Sunday, 31 July 2011

Beyond Politics: The End of Anglophone Dominance

Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His. He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. Daniel 2:20-21

I don't often comment on political matters here at the 'old manse', but this is beyond politics. Amidst all the commentary about the debacle presently unfolding in Washington, few people seem to have the historical awareness to point out what it presages: not just the beginning of the end of the economic and world-political power of the US, but the end of two centuries of Anglophone dominance on the world stage. Call me biased, but I'm of the view that, despite the dark chapters in that history, that dominance has been largely benign and beneficial to the world at large.

Mark Steyn is a popular Canadian conservative commentator based in the US who has a knack of boiling down the complexities of life in the late modern West to their absurd essence and dishing up the remains with sparkling prose full of wit and irony. Here's his take on the 'big picture' behind the current political shenannigans:
'If the IMF is correct (a big if), China will be the planet's No. 1 economy by 2016. That means whoever's elected in November next year will be the last president of the United States to preside over the world's dominant economic power. As I point out in my rollicking new book, which will be hitting what's left of the post-Borders bookstore business any day now, this will mark the end of two centuries of Anglophone dominance – first by London, then its greatest if prodigal son. The world's economic superpower not only will be a communist dictatorship with a largely peasant population and legal, political and cultural traditions as alien to its predecessors as possible, but, even more civilizationally startling, it will be, unlike the U.S., Britain and the Dutch and Italians before them, a country that doesn't even use the Roman alphabet.'

Welcome to the real 'New World Order'! How's your Mandarin?

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Meanwhile, in my neck of the woods, home to some very rich soils in a country where such are comparatively rare, family farms are literally being swallowed up to feed the voracious appetite of the Chinese industrial maw for raw materials, especially coal. When the 'common lands' were enclosed in late medieval England and the landowners took to grazing sheep where the common folk had once grown their food (the wool boom had started), a famine ensued and it was said that 'sheep have eaten men'. Now, because of the peculiarities of Australian land tenure and the rights of the Crown to grant leases over free-hold land for purposes of mineral exploration and mining (a situation that pertains in no other common law jurisdiction), we are finding a similar process underway; history is repeating itself, farm land is being alienated and 'coal is eating men!'.

No, a famine has not ensued, but Australia recently became a net importer of food for the first time since the early days of its founding as a colony just over two centuries ago (which history exactly parallels Anglo hegemony in the world). In an increasingly unstable world where there will likely be no mighty US or British navy to protect our trade routes that's not a good position to be in. As I said initially, this is beyond 'politics', it's about what sort of country and society we want our children and grand-children and their successors to inherit and whether we want to be in control of our own destiny as a nation (as much as that is possible for a middling-size nation anyway). That seems to be the real question our American friends are facing too.

In the meantime, may God bless the hard-working and frugal Chinese people with the fruit of their labours, and for our sakes may He make their coming hegemony, against all expectations, as benign and beneficial to humankind as the one which preceded it.

Click on the post title to read Steyn's column from whence this quote was taken. (And just because I quote him doesn't necessarily mean I endorse Steyn's every political view - life is more complex than such simple caricatures will allow. In actual fact I'm a political centrist in Australian terms, a supporter of free markets moderated by government intervention for the sake of the 'common wealth' who deplores extremism whether of the Right or the Left. In other words I'm an average Australian who supports the non-doctrinaire, pragmatic approach to politics that has made us prosperous, free and liberal, which in my book is much better than being poor, bound and subject to the sway of demagogues.)

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Thoughts on Breivik

Social commentators are making a mistake by takings Breivik's 'manifesto' seriously as a reason for his appalling crimes. It's akin to treating 'Mein Kampf' as a reasoned political tract. Breivik's actions should not be dignified with such an approach. If the pundits wish to help people understand what has happened in Norway, let them point others to the more likely truth of the matter. Breivik's lawyer has, after interviewing his client, said that he believes Breivik to be quite mad. From this far-away vantage point I'm inclined to agree, not that his madness absolves him from his crimes I hasten to add. For we are not talking about 'ordinary' madness here (if I can put it like that) but something much more sinister and disturbing. This 'madness' is compatible with intricate planning to bring evil intent to fruition while all the time masquerading as a normal, even charismatic human being. With Breivik and those like him we cross over from the 'normal' pathology of original sin (sooner or later the category of original sin must be brought in here to make such actions understandable to us) into a purer form of evil.

What psychiatrists call 'personality disorders', which I prefer to regard as the 'pathology of original sin', are unfortunately much more common than we realize (fortunately not all are equally serious or dangerous, and most people with a disorder do more harm to themselves than others). Thankfully not every psychopath ('antisocial personality disorder') becomes a mass murderer; most wreak much more banal types of havoc upon those around them (ever wonder about the motivations for senseless cruelty to women, children and animals that the police and social services have to deal with every day?). But the psychopaths, together with the narcissists ('narcissistic personality disorder', not your average self absorbed modern), are actually responsible for much of the anguish that is inflicted upon people in this world through interpersonal conflict right on up to the international conflict of war (Hitler being the classic case of this).

We've probably all come across these types of personalities, even without realizing it. People who are more or less balanced and only 'ordinarily sinful' (if I can put it that way) often don't recognize incarnate evil when we meet it, precisely because it is beyond our ordinary experience of life - that's why 'ordinary people' can be easily drawn in and manipulated by psychopaths and narcissists, until one day they wake up and realize there is something terribly wrong with this other person. If anyone has seen the unforgettable German film 'Downfall', about Hitler's last days, there is a moment in the bunker when the assembled generals realize Hitler is completely deranged and driven not by love for 'the Fatherland' but by something else completely - the scene brilliantly portrays a moment of collective awakening. Alas, it was much too late, and this made the generals themselves culpable.

Breivik's self-proclaimed motivations should be treated with caution - they are those of a psychopath who will latch on to anything at hand as fuel for his evil intent. He is probably even lying to himself about them. His claim that his act of mass murder was 'terrible but necessary' in the service of his ideology reminds me very much of Stalin's (yes, another psychopath) rationalization of the forced starvation of 30 million or so Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s, not to mention the millions more poor innocent souls (including churchmen) sent to the Gulag or just plain murdered by his thugs. With these characters we cross the line from the normal, everyday pathology of sin to complete moral derangement. And yes, the 'madness' of these men does not mean they are not responsible for their actions or should not be held accountable. I'm afraid that a society or state that fails to confront such evil in its midst and punish it colludes in its own destruction.

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It would be a fascinating if disturbing task to sort through the life of a Breivik and learn from it - could a skilled diagnostician of souls determine the crucial moment the surrender to evil took place? If indeed there is such a moment - perhaps it is just an incremental process, and if so, does it mean there is hope that intervention in cases which are still borderline might prevent the development of a full-blown psychopathology? Toxic relationships with fathers seem to figure strongly in the biographies of psychopaths. This is perhaps the element of truth behind the otherwise false 'generational sin' teaching of some Pentecostals. That is concerning given the breakdown of the family in our Western societies and the estrangement of so many fathers from their sons. What whirlwind shall we reap come harvest time?

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Leaving the individual Breivik aside, another aspect of this event is that Norwegian society, which has become quite liberal in its penal system (through denial of the reality of sin and the need to restrain evil and satisfy justice, I wonder? A society is always underwritten by a theology, for good or ill), now faces the problem that its laws apparently do not envisage dealing with a perpetrator of such evil actions. If the Breivik case leads to collective self-reflection and reform, some good at least may come of all this.

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Please continue to pray for the families of the victims and for the people of Norway in their hour of darkness. May the light of Christ give them hope and consolation, as He once did for their devout ancestors.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Sacrament of Evangelism?

The title of this book caught my attention when I was searching for something else on Amazon (this is not a review as such; I'm using the book as a springboard for the following reflections). When I was at seminary my New Testament Greek lecturer ('professor' in American terminology), Dr Greg Lockwood (a true scholar and gentleman), would pepper our study of the Greek NT text with anecdotes and excursions into dogmatics which served to highlight some point the Biblical text was making. One anecdote went back to the time when he was a missionary in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s; apparently the neighbouring Roman Catholic missionaries always made a point of explaining to the Lutherans that 'we did not bring Christ to these people, he was already here'. Now, that probably makes perfect sense in the context of a Roman Catholic understanding of theological anthropology (of which more in a minute), but a Lutheran could only offer a qualified assent to the proposition, if indeed he could assent at all. Unfortunately, that is the thesis of this book: evangelism does not bring Christ to unbelievers, for he is already there...in a mysterious, sacramental kind of way.

To be sure, God does not forsake pagans or non-Christians. In His general providence and kindness He 'makes the rain to fall on the just and unjust' and it is 'in Him that we live and move and have our being', such that only God's upholding of the world ensures our continued existence. Further, God earnestly desires the salvation of all people, and directs and blesses the preaching of the Gospel to that end. In fact, as far as I know, there are no more 'heathens' in Papua New Guinea today, they are all confessedly Christian, but that's thanks to the generations of missionaries who took Christ to the PNG people. Come to think of it, I think there are more heathens (or pagans or unbelievers or whatever you wish to call them) in Australia these days than there ever were in PNG. History, even very recent history, teaches us that the course of the Gospel through the world mysteriously ebbs and flows among various peoples, surging in glorious fullness in one place while receding with a 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' in another, leaving men stranded and exposed in their spiritual helplessness.

Anyway, back to the problem with saying that Christ is with non-Christians in an unqualified way. Lutheran doctrine, following the clear teaching of scripture, asserts that all human beings born since the fall of Adam are 'without fear of God, without trust in God and are 'concupiscent'', a technical theological term which is boldly defined by the confession as meaning humans are 'full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother's wombs'. This state, commonly called original sin, according to the confessions truly 'damns and brings eternal death'(Augsburg Confession, Art II, both Latin and German texts; the locus classicus for this teaching is Paul's argument in the first chapters of Romans).

It is because of their unforgiven sin - both actual sins and original sin - and most particularly because of their idolatry, that pagans/heathen/non-Christians are not in fellowship with God. They are not in some 'neutral' spiritual state either, rather they are in active rebellion against their Creator and desperately need to hear the good news of the redemption He has won and offers to them through and in Christ. But without missionaries or preachers, they do not have Christ, even if in some mysterious way he is there (given that according to classic theology wherever the Father is there the Son is also). Non-Christians may even express an intense desire for redemption from their current state of bondage to sin and evil (in my experience Hindus and Muslims often have a much greater desire for redemption than the average post-Christian Westerner), but they are themselves powerless to initiate or accomplish their redemption. Only Christ has done that by offering up his own body and his precious blood as an atonement for sin and only the Spirit working through the Word can bring the benefits of that atonement to them.

So, do you see what I mean about a Lutheran being only able to offer a qualified assent, if indeed any at all, to the proposition that Christ is already with pagans, heathens and unbelievers? But members of church bodies which operate with a less rigorous theological anthropology that leaves the door open for genuine human seeking after and co-operation with God apart from His revelation in Christ can be much more positive about the extent to which Christ may be present in the lives of pagans and unbelievers. They may even teach, as does Rome (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1260 & http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20051130_en.html), that by following the tenets of their religion and abiding by their conscience the heathen may be saved (I'm sorry Roman friends, but what is that but rank Pelagianism?).

Which brings me to what intrigues me about this book. Evangelicals (non-Reformed ones anyway), Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are disparate groups, but they have at least one thing in common, namely a weak theological anthropology that tends towards semi-Pelagianism or the full blown variety thereof, i.e. the belief that fallen human beings have some innate spiritual capacity, a 'spark of indwelling divinity' as I once heard an Orthodox priest put it, that means they can genuinely contribute something to their salvation (synergism) even from the outset. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have also, at least for the last couple of generations, been cautiously open to Eastern religious experience as possibly providing an authentic knowledge of God. But until recently Evangelicals would have shied away from such openness. Now I wonder if this book signals a movement for change? Even if that's not where the authors think they're going, it's quite possibly where they'll end up if the history of their own more liberal Protestant brothers is anything to go by (it's no accident that historically missiology was the field upon which the 20th C. conflict between Protestant 'Fundamentalists' and 'Liberals' was fought most viciously - see J. Gresham Machen's life story for e.g.).

Then there's also the curious notion that evangelism is a sacrament. That needs unpacking. For Lutherans evangelism is a form of the ministry of the Word, of which sacraments are visible forms (cautiously following Augustine's suggestion that sacraments combine the Word with a visible element). Applying the term 'sacrament' to evangelism seems problematic then - what is the visible element? But then speaking of sacraments as a general category at all is more Roman Catholic than Lutheran or indeed Evangelical. Lutherans rightly prefer to speak simply of 'Holy Baptism' and 'the Lord's supper', although I suppose there is no in principle objection to the more general term as a form of shorthand, as in 'Word and sacrament ministry'. But I'm suspicious of the sort of imprecise language the authors of this book already engage in with their title; it is often the mark of lazy thinking which returns to haunt in unexpected ways (this raises the question of why the important subject of evangelism is so often the victim of lazy thinking?). How easily the bland statement that 'the world is a sacrament' can lead back to paganism, and indeed if anything can be a sacrament, or if everything already is a sacrament in the sense of a bearer of the presence of God (which forms the basis of the authors' argument), does that not make Baptism and the Supper superfluous?

I fear the authors have forgotten - or never learned - that without explicit knowledge of Christ the true nature of God is hidden from fallen man, and the encounter with Him in nature or conscience is much more likely to inspire terror and craven idolatry than the Biblical faith and worship that the knowledge of Christ and His benefits brings. That's why I contend that it is at best problematic, but at worst actually dangerous to evangelism, to suggest that Christ is already present with unbelievers.

Click on the post title to see the book's Amazon page. The co-authors, Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie, are respectively a professor of practical theology and an editor at 'Christianity Today' magazine. We at the old manse think they could have benefited from the input of a systematic theologian along the way.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Does Justification by Faith Alone Militate Against Good Works?

Does the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone solely on the basis of the righteousness of Christ militate against good works? Isn't that the logical conclusion of the Lutheran doctrine - that in the mind of the ordinary believer the knowledge that faith alone saves would lead to a cooling of the desire to do good works if such are, after all, not strictly necessary to salvation? One is surprised how often this misrepresentation of the Lutheran doctrine is made even by the theologically literate. What is missed by the objectors is the scriptural and thus Lutheran teaching that the result of justification is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, Rom 8:13-14, 1 Cor 6:11, Titus 3:5-6) and with Him comes the gift of sonship that leads the believer to desire to please God the Father in all that he does (Rom 8:15, Gal 3:26), drawing the believer into the life-long process of 'putting on the new man' (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10) which theologians call sanctification.

Here are some relevant quotes:

First, Luther discusses 'two kinds of righteousness', the 'alien righteousness' (a righteousness from outside us, i.e. from God) that 'swallows up our sin' by grace alone (justification), and the 'proper righteousness' of a life spent in good works which are the fruit of justification:
'Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore the Apostle calls it ‘the righteousness of God.’ in Rom. 1:17: For in the gospel ‘the righteousness of God is revealed...as it is written, “The righteousness man shall live by faith.” ’...This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sin in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he...Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone—while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ—is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone.
The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness. This is the manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, of which we read in Gal. 5:24: ‘And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’ In the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear toward God...This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence...This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and this its whole way of living consists. For in that it hates itself and does not seek its own, it crucifies the flesh. Because it seeks the good of another, it works love. Thus in each sphere it does God’s will, living soberly with self, justly with neighbor, devoutly toward God.' Martin Luther, from Two Kinds of Righteousness in 'Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings' (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), pp. 156–158).

Now Melanchthon touches upon the apparent conflict between Paul and James (often cited by the objectors) while emphasing that a true, living faith never fails to bring forth good works:
'Paul is here (1 Corinthians 12–13)...demanding love in addition to faith. This is what he does elsewhere in all his letters, demanding good works from believers, i.e. the justified...And when he says that he who has all faith but no love is nothing, he is right. For although faith alone justifies, love is also demanded...But love does not justify because no one loves as he ought. Faith, however, justifies...There is also the passage in James 2:17: ‘So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ He did well to say this, for he was reprimanding those who thought that faith is merely a historical opinion about Christ. For just as Paul calls one type of faith ‘true,’ and the other ‘feigned,’ so James calls the one kind ‘living’ and the other ‘dead.’ A living faith is that efficacious, burning trust in the mercy of God which never fails to bring forth good fruits. That is what James says in ch. 2:22: ‘Faith was completed by works.’...Therefore, the whole point that James is making is that dead faith...does not justify, but a living faith justifies. But a living faith is that which pours itself out in works. For he speaks as follows (v. 18): ‘Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’ But he does not say: ‘I will show you works without faith.’ My exposition squares most harmoniously with what we read in James: ‘So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ Therefore, it is obvious that he is teaching here merely that faith is dead in those who do not bring forth the fruit of faith, even though from external appearances they seem to believe.' Philipp Melanchthon, from Loci communes theologici, in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), Volume XIX, p. 112.

And finally we offer the Augsburg confessors' succinct summary of the Lutheran teaching:
'[Our churches] teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God's will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone. The Augsburg Confession, Article VI, 'Concerning the New Obedience'.

Alles klar, ja?!

If there are examples of individuals for whom the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone militates against a life of good works, the cause is certainly not the Reformers' doctrine, but, I suggest, the flesh of the old Adam who stubbornly resists the leading of the Spirit.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

On the Importance of Acquiring Ballast for the Journey of Life

For those not interested in Newman...

These days we seem to have an insatiable desire for the new. This is understandable, perhaps, in our incredibly inventive age, but as I grow older (and hopefully more mature) the more I appreciate returning to the wisdom of what is old. I was once told that, in days gone by (well before my time), students of my alma mater seminary were encouraged, when they became ministers, to make it a practice to re-read annually and make notes on several theological classics (one of these was Walther's 'Law and Gospel'). The classics are seminal; contemporary theology doesn't hold a candle to them. I think that really is the way to acquire theological wisdom, as opposed to mere knowledge or information, or having our ears tickled with the latest speculations. And if one day our books should be taken away from us, or we from them - no matter, for we will have educated ourselves inwardly.

Two or so years ago I heard the literary critic George Steiner on the wireless in the old manse (wireless radio, that is) lamenting the decline of memorisation in modern education, including memorisation of the Bible interesting given that Steiner is an agnostic Jew as far as I know. The memorised wisdom and culture of the past was, according to Steiner, like 'ballast for the journey of life'. Deprived of it, young people today are empty vessels tossed violently on the sea of life by the many winds of opinion which buffet them.

It doesn't take too much imagination to consider the impact of this 'cultural amnesia' on the church and the clergy of today. From sunday school through confirmation to seminary, memorisation is a practice increasingly difficult to inculcate in young people. As a result, compared to previous generations of Christians, we are today, in my opinion, impoverished in our intellectual and spiritual formation. It's not my purpose here to lay the blame for that at anyone in particular - sometimes swells in the general culture swamp the best of institutions and intentions. When the schools no longer require children to memorise poetry, or times tables, or even passages from the Bible, as previous generations once did, it requires a mighty and concerted effort from the church to actively resist the trend. Do we have the courage to attempt it? Do we have a choice?