Posts tagged with: evangelicalism

New RadicalsI recently expressed my reservations about David Platt’s approach to “radical Christianity,” noting that, outside of embracing certain Biblical constraints (e.g. tithing), we should be wary of cramming God’s will into our own cookie-cutter molds for how wealth should be carved up and divvied out.

In this month’s cover story in Christianity Today, my good friend Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy does a nice job of summarizing some additional issues surrounding the broader array of “radical Christianity” books and movements.

Sprouting from a diverse set of personalities ranging from Platt to Shane Claiborne to Kyle Idleman to Francis Chan to Steven Furtick, “the radical message has found an eager market,” Anderson explains, with sermons and books that “have both incited and tapped into a widespread dissatisfaction with many Americans’ comfortable, middle-class way of life and the Christianity that so easily fits within it.”

Anderson appreciates the energy and sincerity of those seeking to subvert “comfortable Christianity,” but offers a helpful critique of the overall urgency of things, beginning with an observation of the movement’s “reliance on intensifiers”—a reality that, for Anderson, demonstrates a distinct blind spot:

These teachers want us to see that following Christ genuinely, truly, really, radically, sacrificially, inconveniently, and uncomfortably will cost us…The reliance on intensifiers demonstrates the emptiness of American Christianity’s language. Previous generations were content singing “trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” Today we have to really trust and truly obey. The inflated rhetoric is a sign of how divorced our churches’ vocabulary is from the simple language of Scripture.

And the intensifiers don’t solve the problem. Replacing belief with commitment still places the burden of our formation on the sheer force of our will. As much as some of these radical pastors would say otherwise, their rhetoric still relies on listeners “making a decision.” There is almost no explicit consideration of how beliefs actually take root, or whether that process is as conscious as we presume.

This gap becomes further evident, Anderson argues, when one observes the narrow range and overly dramatic thrust of the narratives and testimonies held up by the movement:  (more…)

Radical Together, David PlattOver at Thought Life, Owen Strachan uses David Platt’s book, Radical Together, as a launching pad for asking, “Are you and I making and using money as if there is no such thing as the work of the gospel?”

I’ve already written about my disagreements with Platt’s approach in his first book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, and Strachan expresses similar reservations. While appreciating Platt’s emphasis on “exaltation of and dependence on a sovereign, awesome God,” Strachan is concerned that on the topic of wealth—a primary target of Platt’s—readers might easily rush to the assumption that wealth and prosperity are bad altogether.

Evangelicalism desperately needs Platt’s laser focus on the gospel and missions. The church exists to make disciples for the glory of God, both locally and abroad. I would only point out that I think that wealth and philanthropy can actually be our friend here. In other words, if you want to apply the “radical” model–with its many strengths–I can think of few things more radical than using one’s wealth for gospel purposes. Maybe the most spiritual thing to do to support the promotion of the gospel is this: stay in your job, save and invest scrupulously, and keep pumping out money to support missionaries and pastors.

Here’s just one example of thousands we could give on this point. A forgotten man named Henry Parsons Crowell made vast amounts of money through the Quaker Oats company. Did he hoard it? Nope. He gave away 70% percent of his massive income and helped bankroll Moody Bible Institute, the school that…has sent out thousands upon thousands of missionaries in its century of ministry. Yes, every time you eat Quaker Oats, you’re paying masticular homage to a man who–merely by giving money–helped catapult the gospel all over the world

…This is a testimony to what wealth, including but not limited to truly fabulous wealth, can do if committed to the Lord. It’s one of countless others we could share of evangelicals of great or small means who tucked money away not for themselves, but for the work of Christ’s church. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Friday, October 12, 2012
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Panel: “Why Morality-Free Economic Theory Doesn’t Work”

“Why Morality-Free Economic Theory Does Not Work: A Natural Law Perspective in the Wake of the Recent Financial Crisis.” The recent worldwide financial crisis has revealed a serious flaw in current thinking about markets and morals. Contemporary legal theorists and political economists commonly assume that markets can (and even should) provide morally neutral zones for the exchange of goods among free persons, constrained by nothing other than the laws of contract and the imperatives of self-interest. Professor Bruni’s lecture will challenge this dominant assumption, and will offer an alternative, ‘natural law’ perspective on the interrelatedness of markets, morals, and human sociality.

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“As Secularism Advances, Political Messianism Draws More Believers” is my commentary for this week. So much can be said about religion and presidential campaigns but for this piece I wanted to elevate some important truths about virtue and discernment in our society today. Here’s a quote from the piece:

Worries about religious imagery in campaigns and Messianic overtones are warranted especially if these religious expressions replace a vibrant spirituality in churches and houses of worship across America. If spiritual discernment and spiritual truths wane in America, the public is crippled in its capacity to discern political truths such as the proper and limited role of government.

If any Powerblog readers are near Raleigh, North Carolina, I will be giving a lecture on religion and presidential campaigns at the John Locke Foundation on August 27. At Locke, I will give more attention to the historical analysis of religion in campaigns, with special attention to recent history.

For this election cycle, I think it’s fairly certain in a race this close and heated, criticism of Romney’s Mormon faith will resurface, but from the political left this time. It’s already happening now, but will certainly increase after the conventions.

Religion and faith is such an instrumental part of presidential campaigns that in 2004, George W. Bush spent considerable time courting the old order Amish vote in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The presidential race was so tight that the Bush team did not want to cede one religious vote that might turn out for him in those states. He made a historic stop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and met privately with around 50 members of the Amish community asking for their prayers and support. As separatists, most of the old order Amish do not typically vote in national elections. The encounter left Bush visibly moved and some said tears welled up in his eyes. At another meeting with the Amish Bush declared, “Tell the Amish churches I need their prayers so I can run the country as God wishes.”

Last month, a Christianity Today editorial noted some of the intellectual foundations for ecumenical efforts in the public square, particularly relevant to evangelical and Roman Catholic cooperation against the HHS mandates. The editorial focuses on Chuck Colson, and says “you can credit Colson, who died on April 21, for a major part of evangelicals’ reduced anxiety about relations with Roman Catholics.”

The editorial goes on to describe how Colson’s ecumenism and broader theological foundations were inspired by “key evangelical theologians,” particularly

the words and deeds of the great Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper (died 1920). Kuyper carefully articulated the doctrinal and philosophical differences between Rome and his beloved Geneva. Yet he admired Romanism’s vigor in countries where it became disestablished. Kuyper believed that in the fight against modernism, Protestant Christianity could be effective only if it partnered with Roman Catholics.

In the course of filming the last interview given before his death with the Acton Institute, Colson describes the influence of Abraham Kuyper on his work in his own words:

For more, check out Colson’s concluding plenary address, published as “How Now Shall We Live?” in the proceedings of “A Century of Christian Social Teaching: The Legacy of Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper,” held at Calvin at Calvin College in October of 1998, in which Colson discusses “the remarkable and still controversial idea of Calvinists and Catholics coming together.”

Few clichés are so widespread within the evangelical subculture, says Matthew Lee Anderson, as the notion that our witness must be one of “changing hearts and minds.”

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Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
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I had the pleasure of being a guest on today’s installment of Coffee & Markets, the fine podcast hosted by Kevin Holtsberry and Pejman Yousefzadeh. I got to talk about Abraham Kuyper and his essays on common grace, particularly in the areas of science and art.

These essays are available in translation in Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, the first selection from the broader three-volume Common Grace translation project.

Check out the podcast and some related links over at the Coffee & Markets website.

At the Daily Beast yesterday, Michelle Goldman Goldberg muses on the movement of “the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann” over to Ron Paul. This is in part because these “ultra-right evangelicals” are really “the country’s most committed theocrats,” whose support for Paul “is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian.” (Goldberg’s piece appeared before yesterday’s results from Iowa, in which it seems evangelical support went more toward Santorum [32%] than Paul [18%].)

Goldberg shows some theological sensibilities as she tries to trace the connections between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism. Better informed readers will recognize some of the holes, however, as Goldberg describes proponents of Reformed or “covenant theology” as those who “tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back.” Christian Reconstructionism becomes, then, “The most radical faction of covenant theology,” and, “a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.” (For an opposite reading of Paul that criticizes him precisely for not seeking to legislate biblical morality and his “opposition to moral legislation,” see D. C. Innes’ piece over at WORLD, “Christian, why Ron Paul?”)

So while Goldberg is right to note the interesting connections and tensions between libertarianism and Reconstructionism, the connection of Reconstructionism to broader evangelical and Reformed “covenant theology” is rather more tenuous. In part this must be because she relies primarily on Steve Deace, “an influential Iowa evangelical radio host,” for her mapping of the intellectual and theological landscape. But it’s also due, of course, to the impulse to paint any conservative Christian who draws political implications from their faith as a kind of theocrat, whether a theonomist, Reconstructionist, or the latest term bandied about by Goldberg in connection with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, “Dominionist.”

On the one hand, you rarely if ever hear this sort of worrying over the influence of those on the religious Left, who very explicitly want to make an American government in line with their image of biblical justice. On the other, Goldberg’s connection between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism, especially in the person of Gary North, is quite legitimate. This can be seen in more detail and with more nuance in one of the few academic articles to explicitly address this connection, “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Timothy Terrell and Glenn Moots. And as pieces from David Bahnsen and Doug Wilson from earlier this year show, the connections between reconstructionists and libertarians are deep, in part because, as Wilson puts it, “We are talking in many cases about the very same people.”

But as Terrell and Moots point out, the place of Christian Reconstructionism within the broader context of American evangelicalism, and Reformed covenant theology in particular, is hotly disputed. Indeed, write Terrell and Moots, “Some of the most notable critiques of Christian Reconstruction come from within conservative Presbyterianism.” So while Christian Reconstructionism might self-identify as a kind of Reformed covenantal thinking, this doesn’t mean that all Reformed covenant theology is either postmillennial or prone to theonomy. As no less than John Calvin writes in his Institutes,

The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.

This is a sentiment commonly shared by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theological forebears of Reformed “covenant theology.”

Terrell and Moots conclude with an emphasis on the importance of taking religious motivations and theological convictions seriously:

Recent history demonstrates that the considered prescription of a free society has advanced best when it is a broadly ecumenical and pluralistic discussion. This means that it not only includes secular and religious justifications but also takes into consideration the breadth and depth of religious viewpoints.

So I think we should applaud Goldberg for taking into consideration the religious viewpoints and influences of candidates like Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann, but we should also take her to task for not being a bit more sensitive to the complicated theological landscape. Christian Reconstructionists are a vocal minority, a “fringe” as Goldberg calls them, among politically conservative Christians, but their specific views about biblical laws and punishments are simply not attributable to every evangelical candidate.

Unfortunately this kind of conflation is all too common in the media and popular entertainment. As Russell Moore writes of “dominionism” (and by extension all of the charges of theocracy against conservative Christians) in the latest issue of The City,

the menace of this movement is routinely exaggerated by the media. All this is quite rare, a movement on the far fringes of faithful life. And the scare tactics are made worse by ignorance, particularly among those who don’t understand ‘dominion theology,’ and assume the use of the word ‘dominion’ itself as a call for theocracy as the consolidation of Christian political power — when the case is so exactly the opposite.

And as I conclude in the same issue, “Those in our day who level the baseless charges of suspicion against Christians for undermining the public good deserve to be branded as the real dissemblers and enemies of common good.” Or as Calvin put it, “It is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God.”

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.

While there is much to applaud in the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action’s “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” the lack of discussion of the problem of economic growth is troubling. I believe Don Peck is correct when he writes in The Atlantic:

If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men—and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.

The only solution here seems to be economic growth. And while tackling the staggering problem of the debt is an integral component to ensuring the younger generation gets a fair shot to succeed the first and most pressing issue is employment itself. There is little in ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice’ that takes this challenge seriously as it calls for cuts in programs (Such as military spending and business subsidies) which do create jobs for many Americans. This is not to say that these cuts should be taken off the table but rather that there needs to be an acknowledgement that these cuts will also affect Americans negatively and may, in the short term at least, add to the ranks of the poor in America.

These are not easy questions to answer but I believe that any solution to the question of intergenerational justice must begin with the question of economic growth. We need solutions that empower entrepreneurs, invigorate the private sector, and accelerate economic growth informed by an understanding of the role of markets and free enterprise.