Category: Bible and Theology

Religion & Liberty’s winter issue featuring an interview with patristics scholar Thomas C. Oden is now available online. Oden, who is a Methodist, recalls for us the great quote by Methodist founder John Wesley on the Church Fathers: “The Fathers are the most authentic commentators on Scripture, for they were nearest the fountain and were eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given.”

Oden reminds us of the relevancy of patristics today, he says “You can hardly find any contemporary political issue that has not been dealt with, in some form, in a previous cultural and linguistics situation by the early Christian writers.” We hope you will enjoy the interview and the portion of this interview that was previewed on the PowerBlog in January.

Thomas C. Oden in Mozambique

2011 Novak Award Winner Hunter Baker has written “Social Leveling: Socialism and Secularism” for the winter issue. Baker says:

The logic of social leveling applies to more than property. Indeed, socialism and secularism are closely related to one another. While socialism seeks to erase the economic distinctions between human beings by taking individual choices about property out of people’s hands, secularism seeks to erase the religious differences between people by making religion irrelevant to the life of the community.

Rev. Johannes Jacobse has contributed a review of of Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart. An extended review of the book has already been posted on the PowerBlog.

John Kelly, a financial advisor, has written an essay called “The Rich Young Man: The Law Versus Privilege.”

Whittaker Chambers is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure for this issue. For further Chambers reference, I reviewed Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary by Richard M. Reinsch II last issue. Chambers words and witness have been an inspiration to me.

There is more in the issue so please check out the entire publication online and feel free to offer us feedback and ideas for future content in Religion & Liberty. The spring issue will feature an interview with theologian and author Wayne Grudem.

Here’s today’s offering from Jim Wallis’ Rediscovering Values for Lent on the Sojourners website:

Today, instead of statues, we have hedge funds, mortgage-backed securities, 401(k)s, and mutual funds. We place blind faith in the hope that the stock indexes will just keep rising and real estate prices keep climbing. Market mechanisms were supposed to distribute risk so well that those who were reckless would never see the consequences of their actions. Trust, security, and hope in the future were all as close to us as the nearest financial planner’s office. Life and the world around us could all be explained with just the right market lens. These idols were supposed to make us happy and secure and provide for all our needs. Those who manage them became the leaders to whom we looked, not just for financial leadership, but direction for our entire lives. That is idolatry. (page 29).

Last month, Fidelity Investments reported that the average 401(k) balance reached a 10-year high at the end of 2010 — two years after the financial crisis and recession. It also pointed out that “the majority (53%) of participants in 401(k) plans … earning between $20,000 and $40,000 do participate, and 71 percent of participants earning $40,000 and $60,000 participate.” That’s a lot of lower-income idolatry.

This is not a picture of the stock market

According to a report (issued in 2008) by the Investment Company Institute and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, “ownership rates for equities and bonds across U.S. households grew dramatically between 1989 and 2001, but have since tapered off. In the first quarter of 2008, 47 percent of U.S. households (54.5 million) owned equities and/or bonds. The overall ownership rate in 2008 is still much higher than it was in 1989.” The report noted that “ownership of these investment assets has declined since 2001, as increasing market volatility has reduced Americans’ tolerance for risk.” But, most likely, those investment funds will be saved somewhere or moved into lower risk vehicles.

Of course, if you are afraid that investing in the stock market, a mutual fund, a money market account, etc., makes you an idol worshipper, the cure would be to stuff your cash into the mattress or bury it in a coffee can. But would that be good stewardship?

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
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We’ll have the Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty online later this week and you won’t want to miss it. Subscribe here. We’re previewing the issue on the PowerBlog with a book review that, because of space limitations, had to be shortened. This post publishes it in full.

Constantine and the Great Transformation

Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010)

Reviewed by Johannes L. Jacobse

The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.

Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.

But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.

Emperor Constantine (Byzantine mosaic ca. 1000 from the Hagia Sophia)

“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”

This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”

Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith. (more…)

In this week’s commentary, which will appear tomorrow, I summarize and explore a bit more fully some of the discussion surrounding evangelical and religious engagement of the budget battles in Washington. One of my core concerns is that the approaches seem to assume too much ongoing and primary responsibility on the part of the federal government for providing direct material assistance to the poor. As “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” puts it, “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

In one real sense this perspective lets Christians, individually and corporately, off the hook too easily. I highlight the following quote from Abraham Kuyper: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”

My basic contention is that we can only move to address the secondary role of governments of various levels (local first, federal last!) providing relief when we have thoroughly grappled with Kuyper’s basic insight here. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef explore this dynamic in a bit more detail in their Deacons Handbook, in a section on “The Church and the Welfare State.” They take as their starting point the position that “Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.”

In this way their emphasis is on revitalizing the diaconate first. They recognize that in many ways the government has filled in the gaps, but in so doing has often eroded the foundations and space for other organizations to step back in and fulfill their own mandates. DeKoster and Berghoef, writing in 1980, anticipate something like the faith-based initiative as part of the move back for the church to meet its social responsibility.

I’m less sanguine about that proposed solution, but I do think that the tax credits for charitable giving are something that ought to be protected, or perhaps even enhanced (President Obama’s latest proposal would limit exemptions for wealthy citizens.). In this context it is also worth noting the conclusions of a recent NBER paper, which shows that government subsidy tends to “crowd out” the initiative of private institutions from seeking their own sources of funding (imagine that!).

Kuyper’s quote comes from his opening address to the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, and is published in translation as “The Problem of Poverty.”

Update: Over at the CRC Network, Karl Westerhoff, who guides the “Deacons” topic, asks some pertinent questions:

But how is this a diaconal matter? Well, I’m wondering…. Does this national conversation have echoes in our churches? In our families? Should it? Are there implications for how we make OUR budgets? And what about our families? Is there an opportunity here for some fresh conversation about family spending patterns? Can we talk about the choices we make with our money, and the expectations we have for the money we spend on charity? Where has the church spent benevolent money that really had the result we hoped for? What can we learn from that? How are we shaping our family lives and our congregational lives in ways that address need in truly Christ-like ways?

These are precisely the kinds of questions we need to be asking. I think what we’ll find is that government has a far larger and more expansive role in some of these answers than many often think.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Shane Claiborne is also asking “What Would Jesus Cut?” I’m still opposed to the whole notion of reducing Christ to budget director, as my earlier post points out. But Jesus as Secretary of Defense of the United States or rather, Jesus as secretary of peace as proposed by Congressman Dennis Kucinich is equally unhelpful. Mark Tooley, president of IRD, has already weighed in on Shane Claiborne’s not so brilliant drafting of Jesus for president.

As a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” one should assume Claiborne is serious about deficit reduction. We should take him at his word, but what about defense spending for deficit reduction and the proper role of government? And as John has already pointed out in his post, and what everybody should know, is that defense cuts alone will not balance the budget.

There are responsible conservative lawmakers, like U.S. Congressman Justin Amash from right here in West Michigan, that have rightfully said defense cuts should be on the table as part of plan for fiscal responsibility. In terms of the proper role of government, defense spending is a clear federal mandate for taxing and spending (Article 1, Section 8). The constitution should still be relevant, and one could assume we may not be in the same spending mess we are in right now if it was taken more seriously.

Claiborne says, “Even though the 533 billion dollar military budget is the elephant in the room and the gushing, bleeding wound of America’s deficit … it has been the sacred cow.”

This is what is unhelpful, and Mark Tooley has already pointed this out in his own response to “What Would Jesus Cut?”, that “probably Claiborne doesn’t know that ‘programs of social uplift’ have out expensed defense for 40 years, starting with the Nixon Administration.” Defense spending is 20 percent of the annual budget, while Medicare and Medicaid takes up 23 percent of the budget and social security is 20 percent as well, but tack on another 12 billion in annual dollars. Claiborne says “As Dr. [Martin L.] King said, ‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” But this is clearly not the case as Clairborne just pulled out a pithy maxim without ever looking at any real numbers.

Tooley also makes a good point about Claiborne’s Anabaptist tradition as well:

Claiborne, an Anabaptist, is author of Jesus for President, a 2008 book describing government as the biblical Whore of Babylon. Oddly, many neo-Anabaptists ferociously denounce government as demonic, almost sounding Libertarian, while still demanding more and more government for politically correct social programs.

Claiborne believes America is the evil imperialist par excellence. But why is it then okay for God to ordain that same ‘evil’ state to fill the bellies of the masses and provide for their every social need through government fiat?

This brings up a good point about rhetoric versus reality. The nuclear freeze crowd of the 1980s hyperventilated across the United States and Western Europe with help from Moscow because Ronald Reagan was strengthening the NATO alliance by sending nuclear Pershing II missiles into Europe. Reagan’s efforts were disastrous for the Soviet Union, and the peace he achieved dwarfed the objectives of the same old arms agreements advocated by the nuclear freeze movement.

Perhaps, “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” would have been better served without the inclusion of such names as Jim Wallis and Claiborne. Serious matters call for a more serious discussion. I reviewed The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald Sider, who is also a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Still left of center, Sider praised market forces, saying, “On balance, a market economy respects human freedom better, creates wealth more efficiently, and tends to be better at reducing poverty.”

Claiborne can make no such statement. He seems to view the free-market as a construct of an evil imperialistic American empire. Markets seem only useful to him in the context of underpaid enlisted military men and women selling cookies to buy their uniforms. Claiborne may have something worthwhile to say every once in a while, his bio is interesting to say the least, but on budget matters and defense spending he’s clearly babbling.

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, March 4, 2011
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My first reaction to “What Would Jesus Cut?” is that it tends to reduce Christ to a distributor of material goods through government programs. Jesus is not a budget overseer or a dispenser of government largesse. Sojourners founder Jim Wallis has already countered this accusation with his own post saying, “We haven’t been trying to get Jesus to be the head of any budget committee, or think that he would ever want that job!”

But still, to use Christ as an example of a legislator writing budgetary law is facile when we recognize Christ as the fulfillment of the law (Romans 10:4). It reduces and trivializes Christ at a time when there is already too much theological confusion about the person, nature, and mission of Christ in this country. And while Christ certainly relates and guides us on the day to day questions as we work to uplift the social witness, this practice reduces the Word of Life to moralism when done in a frivolous manner.

As for how we help the poor, as we are commanded to do as Christians, we shouldn’t confuse the Kingdom of Christ with the power and agenda of the state. Evangelicalism, and proclamation of the person of Christ should not be reduced to baptizing and sanctifying the budget.

In October 2009, I wrote “America’s Uncontrolled Debt and Spending is the Real ‘Waterloo,’” agreeing with Jim Wallis that budgets are moral documents, but focusing rather on the immorality of chaining a nightmare of debt to future Americans. The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, waxes eloquent on budget morality, too. He offered this sound byte in an address just last week to the National Religious Broadcasters Association in Nashville:

It is immoral to bind our children to as leeching and destructive a force as debt. It is immoral to rob our children’s future and make them beholden to China. No society is worthy that treats its children so shabbily.

I also agree with Jordan Ballor here and here in his aptly written remarks about the similar “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis.”

Wallis, who is a signer of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” has a very disappointing record when it comes to fiscal responsibility. He is on record of already opposing social security reform, welfare reform in the 1990s, slowing the rate of growth of government spending in the 90s, and even checking the rate of growth for SCHIP, as my 2007 commentary points out.

I wore “What Would Jesus Do” apparel for a short time during the fad, and obviously it is good to ask WWJD. But I stopped wearing it when I realized that I already knew what Christ would do, and I should be asking myself deeper questions about what I am really doing to magnify my relationship with Christ and my witness to others.

I think that is what bothers me with “What Would Jesus Cut?” It’s a reduction of the witness of Christ, with no greater context of his redemptive mission. This is a flaw of some, but not all, on both the religious right and religious left. There is a danger in over-politicizing the name of Jesus in the public square, especially when the Church in America is crying out for sound Biblical doctrine. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and to continually reinsert him into the budget debate, which are clearly prudential arguments, shrinks his real power and authority.

A number of prominent evangelical leaders in America have issued a statement on the budget fights in the federal government. “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” is sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action. Signatories include Ron Sider of ESA, Gideon Strauss of CPJ, Richard Mouw, Michael Gerson, Shane Claiborne, Andy Crouch, and Jim Wallis.

Here are some initial thoughts:

There is very little principle in this statement, which purports not to “endorse any detailed agenda.” The basic principle communicated is: “We ought to care for the poor because God does.” This is of course laudable and true, as is the commitment to “intergenerational justice,” as long as that is defined as not living today on the backs of the unborn and not code for something else.

But the rest really just consists of leaps in logic largely based on unstated assumptions about the role that government should have in administering that care. To wit: “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”

Given the current state of affairs, which the statement acknowledges is a “crisis,” I don’t think it is helpful to energize the grassroots to petition to save particular programs from scrutiny and reform. Things are so bad that everything should be on the table. The situation is not an either/or between social spending and military spending, as Claiborne and Wallis would have it. It’s a both/and, and that includes entitlements.

Which brings me to my next point: There isn’t nearly enough in here about entitlement reform. Social Security must become “sustainable,” but there is no mention of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These are the real drivers of huge swaths of our national debt. Non-discretionary spending needs to be scrutinized.

But that’s not all. This call wants to place “effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health” out of bounds. The fact is that many of these programs are busted, and I think it is disingenuous for those who know that to say that we have some kind of moral obligation to keep throwing good money after bad simply out of some vague concern for “the poor.” That is more like a salve for guilty consciences than responsible social action.

The language of the statement doesn’t seem to do justice to the principled positions that agree with the vague notion of the obligation to care for the poor, but disagree about the particular policy and budgetary implications at the federal level. Wallis and Chuck Colson recently agreed that Christians ought engage in principled and honest debate, and not demonize other positions, even implicitly. To cast the debate in the terms that budget hawks don’t care about the poor I think violates this kind of commitment.

So what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on. Once we’ve decided what government is for you can start to make some principled decisions about funding priorities…things closest to the core mission of government should get the highest priority, and so on.

And the focus really shouldn’t just be on what government should and shouldn’t do. Many of these leaders are religious leaders. The focus should be on what these other institutions can and should be doing, beyond simply serving as lobbying organizations for governmental programs.

I guess, needless to say, I won’t be signing.