Posts tagged with: christianity

Much of the discussions I’ve been involved in over recent months that have focused on the federal budget have involved some basic assumptions about what the Christian view of government is. Sometimes these assumptions have been explicitly conflicting. Other times the assumptions have been shown as the result of exegetical commitments about what Scripture says.

The Belgic Confession of 1561This is, for instance, one of the points that came up right at the conclusion of the panel discussion about intergenerational justice at AEI a few weeks ago. The question was essentially whether and how we can move from the example given in the Old Testament nation of Israel to conclusions about the role of governments today.

There’s much to be said on this point, and it is an important hermeneutical question. What I will point out here, however, is that there are significant and noteworthy traditions of how to do precisely this.

In this regard, I’ll point to this year’s 450th anniversary of a major confessional document for the Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession. Article 36 of the confession, which has had its own share of interesting interpretive history, lays out the basic role of the civil government:

We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

The clear emphasis on the task of the civil government here isn’t on some undifferentiated concept of “justice” or comprehensive shalom but rather a kind of procedural justice focused on “good order” and retributive justice, for which reason God “has placed the sword in the hands of the government.”

The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, teach that the ruler is to “do justice.” But what that means precisely is not self-evident. Your understanding depends in part on whether and to what extent you think the “political” sphere has limits, or whether you distinguish between the “justice” that is appropriate to different spheres. It is not obvious that this biblical injunction to “do justice” means that the federal government is required to provide direct material assistance to the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis.

The Belgic Confession outlines the limits of the civil magistrates’ power and authority: “They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.” As the Reformed tradition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the Belgic Confession this year, this is a perspective that warrants greater attention and fidelity.

Over the last several years I find myself more and more being drawn into conversation about religion—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—and economics. Originally, my interest in the economic side of the conversation was minimal. Embarrassing though it is to say now, I only took one economics class in college and while I got a “B” I was an indifferent student of the subject.

Thanks to personal friendships I’ve discovered the work of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich A. Hayek—two dominant voices in the Austrian School of Economics. Even here though my interests were, initially at least, not so much in policy as methodology; unlike the quantitative and empirical approach I studied in college, the Austrian school conceives of economics more along the lines of the qualitative approach at the center of human science movement. This qualitative approach to economics has resulted in some interesting, and to my mind extraordinarily helpful and insightful, research into religion by scholars such as Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark.

Among other things, the economic study of religion helps us understand why pluralism is good for religion in general but to the disadvantage of some religions in particular. Ironically, the free market in religion harms those liberal religious communities who value cultural pluralism and economic liberalism (in the contemporary American sense) but are suspicious, and even overtly hostile, to economic capitalism. On the other hand, those religious traditions that resist cultural pluralism and contemporary liberalism—but who often, though not universally—favor a free market approach to economics are the main benefactors of the free for all that characterizes the American religious landscape (see for example, Iannaccone, 1994).

Through this, circuitous route, I have lately come to an interest in economic public policy. Unfortunately such an interest is usually greeted with something less than enthusiasm—at least when (as in my case) you are an Orthodox priest. At the risk of making a gross generalization, clergy are typically as ignorant of economics and business as economists and business people are of moral theology and the ascetical tradition of the Church. Since I’m trading in stereotypes already, I would say that discussions between theologians and economists break down quickly since—intentionally or not—theologians assume economists are wicked even as economists assume that theologians are ignorant. Representatives of the two disciplines rarely understand each other because they rarely have even a basic grasp of the other academic discipline and the kinds of questions and concerns that its scholars seek to address.

This is why three small books published by the American Enterprise Institute are so welcome. The books (P. Wehner & A. C. Brooks, Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism; A. J. Pollock, Boom & Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity; S. F. Hayward, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World) are part of AEI’s Common Sense Concepts series. They’re all short—each took just an afternoon to read—introductions to basic ideas in economics. What is especially important is that they do this in a way that takes seriously Christian moral concerns. Meant primarily for college students and written from a broadly Evangelical Christian perspective, singularly and together they offer a good ethical and practical defense of democratic capitalism.

That said though a defense of the American model of democracy and of the free market, these works do not allow either politics or economics to drive the conversation. Rather both are examined soberly in light of “merely Christianity.” I think the authors would all acknowledge, as Wehner and Brooks do explicitly in their book, that “capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself” (p. 8). Both require “strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement,” sustain and (when needed) reform them.

But this symphonia is impossible without “an educated citizenry.” Such an education must be more than technical—essential though a sound technical foundation is. To fulfill the vision sketched out in these three books assumes that we possess personally what Peter Kreeft (1992) might call the “soft” virtues “such as sympathy, altruism, compassion” as well as the “hard” virtues of “self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty.” Like technological skill, personal virtue alone is insufficient. We need not only healthy, robust and vibrant families and churches, but also a political culture that supports and abides “by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism [and democracy] can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.”

Why are personal virtue and the rule of law essential? Because:

…capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complimentary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain (p. 9).

As both an Orthodox Christian and a social scientist, seeing democratic capitalism in this way helps me understand how the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church can make a contribution to American civil society.

Especially for St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the ascetical struggle does not extinguish desire (i.e., self-interest) as much as does purify it. As St Augustine argues, prayer, fasting and almsgiving teach me to order rightly the different elements of my life in light of the Gospel; asceticism points me beyond myself to Christ, helps me to love Christ, and in Christ to love my neighbor. Just as asceticism purifies my desires, the Church’s liturgical tradition provides me with a sense of the larger, eschatological context within which I live my life. Apart from such an eschatological experience, I will invariably and necessarily succumb to the temptation to take and make ultimate “the cares of this life” rather than to lay them aside as we hear in the Cherubic Hymn.

If Wehner and Brooks are correct, capitalism and democracy are “part of an intricate social web.” Understanding this social network requires not only personal virtue and just laws, but the eschatological vision that we receive in the sacraments and which we constantly accept and embody in the ascetical life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Work Cited:

Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), pp. 1180-1211.

Kreeft, P (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Before we leave Bright Week, some paschal flash mob public square Spirit from a shopping mall in Beirut. Source: Sat-7 Arabic

Earlier this month, prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson delivered the 2011 Kuyper Prize Lecture at the Kuyper Center conference, “Calvinism and Culture.”

In this lecture, Robinson explores and reframes our historical understanding of the Reformed tradition and its relationship to “Christian liberalism.” She says,

Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words Calvinist and Puritan, and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation. And this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament. This is a bold statement, very much against the grain of historical consensus. Though I acknowledge that it may be indefensible in any number of particulars, I will argue that in a general sense it is not only true, but a clarification of history important to contemporary culture and to that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.

She traces this idea of Christian liberalism to the Reformation ideas about generosity and responsibility. She notes,

But in Renaissance French, libéral, libéralité, meant “generous, generosity.” And of course the word occurs in the English Puritan translations, the Matthew’s Bible and the Geneva Bible, which were followed in their use of the term by the 1611 Authorized Version. The word occurs in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, non-exclusive generosity.

The point here does not apply to non-exclusivity of doctrine (which is how it is typically understood, and applied as she notes in the context of figures like Adolf von Harnack). The point is rather that Christian liberalism, as informed by the Reformed reception of the biblical witness, is that it is focused on a vision of social life and culture.

As Robinson says, “All this is of interest because the verses I have quoted and the word liberal itself, supported by the meaning the verses give to it, are central to American social thought from its beginning.”

The audio of Robinson’s lecture is available in MP3 format here.

The following is a devotional on the meaning of Easter, or Pascha, from Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom. More from Bishop Angaelos may be found on his blog. Also see “Copts welcome Easter amid hope, fear and determination to fight for rights” on Ahram Online.

On the Resurrection

Key verses: 1 Peter 4:12-13

As we celebrate the commemoration of the glorious feast of our Lord’s Resurrection on Sunday, we must never lose sight of the fact that as victorious as this resurrection is, it would never have come about without the apparent defeat of the cross.

In looking at the first epistle of Saint Peter throughout these devotionals, I could not help paying particular attention to his message in verses 12 and 13 of chapter 4: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” This is the true essence of the Christian joy.

Bishop Angaelos

Christianity carries within itself, its message and its life a strange paradox. Our Lord insists that we are free, victorious and called to a greater life, but at the same time, over the past centuries we have seen so much persecution and affliction. How can this be victory? It is simple. It is just as St Peter said. It is within the fullness of this suffering that we are both part of and celebrate the fullness and the victory of the Resurrection.

We look around the world today and see so much conflict and unrest, and as we also look at our Christian brethren around the world we still see, even 2000 years after Christ Himself walked this earth, that there are people who are still persecuted as He was and lose their lives as He did. One might then say, ‘He is risen but they are not’ and this is what I want to reflect upon with you today. He indeed is risen, but what of those still persecuted today?

I want us to place ourselves with those disciples who ran to the tomb on Sunday morning, stooped down and looked within, only to be faced with a strange vision of angels standing within the tomb. We must also reflect on what those angels said. As the disciples looked in, the angel had a very clear question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5-6).

As Christians we must stop looking for Christ among the dead and we must start looking for victory through death. 

As Christ is risen, and as He has given us hope in that very same Resurrection, so we too must always look beyond the cross and the tomb. When our Lord spoke to his disciples, He said to them they would be sad, weep and lament, but He also said that there would be a day in which He would return to them and restore their joy, and that joy no one would ever take away (John 16:22).

He also said very honestly and openly to them, hiding nothing of what they would experience, that they should expect to find tribulation in the world, but in my own mind, he would have looked at them gently with a smile, a victorious smile, and continued, “But I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

We are the disciples of the One who has not only overcome the world, but has overcome death itself. Today let us rejoice in our suffering, knowing that this will only lead us to rejoicing in the very real resurrection, one after which there will be no more suffering, pain and persecution, but only the beauty that comes from the presence of our Lord in His glorious kingdom.

Source: Christian Publishing & Outreach

Blog author: lglinzak
Thursday, April 21, 2011
By

Easter is fast approaching, and in light of this revered day, we take a look at Easter messages the Acton Institute has published in the past.

A day celebrated by all Christians, Easter can mean many different things for people. The article, “An Easter Message for Business” explores what it means for entrepreneurs and business men and women. In the article we find that business is a calling and business men and women are called to utilize their Christian principles by applying them to in their every day lives on the job:

As the ability to work and function in the market system is a gift from God, it must be carried out according to moral precepts. Thus, a moral code must be present and alive in everyday business life. Every transaction, trade, or exchange must have at its core values based on natural law. In the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the description of Pope Pius XII’s teaching on social doctrine emphasize this point: “He insisted on the notion of natural law as the soul of the system to be established on both the national and the international levels”(53–54). How can the businessman know whether his actions are based on natural law? “Society, its structures and development must be oriented towards the progress of the human person” (56).

[…]

One might object that business cannot always take into consideration every person. How can a business function and make a profit while trying to maintain the dignity of all? In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II provided a response: “A business’s objective must be met in economic terms and according to economic criteria, but the authentic values that bring about the concrete development of the person and society must not be neglected.”

The business cannot be responsible for every person; rather its responsibility is towards its employees and contacts. Again, John Paul II admits, “The social doctrine of the Church recognizes the proper role of profit as the first indicator that a business is functioning well: when a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed.” Prosperity and human flourishing need not be opposed, so long as corporate productivity and human dignity are brought into concord. The Church reminds business, “The legitimate pursuit of profit should be in harmony with the irrenounceable protection of the dignity of the people who work at different levels in the same company” (Compendium, n. 340).

On Easter we are reminded the powerful meaning of Christ conquering death. Ray Nothstine explains this influential message in “Easter: The Resurrection & the Life” which can resonate with all Christians:

Easter Sunday celebrates the power of Christ over death, and how that power is the joy and the fulfillment of the life of the believer. Our suffering, imperfections, tears, and grief are wiped away by the promises and power of Christ. It brings meaning and assurances to everything we know about the Christian faith. “The Gospels do not explain the resurrection. The resurrection alone is what can explain the Gospels,” says Thomas C. Oden.

The witness of faith for those who gather to celebrate Easter will testify mightily against a world and lifestyle that suffers to find meaning, redemption, joy, immortality, and love outside of God. All too often we see the consequences of the kind of lifestyles that are absent from faith, and the haunting despair that follows. But the Christian lives with the assurance and promise of eternal life because of the intercession and power of Christ over sin and death.

Another important message found in Easter is the message of hope. Hope is found in the resurrection of Jesus, and as Ray Nothstine articulates in, “What the Resurrection Means to Me” just when we find ourselves full of despair, we are reminded to look to the resurrection of Christ and are reminded that God is always with us:

Often in the burdens that afflict our inner most being we can only find meaning in the resurrection. The trials, despair, and pain of this life crushes us too much. But when we spend our time dwelling on the risen Lord, our despair turns to hope. We know that he will not abandon us or forsake those who love and worship him, especially beyond the grave. The resurrection is a cause for endless celebration. It is the seal that we will fully dwell in the everlasting with the Triune God who created us for relationship with him for his glory.

The Acton Institute and Kuyper College are partnering to produce a first-ever English translation of Abraham Kuyper’s seminal work Common Grace (De gemeene gratie). The three-volume project will be published through Acton’s recently acquired imprint, Christian’s Library Press, and the first volume is slated to appear in the fall of 2012.

More details are appear below and at the Kuyper translation project page. You can sign up at the page to be kept up-to-date as the project progresses. There you can also download and share a brochure about the project (PDF), the table of contents for the three volumes (PDF), as well as a translation of Kuyper’s introduction to the first volume (PDF). These brochures were distributed to attendees of last week’s conference hosted by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, “Calvinism and Culture.”

Summary

There is a trend among evangelicals to engage in social reform without first developing a coherent social philosophy to guide the agenda. To bridge this gap, Acton Institute and Kuyper College are partnering together to translate Abraham Kuyper’s seminal three-volume work on common grace (De gemeene gratie). Common Grace was chosen because it holds great potential to build intellectual capacity within evangelicalism and because a sound grasp of this doctrine is what is missing in evangelical cultural engagement. Common Grace is the capstone of Kuyper’s constructive public theology and the best available platform to draw evangelics back to first principles and to orient their social thought.

Press Release

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (April 19, 2011)—The Acton Institute and Kuyper College are collaborating to bring for the first time to English-language audiences a foundational text from the pen of the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s three-volume work, Common Grace (De gemeene gratie) appeared from 1901-05, during his tenure as prime minister in the Netherlands.

These works are based on a series of newspaper editorials intended to equip common citizens and laypersons with the tools they needed to effectively enter public life. The doctrine of common grace is, as Kuyper puts it, “the root conviction for all Reformed people.”

“If the believer’s God is at work in this world,” says Kuyper, “then in this world the believer’s hand must take hold of the plow, and the name of the Lord must be glorified in that activity as well.”

Dr. Stephen Grabill, director of programs at the Acton Institute, serves as general editor of the project. He points to the contemporary need to understand Kuyper’s comprehensive and cohesive vision for Christian social engagement. “There are a host of current attempts to try to describe how evangelicals should be at work in the world,” Grabill said. “Kuyper’s articulation of the project of common grace shows how these efforts must be grounded in and flow naturally from sound doctrine.”

Placing social engagement, particularly within the context of business activity, in the broader context of sound theology is a large part of what led Kuyper College to partner in this translation project. “Abraham Kuyper’s project in Common Grace helps provide a reliable and engaging theological basis for our new business leadership program,” said Kuyper College president Nicholas Kroeze.

John Bolt, professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of A Free Church, a Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology, will serve as a theological advisor to the project. He describes the basic intention of Kuyper’s work as intended “to challenge the pious, orthodox, Reformed people of the Netherlands to take seriously their calling in Dutch culture and society. His basic argument was: God is not absent from the non-church areas of our common life but bestows his gifts and favor indiscriminately to all people.”

The translation and publication project will cover a two year period, and the three volumes total over 1,700 pages in the original. Dr. Nelson Kloosterman of Worldview Resources International and translator of numerous Dutch works will oversee the translation of the texts. The completed translation will be published by Christian’s Library Press, the recently acquired imprint of the Acton Institute. Volume one of Common Grace is scheduled to appear in the fall of 2012.

For more information please visit:

http://www.acton.org/kuyper

In today’s Acton Commentary, “Debt and the Birth Dearth,” I examine the interrelationship between demographics, economics, and morality, especially within the context of America’s current public debt crisis.

I conclude by pointing to the spiritual nature of our “debts”:

Jesus taught Christians to pray, “Forgive us our debts.” If we do not renew and reform our culture along the lines suggested here, a renewal that must be led by Christians acting as agents of transformative grace, the debts for which we must pray forgiveness will be far weightier than those incurred by the federal government.

In a primary sense, of course, all of our debts, sins, and transgressions are more than we can afford to make recompense for. This is why the atoning work of Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, is of fundamental importance.

But this reality doesn’t remove our responsibility to respond to God’s saving grace in thankfulness and in “fear and trembling.” Instead Christ’s work makes our even meager attempts at faithfulness possible and meaningful.

The Heidelberg Catechism describes this daily conversion of the Christian, the turning away from sin and toward Christ, in terms of death and life, mortification and vivification. This “mortification of the old man” is a dying-to-self, “a sincere sorrow of heart, that we have provoked God by our sins; and more and more to hate and flee from them.” Vivification, by contrast, is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.”

A critical part of this “joy of heart in God, through Christ,” must manifest itself in the celebration of God’s gift of life itself. This includes promoting faithful procreation and parenting, and as Russell Moore has argued so well, promoting a culture of adoption.

Luther famously described parenthood as a sacred calling.

Preaching on “The Estate of Marriage” in 1522, Luther said:

Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.”

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, “O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”

A wife too should regard her duties in the same light, as she suckles the child, rocks and bathes it, and cares for it in other ways; and as she busies herself with other duties and renders help and obedience to her husband. These are truly golden and noble works. This is also how to comfort and encourage a woman in the pangs of childbirth, not by repeating St. Margaret legends and other silly old wives’ tales but by speaking thus, “Dear Grete, remember that you are a woman, and that this work of God in you is pleasing to him. Trust joyfully in his will, and let him have his way with you. Work with all your might to bring forth the child. Should it mean your death, then depart happily, for you will die in a noble deed and in subservience to God. If you were not a woman you should now wish to be one for the sake of this very work alone, that you might thus gloriously suffer and even die in the performance of God’s work and will. For here you have the word of God, who so created you and implanted within you this extremity.” Tell me, is not this indeed (as Solomon says [Prov. 18:22]) “to obtain favor from the Lord,” even in the midst of such extremity?

Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool—though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith—my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.

[Martin Luther, vol. 45, Luther’s Works, Vol. 45: The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, 39-41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999).]

Thus Christians, in celebrating life, marriage, family, and children, must risk being worldly derision and ridicule, relying on heavenly wisdom rather than the devil’s foolishness.

It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.

James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”

In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.

Anderson writes,

As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.

Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.

Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.

VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.

The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”

Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”

Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.

As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.

New books from Pope Benedict XVI and Fr. Hans Kung, two theologians who worked as contemporaries and whose careers were nurtured on the same German soil, show them to be worlds apart in their understanding of the Catholic Church. Unlike Kung, Benedict’s vision of the Church, writes Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg,  is “focused upon deepening its knowledge of, faithfulness to, and love for Christ. It’s also a Church that engages the world, but is not subservient to passing intellectual-fashion. Finally, it’s a Church which is evangelical in the best sense of the word: proposing – rather than hedging or imposing – the Truth revealed by Christ.” Special thanks to RealClearReligion, Fr. Z’s Blog, CatholicCulture.org and The Pulp.it for posting this commentary. Get Acton News & Commentary in your email inbox every Wednesday. Sign up here.

Benedict XVI, Hans Kung and Catholicism’s Future

By Samuel Gregg

Western Europe is considered a religiously-barren place these days. The reality, however, is more complex. Books written by two Catholic theologians recently rocketed up Germany’s best-seller list. That testifies to Europe’s on-going interest in religious matters. But the books’ real importance lies in their authors’ rather different visions of Catholicism’s purposes and future – and not just in Europe, but beyond.

One of the theologians is Benedict XVI. The other is the well-known scholar Fr. Hans Kung. His text, Can the Church Still Be Saved?, was published the same week as volume two of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Though usually viewed as polar-opposites, Benedict and Kung have led curiously parallel lives. Both are native German-speakers. They are almost the same age. For a time, both taught at the same university. During the Second Vatican Council, they served as theological advisors with reputations as reformers.

More-attuned participants at Vatican II, however, immediately noticed differences between Kung and the-then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. One such person was the Jesuit Henri de Lubac – a French theologian who no-one could dismiss as a reactionary.

In his Vatican II diaries, de Lubac entered pithy observations about those he encountered. Ratzinger is portrayed as one whose powerful intellect is matched by his “peacefulness” and “affability.” Kung, by contrast, is denoted as possessing a “juvenile audacity” and speaking in “incendiary, superficial, and polemical” terms.

Fr. de Lubac, incidentally, was a model of courtesy his entire life. Something about Kung clearly bothered him.

After Vatican II, Ratzinger and Kung took very divergent roads. Ratzinger emerged as a formidable defender of Catholic orthodoxy and was eventually elected pope. Kung became a theological celebrity and antagonist of the papacy.

Now both men are in the evening of their earthly days. What, many wonder, occupies their minds at this time of life? In this regard, Jesus of Nazareth and Can the Church still be saved? are quite revealing.

From Jesus of Nazareth’s first pages, it’s clear Benedict is focused upon knowing the truth about Christ as He is rather than who we might prefer Him to be.

Through a deep exposition of Scripture many Evangelicals will admire and a careful exploration of tradition the Eastern Orthodox will appreciate, Benedict shows Christ is who the ancient Church proclaims Him to be – not a political activist, but rather the Messiah who really lived, really died and who then proved his divinity by really rising from the dead.

So what is Kung’s book focused upon? In a word, power. For Kung, it’s all about power – especially papal power – and the need for lay Catholics to seize power if the Church is to be “saved” from sinister Roman reactionaries who have perverted Christianity for centuries.

Leaving aside its cartoon-like presentation of Church history, the Christ of Kung’s book is one who would apparently disavow his own teachings on subjects such as marriage because they don’t conform to twenty-first century secularist morality. Instead, Kung’s Christ faithfully follows the views of, well, progressive post-Vatican II German theologians.

For long-term Kung-watchers, this is nothing new. He’s been playing the same broken record since 1965. And the worn-out tune is that of accommodation: more precisely, accommodation to secularist-progressivism.

Unfortunately for Kung, he has two problems. One is theological. No matter how much scandal has been caused by Borgia popes, inept bishops, heretical theologians, sexually-predatory clergy or sinful laity, the Catholic Church teaches “the gates of hell will never prevail against it.”

In short, the cosmological battle has already been won. Hence the Church isn’t anyone’s to be “saved.” Yes, all Catholics and other Christians continue to sin, but the Church’s survival has been guaranteed by Christ. In that light, the notion the Church needs to be “saved” by late middle-aged dissenting baby-boomers is more than absurd: it’s also arrogant.

Kung’s agenda also has a practical problem. Put simply, it’s failed. Whether it is interpreting Vatican II as a rupture with the past or banalizing the liturgy with clown masses and 1970s music, no-one can plausibly claim the accommodationist project infused life into Catholicism.

Instead, it produced ashes. In much of the West, it facilitated moral relativism, a bureaucratization of church organizations, and the collapse of once-great religious orders into not-especially coherent apologists for name-your-latest-lefty-cause.

In what’s left of accommodationist circles, woe betide anyone who highlights the dark side of the Greens’ agenda, who suggests the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change doesn’t share in the charisma of infallibility, or who observes that the small number of non-negotiables for Catholics in political life actually are non-negotiable. To do so is anathema.

Benedict’s vision of the Church is utterly different. It does not indulge the fantasy that a “new church” somehow materialized in 1965. Nor does it hanker after an imaginary 1950s golden age.

Instead it’s a Church focused upon deepening its knowledge of, faithfulness to, and love for Christ. It’s also a Church that engages the world, but is not subservient to passing intellectual-fashion. Finally, it’s a Church which is evangelical in the best sense of the word: proposing – rather than hedging or imposing – the Truth revealed by Christ.

But perhaps the most revealing difference between Benedict and Fr. Kung’s books is the tone. Can the Church still be saved? is characterized by anger – the fury of an enfant terrible who’s not-so-enfant anymore and who knows the game is up: that his vision of Catholicism can’t be saved from the irredeemable irrelevance into which it has sunk.

Jesus of Nazareth, however, is pervaded by humility: the humility of one who approaches human history’s greatest mystery, applies to it his full intellect, and then presents his contribution for others’ assessment.

Yes, there are many things going on in Benedict’s book, but in the end there’s only one agenda really in play and it has nothing to do with power. It’s about helping readers to encounter the fullness of Christ in the most important days of His earthly life – to know what God was willing to do to save us from ourselves.

Besides such things, Hans Kung’s agenda seems very trivial indeed.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy