Category: Bible and Theology

Over at ThinkChristian, I take the opportunity to sketch “what a comprehensive Christian response to the crisis of public and private debt might look like.” I focus “on five main areas: the individual, familial, ecclesial, economic, and political.” This is a brief and preliminary set of questions and observations.

But even so, I think even just provisional attempts to evaluate our values shows us that “the problems we face are far more than political – and far deeper than merely political solutions can hope to solve.”

The question of “What Would Jesus Cut” raised in new ads for John Boehner’s, Harry Reid’s, and Mitch McConnell’s home states is fundamentally wrongheaded. It reverses the proper approach of religious leaders to politics and threatens to mislead their flocks.

The PowerBlog has already addressed the Left’s inclination toward class warfare rhetoric during the debt ceiling debate. Much to our surprise, President Obama didn’t seem to have read that post in time to include its insights in Monday night’s speech. Instead, we heard the same disheartening lines about corporate jets and big oil: the president doubled-down on his jealousy-inducement strategy and continued to ignore economic reality.

The country’s religious leaders who have begun to parrot this class warfare language are failing an even greater responsibility than the President’s. It is good that they enter into the debate, but as we explained last week with reference to Archbishop Charles Chaput, religion must always guide political engagement, not the other way around. Evangelization is the necessary and proper motivation of political speech by a religious leader. To reverse this engagement—to turn to religion secondarily, as a means to solving political ends—is to court error.

Aristotle writes his Nicomachean Ethics first, and then his Politics, for precisely this reason. Ethical inquiry (and metaphysical before it) must precede and direct political inquiry. To reverse that order is essentially to justify means by ends.

Father Sirico addressed the WWJC question in April, during Wisconsin’s showdown with its public sector unions. On the Paul Edwards Program he explained the invalidity of Sojourner’s WWJC approach:

I have a very difficult time taking a question like that seriously. It politicizes the gospel: it reduces the gospel—the mission of Jesus Christ—to a question of budget priorities…. It really attenuates the whole thrust of what the gospel is.

The very name the group behind the ads has chosen for itself, the Circle of Protection, is reflective of their misunderstanding. Rather than venturing into the political realm driven by an evangelical spirit, they circle the wagons around a particular policy and use Christianity as a shield.

None of this is to say that the practical solutions advanced by the Circle of Protection are necessarily wrong—only that if the group is right, it has stumbled upon the best policies without the enlightenment of Christianity that it claims.

Blog author: nrolf
Friday, July 22, 2011
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In Allan Bloom’s translation of The Republic of Plato, Socrates sets out to define the meaning of justice, and if the just life can be seen as being more profitable than the unjust life.  Thrasymachus, an acquaintance of Socrates, in book I of the Republic of Plato, offers his reckless opinion on justice saying, “Justice is the advantage of the stronger” (338c), and that “injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterly than justice” (444c). Thrasymachus’ definition of justice should be an alarming one because it can be used to explain the economic crisis and situation today: The unjust man benefits in good and bad times, by the laws and contracts made by those in power, while the just man is punished in both good and bad times.

It is interesting to see that this example of injustice, that was discussed more than two thousand years ago, is still in effect today when considering the bailout of banks, government spending, and the national debt in the United States. Time and time again the government is sending us the same message Thrasymachus gave us: it pays to be unjust in today’s unjust society. Banks and government spending are being rewarded for reckless exhaustion of money through raising taxes across America to cover-up their own debt. The government is benefiting in both good and bad times by rewarding themselves for making their own mistakes, while citizens are being punished in good and bad times because of the advantage of those in power.

So, in a society that rewards injustice, why is the just life one that should be considered more profitable and desired? Why should will still push to create a more free and virtuous society? If we look at the interpretive essay of Allan Bloom we may begin to understand why the just life is worthwhile. According to Allan Bloom:

“Justice is human virtue, each gains his fulfillment in the prosperity of the whole”… and that “injustice is not a virtue, but a vice because it is contrary to wisdom, which is a virtue.”

It isn’t hard to believe that the practice of virtue in society can lead us to a more free and virtuous society; and, that the practice of virtue in economics and politics will permit justice in these areas. Explained again in his interpretive essay of The Republic, Allan Bloom states:

“Justice is to be desired (rewarded) because it is the health and perfection of the soul. It therefore follows that justice, as the virtue of the soul, is desirable in itself. Everyone wishes to have a healthy soul.”

If justice, not injustice, was rewarded in our society, with the practice of virtue, then economies, politics, and lives in general would reflect that of a healthy soul; and would, in turn, help society flourish.

We can find this same message in what is said through the prophet Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). By doing what is right and practicing what is just, we are living-out virtue; but more importantly, we are seeking first the kingdom of God.

The Blauwpoort in Leiden in the winter.The newest edition of the Journal of Markets & Morality is now available online to subscribers.

This issue of the journal features a Scholia translation of selections from On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity by Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), the Huguenot, Reformed, scholastic theologian (a Latin version of Junius’ original treatise is available for download at Google Books, along with a host of his other works). Best known as a professor of theology at Leiden University from 1592–1602, Junius authored this treatise in order to address rising challenges in the young Dutch Republic. In his translator’s introduction, Todd Rester summarizes the Republic’s concern, “[I]f Scripture alone is the authority in the Church for faith and morals… how does it apply in the realm of the Christian State?” Junius’ careful and sober analysis of the various kinds of law and each law’s proper sphere of application transcends his time and context, standing as a significant reference for anyone who may seek to address the question, “What relation is there between the Law of Moses and the Law of the State?” Furthermore, the interdisciplinary character and depth of the work serve as an example of the fluidity and overlap of often-perceived contradictory disciplines and methods of the time, such as humanism and scholasticism, theology and law. Thus, for the student of political philosophy and historical theology alike, On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity stands as an excellent resource for the study of the engagement between historic, Christian faith and the rule of law.

In addition to our standard fare of articles and book reviews, this issue marks the introduction of the Journal of Markets & Morality’s first publication of the symposium of the Theology of Work Consultation of the Evangelical Theological Society, which will appear serially in the spring issue. It is our conviction that this will serve as a helpful forum for an integrated perspective on stewardship, work, and economics for both business and ministry leaders.

Given the journal’s ongoing policy of distinguishing between current issues (the two latest issues) and archived issues (which are freely available), this means that issue 13.1 is now fully and freely available to the public.

For access to the two current issues, including the newly-released 14.1, I encourage you to consider subscribing as an individual as well as recommend that your institution subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off the launch pad for the final space shuttle mission. Image credit: NASA TV

Imagine you’re eight and you’re given a dog. The first thing your parents say is that you need to take care of him: feed him, play with him in the backyard, and train him so that he doesn’t do bad things in the house. You and the new dog quickly become “the dog and his master.” That well-worn phrase can tell us something about our human instincts. Once something is put under our care, often our kneejerk reaction to “taking care of it” is to rule it or conquer it.

It’s no different with space. And the event of the final shuttle launch of Atlantis is yet another example of our human enthusiasm for conquering what’s before us. This launch, bittersweet as it was, marks the end of one program of curiosity and adventure, as well as the beginning of a new era of space exploration. This new era could include the privatization of programs to continue doing what shuttles like Atlantis have been doing, like replenishing supplies on the International Space Station, as well as take on other new space ventures. There will be debate about the next steps, I’m sure, just as there has always been debate about the space programs themselves.

But between the arguments concerning the pros and cons of space exploration, I believe it’s safe to say that there is general agreement that space has always given us that sense of grandeur and awe which inspires us to explore and conquer. I think it’s also fair to say that our zeal for exploration of creation is an impulse given by God, and one that’s directly in line with being created in the image of the Divine. Joan Vernikos, a member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy and former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, comes close to this truth in her answer to Stephen J. Dubner, author, journalist and blogger, about the worth of space exploration:

Why explore? Asked why he kept trying to climb Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory reputedly replied, “Because it was there.” Exploration is intrinsic to our nature. It is the contest between man and nature mixed with the primal desire to conquer. It fuels curiosity, inspiration and creativity.

This desire to conquer, like all of our tendencies, is tainted with sin, but it has its origins in the characteristics of God. We know historically that the urge to conquer has been coupled with other horrors which we hope we will not repeat as we venture into space. And we also know that God commanded his people to conquer other peoples and also to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen.1:28, NIV), which can perhaps be translated into “conquer it.”

Which side of this “primal desire” will lead us into space? We’ve made great strides in our ability to conquer; case in point, the space shuttle Atlantis. But like any great power, it comes with great responsibility, and for Christians, our responsibility is wrapped up in God’s creation, which extends all the way out to the infinity of the cosmos. What’s to be done with it? The coverage of Atlantis has brought lots of ideas concerning this back into the news. We already hear about space property law and space tourism offering “unbeatable views.” There may be interesting and important implications here for the possibility of entrepreneurial growth and encouragement through private companies picking up from where NASA is leaving its retired space shuttles, things that might be explored in another blog post.

In a piece a few years ago, Jordan Ballor mentioned the emerging ideas about property ownership in space and how private companies would like to offer space as a tourist attraction, and what the real purpose of space might be. Speaking of the views of the sixteenth-century reformer Philip Melanchthon, Ballor writes:

Even if Melanchthon’s views were founded on assumptions that subsequent advances in astronomy have disproved, his theological vision is a salient reminder that every part of the created cosmos fills a specific purpose within God’s created order. While we may be uncomfortable with Melanchthon’s belief that “the stars were created by God to tell men what God intended,” we should acknowledge that there are created purposes for the heavenly bodies and seek to understand them.

When we discuss “stewardship of the cosmos,” as Jordan Ballor called it, we must ask whether conquering and stewardship compatible. Valid questions like this arise when we are faced with questions concerning the private ownership of space and the possibility of colonizing other planets. I have no hard and fast answers, except that for Christians, perhaps “conquering” isn’t the best characterization of what we’re doing in space. Our God-given tendencies towards adventure and understanding are compatible with his love of beauty, creativity, and complexity. But where does conquest fit?

Another writer recently posted that maybe the best way to think about it to think of space exploration as worship. Josh Larson discusses how that sense of awe we share when we see shuttles launch into space and see photos from the International Space station of galaxies and stars can be akin to worship. Maybe we can think about coupling them all together: conquering, being a steward, and worshiping, in order to think about how best to approach the discovery and development of the final frontier.

I wrote a piece on the Church’s response to disaster relief in the Spring issue of Religion & Liberty. The article for R&L is in part an extension of my commentary “Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity” after a tornado hit Joplin, Mo. in May.

Being a Katrina evacuee myself, I returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for a time after seminary and the devastation of so many things I was familiar with and had known was simply surreal. I even went along for some in home visits and I can tell you that listening to people and empathizing with their plight is just as important as any material and financial assistance. Perhaps more so, because when the shock wears away a malaise can set in if people believe that their circumstances will not change even if the financial help is there. This is how some Katrina survivors fell into a long term cycle of dependency because they saw no hope for a brighter day.

The wake of devastation tends to push many churches and volunteers towards an even more authentic ministry. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) video below says it all: “Speak from your heart. People don’t need platitudes or everything is going to be alright. They need honesty.”

Methodism’s founder was John Wesley and the denomination exploded out of the 18th century English revival and primarily in this country through circut riders who went anywhere and everywhere where souls were present. After his evangelical conversion in 1738, Wesley was banned from preaching in many English churches and many of the country’s religious leaders tried to stop him from preaching outside as well, charging him with trespassing on their parishes. His famous retort: “I look upon the whole world as my parish.” It is said that John Wesley traveled over 250,000 miles in his life to preach the gospel. Most of that was on horseback. The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901 miles.

Methodism’s credibility shined because it was a church that rolled up its sleeves and reached out to the middle and lower classes. The marginalized and ‘least of these’ were reminded that their worth was infinite in Christ. George Whitefield, another 18th century Methodist revivalist, recorded just one illustration in his journal as an example when he preached to the rough and materially poor miners in Kingswood, England. Whitefield wrote in his journal : “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One coal miner told Whitefield, “We never knew anybody loved us.”

One thing I tried to highlight a little in my piece is that even now church agencies and ministries are still involved in the rebuilding and restoration after Hurricane Katrina. Next month will be the sixth anniversary of the hurricane. Long after cameras and the media sensation rolled in and out work is being done to transform lives and hearts. The Mennonite Disaster Service has been especially faithful when it comes to meeting the long term needs of disaster victims. They are living out these words by David Livingstone, the 19th century Scottish missionary to Africa, who asked, “If a commission by an earthly king is considered a honor, how can a commission by a Heavenly King be considered a sacrifice?”

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.

In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.

Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”

Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”

As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”