Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Vladimir Solovyov

Towards the end of his life, the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov published his “On the Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy” (1897). In this book, wrote historian Paul Valliere, Solovyov abandonded his vision of a “worldwide theocratic order” in favor of the more concrete demands of building a just society. With “Justification of the Good,” Solovyov (1853-1900) presented a general theory of economic and social welfare based on the idea that all human beings have “a right to a dignified existence.”

The following excerpt is from the chapter, “The Economic Question from the Moral Point of View” in Solovyov’s “On the Justification of the Good.” Translated by Nathalie A. Duddington; annotated and edited by Boris Jakim; foreword by David Bentley Hart. Wm. B. Eerdmans (2005). Cross posted from The Observer.

For the true solution of the so-called ‘social question’ it must in the first place be recognized that economic relations contain no special norm of their own, but are subject to the universal moral norm as a special realm in which they find their application. The triple moral principle which determines our due relation towards God, men, and the material nature is wholly and entirely applicable in the domain of economics. The peculiar character of economic relations gives a special importance to the last member of the moral trinity, namely, the relation to the material nature or earth (in the wide sense of the term). This third relation can have a moral character only if it is not isolated from the first two but is conditioned by them in the normal position.

(more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 28, 2008

Following up on our discussion of the Pew survey on the American religious landscape, I have a few thoughts as to what plagues American Protestantism, particularly of the evangelical variety, and it has to do precisely with the “catholicity” of Protestantism.

To the extent that people are leaving Protestantism, or are searching for another denomination within the broadly Protestant camp, I think there are at least two connected precipitating causes. (A caveat: there are many, many individual and anecdotal exceptions to the generalizations I will make below, and I think they serve to highlight rather than to undermine this basic picture.)

The first is the lack of historical connection to tradition (with a lower case “t”) among American Protestants. Whether by intention or ignorance, the relation of Protestantism to the broader church’s history is sorely under-recognized.

Part of this phenomena is the anti-creedalism, anti-confessionalism of many evangelicals, such that when something like the Apostle’s Creed is even part of a worship service, the church is confessed to be not one, holy, “catholic,” and apostolic but rather “Christian” (or at best “catholic” with a footnote).

Part of it is simple intellectual laziness (i.e. not having the methodological and academic rigor to take up questions of the origins of the Protestant Reformation in its context). The claims of the reformers to represent the authentic “catholic” Christianity of the church’s tradition, focused especially on their grounding in the patristics, must be dealt with responsibly, even if in the final judgment some find these claims to be untenable. More often than not, the claims to the catholicity of the Reformation are ignored rather than engaged.

The second cause is a lack of connection with worldwide Christianity. The “catholicity” of the Church has not only to do with our connection to the past tradition, but also to contemporary believers who live all over the world. If the Pew survey is bad news for American Christianity (and evangelical Protestantism in particular), then the good news is that the church is not limited to North America and that Christianity is growing both by number and by vigor in the global south and east.

Part of the emergent impulse is I think an inchoate and instinctual response to these realities. Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if at the height of American evangelicalism’s political influence its spiritual core was failing? We need to be concerned about “whitewashed tomb” syndrome, so focused on the external influence of the church on culture, politics, and society that we abandon the church’s primary spiritual calling.

In addition to an increased historical awareness of the roots of the Reformation, one fruitful avenue to explore in making these connections is in the pursuit of a theology of obedience, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom, a theology more along the lines of Tertullian, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer than of the political and cultural Christendom that has so recently dominated the church in Western civilization.

A sampling of some books worthy of consideration that are indirect popular responses to these problems I identify:

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I’ve lately completed David Klinghoffer’s book on the Ten Commandments, Shattered Tablets. In large part it is a conventional conservative critique of American culture, but along the way the author makes some interesting theological connections, especially when he draws on the long tradition of Jewish biblical commentary.

In unpacking the commandments, Klinghoffer consistently ties each commandment of the first tablet (five, according to the Jewish schema) with each of the five others, matching each pair horizontally across the two tablets (if you follow me).

This approach connects the fourth, keeping holy the Sabbath, with the ninth, not bearing false witness. All this by way of explaining how this trenchant passage appears in the chapter on the ninth commandment:

Many of us … suffer from the prideful delusion that what we do for a living the rest of the week simply can’t be neglected for a day, perhaps not even for an hour. We have a ‘moral responsibility’ to work!

This mistake has been greatly reinforced with the introduction in recent years of portable wireless communication devices … that allow people to do their work on the road, on the train, at home, on vacation. The impression we convey to ourselves is that our work is so terribly important that it simply cannot wait until we can reach a landline telephone or a desktop computer. The moral message of the BlackBerry is: God may have been able to take a break from His work, but not me! … At all times, I am indispensable!

The Sabbath delivers a sound beating to this kind of obnoxious pride in oneself and one’s ‘vocation.’

Not that there’s anything wrong with a healthy sense of vocation, or the so-called Protestant work ethic. To the contrary. I’ve long been convinced that work is actually more productive and beneficial to all parties when performed in accord with God’s laws, including the Sabbath commandment. Reminding me of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Dies Domini, which followed by some years his encyclical on the dignity of work, Laborem Exercens.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, January 30, 2008

“When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’” – Luke 7:9

There are only two instances in the New Testament where Scripture refers to Christ as being amazed. One is in the 6th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus is amazed at the lack of faith of the people in his hometown of Nazareth. The text in Mark’s Gospel notes, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.”

In Luke’s Gospel (Luke 7:1-10) Christ says he was amazed by the faith of the Roman centurion. The passage from Luke teaches some important points about authority and humility which is extremely relevant to us today. The centurion was in charge of one hundred soldiers and understood his authority and his position of leadership. He knew quite well, and according to the passage was confident, that when he spoke certain words or commands, they would be obeyed, whether he was there to oversee his orders or not.

Furthermore, when his servant or slave became terminally ill, he showed the utmost compassion. He did not view the servant as being replaceable or merely as property, but the passage says the centurion valued him highly. This would not have been a common view for a Roman official in regards to the value of a slave. In addition, the centurion was a friend to the Jews, and was responsible for funding a synagogue.

The Jewish elders he sent to intervene for the healing of his servant also personally vouched for his character and friendliness to the Jewish people, despite his overt representation of a conquering army. The centurion sent them because he felt he was not worthy to be amongst Christ as a Gentile, as he later told Jesus through friendly messengers on the way to his house, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”

Amazingly, the centurion recognizes the authority of Christ and his power over sickness and the power of death saying through another, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” He had not even met Christ, and still hadn’t met Christ, but surely he had heard stories of his authority and power, and thus believed in his ability to heal his servant of imminent death. He recognized the ability of Christ to transform any circumstance and defy nature, so much so, he believed Christ did not have to be physically present to work miracles. It was an awesome validation of the power and authority of Jesus over the created order.

Even more so, Luke wants us to know this faith came from an unlikely source. The unexpected faith of the centurion is contrasted with those who were expected to believe but did not. Christ himself says in John’s Gospel, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 29, 2008

As a brief follow-up to this week’s installment of Radio Free Acton, here are some of the direct quotes from Augustine on happiness.

First, he says,

A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy.

This passage has some relevance to a recent Acton Commentary I wrote on tithing. The reason that a godless person’s will “has not turned away from all notion of joy” is because it is an ineradicable purpose of human nature to seek fulfillment and happiness (joy) in God, whether or not a person is conscious that it is actually God that is being sought. So when the “godless” seek joy in the created things of the world, they are actually seeking him in a corrupted and perverse way. It is a futile search for fulfillment apart from God, for “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?”

And so Augustine also wonders of the godless, “Why are they not happy? Because they are more immediately engrossed in other things which more surely make them miserable than that other reality, so faintly remembered, can make them happy.” That “faintly remembered” reality is the divine being corresponding to the God-shaped hole at the center of the fallen human being.

This entire conceptual structure is built upon Augustine’s distinction between “use” and “enjoyment” or uti and frui. Here’s how he lays it out in De Doctrina Christiana:

So then, there are some thing which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them.

In his latest book about personal finance and responsibility, Dave Ramsey relates a story about how he had always wanted to own a Jaguar. When his priorities were disordered and his life was a spiritual and financial mess, Dave did everything he could to keep the car, even though he was behind on payments and he really couldn’t afford it. Eventually he was forced to give the car up. Only years later, when having a status car wasn’t so important to Dave, did God provide him the opportunity to own one again, this time with his love for it properly reined in.

We are enfleshed souls, and so we have recreative and sustaining needs. Created goods, especially essentials like food, water, and shelter, but also other things like cars, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for being happy in an ultimate and final sense. That’s what Augustine means when he calls such things “crutches and props.” For more on this, see Aquinas’ answers to questions like:

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 22, 2008

This week, January 18-25, is the worldwide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (HT). The week is “encouragement of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”

To mark the end of the week, the WCC’s general secretary Samuel Kobia and Pope Benedict XVI “will meet in Rome on 25 January, at a ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The WCC said in a statement on 21 January that Kobia will meet the Pope in a private audience along with members of the Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, during a yearly working group meeting in Rome from 21-26 January.”

For Protestants, the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century ostensibly held the greatest promise for promoting unity among the diversity of Protestant confessions and denominations. But the social activist impulse in the ecumenical movement has not only put off many theological traditionalists, it has undermined and poisoned the prospects for ecumenical organizations to make real progress. Paul Ramsey’s criticism of this impulse in the ecumenical movement is as salient today as it was forty years ago (Who Speaks for the Church? Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967). I want to pass along the observations of two theologians on the relationship between theological “conservatives” and the ecumenical movement.

In 1978, James Gustafson observed, quite rightly I think, that “the situation of Protestant churches with regard to moral teachings is only a little short of chaos.” Thirty years later Protestantism has moved well past chaos to complete anarchy. And so what Gustafson observed at the time is even more true today: “there is an unspoken longing in Protestant church bodies, and Protestant-dominated ecumenical bodies, for greater authority for moral teachings.”

Avery Dulles, professor of theology at Fordham University, wrote in the early 1990s that “the churches that have held most steadfastly to the deposit of biblical and patristic faith, and those that have best resisted the allurements of modernity, may have most to offer to an age that is surfeited with the lax and the ephemeral.”

Unfortunately those who may have the most to offer are those who are the least welcome at ecumenical gatherings. The time has come for the ecumenical movement (the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches) to place their emphasis on real and substantive representation of differing viewpoints among their constituency on a host of issues.

There should be room in the ecumenical movement for those who have “held the most steadfastly to the deposit of biblical and patristic faith.” The ecumenical movement would do much to reduce the alienation of such folks if it were more circumspect about offering up concrete political and thinly-disguised ideological policy proposals under the rubric of representing the united and universal church.

Prayer is a much better place than public policy both to start and to finish ecumenical dialogue. In that spirit, let us remember the prayer of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that all of us “may be one” together not on our own terms but only in him.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, January 21, 2008
St. Maximos the Confessor

Today the Orthodox Church remembers St. Maximos the Confessor, the great saint who — virtually alone — stood against the Monothelite heresy and its powerful allies in the Church and in the Byzantine Empire. The importance of St. Maximos (580-662) also is built on his work in the Philokalia, the collection of texts written between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Eastern Christian tradition.

Here is St. Maximos on truth (Third Century, 32):

Because it transcends all things, truth admits of no plurality, and reveals itself as single and unique. It embraces the spiritual potentialities of all that is intellective and intelligible, since it transcends both intellective and intelligible beings; and by an infinite power it encompasses both the ultimate origin and the ultimate consummation of created beings and draws the entire activity of each to itself. On some it bestows lucid spiritual knowledge of the grace they have lost, and to other it grants, through an indescribable mode of perception and by means of participation, clear understanding of the goodness for which they long.

On “divine power” (Third Century, 12):

Providence has implanted a divine standard or law in created beings, and in accordance with this law when we are ungrateful for spiritual blessings we are schooled in gratitude by adversity, and brought to recognize through the working of divine power. This is to prevent us from becoming irrepressibly conceited, and from thinking in our arrogance that we possess virtue and spiritual knowledge by virtue and not by grace.

The editors of the Philokalia note that when St. Maximos “opposed Monothelitism, this was not because of some technicality, but because such a view subverted the understanding of the full reality of man’s salvation and deification in Christ. The Monotheletes wished to reconcile the supporters of the Council of Chalcedon (451), who ascribed two natures to the incarnate Christ, with the Monophysites, who believed that He has only one nature; and so they proposed as a compromise the theory that Christ has two natures, the one divine and the other human, and but only a single will. Against this St. Maximos maintained that human nature without a human will is an unreal abstraction: if Christ does not have a human will as well as a divine will, He is not truly man; and if He is not truly man, the Christian message of salvation is rendered void.”

Father Alexander Mileant describes the saint’s courageous stand against this heresy:

The heretics often went from urging and appealing Maximos, to threatening, abusing and beating him. Venerable Maximos was sent into exile several times and called back to Constantinople each time. On one occasion, St. Maximos was called back, and the imperial grandees, Troilus and Sergius, subjected him yet again to interrogation. They began to accuse St. Maximos of pride for esteeming himself as the only Orthodox who would be saved and for considering all others to be heretics who would perish. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, January 21, 2008

In the prefatory address to King Francis in Calvin’s 1535 edition of the Institutes, Calvin cites Hilary of Poitiers approvingly:

Indeed, Hilary considered it a great vice in his day that, being occupied with foolish reverence for the episcopal dignity, men did not realize what a deadly hydra lurked under such a mask. For he speaks in this way: “One thing I admonish you, beware of Antichrist. It is wrong that a love of walls has seized you; wrong that you venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings; wrong that beneath these you introduce the name of peace. Is there any doubt that Antichrist will have his seat in them? To my mind, mountains, woods, lakes, prisons, and chasms are safer. For, either abiding in or cast into them, the prophets prophesied.”

Augustine too had railed against the emphasis on station and authority rather than service, as he writes that “a bishop who takes delight in ruling rather than in doing good is no true bishop” (City of God, 19.19).

But lest you think that Calvin (or Hilary or Augustine, for that matter), were the sort to emphasize works at the expense of doctrine, consider this description of the relationship between doctrine and love from Calvin: “We have given the first place to the doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it. But it must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us” (Institutes III.vi.4).

The English poet and hymn writer William Cowper (1731-1800, pronounced Cooper) was afflicted with severe bouts of depression and haunting despair for virtually all of his life. While he was a contemporary of George Whitefield and John Wesley, and Rev. John Newton served as a mentor, many have not heard of this 18th century English writer.

Much of Cowper’s depression and anguish stems from the death of his mother and four of his siblings all by the age of six. Cowper was then sent away to boarding school and terrorized for a number of years by an older bully. Later, he fell in love with a cousin only to have her father abruptly end the relationship. The refusal left a young Cowper deeply troubled and distraught. Cowper was pressured into law by his own father, an Anglican minister who was also the chaplain for George II. He buckled under the pressure and made several suicide attempts in the coming days. After several failed attempts by various methods he tried to hang himself with a garter, but it broke while he was unconscious on his third attempt.

His friends then intervened, and he was sent to an insane asylum run by a poet and committed Christian, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton. Under the guidance of Cotton he read Scripture and withdrew for a time from the misery inside his mind. Cowper read a passage from Romans 3:25: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” Cowper declared:

Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel. Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport; I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.

Cowper would continue to struggle in life with mental illness and a general melancholy. Often, he would withdraw into fits of despair because of dreams he had of God rejecting him. However, he became friends with John Newton and they compiled a work of writings in 1779 called the Olney Hymns. It produced many popular English hymns including Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” Another popular tune came from Cowper titled, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” The first verse reads:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Cowper wrote many popular poems and was ahead of his time with his focus on a new sensitivity to nature and his surroundings, which greatly influenced the Romantic poets. Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised him as the “the best modern poet.”

Cowper also translated Homer and John Milton’s Greek and Latin poems. In addition, he became involved in the abolition movement, which was gaining greater concern from evangelical Christians during his life. However, perhaps his greatest legacy is how God used him mightily through his years of affliction and mental anguish. Cowper’s words and life speak to the very sovereignty, grace, and mystery of a God that saves, uplifts, and enlivens the troubled soul.

A noteworthy quote on voluntary poverty from Thomas C. Oden. Oden has consistently articulated the concern that modern Christian theology is often tainted by political agendas, such as the radical elements of liberation theology. Here, Oden rebuffs the myth that a historic and conservative Christian theology has been anything less than strong in its identification and assistance in defense of the poor. Oden is a United Methodist theologian who is also an emeritus professor at Drew Theological Seminary. In addition, Oden is general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

Some imagine that a high Christology necessarily tends to be neglectful of moral responsibility. Those who buy into the Marxist view of history tend repeatedly to sound this alarm. Insofar as such a distortion occurs, it is inconsistent with classical Christian teaching, where the assumption prevails that the confession of Jesus as Lord has insistent moral meaning and social implications. Christians who call for an identification with the poor do so out of a long tradition of voluntary poverty, which follows from Christ’s willingness to become poor for our sakes.

The Word of Life, Prince Press, 2001, p. 9.