Category: Bible and Theology

I ran across the following quote from Søren Kierkegaard recently (HT: the evangelical outpost):

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

On the surface, Kierkegaard’s critique of so-called “Christian scholarship” is quite powerful. The depiction amounts to a view of rationalizing Christianity that uses the wiles of reason, which Martin Luther in some of his more polemical moments said was “the Devil’s greatest whore,” to escape the implications of the gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely had Kierkegaard’s complaint, or something very much like it, explicitly in mind when he wrote in Discipleship that “we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks.” He goes on to say, “If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment’.” The point is that “all along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience.”

Herman Bavinck, on the other hand, writes,

There are also many words put down in Scripture which God spoke to a definite person in peculiar circumstances, but which are not directed to us, and therefore need not be followed by us. Thus He commanded Abraham to offer his son, Phinehas to kill the adulterous man and woman, Saul to bring Agag, and, so as not to mention more, thus Jesus commanded the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Human society would be in a sad state if Christians had to follow this example literally and had to apply this in their surroundings. Yet a few have indeed tried this and have displayed by this their wrong interpretation of Scripture.

At this point he might have in mind the sort of radical pacifism practiced by certain kinds of Anabaptist groups, highlighted most recently in the case of the Amish and their reaction to the recent schoolhouse shootings. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession in its original form denounced the Anabaptists as anarchists, in part because they denied the power of retributive justice to the civil government: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

Part of the difficulty comes in properly understanding what is a particular command or duty in an individual circumstance and what is a general and universally binding divine law. In agreement with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, I don’t think we should simply be able to move facilely and simply from the explicit and clear teaching of Scripture to something completely opposite. The interpretation of difficult passages in light of the whole of Scripture’s testimony, which may ultimately result in a doctrine like just war, should be as genuinely and equally principled as the Amish interpretation of commands to peace and non-violence.

I conclude with a final note I gleaned from my reading of Timothy Wengert’s study of the the debate between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola over contrition and repentance, Law and Gospel:

As important as it may be to notice the commentaries on an exegete’s writing desk, it is equally crucial to pay attention to the controversies raging outside the study door. In the days before it became stylish to pretend that exegesis was pure science or simple description of a long-dead world, the interpreter of Scripture, especially evangelical theologians like Melanchthon and Agricola, thought their task incomplete until they brought the word of God to bear on the issues that confronted them on every side.

With regard to the relevance of God’s Word to our times, I am in complete agreement. And as Bonhoeffer also said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

Blog author: dphelps
Monday, October 23, 2006
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Zenit published the following this weekend, a commentary by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa on this Sunday’s liturgical readings (Isaiah 53:2a.,3a.,10-11; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45). Well worth the read.

After the Gospel on riches, this Sunday’s Gospel gives us Christ’s judgment on another of the great idols of the world: power.

Power, like money, is not intrinsically evil. God describes himself as “the Omnipotent” and Scripture says “power belongs to God” (Psalm 62:11).

However, given that man had abused the power granted to him, transforming it into control by the strongest and oppression of the weakest, what did God do?

To give us an example, God stripped himself of his omnipotence; from being “omnipotent,” he made himself “impotent.”

(more…)

As I mentioned in Part 2, a common stereotype of Protestant ethics is that it is wedded to nominalism. While this may be true for some (particularly modern) Protestant ethicists, it is false for Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, two older Reformed moral theologians. Before showing how this is so, and still by way of introduction, I want to point to four doctrines where natural law exerts some influence.

First, it is important to recognize that none of the confessional documents of the magisterial Reformation — whether Lutheran or Reformed — rejected the doctrine of natural law. In fact, those documents universally state that Gentiles — though outsiders to God’s special revelation to Israel in the law and the prophets — remain accountable to the moral law by means of the natural knowledge of God’s will experienced in creation, conscience, and reason. Confessional examples abound to prove this point, but I will mention only what the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) states:

We teach that the will of God is set down unto us in the law of God; to wit, what He would have us to do, or not to do, what is good and just, or what is evil and unjust. We therefore confess that ‘the law is holy . . . and good’; and that this law is, by the finger of God, either written in the hearts of men, and so is called the law of nature, or engraven in the two tables of stone, and more largely expounded in the books of Moses.

This confession, like so many other sixteenth-century confessions, makes an explicit identification of the law written on the heart in Romans 2 with the natural law.

Second, natural law played a significant role in the three uses of law articulated by the Reformers. The first use of law is to convict of sin by taking away all natural presumption of righteousness. The Reformers made frequent appeal to the conscience’s imprinted knowledge of right and wrong in this respect. The second use of law is to maintain order. “Since the devil reigns in the whole world,” states Luther, “God has ordained magistrates, parents, teachers, laws, shackles, and all civic ordinances to at least bind his hands and keep him from raging at will.” The third use of law is to exhort believers to ongoing obedience and gratitude. “The law is to the flesh,” says Calvin, “like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still.”

Third, while the Reformers famously emphasized Scripture as the ultimate authority for doctrine and Christian living, the modern doctrine of sola scriptura falsely pits the Reformers against the Scholastics on the issue of tradition. Unlike modern Protestants, the Reformers did not pit Scripture and tradition against each other as antithetical sources of authority, even though they did affirm the normative priority of Scripture in theology and ethics. The Reformers also did not play special revelation off against general revelation, as tends to happen today, both were considered legitimate forms of revelation that served distinct roles in theology. This is why the modern Protestant rejection of natural law in favor of supernaturally revealed legal or moral instruction is skewed in relation to the thought of the Reformers.

Fourth, the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured. The Canons of Dort, a doctrinal standard issued by the Synod of Dort (1618-19), for example, affirms the existence of natural law but also points to its insufficiency:

There remain in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.

Without this affirmation of the natural knowledge of God, the result for ethics would be pessimism toward any transcultural, universal moral ontology. The alternative, then, would be to place ethics exclusively within the sphere of redemption and the new creation. If those “glimmerings of natural light” were wiped out, it would be difficult to find a bridge to the public sphere in which Christians and non-Christians could work side by side.

In Part 4 we will begin looking closely at Peter Martyr Vermigli.

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Over at Jim Wallis’ Beliefnet blog, Ron Sider reflects on his interpretation of the landmark text, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” issued by the National Association of Evangelicals.

Citing the line, “faithful evangelical civic engagement must champion a biblically balanced agenda,” Sider concludes that of the seven areas the document addresses (religious freedom, family, sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, human rights, peace and creation care), “This document refuses to lift out one area to ‘value most.’ It says they all are on God’s heart and therefore central to faithful evangelical civic engagement.”

If we are to take this to mean that each of these seven areas of moral concern, and presumably more could be added, are of equal weight, we must ask whether or not this assertion coheres with the Bible’s own view. Could the evangelical search for a “biblically balanced agenda” in fact distort the teaching of Scripture?

Maybe so. To say, for example, that it is just as much the State’s role to provide direct assistance to the poor as it is “to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4 NIV) does not adequately reflect the true and primary role of the State in administering retributive justice.

It is equally as wrong-headed to assert that the provision “for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats” (as important as doing such is), is equally fundamental and important as legal recognition of the right to life.

Jesus did acknowledge that there are greater and lesser matters of the law. It often calls for prudential wisdom to discern the difference. But every aspect of the moral order is not equally weighty.

We are told that we as human beings “are worth more than many sparrows.” If Ron Sider is right in his interpretation, then despite my evangelical sympathies in many other areas, I would have to side against the NAE document and with John Paul II, who affirmed that the right to life is “the first of the fundamental rights,” the basis and foundation of all other human rights.

…civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being.

For more on abortion and Catholic Social Teaching, see this interview with Rev. Thomas D. Williams.

It has become popular for evangelicals like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis to often cull the sources of Catholic Social Teaching for validation of their views. We evangelicals would do well to reckon with the essential insight of the basicality of the right to life.

This truth might well mean that a truly “biblically balanced” agenda is one that is radically weighted toward the protection of the sanctity of human life.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, my aim is to probe the natural-law doctrines of only a few influential sixteenth-century Protestant theologians.

Some, such as John Calvin, may already be familiar to you, while others, such as Peter Martyr Vermigli (known as Martyr) and Jerome Zanchi, may be entirely new. What is surprising about Martyr and Zanchi is how much their natural-law doctrines are in line with the metaphysical essentialism of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Before going any further I should forewarn you that what I just said challenges a good many Protestant and Roman Catholic stereotypes.

The most common stereotype is that the Reformers and their successors were indebted to the nominalist metaphysics of William of Occam, which resulted in the Bible being treated as a law book and God being conceived as an arbitrary and irrational sovereign. In subsequent posts, this interpretation will be examined in relation to the thought of Marytr and Zanchi. So stay tuned for more on this topic.

However, at this point, I should mention that the stereotype is largely accurate in regard to the modern natural-law tradition associated with Samuel Pufendorf and later thinkers but not with Hugo Grotius. The distinguished medievalist Francis Oakley has shown recently that Grotius’s famous remark in The Law of War and Peace about natural law being valid “even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, [namely] that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him” does not point to a fundamental break with scholastic patterns of thought. In fact, Oakley thinks no real novelty attaches to the way in which Grotius identifies the ultimate grounding of natural law. He provides two reasons to support his view.

First, counterfactual assertions concerning the existence of God were commonplace in antiquity, the middle ages, and later. Grotius was not unique in his use of counterfactual arguments. Second, according to Oakley, “understood in the broader context of his natural law thinking, Grotius’s impious hypothesis can be seen to witness less to any great secular novelty than to the continuing dialectic between two distinct theories concerning the metaphysical grounding of natural law which the early modern natural law thinkers had inherited from their medieval and late medieval predecessors. In the De jure belli et pacis, it turns out, he was maneuvering for position in such a way as to distance himself from the more voluntaristic approach with which he had appeared to sympathize in his earlier De jure praedae (“On the Law of Booty”) and in accordance with which even the content of natural law was understood to be grounded in the mandates of a legislating divine will” (p. 66).

The second most common stereotype, particularly among evangelicals, is to assert that Thomas’s synthesis of Aristotle and Augustine started Christian theology on the way to secularization. According to Carl Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today and prolific evangelical theologian, “Thomas may have thought he was directing Aristotelian thought God-ward; instead, he grounded Christian theism and morality on secular turf.”

I will respond to these stereotypes in due course, but I first want to mention four Protestant doctrines in which natural law historically played an important role, which I will take up in my next post.

This post has been cross-posted in my blog, Common Notions.

Reading through the narrative of king Saul in 1 Samuel, it occurs to me that it is in part an object lesson of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting influence of power, in this case political. The story begins in 1 Samuel 8, when Israel asks for a king.

When Samuel was old and had passed on his rulership of Israel to his sons, who did “not walk” in Samuel’s faithful ways, the people of Israel clamor for a king. They say to Samuel, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” Samuel is taken aback. He sees the request as an indictment of his ability to lead.

When he takes the request before the Lord, however, Samuel is set straight: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”

God then proceeds to enumerate some of the differences in authority and the exercise of power that will distinguish the period of the judges from that of a monarchy. “This is what the king who will reign over you will do,” says Samuel:

  • He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.

  • He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
  • He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.
  • He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
  • Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.
  • He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Samuel warns that all these things will happen, and “when that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

Why do the people still insist on having a king? Do they not believe Samuel? Or do they simply not care? “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'” Here we get to the crux of the issue. The people were willing to sacrifice many of their freedoms and rights in order to feel secure.

Isn’t this a perennial tension? In 1755, Benjamin Franklin noted, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Duly warned, the people get what they want. God gives them Saul as their first king. And the safety they receive, especially from tyrannical rule, is certainly short-lived (and deservedly so, at least according to Franklin). At first, Saul is a good king, and successfully leads the people against their enemies, the Philistines.

As Saul takes up his kingship, there are a number of references to the divine blessing on him. For instance, in chapter 10, the text says that “God changed Saul’s heart,” and later on, before battle, “the Spirit of God came upon him in power.”

In time, however, Saul began to fulfill some of the prophecies that Samuel had predicted: “All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.”

When fighting the Amalekites, Saul does not listen to God’s command to destroy all the spoils of war. Instead, “Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.”

Because Saul sins he is rejected as king. He admits and repents his sin, blaming his own weakness and fear of the people (only after claiming that he was disobedient out of piety). God indicts Saul’s motives, however, noting that following the battle he had “set up a monument in his own honor.”

After Saul’s disobedience, the tyranny degenerates and he becomes more and more corrupt: “The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”

Even under the previous system of rulership, by means of judges, evil and corruption was possible. Despite a rule of fairness and justice under his own administration, Samuel’s own two sons were wicked and corrupt. But the extent of their authority was limited when compared to that of Saul. And not even Israel’s true king David was immune to corruption, as his covetousness of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah illustrate.

This post will introduce what I intend to be an extended series concerned with recovering and reviving the catholicity of Protestant ethics.

Protestant catholicity? Isn’t this an oxymoron? It may come as a surprise in light of a common stereotype of Protestant theology, but the older Protestant understanding of reason, the divine will, and natural law actually provided a bulwark against the notion of a capricious God, unbounded by truth and goodness, as Pope Benedict recently pointed out in relation to Islam’s understanding of God. “In all honesty,” he states,

one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God’s “voluntas ordinata.” Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn [the representative of the Islamic doctrine of God] and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

What the pope is saying is that the relationship between God and creation becomes fundamentally distorted when God’s power and will are separated from the covenantal context of revelation. That revelational and redemptive context, in short, is the voluntary limitation that God imposed upon himself and vowed never to rescind. But there is more.

In addition to God’s covenant faithfulness, there is an analogy of sorts between God and us, between, as Benedict writes, “the eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason.” Herman Bavinck, the renowned Dutch Reformed theologian, uses the language of correspondence to describe the analogy: “There just has to be correspondence or kinship between object and subject. The Logos who shines in the world must also let his light shine in our consciousness. That is the light of reason, the intellect, which, itself originating in the Logos, discovers and recognizes the Logos in things. It is the internal foundation of knowledge. Just as knowledge within us is the imprint of things upon our souls, so, in turn, forms do not exist except by a kind of imprint of the divine knowledge in things. So, in the final analysis, it is God alone who from his divine consciousness and by way of his creatures conveys the knowledge of truth to our mind–the Father who by the Son and in the Spirit reveals himself to us” (Reformed Dogmatics, I, p. 233).

It is hard to imagine what Protestants like Bavinck would take issue with in this statement by Benedict: “God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.”

Yet, many Protestants and Catholics alike, believe that the fundamental postulates of the Reformation severed the correspondence between God and man, the divine intellect and the human intellect, faith and reason. Even the most recent Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, “That They May Have Life,” acknowledges “long-standing differences on the capacities of human reason.”

To put it too briefly, Evangelicals (and the Protestant traditions more generally) have accented that human reason has been deeply corrupted by sin. Catholics, on the other hand, while recognizing that human reason has been severely wounded by sin and is in need of healing, have held a higher estimate of reason’s capacity to discern truth, including moral truth. We, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, affirm that the knowledge of God necessary for eternal salvation cannot be attained by human reason alone apart from Divine revelation and the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith’s response to Jesus Christ the only Savior. (These questions are addressed in more detail in our 1998 statement, “The Gift of Salvation.”)

We also affirm together that human reason, despite the consequences of sin, has the capacity for discerning, deliberating, and deciding the questions pertinent to the civil order. Some Evangelicals attribute this capacity of reason to “common grace,” as distinct from “saving grace.” Catholics typically speak of the “natural law,” meaning moral law that is knowable in principle by all human beings, even if it is denied in principle by many (Romans 1 and 2). Thus do we, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, firmly reject the claim that disagreements over the culture of life represent a conflict between faith and reason. Both faith and reason are the gift of the one God. Since all truth has its source in Him, all truth is ultimately one, although our human perception of the fulness of truth is partial and inadequate (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What I hope to accomplish in this blog series is to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as the pope referred to it), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth.

This has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, September 21, 2006
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The debate has not been confined to Catholic circles, but it has been concentrated there. Many (most?) American Catholic moral theologians of the post-Vatican II era have been enamored with one form or another of “proportionalism,” a theory of morality that eschews the traditional Catholic focus on the “intrinsic” goodness or badness of human acts. (Bad acts must be avoided always.)

Proportionalism’s critics have accused its adherents of being simply consequentialists by another name. Consequentialism, which permits using evil means to achieve a good end, is more clearly antithetical to Catholic orthodox theology and, therefore, proportionalists were concerned to deny the connection.

Though criticism—including magisterial criticism—of proportionalism has not been wanting, it might be argued that sustained scholarly criticism from within Catholic academia has. But that seems to be changing as notable young theologians and moral philosophers take up the question anew. First, there was Christopher Kaczor’s Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition. Now, there is Patrick Andrew Tully’s Refined Consequentialism, in which the author examines closely the work of the best known American Catholic proportionalist, Richard McCormick, and concludes that it cannot escape the charge of consequentialism.

Allow me to summarize the message of outgoing UN General Secratary Kofi Annan’s speech to the General Assembly yesterday (HT: International Civic Engagement):

“The United Nations is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to utopia but through it.”

You can compare the text of Annan’s speech to see if I’ve gotten it right, and then contrast my summary with another source.

Many of you have read the series that Stephen Grabill wrote about Protestantism and Natural Law. For those of you who have not read it, but are interested, Stephen wrote an eight part series on the PowerBlog. The following exerpt from the first post points to Stephen’s aim of shifting the debate …

… away from the badly caricatured doctrine of sola scriptura toward a fuller understanding of the biblical theology underlying natural law. As Protestants rediscover the biblical basis for natural law and the doctrinal resources of their own theological traditions, I hope we can recover a sense of our catholicity with the broader and older Christian moral tradition.

You can read the entire series here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, and part 8.

In June, Stephen gave a lecture at the 2006 Acton University where he talked about the same topic. That lecture has now been posted online and is available for your listening pleasure . Please take some time to listen to a great lecture! Other Acton Univeristy lectures are available from the Acton University 2006 archive.