Posts tagged with: protestantism

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Two more thoughtful reviews of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness are in. Ross Emmett says that, “those concerned about the role of the church in the world today can learn a lot by reading and reflecting on Ballor’s excellent critique of the ecumenical movement’s political economy.” And in the new issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, Thomas Sieger Derr agrees with Jordan that the ecumenical movement should be “appropriately circumspect in its ethical pronouncements on specific matters of public policy.”

And, on his blog, Hunter Baker (he’s a PowerBlogger, too) chats with Jordan about Babel. Here it is in full:

Baker: Writing a book is serious undertaking that requires a lot of motivation. What was it that inspired you to write Ecumenical Babel?

Ballor: A number of years ago I first became closely aware of the kinds of advocacy that was going on by officials at ecumenical organizations. In the meantime, while pursuing graduate work and various duties at the Acton Institute, I kept an eye on ecumenical affairs, and when the 2010 Uniting General Council of the soon-to-be-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was announced I had the idea to write something engaging the social teaching of the various ecumenical groups. The WCRC was going to be formed at a meeting here in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, so I thought that this was an event that was perfect for the launch of a project that would later become Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness. (The less-colorful working title was Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Engagement.) As I say in the book, given my denominational background, including my current membership in the Christian Reformed Church (a member denomination of the WCRC), I have a real theological as well as spiritual interest in ecumenism, which I believe is of utmost importance in contemporary Christian life. The real promise and challenge of authentic ecumenism is undermined to a great extent by the kinds of frivolous and downright irresponsible pronouncements coming out of the mainline ecumenical groups, and this is a tragic state of affairs that I feel needs some ongoing response. Building on a line of criticism I find in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey, and Ernest Lefever, Ecumenical Babel is an opening statement in what I hope will be a renewed conversation.

Part of your argument, as I understand it, is a complaint against the practice of left-wing economics tied to the Christian faith. You would prefer that denominational confabs leave matters of economic policy undeclared and advert to prudence, instead. Is that a fair representation? And if so, does your book cut into the efforts of many Christian thinkers to encourage the integration of faith with a variety of fields?

It is a fair representation, provided that it is balanced with my similar discomfort at particularly right-wing economics coming from pulpits as well as denominational and ecumenical offices. What I hope is that my book interrupts the efforts of many Christians to bring their faith to bear on public life in a facile and superficial way. I do believe that the Christian faith is relevant for all of human life. It is a vigorous and comprehensive faith. As Jesus says, he has come that we may have life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I take this to refer to the “bigness,” the comprehensiveness and complexity, of the Christian life in this fallen world. But it is typically not the case that there is a single Christian position on particular economic or political questions, and I find that there is all too often a kind of ideological imposition on the church and its social witness. This happens both on the left and the right, but in this case I focus particularly on the ecumenical movement where the problem is largely left-wing brands of economic and political ideology. Carl Trueman has written a book, Republocrat, that focuses on a rather different context, that is, socially and theologically conservative or confessional Presbyterianism in the United States, where he finds the problem to be an unduly close connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Insofar as our objects of critique are different (and indeed our sensibilities are rather different regarding the prudential questions of economic and politics), then our respective criticisms are on one level quite radically opposed. But this opposition is particularly in the application, not in the principle, which is that we both write against the ideological interpretation of the Christian faith along particular economic or political lines.

This book was published by the Acton Institute where you have worked for a number of years now. In a nutshell, can you make their case for “religion and liberty”? And can you tie that mission to your book’s message?

The focus of the Acton Institute is to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue. The thesis, you might say, is that true freedom is only possible and realized within the context of virtue, the kind of virtue you get from a biblical account of God and his creation. The two must go together; you don’t get lasting or vigorous freedom in society without a virtuous people, and you don’t get a virtuous people without the institutional and structural freedoms that minimally allow, and maximally promote, such virtue. My book’s message relates to this in that it engages a particular set of voices that undermines this rather tenuous balance that holds freedom and virtue in harmony. The mainline ecumenical movement has been advocating for decades now for a kind of social, political, and economic transformation that I think would have deleterious consequences, and they have done so in a way that overreaches the mandates and responsibilities of the Christian churches as institutions in social life. One of the founding motivations for the Acton Institute was to present religious leaders with some introduction to economic ideas, so that their proclamation of the Gospel might be informed by some familiarity with what is involved with entrepreneurship, vocation, and business. The recent statements of the mainline ecumenical movement display the kind of ignorance of economics and un-nuanced rejection of economic realities that the Acton Institute has been working to dispel for the last two decades.

Finally, this book is the first publication of a renewed Christian’s Library Press, which was purchased and put back to work by Acton. Why did Acton buy the press? And what are Acton’s plans for the press going forward?

The Acton Institute’s acquisition of Christian’s Library Press was part of the institute’s reception of the literary and intellectual estate of Lester DeKoster, who passed away in 2009. Along with DeKoster’s books, notes, and unpublished manuscripts, the Acton Institute became the steward, you might say, of the publishing imprint that DeKoster began with his friend Gerard Berghoef and their families in 1979. Over the following decades Christian’s Library Press put out a number of important and valuable books on stewardship, discipleship, and Christian leadership that got some significant, albeit limited, circulation in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. One of the things Acton is committed to doing with CLP is to update and bring some of these texts back into circulation, introducing some of them for the first time to the broader evangelical world. So, for instance, we published DeKoster’s book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in a second edition last year. This is a little book that captures well, in an accessible and popular way, a core understanding of the value of work and its meaning in the Christian life. Moving forward we have plans to expand the imprint as we make available some of the CLP backlist in new editions as well as publishing new books in the broad area of Protestant social thought.

I’ve issued a call for publication for a special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality to appear in the Fall of 2011 (14.2). The details are below, and you can download and circulate a PDF as well.


Call for Publication: Modern Christian Social Thought

In recognition of a number of significant anniversaries occurring this year, the Journal of Markets & Morality invites submissions for a special theme issue, “Modern Christian Social Thought” (vol. 14, no. 2). The year 2011 marks the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the encyclical from Leo XIII in 1891 that inaugurated the subsequent social encyclical tradition. 2011 also marks the 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which was promulgated at the centenary of Rerum Novarum.

This year is also the 120th anniversary of the First Social Congress in Amsterdam, which has become well-known as a representative of the trend of European social congresses in the last half of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries. Abraham Kuyper, the noted Dutch theologian and statesmen, gave the opening address at this First Social Congress, a speech that set the tone for addressing the “social question” in light of Christian ethical reflection.

In recognition of these important events and their bearing for the course of Christian social thought over the last century and beyond, the journal welcomes submissions focusing on aspects of social thought in the various traditions, both within the Reformed or Roman Catholic tradition as well as in comparative and constructive dialogue between the two. This issue will include a new translation of a selection by Abraham Kuyper. The journal also welcomes proposals for translation other important sources related to the issue’s theme that have not been widely available previously in English. We also welcome submissions focusing on social thought in other Christian traditions, particularly Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox, in the modern era (from roughly 1850 to today).

The special theme issue, “Modern Christian Social Thought,” will appear in the Fall of 2011, and article submissions must be received by August 1, 2011, in order to proceed through the review process in a timely manner.

Queries are welcomed, as are submissions by international scholars and graduate students.

Please direct all correspondence and submissions to:

Jordan J. Ballor
Executive Editor
Journal of Markets & Morality
jballor@acton.org

About the journal:

The Journal of Markets & Morality is a peer-reviewed academic journal published twice a year–in the Spring and Fall. The journal promotes intellectual exploration of the relationship between economics and morality from both social science and theological perspectives. It seeks to bring together theologians, philosophers, economists, and other scholars for dialogue concerning the morality of the marketplace.

Submission guidelines, subscription information, and digital archives are available at: http://www.marketsandmorality.com/

The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (13.2) is now available online to subscribers. This issue features a fine set of articles from Manfred Spieker, Gregorio Guitián, Joseph Burke, and Jim Skillen. It also has the usual range of book reviews, so ably overseen by the journal’s book review editor Kevin Schmiesing.

This issue also has two special features. The first is a controversy between Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and the author of Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity (Brazos Press, 2009), and Hunter Baker, associate dean of arts and sciences at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, and the author of The End of Secularism (Crossway, 2009). In a lively and wide-ranging discussion, Malesic and Baker debate the question, “Is Some Form of Secularism the Best Foundation for Christian Engagement in Public Life?”

The other special feature in this issue is our second occasional installment of the Status Quaestionis. Conceived as a complement to our Scholia, which are original translations of early modern texts and treatises on ethics, economics, and theology, the Status Quaestionis features are intended to help us grasp in a more thorough and comprehensive way the state of the scholarly landscape with regard to the modern intersection between religion and economics. This Status Quaestionis is an original translation of a piece by the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today.” This piece was written by Bavinck for the First Social Congress in Amsterdam in 1891. This congress is famous for its opening address, given by the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper (available in translation as The Problem of Poverty). John Bolt, professor of at Calvin Theological Seminary and editor of the four volume English edition of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2003–2008), provides an extensive and insightful introduction to Bavinck’s essay and the broader context of European Christian social thought in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

This issue of the journal also marks the end of the tenure of the journal’s founding executive editor Stephen Grabill, who now is director of programs at the Acton Institute and editor emeritus of the journal. Here is an excerpt from my editorial (PDF):

Dr. Stephen Grabill’s time as editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality has been characterized by close editorial care and precision, a commitment to responsible scholarly expression, and innovation in terms of content and delivery. At the close of his time as executive editor, Dr. Stephen Grabill is most deserving of the “well done” said to a “good and faithful servant” of freedom and virtue (Matt. 25:31).

Dr. Grabill’s farewell editorial is also available and worth reading as a retrospective on the journal’s first thirteen years of publication (PDF).

Given the journal’s ongoing policy of distinguishing between current issues (the two latest issues) and archived issues (which are freely available), this means that issue 12.2 is now fully and freely available to the public.

For access to the two current issues, including the newly-released 13.2, I encourage you to consider subscribing as an individual as well as recommend that your institution subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality.

It is sometimes remarked in response to my treatment of the Accra Confession of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and now World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in my book Ecumenical Babel that the Accra document is not really a confession at all. It says itself, after all, that it is a confession, but “not meaning a classical doctrinal confession, because the World Alliance of Reformed Churches cannot make such a confession, but to show the necessity and urgency of an active response to the challenges of our time and the call of Debrecen.”

Rather than being a confession in some technical ecclesiastical sense, then, it is better understood as a declaration, or even still a “conversation,” as it was dubbed by a commenter at one of my talks on the Accra Confession. My response to this is that I am in favor of a discussion, a dialogue, and a conversation about the Reformed faith, economics, and globalization, but if you actually read the Accra Confession, it is a document that shuts down conversation rather than fostering it. It draws lines between faithfulness and unfaithfulness, just as any Christian confession does. Having already determined the rightness or wrongness of particular views, it forces one to take sides. There’s little room for authentic “conversation” in that kind of a rhetorical context.

Indeed, I would say the dominant interpretive context of the Accra Confession within ecumenical circles is precisely as a confession, “to respond in a confessional manner, that is, to take a faith stance regarding current global economic injustices and ecological destruction.” In his article, “The Historical Context of the Accra Confession,” Averell Rust exemplifies this perspective perfectly. Rust traces the background of the process toward the Accra Confession, dubbed the processus confessionis, and contends, “The debate on whether the ‘integrity of our faith is at stake’ has moved beyond an ethical discussion to a theological one. It proceeded to the call for a status confessionis/processus confessionis.” It is essential to note that the Debrecen call to which the Accra Confession explicitly links itself was a call for WARC churches “to work towards the formulation of a confession of their beliefs about economic life which would express justice in the whole household of God and reflect priority for the poor and support an ecologically sustainable future.”

It is worth exploring conference proceedings published in vol. 65, issue no. 1 of Hervormde Teologiese Studies (2009), which generally reflect a similar assessment. A notable exception is Hans-Wilfried Haase’s “Theological Remarks on the Accra Confession,” which criticizes the confession on a number of salient points. He concludes that the rhetorical stance of the document “becomes a problem, however, when some possible actions take on the quality of a confession and people who, for various reasons cannot agree with those actions, are then excluded from the confession.” Or as I have claimed, a particular wholesale rejection of economic globalization should not become an article of the Reformed faith.

Christianity Today has named the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization at Cape Town one of the top news stories of 2010:

Thousands of global evangelical leaders gather in Cape Town to discuss missions, highlight evangelicalism’s global diversity, pray for religious liberty, and build relationships that will likely bear unexpected fruit in the decades to come.

Check out some of the resources from the Acton Institute related to Cape Town 2010:

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rev. Daniel Meeter, pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), writing in the Reformed journal Perspectives, “Observations on the World Communion of Reformed Churches”:

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

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

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

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

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

In today’s Acton Commentary I argue that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.”

I note some statistics that show that American Christians are increasingly looking beyond their local congregations and churches as outlets for their charitable giving, in spite of the fact that giving to religiously affiliated and religiously focused charities is increasing.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in large part Christians don’t trust their local congregations to spend the money in a way that is responsible and in accord with the Gospel mandate. They see other nonprofits and para-church organizations as doing the real work of Christian charity. I believe the key to reversing this perception is to revitalize and reform the office of deacon in the Christian church. This will help us in myriad ways, not least of which is properly dividing the labor, so to speak, between the responsibilities to proclaim the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline, as well as to “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).

Consider the words of the Twelve at the original institution of the diaconate:

It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.

I cite The Deacons Handbook: A Manual for Stewardship in the piece, and the insights from this book by Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef are worth examining in more detail. While the book is currently out of print, Christian’s Library Press is planning to release an updated second edition of The Deacons Handbook in 2011.

In the meantime, first editions of the The Elders Handbook and The Believers Handbook are available for purchase, and you can also check out a sample of The Deacons Handbook at Scribd.

With Berghoef and DeKoster I say, “Dream, deacon!”

And once you’ve given as you feel you should to your local congregation, please consider supporting the Acton Institute with your year-end gift.

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

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

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

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

Today at Mere Comments I highlight what I’m calling the “Neo-Anabaptist temptation.”

Check it out.

Upon Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a number of voices on the Christian and religious blogosphere wondered about the absence of press attention to the religious makeup of the court. The new court’s makeup, whether or not Sotomayor is ultimately confirmed, is historic. As Terry Mattingly wrote at GetReligion, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “prepare for more headlines about Catholics taking over our nation’s legal discourse.”

A few days later World’s Mickey McLean took note of the issue, and about that same time (after the “early” reports gave way to a bit more in-depth coverage), the mainstream press began to ask of Sotomayor, “Is She Catholic? Does It Matter?”

Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote the following (HT):

My trained and focused eye — trained to do “sightings” of public religion in the various media, including the internet, and focused on the chosen subject of the week — has been seeking evidence of anti-Catholicism among mainline Protestant and Evangelical leaders, in the form of expressions of worry and prejudice. Unless between Saturday (when I write) and Monday (when readers read) some surprise occurs, public controversies over her appointment will not yet have attracted the voice of any non-Catholic bishops, moderators, denominational presidents, church-body newspapers, or representative columnists.

I hope my piece appearing today on the First Things website doesn’t qualify as “evidence of anti-Catholicism,” so much as a critique of the state of contemporary Protestant moral, legal, and political thinking. Sotomayor’s appointment and the resulting Roman Catholic supermajority on the court ought to be met with some ambivalence among Evangelical Protestants. On the one hand, the bulk of Roman Catholic judges on the court are those most likely to be aligned with traditional Christian moral, legal, and political perspectives, historically shared by Catholics and Protestants alike.

On the other hand, the fact that half of all the Roman Catholics who have ever served will be serving simultaneously, and the fact that there will be only one Protestant on the court, does say something about the declining influence and vigor of Protestantism in the public square. That ought to be cause for concern and worry among Protestants. And that’s the point of departure for my First Things “On the Square” essay, “Sotomayor, Roman Catholic Supremacy, and Protestant Approaches to Law.”