Category: Bible and Theology

Just over a year ago an article of mine was published, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59 (2006): 263-280.

In this piece I argue that the basic theological disagreement between Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to do with the former’s radical denial of natural theology. One of the three cases I examine is the exchange between the two theologians when the Aryan clause, which excluded ethnic Jews from public service, was imposed on the Christian churches in Germany.

I show that for Bonhoeffer this imposition was a clear violation of the church’s sovereignty and an occasion for declaring a state of confession, in which the fundamental elements of the Christian faith hang in the balance. For Barth, however, the Aryan clause was not so clearly related to his own theological preoccupation with natural theology as to merit immediate ecclesiastical action. Here’s a letter from Barth to Bonhoeffer at the time:

Perhaps the damnable doctrine which now holds sway in the church must first find vent in other, worse deviations and corruptions; in this connection I have gathered a pile of German Christian literature and can only say that on all sides I am most dreadfully portrayed! It could then well be that the encounter might take place at a still more central point.

Bonhoeffer could hardly imagine a “worse deviation” and I argue that this disagreement played a central role in Bonhoeffer’s disillusionment in the ability of the church to resist the Nazis in the so-called “church struggle.” In Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, he said this of Barth’s actions at the time: ‘Even like-minded theologians such as Karl Barth and Hermann Sasse decided to wait for even “worse” heresies than the “racial conformity” of the Civil Service Law.’

Later on Barth would acknowledge his mistake. In a letter to Bonhoeffer’s best friend Bethge in 1967, Barth reflects on that time:

New to me…was the fact that Bonhoeffer in 1933 viewed the Jewish question as the first and decisive question, even as the only one, and took it on so energetically. I have long felt guilty myself that I did not make this problem central, in any case not public, for instance in the two Barmen declarations of 1934 which I had composed. Certainly, a text in which I inserted a word to that effect would not have found agreement in 1934—neither in the Reformed Synod of January, 1934; nor in the General Synod of May at Barmen. But there is no excuse that I did not fight properly for this cause, just because I was caught up in my affairs somewhere else.

In his book Bonhoeffer as Martyr (which I’m currently reviewing), Craig J. Slane writes,

Passage of the Arierparagraph left the church a twofold possibility: first, and most obvious, consider its theological response to the matter of Jews in its membership, a consideration that would eventually involve the church in border disputes with the state; and second, to develop a responsible theological and ethical position on the state’s aggression against the Jewish race itself. Of course, anti-Semitism had long been an issue in Western culture. Perhaps it was for that very reason that his [Bonhoeffer’s] colleagues could not seem to muster much concern.

See also, “A Time to Tear, a Time to Speak.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
By

How’s this for an expression of un-Christian retributiveness?

If God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.

–Heinrich Heine, Gedanken und Überlegungen; quoted and translated in Freud, Civilization and its Discontents.

Read that quote within the context of these two related biblical texts, Genesis 4:23-24 and Matthew 18:21-23, and tell me what you think.

The justification for capital punishment isn’t that it is a necessary precondition for personal forgiveness.

The folks over at the Reformation21 blog, produced of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have a great discussion going about the spiritual, cultural, and pastoral implications of pornography (here, here, and here).

The first post takes up the Naomi Wolf article, “The Porn Myth,” which also occasioned in part my reflections on the pornification of culture in general and technology in particular.

Carl Trueman aptly wonders (in the second post),

Could it be that pornography is the ultimate free market industry — creative of, and driven by, an insatiable need for change to create new demands and new markets with personal solipsistic gratification as the all-consuming and ever elusive goal? If so, there are elements of it which are symptomatic, rather than constitutive, of a much wider cultural problem and which thus require more radical cultural criticism than `it’s bad for women and it’s dirty’, true and serious as these undoubtedly are. Porn addiction becomes merely an extreme example of the general way we live today and of the worldly expectations which our culture infuses into us as natural and acceptable.

(Trueman also recommends two pieces on pastors and pornography, available here and here. And here’s a follow-up story to the latter piece.)

I read Trueman’s critique in the light of the observation made by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the mid-90’s, that among social conservatism there is “an older Burkean tradition, which appreciates the material advantages of a free-market economy (Edmund Burke himself was a disciple of Adam Smith), but also recognizes that such an economy does not automatically produce the moral social goods that they value—that it may even subvert those goods.” The commodification of sexuality seems to fit into the latter category (i.e. the subversion of goods).

(As an aside, so-called “crunchy cons” might claim to represent this “older Burkean tradition,” but from what I’ve seen its an open question to what extent they appreciate “the material advantages of a free-market economy.”)

And in the third post linked above, Rick Phillips coins the following phrase: “The idolatry of the porn worldview.”

Relating the pornography theme and another recent Reformation21 post on the necessary connection between faith and works, check out the work of X3Church, particularly the Esther Fund, which connects with people who work in the porn industry to try to give them a new life after porn. It’s a ministry with “a passion to help porn stars find freedom from the porn industry by helping them rebuild their lives through financial assistance, education and more.”

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
By

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
By

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…)