Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 31, 2006
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In the modern classic Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, asks Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday why the sinister Johnny Ringo is so evil: “What makes a man like Ringo, Doc? What makes him do the things he does?”

Doc’s memorable answer is, “A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.” This echoes, I think, the famous line about human beings addressed to God in Augustine’s Confessions, that “thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”

The popular rock band Aerosmith put it this way in their 1997 song, “Hole In My Soul”: “There’s a hole in my soul / That’s been killing me forever / It’s a place where a garden never grows.”

The Bible talks at great length about the quest for meaning apart from God. Indeed, the entire book of Ecclesiastes seems to be devoted to this topic. Some, as in the Aerosmith tune, attempt to fill the hole through romantic love. Others, like Johnny Ringo, seek to fill in the God-shaped hole through robbery, rape, and murder. Indeed, one of the most common substitutes for God is money, which is in part why Jesus warns us against this specific temptation.

The prophet Ezekiel describes the voracious appetite of the wicked foe: “He is as greedy as the grave / and like death is never satisfied.” But greed is not a vice simply of our foes or enemies; we are all tempted by this natively human sin.

It is greed, or “money envy,” I think which is in large part behind what many sociological studies are telling us about wealth and happiness. (In case you weren’t aware, the study of happiness, or “subjective well-being,” is a burgeoning academic field. See, for example, the Journal of Happiness Studies inaugurated in 2000.)

This article by finance columnist Laura Rowley, “Keeping Up with the Joneses Can Put You Behind,” (HT: Lifehacker via Houseblogs.net) notes that “Andrew Oswald of England’s Warwick University and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College found that even if our incomes are rising, we tend to become less happy if the incomes of others are increasing more.”

Other sociologists have argued that “in evaluating their own incomes, individuals compare themselves to their peers of the same age. Therefore a person’s reported level of happiness depends on how his or her income compares to others in the same age group.”

This natural tendency to compare our financial status to others is an expression of money envy, which also finds expression, at least in part, in the concern about income disparities. Oftentimes, it isn’t enough for us to be happy or satisfied with our standard of living, even if it has improved over time, if others are relatively better well-off. Check out this interview with Rob Moll, who says that in the process of working on his CT article on suburban spirituality, “it hit me how much we live our lives in relation to what others have.”

Rowley’s piece includes tips on how to avoid so-called “money envy,” such as the need to “figure out our purpose, identify what we love and value most, and make our money obey our values by setting specific financial goals. Because if we achieve the things we value most, we’ll be less riveted by what the neighbors are doing.”

Some of these practical tips should be quite helpful. But any long-term and comprehensive solution needs to recognize that the problem is, at root, spiritual. The solution therefore needs to be spiritual, and is, in short, captured in two words: mortification and vivification, or “dying to self” and “rising to Christ.”

Update: Check out Arnold Kling’s somewhat related post over at EconLog, “Envy, Happiness, and Social Policy.”

I’m reading John W. de Gruchy’s Confessions of a Christian Humanist, and despite some rather disagreeable elements to his theology, he does have quite a few valuable insights.

Here’s what he says in the context of Nietzsche’s derision of Jesus Christ contained in The Anti-Christ:

Christians should not disparage the body, human strength and bravery, or the aesthetic dimensions of life. But Nietzsche is right, if not wholly so. The Christian God is the ‘poor people’s God, the sinner’s God’. The Christian icon of the truly human is not primarily embodied in the bronzed athletes of the ancient Greek or modern Olympics, nor in the lives of the rich, the powerful and famous, and the beautiful people that grace the catwalk, nor typified by the humanist ‘man of letters'; it is embodied in Jesus the crucified Jew who gave his life for others.

These observations get at the heart of my critique of the Jesus/Superman parallels that many are drawing. I do think, by the way, that my argument has been at least partly misunderstood by many of those who read the piece. I don’t claim any direct genetic link between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the genesis of Superman. I do, however, think that the quote from Superman’s father Jor-El sounds a lot more like the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra than anything in the Bible.

It’s also clear that the movie itself, Superman Returns, attempts to draw the Christ/Superman parallel, rather crudely and ineffectively at times. But the Superman legend is not restricted to the movie, and while the film is an occasion to talk about these issues, I don’t think it is the only relevant datum.

One reader contends, by contrast, that “Superman in this film is not a figure who exemplifies worldly power, but one who exemplifies self-sacrifice.” He also states: “I honestly believe this is the most ‘Christian’ film since Narnia and before that Mel Gibson’s Passion.” (The author of the letter blogs here.)

That sort of language makes me pretty uncomfortable.

In this week’s commentary, “Protestants and Natural Law: A Forgotten Legacy,” I ask the question: “So, why don’t Protestants like Natural Law?” The short answer is: There isn’t a short answer. Tracing out the reasons that twentieth-century Protestants have given for why natural law is off limits is complicated and can take a person in many different directions.

In my judgment, the great tragedy in the Protestant rejection of natural law is not merely that Protestants (and particularly evangelicals) have had tremendous difficulty in forming an adequate public language to address moral issues but that the loss of catholicity in Protestant ethics only reinforces the “suspended animation” that many Protestants already experience in relation to the historic Christian church. The sense of being lonely, rootless, and disconnected that some Protestants have bemoaned can be relieved, I would argue, precisely by revisiting key aspects of Protestant and Christian identity from the past.

Thomas Oden can help Protestants to recover a sense of their catholicity with the Church of all ages on the topic of general revelation and natural law. My argument is that Protestants don’t have to look beyond many of their own denominational traditions to discover a once vibrant tradition of natural law. Until fairly recently, some type of natural-law theory was used as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, the church and the world.

Though natural law holds great promise as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, it is also no panacea for the hard work of “translating” moral ideas into a useable public vocabulary. For more on the promises and limitations associated with natural law, and for why twentieth-century Protestants have been so skeptical, read the entire commentary here.

An extended series about “Protestants and Natural Law” can be found on this blog.

I saw a post on the Web somewhere in the last few days (I can’t recall where), about the trend toward worshiping human life itself as the highest principle…detached from recognition of any higher theological realities. Then I ran across this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that struck me as especially relevant, and so I wanted to pass it along:

Vitalism ends inevitably in nihilism, in the destruction of all that is natural. In the strict sense, life as such is a nothing, an abyss, a ruin. It is movement without end, without goal, movement into nothingness. It does not rest until it has drawn everything into this annihilating movement. This vitalism is found in both individual and communal life. It arises from the false absolutizing of an insight that is essentially correct, that life, both individual and communal, is not only a means to an end but also and end in itself. God wills life and gives life a form in which it can live, because left to its own resources it can only destoy itself.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Natural Life,” Ethics, p. 178.

As a brief follow up to my last post and the point about nationalism, see the Liberty Bible offered by the American Bible Society. The Kruse Kronicle passes along some more partisan options for those of us who put being a Republican or a Democrat above being an American (which are both above being a Christian). For my use of the quote appearing on the GOP Bible, go here. I’m willing to bet that the Liberty Bible will sell pretty well.

Apparently it is acceptable for the ABS to offer a Bible with the Statue of Liberty and the American flag on the cover, but not one with a cover for the New Testament that said “Jesus Loves Porn Stars.” After all, “the wording is misleading and inappropriate for a New Testament,” said Barbara Bernstengel, the executive in charge of standards at the American Bible Society. It seems, though, that the cover of the Liberty Bible is neither misleading nor inappropriate.

Which of these is more offensive?
or

Weigh in through the comments section below.

For more on the reaction to the latter Bible, see “Does ‘Jesus Loves Porn Stars’ Bible Go Too Far?” and “Christians at a Porn Convention?”

This Sunday’s sermon at the church I visited was on Joshua 5:13-15:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

The point basically was that we have to be sure that we are on God’s side before we can even legitimately ask, much less be sure, whether or not he is on our side. It was an excellent sermon, and one that brings into sharp relief how often Christians do what they will themselves and then attribute it to God.

If anyone had a claim on God, it would have been Israel, his chosen nation. This passage seems to me, among other things, to be a pretty strong indictment of any form of nationalism that baptizes a political agenda as God’s will. It brings to mind Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, in which he noted that both the North and South “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” He later observes, “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

It is helpful to note, I think, that once Joshua, representing Israel, had put himself on God’s side, in this case by obeying the command to “take off your sandals,” the commander of the army of the Lord goes on to give him some rather specific battle instructions. And when Joshua was faithful to God and followed these instructions, God was faithful to Joshua. So in the end, “the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.” Only when we are sure that we are on God’s side can we be sure that he is on our side.

See also: Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 12:30, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” Mark 9:40, “for whoever is not against us is for us.”

To conclude this series, let’s recap what is meant by natural law by parsing the term.

The “nature” referred to in natural law can mean different things, but I mean by it the divinely engrafted knowledge of morality in human reason and conscience, that which all human beings share by virtue of their creation in God’s image. Theologically speaking, I think this understanding of nature points back to our original creation in God’s image, but it also anticipates the fall into sin, where the divine image was corrupted but not destroyed.

“Law,” too, can vary in meaning, but we have used it here as shorthand for the universal moral law written into the human heart by God. Law as a representation of God’s will can be known through a variety of means such as the Ten Commandments, the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, the pangs of conscience, or the rational intuition of good and evil. When “nature” and “law” are understood in these ways, the claim that natural law is a forgotten legacy of the Reformation is certainly an understatement.

Natural law holds great promise as a bridge to connect the Christian faith to culture, although from the fuller perspective of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, natural law has limited but significant value. Natural law is not merely the quest for order on the part of the state and non-Christians as Karl Barth held, it is also a profound source of truth revealed to every person — according to their capacities — through creation, conscience, and reason. When natural law is understood properly, only so much should be expected from it as a source of revelation. God does not save the world through natural law, nor does he reconcile the world through the pursuit of justice; but he does provide a public record of his eternal power and divinity through the law written on the heart.

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

In Parts 5 and 6 we addressed the two most common Protestant objections to natural law. And now, as promised, we will see what limitations the Reformers perceived in natural law, even as they affirmed its value. (Incidentally, the treatment of the natural knowledge of God that Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Francis Turretin provide, to mention only a few, is completely in step with that of the early church. For more on that topic, click here.)

The widespread assumption that Reformation theology allows no access to natural law—that its view of Scripture, revelation, Christ, salvation, and faith excludes every kind of natural theology —needs serious correction. Yet, in affirming natural law’s value as a bridge, it is also necessary to acknowledge its limitations.

The Reformers hold to the existence of a natural knowledge of morality in creation, conscience, and reason, but they think that knowledge has no saving power or merit associated with it. In fact, its primary role is to make people accountable for the basic moral truths they already know by undercutting any excuses they may propose along the way. In other words, according to the Reformers, natural law informs the mind of what is right and wrong, but it cannot ensure that the will shall choose to do good over evil. In this sense, they think natural law is ineffective and insufficient to bring about right action, even if it is a reliable source of moral information.

The Reformers’ assessment of natural law is complicated further when the issue of free will and morality is considered. They think the will is free in the sense that it is not coerced but self-determined, choosing voluntarily, on its own to do or not to do something. This is why people can be held responsible for their choices: They are self-determining moral agents who know right from wrong. The Reformers reject the extremes of the will’s complete unimpeded freedom, on the one side, as well as the will’s external coercion, on the other. Instead, they think the will is self-determined, willing voluntarily on its own, but because of corruption is in bondage to sin and therefore subject to a constant state of sinning.

Underlying the bondage of the will is the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Following Augustine, the Reformers see the fall affecting every aspect of human nature with the result that fallen human beings are in bondage to sin. Despite the fact that human nature was originally created good, it has become corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin. Thus, prior to the action of God’s grace, the will is in bondage to sin, which means there is no way for people to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace. This is where the Reformation doctrine of prevenient grace comes in.

Grace is prevenient; that is, God’s grace precedes any human good will. Prevenient grace does not simply make it possible for people to respond affirmatively to God’s call; it actually brings conversion about. This is true not just of the beginning of the Christian life. Grace is needed at every stage and, in particular, for final perseverance. Prevenient grace is a gift of God, not something that is merited by previous obedience.

Other questions also enter the discussion about natural law in relation to free choice and grace. One such question is whether it is even possible to obey the moral law. The Reformers reject the assumption that “ought” implies “can”: That people can do on their own without divine assistance what they know they should do. While “ought” implies “can” was certainly true for Adam and Eve in the Garden, after the fall they think it is no longer possible to observe perfectly the moral law’s internal and external requirements. The purpose of the law, according to the Reformers, is not to show human ability but to point to grace. Grace gives what the law commands. Tied directly to the law is the question of “good works.” The Reformers argue that even the best of human works are tainted by sin. Thus it is by God’s grace and generosity that he rewards good works. Furthermore, all good works are the gifts of God’s grace and thus, as Augustine put it, when God rewards our merits he crowns his own gifts.

In Part 8, the final installment of this series, I will summarize what I think natural law is.

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

Just a brief note addition to Kevin’s post: the free article from May’s Touchstone magazine is Terence O. Moore’s feature, “Not Harvard Bound.”

A key quote:

The elite schools no longer command the reverence and deference of red-state America. The parents and students of “flyover country” are starting to put their money where their morals are or where they believe truth is.

There’s a discussion of Moore’s article at Touchstone‘s reader discussion site, Treaders.

HT: Mere Comments

In his New York Times column this week, Peter Steinfels has an insightful analysis of an intriguing and provocative new book by C. John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University.

Those who study the history of American academia are familiar with the story of the secularization of universities as recounted expertly by Christian scholars such as George Marsden (The Soul of the American University) and James Burtchaell (The Dying of the Light), who decry the shunting of religion from the corridors of intellectual influence. Sommerville, in contrast and in Steinfels’ apt description, “is less interested in any loss to religion than in the loss to the university.” In brief, Sommerville argues that the universities’ indifference or hostility to religion has rendered them increasingly marginal and ineffectual in a society that remains heavily religious.

HT: Rick Garnett at Mirror of Justice.