Category: Bible and Theology

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9781433514838_p0_v4_s260x420Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan, and Robert Peterson have delivered a real gift toward building a unified future in their newly released Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity. This edited volume brings together Anglican (Gerald Bray), Baptist (Timothy George), Lutheran (Douglas Sweeney), Methodist (Timothy Tennent), Pentecostal (Byron Klaus), and Presbyterian (Bryan Chapell) representatives to do two things: (1) the contributors give personal narratives of how they became a part of their respective denominations and (2) each contributor highlights their respective denominational distinctives. Given the minority position that American Protestants hold in terms of Christians worldwide, the type of unity-in-diversity proposed in this book comes as a welcomed challenge to Christians of all denominations as we face an increasingly pluralistic America together.

American pluralism is not a problem per se, but the diversity of worldviews current in the country provide unique and new opportunities for unity in ways never experienced before in our nation’s history. Evangelical Protestants have had very easy lives in the American story and one could argue that they may have taken their “most favored religion” status for granted which leads to unwise cooperative efforts with government. So much so that, now politicians feel too comfortable proposing legislation that attempts to tell Christians and their organizations how they can or cannot put their beliefs into practice, as if politicians have such authority to speak into the life of the church.

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jobless-menRecent news reports on unemployment, underemployment, and the high level of dissatisfaction among those with full-time work are an opportunity for the church, says Michael Jahr. People are looking for meaning, fulfillment, opportunity – and the church has answers that no one else can provide.

At a 2013 Oikonomia Network seminary faulty retreat, Pastor Dan Scott, author of “The Emerging American Church,” said, “American workers are having an increasingly difficult time competing with their Polish, English, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Korean, and Brazilian counterparts in a globalized economy. … The solution is a spiritual one, although at present few of our churches are offering it because too many of them are focused on lesser things.”

A dualism that neglects to address the workplace – where most Christians spend the bulk of their waking hours – is at odds with the theology of vocation. As British theologian and author Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of their Christian faith.”

Read more . . .

DSC_0167For a few years now, I have been puzzled by why Rachel Held Evans remains popular among many younger evangelicals and why the secular media finds her credible. I was struck by Evans’ recent CNN article “Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church.” When reading the post it becomes evident that Evans is not talking about the “holy catholic church,” but a narrow subculture of conservative American evangelicals. The post does not address why young adults in America are leaving the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, broad evangelical, nor mainline churches. Moreover, after reading this opinion piece it became clear to me that what Evans is saying Millennials want from “the church” is fully found in the United Methodist Church (UMC).

Evans rightly argues that conservative evangelical churches will not be able to bait-and-switch young adults with “cool” gimmicks in order to keep them in the doors. Historically speaking, American Christians have always panicked about teens and young adults leaving the church. For example, anxiety over fledgling youth attendances in churches served as the catalyst for the creation of the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. In the 1960s, making church cool led to the introduction of jazz into youth group culture in many Catholic and Protestant churches. After making this good point Evans claims that Millennials are leaving the (evangelical) church because Jesus cannot be “found” in it. This is the point where the post takes an odd ecclesiastical turn.

Evans says that what Millennials really want from “the church” is:

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calvinThough primarily a theologian, the famous Reformation figure John Calvin had much to say about the application of biblical principles to politics. His focus on the sovereignty of God in all aspects of Creation led Calvin to believe in God’s ordinance not only in the spiritual realm, but also in civil government. Citing Scriptural passages such as Proverbs 8:15-16 – “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth” – Calvin demonstrated that all governments are ordained by God. In Calvin’s mind, therefore, the rule of civil authority was paramount to the governance of society.

Law had been the subject of Calvin’s studies before he joined the Reformation movement. Although originally decided for the priesthood, Calvin had been sent to Orleans to study law by his father following a dispute with a local bishop in Paris. It was in Orleans that the importance of the legal order was first engrained into his mind. From there, he moved to Bourges to study under Andrea Alciato, an ingenious Italian humanist lawyer who taught Calvin new ways of studying and analyzing historical legal sources. Calvin would later use these skills in his analysis and interpretation of the Bible. All his training in France would prepare Calvin for a life of theology and statesmanship in Geneva. (more…)

Figures 015 Melchisedec King of Salem blesses AbramThe folks at RELEVANT magazine wonder, “What would happen if the church tithed?”

The piece explores in some depth the point that tithing is really about the radical call to Christian generosity, pointing to the biblical example of the Macedonian church: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)”

I was just reading from the Little House books last night to my son, and one of the chapters I read included the narrative of Laura’s missionary church in western Minnesota as the recipient of Christmas gifts from a church in the more established parts of eastern Minnesota:

There had never been such a Christmas as this. It was such a large, rich Christmas, the whole church full of Christmas. There were so many lamps, so many people, so much noise and laughter, and so many happinesses in it. Laura felt full and bursting, as if that whole big rich Christmas were inside her, and her mittens and her beautiful jewel-box with the wee gold cup-and-saucer and teapot, and her candy and her popcorn ball.

Giving can really mean the world to the recipient, and it is a significant spiritual exercise and discipline for the giver as well.

As to the RELEVANT question, Ron Sider offered his own answer in 2005, and the needs and possibilities identified have not substantially changed in the meantime:

If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.

As I’ve said before, seeing evangelism as something for “leftovers” isn’t quite right, but the point still stands that to whom much has been given, much is expected. And American Christians have certainly been given much.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, July 15, 2013

Lewis Hine Power house mechanic working on steam pumpOver at Think Christian, I reflect on an “authentically Christian” view of work, which takes into account its limitations, failings, and travails, as well as its promises, prospects, and providential foundations.

The TC piece is in response to a post by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, in which they juxtapose the pscyhologizing of work as subjectively authentic self-expression with their own preferred view of work as something done simply “for the sake of sustenance.”

Critchley and Webster are right to point to the dangers of unchecked subjectivism, but are wrong in devaluing work as merely instrumental. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary penned a monumental indictment of the inroads radical subjectivism has made in Christian, and particularly evangelical, circles in his 1994 book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. As Wells puts it, the difference between the objective and subjective points of departure for our knowledge amount to two different ways of seeing the world; one is biblical, the other is worldly. “The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the sense can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent,” writes Wells.

More recently, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud, Marcuse and his followers effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations,” writes Trueman. (more…)

Last night I attended an engaging lecture at Calvin College by Dr. William Abraham of the Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology. Abraham, whose religious background is Irish Methodist and who is now a minister in the United Methodist Church and the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins, gave a presentation titled, “The Treasures and Trials of Eastern Orthodoxy.” As someone who was once an outsider to the Orthodox Church and is now an insider (as much as a former outsider can be, I suppose), I can say that Dr. Abraham’s lecture highlighted many things that I see in the Orthodox Church myself as well as bringing others into focus, in particular five treasures the Orthodox bring and four trials that they face in our current, global context. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Photo Credit: youngdoo via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: youngdoo via Compfight cc

In this week’s commentary, “Made to Trade,” I explore the natural dispositions that human beings have to produce, exchange, consume, and distribute material goods.

If you’ve ever noticed that a sandwich made by someone else tastes better than one you make yourself, you’ll know what I’m getting at: “Recognizing the satisfaction that comes from such a gift of service from another person illustrates an other-directed disposition that is a deep and constitutive part of human nature.”

There is a gracious foundation for giving and receiving, whether in the form of gifts and distributions or in exchange. As Benedict XVI writes in Caritas in Veritate, “Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension.”

Sometimes I think the ideas of gift and exchange can be too radically distinguished. Benedict describes a gift as something that “by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance.” The relationship between love and justice, or between charity and merit, is complex and difficult to hold in proper balance. Emphasis of one at the expense of the other leads to errors of antinomianism or legalism.

What is clear, however, is the gracious foundation of all of our economics activities derive from God’s providential ordering. We give, receive, “truck, barter, and exchange,” as a manifestation of the constitutive sociality of our human nature, created in God’s image, male and female.

Alexei Khomiakov, the Russian Slavophile thinker often credited with first articulating the Orthodox principle of sobornost.

Today at Ethika Politika I offer an assessment of the phenomenon of globalization from the perspective of Orthodox Christian anthropology. In particular, I focus on the concept of sobornost in the thought of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, writing,

Solovyov’s account of the moral progress of humanity through globalization is rooted in the Russian idea of sobornost’, which Christopher Marsh and Daniel P. Payne define as “the idea that human beings retain their freedom while participating in human society, and that human society is a participatory process through which human beings actualize themselves as unique hypostases [i.e. persons].” Accordingly, Solovyov writes that true society does not abolish the individual, but “subordination to society uplifts the individual” and “the independence of the individual lends strength to the social order” — an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity.

I had raised the question of the similarity between sobornost and subsidiarity a few weeks ago during Fr. Michael Butler’s Acton University talk on “Orthodoxy, Church, and State.” I summarized his insight on the concept at the time, writing,

With the reforms of Tsar Peter the Great, however, the Church was literally made a department of the state [in Russia]. The inspiration for this, notably, was not symphonia but the European Protestant national Church model. While in this context the Russian Church still continued to carry out its functions in society, it had lost a great degree of autonomy. In the midst of this context, the Slavophile thinkers Alexei Khomiakov and Ivan Kireevsky reacted to this statist trend in Russian society by developing the theory of sobornost, inspired in part by the Russian word for “Catholic” in the Nicene Creed and inspired by the Orthodox Church’s conciliar basis of authority.

As they framed it, the idea of sobornost placed the idea of sovereignty in the whole of a people. All human beings are interconnected, and each therefore deserves their own autonomy while, at the same time, [each] has a duty to serve all others…. Ultimately, sobornost at its best would be an Orthodox parallel to subsidiarity in which each level of society, all the way down to the individual, has a role to freely play for the common good and each has a duty to assist others for that end.

The question of similarities and differences between subsidiarity and sobornost has been on my mind for some time. There would seem to be clear parallels between the concepts that were coincidentally developed in their modern forms at nearly the same time, though among different traditions for somewhat different purposes. (more…)

I’m catching up on reading after the holiday last week, and the July 4 edition of the Transom has some gems, including this bit from Alexis de Tocqueville on the mindset of tenants:

There are some nations in Europe whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance. More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”

They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid. Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a clerk, but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.

This description of servile and licentious tenancy can be directly contrasted with a vision of responsible and faithful stewardship, in which the steward acts in the interests of his or her lord. As Paul writes, “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2 ESV). On the Christian view, it is in our best interest to align our interests with God’s, submitting our stewardship to his will and his law.