Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jballor
Monday, March 5, 2007
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At the beginning of his journey down from the mountain of enlightenment, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra runs across an old saint living in the forest. The saint confesses to Zarathustra, “Now I love God: men, I do not love. Man is a thing too imperfect for me. Love to man would be fatal to me.”

By contrast to the saint’s view, it has long been the tradition of a major strand of American Christianity that engagement in practical ministry is an important way to express one’s love and devotion for God. But the once vibrant synthesis between doctrine and practice seems to be under serious threat.

In modern times, things have been different: “we take for granted that there must be an absolute divide between vital Christian experience on the one hand, and careful doctrinal theology on the other,” writes Fred Sanders. “To us, action and reflection seem mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to Christian faith.”

Indeed, many post-modern evangelicals or participants in the emerging church movement eschew the importance of doctrine, hearkening rather to the primary importance of acts of love. But either extreme, that doctrine can be separated from practice or vice versa, skews the great Christian tradition in troubling ways. The “absolute divide” between doctrine and practice is a false dichotomy.

Augustine wrote a handbook on faith, hope, and love, illustrating that the Christian religion involves not only things to be believed and hoped for, but also things to be done. The Apostle Paul advised Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

One of the best examples of the way to relate doctrine and practice in my opinion is the symbol of Reformed Christianity, the Heidelberg Catechism. Dr. Lyle Bierma, professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, writes of the catechism, “The staying power and worldwide popularity of the Heidelberg Catechism can best be explained by this marvelous blend of doctrine and piety.”

For more on how creeds and confessions can function in a contemporary context, check out Carl Trueman’s essay in Reformation21, “A Good Creed Seldom Goes Unpunished.”

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
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This piece from the Scientific American examines the difficulty that human beings have achieving happiness even in a world characterized by material prosperity.

“Once average annual income is above $20,000 a head, higher pay brings no greater happiness,” writes Michael Shermer, in the context of Richard Lay૚rd’s observation that “we are no happier even though average incomes have more than doubled since 1950.”

Shermer examines various reasons that increases in objective well-being don’t necessarily correspond to increases in subjective well-being, or happiness. Perhaps it’s because of our genes. Or perhaps, as Emory University psychiatrist Gregory Berns argues, it’s because we seek happiness in pleasure rather than satisfaction: “Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one’s activities.”

But none of these or the other possibilities Shermer surveys offer a complete answer. He concludes, “To understand happiness, we need both history and science.” I think that’s true, but I would add we also need theology.

Consider the truth of Augustine’s observations about the nature of sin and the search for happiness in a fallen world. First, “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (Confessions 10.21.31). But given the reality of sinful human nature, we constantly seek happiness and fulfillment in inappropriate places, arrogating our own misguided quest for happiness to the place of controlling priority.

Augustine’s understanding of uti and frui, or benevolence and complacence as Jonathan Edwards calls them, is illuminating here. The former regards the right use of things as means to achieve happiness, while the latter is the resting and right appreciation of something.

Thus, says Augustine,

there are some things which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them (On Christian Teaching, 1.3.3).

Ultimately it is only God in whom we are to seek our happiness, resting in him complacently. Speaking to God Augustine confesses,

A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy (Confessions 10.22.32).

Happiness can only truly be enjoyed when there is a right ordering of our affections for transient objects as means to enjoying and resting in God alone. That’s the insight provided by theology, and it helps explain the happiness conundrum plaguing various disciplines of social science.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
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In the liturgical calendar of the Western churches, today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season. Christians around the world will attend services today that feature the imposition of ashes. These ashes represent, among other things, the transience and contingency of created being. Thus, for instance, the Book of Common Prayer contains the following prayer to be said before the imposition:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

A related practice common among laypeople is the abstention from a particular item or practice during the Lenten season. Some people give up caffeine or tobacco. Others might choose to refrain from going to movies or watching television. When done in appropriate fashion this practice is a spiritual exercise that serves to reorient the priorities of the Christian life.

That is, the goods of this world can only be appropriately appreciated and loved when they are properly subsumed under our ultimate allegiance and commitment to God. In this Lenten practice something that is otherwise morally permissible is eschewed. In some small way this can be seen as an attempt at a popular level to realize the monastic ideal of detachment. John Climacus articulated the reality of detachment by saying, “If a man thinks himself immune to the allurement of something and yet grieves over its loss, he is only fooling himself.”

So, in this season of Lent, let us remember and consider the words of Jesus Christ:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 19, 2007
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One of the latest iterations of the reality TV craze is the show, “Bad Girls Club,” on the Oxygen network. The premise of the show revolves around a group of young women of diverse backgrounds brought together to live in one house: “What happens when you put seven ‘bad’ girls in a house together – the type of girls who lie, cheat and flirt their way out of trouble and have serious trust issues with other women?”

It doesn’t take long for fireworks to fly. Only four days and a couple episodes into the experience, one of the bad girls named Ripsi flies off into an alcoholic rage (video here and here). After a long stretch of binge drinking (inexplicably she drinks more alcohol to sober up), Ripsi explodes into an attack on two of her housemates, amidst a flurry of broken dishes.

After that fateful night, Ripsi claims she had no memory of the events and is somewhat apologetic (although she brags about her privileged background with one of the girls she attacked), but the fallout is already decided: Ripsi has to leave the house (view the video here).

As she’s packing to leave, Ripsi shows great disdain for her possessions, giving away a $500 designer dress to one of her housemates. Too lazy to carry her bags, she simply kicks them down the stairs and lets them land where they may.

But in the midst of this prima donna behavior, Ripsi makes this tearful confession:

I just wanna be happy, I’m not happy. Nothing in the world makes me happy. I could shop until I drop. I could go out with my friends. But there’s a void in there. I have been looking for something my whole life and I don’t know what it is. I just know that I haven’t found it yet.

In this intimate and heartfelt admission, we find the confirmation of the truth of Augustine’s famous theological confession to God: “You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (1.1.1).

Ripsi: “I just wanna be happy, I’m not happy…”


Unless our affections are properly oriented toward God, nothing will make us happy. Ripsi exemplifies the perennial experience of fallen humanity which seeks fulfillment and happiness in various created goods, whether in the social bonds of family and friends or in material possessions. Solomon documents his search for meaning in the book of Ecclesiastes and takes Ripsi’s confession to its final conclusion: without God no one can be happy, everything is meaningless.

Ripsi’s confession is an unwitting witness to the reality that pervades all of fallen humanity, for “absolutely all of us want to be happy” (10.21.31). But by nature we seek happiness through the ignorance and corruption of our will and so we are doomed to seek happiness in sinful ways. As Augustine writes, “Sin gains entrance through these and similar good things when we turn to them with immoderate desire, since they are the lowest kind of goods and we thereby turn away from the better and higher: from you yourself, O Lord our God, and your truth and your law” (2.5.10).

Since Ripsi’s departure from the show, there have been more fights and misadventures in the Bad Girls Club. But at the very least this show has provided us with a contemporary testimony to the reality of fallen humanity and the self-destructive nature of sin. What Ripsi is looking for, even without her knowledge of it, is what all of us are ultimately seeking: the unsurpassed happiness that comes with a relationship with God, made possible through the work of Jesus Christ.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 9, 2007
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I’m a bit behind on this story, but as was reported by numerous media outlets over the past few months, a new trend has begun at some American churches. ATM machines, dubbed “Automatic Tithing Machines,” are appearing at some Protestant churches in the South. The machines are administered by the for-profit business SecureGive, run by Pastor Marty Baker and his wife, who integrated the machines at their Stevens Creek Community Church in 2005.

Proponents point to the transition to a digital age and the convenience of electronic transactions. Stevens Creek Community attendee Josh Marshall said of using the machines, “I paid for gas today with a card, and got lunch with one. This is really no different.”

Amy Forrest said this, “If you give cash, you think about it. And if you swipe a credit card, you don’t. It makes it easier to type that 4-0.”

These attitudes may not be truly representative, but they at the very least illustrate the potential for the convenience offered by these machines to turn faithful giving into something that is unreflective, automatic, mundane, and worldly. That’s certainly not the kind of giving that God wants.

Baker says of his concept, “It’s truly like an ATM for Jesus.” (more…)

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.”

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).

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.

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
Thursday, January 4, 2007
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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.