Posts tagged with: sin

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
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In a much discussed op-ed for CNN last week, hipster church leaders Marc Brown and Jay Bakker (the latter’s profile, incidentally, immediately precedes that of yours truly in The Relevant Nation…a serendipitous product of alphabetical order) lodge a complaint against Christianity that doesn’t respect the call “love others just as they are, without an agenda.”

Speaking of Jesus, Brown and Bakker write, “The bulk of his time was spent preaching about helping the poor and those who are unable to help themselves. At the very least, Christians should be counted on to lend a helping hand to the poor and others in need.”

I’m sympathetic with their concerns that Christianity not become “co-opted by a political party” or only about “supporting laws that force others to live by their standards.” I’m less sympathetic with their emphasis on Christianity strictly as social gospel (the only mention of “hell” in the piece is as part of a rhetorical flourish at the piece’s beginning, having nothing to do with the biblical doctrine of everlasting punishment.)

In a piece for the Christian Science Monitor (HT: WorldMagBlog), Mark Totten writes that “a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.” On one level, this reflects the positive engagement of evangelicals with the totality of public life, something that is important given the extent of Christ’s lordship.

Totten writes,

The most telling change is perhaps taking place in the pulpit. For most of the past century, Evangelicals have reacted against the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era, which many felt replaced the Gospel message with one of mere worldly social action. Today, however, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of “neighbor love” into the fabric of sin and salvation.

(Totten cites the work of Rev. Tim Keller, whose work is discussed in more detail here and here, as a case in point.) The key here is that in an overreaction to the social gospel, some Christians eschewed any and all political or social engagement. We need to be careful, however, that in response to what may be too little engagement, we don’t return to the errors of the social gospel and make Christianity all about material or social well-being.

So, instead of the “either/or” dichotomy that Bakker and Brown set up between traditional political issues of the religious right (e.g. gay “marriage,” abortion) and the “new” concerns of political evangelicalism (e.g. the environment, poverty), it’s really a “both/and” equation. And this “both/and” extends beyond the political realm to the theological, so that we have a socially conscious and active Christianity that doesn’t abandon orthodox doctrine and concerns about salvation.

Augustine, in his monumental work De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), captures this relationship well (emphasis mine):

Now of all those who are able to enjoy God together with us, some we love as people we can help, some as people we can be helped by, some as ones both whose help we need, and whose needs we help to meet, while there are some on whom we ourselves confer no benefits, and from whom we do not expect any either. Still, we ought to want all of them to love God together with us, and all our helping them or being helped by them is to be referred to that one single end (1.29.30).

As Augustine elsewhere observes, “A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about” (Confessions, 3.2.3).

What does this mean in the context of Christian evangelism? That we not simply seek to bind up physical wounds, but minister to the whole person, body and soul. And real ministry to the soul entails that we relate the true situation of all sinners, for as Augustine also confesses, “my sin was the more incurable for my conviction that I was not a sinner” (5.10.18).

Brown and Bakker write that Christians are to “love others just as they are, without an agenda.” If taken to an extreme, this claim is a radical departure from traditional Christian faith. For not only in the words of Augustine are we to love others as they might become brothers and sisters in Christ (“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account”), but also in the words of Jesus we are to show our love to one another by proclaiming the gospel: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 27, 2006
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Here’s some good news for those who prefer to combat cultural evil through the edification and cultivation of moral sensibilities: In “Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets,” Alvin E. Roth finds that “distaste for certain kinds of transactions is a real constraint, every bit as real as the constraints imposed by technology or by the requirements of incentives and efficiency.”

He also finds that “while repugnance can change over time, change can be quite slow.” This presumably applies to the decrease of a sense of repugnance over a currently outlawed activity, as well as the increase in repugnance to a currently practiced pursuit.

This means, though, that not only is patience required, but also that church leaders need to get their positions right before they have a chance of influencing culture for the better. This also means, in part, not calling evil good and good evil as false prophets do.

John Piper’s words from his foreword to John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation would seem to apply here:

As I look across the Christian landscape, I think it is fair to say con귎rning sin, ‘They have healed the wound of my people lightly’ (Jer. 6:14; 8:11, ESV). I take this to refer to leaders who should be helping the church know and feel the seriousness of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:20), and how to fight it and kill it (Rom. 8:13). Instead the depth and complexity and ugli­ness and danger of sin in professing Christians is either minimized—since we are already justified—or psychologized as a symptom of woundedness rather than corruption. This is a tragically light healing. I call it a tragedy because by making life easier for ourselves in minimizing the nature and seriousness of our sin, we become greater victims of it.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
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Part III of our series focuses on the human fall into sin and the disastrous consequences that follow from it.

Fall – Genesis 9:1–7

The harmonious picture of the created order is quickly marred, however, by the fall of human beings. The fall has tragic comprehensive effects, both on the nature of humans themselves, and on the rest of creation.

The corruption of the relationship between humans and the rest of the created order is foreshadowed in the curses in Genesis 3:14–19. Notably the serpent, perhaps as both representative of the Satanic power and the animal world, is set in enmity against Eve and humankind. But most directly relevant for the discussion here regarding animal/human relations is the breakdown of the relationship between animals and humans that is formalized in Genesis 9.

It is at this point, with the institution of the Noahic covenant, that God pronounces some of the details of the broken relationship between humans and animals, those others who share with humans the “breath of life.” God says in verses 2 and 3 that “the fear and dread of you will fall” upon all animals and “everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

Human sin has now blurred some of the created distinction between plants and animals. Animals, sharing the “breath of life” with humans, were created with their own purposes and value, presumably off-limits as food for human consumption. The fall into sin has corrupted all forms of relationship, including that between humans and animals. This has finally manifested itself following the flood with the erasure of the distinction between plants and animals for the purposes of food.

Verse 4 points out a single prohibition, “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.” So even though the line between animals and plants has been marred, it is not completely eradicated. There are still limits to the uses humans can make of animals. Other legislation, such as the prohibition against bestiality, also points to this fractured but still existent limitation.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
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Two pieces on Christianity Today’s website this week are worthy of comment. The first, “Despair Not,” reminds us that “there is something worse than misery and death.” The author Stephen L. Carter interacts with C.S. Lewis’ famous book, The Screwtape Letters, to show that “the terrible tragedies that befall the world work to Satan’s benefit only if we despair. Suffering, as Screwtape reminds his nephew, often strengthens faith. Better to keep people alive, he says, long enough for faith to be worn away. The death of a believer is the last thing the Devil wants.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized the impetus to deny the value of suffering in this life. In his Ethics he wrote of modern nihilism and Western godlessness:

The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking. Every inner development, every process of slow maturing in personal and vocational life, is abruptly broken off. There is no personal destiny and therefore no personal dignity. Serious tensions, inwardly necessary times of waiting, are not endured. This is evident in the domain of work as well as in erotic life. Lasting pain is more feared than death. The value of suffering as the forming of life through the threat of death is disregarded, even ridiculed. The alternatives are health or death. What is quiet, lasting, and essential is discarded as worthless.

The other CT piece is a book review by David Fisher of Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine. The book’s authors argue that “modern medicine… emphasizes the autonomy of the individual and holds up the supreme end of bodily perfection. These goals are not only unattainable, but more importantly, are inconsistent with the Christian faith. The book points out the dangers of society’s worship of and allegiance to medicine for its perceived ability to defeat or forestall death. While our Christian beliefs should protect us from this deification of medicine, the authors remind us that we often fall into the same trap.”

Indeed, the authority and influence of medicine on our lives and behavior can be seen as a kind of scientism, in which science, in this case in the form of medicine, takes on “a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.” Authors Joel Shuman and Brian Volck issue “a call to transformed Christian living, one that emphasizes the importance of viewing medicine through the lens of the larger community of the body of Christ.”

With respect to the worship of health and life in and of itself, or “vitalism,” Bonhoeffer says,

Vitalism ends inevitably in nihilism, in the destruction of all that is natural. In the strict sense, life as such is a nothing, an abyss, a ruin. It is movement without end, without goal, movement into nothingness. It does not rest until it has everything into this annihilating movement. This vitalism is found in both individual and communal life. It arises from the false absolutizing of an insight that is essentially correct, that life, both individual and communal, is not only a means to an end but also and end in itself.

One important and indeed hopeful way to talk about death as an end, in addition to death as a means to an end, or “our entrance into eternal life,” is in this way: as “an end to our sinning.”

You may know that a traditional way of interpreting the Ten Commandments involves articulating both the explicit negative prohibitions as well as the implicit positive duties. So, for example, the sixth commandment prohibiting murder is understood in the Heidelberg Catechism to answer the question, “Is it enough then that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?” by saying, “No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.”

This method of interpretation is not unique to the Reformed, and is also exemplified in the Roman Catholic exposition of the Decalogue in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. See, for example, what the Catechism says in the context of this commandment about the duty toward the human person, including the embryo: it “must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible.”

As part of its exposition of the positive duties enjoined by this commdandment, the Heidelberg Catechism states, “I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either.”

It is with this in mind that I want to raise the question of the validity of extreme sports. You can see what I consider to be some rather uncritical approaches by Christians to the topic in this cover story from the January 2006 Banner, “Going to the Extreme,” and this from Leadership Journal, “Planes, Chains, and Automobiles,” about the combination of extreme sports and church.

Now clearly this is a matter for prudential judgment. Not all extreme sports are created equal. Snowboarding is probably less dangerous than bungee jumping. It would be much more dangerous for me, an untrained amateur, to try and go climb a mountain than it would be for a trained and seasoned climber.

And surely John Stossel’s observations about the real dangers we face everyday are relevant. When asked to do stories on sensational topics, like exploding BIC lighters, Stossel did some digging to find out what kinds of things really are dangerous. As he writes in Give Me a Break, “I found the accident data fascinating. Turns out hot tap water, stairs, bunk beds, and drowning in bathtubs kills more people than most risks we hysterically warn people about.”

Even so, there’s something about the intentional seeking of danger that is at best morally questionable. This moral reality is I think part of what Stephen King’s story The Running Man is about. Even the most experienced and seasoned extreme sport aficionado cannot eliminate all the risk, and that’s of course part of the appeal. Does attempting to scale Mt. Everest count as reckless endangerment?

Clearly extreme sports are big business, as ESPN now has devoted a lot of coverage to the so-called X Games, and there is even an extreme sports cable channel. But do these sports, at least in some of their permutations, violate the sixth commandment?

In Part 4, we saw that post-Enlightenment philosophical currents such as Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism are the real culprits in the demise of natural law and not theological criticism from within Reformation theology, as many today take for granted. If this is so, why is contemporary Protestant theology so critical of natural law?

The most common reason why contemporary Protestants reject natural law is because they think it does not take sin seriously enough. And the second, which we will address in Part 6, is that natural law is thought to elevate “autonomous” human reason above divine revelation and therefore to rival God and Scripture.

To many Protestants, natural law seems to suggest that the order of being in the original creation has not been sufficiently disrupted by the fall. Moreover, they think reason is viewed too optimistically because it is still able to discern a rough outline of God’s will in creation. They think natural law is guilty of elevating reason above revelation as the standard of what is right and wrong, true and false. In other words, they think natural law leads to rationalism where reason is the standard by which everything is judged. Following Barth and his mediators, many think the divine image was fully destroyed with the result that nonbelievers now only experience God’s wrath and judgment and never God’s general providence (or common grace as it is called in some traditions).

Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran theologian and sympathetic critic of Barth, says, since the fall, we confront at best “orders of preservation.” Yet, despite his affinity with Barth, Thielicke could not fully jettison natural law. He saw that it had abiding significance as a sign of the human quest for justice and right. For him, natural law is a goad to the pursuit of justice in an imperfect world. But it is difficult to respect the common search for justice without more solid theological and anthropological reasons.

But the modern Protestant view of natural law as simply an order of preservation does not do justice to the status it had in the older systems of theology. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Calvin, and Wolfgang Musculus, contrary to popular opinion, incorporated large segments of the medieval as well as the patristic past into their systems of theology.

To be sure, they opposed certain high profile doctrines of late medieval and early sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. But, as historian Richard Muller points out, “It is worth recognizing from the outset that the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci [or topics] of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.” Importantly, the Reformers did not discard the custom, since the time of Thomas Aquinas, of treating ethics as a subdomain of the more fundamental doctrines of God and providence, which, as Muller contends, were carried into the Reformation without any significant alteration.

In Part 6, we will address the second most common Protestant criticism of natural law, namely, that it elevates autonomous human reason and therefore rivals God and Scripture.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.