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Embracing Identity Politics: Why I Am Now a Liberal Christian Nationalist

Christian first, because you can't get America without it.

Christian first, because you can’t get America without it.

The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land. – Psalm 10

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Should we be “Cultural Christians”? Even, perhaps, as I am now calling myself, “Liberal Christian Nationalists”?

First of all, some critical definitional notes: by using the word “liberal” I want to capture the sense of “marked by generosity”, or “given or provided in a generous and openhanded way”. Since “progressives” today shy away from this label, I’ll happily re-appropriate it. More, by “liberal” I am not thinking primarily about education (i.e. a “liberal arts education”, “concerned mainly with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience”), or modern political liberalism (“open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values” ; “not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms”), or even classical political liberalism (“associated with ideals of individual especially economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political, and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives”). (definitions provided by Google and Merriam-Webster online).

Second, the phrase “Cultural Christianity” is typically used in the Christian circles I know to describe those who would identify as Christian, and would appreciate some of the practices and rituals of Christianity, but do not actually possess faith, or living trust, in Jesus Christ (note: Christians are not to be “fruit checkers”). I am using this word in a sense that does not exclude actual faith, with the intent to emphasize that Christianity also can, and perhaps should, be understood as a culture, i.e  “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time” and “a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.” (Merriam-Webster). Ours is a way or form of life (with some diversity in earthly expression) whose origin is given from above, not below.

One man's flawed view of America.

One [social constructivist] man’s flawed view of America.

Third, in short, I am making the following case: Just like you can use rhetoric and not be a sophist, I am saying that you can embrace “identity politics” and not be a relativist. I am certainly a person who believes in truth and seeking truth – and acknowledges human reason as a valuable tool in this process (if you did not look at my post about the very real problems with social constructionism and constructivism – related to moral relativism – you may want to take a look at that).

Fourth, getting to the meat of this short essay and bulleted points for debate, here is my answer to the subtitle of this post: “Yes,” I think, because our sense of identity, who we truly and ultimately are, must – should – necessarily go very deep. Especially, we who are Christians should realize more than most that what is true is deeply bound up with who God is and who we are. We all need a deep sense of cohesion and direction, and we, especially, get this from an identity which derives not only from above, but from a common historical narrative.

I think First Things’ editor R.R. Reno would agree with me about this Christian identity’s close connection with our politics – since in a recent political article provocatively entitled “Nationalism is not Xenophobia,” he goes so far to state that

“We need a Christian nationalism, one that encourages the unity of mankind while recognizing that human beings thrive best as members of a particular people and as proud recipients of a distinctive cultural inheritance.” (hear more about Reno’s views in the latest “First Things” podcast).

For years I have voted mostly Republican, even though there are many things that some Democrats say that make a lot of sense to me as well (of course the “Tea Party” and the “Occupy Wall Street” movements agreed on many critiques of our economic system). I’ve always never really felt at home with either party. My own conviction, I think in line with Reno’s, is that it is simply true to insist that a nation cannot continue to have Western principles and ideals without more explicitly acknowledging, crediting – and ultimately embracing – the predominantly Christian heritage of those countries.

Even if you deny it.

Even if you deny it.

After thinking about this for a good long while, this is my response to the identity politics which the “Alt-Right” is now mimicking: to say that their response to the left highlights the critical aspect of identity. I don’t consider this a betrayal of American ideals, because I think the only way that we have come to have a society where we believe (or used to) that each individual is critical and even has “inalienable rights” is because of Christian – not Enlightenment – influence (though the Enlightenment – like the medieval revival of Aristotle and the Renaissance before it – did force Europe’s Christians to become more reflective and nuanced when it came to the meaning of Christianity). In short, in order to have the rights of the individual elevated in a way that has a basis in reality and “takes”, you need real beliefs that come from Christians – from a “collective” (Gasp! – is this socialism? No.) of Christians! For Christians, who have seen the importance and purchase of the concept of “worldview” (again, see my essay critiquing social constructionism and constructivism) for a while now, none of this really should come to a shock. I think I am just trying to take things a step further.

Given the important link between Christianity and the belief in real human rights as a thing (not in a functional or “useful fiction” sense), it makes sense to me that the Catholic writer Michael Novak would say “Tocqueville famously hinted… that one day [Roman] Catholics would become the best intellectual defenders of the American way of understanding natural rights” (see here). Some Christians who look at America from the outside agree that the Christian worldview – and with this the Christians’ identity – are critical here. The Indian Christian Vishal Mangalwadi made the following claim in his book “The Book That Made Your World”:

“A postmodernist would be absolutely right in insisting that the Declaration of Independence was wrong. These ‘truths’ are not ‘self-evident’. Human equality is not self-evident anywhere in the world – not even in America. Equality was never self-evident to the Hindu sages. For them, inequality was self-evident. Their question was, why are human beings born unequal? Hinduism taught that the Creator made people different. The higher castes were made from his head, shoulders, and belly, and the lower castes were made from his feet. The law of karma accentuated these basic differences. The Buddha did not believe in the Creator, but he accepted the doctrine of karma as the metaphysical cause for the inequality of human beings….

Equality and human rights are not self-evident truths. In his original draft, Thomas Jefferson penned, ‘We hold these truths to be sacred and unalienable.” That was the truth. That is why the Declaration grounded the ‘unalienable’ rights in the Creator rather than in the state. The most honest declaration would have been, ‘We hold these truths to be divinely revealed.’ Revelation is the reason why America believed what some Deists ascribed to ‘common sense.’ To be precise, these truths appeared common sense to the American founders because their sense was shaped by the common impact of the Bible – even if a few of them doubted that the Bible was divinely revealed.” (391, 392)”

Divine revelation within Reason. Check out "IV. Finitum capax finitum" here (and "VI. Division," as well)

Frazer: Divine revelation yes – but only within Reason! Also check out “IV. Finitum capax finitum” here (and “VI. Division,” as well)

I do not think that the majority of politicians who exercise influence in public life reflect on matters to the extent that Mangalwadi does. This goes for our country’s founding fathers as well. I note here that Gregg Frazer, writing in a monograph about the founding fathers of America published by the University of Kansas Press, thinks very few of them were actually Christians. On the other hand, he says that the category of “deist” also does not work for most of them either, as most of them believed in a present and active God (who intervened in history) and also allowed for the existence of some divine revelation, although they also believed that all true revelation would be acceptable to human reason. He says that many of them also show evidence of believing that “all roads lead to God” – God has different names, but it is all the same… For these reasons, he says we need a new category: not deist, not Christian, but “theistic rationalist”. (note: not even a “rationalist theist”). Frazer argues that men like Jefferson and Adams really did believe themselves to be Christians because they actually did appreciate the moral teachings of Jesus. That is what they meant by “Christianity”.

In any case, what this means is that when it comes to politics, I am now moving my most important identity to the front and center: my Christianity. I think I am a “Liberal Christian Nationalist,” and, now that Christians arguably have no real influence in this country – just as they, particularly nationalists, have little influence in Europe (first see here ; then here and here) – this shouldn’t scare anyone.[i] I don’t expect to get too many of my fellow Americans to identify with me in this, nor does it mean I expect to see a LCN party arise. I suspect that the list that I have put together below though – explaining what I mean by “Liberal Christian Nationalism”, might be of more use to countries who are young when it comes to their Christian commitment.

Please note that these points deal with issues of “race” in some detail, since that is, I think, always the elephant in the room and demands thoughtful engagement. Further, in full disclosure, I put together this 32 point list in part in response to a list that the “Alt Right” leader, Vox Day (author of The Irrational Atheist), put together (listen to this interview).

Before jumping into my list, a key point: in my view, the Leftism of today includes many who would consider themselves on the political right. Their philosophy is ultimately deferential to the language used in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision of the Supreme Court: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (of course, logic tells us that “private beliefs” will ultimately only be permitted to be translated into action for some persons – others’ actions will inevitably be determined to be “out of bounds” – see below). A person who is conservative, on the other hand – including those who find room to account for the importance of identity in politics – would continue to agree with the words of the late Russel Kirk – or, perhaps, at least want to agree with him: “[conservatives are] all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.” “Conservatives” who say that what Kirk says is “no longer true” or irrelevant are being anything but conservative. After all, if what Kirk says it is no longer true, how was it ever more than an illusion to begin with (given that he speaks of the words “constant” and “enduring” as if these terms mean something)?

My list:

  1. The history of the world teaches us that the separation of religion and politics is ultimately untenable. Ironically, the possibility of conceiving of a “separation of church and state” could have only taken place in a nation that is largely made up of an influenced by Christians (“give to God what is God’s, to Caesar what is Caesar’s”), who justifiably, at their best, have a reputation for both being simple, humble, content, and not apt to glorify strength.
  2. The Bible is the Word of God. Whoever you are, Jesus Christ is your Creator, your God, your King. This is what Christians have always believed and taught. It is only for the sake of conversation and common ground with the world – all of whom we are to love with Christ’s love – that we might start by talking about how the Bible “contains God’s Word”, “contains the Gospel”, how Jesus is “our God,” or how we consider the Bible to be authoritative.
  3. If “true patriotism” means “freedom and equality not only for Americans but for all people on earth,” as Eleanor Roosevelt said, one should consider supporting Christian missionaries who share the Gospel of Jesus Christ – His defeat of sin, death and the devil for us through the (unlikely) victory at the cross vindicated by the resurrection – out of sincere conviction and not with any colonial-esque designs.
  4. Those countries who have attained a high level of political liberty, including freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion – as well as greater effectiveness, mobility, and choice when it comes to economic issues (made possible by increased trust) – are nations that have been greatly influenced by Christianity.
  5. Greco-Roman culture, as well as the Renaissance and Enlightenment which drew from it, forced Western forms of Christianity to become much more reflective and nuanced in their understanding of biblical truths. Christianity also seeks to appreciate what is good, true, and beautiful from all cultures (see Philippians 4:8).
  6. Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth. In, but not of the world, their “dual ethnicity” means that they belong first to the kingdom of heaven, and are members of “God’s chosen ethnos” (I Peter 2:9). Though all are one “in Adam,” God has, post-fall, also ordained a diversity of nations (see Acts 17:26), from whom He will obtain worship (Rev. 7:9).
  7. Biblically, earthly nations are inseparable from the concept of “ethnos,” from which we get “ethnicity”. In like fashion “genos”, from where we get “genes,” can be translated as offspring, family, race, nation, kind, or even sex. We see that these terms involve notions of blood and parentage, even if “ethnos” is more closely connected than “genos” with our notions of culture.
  8. Ultimately, the Church is a new Nation that re-unites, by faith in Christ, persons not just from this or that race, tribe, or nation, but from the entire human family – making one Nation, or, more accurately, Kingdom, to whom all the earthly nations will stream in the life to come, “Kingdom come”.
  9. The idea to rather sharply distinguish “church and state” comes from Jesus Christ Himself. He said to “give to God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s”. It is desirable that the Church and earthly nations support one another even as it is also desirable that each stay out of the other’s core business – the Church forgiving sin and giving eternal life, nations protecting their people while seeking truth and justice.
  10. It may indeed be better to be governed by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian (mis-attributed to the 16th Church Reformer Martin Luther, though it might seem to sum up his thinking well) though even with this consideration (which seems not to be mindful about continuity), the ideal or preferred persons to lead a nation are, in general, Christians with political gifts – not the leaders of the Church, but Christians nonetheless.
  11. In contrast to some, there is nothing in the Christian religion that demands we, in our earthly sojourn, must have Christian rulers or even a certain kind of government. If a beloved Christian chieftain or king were to step down to establish a democracy, even with the caveat that the elected ruler must be Christian (e.g. “firm Nicean”) – or at least persons sympathetic to Christianity – it is reasonable to debate whether or not this would, generally speaking, be a responsible move.
  12. Nevertheless, there is no theological reason, in theory, that a Democratic or Republican (understood classically, not in terms of the American political parties) Liberal Christian Nation should not be desirable – along with the desire to keep it thusly (Ben Franklin: “A Republic – if you can keep it” – see here).
  13. But if this is the case, here, a “balance of powers” is only one part of the puzzle. Collective theological – and hence cultural – formation must be seen as being absolutely critical: in order to have equality under the law, real respect for the dignity and rights of each individual, a wise degree of cultural tolerance, etc., one must, simply, have Christian teaching. “Liberal Christianity” and their progressive allies are, in fact, parasitical here (see here).
  14. As “childless men who had forgotten their childhoods” (Bertand de Jovenel), Hobbes and Locke (largely followed by Leo Strauss, the father of “neo-conservatism”) believed the false philosophy that we are by nature “free and independent,” naturally “ungoverned and even non-relational.” (see here) Hypothesizing “states” (personal and corporate!) that are devoid of nationality, ethnicity, and religion is simply unreasonable, and can’t not result in expressions of social Darwinism, glorifying the powerful and attractive, and impatient with, and dismissive towards (or worse) “losers”.
  15. When it comes to the sexes, the Left has, in essence, rejected fatherhood as a category. Might not the rejection of the notion of “fatherland” by related? (this article is worth pondering) America cannot be “an idea,” however much that statement might force us to consider its seemingly unique qualities.
  16. As traditional Christian thought and practice loses its hold in areas of the world, Liberal Christian Nations would nevertheless hold to their right to, as the world says, “self-determine” (actually: the right to be who it, by God’s truth and grace, knows itself to be – along with the Church of which it is a part).
  17. All ethnic groups and the nations that they form must – much like colleges and universities in fact – more or less consciously take deliberate steps to indoctrinate their people into a specific and limited range of acceptable ways of understanding the world (there are always certain views that one and one’s community will determine to be “out of bounds”).
  18. Charles de Gaulle said that “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” A friend said “Nationalism is pagan worship of the state as an expression of blood and soil European tribalism. It is neither Christian nor conservative. And it isn’t American.” This would not be a Christian understanding of nationalism – the kind that are Christian fathers, including Martin Luther, embraced – which would actually dovetail with what we call “patriotism”.
  19. “If you love something, you let it be free”. Unlike other religions, God’s Kingdom is “not of this world”, and therefore Christian love – the Church’s love – as it is expressed in the world, begets a political tolerance which may bestow “the right to be wrong”: in one’s heart of hearts, the beloved is absolutely free to reject the Lover of the whole creation (Psalm 145:9) who would help transform their ethnos.
  20. The hope that all persons would be able to freely express themselves and become the selves and nations they wish to be is true, pure and lovely (Philippians 4:8) – even as it is a hope that simply cannot reasonably be fulfilled in all situations (even secular persons recognize the world embraces very evil ideas).
  21. Therefore Christians, while still holding to critical norms in their Churches, institutions, and nations, should not only eschew physical force as much as possible (a nation must however, be ruled by moral laws which sometimes need to be enforced by force) and practice forbearance, but can seek to understand – and sympathize with insofar as possible for them (i.e. without sin) – the unbelieving world in its search for identity, security and meaning (see the Apostle Paul in Acts 14 and 17, for example).
  22. And yet, in their efforts to take a stand, make their voices heard, and influence the wider world that they inhabit, Liberal Christian Nations would have the freedom to directly or indirectly – through artistic, didactic, or political means – confront contemporary voices that promote certain views determined to be “out of bounds” – for their community, and beyond, as determined necessary.
  23. Nevertheless, the practice of highlighting persuasion through conversation, with a view towards seeking what is true and just, should be the most important tool for a Liberal Christian Nationalist. The significance and real impact of cultural and racial differences (ethnicity) are not ignored, but our common nature as reasoning creatures who can manage to communicate with another and can’t not – at some level at least – be concerned about matters of truth, is highlighted above all.
  24. For example, those who, shunning simplicity of life, live in pursuit of land-grabbing (e.g. the taking of native’s lands, the Mexican-American war, colonialization and subsequent exploitation, Mohammad’s conquests, etc.) are morally wrong for reasons able to be explored and explained by the Golden Rule. Even as constant retaliation is no answer either (a kind of “statute of limitations” needs to exist here, entrusting final judgment to God).
  25. In general, societies which show themselves to be both non-land-grabbing and which exhibit long-term endurance must follow the Golden Rule to some extent, and therefore have something to commend themselves (even if we might think that they need significant reform in other areas).
  26. According to Jason Brennan in the National Interest, “high-information voters favor free trade, globalization, immigration and civil libertarianism,” but clearly, legitimate pros and cons can be identified for each of these issues. By what criteria do we evaluate these things? G.D.P.? Efficiency? Having enough jobs so that wives can make good money as well as husbands? What about the effects on those closest to us?
  27. For the Christian is to love all, but must ask: how to prioritize my love, i.e. to be concrete when it comes to “doing good unto…”? “Who are my people?” is the key question. Answer: 1. God alone 2. The future heavenly Nation, the Church 3. My family/tribe 4. My immediate neighbors, without respect to race or creed (even as my immigration view might be in some real tension with this) 5. My town/city 6. My country 7. The world – including anyone God throws in my path personally. Ideally, all of these things work together. In reality, difficult decisions – including many we may possibly come to regret – need to be made.
  28. Likewise, “racism” can be a tricky issue – even trying to be “colorblind,” can be insensitive, and it is foolish to insist to persons adopted from other ethnic groups that the confused feelings they may experience are wholly unwarranted. And if some societies desire, for example, to remain largely ethnically homogenous (e.g. Japan, China, Hungary, etc.) or even religiously homogenous (Saudi Arabia, Israel), does this mean countries who believe that all can and should strive to support more racial and religious diversity should attempt to force their will on these countries through hard or soft power?
  29. While we all must fight fear of others not just like us, “racist” is a thoughtless slur in our society – definitions are rarely offered. Simply put, racists are those who assert that their biological identify is intrinsically superior to those of others – and subsequently understand reality primarily through this lens (it is their ultimate principles). Believing that something we might loosely call “Western civilization” is, as a whole, better than alternatives – or merely ultimately preferring it to other ways or forms of life – cannot reasonably be called racism.
  30. If those sharing common genetics are found to possess greater intelligence, artistic ability, strength, beauty – or any other particular quality or combination of qualities – this does not mean they are intrinsically superior in value. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In like fashion, good parents and other family members will not even show less love to a child who has a severe disability or, less seriously, lacks other desired qualities.
  31. All this said, in truth, ethnic diversity is often not a strength and conducive to a society’s flourishing (perhaps, in certain circumstances, it may ultimately end up being so – looking at the origin of the British people, for example?) While a generous act – particularly when addressing dire needs – accepting foreign immigrants may well be to a society’s disadvantage (note the church’s historic teaching on the topic). There are, in fact, many advantages of having a more ethnically homogenous society, starting with the simple ability to communicate, and extending to the convenience offered by shared cultural norms (listen to the discussion here).
  32. Nevertheless, whatever one’s thoughts about such issues, Christians in particular are to strive, in some fashion at least, to be kind and hospitable to outsiders – and to be mindful of and meditative on the beautiful picture of full reconciliation provided in Revelation 7: “there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

agnusdeiwindow

FIN

 

Images: Images: Christian flag from Pixabay (free use) ; Christus Victor: https://adorationlc.org/2014/10/04/christus-victor/

Note:

[i] Discussing the current political situations in America and the list of principles which follows, I said this to an online discussion-partner:

“We are not promised the gates of hell will not destroy America. When I say, I want to retain the country I grew up with, that means retain, while it can be retained, what remains. I think it’s basically over. Conservative Inc. is done. I agree that even if Trump is elected, and stops the flow of cheap labor (and future Democrat voters), the odds that Christian conservatives will be able to gain influence in the “hollowed out” GOP (that Trump wears as a skin) – and then, on top of that, find an appealing candidate who can persuade others of our views – is basically nil… Culture is downstream from politics. Battle is lost. God has judged us as we deserve. Think the BenOp attitudes will become more common, and hopefully a government that does allow some religious liberty. I think what I objected to growing up was the “America is an idea” thing – that seemed strange to me. But I loved America. I don’t even know if I will vote for Trump. My list assumes that things are [politically] over for the American Christians now. It is probably more of a post-mortem reflection assuring me that God is in control, and that there is a better way of thinking about “American experiments” than the more Enlightenment frame (or perhaps even the Madisonian one – I don’t know, not having read enough of him, but I do recall reading a piece pointing out a key deficiency in his theology). As for unity, nationalism – understood to some degree as ethnicity – should unite us (vs the radical individualism)…. I think removing the notion of father [in the family] is indeed the problem, but perhaps, that downplaying, ignoring, or denying the notion of fatherland (not necessarily an idol) in favor of the nation being an idea, is connected….”

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

The Rorty-ification – and Hegelianization – of the West: A Primer on Social Constructivism and Social Constructionism for Concerned Americans

“There is a deeper pleasure in following truth to the scaffold or the cross, than in joining the multitudinous retinue, and mingling our shouts with theirs, when victorious error celebrates its triumphs.” — Horace Mann, Thoughts

Confused about why saying "It's a girl!" might be an act of oppression? Read on....

Confused about why saying “It’s a girl!” might be, objectively, an act of oppression? Read on….

 

Social constructivism and social constructionism. What are these things? What do they imply? What are they connected with? Can they, for example, help to explain why the recent actions of the Obama administration’s Department of Justice? (see here). Including, for instance, the federal demand that private doctors be willing to assist children in transitioning from one gender to the other? (see here) Or why a California court recently ruled it was illegal for pastors to advise youth about gay and transgender feelings? (see here) Or a N.Y. court recently said that when it comes to determining parenthood neither biology or adoption need to be considered? (see here)

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. -- "Neopragmatist" and social constructivist Richard Rorty,

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. — “Neopragmatist” and social constructivist Richard Rorty,

Well… first of all, these ideas, social constructivism and social constructionism, are everywhere. Even in the domain of the hard sciences today (think biology, chemistry and physics), with its usual emphasis on what is called “realism” (namely, the idea that a “mind-independent reality” exists), most persons are already fully on board. It is now largely taken for granted that we, as individuals, certainly do actively construct our understandings of the world and how it works. Michael Polanyi, and then Thomas Kuhn after him, were just some of the figures who made this kind of thinking more prominent and important in the hard sciences

(note that we can acknowledge that even men like Aristotle – and “America’s Aristotle” after him, Charles Peirce – talked about the role human beings play in attaining real knowledge: he talked about how human beings could – through their inquiry and experience; capacity for imagination [phantasia] and ability to make mental images and symbols [phantasma]; and by hearing from the varieties of beliefs which had “previously withstood debate and argument” [endoxa] – arrive at a true understanding of the ways things take place in the world).

It seems to make some sense, doesn’t it? Doesn’t good education build on what pupils already know, “scaffolding” their current knowledge, and giving them more rich experiences in order to help them mentally build more complete understandings of the world? As you might guess, in the field of education, emphasis on students’ constructing their understandings of themselves and the world they inhabit is now the norm. Anyone who has studied the most influential educational theorists of the 20th century – Dewey, Bruner, Piaget, Bandura, Vygotsky – is well aware of this.

And again – what is the harm in this? Doesn’t it make perfect sense? Even many educators with more culturally conservative dispositions certainly think so, as they, like most persons in the hard sciences, tend to embrace social constructivism. In his book defending relativism, the Christian Reformed scholar James K.A. Smith focuses on the advantages of social constructivism, looking specifically at the thought of Richard Rorty and others (see the intro to my series critiquing his book here).

Meanwhile, those educators of a more liberal and politically activist bent – those invested in movements such as “critical pedagogy,” for example – tend to embrace the notion of social constructionism. And now, social constructionism – which I think is daily making less relevant the distinctions that social constructivists think are important[i] – is not only everywhere in academia – and not only in popular culture – but in our general culture as well. In a Wisconsin Public radio broadcast discussing Jacques Derrida and the philosophical movement known as deconstruction, To the Best of Our Knowledge host Steve Paulson said

“the way that we now talk about gender has been profoundly influenced by these ideas… we know that male and female are not strictly biological categories ; they are socially constructed identities which keep changing…. ‘Queer theory’ comes directly out of this and it would be hard to explain the emergence of… the trans movement without this theory…”

A couple questions I know you might be asking:

First, just what are the differences between constructivism and constructionism? How do those who adhere to these philosophies distinguish themselves from one another?

Bruce Lincolns 1989 work hearkening of things to come....

Bruce Lincolns 1989 work hearkening of things to come….

Second, where did these philosophies come from?

The answer to the second question is that they largely come from the social sciences and the field of psychology (and then, education) – and the ideas that grew up in these fields really owe a lot to Immanuel Kant, who built on what Descartes had started (as Ernst Troeltsch pointed out, for Descartes the question is no longer about ontology [“what is”] but rather the mind’s apprehension of reality, or “epistemology” [“an analysis of the contents of consciousness”, “what is known”]).

As regards the first question, some of the thoughts that I came across from a few academics in these fields might be of some help. I’ve tried to simplify and summarize them in the paragraphs that follow, but I’ll confess that some headaches may be unavoidable here…  Therefore, my short answer: conceptually, there are some significant differences; practically, I don’t think the differences are significant – that is, if the person of a more conservative disposition insists on focusing on social constructivism at the expense of other things.

I will explain that a bit more at the end of this post. First though, let’s unpack these terms in some detail…

(skip to the end of everything in blue if you don’t want the details).

The psychologists Richard A. Young and Audrey Collin note that constructivism is a viewpoint that emerged in developmental and cognitive psychology (they mention folks like Bruner, Kelly, Piaget, von Glaserfeld and Vygotsky). It “proposes that each individual mentally constructs the world of experience through cognitive processes” (emphasis mine). Unlike positivism, they say, constructivism says the world can’t be known directly, but only by the construction of it actively imposed on it by the mind. Like positivism, they contend, it has a “dualist epistemology and ontology”: This means, according to Blackwell Reference online (not Young’s and Collin’s words), that that which is directly perceived is always distinct from the physical object itself, even if it is exactly similar to it like a faithful mirror image. In this sense, it is epistemological – “concerned with how we know and by implication how we develop meaning”. “These processes,” they say, “are internal to the individual—integrating knowledge (or meaning) into pre-existing schemes (assimilation) or changing the schemes to fit the environment (accommodation).”

They note differing positions within the “constructivist family”. Radical constructivists (von Glaserfeld) “interpret that it is the individual mind that constructs reality.” More moderate constructivists (Kelly, Piaget) “acknowledge that individual constructions take place within a systematic relationship to the external world.” Lastly, Social constructivists (Bruner, Vygotsky) “recognize that influences on individual construction are derived from and preceded by social relationships”. This, they say, differs from social constructionism because of its dualist assumptions (again, where that which is directly perceived is always distinct from the physical object itself), even if some in other disciplines who take on constructivism’s mantle also try in various ways to overcome this dualism and others related to it (i.e. dualisms of  “mind and culture” and “biology and physical resources”).

They go on to say:

Martin and Sugarman (1999) contended that the failure of constructivism lies in its reliance on “an individually sovereign process of cognitive construction to explain how human beings are able to share so much socially, to interpret, understand, influence, and coordinate their activities with one another” (p. 9). Essentially, their point is that constructivism posits a highly individualistic approach without reference to social interaction, contexts, and discourses that make self-reflection, meaning-making, autobiography… possible. To some extent, this failure is being addressed as social constructivists (Bruner, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978) move to more social explanations and the dualist assumptions of constructivism are challenged… (bold mine) [ii]

Psychotherapist Berta Vall Castello starts to help us nail down the differences even a bit better. She talks about her realization that “the notion of identity as a story has permeated both constructivist and social constructionist approaches since their historical beginnings.” She quotes Gergen (1994) saying “The term ‘self-narrative’ will refer to an individual’s account of the relationship among self-relevant events across time. In developing a self-narrative we establish coherent connections among life events.” One can see here, I submit, these “construction-of-understanding” approaches addressing, like historicism, a real need: the importance of narrative when it comes to our understanding of the world. This is something that the West lost as a whole when it begin to lose faith in the biblical plot that had certainly brought a degree of coherence among its peoples. Instead, its elites begin to depend more on the “practicality” and objectifying tendencies inherent the scientific method – such that even classical philosophy – concerned with matters of justice and morality (but which also tended to underemphasize the importance of narrative) – also begin to be seen as less relevant than ever.

In an important paragraph, Vall Castello goes on:

Both constructionist and constructivist approaches share the basic epistemological assumption that “reality” is not revealed to us, but is instead reached through a process of construction. This entails that the meaning of what happens is not a passive, neutral, objective, detached, and external fact, but is instead the result of an active, passionate, subjective, engaged, and (inter)personal process of ongoing inquiry. However, these approaches differ in terms of the emphasis they place on the individual versus social worlds. Thus, whereas constructivist views tend to focus on meaning-making as an intra-individual process, the social constructionist perspective sees meaning as a process that occurs between people and through relationships. (bold mine)

Oh, be practical. Just method, please.

Oh, be practical. Just method, please.

She also points out that both approaches see this process as “an essentially linguistic one”. “All major constructivist and constructionist authors,” she insists, “incorporate the notion that language is not (or not only) a tool for representing [italics hers] reality, but is a means to make sense of reality in a social context—with individual authors varying in emphasis on these basic positions, from the more individual constructivist to the more socially oriented constructionist ones” (bold mine).[iii]

Back to Young and Collin for another key difference:

….social constructionism contends that knowledge is sustained by social processes and that knowledge and social action go together. It is less interested, or not at all interested, in the cognitive processes that accompany knowledge. Martin and Sugarman (1999) suggested that attention to these [cognitive] processes in social construction shrouds the construction of knowledge as an interactional and rhetorical process and reifies and externalizes the mental world which itself is constructed through discourse. This stance that is critical of knowledge construction is another distinction between social constructionism and the constructivist family.

In other words, as they go on to say, differing from the “dualist assumptions of the constructivist family, the ontological position that social constructionism invokes is generally understood as anti-essentialist and anti-realist (Burr, 1995)”. The differences, they insist, “run much more deeply for some social constructionists than the difference between a social and an individual orientation.” This means, in sum, that we – actually those who have the influence to do so and invite us along with them (don’t worry – they aim to be benevolent with their power to be sure!) – are always, in the midst of this ocean-like cosmos (i.e. fluid), building the airplane in the air…. This, Young and Collin infer, is the legacy of Berger & Luckman, Mead, Derrida, and Foucault – and there does not appear to be any real concern on their part that this legacy might, overall, be an undesirable thing. 

So, what to make of all this heady stuff? (if you skipped the “in detail” stuff in blue above start here).

Keep in mind that these scholars are doing their best to put their finger on things that many who use these terms might not recognize or identify with. For example, in another article featuring a dialogue between three psychologists holding to different philosophies of how our understandings are constructed[iv], some saw a lot of overlap and few differences – even after being challenged with questions about relativism (a “boring” issue, one said ; “I’m not interested in what our basic human purpose in life is” said another ; “not a problem” seeming to be the general attitude…). They ended up talking about non-moral issues, largely echoing the positions noted in the book Is God a Mathematician?, which also deals with these issues of reality and just how or if our constructions make a difference – though just when it comes to issues of mathematics.

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

So can constructionism teach us some things – or perhaps better put, raise our awareness of some things we usually don’t pay much attention to? Sure – but realize the inherent moral relativism – and that its proponents often simply do not see this as a problem. And what about constructivism – is it also wrong at its core? I don’t think so. It’s not so much that it’s wrong as that it takes the emphasis off of what we should be focusing on… the fact that much in life is given to us: there is real truth and beauty and goodness – and this means moral goodness, even discernible purposes, etc. – in the world whether or not our constructions allow for this. And, interestingly, it seems that for many who are most eager to talk about the way human beings construct their understandings of the world, they are some of the least eager to talk seriously about seeking to know things like truth, beauty, and goodness (Bible passages about strong delusions come to mind…)

Rather, all, it seems, comes down to issues of position, power and privilege. Knowledge is power and power is knowledge. We create “truth” and “reality” – and the old lines between what we consider unchangeable and changeable in the cosmos are always – always! – changing. Since many persons are probably thinking of evolution at this point, I’ll just say this: Darwin himself is not to blame for this, even if his theory, which tends to exert a totalizing influence, doesn’t help matters one bit. In fact, both Hegel and Darwin fit their own influential worldviews into historicism, unleashed by the anti-Cartesian (understandable, but…) Vico. All this said, modern scholarship has evidently demonstrated that Vico’s repudiation of Lucretius, popularizer of Epicurus (whose views about nature and change seem much more compatible with Darwin), was not real but feigned!

"By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: but in reality atoms and void." -- Pre-socratic philosopher and precursor to Epicurus, Democritus

“By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: but in reality atoms and void.” — Pre-socratic philosopher and precursor to Epicurus, Democritus

And today, in spite of a few brave voices of protest from secularists, when the ruthlessly “empirical” and quantitative and technological Darwinian machine is basically taken for granted (fact!), this simply gives strength to the historicist viewpoint. And so, what does this Hegelian-historicist-social constructivist/ionist viewpoint imply? As Hans Gubmbrect says of historicism “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.”

None. And, that, to the horror of the most respected – and anti-Epicurean/Lucretian! – philosophers of classical antiquity, would include things like goodness, beauty, justice, etc.! (admittedly, one might argue that men like Plato and Aristotle only believed goodness, beauty and justice were unchanging precisely because the cosmos of which they were a part was thought to be eternal…but then again, Epicurus and Lucretius also did not question this either). Might this historicization of the Western consciousness also have something to do with many 20th century theologians like Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, Paul Lehmann, Stanley Hauwerwaus, John Milbank, David Bentley Hart etc., abandoning notions of natural law as well?

I think in a situation like this – where some, still seeing the need to counter a relative “good,” “true,” and “beautiful” (note the quotes), can only put forward an evolving good, true, and beautiful – we need to question whether a simple realism or positivism (“There are some essential fundamental particles! There are some laws of nature that don’t change!”) can really be of help..(see footnote 1 again). The key question: Is a good, true, and beautiful that nevertheless evolves – fundamentally changes even! – still really good, true, and beautiful? One wonders if perhaps even Epicurus and Lucretius, given what they said, might have been hesitant to say that all the things they thought were good (real goodness!?) were or should be (freedom of the will via the swerve) subject to change! I again go to that most insightful of men, Mr. G.K. Chesterton, who puts it well (albeit in a more explicitly political context):

“[Progress] should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does not mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy… We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier” (Orthodoxy, 1909, p. 195).

"Modernism...is man-centered in its perspective, and views religion (and truth) in terms of adaptation and synthesis...based on a naturalistic system. It's basis and standard of truth move along with the changing culture... All things get caught up in the historical stream of critical relativism." - Pastor Philip Hale

“Modernism…is man-centered in its perspective, and views religion (and truth) in terms of adaptation and synthesis…based on a naturalistic system. It’s basis and standard of truth move along with the changing culture… All things get caught up in the historical stream of critical relativism.” – Pastor Philip Hale

For Chesterton, that which is good (in this case justice and mercy) – the ideal – should change us and our current reality. What is good does not change – or, especially, is not changed by us as we change (“grow up”). Even if we do come to a greater realization of what goodness entails – and are even surprised by it or our previously anemic understanding of it! – a greater realization of goodness will, ultimately, be fundamentally contiguous with more child-like (not childish) notions.

Where to go from here? At this point, I will attempt to speak to Christians in particular, because I think that we really do have some good answers.

First, remember that Jesus Christ – God’s risen and vindicated Savior of the world (see Acts 17:30 and 31 for how this gets empirical) is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This is never to be lost, for by this truth, the Truth incarnate means to comfort us.

Second, when even conservative theologians insist that our knowledge, like every other community’s, exists inside of rational traditions with their own linguistic rules and ideas for understanding reality, think twice about what is being said – and what the world will take that to mean as regards the relevance of what we have to say. The importance of tradition and “social epistemology” here, yes ; “existing” only here in this way, no….

Why? Because third, there is this:

Realize that if Pastor Cooper is right to insist that Lutherans assumed a classical view of the nature of things (and with this, stable moral norms), that is not an intellectually indefensible thing – even if most of academia (save more conservative Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox institutions) currently won’t give you the time of day. Just wait though, and be confident that this kind of stubbornness is not about preservation of the status quo‘s power… rather there is wisdom – love – in such bulwarks…

FIN

Image credit of baby: http://www.flickr.com/photos/inferis/110652572/ by Tom Adriaenssen

Democritus picture source: http://www.phil-fak.uni-duesseldorf.de/philo/galerie/antike/demokrit.htmlPD-US

[i] For example, some might say that while they do not fully buy into social constructionism, they are not overly concerned insofar as it does not deny realism (and, presumably, its “mind-independent reality”).
But is this really the issue to be concerned about, or are there perhaps more significant things to be attentive to? Consider the contemporary philosopher Robert Brandon, when he goes so far to argue that simply by speaking we already, in effect, are taking an ethical stance: “Asserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment.” This can be seen in a particular kind of social justice warrior’s absolute insistence that the seemingly harmless exclamation of doctor – and then a father and a mother that “It’s a boy!” – might ultimately turn out to be an oppressive act. The reason that this could be an act of violence vs. another is because in some way there really does exist – for everyone – something (a female brain? mind? soul?) that makes the exclamation to not be the case, or fact (here, “idealists”, “Romantics” and other “liberal progressives” might wonder about the “naturalism” they indirectly espouse). The person with “positivist” or “realist” sympathies pauses, if just for a moment, wondering if it really is right for a doctor and parents to share joy in such a matter. Aware of the pressure to conform to current views on these issues, perhaps they suppress any lingering thought that it would be ethical for them to agree with others who do assume boyhood. Therefore, they do not embrace the seemingly apparent reality before them…
Why? Because they do not want to be perceived as acting in an oppressive manner vs. what the individual feels about him/herself to be real, even if all the external “public knowledge” would point to the opposite being the case. Why? If they do insist that persons who think they are one gender are actually the other this would only confirm to others that their concern for “truth” is really only about power, about the desire to categorize and control… the desire to make everyone conform to the world of appearances for the sake of their comfort, “appropriate” order… sense of security – and not to allow people to be freed by the authentic truth only the individual can know (supposedly). That regard for the individual’s truth is the only good way for knowledge to be socially constructed – other constructions, captivated by external appearances, would be illusionary…
[ii] RA Young, A Collin. “Introduction: Constructivism and social constructionism in the career field.” Journal of vocational behavior, 2004.
[iii] Vall Castelló, Berta. “Bridging constructivism and social constructionism: The journey from narrative to dialogical approaches and towards synchrony.” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, vol. 26, no. 2, 2016., pp. 129-143.doi:10.1037/int0000025.
[iv] Efran, J.S, S McNamee, B Warren, and J.D Raskin. “Personal Construct Psychology, Radical Constructivism, and Social Constructionism: a Dialogue.” Journal of Constructivist Psychology. 27.1 (2014): 1-13. Print.
 
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Posted by on September 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Why I am Not Posting

mediafastHello all – in case you hadn’t noticed, I have been taking a real break from blogging this summer.

Well, not just blogging. I have not been reading blogs, listening to podcasts, listening to YouTube video lectures, or paying much attention to Twitter or Facebook (check out the freshly translated Lutheran devos at FB off and on, but that is about it). (I still do answer email and personal messages on FB)

Part of this was me wanting to be in solidarity with my kids as we severely limited video games and the internet this summer. Part of this was me just wanting to see how I would fare. I’ve had time to do some other things that I have wanted to do, including writing two papers for library journals (which will hopefully be published in the fall).

So this taking time off from being online has gone surprisingly well (well, not with the kids – that fast hasn’t been so severe) – I thought all of this would be much harder, but it has been surprisingly easy.

But is that really a good thing? I do feel some guilt about not paying attention to my friends on FB, those I follow on Twitter, etc. Ah, online relationships…

Which reminds me, I wanted to tell all the people I interact with regularly online about this earlier, but was bad about even doing that. I should have been better about this. Sorry!

I plan on starting to blog again in a month or so, if I still have any readers. : )

 

Image from https://iamchronicallywell.com/tag/media-fast/

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Should the Christian Live in Fear of God?

Luther, driven by a "terror of the Holy One"

Luther, driven by a “terror of the Holy One”

 

Intro: The Fear-Invoking Athanasian Creed?

The Christian – who is justified by God’s grace in Jesus Christ though faith – should be at peace with God and not live in fear of him, correct?

This would seem to be logical consequence of a message like that of Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And yet, for confessional Christians who recite the Athanasian Creed once a year (as we did a few weeks ago), the end of this creed might, on occasion, cause one to doubt and wonder:

“…At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.”

A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. -- Matthew 7:17

A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. — Matthew 7:17

And here, as when reading passages like John 5:28 and 29 and Revelation 20:12, the doubts might encroach at a fast and furious pace! How can we not be terrified? We might wonder: “Do words like these work against salvation by faith by declaring a salvation by works?” And even if they don’t cause us wonder about this, still, what does this mean for me? Me, whose love for God and neighbor often seems so poor? Can I be sure I am even a Christian?

A few responses here, to counter this doubt and, possibly – terror!*

I. Fear God? In the first place “no”.

We need to recognize that the Athanasian Creed is thoroughly biblical. In addition to the verses noted above, Romans 2:13, for example, says: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” There is a very real sense that these words mean exactly what they say. Simply put, at the last judgment, those who have shown fruits of repentance and good works according to the 10 commandments (even if it is just the first of the ten!) will be revealed by God to all persons to be His faithful, thankful, and loyal children. No one will doubt Him.

The fruits of repentance and faith are even seen imperfectly prior to the final judgment in persons like the sinful woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears (see Luke 7). “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown“, Jesus says to the Pharisees (before turning to the woman and assuring her that her sins are forgiven and her faith has saved her!).

When if comes to what these good works look like, they include both the fulfillment of the first and second table of God’s Ten Commandments. For the first table of the Law, this means fearing, loving, and trusting God alone, gathering for worship frequently with His people, and praying, praising, proclaiming and singing His Name and deeds. When it comes to the second table of the law, it means not only restraining from sins towards one’s neighbors, but works of love and mercy shown towards them, starting with the family of God. This also includes the kind of forbearance and mercy that God undoubtedly showed the sinful woman of Luke 7 and shows us in His Son (“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”).

“works have no standing before God and faith has no standing before the world.” -- David Scaer (picture of final judgment before the world)

“works have no standing before God and faith has no standing before the world.” — David Scaer (picture of final judgment before the world)

 

These are those who reveal themselves to be the “true circumcision” (Rom. 2:29), those whom God knows according to faith. That said, this does not mean that the end of the Athanasian Creed is the kind of message that a doubting Christian and/or terrified sinner needs addressed to him! After all, the default orientation of our “Old Adam” – who remains even in regenerated believers! (see Gal. 5 and Rom. 7) – is not only to get away with whatever sin we can, but also to believe that we can be justified not only before men but before God by our good actions and words (and perhaps even thoughts and desires!). If you try to earn grace by your works, you make everything worse, because you are a bad tree, Luther said. This inevitably plays itself out in the dual extremes of either pride (I’m doing it ; I’m making it) or despair (there is no way I can do this, make it).

In short, words about the final judgement according to works – or even words explaining how this final judgement fits with our understanding of the judgement of each individual alone before God by faith alone! – can either stoke our pride, or leave us relentlessly accused – even unto despair.

[I felt I] "was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates . . . that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise." -- Martin Luther, on coming to understand Romans 1:17.

“[I felt I] was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates . . . that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.” — Martin Luther, on coming to understand Romans 1:17.

The person who is feeling such hopelessness does not need to hear an explanation of how the end of the Athanasian Creed is biblical but rather to hear “200 proof Gospel”: Christ has covered and covers all your sins! Today and forever, you are, in a sense, with Him in Paradise!

II. Fear God? In the second place, “yes” – some fear, not terror.

…with all this said, ongoing accusation has its place in the Christian life as well – for damnable pride, sloth, and other sin always remain. Does this mean living in fear – or even terror, of God? The Eastern Orthodox Christian writer Elder Sophrony, for example, talks about how

“a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation. This consideration sears humility into his soul, as he finds himself utterly unable to lift his eyes toward the face of God.”

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not,” he counseled.**

This is something I can identify with. On any given Sunday, for example, I will utter the words of our church’s liturgy:

Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.

Is that right? Or is that a bit extreme?! In the rest of this short article, I want to try to address this question in some detail, talking in particular about how it relates to fearing God.

Regarding that topic, I have been asked some very good questions lately about what this means or should mean. And this, in turn, has helped me to better formulate my own thoughts to more effectively answer the students who have been asking me about it. Now, when I get comments like “I am not sure why we are to fear God”, I talk about things in the following way…

To begin, we were not created to fear God in terror, but rather in a childlike awe and reverence. Of course, then there is Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. Hence, the Bible notifies us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and therefore, an even genuine terror of the Holy One is wholly appropriate for those opposed to God. But then there is the redemption through the blood of Christ, and here we recall the words of I John 5: perfect love drives out fear! This would mean that the love of Christ drives us not to fear in terror, but to go back to Eden: reverential awe and wonder.

"...when God is angry at someone, that person is not holy and accepted with Him..." -- C.F.W. Walther, 19th c. Lutheran theologian

“…when God is angry at someone, that person is not holy and accepted with Him…” — C.F.W. Walther, 19th c. Lutheran theologian

 

So why then, those words from the liturgy? The fact of the matter is that we have only experienced the firstfruits of the new creation. We are new men in Christ, but again, Galatians 5 and Romans 7 indicates that there is also an “old man”, or “Old Adam”: something inside us that by nature desires and pursues things that are wrong. Here we see the ongoing infection of sin and its power in us. This has sometimes been expressed in this way: Christians are sinners and saints at the same time (simul), possessing both an old and new nature (perhaps analogous to the divine and human natures of Christ – see my old post “Not Radical Enough: the Problem with Radical Lutherans Like Gerhard Forde”).

Christians, insofar as they are new creations in Christ, need not live in fear, but our old man does (though often not directly through fear of God – Old Adam suppresses his knowledge of God!). And Christians, again insofar as they are new creations, are pleased when the old man they know is still within and can’t ever shake – their “imposter self” as one put it – is afraid of God. The Christian can know that God is not angry with them, even as they are often angry with themselves! And this is good, for the old man is to be driven out of us more and more with the Word of God*** – even as this will finally occur en toto only on the last day!

That said, perhaps we can say that while the Christian may fear God in two ways (reverential awe and wonder according to the new man/saint, genuine fear of the holy according to the old man/sinner), he, unlike the unbeliever, need not be terrified, because the fear of God is tempered by three facts:

  • Sin is not imputed to the believer because of Christ’s fulfillment of the law and His sacrifice
  • Accordingly, the Christian, insofar as he is a new man, does not have a desire to sin and in fact fight against it****
  • God does not act to punish His children (act punitively towards us on the basis of strict, retributive, justice) but rather disciplines those He loves

This means He is always looking to not only forgive our sin, but lead us into a better and more appreciative understanding of who He is, who we are, and who He has called us to be.

These are the kinds of things I tell my students.

III. Fear God? In the third place, “no”.

All this said, it does a Christian well to ponder that our best actions – even though good works are most definitely not needed to earn God’s approval but rather to serve our neighbor in genuine love! – truly are worthy not just of cleansing fire but hell-fire. God created us as persons who would freely and joyfully represent Him – who is Love and Life – to our neighbor. But again, then came the fall into sin and things have gotten very nasty (and are always getting more so,it seems). Now it is as C.S. Lewis and T.S. Elliot, respectively, have said:

“For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion

and

“our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge”

Christ embracing St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who, at the point of death confessed: "I have wasted my time, because I have lived a waster's life."

Christ embracing St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who, at the point of death confessed: “I have wasted my time, because I have lived a waster’s life.”

And these quotations can be viewed as understatements! In the third chapter of the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul quotes the Psalmist who accuses humanity of making itself “worthless”. Jesus Christ also reminds us that “whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Socrates could not have been more wrong when he claimed that those who know the good will do it – even those who do do it know their best deeds need to be washed.

For me, also speaking personally as a Christian, there is a sense in which I, like Satan, am a masterful destroyer of relationships due to the infection that continues to rage within me. When I stand naked in the midst of a holy God I know that I am undone, for the meaning of God’s eternal law – His 10 commandments – goes deep. I have denied him before men, and in the name of “justice” refused to turn my cheek, refused to forgive from the heart 70 x 7, constantly mixed dung with precious perfume, ignored the unfortunate and outcasts who sense their need for Him more than most, lived as if this world is all there is, failed to heartily do my duties for His glory, failed to see all disasters (man-made or not) as calling all to repentance, put up fronts of righteousness, and hated my enemies for whom Christ bled. I have refused to recognize marriage – my own marriage and resultant family – as a crucial sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world. My actions – or inactions – have served as an acid that dissolve the Gospel proclamation that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation. How little I must know my God! In short, how can I be certain that my lack of trust, confidence, and reliance on God – and hence, love – has not caused my neighbor to perish? *****

All of this said, God has chosen to love me – all of us! – in spite of our sin, taking these sins upon Himself and bearing their cost that we might have life eternal in, with, and through Him. Through God’s love alone, ultimately revealed to the nth degree in the work of Jesus Christ, we are, indeed, restored to peace with Him! It is because of the fact of this relationship that when He calls us “sinners” and calls our desires and actions “sins”, we are able to not only bear with this, but actually able to exult and glory in His companionship! Even when we realize, and are saddened by, the fact that our actions do not deserve such kindness on His part… Nevertheless, He goes on to look us in the eye with love and tender mercies, and causes us to rise again in joy, and to go forth in His pardon and power! (being able to talk like this, by the way, is why the 16th century Reformation of the church was necessary).

For this our earthly journey we live – always – by His tender mercies and grace!

FIN

 

Image from Wikipedia: Sir Joseph Noel Paton, “Dawn: Luther at Erfurt” which depicts Martin Luther discovering the doctrine of Justification by Faith ; http://www.topofart.com/artists/Sir_Joseph_Noel_Paton/art_reproduction/5836/Dawn:_Luther_at_Erfurt.php Original hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, United Kingdom ; bad fruit image from https://jennygeddes.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/badfruit.jpg?w=340&h=289 ; The Martin Luther window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC by Cadetgray ; 19th-century photograph of a young CFW Walther; originally from http://www.reclaimingwalther.org/ (public domain) ; Christ Embracing St Bernard by Francisco Ribalta

*An additional post I’ve done on this topic, “Unchildlike Reformation Eve” is here.

**C.F.W. Walther, pictured above, wrote something similar as he reflected on Luther’s experience: “Luther contends that the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s children is accompanied with strife. There must be confidence in the Christians and at the same time fear and trembling. This is possible. I can cross an awful abyss, trembling at the thought that I may be hurled into it; but seeing a barrier erected on both sides of my path I gather confidence and cross over, confident of safety. That is the strange paradox of the heart of a Christian: he fears and trembles and still is assured.” (200, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, 1897).

***Regarding the Christian’s “Old Adam”, an LC-MS pastor colorfully put it this way: “[After believing the Gospel that saves me], I look back at the law that corals me, that pulls me in and says “you will not go past this line, this boundary” and the old Adam starts digging, and starts trying to figure out an escape plan. And the new man in Christ is like “Come here. We gotta kill you. We gotta kill you more because you are getting in the way of me being with Christ.”

****Luther writes that to the extent that a believer is “actively” righteous, the law’s accusatory office has ceased. Under the accusatory law insofar as they are sinners, Christians are also “without the law” because Christ’s fulfillment of the law is imputed to them and insofar as they battle sin in their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit (see p. 16-17 here)

****We are reminded that “God’s Kingdom comes without us”, as Luther said. That said, God chooses us to be the vessels who communicate His message to others, and so I would only assert: “You should not think you are indispensable. The Kingdom of God comes without any person in particular.”

Also, most of this paragraph was taken from an old, heartfelt post I did here – which I think this most recent post tempers a bit, and puts in a more helpful context.

 

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Heartfelt Spiritual Counsel for “Fabulous Internet Supervillain” Milo Yiannopoulos

Brieitbart provacatuer Milo Yiannopoulos, a.k.a. “Nero”

Brieitbart provacatuer Milo Yiannopoulos, a.k.a. “Nero”

I recently watched a couple of interviews (here and here) the ever controversial Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos did with “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson about his new movie “Torchbearer”. According to an article from the same Breitbart news, the film’s “thesis” is that “sin has become mainstream in Western culture, which will soon lead to societal destruction.”

Yiannopoulos himself, a vigorous proponent and practitioner of free speech, identifies as both gay (flauntingly so) and Roman Catholic, and so I wondered how he would interact with Robertson, who a few years ago was fired (and then re-hired following protests) for remarks about the sinfulness of homosexuality.

Christian persecution is a topic of the aforementioned film, and according to Yiannopoulos’ boss Alexander Marlow, he was “very touched” during the film at the Cannes festival in France (where the interviews also took place). In Yiannopoulos’ own words, during the movie he was often “clutching [his] crucifixes and having tearful moments.” His being greatly affected by the film was in evidence during the interviews as well, as he complemented Robertson about the movie: “it even changed my mind about you…. I thought ‘this guy is smart and compassionate – I want to meet this guy.’”

Robertson: if they don’t buy it [the Gospel] we love them and move on… we love them and move on…

Robertson: if they don’t buy it [the Gospel] we love them and move on… we love them and move on…

In the second interview they discussed Robertson’s temporarily being fired in Dec. of 2013 for simply sharing the “list of sins” in the Bible in response to a question about homosexual practice (“read that list and see if you are in there…”, Robertson quipped about his usual practice of helping people discover their sins). When Robertson talked about his personal experience seeing notorious sinners become godly men and women, Yiannopoulos replied, “other kinds of Christians are Christians because they think they are good people. Catholics are Catholics because they know they are not”, and this prompted a quick “that’s a good point”, from the “Duck commander”. When he later insisted that the pardon and power of Jesus Christ definitely “works”, Yiannopoulos responded, “I’m looking for a ‘pray it away camp’ that will work for me”, making one think – even if just for a moment – that he was quite serious.[i]

Recently, at a talk at the University of California – Santa Barbara, Yiannopoulos expounded on matters like these further, in response to the question “how do you reconcile being a Roman Catholic and a homosexual”. He began by politely suggested that the man asking the question did not really understand Catholicism, stating in part (see full comment here) the following:

The catholic church is different from the Anglican strain of Christianity not just because they’re wrong….I can’t remember who said this, but people are Anglicans… they’re Baptists or Methodists or whatever because they believe they’re good people. Well, Catholics are Catholics because they know they’re not…. we have this thing called original sin….we go to church because we know we’re not good, and I think for me at least, at least certainly living the lifestyle I do, that’s a more honest approach to theology than other sorts of Christianity have to offer.[ii]

First of all, when it comes to his claim that some of these groups attribute goodness to human nature – and hence themselves personally – this does, in fact, describe the views of many liberal Protestants (not to mention Catholics!). Furthermore, even though many conservative Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists would undoubtedly take issue with Yiannopoulos’ claim here, whether or not the struggle that the Apostle Paul describes with his sinful nature, or flesh (see Romans 7 and Galatians 5) – as when he cries out “who will rescue me from this body of death?” – applies to Paul as a Christian (and hence to Christians today) is evidently an open question in even many of these more conservative churches. So far at least, this “habitual sinner” can really identify (throughout our lives we each face our own particular crosses, temptations…and even sins) with Yiannopoulos’ rather striking answers.

Lutherans and others assert that Romans 7 describes Paul after he became a Christian.

Lutherans who hold to their confessions assert that Romans 7 describes Paul after he became a Christian.

And yet, then we get to the issues of Yiannopoulos’ comments about “living the lifestyle I do”. Is there a fight vs. sin here, or a sense of resignation due to the futility of fighting? Here, it seems, is the crux of the issue, and this is where my challenge to Yiannopoulos lies. He playfully kids about not having feelings, and doesn’t put a lot of stock in how “fact-free” people “feel”. So here I note that however much – or little – Christians have disagreed among themselves, they have, until only very recently, always claimed to be putting forth Scriptural teachings that, because they do not change, are able to give us the hope we so desperately need. In short, because these teachings are rooted in the very character of God Himself, His eternal law and eternal Gospel do not change – they, as Robertson was keen to point out, offer an anchor of stability and goodness we can trust…

And what this means is that those teachings have always been seen by Christians as something we today call “objective” (just subtract any Enlightenment connotations from it!) – i.e. they exist in a certain way no matter what we, personally, might feel about them (for more, see part 2. here) This, of course, holds true even for “the most fabulous supervillain on the internet.” To put this delicately to Milo (and I hope he sees this), is it not hard to claim allegiance to Jesus Christ when one is frequently giving the impression that he doesn’t need or want His forgiveness – at least for this or that thing He calls “sin”?[iii]

Yiannopoulos graciously reminding us of the kind of adulation Jesus deserves.

Yiannopoulos graciously reminding us of the kind of adulation Jesus deserves.

This forgiveness, of course, is something far more personal than the removal of the threat of punishment – it is, in fact, the act of continuing in, or the act of being ushered into, the closest of relationships with Almighty God Himself. It is because of the fact of this relationship that when He calls us “sinners” and calls our desires and actions “sins”, we are able to not only bear with this, but actually able to exult and glory in His companionship! As the One who rescues us from sin, death, and the devil through His atoning death and resurrection, He is our lovely Alpha (and Omega) – worthy of our highest honor, praise, and worship!

For non-Christians reading this, let me be clear: when it comes to considering our sins vis a vis such a One, there need be no “animus” towards any particular kind of sinner here. In other words, when it comes to particular Christians retaining these traditional views, there may well be as little “homophobia” in this or that case (here is what I published the day after last year’s Obergefell decision – homophobic?) as there is with Mr. Yiannopoulos’ purported misogyny, racism, or “transphobia”. This is something I have no doubt he would say “Amen” to.[iv] Blanket charges of “bigotry” and “animus” towards more traditional viewpoints like ours[v] are not only careless – they are, frankly, without a whiff of reason (just because I tell my children they are wrong when they are wrong, for example, doesn’t mean that I don’t love them).

In sum, to talk about the importance of all Christians acknowledging and confessing all of their sins is not to exult in self-righteousness (“I thank God we ‘good Christians’ are not like other men”) – thinking one is a Christian because one, over and against one’s fellow human beings, is or does good.

At the same time, neither is it to assert that our sin cannot sabotage the Christian life God grants. For example, when it comes to particularly nefarious and soul-killing sins like self-righteousness (a species of pride), perhaps Milo might readily say “Amen!” to what one Lutheran Christian on Twitter recently said: “Lord, forgive my sin. More importantly, forgive my righteousness, by which I suppose I have no sin, or little sin, or not as much as others.”

The advice is sound – even as we also realize that such righteousness would not be the true righteousness Christ creates “in us” (sanctification) by His being “for us” (justification), outside of us (see 2 Cor. 5). Such “righteousness” would rather be that which our “old Adam” claims – for it is we according to our sinful nature who are always eager not only to count and measure our progress over and against others – but to earn God’s final approval!

But that we cannot do, nor should we try. As the controversial Roman Catholic writer and renegade priest Brennan Manning said, it is like a plumber looking at Nigara Falls and saying “I think I can fix this” (read Romans 3!). No – for us it is simply as Jesus said: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10). And the approval that ultimately matters comes in the peace and certainty He gives in, with, and through His own beloved Son’s sacrifice for us (see Rom. 5:1 and I John 5:12-13) – we stand before Him not because we are good, but He is. Of this we may be reminded again when we pray “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Grace for sinners indeed! We bow to our kind Lord and Master – and perhaps kiss His feet and wipe them with our tears.

I am indeed pleased that Milo wants to identify with Jesus Christ and the great Christian tradition. And yet, if he is going to endeavor to speak for it, I would hope that he would be at great pains to accurately represent it. When something is as good as this – “as good as it gets” in fact! – you don’t want to get it wrong.

Jesus Christ: fabulously humble and simple – for us.

Jesus Christ: fabulously humble and simple – for us.

Dive in “Nero”. Jesus Christ, always provocative, had the utter nerve to say that His words were spirit and life, right? He further asserted that we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God! Who did – Who does – He think He is? (the caps might give that away)

In sum, Christianity is even better than the most fabulous earthly things we can imagine.

Bow, brother. Of course this habitual sinner is ready to stand by you through it all.

FIN

 

[i] Yiannopoulos has, in the past, said both that he wishes that he wasn’t gay, and that he thinks that God made him the way that he is in order to help him to overcome the atmosphere of identity politics, utterly confounding the academic left (and “just to make the heads of feminists spin”).

[ii] More from his comment: “Though here’s the thing: progressives will sometimes demand all manner of complex and weird acknowledgements themselves…they want to be a gender-queer-blah-blah – throw in cis… blah, blah but what they can’t seem to understand is other people asking for the same acknowledgement that life is messy and complicated, and that sometimes things aren’t fully recognized or realized or pulled together in your own mind and sometimes it takes a lifetime of study or prayer…”

This part of Yiannopoulos’s answer is perfect if the intention is merely to show that those who oppose him (generally on the left) are often inconsistent and irrational. But of course if he wants to strongly put forth the beliefs of his church as being different – that is of being rational and reasonable – his answer falls short.

[iii] Yiannopolous is known as a conservative in today’s cultural and political environment. That said, does his theological approach in fact resemble that of another provocateur, Nadia Bolz-Weber, whose Christianity, in turn, bears a striking resemblance to the philosophy of Hegel?

[iv] Yiannopoulos talks in the first interview about Robertson holding a “perfectly respectable opinion” that millions of Americans hold.

[v]  I have crtically touched on aspects of the “cultural libertarianism” he expounds on here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/what-does-the-rise-of-trump-have-to-do-with-science-and-christianity/

 

Image credits (Creative Commons): Milo Yiannopoulos, photo by @Kmeron ; Phil Robertson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, DC., by Gage Skidmore ; Milo on throne used with permission from @KingCrocoduck (twitter) ; Palm Sunday 10 by Waiting for the Word.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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My response to the article cited by Anthony Sacramone in his blog post about losing faith

"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him." -- Proverbs 15:8

Not what He wants: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.” — Proverbs 15:8

 

Anthony Sacramone, a former editor of First Things and former author of the defunct blog Strange Herring, has written an article about losing his Christian faith. He is still a conservative of sorts, but he now says this:

One day, should enough people care, and the proper venue provide itself, I will attempt a more thoroughgoing explanation of what happened, of the internal revolution that has left me with no more confidence that the New Testament is reliable, inspired, true, or “inerrant” than I do that astrology, Marxism, or the Happy Healthy Vegan Kitchen is reliable, inspired, true, or inerrant.

If you are surprised or stunned by that last sentence, believe this: no more than I….

Frankly, the existence of an evil deity has far more explanatory power to me in relation to this vale of tears than either no god or a “good” god. But he doesn’t make for nearly as appealing Christmas carols.

I am very saddened to hear this. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Sacramone’s honest and heart-felt writing over the years, even as I got the sense sometimes that he was teetering near the edge.

As he says, he may in the future provide more details on his journey to where he is now. Suffice it to say, however, that he did drop a hint in his article:

In fact, I believe some of the worst pathologies of leftist-progressive thought has its roots in Christianity’s inability to come to terms with its own internal contradictions. For that matter, I have never understood how conservative pro-lifers could find support for their cause in the cult of YHWH, which, as Jon D. Levenson has shown, began with a fetish for child sacrifice that was only extinguished later in its history. (In fact, the early history of this deity, one of several in a Near Eastern pantheon but singled out by ancient Israel as its God, illustrates a near penchant for the killing of children. Think of the Flood and Canaanite-massacre narratives, not to mention the Matthaean infancy story, in which how many babies were supposedly slaughtered because a providential star led “wise men” to Herod first rather than directly to Bethlehem? Fortunately—for some Near Eastern families of antiquity, at least—this episode is a fiction, merely a reboot with different actors of the story of the slaughter of the Hebrew babies in Exodus.)

Nevertheless, because I am a conservative, I do not suddenly believe that the American experiment would be perfected if all religions were wiped from the cultural landscape….

The link to the chapter by Jon D. Levenson hit me pretty hard, because four years ago I had an LC-MS friend send it to me as well who, I got the impression, found the argument compelling (and he wanted me to read it).

Before I read it and replied to him (my friend, that is), I said this:

Well, evidently [child sacrifice] was legitimate among some of the neighbors – and, as false worship in Israel increased, those immersed in these things certainly would be tempted to take that Exodus 22 passage in isolation and use it apart from its full context, right?….

Since the fall, sacrifice is as natural as breathing for mankind (see Girard’s insights here as well).  Even those things considered most valuable among us – the things that seem to be the greatest cause for hope (like firstborn and firstfruits) – die and need to die because of sin.  The core concept is this: without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.  We need bloodshed to absorb and protect us from the consequences [and] judgment that bloodshed-causing sin brings on itself (Passover as analogy here).  What we are dealing here in Exodus 12 and 13 are sin offerings: God is showing, through the example of the firstborn (again what is considered among us on earth to be more valuable and hope-giving than a firstborn?  I note that the wider creation to is redeemed… donkeys in Exodus 13 : ) ), that it is only through bloodshed that He provides (Jungel’s work here is good if I recall….) that the groaning creation is set right – even the things on earth that seem to be indicators of the most hope.  No, apart from God’s provision, there is no hope.  We are condemned.  Yet death conquers death.  What is hopeless brings hope.  What is meaningless brings meaning.

Now – how much did the Old Testament folks think along contours like this?  Well, the faithful among them at least understood the core truth that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.  And they surely knew of the Promise.  That much is unmistakeable.

Also note: even thank offerings (not sin or guilt) that involve the shedding of blood would not exist if it were not for the power of sin in man that demands atonement.

After I read the article, this was my reply to him:

Babies.  Children.  Sacrifice.  So – I also finally read the article you gave me.  Thank you again for copying it for me and desiring to engage me (I presume) on this issue.

In response, I’ll just *try* to ask questions.  Answer any you feel comfortable answering and have time to answer.

By the way, the whole idea of Christians asking questions like these has been on my mind lately.  The whole question of “intellectual honesty” (3) as it relates to “academic freedom” (which we know, no institution of higher learning has en toto, as there are always parameters) is a difficult one.  Here at Concordia, it seems there is the potential for a new openness regarding the homosexual question (have run into this 2 x in the past week as regards some encounters with leadership here on campus).  Some may cheer, and others might wonder if God is sending us a strong delusion (2 Thes 2:11).  I take that latter view very seriously, even as I struggle to know how best to handle issues like these.

Questions.

  1. …first of all, as I said in my previous email about this stuff, you may have to educate me as to why JEDP lives. Levenson’s argument on pages 3 and 4 strike me as odd, to say the least, for the reasons I mentioned earlier.  Now, I know there are issues with the simple “inerrantist” opinion, things that Sasse pointed out (i.e. there was no properly Christian theory on the nature of inspiration [i.e. it is a fact but what is the process?], what does it mean that they are also truly human literature, what about the fact that it was common for disciples to write books under their master’s names [i.e. Pythagorus, Isaiah?], why is almost every important event in the history of salvation told not once, but twice or even more often, what about situation like the David of Samuel or the pious David of the Chronicles,(why two version of Israel’s history and what seem to be contradictions?), is it the Hebrew canon or the Septuagint (not just a “translation”!) – why does the N.T. recognize both?  Are we working with the concept of truth of Greek philosophy, i.e. Aristotle’s logic?, in what way do we see truth and in what way must it be believed….?, what does it mean to do thorough historical research accompanied by thorough dogmatic thought?), but I do not need to accept uncritically this JEDP scholarship, do I?  What is one book that I absolutely must read as regards this?
  1. Regarding Ezekiel 20:25, 26 (to dive right in), let’s assume that the laws God gives to indeed have to do with child sacrifice (as, I admit, it does seem to be the case, on the face of it). If that were indeed the case, why would it not be perfectly reasonable to think that the laws that God gave them, were simply the religious “codes” or “laws” of the godless – i.e. the Canaanites, or Israelites influenced by Canaanite practice?  I know that Hammurabi’s “code” did not really have to do much with religious matters, and that even Jahweh notes that the gods of other nations did not care enough about their people because they did not give them their law (as Yahweh did), but still – of course these nations had some of their own “theological or moral ideals” (which could be seen to go hand in hand with the concept of “law” – see Psalm 94:20 and Isaiah 10:1 here) – their gods most definitely preferred sacrifice, not obedience!  Why is it not the best explanation that, given the rest of the other “anti-infant sacrifice stuff” in the prophets and the Torah (again, JEDP here I know….) God gave the Israelites over to what they, in fact, wanted  (and with this, perhaps the hope that some, at least, would come to their senses)?  This is not to say that God desired this, but that he gave, after numerous attempts to alter the situation, man what he wanted – even as, as Luther says, “God is all in all”, as he energizes all of the life and activity of life in the universe – not to mention allows and permits certain things (therefore, he “does” them) , and uses evil for good in His plans as they unfold for us in history, even as they all times exist simultaneously for Him as He not only actively controls all things, but also reacts to His creatures, losing no control, but always actively remaining the Captain of the ship (in what sense is God “behind” all things? – in a sense like this…God only “decrees” Pharoah “do” evil [i.e. lets him do it] after numerous attempts to change Pharoah, and when Pharoah continues resisting as he does, he is appropriated into God’s plan for His glory in the way He is….)
  1. Again, if we assume that Ezekiel 20:25 and 26 does indeed connect these laws to child sacrifice, it seems to me that this would mean that the Israelites were not being faithful to God’s Law because they were being idolaters (Ezekiel 20:18) – why should we assume that many Israelites (perhaps most, with only a few faithful remaining, a la Elijah) innocently misread Exodus 22:28-29 instead of assuming, that first, through the lure of the idolatry of the nations (i.e. unbelief and bad-character-forming actions) they had fallen into the practices of the nations (i.e. child sacrifice) and then, they perhaps justified their actions by reading Exodus 22:28-29 out of context (i.e. chapter 13:2,13)? (further, how would reading Exodus 22:28-29 in this way, given the failure to account for chapter 13 be a “literal interpretion” (8)?!) I also note that Levenson himself sees the Laws given as God’s retaliation for idolatry (7).  Therefore from my view, It’s not that God perverts their hermeneutics, but that he confirms them in their sin, which has caused them to previously adopt faulty hermeneutics (sin=spin) to justify their actions.  Why is this not the best way to look at things?  It certainly seems to flow with the rest of the biblical accounts, does it not?
  1. When Levenson writes: “Could it be that Jeremiah’s hearers saw themselves as apostates or syncretists but as faithful YHWHists following the ancient tradition of their religion?” I get very confused. Is this not always how syncretists and apostates see themselves?  When is it otherwise?  Does Kathryn Jeffries Schori see herself as an apostate and syncretist?   Definitely not.  Nevertheless she is.
  1. Levenson quotes Greenberg “at least from the time of the last kings of Judah it was popularly believed that YHWH accepted, perhaps even commanded [child sacrifice]” and then he comments “What is curious in Greenberg’s comment is his certainty that popular practice was so radically separate from the normative religion.Why , if there is no evidence in the Bible (outside of Ezek. 20:25-26) for the sacrifice of the first-born son to YHWH, did so many Israelites come to adhere to such a practice?” (end quote)  I reply:  why, if there is no evidence in the Bible that homosexual activity is permissible did so many who follow the lead of Gene Robinson and Kathryn Jeffries Schori, did so many Episcopalians (and ELCA, and Presbyterians, etc. etc. – in spite of the fact of the Orthodox presences around them!) come to adhere to such a practice?  I know – from their (your?) perspective – the passages in Romans could very well be the equivalent of the “bad laws” of Ezekiel 20.  How to know?  The Spirit of course.  But why is it wrong to ultimately approach the Scriptures (after as much historical investigation as desired has been engaged in) with the view that Jesus himself seems to have of the Old Testament?  Believe like a child the simple words?  (saying, it might seem this other view is likely, but ultimately, there is much we can’t confidently assert here….)
  1. Obviously, I do not think that the “the latter opinion… better fits the biblical data: YHWH once commanded the sacrifice of the first-born but now opposes it”.
  1. Regarding Molech (10), why should God not execute Molech by the instrument of his own choosing – Tophet? Why not put him down via his own bread and butter?  Does Levenson have no sense of sweet poetic justice?
  1. Why not assume that at the time Micah writes he does not condemn child sacrifice because he didn’t need to – because it was now widely known now due to Hosea and Isaiah having made known the teachings of the Penteteuch again. Why not assume that everyone in their audience basically now knows this?  Just because the pagans may have thought that child sacrifice was the greatest act of devotion to god – i.e. he desired [a cult of child] sacrifice not obedience – does not mean that the prophet expected his readers to buy into this.
  1. Top of 12: “presented lovingly to his Lord”. Ugh.  As to why the account of Abraham and Isaac survived in the midst of this condemnation of child sacrifice (which, according to my reading of Genesis, I believe is condemned in that very book as well), why should we not assume that the most important thing here is that Abraham was willing to ***obey**** God here when it was, understandably really, really hard?  Levenson, states Gen. 22 shows that Abraham’s piety “was not to be taken as paradigmatic – a most unlikely interpretation”.  Why not say that it *is* but that the key point is to let God be God.  To listen to Him even when He seems to contradict what He says elsewhere, because we trust Him to fulfill His promises?  To think that He desires obedience, not sacrifice?  Paradigmatic indeed – but not because of a general piety that embraces child sacrifice as part and parcel of this piety!  Why is Levenson’s suggestion here not bordering on ridiculous and parody?  If this were as important as he claims why would this practice not be continued in the Scriptures (again, one must assume JEDP….) by other prominent and respected fathers of the faith?
  1. Regarding Jephthah (not a prominent and respected father of the faith, by the way), the author of Judges is notoriously vague on whether many of the things he shares are descriptive rather than prescriptive, but I’d suggest the last line of the book should have the most weight here (everyone did what was right…) Why not simply assume that Jephthah, though heroic, is simply evidence of how incredibly affected Israel was by their neighbor’s views?  I think this simply underscores the tragedy of how badly off the Israelites were.  And yet, God was merciful and worked through such corrupt folks as these, who had gotten so far from the truth.
  1. I don’t think II Kings 3:26-27 necessarily underscores the “full acceptability of this act even to the Israelite author of this narrative”. I think it could just as well underscore how much the demons appreciated and actually reciprocated child sacrifice.  It really works.  See Girard as well.
  1. P. 16 and 17: God is in the dock everywhere here. It is hard for me to not see all of this reasoning as undermining the message that the Scriptures really present.   Our Spirit-suppressing hermeneutics are a sight to behold.

I know my saying this might cause you to feel that you want to stop the conversation, but I hope not!  Know that I think all of us are permeated with the Satanic, since his venom is deep within us, infecting us, killing us and driving our relationship-killing actions as you say.

But Christ is risen as well, as you say.

(end of email to my friend)

My friend never responded to my questions though I will not assume it is because he would not be able to provide answers to them. It’s just as possible it may have simply fallen off his radar.

In any case, I hope that if these questions are not helpful to Mr. Sacramone, they may at least be helpful to others who have read Levenson.

Our God does not desire the death of the wicked – whether they be old or young – period. Jesus, who bid the little children come to Him, fully reveals to us the face of YHWH. Little ones to Him belong… they are weak and He is strong.

And this strong one – again, who is the only one who can help us understand the Old Testament in its depths – puts to flight the lies of the evil one. As I noted in a recent post about Martin Luther’s view of Scripture, summing up a recent paper from my pastor (partially quoting him):

“Luther gives the impression of believing ‘Scripture to be a coherent whole, in spite of its many writers, languages, historical contexts and transmission issues… [and] Where conundrums were discovered he let them be.’”

In other words, if the explanation that I am hinting at above in my questions to my friend is not the correct one, there is, rest assured, another one. Christ shows us the kindness of God – even as He still speaks of hell! (He is decidedly not a safe and tame lion!) – and reveals His firm desire to save all from all the myriad varieties of unlove, unlive, and unlight that Satan would peddle.

“Jesus loves me” – and all – “this I know“, by the grace of God. That grace that continues to reach out to, and be there for, Mr. Sacramone as well.

Much love to you sir!

FIN

 

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Foster_Bible_Pictures_0074-1_Offering_to_Molech.jpg

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Is Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura Our Sola Scriptura?

The seal of the author's church body, Note the three solas.

The seal of the author’s church body, Note the three solas.

 

Adam Hamilton is the senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, “one of the fastest growing, most highly visible churches in the country” (see here). He is the author of several popular books, and in his book When Christians Get it Wrong, he writes that the Bible is a document that is both divine and human, which for him means that the authors “were people who had a deep faith in God” who “heard and understood God in light of their culture and times.” He goes on to write that “..the Bible is the timeless, inspired word of God found within the writings and reflections of very human authors.” (italics mine, quote from here)

From a more scholarly perspective, Stephen Fowl, in his book “Engaging Scripture”, writes the following

“…theological convictions, ecclesial practices, and communal and social concerns should shape and be shaped by biblical interpretation” and “Biblical interpretation will be the occasion of a complex interaction between the biblical text and the varieties of theological, moral, material, political, and ecclesial concerns that are part of the contexts in which they find themselves.” (p. 60).

How do these views of the Bible compare with those of the 16th century church Reformer Martin Luther? Not long ago I had noted that at a recent theology conference in Bloomington, Minnesota, my pastor, Paul Strawn, had given “a rip-roaring scholarly paper” titled “Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura”. The paper has not been published yet, but I have been given permission to publish some excerpts from the paper, which are found below.

In the paper’s introduction, Strawn writes about the recent history of the phrase “sola Scriptura” in his church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod:

“The Latin expression sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) used to be regularly included in the slogan that summarized the Reformation of the western church in the 16th century via Martin Luther (1483-1546): sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide. At the last centenary of the Reformation in 1917 it was accepted as an accurate summation of the causes of that event.[1] It was incorporated into the newly designed seal of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 1948 and popularized by the Oscar-nominated film Martin Luther in 1953—a film on which both Theodore G. Tappert (1904-1973) and Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) served as consultants. A more recent (apparently) derivation of the slogan replaces sola Scriptura with solus Christus, that is, instead of Luther’s championing of the Bible being a leading cause of the Reformation, it was his confession of Christ…..

He goes on to provocatively state:

So perhaps can be understood the liturgical innovation of late of removing the place where the lectionary—a book containing the readings from the Bible used in worship—has traditionally been placed and from which it was read: the lectern… The Bible no longer has an authority in its own right deserving its own liturgical appointment (lectern) as does baptism (font) the Lord’s Supper (altar) and preaching (pulpit). Instead, its authority is derived from its proclamation (from the pulpit) by the church (the pastor).

Martin Luther believed "the Holy Spirit is no skeptic" and that the text was not just established, but actually existed: "Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written & formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature." - Luther (photo: Dr. Luther debates Dr. Eck - Martin Luther Memorial in Eisleben, Germany)

Again, Martin Luther believed “the Holy Spirit is no skeptic” and that the text was not just established, but actually existed: “Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written & formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature.”

 

The paper’s first section is titled “Scriptura Plastica”. Some of the highlights from this section:

  • The idea of establishing an original text of the New Testament (i.e. an “autograph”) was abandoned already in 1979, by critical scholar Kurt Aland, in the 26th edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (the critical edition of the Greek New Testament). A new process, called the “local-genealogical method”, or “eclecticism” was adopted instead.
  • The contemporary “coherence-based genealogical method” is the newest method whereby scholars endeavor not to discover the original text of the New Testament, but rather the first “witness” in the New Testament tradition.
  • According to Strawn, we now have “witness criticism”: “The use of this term ‘witness’ is not insignificant, for it was an important term in the theology of the preeminent Protestant (Reformed) theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth (1886-1968), allowing him to assert that in Scripture, you don’t necessarily have the Word of God itself, but the fallible ‘witness’ of man to God’s Word.”
  • “…the methodology of NA28 [i.e. the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland text noted above] has further implications, specifically that of the authority of Scripture, or in essence, the meaning of sola Scriptura”, and this has prompted some to suggest that traditional approaches towards biblical hermeneutics (that is the art and science of biblical interpretation) need to be reconsidered.

The final point made in this section:

  • “Why did [Martin] Luther take a number of manuscripts, reduce them to a single text, insist that that text was the inerrant Word of God, and also that its simple meaning be pursued? Was is that Luther was simply ignorant? Or could it be that he had a difference understanding of sola Scriptura than what we have today?”

The next section of the paper is titled “Luther and Scripture”. Within this section, the following points are made:

  • Martin Luther lived during a time when the Bible was seen to exist as a fixed text (i.e. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate), and her personally had extensive exposure to the Bible in this form while growing up.
  • “The sheer volume of Luther’s interaction with the Bible simply overwhelms. He read the Bible cover to cover twice a year.. Luther prepared a timeline of the history of the world, based on the text of Scripture… he translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German (1534).” Throughout his life he held classes on many of the particular books of the Bible.
  • It is interesting to note that Luther received his first degree in Aristotelian philosophy and even taught the same. That said, in the long run, he “bypassed Aristotle (philosophy), Plato (mysticism), Lombard (medieval theology) and the patristics (Dogmengeschichte) and spent his life studying, teaching, preaching and translating the Bible.”
  • According to Luther, “The reason Scripture has never erred, is ‘clearer, simpler, and more reliable,’ and ‘alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth.’ The Bible is the ‘book of the Holy Spirit’ Luther asserted in comments on Psalm 40:8-9.[2] The Scriptures ‘did not grow on earth’[3] but ‘have been spoken by the Holy Spirit.’”[4]
  • “Thus Scripture, for Luther, seems ultimately to be a matter of the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in view of the end times, who is to convict the world of ‘Sin, righteousness and judgment’” (John 16:8).[5]
“All Holy Scripture was divinely inspired and perfected by God, its author…divine Scripture…contains nothing idle…Believe none of those things which you see with your own eyes and handle with your own hands to be as true as what you read there. It is certain from the divine words that heaven and earth will pass away…Although men lie and err, the truth of God neither deceives nor is deceived.” -- Erasmus, Luther’s skeptical opponent!

“All Holy Scripture was divinely inspired and perfected by God, its author…divine Scripture…contains nothing idle…Believe none of those things which you see with your own eyes and handle with your own hands to be as true as what you read there. It is certain from the divine words that heaven and earth will pass away…Although men lie and err, the truth of God neither deceives nor is deceived.” — Erasmus, Luther’s skeptical opponent!

 

The final section of the paper is titled “Luther and the Texts of Scripture”. There, we read:

  • “Even though Luther grew up hearing and studying the text of Jerome’s Vulgate, he was not unaware of its textual tradition. Jerome’s edition was not a straight translation… already in 1504, when Luther was 21, the first edition of the Vulgate with variant readings had been printed.”
  • In Erasmus’ “Textus Receptus”, “he also compared the Byzantine texts [Greek texts of the New Testament] to the references to Scripture found in the writings of the church fathers[i]—something not done with the critical text until the middle of the 20th century!”
  • “Erasmus apparently had access to the Greek manuscripts of the Eastern fathers he mentioned. This is not insignificant, for it means that he had access to some of the earliest manuscripts of Scripture known today.” (see a summary of another important paper by my pastor here: “An Overview of the Influence of the Publication of Patristic Literature Upon the Reformation”)
  • Why did Luther undertake the translation of Scriptures into German at all? “Eighteen editions of the Bible in German—fourteen in High German and four in Low—were published before Luther’s… the reason was clarity of meaning: a Bible which people could read and understand.”
  • For Luther, “the literal or historical meaning of the text was its Christological meaning, since the center of Scripture was Christ…” As he said: “In the Scriptures, therefore, no allegory, tropology, or analogy is valid, unless the same truth is expressly stated historically elsewhere. Otherwise Scripture would become a mockery.”
  • “How did all of these resources which clearly revealed a complex history of the textual transmission of Scripture affect Luther? It really seems not to have been an issue at all. A text, a clear text is assumed, and consequently, bad renderings, bad translations, can be spotted and corrected.”
  • “Modern scholarship…most assiduously endeavors to create unique contexts for each author, language and time period. Luther had no such proclivity, believing apparently Scripture to be a coherent whole, in spite of its many writers, languages, historical contexts and transmission issues.”

The views of Hamilton and Fowl, noted at the beginning of this article, are both related to the teachings of Karl Barth, i.e. his “Neo-Orthodoxy”. Approaches like theses are decidedly different from those of Luther. In the paper’s conclusion (you can read the entire conclusion, as well as other quotes from the paper in this article, which examines these issues in a larger context), we read the following: “The Bible as we have it is a work of the Holy Spirit even in these end times. Therefore, in spite of the questions raised by modern textual criticism, it remains without error, readable and understandable.”

Some in the church today would see this as opposed to solus Christus. This would have made absolutely no sense to Martin Luther. As noted earlier in the paper, the Church has always viewed the Scriptures as “a third-article topic, as that of the work of the Holy Spirit in history” and not “so much as of that of the second article, the person of Christ, in the present.”

FIN

 

Note: if you would like to talk to my pastor about his paper, he can be reached at pstrawn@lutheranpress.com

Notes:

[1] Theo. Engelder, “The Three Principles of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides,” in Four Hundred Years. Commemorative Essays on the Reformation of Dr. Martin Luther and Its Blessed Results. In the Year of the Four-Hundredth Anniversary of the Reformation. By Various Lutheran Writers, Ed. by W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia, 1916), p. 97-109.

[2] Walch 2nd ed., IX,  col. 1775.

[3] Sermon on John 3:34 (ca. 1538-1540), Walch 2nd ed., VII, col. 2095.

[4] From the Last Words of David (2 Sam. 23: 1-7), Walch 2nd ed., III, col. 1895.

[5] Cf. Martin Luther, Convicted by the Spirit, trans. by Holger Sonntag (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2009).

[i] “Complete New Instrument diligently reviewed and improved by Erasmus of Rotterdam in relation to not only the Greek truth but also the trustworthiness of many codices – old and improved – of both languages [Greek and Latin]; then also in relation to the quotations, improvements, and interpretations by the best authors, chiefly Origen, Chrysostom, Cyril, Vulgarius [d. 928], Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, Hilary [of Poitiers d. 367] , Augustine – together with annotations that may instruct the reader concerning what has been changed for which reason. Therefore, whoever you are and love true theology, read, understand, and then judge. And do not be offended right away, should you indeed find fault with what was changed, but consider whether it was changed for the better.” (NOVVM IN strumentū omne, diligenter ab ERASMO ROTERODAMO recognitum & emendatum, nō solum ad graecam veritatem, verumetiam ad multorum utrius [que] linguae codicum, eorum[que] veterum simul & emendatorum fidem, postremo ad probatissimorum autorum citationem, emendationem & interpretationem praecipue, Origenis, Chrysostomi, Cyrilli, Vulgarii, Hieronymi, Cypriani, Ambrosii, Hilarii, Augustini, una cū Annotationibus, quae lectorem doceant, quid qua ratione mutatum sit. Quisquis igitur amas veram Theologiam, lege, cognosce, ac deinde iudica. Ne[que] statim offendere, si quid mutatum offenderis, sed expende, num in melius mutatum sit) (Basil: Froben, 1516).

 
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