Category: Publications

For those PowerBlog readers in the Chicago area, I’ll be in town next Tuesday for a luncheon where I’ll be discussing the topic, “How Ideology Destroys Biblical Ecumenism.”

The event is sponsored by the Chicago-based ministry ACT 3 and will be held at St. Paul United Church of Christ, 118 S. First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. The event will begin at 11:45am (Tuesday, November 9) and you can register for the luncheon at the ACT 3 website.

The point of departure for my talk will be my new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, and those who are able to attend the luncheon will receive a complimentary copy.

Robert Joustra, a researcher at the Canadian think tank Cardus, says this about the book and the contemporary ecumenical debate about globalization:

Ballor is spot-on when worrying that narrowly framing the debate this way can obscure the fact that globalization is about a great deal more than economics or politics. Isn’t it ironic that the ecclesial conversation is essentially a thinly-baptized version of exactly the same disagreements in the secular world, but with less technical capacity and more theological abstraction? This is Ballor’s most important point.

My friend John Armstrong, who runs ACT 3 and is organizing the luncheon, recommends Ecumenical Babel as “a truly readable and wonderful book. All who love Christian unity centered in the witness of the church and the gospel of Christ will benefit from this fine new book.”

Dr. Paul Oslington, professor of economics at Australian Catholic University, has a piece up today that examines the scope of social encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and focusing especially on the similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.

Comparing this tradition with that of ecclesiastical statements from other church traditions, Oslington judges (and I think quite rightly), “On the whole, statements of the Roman Catholic Church since the landmark papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891, have been of higher theological quality than most church statements, and more reticent when dealing with specific economic questions.”

He points especially to the 2004 Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) as a negative example. I make a substantive criticism of the Accra Confession within the broader context of ecumenical social statements of the last decade in my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

I also point in that book to some of the things that the mainline ecumenical movement can learn from the tradition of Roman Catholic social thought. As Oslington rightly notes, the quality of the encyclical tradition makes it the natural starting point for broader dialogues about the role of faith and theology in relation to economics, politics, and social life. He points to the way in which Benedict’s encyclical has occasioned important discussion from all kinds of quarters, both in the secular media as well as by other Christian traditions.

Oslington is especially hopeful about the work of Benedict XVI, and says, “With these theological resources, there is hope for a much-needed deep theological engagement with economics. It is hard to image a Pope better equipped theologically to undertake this task.”

One of the most important things that Protestant social thought can learn from the encyclical tradition is the importance of the principle of prudence. This is manifested in a bias against making strict policy prescriptions in favor of articulating the broad principles that must be applied in various concrete circumstances.

As Oslington concludes, this is a fundamental element of the social encyclicals, including Benedict’s:

I don’t know what Benedict XVI’s theological engagement with economics will end up looking like. He indicates in the unfinished state of his reflections a call for “further and deeper reflection on the meaning of the economy and its goals” in the light of the “explosion of worldwide interdependence.”

Could this turn out something like the Augustinian theodicy of markets that Anthony Waterman saw in Adam Smith? Waterman argued that just as for Augustine government restrains sin in a fallen world until the time of a final judgment and renewal, so markets restrain the effects of human sin.

Will it include elements of the vision of economic life of early modern Franciscan thinkers favoured by Benedict and some of his advisors such as Stefano Zamagni?

Whatever direction it goes, it will be some kind of theological reframing of economics that orients economic enquiry without detailed prescription on matters of economic theory and policy.

Incidentally, Dr. Oslington was kind enough to endorse my book, and I pass along his comments here in full.

Jordan Ballor has written a useful guide for those wishing to venture into the smelly swamps of ecumenical social and economic thought. Why should non-swamp dwellers care what goes on there? Ballor’s quite reasonable answer is that ecumenical bodies claim to speak on behalf of churches, churches which many of us are part. Whether anyone outside is listening is another question—one which Ballor doesn’t address but which others such as Anthony Waterman have considered—that being less and less so. Ballor’s book is distinguished by considering not just the content of ecumenical statements on economic matters (which have given grief to a long line of professional economists), but also the theological self-understanding of the various bodies when they speak. He asks the deeper question of whether the bodies are adequately constituted to be the (or even a) Christian voice on economic matters, as well as the not irrelevant questions of their actual theological and economic competence. Fundamental questions are raised about the relationship between theological and economic discourse, and the sorts of institutions that support helpful discourse. Christian faith certainly bears on economic matters—the briefest acquaintance with the Scriptures is enough to dispel any doubts. Ballor’s book is part of the movement towards a better discussion of the links in our churches, universities and political forums.

I should note too that some serious work has been done in bringing the various traditions of Protestant and Catholic social thinking into dialogue.

This includes the proceedings of the conference commemorating Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the Journal of Markets & Morality. I’m also pleased to announce that in the next issue of the journal we’ll be including an introduction to and translation of Herman Bavinck’s “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” prepared for the Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam, November 9-12, 1891 (you can subscribe to the journal here).

Blog author: jballor
Monday, October 18, 2010
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This year’s Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010, is underway and all reports are of a massive event, with substantial buildup and coordination of efforts of and implications of various kinds across the globe. (Dr. Anthony Bradley, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, participated in one of the conversation gatherings last month leading up to the Cape Town event.)

In my book published earlier this summer, Ecumenical Babel, I mentioned Cape Town 2010 as one of the major ecumenical events taking place this year. Dr. Stephen Grabill, in his foreword to the book, wrote extensively of the opportunities and challenges facing evangelical ecumenical efforts.

Grabill writes,

I think holistic biblical stewardship understood as a form of whole-life discipleship may be just the motif or infrastructure that the ecumenical movement has needed “to move purposefully forward.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an unprecedented opportunity exists to disciple the church in the fundamental pattern of holistic stewardship. As the church becomes increasingly aware of issues of sustainability, seeks to understand the role of business, and expands the message of the grace of giving as a central motif of the Christian life, an environment for personal and corporate transformation takes root.

Dr. Grabill and Brett Elder (of Acton’s strategic partner, the Stewardship Council) are both in Cape Town over the next weeks to participate in the event in a number of ways.

Speaking of Grabill’s usage of the phrase “grace of giving,” there is a site setup to coordinate a number of the resources that are being made available to Cape Town delegates. A special edition of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible is being made available to all the attendees, as well as a Cape Town edition of occasional papers for the Resource Mobilization Working Group published by Christian’s Library Press under the title Kingdom Stewardship.

For a really stunning and inspiring story of how the concept of stewardship can enliven and enrich our lives, check out the story of Bishop Hannington of Uganda, now appearing on the Grace of Giving site.

Bishop Hannington from International Steward on Vimeo.

Religion & Liberty’s issue featuring an interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. is now available online. Acton also published Solzhenitsyn & the Modern World by Ericson in 1994. It was a joy to have Ericson sit down with us in the Acton office to talk about Solzhenitsyn, his work, his life, and his legacy.

The issue also includes an excellent essay on the federalist and anti-federalist debate by Dr. John Pinheiro, a historian at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. Pinheiro points out in the piece that the anti-federalists are important for understanding the balance between liberty and order in our Republic. He also adds that the anti-federalists are essential reading “if Americans hope to restore a sane balance between state and federal power.”

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Blog author: jcouretas
Friday, August 20, 2010
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Two more thoughtful reviews of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, now available on Kindle. First, from John Armstrong on his ACT 3 blog:

In reducing its witness to advocacy for a particular set of policies, the ecumenical movement has abandoned the attempt to proclaim the Gospel, the true foundation of its spiritual authority. “This is surely a form of culture-Christianity,” writes Ramsey, “even if it is not that of the great cultural churches of the past. This is, indeed, the most barefaced sectarianism and but a new form of culture-Christianity. It would identify Christianity with the cultural vitalities, with the movement of history, with where the action is, with the next and even now the real establishment, but not with the present hollow forms.” In this way, the question of how the church’s prophetic responsibility ought to be expressed in a post-Christendom era has not received adequate attention from the ecumenical movement. Instead, it has simply assumed that the same form of prophetic pronouncement is as appropriate today as it was in the era of the Reformation, the medieval church, or the Old Testament monarchy.

The modern ecumenical movement began in the early twentieth century with great promise. By the middle of the 20th century that promise had been greatly misplaced because of the relationship of the movement, through many of its principal leaders, to ideology. The same happened on the right, from 1976 on, as conservative evangelicals increasingly embraced political and economic ideology in place of the gospel. If we are to get Christ and the gospel back into the center of our shared life and witness then we must take seriously what writers such as Jordan Ballor are saying to us. I heartily commend Ecumenical Babel, a truly readable and wonderful book. All who love Christian unity centered in the witness of the church and the gospel of Christ will benefit from this fine new book.

And these concluding paragraphs from a long review on Viola Larson’s Naming His Grace blog:

Ballor’s last chapter offers ways the ecumenical movement could be reformed. He focuses on a biblical and personal reform that centers in the life of the Church. He also focuses on the wealth that God gives to be used by his people. He asks that peripheral issues be left open for debate. Ballor writes:

“Economic and political opinions should not be turned into articles of faith. Indeed there must be room for bad economic and political opinions in our confession. There are limits, of course, and these primarily arise when some alien influence or idea, a worldly ideology, takes the place of biblical confession and becomes an all compassing world-and -life view, a would be competitor of Christianity.” (119)

While Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, is a small book, it is dense, filled with clear thinking, biblical and confessional concern and a multitude of resources. Ballor has provided members of the mainline Churches with valuable material. Members of the PCUSA, who long for an ecumenical movement that speaks as a Church to and with its members, rather then in an authoritative manner for its members, will find a possible way forward in this book. The orthodox members of mainline churches who long for an ecumenical movement that confesses for Christ and against his enemies will also find relief in this book.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Lutheran World Federation Misses the Mark on Work and Wealth,” I reflect on the recently concluded general assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held in Stuttgart. The theme of the meeting was “Give us today our daily bread,” but as I note, the assembly’s discussion of hunger, poverty, and economics lacked the proper integration of the value, dignity, and importance of work.

As I contend, work is the regular means God has provided for the maintenance of our physical needs. And work that is connected to the larger human community becomes increasingly oriented toward the service of others and productive of civilization. Lester DeKoster defines civilization in just this way, as

goods and services to hand when we need them. There are countless workers, just like ourselves—including ourselves—whose work creates the harvest that provides each of us with far more than we could ever provide for ourselves.

These words come from DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, newly available in an updated second edition.

The omission of considering work in relationship to the development of wealth, globalization, and civilization is endemic to the larger mainline ecumenical movement, which I examine in greater length in my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. In that book I look especially at the outcome of the previous LWF gathering in 2004.

The trend observable in LWF recent history looks to continue unabated. The newly appointed LWF general secretary, Rev. Martin Junge of Chile, has the pursuit of “economic justice,” conceived largely of opposition to globalization, as a high priority. (Full story after the break).
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Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
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Acton Institute has an eBook initiative underway and today we launch the first title on Amazon Kindle: Lester DeKoster’s “Work: The Meaning of Your Life.” Get yourself to the Kindle store to purchase this Christian’s Library Press work for $3.99 or to download a free sample.

Soon to be added to the Kindle store is Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel, now available in hardcover from the Acton Book Shoppe and Amazon.

Excerpt from “Work: The Meaning of Your Life” by Lester DeKoster (read his new Religion & Liberty profile here):

THE POWER

We know, as soon as reminded, that work spins the wheels of the world.

No work? Then nothing else either. Culture and civilization don’t just happen. They are made to happen, and to keep happening — by God the Holy Spirit, through our work.

Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the stores’ shelves, gas dries up at the pumps, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end, utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in caves, clothed in raw animal hides.

The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work. One of the mystifying facts of history is why certain peoples do create progressive cultures while others lag behind. Whatever that explanation, the power lies in work.

An interesting thing, too: if all workers did quit, it would not make too much difference which quit first — front office, board room, assembly line, custodial staff…. Civilized living is so closely knit that when any pieces drop out the whole fabric begins to crumple. Let city sanitation workers go out this week and by next week streets are smothered in garbage. Give home-making mothers leave, and a lot of us suddenly go hungry and see our kids running wild. Civilization is so fragile that we either all hang together or, as Ben Franklin warned during the American Revolution, we all swing separately.

Incidentally, let’s not make the mistake, if ever we are tempted, of estimating the importance of our work, or of any kind of work, by the public esteem it enjoys. Up front types make news, but only workers create civilized life. The mosaic of culture, like all mosaics, derives its beauty from the contribution of each tiny bit.

Last week’s Acton Commentary, “Unity or Unanimity at Reformed Council?” was picked up by a number of news outlets, including the Detroit News and the Holland Sentinel. The latter paper published a response to the piece by Jeffrey Japinga, “Intersection of economics and faith is valid subject for church council.”

I think Japinga misreads me, and in doing so (perhaps unintentionally) ends up agreeing with me. He thinks that I oppose the Accra Confession because “what it says disagrees with the conclusions of the Acton Institute.” I do disagree with the Confession on those grounds, to be sure. But that Accra and Acton conflict on economic questions is really the least of my concern in opposing the Accra Confession.

My greatest problem with the Accra Confession is that it proposes to make its own position a matter of confessional integrity. When Japinga compares the confession to the Acton Institute’s core principles, for instance, he’s making a number of category mistakes. The Acton Institute is a nonprofit educational and research organization, a think tank. The World Communion of Reformed Churches purports to be a global institutional representation of the Christian church.

Can you see the difference? It is the job of organizations like Acton to engage in debates in the public square about political policy, prudential and particular concerns, in this case economic. This isn’t the primary task of the institutional church, however.

What I really want at the WCRC is the “kind of open, healthy discussion” Japinga celebrates. I don’t really desire to expel what I consider to be the voices of liberation theology and neo-Marxist ideology from the WCRC. That’s not in danger of happening any time soon and my book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, describes some of the reasons why.

My real concern is to see that voices that view globalization as having good aspects as well as bad, as the Accra Confession most certainly does not, are not excluded from the Reformed ecumenical discussion. I believe the adoption of the Accra statement as a confessional standard would do just that and serve to silence dissent and undermine intellectual diversity. It would turn an economic ideology (one that also happens to be false) into an article of the Reformed ecumenical faith.

As Ernest W. Lefever writes, “Taking sides and not taking sides both have moral and political pitfalls. But supporting the wrong side is the worst of all options.”

The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, vol. 12, no. 2 (Fall 2009) is now fully online. In the editorial for this issue, “A Legacy of Stewardship,” I write of the loss in 2009 of two figures of importance for the Acton Institute: “In the unique matrix of vocation that made up their lives, Lester DeKoster and Karen Laub-Novak have each left this world with a legacy of faithful stewardship, and it is to such that this issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality is dedicated.”

In recognition of these legacies, this issue features a controversy on the question “How should Christians be stewards of art?” between Prof. Nathan Jacobs, professor of theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, and Prof. Calvin Seerveld, professor emeritus of aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada. Jacobs argues that “the question of stewardship immediately raises questions about value, meaning, and reality that must be addressed,” and moves on to articulate a realist defense of his view of art and stewardship. Prof. Seerveld “challenges us to consider art from an eschatological perspective” and emphasizes God’s creational mandate to be imaginative in the faithful pursuit of the artistic calling.

In addition to this special feature, this issue of the journal includes the usual fare of substantial articles:

We also have a noteworthy set of book reviews in Christian social thought, ethics and economics, and the philosophy, history, and methodology of economics.

Access to the electronic versions of two latest “current” issues is available for individuals on a subscription basis. An electronic-only subscription is available for $10, and there are a number of other options for those wishing to receive the journal in hard copy form.

We also encourage you to recommend the journal to friends, schools, and institutions.

Journal of Markets & Morality

shearlThe new issue of Religion & Liberty, featuring an interview with Nina Shea, is now available online. A February preview of Shea’s interview, which was an exclusive for PowerBlog readers, can be found here.

Shea pays tribute to the ten year collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, which began in the fall of 1989. The entire issue is dedicated to those who toiled for freedom. Shea is able to make the connection between important events and times in the Cold War with what is happening today in regards to religious persecution. Her passion on these issues is unmatched. Her experience and expertise on issues of religious persecution definitely shine through in this interview. I encourage readers to pay attention to her work.

Mark Tooley offers the feature piece for this issue, “Not Celebrating Communism’s Collapse.” It is an excellent look back at the religious left and their grave misjudgments about the true danger of Marxist dictatorships. Tooley declares, “Communism’s collapse did further discredit the Religious Left, and the political witness of mainline Protestantism and ecumenical groups like the WCC and NCC has arguably, and thankfully, never quite recovered from the events of 1989-1990.” Tooley is president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

In this issue I offer a review of Steven P. Miller’s Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, which appeared first on the PowerBlog.

“Repressions” is a series of voices that speak to the danger of an ideology that reduces man to merely a material creature, while violently squelching the spiritual. Because of the danger of an all controlling state, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution considered religious liberty the “first freedom,” the foundational freedom upon which others are built. They understood that religious freedom is the hallmark to a truly free and virtuous society, and is also meant to act as an important wall from encroachment by the state into our lives.

The issue also pays tribute to a well known figure, especially among evangelical Christians, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Scaheffer, who spoke out against the godless totalitarian state also powerfully reminds us: “I believe that pluralistic secularism, in the long run, is a more deadly poison than straightforward persecution.”