Category: Bible and Theology

Five years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a talk titled “Faith, Reason and the University” at the University of Regensburg in Germany. The lecture set off a firestorm of controversy concerning Christian-Muslim relations. On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reflects, noting that calling it “one of this century’s pivotal speeches is probably an understatement.”

Gregg says that the reaction to the pope’s speech “underscored most Western intellectuals’ sheer ineptness when writing about religion.” More seriously:

… Regensburg shattered the inconsequential niceties that had hitherto typified most Catholic-Muslim discussions. Instead of producing more happy-talk, Benedict indicated that such conversations could no longer avoid more substantial, more difficult questions: most notably, how Christianity and Islam understand God’s nature. Regensburg reminded us that it matters whether God is essentially Logos (Divine Reason) or Voluntas (Pure Will). The first understanding facilitates civilizational development, true freedom, and a complete understanding of reason. The second sows the seeds of decline, oppression, and unreason.

But perhaps above all, Regensburg asked the West to look itself in the mirror and consider whether some of its inner demons reflected the fact that it, like the Islamic world, was undergoing an inner crisis: one which was reducing Christian faith to subjective opinion, natural reason to the merely measurable, and love to sentimental humanitarianism. The West, Benedict suggested, was in the process of a closing of its own mind.

Read “Benedict at Regensburg: Why It Still Matters” on NRO.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Work and Prayer: Of Coins, Sheep, and Men,” I explore what the parable of the Prodigal Son (when read in conjunction with the parables of the Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep) has to teach us about stewardship:

Reading these three stories together teaches us many things about the nature of God’s love for us, such that when we were lost, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV). But the stories also provide models for how we should relate to the different aspects of God’s created order, from the material, to the animal, to the human. In each kind of relationship, humans have a definite role to play. In some cases we are called to work actively to achieve God’s purposes in the world. In other cases, out of respect for human freedom and individual sovereignty, we have to engage in active searching for the lost things of this world by less direct means.

Jan van Hemessen - The Prodigal Son - WGA11358

Does this guy have anything to teach us about stewardship?


The Parable of the Lost Son has been the subject of popularization and cultural expression throughout the centuries (see, for instance, Tissot’s set of paintings on “The Prodigal Son in Modern Life”). In recent decades, films like Legends of the Fall (1994) have drawn at least partial inspiration from the story. In this week’s commentary, I don’t have space to treat the case of the elder brother adequately, but Andrée Seu draws parallels between the elder brother in the 1994 film and the tale of the Prodigal Son.

I also draw on C. S. Lewis’ essay, “Work and Prayer,” which appears in the collection of essays, God in the Dock.

Commenting on Warren Buffet’s call to raise taxes on the “mega-rich,” North Carolina Minister Andrew Daugherty says this on Associated Baptist Press (HT: RealClearReligion):

Unlike some of our political leaders and media pundits, the gospel does not make false distinctions between the “makers” and the “takers,” the deserving and the undeserving or the hard-working and the hardly-working. Instead, we are told that the first Christians had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. In other words, no person had too little and no person had too much, whether or not their means were greater or lesser. Applied to our capitalist society, this is a dubious economic philosophy. Applied as a compassionate ethic, it supplies a model of shared sacrifice that Buffett calls for in our taxation system.

A much more reliable guide to understanding why and how the earliest Christians shared their possessions is Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts. Pelikan, author of the five-volume work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, actually does see a distinction between the “makers” and the “takers.” Perhaps a better description of these first Christians would be “givers.” Pelikan points to the very different historical situation that developed for the Church as it grew, including a role for the state in providing “mutual support.” But the Book of Acts was never intended as a template for tax policy, even less so in the 21st Century. (emphasis mine in the following Pelikan quote):

Paul’s words to the Corinthians provide another key to the accounts in Acts of the mutual support of the members of Christ’s family, with their stipulation that in giving “according to their means … and beyond their means” the Macedonians acted “of their own free will.”

On the narrow basis solely of the descriptions earlier in Acts, “all who believed … had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all” (2:44-45), and again, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to eash as any had need” (4:34-35), it would be difficult to tell whether these were instances of contribution or of confiscation. But a careful review of the longest sustained account of the process, the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphhira (5:1-11) makes it clear that the property and its proceeds remained “at your disposal” (5:4), so that here, too, the support was an act of their own free will. The report in the immediately following chapter, that “the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1) provides at least a glimpse into the practical difficulties attendant on such mutual support.

Significantly, the author of Acts prefaces that glimpse with the explanation that “in these days … the disciples were increasing in number” (6:1). This can be seen as an anticipation of the vast complications that were to follow in the subsequent centuries, when the sheer size and the geographical spread of the Christian movement made such a direct and simple response to famine as is described here difficult to administer, and then when the Christianization of the Roman Empire brought about the reallocation of responsibility for “mutual support among the members of Christ’s family” between the state and the church and the monastic communities.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, an Orthodox Christian organization that provides information about “ancient Christianity and its deep roots in Africa,” is holding a conference Aug. 26-28 in the Detroit area. In a story in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper about the upcoming conference, a reporter interviewed a woman by the name of Sharon Gomulka who had visited an Orthodox Church several years ago on the feast day of St. Moses the Black (or sometimes called The Ethiopian). She watched “as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man.” They were reverencing the image of the saint.

“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka told the paper. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”

Well, they’re Christians as she later came to find out. Historian Christopher Dawson reminds us in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (1960) that the Church’s origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and its expansion further East, points to its universal nature:

The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.

Similarly, the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes it terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cyprian and above all St. Augustine.

While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia, under strong Oriental influence.

Dawson’s reflections should not be taken as a mere historical curiosity. This history speaks to what the Church is, and has always been. All the more reason to be alarmed at the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East — communities that have in many case been continuously rooted in these lands since Apostolic times. The Christians in Kirkuk, Iraq, have been targets of bombers in recent weeks. “This is only happening because we are Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako. “Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”

Historian Philip Jenkins in books such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (2008) has worked to deepen English-speaking Christians’ awareness of these ancient roots in places like Syria, India and China.

In a 2008 interview with BeliefNet.com, Jenkins was pessimistic about the hard-pressed Christian communities in the Middle East, whose populations are rapidly dwindling:

By far the largest change is in the Middle East, the region between Persia and Egypt. As recently as 1900, the Christian population of that whole region was almost ten percent, but today it is just a couple of percent, and falling fast. Particularly if climate change moves as rapidly as it some believe, the resulting tensions could reduce Christian numbers much further. Egypt would be the most worrying example here. Might that 1,400 year story come to an end in our lifetimes?

Europe is nothing like as serious an issue. The number of active or committed Christians certainly is declining, but the churches don’t face anything like what is happening in the Middle east. There is no plausible prospect of a Muslim regime anywhere in Western Europe, or of the recreation of the social order on the lines of Muslim law. Realistically, people of Muslim background will constitute a substantial minority of the European population, rather than a majority, and it is far from clear that most will define themselves primarily according to strict religious loyalties. European Christianity may be in anything but a healthy state, but Islam need not be its greatest cause for concern.

Matters are very different in other countries of Africa and Asia, where Muslims and Christians are in deep competition. We could imagine wars and persecutions that could uproot whole societies.

If there’s one thing that these Christian communities have experience with in the last 2,000 years, it’s wars and persecutions. Jenkins might be wrong about extinction, but there’s no question about decline. According to another estimate, the Middle East’s Christian population shrank from 20 percent to 10 percent during recent decades. Yet, the surest way to speed the decline, or realize extinction, is for the global Church to ignore the plight of their brothers and sisters in this part of the world.

More history from Jenkins, echoing Dawson:

During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.

By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy … Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.

The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)

On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.

What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”

2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.

Even philosophers can be entrepreneurial when economic reality comes crashing in, creating an existential crisis. That’s one lesson from this intriguing Washington Post story (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers.”

The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable. But it does illustrate one response to the variegated crisis faced by higher education, particularly by those in the liberal arts and humanities. When you are done with school and have dim employment prospects and looming loans, you have a few different choices. You can ask, “Would you like fries with that, sir?” Or you can get out and create something for yourself in an entrepreneurial fashion.

These philosophical counselors represent something significant in the latter realm of response. And this is illustrative of the new kind of mindset that academics are going to have to have, even if they find places in traditional educational institutions. For a long time the entrepreneurial dynamism in higher ed was largely expressed in founding new centers and even independent think tanks and research institutions. This will continue, but it seems to me at the individual level scholars are going to have to be more creative and innovative simply to make ends meet. This will mean starting consulting businesses and creating new ways of providing a service to people, often outside of a traditional classroom setting. These realities are new for many in the liberal arts, but they are nothing new to researchers in the natural sciences.

So higher education is definitely undergoing a kind of destruction, but philosoprenuerial efforts like those in the WaPo piece will help determine whether that destruction is “creative” or not. I have hope that the decadence of humanities higher education can be challenged by these kinds of economic and moral realities.

Such examples are also instructive for those in other fields, perhaps especially theology. Increasingly institutions are realizing the need for “ecclesiastical entrepreneurs,” so to speak, and looking at new ways of integrating and aligning the interests of the academy and the church. In some cases this means new ways of combining programs, or launching new majors to provide expertise and instruction in a variety of institutional settings.

Blog author: crobertson
Monday, August 22, 2011
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Do you view the work you do each day as worship, or is it something you do to pass the time or merely collect a paycheck? Remember work is not only the actions you perform to obtain a pay check, but includes any action “people do to earn a living.” Signs indicate that evangelical practice is entrapped in a dangerous snare of limitation and complacence. By placing almost sole emphasis on Bible study, worship attendance, and giving/tithing — the churchly aspects of discipleship — churches have in effect diminished the importance of everyday, temporal Christian living. Time spent in the workplace and at home with one’s family is subordinated to Sabbath Day activities. However, man is not intended for part-time discipleship, but for a devoted life of constant service to Christ and neighbor.

Lester DeKoster in his excellent book titled Work: The Meaning of Your Life says, “Work is the from in which we make ourselves useful to others.” God has created us to work and worship. Additionally, it is His will for our whole-life to be used to further His Kingdom in this world, not simply what we do in Church on Sunday morning. Whole-life discipleship is something very important to the work we are doing and we promote it through one-day conferences, outreach, church kits, and a new worldview video curriculum being developed.

Take a look at this video, which talks about how — for so many of us — our mission is in the marketplace.