Monthly Archives: November 2013

Robert Tracy McKenzie on history via the first thanksgiving

Click on book for Amazon link.

Click on book for Amazon link.

An excellent excerpt from Albert Mohler’s recent interview with Robert Tracy McKenzie (from about 9-15 minutes into the interview).  It is well worth your time.  (there are also recent reviews of the book by William Thomas Mari at Books & Culture’s site and by Thomas S. Kidd at Christianity Today’s site).

Mohler: So, what do we do with the past? There it is, and it’s your business as a professional historian and as a professor of history to help a generation of students and beyond—the reading and learning public—to understand how to come to terms with the past. So where do we get started?

McKenzie: I think we start first of all with the kind of attitude of expectancy. Rowan Williams, who is the former archbishop of Canterbury, writes in one of his books that we should expect gifts from the past. I think about that and feel very strongly about that. We are entering into a conversation that transcends generations, centuries, millennia, about permanent questions of importance. And we go into that conversation expecting or open to the possibility of life-changing encounters and of hearing truths that in our own culture we are a little bit blind to. But having that expectancy for genuine education, I think we combine that with a kind of skepticism about our own biases and, in particular, a skepticism that reminds us of our tendency to recreate the past in our own image.

One of the things that I talk about in the book is a tendency that we have that goes hand in hand with our belief that the past is important, and that is a tendency to mine the past or search the past for ammunition rather than enlightenment. And so I think we need to be very careful. And I have come to the conclusion that part of what it means to think Christianly when we go to the past is actually to examine our own hearts at the front end of the process. And we ask ourselves, “What is it that we are looking for? Why does it matter to us?” And sometimes we go to the past simply for entertainment. But very often when Christians go to the past they think there is something at stake there. It’s because they already have made a certain kind of commitment to a public position and simply expect the past to provide the ammunition that allows them to prove the point to which they are already committed. And the danger with that is that we never learn anything. We find what we look for, and it may even be effective in a pragmatic way. But we’ll not encounter a fundamentally challenging way of thinking about the question that causes us to stop and pause and go back and reexamine what we understand.

Mohler: But it doesn’t actually gain much for us. My own academic network is at the intersection of historiography and theology in the field of historical theology. And the history of the church, and in particular the history of theology, reminds us that if we don’t get the whole story, at least as much of the story as we can get, we are going to miss very key issues and integral parts of argument and development without which, quite frankly, what we mine—to use your verb there—just isn’t going to be all that valuable to us, if we don’t know the story. It might be ammunition for the argument, but it doesn’t actually help us to understand how minds change and how issues were defined and how in a particular context we actually learn how, in the case of my research, the church in particular and the larger society around it was trying to think through various issues. And it seems to me that when you look at the kind of historiography you lay out—and you are writing to Christians very clearly in this book—you aren’t really saying that the past isn’t really important or valuable, but, rather—I don’t want to put words in your mouth—without it we basically aren’t having the kind of conversation with the dead that any mature, honest thinker needs constantly to have.

McKenzie: Absolutely. One of the verses that I come back to over and over again in the book, and also in my teaching, is from a rather brief allusion in the book of Job. One of the individuals that comes to interact with Job, a man named Bildad, who says to Job—and this is my paraphrase—but he tells Job that if you are trying to understand your situation, go to our fathers and go to their fathers and inquire of them, and inquire of former ages, and Bildad concludes, “for we were born yesterday and know nothing.” And I love that phrase. And I think when we seek wisdom while in the process shutting ourselves off from the ninety-three or ninety-four percent of human beings who have lived before us, there is a kind of incredibly arrogant provincialism to that. And I fully believe if we truly are committed to search for wisdom, then we have to practice what Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead”—we have to let those who have gone before us also have a voice in the conversation.

Mohler: Jaroslav Pelikan, who was the Sterling Professor of History at Yale, made a very similar point in which he said that the fact that one ignores history would make about as much sense as denying that one has ancestors. And he went on to say that the conversation with the dead, in this historical sense, is as necessary with the living, because the living are inexplicable but with reference to the dead. And, of course, you have C.S. Lewis—and I believe you cite this in your book—one of the most common references to history in the introduction to a work by one of the patristic fathers when he says that the temptation is to practice some form of chronological snobbery. And that is an intellectual fashion that seems to be very current in the academy at any given time.

McKenzie: Yes, absolutely. I love the phrase that Lewis uses there, “chronological snobbery.” He actually has offered many concepts to me that I have found very useful as a historian. In fact, my real appreciation for Lewis has grown as I have found more and more ways that his thinking actually enriches my thinking, historically.

Mohler: You know one of the things this raises is how his education is different from our own. By the time that C.S. Lewis was in high school, he had been steeped in history such that, according to one of his biographers, he was able to walk through the medieval eras as if he had spoken to people from them. And, of course, that informs his writings.

McKenzie: Yes, his education would have been steeped in ancient literature, language, and history. I think, if I understand correctly from his biographers, he was very troubled when the English universities began to introduce modern history, which was anything after the Reformation. So he was really one who was constantly drawing from a deep kind of legacy inherited from earlier ages.

Mohler: As I recall, he refused to teach any literature after 1830 simply because there was no way to know in one hundred years if the literature really had value. But that is the opposite of chronological snobbery, perhaps.

I want to go to something you wrote back in 2004. You were writing as a historian to historians about the generation you are now teaching. And I am going to read to you from an essay you wrote entitled, “Christians Teaching History.” You said this:

I find that the typical student who sits in my classes is both an historical objectivist and a philosophical relativist. When it comes to reading their textbooks or listening to my lectures, such students think in terms of cold hard facts. Implicitly, they believe that historical truths are objectively knowable, that they are easily ascertained, and that they should be universally acknowledged. When the topic turns from truths to truth, however, the ultimate questions about transcendent moral values or the existence of God, for example, they immediately become determined relativists.

I found that fascinating. Play that out for me.

McKenzie: It is good for you to dig out that statement from almost a decade ago. As you mentioned to your listeners at the outset, I did teach in a secular context for more than two decades. And one of the things that I was thinking about was ways in which to encounter the past and, in the process, naturally to raise eternal questions. And one of the things that did strike me in that process, as I went through in multiple iterations, was that students were very comfortable in compartmentalizing things. They were very comfortable in compartmentalizing issues that operate within what you might consider a disciplinary context, within the context of history, or of what it means to think historically, to set apart in one category of the mind totally separate from issues of purpose and meaning, issues that we would think of as leading to eternal questions with religious answers. And one of the things that was a challenge for me was to try to get students to reunify those two aspects of their thinking. And we find, when we study the past, permanent questions or eternal questions and press them to come up with internally consistent answers. I think it is an indictment of the modern, secular, decentralized university—very few students felt any pressure or any obligation whatsoever to have a consistent philosophy of life. It was a constant challenge to try to make an argument that that was not the way it ought to be.

Mohler: So you delivered a sermon of sorts. You say, “On the first day of each new class,” in that secular environment—just give a brief summary of that sermon because I think it will be very helpful.

McKenzie: Right, I called it “sermons for the secular classroom.” Teaching in a large research university that was aggressively secular, there were certain boundaries that I often felt and tried not to cross. But I tried to make arguments that were intellectually substantive that would, at the very least, encourage students to reconsider their fundamental understandings. And one of the sermons that I would often do is often a concluding lecture. I would challenge students to think about some of what we had observed when we had studied American history and to try to evaluate it.

We would talk about democracy as a system in which the majority has its way, and I would remind them that the removal of native Americans in the 1830s was democratic by that standard, and the support of slavery was democratic by that standard, and the creation of a segregated Jim Crow system in the late 19th century was democratic by that standard. And it was basically trying to push them into a corner to recognize that sometimes the majority isn’t right. And I think to believe and acknowledge that the majority is not always right raises enormous philosophical questions. Because if the majority can be wrong, then we have to understand some standard that obliges the majority, that restrains.

I would just say that I would bring students to the brink of that precipice to say where does that standard come from? And it seemed to me that there were just a few possible answers: that the standard would be something we invented or it would be something that we discovered from an existence outside of cultural construction. I tried to make the students feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure how effective I was, but one of the things that I just discover all the time is that students ultimately have been acculturated in the modern university to think that philosophical consistency was simply not that important.

Mohler: And so you ask them to consider history as a discipline that’s not just about things that happen in the past but rather a discipline that, to use your words, “engages the heart and requires inner work.”

McKenzie: The only reason for studying history, I would say. I would put on my syllabi that, at its best, to study the past is a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live. If we do not encounter something in it that challenges us deeply about the values that we hold most dearly, there isn’t much point in studying it, I think.

[Begin commentary break]

Mohler: I think it’s really important that you had a professor here in a secular university, the University of Washington, presenting to students in that secular context, very much up-front and with intellectual honesty, lectures which he called “sermons to secular students.” Listening to how he describes that, reading about it in his writings, it leads me to believe that Christian students, indeed evangelical students, are often in need of those very same sermons.

[End commentary break]

Mohler: Professor McKenzie, this book is The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. Why this book? Why about the Pilgrims? Why now?

McKenzie: Great question. For me, it began and has been evolving as a personal goal. I have spent most of my academic career doing what academics do, which means primarily producing scholarship for other academics. And I really began to come under the sense of conviction to communicate and connect in some way with Christians outside of the academy. And as I began to think about that, what I felt called to do was really enter into conversation with Christians about the intersection between our faith and our encounters with the past. What it might mean to “think Christianly,” if we want to use that phrase about the past. And I thought, I can write a very dry sort of abstract treatise on the topic and have an audience of a handful. Or maybe there is another way to go about it. Maybe there is a way to revisit the familiar story, a story that Americans would find accessible and might find intrinsically important, and use that story as a context within which to model what it would mean to be responsible in one’s encounter with the past.

So I decided, as I thought about it more and more, that the first Thanksgiving episode had a lot of ingredients that were really key, also that the Thanksgiving holiday we impute much religious significance to. It is actually a civil holiday, however; it is accorded by the state and not the church. And then we associate it with a particular historical moment. So when I thought about it, it really sort of intertwines religious beliefs, national identity, and historical memory. And so, to me, it was a perfect combination of ingredients, and so I decided to retell the story and think out loud along the way and hopefully raise some issues that American Christians would benefit from engaging….

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 27, 2013 in Uncategorized


Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part VII of VII)

Flacius, at Madgeburg, 1550 (essentially): Give us the liberty to preach the Gospel in its purity or give us death!

Matthias Flacius Illyricus, at Madgeburg, 1550 (essentially): Give us the liberty to preach the Gospel in its purity or give us death!  Read more here.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

Again, this series is wrapping up with tough questions about Romans 13 – I asked yesterday: “So if what Bonhoeffer did was not righteous, was it really the ‘lesser of the two evils’”? 

Pastor Holger Sonntag, writing in the afterward of “Christians Can be Soldiers”, a modern translation of “Whether or not soldiers to, can be saved”, says that Luther

“points out in historical detail that God has many tools at his disposal to bring a tyrant’s life to a quick end. Christian subjects therefore can confidently leave all such things to God’s direction, not because they do not care about injustice committed by their superiors, but because they believe in Him who is the living Author and eternal Guardian of all law and justice. Without this transcendent, metaphysical anchor and reference of the legal order – which, it needs to be said, in Luther is by no means a dead philosophical abstraction but the living God himself who is actively present in his creation – Luther indeed must be misunderstood as a naïve political amateur and puppet in the hands of the mighty.” (Sonntag, Afterward, Christians Can be Soldiers)

...but not rebels.  Click on book to read more.

…but not rebels. Click on book to read more.

In other words, such killing of tyrants is to be left to unbelievers – or to those who oppose them in war.  Whatever is not done in faith is mortal sin (Rom. 14:23) and taking out one’s authority – established by God (Romans 13) – is sin.*

OK then.  And so what should we think of the American Revolution and what should we think about resisting government today? 

I’ll try to keep this simple, starting with the Revolution: even as I admire representative democracy as much as the next man, I do not think I would have fought for the American Revolution in the first place – every time I read or hear about details of the war, it seems to me that it was not justifiable.  It is one thing for a country to justly take up arms vs those who would invade them, taking their life, liberty, and possessions (there was a reason they were called, and called themselves, colonies and “colonists).  As a matter of fact, I would even hope that in the event of a foreign invasion, persons in my country would be willing and eager to fight to the death in order to preserve religious freedom – that we might worship in our chosen houses of worship, our homes, and in appropriate public venues (and that if, hypothetically, giving up these were terms of surrender we Americans would steadfastly resist – I must admit that this seems highly unlikely though, seeing as how we are gradually giving it up willingly).**  That said, again, it is another thing to rebel against those who have some legitimate claim to rule us.

Jonathan Mayhew's famous 1750 sermon.  See full text here.

Jonathan Mayhew’s famous 1750 sermon, veering towards rebellion.  See full text here.

As an old Australian theology professor of mine once said: “it began in blood and it will end in blood”. 

But what if one suspects, as a few evidently did leading up to the American Revolution, that the governing authorities were trying gradually, through baby steps, to silence the preaching of what is believed to be the true(r) faith?  Leading up to the American Revolution, there was talk about getting Anglican bishops into all of the colonies, and of course, as many of the colonists probably believed (remember Mayhew from part V), Roman Catholicism could not be far behind!  (of course, George Washington was officially an Anglican to)***

Well, if the government is trying to gradually take freedom away, it seems to me that this means that there indeed remains freedom to explicitly preach the Gospel now, privately and publicly, so that would-be persecutors would be turned into friends of Christ.  Luther said that before one attempts to rule in a Christian manner – something I would argue has, relatively speaking, prevailed in America throughout its history (I would say that the fact that many Christians believe this is a “Christian nation” implies this) – one should first make sure one’s land is filled with Christians – or at least those who want to be identified as such.  There is a corollary here that would apply to those trying to create overtly non-Christian nations as well.  It would not make sense to legally crack down on Christians too early, removing too many of their freedoms, when their numbers are still sufficiently strong.

No Bill, but I understand what you are saying.

No Bill, but I understand what you are saying.

No doubt, for the Christian it seems strange to think this way at all – and, attempting to be ever dove-like, it should.  But then again, perhaps if we viewed children more as a blessing (see here) and truly embraced our freedom to proclaim the Gospel in this land via the avenues available to us, such thoughts would not even enter our minds. 

In my mind, it is difficult to envision another situation like Magdeburg in 1550, where the Emperor’s Roman Catholic armies, in concert with the Pope’s wishes, attempted to stifle Lutheran resistance to Roman Catholic impositions on their worship (the life-giving doctrine of Luther was next!).  This was surely an unjust invasion, and this was a just war of resistance by any measure.****  And yet, might the explicitly religious nature of this conflict have something to teach us today?  What if the governing authorities attempt to remove not just any freedom, but the freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  Or, more generally, what if they were to try and take our Christian Scriptures as was done in Rome in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries?  And what might it mean, for example, that the laws outlawing homeschooling in Germany today were first established during the Nazi regime?  If this is taken away from us here, what might be next?

The Magdeburg siege, 1550

The Magdeburg siege, 1550

When it comes to those who have some legitimate claim to rule us – which yes, was not even the case in Magdeburg  – should we ever take up arms to fight?  Again, peaceful resistance is always an option.  But what about something beyond this?  Perhaps if there were sufficient numbers in one place to make a go of it?

I suspect that individual consciences may vary here.  My initial reaction is to think that I should instead be willing to be imprisoned or die.  But then I think of my young children – the young children – and ponder what is most valuable: their bodies or their souls?  And so I think: of course one should be willing to fight to make sure the Gospel is able to be proclaimed – especially for the sake of the little ones!  As Jesus said, “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36).  That said, we are not Magdeburgers, but Magdeburgers are still spread throughout this great nation – in our individual vocations, we are “God’s masks” here and abroad, always prepared to share the hope within us, speaking the “oracles of God” (see I Peter).  Here is where we are, contra Mangalwadi (see part IV), the “poor, meek, and righteous” who also reign and administer a Kingdom!  So perhaps we can thank God that we are not all in one place, and pray for strength to glorify and proclaim Him boldly.

At least that is the way I think today.  Nevertheless…. all uncertainty gives way to certainty about God’s current reign in the world through the gifts He gives His Church – the forgiveness, life and salvation we have with Christ!  And not only this, but also in the knowledge that God will use all evil for good for the sake of His children!

All this said, if you find yourself asking “then now what?” (or thinking more caustically: “those Lutherans are so defeatest….”) after all this, I direct you back to my series about “How God becomes King in man”.  If you would be so kind, wrestle with that and let us soberly discuss these matters.


*One wonders if Bonhoeffer would disagree with any of this.

Here is a thought-experiment (imagined scenario) developed in order to look closely at Luther’s view: government agent reveals evil intentions and tries to kill your innocent neighbor, and you, defending him, are forced to kill government agent.  Here is the twist: you have a fairly innocuous view of the government. As with Luther’s experiences with agents representing the Pope – you think the agent may not have been properly representing the government, but rather been a rogue of sorts.  Eventually, you find out the truth, but even at this point you do not advocate violent overthrow of the government, for as an old school Lutheran, you believe that that can only compound sin and make things worse.  The analogy that Bonhoeffer used about needing to kill a crazy man driving a vehicle in an out-of-control fashion who is killing others is therefore deeply flawed in that it ignores the consequences created by rebellion.

Try this one: “Recognized or not recognized, a man has his superiors, a regular hierarchy above him; extending up, degree above degree; to Heaven itself and God the Maker, who made His world not for anarchy but for rule and order! It is not a light matter when the just man can recognise in the powers set over him no longer anything that is divine; when resistance against such becomes a deeper law of order than obedience to them; when the just man sees himself in the tragical position of a stirrer up of strife! Rebel without due and most due cause, is the ugliest of words; the first rebel was Satan.” (Thomas Carlye, Chartism, 1840)

** How eager am I to defend this nation today?  I do sometimes think in the following way: what sense does it make to fight for the political liberty of a nation that not only does not respect religion, but basic morality in general?  We are a nation that certainly does oppress others, as we are ever profligate with our destructive “freedom” in so many ways (today, I think of this: we print as much money as we want, secure that our standing in the world and ability will remain).  And yet we also do so much good as well, still leading this or that battle informed, in part, by notions of justice and human dignity (note the outrage over the supposed “warrior culture” of the NFL or the fight to overcome sex slavery – even by many on the left).  America seems to be a nation of the bests and the worsts.   But I see a day, increasingly seeming inevitable, when not much positive will remain at all – unless God leads us in bold preaching that somehow, in His time, will lead many to Christ and the kind of virtue only He makes possible.  Even then, note that this does not mean all we might call virtuous on earth will tolerate Christian preaching.

***As I said in a footnote in part V: “That said, to say that the American Revolution was largely about religious freedom would seem to be an absurd argument.

Perhaps one can argue that for many colonists who fought, they could not separate these notions of Church and State in their mind, and fighting for religious liberty had to go hand in hand with political liberty.  I grant that that may have been the case – even as I doubt that many thought this way – and yet I think that would have been wrong in their judgment.”

**** Specifically, those defending the city only had to agree to worship in the Roman manner, while being able to presumably keep their doctrine, but they firmly believed that to do so would be to compromise the Lutheran faith, which they believed was in strict accordance with the true Christian faith on earth

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized


Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part VI of VII)

And Romans 13 is still in the Bible?

And Romans 13 is still in the Bible?

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

This series has ventured into the territory of Romans 13, and there is a good reason for this.  If America’s founding fathers were correct, this democratic republic will not continue to exist as such without the virtue created by religious faith.  And perhaps Christian faith in particular, in spite of any “theistic rationalist’s” hopes to the contrary (see footnote of part II, briefly discussing Gregg Frazer’s important insights about the founding fathers’ beliefs).*

Challenges to the view of Romans 13 I hinted at yesterday certainly can and do arise.  Another person commenting on the blog I quoted from yesterday said: “what makes you the lawful ruler?… historically, the way many ‘legitimate’ rulers came to power was by murdering people who opposed them and forcing their will on others. In other words, legitimacy is established by the sword.”

Indeed – it would seem that here, at least, “might makes right” in some sense.  As much as we may hate to say it, how was Rome and its Emperors established if not by might?

Jim, my friend – please get off your high horse.  You know you can’t just assert carte blanche that your voice is God’s.

Jim, my friend – please get off your high horse. You know you can’t just assert carte blanche that your voice is God’s.

Still, is this all that can be said?  Or is there any room for tinkering, for ambiguity – without falling into rationalization over rebellion versus those God has appointed?  For example, if a United States President were to undermine the rule of law and the orderly institutionalized rebellion we call democratic elections, would the military be justified in removing the usurper?  What if a case could be made that it was a truly legitimate emergency situation? (ever wonder how the Papacy could take hold and become established like it did? – read this).  Who should ultimately decide this though?  Ideally, the vice-President – but what if the third in command did not trust the Vice President to follow the Constitution either – and he had the support of both the head of the military and the majority of the population?  What about that third in command’s own motives?  To ponder the chaos of a faltering democratic republic is a bit mortifying.

Again, on that same post, another commented regarding a concrete historical situation being discussed there:

“Nazi Germany invading France and establishing the puppet Vichy government, does not constitute a legitimate government of the conquered French [I add: whose ruler surrendered, and whose leaders had been exiled].  The Greater war in question continued, and the greater war needed to be finished, and the world recognize the Vichy government as legitimate for it to become legitimate… but this never truly happened….  So those Christians continuing to resist the Nazi’s and the Vichy, where well within their rights to do so.  Their legitimate government was alive and well, alb[ei]t in exile.

VichyFranceIs this the case?  I am highly sympathetic to this view, and yet there are certainly questions to be worked out here. First, who is the “world” that would need to recognize the puppet government that it might be legitimate?  The argument certainly assumes that some of the world – those whose views matter – would need to do this.  It seems that in particular, the leaders of the allied nations assisting the resistance would need to recognize the legitimacy of the Vichy government, and this they were not willing to do.

All this said, as we somewhat circumvent the idea of “might makes right” here, we can certainly be tempted to reduce all situations to neat, correct principles.  These principles would ideally be such that more evil governments would either not be able to identify with them at all, or they would not necessarily be able to apply them in a valid fashion in order to justify their actions.  That said, perhaps there might still be situations where it would be hard or impossible to determine and justify our judgments.*  It seems to me that there could be very difficult questions of how just war theory, for example, should be administered on the ground in concrete circumstances, which always has to do with who is – and should be – making the decisions.  And this again, the Bible tells us, must inevitably be tied up with the order – which means hierarchy – that God provides in the world, as He evidently uses even evil for good!

Luther and Acts 5:29: following Christ, means condemnation and cross-bearing in this life.

Luther and Acts 5:29: following Christ, means condemnation and cross-bearing in this life.

Luther held to the Scriptures which say that God is the final Lord of all human lords (1 Tim. 6:15) and the final avenger of all injustice (Rom. 12:19).  And that we are not to be rebels (Romans 13).  Taking the Bible this seriously helps to explain why Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to frame his rebellion the way he did.  When he made his decision in the 1940s to not only resist the Nazis but to assist in an attempt to assassinate Hitler against the wishes of the legitimate governments opposing him**, he says he did not do so because it was the right thing – the righteous thing – to do.  Instead, he essentially said that it was a wrong thing to do, but a less wrong thing to do.  Bonhoeffer would say that his action was something he needed forgiveness, not praise, for.  It was a “lesser of the two evils”, and it is “better to do evil than be evil” (see here).  Like the British official during the war who told his staff he must unjustly fire them all in order to eliminate the one spy among them, it was perhaps the least bad thing that could be done in a fallen world that only the sinless God-man could rise above.  In short, even according to Bonhoeffer, it is impossible for a Christian to ever see rebellion as being a righteous act.

Going a bit too far

Going a bit too far.  Bonhoeffer himself would not want to be remembered as a martyr

So if what Bonhoeffer did was not righteous, was it really the “lesser of the two evils”?  And what should we think of the American Revolution?  I’ll cover that before wrapping things up in Christ our Lord.


*Here is something to think about: In the democracy of India, I heard years ago that it is not socially acceptable to publicly tell someone you think they are wrong when it comes to religious convictions.  This was held up as a model in the PBS program I am referring to.  What does this do for freedom of religion, free speech (debate?), assembly, etc. – not to mention the notion of the importance of truth in public discourse?

**Let us take the example of the Vichy puppet government, established by the Nazis, discussed above.  We might say the principle is this: if a nation’s leader has surrendered but it still has allies among other nations that are willing to continue the fight the “conqueror” cannot yet be said to have legitimate rights to rule.  In this case, the Vichy government would not be legitimate due to allied resistance (the leader of the nation(s) offering help would be the de-facto legitimate ruler), but the Russian government that took over Poland would be, due to the lack of allied help.  Does this not seem arbitrary though? 

More questions: How large and powerful does the resistance need to be in order to “count”?  What will really constitute their surrender (since the surrender of the French leader did not count)?  Would ongoing guerilla strikes against the occupying forces be enough so that they would still not be legitimate – even if they were only supported by their friends with arms?  Or would their friends need to put boots on the ground?

And in the case of Poland (or E. Germany, Hungary, etc.), what if America, for instance, had picked up the fight vs. the Russians five years later at a more opportune time?  Would that put the Russian government there back in the category of “illegitimate occupiers”?  What about the case of the crusades, occurring some 400 years after the original conquest of the Holy Land?  Thinking about this, one realizes the inextricable logic of retaliation. 

And how many governments that currently exist were established “legitimately”?  And America’s “Manifest Destiny”?  It sometimes seems to me that most any war can be rationalized by a charismatic figure able to argue – with few if any consequences for doing so – perhaps even utilizing the strictures of just war theory to make his case.

*** Some say that Bonhoeffer and his conspirators simply should have listened to the Allies wishes here – they wanted Hitler, who was making bad military decisions, to remain in power until the end of the war.  Of course, even if the tide of the war had turned, it may have also been doubtful to Bonhoeffer et. al whether or not they could trust the Allies, who had, for example, let Czechloslovakia fall.  Not only this, but the Germans ramped up their death camp violence in these last days.

Pic of Pilate from ; portrait of James by John de Critz, c. 1606 from Wikipedia ; France under German occupation map from Wikipedia

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part V of VII)

"government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."  Amen?

“government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Amen?

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Yesterday, I said, “We want to handle it all ourselves – who else can we trust?  And yet, do we not need someone with wisdom who can help us see the bigger picture?”

Who is the “we” and “us” I am referring to?  Why all Americans, of course.  I am taking the “liberty” to speak for all, believing that my words should resonate with most any person who has pondered the political challenges of our day – or perhaps any day.  And yet, there are ways of using the word “we” that I do not think are as responsible.  For example, in response to a provocative post about the two kingdoms on the blog Crusing Down the Coast of the High Barbaree (here – you will now need to get permission from the owner to access the blog), one commentator argued that

“Whatever Lutheran theologians believe about how the United States came into existence (and I understand most believe it was through sinful rebellion against the God given authority of Great Britain) the colonists won, and presumably that gave them the God given authority to write the Constitution. When they did so, the constitution vested God given authority divers[e]ly, apportioning it between various branches of the federal government and the state government and even the common people.

One of the most elemental marks of those in “authority” is that they “bear the sword” (See Romans). Yet, the American founding fathers specifically reserved the authority to bear arms (the sword) to “the people”, i.e., you and me (see the 2nd Amendment). We have also have, pursuant to the Constitution, the authority to choose who serves in government and remove them if they displease enough of us.

Therefore, “We, the People”, are, in the United States, the “powers that be”. That being so, by conventional Lutheran logic, those who would attempt to take our power and our arms from us would be in rebellion against God, since it was He who ordained that we should have our political power and our arms in the first place. Thus, if anyone in the government should attempt to increase his own power at the expense of us to whom it legitimately belongs, we the people (to whom God has given the sword) should remember that we do not bear our arms in vain and be prepared to use those arms to punish the evildoers in government who may attempt to usurp powers that God has given to us.”

Click image to go to this American Conservative article and here for an interview with the author about the article

Click image to go to this American Conservative article and see Issues ETC for a recent interview about it.

In some ways, this seems similar to the argument from Vishal Mangalwadi I mentioned yesterday, about God wanting to “to give the [earthly] kingdom[s]” to the “poor, meek, and righteous” (added NOTE: I believe the author is saying that we can be organized this way, not that we should or need to be).  Now, I believe that a king could step aside, or even agree to establish a democracy, or democratic republic, but whatever we might think a democracy is, do articulations like those above suffice?   I do not see how it is a valid argument in that the “we” here seems to be given too much freight.  I think this relates to the recent critique of Dr. Richard Gamble (Hillsdale college) here and here about Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Gospel” – it is full of abstractions lifted from concrete history.  The statement above seems to me too lifted from the concrete reality of democracy in general.   Is it reasonable that it would be able to represent the collective whole here – in reality could and can the “we” really be as one man?

A case that will increasingly resonate with all Christians?  Grains of salt needed?  Click to image to read more about this book.

A case that will increasingly resonate with all Christians? Wisdom, let us attend?  Grains of salt needed? Click here to read more about this book.

Although the “we” functions this way in the argument, I think things are ultimately doomed to fall apart, as the power of one primary individual will always inevitably arise either to preserve order or to create it (in the midst of sufficient disorder and disarray).  It is particularly interesting to me how both conservative Lutherans and Reformed Christians will go to great lengths to argue for male headship in a marriage relationship, for example – noting that it is not God’s will for there to be two heads (“order of creation”) – and yet here, many are seemingly content to imagine a being with many heads, which, as critics of democracy have always pointed out, veers towards a picture of a monster.  How can fallen man hope to operate like the Trinity? – I note that even with the Godhead there exists both equality and roles that feature a particular order.

So I believe that this argument fails.  Again, in general, Lutherans have historically talked about how it is one thing to peacefully protest and resist impositions of ungodliness (something else that, rather unjustly, was taken away to some degree in one area by the RICO Act) and another thing to actively take up arms against those who have a legitimate claim to rule us. 

But we are in America after all, where that head is chosen – via “institutionalized rebellion” – through an orderly process based on trust in the rule of law.  How did we get there?  Here persons point to democracy in Greece, the Magna Carta, and things to this effect.  Particularly interesting to me is that in the year 1750, some 26 years before the American Revolution, the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew preached what evidently became a famous sermon, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, where he questioned passive obedience to the government.  He said:

 “It is unquestionably the duty of children to submit to their parents; and of servants to their masters.  But no one asserts that it is their duty to obey and submit to them in all supposable cases; or universally a sin to resist them.  Now does this tend to subvert the just authority of parents and masters?  Or to introduce confusion and anarchy into private families?  No.  How then does the same principle tend to unhinge the government of that larger family, the body politic?  We know, in general, that children and servants are obliged to obey their parents and masters respectively.  We know also, with equal certainty, that they are not obliged to submit to them in all things, without exception, but may, in some cases, reasonably, and therefore innocently, resist them.” (Hart, Faith and Freedom, 1990, p. 239).*

I am confident faith in Christ was there, but dare we consider that a lack of faith also played a role?

I am confident faith in Christ was there, but dare we consider that a lack of faith also played a role?

First of all, note how Mayhew, like Luther, bases his argument on the view that primary authority resides with fathers and mothers and then logically extends to that “larger family” of the state.  Second, however, note that what introduces confusion and anarchy is precisely Mayhew’s sermon.  It is one thing to object to your rulers – and even resist them without using force – when they ask you to obey wicked or unjust laws (and so you might try to protect your neighbor’s life or property where it is threatened, for example).  That said, it is another thing to remove them by physical force – even if you do think that the nation would be better off without them.  And perhaps even pray to that effect.

In the next post (probably on Monday), I will discuss challenges to this viewpoint.  This includes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who not only prayed that his ruler, Hitler, would be removed, but actually tried with others to assassinate him.


*It also does us well to remember that in most states of the union permanent legal abolition of religious establishment largely took place in the late 18th c., and “in several colonies, the establishment ceased to exist in practice at the Revolution, about 1776” (Wikipedia

Even if Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death speech” was about political freedom, it is not a stretch that many of the founding fathers, being “theistic rationalists” (actually, not so many deists (see post #2 in this series), considered religious liberty to be of some importance – perhaps largely because of the purpose they believe it served in making political liberty possible – where a largely Christian morality (the most highly developed of all the moralities, they believed) was necessary for a free people to be able to responsibly self-govern.  That said, to say that the American Revolution was largely about religious freedom would seem to be an absurd argument.

Perhaps one can argue that for many colonists who fought, they could not separate these notions of Church and State in their mind, and fighting for religious liberty had to go hand in hand with political liberty.  I grant that that may have been the case – even as I doubt that many thought this way – and yet I think that would have been wrong in their judgment.

Also regarding Henry it is interesting that he is one of the few founding fathers everyone agrees had more or less the disposition of an evangelical Christian, and he would years later advocate for the re-establishment of religion in the states (see this Wikipedia article where it talks about the disestablishment of religion in the states for helpful information) – even as Jefferson’s view prevailed, which many of us more evangelically-minded persons today are thankful for.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part IV of VII)

Shepherd needed.

Shepherd needed.

Part I
Part II
Part III

In America, we need a lot of help.

That said, it is the impulse of many of us to want to handle it all ourselves – who else can we trust after all?  And yet, do we not need someone with wisdom who can help us see the bigger picture?  Someone who can lovingly guide us, help us, lead us?  Someone who is willing to lovingly restrain us as we flail about in our foolish pursuits, causing God knows what harm and danger?  And do we not need someone who is strong and willing to lend a hand, and yet also constantly helps us to see that we cannot live by government handouts alone?  Do we not need a wise King who knows the nature of man, the times we live in and the providence of God – and who will benevolently rule us? 

We do – I am reminded of a fascinating quote from an atheistic Jewish Yale professor at Duke University in 1979:


“I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously.  I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be.  What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.”* (Arthur Leff, Unspeakable Ethics, Natural Law, see essay here)

We clearly need help, even more so now 34 years later….but here we should also know we cannot trust earthly kings to govern us in such matters – we know that if history is any precedent he will

take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.  He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.” (I Samuel 8)

And then these kings will finally take away all the freedoms we hold most dear – particularly our religious freedom (or might that come earlier rather than later?).

"Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty."

“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.”

Still, on the contrary, is democracy – even a democratic republic – any way to run a household?  Heaven help us again!  Is this not the way to ruin any nation – whether it be “native” or civilized?  Does this not end rather in slavery as man chooses the belly over virtue in general and biblically defined virtue in particular?  Yes, I am trying to be provocative here.  Perhaps we should say it will end in slavery – if Christianity loses its influence more and more?

"Without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure."

“Without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure.”

Again, the Indian Christian intellectual Vishal Mangalwadi – ever optimistic about America’s future – writes in his book The Book that Made Your World:

“Does the American notion of “one nation under God” or “in God we trust” imply theocracy or democracy?  The biblical tradition discovered during the Reformation viewed theocracy and democracy as necessary complements: human rule flowed from God’s rule.  The Bible depicts God as the ultimate ruler.  The first two chapters of Genesis, however, record that God created us – male and female – to rule his earth.  Human beings have the right to rule on this planet because God gave us that right.  The Lord Jesus claimed he had come to bring God’s kingdom to this earth. His mission was to give the kingdom not to aristocrats, but to the poor, meek, and the righteous.” (339)

This sounds good at so many levels, and yet should it?  First of all, let us note that this is not the way the first voice of the Reformation saw things (more on that tomorrow).  While I agree liberty is good and desirable, what about Romans 13?  According to P.S. Spalding, reviewing the new book from Oxford University Press Sacred scripture, sacred war: the Bible and the American Revolution by James Byrd, “in citing New Testament admonitions to practice peace and obey rulers (Matthew 5, Romans 13, 1 Peter 2), colonial interpreters frequently denied their application in cases of oppression.”**

Hmm.  I know God does not want rulers to be oppressors.  Further, I know Paul writes in I Cor. 7 that if we can improve our situation, we should.  But in what sense were the British oppressors anyway?  And even if they were, would that have justified the American revolution?    How seriously do we take Romans 13 here?:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.



More on that tomorrow.


*Arthur Leff, quoted by Johnson P.E., “Nihilism and the end of the Law”. First Things 1993; (31:20), quoted by Christian professor and lecturer John Patrick on many occasions.

** Interestingly, “Byrd deems these interpretations to have formed the groundwork for scripturally inspired attacks on slavery in the 19th century” – an analysis, which it seems, Yeago, in the earlier mentioned article (part I), would make a convincing case against.

More of that book review from CHOICE: “Drawing on 17,148 biblical citations in 543 sources ranging from King Philip’s War to the early Federal period (1674-1800), Byrd (Vanderbilt) offers a convincing, first systematic analysis of how early American preachers and authors used the Bible to interpret Americans’ engagement in war.  He concludes that among the most important Old Testament passages cited for political purposes were those portraying God as warrior and inspirer of Israelites against such oppressors as Pharaoh, Sisera, Goliath, and Rehoboam (Exodus 14-15, Judges 4-5, 1 Samuel 17, Psalm 144); and cursing those refusing to fight (Judges 5.23, Jeremiah 48.10).  In the New Testament, Paul’s endorsement of liberty (Galatians 5.1) proved popular in the later colonial period.  So did the words of John of Patmos: not for millenarian visions, but for immediate encouragement to resist evil under a warrior Christ (Revelation 2: 12-13, 19).  In citing New Testament admonitions to practice peace and obey rulers (Matthew 5, Romans 13, 1 Peter 2), colonial interpreters frequently denied their application in cases of oppression.  Notably, Byrd deems these interpretations to have formed the groundwork for scripturally inspired attacks on slavery in the 19th century.”

Shepherd pic: ; Plato and Regan pic: Wikipedia ; Sacred Scripture pic:


Posted by on November 21, 2013 in Uncategorized


Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part III of VII)

“Rights talk” – a classic exploring  modern America’s obsession with rights.

“Rights talk” – a classic exploring modern America’s obsession with rights.

Part I
Part II
I know the Bible talks more about responsibilities than rights, but this does not mean that it does not know of “rights talk”.  For example, in Lamentations we read:

To crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the earth,
to deny a man justice
in the presence of the Most High,
to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
the Lord does not approve. (3:35)

In Proverbs 31:8 and 9 we read:

Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

First, it is helpful to note that the Bible often seems to conflate the “poor”, or “anawa” in Hebrew, with the “spiritually poor”, as is made explicit in the Sermon on the Mount (one wonders if the reasons for such a conflation might become more clear to believers in the near future)*.  That said, what rights is our neighbor truly in need of?

Pioneer of religious freedom Roger Williams, who some secular persons have said is the "curious case of a tolerant bigot".

Pioneer of religious freedom Roger Williams, who some secular persons have said is the “curious case of a tolerant bigot”.

I do think we can very much argue that it is a true, pure and lovely hope (a la Philippians 4:8) that all persons, in line with common Western and American sentiment, would be able to freely express themselves and become the selves they wish to be – even as we know that this hope cannot be fulfilled in all situations.   After all, what does our neighbor – what do all of us working together – truly need?  Well, as men like Roger Williams*, heralded defender of the religious believer’s sacred conscience** might have put it, the liberty to do the right thing!  (even though we must be clear that the Pilgrims, for example, were not seeking “religious freedom” per se, nor were they looking to give everyone else a choice of how to worship – listen to this excellent interview with historian Robert Tracy McKenzie by Albert Mohler).  Our neighbor, and we ourselves, need(s) a government that makes it easier, not harder, to be doing what we should be doing before God.  That is…

*Right worship.

*Right speech.

*Right analysis (press).

*Right assembling with others.

*Right pursuit of purpose (happiness).

Guiness: "I'm not a Polyanna".  True?  Hear him speak here.

Guiness: “I’m not a Polyanna”. True? Hear him speak here.

But even if they would do wrong, it is still ideal, many of us think, for persons to be as free as much as possible….  For all the concerns that we should have about false worship (yes, Christians should want all persons to worship Jesus Christ), it does seem reasonable to me that in the state, we would respect person’s “liberty of conscience”, where “freedom of religion”, for example, applies to all, as much as that is possible (no Aztec child sacrifice and other things of that sort).  That said, what about tolerance for other behaviors that have traditionally be seen as being immoral?

Many of us understandably sympathize with the idea that it is good for persons to be as free as much as possible… as long as they can do so without causing harm to others.  The way of putting such a libertarian-sounding position in responsible terms would be to perhaps say that it is wise for there to be some tolerance for wrongdoing – some room for the gradual release of steam – built into any way of political governance.  But that said, what kinds of negative behaviors should be tolerated – and when and where? 

The right to be wrong – to a limit… Or do will the U.S. pitch religious freedom and yet say “how low can we go?”

The right to be wrong – to a limit… Or do will the U.S. pitch religious freedom and yet say “how low can we go?”

How can any of us really know about the long term consequences of our human actions, especially in this age where our foulest thoughts and desires – which surely shape our choices of words and deeds! – can be temporarily satiated ever more anonymously due to internet access?  How can we know – in a world we increasingly realize is interconnected to the hilt – that we are not causing great indirect harm to our neighbor?  In America, we increasingly see more shameless greed, more feelings of entitlement, more disrespect for human life (not to mention other life – see here), more sexual license, more avoidance of sacrificial actions, and more disastrous government policies (gambling which preys on the weakest, for example).  Not only this, but there are things that used to be considered immoral and unnatural that are now celebrated (see here for a litany I made), the most recent example being the rapid collapse of the natural category of “sex” in favor of “gender” within our society (see the new Rolling Stone story on Coy Matthews here)  There is no doubt we are in need of much help.

Is Coy a boy?  Are you a bigot if you say "no"?  See here.

Is Coy a boy? Are you a bigot if you say insist that he is? See here.

We need help.


NOTE: in the original post, I got confused about Coy (see left).  He is a boy, even though he identifies as a girl.

* Some interesting  bits about Williams. He was reviled by some but in his time his ideas were always discussed.  His ideas got in the mix, and were almost certainly taken up by John Locke (according to Timothy L. Hall: “for Williams, the success of [Rhode Island] lay in finding some mediation between the eternally warring principles of liberty and license: ‘We enjoy liberties of soul and body but it is license we desire except the most holy help us.’”) – although many of the convictions that drove Williams seem to have gotten lost with Locke.

He was good friends with Jonathan Winthrop, who made it possible for him to be banished to Rhode Island instead of being sent back to England to face physical punishment and rot in prison.  He could have been one of the most powerful persons in Massachusetts if he had not shared his opinions… He was not being persecuted in Rhode Island, which he founded, and yet was asking for religious freedom for *others*.  He influenced Cromwell to make Massachusettts stop their plans to convert an indian tribe to Christianity by force.  That said, Williams was not opposed to Christian proselytization, but was definitely for it.  He believed persons were wrong and needed to be corrected.  He argued  that there were contradictory *readings* of Scripture – and that the state was incompetent to judge persons by the Scriptures.  The state had no authority to enforce the first table of the 10 commandments. (hear the historian John Barry talk about him more here – this is where I got much of the above info).

Here is a fascinating quote about him: “The price Williams paid for freedom of conscience was the de-Christianization of Christian America. To him, at least, this was not an exorbitant price, because he believed that Christian America had never existed and never would. He cared too deeply about God and the church to trivialize them with public professions of religiousness. Nevertheless, because his contemporaries could not accept that price, they labeled Williams a fanatic and forgot about him. He has few knowledgeable supporters in the present day for the same reason. He alienates Jeffersonian skeptics by the fervency of his faith and believers by the secularism of his political vision“. (165, 166, Separating Church and State: Roger Williams and Religious Liberty, Timothy L. Hall)

** Please note I am trying not to whine about being persecuted.  To read about current cases of the kind of persecution we should be concerned about, I cite Gene Veith from yesterday:

Aspects of our faith that are so commonplace that we often take them for granted are serious crimes in other countries, bringing horrible punishments.  Yesterday we blogged about North Korea executing people for simply possessing a Bible.  In Iran, since Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, if you are a Muslim convert, receiving Christ’s blood in the wine of Holy Communion is punishable by 80 lashes.  Evangelism–that is, the crime of spreading Christianity–can mean 3 years and 8 months in prison.  Would we pay prices like that for our Bibles, for Holy Communion, for witnessing to our faith?

One commentator said:

“I would ask that people think about this story, the story from N. Korea yesterday and the dozens like them that we hear about throughout the year and the hundreds we never hear about before they start rambling on about how oppressed we are here in the USA.” 

I agree – and yet, let us not never be naive about the changes taking place around us.

Image credits: Roger Williams ( )


Posted by on November 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part II of VII)

Indian Christian observer of the West, Vishal Mangalwadi

Indian Christian observer of the West, Vishal Mangalwadi

Part I

How literally should we take these words?:

We, in the Green movement, aspire to a cultural model in which the killing of a forest will be considered more contemptible and more criminal than the sale of 6-year old children to Asian brothels.” (Carl Amery of the Green Party, quoted in Mensch & Energie, April 1983, quote found here)

I think those words should be taken very literally.  We know that taking people seriously means taking their words literally – not “literalistically” (see here and here) – when it is appropriate to do so.  Again, contrary to what Stanley Hawerwaus states, I do not think that the main problem in America is that people are taking the Bible too literally (see here).  Fundamentalism, for example, does not take the whole of the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit uses seriously – literally! – enough (hear just one timely example in this one minute clip from Michael Horton).

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Vishal Mangalwadi, in words completely at odds with the quote above, also means to be taken literally in this far-reaching and weighty statement:

By asking rhetorically, ‘Can God also become a dog?” Muslim apologists reduced man to the level of beasts.  They followed the Greeks in putting limits on what God could or could not do.  In contrast, the nominalists believed God was free – he was not limited by our presuppositions or by logical conclusions derived from our assumptions… we had to go beyond logic to observe what God had actually done…. Far from violating God’s dignity, the incarnation was to be the proof of man’s dignity: of the possibility of man’s salvation, of a man or a woman becoming a friend and child of God… The poet Petrarch used the incarnation as a central argument in developing Renaissance humanism… Except for Seneca (4 BC – AD 65), all the ancient Greek and Roman writers insisted on the absolute separation of divinity, leaving man in his misery, without remedy.  Seneca alone believed that “God will come to men; no mind is good without God.”  While Petrarch insisted on the infinite distance between man and God, he rejoiced that the distance had been bridged by the mystery of divine grace.  His grace brought God close to man.  It enabled him to lift man above his misery.

God’s descent means man’s ascent.  Misery, helplessness, despondency, and eternal self-conflict are normal for men.  They can be resolved because the transcendent can also become immanent – “Emmanuel,” that is, God with us.  One who will wipe away ever tear and remove the curse of sin, including death.  [Charles] Trinkaus[, in his In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought,] concluded  that the incarnation of Christ ‘is one of the theological foundations of the humanists’ much-repeated theme of the dignity and excellence of man.”  It reversed the traditional emphasis on human lowliness. Petrarch put it this way:

Surely our God has come to us so that we might go to Him, and that same God of ours interacted with humanity when He lived among us ‘showing himself like a man in appearance.’… What an indescribable sacrament!  To what higher end was humanity able to be raised than that of a human being, consisting of a rational soul and human flesh, a human being, exposed to mortal accidents, dangers, and needs, in brief, a true and perfect man, inexplicably assumed into one person with the Word, the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father and co-eternal with Him.  To what higher end was humanity able to be raised that that this perfect man would join two natures in Himself by a wondrous union of totally disparate elements?”

Of course, the Renaissance writers quoted classical writers (more Romans than Greeks) to garnish their treaties on man.  But they could not and did not derive their high view of man from the Greco-Roman worldview.  It was the Bible’s vision of what man was created to be, and saved to become, that became the commonsense view in the West.”

TrinkausAt this point, Mangalwadi reflects on the story he began the chapter with, that is, he and his wife’s efforts to preserve the life a small Indian girl whose family was trying to kill her due to her poor health:

“It was this biblical view that inspired Ruth to try to save Sheela.  Our neighbors did not understand her compassionate impulse because three thousand years of Hinduism, twenty-six hundred years of Buddhism, a thousand years of Islam, and a century of secularism had collectively failed to give them a convincing basis for recognizing and affirming the unique value of a human being.” (pp. 70-72, The Book that Made Your World)*

The things one thinks would be obvious.  After all, there is a reason why even very secularized folks are hesitant to inform even older children of the reality of abortion, for example – it does not just have to do with “age appropriateness”.

Thomas Joseph White, O.P. has said that “Human freedom has to be understood ultimately in light of the mystery of God, the love of Christ, and the beauty of the natural law.”  Of course notions of human freedom go hand in hand with the notion of human dignity so powerfully expressed above by Mangalwadi.  And here, talk of “rights” does make some sense, but in this way:  we as Christians, are those who are to be concerned about the rights of our neighbors – that God would give them in His goodness – precisely because we are our brother’s keeper.  As Issues ETC. host Todd Wilken says in regards to politics and voting: “Vote for the other guy”.  Our neighbor’s legitimate rights before God are to be very important to us. 

(and going back to how I introduced this series this has nothing to do with our neighbor’s supposed right to be hired by our small business in spite of his or her sexual immorality).

So what are those legitimate rights – in light of what we have discussed so far, what should they really be?  More on this tomorrow.


*More provocative claims from Mangalwadi:

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)

I note here that Gregg Frazer, writing in a monograph about the founding fathers published by the University of Kansas Press, thinks very few of the founding fathers 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 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” (see here for an interview with the author and a somewhat critical review of the book here)


Image credits: Vishal (

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 19, 2013 in Uncategorized


Give me religious liberty or give me death? Free to be what in America? (part I of VII)

What does this mean?  In his last days, Patrick Henry believed the United States needed the re-establishment of religion on a national basis. Why?

What does this mean? In his last days, the Christian patriot Patrick Henry believed the United States needed the re-establishment of religion.  Why? (listen here from 35 minutes up)

Recently in a First Things article, Thomas Joseph White said:

Unfortunately, modern culture focuses (maladroitly) on only one constituent element of the act of human freedom: the act of choice, electio in the terminology of the scholastics, the act by which we embrace voluntarily one preferred means to the realization of our happiness. And so a culture of autonomous choice is one in which freedom is defined in primarily negative terms: as non-compulsion from without and self-determination for any possible realm of goods from within.(electio originally italicized)

Yes, and yet, as Connor Friedersdorf recently pointed out in response to Ross Douthat, our society is not becoming less legalistic, but more so (see here). In other words, as our morality changes, we actually need more laws and not less.

As I have said in the past, it is not that we should want government out of our consciences (see here) – ideally, in this fallen world where the force of government must now play an important role, it would be more helpful than not in helping to curb our sin and form our consciences (see here).

Statecraft is soulcraft – to some degree yes, starting with the micro-kingdom of the natural family.

Statecraft is soulcraft – to some degree yes, starting with the micro-kingdom of the natural family.

That is happening less and less now though.  The other day, for the first time ever, a bill passed in the Senate (“ENDA” – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) that would not allow employers to discriminate against persons due to their sexual orientation (“LGBT”).  I note that it is not even enough for some persons that institutions affiliated with religious organizations would be exempt (as the bill currently stands).

It seems that Jesus’ statement in His parable about the Master having the right to do what He wants with His own money will get harder and harder to identify with every day (thought I’m sure this will somehow be less true in Texas, for example!).

As is in evidence from pieces like this recent one from George Will, religious liberty – especially in light of our “decadent democracy” – is the big topic of the day for Christians, and will increasingly become more so.  I will confess that I have not reflected as deeply as I perhaps should about how Christianity and modernity in general, and how Christianity and democracy in particular, do – or don’t – go together (for instance, like Jim Yeago, ever thoughtful, does in this essay).  Note that as is the case with many of my posts but particularly for this one, I have written this largely for myself – a devotional practice of sorts to force myself to think more critically about these issues.  No doubt I am out of my element here, but I am trying to help myself, even as I invite more help from others if they feel so inclined.

No Ben, God does not help those who help themselves, but I will row towards shore as I pray.

No Ben, God does not help those who help themselves, but I will row towards shore as I pray.

In the reality of this fallen world in which we live, we can say with confidence that the Christian is to be the one who defends the well-being of his neighbor before His own (see Philippians 2:3-4) We should be more concerned with others than even ourselves.  Of course, our first responsibility should lie with the family that created us and that we create – even if they are not a part of our church.  Christ’s words about hating them, for example, are to be understood in a very specific context.*  That said, the Bible also talks not only about our responsibility to our families and the family of believers, but also each and every human being.   Now, it has been said that most cultures around the world will largely agree with what is said in the second table of the Ten Commandments.  If I recall, this is largely C.S. Lewis’ argument in his book, the Abolition of Man.

That said, have they upheld absolute sexual purity to be of great importance forabolitionofman all human beings?  Have they believed abortion to be wrong, and upheld the rights of all children, even in their earliest stages of life?  Have they been opposed to mercy killing for the aged?  Have they believed they ought to be a good neighbor to all their neighbors and even have love for their enemies?  In short, have all the various tribes and nations of the world – in general – believed, as Christians do, that all persons are created in God’s image and thereby endowed with unalienable human dignity and certain rights before their Creator?

undertheinfluenceThey have not.  And given that the Christian Scriptures have not been ubiquitous in the world throughout its history, I do not think this should surprise us.  As the Christian apologist Dr. John Warwick Montgomery has argued on numerous occasions, the particular knowledge of God’s Law that the West possesses must in large part be seen to derive from the presence of the Christian Scriptures at work in Christian people.

Tomorrow, I will share an amazing quote from the Indian Christian Vishal Mangalwadi,humanrightshumandignity as he explains how this concern for all human beings came to be made more explicit during the times leading up to the Reformation.  He depends on the work of Charles Trinkaus, who claims “Renaissance humanists evolved and elaborated significant new conceptions of human nature… ’Anthropology’ and ‘theology’ belong together in Renaissance thought”.


* “…what about the parables of the “treasure in the field” or “counting the cost”?   It is true – on the other side of this banquet of grace, the parables of Jesus also call us to recognize that this love interest is going to cost us everything.  The church cannot fail to see that being the bride of the King means “losing our earthly lives” – relatively speaking, we must see that they are, in a very real sense, “dead to us”.  When He leads us to the treasure in the field, we see that the things on this earth really are – and must continue to be left behind – “buried” in the ground like the treasure was.  After He finds us and brings us into the banquet this is the cost that Jesus demands we recognize and actively participate in.  In his small catechism, Luther said: “that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness…” (see more on this here, from the most excellent Lutheran blog Pastoral Meanderings).  This can mean nothing but a radical change – as He exchanges His righteousness for our sins, we also see that our world has been exchanged for His world.

We are in but not of the world – all our earthly loves must now be seen in the context of our relationship with Him.  It is only when faith in Christ is supreme that we can see all our earthly loves and commitments in a new light, loving those around us not with a “worldly” love, but with the beginnings of a proper kind of love – a love that flows from our hearts in which our Savior is residing.”

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Uncategorized


Unleashing the Scriptures?: is Stanley Hauerwas right when he says the American people have become so corrupt the only thing we can do is take the Bible away from them?

Note: I have dealt with this issue before.  See “Should Christians be a People of the Book?”: a response to Father Freeman.

When the Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Al Kimel said the following on his blog the other day, I had to agree with him:

The evangelical believer is at a terrible hermeneutical disadvantage. Catholic Christians read the Scripture through the lens of the Holy Eucharist. Our faith is shaped by the trinitarian structure and spiritual dynamism of the Divine Liturgy. In the words of St Irenaeus: “Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn, confirms our teaching” (Adv. haer. 4.18.5).” (from here ; he has other thoughtful posts on this topic, particularly here)

That said, when he posted the above audio clip from Hauerwas, I have to disagree.  Here is what I wrote:

"I am always encouraging you to pay attention not only to what is said here in church, but also, when you are at home, to continue constantly in the practice of reading the divine Scriptures. . .  For it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved who does not constantly have the benefit of spiritual reading." (from here ; see also here)

“I am always encouraging you to pay attention not only to what is said here in church, but also, when you are at home, to continue constantly in the practice of reading the divine Scriptures. . . For it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved who does not constantly have the benefit of spiritual reading.” (from here ; see also here)

“Father Kimel,

No doubt Hauerwas is a very bright light, penetrating thinker, and analyzer of the Zeitgeist, but I think he goes too far [in this clip]. I think that Hauerwas, while being humorous, is also tending to an dangerous extreme []: does there not need to be a middle ground here?

I would argue that while the Scriptures are clear enough so that a genuinely curious atheist could discern their main message (on a careful reading – one would need to latch on to the key passages found in John 5:39 and 20:31, and Luke 24: 24,47), he could not, for example, produce by himself the theological content of the Nicene Creed (or the Book of Concord [I’m Lutheran]) – in other words, determining what is essential and non-essential doctrine cannot be done satisfactorily without the true Rule of faith, that is, without the Church.

As I recently said in a review of Lutheran theologian Peter Nafzger’s fine book (in which he quotes Hauerwas talking about this as well), “do we want to assert – or give the impression – that when it comes to understanding the key message conveyed in the Scriptures unbelievers who carefully examine them are necessarily less able to grasp what is being said – and to be spiritually convicted – than the believing Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 10, who after all did lack the entire content found in the New Testament – the “good news” about Jesus?”

By the way, Nafzger’s book is being used in at least one of the classes of the conservative ELCA theologian and First Things writer David Yeago. Its worth a look.

(end note to Kimel, added bold)

The Acts 17 Bereans: NO!?

The Acts 17 Bereans: NO!?

Hauerwas also says in the clip: “The idea that the Scripture is self-interpreting of course is just stupid”.

I would say, “no, it’s just effective shorthand* for something much deeper that is going on”, which is this:

In the midst of the regular human act of listening (or reading), proper interpretation of the Christian Scriptures in man’s imagination in these last days is a gift of God given by the Holy Spirit, has Christ as its focus, and no longer interprets particular books of the Scriptures in, to some degree, the light of the contemporary circumstances of the church within the world, but now interprets contemporary circumstances in the church within the world primarily in light of the whole of the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to interpret Scripture, in line with the legitimate oral tradition bound by the rule of faith, and attested to by legitimate miracles, i.e. those performed among men by the Triune God.**

Further, it seems to me that there are general human questions to address here.  I don’t think that we  can supernaturalize this too much right off the bat.  We can reasonably say that writing is a tool and technology – it extends the reach that we have with purely oral speech, which is the first thing that we should think about when we think of words (in one sense, I understand what people might be thinking when they refer to words as “creations”, but in another sense, is speaking words really “creating” – or is it only possible to think about words this way after the invention of writing?)

Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Venice 1564). -- Wikipedia

Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Venice 1564). — Wikipedia

Writing is also an act of trust.  It is not an act of trust like verbal communication with one’s fellows is an act of trust, for here one may correct others if misunderstood – that is, if one can be present.  Writing, in one sense, would seem to secure the ongoing presence of the author.  This however, is not the whole story.  The act of writing presumes the presence of another who can be trusted to use the tool in a way that is responsible – that is making every effort to understand that the intentions of the author are understood as he would have intended and then applied in ways that are appropriate.  Writing as an act of trust does not presume that all those who read can be trusted, but that there will be some who will make every effort to make sure that proper interpretation happens.  Of course, authors can also take precautions themselves, writing in language that is clear and that takes into consideration not only other cultural contexts to the extent that they know about these, but also a particular breed of intellectually-inclined persons whose highest desire seems to be denial that there are some things in life that cannot be changed by our human interpretation, and our power to manipulate in general – through the other various tools they use to secure their version of reality.  

Of course there is something very “supernatural” going on here as well, but I do not think that it can come at the expense of what I said above.

Further, all of this is not to imply that there is not some sense in which we really can say “Sola Scriptura” (see my debates with RC apologist David Armstrong for more on this).  That said, the level and way of thinking that Martin Chemnitz showed, for example, was something that was lost among the 17th century Lutheran dogmaticians, as battle lines hardened and positions became less nuanced:

The concept of a contemporaneous existence of the Word of God in a corrupted verbal form, and a pure written form, spawned Chemnitz’s explanation of traditiones in the second locus, De traditionibus. Here he lists the first of eight different types of traditiones as Scripture itself, i.e. the things that Christ and the Apostles preached orally and were later written down. Then follows: 2) the faithful transmission of the Scriptures; 3) the oral tradition of the Apostles (which by its very nature must agree with the contents of the New Testament canon); 4) the proper interpretation of the Scriptures received from the Apostles and “Apostolic men”; 5) dogmas that are not set forth in so many words in Scripture but are clearly apparent from a sampling of texts; 6) the consensus of true and pure antiquity; 7) rites and customs that are edifying and believed to be Apostolic, but cannot be proved from Scripture. Chemnitz rejects only the eighth kind of tradition: [8] traditions pertaining to faith and morals that cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture; but which the Council of Trent commanded to be accepted and venerated with the same reverence and devotion as the Scripture. The important element of this last of the traitiones appears not to be the fact that such traditions of faith and morals not provable from Scripture actually existed, but that their status of equality with Scripture was foisted upon the church by the Council of Trent.” P. Strawn, Cyril of Alexandria as a Source for Martin Chemnitz, in Die Patristik in der Bibelexegese des 16. Jahrhunderts, Wolfenbu”ttleler Forschungen, Bd. 85, Hrsg. v. David C. Steinmetz, Wiesbaden 1999, p. 213-14.


*also good shorthand: all Scripture points to Christ, theology is the words God Himself speaks to us in Scripture and we say “Amen” to, the Holy Spirit creates and nurtures faith through the Scriptures.

**As I said before: “When we are brought to faith and sustained in that same faith, He is the One to whom we look.  Him and no other!  It is by His Holy Spirit that He calls us, enlightens us, and sanctifies us through His word and sacraments – His “means of grace”.  When we hear His word preached we recognize its truth – and the power that it has to transform not only us – but the world.  It is even, as some say, “self-authenticating” (and it doesn’t matter if Mormons, for example, say the same about their false message).  In addition, those mature in the faith readily recognize this message vis a vis imposter messages – even if an “angel of light” performs the greatest of miracles to support the errors they bring, these faithful stalwarts will not be moved! (see Deuteronomy 13! –they are only interested in the “many infallible proofs” [Acts 1:3, see also Acts 2:22,32-36, 13:34 ; I John 1 ; and I Cor. 15] Jesus did that fulfilled OT prophecies about Him and further bolstered the OT-confirming message He brought)”


Posted by on November 14, 2013 in Uncategorized


No way

“An initial glance at the advertisements led Harsha Gangadharbatla, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Colorado at Boulder, to believe it was a joke toward Obamacare created by Republicans.”

Um, yeah.  Truth is stranger than fiction.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 13, 2013 in Uncategorized