Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, February 23, 2012
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One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
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AschenkreuzYesterday my son asked me why today is called “Ash Wednesday.” In that question I could hear the echoes of another question, “Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?”

The latter question is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, and the brief but poignant answer has stuck with me since I first encountered it. First, the catechism clarifies that our death does not have redemptive power: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.” That’s what distinguishes Christ’s death from our own.

But next, the catechism describes two interrelated things our death does do. First, our death “puts an end to our sinning.” What a comforting thought! As Luther put it strikingly, “As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin.” Our death is the end of our lifelong struggle against sin, and the culmination of the purpose of our entire life. As Calvin writes, “during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit.” Our death is where this “constant rest” is finally achieved.

And following from the end to our life of sin, our death marks “our entrance into eternal life.” Thus we enter through our deaths into the eternal Sabbath, where we finally rest from our evil works, enjoy the “constant rest” (Calvin) from sin, and the fullness of life in the Spirit.

So on this Ash Wednesday, when we contemplate the origin and destiny of our earthly life in dust, let us take comfort in the realization that the death of those who are in Christ is merely the end of the beginning of the story. In the midst of our mourning during the Lenten season inaugurated with Ash Wednesday, let us not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
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In his classic book Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks the critical question for the Christian life in today’s world: “What could the call to follow Jesus mean today for the worker, the businessman, the farmer, or the soldier?” This question is a corollary of another, more basic, question: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” If Christ is Lord, then what does his lordship mean for the lives of his followers?

In a worthwhile post over at Out of Ur, Skye Jethani explores the implications of Christ’s call to discipleship for our work, “where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.”

Jethani updates and sharpens questions related to Bonhoeffer’s famous discipleship question:

What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others?

How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector?

Does being an artist matter to God?

How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ?

Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business?

I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter?

Can I be a soldier and be a Christian?

Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?

One of the consistent refrains from established denominations nowadays is concern over how to connect with younger generations of believers, to keep them from leaving the church, and show that the Christian faith is relevant to a contemporary world. A good place to start is to ask and begin to answer the questions that Bonhoeffer and Jethani have posed.

But as Jethani warns, such efforts must be undertaken not just as a rearguard stratagem: “Developing a theology of work and vocation-based-discipleship is not a silver bullet to slow the exodus of young adults from the church. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a significant blind spot for much of the Western church that must be remedied.”

In his treasure of a book on the subject, Lester DeKoster goes so far as to call work “the meaning of your life.” It is of central importance for followers of Christ to understand, articulate, and live out the way in which the Gospel shapes and determines the meaning of life “to the full.”

At this past year’s Evangelical Theological Society meeting, the Oikonomia Network convened a luncheon entitled Renewing the Call: Why Pastors and Business Leaders Need Each Other. Dr. Amy Sherman, senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of recently published Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship For the Common Good presented along with Dr. Scott Rae, professor at Talbot School of Theology and co-author of Business For the Common Good: A Christian Vision For the Marketplace.

Click the video image below to watch the luncheon presentation.

Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:

In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.

The president is referring to the passage that concludes Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the watchful servants in Luke 12. It’s a good thing that the president isn’t the theologian-in-chief!

As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.

But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.

More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?

Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.

Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.

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.