Monetary Influences on the Reformation

Last year, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation. Many of us celebrated the restoration of the gospel as a core concern of Christianity. Others mourned the division of the unified body of Christ, thinking that Luther would have been better to simply let the status quo continue. The debate on the merits and necessity of the Reformation will certainly continue into the future. That debate should also include discussion of the reasons for the Reformation and the history leading up to the Reformation, both of which are often neglected.

According to some critics of the Reformation, it is as if Luther woke up one day in his monastery and decided to pick a fight with the Pope. That perspective is naïve and ignores the many real abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy leading up to the beginning of the German Reformation.

One of the major abuses of the Roman Catholic was the sale of indulgences. The Roman Catholic church still does deal in indulgences, though they have tightened up the rules since Luther’s day.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."

Basically, a Catholic who has been restored to a state of grace (i.e., gone to confession so the priest could forgive their sin) can get time off of their stay in Purgatory—an extrabiblical intermediate state, which souls allegedly experience before making it to heaven with time allocated according to the merits of the individual—by doing certain things. The idea is that beyond being forgiven their sins by Christ’s atonement, people need to pay for them by doing good works to pay off the debt they owe to God.

In Luther’s day, one of the main “good works” someone could do was to give money to the Pope for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther’s initial objections were not to indulgences per se, but to the impoverishment of the German peasants by sending the limited available German resources out of district to the posh palaces of the self-titled Vicar of Christ in Rome. The purchase of indulgences was a ransom of a soul from Purgatory.

Apart from the invention of Purgatory, the question remains how Roman Catholics came to believe that earthly wealth could be used to buy a better condition for souls. This is the question Peter Brown takes up in his 2012 book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity.

Early Christians, like Tertullian, believed in a bodily resurrection. That is, contrary to accusations that Christians are dualists, the Church has traditionally and consistently believed in a restoration of all creation in the eschaton. However, as they sought to differentiate the really holy people that died as martyrs from the average Christians, one of the myths that began to evolve was that some people got taken directly to heaven to be in God’s presence, while others would have to wait to make it as their soul was perfected. This idea, combined with the biblical image of human works being judged by fire (1 Cor 3:13), contributed to the development of a temporal period spent in a refining fire that would vary according to the earthly merits of a person whose eventual destination was heaven. Such a view enabled Tetzel’s infamous couplet, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”

There was more to the ransom of souls by money than simply the purchase of indulgences, though. As Brown notes, “Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, the churches increasingly became places where the rich members in the Christian communities of the West were able to flex the muscles of their social power. They did so mainly through donations designed to protect their souls and those of their relatives and loved ones.” Much of this protection came by endowing churches, funding masses to be said in honor of deceased loved ones, and giving money to the church in the name of the poor.

This belief that one could give to the church and receive quantifiable spiritual benefit in the form of time off Purgatory or a more likely entry to Heaven helped make the Roman Catholics one of the largest land owners in the world.

Contributing this belief was the idea that giving alms could atone for sins. According to Brown, “Augustine…insisted that almsgiving was an obligatory pious practice because it had an expiatory function. Alms atoned for sins.” His understanding of the trend in Augustine’s theology, which became more firmly established in later Roman Catholic doctrine, that something other than faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone could lead to salvation. This is profoundly different than the gospel that Paul outlines in his letters, hence the need for the Reformation.

There are certainly a number of factors that added to the evolution of works-based salvation. Much of the earliest extra-biblical literature of the Church, like the Didache, heavily emphasizes legalistic practices necessary for salvation. However, the idea that money could serve as ransom for the soul actually evolved from Jewish teachings drawn from Daniel 4, where some interpretations of the prophecy of Daniel have Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment being lightened by giving to the poor. For exiled Jews, this alleviated the tension of lacking a temple in which to sacrifice, and also, perhaps, contributed to the acceptance of the money changers in the temple that Jesus was obliged to clear out. The net result was the equation of atonement for sin with money, which Brown argues shaped later Roman Catholic doctrines.

Notably, one of the major reasons for Augustine’s emphasis on the necessity of giving alms was competition for the money of the rich Christians. The practice of the day was for the rich to give to enhance their local communities, typically through civic activity. Part of the reason for Augustine’s focus on alms (multiple sermons focused on giving to the poor through the Roman Catholic church) was an attempt to shift the culture away from civic giving to ecclesial giving. That emphasis based on the evolved Roman Catholic doctrines and then later was developed to include the practice of indulgences as was seen in the late Middle Ages.

Brown helpfully shows how Roman Catholic doctrine drifted from Scripture and evolved due to various social pressures and theological turns in Church History. In particular, his survey traces out that evolution from about 250 AD to about 600 AD, which represents the end of the ancient era to the beginning of the Middle Ages. His non-polemical exploration of the development of doctrines has explanatory power as contemporary theologians and religious scholars seek to understand the Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of wealth and the role of wealth in attaining the afterlife.

Thoughts on Contemporary "Conservativism"

I recently witnessed a media “conservative” criticize the San Francisco airport for having a compost receptacle beside their recycle bin and regular trash can. She also noted that she does not go in for sorting trash beyond a simple recycling bin and that her desire to sort trash goes down “exponentially” when there are more options offered. When I asked her why she didn’t like to sort trash, she replied that she shouldn’t need a PhD to separate her trash.

This was a Twitter discussion, so I left it at that point without raising the logical question why one would need an advanced degree to separate trash into a few receptacles. That really wasn’t her point anyway.

If I may be so bold as to read beyond the actual words in this individual’s comments, I might suggest that what she really meant was that she didn’t want to be inconvenienced by having to sort her trash. That answer would have had a bit more validity, but it raises some interesting questions about the nature of popular conservativism.

True Conserativism

The heart of legitimate conservativism is that it takes a long time to build good things and very little time and effort to tear them down. Therefore, we should be careful in making sweeping changes—even when we have good intentions—because we may unwittingly destroy something that is good, true, and beautiful in a hasty attempt to make “progress.”

Photo credit: Mayberry Health and Home Used by CC License.

Photo credit: Mayberry Health and Home Used by CC License.

Based on that definition, which most thoughtful conservatives that I know share, environmental stewardship is a thoroughly conservative ideal. If we presume that the ecosystem is a natural good and that we all benefit from minimizing disturbances to it, then it takes little to jump from the notion that we should value the nuclear family to the idea we should value the created order. Both have their roots in nature, both have observable positive impacts on the world, both are worth conserving.

But preserving the family and conserving the environment take work. It is inconvenient to invest time into raising children. Before conservative became being “anti-progressive” it was supposed to be about conserving that which is good, true, and beautiful. If you’ve ever spent time dealing with historical artifacts, conservation is always exceedingly inconvenient.

In other words, when it is functioning as a distinct approach to life, conservativism is not about convenience, which is typically self-centered. Rather, it is nearly always concerned with something beyond the self, which is typically inconvenient.

Selfish Anti-Progressivism

Progressivism as a political movement often claims the mantle of selflessness. When it comes to economics, they typically favor a large, centralized government, which necessarily restricts individual freedom. They claim that this inconvenience is necessary to do the selfless good of ensuring some other good is provided—the poor are cared for, emissions are regulated, people are paid a particular amount of money per hour. Often these are legitimate goods that are being pursued at the highest level of bureaucracy available.

At its best, conservativism recognizes legitimate public goods, which are often also celebrated by progressives. However, when they are functioning to conserve the good, true, and beautiful, conservatives have a longer timeframe of concern; they look to pursue future good without creating perverse incentives or undermining existing goods unnecessarily. For example, true conservatives see caring for the poor as a good and necessary goal, but recognize the perverse incentives that permanently subsidizing able-bodied people creates; they tend to remain outside of the workforce and can form a permanent lower class, among other dangers. Thus, blind redistribution of funds is viewed by many conservatives as unjust and ultimately unhelpful because of its long term deleterious effects on society, including those who are the target of the assistance.

However, the position that the federal government is not the proper source of support from the poor must be accompanied by localized efforts to do the same if a conservative is to be consistent. That is, conservatives must engage in the inconvenient practice of engaging with the poor to help them. This is, in fact, the most effective means of poverty alleviation, but also the most difficult. It is the most consistent with conservative principles. One reason for conservatives to resist efforts to create a federal universal basic income is that it is primarily a means for progressives to claim to solve the world’s problems as conveniently as possible; give the poor a steady stream of checks so that we can otherwise ignore them. Regulate the companies producing merchandise to the maximum extent possible, because it would require too much work for consumers to make wise spending choices regarding the environment, employment practices, and product quality of companies they buy from. The convenience is found in gaining a clear conscience with as little effort as possible. Progressive political ideas tend to buy personal convenience at a high cost to the public purse.

Anti-Progressive Convenience Seekers

Unfortunately, in reaction to the high cost of progressive political ideas, anti-progressives have begun to label themselves as conservatives, including the person I interacted with about composting her garbage. In this case, at least, she is opposed to something she perceives as progressive simply because it is inconvenient. In fact, observing her public social media presence, she makes her living as a media persona by claiming to be conservative while really simply being anti-progressive.

Anti-progressives are convenience oriented like many progressives, but without the concern for a clear conscience. They argue there should be less federal welfare because of the freeloaders; they ask, “Why should my money be used to support those that didn’t work for it?” The poor are to be despised as inconveniences. The environment is to be used for convenience without concern for the long-term effects. Convenience is the main aim. One shouldn’t be bothered by having to separate leftover food from a plastic bag, that is entirely too inconvenient.

Many of those who brand themselves as conservative these days are really just anti-progressives who are seeking maximum personal convenience. Those who are true conservatives—those of us concerned with conserving and pursuing the true, good, and beautiful—would do well to differentiate ourselves from media personalities whose goal is to maximize liberal tears and garden variety convenience-seekers whose goal is to maximize their bank account balance and minimize their support for their neighbors.

Resist Bad Alliances

True conservatives are not simply anti-progressive. That would be too simple and too convenient. No, true conservatives are pursuing the common good in a decidedly high-effort, inconvenient manner. True conservatives will be willing to entertain an inconvenience such as sorting one’s trash, as long as it contributes to the true, the good, and the beautiful, whether the idea came from a progressive or not.

If we are pursuing the common good, we will likely be confederated with strange co-laborers at times. It is a good thing to link arms with people in a common cause, but we should be careful about becoming too closely associated with people that hold views ultimately contrary to ours. Confederation—a loose association, typically temporary and for a common cause—is a much healthier approach on many issues than formal alliances. We can build a community park with anyone in our community who has a similar vision for a shared public space, regardless of their position on euthanasia, eugenics, or human sexuality.

At the same time, we should be very careful of making close alliances with people who don’t hold the same positions we do for approximately the same reason. That leads to the sort of confusion we have today with self-centered, convenience-seeking, anti-progressives masquerading as conservatives.

Between One Faith and Another - A Review

It is difficult, at times, to understand different perspectives on the compatibility of religions. Or, perhaps to be clearer, I might say that it is hard to understand without caricature other people’s ideas about religions.

For example, for those raised on conservative Christian teaching, there is no question that Christianity is incompatible with dozens of others world religions. We have heard this asserted from pulpit, lectern, and printed page so often that it is clear to us that Buddhism conflicts with orthodox Christianity in ways that are irreconcilable. Truths are black and white. We can be absolutely certain of most things. The law of non-contradiction reigns supreme. This is the perspective on religion known as exclusivism.

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And yet, many hold to the notion that all religions are somehow leading people to climb the same mountain, though via different paths. Though Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, some suggest that his illumination shines through the teachings of other world religions such that all provide a functional path to God. In its most benign forms, this perspective on religion teaches that there is some truth in all religions, and therefore no conflict between them in the absolute core. One might make progress toward salvation (whatever that means) as a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. This view is often called inclusivism.

There is a third perspective on religion, which is called pluralism, that argues we just don’t know which of the religions has the truth (if there is one), but that all may have a piece of the truth. Those that propound this view typically trot out the illustration of blind men feeling different parts of the mountain, an image which Lesslie Newbigin and others have helpfully identified as arrogant presumption of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This perspective often entails a sort of agnosticism, which asks the believer to wait and see before making final commitments.

In didactic texts, whether of the form used for indoctrinating children through Fundamentalist Christian worldview courses or those used to influence college sophomores in a world religions course, these perspectives are often presented triumphalistically. The pastor shows how the god of Mohammed is really vastly different than the God of Paul; the political science professor dons a head scarf and asserts that the two deities are really the same without understanding the basic theological issues; the tired, uninterested arm-chair philosopher argues for pluralism because he really wants people to stop arguing and killing one another over religion. These approaches and their related variants often tend to dismiss alternative perspectives without increasing understanding.

For those interested in understanding better the relationship between inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism, Peter Kreeft has written a new book, Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.

Summary

I was initially skeptical of this volume, because it is written in the form of a dialogue (or really a trialogue), which is not my favorite form of philosophy. I am also aware that Kreeft is a committed Roman Catholic who converted from evangelical Christianity, so he has a distinct perspective on the issue; I wondered how well he could represent the perspectives in this format.

My doubt, however, was ill-founded. Kreeft has produced a volume that will help people from all three perspectives to understand the others better. This is because, as Kreeft admits in his introduction, he has sympathies with each of the three characters and their perspective. Kreeft dealt the cards fairly when assigning roles and allowed the dialogue to unfold relatively naturally, without cheating arguments by exposing only flaws or highlighting only strengths.

The volume is a conversation between two students over the content of a world religions course. The atheist/agnostic rationalist is an exclusivist, seeing all the conflicts between different religions. He argues that not only do they conflict with one another irreconcilably, but that they are therefore all wrong; this the is character that sees the fatal flaw in all religions. He is the extremely rational college student who likes to blow the whistle on logical fallacies; sort of like your average Christian homeschooler, but without the background knowledge of Adventures in Odyssey.

The second main character is also a fellow student with the exclusivist, she is the inclusivist who believes that we’re all climbing the same mountain. She rightly notes the moral similarity between most world religions and, sometimes through an act of will, argues that religions have a common center and only conflict (or appear to conflict) in their practice. The rigorous logic of the exclusivist seems over harsh for this theologically liberal Christian.

These two characters engage in a Socratic dialogue after class, since both of them come off with understandable disagreements with the Professor. This is, perhaps, the most unrealistic aspect of the entire book: two people with different worldviews engaging in thoughtful dialogue over a long period of time. However, if the reader suspends disbelief, this is a helpful heuristic tool.

True to reality, Kreeft allows the debate between the inclusivist and exclusivist to wander afield and get mired into the predictable conflict over logic, non-contradiction, and compassion. However, here he inserts a third character, the pluralistic professor who tries not to present his view in class (and perhaps actually lacks a clear view) but simply presents the different religions with their strengths and weaknesses. This professor functions as a plot device to referee the debate when the students get off-track and caught in do loops of circular argument.

Analysis and Conclusion

Overall, the conversation is engaging and informative. There were several points along the way that Kreeft’s dialogue made me laugh out loud because he naturally inserted humor in an otherwise potentially dry discussion. The content of the conversation is relatively natural in its flow, though Kreeft thankfully cleaned up the rhetoric and expression of the speakers to make the debate more precise and linear than would be likely in a real, human conversation.

There are points throughout the volume that the reader is left a bit frustrated, since there is no clear hero, no matter the reader’s perspective. It's a good sort of frustration, though. The inclusivist, exclusivist, and pluralist all score points and all get scored on. At times, each is infuriatingly mired in his or her thought process. However, the characters do develop over the course of the volume, as they each accept the validity of the others’ viewpoints where appropriate. None of the characters “convert” to another perspective, though the rough edges are certainly worn off in several cases.

This is, in short, an example of the sort of conversation that should be happening in society, especially in higher education, but which too rarely occurs. Between One Faith and Another raises more questions than it answers, but that would make this a useful text for multiple audiences.

As a parent of a homeschooler, this is the sort of text that I might consider using in a high school world religions course. It covers many of the basic facts of various world religions, but gets to the more basic (and often ignored) question of how we should deal with the variety of religions.

This volume would be useful in a comparative religions course in a religious or non-religious higher education setting, because Kreeft does well at being even-handed throughout the conversation.

For the casual reader, like me, this volume is truly enjoyable. The conversation moves along, the content is clear and helpful, and the reader’s character is formed by sympathizing with people with whom one would otherwise naturally disagree. This is worth reading, even if simply for the enjoyment of it.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Story of Scripture - A Review

Hershel Hobbs was a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, a faithful pastor, and a theologian for the church. He helped guide the SBC through the doctrinal struggle that is commonly referred to as the Conservative Resurgence, where the theologically orthodox majority of the denomination reclaimed the SBC from the revisionist minority that had gained control of her seminaries, mission boards, and other structures. He was faithful through that work, but importantly, he was deeply concerned about the long-term health and viability of the local church. For Hobbs, the vitality of local churches was dependent upon a reliance and intimacy of the Word of God, which is why many of his 100+ published books are popular-level, verse by verse commentaries on books of the Bible.

With that background, it is a fitting tribute that the first volume in the Hobbs College Library series from Oklahoma Baptist University is an overview of the narrative of Scripture. It is a book designed to introduce the reader to what academics call biblical theology, but which is really just the process of looking at the big picture of Scripture and reading the Bible in light of the common, interwoven, recurring themes.

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Matthew Emerson, associate professor of religion at OBU, was commissioned to write the inaugural volume, The Story of Scripture: An Introduction to Biblical Theology. This little book is targeted at the average Christian who is interested in understanding the Bible better, though it is written by someone who has studied Scripture academically and continues to engage in deep, rigorous scholarship about the Bible. The book is divided into six chapters, including the introduction.

Summary

In Chapter One, Emerson lays the groundwork for the volume. He begins by arguing that Scripture is united in its theme and thrust. Though it was authored by more than forty authors over a period of 1000+ years and consolidated into one volume with 66 books, Scripture has a single main story to tell. In this chapter, Emerson outlines the meaning of and history of the study of Biblical theology, which is essential for those who will do further reading on the topic.

Chapter Two lays out the first three major themes in the story of Scripture: creation, fall, and redemption. As we piece together the overriding message of Scripture, the storyline is clear: God created the earth good, but Adam sinned leading to the curse. This is the story of Genesis 1-3. God didn’t leave it there, though, he began to enact a pattern of redemption that is evident throughout the rest of Scripture and whose seeds were planted along with the curse. Chapter Two takes the reader through the book of Genesis.

In Chapter Three, Emerson continues to trace the theme of redemption through the rest of the Old Testament, as God’s plan and providence are made evident through the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Chapter Four continues to outline redemption as it is accomplished and applied through the life of Christ, and finally described as consummated in the book of Revelation.

Chapter Five explores some of the major topics or keys that are commonly used to frame biblical theology. These include covenant, kingdom, creation, wisdom, God’s servant, mission and other. Emerson does not provide a comprehensive list (if there is such a thing), but does explain some of the most frequent approaches. Finally, in Chapter Six, Emerson succinctly outlines methods for applying biblical theology, including development of doctrine, ethics, counseling, and other suggestions.

Analysis and Conclusion

This book does not add depth or detail to the literature on biblical theology. However, The Story of Scripture does provide a helpful entry point for the study and application of a critical method of handling Scripture. Emerson does well in providing an entry point for students, pastors, or the average layperson who wants to know how to study the Bible better and piece together a big picture understanding of God’s work in redemptive history.

The Story of Scripture would be a useful volume to give to a new believer who is trying to figure out what is going on in the Bible. It would make a helpful text in an introductory course on the Christian faith or an overview of Scripture. This volume would also be useful in a home school setting, as the concise volume could be easily digested and discussed by the average high schooler.

Emerson has kicked off the multi-volume series from the Hobbs College Library well with this volume that should serve as a tool for churches and individual Christians for years to come.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Knowing and Doing the Will of God - A Review

One of the most common questions that I’ve had to answer as a Sunday School teacher has been, “How can I know God’s will?” This is, after all, one of the central questions of ethics. Christian ethics especially is centered around the idea that some actions glorify God and others dishonor him; some are sinful and others are sanctifying. This includes actions that Scripture clearly authorizes or prohibits (i.e., generosity and worship), but it also includes subjective situations that involve unique and personalized circumstances (i.e., should Sally marry Johnny or should I take this job).

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I’m pleased to say that a new, concise resource to help Christians answer this question has recently been published by David Jones, an ethicist at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This volume is the product of a course he has taught multiple times to a variety of audiences, so it represents thinking that has been stretched, tested, and refined.

His book, Knowing and Doing the Will of God, is a concise, practical introduction to this vital activity by Christians of every age. Though this has come from a seminary course, Jones has written a book that is accessible to the average person in the pew. He manages to provide both a theoretical foundation and practical framework in under 100 pages.

After a brief introduction, this volume contains an additional five chapters. Chapter Two provides examples from God’s word of people discerning God’s will. He also shows how some of the examples in Scripture are not positive and offers background information about pagan practices for knowing the will of the gods, many of which are still with us today.

Chapter Three critiques some of the most prevalent means of attempting to know God’s will that are often advocated among Christians today. Jones writes, “Advocates of the contemporary view teach that since an individual will of God for Christians is presently hidden and unknown, it must be discovered over time by every believer in order to progress in spiritual maturity and to flourish in the Christian life.” (34) In other words, God has a special plan for your life and your task is to decode the secret plan that he’s got in mind for you. Jones debunks this approach, which is liberating as he puts the reader on to the main purpose of the Christian life: to pursue holiness and thereby glorify God.

Chapter Four outlines what Jones calls the Traditional View, which is evidenced throughout most of Christian history, especially in the Protestant tradition: namely, reading Scripture and applying that to life. Recognizing common objections to that view, Chapter Five deals with questions relating to prayer, the Holy Spirit, and Christian liberty in relation to knowing and doing the will of God. The volume concludes in Chapter Six, with encouragement to pursue basic Christian disciplines that will aid believers in knowing God’s will and acting upon it.

David Jones is an exceptionally clear and careful writer. He has published a number of books over the past two decades that are all thoughtful, well-researched, and accessible to modern readers. This volume is no exception. Knowing and Doing the Will of God is a useful volume that will benefit the church.

This is the sort of volume that belongs on a pastor’s shelf for loan to his congregants and on church resource shelves for sale to people who honestly long to serve God faithfully, but aren’t sure how to get from that desire to practical action. Knowing and Doing the Will of God would also make a helpful resource for a small group or Sunday School study. I was pleased to be asked by Jones to endorse this book, and I’m pleased to commend it to you as a resource for your personal or congregational benefit.

NOTE: I received a pre-publication copy of this volume with a request to endorse. I did so because I believe the contents are helpful and sound, not on the basis of the gratis book.

Theology in Three Dimensions - A Review

The chaotic pace of our neurotic age extends well beyond the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and constant travel. It has crept its way into theological debate, such that volleys of blog posts written hastily with keyboards rattling like machine guns often pass by one another across the mutually desired no-man’s land of truth. There is little time taken for digestion of responses, rumination on intending meaning, and shaping responses that do more than restate earlier arguments to fill the computer screens of supporters and antagonists. When theological discourse takes place online, it is often hurried, truncated, and ill-considered.

We cannot return to earlier days, when messages could take weeks to travel between disputants. However, we can reshape our method of theological discourse by introducing techniques that require us to consider and reconsider a topic before producing a final thought.

Triperspectivalism, a system championed by Vern Poythress and John Frame, requires a measured approach to theologizing, which, though certainly not infallible, can help keep those who use it from engaging in rapid fire debates simply because it requires extended time to measuredly consider an issue from each of the three perspectives. The line on my shelf of thick volumes, which Frame has authored, tends to indicate the sometimes ponderousness of the triperspectival approach.

Though Frame has published prolifically, there has been no concise, single volume introduction to triperspectivalism. That has changed recently with the release of Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and Its Significance. This brief book will serve as the entry point for future readers to begin their journey through John Frame’s works.

Nature of Triperspectivalism

The categories within triperspectival theology sound philosophical, bearing the titles “normative,” “situational,” and “existential,” but the content of those categories is filled with biblical data. As Frame argues in his preface, “Triperspectivalism is, in the main, a pedagogical approach, a way of teaching the Bible, i.e., doing what theology is supposed to do.”

While many theological texts are heavily, often excessively, footnoted, Frame’s books use footnotes primarily for sidebar comments and cross-referencing within his published works. Frame cites appropriately when he directly references the works of others, but the majority of his effort is spent grinding the grist of Scripture to formulate his thoughts beginning with the presupposition that the Bible is a unique form of revelation given by God to his people.

Scriptural data are common within all three perspectives, but those data are the main focus on the normative perspective. Here the study is of God as lawgiver, with supreme authority over creation. The normative perspective encounters the positive and negative commands of Scripture to how God designed this world to be ordered.

The situational perspective recognizes God’s control over the world, with the understanding there are new facts that must be encountered, such that we cannot simply make ethical choices based on one thing appearing to be like another. The situational perspective takes into account the reality of the world as it is when interpreting Scripture into theology. In Framer’s theological method, this is the process of gathering data about this world, which God created, as we seek to understand him better.

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Frame’s third perspective is the existential perspective. The existential perspective concerns what a person knows and feels about an object or idea. Although this somewhat emotive or intuitive perspective will be less pleasing to some strict rationalists, identifying the existential perspective is essential to recognize the subjectivity of our theological processes. That is, that our thinking is always shaped and should be to some degree shaped by who we are.

The caution for applying triperspectivalism, which Frame returns to frequently, is that all three perspectives exist inside of one another. That is, you cannot consider the situational perspective apart from the normative; Scripture is part of the situation. You also cannot consider only the facts of the matter through the situational perspective without asking how you in particular should respond to those facts under the norms of Scripture.

Frame concludes the book, having outlined his three perspectives in brief, with a short chapter on the application of the triperspectival method. As anyone who knows about Frame is aware, he sees triangles everywhere. In other words, as the fourth chapter argues as well, triperspectivalism has applications in all disciplines that are founded on Scripture. As a theological method, triperspectivalism is really a means of understanding an applying Scripture. It necessarily takes time, as the thinker must grind through consideration from multiple vantage points, but that is the beauty of the method.

Analysis and Conclusion

Theology in Three Dimensions is a helpful companion to Frame’s ongoing work. He has been delightful consistent in applying triperspectivalism throughout his career, so that it permeates nearly all of his books. This brief volume, then, is a great starting point to figure out what Frame has done for decades now. It is also a helpful touchpoint to see why Frame has been so consistent in promoting triperspectivalism.

The soundness of theological method is determined over centuries, not decades. I have hope that the careful consideration and rumination on issues from multiple perspectives will grow in popularity. As the pace of our lives shifts from frenetic to ludicrous speed, there is room for theology that makes us slow down and ask better questions more carefully.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Counting the Cost - A Review

Capitalism is often used a curse word in contemporary political discourse. For others, it is used as a description of ultimate, unadulterated good. The term, coined by opponents of a free market, has so many definitions that it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly what those that use the term mean by it. For some that dislike free market economics, capitalism is responsible for everything that is wrong with the world. For some that prefer a free market, capitalism is the sum of all the world’s goodness.

In reality, of course, the answer is somewhere in the middle. However, it is often hard to get people on either side to listen to legitimate critiques of capitalism and responses to those critiques. A recent volume published by The Institute for Faith, Work and Economics provides a reasoned and reasonable critique of capitalism, that in the end commends continued support for free market economics. This is an important book precisely because it takes the critiques of opponents to free market economics seriously and addresses them from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Summary and Analysis

Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism consists of twelve chapter-length essays that rebut common objections to capitalism. The book opens with one of the final essays penned by Michael Novak, which considers the impact and validity of his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in the three decades after it was published. Novak’s epilogue from perhaps his most significant work calls for a continual reforming and humanization of our economic system, with a significant emphasis on pursuing the common good in a free society in the economic, political, and social orders. He notes that the apparent moral slide (especially in a lack of compassion for one another) must be corrected or our free system will not survive.

In Chapter Two, Jonathan Pennington outlines a vision for human flourishing built on Scripture. This is a necessary beginning point for Christians, since such a vision should shape the goals and means of any ethical economic systems. Critically, Pennington highlights the reality that flourishing is distinct from being wealthy. The goal of Christians as they engage in capitalist society is not merely to build wealth, but to encourage holistic well-being.

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Chapter Three takes on the fairly common argument that capitalism, ipso facto, is contrary to Christianity. Here Art Lindsley explains why Scripture does not, as some claim, actually extol the necessity or benefits of socialism. However, the reader will aptly note, capitalism has enabled some significant abuses, which some argue makes the system itself immoral. The fourth chapter, therefore, takes up the question of whether capitalism is antithetical to Christian morality because it is based on greed. New Testament scholar David Kotter argues that greed is a real danger in capitalistic systems, but that the system is not dependent upon greed, as some critics argue. While there is need for moral reform by market actors, the system should not be discarded simply because it has been misrepresented or, as every system is due to human sin, abused.

Chapter Five asks whether capitalism as a system is fundamentally exploitive. This is based on the sometimes states assumption by some critics of free markets that profit is inherently sinful and that anything less than ideal conditions is unquestionably abusive. Joseph Connors argues that while exploitation is certainly possible and does occur, that such abuses are not a function of the system itself. Building on that theme, Anne Bradley asks whether income inequality is evidence of exploitation in her essay in Chapter Six. Bradley argues, in short, that income inequality is not necessarily a result of abuse, though it can be and often is when the concentrated power of capital is used to game the political system. She is critical of legitimate abuses due to misuses of power, but carefully explains why absolute income and wealth equality is neither a viable nor desirable goal as some claim.

Joy Buchanan and Vernon Smith take up the question of who benefits in capitalist systems in Chapter Seven. Critics of free market economics argue that the rich are the ones who benefit from capitalism, since economics is a zero-sum game. The authors carefully show, however, that free trade is not a zero-sum encounter and that both trade partners actually benefit. Their central argument on this point is good, though there are points within the chapter they deviate from their point and offer insufficiently supported arguments that will tend to raise questions for critics that read this volume. Chapter Eight addresses the same question from another angle. Dough Bradow provides evidence that the poor are actually the greatest benefits of free markets. At the same time, he notes that free markets are not sufficient for human flourishing and honestly contends with some of the abuses that have arisen within modern, Western versions of capitalism.

In Chapter Nine, Edd Noell considers the common criticism that capitalism relies upon and inevitably fosters consumerism. This chapter concludes that consumerism is bad and that it is prevalent in society, but though its public display is a result of economic prosperity due to capitalism, it has its roots in human sin that precedes the invention of modern capitalism. Consumerism is a problem to be addressed, but not one that is truly the fault of a free market. The tenth chapter, by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, considers whether global corporations export poor countries. Their answer is that they certainly do at times, but these are cases where unjust negotiations and unfair trade barriers hamper legitimate free trade. The conclusion again is that there are abuses within capitalism, which are the result of human sin, but they are not caused by the fact of free trade itself.

The eleventh chapter evaluates whether capitalism and environmental stewardship are incompatible. Cal Beisner begins by explaining that socialism has an even more devastating record on environmental stewardship than capitalism. This runs the risk of committing a tu quoque, but that is not Beisner’s intention. However, Beisner’s point was simply to note that, once again, the problem is not the economic system, but the actions of the sinful humans within it. Helpfully, Beisner recognizes the need to internalize externalities—that is, to hold companies accountable for pollution and other general costs. The core defense in this essay is helpful—human sin will lead to abuse of creation in any system. In his argument for dealing with externalities, however, Beisner offers a replacement of the regulatory role of the state with a mainly judicial one; that is, that offended parties would be able to sue as a result of environmental damages. This part of his argument is less convincing that others, as it does not seem to take into account the significant power disparity between many corporations and the people who are most effected by pollution. That is to say, his idea may be good in theory, but the practice at this time might not be possible. The overall thrust of the essay, however, is well argued and on point.

The final chapter of the volume serves as a defense against claims that capitalism has created a cultural wasteland. In this essay, Jonathan Witt acknowledges some of the social problems that have arisen along side capitalism. As with other cases, Witt concludes that they are not rooted in capitalism, but are sometime exacerbated or made more visible because of the wealth that comes from the general prosperity of capitalist societies. This essay is a strong one, though it covers a great deal of ground. Witt helpfully wrestles with the question of distributism and so-called crunchy conservativism. He does this with integrity that illuminates the alternatives honestly.

Conclusion

None of these essays entirely refute arguments against free market economics, but they do point the way toward reasonable defenses of capitalism that are grounded in Christian thinking. Determined opponents to economic freedom will continue to raise objections and demand additional proofs beyond what these authors provide. However, the essays in Counting the Cost do provide a realistic, critical defense of capitalism as it should be, recognizing that the system is in need of reform and work to ensure that some of the egregious abuses of power (such as those stemming from cronyism) are corrected. This set of essays is an excellent place to direct people that have concerns about capitalism, but also recognize the looming problems with competing economic visions.

This volume helps fill a hole in discussions of theological economics by actually addressing criticisms rather than ignoring them or ridiculing those that raise them. This is the sort of volume that would be helpful for many proponents of free markets to better consider honest objections. It would also be useful in the classroom to introduce college students to a balanced representation of a theologically informed discussion of capitalism.

Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism
$26.31
By Art Lindsley PhD, Anne R. Bradley PhD

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from IFWE as a conference participant. I am also a Senior Research Fellow for IFWE, but I am posting what I believe to be an honest and fair review of the volume. I have only passing acquaintance with any of the authors.

The Danger of Politically Motivated Eisegesis of Scripture

In a somewhat amusing, but unsurprising effort to raise public resistance to the recent tax bill that is before Congress, the leftist Christian magazine Sojourners is Tweeting out in a string of Tweets a large number of verses that they believe unquestionably support their view point.

 

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Sojourners trying to shape the public debate in their favor. And, to be fair, there is a lot in the current bill to be concerned and unhappy about. This post is not about a right to political speech by a non-profit organization or the merits of the bill.

It is, in fact, about the question of hermeneutics and assumptions.

On questions about which Scripture is quite clear—especially topics relating to sexual ethics that challenge contemporary social norms—Sojourners finds the Bible impenetrably confusing. However, on questions that are largely prudential and not mandated clearly in Scripture—e.g., the role of the government in redistributing wealth—Sojourners seems to believe they have the inside track on epistemically certain interpretation.

This is, to understate the reality, amusing to many of who have read the Bible and are familiar with the issues under debate.

What is amusing here is that in an effort to be prophetic and take a stand against the coopting of Christianity in America (this is a paraphrase of a popup on their website from a few months ago), particularly by the Religious Right, Sojourners has come to align themselves with the political Left almost without exception.

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Aside from a cautious ambivalence toward abortion, Sojourners and the religious Left consistently parrot the talking points of Democrats and sometimes lean toward the Left end of the spectrum, particularly when it comes to advocacy for heavy handed government involvement in economics. The Religious Right has clearly fallen into this pit trap on different issues, especially in recent years. As Russell Moore eloquently argued last year, the Religious Right have become the people they warned us about.

There is little question that in history, socialism has very seldom gone well for anyone except the ruling minority. Norway seems to offer some hope for young Socialists, as that resource-rich nation has been able to fund a strong welfare state for decades with their mixed economy. However, the evidence of Venezuela, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Bloc, North Korea, Cuba, etc., seem to indicate that socialism tends to go poorly, especially for the disenfranchised.

Given the weight of historical evidence, Christian advocates for socialism, like those at Sojourners have turned to Scripture to support their advocacy for greater limits on private property rights and increased efforts by the government to redistribute wealth according to their preferences. The latest Tweet storm by the social media account of Sojourners is just another evidence of that advocacy.

The trouble is that the verses Sojourners is so boldly throwing out into the internet as proof that the proposed tax cuts are immoral don’t support their position. They could, in fact, support the opposite position. The difference is what economic and political assumptions the reader is making.

The basic assumptions that Sojourners appears to be making is that:

1.      Scripture demands that government redistribute wealth according to the vision of the people at Sojourners, which, as they describe it, is for the benefit of the poor.

No Christian should argue with the proposition that the government has the obligation to ensure justice for its citizens, and particularly for the poor. However, one must also suppose that wealth redistribution is a legitimate means for rectifying the supposed injustice of economic inequality. In reality, unless the religious Left is willing to accept government policing of sexual ethics according to the law given to the Israelites, then they have no basis to make that argument. Unless, of course, they make a second significant assumption that:

2.      Economic inequality is intrinsically unjust.

There are obvious problems created by extreme forms of economic inequality. The convergence of corporate power into fewer and fewer hands and the subsequent conglomeration of wealth has made it possible for a small number of people to heavily influence politics and society. This is particularly augmented by the growing inability of many citizens to recognize and resist propaganda from the Right or the Left. This is not a good thing, and is something that we ought to work to mitigate through legitimate means.

However, inequality is not fundamentally unjust according to Scripture. In fact, there is evidence that in some cases God deliberately causes inequality. Inequality is never the major issue in Scripture, but poverty is certainly a problem along with the injustice that often falls against the economically disadvantaged.

There is, however, another side of the story. As some advocates for Free Markets, such as Arthur Brooks, argue, the rise of most of the world’s population out of poverty is a result of Free Markets, not government redistribution. So, it seems, that there might be alternative perspectives on alleviating poverty than simply assuming that an ever-increasing role for the government in people’s lives through the redistribution of wealth may not be biblically mandated.

This is where the crux of the hermeneutical problem of Sojourners resides: They assume that their method of alleviating poverty is the only possible method, therefore everyone who favors a different method is sinning or advocating injustice. In other words, anyone who opposes the perpetual expansion of the welfare state is a big, mean, evil jerkface. Or something like that.

In short, Sojourners has fallen into the same trap that the Religious Right has: reading their political preferences back into the Bible and judging everyone else based on their assumptions. (As a side note, a few months ago I saw a very conservative pastor be accused of rejecting inerrancy on Facebook because he raised questions about the 2nd Amendment. This is one of the most egregious examples of misreading Christianity through a political lens.)

The reality of the issue is that I can read the Sojourners Tweet-storm and affirm the content of all of those verses, but then put them in a context that affirms the dignity of humans as produces and see that changes to various Welfare programs are not, ipso facto, unjust or unbiblical after all. In fact, I can read some of those verses and point to particular programs that should be eliminated because they violate the dignity of the poor and engender long-term, unjust dependence.

When Christian outlets or people cheat arguments by assuming that certain passages support their policies, they subvert legitimate debate. Before we can argue about whether the current American welfare programs are just or unjust according to Scripture, we need to have a deeper discussion about what role for government is authorized and/or mandated by the Bible. If we can’t come to an agreement on that issue from Scripture itself, then it becomes fairly clear that the argument is prudential and not one that Scripture can adjudicate with a handful (or even a couple of thousand) proof texts.

This means that we need to rely upon Scripture, which is the ultimate authority for the Christian life, but that we need to be aware of our presuppositions. We should allow Scripture to speak to our context, not attempt to treat it as a marionette for our chosen cause.

As a result, Christians are right to ask whether proposed policies are, in fact, just. They should also ask whether those policies are likely to engender social conditions that improve the lot of the poor (especially for the long term).

Christians are not, however, authorized to assume that proposed policies are unjust simply because they do not pursue a Scripturally mandated end by one particular means, which happens to be favored by a particular political party. That debate about methods is one that should rely on evidence and arguments based on the best data available. Such methods will often be shaped by Scriptural norms, but rarely can they be directly derived in every detail from Scripture.

Our debate in the public square will continue to be anemic and unhelpful as long as groups on the Right and the Left fail to discuss issues carefully. As Christians, we will continue to be at odds with others as long as we mistreat the common source of our moral norms, namely, Scripture, by reading back our political and economic assumptions into the text.

Perhaps if we spent more time arguing about those justified ends that we can agree upon, such as the alleviation of poverty, we could have meaningful debate and compromise on policies across political party boundaries.

The moral of the story is that we all need to have a hermeneutics of suspicion toward our own interpretations of Scripture.

Our Deepest Desires - A Review

There are a variety of ways of doing apologetics. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, apologetics is the process of offering a defense for something. In this case, I am using the term to refer to a defense of the Christian faith.

Some rely on evidential apologetics, which certainly have a place. This is the sort of approach that Francis Schaeffer and Lee Strobel are known for. Sometimes this form of apologetics comes in the form of historical analysis, like the process used by people such as Mike Licona. Sometimes it focuses on a forensic examination of biblical texts.

All of these are valid ways of explaining the validity of Christian belief.

In his recent book, Gregory Ganssle makes a case for the Christian faith in a different way, namely by explaining how the Christian helps make sense of the world, and does so better than any other faith system. His title, aptly chosen, summarizes the point of the volume: Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations.

At its heart, Christianity is not simply a mythology tacked on to typical human experience, it is the best explanation for everything that exists. In other words, people should be Christians because Christianity is the most satisfying account of the universe, including human nature and everything that entails.

Ganssle’s volume is brief, and is divided into four parts, with a separate introduction and epilogue. Each of the four parts consists of three chapters.

Summary

Part One deals with persons. The Christian faith entails the belief in persons who are eternally in relationship one with another. This helps to explain why we humans, who are created in the image of God, long for relationships and only flourish within relationships with other persons. It also supports our natural sense of the importance of human persons. We do amazing things for other people, especially people we love. This makes sense if the Christian depiction of the world is true.

Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

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Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

The third part discusses beauty. Much like goodness, beauty is commonly sought and found more frequently than we can admit. Christian teaching holds that beauty both honors God and points us toward God. Beauty is superfluous, it is unnecessary, but it is an amazing gift from God. When we yearn for beauty or find it unexpectedly, we should see the reflection of the Christian faith.

Part Four covers the relationship between the desire for freedom to Christianity. Humans, universally, long for freedom. Even advocates of oppressive economic systems like socialism typically claim their desire to force others to live according to certain social dictates is really an attempt to free others from want and desire. Freedom is a universal desire. Often, we find that freedom in knowledge of truth. We want to know what is. We long to understand. That’s the foundation of modern science, of poetry, and of so much that we do. Humans also hope for freedom in the future. That hope is explained by Christianity. Our innate human desire for freedom is best explained and fulfilled by the radical reality of the Christian faith.

Analysis and Conclusion

Certainly, the above four paragraphs fail to do Ganssle’s volume justice. His well-crafted essays build a cogent argument and make a compelling case for believing in Christianity. He shows why it is so satisfying to be a Christian.

This volume is encouraging to those in Christ, who struggle with faith and are sometimes looking for a deeper sense—beyond the evidential proofs—of why Christianity is compelling and true.

Our Deepest Desires may also be a useful volume to put in the hands of someone who does not find the point and counter point of apologetics arguments helpful, but needs to see the grandeur of Christianity.

Ganssle’s volume deserves a place in the library of the Christian. In fact, in some locations, this volume may be best bought in quantities for distributions for those exploring the Christian faith.

The portrait Ganssle paints of Christianity is beautiful and compelling. It is a delight to read and will bear re-reading in the future.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

A Small Book About A Big Problem - A Review

Sometimes short books can be some of the most helpful. Ed Welch recently published a diminutive volume that promises to be instructive for many people.

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The title of Welch’s latest volume is, A Small Book About a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace. Really, the title writes a large portion of the review.

This volume consists of fifty brief devotional meditations to help people consider the problem of anger and impatience, and to pursue a godly peace. Welch addresses the topic with his characteristic clarity and biblical insight. He clearly explains the nature and typical underlying causes of anger, with helpful techniques for subverting the attitudes and behaviors that often lead to anger.

Thankfully, Welch does not address the topic of anger as a fundamentally behavioral problem. Certainly, anger has behavioral aspects, but it is actually a spiritually rooted sin. With the obvious (but exceedingly rare) exception of “godly anger,” human anger is sinful. Each of us struggles with it in differing degrees, with different symptoms, and for different reasons. However, the struggle with anger is unavoidable.

The solution to an indwelling sin, like anger, is to change one’s character. That is, anger is not usually simply a knowledge problem. This makes the format of Welch’s book very appropriate. The book has fifty daily readings. Each of them is only a few pages long in this gift-sized book. Many of them have questions for further thought embedded in them.

It would be easy to read this small volume in an hour. But the book is intended to be digested over weeks. Perhaps even repeated several times. The result should be the beginning of the heart change and soul formation that will encourage the gospel to shine through instead of anger.

Although we try to rationalize it away, anger is a denial of the power of the gospel. Anger is nearly always driven by a sense of offended personal dignity: “I wasn’t treated appropriately” or “Did you see what that person did to my child?” These are perfectly understandable responses to inconveniences and even the sin of others, which we are certain to encounter in this fallen world.

However, the gospel tells us the story of the one who was entirely without fault and took the penalty for our sin on our behalf. That story is of one who never sinned and whose anger, when he was anger, was truly righteous. In fact, the center of the gospel is that Christ took the just wrath of God on our behalf; he stood in the way of the ultimately justifiable anger in the universe so that we wouldn’t be destroyed by it.

In light of the gospel, we have no basis for being angry at the sins of others or at the inconveniences of this world. How can we who have been forgiven so much not forgive those who sin against us?

This is the sort of message Ed Welch proclaims over and over again in his little book. It has a mix of theological truth and practical application based on that truth. The result is a helpful little volume that can help to change the reader’s heart and encourage his or her pursuit of holiness. That makes this small book an important one and a resource that pastors and other ministry leaders may find useful to recommend.

Note: I was given a complimentary review copy with no expectation of a positive review.