Category: Bible and Theology

Related to last week’s post about Reformed education and Pentecostalism, I point you to this post by Rod Dreher, who discusses his interview with Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of Kaduna state in Nigeria. Dreher relates the following:

Pentecostalism is growing like wildfire, but there’s less to it than you might think. He said that in many cases, people are drawn to the emotional experience, and can tell you exactly when they gave their life to Jesus — but can’t tell you a single thing about Christian doctrine. He said they’re finding in Nigeria that lots of the neo-charismatics have no discipline at all — that they’re living exactly as they had before, but now with a Christian gloss. The substance of the faith hasn’t penetrated and changed their behavior.

Additionally, the archbishop pointed to the connection between the prosperity gospel and poverty: “He also said that Pentecostalism is a response to the poverty of the Third World.” You can look forward to a more complete interview with the archbishop in a forthcoming edition of the Dallas Morning News.

Awhile back, I finished reading Armand Nicholi’s book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Dr. Nicholi is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard and has taught a seminar on Freud & Lewis at Harvard for the past 35 years. The course eventually led to this book and a PBS series by the same name.

The book is an interesting read for anyone modestly interested in one or both of the characters– or anyone interested in the topics covered. The book is relatively easy to read with ample quotations from each author in addition to impressive biographical information. The book is divided into two sections: “What should we believe?” and “How should we live?” (with chapters in this latter section on Happiness, Sex, Love, Pain, and Death).

Why a study on Lewis and Freud? They were key players in their day– and have even greater influence now. Their worldviews and prescriptions are markedly different. And Lewis shared much of Freud’s worldview until his conversion to Christianity as an adult– allowing for a set of interesting comparisons between the two.

Lewis embraced an atheistic worldview for the first half of his life and used Freud’s reasoning to defend his atheism. Lewis then rejected his atheism and became a believer. In subsequent writings, he provides cogent responses to Freud’s arguments against the spiritual worldview… Their writings possess a striking parallelism. If Freud still serves as a primary spokesman for materialism, Lewis serves as a primary spokesman for the spiritual view that Freud attacked. (p. 4)

If both Freud and Lewis thought the question of God’s existence to be life’s most important question, let’s see how they arrived at their conflicting answers. And let’s see if their biographies– how they actually lived their lives– strengthen or weaken their arguments and tell us more than their words convey. (p. 9)

The early life experiences of Freud and Lewis show a striking parallelism. Both Freud and Lewis, as young boys, possessed intellectual gifts that foreshadowed the profound impact they would make as adults. Both suffered significant losses early in life. Both had difficult, conflict-ridden relationships with their fathers. Both received early instruction in the faith of their family and acknowledged a nominal acceptance of that faith. Both jettisoned their early belief system and became atheists when in their teens…” (p. 34-35)

All that said, we learn especially from his letters that Freud flirted with theism off-and-on throughout his life. He frequently quoted the Old and New Testaments; he often used phrases such as “if God so wills” and “God’s grace”; and his final book was entitled Moses and Monotheism (p. 50-51). He was a great admirer of the Apostle Paul– quoting him frequently, considering him one of “the great thinkers”, and remarking that he “stands alone in all history” (p. 78, 53).

Freud was also fascinated by the devil and referred to him often in his writings. He was strongly impacted by Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. The literary work he quoted most often was Goethe’s Faust. And the book he wanted to read before being euthanized was Balzac’s The Fatal Skin. Nicholi speculates that “Freud perhaps identified…with the devil himself– not as the embodiment of evil but as the ultimate rebel, defiant and refusing to surrender to Authority.” (p. 208)

Of course, there are many interesting points throughout the book. In concluding, let me share one that has been of use to me– in talking with people about theology and faith.

Freud argued that religion was a form of wish fulfillment, “a projection of human needs and wishes” (p. 42). But Lewis countered this…

…with the assertion that the biblical worldview involves a great deal of despair and pain and is certainly not anything one would wish for. He argued that understanding this view begins with the realization that one is in deep trouble, that one has transgressed the moral law and needs forgiveness and reconciliation…Although this biblical faith is “a thing of unspeakable comfort”, Lewis wrote, “it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay”…

In addition, Lewis astutely notes that Freud’s argument stems from his clinical observations that a young child’s feelings toward the father are always characterized by a “particular ambivalence”– i.e., strong positive and strong negative feelings. But if these observations hold true, these ambivalent wishes can work both ways. Would not the negative part of the ambivalence indicate the wish that God does not exist would be as strong as the wish for his existence?”

Like many other aspects of faith, one can find some comfort with (relatively lame) arguments like “wish fulfillment”. Or one can follow the preponderance of the evidence. Beyond the facts and the logic, one must choose to believe– or not.

Perhaps not from its inception, but certainly in the post-WWII era, the global Christian ecumenical movement, as represented by groups like the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, has been increasingly dominated by Marxist economics, liberation theology, and transformationalist ethics.

Much of this was mediated through the influence and work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr in part observed the reality that since there was no single government above nation-states which could restrict and regulate their activity, the realm of global realpolitik is doomed to be characterized by immorality and warmongering.

If “all social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion,” and “If, as Bertrand Russell prophesies, some form of oligarchy, whether capitalistic or communistic, be inevitable in a technological age, because of the inability of the general public to maintain social control over the experts who are in charge of the intricate processes of economics and politics, the communistic oligarch would seem to be preferable in the long run to the capitalistic one. His power would be purely political, and no special economic interests would tempt him to pursue economic policies at variance with the national interest .”

No doubt in its utopianism, idealism, and therefore almost exclusive blame for the ills of the world upon global capitalism the ecumenical movement has gone far beyond what Niebuhr himself had or ever would say (for, after all, unlike WARC, Niebuhr wrote, “Neither is it true that modern wars are caused solely by the modern capitalistic system with its disproportion of economic power and privilege.” He was a bit more nuanced).

For more on where the ecumenical movement is today, see this piece by IRD’s Mark Tooley (and some older background here).

For the move toward a global government, see this. And for the relationship between a global government and the ecumenical movement see this.

Update: See also, “Reinhold Niebuhr is Unseen Force in 2008 Elections” and Reinhold Niebuhr Today.

More: As predicted, Niebuhr’s name is seemingly on everyone’s lips. See this Atlantic Monthly article, “A Man for All Reasons,” and the reaction from GetReligion.

I did a brief interview yesterday with Greg Allen of The Right Balance and have a couple more scheduled for next week. It’s kept me thinking about some of the issues surrounding the debate about Christianity, democracy, and Iraq.

In the piece I wrote I pointed to some of the rather guarded opinions of representatives from the Christian tradition, namely John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the possibility of finding the “best” form of government.

But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the biblical data, and it occurs to me that it was during Solomon’s reign that Israel enjoyed its greatest prosperity. We read, for instance, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree.”

This led me to wonder a bit about how we should characterize the rule of the kings in Old Testament Israel. Clearly it’s a monarchy, but what sort?

We see the protection of private property, and a king who is subject to the rule of law and is specifically held accountable to Torah, when necessary by its public expositors the prophets. Calvin noted the intimate relationship between the prophets and Torah. Speaking about understanding the prophetic books, he writes, “the shortest way of treating this subject is to trace the Prophets to the Law, from which they derived their doctrine, like streams from a fountain; for they placed it before them as their rule, so that they may be justly held and declared to be its interpreters, who utter nothing but what is connected with the Law.”

While the prophets lacked the direct relationship with the executive power such that they could enforce Torah adherence, they certainly represented the divine perspective on Torah violation and its consequences (no doubt they were strict constructionists). In that sense they functioned as a sort of judicial check on the monarch’s power, similar to the way our Supreme Court is supposed to function.

If we view Torah as a sort of constitution, then in OT Israel we have an ancient kind of constitutional, and therefore limited, monarchy.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
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In an attempt to oppose legislative action on tort reform, Nebraska Democratic State Senator Ernie Chambers “filed a lawsuit against God in Douglas County Court.”

“The Constitution requires that the courthouse doors be open, so you cannot prohibit the filing of suits,” Chambers says. “Anyone can sue anyone they choose, even God.”

I don’t think it quite works that way. In order to have standing to bring a suit, you not only have to be affected, there has to be “a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision, which means that the prospect of obtaining relief from the injury as a result of a favorable ruling is not too speculative.”

Somehow I don’t think God is taking orders from the Douglas County Court. As he said in another (perhaps not so altogether different) context, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” and “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

My immediate reaction to hearing the case and that it had to do with tort reform was that the guy must be providing an example of a completely idiotic and frivolous lawsuit in order to spur action on tort reform. I never thought he’d be opposing it! There’s likely to be a backlash to outlaw this sort of stunt and all kinds of other frivolous litigation.

Update: The Volokh Conspiracy has a link to a case brought against “Satan and his staff,” in which the case was dismissed for similar reasons: “the Court has serious doubts that the complaint reveals a cause of action upon which relief can be granted by the court. We question whether plaintiff may obtain personal jurisdiction over the defendant in this judicial district.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
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One of the speakers in the afternoon yesterday at the Maranatha Christian Writers’ Conference was Bruce Umpstead of the Amy Foundation. He spoke a bit about the Amy Writing Awards, which recognize “creative, skillful writing that presents in a sensitive, thought-provoking manner the biblical position on issues affecting the world today.” Check out some of the winning pieces from the last few years here.

He also showed us his Amy Foundation blog, “The Best Christian Journalism on the Web,” whose title speaks for itself. The blog has been added to our blogroll on the left and is recommended to your perusal.

In my Sunday School class, we finished Exodus last week. Between books, I often do miscellaneous lessons or a topical study. So, before we start Numbers next week, I did the only thing on my miscellaneous docket: a book review of Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now.

Now, why would I bother to read Osteen’s book (I already have, more or less, my best life now!)—and why would I devote the time to talk about it in my class? First, a dear friend of mine gave it to me and my wife for Christmas. That’s probably not an uncommon gift to receive, but it is noteworthy because he’s a Southern Baptist minister (not exactly Joel’s usual audience). Moreover, he credits Osteen’s ministry with important changes in his own preaching—in terms of both style and substance.

Second, Hank Hanegraaff is not a big fan of Joel’s, strongly critiquing him on the handful of occasions when I’ve heard him speak on the topic. In particular, he’s labeled him as a “Word of Faith” (WoF) minister who preaches a “prosperity (health & wealth) gospel”. I have tremendous respect for Hank’s ministry through the Christian Research Institute. (CRI’s review of Osteen’s book is not a hatchet job by any means, but I disagree with some of the conclusions.)

So, how do I resolve the views of these two men? Well, for starters, I decided to read Osteen for myself! (Keep in mind that I have never seen/heard Joel in action. For better and for worse, this is only a book report!) (more…)

Blog author: jarmstrong
Monday, September 3, 2007
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Labor Day is one of those special American holidays that we all enjoy. We mark the end of summer by it, though fall doesn’t begin for several more weeks. This is the time we get back into our non-summer routines and school is now in session for most students and teachers. It is also a time for one final long weekend.

In the liturgy of my own church the benediction from yesterday’s worship said it well:

In the name of Jesus Christ, the carpenter’s son, let your labors be for the glory of God and for the common good.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Mary’s son, let all of your living be for love.

In the name of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, let our labor not be for a paycheck but for a world changed by God’s love and justice.

May God, Creator of the universe, maker and shaper of all things, bless you labor as well as your rest. May the Son of God, the son of a carpenter, bless all of the work that you do. May the Holy Spirit, ever working for the new creation, bless your service and keep you in God’s purpose, now and forevermore.

Amen!

I am reminded, by such a solid and theologically based expression of prayer, of just how weak my own childhood tradition was in handling the question of work done by Christians. There were at least three examples of this that are common to evangelical Pietism. (1) Work is only a means to an end, make money so that you can pay the bills and serve God in other ways. Many Christian conservatives still teach this in various forms. (2) Labor unions, and various expressions of work solidarity, are wrong. Christians should submit to their employers in such a manner that all efforts to improve working conditions are seen as a waste of time, if not outright rebellion. (3) Work is entirely secular, thus far less important, than ministry, mission or evangelism, which are all seen as sacred.

Don’t you think that the liturgical benediction expresses a much better approach to labor and rest?

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening." His home blog is located here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 16, 2007
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Stanley Cohen, the Martin White Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, is quoted as saying that “good intentions become bad practices.”

In his critique of rather lame attempts to realize justice in the world (related to faulty definitions of justice), Herman Bianchi writes, “Even more dubious is another frame in which the formula is often couched: ‘Justice is the constant intention to give everyone his due.’ Never is it said, ‘See to it that everyone really gets his due!’ No, the constant intention apparently suffices; the result of the action is not worth mentioning. As Ovid suggests, ‘though strength may fail, intention should be praised.'” Bianchi concludes that there are many such examples of this kind of thinking in the modern world.

In searching out the source for the disconnect between intentions and consequences, Bianchi has provided us with one classical source (Ovid). I’d like to point to some others, particularly within the Christian tradition, as possible sources for this phenomenon.

One place to look, I think, for a source of the contemporary (typically liberal) valuation of intentions over outcomes is the perfectionist doctrine of John Wesley. One strategy for those who teach that perfect moral action or sinlessness is possible in this life is to restrict the notion of sin into some smaller category than it is generally taken. So, for instance, a literal interpretation of the Decalogue could allow the rich young ruler to claim that he had kept the law from his youth.

Jesus’ presentation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount radicalizes these commandments, to include not only the external aspects of the commandment, but the internal spiritual condition and intention as well. This is where Wesley’s strategy is the precise mirror of that of the legalistic ruler. Where the ruler focused only on the literal commandments, Wesley is concerned with interior intent.

So for Wesley, “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin.” Sin is narrowly defined here to only include those acts of the will that spring from “envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.” There is a separation here between the intellect and the will, however, so that a defect of the intellect is not to be considered sin, properly speaking. That is, perfect sinlessness consists in the Christian’s “one intention at all times and in all places…not to please himself, but him whom his soul loveth.”

But of course if there is an error in the intellect, but no defect in the will, it is still an evil, and Wesley acknowledges this: “Yet, where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood.” So there are deeds that are not considered sins but still need to be atoned for.

Clearly the great emphasis here is on the purity of intentions and the valuation of motives over consequences. In an extreme version, intention is completely disconnected with effect and consequence. This is what I’m calling Wesley’s ditch, although Wesley is not alone in the Christian tradition on this score. Compare, for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing intrinsically good except good will.”

You do not need to be a consequentialist in order to care about consequences. I submit that Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, in radicalizing the nature of sin to include intentions, motives, and will, do not abandon concern with the intellect, consequences, or external effects. So, says Augustine, “there are two reasons why we sin, either because we do not see what we ought to do, or because we do not do what we know we ought to be done: the first of these evils comes from ignorance, the second from weakness.”

This is why the Heidelberg Catechism, in its description of what meets the qualification for Christian good, includes not only considerations of intentions or motives, but the external norm of God’s law. In answer to the question, “What do we do that is good?”, the Catechism answers: “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.”

Good intentions are not enough.

There’s been a spate of stories lately in various media about the difficulty that evangelical denominations are having keeping young adults interested in the life of the institutional church. Here’s one from USA Today, “Young adults aren’t sticking with church” (HT: Kruse Kronicle; Out of Ur). And here’s another from a recent issue of my own denomination’s magazine, The Banner, “Where Did Our Young Adults Go?”

I wonder if the push to be “relevant,” initiated largely by the baby boomer generation’s rise to power in institutional structures, hasn’t hastened rather than chastened the loss of interest on the part of young adults. If all churches offer is culture-lite, why even bother?

No doubt the reaction by some will to go to even greater lengths to make church “cool,” because using pizza and pop for the Eucharist hasn’t been enough so far. But, contrary to what might be the natural reaction to some, the way to keep people invested and coming to church isn’t in the continuous lowering of barriers and expectations, but rather the call to a committed and disciplined life of discipleship.

There’s a reason why well-to-do, educated Muslims are attracted by Islamist rhetoric: it gives them something to believe in, something ostensibly worth fighting and dying for. The fact that Westerners don’t get that is all the more illustrative of how far gone the culture really is.

For a small but illuminating example of the current zeitgeist, check out the questionable reaction of this pastor and teacher, when a teenage student falls asleep during Friday prayers: “If God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?” The question, no doubt arising out of admirable intentions, leaves me agog and aghast.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Osama Bin Laden is bidding his followers to come and die for him, and we can’t even ask our kids to stay awake during prayers?

It’s been shown in numerous studies, reports, and anecdotal tellings that religion that is high-maintenance, expecting more of its members than perfunctory attendance, tends to do better in attracting new members and keeping old ones. People are looking for meaning and truth. That’s just a basic fact of human nature. If people aren’t getting the truth at church, they’ll look for it somewhere else, even if, as in the case of Islamism, it’s a futile search.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”