Category: Bible and Theology

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
Monday, January 21, 2008
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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
Monday, January 21, 2008
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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.

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.