Category: Bible and Theology

The story of a Confessing Church pastor and his family who welcomed in two prisoners who escaped from the Buchenwald concentration camp is told in, “Seeing the Other Side-60 Years after Buchenwald” (RealMedia).

The short film, about 14 minutes, is based on Mona Sue Weissmark’s Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II.

Why did Pastor Seebaß and his family help the prisoners and in the process endanger themselves? “It was all about loving your fellow man.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, February 5, 2007

Speaking of the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, last week ABC News’ Nightline highlighted the work of XXXChurch, a ministry aimed at evangelizing porn stars and pornographers, as well as addressing the spiritual problems associated with consuming pornography. Check out the story, “The Porn Pastors: XXXChurch.com.”

JR Mahon of the ministry says in the piece, “Our biggest critics are Christians.” Sadly this comes as no surprise. When XXXChurch came up with the idea of a New Testament with a cover emblazoned, “Jesus Loves Porn Stars,” resistance from the evangelical community was quick and strong. The American Bible Society refused to publish it.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the time that “I think these guys have crossed a line that I would not cross and I would not commit.”

“I just have to wonder what people think when they see that cover,” Mohler said. “In other words, are they expecting the Bible or are they expecting something else?”

Similar furor has erupted over an Australian Baptist church’s display of a sign that read, “Jesus Loves Osama.” Melinda at the Stand to Reason Blog calls such mottoes “bumper sticker Christianity” that is “just so unhelpful.”

The defense in both cases is that the verbiage is that it is simply an attempt to communicate the gospel message in a challenging and thought-provoking way; that we are called to evangelize everyone in the Great Commission and that we are to love our enemies.

There are two errors that are often committed in these areas. The conservative error is to reject both the sinner and the sin in the interests of purity and holiness. The liberal error is to minimize or even celebrate the evil of the sin as good in the interests of acceptance, tolerance, and “love.”

Augustine helps us to avoid both errors. If we are at pains to legislate against certain types of behavior but are not undertaking evangelistic efforts to convert those who need it most, we engage in Pharisaic legalism. If we do nothing to rebuke sin, we engage in licentious antinomianism.

Here are some thoughts from Augustine, that could arguably be pretty well summarized in the bumper sticker slogan, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (clearly in light of the second quote the word “sinner” would need to be properly parsed):

“That is, he should not hate the man because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the man; rather, he should hate the fault but love the man. And when the fault has been healed there will remain only what he ought to love, and nothing that he ought to hate” (City of God, 14.6).

“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account, God though on his own. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, we all ought to love God more than ourselves” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.27.28).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, January 12, 2007

The question of cultural transformation looms over American Christianity. Should we engage culture? If so, how? In a battle for supremacy over American institutions? Or for the hearts and minds of the people?

Reading through a sermon from Augustine, I was struck by a passage that illustrates how transformation of the world begins (and sometimes ends) in the church:

…pray as much as you can. Evils abound, and God has willed that evils abound. If only evil people didn’t abound, then evils wouldn’t abound. The times are evil, the times are troubled, that’s what they say. Let us live good lives, and the times are good. We ourselves are the times. Whatever we are like, that’s what the times are like.

But what are we to do? We can’t convert the vast majority to a good life, can we? Let the few people who are listening live good lives; let the few who are living good lives bear with the many living bad ones. They are grains of wheat, they are the on the threshing floor; they can have the chaff with them on the threshing floor, they won’t have it with them in the barn. Let them put up with what they don’t want, in order to come to what they do.

Why should we be vexed, and find fault with God? Evils abound in the world to stop us loving the world. Great are the people, real saints are the faithful, who have made light of the beautiful world; we here can’t even make light of the ugly one. The world is evil, yes it’s evil, and yet it is loved as if it were good. And what precisely is this evil world? It isn’t the sky and earth and the waters and all that is in them, fishes, birds, trees. All these things are good. The evil world is the one made by evil people.

But because, as I have said, as long as we live we cannot be without evil people, let us man and groan to the Lord our God, and put up with evils in order to attain to things that are truly good. Don’t let’s find fault with the Father of the family; after all, he cares for us dearly. He is supporting us, not we him. He knows how to manage what he has made. Do what he has told you and hope for what he has promised [The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Sermons, part 3. Trans. Edmund Hill (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, 1993), Sermon 80.8, pp. 355-56].

Words to remember and to live by, both for the 5th and the 21st centuries I think.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, January 5, 2007

It has been said that when Jonathan Edwards would roam about the countryside on his horse, he would record his observations and thoughts on little scraps of paper and pin them to his coat. When he returned home, his wife would help him unpin the notes and he would arrange them on his desk and use them as a basis for recording his thoughts in more permanent form.

This story has been viewed by some scholars as apocryphal, although Paul Elmer More repeats the image:

It must have been one of the memorable sights of the world to have seen him returning on horseback from a solitary ride into the forest, while there fluttered about him, pinned to his coat, the strips of paper on which he had scribbled the results of his meditations.

But whatever the source of his recorded observations, it can’t be doubted that his meditations found their way into his Miscellanies, a set of writings on various topics worked on throughout his lifetime.

In the writing of these Miscellanies, we can view Edwards as a proto-blogger of sorts, and if we can stretch the image a bit more, we can see the Miscellanies as an early form of hypertext. At least, the topical and occasional nature of the Miscellanies render them well-suited for the tools of a digital age, where tags and hyperlinks can quickly and easily connect writings previously separated by time and page.

The hypertextualization of Edwards’ Miscellanies is, in fact, what The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has accomplished. As part of the project to digitize Edwards’ entire corpus, the beta phase of the first installment of texts has been made public and is free to access during a trial period.

All 1373 Miscellanies are now text searchable and linked by topic. Now, for instance, you can scan through all eight of the Miscellanies (and another sermon), written over the course of a decade, that treat of the subject of “self love” with a few clicks of a mouse button.

And so, with the work of the Jonathan Edwards Center, we now have access to the works of Jonathan Edwards, the O.B. (Original Blogger). Hey, if Jonathan Edwards can be my “homeboy,” then we can certainly indulge one or two other anachronisms.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 4, 2007

I’ve had this link sitting in my inbox for quite awhile and have finally gotten to it. It’s well worth the read. Brian J. Lee, writing in Modern Reformation, takes a look at the foundational passage in Romans where Paul discusses subjection to civil authorities. Lee argues that Paul’s sole concern is with Christian submission:

Properly understood, Paul’s command to submit should constrain our optimism about the civil government’s capacity to transform, save, or redeem. Civil government is not an aid to Christian sanctification, either on the individual or cultural scale. Rather, it is a dead-end, stop-gap barrier that makes space for the good in a fallen world. In our capacity as believers and as a church, our task is not to ask how to govern well, but to be governed.

Lee makes some important points, not the least of which is this: “God doesn’t need either Christian rulers or Christian systems of government to fulfill his purposes, precisely because his purposes for the civil government are not ultimate or religious or eternal. In contrast, a fallen world with its limited horizon will always tend to invest its secular authorities with ultimate significance.”

Lee traces out some of the implications for our contemporary situation, not least of which is that, “the Christian has no special expertise to rule.” Presumably, then, the converse is also true, that the non-Christian has no special handicap, which bears in on a number of current political discussions.

Read the whole thing.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 22, 2006

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, passes along a Christmas message over at Phi Beta Cons on National Review Online. Reflecting on the Incarnation, Sirico says, “This belief teaches us to take seriously human history, its institutions, economies and social relationships, for all of this, and more, is the stuff from which human destiny is discovered and directed.”

At the Christmas staff meeting Rev. Sirico passed on similar thoughts to us, and concludes with this, which I pass along to all of you: “It is my prayer, at this sobering and holy time of the year, that you, in the midst of your families and your work, will discover the eternal significance of the contingency of time so as to experience the bliss that eternity affords.”

Well said.

Blog author: jmorse
posted by on Thursday, December 21, 2006

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 22, 2006

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…)