Thursday, December 31, 2009

Is charging interest sin?

My son and I are continuing to read through Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. A passage in the chapter on Social Morality got our attention:
There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest: and lending money at interest - what we call investment - is the basis of our whole system.
This is certainly challenging. But there are some subtleties that should be kept in mind. First, the Old Testament passages seem to be mostly concerned about charging interest to the poor and needy and/or Israelites. Second, the church banning the charging of interest has a long and troubled history which is nicely recounted on the Wikipedia entry on Usury. For example,
Lateran III decreed that persons who accepted interest on loans could receive neither the sacraments nor Christian burial.[3] Pope Clement V made the belief in the right to usury a heresy in 1311, and abolished all secular legislation which allowed it.[4] Pope Sixtus V condemned the practice of charging interest as "detestable to God and man, damned by the sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity."[4]
On the other hand, I agree with Lewis [and the Global Financial Crisis provides significant empirical evidence!] that we have a problem. God wants us to forsake greed and be concerned with justice and equity.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Theologians vs. Eyewitnesses to the Word

In Chapter 3 of Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Karl Barth clarifies how evangelical theology is related to the biblical witnesses to the Word of God.
The position of theology, ..., can in no wise be exalted above that of the biblical witnesses. The post-Biblical theologian may, no doubt, possess a better astronomy, geography, zoology, psychology, physiology, and so on than these biblical witnesses possessed; but as for the Word of God, he is not justified in comporting himself in relationship to those witnesses as though he knows more about the Word than they. He is neither a president of a seminary, not the Chairman of the Board of some Christian Institute of Advanced Theological Studies, who might claim some authority over the prophets and apostles. He cannot grant or refuse them a hearing as though they were colleagues on the faculty. Still less is he a high-school teacher authorized to look over their shoulder benevolently or crossly, to correct their notebooks, or to give them good, average, or bad marks. Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, scholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian.
You can read the full passage in context here. This is third lecture in a series of five he gave at University of Chicago and Princeton Theological Seminary towards the end of his career. I don't think some of his audience would have been too enamoured with such a view.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

War is hell

War embodies hate, fear, killing, violence, deception, betrayal, death, injustice, confusion, suffering, and abuse of power.
War is hell.

A song which captures some of the tragedy and consequences of war for those fortunate enough to survive is I was only 19 (A walk in the light green) recorded by the Australian band, Redgum in 1983. The chorus is:
And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can't get to sleep?
And night time's just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
And what's this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.
This song about Vietnam veterans had a significant historical influence, recounted on the Wikipedia page.

Monday, December 28, 2009

University mottos

Writing the previous post reminded me of the shield of Princeton University (where I did my Ph.D) because of the open Bible with Old and New Testament written in latin.

Aside, the latin motto at the bottom can be translated as "Under the protection of God she flourishes."

Contemplating the mottos of great universities is an interesting exercise. A few years ago Northwestern University in Chicago (where my wife and I met) went through considerable angst, turmoil, and debate concerning their motto and seal, but kept with the old one which is based on Philippians 4:8 and John 1:14.

Barth on the canon

The Old Testament canon is a collection of those writings which prevailed and were acknowledged in the synagogue. Their content was so persuasive that they were recognised as authentic, trustworthy, and authoritative testimonies to the Word of God. Evangelical theology bears witness of the Old Testament with the greatest earnestness and not merely as a sort of prelude to the New Testament. The classic rule is Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet: The New Testament is concealed within the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed by the New. As long as theology preferred to neglect this rule, as long as it was content to exist in a vacuum by claiming exclusive orientation to the New Testament, it was continually threatened by cancer in its very bones.
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, p. 28.

Aside: the "classic rule" in latin is attributed to Augustine.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The physics of Santa Claus

On a lighter note at Christmas. Does Santa exist? Here are some rough calculations that estimate what it would take. An alternative perspective is here.

The mystery of Christmas

We should be wary of separating form and content. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus was "conceived by the Holy Spirit" and "born of the virgin Mary". This is the form. The content is the mystery of Christmas: the incarnation, "the unio hypostatica, the genuine unity of the true God and the true man in the one Jesus Christ."

These are the main ideas I got from re-reading the chapter, The Mystery and the Miracle of Christmas, in Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pivotal virtues

I was fascinated to read in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis his chapter on The cardinal virtues ["cardinal" means pivotal]. They are prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. Lewis mentions the three theological virtues but does not state what they are (faith, hope, and love). I have to confess that this schema was all new to me (or more likely I had completely forgotten since I had an Anglo-Catholic upbringing) and so I found the Wikipedia entry on the subject very enlightening.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Theology in the university?

What is the role of theology in a university, particularly a secular one?

Perhaps, to remind other academic disciplines that they are based on presuppositions and these may be questionable.

On his blog per-Crucem-ad-Lucem, Jason Goroncy has a nice post on this subject which contains some quotes from Karl Barth (who for more than 20 years was a Professor at University of Basel).

When reading the quotes bear in mind that in the English translation "science" is used for "wissenschaft" which could also be translated as "academic discipline".

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A masterful summary of the Old Testament

Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks, and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ which fulfills the history of Israel....

....this history speaks of a God who calls his own people to himself. Outof a tribal community which exemplifies all mankind, he calls his own people by acting upon it and speaking to it as its God and treating and addressing it as his people. The name of this God is Yahweh: "I am how I will be" or "I will be who I am" or "I will be how I will be." And the name of this people is Israel, which means- not a contender for God, but - "contender against God." The covenant is the encounter of this God with this pepole in their common history. The report of this history, although strangely contradictory, is not ambiguous. This history speaks of the unbroken encounter, conversation, and resultant communion between a holy and faithful God with an unholy and unfaithful people. It speaks of both the unfailing presence of a the divine partner and the failure of the human partner that should be holy as he is holy, answering his faithfulness with faithfulness. While this history definitely speaks of the divine perfection of the covenant, it does not speak of its human perfection. The covenant has not yet been perfected. Israel's history, therefore, points beyond itself; it points to a fulfillment which, although pressing forward to become reality, has not yet become real.
Ah this point, the history of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, commences....
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 20-21

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Just Christmas gifts

If like me you are affluent and have affluent relatives who need little and it is hard to buy gifts for them, here is an idea: the TEAR Christmas gift catalogue.
Basically, on behalf of the gift recipient you can select from a range of things for more needy people in the two-thirds world. Gifts range from $5 to $5,000. Examples include school supplies ($5), a goat ($50), clean drinking water ($20), ......
Gifts are tax-deductible too!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Evangelical theology is modest, free, critical, and happy!

In 1962 Karl Barth gave five lectures at the University of Chicago.They were later published in Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

In the first lecture he defines "evangelical" theology as that which considers the "God of the Gospel":
the theology to be considered here is the one which, nourished by the hidden sources of the documents of Israel's history, first achieved unambiguous expression in the writings of the New Testament evangelists, apostles, and prophets; it is also, moreover, the theology newly discovered and accepted by the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Evangelical theology is a "science" in the sense that it seeks "to apprehend a specific object and its environment in a the manner directed by the phenomenon itself". This "theological science" has four specific characteristics: it is modest, free, critical, and happy!
Evangelical theology is modest theology, because it is determined to be so by its object, that is, by him who is its subject.
It is a free science because it
"joyfully respects the mystery of the freedom of its object and which, in turn, is again and again freed by its object from any dependence on subordinate presuppositions."
Evangelical theology is an eminently critical science, for it is continually exposed to judgement and never relieved of the crisis in which it is placed by its object, or, rather to say, by its living subject.

Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hoodwinked by Kant?

My family recently watched the animated movie Hoodwinked, based on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. The story is retold from the perspective of each of the major participants: Red, Granny, Wolf, .... I laughed a lot and so I strongly recommend it.

But my dear wife, suggested I blog about the profound philosophical issues it raises. All of the participants interpreted the same series of events in a very different way because they under their own set of assumptions and prior experiences. So it illustrates a point highlighted by Immanuel Kant (and often overplayed by many of his "followers"): we don't have direct access to the noumenon (thing in itself) but only the phenomenon (what we perceive). Hence, we should be wary of the "truth" we construct. However, don't let this hoodwink you into relativism or a social constructivist view of knowledge. Note that in the movie after all the participants shared and compared their perspectives they were able to revise them and agree on the true nature of the events, at least to the extent that enabled them to move forward. This is the way good science proceeds

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The rush to judgement

Commentary or judgementary?
What should be the focus of columnists, op-ed pieces, and letters to the editor? I recently began to notice how often the focus of these pieces appears to be to pass judgement on others. It does not matter whether the media is tabloid newspaers, blogs, or distinguished columnists in the New York Times.
It does not matter whether the topic is Tiger Woods, a 13 year old girl who wants to sail around the world, a teacher who has an affair with a student, a Prime Minister who swears at his staff, or bankers who receive large bonuses, ...
Everyone is quick to judge the morality of both public figures and private citizens, and often to condemn them.
I find this ironic because we are meant to be living in an age of relativism and tolerance. But, actually it shows that we all do have a strong sense of right and wrong and justice. We also have an innate tendency towards self-righteousness and an inflated view of the value of our own opinions. So it concerns me that our desire to provide and devour "judgementary" is not tempered by humility, grace,or consideration for the families of those concerned.
Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; ...
For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you....
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye....
Luke 6:36,37,42

Monday, December 14, 2009

The gospel in art

From my parents I inherited a copy of a beautiful "coffee table" book, The Living Gospels of Jesus Christ, which contains J.B. Phillips translation of the four gospels, interspersed with many colour plates of art (from all eras and styles). For example, in Luke 5, Simon Peter sinks to his knees and beseeches Jesus, "Keep away form me, Lord, for I'm only a sinful man!" This is illustrated with Raphael's `The Miraculous Draught of Fishes.'

The book is out of print. But you can buy second hand copies here. This might be a great Christmas gift for someone who enjoys fine art.

The personal cost of justice

Last night I watched a DVD, Flash of Genius with my wife and son. It is based on the true story of Robert Kearns, inventor of the timing device that helps your windshield wipers work intermittently. Although Kearns had the patent, Ford "acquired" one of his working prototypes and used the design in their cars. He took them to court and eventually won, but at a cost....
He lost his wife and was estranged from his six children for much of their childhood.

It is a great movie and raises lots of issues worth discussing. Unfortunately, it confirms my worst fears about how large corporations operate. It also shows how driven men can achieve much but can also expect their families to suffer for their ambition.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Am I ir-rational?

I previously posted about how the meaning of the word fundamentalism has changed significantly from its origins.

I contend that in everyday useage and public discourse the adjectives "rational" and "irrational" are used in a manner that is inconsistent with their meaning. They seem to be largely used as labels to affirm or ridicule particular opinions. This is particularly true in the "new atheism" where it seems that the claim "faith is irrational" is usually taken more as an assumption that is not worth discussing because it is so obviously self-evident.

When am I "rational"? I would say if I clearly state my assumptions and the evidence for them and then carefully consider the logical implications of them. Furthermore, I need to be open to changing those assumptions or having my reason corrected if it is in error.

When am I "irrational"? If I am unwilling to acknowledge my assumptions or debate the basis for them. If I am unwilling to consider the possibility of errors in my reasoning. If personal experience and emotions drive my assumptions and arguments.

There are many subtle issues here. I just hope this posts may help us all think twice before we apply the label "rational" or "irrational".

Saturday, December 12, 2009

From theology to ideas to politics

At the Cite conference last week, the plenary speaker Daryl McCarthy reminded me of two distinguished intellectuals and statesman who strove to have their lives, philosophies, and policies shaped by their theology. The Wikipedia entries on Charles Malik and Abraham Kuyper are fascinating reading. Amongst many other things Malik was a President of the General Assembly of the United Nations and Kuyper was a Prime Minister of Holland.

Famous quotes are:
"Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"
Abraham Kuyper
The university is clear-cut fulcrum with which to move the world. Change the university and you change the world.
Charles Malik

Friday, December 11, 2009

C.S. Lewis on morality

In Mere Christianity, (Book 3, Section 1) Lewis argues we should talk about moral rules and obedience, rather than moral ideals and idealism:
Perfect behaviour may be as unattainable as perfect gear-changing when we drive; but it is a necessary ideal prescribed for all men by the very nature of the human machine just as perfect gear-changing is an ideal prescribed for all drivers by the very nature of cars.
He emphasises the multiple dimensions to morality. It is not just concerned with human relationships.
Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly. with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Conference on the church and the academy

The details of the second Annual Australasian Conference on the Church and the Academy have been announced. The first one was a great success.
It will be held in Brisbane again and the dates are June 29 to July 2. So, reserve the dates and submit a paper!

There are two excellent plenary speakers: Robert P. Gordon (Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge) and Markus Bockmuehl (Professor of Biblical and Early Christian Studies at Oxford).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The tension of the Gospel

Yesterday I heard John Dickson speak at the National Training Event of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He spoke about the bloodline of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. He emphasized that Jesus' lineage highlights twin themes of the Gospel: the Lordship of the Messiah King and the latitude of God's grace for all people.
The first is illustrated by the fact the Jesus is descended from Abraham and David.
The second is highlighted by the inclusion of Tamar (victim of incest), Rahab (a prostitute), Ruth (a Moabite), Wife of Uriah (an adulteress), and Mary (unmarried pregnancy).

Rahab and the Emissaries of Joshua (17th Century)

We must keep these twin themes of the Gospel in tension, the Lordship of Christ and the latitude of his grace. John conjectured that indiv
iduals have a natural tendency to an overemphasis on one over the other. Those who overemphasize the Lordship of Christ become
self-righteous, but need to be friend of sinners. In contrast, those who overemphasize grace may have casual attitudes about the use of money, of sexual morality, and are reluctant to confront or face conflict.

Keeping these twin themes in constant tension is at the heart of the Gospel and the heartbeat of the Christian life.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is eating chocolate cake sinful?

My wife and I love chocolate cakes such as "mud" cake, but I sometimes
have a moment of conscience about ordering a cake at a restaurant which is entitled "Chocolate sin cake". This is not because I am worried about the calories (Joules to the SI-correct!) but because the name seems to promote the misconception, "if its good it must be sinful".

What is sin? A simple and helpful definition that can be easily remembered is sin is our

The consequences of sin is ultimately broken relationships, injustice, pain, suffering, self-destruction, death. There is nothing good about this....

The angel told Joseph, "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,"
(Matthew 1:21)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

McGrath on Calvin and science

Alister McGrath recently gave a seminar at the Faraday Institute for science and religion in Cambridge, Calvin's contributions to the emergence of modern science. He pointed out, it was Calvin’s particular way of handling Scripture that was important in allowing natural philosophy to pursue its exploration of God’s universe without being distracted by the idea that the Bible was given to teach science. As Calvin wrote in his Commentary on Genesis, remarking on Chapter 1:

“Nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.”

You can listen to (MP3) or watch the lecture (streaming) from the Multimedia page of the Faraday Institute.