Dear Theologian, you do not have a PhD in economics

Stock MarketTheologians are in a tricky place.  We are trained to reason about God himself.  Yet, we are also trained to reason about the world and the many dimensions of created existence.  The latter often makes us feel as though we are qualified to give an expert opinion on anything under the sun, but we are not.

In reasoning about not only the triune God himself but also created things, it is vital to remember that, as theologians, we are positioned to reason about created things just sub specie Dei, ‘under the aspect of God’, or in relation to God.  We rightly speak about the characteristics of the created order that follow immediately on its relation to its Maker, but we do not proceed in any direct way from ‘O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth’ to ‘Therefore, photosynthesis occurs by way of…’.  As theologians, we do not have special insight into the immediate principles and operations of plant or animal life.  Learning about such things would require that we, like anyone else, read a book about them.

Nor do we, as theologians, have any special insight into economics.  As theologians, we can and should point out that God cares for the poor, according to Holy Scripture.  As theologians, we must at the same time admit that this important note in the Bible gives us absolutely no clue as to whether the distinct and complex economic proposals of any given presidential candidate will in fact prove best suited to helping the poor earn a good living and look after their families.

Theologians need not refrain altogether from speaking about concrete economic issues.  But our training as exegetes of the Bible and stewards of the church’s theological tradition cannot be the basis on which we stand when we choose to say that such-and-such a proposal will turn out well or badly.  This means that, if we wish to speak about such matters, it must be with reference to the serious work of actual economists, not by lazily appealing to broad ethical principles as if that could directly settle something in the American political scene or should obligate all Christians to agree with one’s own preferred method of working out such broad principles in the complexities of contemporary society.

Theologians, whether you’re ‘feeling the (socialist?) Bern’, backing a candidate whose integrity and trustworthiness have been duly called into question on a number of fronts, or looking to (vacuously, and certainly least probably for TF readers) ‘Make America great again’ – can you feel the writer’s excitement about this year’s options? – do everyone a favor and give specific detail and argument whenever you wish to have credibility in speaking about specific economic proposals.  Or, we might even (gasp!) sit back and let our brothers and sisters who know a thing or two about economic policy and history teach us something.

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?