fall between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler. They’ll take opposing positions on the question, “Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?” The debate is slated for October 27, 2011 at 7:00 pm, and you can find more details at the Henry Center website. This is a really important question the answer to which really turns on some important definitions.

I would take the “yes” or the “no” position depending on how you define social justice and church. If by social justice you mean what Wallis usually means, something along the lines of redistribution of material wealth by government coercion, then I would take the negative. If you also mean the church to refer to the church as an institution, then again, I would take the negative, particularly if by social justice you mean a political program to engineer a state of affairs in which all have equal shares.

But if by social justice you mean a state of affairs in which each is rendered what is due by the appropriate parties, then the church does have a role to play (even if it is not a primary or “essential” part of the church’s mission). In the sense of the institutional church, it seems that the role is to pursue its primary responsibilities of proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and exercising church discipline. That’s the way in which the institutional church promotes social justice, by doing its appointed task as part of the variegated social order. It would be hard to say in that regard that social justice is an essential part of the institutional church’s mission. It would rather be more like a secondary consequence or effect.

If we consider the church as an organism, however, consisting of all the individual members in their particular callings and offices, then promoting social justice becomes more clearly central. Promoting social justice would presumably be more consciously central for some callings than for others, at least in terms of the legal and political rules of the game. But each member of the congregation is called to manifest justice in their own dealings with others. They are, in fact, called to grow in the virtue of justice as an individual Christian.

What I’ve found, though, is that progressive and transformationalist Christians are often very quick to dismiss the kinds of distinctions I’m talking about here, and pursue in rather simplistic and straightforward way the pursuit of their vision of the right social order. Questions about the limits of the institutional church’s authority and responsibility are of little interest; whatever authority or structure that can be used must be pressed into service in promoting social justice. Nevermind if doing so in fact undermines rather than promotes a truly just society. This is why in my book Ecumenical Babel I note that the distinction between church as institution and church as organism is so important for reform and renewal of the church’s social witness.

In this regard, the exchange between Calvin Seminary professor Calvin Van Reken and denominational leader Peter Vander Meulen is instructive. In examining this exchange, you see Van Reken make precisely the kinds of distinctions I endorse here in addressing the question of “The Church’s Role and Social Justice.” You also see Vander Meulen run roughshod over such nuance in “The Church and Social Justice.” Van Reken’s essay on “The Mission of a Local Church,” wherein he identifies the ministries of “mercy,” as they are sometimes called to be a secondary calling of the church, is also helpful.

I should add that to the extent the institutional church has a role in promoting social justice directly in material terms, it follows that there are particular responsibilities that adhere to different offices. In this case, the role of the deacon would be that which has primary responsibility (rather than say the preaching pastor or teaching elder).

Over at ThinkChristian, I take the opportunity to sketch “what a comprehensive Christian response to the crisis of public and private debt might look like.” I focus “on five main areas: the individual, familial, ecclesial, economic, and political.” This is a brief and preliminary set of questions and observations.

But even so, I think even just provisional attempts to evaluate our values shows us that “the problems we face are far more than political – and far deeper than merely political solutions can hope to solve.”

The question of “What Would Jesus Cut” raised in new ads for John Boehner’s, Harry Reid’s, and Mitch McConnell’s home states is fundamentally wrongheaded. It reverses the proper approach of religious leaders to politics and threatens to mislead their flocks.

The PowerBlog has already addressed the Left’s inclination toward class warfare rhetoric during the debt ceiling debate. Much to our surprise, President Obama didn’t seem to have read that post in time to include its insights in Monday night’s speech. Instead, we heard the same disheartening lines about corporate jets and big oil: the president doubled-down on his jealousy-inducement strategy and continued to ignore economic reality.

The country’s religious leaders who have begun to parrot this class warfare language are failing an even greater responsibility than the President’s. It is good that they enter into the debate, but as we explained last week with reference to Archbishop Charles Chaput, religion must always guide political engagement, not the other way around. Evangelization is the necessary and proper motivation of political speech by a religious leader. To reverse this engagement—to turn to religion secondarily, as a means to solving political ends—is to court error.

Aristotle writes his Nicomachean Ethics first, and then his Politics, for precisely this reason. Ethical inquiry (and metaphysical before it) must precede and direct political inquiry. To reverse that order is essentially to justify means by ends.

Father Sirico addressed the WWJC question in April, during Wisconsin’s showdown with its public sector unions. On the Paul Edwards Program he explained the invalidity of Sojourner’s WWJC approach:

I have a very difficult time taking a question like that seriously. It politicizes the gospel: it reduces the gospel—the mission of Jesus Christ—to a question of budget priorities…. It really attenuates the whole thrust of what the gospel is.

The very name the group behind the ads has chosen for itself, the Circle of Protection, is reflective of their misunderstanding. Rather than venturing into the political realm driven by an evangelical spirit, they circle the wagons around a particular policy and use Christianity as a shield.

None of this is to say that the practical solutions advanced by the Circle of Protection are necessarily wrong—only that if the group is right, it has stumbled upon the best policies without the enlightenment of Christianity that it claims.

Blog author: nrolf
Friday, July 22, 2011

In Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic of Plato, Socrates sets out to define the meaning of justice, and if the just life can be seen as being more profitable than the unjust life.  Thrasymachus, an acquaintance of Socrates, in book I of the Republic of Plato, offers his reckless opinion on justice saying, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger” (338c), and that “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterly than justice” (444c). Thrasymachus’ definition of justice should be an alarming one because it can be used to explain the economic crisis and situation today: The unjust man benefits in good and bad times, by the laws and contracts made by those in power, while the just man is punished in both good and bad times.

It is interesting to see that this example of injustice, that was discussed more than two thousand years ago, is still in effect today when considering the bailout of banks, government spending, and the national debt in the United States. Time and time again the government is sending us the same message Thrasymachus gave us: it pays to be unjust in today’s unjust society. Banks and government spending are being rewarded for reckless exhaustion of money through raising taxes across America to cover-up their own debt. The government is benefiting in both good and bad times by rewarding themselves for making their own mistakes, while citizens are being punished in good and bad times because of the advantage of those in power.

So, in a society that rewards injustice, why is the just life one that should be considered more profitable and desired? Why should will still push to create a more free and virtuous society? If we look at the interpretive essay of Allan Bloom we may begin to understand why the just life is worthwhile. According to Allan Bloom:

“Justice is human virtue, each gains his fulfillment in the prosperity of the whole”… and that “injustice is not a virtue, but a vice because it is contrary to wisdom, which is a virtue.”

It isn’t hard to believe that the practice of virtue in society can lead us to a more free and virtuous society; and, that the practice of virtue in economics and politics will permit justice in these areas. Explained again in his interpretive essay of The Republic, Allan Bloom states:

“Justice is to be desired (rewarded) because it is the health and perfection of the soul. It therefore follows that justice, as the virtue of the soul, is desirable in itself. Everyone wishes to have a healthy soul.”

If justice, not injustice, was rewarded in our society, with the practice of virtue, then economies, politics, and lives in general would reflect that of a healthy soul; and would, in turn, help society flourish.

We can find this same message in what is said through the prophet Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). By doing what is right and practicing what is just, we are living-out virtue; but more importantly, we are seeking first the kingdom of God.

The Blauwpoort in Leiden in the winter.The newest edition of the Journal of Markets & Morality is now available online to subscribers.

This issue of the journal features a Scholia translation of selections from On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity by Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), the Huguenot, Reformed, scholastic theologian (a Latin version of Junius’ original treatise is available for download at Google Books, along with a host of his other works). Best known as a professor of theology at Leiden University from 1592–1602, Junius authored this treatise in order to address rising challenges in the young Dutch Republic. In his translator’s introduction, Todd Rester summarizes the Republic’s concern, “[I]f Scripture alone is the authority in the Church for faith and morals… how does it apply in the realm of the Christian State?” Junius’ careful and sober analysis of the various kinds of law and each law’s proper sphere of application transcends his time and context, standing as a significant reference for anyone who may seek to address the question, “What relation is there between the Law of Moses and the Law of the State?” Furthermore, the interdisciplinary character and depth of the work serve as an example of the fluidity and overlap of often-perceived contradictory disciplines and methods of the time, such as humanism and scholasticism, theology and law. Thus, for the student of political philosophy and historical theology alike, On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity stands as an excellent resource for the study of the engagement between historic, Christian faith and the rule of law.

In addition to our standard fare of articles and book reviews, this issue marks the introduction of the Journal of Markets & Morality’s first publication of the symposium of the Theology of Work Consultation of the Evangelical Theological Society, which will appear serially in the spring issue. It is our conviction that this will serve as a helpful forum for an integrated perspective on stewardship, work, and economics for both business and ministry leaders.

Given the journal’s ongoing policy of distinguishing between current issues (the two latest issues) and archived issues (which are freely available), this means that issue 13.1 is now fully and freely available to the public.

For access to the two current issues, including the newly-released 14.1, I encourage you to consider subscribing as an individual as well as recommend that your institution subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off the launch pad for the final space shuttle mission. Image credit: NASA TV

Imagine you’re eight and you’re given a dog. The first thing your parents say is that you need to take care of him: feed him, play with him in the backyard, and train him so that he doesn’t do bad things in the house. You and the new dog quickly become “the dog and his master.” That well-worn phrase can tell us something about our human instincts. Once something is put under our care, often our kneejerk reaction to “taking care of it” is to rule it or conquer it.

It’s no different with space. And the event of the final shuttle launch of Atlantis is yet another example of our human enthusiasm for conquering what’s before us. This launch, bittersweet as it was, marks the end of one program of curiosity and adventure, as well as the beginning of a new era of space exploration. This new era could include the privatization of programs to continue doing what shuttles like Atlantis have been doing, like replenishing supplies on the International Space Station, as well as take on other new space ventures. There will be debate about the next steps, I’m sure, just as there has always been debate about the space programs themselves.

But between the arguments concerning the pros and cons of space exploration, I believe it’s safe to say that there is general agreement that space has always given us that sense of grandeur and awe which inspires us to explore and conquer. I think it’s also fair to say that our zeal for exploration of creation is an impulse given by God, and one that’s directly in line with being created in the image of the Divine. Joan Vernikos, a member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy and former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, comes close to this truth in her answer to Stephen J. Dubner, author, journalist and blogger, about the worth of space exploration:

Why explore? Asked why he kept trying to climb Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory reputedly replied, “Because it was there.” Exploration is intrinsic to our nature. It is the contest between man and nature mixed with the primal desire to conquer. It fuels curiosity, inspiration and creativity.

This desire to conquer, like all of our tendencies, is tainted with sin, but it has its origins in the characteristics of God. We know historically that the urge to conquer has been coupled with other horrors which we hope we will not repeat as we venture into space. And we also know that God commanded his people to conquer other peoples and also to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen.1:28, NIV), which can perhaps be translated into “conquer it.”

Which side of this “primal desire” will lead us into space? We’ve made great strides in our ability to conquer; case in point, the space shuttle Atlantis. But like any great power, it comes with great responsibility, and for Christians, our responsibility is wrapped up in God’s creation, which extends all the way out to the infinity of the cosmos. What’s to be done with it? The coverage of Atlantis has brought lots of ideas concerning this back into the news. We already hear about space property law and space tourism offering “unbeatable views.” There may be interesting and important implications here for the possibility of entrepreneurial growth and encouragement through private companies picking up from where NASA is leaving its retired space shuttles, things that might be explored in another blog post.

In a piece a few years ago, Jordan Ballor mentioned the emerging ideas about property ownership in space and how private companies would like to offer space as a tourist attraction, and what the real purpose of space might be. Speaking of the views of the sixteenth-century reformer Philip Melanchthon, Ballor writes:

Even if Melanchthon’s views were founded on assumptions that subsequent advances in astronomy have disproved, his theological vision is a salient reminder that every part of the created cosmos fills a specific purpose within God’s created order. While we may be uncomfortable with Melanchthon’s belief that “the stars were created by God to tell men what God intended,” we should acknowledge that there are created purposes for the heavenly bodies and seek to understand them.

When we discuss “stewardship of the cosmos,” as Jordan Ballor called it, we must ask whether conquering and stewardship compatible. Valid questions like this arise when we are faced with questions concerning the private ownership of space and the possibility of colonizing other planets. I have no hard and fast answers, except that for Christians, perhaps “conquering” isn’t the best characterization of what we’re doing in space. Our God-given tendencies towards adventure and understanding are compatible with his love of beauty, creativity, and complexity. But where does conquest fit?

Another writer recently posted that maybe the best way to think about it to think of space exploration as worship. Josh Larson discusses how that sense of awe we share when we see shuttles launch into space and see photos from the International Space station of galaxies and stars can be akin to worship. Maybe we can think about coupling them all together: conquering, being a steward, and worshiping, in order to think about how best to approach the discovery and development of the final frontier.