Radical, or Simply Faithful?

Radical 2This piece at christianitytoday.com is full of good sense, and it brings back memories of ministering among and to college-age students some time back without this sort of wisdom. From the glitz and glam of youth ministry events and retreats to stadium-housed Passion conferences, young believers are often trained to live for the putatively big moments that come only annually (if that) and are subtly encouraged to conceive of their futures as epic series of great feats for the kingdom of God.

Whether the architects of the ‘radical’ mentality intend it to do so or not – and, to be fair, some of them may not – the language itself, it seems to me, exacerbates this problem. If the language helps to mitigate materialism and the like, then it is of course beneficial, but it also has the effect of engendering the expectation that one might just get free of the mundane patterns of life under which both believers and unbelievers must operate in order truly to ‘impact the world’, ‘transform the city’, or do something similar. Of course, it can engender guilt as well when (almost inevitably) it becomes clear that this is not to be. Just as few of us are given some great platform from which to rally the troops against the world’s ills, so are few of us able to divest ourselves of locality, home-making, material possessions, etc. in order to traverse the country or the globe to help wherever help is needed.

We need not content ourselves with the status quo where evil and injustice are present, but, for almost all of us, doing something about it will mean simply making daily decisions to be thoughtful and kind toward others as we come into contact with them and ensuring that we give a responsible (indeed, sacrificial) amount of our income to our churches and to those in need. For almost all of us, the lot we are given will appear to radicalizers as but a vapid middle ground, a space for taking care of many unremarkable things while also still learning godliness and demonstrating Christ’s love in loving our neighbors, be they city-dwellers, suburbanites, or country bumpkins. Perhaps, however, the God who esteems a ‘peaceful and quiet life’ of occupational diligence (1 Tim 2:2; 2 Thess 3:6-12) will not be so put off by all of this.

Innate Desire, Original Sin, and the Hope of New Creation

In the recent rumblings about marriage and attendant Facebook-picture campaigns for equality, it is intriguing to observe theFamilyTree lines of reasoning and rhetoric taken up. In the end, advocacy for the widening of the term ‘marriage’ seems to turn on the fact that certain individuals want to be able to do something or have access to something and therefore should have access to it. Perhaps the most forceful variation on this, though, is the insistence that some individuals simply do not, indeed cannot, prefer or choose or do otherwise than they do and ought then to be granted every opportunity of enjoying a happy (whatever that may mean) life in accord with their innate tendencies.

I’d like to make a comment on some of the pertinent doctrinal dynamics here, but in relation to the condition and conduct of the human person more than an official national position on the content of marriage. Interaction on the inner workings of doctrine and ethics at this nexus is welcome, though without the vitriol injected into so many blog threads that touch on this subject.

For those interested in maintaining a classical Christian sexual ethic, the contemporary discussions and debates are a forceful reminder that the perceived plausibility of such an ethic stands or falls with a willingness to make peace with the doctrines of Adamic headship and original sin. ‘Born-this-way’ Lady Gaga-ism wins the day unless one is able to assimilate the teaching that someone else (i.e., Adam) represented us and made a decision (i.e., rebelled against God in the Garden) whereby the rest of us incur guilt before our Maker, inherit a corrupted nature with all manner of spiritual, psychological, physiological, and moral maladies, and are still left responsible before God to resist certain innate tendencies (sexual or otherwise), repenting of sin, calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved, and seeking by the grace and power of the Spirit to grow in holiness. Continue reading

‘Jesus Is Lord’: A Political Statement?

At the heart of the Christian confession lie a number of claims about the person of Christ, among which is the assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9-10).  N. T. Wright and others in NT scholarship and Christian theology have emphasized that, ‘if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not,’ and that the book of Revelation, for example, is designed partially to subvert the hubris of the Roman Empire.

In the wake of the election here in the US, it’s interesting to ponder whether, or in what sense, the declaration of Christ’s lordship is indeed a political statement.  I’ll share my own (non-partisan) thoughts and would be glad to hear some others’.

Broadly speaking, it clearly can be called a political statement: the triune God reigns over all creation and is executing his purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), according to which all the pomp and machinations of human rulers are relativized.  This undoubtedly affords a precious solace and encouragement in the midst of the difficulties of this life, political or otherwise.

Continue reading

Evil in the Classroom

A colleague and I just published an essay at The Other Journal which uses the seven capital vices as a template to explore the impulses which lay at the heart of academic plagiarism. Here is an excerpt, and you can read the rest of the essay here.

Of all the evils we could talk about, why focus on plagiarism? Someone might say that plagiarism is like a gateway drug because it leads to more addictive and destructive actions—“Don’t plagiarize because you might eventually find yourself addicted to pornography, fudging on your taxes, cheating on your wife, et cetera,” they might claim. This is not our argument. Instead, we suggest that plagiarism is not so much a gateway drug as a window for the professor and student to access the various beliefs, desires, and loves that give rise to plagiarism. Plagiarism is merely a symptom of a disordered heart; the patterns of desiring wrongly which gave rise to plagiarism are the real issue. If we focus only on the symptom–plagiarism–the student misses the opportunity for becoming attentive to the power of those desires to surface in non-academic matters: relationships, finances, sexuality, civic participation, et cetera. It is not that this “small” sin leads to “greater” sins (as the gateway drug theory might suggest) but that plagiarism hints at the destructive potential of a disordered heart.

Plagiarism thus provides a unique opportunity for professors to speak into the lives of students. We engage our students in one of the many roles they occupy: sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends, employees, boyfriends and girlfriends. We encounter them as students, so our relationship with them is unique and thereby offers unique windows into their lives and hearts. Every role in our students’ lives presents them with daily opportunities to act well or poorly, virtuously or viciously. Being a student is no exception. The issue of plagiarism, although not the most heinous crime a person can commit, is a wrong that is tailor-made for students. As Christian professors, we have a crucial part to play in assisting them to virtuously fulfill their role as students, to flourish. Such flourishing, we suggest, begins with a rightly ordered heart.

Any thoughts or reactions? How else do you think a disordered heart would lead to sin specifically related to a student’s vocation?

‘Jesus Said Nothing about…’

I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue.  This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.

Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day.  First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones.  The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood.  However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).  Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc.  In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.

Continue reading

An Ethic of Naivete? Of Being ‘Infants in Evil’

Instructing the Corinthian church in the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul moves to expound the different functions of prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.  In preparing the readers for an Old Testament reference that sheds light on the matter, the apostle writes,

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in thinking, but be infants in evil, and be complete in thinking (1 Cor. 14:20).

Obviously, the point of chapter 14 concerns spiritual gifts more than it does being childlike with respect to evil, but I think the moral innocence piece here is worth pondering.  On the one hand, it seems that becoming mature in one’s spiritual thinking entails knowing something about various evils and the perils they hold for the church and for believers.  On the other hand, there is, apparently, a certain sense in which we ought to be rather unschooled in the way of ungodliness.  I’d like to hear some thoughts on potential implications for Christian engagement of culture.  Does the text in some way commend naivete as an appropriate modus operandi?  Does the text in some way chastise the pursuit of relevance?  What does it look like for the church and for believers to be appropriately unacquainted with evil?

Moral Theology and Christian Ethics

Kent and I have been doing some research for a project we are working on together and we decided to read D. Stephen Long’s chapter “Moral Theology” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. This is an area I have wanted to pour myself in to but always seem to be pushing off this research for other projects that get in the way (who will save me from this body of death!). Here, I thought it would be fruitful to start a conversation about Long’s thesis.

Long starts with the dividing line that one would normally think of when they hear the term “moral theology” in distinction from “Christian ethics” – Catholic and Protestant. Both traditions have a demarcation between dogmatic theology and moral/ethical thought, even though, in the case of moral theology, there is a tighter relationship of independence. “The main difference between them,” Long asserts, “is that moral theology recognizes Christian dogma as essential to the moral life, while Christian ethics sees dogma as less important for its task” (457). Moral theology, therefore, “assumes an explicit doctrinal context.” In light of this distinction, these approaches produce distinct audiences – moral theology speaks primarily to the church, while Christian ethics understands its scope to be at the broadest level of society (universities, nations, corporations, etc.). Long characterizes these various inclinations by delineating the “universal category” for each discipline – for moral theology: doctrine; for Christian ethics: ethics. Continue reading

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010) represents his latest in a string of works on this issue, including Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010) and Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Crossway, 2009).  In this volume he ventures an exposition of the two-kingdoms doctrine that aims to clarify its biblical and theological roots and to unfold some of its practical implications in relation to knotty issues like mission, education, and politics.

In the introduction VanDrunen recognizes the helpful emphases of much of the recent literature on the Christianity-and-culture question: God as the Creator and Ruler of all things (including material things), the universality of human accountability to God, the viability of Christians’ involvement in cultural pursuits, the wide-ranging effects of sin, and the hope of resurrection and new creation.  However, he also registers his hesitation about talk of ‘redeeming’ or ‘transforming’ culture in a gradual process that will, with little discontinuity, culminate in the establishment of the new creation wherein ‘our cultural products will adorn the eternal city’ (p. 13).  VanDrunen then states his intention to propound the two-kingdoms alternative, in which ‘God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world, but is preserving them through the covenant he made with all creatures through Noah in Genesis 8:20-9:17’ (p. 15).  To illumine the features of the two-kingdoms approach, VanDrunen outlines the transformational approach as instantiated in the concerns of neo-Calvinism, N. T. Wright, and Brian McLaren.  From here, he pledges to develop a two-kingdoms doctrine that respects the goodness of creation but resists ‘dualism-phobia’ and instead makes the distinction between a redemptive kingdom and a common kingdom (p. 26).  Before commencing with the body of the book, he also clarifies that he’s not using the term ‘culture’ in a technical manner:

culture refers to all the various human activities and their products, as well as the way in which we interpret them and the language we use to describe them….The popular expression, ‘Christianity and culture’, which appears in the subtitle of this book, simply refers to the variety of questions that emerge when we consider how Christians and the church are to relate to these broad activities of human culture and how Christian faith affects our interpretation of them (p. 32).

Continue reading

Introducing Christian Ethics: a brief review

Wiley-Blackwell released this month an entry level text on Christian ethics by Ben Quash and Samuel Wells, Introducing Christian Ethics. I was eager to see it because I teach a course in Christian ethics, but I am also an avid reader of Quash’s work (Theology and the Drama of History was simply excellent and so well-written it gave me hope in the midst of my dissertation that theological prose could be precise and elegant). It arrived earlier this week, and, while I have not studied it in detail, I am intrigued.

There is no shortage of texts such as this, but what makes this one note-worthy is it’s entirely novel, broad division of Christian ethics into three  approaches:  “Universal” (ethics for anyone), “Subversive” (ethics for the excluded), and “Ecclesial” (ethics for the church).

By the authors own admission time will tell if the approach has staying power, but I am optimistic about the possibilities it offers for parsing the similarities and dissimilarities between various approaches to Christian ethics. To give you a sense for how at least one approach is marked out, Quash and Wells sum up ecclesial ethics with the word “character” and define it generally as,

a call for a renewal of the visibility of the church and for an emphasis on the distinctiveness of Christian ethics, particularly in relation to the person of Jesus. Such a distinctive ethics may have something to offer those beyond the church but that is not to be taken for granted; nor is reflection about what is right for Christians to be restricted to what can be expected of or legislated for everybody. This kind of ethics is less about the decisions everyone takes, and more about the distinctive character of those making the decisions. If one were to sum up ecclesial ethics in one word, that word would probably be ‘character’ (p.113).

Incarnation & Bioethics: the vindication of finitude

I am reading a really fine collection of essays by Brent Waters, This Mortal Flesh: Incarnation and Bioethics. Waters’ project is straightforward, and ambitious: “to employ and explicate the doctrine of the incarnation in examining a range of selected bioethical issues.” In other words, he wants to investigate what it might look like to allow the doctrine of the incarnation to impact and even (heaven forbid) shape our thinking about mortal life, finitude, embodiment, and the counter-narratives of posthumanism.

In taking on and redeeming human flesh, Christ vindicates our embodied-ness; it is a counter-argument to the narratives of posthumanism in which finitude is simply a barrier to be overcome and mastered. With our imaginations shaped by the incarnation, we are free to embrace createdness (our finitude) and, as Barth said, to praise God for it as his good gift to us (CD, III.4). Take the following excerpts from chapter 6 on late modern medicine and posthumanism for example:

[W]hat Christians believe about the Word made flesh presumably shapes their normative convictions regarding the purpose and practice of medicine. Moreover, it is a timely doctrine to revisit, given medicine’s growing predilection for turning its attention away from the care of patients in favor of transforming them into beings capable of transcending their embodied, and therefore finite, limitations (p. 115).

And how would the Incarnation (birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ) shape a Christian imagination regarding this shift?

It is the risen and exalted Christ through which the good and the eternal delineates and redeems the necessary and the temporal. It is this eschatological hope the enables Christians to consent to finite limitations, for through the gift of the Spirit they have received the freedom to obey the constraints of their finitude, because these limitations have already been vindicated, redeemed, and taken up into the eternal life of God (p. 128).

I am impressed by just how theological Waters is committed to be throughout these pieces on biotechnology, reproductive medicine, genomics, stem cell research, cloning, mortality, and euthanasia. I am presently teaching a course in theological bioethics, and Mortal Flesh is proving an excellent resource for my students as we work to craft a theological imagination able to reason well about bioethical issues.