Posts tagged with: Christian philosophy

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 22, 2012

AschenkreuzYesterday my son asked me why today is called “Ash Wednesday.” In that question I could hear the echoes of another question, “Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?”

The latter question is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, and the brief but poignant answer has stuck with me since I first encountered it. First, the catechism clarifies that our death does not have redemptive power: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins.” That’s what distinguishes Christ’s death from our own.

But next, the catechism describes two interrelated things our death does do. First, our death “puts an end to our sinning.” What a comforting thought! As Luther put it strikingly, “As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin.” Our death is the end of our lifelong struggle against sin, and the culmination of the purpose of our entire life. As Calvin writes, “during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit.” Our death is where this “constant rest” is finally achieved.

And following from the end to our life of sin, our death marks “our entrance into eternal life.” Thus we enter through our deaths into the eternal Sabbath, where we finally rest from our evil works, enjoy the “constant rest” (Calvin) from sin, and the fullness of life in the Spirit.

So on this Ash Wednesday, when we contemplate the origin and destiny of our earthly life in dust, let us take comfort in the realization that the death of those who are in Christ is merely the end of the beginning of the story. In the midst of our mourning during the Lenten season inaugurated with Ash Wednesday, let us not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NIV).

In connection with the current Acton Commentary, over the last week I’ve been looking at what I call the “the overlap and varieties of these biblical terms” like ministry, service, and stewardship. As Scot McKnight notes in his recent book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, the theme of stewardship is absolutely central to the biblical message. In his summary of the gospel toward the conclusion of the book, he begins this way:

In the beginning God. In the beginning God created everything we see and some things we can’t yet see. In the beginning God turned what existed into a cosmic temple. In the beginning God made two Eikons, Adam and Eve. In the beginning God gave Adam and Eve one simple task: to govern this world on God’s behalf.

McKnight goes on to trace this stewardship theme through the further lenses of Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. With God’s “new creation people” were “Eikons like Adam and Eve but with a major difference: they had the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit could transform them into the visible likeness of Jesus himself. As Christlike Eikons they are assigned to rule on God’s behalf in this world.” We “now rule in an imperfect world in an imperfect way as imperfect Eikons. But someday the perfect Eikon will come back, and he will rescue his Eikons and set them up one more time in this world.”

The best resource I know of on stewardship in its comprehensive sense is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible. The Stewardship Study Bible includes an array of features to help clarify, explain, and develop the biblical theme of stewardship. At 1 Peter 4:10, for instance, which articulates wonderfully the variety of forms stewardship takes, Wesley K. Willmer, senior vice president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), describes stewardship as “God’s way of raising people, not man’s way of raising money.” And in the corresponding “Exploring Stewardship” feature identifies “hospitality” (v. 9) as one of the various ways in which we are to “serve others” (v. 10). As the feature explains, “hospitality is not outdated; in our world there are always those who need a room for a time or a home-cooked meal.”

It seems to me that one of the things we need to do is to begin to better appreciate common grace ministries like hospitality, and the crucial role that such “common” and concrete acts of service play in the Christian life. One of the problems with our world today is that such true expressions of common grace are all too uncommon.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Ministers of Common Grace,” I note that in addition to ministry, “Another scriptural term, that of stewardship, can helpfully describe the pluriformity of God’s grace, both special and common: ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms’ (1 Peter 4:10 NIV).” I conclude by calling for “better attention to the overlap and varieties of these biblical terms.”

What I have primarily in mind is the way in which Scripture seems to use concepts like ministry, service, and stewardship somewhat interchangeably. This is undoubtedly true in the case of translations into English. As I noted in the commentary, the NIV and the ESV read Romans 14:6 alternatively as “servants” or “ministers.”

Bishops Bible Elizabeth I 1569And in sixteenth century editions of the Bible, the ministerial terminology was often preferred to that of stewardship, as in the NIV of today. For instance, in the Bishops’ Bible, 1 Peter 4:10 reads, “As euery man hath receaued the gyft, eue so minister the same one to another, as good ministers of the manifold grace of God.” Likewise the Geneva Bible renders the verse this way: “Let euery man as hee hath receiued the gift, minister the same one to another, as good disposers of the manifolde grace of God.”

It’s in Coverdale’s translation (“& mynister one to another, eueryone with the gifte yt he hath receaued, as good stewardes of the manifolde grace of God.”) and the Catholic Douay-Rheims bibles (“As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another: as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”) that we find stewardship and ministry connected explicitly, and this follows through in the KJV text tradition.

It’s interesting to note that one of the updates to the NIV since the 1984 edition has been the integration of this stewardship terminology. The 1984 edition emphasizes the idea of service, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” while the latest update I quoted in the commentary reads, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

The relevant terms at play in the Greek here are words based on the roots διακονέω (“to serve”) and οἰκονόμος (“a manager of a household”; a steward). As Martin Luther reflects on the impact of this dynamic of ministry, service, and stewardship, he writes:

The Gospel wants everyone to be the other person’s servant and, in addition, to see that he remains in the gift which he has received, which God has given him, that is, in the position to which he has been called. God does not want a master to serve his servant, the maid to be a lady, a prince to serve the beggar. For He does not want to destroy the government. But the apostle means that one person should serve the other person spiritually from the heart. Even if you are in a high position and a great lord, yet you should employ your power for the purpose of serving your neighbor with it. Thus everyone should regard himself as a servant. Then the master can surely remain a master and yet not consider himself better than the servant. Thus he would also be glad to be a servant if this were God’s will. The same thing applies to other stations in life.

As good stewards of God’s varied grace.

God did not give us all equal grace. Therefore everyone should pay attention to his qualifications, to the kind of gift given to him. (LW 30:124)

The Puritan William Ames draws out three reasons and two uses of the doctrine gathered from 1 Peter 4:10 (pp. 98-99): “It is an office of charity to minister unto others the gifts which we have received, of what kinde soever they be.”

Reasons:

  1. Because the gifts of God do in their nature tend unto the glory of God in promoting the good of men.
  2. Because to this end are all the gifts of God committed unto us, as stewards of the grace of God, as it is in the text.
  3. Becuase this very thing doth the communion of Saints require, to the believing and exercising whereof all are Christians called.

Uses:

  1. This may serve to comfort us, in that there is no faithfull Christian, but hath some gift, whereby he may minister something unto others.
  2. To exhort us, every one to use that gift which he hath, to the good of others.

Zelda and TheologyAuthor and editor Jonny Walls has announced his latest work published by Gray Matter Books entitled The Legend of Zelda and Theology.

Zelda is a series of video games celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, originating in 1986 with The Legend of the Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It revolutionized video games with its adventure elements and exploration.  Each new installment of the series has advanced its complexity and story line.  The Zelda world maintains its own unique mythology consisting of spiritual elements that don’t match any existing religion.  In fact, the story often mentions multiple Gods and Goddesses.  The Triforce object in the game was created by divine beings and grants the owner supernatural powers depending on whether they have good or evil in their heart.  The pieces of the Triforce symbolize wisdom, courage and power.

The Legend of Zelda and Theology examines elements of Zelda’s mythology from a Christian perspective.  Having not read the book yet, I am skeptical as to how it interprets this exotic mythology and back story as a Christian tale.

Christian Post has an article about the book with comments from Jonny Walls.  In the end, the hope “is that readers will understand that [Zelda]’s themes all point to one source – God, the Creator.”

The book is a compilation of essays from various theologians and scholars examining the connection between Zelda and Christian theology.  One of the contributing authors is Rev. Jeremy Smith of Hacking ChristianityHe posted an excerpt of his contributed essay, included below:

As a child, one of my first lessons in ethics came from a chicken in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In the game, there are chickens called cuccos running around and I would laugh at their cries of fear while swatting them with my sword. One day I was showing my brother this hilarity when, unexpectedly, a hundred cuccos stormed on screen pecking mercilessly at me as they flew by. In an unfortunate coincidence, I was down to one or two hearts of life energy at the time and, to my childhood horror, actually died as a result of my cucco torment. It was a harsh lesson: don’t mess with the cucco…or at least don’t mess with them too much.

It’s also a lesson on ethics because the scenario with the cucco is a question of how to use one’s power. The Zelda universe is primarily a story about good v. evil, of course; but more specifically, it is a story about the use of power. One of the iconic artifacts in the Zelda universe is the Triforce: three interlocked triangles who grant the bearer significant power. The protagonist Link thus embarks on the hero’s journey from powerless to merely underpowered compared to the antagonist Ganon.

The ethical considerations of the use of power are a persistent theme in the Zelda series, in general, and Link to the Past, in particular. In engaging this topic, LttP contains numerous references to the Christian journey and the role of power in our everyday lives. Much of Christian theology is about good and evil, certainly, but also the use of power: the power of Christ to break the chains of sin, the power of Christians to overcome injustice and oppression, the restrictions placed on Christians in authority, etc.

Through examining the hero’s journey in this story, the role of power comes to the forefront: what does power do to corrupt or purify one’s desires? We will outline three problems of this particular world that serve as lenses to our own ethical behavior in the analog world.

The latest game in the Zelda series for Nintendo's Wii, Skyward Sword.

Interestingly, the theme of power that Jeremy mentions here relates directly to Lord Acton’s famous quote:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

Zelda is a work of fiction.  Fiction is self referencing, according to Marilynne Robinson’s article in the New York Times article about what literature owes the Bible:

Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.

I’ll definitely be checking out this book, being an avid Zelda fan and a Christian.  As of this writing the book is on Amazon, but it’s not available for order right now.  What do you think?  Is this book something that can help young people who might not know much about Christianity, or is it too much of a stretch?

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, December 12, 2011

“Wisdom begins in wonder.” This is a popular paraphrase of Socrates from Plato’s Theatetus, which focuses on the relationship between philosophy and knowledge. Dr. Mel Flikkema, provost at Kuyper College, reminded us of this justly famous quotation as he introduced the launch event for Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art by Abraham Kuyper this past Saturday morning.

Vincent Bacote describes "Another Amazing Grace."

This was a splendidly appropriate introduction to the morning’s event, as the talk by Dr. Vincent Bacote, “Another Amazing Grace,” focused on the relevance of the doctrine of common grace for today’s church and Christian social engagement. Part of what common grace does, said Bacote, is allow us to explain why good things remain in the world after the Fall into sin. The world is not as bad as it could be, and it is because of this common, preserving grace that God prevents everything from falling into complete and utter chaos.

In Wisdom & Wonder Kuyper discusses the insights of the ancient Greeks as a bit of evidence for the existence of common grace. This is especially relevant for the pursuit of truth in philosophy and science. As Kuyper writes, “Anyone who ignores common grace can come to no other conclusion than that all science done outside the arena of the holy lives off appearance and delusion, and necessarily results in misleading anyone listening to its voice. Yet the outcome shows that this is not the case.”
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Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.

Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:

Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?

In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”

The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.
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“Work gives meaning to life: It is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others, and thus to God.”

–Lester DeKoster, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, 2d ed. (Christian’s Library Press, 2010).

The next skirmish over the country’s financial direction will come in September as Congress tries to prepare for the federal government’s new fiscal year, which starts October 1st. The Christian Left has quoted the Bible quite freely during the budget battle, throwing around especially the “red letter” words of Christ in its campaign to protect all of the federal government’s poverty programs (even those so riddled with fraud that the White House wants to cut them). It seems bizarre, then, that they never make reference to the most obviously political passage of the Gospels—Christ’s dictate to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians; that they should catch him in his words. Who coming, say to him: “Master, we know that thou art a true speaker, and carest not for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar; or shall we not give it?” Who knowing their wiliness, saith to them: “Why tempt you me? Bring me a penny that I may see it.” And they brought it him. And he saith to them: “Whose is this image and inscription?” They say to him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answering, said to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17)

On its face, of course, Christ’s reply doesn’t play well for Circle of Protection types in a sound bite war, since it seems to suggest that one’s moral responsibilities go much beyond the paying of taxes. A thorough examination of the passage would require that we understand Roman money and taxation, synagogue finances, and Hebrew politics at the time, and from the Church fathers to John Courntey Murray, various interpretations have been offered to satisfy almost everyone.

What does jump out of the text, though, is the question asked of Christ: it bears a great resemblance to Jim Wallis’s “What Would Jesus Cut?” The Pharisees come to Christ with the allies of Herod, having invented a question that entangles politics and religion—they would like Him to wade into the Jewish-Roman debate, where he might be caught serving two masters. Christ will have none of it—he quickly parries the question and leaves his questioners, as always, “marveling.”

2000 years later, attempts to frame taxation as a doctrinal issue should be given no more attention than the Pharisees’ received. It seems that in focusing to closely on the red letters of the gospel, certain Christians have missed the words of Christ’s interlocutors.

Armenian Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian’s The Melody of Faith (2010) seeks to provide an introduction to the basic dogmas of Eastern Christianity, harmonizing various Eastern Christian traditions (and making significant mention of a few Western ones) through continual reference to their writings, to their icons, and especially to their hymnody. The book, however, makes no claim to “constitute a systematic account of the Christian faith in the Germanic style of rational academic theology” (xi). Instead, Guroian muses,

It may be that theology is nearer in origin and character to music than to architecture, despite modern assumptions to the contrary…. In primitive culture, music is inherently religious, expressing basic beliefs about beginnings and endings as it is employed in worship of deity. Music originates at the well-spring of human emotions and expresses an experience of the numinous. (xii)

Ironically, as an American of German descent I cannot help but point out that the category of the “numinous” was first articulated by the German theologian and scholar Rudolf Otto. It may be that Guroian is so naturally ecumenical he has even unintentionally found something true and beautiful in that “Germanic style” he seeks to avoid. And, I must admit, his insight and approach are both imaginative and refreshing.

Indeed, despite the fact that four of the six chapters are revisions of articles previously appearing in scholarly publications, The Melody of Faith reads with a natural fluidity, at times more reminiscent of a devotional memoir than an introduction to theology. Yet, it maintains a clear focus, each chapter addressing a specific theme, moving from creation in the first chapter, to eschatology in the next, to salvation, to Mariology, to the Crucifixion, and finally to the Resurrection. The resulting whole is a sacramentally- and synergistically-oriented symphony of vibrant Christian faith and living tradition.

This sacramental and synergistic emphasis addresses several of the Acton Institute’s core principles, especially human dignity, human freedom, and human sin.  With regards to sin, Guroian writes, “Sinning is an offense to God, but the state of sin is an illness that morally weakens the patient” (55). Consistent with traditional, Eastern Christianity, he emphasizes that sin is more than legal offense, humanity’s problem more than juridical guilt, but rather spiritual and physical sickness or corruption which leads to death. The cure is “divine therapy” or healing. According to Guroian, “Christ is the surgeon who removes the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:15) with the sharp instrument of the cross. And his body and blood are the medicine of our immortality” (55). Christ is the physician who operates; we are the patients who must willingly take our medicine, which we find primarily in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Indeed, “God has created [humankind] in his own image as a personal and free being” (16). Just as Christ was not conceived and all humanity was not saved apart from the consent of the Virgin Mary, we as individuals are not healed and deified by his gracious presence apart from our active participation either. Anything less would denigrate our dignity as bearers of the imago Dei.

The Melody of Faith does not seek to be comprehensive, but its success lies in its accessibility and ecumenical sensitivity. To the outsider looking in, Eastern liturgy and theology can appear confusing, even dissonant, but to many such concerns The Melody of Faith provides a fitting and elegant resolve.

The following is my latest article for Acton Commentary:

Stewardship and the Human Vocation to Work

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

Paying the bills and contributing to the collection basket are laudable. But Christian stewardship is significantly more than these; like prayer, fasting, and the sacraments, it is an essential part of our Christian life. More than what we say, the way we use our time, talent and treasure, reveals what we value, how we understand ourselves as men and women of faith, and what we believe it means to be human.

It is this last point that I want to focus on here. What does it mean to be human? Maybe this is a strange place to begin, but before we are Christians, we are human. Before any of us are baptized or make a commitment to Jesus Christ, we are human. We can only be Christian because we are human and the importance of our shared humanity should not be minimized; we are saved and made one in Christ precisely because God took on our humanity. He becomes as we are, in the frequently repeated phrase of the fathers, so that we might become as He is.

Salvation, justification, sanctification, deification—whatever terms we use for the mystery of our New Life in Christ—all presuppose not only divine grace poured out by the Holy Spirit but also a common humanity that we share not only with each other, but most importantly with Jesus Christ the God-Man. Too often in the early years of my own spiritual life and like many young Christians I saw the Gospel as an escape from the shared human nature and struggle. I was wrong.

As I’ve grown older, if not wiser, I’ve come to appreciate the argument made by St. Irenaeus. He said that the whole of human life is recapitulated in Jesus Christ who is Himself the first born of the new creation (see Colossians 1:15). Irenaeus also says that whatever in our humanity is not assumed by Christ is not healed by Him. Extending this argument we see that is our shared humanity that keeps us from living as strangers to each other and to God.

Scripture tells us that the human vocation is written not simply in its sacred pages but in creation as well.   When the Church fathers read Genesis they saw our First Parents as both an icon of the Most Holy Trinity and as the goal of creation. It is for us, for the whole human family, that God creates; even as later it will be for us that He becomes Man in Jesus Christ.

Viewing humanity in light of the Incarnation, the fathers see humanity as the point at which the Uncreated and created meet. To be human is to be the place of communion between God and the cosmos. We are both a microcosm and a macrocosm; we are the creation in miniature even as we also contain the whole creation in ourselves. Is it any wonder then that after turning his mind and heart to God, King David says of us all: “What is man that you care for Him?” (Ps 8:4)

We also hear in Genesis the divine command to our First Parents to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28). This refers not simply to procreation, to the begetting and raising of children in marriage, it also has a more general application. To be human is to be productive and profitable and to make of the creation a fit home for the human family. In a word, the primordial vocation of the human person is to work.

Work in Genesis means much more than what we tend to think, living as we do on the other side of Adam’s transgression. In first verses of Genesis, we see God as an artisan. As the potter forms clay into vessels both beautiful and useful, so too God takes the unformed matter of the universe and shapes it into creatures beautiful and good, animate and inanimate (see Isaiah 29:16 and Rom 9:20-23). The goodness and beauty are not an abstraction, but the characteristics of a cosmos that is a fitting home for man. God creates something beautiful and good for us. He then charges us to continue that work of shaping creation as a beautiful, good and fitting home for the whole human family.

So the anthropological foundation upon which stewardship rests is this: After God and in God, we are to be as God for the creation and one another. We are called by God to exercise our gifts and abilities to shape the material world as well as the social and cultural world according to the Gospel and for the needs of the human family. Yes this requires technical skill but it is not simply a functional task. Rather it is one which, from beginning to end, is to be characterized by beauty and goodness.

Before all else, to be a steward is to commit oneself personally and generously to using the gifts of time, talents and treasure God has given each of us the capacity to help to create a good and beautiful home fit for the human family. But how we use our gifts is not only an expression of our original vocation. Because of Adam’s transgression our work is often frustrating and marred by want and conflict. Though sin has sullied our vocation, it has not been undone. If anything, one of the great sorrows of human life is the myriad ways in which our original vocation is so often left unfulfilled—stillborn and even aborted by human selfishness and material want.

To be what it is, work must itself be redeemed; it must be work in Christ since it is only in Christ that we can transcend the consequences of sin. And in Christ, our stewardship becomes not only an expression of our shared human vocation, but our personal assent to Christ and His desire to redeem human work, creativity and ingenuity.