‘Reduction’ and Abortion-Culture Newspeak
Monday, August 15, 2011, 7:41 AM

This is difficult reading: “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy.”

I had never heard of this, certainly not as an elective procedure.

The witness of conscience apparently can’t be suppressed. At least not totally. And not without a great deal of work and denial. 

Even some people who support abortion rights admit to feeling queasy about reduction to a singleton. “I completely respect and support a woman’s choice,” one commentator wrote on UrbanBaby.com, referring to a woman who said she reduced her pregnancy to protect her marriage and finances. One fetus was male, the other female, and the woman eliminated the male because she already had a son. “Something about that whole situation just seemed unethical to me,” the commentator continued. “I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I terminated my daughter’s perfectly healthy twin brother.”

My wife is a fraternal twin. I’m thankful to God to have her and a brother-in-law.

“They invent ways of doing evil,” indeed.

And the wall came tumbling down…
Thursday, August 11, 2011, 7:59 AM

Journalist and Lutheran theologian Uwe Siemon-Netto reflects on the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of construction of the Berlin Wall, "And the wall fell down flat." He relates the story of the Christian peace movement and its role in tearing down the spiritual walls that helped to hold up the Berlin Wall.

"It is now 50 years since I saw the Wall go up and 22 since it came down," he writes. "The Christian movement in eastern Germany seems to have collapsed. When Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990, most Protestant churches did not even ring their bells in gratitude, in contrast to Catholic churches, which did. Once again, eastern Germans are turning their backs on the Christian faith in droves. Next to the Czech Republic, the former GDR is the most secularized region in Europe, and Berlin is the most godless city."

Wallis and Mohler on the Church and Social Justice
Wednesday, August 3, 2011, 9:20 AM

Jim Wallis and Al Mohler are scheduled to debate the question, "Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?" The debate is sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is scheduled for Oct. 27, 2011 at 7pm.

We're up against that old faith/works problem again, but this time in the concrete context of American politics. I describe some of the necessary distinctions and definitions that need to be made in order to arrive at a good answer on the question of the church and social justice. It depends largely on what you mean by social justice and what you mean by church.

The Man and the Mongoose
Monday, July 25, 2011, 8:16 PM

Could the mongoose be a type of Christ? The question occurred to me after concluding Rudyard Kipling's short story, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," with my son tonight. There are a great number of connections, at least in this story.

The mongoose is well-known as a snake killer, and the title character in Kipling's tale lives up to such a billing. But it isn't just that Rikki-tikki and Nag fight in the state of nature, "red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson describes it elsewhere.

 The Man and the Mongoose

It's that Rikki-tikki fights to protect the family and the integrity of the garden. And against whom does he fight? Nag, the cobra, the embodiment of Death.

"Who is Nag?" said he. "I am Nag. The great God Brahm put his mark upon all our people, when the first cobra spread his hood to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept. Look, and be afraid!"

But, O, Nag be not proud! Not only does Rikki-tikki defeat Nag, but he defeats his dangerous widow as well, and puts an end to their entire brood. In the climactic battle Rikki-tikki is dragged underground, and lamented for dead by his friend Darzee, the bird.

Darzee sings Rikki-tikki's praises: "Evil that plagued us is slain, / Death in the garden lies dead."

But this isn't the end of Rikki-tikki. Up from the grave he arose, so to speak, having defeated Nagaina (the cobra widow) and uttering gravely: "It is all over," or "It is finished," if you will.

Rikki-tikki is indeed a savior, many times over, as testified by the mother. "He saved our lives and Teddy's life," she said to her husband. "Just think, he saved all our lives."

That's not to say that Kipling is himself a Christian, or that this is a Christian story, or anything like that. John Derbyshire has said that Kipling's religion was "extremely peculiar," and this paper, "The Religion of Rudyard Kipling," explores some of that peculiarity.

But even pagan literature, or non-Christian literature formed in the twilight of western Christendom, is informed by what Lewis called "True Myth." Or as Husain puts it, Kipling is "profoundly influenced by Christianity and often uses Christian symbols, but he is not a Christian."

So yes, in that sense, in Kipling's story, Rikki-tikki is a type of Christ. Rikki-tikki points us toward the ultimate savior. The Mongoose points us toward the Man.

‘Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World’
Monday, June 27, 2011, 11:01 AM

From the Christian Post: "First Global Code of Conduct on Evangelism to Go Online."

Anugrah Kumar writes, 'It took five years of cooperation between the WEA, the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Inter Religious Dialogue, and the World Council of Churches to reach an agreement on the ethics of Christian mission and evangelism and “the need for every Christian, every church and every Christian organization to live and preach the gospel in accordance with the life and teachings of Jesus,” WEA said.'

This is the first I've heard of this project and I'll be interested in seeing the results tomorrow.

Detroit’s Blooming (and Vulnerable) Urban Gardens
Wednesday, May 25, 2011, 11:45 AM

In the commentary this week over at the Acton Institute, I examine the move toward urban agriculture in the city of Detroit. I argue that the trend represents a small but significant area of hopefulness in a city in desperate need of economic, cultural, political, and spiritual transformation. In a distant allusion to Edmund Burke, I call these urban gardens "little plots of liberty."

2009 Capuchin community garden Detroit 4026498086 540x405 Detroits Blooming (and Vulnerable) Urban Gardens

One of the potential problems, though, is that the city government can stand in the way of such transformation. In an environment where everyone needs to "get theirs" and the culture of graft and corruption reigns supreme, the subsistence and rudimentary efforts of many urban farmers can easily be crushed.

I also note that it's worth checking out the piece in New Geography from some years back by Aaron M. Renn, which has some engaging narrative and illustrative photography.  "In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out," says Renn. He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. "In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not."

The latest development of this whole story, however, is that the regulators and bureaucrats are beginning to take notice, with predictably deleterious results.

‘Nowhere, Never, by No One.’
Thursday, May 12, 2011, 2:13 PM

At the CT site, S. Donald Fortson III examines “The Road to Gay Ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

He writes, “Church history is crystal clear: Homosexual practice has been affirmed nowhere, never, by no one in the history of Christianity.” Adoption of amdendment 10-A is therefore, by definition, anti-catholic.

Jim wrote, “This is not your grandmother’s church.” Fortson also shares, “When I was a young ministerial student studying at a mainline Presbyterian seminary I read Don Williams’s 1978 book, The Bond that Breaks: Will Homosexuality Split the Church? and I recall wondering if homosexual ordination would find acceptance among Presbyterians during my lifetime. Now, more than 30 years later, I have an answer to my question.”

Speaking of changes of a lifetime, here’s the message concerning Amendment 10-A from last year’s moderator of the General Assembly.

And it is worth recalling this moment from last year’s assembly:

Archpriest Siarhei Hardun from the Orthodox Church of Belarus:

“Christian morality is as old as Christianity itself. It doesn’t need to be invented now. Those attempts to invent new morality look for me like attempts to invent a new religion — a sort of modern paganism.

When people say that they are led and guided by the Holy Spirit to do it, I wonder if it is the same Spirit that inspired the Bible, if it is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the Holy Orthodox Church not to change anything doctrinal or moral standards? It is really the same Spirit or perhaps there are different spirits acting in different denominations and inspiring them to develop in different directions and create different theologies and different morals?

My desire is that all Christians should contend earnestly for the faith, which was once for all delivered to the saints, as St. Jude calls us to do (Jude 1:3). And my advice as an ecumenical advisory delegate is the following: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’” (Romans 12:2).

Keeping it Common
Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 7:52 AM

In a somewhat misleading title, The Christian Post ran a story yesterday about Fuller Theological Seminary's approval of the Common English Bible (CEB) for use in Biblical studies classrooms, "Common English Bible Replaces TNIV at Seminary." A spot was opened up, apparently, with the pending removal of the defunct TNIV from Fuller's list. It's not clear whether the updated NIV will make the cut.

Having never really looked at the CEB before, I found a number of the claims in this piece quite striking. The NRSV, for instance, which is reported to written at the 11th grade level, is felt by some to be "out of reach" and more of an "academic Bible." By contrast, the CEB is written at the 7th grade level, which I suppose might be more appropriate for all those academically-challenged seminarians in a Biblical studies course!

Just one more lowlight: 

As with any new Bible translation, the Common English Bible has its fair share of criticism.

One of the big shockers is that the CEB translation ditched the common title to Jesus as the "Son of Man" and instead calls him the "the Human One" where the Greek text reads ho huios tou anthrōpou.

"It will strike a number of readers as surprising," admitted Green. "We think it's a better choice than 'Son of Man.' It's not like that phrase communicates well to modern people anyway."

The "Green" in question is "Joel Green," who along with fellow Fuller professor Nancey Murphy has promoted the physicalist/monist interpretation and application of Scripture, which denies traditional body/soul duality. On this, see John W. Cooper, “The Bible and Dualism Once Again: A Reply to Joel B. Green and Nancey Murphy,” Philosophia Christi 9 (2007): 459-69.

 Keeping it Common

Visualizing the Birth Dearth
Thursday, March 31, 2011, 8:16 AM

Jim was kind enough to point out my commentary this week, "Debt and the Birth Dearth." I posted a follow-up as well over at the Acton PowerBlog, where I point to the famous section of Luther's sermon, "The Estate of Marriage," in which he lauds parental vocation as service done to the glory of God.

In the commentary I make some comparisons with the demographic trends in Europe. These latter are well-documented and dire indeed. The United States isn't quite at that point yet, but as I note in 2010 the total fertility rate dipped below replacement levels. The Gapminder Trendalyzer tool lets us visualize some of the data. Here's the graph for total fertility in the U.S. over the last 200 years (up to 2009). If you follow the link you can use the tool to add comparative data for nations all over the world.

 Visualizing the Birth Dearth

Hunter's post yesterday reflects well on these topics, too, albeit from another angle. It's important to remember that as critical and foundational marriage and family our to our society, they too can become idols. We all have that "God-shaped" gap in the center of our existence, and no creaturely reality, no matter how wonderful in its own right, can fill that gap. Marriage simply isn't designed to bear that kind of burden. Only God can bear that burden, and Christ did so on the cross.

So as much as we rightly emphasize the central importance of the family, we must be careful not to absolutize it. Marriage and family are simply not, in and of themselves, the answers to our social and spiritual problems. We must balance, better yet relativize family as penultimate and oriented toward our love for God. This has implications too for how we treat natural institutions like the family, which are based on our natural relationships, with the institution of the Church, in which those who do the will of God become our brothers and sisters.

Thomas among the Anti-Thomists
Friday, March 25, 2011, 9:20 AM

A fine article by Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy appearing at the Christianity Today site has touched off a fresh round of discussion about the relationship of natural law to Christian political engagement, particularly focusing on points of concord and discord between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. (I survey some of this discussion in a post yesterday at the Acton Institute PowerBlog. Robby George follows up with some additional thoughts on the relationship of revelation and reason here.)

What I want to highlight here is the critical place that particular figures play in how these discussions often work out. Joe Knippenberg rightly points to the critical place that Thomas Aquinas occupies in the discussion about natural law and the broader Christian tradition. With more contemporary concerns in mind we might wonder on whose side Thomas Aquinas might really be. In a brief volume Arvin Vos, for instance, compares the thought of Aquinas and Calvin on a number of points, and finds them to be in rather more agreement than we would typically expect given the identification of Thomas as the representative theologian for Roman Catholics and Calvin's place as doctor of the Reformed church.

In another essay assessing Martin Luther's polemic against the Schoolmen, and particularly those in the line of Thomas, David Steinmetz notes the limited utility and applicability of such polemic, particularly for broader judgments about the relationship between various traditions. "The story of Thomas Aquinas and Protestantism has yet to be written," he said, "and it is not identical with the story of Thomas and Luther."

Another theologian who has figured prominently in contemporary discussions about Protestantism, Thomas Aquinas, and natural law is Karl Barth. My colleague Stephen Grabill has referred to the post-war period of evangelical and broadly Protestant skepticism with regard to natural law as the time of "Barthian hegemony."

But today Vincent Bacote of Wheaton College has posted some reflections on his experience at a recent conference on evangelicals and natural law. These reflections are noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least of which is his emphasis on the importance of a figure like Abraham Kuyper going forward. He also notes that there was the "surprising suggestion that the later Barth may have been less resistant to the idea of natural law." If this is true, and I'm inclined to think it is, this suggestion has important implications for our assessment of Barth's earlier theology as well as the resulting hegemonic rejection of natural law among Barthians.

My own research project in this area relates to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and natural law, in which I argue that Bonhoeffer articulates a kind of natural law ethic. As Eric Metaxas puts it in the context of Bonhoeffer's time at a Bavarian Benedictine monastery at Ettal, Bonhoeffer's "long conversations with the abbot and other priests gave him a renewed appreciation for Catholicism and informed his writing of Ethics, especially the parts dealing with natural law, which was absent from Protestant theology and which absence he meant to correct."

If again it is true that Barth's theological development led him to become less hostile to natural law later in his career, and that Bonhoeffer developed a theological ethic manifested a kind of natural-law thinking, then a corrollary (which I will attempt to show in my research) is that Bonhoeffer might well have influenced Barth in this way. And in any case, to paraphrase Steinmetz on the question of Protestant appropriation of Thomas Aquinas, we might say that the story of Thomas and Protestantism has not yet been writtten, and this story is not identical with the story of Thomas and Barth.

Along these lines an upcoming event is worth noting, hosted by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, "Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue" (June 19-22).

 Thomas among the Anti Thomists

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