Just over a year ago an article of mine was published, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59 (2006): 263-280.

In this piece I argue that the basic theological disagreement between Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to do with the former’s radical denial of natural theology. One of the three cases I examine is the exchange between the two theologians when the Aryan clause, which excluded ethnic Jews from public service, was imposed on the Christian churches in Germany.

I show that for Bonhoeffer this imposition was a clear violation of the church’s sovereignty and an occasion for declaring a state of confession, in which the fundamental elements of the Christian faith hang in the balance. For Barth, however, the Aryan clause was not so clearly related to his own theological preoccupation with natural theology as to merit immediate ecclesiastical action. Here’s a letter from Barth to Bonhoeffer at the time:

Perhaps the damnable doctrine which now holds sway in the church must first find vent in other, worse deviations and corruptions; in this connection I have gathered a pile of German Christian literature and can only say that on all sides I am most dreadfully portrayed! It could then well be that the encounter might take place at a still more central point.

Bonhoeffer could hardly imagine a “worse deviation” and I argue that this disagreement played a central role in Bonhoeffer’s disillusionment in the ability of the church to resist the Nazis in the so-called “church struggle.” In Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, he said this of Barth’s actions at the time: ‘Even like-minded theologians such as Karl Barth and Hermann Sasse decided to wait for even “worse” heresies than the “racial conformity” of the Civil Service Law.’

Later on Barth would acknowledge his mistake. In a letter to Bonhoeffer’s best friend Bethge in 1967, Barth reflects on that time:

New to me…was the fact that Bonhoeffer in 1933 viewed the Jewish question as the first and decisive question, even as the only one, and took it on so energetically. I have long felt guilty myself that I did not make this problem central, in any case not public, for instance in the two Barmen declarations of 1934 which I had composed. Certainly, a text in which I inserted a word to that effect would not have found agreement in 1934—neither in the Reformed Synod of January, 1934; nor in the General Synod of May at Barmen. But there is no excuse that I did not fight properly for this cause, just because I was caught up in my affairs somewhere else.

In his book Bonhoeffer as Martyr (which I’m currently reviewing), Craig J. Slane writes,

Passage of the Arierparagraph left the church a twofold possibility: first, and most obvious, consider its theological response to the matter of Jews in its membership, a consideration that would eventually involve the church in border disputes with the state; and second, to develop a responsible theological and ethical position on the state’s aggression against the Jewish race itself. Of course, anti-Semitism had long been an issue in Western culture. Perhaps it was for that very reason that his [Bonhoeffer's] colleagues could not seem to muster much concern.

See also, “A Time to Tear, a Time to Speak.”

On Saturday, October 27, at 7 p.m., BookTV (C-SPAN2) will air a taped Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) cosponsored debate on the topic, “Is Christianity the Problem?” The debate (which occurred Monday) will feature the author of the book What’s So Great About Christianity, by Dinesh D’Souza, and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens is the author of God is not Great.

The debate will be moderated by Marvin Olasky, who is the editor in chief of WORLD magazine and a senior fellow at the Acton Institute. The debate was held on the campus of New York’s King’s College, where Olasky is the provost.

Some other notable debates for November sponsored by ISI include these:

“Darwinian Conservatives: Friends or Foes?”

and “Are Unions Destroying American Education?”

You can also download the video and audio of past debates on the ISI Web site.

Blog author: dwbosch
posted by on Thursday, October 25, 2007

I’m endorsing Mike Huckabee for president over at The Evangelical Ecologist thanks to statements from him like this:

There has been a perception that conservative Republicans do not care much for the environment or the protection and preservation of natural resources. I remind people that the very word “conservative” means that we are all about conserving things that are valuable and dear. Few things are more valuable to us than the natural resources that God created and gave to us to carefully manage…

The earth is the Lord’s; we are merely its caretakers. My own personal faith reminds me that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that we are not its owners; merely its caretakers. From the very first pages of Genesis in the Old Testament we are reminded that God is the Creator and we are responsible for tending to that which he created; to preserve it and to protect it. We are indeed given the liberty and in fact the admonition to enjoy and utilize the resources, but use is not abuse and we have no right to pillage the planet unmercifully. We should see to it that our care for the environment enhances not only its aesthetic value but preserves the resources themselves for future generations.

Started a Huck’s Army poll here an hour ago; already getting hits/comments.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Anthony Bradley offers a rave review of the new book published by Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School, Come On People: On The Path From Victims to Victors. “Cosby and Poussaint remind us that black America’s hope for escape from abysmal self-destruction is moral formation — not government programs or blaming white people,” Bradley writes.

Read the full commentary here.

Costa Rica’s voters ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a sign of hope against a rising tide of populist, anti-trade sentiment in Latin America — and the United States. “In short, this is not the time for Latin America to abandon free trade agendas,” Gregg says.

Read the full commentary here.

The following items appear in the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation Newsletter, October 24, 2007:

Cornwall’s Beisner and Care of Creation’s Brown Speak at Proclamation PCA

The Cornwall Alliance’s Dr. E. Calvin Beisner and Care of Creation’s Rev. Ed Brown spoke as a panel on creation stewardship at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Sunday evening, October 14. Rev. Brown focused on theological foundations for creation stewardship. Dr. Beisner expressed wide agreement with those and then focused on the scientific and economic evidence that recent and foreseeable global warming are largely natural, cyclical, and not catastrophic, and that it is better stewardship to prepare to adapt to future warming or cooling than to try to prevent future warming. Audio recordings of the talks may be heard at http://www.proclamation.org/audio/ by clicking on the links to the three creation panel presentations. (more…)

Related to Sam Gregg’s Acton Commentary today, “Free Trade: Latin America’s Last Hope?” I pass along this ENI news item: “Growing rich-poor gap is new ‘slavery’, say Protestant leaders.”

Globalization and free trade are the causes of a new class of worldwide slavery, say the ecumenical officials. Citing the foundational 2004 Accra Confession, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, says that “an even more pernicious form of human enslavement is being wrought on millions through the process of neoliberal globalisation that is driving a dramatic and growing wedge between the rich and the poor.”

These statements come at a critical time in the history of the Reformed ecumenical movement. The Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have joined this week to become one organization:

Reformed church groupings agree to create new global body

Port of Spain (ENI). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has agreed to unite with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to create a new “global entity” that will group 80 million Reformed Christians. “This is a truly, truly important moment,” said WARC president the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick after the alliance’s executive committee, meeting in Trinidad, voted unanimously on 22 October to unite with the REC, whose executive committee had agreed to the proposal in March. The Geneva-based WARC has 75 million members in 214 churches in 107 countries, while the Grand Rapids, Michigan-headquartered REC has 12 million members belonging to 39 churches in 25 countries. Of the REC’s member churches, 27 also belong to WARC. [ENI-07-0815]

It’s not clear at this time if the conditions laid out in 2005 are those under which the union has taken place. This merger is significant in many ways, not least of which is the requirement of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church that its Synod “shall send delegates to Reformed ecumenical synods in which the Christian Reformed Church cooperates with other denominations which confess and maintain the Reformed faith” (Article 50). Citing Calvin once in awhile and promulgating platitudes about the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean you are Reformed.

In response to concerns from member churches from the global North that the Accra Confession is not sufficiently doctrinal, Rev. Setri Nyomi responds, “The Reformed family recognises the sovereignty of God … We do not separate whether God is sovereign in the mundane and in the spiritual realm. Therefore our stance on social issues is consistent with the doctrinal claim of sovereignty.”

Quite frankly the WARC leaderships rhetoric about income and wealth disparity as a “more pernicious form of human enslavement” is offensive on a number of levels besides its doctrinal spuriousness. It’s offensive to those who actually are slaves today (sex trafficking is a huge global issue). And it’s insulting to those whose historical legacy involves victimization by the practice of chattel slavery.

WARC is more than happy to talk about “slavery” in material terms, identifying anything other than complete egalitarianism with injustice and bondage. But the one kind of slavery you won’t hear WARC discuss is the sense in which it is put forward most prominently in the Scriptures: bondage to corruption and sin in a personally and individually relevant way.

When Christ said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” he didn’t have globalization in mind.

I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, October 23, 2007

French president Nicholas Sarkozy has recommended the formation of a “Council of the Wise,” which would have the task of “elaborating proposals for the future development of Europe.” A recent survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation finds a lot of support for the idea in France, the UK, and Germany. I suppose there are various ways to read this. One, hinted at by the survey story linked above, is that people in the EU are uneasy about the direction Europe is moving and want to establish a counterweight to the politicians in Brussels. More likely, it seems to me, is that this would be one more bureaucratic agency–only this one not actually doing any of the work of government but instead churning out grandiose projects that would gobble up even more of the continent’s tax dollars. All of which leaves aside the at once frightening and amusing title of the group, which calls to mind something out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Francis Asbury was so well-known in early America that letters addressed to “Bishop Asbury, United States of America” were delivered to him. During his life, Methodist Bishop Asbury (1745-1816) is said to have preached well over 16,000 sermons and traveled nearly 300,000 miles on horseback alone. The explosion of Methodism in the United States after the American Revolution, and during the Second Great Awakening is well documented in the history of the church. When Asbury arrived in the colonies, Methodists numbered at most a few thousand, but most likely were fewer than that. By the time of Asbury’s death, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest denomination in the U.S. with more than 200,000 members.

Asbury’s dedication is renowned, he was a man who rose everyday at 4 a.m. for prayer, devotion, and to teach himself biblical languages. Asbury was self-educated, and he organized schools for young people. Many of his days he spent on horseback, where he traveled far and wide to bring the Good News to the American frontier. Asbury was famous for being seen on American trails, riding and reading at the same time, in order to not have any idle moments. In fact, just by the sheer physical demands of his travels, it had a serious effect on his health. Always pushing himself to the end, he was so weak by the end of his ministry, he had to be carried to his carriage after his last sermon.

Mark Tooley of IRD, looks back at Asbury’s influence in America with an article for The American Spectator, “Asbury, Itinerant Leader.” His article recalls President Calvin Coolidge’s dedication speech of the Asbury statue in Washington. Tooley also reminds us of the importance of faith in the history and founding of our nation. Tooley says:

Today, almost nobody notices the Asbury statue any more, and few outside of diehard Methodist circles even remember who Asbury was. But the Coolidge dedication and speech were front page news in Washington, D.C. newspapers in October 1924. Coolidge called Asbury a “prophet of the wilderness” who is “entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.” But the President also exploited the opportunity to speak more largely about the role of religion in American civic life.

Comparing Asbury with some mainline denominational leaders, Tooley also notes of Asbury:

Unlike some of his modern mainline Protestant successors, who advocate a stale 20th century Social Gospel, Asbury had little direct interest in politics, despite living during some of history most revolutionary times. “Methodist preachers politicians! What a curse!” he once remarked. Asbury’s 50 years of journaling barely mention the momentous events of his day. He never mentioned Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison or Andrew Jackson, though he likely met them and many other great statesmen. Estimated to travel about 6,000 miles every year, Asbury was probably the most traveled American of his era.

During the outbreak of the American Revolution, Asbury was the only Methodist minister to remain in America. Mark Tooley correctly notes of Asbury’s views, saying, “When [John] Wesley, an ardent Tory, denounced the Revolution, Asbury remained publicly silent, while privately lamenting that the ‘venerable man ever dipped into the the politics of America.’”

Tooley also addresses the Methodist character which was so influential in early America:

While the early Methodist Church mostly stayed out of politics, it created an ethos that deeply shaped early American life. Methodism encouraged thrift, hard work, entrepreneurship, private philanthropy, and civic righteousness. Even if the church itself did not become politically active, Methodist individuals became renowned for their reforming zeal. But their main focus was always on the Gospel.

“He did not come for political motives,” Coolidge rightly observed of Asbury. “He came to bring the Gospel to the people.” Asbury preached to whites, blacks and Indians. He opposed slavery and was indifferent to wealth. He confirmed to early Americans that morality and religion were inextricably linked.

Tooley’s article brilliantly notes the zeal of American Methodists, who contributed greatly to the early days of our Republic. While Asbury knew and conversed with famous politicians of his day, his main mission was to win souls for Christ. He sacrificed worldly comforts to travel and preach the gospel, often in what we would describe as deplorable conditions. His legacy can be seen by the fact there are Methodist Churches in almost every American community to this day. He organized and led the famed Methodist Circuit Riders, who pushed themselves out deeper and further in the frontier, so that no American souls would miss the chance to hear the Good News of Christ. American Methodism would do well to recapture the spirit and fortitude of Francis Asbury.