Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

29 November 2009

Commonwealth expands

This is somewhat surprising news: Rwanda joins the Commonwealth. "The small central African country applied last year to join the group of 54 nations, all of which - aside from Mozambique - have historic links to Britain dating back to the colonial era." Who next? The United States? Tajikistan?

Incidentally, contrary to the claims of the article's author, Rwanda was never a French colony. Before Belgium gained control during the Great War, it had been part of German East Africa.

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19 November 2009

November snippets

  • Although some observers believe the President of the United States occupies the most powerful office in the world, economic realities appear to be downgrading his country's status to one notch below that of the world's most populous country: China’s Role as Lender Alters Obama’s Visit. The following passage is especially striking:
    “They wanted to know, in painstaking detail, how the health care plan would affect the deficit,” one participant in the conversation recalled. Chinese officials expect that they will help finance whatever Congress and the White House settle on, mostly through buying Treasury debt, and like any banker, they wanted evidence that the United States had a plan to pay them back.

    It is a long way from the days when President George W. Bush hectored China about currency manipulation, or when President Bill Clinton exhorted the Chinese to improve human rights.

    China may not be the military superpower the US is, but if it decides to call in its loans any time soon, it could exercise effective veto power over American foreign and defence policy.

  • First it was the Anglicans; now it's the Lutherans: Lutheran Dissidents Say New Church Body in the Works. We are obviously witnessing a major realignment in the traditional protestant denominations in North America. How large the break-away bodies will end up being cannot be determined in advance, of course, but they can only grow as the parent denominations continue their decades-long decline.

  • In radically secular Québec a beleaguered minority is holding onto the culture of life: Le ciel est bleu: Pour la Culture de la Vie. Let us pray that their influence will expand in that province pas comme les autres.

  • No, I have no plans at the moment — or any time soon — to read Sarah Palin's Going Rogue.

  • Today we received the new issue of National Geographic and were delighted to see an article devoted to that ancient monastic republic in northern Greece: Called to the Holy Mountain: The Monks of Mount Athos. And this so soon after an article on the Russian Orthodox Church appeared in the April issue: Soul of Russia. I will not try to speculate on what has sparked this sudden interest in Orthodox Christianity in this 121-year-old publication.

  • Jake Belder, our Canadian seminarian basking in the Florida sun, gives us The Semi-Pelagian Narrower Catechism.

  • An interesting discussion on baptism is occurring over at First Things' Evangel blog: The Cheapening of Baptism, by Jared C. Wilson. To be honest, I had not heard of the phenomenon of people undergoing repeated baptisms. Now that I know about it, I am quite prepared to state that ah'm agin it.

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    17 November 2009

    Confessions of a progressive Christian

    My recent reading of the Progressive Revival blog provides a good opportunity to explain my own identity as a progressive Christian. Of course I must immediately point out that what the larger society deems progress may not necessarily be genuinely progressive, which raises the central issue of what makes for progress. How do we know it when we see it? How do we know what to work for?

    The followers of the various ideologies have their own definitions. Marx famously believed in the inevitability of a global movement towards the classless society. History moves in a single direction through the mechanism of the class struggle.

    Nationalism believes that the liberation of the nation from foreign control (however the words nation and foreign be defined) is a progressive development.

    Liberalism has moved through more than one stage beginning with Thomas Hobbes and culminating in its most recent manifestation in North America. The eschatological vision of liberalism may be less obvious than in Marxism, but it can be said to consist of a society in which everyone acquires equally a maximum degree of personal autonomy, by means of either a small government getting out of the way or, more recently, an expansive government actively intervening to increase the range of personal options available to all.

    From a Christian perspective, all three approaches are fundamentally flawed because they fail to account for the givenness and stability of human nature, and because they at least tacitly assume that all obligations not incurred voluntarily are intrinsically alienating and oppressive. Progress is mistakenly deemed to entail ever greater degrees of human autonomy over against such “oppression.”

    Although this is a vast topic requiring considerably more than I can give it in this space, I believe that there are two basic ways of measuring progress. The first of these is rooted in the biblical motive of creation, fall and redemption. The second is based on what Reformed Christians call the cultural mandate, as found in Genesis 1:28 and following. There is a tendency in some circles to conflate the two, as found in this wikipedia article, where the human task of developing creation is erroneously identified with “redeeming the culture.”

    First, all Christians are aware of the ways in which our culture falls short of God’s intentions. Here genuine progress would entail God’s image-bearers increasingly living up to their pluriform responsibilities in the various spheres of life: husbands and wives remain faithful to each other; parents do not abuse their children; governments refrain from oppressing their citizens; church attendance goes up; the gospel is preached; governments stop pursuing policies that, while pretending to enhance individual freedom, actually contribute to social anomie; political corruption decreases; people use technical developments for good rather than for ill.

    Many Christians properly focus on the above, because they know that the proliferation of evil has deleterious effects on the social order. Christians on both right and left try to bring the larger society into conformity with the expressed will of God in, e.g., the Decalogue or the Sermon on the Mount, by focussing on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, alcoholic beverages (a century ago), or poverty.

    Second, I would argue for a reading of the cultural mandate that recognizes that the divine call to form culture exists even apart from the post-fall realities of sin and salvation. We image-bearers are not called to redeem our cultures. Only God in Christ can do that. But we are called to develop culture. Here I would strongly recommend a reading of Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. While Jacques Ellul, George Grant and others view technology as nearly a fall from grace, I am persuaded that we should view our cultural creativity as rooted in our God-given nature. Certainly such developments are subject to abuse, given our sinfulness, but this cannot discredit the developments themselves.

    Some possible examples of such progress include representative government, constitutional federalism, modern banking systems, the market, the limited liability corporation, improvements in transportation and communication, refrigeration, improved agricultural methods, international organizations, mass literacy and education, the welfare state (but not an omnicompetent one) and even the softening (though not the elimination) of gender roles. All of these arguably, if not incontestably, can be said represent positive developments of general benefit to humanity. Their absence centuries ago did not represent evils from which our ostensibly more enlightened contemporaries have recently liberated us. Their presence now simply represents legitimate uses and improvements of what God gave us from the outset.

    However — and this must never be forgotten — the legitimate development of God’s creation is not itself redemptive. This is where both Social Gospellers and “Save America” types often go wrong. The invention of time-saving devices has freed both men and women to pursue life paths not open to their forebears. Yet this greater range of options in no way brings people closer to living obediently in the light of God’s word. In fact, it may tempt us to assume that we can easily cushion ourselves from the destructive consequences of living as we please. This points to the grain of truth in the negative assessment of technology in Ellul and Grant. We cannot redeem ourselves and we are guilty of overweening pride and idolatry if we assume otherwise.

    To call ourselves genuinely progressive requires no small measure of discernment. We cannot afford to bypass this discernment process by assuming that we can accept the larger culture’s definition of progress and go from there. This is the error of many of our self-proclaimed progressive Christians. So, yes, with all these qualifications in mind, I am pleased to call myself a progressive Christian.

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    09 November 2009

    The fall of the wall, plus 20

    Berlin Wall, 9 November 1989

    The autumn of 1989 was an exciting time to be teaching political science, due to the extraordinary events occurring in the former east European Soviet bloc. The culmination was, of course, the dramatic opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November. A political illusion that had seemed so immovable for four decades collapsed with unprecedented swiftness over the course of a very few weeks. By Christmas it was all over, and a new era had begun. To my current students, of course, this is all ancient history, of which they have no memory.

    I might add that, in 1993, one of my former students travelled through Europe and brought back for me two pieces of the wall, which I have on a book shelf in my campus office.

    Later: The New York Times carries some wonderful before and after photographs of the Berlin Wall: A Division Through Time. They’re definitely worth a look.

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    05 November 2009

    Is the end near?

    Christians have been engaging sporadically in eschatological speculation for most of the last two millennia, but a lot of people these days seem to be focussing on 21 May 2011 as the predicted Day of Judgement. Could this be part of an effort to preempt the Mayan calendar? In any event, final exams should be over and my grades turned in by then.

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    02 November 2009

    Baptist preachers related?

    I may be the first person to have noticed the uncanny physical (though by no means ideological) resemblance between these two Baptist preachers, John Piper, of Desiring God Ministries, and the late Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian medicare. See for yourself.

    John Piper
    Rev. John Piper


    Tommy Douglas
    Rev. Tommy Douglas

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    01 November 2009

    All Saints

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