Category: Bible and Theology

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.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, January 4, 2008
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A few years ago I asked the question: “Just how many unjust acts can a just war encompass before it ceases to be a just war?” This question assumed the connection between what scholars have defined as a distinction between ius ad bello and ius ad bellum, justness in the occasion for or cause of war and justness in the prosecution of war.

Prof. Stephen Bainbridge and Prof. Anthony Clark Arend were among those kind enough to respond, alluding to this classical distinction.

I just came across this definition of just war from the sixteenth-century Jesuit doctor Francisco Suarez:

In order that a war may be justly waged, certain conditions must be observed and these may be brought under three heads. First it must be waged by a legitimate power. Secondly its cause must be just and right. Thirdly just methods should be used, that is equity in the beginning of war, in the prosecution of it, and in victory (Tractatus de legibus, I, 9).

With Suarez’s definition in mind, I think we can summarize the matter thusly:

There is an important classical and scholastic distinction between ius ad bellum and ius ad bello, corresponding to the second and third heads of Suarez’s definition respectively. We might therefore say that a war can be just in a divided sense in two distinct ways: in its cause and in its execution. In this divided sense then Bainbridge is right to say that “violations of jus in bello do not affect the jus ad bellum question.”

But in the composite or compound sense of “a just war,” it must meet both conditions (as well as being pursued by a legitimate power, which is itself a complex question. Compare for instance Augustine’s question, “Set justice aside and what are kingdoms but large robber bands, and what are robber bands but little kingdoms?”).

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, December 27, 2007
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For my money, some of the most interesting titles in recent years in the field of Christian scholarship have come from IVP Academic (an imprint of InterVarsity Press). The latest catalog features an announcement of Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, as well as an interview with the author, which prompted a couple reflections. (The interview is available for pdf download here, Fall 2007)

I remember my first teaching assignment, a survey course in American history. We were covering slavery and related issues and the topic of Christianity and race came up. I made what I thought was a fairly obvious historical point about Christianity: identifying it with white Europeans is shortsighted considering that for several centuries Christianity was dominated by Africans, Palestinians, and Middle Easterners. The students, Ivy Leaguers all, looked at me in amazement, as though they were unaware of the fact. That memory returned as I read about Oden’s book, whose thesis is, in the author’s words,

Christianity has a much longer history than its Western European expressions. Africa has played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture from its infancy, a role that has never been adequately studied or acknowledged, either in the Global North or South.

Oden also makes a point that lay behind my reaction to a trio of books that I reviewed for the forthcoming Journal of Markets & Morality (issue 10:2, to print any day): “…Euro-American intellectuals have transmitted [modern Western theological ideas] to Africa where they have been camouflaged as if to assume that these prejudices were themselves genuinely African.” The thought of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Marcuse, he observes, has influenced writing in and about Africa far more than the thought of Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, and Augustine, though it is self-evident which set of ideas is more genuinely “African” in any historical/geographical sense of the term. In my review, I display some unease about the appropriation of heterodox theology by African priests studying in Europe and the United States.

In the same IVP catalog:

The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment

The Decline of African American Theology by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace by Alexander Hill

Last Saturday a brief op-ed commentary of mine ran in the weekly Religion section of the Grand Rapids Press, “Chandler case exemplifies need to repent.”

The occasion for the piece was the sentencing over the last few months of those convicted of involvement in the rape and murder of Janet Chandler in 1979 (more details about the case can be found in the Holland Sentinel’s special coverage section.) Chandler was a student at Holland’s Hope College at the time of her death. (Here are two of the stories that form the background for my article’s argument: “Swank: ‘No excuse’ for role in Chandler death” and “Lives built on dark secret crumble.”)

In the op-ed I make the claim that the work of the criminal justice system in the conviction and sentencing of those involved provides a necessary context within which forgiveness, or more precisely a form of restorative justice, might be sought. “For criminals who are in denial about what they have done, the power of the state to punish crime stands as public and objective testimony to the wrong that has been committed,” I write.

Swank: “No excuse…” (Sentinel/Dan Irving)

That’s exactly what has happened in this case. Earlier in December four men were sentenced to life in prison in connection with Chandler’s murder. After the four men were sentenced, Janet’s father Jim said, “As a Christian, I thought of saying we should forgive, but you have to ask for forgiveness. None of these arrogant people ever felt remorse or asked for forgiveness.”

Jim Chandler touches here on the critical difference between a forgiveness that is merely offered, and forgiveness that is sought out and received. Forgiveness that is merely offered is described as the “weak” form of forgiveness by Victor Claar, a professor at Hope College, and John N. Oswalt, a professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Miss., in an article appearing in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Can Neoclassical Economics Handle a Scriptural View of Forgiveness?”

Claar and Oswalt also describe the “strong” form of forgiveness: “This strong form follows the biblical view that forgiveness cannot be granted unless the victimizer has repented. Apology is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the strong form of forgiveness. Further, only the strong form holds the possibility of reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without apology.”

Much of the reflection that lies behind the GR Press article is the fruit of the study behind a piece on restorative justice and the Christian tradition that is due to appear in an issue of next year’s Ave Maria Law Review. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how so-called “retributive” justice and “restorative” justice relate.

One way of putting the question is to inquire as to how to put together the instructions in Romans 12, such as, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,” and Romans 13, including the statements referring to the civil magistrate, “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

For more on how restorative justice can work within the context of the criminal justice system, see this story about the work of Celebrate Recovery, a prison ministry at work in Michigan and around the country, “Pastors baptize 33 at St. Joseph County Jail” (HT).

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 24, 2007
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“O GOD, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.”

“An Additional Collect for Christmastide,” Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1912).

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, November 16, 2007
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“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.” Proverbs 21:13

I remember being very young and hearing a minister dramatically describe the flames and fires of hell in a sermon. I know I was somewhere between the age of six and seven. At this time, I also had little knowledge of salvation in Christ, so I worried about my eternal destination. Couple this thought with a dream I remember having even earlier as a child, where in the dream I was being chased by a devil with a pitchfork. Wrapped with fear by just the possibility of damnation I was drawn to scripture that talked about heaven and hell.

The allegory of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel offers several important teaching lessons. Just as the prodigal son provides a look into the great depth of love, grace, and forgiveness of God the Father, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus points to the coming wrath. Additionally, it reinforces the seriousness of sin, and that there will be many who will not believe despite a believable resurrection account. Note, the indirect tie to Christ and resurrection in the parable is intentional.

We know from the Gospel account Lazarus suffers immensely on earth and the rich man is comforted with wealth and earthly pleasures. In the first-century Judean culture at this time, the common belief among religious leaders was if somebody was sick or lame it was because they were wicked. This belief is just as misguided as a literal reading of this parable might seem to declare the rich are damned and the poor are righteous, solely because of their poverty. Unfortunately, there are preachers who are teaching this falsehood, just as their preachers who shamelessly preach God wants us to be blessed with material abundance and comforts. Remember, we are made righteous by Christ alone (Romans 3:24).

The parable turns or reverses itself with the death of the beggar and the rich man. Now, Lazarus is comforted by the bosom of Abraham in heaven and the rich man is tormented in hell. Lazarus literally means “he whom God helps.” Jesus told several parables in the 16th chapter of Luke, and the account mentions that the Pharisees overheard and sneered at Christ. Christ responded by saying, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”

This parable ultimately tells us little about heaven and hell, because a strict literal reading is to miss the point entirely. Revelation is a much better book to examine for descriptions of the afterlife. Even so, there will indeed be separation from the righteous and unrighteous. It does tell us however, that the compassionate are heard by God. Compassion also deals with responding to the message and teachings of Christ and his Good News.

In addition, the parable is a powerful reminder of the question, “What are you doing with your blessings bestowed to you by God?” In this Thanksgiving season, as in all seasons, it is essential for us to transform our minds beyond the here and now. The parable teaches us about sin, selfishness, and greed, but it also teaches us about our spiritual condition. The rich man represents one who has turned away from trusting God and is trusting his lineage (Abraham) and trusting himself, or his own wealth. Lazarus, throws his trust in the charity and compassion of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a reminder to be authentic and charitable to our neighbors, just as Christ is. It also reminds us real charity and authentic charity is in knowing God and walking with God. Those who know the Lord will have compassion. Especially since they so easily recognize their dependence and need of God.

In a bit of an addendum to my review of the HBO series Deadwood in the current issue of Religion & Liberty, “A Law Beyond Law: Life Together in Deadwood,” I couldn’t help thinking of this bit from Clement of Alexandria when describing George Hearst, the über-robber baron of the Old West.

In that piece I write, “Hearst fancies that he is doing his fellow man a service in his devotion to mining gold, to acquiring ‘the color.'” There’s a patina of “other-directedness” in Hearst’s self-understanding. Indeed, Hearst’s influence isn’t entirely without its merits, but at bottom his explanation of his task seems more like self-rationalization to cover for a deep-seated greed than the righteous employment of a man divinely called.

Aunt Lou, who is Hearst’s cook describes him thusly: “George Hearst, he do love his nose in a hole more and ass in the air and back legs kickin’ out little lumps of gold like a badger.”

Clement of Alexandria describes that same human condition with a bit more theological insight: “But he who carries his riches in his soul, and instead of God’s Spirit bears in his heart gold or land, and is always acquiring possessions without end, and is perpetually on the outlook for more, bending downwards and fettered in the toils of the world, being earth and destined to depart to earth,—whence can he be able to desire and to mind the kingdom of heaven,—a man who carries not a heart, but land or metal, who must perforce be found in the midst of the objects he has chosen? For where the mind of man is, there is also his treasure.”

George Hearst: ‘The-boy-the-earth-talks-to’

A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that “religion is less likely to be central to the lives of individuals in richer nations than poorer ones” (HT).

Given the Bible’s many warnings about the danger presented by wealth, specifically the temptation to no longer rely on God and his providential care, that probably isn’t surprising. But what might be more surprising is that “the United States, the wealthiest nation, was ‘most notably’ an exception, scoring higher in religiosity than those in Europe. The level of religiosity in the United States was found to be similar to less economically developed countries such as Mexico. Americans tend to be more religious than the publics of other affluent nations, the survey stated.”

But what upsets the seeming iron law connecting wealth to irreligion?

If wealth is less of an idol in the United States than elsewhere, it’s due in large part to the penetration of the Gospel message into people’s hearts and minds. An example of this message is clearly evident in a recent CT column by John Piper, “Gutsy Guilt.”

Piper takes apart the myth of prosperous comfort that Satan propagates. Piper writes with regard to sexual sin, perhaps the most difficult class of sins to conquer, “The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.”

Material prosperity can be an occasion not only to stop relying on God for the provision of earthly goods, but can also be an opiate that dulls our awareness of even greater grace, the gift of justification. “Therefore, God, out of his immeasurable love for us, provided his own Son to do both. Christ bears our punishment and performs our righteousness. When we receive Christ as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of our lives, all of his punishment and righteousness is counted as ours (Rom. 4:4-6; 5:1; 5:19; 8:1; 10:4; Phil. 3:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21). Justification conquers fornication,” writes Piper.

Here we hear echoes of Martin Luther: “At once a righteous one and a sinner! Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

If the Pew survey is reliable, it speaks greatly to the cause of Christ in America that great wealth has not resulted in the level of apostasy and practical atheism present in other countries. Only when rightly and appropriately valued does wealth occupy a morally praiseworthy place in the world, as a means of glorifying God through service to our neighbor.

Folks like John Piper and Craig Gross (whose efforts in an anti-pornography ministry is profiled at length here) have done a great deal to keep American Christianity from accommodating sexual guilt that lies unforgiven in cultural appeasement. We are of course and by no means blameless or perfect, and our “success” relative to other countries is less important than our failure relative to God’s demands of holiness.

But what these things do show is that the Gospel and the extent to which God remains a vital reality in the lives of people does matter greatly in this world, not least of which in how it affects the way we relate to the culture around us and begin to use penultimate things rightly.

This Sunday, November 11, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

A prayer “For the Persecuted” (BCP 1928):

O blessed Lord, who thyself didst undergo the pain and suffering of the Cross; Uphold, we beseech thee, with thy promised gift of strength all those of our brethren who are suffering for their faith in thee. Grant that in the midst of all persecutions they may hold fast by this faith, and that from their stedfastness thy Church may grow in grace and we ourselves in perseverance, to the honour of thy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost art one God, world without end. Amen.

For more on how you can help the persecuted church, visit The Voice of the Martyrs.

In the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the character of film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, declares, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time last night, thanks to the recommendation from a friend in Virginia. As a fan of classic films, I had high hopes for this film, which was directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder also directed one of my favorite classics films, Stalag 17.

William Holden starred in the film, playing a Hollywood script-writer named Joe Gillis. It is evident Gillis is an out of work and down on his luck kind of guy. Gillis meets Desmond when he is trying to flee the men attempting to repossess his automobile. He has a blowout and parks in the garage of what appears to be an abandoned mansion, which is owned and inhabited by Desmond and her butler. The dark, sinister, and shady side of Hollywood takes off from there. Desmond is a former silent movie super star, now washed up and forgotten. She hires Gillis, in the belief he can help launch her “return” to Hollywood glory by editing her movie script. If you are interested in an overview of the entire plot, check out this film site.

Sunset Boulevard masterfully portrays the emptiness of self love and selfishness gone mad. It is equally a haunting look at spiritual emptiness and decay. I was drawn in by the dramatic acting of Gloria Swanson, who turns into a warped and pathetically sad individual as she continually plots her return, which is in reality only in her mind. The dramatic scene at the end is a captivating portrayal of this madness at its pinnacle. The film was obviously controversial, because it exposed such a negative and dreary portrayal of Hollywood in its heyday.

The film is packed with powerful imagery and symbolism. In addition, the powerful use of black and white was phenomenal, which was made all the more haunting when coupled with the musical score. What is also powerful, is that the film is so relevant for today’s audiences. One look at Hollywood gossip shows, Hollywood worship television shows, and the self love, narcissistic culture, makes this clearly evident.

As a Christian, the film scores big as a reminder of the decay and shallowness of a life that pursues vanity, greed, and narcissism. It also reminds us that sin has consequences. Many of us are aware of people who are locked in the prison of their shallow, self-loving world. The probing question being, are we a community that seeks to be saved, and sacrifice for others, or a society seeking instant gratification? The vexing question has even found its way into the Church, in the form of prosperity gospel theology. But those who know the power and truth of real freedom, know Christ. We are made whole and complete in the sacrifice, suffering, and resurrection of Christ. The Apostle Paul said in 2nd Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Paul also notes in Romans , “We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”