Category: Publications

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
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Rev. Daniel Meeter, pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), writing in the Reformed journal Perspectives, “Observations on the World Communion of Reformed Churches”:

My participation at Johannesburg is the reason I was an observer at the General Council, and why I was assigned to the General Council’s committee on Accra (though there were many other committees and a host of workshops that interested me, from worship to theology to inter-faith dialogue). Our committee was huge: sixty people or so. We eventually divided into table groups, and I was a pinchhit table leader. My table included Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Indonesians. Our tables were charged to come up with a variety of responses to Accra, such as actions and outcomes or further work on its content and theology. Our responses were recorded and two delegates were appointed to consolidate them into a report to the plenary. I had to leave before the report was made, so I look forward to reading the minutes of when they come out.

One of the table groups reported that a key outcome was that the main concern of the WCRC in general should be “social justice.” The reporter was from a church that had belonged to WARC. This worries me. It suggests to me that this WARC delegate was not talking to REC delegates. It also worries me because I suspect the view that the main concern of the WCRC should be “social justice” is more widely held. Here is my second observation: this is going to be a problem for the WCRC. I hope the executive committee can direct a more holistic kind of ecumenism for the WCRC. (Would there was a Hungarian on the committee.)

I don’t mean to be flippant, but “social justice” is the main concern of civil government, not the church. This is an example of the politicization of Christian witness on both left and right which James Davison Hunter analyzes in his new book, To Change The World (Oxford, 2010). It is certainly true that on such issues the church is responsible to be prophetic in speech and active in demonstrating a just and wholesome life in real and even institutional ways, but to consider this the main concern of a church body is to miss the main concern of a church body. Unfortunately, this is not rare among the churches of the WCRC, the most Protestant and secularized of the world ecumenical groups, and with the weakest common ecclesiology.

I want to be clear that I think it’s right for the WCRC to be focused on the Accra issues (while the Anglican Communion is preoccupied with the sexuality of its bishops). I believe that justice in the economy and the earth is the great issue of our time, and critical to the church’s credibility. But it seems to me that the Reformed tradition can do better than “social justice”–to the actual benefit of social justice. It seems to me that the main concern of the WCRC is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, or in classic terms, the Sovereignty of God, or in gospel terms, the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God. As the Belhar says, “Jesus is Lord,” and this makes all the difference for justice in the world and in the human race. Making some version of the Kingdom of God the main concern of the WCRC will also provide a place for such other concerns as worship, doctrine, ecumenical dialogue, and inter-faith dialogue. Otherwise, the WCRC will have no right to consider itself a “communion” instead of just a big religious NGO.

As they said, read the whole thing. And for an engagement of the Accra Confession and the WCRC within the broader ecumenical context, see my book released earlier this year, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

Over the years Religion & Liberty has compiled a lot of interview gems and first class content for our readers. The new issue, now available online, highlights some of that content, with new material as well. This double issue is an Acton 20th Anniversary tribute with an interview with John Armstrong as well as a collection from some of our best interviews. Regarding the compiled collection, the responses selected represent a range of timeless truths of the Gospel, the importance of human liberty, and the importance of religion and moral formation in society.

There are three book reviews in the issue. Bruce Edward Walker has written a review of Literature & the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. Jordan Ballor reviews Carl Trueman’s Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. A main theme from Trueman’s book is that “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” Ballor offers up a clear concise analysis of Trueman’s arguments. I reviewed Richard Reinsch’s book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary. The book was an excellent reminder that there must be more to conservatism than just free-markets and limited government. And in the review I noted:

Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is, at its core, within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.

Among the content from our archives to celebrate our anniversary is a piece about Lord Acton by James C. Holland. No Acton anniversary would be complete without something pertaining to Lord Acton. The other article from the archives “Views of Wealth in the Bible and Ancient World” by Scott Rae was originally published in the 2002 November and December issue of Religion & Liberty.

The issue also features an excerpt from Work: The Meaning of Your Life – A Christian Perspective by Lester DeKoster. The book has been newly made available in the second edition by Christian’s Library Press.

There is more content in the issue, so check out all the articles and content online. The biggest challenge on this anniversary project was making decisions about what was going to be included in the issue. Still, there was a lot of great material that had to be excluded only because of space. Thank you for reading, and you can always read and search all of our issues here. Stay tuned for future issues of Religion & Liberty in 2011. We will be kicking off the first two issues with new interviews of two very well known and influential theologians and Church thinkers.

Madeleine L’Engle, in a 1986 essay, “What May I Expect from My Church?”

And that is what I want my church to speak out about: the Gospel, the Good News. Then I will be given criteria to use in thinking about such issues as abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation. It is impossible to listen tot he Gospel week after week and turn my back on the social issues confronting me today. But what I hope for is guidance, not legislation.

L’Engle wrote these words referring to the Episcopal Church, but I echo precisely these sentiments in my critique of the ecumenical movement’s social witness in Ecumenical Babel. What we need is moral guidance and formation from the church, not, as I put it, attempts “to make arbitrary conclusions morally binding.”

In some cases that may be too much to expect, but it ought not be too much to hope for from our churches.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
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In an edition of the Philosophy Bites podcast last month, “Nicholas Phillipson, his acclaimed biographer, discusses Adam Smith’s view of human beings.” Phillipson argues of Smith that “even his economic thinking is perhaps best understood as part of a broader philosophical project of a science of human beings.”

For more on Smith’s “broader philosophical project,” including the relationship between his famous Wealth of Nations and rather less well-known Theory of Moral Sentiments, see the following from the archives of the Journal of Markets & Morality:

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 19, 2010
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Today is my last day at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting in Atlanta. I plan to make my purchases from the various book sellers this morning, having already reconnoitered the exhibits and mapped out my plan of attack.

One thing that has struck me is that there are a number of new books discussing ecumenism and Christian unity from host of different perspectives. On the one hand this shouldn’t be surprising. The unity of the church is a constant theme, one that is confessed in the Nicene Creed (“We believe…in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”).

But for a period of time it seemed that ecumenism was in decline. After all, it used to be its own area of theological specialization; there have been (and still are some) professors of ecumenics. On the broader level one thing that breathed life into the ecumenical movement in the last half-century was the founding of what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (I had the pleasure of meeting the pope’s representative, Fr. Gregory Fairbanks, at the WCRC Uniting General Council earlier this year in Grand Rapids).

An ENI story notes a recent address from Pope Benedict XVI regarding ecumenism: “Today, some people believe that this journey has lost its impetus, especially in the West,” the Vatican Information Service quoted Pope Benedict XVI as saying. “Thus do we see the urgent need to revive ecumenical interest and give a fresh incisiveness to dialogue.”

Now this story is in the context of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican dialogue. But “new energy” needs to be found in the mainline ecumenical movement as well. I outline some of the reasons for the decline of groups like the WCC, LWF, and WCRC in my book, Ecumenical Babel. And as the Vatican celebrates fifty years of institutional ecumenical efforts, we have seen a corresponding decline in vigor in the mainline Protestant groups. Some evidence of this is the consistent outreach and emphasis on engaging “evangelicals” from the WCC, whose new president expressed such sentiments at both the WCRC Uniting General Council and the recently concluded Cape Town 2010 meeting of the Lausanne Movement.

So says Mark Tooley of IRD. “Sadly, over the last 50 years, it (the ecumenical movement) has faded into the sidelines and is now largely ignored,” he said. In the 1980s Ernest Lefever, founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness has become obsolescent, marginal, irrelevant, or worse.”

I outline some of the things needed to reinvigorate the mainline ecumenical movement in my book. I outline correctives on three main levels: the ecclesiastical, the social ethical, and the economic. But I conclude too that

Without pursuing correctives along these general lines, the answer to Gustafson’s challenging question, “Who listens to the moral teachings of Protestant churches?” will continue to be indeterminate, and deservedly so. Without doing the hard work of serious ethical deliberation that engages a variety of conflicting perspectives, the ecumenical movement has little claim to possess authentic moral authority in the public square or among the churches.

After the break you can read the full ENI story on the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican secretariat (now council) for promoting Christian unity. (more…)

I just sent off a draft of a brief review of Carl Trueman‘s new book Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative to appear in the next issue of Religion & Liberty. (You can get a complimentary subscription here).

I recommend the book as a very incisive and insightful challenge to any facile and uncritical identification of the Christian faith with particular political and economic ideologies.

Here’s a snippet of the review:

[Trueman’s] project is not about demonizing capitalism, wealth, or profits one the one hand, or political power on the other. It is about putting the pursuit of profit and power in its proper place. Thus what he writes about the market applies equally well to the government: “no economic system, least of all perhaps capitalism, can long survive without some kind of larger moral underpinning that stands prior to and independent of the kinds of values the market itself generates.” It is in this larger and prior system of belief and action, the Christian faith, that we are to seek our primary identity and unity, and in pursuit of this Trueman’s book is a bracing and worthwhile effort.

I have been saying in various venues for quite some time now that Trueman’s book can be read as a kind of complement to my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. But whereas Trueman’s proximate context is the conflation of conservative politics and the Christian faith by evangelicals, my book’s context is the conflation of progressive politics and the Christian faith by mainline ecumenists.

But both books share a basic thesis that, in Trueman’s words, “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.”

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, November 11, 2010
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An exciting new book for anyone interested in the intersection of morality/theology and economics is John Mueller’s Redeeming Economics. I haven’t yet seen the book myself, but Acton Senior Fellow Jennifer Morse reviews it here. Drawing on Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, Mueller argues for recovering a fourth element of economics (besides consumption, production, and exchange): gift. He calls his approach neo-scholastic economics.

Here’s Morse:

The enemies of the state who ought to resist state encroachment of the family’s domain have been reduced to treating the family as a special case of the market. This rhetorical strategy has made it difficult to do justice to the deep human need for personal connections, a need that cannot be satisfied by commercial relationships. At the same time, the enemies of the market who ought to defend the family against commercialization have typically offered the government as the only alternative. These critics have been blind to the state’s encroachment on the proper domain of the family and the accompanying replacement of family bonds with impersonal government transfers and bureaucratic control. Mueller’s synthesis allows us to see the genuinely social arena of human life, where people are more than autonomous individuals, and where actions nevertheless remain none of the government’s business.

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.