Category: Bible and Theology

On the way to the airport in Atlanta last week, I stumbled upon a radio debate between Michael Medved and Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ latest book – namely, whether or not religion poisons everything. It’s obvious that Hitchens is guilty of a vast overreach with that contention; at the very least, any fair minded person must acknowledge the great contributions of Jewish and Christian religious thought to the foundations of Western society, and one could spend a lot of time listing names of individuals and groups who – motivated by religious conviction – have changed the world for the better. And that doesn’t even begin to touch upon the major contributions religion has made to the world of art and culture.

That being said, one can’t dismiss Hitchens or the other atheist voices that have gained a following in our current cultural marketplace. And so it was refreshing to read this response to Hitchens and his allies by Peter Berkowitz in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Like philosophy, religion, rightly understood, has a beginning in wonder. The most wonderful of creatures are human beings themselves. Of all the Bible’s sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings–woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes–are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

That a teaching is sublime and sustaining does not make it true. But that, along with its service in laying the moral foundations in the Western world for the belief in the dignity of all men and women–a belief that our new new atheists take for granted and for which they provide no compelling alternative foundation–is reason enough to give the variety of religions a fair hearing. And it is reason enough to respect believers as decent human beings struggling to make sense of a mysterious world.

O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!

The great hymn writer Charles Wesley was born three hundred years ago in 1707. Wesley has sometimes been referred to as the forgotten Wesley, because of brother John Wesley’s profound organizational skills that launched the American Methodist movement.

Wesley is of course known for being a writer and composer of some of the most beautiful hymns, O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing, And Can It Be That I Should Gain, Christ The Lord Is Risen Today and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, among others. In fact, Wesley penned thousands of hymns used by numerous Christian denominations today. The Wesley brothers in fact were dry and legalistic Anglican Ministers before their conversion to an Evangelical Christianity, which emphasized salvation by faith and a deep assurance of salvation. The Wesley’s were influenced heavily by the Moravians and following their influence Charles wrote in his journal upon his conversion,

I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ… I saw that by faith I stood, by the continual support of faith… I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness … yet confident of Christ’s protection.

Charles and his brother followed George Whitefield’s lead in preaching outdoors to reach the masses and shepherded England’s 18th century spiritual revival.

This September, Liverpool Hope University will hold a conference titled “An Eighteenth-century Evangelical for Today: A Tercentenary Celebration of the life and ministry of Charles Wesley.” There will be plenty of discussion concerning Wesley’s historical impact as well as his relevance to the Church today.

One of Wesley’s influences is the rich theological teaching in his timeless music. Wesley, like Martin Luther, believed hymns were a method for teaching theology. This aspect of his ministry is greatly contrasted with some of the contemporary praise music which lacks theological depth and truth. But the haunting beauty of his works is maybe his greatest contribution as a Christian leader who writes about an experiential faith. His well known hymn And Can It Be That I Should Gain followed shortly after his Evangelical conversion:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused the quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) is considering the addition of the Belhar Confession to its set of doctrinal standards, which currently include the ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) and Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dordt).

The Social Justice Club at Calvin Seminary, the pastoral school for the denomination, is sponsoring a blog to discuss the Belhar Confession, to “have the student body of the Seminary become leaders in this discussion.”

The consideration of the Belhar Confession comes at the request of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which has asked the CRC to “consider the Belhar and respond to it.”

The Social Justice Club’s blog notes that “no confession has been added to our present three for nearly four hundred years.” The CRC has modified the text of the Reformed confessions at various points, however, such that the CRC and the RCA, which ostensibly share the same confessional standards, cannot include the text of the Heidelberg Catechism in a new jointly-published hymnal, “because the two denominations use different versions.”

The CRC also has a contemporary testimony, “Our World Belongs to God,” which occupies a position below that of the formally-recognized confessions.

The basis for considering the Belhar Confession is that the CRC does not have a confession that addresses race relations and reconciliation. Here’s a relevant section from the contemporary testimony,

We grieve that the church which shares one Spirit, one faith, one hope, and spans all time, place, race, and language has become a broken communion in a broken world.

When we struggle for the purity of the church and for the righteousness God demands, we pray for saintly courage.

When our pride or blindness blocks the unity of God’s household, we seek forgiveness.

We marvel that the Lord gathers the broken pieces to do his work, and that he blesses us still with joy, new members, and surprising evidences of unity.

We commit ourselves to seeking and expressing the oneness of all who follow Jesus.

I would think too that the relevant section of the Apostles’ Creed, as exposited by the Heidelberg Catechism, would be the clause on “the holy catholic church.”

Do Reformed churches need “a strong confession on race relations” beyond what is offered in these, and perhaps other, sections? There is a strong Protestant tradition, including that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Richard Baxter, that would contend that any such confession must begin with the confession of our sins.

Speaking of a status confessionis, what about some other documents, such as the Barmen Declaration? Are the Barmen and the Belhar statements so contextually-situated and particular that they are unfit for status as more generally-relevant confessions?

I ran across this review essay by J. Daniel Hammond responding to S.J. Peart and D. Levy’s The Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Postclassical Economics over at SSRN, “In the Shadows of Vanity: Religion and the Debate Over Hierarchy.”

In Hammond’s words, he wants to fill in a gap in Peart’s and Levy’s account: “The purpose of this paper is to make a start at casting light on the role of religion in the debate over race and hierarchy in 19th century England.”

One of the key turning points in Hammond’s argument is the following supposition: “Catholicism may have played a larger role in the debates over racial hierarchy than would be suggested by the Roman Catholic proportion of the English population and clergy.” Rehearsing the history and nature of the English reformation, Hammond, who is an economist at Wake Forest, writes that in the late nineteenth century, religious liberty for Catholics in Britain increased.

Here’s where Hammond’s analysis gets somewhat strange. He writes that “the brotherhood of the entire human race was a Catholic doctrine. This principle is repeated over and over in papal encyclicals, and having been forcibly removed from the Catholic Church by the English reformers under Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth, the English people were for 300 years outside the ambit of the Catholic magisterium.”

Hammond relates a litany of papal statements against slavery. His conclusion: “If Englishmen were to conclude that slavery was wrong, or that African Blacks and Irish were their brothers, this would be on grounds other than exhortation from the Catholic Church. Not being in communion with the Church of Rome, Anglicans were without doctrinal protection from the very human temptation to treat only those humans who are like us as our brothers.” This absence of Catholic influence on Britain apparently opened up the nation to increasing support for racism.

Although Anglicans and British Protestants were not influenced to any great extent by papal teachings, it does not follow that they “were without doctrinal protection” from racist social forces.

Let me give just one example. The Puritan Richard Baxter, writing in the late 17th century, articulates an argument for the essential similarity shared by all human beings.

He writes, “It’s well known, That the Natives in New England, the most barbarous Abassines, Gallanes, &c. in Ethiopia, have as good natural Capacities as the Europeans. So far are they from being but like Apes and Monkeys; if they be not Ideots or mad, they sometime shame learned men in their words and deeds.”

Indeed, given the appropriate occasions for the actualization of their capacities, these people have proven themselves capable of the equal intellectual feats. After all, says Baxter, “I have known those that have been so coursly clad, and so clownishly bred, even as to Speech, Looks, and Carriages, that Gentlemen and Scholars, at the first congress, have esteemed them much according to your description, when in Discourse they have proved more ingenious than they. And if improvement can bring them to Arts, the Faculty was there before.”

While the “brotherhood of the entire human race” is a Catholic doctrine, it is certainly not exclusively a Catholic doctrine, as cases like Baxter and William Wilberforce show. Hammond’s instinct to better integrate religious contexts into the historical account is laudable. The execution of this idea could be done in a much more nuanced and historically responsible way, however.

“You are obliged to love your neighbor as yourself, and loving him, you ought to help him spiritually, with prayer, counseling him with words, and assisting him both spiritually and temporally, according to the need in which he may be, at least with your goodwill if you have nothing else.”

—Catharine of Siena (1347–1380), from The Dialogue

HT: Christian History & Biography

Blog author: jballor
Friday, June 29, 2007
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Why do we work? When labor and toil is so often unfulfilling and troublesome, why keep on?

For pagans, no doubt the answer is given in the book of Matthew: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” A non-Christian view of work is one oriented toward survival. And that’s why a non-Christian view of retirement so often involves leaving the field of work and service, concentrating instead on fulfilling the adage: “Eat, drink, and be merry.”

While we can appreciate how the order of material blessing provided through the pagan view of work is a form of grace, we must also wonder how the Christian view differs. The purpose, or end, of work for the Christian is not aimed at mere survival or material enjoyment, but rather toward charity. Paul writes in Ephesians, “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”

Picking up this theme, the Westminster Confession of Faith provides a powerful witness to the responsibility for Christians to be generous with each other. As part of the recognition of the communion of saints, Christians are bound to relieve “each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (WCF 26.2).

But this outward relief is only possible within the context of productive work.

Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, trans. William Wilson, ch. XIV:

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.

Wealth, like liberty, is not an ultimate end in itself. Wealth is the good product of a rightly ordered economic system. Liberty is the result of a properly functioning political structure. These are both penultimate realities.

But to what end are wealth and liberty (economics and politics) to be subsumed? I know no better answer than to say, “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.”

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, May 31, 2007
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Jim Wallis: “I’m believing more and more that politics alone cannot overcome poverty and our other great social problems.” (See also: Pentecost 2007, featuring Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama.)

But, since the Sojourners forum isn’t the pulpit, Tony Campolo should have no problem with it: “It is time for us to name the hypocrisy of the Left in complaining about how the Religious Right is violating the first amendment while turning a blind eye to their own candidates’ use of churches as places to campaign.”

And for just how different the social gospel is from the Christian gospel, see Joseph Loconte: “The Christian confession of faith, by itself, offers no guarantee that either individuals or societies will be transformed. But, for believers, not even the smallest steps forward can be taken without it.”

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, May 24, 2007
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“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13 TNIV).

I’ve been working on a paper on vocation the last few days, and ran across that verse. One of the complaints against the theological grounding of vocation has been the claim that there is no biblical justification for speaking about calling as referring to anything but our call to conversion.

The passage in Galatians 5 may make that connection between the general vocation and the particular calling, albeit implicitly.

I also ran across this quote by Richard Baxter, dating from 1682 and his treatise, How to Do Good to Many:

Every Soul you convert, every brick that you lay in the building tendeth to make up the House and City of God. But as all motion and action is first upon the nearest object, so must ours; and doing Good must be in order: First we must begin at home with our own Souls and lives, and then to our nearest Relations, and Friends, and Acquaintance, and Neighbours, and then to our Societies, Church and Kingdom, and all the world. But mark that the order of execution, and the order of estimation and intention differ. Tho God set up Lights so small as will serve but for one room, and tho we must begin at home, we must far more esteem and desire the good of multitudes, of City and Church and Commonwealth; and must let no bounds to our endeavours but what God and disability let.

In Baxter’s case, the relative valuation of the soul over the body is clear, so that material concerns must always be oriented toward the spiritual.

During a conference I attended last year, I got into some conversation with young libertarians about the nature of moral duties. In at least two instances, I asserted that positive moral duties exist.

In these conversations, initially I was accused of not being a libertarian because I affirmed positive rights. This accusation was apparently meant to give me pause, but I simply shrugged, “So be it. If being a libertarian means denying positive moral duties, then I’m not a libertarian!” I then pointed out that I never said that government must be the agent of respecting or meeting those duties, to which the accusatory tone of my dialog partners subsided.

I gave the biblical example of the case of the Good Samaritan, who recognized the love imperative to stop and assist a victim of violent crime. I think it is an established element of Christian theological ethics that both negative and positive rights exist as a basic reality. That’s why we can commit both sins of commission and sins of omission, and the Book of Common Prayer includes confession to God that “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

This, for instance, is in part why the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its exposition of the Decalogue, describes both the positive and negative elements that are obliged in each commandment. So in the case of the commandment against murder, the Catechism outlines both “duties required” and “sins forbidden,” the former of which include “comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent,” and the latter of which include avoiding anything that “tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q&A 134-136).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic text, Life Together, that

The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all. The other person never becomes a burden at all for the pagans. They simply stay clear of every burden the other person may create for them. However, Christians must bear the burden of one another. They must suffer and endure one another. Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled. The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it.

The confusion of these young libertarian thinkers on the distinction between positive and negative rights as well as the knee-jerk assumption that positive rights entail government action speaks to the important difference between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a full-blown world-and-life view. The former is certainly not without its problematic elements, but is far superior to a Weltanschauung that cannot account for positive moral responsibilities to family, friend, and neighbor.

By the way, I don’t mean to equate the errors of a few representatives with the entire variegated classical liberal tradition. Arnold Kling’s articulation of a “civil societarian” perspective seems pretty well immune to the criticisms noted above.

As I noted above, the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the claims upon my time and abilities that are made by other people. Bonhoeffer writes,

We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–pass by the man who had fallen among robbers.

Ironically, Bonhoeffer rightly observed that religious professionals face a particular danger in not respecting the concrete claims of individual moral responsibility.

It is a strange fact that, of all people, Christians and theologians often consider their work so important and urgent that they do not want to let anything interrupt it. They think they are doing God a favor, but actually they are despising God’s “crooked yet straight path” (Gottfried Arnold).

I explore the truth of this observation in my own experience in a previous Acton Commentary, “The Good Samaritan: Model of Effective Compassion.”