Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, April 14, 2006

Almighty Father, who hast given thy only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: Give us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

–U.S. Book of Common Prayer, “Friday in Easter Week.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 13, 2006

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery hast established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–U.S. Book of Common Prayer, “Thursday in Easter Week.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 13, 2006

Regarding biblical economics at St. Maximos’ Hut, Andy Morriss writes on John 10:9-16: “Shepherds care for their flocks because their flocks belong to them; hirelings will not sacrifice for their flocks because the flocks do not belong to them. What better illustration of the value of property rights in encouraging stewardship could there be?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In commenting briefly on Psalm 19, C. S. Lewis observes the description of God’s Law as “sweeter than honey” and “more precious than gold,” the kind of descriptions that occur again and again throughout the Psalter.

Lewis writes,

In so far as this idea of the Law’s beauty, sweetness, or pireciousness, arose from the contrast of the surrounding Paganisms, we may soon find occasion to recover it. Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time. None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and “sweet reasonableness” fo the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted. But of course, if we do, we shall then be exposed to the danger of priggery. We might come to “thank God that we are not as other men”. This introduces the greatest difficulty which the Psalms have raised in my mind.

I ran across some of these tidbits over recent months that I thought worth passing along, and it’s a fitting time to do so at noon, typically the lunch hour. The first two are taken from an article by Martin J. Heinecken, “Kierkegaard as Christian,” Journal of Religion 37, no. 1 (Jan. 1957): 20–30. Heinecken was a professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

He writes of Kierkegaard’s critical project against the state church of Denmark:

To be sure, he insisted that the true Christian must sooner or later in a hostile world suffer for the sake of the Lord. This is precisely what he found wrong with the Christianity of his day when everyone was a Christian as a matter of course, viz., that it required no suffering. Something was topsy-turvy when it required more inconvenience not to be a Christian than to be one (28).

A bit earlier Heinecken passed on a colorful anecdote that describes the nature of Christian suffering:

This suffering of the Christian is therefore by no means to be equated with the chance misfortunes of life that fall upon the just and the unjust. I shall not soon forget the Australian divine who gorged himself on good, old, solid, Australian beef, garnished with a few thick slices of mutton, plus all the assorted vegetables in season, and then finished this off with some concoction, euphemistically called “trifle,” which, as nearly as I could figure out, consisted of a considerable base of rich pastry topped with thick, syrupy fruit of various kinds—apples, peaches, pears, dates, nuts, etc.—and then was smothered in a thick covering of pure cream, not whipped into a froth like our insipid “Dairy Maid” concoctions, but the solid stuff, straight from the cow with all the air and water taken out and nothing left but the cream. This concoction is served on top of the meal in a sort of soup tureen and is eaten, not with a dainty little dessert spoon, but is literally “shoveled in” with the aid of two utensils, the soup spoon on the left hand and the fork serving as a sort of hay loader on the right. So this German-Australian divine, after a long communion service, after which he heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Nun is die ganze Herde wieder einmal gefüttert und getränkt” (“Now the whole herd has been once again fed and watered”), sat down and devoured the above-described little meal—just a token really of what a real man would do, for, after all, a parson is only half a man. There he sits now after the meal, all bloated with gas, and more and more he is convulsed in the most excruciating agony, more acute even than that of childbirth; he says, “Dies is mein Kreuz, dass der Herr mir aufgelegt had, das ich willig tragen muss” (“This is the cross the Lord has laid upon me which I must bear patiently”). This most certainly is not the suffering Kierkegaard had in mind (27).

And in connection with that striking portrait, here’s Kierkegaard’s description of his philosophical project, as appears through the person of Johannes Climacus in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

When a man has filled his mouth so full of food that for this reason he cannot eat and it must end with his dying of hunger, does communicating food to him consist in stuffing his mouth even more or, instead, in taking away a little so that he can eat? Similarly, when a man is very knowledgeable but his knowledge is meaningless or virtually meaningless to him, does sensible communication consist in giving him more to know, even if he loudly proclaims that this is what he needs, or does it consist, instead, in taking something away from him? When a communicator takes a portion of the copious knowledge that the very knowledgeable man knows and communicates it to him in a form that makes it strange to him, the communicated is, as it were, taking away his knowledge, at least until the knower manages to assimilate the knowledge by overcoming the resistance of the form.

I’ll pass along my provisional conclusion regarding the philosophy of Kierkegaard. Heinecken notes the observation of an anonymous German divine on Kierkegaard: “He is all right when you need a laxative, but not when you need good solid, nourishing food” (24).

But taking Kierkegaard’s own image of having a mouth full of food a bit further, his anti-Hegelian program could also be characterized as a sort of emetic philosophy: perfect for the expulsion of dangerous elements, and necessary perhaps in particular contexts as preparation for healthy intake. But it should not be confused with either milk or solid food itself (see 1 Cor. 3:2).

As is so often the case with reactive intellectual movements, Kierkegaard’s philosophy in his Philosophical Fragments is not immune to overcompensation. So while we might appreciate Kierkegaard’s motive and the extent of his success in undermining the Hegelian philosophical program, we should also exercise a measure of caution with respect to the agreeability of his philosophy with Christian theology.

There’s a perceptive article by Christopher Levenick on the Weekly Standard’s site. It’s titled “Monkish: What the increase of monastic vocations in Italy could mean for European secularism”.

First, the surpising data:

Italy [...] is often viewed as a case study in secularization. Yet across the peninsula, weekly attendance at Catholic Mass has been steadily climbing for two decades. In 1980, roughly 35 percent of Italians regularly attended the Mass; by 2000 that figure had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

But even more pregnant with possible significance is Italy’s sudden surge in new monastic vocations. A recent conference organized by the Vicariate of Rome and the Unione Superiore Maggiori D’Italia revealed that in the last year, no fewer than 550 women entered cloistered convents–up from 350 two years earlier. In contrast to recent trends, the new candidates were predominantly native-born and college-educated Italians. Similar gains are said to have occurred among male monastics.

It may seem strange that Europe’s woes can be cured by a retreat from the world. Some may be more likely to argue that many of its current problems are political and economic, and therefore must be corrected by policy reforms undertaken by political leaders. If secularization and demographics are the main problems, the answer would seem to involve more people going to church, marrying and raising families. Europeans must become more, not less, engaged with worldly matters, it would seem.

So how does a devotion to prayer and manual labor help this dire situation?

Here is Levenick’s answer:

IT IS REASONABLE [...] to see more hopeful signs in a possible monastic renaissance. This is certainly the view of Pope Benedict XVI, who views monasticism as one of three historic elements which forged Latin, Greek, Slavic, Nordic, and Germanic cultures into the amalgam known as Europe. Monasticism, Benedict recently noted, has long been “the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental and religious and moral values.” It acts as “a pre-political and supra-political force,” which brings “ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.” (Even Gibbon conceded that “posterity must be grateful to acknowledge, that the monuments of Greek and Roman literature have been preserved and multiplied by [the monks'] indefatigable pens.”) Benedict’s high sense of monastic purpose dovetails neatly with his belief that a small but vibrant church will be well positioned to invigorate Western civilization.

In its own way, monasticism may provide the spiritual energies needed for cultural renewal and reform – and as George Weigel has argued, there can be no “re-form” without a concern for the “form” of Christian life, i.e. religious life. It’s a fascinating argument about which much more can and should be said.

I take on the current upswing in public support for euthanasia laws, especially among certain sectors of Christianity in a BreakPoint commentary today, “Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death.” I note especially the stance taken by a Baylor university professor of ethics and the student newspaper in favor of legalizing euthanasia.

In a recent On the Square item, Joseph Bottum notes a similar trend, as he writes, “Euthanasia has been making a comeback in recent months, bubbling up again and again in little snippets in the news.”

As this happens, I argue that both scholars and laypersons need to realize that advocacy for a “right to die” represents a significant diametrically opposed challenge to a biblically Christian view of the human person—both in life and death.

In a recent post on the evangelical outpost, Joe Carter makes the case for discarding, or at least severely restricting, the use of the descriptive term supernatural by Christians. He notes that in using the term to refer, for example, to angels and demons, “we are implying that they belong on the same plane or realm of existence as God.”

One source of this implication is due to the fact that “we buy into the modernist notion that all of creation is physical and that angelic beings must necessarily exists on a ‘supernatural’ (i.e., nonphysical) plane separate and distinct from the material cosmos. Essentially, this leads us to concede a point to the physicalist worldview.”

Instead, Carter argues for a biblical worldview that separates all created reality on the one hand as contingent and God as the only metaphysically necessary being on the other. The natural-supernatural divide would then be between God and everything else. He visually describes the difference this way:

Nature (i.e., plants, animals, minerals)

Such a view has the benefit of being biblical and supported by a long stream of orthodoxy. The radical Creator/creature distinction is at the heart, for example, of Athanasius’ opposition to the so-called Arian heresy.

Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck makes a somewhat similar point regarding the term supernatural in his discussion of the traditional distinction between natural and supernatural revelation. In a section of his Reformed Dogmatics (vol. 1, Prolegomena, pp. 301-12), he writes, “Actually, according to Scripture, all revelation, also that in nature, is supernatural.”

By this he means that it is supernatural in its source. That is, revelation is always from God. Thus, “the distinction between a natural and a supernatural revelation has not been derived from the action of God, who expresses himself both in the one and in the other revelation, but from the manner in which the revelation occurs, viz. ‘through’ or ‘from beyond’ this natural order. In its origin all revelation is supernatural.”

For this reason, referring to revelation as supernatural tends either to be a tautology or to lead to confusion. Bavinck prefers the distinction between general and special revelation, which refers to the distinction between God as he is generally revealed to all humanity and as he specially appears to the Church. The categories of special and general revelation therefore refer to the content of revelation rather than simply to the means of communication.

He writes, “Hence the distinction between natural and supernatural revelation is not identical with the distinction between general and special revelation. To describe the twofold revelation that underlies pagan religions and the religion of Scripture, the latter distinction is preferable to the former.”

Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic probably differs with us Acton folks on a lot of issues. But his review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in the New York Times deserves some praise from all those who recognize metaphysical reality. Dennett’s book is simply another reductionist account of the world from an ostensibly “hard thinking” scientist, but Wieseltier’s article goes beyond a critique of the book. It is, more broadly, an eloquent debunking of materialism and defense of religion—not of any particular religion or of all expressions of religion, to be sure, but of a religious sensibility.

Here’s a taste:

The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book. “Breaking the Spell” is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

Read the rest here.

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

Today’s BreakPoint commentary by Chuck Colson gives a brief review and survey of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason.

Concludes Colson: “This book will you give you some very good ammunition to answer those critics who come up with the same tired, old arguments about the fact that Christianity held back the progress of civilization. Nonsense. The evidence is exactly the opposite.”

For previous discussion of Stark’s thesis on the PowerBlog, check out these posts:

Christian Reason and the Spirit of Capitalism

Capitalism and Christianity, Part II

A Stark Contrast

Reason and Revelation