Category: Bible and Theology

over at National Review Online.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In a much discussed op-ed for CNN last week, hipster church leaders Marc Brown and Jay Bakker (the latter’s profile, incidentally, immediately precedes that of yours truly in The Relevant Nation…a serendipitous product of alphabetical order) lodge a complaint against Christianity that doesn’t respect the call “love others just as they are, without an agenda.”

Speaking of Jesus, Brown and Bakker write, “The bulk of his time was spent preaching about helping the poor and those who are unable to help themselves. At the very least, Christians should be counted on to lend a helping hand to the poor and others in need.”

I’m sympathetic with their concerns that Christianity not become “co-opted by a political party” or only about “supporting laws that force others to live by their standards.” I’m less sympathetic with their emphasis on Christianity strictly as social gospel (the only mention of “hell” in the piece is as part of a rhetorical flourish at the piece’s beginning, having nothing to do with the biblical doctrine of everlasting punishment.)

In a piece for the Christian Science Monitor (HT: WorldMagBlog), Mark Totten writes that “a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.” On one level, this reflects the positive engagement of evangelicals with the totality of public life, something that is important given the extent of Christ’s lordship.

Totten writes,

The most telling change is perhaps taking place in the pulpit. For most of the past century, Evangelicals have reacted against the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era, which many felt replaced the Gospel message with one of mere worldly social action. Today, however, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of “neighbor love” into the fabric of sin and salvation.

(Totten cites the work of Rev. Tim Keller, whose work is discussed in more detail here and here, as a case in point.) The key here is that in an overreaction to the social gospel, some Christians eschewed any and all political or social engagement. We need to be careful, however, that in response to what may be too little engagement, we don’t return to the errors of the social gospel and make Christianity all about material or social well-being.

So, instead of the “either/or” dichotomy that Bakker and Brown set up between traditional political issues of the religious right (e.g. gay “marriage,” abortion) and the “new” concerns of political evangelicalism (e.g. the environment, poverty), it’s really a “both/and” equation. And this “both/and” extends beyond the political realm to the theological, so that we have a socially conscious and active Christianity that doesn’t abandon orthodox doctrine and concerns about salvation.

Augustine, in his monumental work De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), captures this relationship well (emphasis mine):

Now of all those who are able to enjoy God together with us, some we love as people we can help, some as people we can be helped by, some as ones both whose help we need, and whose needs we help to meet, while there are some on whom we ourselves confer no benefits, and from whom we do not expect any either. Still, we ought to want all of them to love God together with us, and all our helping them or being helped by them is to be referred to that one single end (1.29.30).

As Augustine elsewhere observes, “A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about” (Confessions, 3.2.3).

What does this mean in the context of Christian evangelism? That we not simply seek to bind up physical wounds, but minister to the whole person, body and soul. And real ministry to the soul entails that we relate the true situation of all sinners, for as Augustine also confesses, “my sin was the more incurable for my conviction that I was not a sinner” (5.10.18).

Brown and Bakker write that Christians are to “love others just as they are, without an agenda.” If taken to an extreme, this claim is a radical departure from traditional Christian faith. For not only in the words of Augustine are we to love others as they might become brothers and sisters in Christ (“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account”), but also in the words of Jesus we are to show our love to one another by proclaiming the gospel: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, November 23, 2006

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfaignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

–U.S. Book of Common Prayer, “The General Thanksgiving,” (1979), p. 58-59.

The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, "Christians in the Public Square." Part 3 of 3 follows below (series index).

War and Peace

I will conclude with a brief word about Bonhoeffer and pacifism, given the ongoing claims about Bonhoeffer’s ethical commitment to the practice of nonviolence.[i] First, it should be noted, with Clifford J. Green, that it is invalid to talk about Bonhoeffer as advocating a principled pacifism, since “‘Pacifism’ for Bonhoeffer did not mean adopting nonviolence as an absolute principle in all circumstances. His ethic was not an ethic of principles.”[ii] (more…)

The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, "Christians in the Public Square." Part 2 of 3 follows below (series index).

Relationship between Church and State

It must first be noted that Bonhoeffer’s conception of mandates was a statement about the ontological ordering of God’s rule in the world, not a particular statement about the precise form that rule would or should take in any given context. Bonhoeffer’s distinction between “government” as a divine mandate and “state” as a particular form of that mandate help us get at this difference. (more…)

The following is the text of a paper presented on November 15, 2006 at the Evangelical Theological Society 58th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, which was themed, "Christians in the Public Square." Part 1 of 3 follows below (series index).

Bonhoeffer on Church and State
by Jordan J. Ballor

Introduction

Ever since his untimely death in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work have gone through a variety of appraisals and reappraisals in the succeeding scholarship. The fragmentary and partial nature of his Ethics manuscripts, as well as the attention paid to other works, such as his Letters and Papers from Prison, combined to leave his mature ethical work relatively ill-treated. This necessarily had effects on the overall reception of Bonhoeffer’s theology, as the pervasively concrete orientation of his dogmatic theology makes understanding his ethical thought indispensable to gaining a comprehensive view of his theological approach.

With the work over the last decade, especially by the International Bonhoeffer Society, to bring authoritative critical translations of his entire corpus into English, we are currently experiencing an increase in the quality and quantity of engagement with Bonhoeffer’s theology in English-speaking countries.[i] It is in this spirit of increasing critical engagement with Bonhoeffer’s thought that I offer this paper.

A brief comment is in order about the treatment of Bonhoeffer’s views on “Church” and “State.” We will note some of the potential for us to be misled by the use of this second term, “State,” in particular later. But at this point, I want to simply observe that while these two realities usually occupy places in what we call “social ethics,” Bonhoeffer himself would have probably resisted such categorization. One overriding emphasis of his life-long ethical thought was unity and wholeness, something which he felt was undermined by an artificial separation between personal and social ethics. Bonhoeffer always contends that institutions or social realities are at their core made up of individual persons who each have their own moral duties. Here’s a representative quote: “Human beings are indivisible wholes, not only as individuals in both their person and work, but also as members of the human and created community to which they belong.”[ii]

My own approach in addressing the topics of Church and State in Bonhoeffer’s thought is justified, not only because of the prominence of these two themes in his thinking, but because they occupy distinct and unique positions within his mature ethical framework. We begin with a brief sketch of this framework. (more…)

The Hugh Hewitt/Andrew Sullivan kerfuffle has been mentioned a few times on the PowerBlog (here and here, for example), and while the dust has largely settled from that event, the issues that it raised continue to be addressed in various corners of the blogosphere. The most interesting (and extensive) commentary that I’ve read on Sullivan and his new book is by the Rev. Dr. Mark Roberts, who serves as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California. Roberts’ critique is well worth a read in full, but here’s a sample to get you going:

I find Sullivan’s thoughts about Christianity fascinating for several reasons. One is that he epitomizes something I’d call “Retrofitted Christianity.” What do I mean by this? If you look up “retrofit” in the dictionary, one definition reads: “To provide with parts, devices, or equipment not in existence or available at the time of original manufacture.” If you retrofit a classic car, for example, you might give it a new engine that wasn’t available when the car was first built. So retrofitted Christianity is a version of classic faith that includes new parts that weren’t there at first. Some people, like Andrew Sullivan, think this is a better or even more authentic version of the faith. Others, like me, for example, are concerned that the retrofitted version of Christianity exemplified by Sullivan lacks some essential parts, even though it gets some things right.

This post concludes my series on the largely forgotten catholicity of Protestant ethics, with a few brief remarks and reflections.

My goal for this series, as stated in Part 1, was to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as Pope Benedict XVI referred to it in his now famous Regensburg address), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth. Much more could be written on each of these topics, and likely will be on this blog and some others, but the fundamental point should not be missed that two significant sixteenth-century Reformed theologians break the modern mold for Protestant ethics. Among the thinkers and writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I can assure you there are numerous others who also break the mold.

For almost one hundred years now, Protestant theologians and ethicists have held natural law at arm’s length. During this same period, Protestant theologians have also largely shunned any vestige of the scholastic and metaphysical base of Reformation-era theology in order to gain acceptance in the modern Academy and to increase their contemporary cachet. Whether this strategy has been successful, or if it is even coherent to begin with, is beyond this blog series to determine, but I have my doubts.

It is enough to simply point out that natural law is tied to philosophical realism — the belief that the created world is the external foundation of knowledge for all science. (Read Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1, pp. 223-33). And that a realist metaphysic, was the agreed upon philosophical approach from the very beginning of Christianity to somewhere in the eighteenth century when modern currents of thought began to chip it away. (For those who doubt whether this is so, take up and read Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine). According to the Belgic Confession, the world “is a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” It is high time that Protestants recover a sense of their connectedness with the broader and older Christian moral tradition and take up once again “the invisible things of God.”

“If nominalism is correct,” as Bavinck warned, “we can forget about science altogether.”

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Over at NRO, Jerry Bowyer looks at the left’s use of Scripture and Biblical history in making its case for higher taxes.

It’s hard to believe that recent attacks on the religious right in America are attacks on wealth itself. Where would the Left be if George Soros had sold all his possessions and given those proceeds to the poor? Where would John Kerry be if Henry John Heinz had done the same a hundred years ago?

It seems more likely that many of Bush’s American critics are not really calling for the elimination of all wealth accumulation, but more likely using (or misusing) these passages for their rhetorical value in a battle over the president’s tax cuts. I’m afraid, however, that the Biblical tradition offers no more succor to opponents of tax cuts than it does to opponents of wealth in general.

Read “The Gospel According to St. Marx.”

This post sketches out the rough outline of Jerome Zanchi’s understanding of natural law. An interesting difference between Zanchi and Martyr is that Thomistic elements are far more important in Zanchi’s theology than in Martyr’s theology.

The historian John Patrick Donnelly thinks Zanchi is the best example of “Calvinist Thomism,” meaning a theologian who was Reformed in theology and Thomistic in philosophy and methodology. Zanchi was born and raised near Bergamo where he entered the Augustinian Canons and received a Thomistic training. Martyr was his prior at Lucca and was instrumental in his conversion to Protestantism. Zanchi spent ten years as a Nicodemite, or crypto-Calvinist, teaching theology before fleeing north to Geneva in 1552, where he studied for a year under Calvin. Later he served as professor of theology at Strasbourg, Heidelberg, and Neustadt until his death in 1590. After his death his relatives gathered most of his writings into his Opera in eight large tomes, which went through three editions. In all, there were about seventy printings of his writings. (See John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 444).

Zanchi planned a great Protestant “summa” modeled after Thomas’ Summa theologica. According to Donnelly, the first four volumes of Zanchi’s Opera, which appeared under separate titles as he finished them at Heidelberg, cover the same material at twice the length as the first half of Thomas’s Summa. Even though Zanchi never completed his “summa,” it is unrivaled for thoroughness and synthetic power in sixteenth-century Protestant theology. (See Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 444).

Zanchi begins his analysis of natural law by noticing that canon lawyers and theologians restrict their idea of natural law to human nature, defining it as “the law common to all nations and that’s obeyed everywhere by natural instinct not by any statue.” Civil lawyers also use this definition for the law of nations because all people employ these laws and are led by them. Examples of such laws include statues concerning God, public worship, religion, obedience to superiors and the state, and defense of oneself, one’s family, and the state. (more…)