Theology

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Very Short Review: The Religious Roots of the First Amendment

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

There are two ways to tell the story of how America (eventually) secured religious liberty in the First Amendment. Conventional wisdom in the scholarly realms is that secular Enlightenment figures—John Locke and the like—overcame religion with reason. So religious liberty was a victory for Enlightenment intellectuals. The other way to tell the story is that it was, in fact, religious folks who were the earliest champions for religious liberty—and not just for practical reasons (like to avoid persecution). They did it for theological reasons. Thus religious liberty was a victory for the Christian faithful of various stripes.

Nicholas Miller defends this second way of telling the story in The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestantism and the Separation of Church and State (Oxford, 2012). His thesis is that Protestants from Martin Luther on down to the time of the First Amendment held as a theological principle “the right of private judgment” in biblical interpretation and in religious matters. His book is an effort to trace this continuous thread across several continents and a couple hundred years. It is a great introduction to the heritage of liberty in the Protestant traditions. And it makes a compelling case that those same Enlightenment intellectuals may well have been influenced by dissenting Protestants.

Anyone interested in the origins of religious liberty in America will benefit from this excellent scholarship written very clearly. The introduction and appendix can bring you up to speed on the best current works on this topic. And it puts current religious liberty issues in very helpful perspective.

Christ, Culture, and the Generation Gap

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Grandma listened patiently as I described the content of the album I was obsessed with that summer. The songs told the story of two brothers. One was the family’s shame, an alcoholic in jail for some petty crime. The other was a politician with a promising future who appeared, to all outside observers, to have everything together. In the end we listeners discover that, deep inside, the loser brother is a decent guy, and his model brother is a monster.

“It doesn’t sound very edifying,” was Grandma’s simple reply.

I tried to persuade her of the virtues of such art. It laid bare our biases, I argued, especially the subtle seduction to judge people’s character by superficial appearances. I waxed eloquent about the value of viewing reality from different perspectives. I brought my best stuff!

She wasn’t convinced. She felt I was compromising my Christian values by allowing a secular worldview to warp my perception of the truth.

This conversation with my grandmother illustrates a broader issue. Younger Christians often feel their elders are out of touch, behind the times, chained to antiquated notions of proper behavior. At worst, they are ill-equipped to do good work for the gospel because they refuse to engage the culture for Christ. At the same time, older Christians often view younger generations as disrespectful, uncommitted to biblical holiness, or generally unwilling to hoe the hard row of Christian discipleship. At worst, they are compromisers who sacrifice Christian faithfulness in order to be accepted by the broader culture.

Central to my disagreement with my grandmother was this: I believed that to be a faithful Christian I needed to engage this sort of cultural offering. She believed that to be a faithful Christian I needed to flee from it fast and far.

Read the rest at ChristianBibleStudies.com.

How Christian is Local, Organic, and Fair Trade?

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Food is on my mind a lot of the time. Besides simply deciding what we might like to eat for dinner, my wife and I give careful thought to where our food comes from. We try to buy organic and local and seasonal produce whenever we can. We do this for a number of reasons, but a key reason is that we feel we ought to be more thoughtful about our food related decisions. On one side we feel the steady pressure applied by secular leaders and commentators urging Americans to get us to rethink food. Often termed the “food movement,” this increasing food-related advocacy has a host of loosely related goals, as food writer Michael Pollan explained in The New York Review of Books, including

school lunch reform; the campaign for animal rights and welfare … [and] against genetically modified crops; the rise of organic and locally produced food; efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes; … farm bill reform; food safety regulation; farmland preservation; … efforts to promote urban agriculture and ensure that communities have access to healthy food; … farm worker rights; nutrition labeling; feedlot pollution; and the various efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to kids.

Christian leaders are weighing in on these issues, too. Not only are good food decisions a matter of good citizenship, some argue; they are central to good discipleship, too. In Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (IVP 2012), for example, coauthor Fred Bahnson daydreams, “What if we planted church-supported community gardens, permaculture parishes … and apostolic farms that fed entire neighborhoods? … What if we created infrastructures of holiness, where God’s kingdom of shalom could flourish on earth as in heaven?” It’s a dazzling vision for some. And it raises the stakes in the food debate, as it casts it in eternal terms.

It’s all a bit overwhelming. (And we’ve only scratched the surface.) The critical question at this point is how are Christians supposed to think about these issues? Is buying and eating a certain kind of food a Christian imperative?

Read the rest at ChristianBibleStudies.com.

Why We Say the Apostles’ Creed

Monday, October 29th, 2012

For Reformation Sunday, I was asked to share about why we say the Apostles’ Creed. Here’s what I said:

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been learning the Apostles’ Creed as a congregation. And I’ve been asked on this Reformation Sunday, when all the pieces will hopefully come together, to explain why we say the Creed, what it means, why it matters. It occurred to me as I was preparing that explaining the Apostles’ Creed won’t do much good if we can’t agree about the value of creeds in general. So let’s take a step back.

For many evangelical Christians, like us, the great enemy of the faith is not naturalism or secular media or humanism. The great threat is religion. Time and again as a child I was reminded that authentic Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship. It’s me and Jesus, unmediated and uncomplicated.

Religion, by contrast, is a collection of human traditions, established for any number of reasons, that make it harder for people to have a relationship with God. Religion, some say, is what Jesus came to abolish. He scolded the religious leaders of his day because they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” (Mt. 23:4). Jesus overthrew religion when he taught, “You have heard it said…but I say… .” Jesus brought life where religion had brought spiritual slavery and death.

And many of us fear creeds grease the slippery slope to religion.

Well, the Reformers we remember this morning were as aware of the dangers of “religion” as anyone. Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin and, before them, other famous Johns like Wycliffe and Hus, wanted their fellow Christians, priests and pope and pauper alike, to abandon the traditions of men—like the doctrine of purgatory and the sale of indulgences and superstitious traditions related to the Mass—and return to the clear, simple teaching of Scripture on matters of faith, behavior, and worship. They wanted to chip away the plaque of human tradition until they found the gleaming, precious pearl of biblical Christian faith beneath.

So it may come as a surprise to know that to accomplish this, the Reformers found the church’s early creeds invaluable, especially the Apostles’ Creed. In his book The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin followed the outline of the Creed when he addressed key doctrine of Christianity: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He didn’t believe the Creed was actually written by the twelve apostles, as many had claimed before him. But that didn’t matter. He felt it recorded their teaching faithfully. In fact, he wrote that the creed “gives, in clear and succinct order, a full statement of our faith, and in every thing which it contains is sanctioned by the sure testimony of Scripture” (II.18). That’s quite an endorsement! Especially from one of the men who insisted that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the final authority for Christian faith and practice. In other words, for Calvin, even though the creed was written by human beings like you and me, the words of the Creed contained the clear teaching of the Bible. So all of us who fear elevating the teachings of human beings over the teaching of Scripture can rest assured. Saying “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” and so forth is the same as claiming, “I believe what the Bible teaches about God.”

Of course another important commitment of the Reformers was that the Church be always reforming (semper reformanda). The creed can help us here, too. For all our talk about submitting only to the Scriptures, most of us don’t actually spend as much time reading the Bible as we should. Consequently, it’s easy to forget what the Bible teaches us about God and our relationship to him. The Creed can be a helpful reminder of the basic commitments of the faith. For example, when we grow lazy in our discipleship but comfort ourselves with the thought that Jesus is cool and groovy and doesn’t want to stress us out, the creed reminds us he “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” and “from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” And for us Presbyterians who do everything rightly and in order, by committee, and by the book (even if we have to write the book first), the creed reminds us that we believe “in the Holy Spirit.” And that should make a difference in our ministry.

For sixteen hundred years, Christians have relied on the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the basic outline of the Christian faith. They have used it as a guide for prayer. Reciting it together today reminds us of the “communion of saints” to which it testifies and orients our vision forward to the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” that is our hope. And that’s no empty manmade religious doctrine. It’s the consummation of our relationship with Jesus Christ, God’s “only son our Lord.”

Sister Aimee on Broadway

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Aimee Semple McPherson, known as “Sister Aimee” in her lifetime, may have been America’s first mega celebrity. Think

"Stop! You are breaking God's law!"

Oprah squared—and before cable or Twitter. Comparisons to Oprah are apt, considering (if I remember correctly) Sister Aimee was the first woman in America to own her own broadcasting company. With origins in the Salvation Army, she was a light-up-the-stage actress/evangelist in Los Angeles with a heart for the poor and a passion for the limelight. She married and divorced several times, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and reappeared a megastar.

Anyway, Kathie Lee Gifford has written a musical about Sister Aimee. I’m surprised no one’s done this yet, and I think it’s about time. You can learn more about the production here.

If you’re interested in knowing more about McPherson, I recommend two books. The first is Edith Blumhofer’s Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister looks at Sister Aimee’s religious background in Pentecostalism and the Salvation Army. It’s very well done. Another is Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Sutton’s book focuses more on the cultural side of things, including issues of gender, media, and popular culture. Full disclosure, I haven’t read Sutton’s book but I think I’ll start it today.