Category: Bible and Theology

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 As the feature explains, “hospitality is not outdated; in our world there are always those who need a room for a time or a home-cooked meal.”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.

At the Daily Beast yesterday, Michelle Goldman Goldberg muses on the movement of “the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann” over to Ron Paul. This is in part because these “ultra-right evangelicals” are really “the country’s most committed theocrats,” whose support for Paul “is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian.” (Goldberg’s piece appeared before yesterday’s results from Iowa, in which it seems evangelical support went more toward Santorum [32%] than Paul [18%].)

Goldberg shows some theological sensibilities as she tries to trace the connections between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism. Better informed readers will recognize some of the holes, however, as Goldberg describes proponents of Reformed or “covenant theology” as those who “tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back.” Christian Reconstructionism becomes, then, “The most radical faction of covenant theology,” and, “a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.” (For an opposite reading of Paul that criticizes him precisely for not seeking to legislate biblical morality and his “opposition to moral legislation,” see D. C. Innes’ piece over at WORLD, “Christian, why Ron Paul?”)

So while Goldberg is right to note the interesting connections and tensions between libertarianism and Reconstructionism, the connection of Reconstructionism to broader evangelical and Reformed “covenant theology” is rather more tenuous. In part this must be because she relies primarily on Steve Deace, “an influential Iowa evangelical radio host,” for her mapping of the intellectual and theological landscape. But it’s also due, of course, to the impulse to paint any conservative Christian who draws political implications from their faith as a kind of theocrat, whether a theonomist, Reconstructionist, or the latest term bandied about by Goldberg in connection with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, “Dominionist.”

On the one hand, you rarely if ever hear this sort of worrying over the influence of those on the religious Left, who very explicitly want to make an American government in line with their image of biblical justice. On the other, Goldberg’s connection between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism, especially in the person of Gary North, is quite legitimate. This can be seen in more detail and with more nuance in one of the few academic articles to explicitly address this connection, “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Timothy Terrell and Glenn Moots. And as pieces from David Bahnsen and Doug Wilson from earlier this year show, the connections between reconstructionists and libertarians are deep, in part because, as Wilson puts it, “We are talking in many cases about the very same people.”

But as Terrell and Moots point out, the place of Christian Reconstructionism within the broader context of American evangelicalism, and Reformed covenant theology in particular, is hotly disputed. Indeed, write Terrell and Moots, “Some of the most notable critiques of Christian Reconstruction come from within conservative Presbyterianism.” So while Christian Reconstructionism might self-identify as a kind of Reformed covenantal thinking, this doesn’t mean that all Reformed covenant theology is either postmillennial or prone to theonomy. As no less than John Calvin writes in his Institutes,

The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.

This is a sentiment commonly shared by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theological forebears of Reformed “covenant theology.”

Terrell and Moots conclude with an emphasis on the importance of taking religious motivations and theological convictions seriously:

Recent history demonstrates that the considered prescription of a free society has advanced best when it is a broadly ecumenical and pluralistic discussion. This means that it not only includes secular and religious justifications but also takes into consideration the breadth and depth of religious viewpoints.

So I think we should applaud Goldberg for taking into consideration the religious viewpoints and influences of candidates like Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann, but we should also take her to task for not being a bit more sensitive to the complicated theological landscape. Christian Reconstructionists are a vocal minority, a “fringe” as Goldberg calls them, among politically conservative Christians, but their specific views about biblical laws and punishments are simply not attributable to every evangelical candidate.

Unfortunately this kind of conflation is all too common in the media and popular entertainment. As Russell Moore writes of “dominionism” (and by extension all of the charges of theocracy against conservative Christians) in the latest issue of The City,

the menace of this movement is routinely exaggerated by the media. All this is quite rare, a movement on the far fringes of faithful life. And the scare tactics are made worse by ignorance, particularly among those who don’t understand ‘dominion theology,’ and assume the use of the word ‘dominion’ itself as a call for theocracy as the consolidation of Christian political power — when the case is so exactly the opposite.

And as I conclude in the same issue, “Those in our day who level the baseless charges of suspicion against Christians for undermining the public good deserve to be branded as the real dissemblers and enemies of common good.” Or as Calvin put it, “It is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God.”

I opened my recent Patheos piece on Christians and the “Occupy” protests by noting the proclivity for some leaders to seek cultural relevance by uncritically embracing political movements and trends. This shows that it is a common temptation to allow worldly perspectives and ideologies to determine the shape of our faith rather than the other way around.

A good example of this uncritical stance toward the Occupy movement appears in a Marketplace report from last week, “Preaching the Occupy gospel — or not.” As Mitchell Hartman introduces Rev. Chuck Currie, “Forgive me for what is quite possibly blaspheming, but to hear some preachers from the pulpit these days, you’d think the arrival of Occupy Wall Street is tantamount to the Second Coming.” Currie goes on to, in Harman’s words, draw “a direct scriptural line from the Old Testament… to Occupy.” (One of the commenters on my Patheos piece likewise draws a direct line from the parable of the Good Samaritan to a moral obligation for Christians to engage in Occupy protests.)

For more on the chaplains of the protest movement, check out this NYT piece.

In the meantime, you should also read this more measured response to the Occupy movement at RELEVANT magazine by Alex Marshall. Alex outlines two important ways the church can act positively in engaging the Occupiers, including recognizing that “the Church has the opportunity to act as a ‘laboratory’ for experimenting in solutions to society’s problems.”

Or as Jesus puts it, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”